There is an old bit of advice that a trial lawyer should never ask a question he does not already know the answer to; another version, illustrated by the following (apocryphal) story, says he should never ask a question if he does not want to hear the answer.
In a trial, a small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, a grandmotherly, elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”
She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you’ll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”
The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”
She again replied, “Why yes, I do.” And, again, she continued, “I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.”
The defense attorney nearly died.
The judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold both of you in contempt of court.”
Last fall, in preparation for the Synod on the Family, the Vatican (presumably at Pope Francis’ behest) sent a survey to all the national bishops’ conferences, asking them to gather responses to the questions as widely as possible. The survey was not a poll constructed according to modern sociological standards, but rather a list of lengthy questions more easily answered in a narrative format. Several bishops conferences, most notably in England and Wales, Germany and Switzerland, nevertheless conducted surveys of their laity to gather responses. The secular press also took part, with the Spanish language network Univision commissioning a methodical, multi-nation survey. (An executive summary is here as a PDF document.)
In the United States, however, the USCCB did not conduct a national survey, nor did it call on each bishop to conduct surveys or otherwise seek responses from a broad pool of people. In my own archdiocese, I have heard nothing about if or how our archbishops (in December Archbishop Mansell stepped down and was replaced by Archbishop Blair) planned to gather information and respond. A few dioceses, however, did attempt to survey their laity, including San Jose, California, and St. Petersburg, Florida. Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, like the German and Swiss bishops, released the results publicly.
What is the reason for this reticence on the part of the American bishops, both individually and collectively, to gather responses from a broad array of the laity? It would not have been too difficult to get CARA or some other research firm to convert the synodal questions into a meaningful survey document—indeed, they would probably have done a better job than a secular firm, since they could have probed with more depth and more nuance into issues that are not sexy but are fundamental. (This is what the Swiss bishops did.) Or they could have simply asked publicly for feedback, and used the many responses, with all their biases, to get some some sense of what people are thinking.
I started this post with two bits of advice for trial lawyers. The first does not apply: I find it impossible to believe that our bishops are not aware of the disconnect between Church teaching and what the laity actually believe and do. Indeed, there have been rumors for years that these very topics are discussed quietly at the annual USCCB meetings, but pressure from Rome and the most conservative faction of bishops kept it off the official agenda. Were they to ask the laity what they think, I do not believe they would be surprised by the answers.
With regards to the second bit of advice: I think it is quite possible that they do not want to ask the question because if they do and then hear the answer, they will have to acknowledge the facts on the ground. Like the judge in the story, they are afraid the answer will not reflect well on the Church, or at least on the effectiveness of the teaching magisterium. And in one sense it won’t: the media and the broader culture already see the current situation as a massive failure of the Church’s teaching office, and the bishops acknowledging this fact will only make it worse. Of course, this trope ignores the complicated and messy history of Catholic teaching and its reception. The vision of the laity marching in lockstep to the directions of Rome exists only in the minds of nostalgic restorationists and the fantasies of anti-Catholics (among whom I include, in it softer form, much of the secular media).
Now, however, the bishops have the problem that Rome has asked the question, and the Pope is genuinely interested in hearing the answer. How should they respond? Two predictable suggestions split in opposite directions. One is that they should hold firm on Church teaching and preach it more forcefully. Indeed, when these issues come up in our commboxes, a common response is for someone to say: “I never hear my deacon/pastor/bishop preach forcefully about these matters.” Or they point out a priest or bishop who does, but do so to highlight their minority status. The alternative response is that the Church should change its doctrine given the massive failure of this doctrine to be accepted. There is some truth to both positions: the Church does need to teach clearly but at the same time, the reception of doctrine, or the failure to be accepted, is a mark of the sensus fidelium of the whole faithful.
However, neither answer is adequate. We cannot continue to teach in the same way, with the same language, if it is clear that we are not being heard. As we discussed in an earlier post, this problem applies not just to controversial issues but even to core doctrinal issues such as the Real Presence. And I will be the first to admit that the sensus fidelium cannot be reduced to polling data. (I believe Pope Francis made a similar point, but I cannot find the quote.)
I propose instead that the bishops begin by really listening to their flocks. Not to dispute with them, or to agree with them, but to understand them. They need make an effort to hear “[t]he joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” as the Fathers of Vatican II put it in Gaudium et Spes. Reflecting on the sexual abuse crisis, one thing I noticed was that many victims wanted, more than anything else, to be heard, to have their suffering acknowledged. Unfortunately, it took many (most?) bishops far too long to understand this fact.
The Synod on the Family will be in two parts. There may not be time before the first half in October 2014, when the bishops are to report, but there will be plenty of time before the 2015 meeting. Armed with what they have heard from other bishops, the American bishops should return home and listen to the laity for themselves, and shape their responses and proposals in light of this. This will be hard and for many reasons the bishops will be loath to do this. Their own experience shows the problems that can occur: their last attempt at broad consultation—the failed attempt in the late 80′s to write a pastoral letter on women—ended badly.
Will things change? I think they will: there already appears to be movement to address the question of divorce and remarriage, though it is not clear what shape the final solution will take. But I hope and pray for a bigger change: a change in the relationship between the bishops and the laity. “Pray, pay and obey” never really worked, and it will not work now. The Latin root of the word “obey” is “obedire”, to listen. I want a Church in which the laity listen and understand their bishops, whether on abortion and same sex marriage or on immigration and economic justice. But I don’t think this will happen until the bishops start listening to the laity.
On Wednesday, March 5th, the Church began a period of intense prayer, fasting and of giving alms to the poor. Lent.
At Eucharistic services on that day, the faithful received the sign of the Cross on their foreheads with ashes. After the homily, the priest was to say: “Dear friends in Christ, let us ask our Father to bless these ashes which we will use as the mark of our repentance. Almighty God, bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness and bless all those who receive these ashes. May they keep this Lenten season in preparation for the joy of Easter. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” The faithful, then, were to come forward and have ashes signed onto their foreheads. As the ashes were imposed, the minister would say: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
One of the assigned antiphons, to be sung during the rite of the imposition of the ashes, comes from the book of Joel: “Come back to the Lord with all your heart; leave the past in ashes, and turn to God with tears and fasting, for he is slow to anger and ready to forgive.”
The Gospel for this first Sunday of Lent is from Matthew. Jesus is about to begin his public life and he goes into the desert to pray for forty days and nights. There the Evil One tempts him. The tempter tries to convince Jesus that it is nonsense for Jesus to expect to save the world by the way God proposes. Jesus is tempted to turn stones to bread, to throw himself down from the roof of the temple and, finally, to worship the Evil One.
These same temptations assail the Church today. We ask Jesus to turn stones to bread without first changing our own hearts. We ask for signs and wonders while forgetting the signs and wonders that have come through God’s love and that have come through the mystery of the cross. We want to be powerful and to “go along to get along” with the society in which we live. We often participate in the evil of our society and forget that the end never justifies the means.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel, we were told on Ash Wednesday. Lent gives opportunity to “change our hearts by the grace of God” and to change our deeds and our lifestyle. It gives opportunity to really change, and not simply intend to.
Living the Christian life is no easier now than it was for our ancestors in faith. Greed, hatred, revenge, lust for power, selfish disregard for others … are still the norm. The love of God, however, urges us on and the fact that we are saved by the grace of God can empower us to turn away from sin and into the arms of God.
Father Carl Diederichs
Father Carl Diederichs is the pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in Milwaukee. We, at Vox Nova, are grateful that he would share this guest post with our readers.
In another of his off-the-cuff remarks to a journalist, this time at Corriere della Serra, Pope Francis took issue with the bifurcation of Church moral teachings into “non-negotiable” and “negotiable”.
Here is what he said: “I have never understood the expression non-negotiable values. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values. I wrote in the exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ what I wanted to say on the theme of life.”
American Catholics have been accustomed to this for years. Groups like Catholic Answers have come up with a list of non-negotiables, five of them – abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. The logic is that since these are “intrinsically evil”, they can never be supported. Everything else is “negotiable” in the sense that prudential differences are possible.
Clearly, this does not pass the smell test. The concept of “instrinic evil” is simply not a useful way of thinking about public policy – after all, masturbation is intrinsically evil, while drunk driving is not. This argument was made brilliantly by Bishop Robert McElroy in America magazine, which has become essential reading for American Catholics.
As an example: war is not intrinsically evil, because some wars are just. Taken to its logical and absurb conclusion, this approach to public morality would argue that what Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria is not “non-negotiable” and so can be supported. A less extreme example concerns poverty reduction. Yes, this is a prudential issue, and yes, there are many approaches consistent with Catholic social teaching. But actions to make the poor poorer and the rich richer is not one of them.
As Pope Francis puts it, values are values. Protecting life is non-negotiable. Social justice is non-negotiable. Protecting the planet is non-negotiable.
This bifuracation – an approach that, as Henri de Lubac once said, reflects more of a Protestant than a Catholic outlook – has always been about certain American Catholics imparting a fake apostolic blessing on a particular political party. It has never been consistently Catholic in its approach. Hopefully, this comedy is now over.
On January 1, on the Feast of Mary Mother of God, a guest priest at my parish took the opportunity to talk about the advance of women’s rights under Christianity, compared to many pagan and other worldviews (he dared mention Islam in this regard). On the other hand, he noted, our own household is not entirely in order, and he noted, specifically, that the Catholic Church still refuses to ordain women despite the fact that women are just as qualified for ministry as are men.
I’m not sure if Father meant to say that the Catholic Church recognized that women are as qualified as men, but refuses to ordain them anyways, or if the Church has not yet itself recognized that women actually are as qualified – but I suspect the latter. If, however, he meant the former, I am inclined to agree. That is because official Church teaching makes no mention whatsoever of women’s capacities (or lack thereof) when defending its decision to ordain only (baptized) men.
While it is true that some arguments against women’s ordination popular in the past were based on men’s supposed greater innate capacity for ministry (sometimes due to an ostensible advantage in terms of rationality), it is also the case that these arguments were speculative rather than positive. That is, they took the constant practice of the Church for granted and sought merely to explain it in terms amenable to their audience. This being the case, the deficit of such arguments need not be debilitating for the Church’s current (and, we can remember, constant) position on the matter.
