A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog

Who Knew Romero?

In ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, reporter, teacher, and translator Gene Palumbo—who has lived in El Salvador since he moved there to cover the civil war in 1980—has written a unique remembrance of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is comprised of stories from priests and nuns who knew him throughout his clerical life: as a young "docile" auxiliary bishop of San Salvador passively aligned with a corrupt social order; as a rural bishop who spent full days visiting residents of far-flung hamlets and when necessary confronted the National Guard to demand prisoners be released; and as the prophetic martyr "spontaneously proclaimed... a saint" at his funeral by the people of El Salvador and beatified by Rome one year ago yesterday.

The vignettes Palumbo compiles reveal just how much the people influenced Romero, more than how Romero influenced them. As one example, years after a shouting match with parishioners during a Mass in San Salvador, Romero returned and apologized for the incident, saying:

I now understand what happened that day, and here before you I recognize my error.

I was wrong and you were right. That day you taught me about faith and about the Church. Please forgive me for everything that happened then.

The shouting match had started when the parishioners asked Romero to explain why he had justified, on behalf of the bishops conference, a military invasion of the National University. His late apology was received with tearful applause and—as one nun attested—"all was forgiven."

Read the full article here.


Trans Links

It’s been fascinating to see the issue of transgender rights migrate from a mere blip at the edge of the cultural and political radar, to a burning topic of contention, with front-page headlines seemingly every day. I’ve appreciated the frank back-and-forth that dotCommonweal readers have engaged in, in my posts and Mollie Wilson O’Reilly’s as well. It isn’t always easy to discuss this topic with openness, humility and a readiness to listen and learn.

Anyway, today I’m not here to opine, but just to provide a few resources for those who want to keep thinking about this. First is a front-page article from today’s Hartford Courant, my home newspaper, about a transgender high-school teacher and his experiences teaching in the Connecticut suburbs.

Here is a column written by a Baptist pastor in Texas, Mark Wingfield, discussing how he undertook to learn more about transgender people, and what he learned. You can also link to an NPR interview with him that aired today on Weekend Edition.

A lengthy front-page article in today’s New York Times, meanwhile, goes behind the scenes to look at how the Obama administration decided on the Education Department directive instructing schools to shape transgender-friendly bathroom policies – and turned the personal battles of transgender Americans, the headline says, into “a national showdown.”

Finally, here’s a link to a blog post, titled “The Cultural Salience of Gender Dysphoria,” on the website of Mark Yarhouse, a researcher in sexual orientation and identity -- and also an evangelical Christian. Yarhouse teaches at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and his research aims to integrate psychology and theology, with special focus on human sexuality and sexual identity. This post discusses his attempt to apply theological reflection to gender dysphoria and the lives of transgender people. He provides links to a talk he gave on the subject at Calvin College last year; to a widely-circulated essay on the subject that he published in Christianity Today; and to critical responses to that essay, including a conservative take-down (in First Things). Yarhouse wrote the article, he says, in order to “help Christians have a more compassionate response to a complex phenomenon,” and to  recommend “a thoughtful, prayerful approach, one characterized by humility about what we know and do not know, and a response that embodies conviction, civility, and compassion in all our exchanges within the Body of Christ and beyond.”



Evil Within

In her essay, “Love of Religious Practices,” Simone Weil addresses the condition of those afflicted by “the ugliness in us. The more we feel it, the more it fills us with horror. The soul rejects it in the same way as we vomit. By a process of transference we pass it on to the things that surround us.”  Persons in such conditon include prisoners in cells, drudge workers in a factory, and patients in a ward or care home. “In this exchange the evil in us increases. It seems then that the very places where we are living and the things that surround us imprison us in evil. . . this is a terrible anguish. When the soul, worn out with this anguish, ceases to feel it any more, there is little hope of its salvation.”

