J. Peter Nixon

By this author

My Minivan Is My.....?

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life.  Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass.  “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.  

The answers to that question are complex and manifold.  A small share of an answer may be linked to how many of our parishes and dioceses chose to celebrate the Year itself.  For the most part, it was seen as an opportunity to say a much deserved word of thanks to men and women religious for their service and their lives of witness.  Those words, while sincere, often had the tone of an elegy, an acknowledgment that many religious communities may have reached the point of irreversible decline.

What I generally did not hear from the pulpit or the episcopal chair was any sustained argument aimed at the Catholic laity for why religious life--a life dedicated to the “perfection of charity” through the practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience--remains integral to Christian witness in the modern world.   This way of life, rooted in the example of Jesus himself, has been part of the Church from the very beginning.  To use an overworked metaphor, a Church without communities committed to the practice of the counsels is a Church breathing with only one lung.

Will Marco Rubio Slay Obamacare?

As Congressional budget negotiations came down to the wire this week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was once again successful in inserting a provision aimed at destabilizing key elements of the Affordable Care Act.   At Rubio’s insistence, last year’s budget agreement included language restricting the ACA’s payments to insurance companies that enrolled less healthy patients.  The change has disrupted insurance markets, leading some new plans to declare bankruptcy and even industry giants like United Healthcare to wonder whether participating in the ACA’s exchanges is a good idea.

One might think that disrupting insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of Americans would not be something a legislator would want to take credit for.  Rubio’s supporters, however, are crowing that while other presidential candidates have talked about killing Obamacare, he is the only one who has actually drawn blood.

The ACA’s critics have been trying to destroy it for so long that it is understandable that they would cling to every bit of what they see as good news.  Nevertheless, like Charlie Brown, they are likely to find that the ACA’s underlying resilience has once again pulled the football away.

Prophecy and Prose

Pope Francis’ recent speech in Bolivia has rekindled the debate over Pope Francis’ views on economics and inequality.  Francis’ defenders have argued that the pope is merely offering a robust presentation of Catholic social teaching.  His more fevered critics see him as a herald of a resurgent Marxism.

The frustrating thing about this debate is that it usually operates at a level of abstraction, as if the choices facing policymakers really did boil down to a choice between capitalism and, well, something else.  To a great extent, this reflects the penchant of American conservatives branding even modest efforts to redress economic inequality as “socialism.”

As fond as I am of Francis, however, I think the pope also bears some responsibility for this.  Phrases like an “economy that kills” and “an economy of exclusion” remind me of John Paul II’s “culture of death” and Benedict XVI’s “culture of relativism.”  In none of these cases do I find the phrases adequately descriptive of the phenomenon in question or analytically helpful in developing remedies.

The Future of Catholicism in the U.S.

This week the folks over at Patheos are hosting a "summer symposium" on the Future of Catholicism in the United States.

"Call Me Caitlyn"

Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” in the pages of Vanity Fair this week caused a stir, well, pretty much everywhere.  Much of the commentary I saw was positive.  There were some on the left, particularly feminists, who raised questions about Jenner’s decision to embrace a highly sexualized image of femininity.  Some religious conservatives expressed sympathy to Jenner personally but joined most of their colleagues in criticizing her decision to live as a woman and undergo gender reassig

Primum non nocere

A close friend of mine recently finalized his divorce. He and his wife had been separated for a year and the last few years of their marriage had been difficult. They were very active in our parish. He no longer attends Mass here. I’ve continued to meet and pray with him as he walks this journey.

Given this experience, one might suppose that I would be among those hoping for some change in the Church’s discipline regarding divorce and remarriage. To be honest, however, I find myself torn in multiple directions and unsure about what I would do if I was a bishop attending the upcoming Synod. 

To God who gives joy to my youth

Altar servers are in the news once again as a priest in the neighboring Archdiocese of San Francisco has decided to eliminate female altar servers.  This follows a recent interview with Cardinal Burke where he suggested that female altar servers have contributed to a loss in priestly vocations.

While it’s possible that a decline in altar serving among young men has played a role in the decline in vocations, it is almost certainly dwarfed by other causes: widening professional opportunities for Catholic men, smaller families, a shifting sexual culture, secularism, and the rise of an active and engaged laity to name just a few. 

More fundamentally, however, Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy changed the role of the server in ways that make it harder to play the role as a seedbed for vocations that it played in the past.  In the pre-conciliar liturgy, servers actually had a fair bit to do.  They prayed certain prayers after the priest (ostensibly on behalf of “the people”), rang bells during the consecration, and held a paten under a communicant’s chin to catch fragments of the host.  Most masses--even daily Masses--had at least one server and the work of the server required fairly close collaboration with the priest throughout the Mass.

In most parishes where I’ve attended Mass during my life, however, the servers usually have a much more limited role.  They usually bear the candles (and sometimes the processional cross) during the entrance and the offertory;  hold the Missal during the collects; and assist the priest during the lavabo.   In cases where the parish still rings bells at the elevation, this is also one of the server’s duties.  Very rarely have I seen servers prepare the altar.

#enoughalready

So it has come to this.  We are now debating the doctrinal authority of papal tweets and phone calls.

As David Gibson reports, the latest controversy in papal communication was a three-word tweet in Latin--Iniquitas radix malorum--that has been translated into English as “inequality is the root of social evil.”  This followed only days after the dustup over the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion.

Younger Catholics may find this hard to believe, but there once was a time when the vast majority of Catholics did not hang on every word spoken or written by a pope.  Admittedly, this was a relatively short period covering only the first 1,800 years or so of the Church’s existence, so it is understandable how some may have missed it.

During the first millennia and a half of Christian history, popes did not commit themselves to paper (at least not paper that was mean to be widely disseminated) very often.  It sometimes surprises people to learn, for example, that the bishops of Rome played only a marginal role in the great 4th century councils that gave us the Nicene Creed.  In the Middle Ages, doctrinal disputes were more likely to be settled by the faculty of the University of Paris than by Rome.

This is not to say that the papal office was unimportant.  Far from it.  Popes such as Leo I, Gregory VII, and Innocent III had an enormous impact on both the Church’s inner life and the society and politics of their age.  But the popes shared the stage, as it were, with equally towering figures such as the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine,  Benedict of Nursia, and, of course, Francis of Assisi.

A day late and a dollar....

The Republicans have finally gotten serious about health care reform.  The bad news for them is that they are four years too late.

Earlier today, Senators Hatch (R-UT); Burr (R-NC); and Coburn (R-OK) released the details of their Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility and Empowerment Act (a.k.a. “Patient CARE Act).  Hatch, in particular, is no stranger to health care issues, having co-sponsored the State Childrens Health Insurance Program back in 1997.

The bill largely follows the outlines of a health care reform proposal developed by a group of conservative policy wonks dubbed the “reformocons.”  In an article published in Commonweal’s print edition in December, I questioned whether the wonks would find Republican politicians willing to carry their water.  I am happy to have been proved wrong, as the return of Republicans to the actual work of legislating is a welcome development.

A "war on aspiration"

Adam Shaw (he of the "Pope Francis is the Catholic Church's Obama" fame) has posted another column attacking Francis, which is sure to go viral.  Here is how it starts:

Pope Francis has declared war on those who aspire to provide a better life for themselves and their families, expressing the misguided snobbery of a man for whom money has never been an issue.

In the first week of his papacy, when briefing the media, the pope exclaimed: