Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.
By this author
I’m hardly the first person to lament the fact that Norman Mailer, who died in 2007, is not around to help explain what Donald Trump’s political apotheosis means for the future of democracy and the fate of the nation.
In February the bodies of two long-dead Catholic saints, the extraordinarily popular Padre Pio and the lesser-known Padre Leopoldo, were driven across Italy, and then paraded through the streets of Rome in glass coffins for viewing and a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis is a big Padre Pio fan, and wanted the veneration of the saint’s remains to be one of the highlights of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, with its emphasis on the forgiveness of sins.
Referring to the Vatican, English Catholic apologist Rev. Ronald Knox reputedly offered this caution: “Better not look too closely into the engine room.” In other words, best to behold the majestic barque of Peter from some distance, rather than exposing oneself to how the leaky vessel actually operates, for that way lies disillusionment and the road to apostasy. Sound advice, it would seem, and I’ve followed it religiously for nearly sixty-five years, visiting Italy twice but somehow managing to avoid Rome. (Like every literary wannabe, I’m a fool for Venice.)
That came to an end in December, thanks to an invitation to a conference on the persecution of Christians held at the Pontifical Urban University just outside the Vatican. I hope to write more on that important topic in the future. But first an initial report on some encounters during my travels.
At the very start, a certain missionary zeal marked my pilgrimage, though I personally could not lay claim to any such enthusiasm. Standing in line at JFK to board our Alitalia flight, I couldn’t help but notice an especially clean-cut young man in the line next to me. He was very carefully put together, wearing a sweater and neatly knotted tie under a smart-looking gray sports coat. His slacks were dark and his shoes polished; his jaw square and his brow unfurrowed. Pinned to his sports coat was a plastic badge, the sort a doctor might wear. I was intrigued, but could not make out the writing. The mystery was soon solved. Unprompted, the young man began a conversation with an older gentleman, an Italian, in front of him in line. “This is my first trip abroad,” the young man said in a clear voice. “I’m eighteen years old. I just graduated from high school. I’m going to Macedonia.” Needless to say, this caught my attention, since Macedonia had been in the news for having closed its borders to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Was the kid serious, or merely oblivious? It seemed unlikely that he had relatives in Macedonia.
“Excuse me sir,” the young man continued, the Italian gentleman now somewhat perplexed. “Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? You know, the Mormons? I’m from Utah, and I’m going to Macedonia as a missionary. Would you like to know more about my church?”
The old man, as well as others within earshot, smiled with benevolent amusement, but none took up the young man on his offer. I assume that when boarding a jet for a four-thousand-mile trip over a vast ocean, one’s most atavistic religious instincts take hold. I certainly reach for my rosary. Do young Mormons immediately start honing their missionary pitch? Still, I was fascinated and even impressed with the teenager’s forthrightness. He seemed guileless, as eager to get down to business as St. Paul was to convert the uncircumcised. At eighteen I was barely able to tie my own shoes.
I was also humbled. About the last thing I imagine myself doing is offering a brief for the glories of Roman Catholic Church to a perfect stranger.
I read a lot of book reviews, have edited quite a few, and written dozens myself. The best reviews convey essential information about the book under consideration, but more important, either the reviewer’s honest disappointment or passionate endorsement. Dwight Garner is perhaps the most engaging, and fair-minded, of the daily New York Times book critics.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is both a political conservative and a self-described “orthodox” Catholic. Very orthodox. Really, really, orthodox. At least in the abstract. Less so, he winningly admits, in temperament. Nevertheless, he has taken great exception to the direction in which Pope Francis, that wily Jesuit, is taking the church.
Pope Francis’s much-heralded first trip to the United States begins Tuesday, after what some consider a mischievous stop in the Castros’ Cuba. Francis’s distrust of U.S. economic and military hegemony is no secret. His condemnation of the first-world’s “throwaway” consumer culture has plenty of biblical warrant, but may not register with most American Catholics, who are doing quite well, thank you. Nevertheless, it is likely that Francis’s remarkable warmth and candor will succeed in charming his hosts, just as it has won the affection of just about everyone except bureaucrats in the Vatican and an outspoken group of self-styled “orthodox” Catholics who fear this pope is trying to impose a radical agenda on the church.