Such dark analysis might serve as a thematic statement for a worryingly good novel, The Rack, by the pseudonymous A. E. Ellis, published almost sixty years ago and at least twice reprinted. Graham Green hailed it as one of the great books, rising “like monuments above the cemeteries of literature.” And he suggested that the novel ranked with Clarissa, Great Expectations, and Ulysses.  My wife called attention to the title when she looked up the website of a favorite author and found the book listed as a shaping influence. “The Rack”? Curiosity (and humiliation – I’ve not heard of it, and Green liked it!) had me ordering a copy and then, slowly and painfully, as befits the work’s title, I read it.

Simply put this is the story of a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps set immediately following the end of the Second War. Reviewers noted similarity in concept to Mann’s Magic Mountain. But this is not a novel of philosophical discourse. Rather The Rack is a novel of treatment, excruciating clinical procedures, recurring x-rays, painful and intrusive puncturings of the chest wall, and attenuated hope withered by signs of improvement dashed – again and again.

Read more

Are We Just Too Compassionate to Transgender People? (No)

Up here in Westchester County, New York, some folks are in a snit because New Rochelle High School is switching to gender-neutral graduation gowns -- that is, all students will wear the same color, instead of boys wearing one color and girls another. This is, to my mind, clearly a good decision. It costs the graduates and their families no additional pain or difficulty. If anything, it saves some trouble. And yet there are people -- not students, from what I have seen, but community members and internet commenters -- who are attacking the decision because it was motivated by a desire to make non-gender-conforming students' lives a little less fraught.

In the Journal News, the paper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley, columnist Phil Reisman gave voice to the complaints of "ardent traditionalists" who "say this is a classic case of autocratic overreach and a poor attempt to placate the concerns of a few kids at the expense of all the rest."

Questions he does not pose include: In what way is this a "poor" attempt? And what "expense" does it impose? What value is there in dividing the graduating class by sex, and what exactly will be lost if that tradition is abandoned? (A later column looks at another school in the area that made a similar decision, and the various disingenous comments made online by parents who oppose it.)

Reisman focuses on the opposition campaign of one man, "a lifelong city resident" (who seems not to have children currently enrolled in the New Rochelle school system) who, he says, is "concerned that his cause would be misinterpreted as intolerance. 'These kids have a hard enough life as it is,' he said. 'This is America and they have right to the pursuit of happiness. So I’m very uneasy to target the kids. It’s not the kids that are the issue — they aren’t what I take exception to.'”

Except, of course, that they are. When you are fighting to maintain a pointless separation of the sexes after the school board has decided to do away with it, you are privileging that separation of the sexes over the comfort of the individual students, however few they may be, who will be forced into making a public statement with which they cannot be comfortable. It's the same reason that what this man proposes as a compromise solution -- allowing students to choose the color they wear -- is no solution at all. Besides being needlessly complicated for whatever poor teacher or administrator has to deal with ordering the gowns, it preserves the very binary that the district wants to do away with. And the only reason for preserving it is to resist the growing conviction that gender-identity issues exist among high school students and are best handled with compassion.

What this man wants to do is what many people want to do in the face of confusing sex-and-gender battles: erase the specific people who identify as LGBTQ from the debate and make it a simple question of liberal-vs.-conservative identity politics.

The rather sudden prominence of transgender rights also provoked an op-ed in the Journal News from a local Catholic pastor (not mine, thank God), which begins: "Suppose I were to come to believe one day that I feel more like a chicken than a human being, and I publicly announced to the world from now on I want to be considered a chicken?"

Stop me if you've heard this one.

Read more

A Worthy Pilgrimage

About a decade ago, I happened to be sitting at the table with a Navy veteran of World War II when the conversation turned to Japan. He was a retired physician, the father of a friend of mine, and if I remember correctly we were discussing an upcoming trip to Japan by someone in his family.

He had never been to Japan, he said, but if the U.S. hadn't dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would have. His Navy unit was among those poised to invade the Japanese mainland, a battle anticipated to be an epic bloodbath. He likely would have been killed, he added matter-of-factly, after which a somber pause settled over the table.

