Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
We’re featuring three new items on the website right now, starting with Robert Mickens’s latest Letter from Rome, in which he discusses the “opposition” to Francis that began to coalesce after publication of
There’s a lot of interesting data in a new Pew report detailing the drop of self-identified Catholics across Latin America, beginning with how precipitous the decline has been. While 84 percent of adults interviewed report they were raised Catholic, only 69 percent currently identify as Catholic, meaning, as the New York Times Upshot summarizes, “there has been a 15-percentage-point drop-off in one generation.”
Why interesting, and not, say, startling, is that no one who’s been paying attention can really be surprised by the findings, yet they also shed new light on the shift in a region where up to the 1970s more than 90 percent of the population identified as Catholic.
Today the New York Times is featuring on its homepage a video “retro report” on the murder of American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan in El Salvador in December 1980. The report is titled “A Search for Justice,” and the tagline reads: “Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.”
A philosopher of otherwise modest stature once made the useful point that in life it's important to make a little effort once in a while: go out for a movie, walk instead of drive. Trying not to come to Mass with a cup of coffee may or may not meet the standard, but now and then someone really does show up in the third pew straight from the ubiquitous Starbucks. Could this person have made time to finish earlier, or simply held out until later?
While the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the short line of the material world aims hard at convenience—the minimizing of the effort required to get something. From a month’s journey to a day’s drive to within an arm’s reach, from the touch of a finger to the click of the mouse and soon maybe the blink of an eye, the distance, in space and time, between “wish” and “fulfillment” has shrunk to nearly nothing. That’s news to no one but whether everyone should see it as good news is another question. Do we lose something when getting something is so easy? And might it be bad news if effort were reduced so much (and the definition of “convenience” stretched so far) that we got things we probably wouldn't wish for in the first place?
Sue Halpern in her current New York Review of Books piece provides an answer, and it's implicit in the title: “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet.” She details the emergence of what the tech industry and its missionaries in consulting and venture capital are calling the Internet of Things (IoT) or, more all-encompassing by some, the Internet of Everything. If you’re thinking Facebook or satellite navigation or personalized recommendations on Amazon, you’re not being nearly “visionary” enough.
Former U.S. senator George Mitchell was the honoree at our Commonweal Conversations event in New York last week, where he was presented with the Catholic in the Public Square Award. His remarks—gracious, humorous, and thoughtful—are definitely worth viewing (or reviewing, if you happened to be among us). Equally engaging was presenter Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, and the video of her remarks also appears below.
Citizenfour is the new documentary about Edward Snowden, who in 2013 disclosed the existence of a secret NSA mass surveillance program. In its subject and production it looks and feels a bit like those conspiracy movies from the 1970s—Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, or All the President’s Men. There’s the unwitting protagonist, the chance at heroism not sought but thrust upon him; the outsized, amorphous antagonist, the extent of its reach and capacity for treachery heretofore unimaginable; and the paranoia informing and infusing the story, heightened by ominous music and weirdly ominous shots of ordinary buildings, streets, and rooms. I say “a bit,” because Citizenfour is a documentary and not a dramatization—but also because that even as a documentary, it seems second-hand and overdone in comparison to fictional treatments.
How can that be? Shouldn’t access to the figure at the center of the story make for riveting work? In fact, the issue might be Snowden himself, whose presence dominates the long middle section of the movie, filmed over eight days in the Hong Kong hotel room he absconded to. The fear accompanying the growing awareness of what their characters have stumbled into—and the growing danger it puts them in—seems less manufactured in the acting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than in the actual speech and behavior of Snowden, hiding out from U.S. authorities. True, the key revelations and developments aren’t coming in the “real time” of the narrative, but it’s precisely that Snowden’s actions were undertaken prior to this moment that the tension should be higher. It’s understood he’s in danger, so when and how it will it arrive? He professes to feel anxiety, and he exhibits the classic tendencies of the paranoiac—convinced that he’s being watched because, of course, everyone is after him. But he’s also aware of being watched being watched: It’s a virtual performance in the role he may have been destined to play.
You’re permitted to cast a ballot in Texas (where early voting began Monday) if you show a concealed-handgun license at the polling place, but not if you present a student, veteran, or federally recognized Indian tribe ID card. Of course, that eligible voters (in Texas and elsewhere) would suddenly need specific types of photo identification or meet any variety of strict new requirements was foreseeable when the Supreme Court last year struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorably dissented at the time: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The umbrella discarded, Texas duly implemented measures making it indisputably harder for many people to vote—precisely the kind of maneuver the preclearance provision had many times since the civil rights era forestalled.
Just how hard was made clear by Ginsburg (who else?) in her quickly-becoming-famous, wee-hours dissent in the Court’s weekend decision allowing Texas’s voter identification law to stand—this despite an earlier federal ruling striking it down explicitly for its discriminatory intent. Ginsburg noted that more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest government office issuing the allowable forms of ID, where they will likely have to present a certified birth certificate. Those normally cost $22; though the state offers certificates for election purposes at $2 or $3, this information isn’t available on relevant websites or forms. Taken together, Ginsburg logically concluded, it amounts to a poll tax, and those were outlawed with ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.
Texas has justified its strict new requirements as a safeguard against voter fraud. Two instances of voter impersonation were confirmed in all of the elections held in Texas between 2001 and 2011, so clearly there is a problem—though fraud isn’t it.
Whether the moment was merely fortuitous or more shrewdly considered, the New Yorker is featuring a short story this week that makes for timely reading during the current synod. It’s called “Ordinary Sins,” and it’s by the young writer Kirstin Valdez Quade, whose story “The Five Wounds” appeared in the magazine in 2009 and whose debut collection is due early next year.
On our website now, our special Ninetieth Anniversary issue, with stories from Luke Timothy Johnson on what it means to be a Commonweal Catholic; from William Pfaff on his early, happy days at the magazine; from Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the ongoing importance in today’s media-saturated world of the “considered opinion” Commonweal has made its signature; from a selection of young staffers (