Pope Francis’ Cardinal Objective

Round Two

When Pope Francis announced his first slate of appointments to the College of Cardinals early last year, much of the commentary in both the Catholic press and mainstream media focused on his apparent intent to “de-Italianize” or “de-Europeanize” the upper echelons of the Church’s hierarchy. Bishops from prestigious Italian dioceses and traditional “cardinal sees” were passed over in favor of prelates from countries like Haiti that had never before had a cardinal of their own.

The recipients of Francis’ second round of red hats, which were officially handed out last Saturday in a ceremony at the Vatican known as a consistory, seem to offer further confirmation of the pope’s desire to boost the number of cardinals hailing from “the peripheries,” places like Africa, Asia, and South America where Catholicism is growing but which are still dramatically underrepresented in the highest ranks of Church government. Archbishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the first cardinal to hail from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga, claimed in an interview that his only previous conversation with the pope consisted of him explaining where Tonga is located.

It is undeniable that the College of Cardinals is becoming more geographically diverse. But is it necessarily the case that the so-called peripheries are becoming less underrepresented? After the consistory last February, I raised the possibility that the Catholic population of the “global South” was growing more quickly than the number of cardinals from these regions, meaning that the disproportionate influence of European prelates within the Vatican bureaucracy – and over the process of electing the next pope – was in fact growing stronger.

Around the time of the 2013 conclave, the Pew Research Center produced a helpful graphic that showed the share of cardinal electors coming from each continent, as well as each continent’s share of the worldwide Catholic population. Though Europe accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics in 2013, over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave that elected Francis were European; only 17% of the electors came from Latin America, which is home to nearly 40% of Catholics.

The Church is not a democracy, so saying that certain areas are “underrepresented” should not be interpreted in a narrow political sense or taken to mean that the current arrangement is necessarily unjust. But there are nevertheless good reasons why a geographic imbalance in the College of Cardinals ought to be corrected. The Church is a global institution whose leadership should not allow itself to become consumed with provincial concerns. To his credit, Pope Francis seems well aware of the need to steer clear of such pitfalls, and his pronouncements on issues like climate change reflect a global perspective that stands in clear contrast to that of his many Western critics.

Anyway, I was interested to see whether this latest move will have an appreciable impact on the representativeness of the cardinalate, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 (alas, I can’t afford Stata 13) and got to work.

Data and Methodology 

For those of you who weren’t yet loyal RM readers a year ago, here’s a quick recap of the approach I laid out last February (much of this description is lifted verbatim from that earlier post).

For data on the nationalities of cardinals and the dates of their births, deaths, and appointments, I turned to “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,” a wonderfully comprehensive website curated by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda. Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I decided it would be sufficient to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled information from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to announce them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I figured it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular continent can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. For example, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura Dominique Mamberti (the “Chief Justice” of the Vatican’s Supreme Court) is counted as an Italian/European because he works in the Roman Curia, despite his having been born in Morocco. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.*

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if population data were available at time and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, only cardinals under the age of 80 are permitted to cast votes for pope. Since their right to vote is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.


Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2015


Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave). In fact, the rate of growth of the number of cardinals seems to have accelerated since the early 2000’s, perhaps reflecting increased life expectancies.

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2015


Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so (though it appears to be ticking downward once again).

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2015


Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it abundantly clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not tracked their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020


Finally, Fig. 4 presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that shares of cardinals from each continent will remain at their current levels going forward.

The pattern remains quite similar to what I found last February, and runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.278 on Feb. 22nd, 2014 to 0.262 today, and the coefficient for all electors decreased from 0.216 to 0.157).

But the projections for 2020 should give pause to anyone claiming that European overrepresentation is coming to an end. If each continent’s current share of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient will actually rise modestly over the next few years – to 0.281 for all cardinals and 0.174 for the electors. Yet this is an improvement from last year’s projections for 2020, when I forecast that the Gini coefficient would rise to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors. Looked at another way, the predicted 2020 Gini for the electors is 25% lower than it was a year ago. Good work, Francis!

