The Moderation Conversation: The Monstah and the Moderate

Welcome to another installment of the Moderation Conversation, a feature in which Matt and Chris get together for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript to make themselves seem more eloquent than they actually are.

Tired of reading about the curious case of Hillary Clinton’s disappearing emails? Weary of pundits debating whether Jeb Bush is really his own man? Sick of seeing the artist formerly known as Donald Trump tease yet another godforsaken non-campaign for the highest office in the nation? RM is, too. As the country homes in on potential candidates for the 2016 election, Matt and Chris discuss two little-mentioned longshots who they would like to see become serious contenders for their parties’ respective nominations. 

(As an aside, this happens to be RM’s one hundredth post since its kickoff in mid-2013. The editors would love to invite all of you over for cake and merrymaking, but they recently squandered their annual budget on some unfortunate online purchases.)

The 2016 Election

Matt: Okay, so now that it’s 2015, we feel somewhat less guilty about talking about 2016.

Chris: Only somewhat.

M: Only somewhat. Because the presidential election is still about twenty months away. But, you know, the race is heating up!

We wanted to discuss the candidates that we would be interested in seeing run and the potential campaigns that we’re most excited about. Not necessarily because we would be backing those candidates, but because we think they might have something interesting to contribute to the conversation.

So Chris, why don’t you kick it off?

 

Bernie Sanders – The Monstah

C: Well, one of the candidates we’ve both been very excited about has been Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. You were the one who originally got me interested in Bernie’s would-be campaign. You mentioned that one of your friends from Haverford has been a very enthusiastic supporter of Bernie since he started hinting that he might be running. And you showed me a Bloomberg interview that he did in which he lovingly talked about how he plays “monstah” with his grandchildren.

M: For anyone who isn’t familiar with his background, Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont but he’s originally from Brooklyn and has an extremely thick Brooklyn accent. So he basically never pronounces the letter ‘R’.

A lot of articles that I read about Bernie say that he always comes off as extremely serious and somewhat pedantic and that he’s constantly painting a very dark picture of things. But I think that if you listen to some of his speeches you’ll find out that he’s actually got a pretty dry sense of humor that I imagine could play well on the campaign trail.

C: I think that’s actually a very big strength, that his rhetoric can be both dry and serious. That could help him quite a bit in 2016.

M: A big potential liability, though, is that Bernie Sanders is the only member of the United States Senate who identifies himself as a socialist. People generally run away from the word “socialist” in American politics. It’s used as a pejorative and politicians usually are not rushing to embrace it.

Do you think that will be a problem for him? That he’ll have to work extra hard to explain that label to an American public that recoils from the word “socialism”?

C: Yes. I think especially if he were to make it out of the Democratic primaries, that would be a huge, huge hindrance. It could even be a problem within the Democratic primary as well, just because his opponents would be able to argue that he is far too extreme for the party.

M: Now, Sanders is not actually a Democrat. He is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He’s talked a lot about how he’s thinking about running for president, but he’s kept alive the idea that he might run as an independent in order to capitalize on the anger that exists toward the two-party system.

At the same time, he has acknowledged that he doesn’t want to be a Ralph Nader-type spoiler. Even though he doesn’t like the two-party system he believes that the Democrats are a much lesser evil than the Republicans and he wouldn’t want to throw an election to their candidate. So if he runs he’ll probably run as a Democrat, but it’s not 100%.

C: In press conferences and debates he’s been quite critical of the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and her relationships with big business.

M: Yeah, that’s true. There are also two more reasons why I think Bernie Sanders’ candidacy would be worthwhile even if he doesn’t win. One relates to what you said about socialism. I think it would be valuable to have a somewhat wider range of perspectives represented in American politics. I mean, we tend to believe that there’s a very large ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans, and there is. But when you look at something like the recent election in Greece, where between 10 and 15% of the vote combined went to literal communists or literal Nazis –

C: That’s horrifying.

M: Like, that’s horrifying, and I’m not saying that I’m looking forward to something like that happening here, but in a lot of other advanced countries the political spectrum is much wider than it is in the U.S. Some of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have a system of proportional representation, so it’s much more difficult for smaller parties to really gain influence. But I think in general it would be good for our discourse if we had more marginal voices able to get their thoughts out there, especially on the left. If there weren’t such a stigma against “socialism” as a political philosophy we might be able to hear from socialists in the mainstream media more often and have them actually defend their views rather than just be the butt of some joke.

So that’s one point. The other is that, based on the things that I’ve heard Bernie Sanders say in the videos that I’ve watched of him speaking, it sounds like he is really interested in trying to broaden the Democratic coalition. And for a party that has seemed over the past few months to be trying to do some soul-searching about why it lost so badly in November, someone like Sanders could be able to provide a roadmap for how to expand the Democrats’ appeal.

He really seems to downplay the so-called “social issues”. He’s mentioned in his speeches the events in Ferguson, Missouri and talked about how there’s obviously been a very acrimonious debate about race in America. But he goes on to point out that we don’t really hear a lot about how African-American youth unemployment in Ferguson and in other minority communities nationwide is something like 30 or 40%.

He always seems to try to refocus these debates onto economics and away from tribalist culture war arguments. And I think it would be good to see the Democratic Party pivot away from the culture war and try to reach out to some people who might not accept the entirety of the Democratic platform but who might be on board with some of the more bread-and-butter issues.

C: Great points. To your second argument, in considering his candidacy, I think it’s worth looking at the issues that he’s been discussing to see what he could bring to bear on the Democratic platform in 2016.

Regulation of big banks would be a huge part of his campaign. That’s been probably the number one issue he’s discussed in interviews and speeches in the last few months. That’s certainly important. There is bipartisan support for measures to rein in the big banks, and it seems like he’d be a very good person to channel that anger and that resentment.

M: Why do you say that? Why would he be uniquely well-situated?

C: Perhaps aside from Elizabeth Warren, who still has not indicated that she’s going to run, he seems like the most likely candidate to actually take action against the big banks. According to The Week, some major Wall Street investors have been very positive about a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy, which suggests they don’t perceive her as much of a threat. So if this is a debate that we want to see going forward, if we really would like to crack down on corporatism, it seems like Bernie Sanders would be a good person to do so.

That said, I don’t think that more taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest one percent are enough to solve the structural inequality that he continually highlights. This is something the Democratic Party needs to consider in the run-up to the election, but they probably won’t. Raising taxes on the wealthiest and big businesses is simply not enough to solve every single problem they’re calling attention to.

I’d love to see Bernie gain traction in the primary so he can start a debate on policy planks like infrastructure investment. Things that might not otherwise be talked about. That in and of itself would be a success.

M: Yeah! Just say the word “infrastructure” and I will probably vote for you.

C: He’d also like to expand healthcare further, which is going to die a slow and painful – actually, a quick and painful death, because it’s never going to happen.

M: [Laughs]

Maybe that’s enough about Bernie Sanders. Suffice it to say, he’s a monstah.

 

John Kasich – The Moderate

M: A candidate that we’re both interested in seeing run on the Republican side is someone who has said a little bit less about his intentions for 2016, but who does seem like he might be seriously considering a run. And that would be Ohio Governor John Kasich.

One thing I think we’re both really impressed by, given our general interest in seeing more cooperation among elected officials from different parties, is the fact that he was willing to accept the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Ohio. He opted not to engage in a lot of the confrontational tactics that other Republican governors had chosen to pursue.

C: I think that in looking at Kasich’s appeal, it’s important to consider him relative to the other potential candidates on the Republican side. He may not, in and of himself, be a particularly strong candidate. He’s not someone who’s really well known outside of Ohio. But he just won reelection in the 2014 midterms by double digits, so that’s why he’s been getting some press.

Betsy Woodruff and Daniel Strauss discussed this a little bit in their Bloggingheads podcast, and Betsy argued that Kasich has no chance because we’re so far along in the run-up to 2016 that he simply does not have enough name recognition to gain traction. Which is a shame. As you said, Kasich has shown himself to be open to certain aspects of healthcare reform, saying that expanding access was “doing God’s work.” This indicates that he’s willing to work with Democrats and other members outside his party to accomplish his goals. The fact that he’s able to appeal to voters in the state across party lines will be very important, especially because the other potential candidates include a lot of confrontational figures like Ted Cruz.

M: So, Betsy Woodruff – who we interviewed, by the way! – seemed to think Kasich’s comments about accepting the Medicaid expansion being motivated by his Christian duty to take care of the poor would be a negative, because the Republican base presumably wouldn’t be too pleased with someone who defends Obamacare by invoking Jesus.

At the same time, Mitt Romney got the nomination after having implemented what was essentially Obamacare in Massachusetts. And I think a broad segment of the electorate outside of the Republican base will appreciate that he’s somebody who takes his faith seriously and is motivated by that to want to work towards social justice.

One interesting thing about John Kasich that I didn’t know was that he actually ran for president in the year 2000. He was a Congressman from Ohio and he ran in the Republican primary against George Bush, who obviously ended up getting the nomination and becoming president. Apparently at the time he was a somewhat brash figure, but he has significantly mellowed out since then and is now seen as a more low-key, deal-making sort of politician instead of a firebrand. But again, maybe that’ll be a drawback if it means that he can’t generate a lot of excitement.

C: You had mentioned to me that he supports a budget policy that’s a little questionable…

M: Oh yeah. He’s working for this organization called Balanced Budget Forever. Sounds like a really bad band name.

C: That obviously will be fine in the primaries. But in a general election, those type of fiscal policies could come back to haunt him.

M: Why do you say that? I mean, it seems like a balanced budget amendment might be pretty popular.

C: You think so?

M: I don’t think it’s a good idea from an economic standpoint, but I think it could be popular. It’s something that has a lot of intuitive appeal.

C: I don’t know. Democrats could make convincing arguments for why, especially now, as the United States has been doing quite well economically compared to other European countries, it’s not critical that we balance the budget at this juncture and in fact it could be quite harmful. I think there’s plenty of ammunition on the Democratic side to puncture holes in that.

M: Another Kasich policy worth mentioning: he was partly responsible for implementing an earned income tax credit in Ohio, which the state had not had up until last year. The earned income tax credit is something that, in theory, both Democrats and Republicans like: it was expanded under Bill Clinton but a lot of Republicans also tout it as an alternative to raising the minimum wage. So it’s another indication that he seems to be serious about policies to help lower-income Americans, and if that’s a quality that he would bring to the White House then that makes him very attractive.

C: To that point: I don’t know the exact numbers, but job growth in Ohio has been very strong since he became governor. He’s going to be able to use that as a talking point if he does choose to run. And it’s especially impressive when compared with the record of other moderates like Chris Christie, whose time as governor has actually seen anemic growth in New Jersey. Our state unemployment rate has not really improved since he took office, so it seems like in terms of being a more moderate candidate on the Republican side, Kasich has solid credentials, at least for the primaries.

 

Monstah vs. Moderate

M: There seems to be some asymmetry here. Whereas on the Democratic side we like the candidate who appears to many to be more extreme, we’re gravitating towards the Republican candidate who seems the most moderate. Do you think there’s some disconnect there?

C: Yeah, I’d agree that there’s some disconnect. I think part of it is our appreciation for Bernie Sanders as a political character, almost. Because he is such a unique personality, he’s very interesting to watch. He has passion about what he’s talking about. It’s unlikely he has much of a chance of winning, but we’re rooting for him to run because of his charisma and because policies like infrastructure improvement could be very positive.