No one from his family took up the topic, and it wasn't my place to do so. But I think of him every time the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes up, as it has with news that President Obama will visit Hiroshima when he is in Japan later this month, the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

The White House has made it clear that Obama won't apologize for the use of nuclear weapons, the only time they have been used in warfare, nor have the Japanese asked him to. No apology, in my view, is necessary.

What IS necessary, and too often neglected, is to focus on the fearsome power of these weapons and how essential it is to the future of all nations, peoples and the earth itself that they never be used again. Obama's pilgrimage to Hiroshima is a perfect opportunity, and I applaud him for taking it.

Read more

Trans America Redux

As I predicted last summer, transgender rights have continued to loom large in the national conversation. Every day brings another story. Today it’s a front-page Times article about a trans boy in a small town in Vermont and the disagreements over what bathroom s/he will use in high school. Yesterday it was a RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Defense Department, which found that allowing trans soldiers to serve openly, in the words of one defense analyst quoted in the piece, “is a nonissue in terms of the impact on the budget, military readiness, unit cohesion, and morale.”

And the other week it was the eruption of legal action and political angst in North Carolina, where the passage of bathroom ordinances restricting use by birth gender has generated a large backlash, with the federal government intervening on behalf of the right of trans people to use the bathroom of their choice, and a counter-backlash, with traditional-minded Carolinians expressing resentment at the federal government for stepping in. The driver for such stories is a directive, issued by the Education Department to schools, that extends Title IX protection, which bans discrimination based on sex, to transgender people. President Obama has clarified and forcefully defended the directive, and its application to school facilities, as a matter of protecting children’s dignity.  

In all these “pee in peace” controversies, I’m struck by two questions. The first is practical. As pragmatic Americans shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, how in the world can one enforce a bathroom ordinance such as the one passed by North Carolina? Even if you granted legitimacy to the idea of assigning bathrooms by birth gender, how would you make it work? Would we employ someone for every bathroom in the US? And what would they do? Check birth certificates? Check genitals?

And if a law or regulation is blatantly impracticable and unenforceable, what is the point of passing it in the first place?

Read more

Can Francis’s Idea of European Catholicism Work Against Trumpism?

Exactly one week after the May 6 speech Pope Francis gave in accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize (awarded for work done in the service of European unity), another in a series of planning meetings for this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow was held. The choice of Krakow as the venue is a tribute to John Paul II, who held the World Youth Day of 1991 in Czestochowa. That was just a few months before the Bishops’ Synod Special Assembly for Europe, eastern nations of which had only recently liberated themselves from communism. The future of Europe looked somewhat brighter then than it does today. The future of European Catholicism also looked different, as did the papal teaching on Europe.

Francis has reinterpreted and updated the positions on Europe of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, putting the accent on the relationship between Catholicism and Europe and emphasizing the pluralistic roots of the continent. This was clear in his May 6 speech; he did not mention the “Christian roots” (or “Jewish-Christian roots”) to which the European Union should return, which was something of a mantra for his predecessors. Instead, he referenced Erich Przywara, one of his favorite theologians, in advancing his main point: “The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” The church has a part to play in the revitalization of Europe, according to Francis, but it is not the role of guardian in modern Europe’s cultural conformity to a hypostatized Catholic tradition. Rather, it is the role of witness to the Gospel: “Only a church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe. In this enterprise, the path of Christians towards full unity is a great sign of the times and a response to the Lord’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”

While Francis’s position on Europe is not quite that of his predecessors, I believe the difference is more marked between Francis and Benedict than it is between Francis and John Paul II. Francis, it should be pointed out, is also one of the few Catholic bishops in Europe who has the courage to repeat John Paul II’s teachings on social issues like capital and labor, human rights, and migrants and refugees. It is noteworthy that those Catholics who cite John Paul II in opposing any possible change in the church (especially on marriage and family) seem forgetful of his words on these other issues.

