Last week, Michael Sean Winters wrote a detailed and trenchant view of a book by the Acton Institute’s Sam Gregg, called Becoming Europe. Let me confess that I have not read the book, and am relying solely on Michael Sean’s review. But Gregg’s thesis seems to fit with a recurring American libertarian talking point: the United States risks sliding on the path toward Europe by moving away from free market policies.
Michael Sean does an excellent exposing how this approach is totally at odds with the last 120 years of Catholic Social Teaching. I would like to add to this by pointing out that the economics of this argument – the argument based on the superiority of the US economic system over its European counterpart – are fundamentally flawed and not borne out by the facts. Indeed, I would argue that countries that attempt to model their economies on the basis on Catholic Social Teaching tend to do better.
Europe and Catholic Social Teaching
Let me start with the European social model and how it relates to Catholic Social Teaching. Of course, there is no single European social model. Ireland and the UK lean in the Anglo-Saxon direction, and in many important dimensions are closer to the US than to their peers in Europe. Scandinavia puts a high emphasis on solidarity and cohesion, and veers in a more statist dimension. The system in southern Europe is incoherent and suffers from major governance problems – quite frankly, it doesn’t work so well. But I believe that the philosophy that still underpins the mainstream continental social model – especially in countries like Germany – remains heavily influenced by Catholic Social Teaching.
This model, as developed by Christian Democrats in the postwar period, is known as the social market model. It combines the competitive free market with strong bonds and solidarity and fraternity, twined with appropriate degrees of subsidiarity. It also believes that stability is the glue that makes the social market work effectively.
On solidarity, the model adopts the idea from Catholic Social Teaching that there are certain rights that stem from the innate dignity of very person: rights such as life, bodily integrity, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, necessary social services; and also the right to be looked after in old age, disability, or unemployment (Pacem in Terris). These rights typically cannot be guaranteed by the free market. And on the specific issue of medical care, the issue where the US lags the most, the Church has taught that health care expenses should be “cheap or even free of charge” (Laborem Exercens)
Clearly, the state has a key role to play here. This goes all the way back to Leo XIII, who argued that the state should protect the poor and the wage earner, and not favor the interests of the rich (Rerum Novarum). But it is also imbued with subsidiarity, as social programs in continental Europe are often administered by subsidiary associations including unions and Church groups. The state directs, but responsibility for administering the system is shared.
Subsidiarity is also supported by a strong tradition of social partnership, whereby key economic decisions – on issues like wages, employments, and benefits – reflect consultations between government, unions, and employer organizations. In other words, the European model recognizes the legitimacy of mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state. You don’t see too much of this in the US.
Stability is also important. This goes back to a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching that while the free market is compatible with the common good, it cannot be left to its own devices. As Pius XI put it, “the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces… from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching” (Quadragesimo Anno). Paul VI condemned “profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right.” (Populorum Progressio) And John Paul II argued that the market should be “appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied” (Centesimus Annus)
This means we need proper regulation in economic life. This is especially important in the financial sector, which tends to be the major source of dysfunction and instability in our modern economic system. This was a lesson that was forgotten in too many places, although continental Europe never embraced unfettered financial markets to the same extent as the Anglo-Saxon countries.
As we look back on the crisis, the results are in: Catholic Social Teaching 1, Libertarianism 0. And yet, libertarians don’t seem to have internalized this lesson, criticizing even mild attempts to tighten regulatory oversight.
Just last week, Pope Francis reiterated this constant theme in Catholic Social Teaching, condemning “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good”.
So in sum, I believe that the mainstream European social model is far more aligned with Catholic Social Teaching that its libertarian counterparts. It adopts a free market economy, yes, but subjects economic forces to the appropriate degree of regulation, and strives to ensure that people’s basic needs are met.
But what about criticisms of the European economic model? Do they have a point? Well, yes and no. We cannot deny that Europe faces grave economic problems today. But for the most part, they are not the problems singled out by American libertarians.
Let me start with the basics, GDP per capita, the most standard estimate of living standards. If you look at the numbers, you will see European GDP per capita is about three-quarters the level of the United States – higher in the north, lower in the south, but worse everywhere. Does this prove the superiority of the US model? Not at all. To understand why, we need to break down this GDP per capita into its constituent parts. Bear with me, this will get a bit wonkish, but this is necessary for the argument.
GDP per capita is really product of the following terms:
(GDP/population) = (GDP/ hours worked) * (hours worked/ employment) * (employment/population)
In other words, income per capita is the product of hourly productivity, average hours worked, and the employment rate. Let’s take each in turn.
First, productivity. While there is a gap between US and European productivity, this is really coming from southern European countries like Italy and Spain. If you look at core Europe like France and Germany, then productivity is essentially at US levels. So there are specific structural problems in the lagging south, but this is not an indictment of the continental social model.
Second, hours worked by the average worker. Here, Europe is far behind the US. But this is a positive, not a negative, sign! It means that Europeans deliberately forego income to spend more quality time with family and friends, especially through mandated leave (which the US does not have). It is the true legacy of the days when there were about 50 religious feast days throughout the year on which no work was done. A pro-family pre-Calvinist legacy!
Third, employment rates. Again, as with productivity, the evidence is nuanced. If you look at prime-age males, the cohort traditionally charged with earning a living wage or a family wage, employment rates are as high (or even higher) than in the US. But rates for the young, the old, and (in some countries) women are lower. This is especially an issue in southern Europe, where labor market institutions too often privilege insiders over outsiders. So yes, there are specific problems with specific groups, but there is no generalized evidence that continental European labor markets are worse than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
Let’s dig a little deeper into unemployment. Last year, the unemployment rate in the US was 8 percent. In the EU, it was 10.5 percent. But this hides huge differences. The unemployment rate in Spain, for example, was a staggering 25 percent, while in Germany it was an enviable 5.5 percent.
Remember, Catholic Social Teaching has never accepted the legitimacy of unfettered labor markets. True, European labor markets do not go far enough to guarantee a living wage and prioritize employment over other economic aims, but they still score higher than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Labor markets work pretty well in northern Europe. In these countries, social partnership looms large and unions have a key role – and unions put a lot of weight on overall employment. This works because the level of trust is high, which is not the case in the south, making the system hard to replicate.
Government also has a role to play, by funding what are known as “active labor market policies” – options for the unemployed that include education and training programs and wage subsidies to encourage take-up of low-paying jobs. In many places, receipt of unemployment benefits is conditional on participating in these programs. Again, this is fully aligned with Catholic Social Teaching, meeting the needs of workers while avoiding any violations of dignity that come with the “social assistance state”.
It is worthwhile singling out the German labor market, because it proved remarkably successful during the crisis. Even though (as in other countries) GDP fell sharply, unemployment did not rise. Germany introduced a system called Kurzarbeit, which meant that employers, unions, and the government came to an agreement – workers would cut back their hours, firms would hold onto workers, and government would provide subsidies. This was a far more effective and humane system that filling up the unemployment rolls. And it worked.
Let’s not forget – the system of codetermination is deeply ingrained in German labor relations. Again, this comes directly from Catholic Social Teaching and means that workers have a say in managing an enterprise. This kind of system, influenced by Church teaching, has the capacity to work far better than a US-style system of free and unfettered labor markets.
Going beyond GDP
So far, I have just talked about GDP per capita. This is still the way we measure standards of living, but it is patently inadequate. Its conception is overly materialistic, and it does not come close to measuring human development or, more importantly, human flourishing.
We will never be able to apply statistics to these issues. But we can certainly do better than GDP per capita. For example, ex-French President Sarkozy set up the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission to look into broader measurement of economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
This is a promising area, but it is for the future. Right now, though, we can look at well-established indicators of human development. And here, unfortunately for libertarians, the US comes across much worse than Europe.
Let’s look at some numbers from the OECD, which includes both the US and the EU countries.
The US infant mortality rate is 6.7. The OECD average is 4.6. In Germany, it is 3.5, and in Sweden it is 2.5.
Life expectancy tells the same tale. In the US, it is 77.9 years, against an OECD average of 79.3 years. It is 80 years in Germany, and 81.4 years in Sweden.
So even though the US spends more than double the amount of the EU on healthcare per person, it achieves worse outcomes – mainly by excluding millions from adequate healthcare. Add to that a dominant gun culture that cheapens life in the US.
We can look at other indicators. The poverty rate in the US is 17.3 percent, against an OECD average of 11.1 percent. In Germany, it is 8.9 percent.