Whereas Bernie is one of the lone “fringe” candidates in his party, it seems like on the Republican side most of the candidates and party leaders have been more towards the fringes as of late. So there we’d like to see someone more temperate who can get the party back towards the middle.

M: To me, it seems like Bernie and Kasich might have something uniquely in common: both of them are interested in prioritizing economic issues. I already discussed this in the case of Bernie, but even for Kasich, who is fairly socially conservative, it seems like the issues he’s most eager to address are economic: finding ways to boost wages for low-income workers, finding ways to provide healthcare, and pursuing more traditional fiscal conservative goals like a balanced budget amendment.

C: So do you think this election is going to be focused on economic issues for the most part? It feels like the early stages of Hillary Clinton’s pre-campaign have mostly been based on other things outside of economic policy.

M: I mean, I hope the election is mostly focused on economic issues. I assume defense will also be a pretty big component in light of the upheaval in the Middle East. But I would certainly rather Hillary Clinton’s candidacy not become something like Mark Udall’s single-issue campaign in Colorado, which dealt with the abortion issue and almost nothing else. That’s not to say that abortion is not something we should debate, but it is far from the only issue and I would hope that both parties find a way to talk about other things people care about.

C: It’ll be interesting to see who ends up running. Most of the early coverage has focused on the Republican Party, and we’ve seen names of upwards of a dozen potential candidates who may or may not be interested.

M: Ben Carson.

C: Ben Carson, yes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but on the Democratic side, we’ve only heard from Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, possibly Bernie Sanders, and probably not Elizabeth Warren.

M: And possibly Martin O’Malley from Maryland.

C: The narrative thus far is that Hillary has already been elected. And again, that’s one of the reasons I’d love to see Bernie Sanders run, just because it’d be good to see someone bring an additional perspective to that debate.

M: Amen.

The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition: Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings

This is the second installment of “The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition”, a spin-off of RM’s “Moderation Conversation” feature.  The topic this time was something that seems inconsequential but has inspired one of our most adamant disagreements in ages: is Daylight Savings Time better than Standard Time or vice-versa? 

Chris

Matt, I’m feeling a bit down at the moment and I need your help.  I’m writing this to you on October 30, which means we only have three days left until Daylight Savings Time ends.

For me, this is perhaps the worst time of the year, at least outside of the cold doldrums of February.  The end of Daylight Savings Time means that it will start to get dark around 4:30pm from now through March.  This is terrible!  Two weeks ago, we were enjoying warm, breezy fall days, but by next week, it will be cold and completely dark by the time I leave my office each afternoon.

I love Daylight Savings Time.  I’d endorse a petition to make it the year-round standard in a heartbeat.  What’s the point of changing clocks twice a year?  What’s the benefit of manipulating time such that evening falls before most people clock out for the day?  I’d rather grab an extra hour of sun in the afternoon than an extra hour in the morning, when I’m barely conscious enough to hate the morning traffic, let alone appreciate the beauty of fresh light.

Word on the street is that you actually prefer Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time.  I find this unfathomable and I’m inclined to completely, vehemently disagree, but I’d like to hear: what’s your rationale?  Can you help convince me that there’s value in adopting Standard Time?

Matt

Chris, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling down, but I do think I might be able to help. What if I told you that getting rid of Daylight Savings Time might literally make all of us a little bit happier?

Before I explain why, I want to point out that one alleged benefit of DST is greatly oversold. The primary motivation for instituting DST was the belief that it would conserve energy by reducing the need for artificial lighting on summer evenings. This argument dates back at least to the time of Benjamin Franklin, who thought that people would burn fewer candles if everyone agreed to wake up and go to sleep earlier during the summer. It was also invoked by Congress as a reason for lengthening DST starting in 2007.

Unfortunately, there’s scant evidence that DST actually saves energy, and some reason to think that it actually has the opposite effect. In a 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, economists Matthew Kotchen and Laura Grant analyze the impact of an Indiana law that required all counties in the state to adhere to DST, many of which had not done so previously. By comparing patterns of energy usage in those counties that had practiced DST before the passage of the law to those that had not, Kotchen and Grant were able to isolate the effect of the time shift on electricity consumption.

Their results show that DST may paradoxically increase the amount of electricity used, perhaps because any savings realized from the “Benjamin Franklin effect” are swamped by an increased reliance on air conditioners or fans (since more sunlight in the evenings also means that the evenings will tend to be warmer). The increase is not enormous – Kotchen and Grant estimate it at a few percentage points – but at the very least it calls into question the main rationale for DST.

But why would I say that year-round Standard Time has the potential to make us happier? Well, science has shown that exposure to bright light in the morning is mood-enhancing, and therapy involving “light boxes” is sometimes used as a treatment for depression. Such therapy is most effective for individuals who suffer from the aptly acronym-ed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that strikes mainly during the winter months.

Although patients with SAD generally start to feel worse in the late autumn and better in the springtime, some clinicians report that they struggle with the start of DST (when the mornings suddenly become darker) and experience the return to Standard Time as a kind of reprieve (when the mornings become brighter).

Even for those of us who don’t have to deal with SAD, the “spring forward” can still have deleterious consequences for our health. In addition to its effects on mood, there are studies suggesting that heart attacks and suicides also spike around that time of year.

I agree with you that changing the clocks twice a year is pointless – so let’s stick with Standard Time all year long!

Chris

I appreciate your efforts to convince me why Standard Time should usurp Daylight Savings Time all year round.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time buying your arguments; even in tandem, they’re not persuasive enough to make me think that darkness at 4:30pm is a worthwhile trade-off.

I’ll readily accept the energy statistics you cite, but by your own evidence, it does not seem like Standard Time has an overwhelming advantage over DST with respect to electricity conservation.  It also sounds like the worst cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder occur during the heart of the winter when Standard Time is most acute and days are shortest.  And the instances you report regarding heart attacks and suicides imply causation with DST when only correlation may exist.  On the whole, all three points strike me as insufficient to justify a full year of Standard Time.

But there are distinct advantages to a full year of DST.  Joe Stromberg at Vox notes how a full year of DST would allow for extra time after work for leisure activities, including shopping, which is why retail sales rise a little bit during the summer.  It’s not a huge increase, but hey, it’s something.  He also reports that DST is correlated with reduced instances of robberies due to the extra light at night.

Benefits for school children are perhaps even greater.  Additional light in the afternoon would allow for more time spent in after-school activities, particularly exercise.  Interestingly, the National Parent Teacher Association has been a key opponent of expanding Daylight Savings Time in the past, arguing that light in the morning is necessary when children are traveling to school.  But this is easily solved by pushing back the start times for school, which is long overdue anyway (and perhaps a topic we could discuss in the future).

More important, though, are the lives that would be saved by full-year DST.  From Time (no pun intended): “Adding an hour of sunlight in the evening year-round would save the lives of more than 170 pedestrians annually, according to a 2004 study in Accident Analysis and Prevention. ”  Says Steve Calandrio, a professor who has studied the effectiveness of DST policies: “At 5 pm virtually everyone in society is awake.  There are far more people asleep at 7 in the morning than at 7 in the evening.”  It’s as simple as that.

Seems like there are benefits to both a full year of Standard Time and a full year of Daylight Savings Time, but the upside to 365 days of DST far outweighs that of ST.  What say you?

Matt

I admit that the research showing a link between the start of DST and heart attacks does not prove causality – it can never be repeated often enough that correlation does not imply causation! – but neither does the study you refer to which claims that DST reduces crime. That said, the evidence is pretty suggestive in both cases, so maybe we both need to acknowledge that our favored regime comes with costs and benefits.

I’m a little confused about the points one of the articles you link to makes regarding DST’s effect on retail sales. The article quotes Michael Downing, the author of a book called Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, as saying that “[t]he barbeque grill and charcoal industries say they gain $200 million in sales with an extra month of daylight saving—and they were among the biggest lobbies in favor of extending DST from six to seven months in 1986.” Downing also mentions the golf equipment industry, the fuel industry, and the “Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association” as advocates of that move.

What do these industries have in common? They all produce goods or services that are people are most likely to consume during the spring or summer. In other words, I can understand why extending DST to cover more of the times when people might be golfing or grilling or driving to the beach would benefit golf club makers or charcoal sellers or oil companies, but now that DST already runs from March to October I doubt that any further economic benefits could be reaped by making it year-round. I imagine that not very many people golf in the depths of winter (although I did see some mini-golfing going down earlier today, and it’s almost the end of November).

I wonder how you might feel about the following compromise, which would both address my concerns about rousing people while it’s dark outside and still grant you your cherished evening sunlight: shorten the workweek so that we can all awaken at the same time we do now and have time to frolic in the natural light after we come home. You might be familiar with the argument made by some economists that a shorter workweek would distribute paid employment more equitably across the population and simultaneously reduce both joblessness and overwork. I can’t say whether anyone has ever argued for such a proposal on the grounds that it would give us more evening sunlight, but it sure seems like that would be one of the consequences. I’d love to get your thoughts!

Chris

Agreed with you that it’s important to acknowledge our favored regimes both come with costs and benefits.  Though I still believe all-year Daylight Savings Time is preferable to the status quo, the arguments and information you’ve brought up against DST are definitely helping me look at the bright side of things.  (Pun sort-of intended.)

As you note, the sales benefits of DST are almost certainly a bit overblown, especially since only a select number of retailers are actually reaping the rewards.  But I still think the arguments I cited about children benefiting from light after school, coupled with research that suggests a causal relationship between Standard Time and pedestrian deaths, tip the scales slightly in favor of full-year DST.

Your compromise proposal about a shorter workweek is fascinating, albeit a few hundred orders of magnitude more difficult to institute than passing a law to mandate year-long DST. But it’s true!  If everyone is working fewer hours, there will most definitely be more time to enjoy the sunlight during short winter days.  Perhaps this will be a byproduct of the basic income policy Bernie Sanders is sure to institute when he wins the 2016 presidential election.  Only two more years!

 

The Moderation Conversation: Talking About Divorce en Route to a Wedding

This is the fifth installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris meet for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript so as to appear significantly more eloquent than they actually are. This exchange, which deals with the ongoing intra-Catholic debate about divorce and remarriage, was recorded several months ago. RM is publishing it now to mark this week’s start of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Vatican City. (This is almost certainly a lie conceived by Matt and Chris to make their procrastination seem intentional.)

The Great Divorce Debate

Matt: Okay! So, we are here in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York.

Chris: And, as people are wont to do in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York, we are going to talk about divorce.

M: … as we are on our way to a wedding. [Laughs]

Specifically we wanted to talk about the debate going on within the Catholic Church about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Communion. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in light of the fact that Pope Francis has called an assembly of the world’s bishops known as the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, for this October and October 2015, to discuss challenges to the family in the modern world. But the issue that’s gotten the most attention in the secular media and in the Catholic press has been this subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried. So maybe you want to give a little more context for the controversy?

C: Sure, yeah. A lot of the debate has revolved around comments made by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper about divorced and remarried Catholics. Kasper expressed support for a new sort of process that would allow them to receive Communion after a period of repentance for the failure of their first marriage. In an interview he gave with Commonweal magazine he discussed ways this could be accomplished, but a number of different bishops and others within the Church voiced dissatisfaction with his reasoning.