Some reports have claimed that Francis is considering lifting the cap on the number of eligible electors from 120 to 140, presumably out of a recognition that meaningful improvements in the geographic representativeness of the College will not be brought about through attrition alone. In fact, there are already more than 120 cardinals who would be eligible to vote for pope were a conclave to be held today, so perhaps Francis can just continue to flout the official rule without explicitly changing it (he is the pope after all!). The above analysis suggests that such aggressive measures will likely be needed if the College is to become more representative in the face of continued growth in the Catholic population of the global South.


*Especially geeky readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.

A Reply to Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez

Reasonably Moderate is notoriously poor at responding quickly to feedback from readers (and its two halves are even poorer at responding to each other), so I was both surprised and a little bit awed when Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez published a reply to my recent Ethika Politika article only about twelve hours after it first appeared. I very much appreciate his taking the time to read through it and offer his thoughts on my contention that a “Catholic Party” would be bad for the Church, but I’m afraid that he has misinterpreted several key pieces of my argument.

Sanchez levels two main criticisms at the piece. The first is that my concerns about “the politicization of religion” are at best vague and at worst grounded in a vision of the relationship between (the Catholic) Church and State that is out of sync with Catholic teaching:

Does Mazewski deny that the Church’s hierarchy has the right – indeed the duty – to direct the faithful in socio-political affairs?… If there is anything which is today ‘bad for the Church’ with respect to political and social movements it is its unwillingness to clearly define which matters lay Catholics can support and those they cannot. Today, neither of America’s two major political parties represent the full balance of Catholic principles; both, lamentably, stand in direct opposition to many of them.

In fact, I do not at all deny that the Church has such a right/duty. When I refer to the “politicization of religion,” I don’t mean “the involvement of religious people or institutions in the political process,” or even “political argument that draws on religious values or employs religious rhetoric.” In my original piece, in the paragraph following the one from which Sanchez quotes, I explain what I do mean:

[T]he silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

I welcome the fact that members of the hierarchy offer commentary on political questions, but I find it troubling when they do so in a way that implies institutional support for a particular party or its candidates (and not just because they could be imperiling the Church’s tax-exempt status). Catholicism should not be apolitical, but it is and ought to remain nonpartisan.

That’s why I’m disturbed whenever someone like Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin brandishes a letter in public confirming that he’s a registered Republican, as Tobin did during a speech to a group of young Republicans in 2013, even if he also insists that his partisan affiliation “doesn’t mean a whole lot”: not because a bishop is talking about politics, but because these kind of actions seem to insinuate that the Catholic Church finds fault with the Democratic Party’s platform but considers the Republican platform to be perfectly kosher (er, so to speak).

Sanchez writes that “the vision [Mazewski] operates with is a liberal one.” One could interpret this statement in a variety of ways, but if he means to say that I believe in cordoning off religion from the public square or in attempting to enforce a “neutral” secular political discourse that itself relies on certain contestable assumptions, then the characterization is inapt. (If he means to say that I believe in the value of pluralistic democracy, well, then guilty as charged.)

His second criticism is that the hypothetical political realignment that I describe in my piece, through which the parties of Left and Right come to be replaced by parties of “Subsidiarity” and “Solidarity,” would not really represent a meaningful development at all from the perspective of Catholic social thought:

According to Mazewski’s other main thesis, namely that we are witnessing ideological realignment within the Democratic and Republican parties, it is not clear what, if anything, this could mean for American Catholics. Any party which, inter alia, supports so-called abortion rights, the redefinition of marriage, and legal protection for immoral, incendiary, and blasphemous forms of speech is beyond the pale. Similarly, any [party] which upholds the tenets of economic liberalism… places itself out of the reach of Catholic support. Even if Democrats and Republicans begin to embrace full-throated solidarity and subsidiarity, that hardly means either will abandon their dubious policy positions. Error can always be repackaged.

I don’t believe that we’re on the threshold of an era when all politicians will “abandon their dubious policy positions,” but as I argue in the original piece,

[a] party that brought together liberals like [Zephyr] Teachout and conservatives like [Rand] Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

My thesis is that the issues that would divide a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party would necessarily be different from those that divide conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats today (“liberal” in the colloquial sense, not in the sense in which Sanchez uses the term here). Certain viewpoints that are now sidelined within one party or the other could come to be tolerated or even embraced in a way that they currently are not. Under the existing two-party system, for example, opinions on the legal status of abortion tend to correlate almost perfectly with party affiliation, whereas thoughts on whether the government should break up large financial institutions do not.