The numbers for inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) tell a similar story. Among the OECD countries, the US sits at the bottom of the pack, with only Turkey, Mexico, and Chile looking worse.
In the past, economists have tended to discount inequality, arguing that we should not worry about distributional issues. But recent research is actually catching up to Catholic Social Teaching, showing that excessive inequality is indeed harmful to countries. It can erode trust and social cohesion, the bedrock of economic and social progress. It makes economic growth less likely to be sustained, and it makes countries more susceptible to volatile economic and financial crises. We have hard evidence for all of this.
Just look at Latin America, one of the world’s most unequal regions. This inequitable division of wealth – plus the governance problems associated with it – goes a long way toward explaining the longstanding economic challenges of the region, including the waves of economic volatility twinned with political instability.
And looking at the OECD, is it any surprise that the countries most affected by crisis are the most unequal countries? This group includes Anglo-Saxon countries like the US, the UK, and Ireland, countries that cheerleaded a financial sector based on “casino capitalism”. It also includes crisis countries like Greece, Portugal, and Italy. Just as in Latin America, inequality comes with governance problems and a lack of trust in basic institutions. The more equal countries in the North are among the strongest and most stable. If you had studied Catholic Social Teaching instead of classical economics, this would not come as a surprise!
So what is the problem with Europe?
So far, I have talked about longer-term issues and the structural differences between European and US economic models. But what about the short term, where Europe is still mired in economic crisis?
Americans of a libertarian bent like to blame this crisis on the growth of government, especially the welfare state.
This story is far from the truth. The real story of the European crisis has little to do with its social model. It comes instead from the imbalances that arose with the introduction of the euro, when people got a bit carried away. They assumed that Greek debt, for example, now bore the same risk as German debt. So there was a huge lending boom to southern Europe, and the good times rolled. But when the crisis came, people panicked and pulled back lending. So we had a classic balance of payments problem with countries having difficulty paying their debts, both public and private. But there was a catch – as countries were tied to the euro, they could not follow the traditional route of letting the currency devalue and restoring competitiveness.
In such circumstances, options were few and painful, involving lower wages and prices relative to core Europe. But this can prove economically and socially ruinous in the short term. It can make the problem worse, creating a vicious circle of weak banks, weak growth, and weak public finances. This is the real story of the European crisis.
Let me be clear on one point – as in most other countries, high public debt was a consequence, not a cause, of the crisis. Deficits rose because of deep recession, or because governments were forced to assume the debt of collapsing banks.
The one possible exception to this point was Greece, but even here, a key problem was the refusal of the well-off to pay their taxes aided by a weak system of tax administration. It was not due to the welfare state. Look at OECD data again. Social spending in Greece is 23 percent of GDP. As a point of comparison, it is 19.4 percent of GDP in the US. On the other side, it is 26.3 percent of GDP in Germany; 28.2 percent of GDP in Sweden, and 32.1 percent of GDP in France. I find very little correlation between size of social spending and depth of economic problems. This is an ideologically-motivated red herring.
There are plenty of other data points that disprove the simplistic American narrative of Europe. Look at Ireland, which was a bastion of liberal economic policies before the crisis, embracing the American path of deregulation and low taxes. It too suffered from severe crisis, yet again because a badly regulated and poorly supervised banking sector. As the banking sector collapsed, Irish public rose by over 100 percent of GDP, a staggering addition to the public sector purse caused by bad private sector decisions. The lesson here, of course, is that we need more regulation and better supervision, and that includes across countries.
At some fundamental level, the European crisis results less from a problem with the system itself, and more from a big change to the system that was improperly managed. People got too carried away with the historic process of monetary union, and failed to look at its structural flaws.
Everyone now agrees that incomplete economic integration was at fault. Europe had a single market and a single monetary policy, but fiscal policy and financial regulation were still national responsibilities.
Let’s conduct a simple thought experiment. Imagine if Florida had been an independent country and not integrated into the federal tax and spending system. What would have happened during its housing bust? I think we know the answer, and it has nothing to do with Florida’s welfare state! The same is true with banking problems in places like Ireland that overwhelmed the ability of a single government to handle them. Integration came with too little solidarity across counties.
So Europe needs to fix the problem of incomplete integration. This is why banking union and fiscal union are high on the agenda.
One more point. The American libertarians also loathe “Keynesian” policy, which simply means countercyclical policy – looser monetary and fiscal policy in bad times, tighter monetary and fiscal policy in good times. As I mentioned at the outset, the European social model has always emphasized stability alongside solidarity, and this stability – especially in Germany – has always included a strong emphasis on low inflation and fiscal discipline.
Ironically, this has led to more skepticism of Keynesian intervention in Europe than in the US, especially in Germany. This is why Germany today is the leading voice behind the call for “austerity”, which most people believe to be misguided in current circumstances. But stability is deeply embedded in the German, and indeed the broader European, psyche. It is the Americans have that always been more interventionist on the macroeconomic front. Just compare the record of the Fed and the Bundesbank when it comes to monetary policy. This is just another example of how American libertarians do not really understand Europe.
Yes, there are many economic problems with Europe that need urgent attention today – problems of incomplete integration, deep-rooted structural problems in the southern countries. The economic crisis is far from over.
To get beyond these problems, I believe that Europe needs the light of Catholic Social Teaching, urgently. But so does the US, which is even further away from that light.
For the evidence teaches us that the Catholic approach to economics is not just naïve wishful thinking. It can lead to better economic outcomes than its free market alternative. Thus libertarian economics is both morally and practically flawed. It is time for Catholics across the spectrum to start pushing back against the ruinous libertarian agenda and reclaim our full heritage.
Well, I’m really Catholic now. Yesterday, on the feast of Pentecost, I participated in my first infant baptism. Coming as I do from an Anabaptist background, this is kind of a big deal. This event was made particularly meaningful for me not only because the baptizand bears the name of my patroness, Hildegard, but even more so because she is the daughter of my professor, Dr. Kimberly Belcher (who has made a previous appearance here), who was instrumental in helping me work through my own evolving beliefs on baptism.
Ironically, as I think about it, other Mennonites had as much of a role to play in this evolution of mine. I had first of all undergone a significant shift toward sacramentality, particularly in relation to the Eucharist, while volunteering with Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti and becoming involved with a Catholic parish there. But my first noticeable shift in thinking with regard to baptism came from a 2008 article published in the magazine The Mennonite, titled “Mennonite but Not Anabaptist,” in which Mennonite pastor Chad Mason argued against rebaptizing Christians who had been baptized as infants, on the basis that the 16th-century Anabaptists’ driving reason for opposing (indiscriminate) infant baptism – namely, its representing more an induction into civil society than formation within a community of disciples – no longer exists. Those who perceive Anabaptism as being fundamentally individualistic from the beginning are profoundly mistaken, but it is a rather understandable mistake given the way that Mennonites have come to rationalize their continued rejection of infant baptism, now that it no longer represents what Mason referred to as an “entanglement with the machinations of state power.” Based on the concern that in today’s context “rebaptism may serve to underwrite individualism,” he concluded his article in this way:
Our capitulation to the autonomy of the individual, manifested in our ongoing willingness to rebaptize upon request, is not only a kind of predation on other communions; it is a kind of cannibalism of our own. By handing baptism over to the choice of the individual, we are eating ourselves alive.
After all, if we accept a wayward Catholic’s rejection of her baptism on the grounds that she did not choose it and can’t remember it, what answer can we muster for the departing Mennonite who rejects our faith on the grounds that he was merely born and raised Mennonite?
The world is not medieval anymore. All Christian communions have now been removed from power by Western liberalism. Thus have we come, ironically, to a historical moment when Mennonites may need to reject Anabaptism in order to preserve the Mennonite association of baptism with discipleship and the Mennonite disassociation of baptism from power. Especially in places like southeastern Iowa, it has become fair to ask which community is closer to being in power, Mennonites or Catholics. The answer, of course, is neither. Both now stand in solidarity as varied expressions of God’s alternative society, distinct from the dominant power of American individualism.
In order to be radical in their proclamation to such power, Mennonites should refuse rebaptism to every person who wishes to act as his own pope. Perhaps then we may all, together, eat the flesh and blood of Jesus instead of our own.
Mason’s call to end the “cannibalism” of rebaptism was not well received by its readership, but between his appeal to a deeply Mennonite sense of Christian community as counter-culture and my recently developed sympathies toward a Catholic sense of sacramentality, I was convinced by his argument. And coming to disagree with the practice of rebaptism meant that, by extension, I had to acknowledge infant baptism as valid, even if I retained a preference for adult baptism as a more normative form of initiation into the community of faith.
