I’m not usually a big fan of Nicholas Kristof, but he has written a perceptive New York Times column on the symmetry of the rhetoric on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its latest flare-up. Perceptive, that is, in a way akin to pointing out the emperor’s nakedness: stating the obvious, which is less obvious than it should be.
Here are his counterpoints to three of the “oddly parallel” clichés of the cycle of violence being thrown around yet again.
This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise, and we had no choice but to act.
On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.
Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.
Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.
Without disagreeing with Kristof’s fundamental point here, I would nuance it to say that it is about good and evil, just not in the way we’re tempted to think. That is, it is not a struggle between good and evil people, but between good and evil in people – in thoughts and words, doings and failings. As Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
The other side understands only force. What else can we do but fight back when we are attacked?
Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable. And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already.
In fact, we’ve seen this movie before: Israel responded to aggression by invading Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008; each time, hawks cheered. Yet each invasion in retrospect accomplished at best temporary military gains while killing large numbers of innocents; they didn’t solve any problems.
Likewise, Palestinian militancy has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people. If Palestinians instead turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.
Some Palestinians understand this and are trying this strategy, but too many define nonviolence to include rock-throwing. No, that doesn’t cut it.
Yes, nonviolence works. We’ve seen it work in the struggle for Indian independence under Gandhi, the U.S. civil rights movement under King, the downfall of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic precipitated largely by student activists, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, the silent protests begun by Turkey’s “duran adam“. It remains to be seen how it might work in today’s Middle East, but what it undoubtedly won’t look like is the assumption behind the final point Kristof responds to.
What would you do if your family were in Gaza/Israel, at risk of being killed. You wouldn’t just sit back and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ would you?
If any of us were in southern Israel, frightened sick by rockets being fired by Hamas, we, too, might cheer an invasion of Gaza. And if any of us were in Gaza, strangled by the embargo and losing relatives to Israeli airstrikes, we, too, might cheer the launch of rockets on Tel Aviv. That’s human nature.
That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel. For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.
Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.
The false dichotomy between violence and passivity leads to the stereotype of nonviolence as hippy-trippy indifferentism, but true and strategic nonviolence is not hand-holding and ‘Kumbaya’. History has already provided plenty of much more powerful images to replace it with, so when we hear “nonviolence”, let’s think instead of black youth sitting at a diner politely asking to be served, bearing insult and abuse with dignity; a line of Indian ascetics seeing their companions beaten and still moving forward row by row, refusing to either back down or strike back; a lone man and then a crowd standing silent and still in Istanbul’s Taksim Square; Archbishop Romero’s blood mingling with the blood of Christ on the altar. It’s not for me to say what a nonviolent strategy could look like for Israelis and Palestinians, but the fundamental principle remains universally true: it will call for great creativity and great courage, and it will begin when one refuses to hand the other excuses to retaliate.
It is admittedly easy to judge the short-sightedness of a self-feeding conflict in which one does not have a personal stake. Yet the lines Kristof responds to are echoes, not only of both sides of the conflict at hand, but of the rationale for the perpetuation of countless other violent conflicts. The logic of violence is painfully unoriginal, and as long as the cycle continues, no two enemies can avoid sounding much, much more alike than they will ever admit.
In terms of their general experience, African Americans exist in an economic and social down-draft; white Americans exist in an economic and social updraft.
If I have been largely silent on the subject of contraception, it has been for two main reasons.
Firstly, while I am comfortable with Catholic teaching on the matter, I tend to see it as a secondary issue. Or to say it another way, I am personally uncomfortable with artificial birth control – much as I am with artificiality in general, or with the drive to control every aspect of our lives, including life itself – and I see its connections to some disturbing social trends (which will be explained more below); and yet it does not disturb me at the same level as, say, abortion, or any other direct violence.
The other reason is that it is simply difficult to find something substantial to say when so few statements on the subject, whether for or against, manage to get past the level of superficial and excessively confrontational “culture wars” that only serve to galvanize the convinced and unconvinced alike in their respective positions.
Because of this, I’ve sometimes thought of myself as a secret believer in Catholic teaching about artificial birth control. Call it cowardice if you will, and perhaps you will not be entirely wrong. But a variety of women at Catholic Sistas have provided reasons worth sharing, which go well beyond culture-war rhetoric and are not accompanied by a crusader’s battle cry. They explicitly state that they are providing their own reasons for not using birth control rather than trying “to force others to follow what we believe.” And the reasons they give are disarmingly substantial.
The full list is linked above, but I’d like to highlight a few interrelated themes running through it that I find particularly compelling.
First, there is the objection to treating pregnancy and/or fertility as a disease (which, though they don’t mention this, is an attitude that also relates to gender-based disparities in health insurance premiums: since we are capable of becoming pregnant, being female is a “pre-existing condition”).
- “Because my fertility shouldn’t be treated like a disease and medicated away.”
- “Because I am not sick or broken.”
- “Because fertility is not a pathology.”
- “Because being fertile isn’t a condition that needs to be medicated.”
- “Because it is the first ‘medicine’ of its kind to be prescribed to be taken to address a normally functioning process of the human body.”
Then there are concerns about what is natural, organic, and healthy. A couple of years ago I wrote about a friend of mine who connected her aversion to birth control and preference for organic food quite unselfconsciously, and the article Catholic Sistas links to from the health-conscious website MindBodyGreen speaks to the same concerns from an entirely secular perspective and is worth a read in its own right.
- “Because I spend too much time and money on organic, non-GMO and hormone free foods to fill my body with hormonal birth control.”
- “Because I don’t want any foreign objects placed inside my body to prevent it from working.”
- “Because regularly shooting my body up with extra hormones would make it a lot harder to be a reasonable, thoughtful, and logical human being.”
- “Because I really don’t think it’s healthy for my body to think it is perpetually pregnant.”
- “Because we like our sex environmentally friendly.”
- “Because I care too much about my body and the environment to pollute either one with carcinogens.”
And then there is the in-depth, long-view approach to health care, seeking to avoid the impulse toward band-aids and quick-fixes that goes along with our society’s tendency to overmedicate, in some cases creating a “cure” that is worse than the “disease”.
- “Because I deserve actual health care and healing, not just a band aid.”
- “Because I like to fix things, not mask the symptoms.”
- “Because there are natural ways of dealing with hormone imbalances that don’t mask the symptoms, but get straight to the cause.”
- “Because I don’t want a short-term solution that will cause long-term problems.”
A few of the reasons given also touch on the commodification of children (related to the broader reduction of human beings in general to an economic or consumeristic value standard).
- “Because I cannot imagine one of my children not existing.”
- “Because siblings are a gift.”
- “Because I don’t want my children to ever think I didn’t want them.”
And a few of them have a feminist overtone, critiquing the sexual objectification of women or the idea that women must pass as men to be equals with men.
- “Because I don’t need to turn off my womanhood in order to be a feminist.”
- “Because it perpetuates the objectification of women as worthless sexual objects, constantly at the disposal of men in our commodity driven culture.”
- “Because I don’t need to turn off my womanhood in order to be a strong, progressive, modern woman.”
True, there are a few reasons given that are not as well stated as these: “Because it is against my religion” really doesn’t say anything about the why, and one statement pointing out the incoherence of ingesting all those chemicals while complaining about “large pharmaceutical corporations and hormones in your meat” could be read as a cheer for the same inconsistency the other way. But these are exceptions in a substantial and thought-provoking list. Dare I hope that this could be the sort of thing to begin a conversation that may get us past reductionism and stereotypes on either side?
In the recent opening session of the “Mexico/Holy See Colloquium on Migration and Development”, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, read a message from Pope Francis as well as addressing the colloquium himself. Both spoke of the need for a cultural conversion, and both specifically mentioned the United States and the particular vulnerability of the waves of children crossing its border. Their messages are both prophetic and nuanced, not dismissing rule of law but balancing the need for just and life-affirming public policies as well as deeper conversion, reminding us with a moral authority no policy-maker can claim that the fundamental issue from a Christian perspective is one of human dignity.
From the Holy Father’s message:
Globalisation is a phenomenon that challenges us, especially in one of its principal manifestations which is emigration. It is one of the ‘signs’ of this time that we live in and that brings us back to the words of Jesus, ‘Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’. Despite the large influx of migrants present in all continents and in almost all countries, migration is still seen as an emergency, or as a circumstantial and sporadic fact, while instead it has now become a hallmark of our society and a challenge.
It is a phenomenon that carries with it great promise and many challenges. Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically; many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.
Faced with this situation, I repeat what I have affirmed in this year’s Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: ‘A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalisation – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.’
And similar themes from Cardinal Parolin:
In a radical way, Christianity has stated from the very beginning that we are all free, we are all equal, we are all brothers. As a result, the dignity of the person derives not from their economic situation, political affiliation, level of education, immigration status or religious belief. Every human being, for the very fact of being a person, possesses a dignity that deserves to be treated with the utmost respect….
It is clear that the phenomenon of migration cannot be resolved solely by legislative measures or by adopting public policies, good though they may be, and far less so solely through the deployment of the forces of security and order. The solution to the problem of migration requires a profound cultural and social conversion that enables a closed culture to transform into a ‘culture of welcome and encounter’.
In this context, the Church has always been, and will continue to be, a loyal collaborator. … By definition, being Catholic means being universal and transnational. Its message is not confined to the private lives of the faithful, but instead seeks conversion, expanding and reaching towards paths of culture and social justice, since it is not possible to define oneself as Christian and then turn one’s back on justice and fraternity, also with non-believers.
In a social atmosphere where nearly every human problem becomes politically charged and obscured by the constant temptation to divide and dichotomize full solutions, we need this reminder, spoken from the particularly catholic perspective of our “universal and transnational” Church, of the reverence for all human life and dignity – especially where vulnerable – that is at the heart of our faith.
May we be converted to such reverence, to become leaven for a broader social conversion.
I’VE MENTIONED BEFORE IN THIS SPACE that I have been worried about the long-term prospects for the survival of the United States as a unified and cohesive political entity. I still am.