The argument is not, the Church seems to be saying, even about whether or not women are capable. They certainly are. The question has to do with something not functional but sacramental. In positive terms, what did Christ intend as the sacramental structure of the Church? In speculative terms, what, within the whole set of symbols that illuminate the Christian view of the world, the doctrines of creation and of grace and redemption, does a male priesthood represent?
My goal here is to present a speculative answer to the second question. As to the first, the teaching of the Church is that Christ chose only men and that the Church has always chosen only men and that it does not feel at liberty to change that constant practice. Positive (in the technical sense I am using here) arguments for the ordination of women, if they are to be successful, need to meet the Church’s self-understanding on this question on its own ground. No (speculative) argument that women are just as capable as men is going to convince a Magisterium that does not deny this to change a teaching which it feels to be bound to quite other criteria.
(Of course, many do not believe that the Magisterium does believe women are so capable, but that is a fight for another day. In any case, insisting that people believe something they claim not to believe is a fairly ineffective way to get them to consider your point of view.)
But to my own project here.
I want to present, in fear and trembling, a speculative reason for the practice of ordaining only baptized men to the priesthood. (As an aside, we can leave the question of the diaconate for another day. John Paull II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for what it’s worth, specifically mentions priesthood, and not diaconate, when it asserts that the Church has no power to confer ordination on women.)
The germ for my line of thought came from reading recently about the debate over men’s obsolescence. Men, or so many argue, have become obsolete. In the current state of the world, given various economic, political and scientific realities, men are no longer necessary. On the other hand, I have also recently seen an upsurge in articles about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Being a father of four, I am predisposed, I must admit, to taking a favorable view to such arguments.
The thoughts generated here have recently cross-pollinated with the response to David Bentley Hart’s new book on God. The atheist critics (though not all of them), seem to think that a God such as Bentley Hart describes is, like biological fathers according to some others in the culture, obsolete. They see in Bentley Hart’s articulation of classical theism not classical theism at all, but an attempt to preserve God from the advance of scientific knowledge that ends up turning God into something other than anything any normal believer, or even the great theologians of the past, could have meant by the term – and as something rather remote and harmless and effectively useless at that.
Others have engaged this battle and I need not do it here. I mention it because, however, it strikes me as an interesting parallel with the claim that men, i.e, fathers, are obsolete.
Let us step back for a moment. It is not hard, given the realities of human reproduction, to determine the mother of a given child. Determining the father, is, however, a much more delicate task. We know, or at least we used to know (before the advent of certain technologies), nevertheless, that there must be a father.
(Virgin births, once considered miraculous, will soon be quite commonplace, one suspects –at least in the sense that no sexual event led to the conception of the child. Whether the woman in question has ever “known a man” is a separate question but, interestingly I think, a moot one. That question is now irrelevant to whether or not she may have conceived a child.)
But I digress. The point is that in normal, biological human reproduction, the man’s role is, in at least a symbolic sense, transcendent. The very immanent fact of the pregnant woman is evidence of it, but pinning it down can be tricky. And one wonders, if the pregnancy could be explained without him (as it now can be), would the father be necessary at all?
The immanent is not in any such danger. No one argues that women are obsolete.
My thesis, then, comes down to this: presuming that fathers are, in fact, necessary and not merely superfluous or obsolete (and I think it is fair to say the Church is presuming this), restricting ordination to men symbolizes both the irreducibility of the transcendent to the immanent in a culture where more and more people doubt the possibility of transcendence in principle, and the necessity of fathers in the lives of their children in a culture where more and more people think that dads are replaceable.
There is a way, of course, that no argument based on something as complex and intuitive as a symbol system can be a knockout blow. And I do not intend my argument as such. The point here is to take seriously the Church’s assertion that what is at issue for the question of the sex of the ordained person is what it says sacramentally.
The ordained man, as symbol of transcendence, exists only within Mother Church. While it is easy for most of us (including, to a great degree, myself) to imagine an ordained woman, it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying. But are these two images, essentially of Christ and his Bride, not inseparable? Is not the womb of Mother Church that immanent place in which the transcendent can be met?
I have no doubt that there are many women who are as capable as men for ministry. And I think the Church can only benefit from giving such capable women support in ministry. But I suspect there is wisdom in maintaining the Church’s constant practice in a world in which men are increasingly seen as replaceable and in which transcendence is increasingly seen as an illusion.
Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.
Here in the buckle of the Bible belt, I hear a lot about born-again experiences. Around this time, some eighteen years ago, I had one of those experiences.
I was born and raised in a Catholic family. I had two amazing and faithful Catholic parents who loved their faith. They practiced what they preached in love and charity. All through my own life, I have had faith (even if, at times, I have demonstrated varying degrees of devotion and intimacy). Looking back, there have been many times in my life where I was just going through the motions. It was as if Catholicism were a club to which I belonged. Going to Mass, at times, seemed like nothing more than an obligation to fulfill.
In my thirties, I was confronted by three major challenges. First, my wife had been dealing with Multiple Sclerosis for several difficult years. Second, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Third, I was faced with whether to leave my job and start a new business. In the midst of turmoil, I felt a longing for something more. I am sure that, at some level, I was seeking some peace. I felt like I needed something to fill the gap that was growing inside me. Around this same time, the parish I attended welcomed three new priests.
One was a youthful, energetic, and great-hugging Italian with a wonderful singing voice. One was newly ordained and extremely personable. The other looked frightened as he introduced himself that first Sunday. Father Bruce and Father David had made eloquent and humorous introductions, but this third simply said: “My name is Father Ed and I’m glad to be here”. I thought to myself: “This one’s gonna a gem at homilies. A real spellbinder. I need to find out when he’s scheduled so I can skip that Mass.”
I came to learn, however, that there was something to his homilies. In his simple manner, quiet demeanor, and in his dour look, there was humor and there was warmth and there was love. This penetrated the clutter of my crusted outer shell. It was not like a knife, but a needle. While there was a lot of crust to poke through, it was working its way to my core. Lent was approaching.
I remember the Ash Wednesday Mass of that year. All the children of the parish school were in attendance. As I sat in a back pew, I wanted to belong. I wanted to have something of the innocence that I saw in the faces of the children who filled the church that morning. I wanted something more than I had. I felt the Holy Spirit whispering into my ear. I did not want to listen but I finally decided to go to confession at the next opportunity.
The following Saturday afternoon, some eighteen years ago, I approached my church with dread and anxiety, and yet I felt an irresistible power drawing me. I had been reading about perfect contrition and, in order to achieve perfect contrition, I felt I had to tell all. It had been more than a few years since my last confession and so I had more than a few things to share. Poor Father David.
When I walked out of the confessional, I felt I was a new man. To this day, reconciliation remains a favorite sacramental experience for me. I feel grace, in the sacrament, and renewal. I feel spiritual intimacy as I do in no other experience. I am not trying to knock beautiful sunsets, holding my grandson, seeing my wife laugh and smile or, even, the Eucharist. Reconciliation is just very special to me.
It’s been eighteen years. I have had my dry times and desperate times and strayed from my path. However, when the father of a sick son says to Jesus “I do believe, help my unbelief”, I feel that this is me. Many, many days. I hope that I have matured in my faith and that I have kept a sense of the humble and simple message that Father Ed continues to preach today. I am still figuring things out and still searching. When I get frustrated, I think of what Peter said after many had abandoned Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
If you have not been to the Sacrament of Penance in a while, I encourage you to give it another try. Lent is just around the corner. If you are not Catholic, or don’t normally observe Lent, you might have something that you feel is keeping you from being closer to God. Try giving away, whatever that is, for forty days. If you have hurt someone, maybe tell that person you are sorry. If you have been avoiding God, maybe tell God you are sorry. If you are searching for something, or if there is a space in you that needs filling, St. Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
I pray that Jesus accompany you during this Lent. I pray for whatever miracle you are looking for in your life. Finally, I pray that God will be part of living that miracle with you as you journey on. Peace!
I ran across a lovely column by Fr. William Grimm, a MaryKnoll Missioner in Japan, on the difference between faithfulness and loyalty. This is something I have struggled with myself, and he has really captured something important. Here are the highlights:
Looking at dogs and their fidelity, I realize that this virtue — whether in a dog or a human — is grounded in history. It is actualized in the present, based in the past. That seems obvious enough. Neither a dog nor a person can be loyal to someone or something which he or she has as yet not encountered.
However, the fact that this human virtue is also a canine virtue should alert us to the possibility that it might not rank as high as others in the hierarchy of virtues.Might there not be a similar virtue that we share with God as the dog shares fidelity with us, an apotheosis of loyalty? There is, though we lack an English word for it and are forced to use a word usually synonymous with fidelity or loyalty: faithfulness….We too are capable of and called to live this virtue of faithfulness, to live in commitment not solely for the sake of what has been, but for the hopeful vision of what can be, what will be….When we take marriage vows or make some other life commitment, we commit ourselves to faithfulness. We do not know where faithfulness will lead, but we know that it can only last so long as we remain open to new experiences, new insights, new disappointments, new failures, new triumphs and new mysteries.
The virtue of faithfulness can be perverted in two ways. It can be replaced by loyalty, a loyalty to a past which we find comfortable and secure. This loyalty can cause us to reject faithfulness to what is new, to what is to come. At the other extreme, faithfulness to what is to come can be replaced by faith in what we want to come, a future we have decided upon. In both cases we have turned away from God and his promise and put our faith in ourselves or in our constructed image of God. We need to reject these comfortable fantasies and embrace the unseen hope which is the Gospel.
As we prepare to enter the holy season of Lent may we remember and have faith in God’s promise: “See, I make all things new!”
Vox Nova is again pleased to present a guest post by Fr. Carl Diederichs of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Bread In The Wilderness
Father Carl Diederichs
All Saints Catholic Church
In the Gospel we proclaimed today, March 2, 2014, Jesus continues to teach us how to live as His disciples (Matt 6:24-34): He begins by saying, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (money, property or that in which one puts one’s trust and finds one’s basic security).”
Jesus continues to urge us not to “worry” about life, what we are to eat or drink, what we are to wear, because God, our Heavenly Father will provide for us. Our Heavenly Father feeds us, so don’t worry, Jesus says. And as for clothing, why are you worried about what you will wear? God will take care of what we eat, drink and wear. But we do worry, don’t we? We fret and scheme and spent so much time worrying about ourselves.
Many of us have made the decision about which master we will serve. And we know this not by what we say, but by what we do. We all need to meditate on the prayer we say at each Mass, the Our Father, when we ask for “our daily bread.”