That’s pretty much where my thinking was when I came to Kim’s course on the sacraments at the beginning of my graduate studies in theology (by which point I had decided to be confirmed in the Catholic Church). As I would soon learn, Kim has a gift for pushing her students to think beyond what they have articulated. And I did a lot of thinking. I convened a biecclesial council in my head. I wrote papers to find out what I believed, eventually – to make a long story short – coming out in favor of dual normativity (i.e., that infant and adult baptism should be considered not only equally valid but equally normative, as applicable to complementary pastoral situations).
One piece of the intensive (internal and external) discussion that brought me to that conclusion was Kim’s own work on the dynamic agency of infants (discussed at length in her book adapted from her doctoral dissertation), which forced me to question some of my inherited assumptions about individualism and passivity in infant baptism. Her analysis of the dynamism of infancy came back to haunt me even while watching a child dedication in a Mennonite church: noticing the babies’ movements, their gazes, their activeness, there was no doubt that they knew something significant was going on.
And so did Hildegard – even though it will be many years until she can articulate it with her mother’s astuteness. May the faith into which she has been baptized, surrounded by the love of her family and friends and the prayers of the saints, continue to nourish and form her in the love of God and neighbor throughout her life.
Few people today, Catholics included, “think with the Church” on sexual morality. This is obvious. The more difficult question to answer is why. Multiple reasons, I’m sure, although I think we can rule out the world’s embrace of an “anything goes” moral relativism as the culprit. Even my most libertine friends have absolute standards governing their sexual behavior. Consent, for example. I’m no psychologist or spiritual counselor, able to unearth underlying motivations, but, in speaking to friends and acquaintances, I have not been led to conclude that they reject Catholic teaching on the meaning of sexuality because they want to live how they want to live, rules of morality be damned. Rather, they largely reject the teaching because it doesn’t make moral sense to them. The theory taught by the Church–that sexual activity not “ordered” toward procreation is inherently sinful and of grave matter–however coherent it may be to them at the abstract level of theory, fails to translate into their real world lived experience.
Sin supposedly causes harm, not merely in the hereafter, but also in the here and now. In the words of the Catechism, sin “injures human solidarity,” the togetherness between and among people, the ties that bind them. Lying, for example, breaks down trust, and even where the lie is unknown to the deceived, one can easily imagine the lie at the center of the relationship and understand its effects upon it. The solidarity itself becomes a lie, waiting only for the truth to emerge and crack or shatter the edifice. However, in the case of what the Church deems sexual sin, i.e., any sexual behavior that intentionally frustrates procreation or that deliberately doesn’t follow the form that would typically lead to procreation, injury to solidarity seems, well, not to be there as a demonstrable consequence. At least, I haven’t been able to figure out what this injury is. Consequently, I haven’t yet been able to understand how the practice matches the theory. I’ve asked Catholics who write knowledgeably about human sexuality to explain to me the specific, concrete ways in which contraceptive and same-sex acts injure solidarity and otherwise wound the person, but I’ve yet to get a specific, concrete wound and causal relationship from it to the sinful sex act. The theory is repeated to me as if it were self-evidently true. Or I’m told that negative consequence are not always apparent or may take time to develop.
Here’s the situation as I see it. The Church claims there is a causal relationship between 1) contraceptive or same-sex sexual acts and 2) interior wounds and injury to solidarity. If this is true, then one should, conceivably, be able to demonstrate it; i.e., pinpoint the specific wound and show precisely how non-procreative sex and not something else led to it. This may be difficult, as you cannot fully see into another person’s soul, but it shouldn’t be as a rule impossible, as a wound is something you can see. We’re not talking about abstractions here: the Church says that these sexual activities necessarily cause real wounds in real people. So what are these wounds? In what specific way does non-procreative sex injure solidarity? It’s not enough to respond by saying the wounds may not be apparent or may take time to develop. These responses may be true, but they leave the question open. And they leave the question unanswered to a culture that rejects the moral reasoning concerning these sexual acts put forth by the Church. It’s also not enough to point to a wound and assume it was caused by a deviation from sexual norms.
The Church is losing ground on these issues to the wider culture, in part because the theory doesn’t hold water for a lot of people. It doesn’t correspond to their real lived experience. When I look at the relationships of same-sex couples with whom I’m friends, I see no signs of wounds or weaknesses that I can attribute to the nature of their relationship. Indeed, their solidarity appears to be the result of what the Church calls morally-disordered orientation and sinful action. How can what injures solidarity be the basis of solidarity? When the Church says that these sex acts injure solidarity and wound the soul, people in the wider culture wonder what it’s taking about. And this is why I think Catholics, to be persuasive, have to do more than repeat the theory; they need to to show, in actual practice, exactly how these sins wound and injure. Catholic can’t assume the theory, but must start from the concrete to demonstrate that the theory is true.
How would you go about doing this?
Marriage is broken and has been for quite some time. Much money, ink, energy, and breath have been spent attempting to defend an already broken institution. Why? Well, presumably because defenders of traditional marriage have somehow convinced themselves that what they are defending is something to akin to the Church’s definition of marriage. The problem is – a very small percentage of society shares that definition of marriage.
About a year ago, Kyle Cupp put it this way:
What is marriage? It is a sacred, insoluble, in some cases sacramental bond in which a man and a woman become one flesh, potentially creating new life; it is an institutional union that, ideally, supports a lifelong commitment of love, the good of the spouses and the community, and, if literally fruitful, gives order to the rearing and education of children. That’s how I define marriage.
But here’s the thing: this definition ain’t the legal definition anywhere in this country. Engaged couples can obtain a marriage license without any belief in the sacred, with no intention of staying true to one another, with every intention to prevent pregnancy, and with a signed prenuptial agreement just in case things don’t work out. Their good needn’t be an end of their marriage. They don’t even have to love one another. Marriage means to each couple whatever they want it to mean. Once joined, they are legally united and receive the legal rights associated with the institution, but the rest is up to them. As practiced overall, the convention of marriage is little more than a shell.
Kyle concludes that those opposed to same-sex marriage will lose this cultural battle. I agreed with his assessment then, an assessment which seems virtually certain now.
But that doesn’t change the fact that marriage as it exists in America is a broken institution that needs fixing. Perhaps defenders of marriage would make better use of their money, ink, energy, and breath if they began to focus on fixing the problems rather than defending that which is broken.
Some groups are beginning to do just that.
The Coalition for Divorce Reform has begun trying to save marriage by fixing the divorce problem. As Ashley McGuire argues ,
No-fault divorce is destroying women, children, and men. More precisely, divorce destroys marriage, and the destruction of marriage harms every party involved. The legality of no-fault divorce just makes it infinitely easier to hurt people. There are no two ways about it.
This is not 1960. Women do not “need” marriage anymore, at least for financial stability, so they don’t need to enter prematurely into marriages that they then won’t be able to get out of. Couples who want out of a marriage because the spouse is abusive or unfaithful would still be able to get a legal divorce. And maybe, just maybe, if you make it harder to end a marriage on a whim, people will approach marriage with the gravitas it, and especially the children it produces, deserve and need to thrive.
Let’s gut our nation’s no-fault divorce laws. It’s the human thing to do.
That’s exactly Robert McManus is trying to do in Louisiana. McManus proposes a two-pronged approach: no-fault divorce reform and cohabitation reform. The former includes requirements that 1)parents of children must take a course on the effects of divorce on children before filing for divorce, 2) must wait 8 months before filing and requiring ”the complaining spouse to give a written notice in advance of an intent to file for divorce” 3) must take marriage education classes to develop communication and conflict resolution skills and 4) allow (but not demand) that couple live together during the 8-month waiting period. (Currently couples must live separately which decreases the chances of reconciliation.
The latter, what McManus calls cohabitation reform, he describes as follows:
A recent scholarly report indicates that the rise of cohabitation “is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives.”[iii] Some 42% of American children will live in a cohabiting household and “are markedly more likely to be physically, sexually and emotionally abused than children in both intact, married families and single parent families.” That is double the 23% of kids impacted by divorce. However, the report does not suggest a remedy.