One of the things Kasper articulated to Commonweal is the idea that people are always entitled to an opportunity for forgiveness. Not all marriages are necessarily going to work out, and there should be a policy in place where people who are contrite about the failure of their first marriage can be readmitted to Communion and can fully reconcile with the Church.

M: Right. The Church has no problem admitting people who are divorced to Communion. The issue is divorce and remarriage, because the Church sees marriage as a permanent institution and it maintains that to enter into a second marriage is therefore to –

C: Commit adultery.

M: Yes. But while the Church doesn’t recognize divorce, it does recognize the concept of an annulment, which a lot of people see as a kind of “Catholic divorce.” The idea behind an annulment is that the Church declares that a marriage was, for whatever reason, never validly established in the first place.

Something Kasper brought up in the interview that I thought was a pretty significant bombshell was that he mentioned a conversation he had with Pope Francis, wherein Francis supposedly said that he believes roughly half of all Catholic marriages are not valid, either because people don’t really understand the significance of what they’re promising and therefore can’t really enter into a legitimate marriage, or because there were social pressures for them to get married and it wasn’t truly a free decision on their part. I thought that was an astonishingly high number and I think a lot of other observers did as well.

C: Yeah. Michael Brendan Dougherty and Ross Douthat both expressed extreme skepticism at that.

M: Mhm. John Allen [formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now a Vatican correspondent for the Boston Globe and Crux] has said that he believes the most likely outcome of the Synod will be that it becomes easier to get annulments. I believe right now the question of whether to grant an annulment is decided by a diocesan tribunal, but the decision can be appealed all the way to Rome. Allen thinks that the Synod will sidestep the question of whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion and will settle for streamlining the annulment process.

C: So I guess the question that arises from this is, if we’re creating a broader standard for what warrants an annulment, then at what point is an annulment effectively a divorce? At what point do the two basically converge?

M: Hmm.

C: Did Allen specify what kinds of new things might be considered grounds for an annulment?

M: I’m not sure it’s so much that he thinks that new grounds will be entertained. I think it’s just that he believes the “burden of proof,” so to speak, will be lightened. Maybe a less thorough investigation will be required to determine whether the marriage was invalid. The number of appeals that are possible will be cut down. I don’t think it’s so much changing the definition of an annulment as it is just changing the bureaucracy that people need to go through to obtain annulments.

C: Right. But if you do go that route, if you do make it easier to obtain annulments, it doesn’t really leave a distinct impression of why divorce is unacceptable.

M: So I have to agree with Douthat and Dougherty on the point here about half of marriages being invalid. Their argument is that number is way too high. I think that this whole debate about what percentage of marriages are invalid is a side issue. It’s being raised as a way for the reform-minded side of the debate to accomplish something without having to face the real question head-on. Namely, whether the Church should formally recognize the possibility of second marriages.

C: I’m inclined to agree with the pope that the number could be quite high. Maybe not 50%, but certainly substantial if you account for people who didn’t realize what they were doing when they got married. Wouldn’t surprise me if it were much higher than people might expect.

That being said I don’t really see how this contributes to the debate at all, except to give ammunition, like you point out, to people who would be more inclined to say, “Look, marriage is not as hard and fast a thing as it might be portrayed by traditionalists, so therefore more lax standards for divorce or annulments are warranted.” Seems like a peripheral anecdote.

M: Right. And what makes this such a difficult issue both within the Church and outside of the Church is that there’s a tension between the norm that you want to uphold, the message you want to broadcast about what marriage is and what people should be aspiring to when they get married, and the reality that a lot of marriages do fail.

And so on the one hand, it seems very retrograde or cruel to deny people the possibility of second marriages, but on the other hand, if second marriages or remarriage in general comes to be seen as less of an exception to a rule and more as just a universal possibility, then in some sense that undermines the norm that you’re trying to inculcate. How you strike that balance, I think that’s a really tough question.

 

Second Chances

C: I’d like to get your opinions on a couple of pieces that ran in the August issue of First Things. Rusty Reno and Robert Spaemann both wrote columns about divorce and remarriage, and these two pieces, especially the Spaemann one, they strike me as tone deaf in a lot of ways.

M: Okay.

C: Their arguments are very idealistic. They support an aspirational vision of marriage as something that transcends temporary disagreements or romantic love, anything like that that might fade over time. The problem is that it also comes across as somewhat cruel when factoring in the myriad problems that actual couples encounter in the course of marriage, some of which may render the union unsalvageable. Reno and Spaemann seem not to acknowledge that the realities of marriage can be quite tough, and there are circumstances where people become less compatible over time.

Did you have any opinions on either of those articles?

M: Well, to get back to Kasper’s proposal for a minute, he notes that in a lot of situations where people are divorced or remarried and they have children from their second marriage, the Church essentially asks them, if they want to receive Communion, to walk away from that second marriage. But what Kasper says is that in these situations there basically is no way out of them that doesn’t cause some kind of harm. To walk away from the second marriage, especially if there are children, involves the breakup of another family.

And so, you know, there are competing obligations here – the obligation that the Church says the person has to their former spouse, and the obligation to the person that they’re living with now. In his mind, there’s no way to reconcile those two things without some kind of hurt being caused. So he says that in these situations the Church should be trying to lead people to a place where they’re striving toward the ideal even if they can’t actually reach it.

Now, as for Reno’s piece in First Things: he says that what seems like a very minor change on divorce and remarriage is likely to be interpreted by those outside of the Church as a capitulation with far-reaching consequences. If the remarried, why not the cohabiting? Again, this is what I was saying earlier about norms and rules versus exceptions. It seems to me that we have to find a way to admit for exceptions without allowing the exceptions to totally undermine the rule. But Reno’s position is that allowing any exceptions by definition undermines the rule.

C: Mhm.

M: Which I’m not so sure is the case, but he has a point: divorce is widely considered acceptable these days, and when the law first started to permit no-fault divorce, it was a positive development in the short run for people who were trapped in very abusive relationships or other situations they clearly needed to extricate themselves from. But it is equally the case that now, when divorce is seen as an option that’s always there in the background, there are marriages that are perhaps struggling but that might not get the help they need because it’s easier to just end it.

C: True. I mean, you could definitely make the case for broader support systems both within and outside of the Church to help try to reconcile couples that might be on the rocks.

M: David Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values, which we’ve written a little bit about before, supports this legislation called the Second Chances Act. The idea is to offer more publicly funded support for marriage counseling and to impose waiting periods for people seeking divorces, during which time the state can try to provide assistance for them to work it out. They cite some research showing that for a fairly significant fraction of couples looking to divorce, at least one person generally thinks there’s some chance the relationship could be saved. Blankenhorn and his crew believe that offering people divorce as a first resort rather than a last resort is maybe not ideal in those situations.

C: I think it’s important to remember that in these proposals that Kasper and Blankenhorn are throwing out there –

M: And just to be clear, they’re very different proposals. One is set in the context of civil society and the other has to do with an internal Catholic debate.

C: I know, but the commonality between them is that divorce should not be advocated as a first solution. It shouldn’t be the go-to measure.

M: And Kasper actually – he’s clear about the fact that he agrees with the Church that divorce is technically not even possible. Marriage isn’t dissolvable and, formally speaking, second marriages aren’t official marriages.

C: [Groans] I’m increasingly frustrated by this line of reasoning. While the official stance might be that divorces are unacceptable, some of the Church’s practices and actions support that some sort of separation is possible. Take the annulment process – it’s technically not a divorce, but it gets to the same kind of themes. You’re walking away from this marriage and it’s being declared null and void. It seems like both divorces and annulments cut against Jesus’ vision of marriage as a bond that cannot be severed.

M: I think the fact that divorce is officially not permitted probably in a lot of cases does lead to the concept of an annulment being stretched farther than it should and being used as a kind of Catholic divorce. And I think that in turn undermines the credibility of the Church. When people see the divergence between the Church’s official teachings and the way that they’re applied… I understand the Church is trying to hold the line, in some sense, but when you hold the line so well that you fail to respond to the situation on the ground, you weaken yourself.

 

Those Crazy Cousins from the East

M: Let’s talk about the Eastern Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage. The Orthodox Church has been separated from the Catholic Church for about a thousand years, but one of the interesting things about the Orthodox is that they do allow remarriages after divorce. And this is based on their idea that marriages are indissoluble only in the sense that it’s immoral for two people who are married to say, “we’re not going to be married anymore.” But divorces are possible. It is possible for marriages to die, for marriages to fail irretrievably.

And so the Orthodox interpretation of the New Testament passages where Jesus says “what God has joined let man not put apart” is not so much that a marriage is somehow metaphysically indissoluble, but rather that Jesus is issuing a moral command. It’s like saying, “let man not kill other men.” Right? Like, everybody agrees that it is literally possible, it is physically possible for a man to kill other men. It’s just not morally acceptable to do that.

C: Do you think this type of interpretation might gain some traction in the upcoming Synod?

M: I don’t know a lot about the historical situation that led to the Orthodox adopting this position while the Catholic Church rejected it, so I think it would be an enormous leap for the Catholic Church to embrace this view at the Synod. And that’s why I tend to agree with John Allen that if there are any substantive changes made, they’re probably going to be peripheral changes, they’re going to be modifications to the annulment process, rather than an actual grappling with the core question of whether divorce is possible.

I mean, the fact that even Walter Kasper, who is considered one of the most liberal participants in this debate, notionally agrees that marriage is indissoluble would seem to rule out any deeper change in the Church’s position on this.

C: It seems like that’s a logical way to look at marriage because it acknowledges the reality that marriage is not easy. One of the interesting things about the passage on divorce in the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is something that’s extraordinarily difficult. The disciples say that if marriage is this difficult, “it is better not to marry.”

M: Mhm.

C: It’s not something that comes off as a light commitment.

M: But I think defenders of the traditional position would say that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is difficult but then he still doesn’t allow divorce. And so we shouldn’t take the fact of marital strife as evidence in favor of divorce.

C: No, that’s fair. But at a certain point you could say that there is a level of strife that indicates that the union simply no longer exists.

M: One of the more interesting things about that passage is the apparent exception that Jesus builds into it. He says that divorce is unacceptable except in cases of adultery. From what I’ve read on this issue, the Catholic response to that is basically that this is a mistranslation, that the phrases there are a poor expression for what was actually trying to be conveyed. And that by choosing those words, modern translators have put an interpretation onto that that it shouldn’t really have.

But a lot of Protestant denominations accept divorce, even aside from the Eastern Orthodox. So there are Christians who interpret that as a more straightforward exception, that it is actually what it sounds to modern ears like it is.

C: Mhm.

M: I recently came across the following question in an online forum: “If Jesus made an exception for divorce in cases of adultery, why doesn’t the Church?” And the response is, “The word ‘adultery’ is not what Jesus said, although many Bible translations use this word. If Jesus meant to say ‘adultery’ he would have used the word moicheia, but instead he used the would porneia, meaning ‘illicit’ or ‘invalid’, and so the Church” –

C: Oh, that’s interesting.

M: I think the Catholic Church is interpreting this to mean that “divorce” is possible in cases where the marriage was not valid in the first place. In other words, this is Jesus talking about annulments. I don’t know enough about Ancient Greek to know how that should actually be read.