Read more

Martyrs, Memory, and a Papal-Photo Mystery

The church of La Sagrada Familia in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City is the de facto headquarters in the cause for the canonization of Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit priest executed in 1927. The story of Padre Pro is recounted on a plaque beneath his portrait, which is mounted to a pillar behind the altar rail. Born in Guadalupe and dedicated to serving the poor, he is said to have been humorous, charming, and a master of disguises. The last was a necessity of his underground ministry; with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the government in the mid-’20s had commenced to enforce with brutal severity the anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s 1917 constitution. Pro, long under surveillance, was eventually arrested under the pretext of involvement in the attempted assassination of Calles’s predecessor, Álvaro Obregón, and convicted without trial. Still conscious after the initial barrage of the firing squad, he supposedly shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before taking a final, fatal shot at close range. The government publicized photographs of the execution as a warning to the people, but tens of thousands of Mexicans attended Pro’s funeral—a fact portrayed as a courageous and defiant rebuke to Calles.

Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world, from collections of fine art and archaeological rarities to the personal effects and relics of notable figures—including Padre Pro, a museum in whose name adjoins Sagrada Familia. Within steps of one another in the Coyoacan neighborhood are Leon Trotsky’s preserved home—its walls not only adorned with photos and artifacts but also pocked with bullet holes from a firefight preceding his 1940 assassination—and the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where the tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the artist’s 1954 Self Portrait with Stalin, in which the murderous Soviet leader assumes the role of watchful saint.

Padre Pro’s remains are interred at Sagrada Familia. A steel box beneath his portrait has a slot wide enough for written testimonials of miracles. One sign asks politely that no flowers be left; another warns against touching the candles. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and perhaps two dozen people were in the church, some praying the rosary, others sitting quietly. A few days earlier, an international human rights team investigating Mexico’s handling of the September 2014 disappearance and presumed murders of forty-three students from the state of Guerrero had released its final report. In contending that evidence had been suppressed and torture used in extracting confessions from alleged suspects, it called into serious doubt the “historical account” of the matter that has been put forth by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As such it had given hope to the families of the missing as well as human rights advocates inside and outside Mexico that the real details of the case, and maybe even justice, would be forthcoming.

Yet the report seemed to generate little local reaction, adding to worries that indifference was setting in. Banners commemorating the missing may yet hang in various squares and markets across Mexico City, and cement sidewalks are etched with the command “never forget,” but two years later, the colors are fading and the edges are worn. Pope Francis had not met with the families of the missing during his February visit, as some had hoped he would, and a semi-permanent protest outside the National Palace has all but folded its tent.

Read more

The Semi-Fascist Candidate

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not a fascist; he is a semi-fascist. I recognize the risk of using the f-word. In fact, I am positively allergic to it. This case, however, is different. The U.S. is at a moral crossroads. We need to be utterly unambiguous about why. 

I emphasize the “semi” in semi-fascist. Trump has shown no interest in the stereotypically fascist exaltation of discipline, not for himself and not for any organized movement. The closest his militants get to uniforms are baseball caps. And though he may have toyed with the occasional outbreaks of violence at Trump rallies, those scuffles are absolutely nothing like the systematic thuggery of budding fascisms.    

On the other hand, consider this: He has built a political movement on a populist nationalism that scapegoats enemy groups both within and without. He will expel or bar alien intruders. He plays relentlessly on a sense of national humiliation, victimization, grievance, and decline. He asserts that the nation faces an emergency that justifies torture and murdering the wives and children of our terrorist enemies, even briefly suggesting that as Commander in Chief he could order the military to violate the laws of war. Unlike full-fledged fascists, he is not explicitly anti-parliamentarian, an idea perhaps too complex for him (or perhaps too multisyllabic); instead he scorns virtually the entire political class as “stupid” or “without a clue,” i.e., unable to make a deal. He takes no note of Congressional procedures and Constitutional limits. He is indifferent to civil liberties except for gun rights, and has spoken ominously about reining in the press. When asked about compromise, he replies by vaunting his own “flexibility,” as though compromise were nothing more than a personal skill rather than an appreciation for distinctive outlooks and interests. If none of that rings an alarm bell, you haven’t read enough about Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. 