I propose a strategy to increase the marriage rate and reverse the 41% unwed birth rate. How? Replace state subsidies of cohabitation with subsidies for marriage. Millions of single mothers receive welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and other subsidies on the assumption they are bringing up children alone. Most, however, are cohabiting and have the benefit of their partner’s income, as if they were married. But if they marry, they lose all subsidies, which discourages marriage. Therefore, I propose this answer:
Gov. Bobby Jindal should say: “Louisiana believes in marriage. Therefore, I propose that if cohabiting couples with children marry, that they would continue receiving Medicaid, food stamps, etc. for two years, and then these benefits would be tapered off over 3-4 years. That would be the best outcome for the adults, the children, and the state. The state should subsidize marriage not cohabitation.”
What do you make of his proposals? Obviously any reform of no-fault divorce must not make life any more difficult for abused spouses and children. There is no reason such provisions could not be written into the proposals. That being said, I think this is one important course of action, that ought to be pursued.
One Sunday during the years of my adolescence I attended the morning worship service all by my lonesome. I forget the reason why. I sat down in a pew to the left of the altar, awaiting the start of Mass with the other early arrivers. A few minutes before the prayers began, a young very attractive woman sat down in the pew just before me. She had short, cropped strawberry blonde hair and wore the sort of dress Alicia Silverstone wears in the movie Clueless to entice the new student who turns out to be gay. Bare neck and bare arms and a mostly bare back. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her flawless skin. Whether sitting, standing, or kneeling, I was transfixed. Ogle me this, Batman.
After Mass, while on my way through the gathering area, a friend of my mom’s approached me. I didn’t recognize her, but she knew me and introduced herself, telling me how she had seen me during the service. I gulped, figuring she had noticed my not sporadic staring. Instead she complimented me.
“You were so focused and attentive. I’m very impressed. Such a good example for your peers.”
She was sincere. At least, I took her as sincere. She gave no smirk or wink or any other tell of irony. I didn’t have the heart or the courage to correct her.
Many years later, in college, a friend admitted to a group of us that he really struggled at church to avoid gazing at women in the congregation. He preferred to sit in the front row to avoid temptation as best he could. To his credit, he blamed only himself for his weakness, but others at our school were eager to lecture their fellow students, particularly women, on the importance of modesty. Men were instructed on abstaining from ogling and entertaining lustful thoughts and desires, and women were told they must exercise modesty in manner and dress. Women were expected to be virtuous so the men didn’t sin. You’ll note the double standard.
The toxicity of “purity culture” has been under discussion a lot this past week. See Elizabeth Smart, Calah Alexander, and Richard Beck. I want here to emphasis one point in particular. Not being able to handle the sight of skin, or any other erotic sensation, isn’t a sign of virtue. It indicates immaturity and perhaps an unhealthy fear of the body. Obsessive staring and obsessive averting the eyes are, well, obsessive, and not the signs of mature sexuality. You mature sexually by being sexual. Temperance takes practice. We’re sexual beings: we’re supposed to find bodies pleasing and attractive to our senses. No shame or sin there. Goes with being an animal. As rational animals, we have some control over our passions and appetites, but you don’t learn to master your passions and appetites by running from the body or keeping it out of sight, sense, and mind.
On this point, purity culture tends to be irrational. It focuses on abstinence, and not just abstinence from sexual intercourse. Consider this holy advice column by Barbara Kralis: none of her guidance has anything to do with maturing in one’s sexuality. She counsels prayer, being cheerful, wearing holy objects, modest dress for women–writing, “a women’s husband is the only person who should see and receive the joy of her body”(!)–avoiding inappropriate conversations, avoiding entertainment deemed unfit for moral consumption by a religious authority, avoiding occasions of sin, and avoiding useless activities. This is a recipe for disaster. It won’t make you pure or modest or chaste, even if you succeed at each one. You’ll have done nothing to master the sexual passions and appetites because you’ll have done nothing with your sexuality. You don’t learn to look without lechery merely by averting your eyes. You have to practice seeing attractive people in a way that respects them and respects the attraction.* If you want to master your sexuality, then you have to exercise it. This is true whether or not you are waiting until marriage to have sex.
*Added for some clarity.
Resolved: The ills of individualism that grip the Catholic Church in America today are the fruit 19th century Americanism: the efforts of the American episcopacy to establish a new modus vivendi for Catholics, one which respected Catholic identity while also embracing the American approach to religion and religious liberty.
A few weeks ago in First Things, Elizabeth Scalia reviewed Russell Shaw’s new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. She writes:
Shaw notes that for a long while, this made sense, and politically, economically, and socially it carried Catholics far. Yet the early Americanization of the Church, writes Shaw, “included not just (as is commonly said) the idea that American-style separation of church and state supplied a model for adoption by the Church everywhere, but also a subjective, individualistic approach to Church doctrine and discipline widely present among American Catholics now.” (boldface added)
Scalia goes on to use this to explain the disappointment expressed by some people when Pope Francis reaffirmed the judgment against the LCWR and the negative reaction to the new missal.
I am not sure I buy this argument, but clearly there is some tension between being American and being Catholic. What say you?
The Tree of Life may be the finest film I have ever seen. While I often heard it provoke a particular question (“what the hell was Tree of Life all about?”), this tended to reflect, to me at least, more of the viewer than what was being viewed. Having now been brought into contact with To the Wonder, the first film of Terrence Malick since The Tree of Life, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: I could answer those questioning The Tree of Life, but I have much more difficulty responding to those who, introduced to the struggles of Neil and Marina and Fr. Quintana, ask “who the hell cares?”
I found To the Wonder — and I hate to write this — unable to initially facilitate an empathic response in me. While there were moments of exception and while my empathy for these characters has since increased, it just seemed something was missing. This could say more about me than it does the film, and because Malick creates his pictures with beauty and infuses them with a depth of insight, I do not want to dissuade interested persons.
To the Wonder surrounds the search of persons for love. A sense exists that while the experience of love elevates, this elevation accentuates just how drawn down one can feel when he or she does not experience love in his or her interactions. Marina captures this range: “What are we when we are there?” she asks of the elevation experienced in love. Which — being elevated by love or drawn down in its seeming absence — is true?
The words of Father Quintana, of which the viewer is afforded glimpses, are thought-provoking and reflect the preoccupation of this priest with experiencing the love of God. His desire for God parallels something of the desire two women, Marina and Jane, have for the love of Neil and thus while Fr. Quintana might seem to exist at the periphery of To the Wonder, thematically he does not.
Stating that “the one who loves less is the one who is stronger,” Fr. Quintana counsels Neil to struggle with his strength. A sort of perceived strength, after all, can inhibit love. Neil so struggles to let himself be loved that, on one occasion, Marina asks him “what are you afraid of?” My impression is that Neil, because he does not sufficiently struggle with his supposed strength, creates in Marina a sense that nothing she can do or be for him is of value. Jane, having experienced similar affective limitations in Neil, has separated herself from him and Marina too has motivation to search for love elsewhere. For much of To the Wonder, it is not apparent that Neil might be able to say, as Marina can, that “if you love me, there’s nothing else I need.”
To encourage someone to struggle with his or her perceived strength is good counsel, but behind the words of Fr. Quintana is his own inability to be impacted by them. The viewer hears the inner wonderings of this priest — wonderings about whether he will ever experience God again — but these words are cast against his standing in a dark room while a homeless woman, whom he can see, pounds on his door. The priest preaches to persons to “awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man and each woman”, but for all his service of others, Fr. Quintana struggles to even acknowledge the existence of (let alone awaken) that presence of God. Against Marina who wonders why people come back down after having been elevated by the experience of love, Fr. Quintana struggles to discover the love of his God who, long before, had situated himself in the downtrodden (“just as you did to the least of these, you did to me” [Matthew 25:40]).
Because of his remarkable abilities as a filmmaker, it is easy to forget that Malick is a philosopher by training. He is a graduate of Harvard, pursued doctoral studies at Oxford, and taught philosophy at the MIT. In 1969, Northwestern University Press published his translation of a work by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, like any good existentialist, emphasizes becoming as essential to living with authenticity. Possibilities exist before the human person, and into some the human person must step. Fr. Quintana emphasizes this sense of discovery through his lens as a Christian. He observes that many prefer safety. Choosing is dangerous: It “is to run the risk of failure, and the risk of sin and of betrayal, but Jesus can deal with all of these.”
In To the Wonder, we see persons who, in search of love, risk and refuse to risk. Both represent choices and both contribute to the quality of life one enjoys. To persons uncertain of the effect their choices will have, Fr. Quintana preaches “you fear your love has died. It perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.”
This post first appeared on Musings on Film on 11 May 2013.