We cannot reap and keep if we are serving God. We must care and share. And this isn’t to deny we have needs and as good stewards we plan for those needs, but we also know that many of our financial decisions are based on “wants” and not needs. And this is where the challenge to share and care comes from, before we worry about our “wants,” we have a responsibility to give to the needs of others.
And we don’t need to look far to see the unmet needs of our brothers and sisters who are poor and hungry. If we are Godly people we know that feeding them is an essential part of our life’s work. It means we have chosen to serve God.
The need to rethink our consumerism and to see how often we act greedily is part of our journey to become more like God: to be generous, loving and kind to all, but especially the poor.
We know we didn’t cause the problem of poverty, but we are here to alleviate it, if we have chosen to follow God. Our sensitivity to the needs of others will be the sensitivity of God. And as we become more and more sensitive to the needs of poor people, we will hear these words of Pope Francis in a more profound way: “Today finding a homeless person who has died of cold is not news…the many children who don’t have food ~ that is not news. This is grave. We can’t rest easy while things are this way.”
So, God has provided enough food and clothing for all. It is our responsibility to share.
One year ago, Pope Benedict XVI carried out what will surely go down in history as the most radical act of his pontificate: leaving it. It was this startling act – the first papal resignation in six centuries – that made possible the next great surprise: the election of his successor, the first pope to take the name Francis.
It is not necessary to pretend there are no differences between the two popes in order to recognize the connection between these two events, or to appreciate the complementary gifts that both have contributed to the Church. And despite the stark and even antagonistic contrasts that have been drawn between them, for Benedict himself, seeing the charismatic leadership of Pope Francis has affirmed to him that his resignation was the will of God – a ringing affirmation that he has reaffirmed more recently, dismissing suggestions that the resignation had not been truly voluntary (and thereby expressing support for his successor over some of the Church’s right-fringe voices).
A year after Pope Emeritus Benedict’s historic exit, I remain grateful for this culmination of his service to the Church in a courageous act of radical humility that has also given us the great gift of Pope Francis.
I recently conducted an interview with Michael O’Brien at The Jesuit Post in which he commented on the current state of dystopian literature. He observed:
In short, authority in any form is presented as tragically flawed, and the solution presented is individualism combined with physical powers and, increasingly, distorted supernatural or preternatural powers. We all agree that tyranny is bad, but most people think it will be countered only when we, the “good” people, have enough knowledge and power—power of all kinds. In most story-lines this is usually combined with romance and sexual licentiousness—all the usual clichés about what freedom is. It’s basically an adolescent psychology. It would not stand up against any real tyrant, and surely not an Antichrist.
This analysis resonated with me, since I generally like dystopian literature and to some degree try to keep up with it. But I’m generally disappointed. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised when adolescent dystopian literature — like The Hunger Games or Divergent — manifest an “adolescent psychology.” To be expected I guess. Although, as I’ve said before, The Hunger Games was at least a richer experience to the degree that as far as I could tell only one character in all three books manifested anything like Christian moral character. And I always like when an author doesn’t really side with anyone. Still, that only barely mitigated how bad I thought the third book was.
But when a dystopian book like The Road exchanges moments of true metaphysical insight concerning “borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” for the whimpering individualistic conclusion that one must “carry the fire… that is inside you,” I despair again. What makes Michael O’Brien’s dystopian literature so much more appealing — and I can’t wait for his new novel Elijah in Jerusalem to come out – is that his Catholic imagination inspires him to posit real Tyrants and a real Eschatology, kind of like you find in Canticle for Leibowitz. Enjoy the interview.
I’VE RECENTLY DISCOVERED A RELATIVELY NEW SINGER-SONGWRITER ON THE SCENE, a man named Mike Rosenberg, who is better known by his stage name, Passenger.
He’s explained that his nickname describes his approach to songwriting: He’s a passenger going through life, describing what he sees out his window. And what he sees is — or, more precisely, his powers of perception are — extraordinary. His breakout hit, “Let Her Go,” sold more than a million copies back in October, so it’s early in his career, but I think he is pointed toward greatness.
Rosenberg’s lyrics are both spare and exact, describing characters and situations with no wasted words. His voice suits his material well: it has a kind of rough-sawn sweetness that finds stark beauty and redemption in his often bleak subject matter.
Here is a snippet from his song “Riding to New York,” which he wrote after meeting a man in Minnesota who had been diagnosed with emphysema and was riding his Harley back to New York to essentially say goodbye to his family. This is the man describing his mission:
The doctors told me that my body won’t hold me,
My lungs are turning black.
Been a Lucky Strikes fool since I was at school and there ain’t no turning back.
They can’t tell me how long I’ve got,
Maybe months but maybe not,
So I’m taking this bike and riding to New York.
Cause I wanna see my granddaughter one last time,
Wanna hold her close and feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine.
Wanna see my son and the man he’s become,
Tell him I’m sorry for the things I’ve done,
And I’d do it if I had to walk.
Oh, I’m taking this bike and riding to New York
There is something about that line, “I’d do it if I had to walk,” that reminds me very much of my father’s last months.
He died of cancer almost 20 years ago, and his final months were filled with reconciliation and peace, before the haze of pain and morphine took its toll and his voice. The differences I had with him that had once seemed so important, the things that had kept us apart for years, seemed to dissolve like old varnish under steel wool, and we could talk with a stripped-down honesty that the awareness of death brings. We had some of the most clarifying talks of our entire relationship in those months, as I sat by his bed.
It takes a very knowing, even brave, observer to see the state of mind that one finds oneself in when one is dying. It’s not a fun thought for any of us, but Rosenberg looks and, out of compassion, writes a song for that dying man, and it is important that we see him and recognize our own fate in his story.
I think all of us, especially those of us with creative gifts, could stand to do that more – to see and honor what is best and true in our own stories and the stories of those we touch.
Recently, the new business school at the Catholic University of America (CUA) received a decent donation from the Koch Brothers. In response to a barrage of justifiable criticism, university president John Garvey and business school dean Andrew Abela penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring that they would keep the money and that their accusers could take a flying leap.
If this is an exaggeration, it is only a slight one. The tone of the piece is petulant and hyper-defensive. Clearly, the critics have hit a nerve.
The substance of the piece is little better. For a start, what could have possibly prompted the authors to choose the Wall Street Journal editorial page as their outlet? As everyone knows, this is the intellectual ground zero for the libertarian virus that has infected the body politic for the past few decades. It wallows in the self-righteous and quasi-religious doctrine that the rich are graced with the rewards of virtue and that only the salvific grace of the free market can set us free.
On almost every economic issue, it stands squarely against Catholic social teaching, in both principle and practice. And yet this is the chosen venue of Garvey and Abela to claim that they will not be influenced by Koch positions. This is like taking money from the Cold War-era Soviet Union and choosing a communist newspaper to defend yourself against improper taint!
So much for the outlet. It gets much worse when you actually get into the substance. The op-ed starts by taking a term intrinsically linked to Catholic social teaching—“social justice”—and mocking it. We are told that CUA will not cave into the demands of the “liberal social justice movement”—by which they mean the clear and non-negotiable teachings of the Church on economic matters. This rhetoric is par for the course at the Wall Street Journal, of course, but highly disappointing for the academic leaders of a preeminent Catholic institution.
Beyond the snark, the fundamental problem with the op-ed is that it deliberately misrepresents the issue. Garvey and Abela claim that the problem is not that “the Charles Koch Foundation is a bad actor because it funds improper activity elsewhere”. But that is precisely the problem, and it goes far deeper and dirtier than the Koch’s attempt to quash public sector unions in Wisconsin, the only example they bring up. Let’s just put this out there: the whole Koch philosophy of unbridled libertarianism and me-first individualism is completely and utterly opposed to authentic Catholic social teaching. Of this, there can be no doubt.
Even worse, the Koch brothers use their money for poisonous purposes, in ways that do substantial harm to the common good. They are among the country’s biggest polluters, and they use their money to oppose all efforts to combat climate change, even to the extent of funding liars who claim that it does not exist. On the other hand, Pope Francis is about to pen an encyclical on the environment.
The Kochs seek to deliberately and maliciously keep millions of people without health insurance, putting ideology over peoples’ lives, in part by attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. On the other hand, the Church sees basic health care as a human right that should be, as far as possible, “cheap or even free of charge”.
And then there is the question of unions. The Kochs are on the front line of attempts to quash collective bargaining and the power of organized labor in the US. As a recent example, they were involved—behind the scenes as usual—in efforts to keep unions out of Volkswagen, even though German industrial relations are built on the principle of co-determination, a principle that springs directly from Catholic social teaching.
For while the Kochs see strong unions as an impediment to economic freedom, the Church sees them the embodiment of a natural right to association, an “indispensible element of social life”. More than that, they are a “mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice” and a means to protect workers “just rights vis-à-vis entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production”. So yes, the Church has a lot to say about unions, and yes, this teaching is non-negotiable.
Garvey and Abela pull out the tired old canard that the Church has never said anything about unionization in the public sector, but neither has it said anything explicitly about unionization in other sectors of the economy either. A natural right to association does not cease to be a natural right because the government rather than a private enterprise is the employer. To claim otherwise is illogical and disingenuous.
When you think about it, the authors could have actually made a half-decent case for their position in this op-ed. They could have argued along the following lines: we need the money to fulfill our mission, we recognize the problems with the Koch Brothers, but we assure you that our business school will uphold traditional Catholic social teaching.
But they don’t make this argument. They don’t make any effort whatsoever to defend traditional and orthodox Catholic social teaching beyond a banal statement that the economy “exists to serve humans and not the other way around”. Instead, they engage in a curious balancing act—decrying “guilt by association” and claiming purity on one hand, and deriding their “social justice progressive” critics and winking at the libertarian worldview on the other.
In doing so, they seem to tilt their hand—not toward traditional and orthodox Catholic social teaching, but towards the heterodox free-market innovation much favored by the Acton Institute (and which surely warms the hearts of Charles and David Koch!).
We know that Andrew Abela has links with Acton—he has received an award from them, and published in their house journal (making the case that the principle of subsidiarity argues against raising the federal minimum wage!). This is a major red flag for a business school at a university under the direct jurisdiction of the US Catholic bishops.
It is also a major double standard. We all know that, if Planned Parenthood were giving the money, the shoe would be on the other foot. It would no longer be sufficient to claim that the money would be used for noble purposes and to decry “guilt by association”.
