Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
By this author
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
A year after Witness was published and two years before his articles and reviews begain appearing in a new publication called the National Review (where he would write his famous take-down of Ayn Rand), Whittaker Chambers wrote an essay about St. Benedict that was published in Commonweal. By that point, the former Communist spy had become a kind of twentieth-century Henry Adams, seeking refuge in the Middle Ages from what he regarded as the moral and political decadence of his own time. Chambers begins his Commonweal essay by remarking on how little he—and other educated Americans of his generation—had been taught about the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance: "[U]nder the sunlit skies of my boyhood, the Dark Ages were seldom mentioned: if at all, chiefly by way of contrast to the light of our progress."
The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable—a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and recopied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.
If a bright boy, leafing through history, asked: “How did the Dark Ages come about?” he might be told that “Rome fell!”–as if a curtain simply dropped. Boys of ten or twelve, even if bright, are seldom bright enough to say to themselves: “Surely, Rome did not fall in a day.” If a boy had asked: “But were there no great figures in the Dark Ages, like Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward, and the Kaiser?” he might well have been suspected of something like an unhealthy interest in the habits and habitats of spiders. If he had persisted and asked: “But isn’t it clear that the Dark Ages are of a piece with our age of light, that our civilization is by origin Catholic, that, in fact, we cannot understand what we have become without understanding what we came from?” he would have been suspected of something much worse than priggery—a distressing turn to popery.[...]
I was in my twenties, a young intellectual savage in college with thousands of others, before the fact slowly dawned upon me that, for a youth always under the spell of history, the history I knew was practically no history at all. It consisted of two disjointed parts—the history of Greece and Rome, with side trips to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: and a history of the last four hundred years of Europe and America. Of what lay in between, what joined the parts and gave them continuity, and the pulse of life and breath of spirit, my ignorance was darker than any Dark Age. Less by intelligence than by the kind of sixth sense which makes us aware of objects ahead in the dark, I divined that a main land mass of the history of Western civilization loomed hidden beyond my sight.
The New York Times explains why it's been so hard for the Obama administration to close the Guantánamo detention center, and notes that the place is falling apart:
In an essay now available on our homepage, Gordon Marino argues that the asymmetry of modern warfare complicates the moral analysis of just-war theory:
Just-war theory first began to develop at a time when war was reasonably expected to involve a reciprocal risk. In asymmetrical conflicts, the combatants of the weaker side can be so out-matched as to be virtually defenseless. In such cases, battles become outright massacres....
The following letter was sent today by Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the president of the Assembly of the Catholic Bishops of Iraq, to Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity that provides assistance to persecuted Christians throughout the world. The letter speaks for itself.
Those who are opposed to Cardinal Walter Kasper's proposal that some divorced and remarried Catholics be allowed to receive the Eucharist might want to reconsider whether the Church has been wise in allowing the widowed to remarry.
In their critique of Kasper's proposal, a group of American Dominicans points out that there was much disagreement in the early Church about whether widows and widowers should be allowed to remarry. Even many of those who believed they should be allowed to do so thought remarriage should at least be discouraged. But the case for not allowing an abandoned spouse to remarry is very similar to the case for not allowing the widow or widower to remarry—namely, that marriage is indissoluble, a sacramental figuration of Christ's covenant with his Church, a covenant not even death can dissolve. Can one think of another sacrament whose effects are supposed to be nullified by death? [For an obvious answer to this, see Fritz Bauerschmidt's comment below.]
Defenders of the Church's current practice demand that the abandoned spouse persevere in chastity. Why should the Church not demand the same of the widowed? Both are victims of a circumstance beyond their control. One possible response is that the dead never come back to life (or never come back to this life), whereas it is never impossible that someone who abandons his or her wife or husband may repent of it and seek reconciliation. This sort of thing has been known to happen, after all, and when it does, it's can be a profound evidence of grace. It's also exceedingly rare, especially when the unfaithful spouse goes on to have children with another partner.
Practically, then, the abandoned spouse is in the same position as the widow or widower: in both cases, chastity would seem to require heroic virtue. From very early in its history, the church decided not to demand such virtue of widows and widowers, despite its original preference that they not remarry. The question now is why it should demand such virtue of those whose first spouse is "dead to them," often through no fault of their own.
Libertarians and libertarianism have been receiving a lot of attention lately. In the current issue of Commonweal, Eduardo Peñalver asks whether Catholics can be libertarians. His answer: It depends—not on what kind of Catholic they are but on what kind of libertarian:
Benjamin Kunkel on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century: "Paupers and Richlings"
Yesterday I participated in a conference titled "Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism." The following is a lightly edited version of my remarks.
At the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters makes the "Catholic Case against Libertarianism." Along the way, he remarks on the condescension of those who have attributed Pope Francis's bracing language about inequality to his South American ignorance of how we Americans do capitalism.