Yet if being pro- or anti-breaking-up-large-financial-institutions were to become the key determinant of which party you ought to belong to, then the association between the abortion question and partisan identity would be greatly weakened. The issue itself would not necessarily lose its valence, just as the cause of breaking up the banks is very much alive despite lacking the institutional backing of one party or the other. But the chances of being marginalized within either party because of one’s beliefs on the matter would be dramatically reduced. (Of course, this would in many ways be a reversion to the status quo ante rather than a novel development.)

I don’t agree with Sanchez when he says that a party’s support for positions at odds with those of the Magisterium necessarily “places itself out of the reach of Catholic support” – a topic for another post perhaps! – but I do think it’s accurate to say, as Michael Sean Winters puts it, that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” My point is not that political ideas the Church disagrees with would disappear from the scene following the hypothetical realignment I outline, but rather that the resulting political environment would be one in which the “consistent Catholics” of the world would be less likely to be looked at askance by both parties.

Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

This article first appeared at Ethika Politika.

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.

On Prayer in a Connected World

Let’s recap a few of the headline events from Summer 2014:

  • The Israel-Gaza conflict resulted in over 2,000 deaths, including a substantial number of child casualties.
  • ISIS’ continued rise in Iraq yielded claims of genocide, extensive religious persecution, and almost unimaginable suffering and brutal torture.
  • A genocide continues unabated in Syria. New conflicts arose in Libya.
  • Ebola killed thousands of people and continues to affect thousands more.
  • Over five hundred innocent people were killed in the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 77, which was likely caused by errant pro-Russian separatists in ongoing Russo-Ukrainian skirmishes.
  • Hundreds of people were killed in natural disasters in China and elsewhere around the globe.
  • The murder of Michael Brown sparked protests that escalated dramatically due to near-militarized dispersal tactics in Ferguson, Missouri.

2014 was one of the coolest summers in recent memory on the East Coast, but it felt like the world was coming to a grief-stricken boil.

Of course, we live in one of the most peaceful eras that our planet has ever seen. But the ways in which we consume news and information have attuned us to pain, sorrow, and violence. It’s easier than ever to get constant story updates and to learn the gritty details of murders, disasters, and death. We have access to an almost bewildering scope of coverage; thousands of sources are seconds away at our fingertips. And we have an increasing penchant for constantly checking these sources for new updates. We are reading more about more on a more frequent basis.

How has our heightened consciousness to what’s going on in the world affected the way we pray and our belief in the efficacy of prayer?

It’s a question I continue to ask myself, particularly when reflecting on the events described above. Our relationship with each other, and our cognizance of the “other,” has been fundamentally altered by technology’s broadening of the borders of our consciousness. We can access more experiences and existences than at any other point in human history, along with detailed high-level context about events and trends. This is a fairly obvious paradigm shift on the surface, but in many ways, it’s been neglected with respect to how we conceive of experiences and relationships with each other in prayer.

For much of human history, prayer was a personal activity with a communal scope wherein supplications were primarily made for family members or local peers. I’d imagine this was true even as newspapers became more popular and gave lower- and middle-class people an understanding of what was befalling their brothers and sisters around the world. Now, we don’t just pray for our communities or families. The Catholic Church, with its globe-hopping Pope, is a network of connections that span continents, languages, and governments. Our religious communities are rooted in the local but have international scope.

Technology has facilitated and forged these connections through prayer. It’s easier than ever for believers to connect, pray, and learn more about their faiths – and to question and adjust their beliefs as they acquire new information and perspectives.

But technology’s role in shaping how we consume information might be having a counterbalancing effect to this ability to connect. It’s easy to see how this increased access to news, with its constant emphasis on death and destruction, could significantly weaken our belief in prayer’s ability to enact real change. At one point in history, prayers of petition were used to request cures for local maladies, but now they’re employed in the service of a wide array of world conflicts. And it’s somewhat disheartening to wonder how the prayers of a single person can possibly address all of these awful things. Once people stop believing prayer is efficacious, it’s likely their faith will start to wane too.