This is a video making the rounds on my Facebook feed with the caption, “If every straight person honestly answered this question, we’d wipe out homophobia tomorrow.”
Um, no. We wouldn’t.
The premise of the video is that if we can convince people that gay people are born gay, homophobia will disappear. This is patently false. It confuses fact and interpretation. Even if everyone believed that it is a fact that homosexual persons are born that way, there is still a huge space for interpretation. Indeed many interpretations already take “born that way” for granted and argue things like, “the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil.” Or, perhaps only slightly less offensively, that people are born alcoholics too.
Seriously, since when does irrational hatred of a group evaporate because they were born that way? Would racism end if we could convince the KKK that black people are “born that way”? We all know the answer to that.
But I want to highlight a second reason that answering the video’s question honestly wouldn’t wipe out homophobia tomorrow: namely, that the question itself is dishonest. It presumes that the only possible answers to the question, “How does homosexuality come about?” are 1. By choice or 2. Born that way. But, with the exception of the last respondent, none of the respondents to the leading question go with option 1. There are a couple who go for an unadulterated option 2, but the majority give an answer that incorporates nature and nurture. The follow-up question, “When did you choose to be straight?” completely ignores the fact that most of these people don’t actually believe that people choose to be gay.
Surely if there is a great number of homophobic people out there who think that homosexuality is a matter of pure choice, it would not have been too difficult to catch a couple of them on camera for this clip. Heck, even the one woman who answered “choose to be gay,” struck me as more of a flake than a hater. One wonders where the enemy this video singles out is to be found. Where are all these homophobes that think homosexuality is a choice? And why weren’t they interviewed? Perhaps a couple were and the results weren’t good enough to make it out of the cutting room.
In any case, a more honest question to those who actually were interviewed and think that homosexuality is probably the result of some combination of nature and nurture would be, “What combination of nature and nurture do you think led to your being straight?”
To ask someone who doesn’t believe that homosexuality is a choice when they chose to be straight is a manipulative bait-and-switch. Did one of the interviewees ever question the premise? And were they edited out? The people who made it into the video were simply caught off guard, not argued out of a position which they never held.
Furthermore, the question seems to ignore the current state of research, which, from what I can gather, tends more and more towards some combination of nature-nurture, with the basic acknowledgement that the proportion of each will vary from individual to individual. Most of the people who were asked to stand in for homophobes in this video were actually closer to the research than the questioner. Beyond that, they were in a better position to have an intelligent discussion about other groups, like bisexuals or those who aren’t sure about their sexuality, that don’t fit into a strict 100% gay vs. 100% straight construction. These kinds of false constructions completely abstract from the reality of those even more marginalized groups who don’t fit the narrative. Imagine someone asking, “Do you think people who are confused about their sexuality choose to be confused about it, or are they born that way?” The world is a lot more complicated than that!
Let us, by all means, combat homophobia wherever we find it. But no one supporting a given cause, however noble, should sink to the level of dishonesty and manipulation. Not only is it not right – it simply won’t work. Real homophobes aren’t going to be convinced by this kind of tactic, and those people who don’t know what they think about homosexuality are not going to become more gay friendly if they feel tricked and manipulated by clever wordplay.
The simple fact is that homophobia is wrong whether someone is simply born that way or if there are other factors that contribute. To obscure that fact is to saw off the very branch you’re sitting on.
Brett Salkeld is Hanrahan Scholar-in-Residence at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.
Imagine, if you would, a female victim of sexual violence placed before a physician who, perhaps, operates in an emergency setting. Potential consequences of sexual violence can include impregnation and this concerns she who has experienced assault. I wonder of the extent to which readers are familiar with how Catholic moral tradition engages with such a scenario.
Consider Directive 36 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The Directive states, among other things, that “a female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault … [that] she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization.”
If interest exists — I do not presume interest — I would like to reflect upon considerations of apparent moral impact surrounding the administering of emergency contraceptive measures. To the extent that interest exists, I anticipate four posts. The first two will surround administering emergency contraception for the purposes of preventing pregnancy (in the first of these, I would like to reflect upon emergency contraception in the context of self-defense and, in the second, would like to reflect upon the abortifacient potential of emergency contraceptive measures and how that potential impacts moral assessment). In the third post, I would like to reflect upon the moral impact of administering emergency contraception for the purposes of impeding implantation and, in the fourth, I would like to conclude by identifying some protocol which have been established; protocol which strives toward care of the victim by conscious application of Catholic moral teaching.
So … emergency contraception as self-defense.
Timothy O’Connell, in his Principles for a Catholic Morality, observes that moral assessments of human action consider not only the sort of act preformed, but also the intention of the acting person and the extent to which relevant circumstances alter moral quality. He or she who provides a neighbor transportation, for example, but fails to mention the neighbor being coaxed into the vehicle by gunpoint, fails to impart a significant element of the human action.
Recognizing these various fonts, Martin Rhonheimer argues — in Ethics of Procreation & the Defense of Human Life: Contraception, Artificial Fertilization and Abortion — that those under even the threat of sexual violence can, in principle, employ measures that act against the possibility of pregnancy. Such use lies outside the scope of the norm prohibiting artificial methods of regulating birth; the ethical context, Rhonheimer contends, is entirely different. Particular circumstances in the Balkans had provided Rhonheimer a context to reflect upon those under threat of sexual violence, and when Germain Grisez was questioned about those under similar threat, in Contraception … Is it Always Wrong?, he responded that those stripped of consent are under no obligation to suffer the results of an unjust attack. Potential results of sexual violence include impregnation and one who seeks to prevent pregnancy following assault does so in self-defense.
Catholic moral tradition, surrounding artificial methods of regulating birth, is informed by the conviction that when sexual acts within marriage can include both a unitive and a procreative dimension, neither may rightly be separated from the other (Humanae vitae, paragraph 12). When, in 1997, the Pontifical Council for the Family issued the Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, listen to their language: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful” (paragraph 24, emphasis added). Those operating within the framework of this tradition are thus able to say what the Ethical and Religious Directives have in Directive 36.
As Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco writes, in Bioethics & Beatitude: An Introduction to Catholic Bioethics, a victim of sexual violence is “not choosing to sterilize a freely chosen sexual act. She is not choosing the unitive dimension of sex while simultaneously rejecting its procreative dimension. Indeed, properly speaking, she is not choosing at all”. In receiving an emergency contraceptive measure, she can choose to “defend herself from a further violation from her rapist and the further perpetuation of an unjust act of sexual violence”.
Kevin O’Rourke, in an 1998 Health Progress article entitled “Applying the Directives: The Ethical and Religious Directives Concerning Three Medical Situations …” observes that “some are surprised to realize that the teaching of the Church allows a [victim of sexual violence] to use contraceptive medication [even though] such medication is prohibited for married women who have engaged in intercourse with their husbands. A woman who has consented to intercourse accepts a responsibility [to maintain] the intrinsic significance of love and procreation [in her interaction with her husband]. The rape victim, however, has no such responsibility because she has not consented to the sexual act.
In short, the norm prohibiting artificial methods of regulating birth has a particular scope. Victims of sexual violence, in seeking to prevent a pregnancy from resulting from an assault experienced, exist outside that scope. Victims who self-defend in such a way, in principle, do so legitimately.
I welcome your interaction.
In one of his regular pieces on Fox News, Jon Stewart recently played a clip of Sean Hannity loudly proclaiming that the Boston bombing suspect should be waterboarded. He defended this by saying that he did not believe enhanced interrogation was torture.
This was Steward’s answer: “You don’t believe enhanced interrogation is torture? Because torture, like Tinkerbell, depends on if you believe“?
Without knowing it, Stewart hit on a profound point here, taking on moral reasoning based on a personal and subjective approach to intention.
Here is what Elizabeth Anscombe had to say about that: “Now if intention is all important – as it is – in determining the goodness or badness of an action, then, on this theory of what intention is, a marvellous way offered itself of making any action lawful. You only had to ‘direct your intention’ in a suitable way. In practice this means making a little speech to yourself: What I mean to be doing is…”
Of course waterboarding is torture. So are the other enhanced interrogation techniques. They have always been regarded as torture, and always will be seen as torture. Deploying the Tinkerbell approach doesn’t make this go away.
Incidentally, I’m still waiting to see those who support the Burkean approach to Canon 915 call for the likes of Hannity to be denied communion for public support of torture, an intrinsically evil act of high moral gravity.
