Objections, responsibility & food for thought


I was disappointed to find Andrew Bacevich agreeing with Robert Imbelli (“History, Hope, & iPhones,” October 7, 2011) that the American Catholic Church should recover its supposedly lost integrity by taking a resolute stand against American culture. Bacevich has unfortunately accepted from theologian Michael Baxter a version of the American Catholic story that emphasizes “accommodation” to secular America. Versions of that story now dominate American Catholic discourse across the ideological spectrum, from Catholic Workers to centrists like Peter Steinfels to the bishops and lay leaders who attacked Notre Dame because it honored President Barack Obama.

No one seems to notice that this version of the story, with a variety of theological covers, calls into question the aspirations of immigrant Catholic families, past and present. It turns lay life, insofar as it is lay, into a contradiction of Christian discipleship, and makes most of what we do in Catholic higher education a facilitation of this dreaded secularization.

If those who hold to that story don’t opt for Baxter’s genuine Catholic Worker prophecy, complete with voluntary poverty and renunciation of politics, then they will turn American Catholicism into another denomination that prays prophetically on Sundays but goes back to work on Monday and never misses a meal. I fear that Bacevich’s reflection on American culture will not lead to the reconstruction of American politics and foreign policy his analysis calls for. Instead it will contribute to a familiar Catholic pose of self-righteous pseudoprophecy while the American culture and society we have made our own turns its back on the dream of a beloved community that once inspired more faithful American Christian disciples and citizens.

David J. O’Brien

Dayton, Ohio

The Davis-Baum Debates

Not having kept track of Gregory Baum’s doings since the early 1970s, I read with great interest Michael W. Higgins’s tribute to him (“The Journalist as Theologian,” December 2, 2011). He is right to say that Baum never resorted to any sort of ad hominem attack in his reply to Charles Davis’s A Question of Conscience—no more, indeed, than did Davis in any of his own responses to Baum. In its civility, sensitivity, and seriousness, the whole exchange set an enviably high standard for public discussion of wrenchingly controversial issues. But I concluded then, and still believe, that in that particular exchange Davis’s hard-headed forthrightness and almost painful honesty carried the day. It did so because Baum applied (as he also did, I believe, in a later exchange with Hans Küng) the same interpretative principle to the doctrinal pronouncements of the ecclesiastical magisterium (documents that stand forth in the full light of history) as he applied to the understanding of divine revelation itself. And that left him, as Davis was quick to point out, “wide open to the process by which an institution distorts (‘reinterprets’ is the usual euphemism) the truth in order to keep its authority intact.” I cannot help wondering if Baum in subsequent years ever came to regret or rethink the unfortunate interpretative stance he chose to adopt in that exchange. 

Francis Oakley

Williamstown, Mass.


I disagree with your editorial “Below the Law?” (December 2, 2011), which raised possible objections to the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. The problem with this type of thinking is that in the real world, if you cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, things that really need to get done cannot be accomplished. When people bend the rules, we have to ask whether the outcome was just or not. But we must sometimes allow the rules to be bent. Otherwise we hamstring the legitimate processes of justice and public safety. Yes, there is a slippery slope; we could get too sloppy about letting people cut corners. However, overcorrecting by being too finicky is an equal problem. We are not assassinating American citizens right and left; here is a limited case where the man in question had clearly made himself an enemy combatant. I do not think we should put too many obstacles in the way of eliminating him. At the same time we ought to wish, of course, that the world will change in such a way that we never need to go to war with anyone, and God’s peace will reign over all.       

Daniel Hochberg

Seattle, Wash.

Not Too Finicky

I have recently been receiving Commonweal as a gift subscription, and I would like to commend you on your well-written and thoughtful editorial “Below the Law?” It’s nice to know there are editors who concern themselves with the moral and practical implications of our leaders’ choices, regardless of the political slant.     

James Passarelli

Bronx, N.Y.

Faint Heartbeat

Thank you for the excellent November 18, 2011, issue with articles connected to economic justice, the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Christine Neulieb’s “But What Do They Want?” sums up the disgust and resentment of many people who are weary of practices that border on legalized crime. Sadly, without discipline or organization, the movement will wither and wane.

Thank God people are awakening to how we got to where we are and how subtly and steadily the American people pursued a one-dimensional view of the American Dream, to the detriment of America’s heartbeat, “We, the People.” A society for profit and power leaves the poor and the powerless in the lurch. A society that glorifies the individual removes the commonweal as its purpose and goal.

The solutions will be difficult and will demand serious commitment and sacrifice, as well as a rediscovery of justice and compassion as the foundation of a great society. I don’t know how, or whether, we will achieve this, but it won’t begin until we recognize that liberty without responsibility is license, and that the denial of the rights of some results in unfair privilege for others, and no true rights for anyone.    

Mark Franceschini, osm

Denver, Colo.

Lay Responsibility

David J. O’Brien deserves a thumbs-up for his excellent article commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All (“More Than a Relic?” November 18, 2011). I also agree with the editorial “Justice & Economics,” in the same issue, that “when the church calls us back to those duties [to following the ethical principles that guide economic behavior], it is doing its job.” But as O’Brien points out, although the ’86 pastoral remains an important and valuable resource, the bishops allowed their interest in ecclesiastical reform to overshadow the need to explore in any depth the role of the laity.

I am reminded of the ideas put forth in “A Chicago Declaration of Christian Concern,” first published in December 1977. It was signed by roughly fifty members of the Catholic community in Chicago. The declaration began: “For decades, the church in Chicago nurtured a compelling vision of lay Christians in society.... Shall we passively accept that period of history as completely over, and with it the vision that proved to be so creative? While many in the church exhaust their energies arguing internal issues, albeit important ones...the laity who spend most of their time and energy in the professional and occupational world appear to have been deserted.”

This “Declaration” became the founding document of the National Center for the Laity in 1978. For the past thirty-four years the NCL has explored the meaning of the lay vocation. It has endorsed and promoted the idea that “holiness is achieved in the midst of the world.” NCL believes, as the first draft of the bishops’ letter explained, that it is primarily each lay person’s responsibility to search out opportunities to organize for community action within his or her workplace, profession, or neighborhood to care for “the least among us.” Since Vatican II the institutional church and especially the hierarchy have not shown a sustained interest in nurturing this mission with clarity and enthusiasm. 

Vaile Scott

Valparaiso, Ind.

What You Eat Becomes You

Excellent statement by John Schwenkler and David Cloutier (“An Economy of Care,” November 4, 2011) about the economic and cultural benefits of rediscovering local, organic, plant-based diets. Not least of these advantages is the restored health consumers can obtain from eating fresh raw fruits and vegetables. These foods are loaded with the nutrients our immune systems need, and for which our society is starved.

In the recent documentary Food Matters, nutritionists laid out the deadliness of our processed-food system. Salt, sugar, fats, and chemicals are primary causes of our epidemics of obesity, cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. At best, our industrial food has been chemically treated to the point where it is not nutritious, and makes supplements absolutely necessary. At worst, it is poisonous. Industrial agriculture, with its fertilizers and pesticides, is also killing the soil, so it can no longer produce healthy food.

What we need is public policy that promotes health through nutrition, rather than one that treats disease through pharmaceuticals. This change, which must start with consumers, can save us from our bankrupt health-care system as well as eliminate the scourge of chronic disease.            

Darby Riley

San Antonio, Tex.

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 
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