Still, why not just call Trump an authoritarian or a demagogue, which would be bad enough? Why not “Caesarist” or caudillo? Liar, bully, opportunist, vulgarian, purveyor of toxic politics—won’t that language suffice? I don’t think so. 

Read more

Preet Bharara, Prosecutors, and the Press

The United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, is currently the subject of a good deal of adulation in New York-based news media, both local and national. He is very quotable, and it seems as if reporters don't have much trouble finding out about his pending investigations even if  the law requires investigators to keep them secret. He is putting away one corrupt politician after another, capped in the past two weeks by the sentencing of the former speaker of the New York State Assembly, Democrat Sheldon Silver (12 years) and the former majority leader of the State Senate, Republican Dean Skelos (5 years, less than half of what Bharara wanted). And if the leaks being published here and there are accurate, he is hot on the trail of Mayor Bill de Blasio for alleged fundraising violations and working his way into  Gov. Andrew Cuomo's inner circle, too.

There is an unfortunate tendency in journalism to treat prosecutors uncritically, and no matter how many times prosecutors foul up in horrendous ways, that never seems to change. They're treated as if they've ridden in on a white horse. I probably did the same for a time when I was a newspaper reporter covering courts, crime and politics. It's satisfying to see the mighty fall if they deserve it. But prosecutors are mighty, too, and their power tends to go unquestioned.

Jeffrey Toobin provides a more balanced look at Bharara in his New Yorker piece "The Showman," which focuses on Bharara's  penchant for publicity. Bharara is one of those prosecutors willing to try out novel uses of the law to make a high-profile case. But that quality seemed to desert him when it came to prosecuting the Wall Street executives at the companies responsible for the 2008 financial collapse. As Toobin writes:

Before Bharara became known as the scourge of insider trading—a 2012 Time cover story called him the “top cop” of Wall Street—he gained attention for the cases he did not bring against the financial industry. He took office in 2009, at the height of the mortgage crisis, and the Southern District, along with the Justice Department, in Washington, conducted investigations of the major firms and individuals involved in the financial collapse. No leading executive was prosecuted. Bernie Sanders, the Presidential candidate, says in his stump speech, “It is an outrage that not one major Wall Street executive has gone to jail for causing the near-collapse of the economy. The failure to prosecute the crooks on Wall Street for their illegal and reckless behavior is a clear indictment of our broken criminal-justice system.”

In a conversation in his office, Bharara rejected the critique. Without going into specifics, he said that his team had looked at Wall Street executives and found no evidence of criminal behavior. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the things that we had either been assigned before I got here or had the initiative to look at were looked at really, really carefully and really, really hard by the best people in the office,” he said. “There’s a natural frustration, given how bad the consequences were for the country, that more people didn’t go to prison for it, because it’s clearly true that when you see a bad thing happen, like you see a building go up in flames, you have to wonder if there’s arson. You have to wonder if there’s anybody prosecuting. Now, sometimes it’s not arson, it’s an accident. Sometimes it is arson, and you can’t prove it.”

Eric Holder, who, as Attorney General, was Bharara’s boss for six years, made a similar point. “Do you honestly think that Preet Bharara and all those hotshots in the U.S. Attorney’s office would not have made those cases if they could?” he said. “Those are career-making cases. Those cases are your ticket. The fight would have been over who got to try them. We just didn’t have the evidence.”

Read more

The (Non) Apology Tour

As the New York Times has reported, President Obama will visit Hiroshima later this month, the first sitting American president to do so since the U.S. destroyed the city with an atomic bomb in August 1945. Together with the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, the attack killed on the order of 200,000 Japanese civilians and ended World War II.   