Of course, it’s all a matter of what you pray for and how you approach prayer. To pray for general resolution to global problems is important, but there are other, arguably more effective ways of approaching prayer. For example, using prayer as a time for focused reflection on particular individuals and cultures may be one avenue to active, agapic prayer. Perhaps instead of asking God for peace in the Middle East, we might learn and recite Yazidi prayers as an act of spiritual solidarity; donate money to charities working with refugees; and read about the amazing life and faith of James Foley and the other people ISIS has taken prisoner.

It is easy to look at the news and despair. It is equally easy (and sometimes justifiable) to view prayer as a ridiculous endeavor that has no tangible benefits or outcomes. In light of these temptations, we should be cognizant of how prayer need not be a fleeting plea in a sea of nightmares, but an invitation to support, empathize, and grow as individuals and communities. Our connected world taketh away; our connected world giveth, too.



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!

Kesler and Mac Donald on Natural Law and Moral Progress

The latest installment of the Claremont Review of Books’ interview series “The American Mind” features a wide-ranging conversation between Review editor Charles Kesler and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald that covers everything from literary deconstructionism to Rudy Giuliani. The interview is posted as six segments of about fifteen minutes each, so there’s quite a lot to digest. (The kitschy opening sequence, a montage of America’s founding documents and a bust of Thomas Jefferson set to classical music, may be better left undigested.)

The part that most interested me was an exchange between Kesler and Mac Donald about the concept of “natural law,” and the relationship between religion and conservative moral precepts. Mac Donald, co-founder of the blog Secular Right, is an unusual political creature. Known for her ardent support of New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy and her restrictionist stance on immigration, she is also an avowed atheist whose writing has appeared at RichardDawkins.net and who has sparred with Ross Douthat about the problem of evil.

In the penultimate segment of the Claremont interview, Kesler observes that Mac Donald, who is often sharply critical of American academia, rarely launches any William Buckley-esque attacks on the secularism of the ivory tower. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange that follows (starting at around 3:46 in the video below):

Kesler: I wonder whether you don’t agree that there is a kind of rational morality that is not strictly dependent on God, which is, I think, the position of natural law thinkers of many schools.

Mac Donald: Yes, absolutely. Parents understand this instinctively, that you inculcate in your child a sense of “you don’t beat up your little sister,” a) because it is going to lead to household chaos and there’s an innate need for order, but b) because your little sister has feelings like you do, and you want to have reciprocal moral behavior. And what moral education is about is widening that sphere of understanding and empathy to greater and greater distance in human interaction…

K: Right. No, well I bring up the question the way that I do because it’s you who say [quoting from an essay by Mac Donald]: “Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order… valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or natural law.” End quote.

But I mean, mystical precepts and natural law are two very different things, as you say just a few sentences later: “They do not need – skeptical conservatives do not need – God or the Christian Bible to discover the Golden Rule and see themselves in others.” I think that’s absolutely true, but I think many religious conservatives would concede that, that the natural law or rational morality is a source of the Golden Rule…

M: I just, I’m not persuaded that very different tribal cultures that have not achieved our civilizational advance… they may differ on things in significant ways.

K: They do, and I’m not sure that admission has anything to do with the notion of natural law as a rational morality, though. I mean, just because tribes don’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t mean that it’s not true, right? I guess all I’m saying, gently, is that you may be committing natural law without realizing it, insofar as you do think that the Golden Rule, for example, is something true or something that appeals to – seeing ourselves in others is not a merely cultural thing.

M: Yeah, I just see… slavery was justified by the Christian Bible and by natural law, it’s just a fact. There were also people who argued against slavery based on Christianity and natural law.

K: It was justified on secular grounds and rational grounds too, of course.

M: Completely. Absolutely. But I’ve yet to see universal agreement on what natural law is. If I could see that, then I would know that it is truly something innate to all human beings. And what I see is, rather, evolution…

I am not offended that the Founders did not think of having females vote. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Nevertheless, that is a pretty radical difference. Nobody today, if they were to create the American Constitution from scratch, would think of limiting suffrage to males. That would be assumed as almost a part of natural law, that males and females should be voting. So I see something that we like to invoke – transcendent universal ideals – but I [also] see culture evolving.

[End of clip]

On the one hand, Mac Donald agrees with Kesler that there is a “rational morality,” and that “moral education” is something possible and worthwhile. Yet she also speaks of cultural evolution and uses the example of the framers of the Constitution limiting suffrage to males to show how ethical judgments can change over time, and how we shouldn’t fault our forebears for having held what we might now consider to be grossly unenlightened views.