If there is still violence, it cannot any longer, even in the remotest sense, claim to be of God or try to cloak itself with his authority. To do that is to drive the idea of God back to its primitive stages, which modern religious and civil conscience rejects. Better atheism than that. Better not to believe that there is a god at all than to believe in a god who would order us to kill innocents. — Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Homily for Good Friday 2004
Sometimes it is hard to believe in God. Over the past four years I’ve found my faith tested by family life, job uncertainty, and a general isolation from the world. I often felt as if God were planting a finger on my tiny ant-like existence, pushing hard enough to pin me in pain, but not quite hard enough to squash me. At many points in my struggle, I found myself even thinking, “Does God care? Does God even exist? How could God exist and let me endure this kind of pain?”
Then I remember genocide, war, holocaust, and I remember the Cross. Part of me still believes in a God who orders bloodshed, who demands the death of innocent first-borns and cute little animals. Part of me still believe in a God who wages war, who deems pagans and their children worthy of rock-dashing, dismemberment, and total annihilation. Part of me believes in a God who wins through violence. And so it seems natural that the violence I suffer comes from a violent God. And that makes me hate him.
It would be better not to believe in God than believe in a God who tortures me and humanity, and requires us to torture one another.
Recently in my diocese, a man has been giving talks at various Catholic events about “self-defense”, including a recent homeschooling event than my wife attended. Catholic mothers in Saint Louis are being taught that the Catechism requires us to ‘defend our families’. As far as I know, this man isn’t recommending mothers go out and learn Aikido, but more likely go home and tell their husbands to go to the shooting range and buy a gun. I don’t know the specifics, exactly, and I don’t want to know. But I do know that my heart sighs deeply at the thought of more Christian-inspired violence. I’d rather we not be Christians at all than teach our children to kill in the name of Christ (although we never call it killing for Christ; we call it defending freedom or justice).
It really is about time to stop believing in a murderous divine. Our pain and suffering do not come from God. And if our pain and suffering do not come from God, than neither did Christ’s. There’s a strong tendency to understand the Cross of Christ as a punishment of God. God punished Christ instead of punishing humanity. Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Christ is our ransom.
And isn’t that interesting, that last word — ransom. A ransom is paid to a thief, to a brigand, to someone who operates outside the law, not within it. Who demands a ransom for the souls of the living and dead? It is not God who demands a ransom, but more likely Satan — the enemy who is the true source of pain, suffering, death, of wars, bloodshed, and suicide. Jesus came to conquer the devil, and to save us from the devil. And he did it by offering himself up in our place. Jesus said, “No. Take me instead.” Jesus said, “I’m the one you really want. So torture me. So kill me.”
This is a God I can believe in. This is a God I can try to dedicate my life, heart, mind, and soul to. This God doesn’t require bloodshed, but offers himself up as a lamb to be slaughtered — precisely to avoid the bloodshed of those he loves the most.
So that’s what I’ve been up to these last few years. I’ve been suffering, but not without purpose, and not alone. Christ has been suffering with me, as we’ve offered up our bodies and souls for the good of the persons entrusted to us — my family, my community, my Church.
(I’m looking forward to writing more, and appreciate Vox Nova for taking me back into the fold. I’d forgotten how much of blogging is a service to self — reinvigorating my spirit, and reminding myself why I believe. Thanks for reading. God bless! Please pray for me!)
Catholic writer Brandon Vogt has launched Strange Notions, a site he intends to be a place of fruitful dialogue between Catholics and atheists. I’m glad to see Leah Libresco among the main contributors. Frankly, it would have been a sin not to involve her in this project.
Dialogue is essential in the pursuit of truth, and I hope the contributors and interlocutors can achieve it. We each seek the truth situated in a different place, meaning we perceive it and interpret it differently, making sense of the big questions (a relative description, really) as best we can from where we happen to stand. Dialogue doesn’t have to reach agreement to have merit: it’s worthwhile if it expands our own horizons and those of others, if we all come better to understand the place of one another. Dialogue and world-building go hand-in-hand.
A note of friendly criticism: I would’ve liked to have seen Strange Notions launch with a few atheists among its contributors, particularly as it describes itself as “the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists.” I don’t buy the rationale that the success of a site such as this requires one perspective on the inside. Both perspectives inform my way of thinking about these questions, and I’ve turned out all right. You need commonality, but you can find that elsewhere than in religion. To their credit, the founders say they plan eventually to host atheist contributors. Good plan.
Seven participants in the Mennonite/Catholic ecumenical group Bridgefolk have written public responses to the election of Pope Francis and the initial weeks of his pontificate, each from a particular angle, which have been posted on Bridgefolk’s website over the past week.
Abbot John Klassen of Saint John’s Abbey, who is co-chair of Bridgefolk, notes the significance of the name Francis.
By choosing the name Francis (after Francis of Assisi) the Pope evokes the spirit of a saint who is beloved and admired by all Christians. The name Francis is associated with humility, simplicity, compassion, keeping the Gospel in focus at all times, always watching out for the poor.
Marlene Kropf, a denominational minister of Mennonite Church USA and Bridgefolk’s other co-chair, tells how Pope Francis resonates with Mennonites.
The letter sent by Mennonite Church USA leaders affirmed his choice of a name that “reminds us of Francis of Assisi, a follower of Jesus who loved peace, cared for the poor, and cherished creation.” They concluded, “Most of all, we appreciate his profound commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Though Mennonites know that a single leader, no matter how powerful, cannot renew the church by himself, they are deeply hopeful that Pope Francis I will continue to nurture the friendship that is growing between Mennonites and Roman Catholics. Beyond that, they look forward to seeing how the new pope will work toward the unity of all Christians and extend a hand of friendship to all people of faith.
Msgr. John Radano, the newest member of the Bridgefolk board, who previously served on the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, highlights the continuity of Pope Francis’ “ministry of unity” with that of previous popes.
Over the last century, especially starting with Pope Leo XIII (+1903), popes have contributed to the unity of Christians in different ways…. Pope Francis I, in accepting this office with its ministry of unity, stands on the ecumenical shoulders of those Popes. Let us pray for him as he fosters unity.
Darrin Snyder Belousek, a Mennonite professor and author and the executive director of Bridgefolk, writes more specifically on how Pope Francis is demonstrating his own commitment to ecumenism.
It is no accident the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, attended Francis’ inauguration mass in St. Peter’s Square. This marked a first since the Great (East-West) Schism that divided the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions in the 11th century. Upon Francis’ election, Bartholomew I, who had friendly relations with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, commented confidently that the new Pope “will give a new impetus to the two Churches’ journey towards unity.”
…Francis then confirmed that “in continuity with my predecessors, it is my firm intention to pursue the path of ecumenical dialogue” and thanked the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which has conducted dialogues with various ecclesial bodies (including Mennonite World Conference), for its work in service of the church.
Gerald Schlabach, a founding member of Bridgefolk who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, reflects on the significance of a pope from the “global South”.
He is an experienced bishop from the streets and barrios of Argentina. He has named himself after Francis of Assisi, who is not only Catholicism’s most beloved saint but an exemplar of cross-class simplicity and cross-cultural peacemaking. He has de-vested himself of the most ostentatious trappings of clerical privilege. Disappointing traditionalists immediately, he has washed the feet of Muslims and women.
But sooner or later, on some issue or another, Francis will disappoint the rest of us too. And that is okay. Christians from the global South do this (not just Catholics). They are delightfully frustrating for North Americans and Europeans in their tendency to reshuffle our categories of left, right, progressive, orthodox, liberal, conservative. We deceive ourselves if we claim to champion just relationships between North and South yet disparage their voices.
My own reflection focuses on Pope Francis’ potential to bridge intra-ecclesial divides within the Catholic Church.
As an Argentinean with Italian parentage, Francis comes to the papacy with an understanding of the concerns facing the Church in multiple contexts. He has demonstrated a deep concern for the poor and marginalized which has already become a defining feature of his pontificate, while also acknowledging the “spiritual poverty” that pervades much of the industrial West. Not only does he show strong commitment to social justice as well as doctrinal soundness, he has a remarkable way of showing by word and deed that the two are inseparable.
…His deep love for the poor and his deep commitment to the Catholic tradition cannot be set against each other, in short, because he is Catholic. Hopefully, what he teaches by example can inspire us to bridge divides in our own corners of the Catholic world.
Finally, Ivan Kauffman, who, along with his wife Lois, essentially pioneered the Mennonite-Catholic connections that led to Bridgefolk, writes on Pope Francis’ continuation of the commitment to peace demonstrated by his predecessors.