Before I get to the specific reasons for my concern, it is worth pointing out that countries and empires have been breaking up, merging with one another, annexing territories, granting those territories independence and so on since the first farmer planted the very first crop 10 or 12 millennia ago and the whole project of human civilization began. Recent world history suggests that the breakup of the United States into a sort of commonwealth of independent countries need not be violent or otherwise ruinous, at least in principle. The breakup of the old Soviet Union was accomplished with relatively little bloodshed.
Go back a few decades, and we have examples in our own history — the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone and various scattered atolls and islands in the Pacific were all once U.S. territory or colonies, and all gained (or regained) sovereignty through peaceful negotiation and treaties.
There are, of course, counter-examples of breakups that went much more badly.
The primary example from our American history was, of course, the U.S. Civil War, which answered two burning questions of the day: Do states have the right to secede from federal jurisdiction because of policy differences with the federal government (the answer was a resounding “no”); and should states be allowed to deny basic human rights to some of their residents based on “peculiar” local customs and traditions? (The answer, again, was “no,” though it took another century to make significant progress in overturning Jim Crow and other forms of de facto and de jure discrimination, and that work is still unfinished.)
The Civil War resulted in a million Americans on both sides killed and wounded, and the conversion of much of the armature of civilization in the southern U.S. into smoldering ruins, which was all the more horrifying when you consider that this was in the days before bomber and fighter aircraft and the mass production of armaments. Richmond, Virginia in 1865 looked very much like Berlin 80 years later at the end of the Second World War.
This is what we risk when contemplating the breakup of the United States — actually, much worse than that. Remember that entire cities in the South were razed without recourse to the extremely efficient machinery of death that is now available to all factions in any armed rebellion.
Let me be blunt here: Contemplating a second Civil War in the era of nuclear weapons is deeply irresponsible. It is a prospect that might well end human civilization worldwide. In other words, it is utterly unthinkable.
So why am I even talking about something as seemingly outlandish as the United States breaking up amid a second civil war?
There is a widening gulf in the U.S. between two different factions: on the one hand, rural culture united by cultural traditionalism (there are, roughly speaking, to sub-groups within this faction: the Old South and the rural West), and on the other hand more cosmopolitan urban America, particularly on the coasts but also in major urban centers in the interior of the country.
The political and cultural gulf between urban and rural America reflects, of course, the different priorities of urban and rural people, and to some extent has been a persistent feature of our country since its founding. That said, I think the present size of the gulf is a symptom of a people who are forgetting how to talk to one another.
Speaking as someone with a good fraction of rural folk on my mother’s side of the family, it bothers me a great deal when I hear some of my urban friends dismiss rural people as a bunch of ignorant, benighted rednecks.
My uncle Leonard is a rancher in central California, and he is one of the most principled and honorable men I’ve ever known.
He owns a liquor store in a small town near his farm, and for years you could not buy a Time, Newsweek or Motor Trend magazine in his store because the magazine distributors in whose territory Leonard lived said that if Leonard wanted to have magazines in his store, it would be a package deal — meaning he would need to sell Playboy and Penthouse magazines along with more respectable fare. Leonard, a deeply religious Catholic, stood on principle and said if that was the deal, he would refuse to carry magazines at all. Eventually the distributors relented and agreed to allow him to skip the skin magazines.
Leonard and I certainly have our differences politically. He’s not a big fan of unions, for example, and I consider unions to be an indispensable institution to ensure economic fairness and get workers a fair deal.
That said, he and I get along just fine. When I go visit we keep the conversation on topics that will serve to keep the peace (we both like the EF Mass, and both of us hunt, for example), and we just agree to disagree on some issues.
Some of the responsibility for depth of the urban/rural divisions in the country rest with the Democratic Party, which has become a far more exclusively urban-constituent party than it used to be. It is worth remembering that FDR was a great friend to farmers and rural people in the United States — New Deal initiatives like federal agricultural price supports, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and rural electrification more generally were responsible for drastically lessening the besetting poverty that had characterized millions of square miles of rural America before the 1930s. There were people in the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks who kept photos of FDR in honored places in their houses long after he was gone from the scene.
I think the Democratic Party needs to re-learn how to talk to rural Americans. In part this is in their political best interests: Many of the folks who keep pulling the lever for Republicans might be doing that because, as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has said, “the Democrats stopped talking to them.”
But it is also essential to lessening the gulf that threatens our national unity.
“Talking to them,” by the way, means, mostly, listening. Ask, “What are the top 5 issues that affect your quality of life?” and then listen to the answers. Then come up with policies whose purpose is to address those issues directly — and then explicitly campaign on those issues. This is what Democrats can do to help the nation heal its great and still-growing divide.
I was catching up on my reading and I found a fascinating article in America Magazine by Fr. Michael Heintz on the two vocations of marriage and the priesthood. Having been reminded by a commentators to my earlier posts on vocations to the priesthood that it is one of several vocations, this essay was very timely. Towards the end of his article, the author draws a connection between the lack of priestly vocations and the crisis in traditional marriage. I do not have time to reflect more deeply on this, but I did want to share an extensive quote with everyone and get your thoughts on what he writes.
In conversations with young men discerning about a vocation to the priesthood, I used to think it was enough to ask the rather basic question, “Do you think you could live the life?” I soon realized that this question is insufficient. It is not enough just to live the life, to go through the motions and do what is asked. The celibate life must be embraced and lived with joy. Unhappy, disgruntled or edgy clerics are hardly a draw, and it is unsurprising that a young person may be less inclined even to consider such a life on the basis of encounters with such sullen celibates. At the same time, those considering marriage see how many marital relationships struggle or are fractured, and this no doubt has some influence on their apprehensions about entering marriage. As we worry about the declining numbers of priests and religious in the past several decades (a trend that may indeed be changing) and the challenges facing marriage as an institution, we should recognize that both married life and priestly life suffer from the same cultural malady: the fear of sustained commitments. The crisis (if indeed it is such) is not principally a matter of the “burden” celibacy imposes any more than it is about the “demands” of marriage and children. In short, both require self-emptying love, and it is precisely the permanence of that commitment—marriage or celibacy—that is so intimidating. On the one hand, seminaries and novitiates today encounter some who might be characterized as hyper-intentional, seemingly professional “discerners”—those who stew and ponder, moving from one community or diocese to another, apparently awaiting a kind of clarity simply not possible this side of the veil and who freight every decision with almost cosmic significance, paralyzed atop the fence of ambivalence. On the other hand, there is the pastoral challenge facing the church of the significant number of couples cohabiting prior to marriage (a phenomenon better understood as evidence of fear than simply a capitulation to concupiscence). Both are symptoms of a cultural aversion to commitment and reveal the genuine vulnerabilities at the heart of any meaningful gift of self, the former veiled as piety and the latter as, well, practice.
Yes, the lower case in this title is intended to make a point: while the same should follow in the “big-C” sense of “Catholic”, I want to make it clear that I am referring to a thing called catholicity – without which calling ourselves “Catholic” wouldn’t mean much. It is a reminder for those of us in the United States who may have heard nods to Independence Day at Mass this weekend, almost as if it were part of the liturgy, that CATHOLIC (capitalized or not) means universal. This is an ecclesiological truth much older than America, and one that leaves no room for exceptionalism of any kind, from anywhere, in the universal Church’s universal feast.
That ought to be clear enough from the liturgy itself, even if strains of the conventional “Pax Americana” hadn’t made for a particularly ironic juxtaposition with the first reading for this 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, from the prophet Zechariah:
Thus says the LORD:
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you;
a just savior is he,
meek, and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,
and the horse from Jerusalem;
the warrior’s bow shall be banished,
and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Even more than the dovish overtones in this proclamation of the messianic reign, the line that really jumps out to me is, His dominion shall be from sea to sea, which calls to mind a well-known song lyric (from what is actually one of the more palatable patriotic songs in my opinion), except that it’s his dominion, eternally above any dominion any nation may claim.
The whole liturgy of Word and Eucharist can be seen as one big subversive confession of faith, or what I like to call a subversive orthodoxy, in the sense of giving the glory in the right place. Around national holidays I cling to this orthodoxy for dear life, and sometimes when we get to statements like, For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever, I feel like shouting it.
Now, I’m not saying that Christian orthodoxy – or catholicity – doesn’t leave room for a healthy and modest love for one’s homeland. But I do mean to caution that when our homeland is given a place of honor in the context of our worship, it calls into question who or what we are really worshipping. And even when kept in their proper context, in order for expressions of that love to remain healthy and modest, as my colleague Matt has recently modeled, they must leave room for a few lover’s quarrels when necessary. And they must also leave room for other people to say the same about other homelands, without contradiction.
For the above reasons (and because it could be sung in reference to any country, notwithstanding the scenery), the following antidote to the idol of national exceptionalism is the only text I can think of that might be called “patriotic” that could be appropriately sung in church (with two verses by Lloyd Stone and a splendidly Christocentric addition by Georgia Harkness):
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
myself I give thee; let thy will be done.
AMERICA IS A COMPELLING PLACE TO BEHOLD, in both the literal and more figurative uses of that word “behold.”
Sometimes I love America as a child loves a father. This kind of love is the very etymology of the term “patriotism,” from patris, “father(land).”
I’ve travelled extensively in the interior West, and every time I do the beauty of the landscape takes my breath away. The beauty is not mannered and settled in the way that other continents are — the quaintness of rural England, for example. The American West has by contrast a wild, elemental, almost careless loveliness, and traveling through it I always get the humbling sense that it doesn’t care whether there are any witnesses to gasp in awe. John Ford, the great director of American Westerns, loved shooting long shots of his characters making their way through Monument Valley or the Canyonlands of southern Utah, and once remarked that he used the scenery as a sort of silent character in his films.
Sometimes I love America like a lover loves his beloved.
I’ve always loved New England, in part because I’ve loved Robert Frost’s poetry since I was a child. The first time I went to New England was in October 1993. I stayed at the summer cabin of a friend deep in the Vermont woods, in the middle of a clearing of about 2 acres. I flew into Boston’s Logan Airport just as the sun was setting, rented a car and drove the six hours through a very black night to the cabin, the headlights catching an occasional flash of leaf colors of an enticing vividness. I woke up before first light the next morning, made myself a mug of black coffee, bundled up in woolens — it was about 20 degrees out — grabbed an old lawn chair and walked out into the middle of the meadow. The sun was just throwing a pale glow in the eastern sky as I sat down, my heart racing as I waited for the sun to fully reveal the leaves I had only glimpsed the night before.