But unfortunately, Catholic social teaching is held to a far lower standard. I think we know why. For decades now, people like George Weigel, Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and Robert Sirico have been trying to remake Catholic social teaching in the image of Protestant and liberal America, and re-baptize it in the stagnant waters of economic Darwinism.
It is time to end this willful distortion, as well as the hypocrisy and the double standards. It is time to stand firm and reclaim our legacy.
And yes, Catholic social teaching has a truly great legacy at CUA, and his name is Msgr. John A. Ryan. His was once the face of Catholic social teaching in this country—not Sirico, and certainly not the Koch brothers. I can only hope and pray that CUA will come back to its senses.
Recently my colleague Kyle has posted a discussion of a video on the virtue of modesty. I found it fascinating as a cultural artifact, since it assumes without question so many of the many tropes about modesty which dominate in discussions of this virtue by conservative Christians. In particular, it frames modesty as a female virtue. Or, another way of looking at it is to use a bit of feminist analysis: it presumes that the male gaze is normative: both men and women view women only through the perspective of men; women’s views of themselves are marginalized and replaced by how they are told to view themselves by men.
This brought me back to an unfinished post I started last summer after a visit to Madrid. One of the red light districts in Madrid is Calle Montera, stretching south from Gran Via to Puerta del Sol. For a 2-3 block stretch it is densely populated by prostitutes and their clients, along with large numbers of tourists and Madrilenos who are just passing through. The boundaries of the region are unmarked but as real as a line painted on the street. Within it the police turn a blind eye to solicitation but the women know to not step outside this zone.
Passing through Calle Montera last summer, I was struck by the sheer numbers of prostitutes. In previous years I have seen a lot, but this year there were many more. (I presume that this is a result of the economic situation.) I was also struck by the distinctive way the women were dressed: in particular by their shoes. Every prostitute that I saw was wearing 5 inch heels, and a few were tottering (literally!) on heels that were at least 6 inches high. In previous years I recall that go-go boots were the distinctive footwear.
I suspect that one reason for the distinctive footwear is to distinguish themselves from the other women passing through, including women heading to the dance clubs and bars in the neighborhood south of Puerta del Sol and who are dressed in “club wear”: short skirts and dresses, tight jeans or leggings, but with sandals or low heeled shoes. Their shoes and dress both establish their identity and serve as advertising. They are a self-aware and self-identified commodity. They want to be looked at but only for the purpose of initiating a commercial transaction. They are commodifying themselves for the male gaze.
This distinguishes them from the the women heading to the clubs who, presumably, want to be looked at but for different reasons. If we take the argument of the male gaze seriously, then they want to be looked at by men, for men’s reasons: they make themselves over to fulfill men’s standards of sexy and beautiful. They may be self-aware as the prostitutes of Calle Montera are, or they may being doing it unconsciously, because this is simply what women are supposed to do. The video Kyle posted sets different standards, but the effect is the same: women are to see themselves as these young men see them, and their (male) gaze is determinative of their worth. (As the song implies, girls who don’t meet their visual standard lack integrity.)
Unacknowledged, the male gaze makes any discussion of modesty problematic, since it can reduce the virtue of modesty to a dress code for women. A rather extreme example of this is the blog Modesty Rediscovered: check out their style inspirations and the advice, purportedly from Pius XII, on women’s dress. My personal favorite from this list:
A modest outfit conceals rather than reveal the figure of the wearer; they do not unduly emphasize the parts of the body.
But even if we move away from this and take into account the male gaze, discussions of modesty seem to flounder. A good example of this comes from a pair of blogs: Sarah over the Moon and Rage Against the Minivan. Both are written by Christian women, but in a pair of posts last year they crossed swords over modesty. Rage started it with a discussion of an incident in which a male friend of hers goes clubbing and encounters a woman with a very low cut top and large breasts breasts which she has covered with glitter infused body oil. Or, as she trenchantly puts it: “she had glitter on her tits.” The woman catches the man staring at her breasts and calls him out. The question quickly became how to interpret this event. Rage argued:
[W]hen a woman wears revealing clothing, then gets angry when men notice, that’s not cool either. It makes her a hypocrite….When a woman goes after a man for noticing her deep v, that’s shaming him. Trading shame for shame is not a win for womankind, my friends. A woman can wear whatever she wants. More power to her. What she can’t do is expect men not to notice. Most men can regard her charms then move on. If she wears a micromini and claims to not want a reaction from men, I’m going to straight up call her a liar but I’m not going to call her wrong for wearing it….[I]f you are going to wear what could be legitimately called “suggestive”, then just own it. Most men can appreciate the way you look and not lust after you, but don’t shame them for their appreciation.
Sarah argued forcefully against this position, writing
Though…the author of this post [does not] promote rape and sexual assault, [she] blatantly tell[s] women that their clothing choices can forfeit their right to bodily autonomy. Rapists and those who support them use THE SAME thinking to get away with rape and it works. Time and time again it works….This line of thinking doesn’t start with “that girl in the mini-skirt was asking to be raped.” It starts small. It starts with the idea that women don’t have the right to define their clothing choices. It starts with the idea that clothing can take away someone’s right to complain when they feel violated. It starts there….People–especially those in groups that face systemic violence–have the right to express discomfort. They have the right to “shame” those that they feel violated by. YES, even if they have glitter on their boobs. A truly “nice” guy who truly means no harm will respect that, apologize, and look away. Saying that clothing can take away the right to bodily autonomy is dangerous, and it is participating it rape culture.
Reading both posts (and I recommend reading them at length, including the comments) points out that any discussion of modesty must contend with the reality of the male gaze. We need to talk about what modesty means in the context of social structures which are asymmetric and privilege men, but we also need to talk about what we want modesty to mean. Sarah wants to reject the normative power of the male gaze and give women the total autonomy to dress as they want. As she put it in an earlier post entitled Feminism and Abstinence:
A feminist practice of abstinence…would reject any claim that women dressing immodestly gives men a right to look at them.
Women are free to choose what they wear and define for themselves what it means. This is a remarkably libertarian, individualistic position. The rest of this post about abstinence has a lot of thoughtful suggestions, but this is not one of them. Sarah in her first post makes the point that dress is communication, but then fails to follow through: communication cannot be separated from the milieu in which it occurs.
Rage, on the other hand, correctly wants to position the meaning within a broader social framework: she also rejects the male gaze as normative, but realizes that men will indeed look and that they will do so in a social setting which defines beautiful and sexy in certain ways. Women have to be prepared to accept the fact that if they speak with the “vocabulary” of the dominant culture, one infused by the male gaze, then they will not always be understood in the ways they intend. Or, as my wife pointed out when I sketched this post to her: the women with the glitter probably never thought of this as anything except some fun makeup. But it had other meanings which she must acknowledge exist, even if she rejects them.
Dress is communication: whether explicitly, as in the case of the prostitutes of Calle Montera, or implicitly, when men and women just follow the latest fashions as they get ready to go out on a Friday night. But before we can establish appropriate dress codes, we to move the discussion beyond the male gaze: can we define, as Catholics, an ethos of modesty that makes of it a non-gender specific virtue? Can we establish new norms for understanding dress and behavior of both men and women, one based in mutuality and that explicitly refuses to accept the terms imposed by the male gaze? I hope that we can, though the attempts I have run across mostly fail. A quick search this morning for discussions of male modesty came up with a few interesting attempts, including this blog, Guys on Modesty. But even here the discussion is shaped by a quote from Pope John Paul II that seems to frame virtue in terms of the male gaze:
God assigns as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman. (*)
So, I end with a question, since I don’t have any answers: what are we to do? How can we make modesty a beautiful virtue for both men and women while leaving behind this notion that women are passive and men define the terms?
(*) As an aside: I cannot find an original source for this quote, which seems to have come from a speech at an audience and not from any of his encyclicals or letters.)
In my high school days, half my life ago, I attended a few youth conferences organized by my church. As we participants were all concupiscent teens overrun with hormones and on short supply of self-mastery, the conference speakers talked to us a lot about the spiritual dangers of lust. They warned us, sternly, that fornication and masturbation were not, as the world had told us, normal and natural, but grave and potentially mortal sins. We were told that to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage or in any way not ordered toward procreation is to misuse our bodies—sacred temples of the Holy Spirit—and to violate God’s will and purpose. If we pleasured ourselves, we were endangering our souls. Lustful self-stimulation could be as hell-bent an act as cold-blooded murder.
These talks would sometimes be followed at some point by confession, where we could admit our guilt, acknowledge our weakness, ask for forgiveness, and seek the grace to return to chastity and purity in mind and body. In some fashion, the struggle with lust continued, for all of us, as neither the talks nor the confessions diminished our pheromones. We prayed for God’s mercy.
This theological culture is one of the contexts in which Christian advocacy of modest dress should be understood. If you believe, as many socially-conservative Christians do, that lustful thoughts can lead to eternal separation from God, and that this separation—hell—is the worst of all possible fates, then you’d want to obstruct or remove potential stimulants like bare skin. You’d also want to teach people to master their passions and appetites so that they’re capable of controlling their sexual thoughts and feelings. Of course, it’s much easier to set standards for appropriate dress than it is to instruct people in the virtue of self-control, and so the former often becomes a substitute for the latter. And, in practice, this results in a double standard: because boys will be boys, the onus falls on the ladies. Women need to be virtuous so men don’t sin.
Take this video called “Virtue Makes You Beautiful.” It’s been making the rounds in my social media circles. Set to the tune of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” the music video features well-dressed, mostly young men, singing the praises of a virtuous woman who doesn’t wear short skirts or low cut shirts: “Baby you light up the world like no one else by the way you speak and respect yourself.” If that line wasn’t judgmental enough, the singing gentlemen leave no doubt about how little regard they have for most women: “Girls with integrity are hard to find these days. You gotta know. Oh. Oh. You are so beautiful.” No translation needed: if you don’t measure up to their standard of modesty, then you have no integrity and no self-respect. They’re not just expressing their discomfort with “immodest” dress; they’re morally judging the women whose attire and behavior make them uncomfortable, as if women’s integrity were inversely correlated to their display of bare skin.
