Peter Steinfels

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

By this author

The Semi-Fascist Candidate

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not a fascist; he is a semi-fascist. I recognize the risk of using the f-word. In fact, I am positively allergic to it. This case, however, is different. The U.S. is at a moral crossroads. We need to be utterly unambiguous about why. 

I emphasize the “semi” in semi-fascist. Trump has shown no interest in the stereotypically fascist exaltation of discipline, not for himself and not for any organized movement. The closest his militants get to uniforms are baseball caps. And though he may have toyed with the occasional outbreaks of violence at Trump rallies, those scuffles are absolutely nothing like the systematic thuggery of budding fascisms.    

On the other hand, consider this: He has built a political movement on a populist nationalism that scapegoats enemy groups both within and without. He will expel or bar alien intruders. He plays relentlessly on a sense of national humiliation, victimization, grievance, and decline. He asserts that the nation faces an emergency that justifies torture and murdering the wives and children of our terrorist enemies, even briefly suggesting that as Commander in Chief he could order the military to violate the laws of war. Unlike full-fledged fascists, he is not explicitly anti-parliamentarian, an idea perhaps too complex for him (or perhaps too multisyllabic); instead he scorns virtually the entire political class as “stupid” or “without a clue,” i.e., unable to make a deal. He takes no note of Congressional procedures and Constitutional limits. He is indifferent to civil liberties except for gun rights, and has spoken ominously about reining in the press. When asked about compromise, he replies by vaunting his own “flexibility,” as though compromise were nothing more than a personal skill rather than an appreciation for distinctive outlooks and interests. If none of that rings an alarm bell, you haven’t read enough about Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. 

Still, why not just call Trump an authoritarian or a demagogue, which would be bad enough? Why not “Caesarist” or caudillo? Liar, bully, opportunist, vulgarian, purveyor of toxic politics—won’t that language suffice? I don’t think so. 

Pope, Synod, Contraception

Did Pope Francis’s unrehearsed comments on the morality of using contraception in the context of the Zika virus constitute a change in church teaching?  I leave to others the fine arts of papal exegesis and applying the principle of double effect and lesser evil.  For anyone a little less papal centric, what the recent Synod on the Family had to say—or, better, not say—about contraception may be as noteworthy.   

The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch.  Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur.  He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another.  He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy. 

And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.

My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that.  He respects it.  He admires its author.  He looks for the truth in it.  But he doesn’t buy it. 

But that’s pure guess on my part.  The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.   

In Hoc Anno Domini

Every Christmas Eve since 1949 the Wall Street Journal has been publishing the same editorial.  (The Journal doesn’t publish on December 25, the stock exchange being closed.)  Obviously the editors must be pretty proud of it.  It’s also one of my favorites.  From year to year the words are the same but the meaning changes with the times.  In the last few years its message has been clear: Jesus came to save us from government regulation. 

That was probably not the major point at the moment of intensifying Cold War when the editorial first appeared.  The dangerous allure of Friedrich Hayek’s “road to serfdom” was merely implied.  But the Journal readers of 1949, who would have spontaneously understood Caesar to be operating out of the Kremlin, have been replaced by the readers of 2015, daily instructed that today’s Caesar operates from the White House and the federal bureaucracies.  

Entitled “In Hoc Anno Domini,” the editorial describes the world at the moment of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion: a world “in bondage,” with but one state and one master, his oppressive power maintained through legions and executioners, persecution of free thought, and enslavement of nations.  “Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” 

Having begun with Saul, the editorial ends with Paul:  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty where with Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” 

There are a number of historical and scriptural oddities about “In Hoc Anno Domini.” 

Climate Change: Responding to Minimizers

Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal opinion section published “Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate” by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser.  The authors foresee that the United Nations Conference on Climate Change opening today in Paris will end in one more toothless agreement—and they are not at all unhappy about that. 

Ridley is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal.  A very successful science writer, blogger, and market enthusiast, he is also a Viscount and Conservative member of the British House of Lords.  In identifying him, the Journal always notes that “he has an interest in coal mining on his family lands.”  Peiser, a social anthropologist interested in climate change “catastrophism,” directs something called the Global Warming Policy Forum. 

As a pessimistic student of politics, I fear that their negative appraisal of the Paris conference may prove accurate.  But as a total non-student of climate science, I am in need of help.  Little in the backgrounds and apparent ideological commitments of these writers leads me to give their arguments the benefit of the doubt.  But should I simply dismiss them? 

Go online, I tell myself, and just enter in the authors’ names, the Wall Street Journal, and the name and date of the article.  Within a day or two, substantial critiques will pop up. 

No such luck. 

I entertain two hypotheses.  Because my online skills are weak (that’s not a hypothesis, it’s a fact), the substantial critiques are there but lurking out of my sight or the sight of anyone similarly unskilled.  Alternatively, those worried about global warming just don’t consider these people—or the reach of the Wall Street Journal!—serious enough to mount a response. 

Either hypothesis raises questions about how we conduct a rational debate about a subject of great importance but demanding some degree of evaluating claims to expertise. 

Here are some of the claims that Ridley and Peiser make. My instinct is to reject them, at least many of them.  But I need help. 

Can Faith be Notable?

Last Sunday the front page of the New York Times Book Review carried a thoughtful review by Mark Lilla of a new book on Saint Augustine.  Congratulations to the editors, as well as to Lilla.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, something Augustine probably explained somewhere; and the Book Review’s good deed made me wonder, somewhat skeptically, if 2015 might be the year when its annual “Holiday Books” issue would break precedent and actually give some notice to serious books about religion. 

Neo-ultramontanism?