C: [Laughs] You’re forgiven.

I guess a little bit more of an inflammatory take on this would be: is it possible that Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce is something that’s no longer particularly relevant today? Is that something that, while the spirit of it might be true, the absolutism is no longer really helpful?

M: Why do you say that?

C: It seems like, in a lot of cases it could be more beneficial for couples to separate. You know, people do grow and change over time. Perhaps an absolutist interpretation lacks an appropriate level of nuance to be acutely relevant today.

M: One thing to throw into the mix here is that I’ve heard the argument made, not necessarily from people with any particular opinion on this question, that Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, given the historical circumstances at the time, was actually a very liberating statement. For a man to divorce his wife during a time when men held all the wealth was essentially for a man to leave a woman with nothing. And so, for Jesus to prohibit divorce was a way of standing up for the rights of women, to keep them from being just wantonly abandoned by their husbands.

In the modern context, obviously there are a lot of cases where divorce does have that result, but there are many more cases where it doesn’t, because both partners are similarly situated economically and could live independently if they had to.

 

Francis Goes Big… Maybe

M: It came out a while ago that Pope Francis met with the Patriarch of Constantinople (one of the leading clerics of the Eastern Orthodox Church) when he traveled to the Holy Land, and it was reported that they talked about having an ecumenical gathering in 2025, I believe, to celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the Council of Nicaea.

There were varying reports about whether this was just a small-scale remembrance of that historical event, or whether Francis is actually thinking about calling an ecumenical gathering on the order of the Second Vatican Council, a large-scale meeting of the world’s bishops that would try to deal with fundamental questions of doctrine, and try to bridge some of the differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. And I wonder if this whole movement for doing something about changing the way that the Catholic Church deals with divorced and remarried people is a step toward making a good-faith offering to the Eastern Orthodox and showing, you know, we’re really interested in reuniting with you.

C: That would be… that’s super optimistic. I kind of hope that’s the case, but based on some of the documents released in advance of the Synod, it seems like not much will change. So, as far as a peace offering for 2025, if you will… I kind of doubt it.

M: Yeah, Michael Peppard had this really great piece at Commonweal after that came out about how it’s been thought that Francis might call a Third Vatican Council, but for Francis, Vatican III is not big enough! He wants a Nicaea III.

C: [Laughs]

So any key takeaways from all this? I don’t know if you’re optimistic that the Synod will do something that’s enough. I’m a little pessimistic myself.

M: Right. Like I said, I think this debate about divorce also raises some questions about society at large. My view tends to be that the Church is perhaps too strict in dealing with this issue, whereas the larger culture is perhaps too lax. And I’d like to think that each could learn from the other. Maybe there can be a kind of dialectical relationship between Church and society on this issue.

I also think it’s helpful to think about debates within the Church as being less between “liberals” and “conservatives” and more between those who believe in hard and fast rules and those who would rather render judgments on an ad hoc basis.

C: Mhm.

M: The people who want to uphold the traditional position in this debate are people who believe very strongly in the value of rules and in the value of not making too many (or even any) exceptions to those rules. And then those on Walter Kasper’s side – maybe even on Francis’ side! – are the people who say that things are not black and white, that you always have to take into account individual circumstances.

C: Yeah. Regarding the Church and society, I had written several months back about considering the Church as an “institutional ethical consultant.”

M: What do you mean by that?

C: To imagine it as a body that could proffer advice to non-members, to proffer advice in a secular format that still retains the spirit of Church teachings. And, to apply that to this issue, I would think it’d be really positive if the Church were able to show the benefits of a Catholic understanding of commitment and marriage to the wider society.

M: Mhm.

C: To really emphasize, instead of just why you should not get divorced or why it’s wrong for you to get divorced, why marriages in the Catholic mode are worth pursuing. That could be in the form of a broader program for people who are about to get married, or just programs along the way during the course of a marriage to say, this is what is a realistic expectation for this relationship. To share wisdom and show the value of being in a committed, devoted relationship.

And on that note, we’re going up to –

M: We are going to a wedding. So let’s think happy thoughts!

The Moderation Conversation: Debating Marijuana Legalization

This is the third installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris get together for a live chat and then heavily edit the subsequent transcript.  The conversation topic for this edition was marijuana legalization.  As you prepare to watch the so-called Super Oobie Doobie Bowl on February 2, why not take a minute to read our debate about the future of licit Jolly Green in the United States?

Legalization vs. Decriminalization

Chris: Alright, so this conversation is going to be about marijuana legalization.

Matt: Or decriminalization, as it were.

C: Ooh!  Or decriminalization, whichever. Well, which one… I guess that’s important.  Which one are we talking about here? 

M: Well, what inspired this conversation was a really interesting Bloggingheads episode that we both watched recently, featuring Andrew Sullivan from The Dish and David Frum from The Daily Beast.   And that episode was ostensibly focused on the issue of marijuana decriminalization.  Well, actually, I guess it was focused on legalization.

C: It touched on both. 

M: But they are separate issues, and we should probably discuss that a little bit.

C: Okay. I guess we could start there. 

M: So my view is that the decriminalization position makes a lot more sense than the legalization position.

C: Okay.

M: But I’ve sort of changed my mind about this over time.  I think I used to be a lot more supportive of the idea of legalizing marijuana, and the reason was that I think we’ve been much more effective at controlling the use of tobacco and alcohol by having a regime where those things are legal but regulated and taxed than a regime where they are banned outright.  And I assumed that the same thing could apply to marijuana.  What changed my mind was a lot of discussions that I had with my roommate in college, who was opposed to the idea of marijuana legalization. I remember talking to him about a group at Haverford called the Cannabis Law Reform Club.  And when I made this argument to him about how legal marijuana would be more easily controllable marijuana, his reply was that “these people are not trying to legalize marijuana so that people will use less of it”.  And that really got me thinking about whether the actual motivations of pro-marijuana activists are in sync with my own. 

C: Okay. But you would say that decriminalization is a proper step?

M: I think so.  I agree with the argument that the enforcement of marijuana laws has had a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority individuals. Given the fact that marijuana doesn’t seem to have very serious negative effects on behavior and doesn’t seem to lead to egregious criminal activity, I think there are strong arguments in favor of directing our law enforcement resources to better uses.

C: So my question, then, is that if we’re both willing to say that decriminalization is probably a social good, why not take that extra step and make marijuana legal?  If you decriminalize it, you have to assume that most people will be able to gain even easier access to it than now.  I mean, you’re essentially just going to have people paying fines for trying to acquire marijuana.  

M: Well, I think this is where we need to define our terms a little more precisely. I think by decriminalization we mean removing or reducing criminal penalties for people possessing or using marijuana, whereas by legalization we mean permitting in addition to that the production and sale of marijuana or marijuana products.  And what worries me about outright legalization is the fact that, once we take that step, we will have a marijuana industry with an economic interest in making marijuana more available and in lobbying against any restrictions or regulations on it that we might want to pass in the future.

C: I don’t know if that constitutes enough of a reason to prohibit the legalization of marijuana, especially if its impact on health is equivalent to or less than that of alcohol, tobacco, or even something like junk food. I agree with you that it would be much more difficult to have any sort of meaningful, extensive rollback of them, and like alcohol it could certainly become something that people can abuse.  But marijuana essentially has the same type of effect as those other substances.  For the most part we don’t think it’s addictive.  No scientific studies have shown it to be strongly addictive. 

M: There is evidence that it’s harmful to at least certain populations.  My understanding is that marijuana has negative effects on cognition and learning ability in young people and adolescents. 

C: I mean, I assume any sort of legalization would only be for people 21 or older.

M: Well sure, but in the grand scheme of things, marijuana hasn’t been studied scientifically for that long.  And given that we know that there are at least some harms to at least some people, if future research on the long term effects of marijuana use shows there are other harms that we didn’t know about, then we’re going to want to react to those harms by introducing new regulations.  And my fear is that that future debate will be distorted by the influence of an industry that has an interest in spreading misinformation about the harms of its product and in lobbying against sensible public policies.

C: That presupposes that any sort of product that might have a detrimental effect on its users should not be legalized. I don’t know if that’s justifiable.

M: I would argue that in the case of marijuana, we have more than ample reason to suspect that more harms might become clear to us in the future.  I don’t think I’m just shooting in the dark here by saying that other harms might become apparent over time.

C: That’s fair.

M: Especially given the fact that we haven’t yet experienced a legal regime where many people are engaged in using marijuana on a regular basis.

C: So you’d say, use Colorado as a test case?  See how that has an impact on the community, on users, over the course of a year, two years, however long?

M: Sure.  And if Coloradan society collapses, then I guess we’ll know not to go ahead with this on a nationwide basis.

C: [Laughs]

 

The Tobacco and Alcohol Analogies

C: At the same time, though, it seems hypocritical then for us to permit legal use and distribution of alcohol and tobacco, which are arguably more harmful.  We don’t see any type of initiative to push back against those things.

M: I agree, though I would make two points here.  One is that in the Bloggingheads episode with Frum and Sullivan, Frum makes the point that if someone invented tobacco or nicotine today and wanted to get FDA approval to sell that as a recreational drug, there is no way that it would be legal.  And I think that the only reason that cigarettes are still widely available is because of accidents of history.  We’ve known for some time that it’s not really something that is good for people.

C: Tobacco has addictive qualities and no redeeming value.  And it’s clearly shown to cause cancer.  There’s no evidence to show that marijuana is nearly as harmful.

M: Well, leaving that aside for a minute – I just wanted to respond to your point about how there really is no political movement afoot today to introduce significant restrictions on tobacco and alcohol use.  That may be true, but there is some movement to try to restrict those things.  There have been efforts in the past few years to try to put more graphic warning labels on packages of cigarettes, or to restrict where cigarettes can be sold, or to restrict smoking in public places. Or even to ban certain kinds of alcohol.  I read recently about an initiative somewhere in the Midwest to ban certain high-proof kinds of alcohol like Everclear.

C: Oh, yeah. No, that’s certainly justified.

M: But I think the reason that those movements haven’t been more successful is because of the fact that they’ve had to go up against an organized lobby, an organized tobacco industry that has fairly deep pockets that it can dip into to spend fighting these measures.  And I worry about the same thing happening with marijuana.

C: Is that enough of a justification to not allow individual use of the drug?  Because it seems like you’re focusing on the greater social harms that will come from these corporations instead of the actual use by people, which… we can say that using marijuana is perhaps not an optimal use of their time, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed to be harmful.

M: I agree, which is part of the reason I support decriminalization. I think that we should be focused on the power of the hypothetical marijuana industry – well, I guess in some states now, the not-so-hypothetical marijuana industry – and less on the clearly relatively harmless teenager who’s smoking pot in his basement. 

I also just wanted to make another point about the Bloggingheads episode. I have a lot of respect for both Andrew Sullivan and David Frum, and that’s why I thought this episode was really interesting to watch, but I thought that Andrew Sullivan relied very heavily on emotional arguments.  He repeatedly made the point that marijuana has helped some of his personal friends deal with illness and deal with suffering, and David Frum agreed with him that marijuana should be investigated for medical applications. But those personal appeals don’t necessarily mean that we need to move to outright legalization.

C: That’s true.  I mean, I think the other arguments Sullivan made, the arguments we’ve been discussing so far, I think they hold up without that type of emotional appeal.