The most revealing lines come next: “If only you saw what I can see, you’d understand why I need your modesty. Right now I’m talking to you, and you must believe. You gotta know. Oh. Oh. Virtue is so beautiful.” The song isn’t about the virtuous women; it’s about the men, their need for modesty, and their position over her. They’re talking to her, not with her. They don’t ask her to be modest; they demand it. She must believe. She must know. This is about power, not virtue. It’s about them setting themselves up as judges of her clothing choices and intentions.
Modesty is a virtue. It falls under the cardinal virtue of temperance. There are appropriate and inappropriate situations and circumstances for unveiling one’s body or soul. There are good and bad reasons for showing one’s flesh or speaking one’s mind. I’m not against modesty, but I am against the double standards and sweeping disparagement that often accompany its promotion. I am against making modesty into a form of social control. If the sight of skin causes me to lose control, then it’s my own virtue that should concern me.
I’ve mentioned this before, but Capitalism has a self-destructive tendency to concentrate wealth and power at the top, leading eventually to economic collapse because the only people with purchasing power are a few very rich people. Progressives wish to correct this tendency through support for labor, reasonable regulations and progressive income tax rates. This ensures that gains from economic progress are shared by all.
Furthermore: In an unrestrained Capitalism, this concentrated wealth equates to the concentration of economic, social, political and cultural power in the hands of an elite minority. Such is absolutely antithetical any notion of democratic governance or meaningful conception of individual rights and liberty – after all, what is to prevent the 1% from saying, “advocating for anything that threatens our dominance will render you all but unemployable.” Yes, you’re “free” to speak your mind, but if doing so results in economic ruination, are you truly possessing “free speech?”
This is what FDR referred to as “economic royalism” and what Lincoln and others described as the “money power”, an intentional reference to the term “the slave power.”
Resolved: We can either have “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, or we can have government of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy. We can’t have both.
Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time. 14 February 2013.
I Kings 11:29-32; 12-19 & Mark 7:31-37.
Warm and fuzzy sentimentalist that I am, it might not be terribly surprising when I say that I love Valentine’s Day.
It’s the poetry … all the snarky poetry that gets written about love. My favourite are verses by Shakespeare where he takes things people typically enjoy and then observes how the one he loves fails to compare. A line or two:
I have seen damask roses, red and white,
but no such roses do I see in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes there is more delight
than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
that music has a far more pleasing sound …
In university, I tested these lines on a friend of mine, and she did not find them flattering. What sort of person, after all, wants to be told that she smells less sweet than perfume? Who wants to hear that his words are less captivating than music? No. I want affirmation instead.
All the more surprising, then, that instead of basking in the glory of his hard-earned star-status, Jesus withdraws. The man he will cure will be cured away from the crowd. Further, Jesus identifies that he expects word not to spread about the occurrence. As he often does, Jesus seeks to avoid notice. His tendency is to point beyond himself; to emphasize the Father.
Like the man Jesus touches, a newly baptized person has his or her ears and mouth also touched; to receive and to proclaim, it is prayed, what the Father has done in Christ. It seems to me that the hard work of Christian living is neither found in striving for recognition nor in projecting the most attractive me I can possibly project. Rather, I am called to point beyond myself; point to what the Father has done in Christ.
Perhaps, in this way, the Gospel fits rather nicely with the celebration of love. Ignatius of Loyola is said to have prayed: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, memory, understanding, and my entire will. Take all that I have and possess. You have given all to me and to you I return it. Do with it what you will. Give me your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”
That love and grace have been given in the person of Christ who can be experienced in the Eucharist. May that experience be transforming.
Downton Abbey has clearly become a cultural phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Brideshead Revisited before it, it seems to capture a certain zeitgeist—a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, especially against a backdrop of economic crisis and cultural malaise.
But wait, progressives warn us, we should not romanticize this period! We should not be swept away by the elegance, they say, and ignore the stark injustices and unpleasant realities of that time. After all, this was a time when a person was defined by birth rather than merit, when inequality was staggeringly high, and when prejudice was deeply ingrained. Indeed, Downton Abbey puts on display all kinds of prejudice and discrimination—based on class, gender, race, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation.
And yet, all kinds of people are willing to look past these blemishes. Why? Clearly, part of it is due to good drama, likeable characters, crisp dialogue, attractive actors in leading roles—and of course, the rapid-fire one-liners of the inimitable dowager countess!
But I think there is something more, something deeper, something more latent. I think Downton Abbey taps into a deep dissatisfaction with the unrooted nature of modern society, lacking a sense of true belonging or connection.
Downton Abbey is really the latest incarnation in a long literary genre that taps into a deep sense of loss during times of dizzying change. In one sense, this goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden! It can certainly be seen in our fascination with the forgotten past, especially our medieval past, real or imagined. It pervades the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, with the passing of the Elves and the dawning of a new age.
And indeed, the 1920s were a period of remarkable change. The second industrial revolution had reached its apogee, and the modern economy as we know it had come into existence. As a corollary, the old order—based on a landed aristocracy—was fading away.
It seems strange to mourn this change, especially for people who identify with progressive politics! But the appeal of Downton lies less in a defense of privilege, and more in the allure of the norms that drove relationships at that time.
Think about it. We live in a world of impersonal exchange, exclusively self-interested motivation, and limitless demands and desires. We live in an economy that functions on excess and a society that wallows in the lack of restraint. Old ideas of duty, responsibility, civic virtue, and prudence seem totally alien to us.
The old order—unequal and unjust as it might have been—was nevertheless based on the notion that we are not simply autonomous individuals following our own destinies and our own desires. Rather, it was based on the firm principle that we are bound to society and to each other by reciprocal rights, duties, and responsibilities.
In the move from old to new, we have indeed lost something valuable, something worthwhile, something more in tune with who we are as human beings. This is really what underpins modern Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII down to Pope Francis.
It is also, I believe, what really resonates about Downton. Yes, there is a huge chasm between upstairs and downstairs—although it is not impassable. But, on the whole, the servants are treated with dignity and respect—as human beings, not just mere inputs in a production process. The relationships, although hierarchical, are nonetheless marked more by reciprocal fraternity than by calculated self-interest.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the relationship between Lord Grantham and his tenant farmers. Although the estate is perennially short of cash, Lord Grantham resists raising rents or evicting his tenants. He notes that some of these families have farmed the land since the Napoleonic Wars, and that the bond between lord and tenant is in reality a “partnership” and should be treated as such.
This resonates with us, partly because it seems so alien. When was the last time you heard a CEO talk about business as a partnership between owners and workers, between capital and labor?
Instead, our culture tells us that success in business is first and foremost about the financial bottom line and maximizing shareholder value. It tells us that top executives deserve their outsized returns, because they flow fairly from the market. It tells us that workers are mere “factors of production” who need the correct incentives. It tells us that our collective duty to provide for the less-well-off can be met by a combination of state support and private charity—with the precise balance depending on your political views—but not by the employer.
Without a relationship of reciprocity, the invisible hand looks a lot like an all-too-visible fist. Without bonds of social capital and trust, the glue that holds society together comes undone, leading to indifference and marginalization. Without the virtue of prudence, greed and consumerism run rampant, leading to a throwaway culture and an economy of exclusion. Sound familiar?
This prevailing ethos goes well beyond economic life. Just look at the prevailing libertarian attitudes toward personal relationships, which put the satisfaction of individual desires above any sense of social responsibility or prudence. In a culture that elevates the likes of Justin Bieber and the Kardassians, is it any wonder that we are drawn to a time when virtue still meant something—at least in theory if not always in practice?
My point here is not that we should return to the kinds of economic, social, and personal relationships that underpin Downton Abbey. Not at all. Rather, it is that we should restore the underlying norms that guided those relationships, and apply them to the different circumstances of our own time. Deep down, I think this is what people are really looking for—not a return to the past, but a more rooted present.
Recently I wrote a critique of the Pro-Life movement, suggesting that it was in the grips of a totalizing ideology. Several commentators responded by arguing that this sort of attack was a reflection of partisanship, that it did nothing for the Pro-Life movement, and that I was turning a blind-eye to similar faults among progressive Catholics. This was not my intent, but I think these were substantive comments and worthy of further consideration. What kinds of criticism of the Pro-Life movement are acceptable and which are not? Must every criticism be accompanied by a moment of breast beating, so as to forestall suggestions that we are ignoring the Gospel injunction “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3).
Shortly after this I published this post I stumbled on an NCR column by Michael Sean Winters from December that encapsulates these questions quite clearly. He uses the statement by Bishop Tobin criticizing the late Nelson Mandela for his stance on abortion—a statement that many people found discordant given the near universal encomiums given after his death—to both criticize the Pro-Life movement and to reflect on the failure of the Catholic Left (MSW’s terminology) to grapple with abortion. His takes his fellow progressives to task, and it is worth quoting him at length:
[W]e mostly talk about other things and, when the issue of abortion is unavoidable, we make excuses for the pro-choice stance of those allied with us on other issues, or we shrug, or we rail against the bishops for the failure to protect born children from rape, in any event, we denude the issue. This must stop….The Catholic Left must re-engage the issue of abortion with all the seriousness it deserves….It is difficult. Let’s be honest. We don’t want to alienate our friends and, in certain social circles, abortion is not something anyone wants to discuss. Nor is it always appropriate to bring it up as, for example, when a deeply loved person has just died. But, do we on the Catholic Left look for opportunities to raise the issue, sympathetically and seriously, or do we look for strategies to avoid it?
So far, so good: these are points more conservative Catholics routinely make against progressives. I agree with him and perhaps I should be stronger in making these points myself. Unfortunately, to set the ground for his critique he frames the issue in an “Us versus Them” way which blunts his remarks. He begins with this transition:
Most disturbingly, however, Bishop Tobin’s comments harm the pro-life movement because they make that cause appear to be the sole provenance of wingnuts.
He later concludes with this language, writing,
If we on the Catholic Left who care, and care deeply, about the tragedy of abortion, if we do not stand up with greater vigor and frequency, we will abandon the issue to the wingnuts.
In between these bookends, and before turning his focus to progressive Catholics, MSW raises some important points where he has significant differences with the Pro-Life movement: in particular, I agree with him when he says that
Bishop Tobin and other pro-lifers do their cause no good when they isolate the issue of abortion from all other human concerns.
However, I think he is doing his own argument no good by referring pointedly to “their cause.” He later argues that he and other progressive Catholics care “about the tragedy of abortion” so why can’t he say “our cause”? It is not certain, but this seems to suggest he cannot envision himself in alliance with Bishop Tobin and the other “wingnuts” in the Pro-Life movement. And the result is that his positive points come off as overly defensive.