The light grew into a gray dimness, and then a frosty blue just before sunrise and the edge of the surrounding woods began to glow with an odd fire as the maples, beeches and oaks revealed a dim but growing riot of shades I hadn’t known occurred in nature.
By the time the sun peeked over the horizon and shone directly on the treetops, I was surrounded by colors so vivid I wondered whether I might be hallucinating — brilliant scarlet, fiery orange, vivid violet and golden yellow, all mixed together. I walked into the woods as a slight breeze made the leaves tremble, stirring like quivering psychedelic stained glass in God’s own cathedral, and I savored every moment, knowing I would only see these woods for the first time once.
And sometimes I love America like a parent loves a child.
When I listen to jazz — whether Duke Ellington’s regal compositions, Miles Davis’s almost impossibly erudite modal experiments, John Coltrane’s soulful expressiveness or Ornette Coleman’s fearless odysseys — I am proud that only America’s unique mix of tragedy, defiant hope and restless inventiveness could have produced such amazing music.
We are still the only nation that has ever landed men on the moon — we are, perhaps, the only nation in history with the mix of technical competence and almost foolhardy daring required for that particular feat. When John F. Kennedy proposed that endeavor, he said he thought we should make the attempt “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Not despite its difficulty, but precisely because of it.
America in December 1941 looked across the oceans to a pair of continents well on their way to compete conquest by two of the most ruthless powers that have ever existed, a significant portion of its Navy sunk in Pearl Harbor, and while it would have been understandable if the American people had pressed their government to sue for peace and let the oppressed peoples in Europe and Asia fend for themselves, instead we came together and defeated two powerful foes within 3 ½ years, burying our enemies under a tsunami of materiel produced by American workers in seemingly limitless amounts. In 1944, American workers manufactured the number of planes in the entire current U.S. Air Force — every five weeks.
If I criticize my country as I often do, it is because I love her enough to be disappointed when she falls short of her best, as she too often does. I see her dissipate herself in senseless wars, besmirch her reputation with torture programs and rendition and so on, and feel bad not because I think she is evil, but because I know she is better, far better than that.
As we watch the fireworks tomorrow, let’s reflect on the remarkable achievements of our ancestors, and let’s be inspired not just to add to their successes but to correct their failures, too. Let us forge a more perfect union.
This weekend was Mission Sunday in our parish. As is usually the case, our Pastor was on vacation, so he arranged with the Archdiocese to have the annual mission priest come to the parish to say mass. Our visitor today was Fr. Binu Ratahppilly, VC, a member of the Vincentian Congregation. This is a religious community founded in India in the 19th century. It draws its inspiration from St. Vincent de Paul and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which its founders encountered while studying in Paris. They are centered in Kerala in southern India, and do missionary work in East Africa. I felt a special joy at his visit, since my wife and I have been supporting seminarians in India for the past fourteen years, ever since a different priest from this order came to our parish on Mission Sunday. Currently, “our” seminarians, Father Jose and Father Shinto are doing mission work, and Brother Ajith will be ordained in a couple year.
Fr. Binu recounted that he spent eight years in the missions in Africa, studying theology there so he could learn the language. At 28 he was made a pastor of parish whose size boggles my imagination: it comprised 12 churches and must have contained thousands of faithful. Each week he said mass at four different churches, visiting each church once a month. He didn’t say much about his physical plant, except that his church was an sheet-iron roofed shed. He did explain that his pastorship was a great improvement for the congregations. Before the creation of his 12 church parish, two priests were responsible for a parish that contained 55 churches and that must have been the size of a typical American diocese. A priest would visit a give church once or twice a year. Besides saying mass, there would be long lines of children to be baptized and to receive first communion, weddings to bless, confessions to be heard.
He is now stationed in India, where he is in charge of an orphanage with 250 children, ranging in ages from 6 to 16. He commented wryly that he gave up everything for the kingdom and God repaid him hundredfold, as he is now “father” to 250 children. He also said that his congregation has been blessed with vocations: they current have over 500 priests, their last group of ordinandi yielded 35 new priests, and 50+ men have just started seminary.
Like all mission priests he spoke at length: his homily last a lot longer than the requisite eight minutes that American priests believe is all that a typical congregation can handle. He also took his time praying the mass, though I think this is in part a lack of familiarity with our translation of the Roman Missal. It would be hard to characterize him as either liberal or conservative: like many priests from Africa and India I have met, he does not fit comfortably onto our liturgical spectrum. I wish I could have had lunch with him: it would have been fascinating to get his perspective on the upcoming Synod of the Family and the many problems facing the Church today.
It is easy to romanticize the work of his congregation and the many religious and diocesan priests working in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But I think it is a useful anodyne to our world weary and some times cynical American Church to get some exposure, however brief, to a different way of being Catholic. His presence conveyed something ineffable, something that fails to come through even the most detailed and earnest article in Maryknoll or some other mission magazine. And certainly, if I ever again hear an American pastor complain about how hard it is to be a pastor of a large suburban parish, with “only” one priest (plus a deacon, a full time DRE and pastoral associate, and a fully renovated physical plant), I will think of Fr. Binu’s work in Africa. Our problems are real (being pastor of a large parish is undoubtedly hard work) but they need to be kept in perspective.
May God continue to bless and watch over the Church throughout the world, and may He pour his grace upon the Vincentian Congregation and all their works.
Back in February I had a post on modesty and dress, which I analyzed through the feminist lens of the “male gaze.” This is a subject we have discussed regularly on Vox Nova (see here, here, here, and here). I my last post there were a few interesting questions left open, in particular a suggestion in a follow up post at Gaudete Theology linking modesty and humility. However, for one reason or another I never went back to this.
As one of the regular contributors to Vox Nova, I monitor our blog email address. (There is a connection, please be patient!) This includes going through our junk mail, as over the years we have ended up on a wide variety of mailing lists. One in particular is the “E-pistola” mailing list from the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). I have no idea how we got on this list, and I very rarely look at it. However, from time to time an article catches my attention: a few days ago it was one entitled “How Catholics Ought to Dress.” My presumption before reading it was that the author would conflate mores from one specific time and place with timeless truths. Or to quote Shaw: the author would “think that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II).
To a certain extend this was true, but there were a couple arguments I thought it was worth addressing. Moreover, there was an aside, almost an off-hand comment, that got me thinking about the the link between modesty and humility. So be forewarned: this post is long, and changes directions about 2/3 of the way through.
The bulk of the argument was directed towards women:
An even further consideration for men and women is to dress properly according to their nature, or respectively, according to their masculinity or femininity….For the ladies, to dress like a man (such as wearing pants) is improper and contradicts a woman’s God-given femininity….Therefore, so-called “woman’s pants” (usually worn out of pleasure or commodity) are not the proper garb of a Catholic (or Marian-like) girl or lady, either in the parish, domestic or social life.
For the life of me, I still cannot see how wearing pants, any kind of pants, is an affront to “a woman’s God-given femininity”. One could, perhaps, make the argument that given a certain social milieu, the act of wearing men’s pants might be an act of rebellion against gender roles that crosses a line into denying womanhood on a metaphysical level. However, this is and pretty much always has been a strawman argument, despite the author’s ominous warnings about “proponents of unisex clothing.” (I don’t know any, do you?) Does such a warning apply to Gap jeans worn because they are fashionable? No. Women’s pants, as a socially constructed category, are women’s: by their design and marketing society clearly perceives them as such. Women who wear them are not trying to communicate their rejection of their femininity, nor are trapped in a social order that rejects gender differences. Definitions of what constitutes “feminine” have shifted, and to cling to previous mores as though they were part of natural law is pointless.
To challenge this argument on a deeper level, let’s invert it: is it improper and would it contradict a man’s God-given masculinity to wear a skirt, even a so-called “man’s skirt”? For example, to make this personal:
Yes, I am wearing a kilt. (It is along story, suffice it to say I like it. The picture was taken by one of my students who begged me to wear it to class.) A kilt is, by definition, a man’s skirt. I do not feel less masculine wearing a kilt, and indeed, the socially constructed meaning of a kilt (thank you Braveheart!) makes it a statement of hyper-masculinity: only “real men” wear kilts. This construction of masculinity is equally problematic, but that is the subject of another post. The fact remains that no one, including the traditionalists of SSPX, see this as in any way a betrayal of masculinity. Indeed, a quick Google search produced a fair number of conservatives arguing that kilts (and cassocks!) are not skirts and therefore do not violate any prohibition against cross-dressing.
So why this fundamental asymmetry? Again it could be argued that men and women are different, and different rules need to apply. I agree that men and women are different. However, I am suspicious of any argument that start with this premise but then proceed to draw universalist conclusions that support a social order that is at its heart, unchristian, since it is an order that defines men as normative and dominant, and women as marginal and subordinate.
To be fair to the authors, they do suggest standards of modest dress for men as well as for women. However, the argument is shorter, less passionate, and completely obscure:
For men, [modesty] means they should not wear tight-fitting clothes or in general, go shirtless in public (and especially for fathers, even around the home in front of their children).
Can someone help me out here? In certain specific contexts this might make limited sense, but as a general rule I cannot make any sense of this. What kind of lasting harm have I done to my children by going shirtless around the house? My wife and I often joke about our efforts to “warp” our children, but this was never part of the plan. And what does this have to do with masculine identity?
The author of this article makes one other argument that, though not well developed, I think is important and worth exploring further:
[A] quick rule of thumb is to dress in a dignified manner that will evoke respect. For in addition to providing an edifying example, our dress also defines who we are in society. Thus the appropriateness of a mother’s or father’s dress (particularly in the privacy of home life) can positively or negatively impact the formation of their children—this important aspect is not only contingent upon the modesty of the clothes worn by the parents, but even by their quality, that is, dressing shabbily versus well within one’s means.