But Mac Donald is confusing ethical judgments with ethical realities. Kesler’s reference to the Pythagorean Theorem is apt: to say that moral truths can be arrived at by rational inquiry is not necessarily to say that our current understanding of morality is adequate or complete, just as to say that science deals in objective facts about the universe is not necessarily to say that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific knowledge. Ignorance of the Pythagorean Theorem does not render the Pythagorean Theorem untrue, and ignorance of the moral obligation of a democracy to extend the franchise to both men and women does not nullify that obligation.

Mac Donald is worried that holding to the existence of an objective morality would lead us to have to dismiss the Founding Fathers as bigots, when really the cultural patrimony available to them at the time was not such that they could have understood sexism as we do today. This is not so. After all, believing in the validity of mathematical reasoning need not lead us to condemn as stupid “tribal cultures” that have not yet groped their way to certain insights about triangles. People can engage in behavior that we later recognize to be wrong without necessarily having been guilty of deliberate wrongdoing at that particular moment in history.

Mac Donald seems not to have fully considered the fact that a theory of moral evolution or moral progress is not the same thing as the idea that morality can change. One can believe that morality is in fact not a reality independent of human beings’ preferences, and that all of our talk about right and wrong is culturally contingent, etc. But one can also believe that morality is an independent reality, and that we discover moral truths over time by thinking hard about how to properly “widen our sphere of understanding and empathy.”

Kesler is quite right to draw a distinction between “natural law” and “mystical precepts,” which Mac Donald appears to treat as one and the same. Her misunderstanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that “natural law” is a term inextricably bound up with religious philosophy, and in particular with Catholicism and certain branches of Protestant Christianity. It is not so much the method offered by natural law that she rejects, but specific conclusions that have historically been associated with it (e.g. support of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, etc.).

Incidentally, self-identified proponents of natural law thinking sometimes fall into a similar trap. In preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family in Rome – about which Chris and I hope to have more to say relatively soon – the Vatican released an instrumentum laboris or working paper synthesizing the results of a worldwide process of consultation with bishops, priests, and laity about challenges to families in the modern world. One section deals with the question of how contemporary Catholics understand (or don’t understand) the concept of a natural law:

In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all…

The responses and observations also show that the adjective ‘natural’ often is understood by people as meaning ‘spontaneous’ or ‘what comes naturally’… The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things [emphasis added], and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. (21-22)

The document goes on to lament evidence of widespread nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on a host of controversial questions, mostly related to marriage and bioethics. But nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on particular issues does not imply nonacceptance of the idea that there is “an objective [moral] order in the nature of things.” Clearly, denial of such an objective order is a sufficient condition for rejecting many of the Church’s positions, but it is not a necessary one. You can believe in right and wrong and yet still maintain that the hierarchy is mistaken about what is right and wrong in certain situations. The authors of the instrumentum laboris, like Mac Donald, are mixing up method and results.

To their credit, they do concede later on that “[t]he language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner.” The term “natural law” obviously has the potential to frustrate rather than facilitate conversations about ethics, and to cause confusion about what exactly is being talked about. Its enthusiasts should consider finding different ways of expressing their view that morality, like science, is something that can be discussed objectively. The folks at RichardDawkins.net might not be pleased, but Heather Mac Donald and the pope may be able to agree on something yet.

Standing with Iraq’s Christians – And All of Its Persecuted Innocents

The militant group ISIS, which began seizing control of Iraqi cities several months back, has decreed that all Christians and religious minorities in the Iraqi city of Mosul will face the death penalty unless they convert to Islam or leave the territory.  The terror organization imposed Sharia law earlier this past June and recently prevented Christian services from being held for the first time 1600 years.  Last week, the city’s remaining Christian families fled – and were reportedly robbed at ISIS checkpoints as they left.

These actions have prompted many Christians around the world to adopt the Arabic character of “nun” on social media in a show of solidarity with the persecuted.  This symbol had been painted and posted on the homes of Christian families in Iraq, marking them as targets for their beliefs.

It is heartening to read the posts and essays by Christian writers who express concern for the welfare of their brothers and sisters suffering in Iraq.  Their work has been a moving testament to the pain fellow Christians are facing and an important reminder that this suffering must not be forgotten.