It is at this point that I begin to part ways with MSW. I admit that I am often driven to distraction by the Pro-Life movement and often distance myself from them by flying the flag of the seamless garment ethic, identifying myself as pro-life by supporting groups such as Feminists for Life or Consistent Life. As the old cliche goes, I can fight my enemies but God save me from my friends. But therein is an important point: I am willing to admit that the Pro-Life movement and I are allies, or at least share the central goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating abortion, even while I criticize their strategy and tactics. While there might be individuals in the Pro-Life movement whom I might deride as being wingnuts or at least strongly criticize for saying really stupid things (certain politicians and their comments about rape and abortion come to mind), I do not think that the movement as a whole or even in the main is dominated by wingnuts.
Some readers might object that my comments about a totalizing ideology are simply a more sophisticated way of the saying the same thing, but I disagree. The insidious power of any ideology is that it traps people within its confines and shapes and controls their response to reality in ways that can be counter-productive at best. Bishop Tobin is a case in point: in the grips of the Pro-Life ideology, he reacted to the death of Nelson Mandela without ever considering whether his remarks were helping or hurting the cause. This is not a blanket defense: “My ideology made me do it” explains but it does not excuse. But I hope that it suggests that I am approaching this matter with more nuance and less disdain. (And in this regard it is worth seeing my post praising Bishop Tobin for a previous statement that was widely criticized.) And I think my pointed criticism of its ideological underpinnings is necessary if the Pro-Life movement is going to expand beyond its current base and make further progress. But its critics, myself and MSW included, can probably do a better job making sure our criticisms are founded on our basic agreement on the evil of abortion.
My experience of the Enneagram – growing up – was entirely confined to one moment. While on the drive home from Mass one Sunday, I recall my mother objecting to there being an Enneagram workshop advertisement in the parish bulletin. The Enneagram, to my mother, was new age. I think she may even have succeeded in having the notice removed.
Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’ had not yet been written. If it had been, I suspect my mother would have felt reinforced. Noting the observation of Pope John Paul II, surrounding the enduring nature or lingering effects of Gnosticism, the text identifies one such manifestation as “the enneagram, a nine-type tool for character analysis which, when used as a means of spiritual growth, introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of the Christian faith” (1.4).
In my opinion, the indictment of this self-described “provisional report” (Forward) is often read without context. In the opinion I wish to share, it is precisely when the Enneagram is used for spiritual purposes that its true Christian impact can emerge.
What is the Enneagram?
Not unlike the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram is a relatively well-known instrument that can be employed to explore and define something of the human person. Myers-Briggs identifies four dichotomies while the Enneagram identifies nine distinct personality types. Elizabeth Wagele speaks of the perfectionist, helper, achiever, romantic, observer, questioner, adventurer, asserter and peacemaker. Basically each type approaches life with a lens that has been particularly coloured. The perfectionist wants to get things right. The helper wants to be liked. The achiever is driven to perform well, and so on.
The Enneagram provides a context in which persons can reflect upon their dispositions – their own behaviors and processes of thinking – as well as those of others. An Enneagram industry has blossomed in past decades as persons have capitalized on the opportunity to understand themselves better as well as others. For example, suppose an “achiever” (whose concept of herself very much depends on her success at what she undertakes) has done poorly on an assignment. Understanding that the self-image of this student is very much tied to her sense of competency, a good teacher will, as soon as possible, provide the student opportunity to do well at something and thus restore the image she has of herself.
The Enneagram within a Christian Framework
A most remarkable truth at work within the Enneagram surrounds the discernment it facilitates. The Franciscan Richard Rohr believes that here exists the original and authentic foundation of the Enneagram. I Corinthians identifies “recognizing spirits” as a gift of the Spirit (12:10) and Rohr believes that having discernment, as an original charism, evidences consciousness of the subtle nature of evil. The letter to the Romans has its author claim: “I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing that very things I hate” (7:15). The Enneagram, Rohr believes, explains why.
Rohr offers the example of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; a set of books which, he believes, evidence a sophisticated understanding of evil. Evil, there, disguises itself so as to draw in accomplices. The ring is a symbol which has the effect of drawing seemingly good persons into the experience of evil. Those with gifts once put to use in service of others, upon being brought into contact with the ring, succumb to evil.
The Enneagram, in the view of Rohr, is another way of showing how the human person can be destroyed by the very feature that he or she believes is most advantageous to his or her character. The very thing that a person finds advantageous to his or her character can become that which hastens his or her downfall. The very thing that a person finds advantageous to his or her character can become a set of blinders through which that person experiences reality; can become self-enslaving. From Hamlet, Claudius observes to Laertes that “goodness, growing to a pleurisy, dies in his own too much.”
For example, the adventurer, who looks at the world and sees what is possible, is one who sets out in search of stimulation. That searching and seeking for stimulation – good things – leave him unsatisfied and a sort of escalation occurs in his quest for stimulation. Goodness, growing to a pleurisy, dies in his own too much.
Rohr lacks optimism about the capacity of persons to recognize the evil and good; particularly in themselves. In Colossians, the author writes that when Jesus “had disarmed the principalities and powers, he made a public display of them, having triumphed over them,” (2:15) and Rohr views the Enneagram as seeking to show the evil that exists within each person: “Stop this I’m good stuff,” he counsels his audience. “Just stop it. I’m good? You’re not and I’m going to show you why you’re not! You’re not that good. None of you are. All right? The best thing you do is for very selfish motives. You do it to look good…”
The Enneagram is not about reading the external traits of a person – not about seeing how adventurous a person is – but rather is about that which motivates such expressions; not about reading what I do but rather about who I am. It is about reading the soul and, through that reading, bringing recognition to the primary flaw that exists in me; a flaw of which I cannot rid myself but one which, I can, learn to see through.
An Autobiographical Exurcus
There is a song by Kelly Clarkson, called Sober, in which she sings of survival; her process of learning to live without something which, even months more, she thought she could never live without. It is a song of some depth and Clarkson ends with a beautiful image. She sings: I’ve picked all my weeds, but kept the flowers.
A few years ago, I performed the Spiritual Exercises. One period of prayer surrounded the parable of the Tax Collector & Pharisee; the one wherein the Pharisee identifies to God all that he is doing well and expresses thanks for not being like the Tax Collector.
I remember being conscious, at a certain point in my prayer, that my reflection had wandered to a person I often experienced as intolerant; a person who, I thought, ably filled the sandals of that Pharisee. I recall being thankful that I was not like that person. To my shame, I was not the tolerant person I wanted to be and had told myself I was. I possessed the voice of a Pharisee.
I understand that it can sound strange to describe the Enneagram as exposing a flaw of which I cannot rid myself. Part of being at peace, in my view, meant realizing that the experience of the love of God was not going to mute that voice within me which I hated discovering. I cannot — I don’t think I can, at least — rid myself of that voice.
Returning to that image of Ms. Clarkson – I’ve picked all my weeds, but kept the flowers – Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, says: Let both grow until the harvest (13:30). However, when Clarkson first introduced that image, she adds “but I know it’s never really over”; a recognition in her, I think, that no quick-fix exists. Her song had begun with the words: “I don’t know. This could break my heart or save me,” and I find that what the Enneagram communicates is that it is not one or the other. It is recognizing an already broken heart, and a sense that while I want to run from that brokenness, God enters into it. The Gospels continuously identify the compassion of Jesus; the ability of Jesus to suffer with people who, as a result, are not alone. That, in my view, is what grace is and, in my view, it is good news. Only stripped of the pretense that I can fix myself, can receptivity toward the grace of God become something I consider.
This is what makes the Enneagram, in my view, Christian to its core. It represents the recognition within Christianity that a primary blindness exists in each person, and it communicates that what a person is blind to is, ultimately, him or herself. To Rohr, when a person can say I have met the enemy and the enemy is me, he or she has placed him or herself in a position to respond to God.
The Enneagram, to employ another Gospel image, is about identifying that stone which I reject but which, in fact, has become my cornerstone. In constructing personality there is something which, for the purposes of marketing an attractive self, I have eliminated or rejected. For the helper, her conversion will occur when she realizes that all her attempts to serve and help have originated from a self-centered place. Until she faces this reality, she will not find the cornerstone that builds the integrated and beautiful person that she can be. The Enneagram is about a movement towards contemplative awareness. Rather than being about development it is about humiliation. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. It is in that place of brokenness that a person meets God, and the Enneagram teaches how to get there.
The Enneagram and the New Age
Asking what the New Age has to say about the human person, A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’ asserts that the New Age often involves a fundamental belief in the perfectibility of the human person (2.3). Later, while talking about spiritual narcissism, the text observes a tendency, in the New Age, toward “ego fulfillment” (3.2). Still later, in attempting to contrast the New Age with Christian faith, the text asks: “Do we save ourselves or is salvation a free gift from God? The key is to discover by what or by whom we believe we are saved. Do we save ourselves by our own actions, as is often the case in New Age explanations, or are we saved by God’s love?” (chapter 4). What I have attempted to outline is something of the manner in which the Enneagram hurls a person headlong into a state of unmerited grace.
Lingering Difficulties Associated with the Enneagram
By way of conclusion, difficulties which continue to be associated with the Enneagram surround it having, apparently, emerged from non-Christian origins. The USCCB, in a draft from the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices, observe that while such origins “do not of themselves preclude the possibility that Christians might find in it truths can be appropriated … such origins, however, do make it imperative that those attempting such an adaptation exercise great care not to compromise the integrity of Catholic belief”.
I have attempted to exercise that care and hope readers can discern something of meaning herein.
There can be little doubt that rising inequality is one of the defining economic issues of our time. From a fairly fringe concern a few years back, it has now risen to the very top of the agenda. In part, we owe this to the passionate and prophetic voice of Pope Francis. In this short blog post, I want to explore the issue of inequality, and make the economic case for Pope Francis’ claim that inequality lies at the root of exclusion.
Patterns of rising inequality
Let me start by describing the problem of rising inequality.
If we look at the most standard measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, we can see it rising in 17 of 22 OECD countries since the mid-1980s. This is most pronounced in Anglo-Saxon countries like the US and the UK, we are also seeing upward ticks in traditionally low-inequality countries like Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. The OECD also found that the tax-transfer system has become less effective in reducing inequality in about half of OECD countries.