I think this is an important point: there is more to modest dress than prurience. As I argued before, dress is communication, and with it we communicate a great deal more than sexuality. By our appearance we attempt to define our position in society and our relationships with others. I see this with my students on a daily basis. For the women, it is usually obvious, but even the men, who claim to not care how they look, spend a great deal of effort in cultivating and shaping their “casual” look. Consider, for instance, the young men who spend twenty minutes and use expensive hair care products to look as though they just got out of bed and ran a hand through their hair. I do it myself: part of wearing a kilt is a deliberate choice to “play dress up” and to self-consciously position myself in various ways among social norms.
Our task, as Catholics, is to position ourselves, to “define who we are in society” with our dress. And, ideally, our paramount concern should be to identify ourselves as Christians. There can be no hard and fast rules of any specificity: like any language, clothing and dress are multivalent and continually evolving. Twenty years ago, if I saw a young man in Carhartts and a flannel shirt, the question was whether he was a blue-collar construction worker, or a middle-class youth affecting the grunge look. Today I asked my son if anyone still wore grunge, and he looked at me with derision. In the same way, there are no timeless rules for “christian dress”, or even universal rules for religious habits.
However, I think that as Catholics, while we must speak within the current social milieu, we should maintain a critical and self-conscious stance regarding the values that society regards as normative. We should not automatically accept the prevailing definitions even if we choose to accept them: indeed, at times we should contest them, either by ignoring them or subverting them. Here I part company with the author of the article under discussion. While he insists that women challenge certain prevailing standards of dress (at least if they involve pants) he seems to uncritically accept the other standards. Thus he writes “dress in a dignified manner that will evoke respect”, and one should not dress “shabbily” but rather “well within one’s means.” Whose respect? Respect for what? Were I to wear a suit from Armani or Savile Row (expensive, but not exorbitant for a senior faculty member at an exclusive liberal arts college) I would command at least superficial respect because I am positioning myself as economically successful, a professional who is a member of the upper middle class (and of the upper class, at least by courtesy). I would be dressing within my means and positioning myself by my economic class.
However, I do not think that this is an appropriate message to communicate. Scripture is clear that this is not how we are to judge people:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
If we are not to apply these worldly standards to others, then it also follows that we should not evoke these standards for ourselves. In the past, when I quoted this passage, someone came back with Matthew 22:11-13 on the man thrown out of the wedding for his inappropriate dress. Given the nature of the parable, I take this as symbolic and not prescribing specific rules of dress. James, on the other hand, is dealing with concrete social interactions.
At this point it is worth looking at the example of the two Francis’s. Francis of Assisi must have understood on a deep level the meaning of clothes as communication. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and the latest fashions would have passed daily through his shop and his son’s hands. Upon embracing the gospel life, Francis made this manifest in his dress. He stripped himself of the finery he wore (positioning himself among the urban elite) and dressed (or rather, was dressed by an alarmed bishop) in the rough tunic of a peasant gardener. He continued this practice, commanding his brothers:
And let those who have already promised obedience have one tunic with a capuche and if they wish to have it, another without a capuche. And those who are driven by necessity can wear footwear. And let all the friars wear cheep clothing and they can patch these with sack-cloth and other pieces with the blessing of God. (Later Rule, Chapter 2)
Nor was this restricted to his friars: the laity were also supposed to communicate their identity as brothers and sisters of penance by dressing in ways which communicated this fact to others. From the Rule of 1221, the earliest known rule for what would become the Secular Franciscan Order:
The men belonging to this brotherhood shall dress in humble, undyed cloth, the price of which is not to exceed six Ravenna soldi an ell, unless for evident and necessary cause a temporary dispensation be given. And breadth and thinness of the cloth are to be considered in said price. (Chapter 1)
For both religious and laity, St. Francis wanted them to use the message of their dress to challenge the prevailing social norms.
Consider also the dress of Pope Francis: a simple, white cassock, plain black shoes, a modest pectoral cross. Gone is the elaborate dress and pomp which used to define the papacy: Francis, by his dress, communicates that while he is not poor, his intention is to live a simple life in the midst of the antique splendor of the papacy. In dressing this way, I suspect that Pope Francis scandalized the papal chamberlains—he certainly upset more than a few conservative Catholics who insist that the Pope has to dress in a certain way. But he clearly understands that his dress communicates the gospel message more effectively.
As a Secular Franciscan, I have made a deliberate choice to not dress so as to earn respect, or at least not the kind of respect society ordinarily associates with clothes. I have chosen to dress shabbily and not within my (considerable) means. I buy what the Salvation Army thrift store has to offer. In this regard, what the world wants me to say, I refuse, for the most part, to speak. I claim no special holiness for doing so, and I try not to look down on others who have made different choices. As Francis himself said to his brothers:
I admonish and exhort them, not to despise nor judge men, whom they see clothed with soft and colored clothes, using dainty food and drink, but rather let each one judge and despise his very self. (Later Rule, Chapter 2)
However, what I do want my fellow Catholics to do is to not simply dress the way the world expect you to. Challenge and interrogate the assumptions implicit in clothing standards. You may upset some people. My sister regularly excoriates me for not dressing professionally, an angry student occasionally makes a comment about me being an “aging hippie” on a class evaluation, and one of the reasons advanced for my removal from diaconate formation was that my casual dress was inappropriate for a representative of the Church. (The example of St. Francis seems to have been lost on them.) And you will have to compromise: whatever the ideal, we live in a complex and sin tainted world. Or, to put it bluntly, if your boss says you have to wear a tie, prudence dictates you wear one. But in whatever circumstance, do not simply go along with the world. Do not use dress to preen and call attention to yourself and your sociio-economic standing. Jesus called on his followers to be plain spoken,
But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Mt 5:34-37)
In the same way, to the best of your ability let your dress speak simply and from the heart.
I was converted by Haitian Eucharistic hymns.
Of course, there is a good deal more to the story than that, but the statement is nonetheless true – especially if one considers the conversion process (which never really ends) to contain many conversions, big and small, along the way. And my first conversion in relation to the Catholic Church was the gradual realization that something bigger than I knew was going on in the liturgy, and particularly in the Eucharist. It was the hymnody that first drew me to that Catholic parish in rural Haiti starting on its feast day (which I’ve written about here), and after several months of singing those communion hymns about the real and living presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I found to my surprise that I believed them.
This realization came to a head on the feast of Corpus Christi, which in the francophone world is known as “Fête Dieu.” More literally (and somewhat awkwardly), this can translate as “God Day,” a moniker that had me confused until I heard the priest say that it was the feast of the body and blood of Christ. That day, I participated in a Eucharistic procession before I had even heard the term. The town’s many Catholic households had decorated their cactus fences with colorful drapes, and certain houses along the way had altars set up for adoration. As we alternately processed through town and knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, we sang literally every Eucharistic hymn in the book. I found the whole thing very moving as I pondered this vast mystery I was discovering, brought out in these songs mostly composed by Haitian priests and containing some pretty substantial sacramental theology. I remember in a particular moment, when we had stopped at one of the decorated houses, being newly struck by a line I had heard before about being gathered by Christ into one family and one race. Outside of that context, this may sound like a bit of a cliché, but in a place where my own racial distinction was being called to my attention multiple times a day, it meant something – especially as it was consistent with my experience of the liturgy and even outside it among those who were being fed by it: I was human there; I was a member of the Body; I was (at least in that hour) one of them.
That line that struck me then came from one of my favorite of those communion songs, with multiple verses that build up thematically like a well-structured homily: the first several verses make up a sort of faith statement about the nature of the Eucharist as Christ’s living presence, then there are several more verses about its implications for how we live in community, and the last few verses convey beatific and eschatological hope. Another memorable one repeatedly evokes images of the Eucharist as food for the journey, along with a few prefiguring Old Testament images (Isaac on the altar, manna in the desert, the Paschal lamb), with each verse culminating in the one-line refrain, “Jesus in the Eucharist, it is you who give us strength.” Another has verses talking about a bread that gives life, which is Christ’s body, and our hope in its transformative power in us, all around a refrain saying, “You show us how to live with all our brothers who have nothing, that they may feed themselves every day.” One lively hymn that I only ever heard at wakes says that approaching the Eucharistic table as Christians reminds us how love is the greatest force that exists.
Even after experiencing a graduate-level mystagogy in which I encountered all kinds of heavy-duty Eucharistic theology from Karl Rahner to Thomas Aquinas to the earliest liturgies of the ancient Church, I am all the more amazed by the well-developed and well-rounded sacramentality I still see in those Haitian communion hymns that first introduced me to Christ in the Eucharist. Maybe because I find certain things easier to believe when sung, these songs that were substantial enough to speak to my rational mind also proved to be an accessible in-road to a sacramental theology that was new to me. I couldn’t have found a better catechesis if I’d tried.
In my first post on vocations I suggested a different way to think about the crisis in priestly vocations: reframe the numbers needed by localizing to the level of individual parishes. I do not think that this quantification (one vocation per parish every five years) will solve the problem, but I think that it serves two goals. First, it makes the problem seem more tractable. Second, it refocuses attention to the local level in a way which, I hope, makes the problem seem the responsibility of the whole community, priests and laity.
In this post I want to continue the discussion on recruiting young men to the priesthood by considering images of the priesthood. If we are going to ask young men to become priests, we need to give some thought to how we describe what we are asking them to become. What does it mean to be priest? Who are priests? Many young men have only had close contact with only a small handful of priests. Thinking of my own sons: they have known two parish priests and have met a couple of religious order priests (friends of my wife and me). I suspect that for most young men, media images—some from Catholic media but many more from secular sources—has shaped their conception of priests and the priesthood. The resulting image is not always a positive: one need only consider the pedophilia scandal, which has created a very negative image of priests, one which distorts the impressions of even devote Catholics. (I recall a man I met who would not let his daughter be with his pastor unless he was physically present, even in a group setting with other adults present.)