M: Mhm.

C: We had talked earlier about how you were concerned that Sullivan almost seemed to be advocating a pro-marijuana position.   And I agree with you that that’s definitely problematic.

M: Pro-marijuana in that he was…?

C: Advocating the benefits of smoking.  You know, he cited personal experiences with friends to show that marijuana can be good in social settings, like the equivalent of having a glass of wine.

M: Yeah, it wasn’t just an argument that it should be tolerated, it was an argument that people should use it.

C: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s the correct argument that people in support of marijuana legalization should be making. 

 

What Should a Legal Marijuana Regime Look Like?

M: So I would ask you then – in light of the concerns I’ve raised – what would you envision as the basic contours of an ideal legal marijuana regime?

C: I certainly think you need to start with an age restriction, so 21 and over makes sense.

M: Okay.

C: I know that’s not going to be effective in combatting people smoking underage, but I would imagine that right now it’s relatively, perhaps not as easy as Sullivan cites in the Bloggingheads video with Frum – he says it’s very easy for teenagers to get pot.  I imagine that it’s more difficult than Sullivan suggests, but not terribly difficult if you were seriously interested.

M: Well, neither of us really has any experience with how easy or difficult it is to get pot, so I don’t think we’re the best experts on this.

C: [Laughs] That’s true.

M: One thing I think we should note is that our positions on this issue do not in any way reflect our personal consumption patterns. 

C: Yeah, I’ve not smoked.

M: I haven’t either. But many of my best friends use marijuana.

C: [Laughs] Yeah, so we’d probably start with an age restriction.  My concern would be driving while high.  That’s something we’d have to have some sort of very strict policy on, that if you’re caught… although I know there’s no good way to measure when someone has smoked.

M: Right, that’s one of the things Frum brought up. That because marijuana stays in your system for so long, there’s no way to determine whether someone’s currently high in a rigorous way.

C: That’s a very valid concern.  I think we’d have to have some sort of technology that allows officers to at least get a general idea of when you’re smoking, and I think, as harsh penalties as possible for people who do drive while stoned. 

M: Although Andrew Sullivan at one point came dangerously close to making the argument…

C: Yeah, he did…

M: …that people are actually better drivers while stoned.  [Laughs]

C: I totally disagree with that.  I do not know why he was on the verge of making that case.  He said that it’s nowhere near as bad as driving while drunk, but that does not mean it’s okay.

M: Exactly.

C: So you had suggested before the possibility of making it so that people can purchase marijuana but not allowing any sort of large-scale manufacturing of marijuana.  I’d wonder if there would be a way to implement a type of policy that would allow either marijuana growers or sellers to have only a certain capacity for expansion to reduce the risks of what you’re talking about.

M: Well, I think it would be difficult to have those types of restrictions, which is one of the reasons why I oppose legalization. I think it’s difficult to create a legal regime that has effective safeguards against the kind of things that I worry about.  So, yeah, I would say I think we should do whatever we can, if we do legalize marijuana, to limit the concentration of power in the marijuana industry. But I don’t see how you can easily do that.

C: I still don’t know if fear of this type of – maybe not monopolistic but certainly large-scale – corporate behavior is enough to preclude legalization.  I don’t think that’s enough of a basis. But I agree with you that it would be worth making sure there are policies in place that don’t allow for a repetition of what happens with big alcohol or tobacco.

M: Yeah.  You mentioned having a legal marijuana age.  I would add that I think it’s very important to do what we’ve done with cigarettes and make it illegal to try to market to young people.

C: Definitely, yeah.

M: One of the things Frum was most concerned about was that marijuana – people who want marijuana to be legal say that marijuana enforcement disproportionately affects the poor and minorities.  But he believes that if there’s a legal marijuana industry, that industry itself will target the poor and minorities because historically those communities have been targeted by the cigarette industry and alcohol industry, and there’s no reason to think things would be different with a new legal substance.

C: Mhm. I agree with you.

M: So, you know, no Joe the Camel smoking joints.

C: [Laughs]

 

Paternalism and Laissez-Faire

C: I wonder if we were to initiate some sort of legalization measure, if there would be an avenue for getting people to really consider how they’re using it.

M: Yeah. I mean, I think we should be encouraging moderate use, but I also think it’s naïve to suggest that if marijuana is legalized then there will not be a significant incidence of irresponsible use.

C: Mhm.  I appreciate Frum’s admission in the video that his arguments are somewhat paternalistic.

M: Yeah, Sullivan asked if he would concede that they’re paternalistic, and he said that he would not just concede it, but proclaim it.

C: [Laughs] I sympathize with him over his point that any sort of legalization initiative or decriminalization initiative presents just another barrier for people to spend their money and time in productive ways.

M: Mhm.  It puts a lot of temptations in their path that wouldn’t have otherwise been there.

C: Right. Again, I don’t know if that’s enough of a justification to avoid legalization.  I don’t quite buy that.

M: I’m very sympathetic to Frum’s position, so I guess I’m okay with being somewhat paternalistic, but I was a little bit worried by some of the arguments that Sullivan was making at one point about how it is entirely normal and appropriate to want to have a release from the – his phrasing was something like “a release from the daily ordeal of existence.”

C: Yeah.

M: And I agree with him that harmless pleasures are an important part of life, but I think that it’s very easy to see – as Frum sees it – the concept of release or escape from the ordeal of life shading into a sort of escapism or use of substances as a way to not engage with the real world.

C: Would marijuana necessarily result in a higher incidence of that type of escapism?  Because you already have people – Frum was making the case that this disproportionately affects low-income people, those who are currently most disadvantaged.

M: Sure.  They would be the most tempted to –

C: Right.  But you could say right now that people use alcohol or other drugs as a kind of escapism. That’s something they’re currently doing, so why would marijuana –

M: I think that’s problematic.

C: It is. But would marijuana necessarily increase that?

M: Well, I don’t know.  Sullivan seems to think that to some extent people will be substituting the use of marijuana for alcohol, so legal marijuana might lead to less drinking.  I don’t know about that.  I think it’s hard to say that the aggregate use of substances wouldn’t just increase.

C: I don’t know how we’d really determine that.

M: We’d have to do studies.  We’d have to look at those Colorado guinea pigs.

C: [Laughs]

 

Finding Common Ground

M: I take the point that many people can use marijuana and not really be harmed by it.  In fact, as Sullivan seems to believe, maybe even benefit from it.  But the reason I’m generally opposed to marijuana legalization is not because I think each and every person that uses it will be harmed by it, but because I think the regime that would need to be created in order for people to have access to it would necessarily have costs that I’m uncomfortable with.

C: Okay. That’s understandable. I share many of your concerns.

M: I think it will be interesting to see how this whole issue develops over the next several years.

C: I assume that more states will attempt to pass laws similar to Colorado’s.  If we keep getting more of that, we should have a pretty good sample population to work with in the future.  It will be interesting to see if somewhere like California expands beyond just medical marijuana, because that would be a huge population.

M: What’s most fascinating at this point is that marijuana is still illegal in the United States.

C: Right!

M: I read an article recently pointing out that in Colorado, when the state issues licenses to people to sell marijuana it’s essentially issuing licenses to commit a felony.

C: [Laughs] How do you think that will play on the federal level going forward?

M: It seems at this point like the federal government is willing to take a pretty hands-off approach provided people are following state law.  And so I think we’re nearing the point of de facto federal legalization of marijuana, if we haven’t already reached it.

C: Or at least decriminalization?

M: Or, sure, decriminalization, because the laws aren’t being aggressively enforced.

C: I think it’s worth noting that regardless of our different positions on the issue, we certainly don’t think the constant use of marijuana is a social good, so we’re not advocating that.

M: Sure. The Frum-Sullivan video is part of a new video series at Bloggingheads called “The Good Fight,” which is supposedly going to host debates that not only highlight disagreement but work towards productive areas of consensus, and so I think in many ways the goal of that video and that series is very similar to what we’re trying to do here.

C: Yeah. We both agree that decriminalization is worthwhile.

M: Sure, and we both agree that the immoderate use of marijuana is not good for the individual or the society, as is the case for comparable substances like alcohol. 

C: Sounds like our work is done.

M: [Laughs]

The Moderation Conversation: Reflections on RM’s Interview with Fordham’s Charles Camosy

This is the second installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Chris and I record ourselves having a discussion, type up a transcript, and then scrap the result and rewrite everything to make ourselves sound more eloquent than we really are. The following is a lightly edited pretty heavily edited transcript of a recent chat we had about our interview with Charles Camosy, Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

Talking to Christians about Animals

Matt: So we’re here talking about the interview we did with Fordham University’s Charles Camosy a couple months ago… or actually, about a month ago, right? Beginning of December.

Chris: Yeah.

M: Camosy is the author of a couple books, but his latest is called For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. The main thesis of the book is that Christians should take seriously the idea that animals are proper objects of our moral concern. Camosy has another, earlier book called Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, where he writes about Christian ethics and the ethics of the secular philosopher Peter Singer and tries to show that there is more overlap than is commonly thought.

So I guess a good place to start might be with a discussion that Camosy has in the book about writing on morally charged subjects. He says that whenever you’re writing about a subject that potentially involves some serious injustice, there’s a tension between wanting to be specific enough to convince people of the gravity of the problem and being so graphic that you come off as just looking like you’re trying to emotionally manipulate your audience. And I wanted to get your take on how you think Camosy balances those two things in the book. Do you think that he comes off as a hack? Do you think that he comes off as persuasive? Do you think he does a good job making his argument?

C: I definitely think he does not come off as a hack, and I appreciate the fact that he makes this point in the book and acknowledges that he is trying to be as objective as possible despite his clear position on the issues. But I think he does a very good job of presenting an emotional case for why factory farming and killing animals or eating animals is problematic, as well as a very clear and rational case for it. The chapter on factory farming is really the most graphic part of the book, and in no way does it come off as sensational or overly manipulative. What do you think?

M: Yeah. I mean, I definitely understand the tension, but at the same time I don’t think that the responsibility lies only with the author – in this case I don’t think the responsibility lies only with Camosy.  An author at some point just has to make the presumption that people will assume that they’re writing in good faith and, you know, there’s a point – you can change your style up to a point, but there’s a point at which you just have to trust that your readers will trust you. And I think, for the most part, Camosy is even-handed enough of a writer to engender that trust in his readers. And I also think that his readers are sort of a self-selected audience. I think the kind of people who are going to be reading his book are the kind of people who are open to thinking about somewhat controversial topics in a very level-headed way.

C: So that’s a good jumping-off point for talking about the form of the book. You’ve read both Peter Singer and Christian Ethics and For Love of Animals now –

M: Yes.

C: – and we both note that For Love of Animals is much shorter, much more focused in scope than the other book. What benefits do you think this has? Does the form or length detract from any of his arguments? Does it prevent him from making a fuller case for treating animals fairly?

M: Well, I think Peter Singer and Christian Ethics is written for an academic audience. It reads somewhat more like a textbook, whereas For Love of Animals is more of a popular piece of nonfiction and a brief primer on the subject rather than an in-depth academic investigation.

So I think it’s effective in that the people who have previously been writing about the issues of animal rights and animal ethics are by and large secularists.  Peter Singer is considered to be the father of the animal welfare movement, and he’s an avowed atheist and a critic of religion. His other ethical positions are very controversial in religious circles. So I think that it’s important that we have a book like For Love of Animals even though it obviously could have been more substantial and could have looked at some of these topics in greater depth.