For the past half-century, ever since John XXIII and Vatican II, the popes have been strong advocates of peace. Since John Paul II they have been non-Italians. And beginning with John Paul they have been increasingly attractive to the evangelical community. If early indications endure, this trend will continue under Pope Francis—and if so it will be strengthened, and likely become permanent.
All of these reflections are available in full here.
I stumbled upon a very challenging and humbling thought for today that I waned to share. It is verse following the readings for the Feast of the Annunciation, which is omitted from the Lectionary:
Form a plan, and it shall be thwarted; make a resolve, and it shall not be carried out, for “With us is God!” Isaiah 8:10b
I found this only because Daily Gospel Online occasionally makes mistakes when it uploads the daily reading.
It would seem that the promise of Immanuel, “God is with us,” is two-edged. God will be there, but his presence brings all of our plans and pretenses to naught. This is hard, but in the long run for the best, since as St. Paul said, “only love endures.” A blessed Sunday in Eastertide to all!
Many Jesuits these days have found themselves challenged and made slightly uncomfortable by the lifestyle of Pope Francis. I feel free to mention this fact because it includes myself. His practice as cardinal of not going out to eat at expensive restaurants but only soup kitchens is a challenge not only to any university president or high school president, but also to any well-like scholastic in regency. He will find himself wined and dined by doting and appreciative parents, and it seems the natural thing to accept such offers. Yet because Jesuits so often accept these kinds of offers, they appear to many to be “worldly.” It would be impossible to count how many times I have heard comments about: how much Jesuits like to drink; Jesuit comfortable living quarters; Jesuit poverty, “If this is poverty, bring on chastity!” and the list goes on. People are simultaneously grateful that Jesuits are look and act like them and critical of such behavior and lifestyle.
And let’s be honest: From the beginning, Jesuit Jerome Nadal told us that “the world is our monastery.” We are by definition a “worldly” order. And as a result, Jesuits in the United States usually dress like middle-class white men. We wear North Face and Patagonia and Keens and Chacos. We wear suits and ties and sometimes drive quite nice cars. We have flat screen TV’s and drink middle shelf scotch to relax. Our own Father General, Father Adolfo Nicolas, recently told us: “We work hard, but sometimes our style of life remains middle-class, or even privileged.” He also expresses concern that “in some places, secular, “worldly” values (such as consumerism, careerism, individualism, tribalism) have entered our mentalities and weakened our Jesuit spirit.” Where does this danger come from?
It comes in large part from the challenge by Pope Benedict to the Jesuits to be “on the frontiers.” It comes from Pope Francis’ challenge to priests to be on the “fringes” of society, on the “existential outskirts” of culture, working at the “margins.” Such work is not easy. The result will often be that we appear to be too “worldly.” And sometimes we do become too worldly. Ignatius himself told Jesuits both to “dress in a way that is characteristic of the poor” and to dress in a way that is “ordinary and not different.” His constant goal was that of St. Paul, and Jesuit poverty can be adequately summarized as “becoming all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22). And that means often looking middle-class.
But is there a threshold of dress or behavior or lifestyle that should never be crossed? Pope Francis seems to think so. Or maybe that threshold is primarily restricted to our own houses where we learn never to grow too comfortable, as Nicolas encourages us. If we live un-worldly lives at home, then our attitudes may not be taken so easily to be worldly to those with whom we work.
So what do you think? Are Jesuits too “worldly?” I would love to hear your input.
English Catholic priest Fr. Michael Murphy, commenting in The Tablet following the US Senate’s rejection of bipartisan gun control legislation, has observed a disconnect between second-amendment maximalism and our national claim to trust in God.
While the people of the United States hold their Constitution and its Amendments as sacred, they do so also with their nation’s motto, ‘In God we trust.’ There appears, at this time, to be a conflict between the interpretation of the Second Amendment and the motto.
The motto dates from 1957, replacing the original motto, E pluribus unum, (‘Out of many, one’). No doubt the folks in 1791 America also trusted God, but the frequent use of the word, ‘wild’, as in ‘The Wild West’, in descriptions of the conditions in which they lived, when no police force existed in their country, gives us a clue as to why they also placed so much trust in possessing their own gun.
But gradually, over time, the gun became the supreme symbol of courage.
Stamping the phrase “In God we trust” beside the images of Caesar on our currency may already raise questions about who we’re really trusting. Fr. Murphy raises the same question with regard to the popular American perception of “the use of a gun by a good guy against a bad guy as being the perfect act of courage.” In what kind of God do we trust if that is our sacred symbol? If we believe that only unrestricted access to assault weapons can keep us safe, do we really trust in a God who sent his son to demonstrate true courage by emptying himself, returning good for evil, suffering death rather than inflicting it?
Or is it in another god we trust?
I have lived in this country for almost twenty years . It is my home. And yet, even after so long, there are certain things that I cannot understand and will never be able to understand. Put the gun culture on the top of that list. Aquinas defined the law as an ordinance of reason for the common good, and it is simply reasonable that with so many deaths caused by guns, the authorities would step in to regulate the supply of these weapons. That’s now most other societies operate. But not so the United States.
Why is this? I think it is because of the strong strain of American liberalism, which prioritizes individual liberty over the common good. And the false God of liberty becomes incarnate in the gun.
I sometimes glance at the comments on the USCCB’s Facebook page. When it comes to guns, these comments frighten me. Nearly all comments oppose the Church position, many vehemently so. It is quite possible that these comments represent no more than a noisy minority, but they are still disturbing. I have seen two dominant flavors of the anti-gun control argument. First, without guns, the government will become tyrannical and snuff out freedom. Second, the Church recognizes a legitimate right to self-defense, so guns for all!
The first argument is loopy and dangerous. If you tell the citizens of Australia and the United Kingdom that they are victims of tyranny because governments tightened up gun laws and practically eliminated mass shootings, they will think you are insane! Suffice it to say, this is not how the Church sees the state. The Church regards the state as a natural and divine-ordained entity, resulting from the social nature of man. Its role is not so much a passive umpire of individual liberty, but an active promoter of the common good. As the Compendium puts it, “the common good is the reason that the political authority exists”.
The second argument is more cogent. The Church does indeed recognize a legitimate right to self defense. But mixed up in this argument is the same kind of hyper-liberalism that underpins the “protect me from state tyranny” position. For the Catholic Church does not see this right as absolute. As with many other equivalent rights – such as the right to private property, another paradigm of liberalism – it must always be subordinate to the common good. Looking at it from another angle, the Church departs from liberalism by tying rights specifically to duties - in this case, to the duty of protecting life and safety and laying down the essential preconditions for authentic human flourishing. You will not get that with 30,000 lives ended every year and whole communities destroyed by gun violence.
In putting Church teaching into practice, I think the position of Tommaso Di Ruzza – an expert with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – makes perfect sense. He argues that armed defense is appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.
Why is there so much confusion on this topic in the United States? It comes from culturally entrenched liberalism, which in turn stems from America’s peculiar history. It comes from a mindset that emphasizes individual rights, but divorces them from duties; that stresses freedom from coercion rather than freedom for excellence; and that sees people as primarily as autonomous individuals instead of relational persons with bonds of social responsibility toward one other. It harks back the non-coercive individualism of John Locke, or – even worse – to the dystopian worldview of his darker cousin, Thomas Hobbes. These are the core tenets of classical liberalism, and they exist in their most undiluted from in the United States, even if there is a weird bifurcation of liberalism of the left and liberalism of the right on the American stage. And with guns, this position comes with a certain comfort level with violence that I find utterly unacceptable.
A better worldview, informed by Catholic Social Teaching, would recognize that gun control is ultimately about the common good rather than any “erroneous affirmation of individual autonomy” even if that autonomy encompasses owning guns for self-defense. It would see society as a harmonious whole, rather than a collection of individuals defending their particular patch of turf. It would be horrified that basic social bonds are being cut through by the lack of trust and the cheapening of human life engendered by a casual culture of violence. It would prioritize protecting the weak, the poor, the most vulnerable from harm, and laying down the basic preconditions for people to live and flourish in peace and security.
It is, at the end of the day, about a culture of life. And those that claim otherwise come perilously close to making the same sort of flawed anthropological arguments as those who defend positions like abortion and sexual libertinism.
A recent episode of Salt + Light Television’s Vatican Connections offers a refreshingly balanced and informative report on Pope Francis’ recent creation of an advisory panel consisting of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on church governance and particularly curial reform.