The problem is further compounded by the very different understanding of priests held by different groups within the Church. One need look no further than the commboxes of Vox Nova for evidence of this. Though over-simplifying matters a great deal, one axis on which things polarize is the disjunction between “Vatican II priests” and “John Paul II priests“. And then, to make matters more interesting, we have Pope Francis bringing his own perspective to the mix, discussing the “so-called crisis of priestly identity” with simple, direct images that are both evocative and challenging:
This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men.
I want to begin a discussion of what we want our priests to be by looking at a few visual images of priests. Such visual representations are in themselves not the whole story: indeed, they reside in a context which gives them multiple meanings and interpretations. Nevertheless, we live in a society dominated by the visual, and images will be one way in which we encourage young men to explore vocations to the priesthood. So we need to decide on what they should see and what meaning(s) we want these images to carry.
The following image was widely distributed and in my archdiocese seemed to have semi-official status: a holy card of St. John Vianney (patron saint of parish priests) that was circulated in 2009-2010 as part of the Year for Priests proclaimed by Benedict XVI.
To be brutally (and perhaps controversially) frank: I really do not like this image. It is supposed to convey a sense of the deep spiritual life of the saint, but instead I see an old man in his night gown. Thinking back to when I was trying to discern whether I had a priestly vocation, I am sure that I would not have seen myself in this picture, and I have a hard time believing that this picture would connect with most young men today. To forestall objections: yes, some young men will respond positively to this picture, but I suspect that they will come from the small minority of Catholic families that emphasize traditional practices and imagery. In other words, they are already shaped by a particular milieu which leads them to interpret the symbolism of this picture (kneeling many in robes, rosary, monstrance) in a particular way. To confirm this impression, I asked my son Francisco (who has previously had a guest post about images of Jesus). Though probably not typical of his generation, he does have a fairly keen sense of what motivates his confreres. He found it “stuffy” and “overly formal” and not anything that speaks to him.
On a more objective level, I believe that this picture reduces the life and vocation on St. John Vianney to his personal holiness. His holiness is no small thing, but we are all—clergy and laity—called to be holy and to have deeper prayer lives. It says nothing about his vocation as a priest except for the image of a confessional in the left background, something I actually overlooked until I studied this image closely while writing this post. What distinguishes St. John Vianney as a priest—his work as a teacher, a preacher, a confessor and spiritual director—is either not present or minimally represented. As his long ministry shows, the work of a priest, particularly a parish priest, is social: it involves interacting with people in a variety of settings. John Vianney himself said that “The priesthood is the love in the heart of Jesus” and Pope Benedict described this love in interpersonal and communal terms:
The pious excess of his devout biographer should not blind us to the fact that the Curé also knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organized popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed funds for charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.
Given this life and ministry, I think it was a mistake to represent the saint with an image that is redolent of “the pious excess of his devout biographer.”
While trying to find other images of the priesthood that I thought were better, I stumbled upon another image that went too far in the other direction.
The format is a movie poster, and the symbolism is drawn from The Matrix. When I first saw it my reaction was that it was am attempt to recruit hipster priests: “I joined the clergy before it was cool.” My son Francisco strongly disagreed. He said that the cassock looked “cool” (he has only seen one priest wearing a cassock) but overall he felt that the poster was “trying too hard”. Moreover, and more to the point, he felt that it didn’t present a realistic or appealing image of the priesthood. I agree: there comes a point that the priesthood is made so “relevant” that it has no relevance.
How then to navigate between these two extremes? What are the images that we want to use? I would suggest that we need a variety of images, all of them linked to provide a narrative: tell who priests are by showing what they do in their daily lives. Previously, I blogged about a French priest whose daily life revolved around meeting the needs of people. Now I want images that capture, in the American context, this sense that a man lives out his vocation as a priest in relationship with other people. From the Diocese of Richmond I found a very nice summary of the priesthood in these terms.
What does a priest do all day?
What a priest does with his day is so varied and complex that only a sampling can be given here. Prayer, work, exercise and leisure are all necessary for a healthy life. We try to make sure we have a balance of all these – but we don’t always succeed.In the area of work (ministry), many of us have one main occupation, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work, or hospital work, all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands.The unpredictable demands are also interesting and challenging. They center on meeting the needs of people: the sick, old, angry, hurt, hungry, imprisoned, excited, happy. We share with them our understanding, encouragement, and support. We rejoice, cry, and celebrate with them. Such events are both painful and rewarding, fatiguing and empowering.
A central role for priests is to be priests: ministers of the sacraments. However, I believe that this is also to be understood in terms of relationship and community: while masses “sine populo” are still allowed, they have become increasingly rare, and since Vatican II there has been a renewed emphasis on the role of the congregation in celebrating the mass. Moreover, the other sacraments and rites—baptisms, weddings, confessions, annointing, funerals, blessings of all kinds—are, by their very nature, done in relationship with others. And this, I believe, is what we should present to young men as something to aspire to. They should be asked: do you want to live a life in service of others: to teach, to preach, to comfort, to be with your brothers and sisters in their joys and sorrows? The following are a few images quickly snatched from the web, to illustrate this. They are not ideal, but are chosen to reflect this ideal of relationship.
I want to close this post with a question and a final image. What images would you use to to frame the priesthood in order to attract young men to consider if this is their vocation? While your answers to this question will depend strongly on your understanding of the priesthood, please try to frame your response in terms of images.
As a final thought, here is a picture that I found while browsing for images of the priesthood. I include it because I find it very moving, and one which I think might stir something in the hearts of young men who dream big. A young Francis was enamored by stories of knights and chivalry, and for many years interpreted his own vocation in these grand terms. This image would allow young men to see themselves in equally heroic terms:
This is a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero, taken a few minutes after he was murdered while saying mass. For me it captures the sacrificial self-giving that lies at the heart of any Christian vocation:
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. (John 15:12-14)
Coda: I asked my son Francisco about this picture of Romero, and while he admires the story, he found it too grim to use as a recruiting tool for vocations to the priesthood.
MY FAMILY MOVED TO BENICIA, CALIFORNIA when I was 13 ½ years old, on March 11, 1976. Benicia was a much smaller town then — the suburban growth boom that marked the era in the Bay Area had just reached my new town, and the Southampton development to the north of town existed, but only a couple blocks up from Southampton Road had been built out, and even in the older part of town, my parents’ house up on M Street had almost nothing but fields and horses to its north, all the way to the freeway. Sheep still grazed on the west side of town, where a Taco Bell is now.
We had moved from Richmond. Richmond, California. The city consists of The Flats — that portion west of Interstate 80 on the coastal plain next to San Francisco Bay, where the poorer people live — and The Hills, which overlook the flats. The Flats were (and still are) beset by violence and crime, and were dangerous enough that I have struggled for years with PTSD from my time there.
I remember a few weeks after we moved into our new house, my sister and older brother and I walked across M Street and into fields high with dry early-summer weeds and thickets of rattling anise stalks. We ran through the fields like the children we barely still were, laughing and playing silly games. Looking back I can see we were very much like prisoners released. Moving to Benicia from the mean streets of Richmond was like the end of a war.
Late that afternoon I ran with my face turned up to the sun, my arms out like wings, deep into the fields, and at some point I found myself alone, surrounded by thick brush, my only companions the sounds of buzzing insects and warbling birds, and I was covered in the pungent licorice scent that came from a trail of broken anise weed. I stopped, felt an odd weight in my chest and sat down. The world seemed to lose color, and I put my hand to my face — and suddenly I was weeping in great, gusting sobs.
I wept that day with grateful relief at having survived Richmond — and more than that, at having found myself in a place where I didn’t have to survey the street at every moment to see who might be out, whether they were armed, and what their intentions might be. In my new town, I could just walk out the door and explore its alleys and neighborhoods in complete safety.
I wept with pent-up sorrow, the lid suddenly off a grief I had dared not fully express, or even allow myself to feel, in a place where it might be taken as weakness and thus make me a target.
I wept, too, with sadness for the dear friends I’d left behind. Part of it was selfish — I would miss the company of people I could not remember not knowing — but part of it was something deeper. I had left people I cared about in a terrible situation, and was helpless to help them.
“Why am I in this field, crying with relief,” I thought, “and yet my old friends cannot share this with me?”
Survivor guilt is a common experience in people who have survived traumatic events that others have not, and in that moment in the field there was certainly a pang of that — and I have had occasional bouts of it since.
While excessive or misplaced guilt can be destructive, it is also possible to transform it into motivation to right wrongs and prevent others from suffering what you have. This has informed my writing about my old neighborhood here in this space. My beloved childhood friends in Richmond suffered terribly, and did not deserve the suffering they endured — they were, after all, just children.
I write also because Benicia, and places like it, can play an important part in alleviating the problems besetting Richmond and places like it.
There are many organizations in Richmond that do vital work to help its residents — pastors of churches, workers in nonprofits and other charitable organizations, volunteers who try to offer a constructive alternative for at-risk young people who might otherwise turn to the many destructive and life-threatening ways of coping that can be a powerful temptation in streets that often seem hopeless and devoid of mercy.
This is all vital work, but it is not enough.
An idea I keep coming across in discussions of the problem of urban poverty is that Richmond is Richmond because of a lack of “personal responsibility” in its residents. While it is important for anyone, whatever their location, to take responsibility for improving their circumstances, I can also say that Richmond is not lacking in that particular virtue.
Richmond is Richmond because too many there lack power — the kind of power that comes from economic opportunity. And this is where more prosperous places in America like Benicia can be of help.
I believe we who have more ought to commit ourselves to the task of making sure that everyone in Richmond who wants a job can get one — and not just a “job” that involves minimum wage and little hope for advancement. Richmond has a deep pool of tragically underutilized talent — people who would be savvy, intelligent, charismatic, dedicated employees. They are worth far more than the minimum wage. If the market is not providing those jobs on its own — and it is safe to say that it is not — then we need to act collectively to correct that situation.
I have mentioned before in this space that Richmond is not just a troubled city, it is also a symptom of a wounded society, where too many people dismiss others in different circumstances as “them.”
“We” can shake our heads in little mimes of concern when one of “their” children is gunned down. “We” bemoan the poverty that besets so many parts of this country, but think of it as an immutable characteristic of “them.” And while it may be diverting or engaging to speculate about what might be done, it is at the end of the day not “our” problem.