I think that Camosy is making an important contribution by writing a book that is targeted at Christians, at Catholics, that is written by a Catholic and that deals with these same issues. Because the people that Camosy is trying to reach out to are not people who would necessarily be open to entertaining arguments from Peter Singer, who many Catholics consider to be, you know, an “enemy of the Church”.

C: I think it’s a good thing that he is providing a book that gets at the heart of the issue in a relatively compact form. It fulfills its purpose pretty well. It would be a good volume for people who haven’t really considered these issues in the past. At the same time, I think Camosy’s a good enough writer and his arguments are strong enough that this could have been expanded beyond what’s in here now, and it could have been an even more compelling case for why animals should be treated fairly, beyond some of the topics discussed.

M: He’s filling a niche that had previously been empty, and so I don’t think that there’s anything stopping him from writing another book someday about some of these same issues, with maybe a little bit more depth. Once he’s proven that there’s an audience for this type of writing, I could see him or others making further contributions in this area.

C: Let’s hope that’s the case. I mean, I’d love to get an even fuller volume on this in the future.

M: Maybe he’ll just keep spinning off the different chapters of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics into short tractates [one of the chapters of Peter Singer considers the question of animal welfare and introduces many of the same arguments deployed in For Love of Animals].

C: [Laughs] “Tractates”? “Tractates”? Oh, my goodness.

 

“Pro-Animal, Pro-Life”?

M: So, one thing I know we had talked about a little bit was the fact that the book establishes a clear connection between the cause of alleviating animal suffering and the pro-life movement right off the bat. Obviously the book is aimed at Christians, aimed at Catholics, but it focuses a lot on the fact that Camosy sees moral concern for animals as being intimately tied to being pro-life. In fact, the very first chapter of the book opens with the line, “If you are pro-life, chances are you are familiar with the following story…” And then he goes on to recount awkward conversations he’s had with people where he’s had to defend his pro-life views and compares them to awkward conversations he’s had where he has to defend his vegetarianism.

C: Yeah, the book is immediately framed from a pro-life perspective. It assumes the reader shares those views.

M: Right, and the second paragraph of the first chapter says – he has the line, “About ten years ago I became convinced that if I wanted to be authentically and consistently pro-life I should give up eating meat.” So I wanted to get your thoughts on whether you think that’s an effective rhetorical device, to tie the animal issue to the abortion issue so clearly and so immediately.

C: I think it has its benefits, but there are also possible causes for concern. Given the audience that we were just talking about, it makes a lot of sense, right? That he’s going to be framing this book for people who might not have considered animal issues before, who might not have even thought about any of the things he brings up. And in that sense, tying it to a subject that they will be more familiar with – the pro-life movement – is something that will immediately get them to understand what’s at stake here. It provides an immediate reference point.

At the same time, I worry that there is a sense of false equivalence that goes into the arguments that he’s making. I understand the core case that he’s advancing, but I think there are differences between the pro-life movement and the animal movement that he’s overlooking.  You worry that trying to compare the two is not really possible.

M: Well, I would say two things to that. The first is that I don’t think he is engaging in false equivalence. He came under some fire recently – there was a piece published at Public Discourse criticizing him on exactly those grounds, saying that he was sort of cheapening the abortion issue by comparing it to moral concern for animals and putting animals on equal footing with humans. And he responded very eloquently saying that that was explicitly not what he was doing. He doesn’t think that animals are owed more moral concern than humans, but he thinks that people who are morally serious should be taking seriously the plight of animals in modern society.

The other thing I would say is that I don’t necessarily think it’s a problem – given what we’ve already said about the audience for this book – to focus so heavily on the pro-life issue. Yeah, of course it’s the case that people who are pro-choice might be turned off by that kind of framing, but those people can already get the argument about animal rights or animal welfare from people like Singer. There are plenty of other writers who are already trying to engage people that are operating from a secular standpoint. And so, yeah, I think maybe it’s the case that some people will be turned off by this, but I think that, again, Camosy is trying to occupy a hitherto empty niche.

C: I shouldn’t say that I think he is creating false equivalence, I guess. I just worry that there are nuances in each case that, unless they’re more fully considered beyond the scope of what he has in the book, that some people would – and I guess this would be more the case for people not operating within a Christian worldview – dismiss his case for animal rights because of his direct linkage to abortion.

M: I see.

C: But given that most people who are reading this are probably Catholic or Christian, then that I guess that isn’t really a serious concern.

 

Philosophical Frames

M: Okay. So you wanted to ask me something about Camosy’s response to our question about animal liberation and animal rights.

C: Yes. So Camosy says “animals certainly need to be liberated,” but he does not go so far as to say that they are deserving of any sort of specific set of rights. What do you think about that? Do you agree that they need to be liberated? And to what degree? Do you think that there should be any guaranteed set of rights for animals?

M: I guess I agree with Camosy’s response in that I think that maybe we’ve been sort of focusing on these abstract issues – these abstract philosophical issues – at the expense of doing something about the things that everybody can really agree are problems if people are given enough information. So, you know, Camosy is talking about the fact that there is a lot of antagonism between Christians and people like Singer because they seem to disagree a lot about first principles. And I think Camosy is trying to tell us that we don’t need to be engaged in these arguments that are going to be, as he puts it, “contributing to an already horrifically polarized discussion.” We should just be focusing on “changing our social structures, behaviors, and habits.”

C: Mhm.

M: So yeah, I don’t know. I’m still kind of on the fence about what I think is the best way of thinking about this issue. I’m not so sure I like the framing of “animal rights.” I am persuaded by a lot of Camosy’s discussion of the harms that result from the way that animals are treated in modern industrial agriculture, like antibiotic resistance or environmental degradation, and those arguments have led me to examine some of my own choices vis a vis eating animal products and whatnot. But I don’t necessarily buy that it is always and everywhere intrinsically wrong to raise animals for food. And so I don’t know that I would agree with the animal rights frame, and I’m also on the fence about the animal liberation frame.

C: You had a point about small farms, as opposed to large-scale CAFO’s or factory farms. So what distinction would you make there? Would you say that smaller farms, which don’t have the machinery to process animals like goods, are more justified? Is that your rationale?

M: Well, we asked Camosy about this. We asked him if he thought that it was wrong to kill animals that are not raised on factory farms and/or that are treated well while they’re alive. And his response was that, while in some sense it was still wrong, the people who eat meat that comes from small farms or from farms where animals are treated well “participate in a lesser evil” than people who purchase meat from factory farms.

I do think that the animal rights activists who focus on trying to convert people to veganism or on trying to get people to stop using animal products altogether are essentially making the perfect the enemy of the good.  To that end, I think it would be worthwhile to focus on small steps – encouraging small-scale agriculture, ensuring animal welfare – rather than trying to eliminate all agricultural use of animals.

C: So perhaps not a specific set of rights but a general set of goals that we should pursue.

M: Sure. I think there should be much stricter regulation of how many animals can be confined in a given space. I think measures like the bill that was debated in New Jersey last year to ban confinement of pigs during pregnancy are things that we should be looking at. But I’m not persuaded that it is intrinsically immoral to eat meat, and I don’t think that Camosy is persuaded of that either.

C: One sympathizes with those who are pushing for much quicker and faster change for animals.

M: Sure, the change certainly has been very slow.

C: And, like you say, there is a risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good even though the perfect might be what we’re working towards. It’s an iterative process which has its definite downsides. But this book is a key piece in that continual process of making people aware of what’s going on. Then they change their habits, and then at some point you introduce a new step, additional measures they could take to further reduce the harm being done to animals.

M: Yeah, and people like us have a tendency to want to get deep into the philosophical weeds and try to find out what Camosy’s opinions are on all of these things. But I think we do have to accept that, at some point, maybe we don’t have to have a final answer to everything. We just have to a view of how to make things better.

 

Hunting for Animals… and Interviewees

M: So you and I had talked about the last part of the book where Camosy discusses some other issues of animal treatment aside from the raising of animals for food. He talks about hunting, he talks about medical testing on animals. And you had said that you felt that he is somewhat equivocal in this part of the book.

C: Right.  So I thought his chapter on factory farming was very, very strong. It makes a compelling case and it’s emphatic that factory farming is an inherent moral evil and needs to be stopped. For the three issues he discusses in Chapter 9 – having pets, using animals for medical testing, and hunting – I was less convinced by what Camosy was saying.

His main point was that he wanted to bring these three cases up for people to consider since they’re all things that people generally deal with in their everyday lives. In the case of hunting, I think he could have been more emphatic against it. He says that hunting animals for food is potentially morally justified, but he doesn’t make a strong case against hunting in general. He cites examples of friends who, through hunting, potentially prevented animals from having more painful deaths in the wild through attacks.

M: Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily problematic. One of the questions we asked him was about the fact that it seems like there are a lot of caveats in the arguments that he’s making, and we worried that it would be difficult to convince people to behave in a consistently more ethical way toward animals if they were given the sense that there is always an exception that can be made. And his response was that the Catholic Church for its part doesn’t believe that killing animals is intrinsically evil, and so their position is necessarily going to have some gray area and uncertainty. And so I think that, in the case of hunting, there are sort of competing goods, and I don’t find it problematic that he doesn’t have a more categorical position on that.

C: My concern with what he’s proposing here is that it seems to suggest humans have a sort of responsibility towards animals, particularly wild animals, that goes beyond just caring for them.  It seemed to me that he was suggesting the possibility that humans have an expanded obligation to giving all animals, including wild animals, more humane ways to die. He says that shooting a given wild animal might be actually saving it from greater pain than if it was killed by another animal. And I see what he’s saying. At the same time, that seems to really expand on what humans owe animals and how we should interact with them. And there’s no real follow-up to that, including what our responsibilities would be.

To clarify, Camosy does not make these arguments explicit in the text, and instead suggests that it’s important for people to consider the nuances of our responsibilities to animals.  But if the book is framed as an introduction to the primary concerns facing animals, I worry that this suggestion of a higher obligation will encourage people to dismiss his other arguments, since the implied commitment to animal welfare is so much more expansive.

M: So you’re worried that that opens the door to telling people that we not only have a responsibility to not cause animals to suffer or die but that we have a – I should say, we not only have a negative responsibility to not cause animals to suffer and die ourselves, but we also have a positive responsibility to mitigate animal suffering out there in nature?

C: Correct. And I think that’s certainly something that’s worth working towards in certain cases, but if the aim of this book is to get people to consider specific things they can do to benefit the animals they encounter in their lives or to change the processes that they use that involve animals… this is something that seems to go beyond that. And it might be a step that’s further down the road. Hunting for food is one thing, but hunting to prevent animal pain inflicted by other animals seems to be on a totally different plane.

M: Mhm.

Well, okay! I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Again, I think it was really great that Professor Camosy was willing to take the time to respond to our questions. I think both of us really appreciate that.

C: Absolutely, yeah. Thanks very much to him for doing that. It was great to read his responses too, to get some follow-up for things that we thought of when we were reading the book.

M: Sure. Hopefully he will not be the last person we’re able to interview.

C: Mhm.

M: If you’re out there and you want us to interview you, let us know.