The Gini is out of the bottle in other places too. In China, it jumped severely from a low of 30 in the 1980s to 45 by the first decade of this century—reflecting a fast-paced but non-inclusive pattern of economic growth. The most unequal parts of the world remain Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, with Ginis well north of 50.
Overall, seven out of ten people in the world today live in countries where inequality is on the rise.
Using fiscal data, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have shown a similar pattern of rising inequality in the advanced economies. Most famously, they showed that the income share of the top 1 percent in the US, at almost 20 percent, is back to where it was on the eve of the Great Depression—after a long period of compression and relative equality from the 1940s through the 1980s. And since the crisis of 2008, 95 percent of the income gains went to the top 1 percent, while the middle class lost and the poor lost a lot.
Is this just a US phenomenon? Not quite. Recent research by Alvaredo, Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez shows that it is really a broad Anglo-Saxon trend. From 1980-2007, they show the top 1 percent income share rising by 135 percent in the United States and United Kingdom, 105 percent in Australia, and 76 percent in Canada. In contrast, the top income shares in continental Europe are not much different today than where they were in the late 1940s. Clearly, two groups of countries chose two very different paths.
This is the evidence from Gini coefficients and from top income shares. We can also look at evidence in a third area—wages. Looking at evidence from the ILO, we find more evidence of rising inequality, this time through the compression of real wages.
The ILO finds that the labor share has fallen over the past two decades in 26 out of 30 advanced economies. Across these countries, labor productivity has also risen faster than wages—more precisely, average labor productivity grew more than twice as much as average wages since 1999. So workers are getting more productive, but also getting a smaller share of the pie, while capital is winning big. Again, at least in terms of distribution, the economy is looking more and more like it did in the days before the Great Depression.
Sifting through the evidence, I think we can make some broad conclusions. Rising inequality reflects tensions at both ends—a stagnation in real wages for the middle class and the poor, and from runaway income at the very top. The latter phenomenon is particularly associated with the Anglo-Saxon economies and could reflect financial sector dominance.
Many explanations have been put forward to explain these trends: technological change favored high skills, rampant globalization, the declining bargaining power of labor, the financialization of the economy, and diminishing minimum wages. All of these factors probably have some role to play.
The point of this essay, however, is less to figure out how we got here, and more to ask whether it is something we should care about or not.
Does inequality matter?
So, should we worry? Some would say no. A classical economist, for example, might argue that there is nothing wrong with some people doing better—sometimes much better—than others, as long as the overall economic pie is getting bigger, and as long as nobody is being made worse off. For Catholic social teaching, though, this utilitarian approach is clearly inadequate.
Some others might argue that while a poor distribution of income is something we should care about, the focus on rising inequality within countries obscures the progress made in reducing inequality between countries. But when we think about it, this doesn’t really make sense. Global inequality is still stunningly high, and has not changed much over the past few decades. And the fact that China and India are doing better cannot be an excuse to ignore the fire raging in your own backyard.
But even within Catholic social teaching, the case for caring about inequality is not cut and dry. Some claim that the Church’s long tradition focuses much more on meeting the needs of all, and less on whether some people are richer than others. Along similar lines, some would claim that inequality on its own is not troubling—it only becomes troubling when denies opportunities for the poor to flourish. People like Dan Finn and Andrew Yuengert have made arguments like this.
I believe this is certainly true, but—before going further—I should point out one area of inequality that we should care about in its own right—the decline of real wages. Based on the core principles of distributive justice and the universal destination of goods, Catholic social teaching has always stressed the importance of a living wage, the dignity of work, and the rights of workers.
This means that wages should be sufficient to provide the workers with a decent living for themselves and their families—a living wage is the best route toward the universal destination of goods in the modern economy. More than that, the priority of labor over capital suggests that wages should rise with productivity, and profits should come after wages in priority—exactly the opposite of what has been happening. Going even further still, Catholic social teaching calls for workers to participate in the ownership of business and to share in its profits.
So clearly, the current state of affairs is unacceptable. This is an important direct reason why we should care about inequality.
Beyond that, we should care about inequality because it leads to an economy of exclusion. It prevents people from fulfilling their potential and hinders human flourishing.
Indeed, I would go further and argue that inequality, by its very nature, has exclusion built into its DNA.
Inequality lies behind economic exclusion
Those who downplay inequality frequently invoke the idea that what matters is not equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity. At some level, this makes sense. But what it misses is that there is a direct correlation between these two types of exclusion. The evidence shows clearly that social mobility is far more stunted in more unequal societies.
In what he coined the “Great Gatsby curve”, Alan Krueger showed a remarkably strong relationship across countries between inequality and intergenerational mobility. In more unequal countries—such as the US or Argentina—the poor stay poor and the rich get richer across generations. There is far more mobility in more equal countries. This is something people like Michael Novak refuse to acknowledge, with their blind faith in the increasingly-out-of-reach “American dream”.
Putting it simply, inequality prevents people from fully participating in the economy and from developing their true potential. We all know that participation is a key tenet of Catholic social teaching, and a lack of participation is synonymous with economic exclusion.
There are many reasons for this kind of exclusion. In more unequal societies, it is harder for the poor to get access to decent education, decent health care, and acquire finance or decent skills. In more unequal societies, the rich are more likely to dominate the political system, and enact policies to protect their privilege.
It is useful here to look at Latin America, where rampant inequality goes hand-in-hand with extractive politics and extractive institutions—where elites protect their own positions by closing the door of opportunity and inclusion to others. This is a major theme of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s highly influential Why Nations Fail.
Some might argue that this kind of static “extractive inequality” is different from the more dynamic “Darwinian inequality” of the Anglo-Saxon countries, which relies far more on market forces. There is certainly some truth this to this. Just compare the richest man in the world, Mexico’s Carlos Slim, with the second richest, the US’s Bill Gates. Slim made his money from cozy connections and vested interests, while Gates made his money from genuine innovation.
Yet we should not push these distinctions too far. As any society becomes more unequal, vested interests are bound to assert themselves. In the US, we see this with the financial sector. Over the span of three decades, it pushed for far lighter oversight and far lighter taxation, leading to an explosion in both rewards and risk.
More generally, alongside rising inequality in the US, elites have managed to dominate the political system and shape policies in a way that benefitted them personally—think about the declining real minimum wage, the attack on collective bargaining rights, the rollback of regulations, the erosion of the social safety net, and the upward redistribution of income through the tax system. As a particularly egregious example, consider the tax advantages enjoyed by unearned income over earned income, a direct result the dominance of politics by monied interests.
In the US context, this is the theme of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s enlightening book, Winner-Take-All Politics. It is a sure sign that inequality in the US is becoming more extractive. This is one reason why I believe that rampant inequality, by its very nature, has exclusion built into its DNA.
Inequality leads to a more unstable and less sustainable economy
This all has an important side effect—it makes economic growth more volatile, less sustainable, and it increases the likelihood of economic crises.
Again, a look at Latin America over the 20th century is valuable. Because of elite dominance, we saw waves of populism and repression, progress and regress, crescendo and crash. The region seemed stuck in an endless cycle, and the advent of liberal economic policies over the last few decades proved—in the absence of a better distribution of income—incapable of providing an escape.
More broadly, we have empirical evidence that growth is more durable and sustainable when the distribution of income is more equal. East Asia is more equal than Latin America, which explains a lot why this region was not trapped in the same cycle. Of course, as inequality starts to rise in East Asia, there could be trouble down the line.
The reasoning is clear—more equal economies are more inclusive economies. People have better health, more education, and better access to finance. There is more investment in public goods, in infrastructure, in safety nets. There is better governance, with less protection of elite interests. With people having more of a stake, there is more political and economic stability and less violence.
Despite what libertarians say, it goes far beyond the mere protection of property rights.
Fundamentally, economies can only expand in a durable and a sustainable manner from a broad middle, not from a narrow top. The only lasting prosperity is shared prosperity. An imbalanced top-heavy ship is likely to topple at the slightest wave.
Let me delve a bit deeper on the economic stability point. It is no accident that levels of inequality in the Anglo-Saxon world peaked on the eve of the two greatest economic crises of the last hundred years—the Great Depression and the recent global financial crisis. In both cases, the financial sector broke free of restraints and ramped up debt and leverage dramatically. Instead of serving the productive economy, it lined its own pockets. Of course, this model proved unsustainable and it all came crashing down—with the poor left to pick up the pieces.
History teaches us a basic lesson: periods of economic crises tend to be associated with periods when the financial sector is less constrained. On the other hand, the period after the Second World War through the Reagan era was one of the most stable—and regulated—in history.
It is also no accident that the countries in Europe facing the most economic stress over the past few years are the most unequal countries—countries like Ireland and the UK with American-style “Darwinian inequality” and countries like Greece and Portugal with Latin American-style “extractive inequality”.
All forms of inequality make the economy more vulnerable, and the poor are always on the front line.
Inequality erodes trust and social capital
Let me get to the heart of the matter: an inclusive economy runs on social cohesion and trust. Increasingly, economists are realizing the importance of social capital—those networks of solidarity, reciprocity and trust that bind society together, making it stronger and healthier.
It should come as no surprise that more unequal societies tend to have lower levels of social capital, and hence lower levels of social cohesion. It should also come as no surprise that in the US, trust and social capital have been diminishing over the past few decades, a trend noted for a while now by political scientists like Robert Putnam and Francis Fukayama.
This decline in social capital directly maps the rise in inequality. Again, this should come as no surprise. As people drift apart in incomes, opportunities, and lifestyles, they will also drift apart in terms of social networks, shared interests, and common goals. The social glue that binds society together will start to come undone. Civic virtue will be replaced by a mentality of self-absorption and individualism.
We saw this clearly with political trends—monied interests increasingly used the political system to steer policy toward their own narrow advantage, rather than the common good of all citizens. Political rhetoric became increasingly inflamed, with emerging narratives of “two nations” and “makers versus takers”. Instead of common citizens in need of help, the poor were increasingly seen as undeserving. They were simply not “seen” at all. They became the “other”, and the “other” is easy to marginalize and demonize.
At the other end of the scale, low social capital can lead to a culture of dependency. With no real sense of belonging or connection to wider society, people are inclined to cast civic virtue aside and retreat further into enclaves of marginalization. And so the backlash intensifies—it becomes a vicious circle.