Unless you and I can take responsibility to bridge that divide — unless “we” can admit that “they” are truly “us” and that “their” children are “our” children — then we are standing in the way of healing that division.
The ongoing emergency in our poorer neighborhoods is our greatest moral scandal. With their grinding poverty and their unconsoled victims and relatives whose bodies and minds have been wounded by violence, Richmond and the many places like it stand as searing indictments of our society’s greed and selfishness. The violence and the tattered social fabric of Richmond is a poignant expression of the outrage — more than that, the unutterable pain — of priceless children of God who have been told, with words and the bleeding wounds of a million injustices large and small, that they are People Who Don’t Matter.
Why do I care about Richmond, and write about it often? Because I want all the children of the friends I left behind to run carefree through the fields of America, turning their face to the sun — weeping with gratitude, as I did, that they have been delivered from their suffering. I want “their” children and “our” children to be friends and peers and neighbors.
And I want those children’s children to roll their eyes whenever Dad lectures them about how tough things used to be back in the ’hood, just as I rolled my eyes when my father talked about trudging through snowdrifts to school.
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Pope Francis and economics. The op-ed was deeply flawed.
As we know, the American libertarian rear guard has been attacking the pope for a whole now on what they regard as his deficient understanding of economics. This would have been a perfect opportunity to push back, on their home turf no less. But Dolan doesn’t do that. What Dolan does—with the apparent help of notorious libertarian and critic of Pope Francis, Larry Kudlow—is provide support to these arguments. In doing so, he pulls the rug from under the pope—at the same time that Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga came to the United States to give an impassioned call to reject libertarianism and free market zealotry.
Basically, Dolan’s op-ed is a combination of Actonism and Americanism. Since its publication, there have been a number of good, thoughtful, responses to it—including by David Cloutier and Robert Christian. Fr. Tom Reese has a good summary of the responses.
I would like to offer my own humble thoughts on this unfortunate op-ed, mainly from the economic perspective. I will do so by addressing three main economic claims made by Cardinal Dolan.
Dolan’s main points
As far as I can tell, Dolan makes three main claims:
- A point on principle: We should not “reject economic liberty in favor of government control”. The Church has always rejected socialism and collectivism, because they violate “inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property”. And while it is certainly possible to go too far in the other direction, there are very few who support the “inhumane philosophy of radical economic liberalism”.
- A point on practice: The free market has increased wealth and wellbeing all over the world. We should carefully distinguish the virtuous capitalism practiced in the United States, and the capitalism practiced in other countries (especially in the developing world), which is more of an “exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy”.
- A point on personal virtue: The value of an economic system rests ultimately on the personal virtue of individuals who take part in it—on the “morality of their day-to-day decisions”. It is about “virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately, and honestly”.
Let me now try to highlight some of the flaws in these arguments.
Response to the point on principle
Cardinal Dolan argues, correctly, that the Church condemns collectivism. What he doesn’t say, though, is that the Church equally condemns its polar opposite—what the Church calls economic liberalism, and what today is more familiar to Americans as libertarianism. The timing of the op-ed was ironic, give the major conference at Catholic University last week on the utter incompatibility of Catholicism and libertarianism.
In Catholic understanding, collectivism and libertarianism are really two sides of the same coin, what Pope Pius XI referred to as the “twin rocks of shipwreck”. They are both based on a false anthropology. Neither extreme upholds the truth of the human person as understood by Catholic teaching—possessing innate human dignity and finding true meaning in relationship.
In reality, each error is the mirror image of the other. Collectivism suppresses private ownership of property in favor of common use, while libertarianism suppresses common use in favor of private ownership. Collectivism suppresses rights and upholds duties, whereas libertarianism suppresses duties and upholds rights. Collectivism treads on individual dignity, while libertarianism treads on social duty and responsibility.
Why do I belabor this point? Simply to point out that collectivism and libertarianism pull equally in different directions, and so—from the Catholic perspective—are equally condemned. But Cardinal Dolan’s op-ed only looks at one side of the picture, and so gives an incomplete account.
Many will say that this is a strawman argument—those who support free market policies do so on prudential grounds, not because they embrace a flawed anthropology. Yet it is it next to impossible to separate principle from practice here, not least because the advocates of laissez-fare policies keep bringing everything back to the principle of “economic freedom”. This certainly is the guiding star of the Acton Institute. It seems to be what Cardinal Dolan is doing too, when he defends not only the practical outcomes of a market economy, but the very principle of “economic liberty”. His ghost-writer Larry Kudlow is on record saying that the pope simply doesn’t understand freedom.
Of course, Dolan understands that this argument can be pushed too far. But even here, he argues that few people are guided by “radical economic individualism”. I think he is wrong about this. In other countries of the world, he might be right, in the sphere of economics at least. But not in the US, and especially not today.
Indeed, I would argue that the prevailing philosophical mindset in the US today is one of libertarianism—the enshrinement of self-ownership and freedom from coercion as overarching principles. This transcends the political divide. On one side, we are told that the person has an near-absolute right to do what they want with their bodies. On the other side—the near-absolute right to do what they want with their money. Absent from both is any idea of the common good or any conception of the good life. This is false freedom, or as Pope Paul VI put it, “erroneous autonomy”.
I would actually turn the tables on the cardinal’s argument. Where are the calls today for an abandonment of the market economy in favor of collective ownership? They do not exist. The appeal of collectivism lies buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. The left has long come to terms with the market economy.
On the other hand, it is pellucid that the modern American right has been infected by radical individualism. We know this from simply listening to their rhetoric, which has become more strident with each passing year, diverging more and more from any global consensus.
We know this from the Paul Ryan budget, where 69 percent of the cuts come from programs designed to protect the poor. We know this from the incessant attacks on all attempts to expand healthcare, including for the very poor. We know this from the razor-sharp focus on reducing taxation on the wealthy. The common factor: a belief that individual freedom and personal responsibility create both value and virtue.
If this isn’t “radical economic individualism”, then I don’t know what is.
Response to the point on practice
The main thrust of Cardinal Dolan’s op-ed is practical rather than philosophical, however. He makes two empirical claims. One: the free market delivers, in terms of wealth and wellbeing. Two: American capitalism is more virtuous than elsewhere—especially the developing world, where the economic system is akin to an “exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy”. We need to unpack this.
It is a grave mistake to give a hearty bear hug to the free market. Why? Because left to its own devices, the market economy contains two major design flaws. First, it is associated with crescendos and crashes, periods of excess followed by periods of austerity—and these waves inundate ordinary people, especially the poor.
Just look at the recent financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, which was caused directly by light-touch regulation and blind-eye supervision of the financial sector. And it was ordinary people who indeed suffered on a massive scale. The World Bank estimated that the crisis pushed an additional 64 million people into extreme poverty. The International Labor Organization estimated that there would have been 62 million more jobs in the world today, had the crisis not occurred.
The second dysfunction relates to inequality. And here, we are all indebted to Thomas Piketty’s careful analysis of economic history. Piketty shows that, if unchecked, capitalism will lead to wealth disparities that are “potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies”. He notes that we are returning to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age and that—if we are not careful—the 21st century could look like the 19th century.
We are now more aware that excess inequality can lead to economic pathologies. Economic growth is more sustainable in more equal countries, and the doors to economic flourishing open wider. Excess inequality holds back economic progress in regions like Latin America, precisely because it contributes to economic exclusion and cuts off networks of solidarity. Opportunities for advancement are greater in more equal countries. Happiness, contentment, and levels of trust are all higher in more equal societies. Pope Francis certainly has it right when he calls inequality the root of social evil.
So, an unchecked free market can lead to both instability and exclusion. To see this clearly, we need look no further than the economic record of the major advanced economies since the 1980s—three decades of rising inequality and increasing financial fragility, traced directly to the resurgence of laissez-faire policies.
Contrast this with the period after World War II, with the period the French call the “thirty golden years”. This era gave us some of the highest rates of economic growth in recent times, alongside some of the lowest levels of inequality and financial dysfunction. Yes, some of this was due to catch-up and convergence from a low base after the war—just like China in the post-collectivist era, by the way. But it was also due to deliberate policies—strong oversight of the financial sector and efforts to even out the distribution of income.
I have spoken so far in generalities. Let me now turn to the US, which Cardinal Dolan holds up as a paragon of economic virtue.
It’s not a great story. The dysfunctions of instability and exclusion I have talked about are especially pronounced in this country. The global financial crisis started here. The rise in inequality has been especially stark here. The share of income going to the top 1 percent has doubled since the 1980s, returning to where it was on the eve of the Great Depression. Since 2009, this top 1 percent has captured 95 percent of all income gains, while the bottom 90 percent grew poorer. So, yes, the US grew and created wealth, but this only rewarded a select few.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Just consider the economy of France, which many Americans are inclined to reflexively dismiss. Yet if we strip out the top 1 percent, income growth has been faster in France than in the US since the 1980s.
Indeed, it makes sense to look at continental Europe, the heartland of the postwar Christian Democratic movement—which remains the best attempt at putting the principles of Catholic social teaching into practice. In this region, productivity per hour—the key driver of long-term growth—is no worse than in the US. Employment rates of prime-age workers are no worse than in the US. Income is lower largely because people work fewer hours—surely this is something to welcome, not dismiss? And yet poverty and inequality are lower, and intergenerational mobility is higher. This is not to say that everything is right with Europe, but it is to say that there is much for the US to learn.
The flip side of Dolan’s coin is that capitalism in the developing world is an undesirable “exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy”. This is possibly the most infuriating claim in the whole op-ed. It simply reeks of the arrogance of American exceptionalism. Yes, cronyism is easy to find, all across the world. We don’t need to go to Argentina to find it—we just need to look in our own backyard.
Just look at some egregious example. Look at the enormous power wielded by the financial sector. Let’s start with the “too-big-to-fail” megabanks which have both outsized political influence and an uncompetitive funding advantage over smaller banks—surely a major violation of subsidiarity. Apparently these banks are also “too big to jail”—attorney general Eric Holder has admitted that pursuing criminal charges could hurt financial stability.