C: [Laughs]

The Moderation Conversation: Matt and Chris Talk Francis and Scalfari

We hereby debut a new RM feature: “The Moderation Conversation,” in which Matt and Chris sit down in real life to discuss ideas that haven’t yet congealed into 2000-word essays. The following is a lightly edited transcript of a post-Chipotle chat from this past Saturday evening that dealt with Pope Francis and his recent interview with the editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

The Interview in La Repubblica

Chris: So Matt, we’ve talked about Pope Francis a lot at Reasonably Moderate so far, and…. there’s more to talk about.

Matt: We actually contemplated closing down Reasonably Moderate and starting up a Francis-only blog.

C: [Laughs] Yeah.

M: But I think we decided the better route to take would be to just have an extended conversation about Francis and some of the interviews he’s given recently and then post a transcript on the blog.

C: So, the most recent major interview that Francis gave was to Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper. Scalfari is an atheist who had written to Pope Francis, who had a written a column in the same newspaper to Pope Francis, and –

M: And Francis responded by writing him a – no, Francis responded by calling him!

C: Calling him, yeah.

M: There was a lot of talk a couple weeks ago about the really lengthy and groundbreaking interview that Francis gave to a Jesuit publication that was published in the United States in America magazine. But in some ways, when I saw this interview – I found this one to be more striking in a lot of respects. I don’t know about you.

C: Why do you say that?

M: Well, there were a lot of people arguing after reading the America interview that not very much of what the Pope was saying was actually that groundbreaking, that his words were being taking out of context and there was nothing, nothing really new there from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine. Maybe the framing was different, but there was nothing that he was really… changing.

C: Mmmmmm.

M: Whereas in this interview, obviously he’s not coming out and formally changing any positions of the Church, but it seems as if the way that he states things and the way that he phrases things is somewhat more revolutionary. And I guess we can get into what some of those specifics are, but maybe it would be best to start off talking about the issues relating to the reliability of this text itself.

C: That’s a great topic to start on. So this is somewhat unique in that it’s not a recorded transcript of the interview. It’s … what did you call it?

M: It’s a reconstruction.

C: A reconstruction of it.

M: Eugenio Scalfari put this together based on his notes of the conversation, but it’s written as if it’s a transcript. He puts things in quotes, but I don’t believe this was based on an actual recording, so there are questions about its reliability.

C: It’s a very loose piece. It’s very warm and conversational in tone. The writing itself [has a] kind of strange formatting. Odd paragraph breaks, very disjointed sentences and quotes. Gives it a really informal feel, which is kind of nice. But the interesting thing is that it’s posted on the Vatican website under official interviews of Francis.

M: Yeah, I think that was mentioned by Father Zuhlsdorf, who has this… rather traditionalist blog.

C: Father Z.

M: He’s been trying to reassure more conservative-minded Catholics who are a bit nervous about the direction that Francis seems to be taking things that, you know, the Pope’s words are being taken out of context, that he’s being mistranslated, etc. And so, getting back to the issue of the reliability of this text, there are sort of two levels on which this interview has been critiqued.

There are some who say that the entire thing is unreliable because Scalfari has misquoted the Pope. There was this controversy specifically surrounding the passage where he talks about the Pope’s description of the night that he was elected and how he recounts going to a small room in the Vatican where he contemplated whether or not he should accept the papacy. I think Cardinal Dolan and some others have said that that episode never happened. He accepted right away and there was no small room that he went to. The Vatican has obviously approved this interview. They posted it on their website, so it can’t be that unreliable, but there are some questions there about how loose Scalfari is with the facts.

But there are others like Zuhlsdorf who just critique the fact that we’re reading an English translation of Scalfari’s original Italian piece, and some of the things have been mistranslated or they haven’t done justice to the original Italian.

C: I know you had said, not specifically related to the translation, but on Father Z.’s blog there were some questions and some rather snide comments about some parts of this interview. Such as the opening line, which is: “Pope Francis told me, ‘the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.’”

M: Yeah, and I think there was a commenter on Father Z.’s blog who reacted to Father Z. trying to reassure people that the issues were just related to translation, and they said that, well, it must be the case that in Italian, “youth unemployment” is fairly close to “the scourge of abortion.” A way of expressing their frustration with what they see perhaps as Francis’ misplaced priorities.

I think you called my attention to a comment on the Father Z. blog that worried that Francis is taking us on a “meth trip back to Vatican II.”

C: [Laughter] Yeah, a Catholic meth trip back to the –

M: Second Vatican Council.

C: Yup. [Laughs]

 

Spaces and Processes

C: I mean, I find it interesting, you know we talked about – you talked about – the reliability of the text. I find it interesting how it’s structured, that it begins with this quote about how youth unemployment is the most serious issue facing the world today, and then it jumps into a piece of the exchange between the Pope and Scalfari. And then it kind of diverges to the narrative of when Scalfari enters and meets the Pope. It’s very strange.

M: It starts in media res.

C: In media res. Oh, baby…

But it seems to be giving pretty prime position to youth unemployment, which is a strange place to start in all this.

M: I mean, we’re reading this from the perspective of the United States, where unemployment is a problem and it’s a serious problem – I don’t think it’s taken seriously enough – but in Italy it’s just catastrophic right now. I think there are some statistics that have shown that youth unemployment is hovering around 50%, which is just worse than a depression.

C: Mhm.

M: So I can understand why Francis might be calling attention to that as one of the most immediate problems facing Italian society, and global society more generally. But specifically he’s seeing things from an Italian perspective.

C: He asks, “Can you live crushed under the weight of the present?” That calls back to his previous interview in America in which – we talked about this a little bit on the blog – the idea of spaces and processes. Spaces being the current areas, addressing current concerns, trying to establish solutions to immediate problems, vs. processes, which is more, enacting historical structures to create lasting change. It sounds like he’s drawing our attention to a very pressing issue, really emphasizing how we’re potentially mortgaging the future of a lot of people.

M: Are you saying that’s different from the way that he framed things in the America interview?

C: No, I think it’s just an example of one way in which this can be fit into that interview.

M: Okay. See, the way that I interpreted the “spaces and processes” line was that – I think we’d have to go back to the other interview to see how exactly he phrased it –

but he talked about how we shouldn’t be trying to occupy spaces, we should be trying to initiate processes. And I saw that as a critique of what he’s also called careerism in the Church or an excessive focus on one’s status at the expense of thinking about the good that you can do in the world.

C: I’d interpreted the line as “spaces” being something that you address as an immediate concern, but not something that creates lasting effects.

M: Okay.

C: But yeah. That was… was quite a way to start off.

M: This thing is just laden with great quotes. We know that Francis obviously has a

way with words, but I think maybe Scalfari has embellished some of this as well. It’s just really interesting to read.

C: What’s your favorite quote?

M: My favorite quote from this one?

C: From this, yeah.

M: Well, I don’t know. I’m partial to the dialogue between Francis and Scalfari about “what is being?”

C: Ah, okay.

M: When I first read the interview, I tweeted that these Francis interviews are getting increasingly zen.

C: [Laughs]

M: I think this is interesting because Francis asks Scalfari what he believes in. I think Scalfari was talking about how he was led away from the Church when he read Descartes earlier in his life. And Francis asks him what he believes in. And he says, you know, I don’t want to know about what you think about the common good or society, I want to know about what you think about the universe, and the meaning of the universe, and where we come from and where we’re going. And Scalfari talks about how, “I believe in Being, and Being is a fabric of energy, and man has a resonance within himself, a vocation of chaos,” and all this abstract-minded –

C: A vocation of chaos. Oh, man.

M: And then the Pope says, well – okay, you’ve told me enough. I don’t really want to hear about your whole philosophy.

C: [Laughs]

M: I just found that to be an amusing exchange. But I do think it’s interesting how much emphasis Francis puts on trying to find common ground between their philosophies. Between their ways of thinking.

C: Mhm. That seems like a pretty resonant theme throughout the interview. He says at one point that, you know, it’s important to listen to each other, to start that conversation between believers and nonbelievers. And he really, especially in the beginning, he emphasizes how critical that is to modern belief and to engaging people outside of the Church. He’s spoken about this in other interviews, and at World Youth Day especially.

M: I think some of the Father Zuhlsdorf crowd was a little worried about the part where he talked about how everyone has his own individual conception of the good.

C: Ohhhh, man. Yeah.

M: I’m also skeptical that that was exactly the way that Francis framed things, because it is sort of at odds with the Catholic notion that there is objective morality and that we can discover objective morality.

C: He seems to think that – here too he says that clericalism is something that is to be avoided, which implies that there is something outside of the hierarchical understanding.

M: Yeah, and he talks about how he wants to move the Church away from a top-down vision to a more horizontal model.

C: A horizontal vision.

M: But no, I did like that line where he says that, when I meet a clericalist I become anti-clerical. I can sympathize with that attitude, because I sometimes feel like I have a very strong tendency to play Devil’s Advocate. And when I meet somebody who holds to a view very strongly, I just instinctively want to disagree with them and want them to appreciate that there is something to the other side of the argument.

C: Mhm. Mhm.

 

Is Francis a Liberal?

M: So that leads me to another point, which is that Michael Peppard, a theologian at Fordham, wrote this article in the Washington Post on the On Faith blog about asking the question “is Pope Francis a liberal?” I think there had been a piece in Slate earlier saying that Pope Francis is a flaming liberal, and some people took offense at that characterization.

C: [Laughs]

M: Peppard’s point is that Francis is not a liberal in the sense that he doesn’t subscribe to all the policy positions of what in the West we think of as liberalism, but he has a liberal temperament, a liberal outlook, in that he’s very open-minded about dialoguing with people that he disagrees with and entertaining ideas that may seem at odds with those of the Church. But he has faith that he can negotiate those in a productive way.

C: We’ve seen that recently too. I think today he had met with a group of Jewish leaders and had prayed, “may anti-Semitism be extinguished in the heart of man,” or something like that. He’s also – earlier this week it was revealed that he had written to a gay rights group in Italy, a Catholic gay rights group, and they were very thrilled by him. He didn’t, obviously, promise any changes in doctrine or anything like that, but it was a gesture that has not been done before and it was quite surprising that he was consciously making that effort to reach out.

M: Yeah. And there’s this passage in the interview where he talks about how he had a teacher who was a communist.

C: I was just going to bring that up!

M: He talked about how he was very good friends with this person and that though he didn’t agree with communism, he didn’t accept communism and he thought it was too materialistic, he appreciated learning about it from somebody who was open and honest. It does show a genuine willingness to engage with the ideas of people that he disagrees with.

C: I was curious when he talked about communism, he said that his professor’s materialism had no hold over him. But he says that, “I realized a few things: an aspect of the social which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church.” Which kind of surprised me a little bit. I mean, you could definitely understand how that aspect, that communal aspect is present in the Church – especially the Church he describes: of the poor; not vertical, horizontal – but at the same time it seems like a somewhat strange contrast.

M: Well I think there’s a quote from Benedict where he says that the political philosophy that has most effectively embodied Christian principles is what in Europe is called “Christian Democracy.” You know, a sort of social conservatism married to economic liberalism. Which is a perspective that maybe in the United States doesn’t seem to make sense to a lot of people who are used to the standard conservative-liberal divide. You find it a little bit in politicians like Bob Casey or Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats.

