Mollie Wilson O'Reilly
By this author
The AP's Carolyn Thompson reports on "Mass mobs," conceived and organized by some folks in Buffalo, NY, as a way for local Catholics to experience and support some of the city's beautiful and struggling parish churches.
George Weigel's syndicated column is called "The Catholic Difference," presumably because in it Weigel lays out the proper way for Catholics to view the world -- and corrects the errors of those non-Catholics (or inadequately formed Catholics) who keep getting things wrong.
I often find that my view of things does not quite line up with what Weigel insists is the "Catholic" position. For example, the January 15 column, "What Popes Can and Can't Do," features this illustrative anecdote:
At an academic conference years ago, a distinguished Catholic philosopher remarked (perhaps hyperbolically) that “If the pope said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I’d believe him.” An even more distinguished Catholic philosopher gave the correct, and far more Catholic, response: “If the Holy Father said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I would say publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.”
I, meanwhile, would have said the "correct" and "Catholic" response is "Sorry, Holy Father, but that's not right." I probably wouldn't be all that private about it, either.
With this little story, Weigel is attempting to explain that popes can't go around changing established church doctrine on a whim, which is true enough. (He also says, "it is very difficult for those who see Catholicism through political lenses to grasp this." Which of course is why we need George Weigel -- now more than ever!) They do have a little more influence on church doctrine than they do on basic math, but we'll set that aside. Weigel is also taking this opportunity to throw more cold water on the hopes so many non-conservatives have been nurturing since Pope Francis's election. But the occasion of Weigel's warning is odd -- and not just because it follows his proclaiming the Wall Street Journal "America's best newspaper" and praising "the openness of the Journal's op-ed pages to serious Catholic argument on numerous issues." (I've been waiting for their Francis-inspired editorial "Trickle-Down Economics Reconsidered," but I think I must have missed it.)
What has Weigel worked up is a one-sentence description of Pope Francis in a space-filling listicle that ran in the WSJ, "People to Watch in 2014."
When it comes to cashing in on Pope Francis Fever, Rolling Stone has one-upped Esquire, with its silly "best-dressed man" designation. They didn't even have to make a joke, like the New Yorker, when they made Francis their cover model. The Rolling Stone cover is essentially a joke come to life: Francis, the Rock Star Pope.
The article, though, is no joke. I've seen some dismissive sniffing and some references to "hate-reading" among fellow pope-watchers, but Mark Binelli's piece is not the superficial profile you might be expecting. In fact, there's a lot to admire in it.
Its main flaw, and I will grant Fr. Lombardi this, is its over-the-top dismissal of Pope Benedict, and its occasional resort to what Lombardi aptly called "crudeness." He said "surprising crudeness," but given the venue, there's no surprise; crudeness is an essential element of serious journalism in Rolling Stone, a kind of self-conscious tic, like the gratuitous shots of topless women in HBO's prestige dramas. Hence, this, a few paragraphs in:
Bill Keller raises eyebrows, and hackles, in these parts whenever he turns his attention to the Catholic Church (or the arguments against war). But did you know he's similarly careless and smug and mansplainy when he writes about other subjects, too?
Today's column is a perfect example. Keller has some thoughts about terminal illness and dying. He seems to want to argue, or at least propose, that Americans should be less committed to fighting for every last breath, whatever the cost (financial or otherwise), and more open to the death-with-dignity approach that embraces palliative care, as exemplified by his British father-in-law. He doesn't actually establish that Americans ARE unduly committed to extraordinary life-saving measures, he just asserts it, but maybe it's a valid place to begin a discussion.
Instead, though, Keller turns to a woman named Lisa Adams who has been using social media to chronicle her experiences fighting breast cancer. She's currently posting frequent updates to Twitter from her hospital room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Keller uses her as an example of what's wrong with How We Die Today.
So there's the first problem: you want to say that American cancer patients are apt to approach death badly, fine, that's provocative, but maybe you have a point. But to hang that argument on a specific cancer patient -- and one who is not really a "public figure" and thus impossible to ignore, but rather a woman who has a following on Twitter but isn't otherwise bothering anybody -- that's where a slightly more reflective person ought to say, "You know, maybe this is unnecessarily insensitive."
Eduardo Penalver has already flagged my favorite holiday report on the Francis effect (published just in time to influence year-end charitable giving). And as we ring in the New Year, let's spare a thought for the persecuted rich. It's bad enough Francis keeps talking about the poor all the time, but now he's suggesting that someone other than those same poor people may be responsible for their poverty -- and worse, that Catholics are called on to work for a more just distribution of the world's goods. He wants us to change the system, but has he given any thought to how that might affect the people who currently benefit most from that system? CNBC is on it:
[Home Depot founder Ken] Langone said he's raised the issue more than once with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, most recently at a breakfast in early December at which he updated him on fundraising progress."I've told the cardinal, 'Your Eminence, this is one more hurdle I hope we don't have to deal with. You want to be careful about generalities. Rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country,' " he said.