Look also at the purely rent-seeking behavior undertaken by the financial elite, which adds no value whatsoever to the economy. Look at the cozy club of elites who dominate boards of directors and top corporate management, who give themselves outsized rewards at the expense of workers and other stakeholders. There was once a time when excessive CEO pay violated an important social norm, but that day is long gone.
Look at the whole host of protections that entrench vested interests—in areas from cable and telecommunications to pharmaceutical patents. Think about the companies that benefit from war and the war machine.
Look at the influence of money on politics, and the ability of elites to twist policies in their favored direction—think, for example, of the fact that unearned income is taxed at lower rates than earned income. Look at the revolving door between government and the private sector. Indeed, the situation is now so bad that a recent academic study found that the US is now more of an oligarchy than a democracy—dominated by a rich and powerful elite.
Cardinal Dolan simply glosses over all of this to give American capitalism a huge pat on the back. He also ignores the dirty little secret of cronyism and patronage—that it is directly related to economic disparity and social exclusion.
The greatest irony of all is that crony capitalism, the mortal enemy of libertarians, is actually given sustenance by the kinds of unregulated markets that these same libertarians adore. It is certainly no accident that the rise of cronyism in the US comes at the same time as rising inequality and more liberated financial markets.
I must make one more important point here. Our modern global economy is more interlinked and interconnected than ever before. We cannot simply isolate the American economic system from the global economic system. We cannot simply say “US economy good”, “developing economies bad”, because it’s all part of the same single global economy.
Remember, the crisis began in the US, one of the richest countries in the world, but it ended up hitting the poorest people in the world the hardest.
And many of the material advantages enjoyed by American capitalism are intrinsically linked to injustices in the developing world.
Think about large corporations that deliberately seek to locate in regions with low taxes, low wages, low labor standards, and low environmental protections. When a garment factory fire kills hundreds in Bangladesh, the blame spreads far and wide—to the multinational corporations who tacitly endorse this kind of injustice, to the shareholders who prize returns over all else, to the consumers who refuse to ask questions about the source of their cheap clothing.
Think also about the how the US destabilizes vast regions of Latin America, through mass import of narcotics and mass export of weapons. This might be the dark underbelly of the global economy, but it is still part of the global economy.
Cardinal Dolan’s op-ed completes discounts any sense of global connections and global responsibility.
So what could Cardinal Dolan have said? He could have started by noting that the Church does not reject the market economy, but that its support is strictly conditional—based on the market meeting the needs of all and embodying justice.
And here, he could have talked about the vital complementary role of the state instead of dismissing “government control”. As Saint John XXIII put it, the function of state is…”is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters.”
He could have noted that the role of the state goes beyond merely enforcing the rules of the game by upholding property rights and equality before the law. Justice must extend beyond commutative justice—the justice of contracts and exchange—to encompass both distributive justice and social justice.
And from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, one of state’s jobs is to even out some of the imbalances in the market economy, in number of different ways.
First, by providing the essential regulatory oversight to lessen the dysfunction and injustice that comes with unfettered markets. As Pope Pius XI put it, “economic life cannot be subject to a free competition of forces” and instead needs “a true and effective directing principle”. In particular, as Pope Francis says, the financial sector must serve, not rule.
Second, by protecting protect people from the economic gyrations that come with living in a market economy—especially by providing decent safety nets. This means an appropriate level of redistribution.
Third, by providing those goods and services that, in the words of Saint John Paul II, “by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold”.
Finally, the increasing interconnected nature of the global economy and the increasing power and reach of global corporations and financial institutions calls for public action beyond the level of the nation state—toward the kind of global public authority envisaged by Saint John XXIII and Pope Benedict XVI.
By glossing over this wealth of wisdom, Cardinal Dolan leaves us with the mistaken and dangerous impression that the market alone can achieve good and just outcomes.
Response to point on virtue
The third main point made by Cardinal Dolan is that personal virtue matters. At a basic level, he is surely right. We need good rules, and we need just economic systems, but we also need virtuous people to breathe life into the market economy. After all, people hell bent on gaming the system will always find ways of doing so.
This is another lesson from the crisis. The financial sector engaged in socially destructive behavior not just because the watchdogs were looking the other way, but because some of the most basic ethical norms were being violated. Think about some of the scandals: conning clients into buying crummy securities, rigging financial benchmarks, engaging in illegal foreclosure, laundering money, enabling tax evasion. The list goes on.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just about personal honesty, as Cardinal Dolan seems to imply—it’s also about purpose, about telos. Virtue without telos is hollow virtue.
So we need to understand—and rediscover—the true purpose of business. Catholic social teaching has a lot to say about this. Understood properly, business is a noble vocation, but only if it serves the common good and supports human flourishing—in the words of Vatican’s Vocation of the Business Leader, by producing goods that are truly good and services that truly serve. The goal cannot simply be to make as much money as possible, whatever the consequences.
One of the most pernicious business strategies to gain favor over the past few decades is the idea that the sole goal of business is to maximize shareholder returns—in doing so, discounting other stakeholders like workers, suppliers, consumers, the natural environment, and society at large. This was a major theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s post-crisis encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.
Think of it this way. It’s not enough for a business leader to be honest and personally above reproach. It’s not enough that they treat people well and engage in philanthropy. Ultimately, the virtues needed to run a business cannot be divorced from the social purpose of business.
So if a private equity firm is maximizing short-term profit by loading up companies with debt and firing workers, then something is wrong. If a vulture fund is buying up cheap debt from some of the most impoverished countries in the world and simultaneously seeking legal ways to make the country repay the full face value of the debt, then something is wrong—deeply wrong.
If a retailer like Wal-Mart refuses to pay its workers a living wage at a time it is earning record profits, then something is wrong. On this point: a recent study calculated that raising wages of Wal-Mart workers to the bare minimum needed to escape poverty (simply defined as no longer being eligible for food stamps) would cost the company $4.8 billion—at a time when annual profits were $17 billion. This is not virtuous, and yet it is socially acceptable—because people think the job of business is solely to maximize profits, leaving the state to take care of the poor.
This is where Dolan takes a wrong turn. Instead of very real injustices perpetuated by top-tier institutions like Wal-Mart or Goldman Sachs, he instead singles out the comical amorality of the “Wolf of Wall Street”. His point is that very few hold this up as a role model. But this is a dishonest and disingenuous argument. The real problems on Wall Street do not lie with a small number of venal libertines trying to crash the party. The real problems lie with the respectable firms, filled with people who are earnest and honest in their day-to-day dealings. For the folks in Acton, this should be enough.
But it’s not enough, because Wall Street has lost its way, its telos, its sense of purpose. It has lost that vital sense of service, and instead devoted its energy to maximizing short-term profit at any price and accumulating wealth for its own sake. It put narrow self-interest above the common good.
And just as it rejects profit as the sole aim of business, Catholic social teaching also rejects self-interest as the sole motivating principle of the market economy. Instead, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “human relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or after it”. Or as David Schindler put it, mutual selfishness is not the same as mutual generosity.
I will end where I began—with the fundamental anthropological distinction between how Catholics and libertarians view markets. For the latter, self-interest is a virtue, as it leads to more effective and efficient outcomes. But for the former, service is the starting point. A humane economy that supports human flourishing is an economy of communion, linked by the iron-clad bonds of reciprocity; not an economy of autonomy, linked only by the ephemeral grip of the invisible hand.
Cardinal Dolan is certainly not oblivious to this dimension, as he calls for an element of generosity to accompany self-interest. But he certainly fails to tease out its implications for the conduct of modern business—and these implications are quite radical.
In conclusion, this was a deeply disappointing op-ed, profoundly misleading in so many ways. At a time when so many American Catholics know so little about Catholic social teaching, this kind of treatise only muddies the waters further. It was a missed chance for a real teaching moment, especially in the hostile territory of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.
It’s too bad, really, as Cardinal Dolan is a well-meaning man and a fine shepherd. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t seize the opportunity to bring the gospel down to Wall Street, rather than try to bend the gospel to please Wall Street.
I’VE BEEN ENJOYING A NEW SERIES ON HBO, “Silicon Valley.” It is produced by Mike Judge, the man who made the 1999 cult hit “Office Space.”
A running gag on the show is the conceit among the titans of tech that their inventions are “making the world a better place.” This idea ought to resonate not just with techies, but with all of us. The idea that technological progress is synonymous with human progress pervades American discourse — but while this idea can be (and is) taken to absurd and even utopian extremes, it is also not exactly nonsense.
Consider: In the last 100 years, electricity has transformed domestic life. In the days of washboards, wringers and clotheslines, doing laundry could mean hours of work. Add to that the task of cleaning a house without the benefit of modern appliances like vacuum cleaners, electric floor buffers and automatic dishwashers, and pretty quickly you are looking at more hours of daily work.
The invention and, after the disruptions of the Great Depression and World War II, wide availability of those previously mentioned appliances meant that tasks that once took hours of work by (usually) women — housewives or the domestic servants of the wealthy — were now done in a matter of minutes.
This had a transformative effect on American society. Large numbers of women could now advance their educations and enter the paid workforce. The resulting economic power provided women with unprecedented leverage in their homes. When men were the bread winners, it seemed natural that they would be the ones to manage the economic affairs of the household as well. Once women were free to enter the workforce, the result was decades of social upheaval, and we are still experiencing echoes of that transformation today.
So, I am in no way denying that technology can make the world a better place, nor that it can be socially transformative. That said, there is a tendency in America, and especially in Silicon Valley, to assign an almost spiritual significance to technology that is at best naïve, and at worst utopian (and sometimes worryingly undemocratic and authoritarian — I’ll probably write more about that in a future post).
It is worth reflecting on what exactly we’re talking about when we discuss “technology.” Wikipedia gives a good working definition:
“Technology (from Greek τέχνη, techne, ‘art, skill, cunning of hand’; and -λογία, -logia) is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a pre-existing solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function.”