But I can understand why that makes sense to him that there is this similarity between communism and Catholicism. Both are skeptical of radical individualism or putting too much stock in autonomy. Both of them want to emphasize the interconnections among people and the fact that we don’t exist as individuals, we exist within in a network of social relations.

C: So, kind of along those lines, Scalfari questioned him about liberation theology. And I wish there was a little bit more discussion about this in the interview.

Francis acknowledges it, and he says that “many of those who practiced liberation theology were believers with a high concept of humanity.” And then the conversation shifts, and it sounds like based on what you were just talking about and based on what Francis has said before that he would be more open to greater integration of liberation theology principles.

M: I’m not an expert on liberation theology. I know the Church has been skeptical of it in the past and I think Benedict was no fan of it. But I don’t have a good sense of how radical a departure from existing doctrine it would be to either affirm liberation theology or rehabilitate its proponents.

I did want to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about Francis’ relationship with the Jewish community.

C: Mhm.

M: This isn’t really talked about much in this interview. The only real mention that’s made of interfaith relations or where ecumenism is hinted at is the part where he says that “I don’t believe in a Catholic God. There is one God.”

C: Oh! Yeah.

M: You and I were talking the other day about this video that we stumbled upon that was put together by some very traditionalist Catholics who charge that Francis is an antipope [illegitimate pope] because of his close relationships with Jewish leaders and his willingness to attend Jewish worship ceremonies and pray in synagogues. So it does seem like interfaith relations are going to be a prominent theme of his papacy going forward.

C: Yeah. I wonder to what extent he’ll begin to meet with Muslim leaders, and to have that conversation about Islam.

 

Of Mystics and Minorities

C: The one part that I wanted to get your opinion on, because I found it to be one of the more questionable pieces of the interview –

M: Questionable in terms of reliability?

C: It seems like Francis’ words belie an inherent contradiction. So he says that mysticism is a critical part of the Church. He says that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy,” which is kind of an ambiguous statement as is. He says later that he loves mystics, but then argues: “The mystic manages to strip himself of action, of facts, objectives, and even the pastoral mission, and rises until he reaches communion with the Beatitudes.”

So the piece of that which seems questionable and somewhat controversial is, how can a mystic who doesn’t take action – which Francis seemed to very much support earlier in this interview and in other interviews – if a mystic doesn’t engage with people and have those conversations with other groups, to what extent can he/she be that critical a part of the Church?

M: Well, doesn’t he also say that he himself is not a mystic?

C: He does, he does. But it seems like even if he is not a mystic, he’s emphasizing mystical experience.

M: Maybe he’s just acknowledging that there are different types of people that are needed within the Church and that everyone has his own role to play in the Church’s mission. I mean, he also talks about this point that I think is very interesting where he says that the Jesuit order is the “leavening of Catholicism.” We hear a lot about how Catholics should try be a leavening in the larger culture, but so far it’s been rare to hear popes talk about a leavening within Catholicism. The emphasis is usually on the Church being united, and talk of different types of outlooks is downplayed.

Generally the hierarchy tries to emphasize the fact that there are no divisions within the Church, or at least that there shouldn’t be divisions within the Church. Commonweal had an editorial recently in which they considered America magazine’s argument that you shouldn’t think of disagreements within the church as liberal vs. conservative, or indeed that we shouldn’t think of there being substantive disagreement within the Church at all. So I think it’s interesting that Francis would say that the Jesuits are a leavening within the Church.

I also wanted to talk a little bit about the fact that Scalfari points out that Christians and Catholics are a minority in the world, and Francis replies that being a minority can be a strength. I talk a little bit about this rational choice model of religion in one of my earlier posts on the blog, and I think that analysis is very insightful when you think about it through that lens: that if the church didn’t face competition from other religions and other ideologies, then it would have no need to work on refining its message or the way in which its message is presented. And so I agree with Francis that being a minority or at least having to deal with contending ideologies can be a beneficial thing in the long run.

C: I did like how Francis discusses politics and the role of Catholics in politics.

M: Oh, right.

C: He says, “I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them.” It seems like a lot of the debate, especially in the United States, about what constitutes a Catholic politician… I’m struck by the phrase “mature awareness.” It seems like in some cases that there may be uncritical applications of what are generally said to be Catholic values without sufficient regard for the context in which they’re being espoused.

M: Mhm. I think even more generally, when we look at the Republicans who were very vocal about the need to stand firm against Obamacare even if it resulted in shutting down the government, we see there are some people who think any compromise with your opponents is necessarily a violation of your principles.

That doesn’t have to be the case. One can recognize that not everyone is going to agree with his perspective, that there are limits to how effectively he’ll be able to translate his principles into actual policies.

C: I think that’s what he’s talking about when he says “mature awareness.” It suggests the ability to negotiate without holding absolute principles and trying to have them taken up regardless of the actual situation.

 

The Parable of the Potted Plant

M: Do you think that maybe connects with some of the other points he’s made about controversial social issues? That the Church’s position has to be understood in a context, that it can’t be just a limited set of propositions?

C: Sure. I think that definitely makes sense. It needs to be applied to specific scenarios. Again, going back to the whole “spaces vs. processes” concept, taking into account the given status quo in a specific situation, trying to enact the best process that will effectively solve that issue. You know, help the Church become a kind of vine that can wrap itself around an issue.

M: I’m not sure I got that. The Church is the vine and we are the branches?

C: It’s… like a potted plant that’s going to fall over. You put a stick in the pot and you tether the plant to the stick and the stick helps the plant grow straight.

M: Alright!

C: The Church is the stick in that analogy.

M: I like that analogy. It sounds like a parable – the Church is like a stick.

C: That’s what we do here. Dispense invaluable parables.

M: Do you remember when we were taking bets on who might be elected pope?

C: So disappointed that the 666-to-one odds on Richard Dawkins didn’t work out. I didn’t actually put any money on that.

M: We would have lost money had we done that.

When we were taking bets, you had brought to my attention this guy named… the Italian cardinal… Ravasi?

C: Yeah, Gianfranco Ravasi. The “Cardinal of Culture.”

M: John Allen of National Catholic Reporter has called him “the most interesting man in the Church.” He had an article about him recently where he said that he was debating an atheist somewhere, and thought it was very intriguing that the atheist quoted Jesus and the Bible a lot and Ravasi quoted McLuhan and Plato and a variety of other non-Christian thinkers.

But in any case, he had this quip that Jesus was the original tweeter and that a lot of his most memorable aphorisms, like “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” are in fact less that 140 characters. And that one of the reasons people are responding so well to Francis is that his style of preaching is very similar to Jesus’, in that he comes up with very memorable quotes, very memorable phrases, and he tells a lot of parables, stories that either force you to draw your own conclusions or in which the lesson might not be immediately clear but becomes clear as you think about it.

C: Yeah, that’s very true. I didn’t realize that there was a debate between Ravasi and an atheist. I’m sure that had been going on before Francis was elected, but it’s nice to know that this is something that’s going on throughout the Church. Hopefully what Francis did with Scalfari here is going to be a model going forward. You’re going to have this increased dialogue. And it’s nice that the interview ends on the note that they’ll get back together soon and they’ll discuss the role of women in the Church.

M: Yeah, I was just going to say that.

C: It’s ongoing.

M: And Scalfari concludes by saying: “This is Pope Francis. If the Church becomes like him and becomes what he wants it to be, it will be an epochal change.” So he’s clearly inspiring respect from a lot of quarters and from people who might otherwise be opposed to the Church or hostile to it.

 

RM is Badly in Need of Readers

M: I guess maybe we can just conclude on this thought: John Allen had a piece about Pope Francis’ “older son problem.” Do you want to describe this?

C: Sure, yeah. In the prodigal son parable, the father throws the returning son a lavish party, slaughters the fattened [calf], etc., gives him a lot of attention, and the older son feels neglected by the father’s showering of attention and love on the younger son. And John Allen wonders whether the older son, in this case the more conservative Catholics who have supported the pope in the past, who have really given their lives to help enact changes in Church doctrine, you know, proselytize –

M: Or, rather, not “changes,” but helping to uphold doctrine.

C: Oh, excuse me, uphold Church doctrine.

M: And to engage in advocacy on social issues like abortion.

C: Whether these conservative Catholics will feel disenfranchised by the Pope, whether they’ll take offense.

M: He’s clearly slaughtered the fattened calf for the prodigal Catholics many times over with his comments about gays and other groups.

C: Yeah. Well, do you think that’s a legitimate issue? Do you think a lot of Catholics do feel alienated by stuff like this?

M: I mean, we do certainly see this discontent from people like the readership of Father Z.’s blog, and I do think Allen has a point. He writes about how Pope Francis has criticized the careerism in the Church. You know, the Roman Curia is the “leprosy of the papacy.” Certainly there is corruption at the higher levels and reforms that have to be undertaken, but there are also a lot of very dedicated individuals who are with the hierarchy, and maybe they’ll feel slighted by Francis’ comments. I don’t think his rhetoric has been inflammatory by any means, but I do think that he needs to make clear that he’s not making blanket statements about everybody in the Church.

C: Well, it sounds like he’ll be giving a host of interviews going forward. This is not the end, which is always great to hear. So we’ll see if he does take that kind of a detour.

M: He’s also cold-calling people.

C: Do you think we can get him to cold-call us?

M: Uh, we could try. I think we’re… that would certainly do wonders for our readership.

C: [Laughs]

M: How would you get him to cold call us? What would we say in our letter?

C: Um…

M: “We have this blog and we’d like you to read it.”

C: Well, no, I think we’d frame it from the perspective that we appreciate what he’s doing. I don’t know if this applies to both of us, but I really admire his attempt to engage with other groups, other faith traditions in this type of dialogue. That seems like far and away the most effective way going forward to actually… get people to understand what Catholicism is about rather than outright rejecting it based on preconceived notions.

M: He definitely has our vote.

C: He does have our vote.

M: We’ll work for his next campaign.

C: [Laughs]

M: So we actually met [former Daily Beast blogger] Andrew Sullivan about a week before Pope Benedict resigned, and we asked him for his thoughts on the man. And I won’t repeat them because they involve expletives.

C: Well, he really disliked Benedict especially for his lack of… I know Benedict is said to have done a lot to try to curb the child abuse scandal, but Sullivan heavily criticizes Benedict and a lot of the other cardinals and the Curia for failing to do enough to really hold people who engaged in that type of behavior responsible.

M: He also had this really tendentious argument about how Benedict was a closeted gay man.

C: Ah, yes. The red shoes. The red shoes. He loves Francis, though.

M: Yeah.

C: Thinks he’s revolutionary and extraordinary.

M: And he’s on the record as being straight. There’s that story about how he went to a wedding when he was in the process of deciding whether to become a priest, and he met this girl and was very captivated by her. He describes how he couldn’t focus on his prayers for a week afterwards because he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

C: I hadn’t heard that. Really?

M: Yeah. And considered… I guess he wasn’t a priest already, but considered not going into the priesthood because of it.

C: Wow, that’s fascinating.

M: Unless he was making up the story to keep people like Sullivan from questioning his sexuality.

C: [Laughs]

M: Well, I guess we’ll have to leave it at that, until the next time one of these interviews comes out. And it seems like they’re becoming more frequent.

C: Alright.

M: Alright. We’ll… we’ll cut it off there.