Francis will be stopping in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. In Washington he will canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan who founded many of California’s missions in the eighteenth century. Like most of the things this Argentinian Jesuit does, Serra’s canonization is controversial. Native American groups accuse the missionary of complicity in the genocide of California Indians. As Gregory Orfalea wrote recently in Commonweal, while denouncing the crimes of colonialism, Francis believes the historical record shows that Serra was a defender, not a persecutor, of the native population. He also wants to direct the church’s attention away from Rome to the “peripheries,” and making his first canonization that of a Hispanic from the American West fits the bill. At the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, the pope will then speak to a joint session of Congress. No canonizations are expected to be made there now or in the near future.
In New York, Francis will address the UN, which is standard fare for popes. No doubt he will call for sheltering refugees and greater peacekeeping efforts from the international community. Much to the annoyance of some, the church has long been an advocate of international institutions. He will also decry climate change and the globalized economy’s impact on the poor, as he did in his recent environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. There will be a visit with the homeless and a Mass at Madison Square Garden. After that it is on to Philadelphia to help close the World Meeting on the Family, a kind of very chaste, very buttoned-upped Catholic Woodstock. Given the conservative bent of the American hierarchy, the meeting’s presentations and workshops are heavily stacked with advocates for the church’s prohibitions against contraception, abortion, civil divorce and remarriage, and same-sex marriage. The meeting’s agenda is no surprise. Philadelphia’s archbishop, Charles Chaput, is among the most dedicated culture warriors. He has confessed perplexity over Francis’s initiatives when it comes to marriage and the family.
If Francis remains true to form when it comes to Catholicism’s moral teachings, he will make a point of softening the tone with which the church interacts with the larger secular culture and with disaffected Catholics.
Perhaps you’ve heard that next month Pope Francis is coming to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia after he visits Cuba. (What message might the Argentinian pope be sending by first dropping in on those Jesuit-educated Castros? Best not to think about it.) The impending arrival of the papal caravan has excited a good many Catholics (and many others) while increasing the anxiety of those self-anointed “orthodox Catholics” who fear that the Jesuit pope has a leftish agenda up the sleeve of his cassock. For their part, Francis enthusiasts are waxing enthusiastic. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who to his credit often has sage things to say when it comes to the liberal-conservative divide in the church, began a many-part series titled “Pope Francis is Coming!” Golly, yes he is, but do we really need the exclamation point? (Winters and I have differed in the past on just how papal-centric Catholics ought to be.) [“Contra Baumann", NCR].)
Francis’s New York City stop will in fact take place almost fifty years to the day after Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit the United States, flew in for a tumultuous fourteen-hour stay in October of 1965. Like Paul, Francis will address the U.N. and plead for peace. On that score, the papal agenda, however futile, rarely changes. It is unlikely, however, that Francis will warn the U.N. delegates that resorting to birth control is “irrational,” as Paul did, much to the audience’s surprise and befuddlement. One suspects that the “irrational” denial of climate change will be a principal theme, along with the depredations of modern capitalism. Francis’s predecessors were also critics of economic inequality. How could they not be with the way the Gospel disconcerts us all by pointing an accusatory finger at those who neglect the poor? Despite the strenuous if well-rewarded efforts of some neoconservative intellectuals, the eye of a needle hasn’t gotten any larger. Francis’s regard for the poor, much to the discomfort of such folks, does seem to be of a somewhat different intensity than most of those who preceded him in the chair of Peter.
Francis’s visit is a big deal, but I doubt “the entire nation is focused” on it, as Winters imagines.
I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.
And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?
Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.
Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”
Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.”
Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”
I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.
To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”
I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.
Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.
When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.
Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.
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