“I would like to have a papal bull every morning with my Times at breakfast,” declared the 19th-century ultramontanist William George Ward. Are we currently suffering a case of liberal neo-ultramontanism?  Or quasi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or semi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or some such?      

Many others have raised that question, but most of them don’t like what Pope Francis has been doing.  I do. That includes the restoration of collegiality in the two synods on the family, regardless of the tremors caused by truly open discussion.  That obviously includes Francis’s efforts to reform Vatican offices.  That includes the remarkable series of talks he has given this fall on topics ranging from change in the church to “synodality.”

At the same time, I have to admit that liberal reception of Laudato Si’ has not been free of what used to be called “creeping infallibilism.”  And not every statement of Francis is beyond reasonable criticism.  And, in all honesty, although the homilies in my liberal parish are quite fine, I’m wearied by hearing Francis referred to in the pulpit more often than Jesus.   

What makes me raise this question now, however, is more subtle, the coverage of the meeting this last week of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  My impression is that the overriding framework for covering the meeting was this: Are the bishops aligning their agenda and priorities with that of Francis? 

That’s a perfectly legitimate framework.  (Of course, there are other possible ones, like whether the bishops are aligning their agenda and priorities with the needs of American Catholics or the challenges of American culture.)  The chosen framework has more than a whiff, however, of an ultramontanist assumption, that the bishops should be aligned with the pope and there’s something wrong with them if they are not.

Personally, I believe that there’s a lot wrong with the bishops’ conference, and a lot of it would be repaired if the bishops were closer to Francis’s outlook.  But not if it means turning on a dime.  Not if it means just following the leader, as has happened too often in the past. 

The liberal neo-ultramontanist impulse is understandable. 

Why the Synod Will Fail

Tom Reese gives five reasons.  What do you think?  What should one do?

Thomas who?

When, at age nine, I made plans to become President of the United States, it was not out of any sense of the common good.  It was to repair a hole in the political universe, namely the well-known law that “a Catholic cannot be elected president.”  Ten years later, JFK beat me to it, and I disbanded my team of advisors and fundraisers. 

Kennedy’s breakthrough was not the end of the surprises.  In 1965, a pope actually landed on these shores, quite openly rather than by secret tunnel. In 1979 another pope was actually welcomed in the White House, by a Baptist president no less.  After that pope-president tetes a tetes became routine. 

The idea of a pope addressing a joint meeting of Congress, however, with Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justices and military commanders in attendance was something that would have entirely escaped my childhood imagination.  But that was not all.  Speaking in that hallowed chamber, the pope sang the praises of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Truly beyond belief. 

I wonder how many people in that chamber said, “Dorothy Who?”   A great many surely said, “Thomas Who?” If it hadn’t been the pope speaking, they would probably have started googling. 

Why we love "guv'mint"

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Here’s a complete page-one story from the local weekly, The Deposit Courier:

NYS Inspector Forces Name Change for Browns Pharmacy

To satisfy state inspectors and state regulations, Brown’s Pharmacy has a new sign.

Pharmacist Jeff Hempstead said the pharmacy with its adjoining gift shop was reconfigured in 1988.  At that time the inspectors approved of the new store design and signed off on the project.

Every year inspectors have given the pharmacy high marks and there has been no indication of any infractions.

During the most recent inspection, this year’s inspector said because the entrance does not lead directly into the pharmacy the signage had to be changed.  The old Brown’s Pharmacy sign had to come down because it was technically over the gift shop side (now an Irish Peddler) and a new sign indicating that the pharmacy is a “Department Within” had to be added under the Pharmacy sign over the pharmacy’s windows.

“We want to reassure the community that nothing is changing with the pharmacy except the sign,” Hempstead explained.  “The inspectors are not always the same and this guy cited us because of the entrance.  I’ve added the little white ‘Department Within’ sign to satisfy the inspector.”

Hempstead said he has always registered it as a “pharmacy.”  Now, he has to re-register as a “pharmacy department.”  He said he plans to contest the ruling and he plans to re-hang the familiar “Brown’s Pharmacy” sign that has identified the pharmacy since 1847.  It will probably have a new home on the pharmacy side of the building but at least it will remain a familiar Front Street landmark.

My comment:  “… since 1847”!

But wait!  Did the inspector have a point?

Hillary and capitalism

Last April 24, I noted here a letter from Laurence D. Fink to the chief executives of Fortune 500 firms.  Fink, Chairman of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager (approximately $5 trillion), expressed alarm at how “short-termism” was skewing the economy. A low capital gains tax (20 percent) on any stock held more than a year provided an incentive for shareholders, investors, and executives to value quick returns rather than long-term growth in productivity, work force skills, and innovation. 

Fink had a remedy.  He proposed taxing gains on investments held less than three years as ordinary income (around 40 percent) and investments held for less than six months at an even higher rate.  The rates on capital gains would then tail off, even dropping to zero after ten years of ownership. 

Now Hillary Clinton has taken up the idea, proposing a different schedule of rates—ordinary income rates for the first two years, then declining not to zero but the present rate over six years—but using the same principle. “Since when was one year considered a long-term investment?” Mr. Fink wrote last spring.  Hillary improved on that line by pointing out that one year “may count as ‘long-term’ for my baby granddaughter, but not for the American economy.”

This sort of proposal, as I wrote here in April, does not address a lot of questions about the capital gains tax, either its fairness or its effectiveness.  I simply quoted William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, who wrote on a Brookings Institution blog that “Fink has opened up a crucial debate, and it’s time for Congress and presidential aspirants to join it.”

Hillary has. 

Right-wing denunciations were immediate.