One of the things that makes this story so jaw-dropping is the presumption -- on the part of Langone, and as ever on the part of CNBC -- that those who see or read it will sympathize with the petulant wealthy. Do you really want to make things harder for people who are so much wealthier and more successful than you? CNBC constantly asks its viewers. Do you think we can afford to let them get upset?
I do feel for Cardinal Dolan, caught between the demands of fundraising in a wealthy city and the clear teaching of a very popular pope. I wouldn't want to be explaining Evangelii Gaudium to any prospective donors over breakfast. Still, I'd like to think that, if pressed, I could do a little bit better than "The pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people. He loves people, alright? He's not into the condemning game."
I do not think CNBC's reporting on this story was motivated by a desire to get people thinking about how relying on the goodwill of wealthy donors compromises the integrity of the church. But that's where this story left me. What might it mean if bishops like Dolan had to square off with a few sulking multimillionaires and tell them, Look, here's the social teaching of the church, and here's a chart demonstrating how income inequality has increased, and if all that makes you feel less generous then I'll just have to ask someone else? Historians of the church in New York often point out that its many beautiful parishes -- which some now consider an embarrassment of riches -- were built by immigrants giving from what little they had. And hey, maybe that wasn't such a bad system. The widow's mite doesn't go quite as far, but at least it doesn't carry with it the obligation of downplaying the spiritual risks of wealth and soft-pedaling the cry of the poor. The widow, unlike her seven-figure-donor coreligionists, would probably like what the pope has to say.
There are, of course, great minds working hard to make sure it doesn't come to that.
If you're sitting at home thinking, "Gosh, what I'd really love for Christmas is to see some video footage of my favorite dotCommonweal contributors discussing Pope Francis," I bring you glad tidings of great joy. Our own Michael Peppard appeared on MSNBC on December 21 to talk Francis with Joy Reid and some other panelists.
At RNS, David Gibson flags an overlooked tidbit from Francis's interview with La Stampa (noted elsewhere for his rejection of the idea of women cardinals):
It's the most wonderful time of the year: Salon's Alex Pareene is once again compiling his "Hack List" of top offenders in the world of punditry.
This week the New York Times has been running a series called "Invisible Child" -- an in-depth report on the problem of chronic homelessness in New York City, told through the experiences of an eleven-year-old girl named Dasani who lives with her family (mother, stepfather, and seven siblings) in a Brooklyn shelter.
Reporter Andrea Elliott and photographer Ruth Fremson have done a remarkable job communicating what life is like for families like Dasani's, and the many obstacles that stand in the way of a hopeful future for a child who lives in poverty in the city. The series, divided into five parts, is very long, and very much worth the time it takes to read. It is like a supersized version of those profiles of the "Neediest Cases" that the Times runs during the holidays to remind readers to donate to its Neediest Cases Fund. In this case, however, the focus is not on how charitable foundations have helped Dasani and her family, but about how public initiatives and institutions have tried to assist them, and have often fallen far short of their needs. It also looks squarely at the economic disparities that exist in Fort Greene and throughout the city, with wealthy New Yorkers living alongside desperately poor ones. (Part 3 opens with an unforgettable scene: Dasani's mother stops at a wine store's evening tasting with her kids in tow.) The sorts of luxuries that high-income New Yorkers enjoy, and that the Times typically can't fetishize fervidly enough, seem far less ordinary and innocent through the eyes of an outsider like Dasani. (Which reminds me: be sure to read David Cloutier's piece in the latest Commonweal on the perils for Christians of the luxuries we take for granted.)
Elliott's hard work -- the series was obviously many months in the making -- fulfills one of the highest objectives of journalism: it makes the invisible visible, and tells the story of people whose voice is seldom heard. Its generous sweep takes in not just the "invisible" but massive problem of homelessness, but also the problems that plague public schools, and the conflicts that reformers' interventions can create; the tangle of social agencies designed to help people like Dasani's family, and the circumstances that keep clients from reaping the benefits; and the attempts made under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to address these issues and how they have fared. Along with Ian Frazier's excellent New Yorker article "Hidden City," published in October, "Invisible Child" offers an unforgettable look at what it means to be homeless in today's New York. You won't come away hopeful, but you probably will come away wanting to help any way you can. [Update: see here for suggestions.]
Unless you're on the editorial board at the New York Post, that is. Their response to the "Invisible Child" series, published on December 9, must be read to be believed.
After you've read my latest column ("O Holy Fight"), you should be sure to follow up with Gail Collins's latest ("Culture War Games"), which is a variation on the same theme. Collins includes more details, and wonderful details they are, from Sarah Palin's War-on-Christmas book -- in which, I gather, she is named, or at least referenced, as one of those clueless "snickering" pundits who just don't get it.