No sooner had the announcement of Obama’s visit been made than the White House disavowed any intention to apologize for those deaths or to reevaluate the decision to cause them. “He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” announced Benjamin J. Rhodes, a national security adviser. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest elaborated the point, saying that the president “appreciates... that President Truman made this decision for the right reasons,” said Earnest.

Earnest’s comment is nuanced to the point of unintelligibility. (What is he actually saying? That President Obama understands that Truman didn’t order the bombing out of a sadistic desire to commit mass murder?) The truth is, such careful, cautious parsing fits this president. To visit Hiroshima and say nothing about the decision to drop the bomb is precisely the kind of carefully hedged and calibrated action that makes Obama such a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty kind of president. On the glass-half-full side, well, unlike any of the eleven Commanders-in-Chief before him since Truman, he is making the trip. No caveat issued by his press secretary can efface the symbolism of the visit. And, of course, Obama knows it.  

Read more

Is Now the Time for Women Deacons?

"Perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions." That was Phyllis Zagano, writing in Commonweal in 2012, when she made the case for ordaining women to the diaconate. Yesterday, commenting on Pope Francis's announcement of a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, she told NCR: "It's very hopeful. It displays Francis's openness to scholarship, to history and, most importantly, to the needs of the church."

In her Commonweal article, Zagano specifically addressed scholarship, history, and needs of the church: 

While women were included in the order of deacon, not only in the early church but at least until the twelfth century in the West (and in the East up to modern times), the historical fact of women ordained as deacons is apparently not sufficient to call women back to that order today. Early documents point to bishops selectively ordaining—or not ordaining—women according to the needs of their dioceses. While the church has changed in many respects since women deacons were common, the fact that the church calls forth the people it needs for certain ministries has not changed. ...

[I]f reconciliation with the women of the church—especially with the women of the church in the United States and the developed world—is an issue of interest, then ordaining women as deacons becomes a genuine necessity. But even the most convincing political argument will not hold sway unless the church as a whole agrees with individual conferences of bishops, and then individual bishops, that the ordained ministry of women is necessary in their dioceses, their provinces, and throughout the world.

Diaconal ministry—of the word, the liturgy, and of charity—is clearly necessary everywhere. The service provided by the deacon at liturgy is the smallest part of the deacon’s charge—even as it is the most symbolic. The ministry of the deacon is to carry the gospel, literally as well as symbolically, and with it the charity of the church in all its forms. When deacons are involved, the soup kitchens and the religious education programs, the homeless shelters and the adult formation meetings gain new connection to the parish and ultimately to the bishop.

Of course, this small excerpt doesn't fully convey the scope of Zagano's piece. Whether or not you read it when it originally appeared in 2012, it's worth reading today in full

Amplify These Voices

If any news story merits wide distribution, it's the one headlined "Muslim Leaders Wage Theological Battle, Stoking ISIS's Anger" published May 8 in the New York Times. Alas, it didn't make the Times's online "trending" list, and seems to have quickly disappeared from view.

Written by Laurie Goodstein, the article focuses on Western imams and scholars whose vigorous repudiation of ISIS has put them on the terror army's hit list. All of us, inside and outside the media, should amplify these Muslim voices, which merit at least as much coverage as those hijacking their religion.

A journalist myself, I understand why the atrocities of ISIS grab more attention than the good deeds of millions of Muslims peacefully practicing their religion. But if we are at war with ISIS, as generally agreed, then surely we ought to appreciate hearing from some of its most effective opponents.

Read more

New Issue, Now Live

Our May 20 issue is online, featuring Paige E. Hochschild's response to Pope Francis's Amoris laetitia on indissolubility and the intentionality of love (she joins Peter Steinfels, William L. Portier, Sandra Yocum, George Dennis O'Brien, and others who comprise our Amoris laetitia reading list); and Joseph S. Flipper on the theological virtues of soccer.