One easily overlooked point given mention here is that “the idea to put together an advisory panel was one of the topics that was discussed during the general congregation meetings just before the conclave.” This panel, in other words, did not come out of nowhere and is not a radically unilateral creation of Pope Francis. Indeed the creation and makeup of the panel highlight his general disinclination to act unilaterally. As John Allen has observed,
This group could actually promote the more collegial vision of Church that people have been talking about. Seven of the eight guys aren’t Vatican guys. They come from the local Church in various parts of the world. It is a way of saying that the Vatican has to be accountable to those local churches. Second, this is not a Pope who relies on people to make decisions for him. This is a Pope who does his own consultation. This is a Pope who picks up the phone himself and calls people and asks for advice. Clearly he’s created this group to be his primary sounding board…. These are not milquetoast, these are all strong personalities. It means you’ve got a Pope who wants real advice, not yes-men. What’s more, these guys don’t all think alike. Most people would see Cardinal Pell from Sydney as to the right and most people would see Cardinal Rodriguez from Honduras as fairly far to the left. This suggests that the Pope doesn’t want to just hear one opinion before he acts.
The ways this panel represents the diversity of the Church demonstrate that true collegiality must be more than a buzzword for the ecclesiology of the left, and Pope Francis appears to be aware of the need to listen to a full range of perspectives. Contrary to how some would portray him, Pope Francis is not the poster child for the Catholic Left, nor is he a hardline defender of the Catholic Right’s truncated definition of orthodoxy. He cannot fit these ideological boxes because he represents so well the fullness of Catholic orthodoxy, not to mention orthopraxy, which guarantees there will be something about him to appeal to, and also to challenge, each of us.
Michael Sean Winters recently made a similar point, expanding on his challenge to hear Pope Francis’ April 16 homily in praise of Vatican II primarily in terms of how it might challenge oneself:
I urged readers to read the Holy Father’s sermon and not think how it may or may not be interpreted as a slap to the traditional Latin Mass crowd or some other group within the church, but instead ask yourself if you have been faithful to the council. If you speak of the hierarchic structure of the church in dismissive tones, as some of my friends on the left do, are you being faithful to the council? If you minimize the call to justice and peace, as some of my friends on the right do, are you being faithful to the council? For everyone on all sides: Do you recognize that the Spirit will move where it wants, or can you only, grudgingly, allow the Spirit to move you in ways you have already decided to go? Who is following whom? There is an invitation to idolatry in discipleship whenever we make our own ideas and agenda the measure of others. It is a thing to resist. It is a sin.
I am guilty of this sin myself sometimes. I had a conversation with a good friend the day the conclave began. We were assessing different candidates and how this one or that would be accessible to us and our friends, how this one or that would focus on issues we care about, that sort of thing. Then my friend, who is possessed of graces I lack, said, “Of course, I will be happy if they select someone I do not know at all. Then we will have the excitement of getting to know someone new!” I am still excited to be getting to know Papa Francesco. So far, I like everything I have seen and heard. And when he does something I do not like, I hope I will have the grace to admit that perhaps he is right and it is I who need to reassess my opinion and not evaluate the new pope as to whether or not he is playing on “our team.”
We are all faced with a choice in how we relate to our Holy Father. We can make him a pawn (or bishop, or king) in our ideological games, or we can allow him to call us into a broader and ultimately more unifying vision of what it means to be Catholic. For the good of the Church, let us choose unity.
This of course does not mean we can never disagree, but it does mean that even our disagreements must be ruled by a spirit of Christian charity and by the reality of Eucharistic fellowship, rather than being poisoned by the toxic political atmosphere that surrounds us. It is most especially in our disagreements that we have the greatest opportunity to inspire the world to say, “See how they love one another!” It’s not easy – such is the nature of the gospel – but following the lead of Pope Francis by listening to multiple voices within our big tent of a Church is a good place to start.
Over the past year, since I was dismissed from the diaconate formation program in my diocese, I have been thinking about the way the program was structured. Part of this was selfish: there were pedagogical issues that contributed, I think, to my dismissal. (To date I have never gotten a coherent explanation for why I was dismissed, but that is another story and not relevant to the topic at hand.) But I am also a teacher by profession, and the questions involved in educating deacons are complex and I find them interesting and challenging.
Indeed, were I to be put in charge of diaconate formation by some miracle, I have already begun to sketch out a series of changes I would make. There is perhaps a little hubris at work here—this is a common failing among academics. I realize that there is a great deal I don’t know about formation programs, and many ideas that I have may seem good on paper, but may then fall short because of issues I simply have not considered, either because of a lack of experience or a lack of specialized knowledge.
Therefore, I want to open some of my ideas up for discussion here. The first idea I want to cover is the question in the title: what should deacons know, and how should they know it? The first half of the question is relatively straightforward: what knowledge, information and skills should be in the “toolkit” of every new deacon? There is plenty of room for disagreement here—see, for instance, my earlier post on one question on the entrance exam administered by my diocese. However, there are some broad areas that I think most people will agree deacons need to have some competency: e.g., scripture, preaching, liturgy, pastoral care, Catholic ethical and social teaching. But I would be interested in seeing where people would place their emphases and priorities, and why. And it is worth bearing in mind that the USCCB has written extensively about diaconate formation programs.
The second half of the title is a more subtle epistemological question which I think I can illustrate by way of two examples. When I got my Ph.D. 20 years ago, I “knew” introductory calculus very well. Not only had I studied it, but I had chosen my research specialty in an area (harmonic analysis) that is closely related to the material covered in a standard calculus course. However, I would now say that I know calculus much better than I did then, because I now know how to teach calculus. I know which ideas are intuitively clear and which are not; I have a better grasp of which ideas to emphasize and which to omit the first time a student sees the material; I understand how to draw out connections between ideas that help my students begin to see the “big picture” more clearly. Unfortunately (particularly for the students I taught in the first few years of my career) I was not taught any of this when I “learned” calculus—I pretty much learned it by trial and error in the classroom and in discussions with other colleagues. I would argue that this knowledge is not simply pedagogical skills separate from the content of calculus. Rather, I think it is an integral part of the conceptual organization of calculus in my own mind.
The second example comes from the doctoral program in preaching at the Aquinas Institute. I stumbled across this program while looking for resources on homiletics. One feature that I found intriguing was the entrance requirements: students were required to have a masters in divinity and at least three years of ministerial experience. In other words, the students were required to have considerable experience in preaching, including having gone through the entire lectionary at least once. This suggests to me that the program organizers want their students to already “know” scripture in a particular way: not just from a close reading of the texts (as would be gotten in any M. Div. program) but also from having to respond to these texts in the context of preaching on them.
So with these examples in mind, I am asking: how should deacons “know” the topics listed above (and others that may be proposed)? What do you expect deacons to do with their acquired knowledge and skills, and how does this shape how they should know the material? Is “book learning” (however defined) sufficient? How should experiential knowledge be organized?
To start the discussion, let me sketch my own approach. I believe that the education of deacons should be organized functionally. It should start with what we (the Church) want deacons to be and to do, and work backwards to determine both the content and organization of their formation. For instance, deacons should have strong faith lives that are grounded in scripture—whence the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. They are also expected to preach on a regular basis, and their homilies should, ideally, help their congregations to better understand the scripture and apply it in their own lives. This suggests that they should engage with scripture by praying with it—the Liturgy of the Hours and Lectio Divina immediately come to mind—and proclaiming it. As I was learning to be a lector, I was told that I could not effectively proclaim it until I understood it: what do the words mean? Where in the Bible does this passage come from? What are the circumstances the author was confronted with, and how was he responding to them? This suggests some formal scripture study, but organized in a very different way. And finally, deacons should learn scripture by preaching on it: what does it mean in their own lives and in the lives of others? This would lead to both faith sharing (which is itself an acquired skill) and also to endless possibilities for tying scripture to Catholic teaching in a wide variety of areas.
Applying this reasoning to the other things a deacon should know leads to a formation program that is not organized around a “curriculum” with discrete academic topics (Introduction to the Old and New Testament, Catholic Ethics, Homiletics, etc.) but instead attempts to weave all of these topics together into an organic whole. For those familiar with it, the problems and issues involved bear some resemblance to those of the calculus reform movement of the past 25 years. And, though I know much less about it, I think there are some connections with Montessori education. Possible? Of course. Difficult? Yes. Such a program would require an interdisciplinary approach and the rejection (or at least substantive revision) of much received wisdom on education. But I think deacons educated in this way would be much bettered prepared for their ministries.
What do you think?