All of this is made worse by the tragic history of race relations in the US. For obvious reasons, trust has always been lower among minorities, especially African Americans, and they continue to be systematically excluded, marginalized—and even oppressed. Rising inequality will make this worse, and could easily reverse any precious gains made in the postwar period.
Speaking of race, it is interesting that conservative social commentator Charles Murray is alert to many of these issues, at least among white people. He talks about a great “coming apart” over the past few decades, in which the elites live lives than have less and less in common with their working class compatriots.
What he is really describing is the eroding social capital that comes with rising inequality and declining economic opportunities for the working classes. Murray, however, cannot see this point—he focuses exclusively on the cultural sources of malaise. But he is certainly right to point to the pressing social problems that are increasingly a matter of class and not just race—crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, joblessness.
I believe that inequality lies at the root of many of these problems. As British historian Tony Judt put it, “inequality is corrosive…it rots societies from within…it illustrates and exacerbates the loss of social cohesion…[it is] the pathology of the age and the greatest threat to the health of any democracy”.
This is not just an abstract claim. In their influential book, The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that inequality erodes trust and affects a wide variety of economic and social indicators—including infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, social mobility, educational attainment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, child well-being, illegal drug use, violence, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness, and anxiety.
Now, some researchers have criticized the sweeping claims of Wilkinson and Pickett, but they put up a good defense of their work. The important point is that excessive inequality depletes social capital, leading to societal disharmony and dysfunction.
The centrality of social capital comes through clearly in Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, when he argued that human relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity must underlie all economic activity. Without social capital and trust, we will not be able to achieve the kind of reciprocal fraternity needed for markets to function with justice and with charity.
Back to Pope Francis…
It is good to conclude with Pope Francis, who put it so well and so succinctly when he said that “inequality is the root of social ills”. This is because it burns the bonds of solidarity and fraternity that must guide economic life. It leads to an economy where the few are inside the room, and the many are locked outside.
Given the barriers between peoples, and lacking any real encounter with the other, the natural response is indifference—and in a globalized world, a “globalization of indifference”. As a result, as Pope Francis puts it, “we end up incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor…as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own”.
The first priority must be to overcome poverty and meet peoples’ basic needs, which is a strict requirement of justice—and the best way to achieve this is through a living wage.
But it must also go beyond this, toward a full-fledged economy of inclusion. Throwing some leftovers from the table is clearly inadequate, as this ends up treating the people themselves as “leftovers”. In our modern economy, we must invite everyone to sit at the same table and feel part of the same family. Only then can we all flourish together.
This is not just an economic issue or even a social issue. It is an theological issue and a moral issue that gets to the very heart of who we really are—relational persons rather than autonomous individuals, who find meaning in social life and encounter with others, especially the poor.
What does all of this mean for policy? It means, in the words of Pope Francis, that we need to tackle the “structural causes of inequality”. From a policy perspective, finding ways to achieve a more harmonious distribution of income must be central to our concerns. The poor can wait no longer.
A oft used joke is to respond to a question whose answer is obviously yes by asking, “Is the Pope Catholic?” A variant of this would be to ask, “Is the Pope Pro-Life?”: the answer should be equally obvious. But it appears that this is not, or at least no longer the case. The most recent issue of Columbia, the house magazine of the Knights of Columbus, contains an article entitled The Gospel of Life According to Pope Francis. It is a compilation of pro-life sermons, speeches and essays by the Pope, mostly written during his tenure has archbishop of Buenos Aires. The preface to the collection is worth quoting in full:
During his 15 years as archbishop of Buenos Aires and his 10 months as Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has consistently defended the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death. In the face of what Pope Francis has called the “throwaway culture” of our times, a recurring theme in his teaching has been concern for the most vulnerable and defenseless human beings, including children — born and unborn — the disabled, and the elderly. While he made it clear in a widely publicized interview that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” it is equally clear that Pope Francis has not hesitated to speak out time and again about the crucial task of building a culture of life.
I find this passage surprising simply because the author felt necessary to write it: I think you would be hard pressed to find a bishop (at least in United States) who has not “consistently defended the dignity of human life.” Or as my son Kiko trenchantly put it, why are they beating a dead horse? Previously, the Pope has been criticized for not speaking enough about pro-life issues; this article is responding to these criticisms in a way that suggests that some people (perhaps even among the readers of the magazine) suspect that the Pope is not firmly committed to the cause.
The interview referred to in the article is, of course, the famous in-depth exchange from La Civilta Cattolica, published in English by America Magazine. The money quote, endlessly reported in the press, was the observation by Pope Francis that
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
It is worth noting the context: he was asked a question about difficult pastoral issues, and it immediately follows a discussion about abortion in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This passage was endlessly dissected by both Catholic and secular commentators; a great deal was read into it, and it was misinterpreted to varying degrees. The apotheosis of this was the Kansas abortion clinic which posted a redaction of this quote (omitting the pro-life assertions in the middle) in order to chastise the anti-abortion protestors who gathered outside. Or, in a similar vein, see the “thank you note” from NARAL dissected by my colleague Brett.
Nevertheless, to respond to these misinterpretations it would seem sufficient to simply give the full quote, perhaps highlight some other occasion where Pope Francis has spoken firmly against abortion (cf. LifeSite News) and move on. Why publish a long article whose only point is to drive home the already obvious fact that the Pope is solidly pro-life? I think the answer lies, at least in part, in the totalizing ideology that dominates in many parts of the pro-life movement: a belief that abortion is the single most important moral issue in the world today. The evidence for this is legion; one quote should suffice. In 2006, Bishop Michael Pfeifer wrote:
Abortion is not just one issue among many. Abortion is the central moral issue, the conflict issue, of this moment in our nation’s history. Abortion is separated from other important social issues like a just wage, affordable housing, and even the debate over war, by a difference in kind, not a difference in degree.
In saying this I want to be very clear: I am not attempting to downplay the significance of abortion. But what I do believe is that there are other equally pressing issues and I do not think I am “betraying the unborn” by paying attention to them. My point of view, however, puts me at odds with large parts of the pro-life movement.
My most jarring encounter with this attitude came during a short stint as the parish liaison for the Arhcdiocesan pro-life ministry. In as part of an attempt to reinvigorate the ministry, I put up a display in the vestibule highlighting a consistent life ethic. One of the issues I raised was world hunger, and to drive home the gravity of the problem I compared the number of children who die from hunger and malnutrition each year to the number of abortions performed each year. (There are approximately 3.1 million deaths annually from hunger, roughly comparable to the number of abortions, though obviously both statistics incorporate a great deal of guesswork. The numbers I found at the time put the number of abortions slightly lower than the number of deaths from hunger. *UPDATE SEE BELOW*) Someone in the parish vandalized the poster, deleting this comparison. Why? I do not know for sure but I can only surmise that it was because by making this comparison I was seen as derogating the centrality of abortion.
In saying this I realize that I am eliding over many nuances and differences between individuals. Many, if not most pro-life activists I have known (including many in my Franciscan fraternity) are willing to engage with other issues. Indeed, when doing anti-death penalty work I often got a great deal of encouragement from pro-life activists: they would sign petitions, take literature back to their parishes, a few even invited me to speak about the death penalty. But in a lot of cases, this engagement was, as it were, at the periphery. Abortion remained the central axis of their moral universe, and they would cooperate on other issues only as long as I did not challenge this dominance.
Given this attitude, the over-reaction to the comments by Pope Francis is understandable. Any totalizing ideology is grounded in the (unspoken) belief that it fully explains the universe—but no ideology can. When gaps appear, when the ideology cannot explain something satisfactorily, the adherents must paper this fact over. And what could be more threatening to a Catholic pro-life activist than the thought that the Pope himself does not share their ideological beliefs? The response has been immediate and overwhelming: to preserve their weltanschauung, they must re-establish not simply that the Pope is pro-life, but that he is “solidly” pro-life: that he too believes abortion is the most pressing issue facing the world today. This point of view was clearly expressed by Kevin Burke, a pro-life activist. He concludes an analysis of the Civilta Cattolica interview by writing:
Don’t believe the media hype pro lifers. The Pope’s message in this interview and elsewhere is clearly one of affirmation and support with some always welcome spiritual direction. The primacy of our cause remains as an imperative flowing from the Annunciation and incarnation of Christ our savior in the womb of our Blessed Mother Mary. The Pope and the Church have your back. (emphasis in original)
I think Mr. Burke is both right and wrong. The Pope has his back in the sense that he is firmly committed to opposing abortion. But the glossed over “welcome spiritual direction” is an attempt by the Pope to break through to the members of the pro-life movement, to get them to recognize and accept that the gospel of life is about more than abortion, and they need to be as passionate about poverty, world hunger and the devastating effects of economic inequality. This is not because there is some facile inequality, but because all of these issues are manifestations of a throw-away culture that devalues persons and worships material wealth.
And this brings me back to the Knights of Columbus and their attempt to reaffirm that Pope Francis is really pro-life. At their 131 annual convention, the Knights passed a pro-life resolution, something they have done for years. Their commitment to opposing abortion is clear: it rings out in the opening sentence:
WHEREAS, the Knights of Columbus has a deep and historic commitment to oppose any governmental action or policy that promotes abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other offenses against life….
But when it comes to other issues, such as the death penalty, their position is tepid at best. The fifth paragraph of the resolution reads
FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Knights of Columbus will continue to uphold the traditional teaching of the Church concerning the death penalty, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by the late Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae.
When I was active in the anti-death penalty movement, this resolution was a source of joy and despair for me. Joy, because I could use it to point out that the largest Catholic organization in the state was on our side; despair, because the leadership reflected the spirit of this resolution. They were against the death penalty because the Church told them to be against it, but there was no passion. Their sole focus was on the “important” issues, such as abortion (or more recently, gay marriage). As a Knight, I can only pray that the K of C will really listen to Pope Francis, and understand what he is calling us all to do: to really be pro-life and not simply against abortion.
Postscript: My discussion of the totalizing ideology of the pro-life movement is indebted to the political philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, whose ideas I have discussed in several posts (here and here). Though not central to my argument I would be happy to further pursue his ideas in the commboxes.
Update (1/26/2014): It was pointed out to me in the commboxes below that this comparison is off by an order of magnitude. This incident happened almost 10 years ago, and I no longer have a copy of the poster I am referring to. My memory is clear that I was comparing abortion and deaths from hunger and disease, but I am no longer certain about the exact comparison. I apologize for the error.