For books, Frank Pasquale reviews Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—history and analysis that is "universally embraced by establishment academics like Robert Putman" but with implications "more radical than most acknowledge." Kathleen A. Brady reviews Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square by Cathleen Kaveny, who raises concerns about divisive behavior in media conversation about religion and critiques efforts by certain scholars to explain the resulting polarization. And Gordon Marino reviews Gary Gutting's What Philosophy Can Do, a volume written in a jargon-free style that could "easily serve as a course in the strange but august set of perennial questions that philosophy tries to address."

Richard Alleva reviews two respective biopics about the lives of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and Mary Frances Coady has the last word with a reflection on "un petit saint," Georges Vanier Jr. (or, Brother Benedict).

See the full table of contents here.

A Tale of Two Photos

I was only nine years old, but I recall the image clearly:  an Olympic medal ceremony, two African-American athletes standing on the podium, black-gloved fists raised, heads bowed. It’s fair to say that the 1968 protest by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, and the political brouhaha that followed, is one of my earliest political memories.

I was reminded of it by a front-page story a few days ago about a photo currently sparking controversy. It shows a group of African-American women, all members of this year’s graduating West Point class, posing in what’s known as an “Old Corps” photograph. Dating back to the 19th century, “Old Corps” photos show groups of cadets dressed in formal regalia, celebrating their impending graduation. The current one makes for a striking update, sixteen black women in traditional gray dress uniforms with sabers at their belts. And one additional element: they are all raising their fists.

The Times reports that the image, posted on Facebook, “touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces, as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.” The article outlines the military’s emphasis on an apolitical officer corps, and quotes a former drill sergeant who argues that the women’s gesture affiliates them with a movement “known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States” -- and as such constitutes a political statement, while in uniform, “that goes against Army policies.” He likens the gesture to occasions when he disciplined soldiers for making a Nazi salute in photographs. If the Nazi salute is punished, why not the black-power fist?

Read more

‘There Still Linger a Number of Ghosts’: An Interview on the Cultural Revolution

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The legacy of this event is still controversial. I recently spoke with Professor Yiju Huang of Fordham University on the politics of memory in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. She is the author of Tapestry of Light: Aesthetic Afterlives of the Cultural Revolution, which examines the literature and art produced in the wake of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of Freudian trauma theory.

Nicholas Haggerty: What’s the standard view of the Cultural Revolution in China?

Yiju Huang: In China, the Cultural Revolution is understood as a decade of chaos, but also there was a hasty attempt to bring a sense of closure. Although Mao’s image was tarnished, his legacy is also salvaged—‘he was misguided by the scapegoat figures of the ‘Gang of Four,’ but now that the dust has settled, we can move forward.’

From my perspective, however, there still linger a number of ghosts. The crimes that were committed in the utopian name of the greater good have not been properly worked through.

Read more

Unfortunate USCCB Video on Religious Liberty

Over at National Catholic Reporter, my friend Michael Sean Winters recently discussed a video put out by the USCCB to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark conciliar document, Dignitatis Humanae. The video is truly awful. It made me cringe. Michael Sean’s critique is excellent, and I encourage everyone to read it. He knows far more about Church history and the nuances behind the crafting of Church documents than I do (or ever will!).

Let me begin by acknowledging my agreement with the basic premise—religious liberty, founded in the dignity of the individual, is a basic human right. Its violation in so many regions of the world is a great scandal.

That said, this video is so deeply flawed that it is likely to undermine a genuine understanding of, and appreciation for, these religious liberty concerns. Let me make six points on this.

Read more

Catholicism’s Post-Vatican II ‘Narrative Gap’

In praising Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò on his retirement from the post of apostolic nuncio to the United States, George Weigel wrote that there is “no honorable retreat from what some deplored as ‘culture wars.’” Weigel was obviously alluding to what some consider Pope Francis’s inappropriate positions on divisive issues, especially sexual morality. But in fact the social justice Catholicism of Pope Francis does not signal a retreat from the culture wars. It is simply part of the reception of Vatican II by much of the rest of global Catholicism. Our perception of what Catholicism is today is influenced by the way we perceive its recent history. It is not simply a matter of theological or political options that shape our understanding of the church. It is also a matter of periodization, that is, our way to frame what happened, and when.

