Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
In case you missed it, Peter Steinfels took to the opinion page of The Washington Post Friday to further the case he made in his recent Commonweal article, “Contraception and Honesty.” From his piece in the Post (in which he also calls Pope Francis “the U.S. church’s best chance of overcoming a bad case of spiritual anemia”):
Carmen Fariña is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the United States, serving 1.1 million students in more than eighteen hundred schools. Named to the position in January 2014 by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, she has worked some fifty years in education, including more than two decades as a teacher and a stint as deputy chancellor in the administration of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Much papal news in and outside of the mainstream media today, much stemming from Francis’s announcement on annulments, more assessing his strategies and successes on curial reform, and some on his call over the weekend for Catholics in Europe to extend the welcome to migrants and refugees.
Maybe it’s human nature to identify symmetries between significant events. That would absolve the elderly aunt in my wife’s family for repeatedly noting that January 16 was the date of her husband’s birth, the anniversary of his marriage to her, and the date of his death; it was nothing more than coincidence, perhaps, but it was coincidence worth remarking on.
On a late-August Friday afternoon in 1997, we brought our son—born seven weeks premature—home from the hospital for the first time, set him on the floor with us while we ate takeout burritos, and looked at each other as if to say: Now what? On a late-August Friday afternoon in 2015, we came home from dropping that son off at college, talked about what to do for dinner, and looked at each other again as if to say: Now what? Two summer Fridays separated by exactly eighteen years: coincidence, but also symmetry.
The hours (days, weeks) preceding his departure were taken up by, among other things, reminiscing aloud about my own college experience. Endlessly fascinating stuff! To me, at least, in a textbook demonstration of what brain researchers call the “reminiscence bump” in action (when asked to reflect on memories, adults disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five). My larger goal, though, was to avoid repeating what I saw as the errors of my father—who when I told him I wanted to major in English, for instance, said to have fun trying to put food on the table; who when I told him I’d been skipping Mass despite living within yards of the campus church, turned to my mother and complained: Did you hear what your son just said? In this, I think I succeeded. I am supportive of my son’s intention to major in literature, for one thing. And where he is, there’s no on-campus church for him to feel guilty about not stepping foot in.
As with so many things that come with leaving home, it’s his turn to decide on that.
With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.
“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.
For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”
Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si’, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.
The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”
The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:
In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.
But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.
You may have noticed that Commonweal looks a little different in places today. It’s been just over two years since the last major redesign of the website, a long time in online publishing, and we’ve made a few modifications to acknowledge and address how readers’ expectations and habits have changed in that time.
dotCommonweal reader Jack Marth and members of the Waldron Mercy Academy parent community have highlighted a column in support of the school’s former religious instruction director Margie Winters, whose dismissal I wrote about last week. One of the co-authors of the piece is Mary Scullion—a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and co-founder and executive director of Project H.O.M.E., an organization devoted to ending homelessness in Philadelphia.