So, technology is just our means and methods of solving problems. By this definition, both a hammer and an oil refinery are technology — hammers drive nails, and refineries take the sulfurous gunk that is crude oil and make it into gasoline, motor oil, plastics and so forth. Both can do good things: hammers can build a school, and jet fuel can power a cargo plane bringing relief to victims of a famine or flood. Both can do bad things: a hammer can be used as a weapon in the commission of a crime, and refineries can produce one of the more dreadful weapons of modern warfare: napalm.
Dr. Martin Luther King can be of help here:
Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.
Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: ‘Improved means to an unimproved end.’ This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the ‘without’ of man’s nature subjugates the ‘within,’ dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.
It’s not too often that I get the chance to post about language-related issues on a site related to Catholic social teaching, but a news roundup from the American Translators Association, of which I am a member, has delivered a story in which these two sets of concerns dovetail quite naturally. Here is the story as summarized in the ATA Newsbriefs (the original news article is here):
A Spanish-speaking woman is suing New Jersey’s Berlin Township police department for false arrest because she was not provided a competent interpreter. Carmela Hernandez alleges that in June 2012 police wrongly arrested her for child endangerment. At the time, she was three months pregnant. Hernandez spent six months in jail awaiting trial, and in the interim lost custody of her three children, including the baby she delivered while in prison. Documents filed with the court say Hernandez “lacks any ability to effectively communicate in English.” Her boyfriend, who tried to speak with the Berlin police at the time of the arrest, has only “limited ability” in English. The Berlin police called in an officer from a neighboring department to conduct Hernandez’s interrogation. Although the officer was fluent in Spanish, Hernandez asserts in her lawsuit that he was “without the proper training and skills to have acted as an effective interpreter.” As a result, Hernandez says she was “unjustifiably and falsely arrested.” In February 2013, Hernandez was found not guilty after the judge in the case ruled her interrogation inadmissible.
On the language side, it bears explaining that the majority of translation and interpreting work is done on a freelance basis by independent contractors; hence, a lack of regulation in the language services industry, and by extension a perceived lack of respect for the profession, is the subject of frequent complaint in those circles. I can just hear a chorus of my fellow language professionals saying to the Berlin, NJ police department, “You wouldn’t expect an interpreter to try to do police work without any prior training in police procedures, would you?” As these will readily tell you, bilingualism by itself does not automatically make one an interpreter or translator. The professionalism of these services is often salvaged, in a sense by proxy, via intersection with more highly regulated professions such as law and medicine, whose service providers are often required to use a professional interpreter (and in some cases, especially in the courts, one certified within a specialized field) for that very reason.
The related issue from a Catholic perspective is respect for the dignity of all human life, especially where it is most vulnerable. As the U.S. bishops have repeatedly stated, this includes immigrants – especially when there is the added vulnerability of a language barrier. And, of course, it includes children, both born and unborn. And related to both of these is respect for the dignity of the family; children should not be separated from their parents except in cases of grave necessity. None of this negates anyone’s duties and responsibility – another central feature of the Catholic social tradition – whether it be duty toward children or parents, toward the stranger or toward a host country’s society. At the same time, none of these duties negate the respect owed to anyone as a bearer of the image and likeness of God.
So, when in doubt, hire a professional. And always, always respect the vulnerable.
As Roman Catholics observe the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” it seems an appropriate time to consider ways contemporary liturgical music supports the word proclaimed and preached. Contemporary liturgical composers and lyricists have done a great service to the church by cultivating “easy access to Sacred Scripture…for all the Christian faithful” (No. 22). They have sowed the word in the hearts, minds and memories of the faithful by uniting scripturally based texts with memorable melodies.
— From an article by Fr. Robert F. O’Conner, SJ, on the state of Catholic Church music in the US today.
In his article the author makes it clear that he is specifically discussing Church music written since 2000, so basing comments solely on music written in the 70′s will be missing the point. (I think the first couple of iterations of modern music are worth considering, but the author is making the point about the most recent generation of works.)
I actually do not have a dog in this fight: I am not familiar with recent compositions as the music director in my parish is not well versed in modern church music and tends to play “old” standbys (along with the various baroque pieces which are her real love). The author does not cite any specific examples so references and links to recent hymns (the good, the bad and the ugly), would be appreciated. But I am very interested in what folks have to say: what is good and what is bad about the latest church music? What are the criteria that should be used to judge it?
FIFTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, on May 22, 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson stood before that year’s graduating class at the University of Michigan and delivered the speech that launched his Great Society program. It is a sad commentary on both the state of our economy and our politics that a Democratic president giving a similar speech today is almost unimaginable.
In a way, Johnson was speaking directly to us, the descendants of those policy makers and visionaries:
“The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth [i.e., the fruits of economic progress of the previous 50 years] to enrich and elevate our national life and to advance the quality of our American civilization. Your imagination and your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the Great Society.”
The mid-1960s were heady days in American society. It was the crest of the post-war economic boom, real progress had been made in racial relations in the South and elsewhere, and the New Deal and the victory in World War II meant that Americans overwhelmingly trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time.
And plenty that LBJ and the 89th Congress did have enduring and positive effects. The Medicare program drastically reduced elderly poverty; Medicaid meant that poor people were no longer crushed by medical debt, or had to go without medical care altogether because of an inability to pay. The Head Start program has been so successful that even many conservatives defend it today. The Civil and Voting Rights Acts made it possible for African Americans to exercise what most people recognize as basic civil rights without interference from the entrenched white power structure of the South.
Less tangibly, there was a flush of idealism in the United States that is hard to convey to today’s more jaded generations. Even if the Great Society had its failures — and it had plenty — they were at least well-intentioned failures. Johnson envisioned completely eliminating poverty in the U.S. in the decades after his programs were enacted. The verdict of history is that, so far at least, this goal has not been achieved. But that does not diminish the value of the Great Society’s successes.
If there was a consistent flaw in the Great Society, it was because of Johnson’s, and Americans’, gross underestimation of the complexity and difficulty of both the causes of and remedies for poverty.
The expectations were pretty straightforward: Provide the poor with the advantages that had built the white American middle class — education, health care, income support, and so on — and then the middle class would be expanded by formerly poor people, and all would live happily ever after.
The factor they failed to take proper measure of was the effects of history.
Sargent Shriver, who led LBJ’s war on poverty in the 1960s, referred to this when he said: “We weren’t quite prepared for the bitterness and the antagonism and the violence — in some cases, the emotional outbursts — that accompanied an effort to alleviate poverty. … There were an awful lot of people, both white and black, who had generations of pent-up feelings. … The placid life of most middle-class Americans was stunned, shocked, by all this social explosion, and then a lot of fear came into the hearts and minds of a lot of middle-class people — not only fear, but then real hostility.”
Having spent the second half of the 1960s in Richmond, California, in a predominantly black neighborhood, I can attest to the rage that suddenly found a national audience at that time. Giving a voice to long-suppressed feelings can be traumatic for everyone concerned. Validating the suffering of people who have been victimized for generations can make the suffering they have experienced suddenly and unbearably vivid. This goes a long way in explaining the social unrest that swept the country in the second half of the 1960s.
There was an opportunity for white, middle class America to sit and listen to that rage, and to appreciate the deep and very real causes of it. To do so would have required heroic levels of humility, because most white Americans were unprepared to acknowledge their complicity — particularly in the form of a long and cold silence — in causing it. But remaining present would mean that the rage would eventually fade away, and what followed would be an opportunity for honest conversation, an airing of grievances, redress of those grievances and, ultimately, reconciliation and healing.
We still have that opportunity. You and I can decide to make America the place envisioned by LBJ. I hope that one day we make that decision, and commit to the difficult but eternally worthy project of making of this nation a more perfect union.
IS THE UNITED STATES AN IMPERIAL POWER? I would say that it is, and that the evidence for this view is overwhelming. We spend more on our military than all of our main rivals — combined. Our troops garrison the world, we have bases on every continent, our Navy rules the waves, and so on. We are not the world’s most powerful country just by some accidental circumstance, but by design.
Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind describing a 2002 conversation he had with a “senior adviser to President Bush” (who is widely believed to be Karl Rove, though Suskind has not confirmed this):
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
Putting aside the glaring hubris of that official’s remarks, I would say he was wrong to use the descriptor “now.”
The temptation to empire is nothing new in the United States. It was certainly there throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War of 1846, the Spanish-American War and other imperialistic impulses and enterprises betrayed the trajectory of the nation. Given all that and given the different missions of democracies and empires, democratic tension has been inevitable and constant. Empires serve and are run by elites; democracies (in theory, at least) serve and are run by demos, the people. Empires are maintained by violence, either implicit or acted upon. Democracies depend for their health on the consent of an educated, engaged citizenry.
Former New York Times foreign correspondent and author Chris Hedges sees our predicament in bleak terms:
“The words ‘consent of the governed’ have become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish political and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system.”
While I think Hedges speaks truth here, I also think he’s missing something: that you and I have the power to transform the country from an imperialist oligarchy to a functioning democracy. One of the great enemies of elitism, after all, is math: There will always be more of us than there are of them. All it takes is enough of us to catch on to the game, and we can put an end to it.
Another enemy of oligarchy is hope. Martin Luther King used to say that “You can’t ride a man’s back unless it is already bent.” Despair and passivity in the face of evil is the worst kind of cowardice. I hear far too many people say, “The American people are way too caught up in ‘American Idol’/Justin Bieber/(insert example of brainless bread-and-circuses distraction here) to wake up and take action.”
Such pointless (and groundless) despair betrays every sacrifice made by every labor organizer, every freedom rider, every abolitionist and every other citizen who sacrificed and risked all to change this country for the better. Americans from every walk of life have always stood for justice and against tyranny and slavery, often at the cost of their lives. We owe it to them to continue the struggle to make America a place where everyone’s voice matters, not just the media-amplified voice of the rich and powerful.
I think it is vital that any action taken in the cause of social justice depend on nonviolence for its legitimacy. Oligarchies rely on violence to impose their will; democracies depend on the consent of the governed. King again:
“(T)he nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system. And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle in the South is not so much the tension between white people and Negro people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will not be a victory merely for fifty thousand Negroes. But it will be a victory for justice, a victory for good will, a victory for democracy.”