I recently spent a week in Santiago, Chile, in seminars and meetings at the Jesuit University Alberto Hurtado and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile with colleagues studying Vatican II and the post-Vatican-II period in Latin America. What this experience confirmed for me is that, when it comes to contemporary post-Vatican-II Catholicism, there are different narratives in different parts of the world, with a particular gap between the European-North American narrative and the Latin-American one.

For much of the west, the post-Vatican-II period is marked by Humanae vitae (1968), which for many seemed to solidify how the church saw its relationship to the modern world, and which consequently set off a sociopolitical shift, especially in “sub-narratives” linked to issues of family and marriage. In the United States, for example, a key moment came with 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision; in Italy, it was a series of popular referenda on both divorce and abortion in the 1970s and ’80s.

In Latin America, however, the key issues post-Vatican II were different.

Read more

The Last Task of Incarnation

Of all the events related in the New Testament, the Ascension is one of the hardest to imagine—and, at least as commonly imagined, it may be the hardest to believe. It is, in a sense, Jesus' last miracle. It is also the miracle that seems most like myth: a man rising like a rocket and disappearing into the clouds. Paintings about the Ascension can be very beautiful and very moving, but they almost never seem like representations of an event in history. They seem, instead, like the deus ex machina resolution of a story that had to end in a shroud of mystery—either a literal cloud (as in Acts) or a narrative fog (as in the Gospel of Luke).

All of which is to say, it is the kind of incident about which it would be very easy to write a bad poem and very hard to write a good one. Denise Levertov managed to write a good one. Last year I posted her poem for Holy Saturday, "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell." That poem, too, dares to take up an event most of us find very hard to imagine, and it introduces themes that Levertov also explores in "Ascension": the frictions between spirit and matter, the connection between Gospel triumph and surrender.

After the jump, the poem.

Read more

The Joy of Love

I’m writing today about a remarkable Catholic couple and their marriage, life, and death together. My wife, daughter and I went to Maine last weekend to attend a wake and funeral mass for Lucille and Robert Robinson, parents of one of my best friends, Michael Robinson. Married for sixty-three years, Lucille and Bob died within six hours of one another—on the same night—as they slept side-by-side in the assisted-living facility where they’d been living, in declining health, for two years. They were ninety-three and ninety-five years old, respectively.

Their wake was at a funeral home in downtown Portland, a stately former residence whose rooms were filled with Robinson family photographs and memorabilia, creating a warmly domestic feeling as the couple’s four children, nine grandchildren and many friends gathered to exchange sympathy and stories. I had certainly never been to a double spousal wake before, and it was deeply comforting and apt to see husband and wife in mutual repose, their caskets arrayed alongside one another. Both held rosaries, and on Bob’s chest lay the medal and insignia of the pontifical honor of the Order of St. Gregory, which he received—twice—for his service to the church. Around the room the panoply of photos brought back the couple’s youth; especially lovely was a dashing shot of the two smiling out the back window of the car as they drove off from their wedding in 1952.

The Robinsons’ story forms a template for American Catholic life in the last century. Growing up during the Great Depression, both Lucille and Bob served in the military during World War II, she as a Navy nurse, he as an Army sergeant. After war’s end they returned to join the wave of vets whose belated college educations and subsequent hard-working lives helped propel postwar America to world dominance. The first members of their immigrant families (hers Italian, his Irish) to attain higher education, they both attended Boston College, where they met at a party during Lent in 1951. At the party, as they drank lukewarm beer, Lucille wondered aloud when Mass was being held—and Bob quickly recited the schedule. Piety and warm beer: it turned out to be the perfect recipe for romance. The couple was married within a year, inaugurating a family tradition, since thirty-five years later their son Mark would also meet his future wife at B.C.—as would Michael as well, five years after that. Maybe the college could use this in its marketing effort. Meet your Mate at B.C.!

Read more