But there has been a slightly disturbing undercurrent in some of these tributes to Mosul’s Christians: an unspoken indifference to the plight of non-Christian Iraqis who are suffering with their Christian countrymen.  Given that most Christian denominations are defined by their concern for all people regardless of their faith, I fear this is creating a discrete, insular provincialism that does no favors to broader Christian outreach.

As an example, here’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Patheos:

The persecution of Christians happens under a great shroud of silence. Maybe, as John Allen has argued, persecuted Christians are too Christian for the Left to care, and too third-worldy for the Right to care (but, you know, there’s a War on Christmas on). And the worst thing for our governments would be to be seen in non-Christian lands as having any sort of special solidarity with Christians (yes, wouldn’t that be terrible), so better to err on the side of indifference. Right?

This blood is particularly on the hands of the American government, which has a special duty to help them and, I am sure, will do nothing of the sort.

Much credit should go to Gobry and his fellow bloggers for lifting this shroud of silence surrounding Christian persecution through their work – I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about this crisis without their efforts.  But Gobry’s proposal for a governmental declaration of solidarity with Iraq’s Christians makes little sense.  What reason would the U.S. have for expressing any particular affinity for Christians over Muslims in Iraq, especially when ISIS’ extremism is affecting Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in different but equally disturbing ways?

For that matter, if the U.S. were to signal solidarity with a persecuted minority, why would it limit its symbolic gesture to only Christians?  Human Rights Watch reports that ethnic groups including Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis have also been persecuted for their beliefs and subjected to decrees similar to Mosul’s Christians.  Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq; 500,000 live in the Mosul area alone and 30,000 in the city proper.  Despite its Christian origins and its large Christian population, the U.S. government obviously has no explicit Christian affiliation, and to express “special solidarity” with Christians in Mosul, which Gobry sarcastically suggests would be no big deal, is actually a serious affront to the other religious groups suffering similar harm in Iraq.

Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week falls into a similar trap as Gobry, suggesting that Christians are the primary group that deserves American attention:

The U.S. owes Christians and other persecuted Iraqi minorities assistance… Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

To his credit, Dougherty references other “religious minorities” throughout the essay, but he never actually names any of them.  The piece’s title reinforces a decidedly narrow view of whom American aid should assist: “Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians.”

Dougherty calls for the U.S. to withhold financial aid to Iraq until its government does more to protect only afflicted religious minorities.  To argue this point is to ignore the besieged members of Iraq’s religious majority.  While Islam constitutes 97% of the country’s religious population, Sunni Muslims account for around 35% of the total religious population and Shi’a Muslims account for around 60%.  There have been atrocities committed against both denominations and the Iraqi government is not blameless.  To suggest aid should be preconditioned solely on the welfare of minorities – and to ignore the hardship inflicted on innocent Sunni and Shi’a Muslims – seems tone-deaf at best, since civilians of all religious communities have been unjustly affected.

Rorate-Caeli similarly frames the atrocities in Iraq solely through their impact on Christians in the region:

For two thousand years, our dearest brethren saw it all from Mosul… For years, we have been warning that support for terrorists in neighboring Syria would surely end badly. But even we could not imagine that it would end so badly so fast and over such a vast area. And yet, the insane Empire-builders are still handing billions and billions, and hundreds of millions of dollars to “moderate” terrorists! Where’s the outrage? Have you contacted your congressman, senator, president, MP, prime-minister expressing your outrage, begging this madness to stop?…

After two thousand years, it is finished. It’s over. Who will pay for the lasting damage lying Western politicians created by starting a process that would lead to what not even the first Islamic rulers, thirteen centuries ago, ever did, the obliteration of Christian life and populations?…

In Mosul, genocide has been accomplished. Where’s the outrage?

There is something vaguely, quietly cruel in this call to contact government officials as a response, first and foremost, to Christian persecution in Iraq.  One million Iraqis have fled the country in 2014.  500,000 people in total have left Mosul.  Did the authors of this post think it unimportant to emphasize how a general diaspora of displaced Iraqis is equally unacceptable?  Are we to believe that Christian persecution is more important and worthy of collective action than the pain felt by those of other religions?

This is not to minimize the particularly brutal treatment of Christians by ISIS, but to emphasize that all forms of persecution to every religious group in Iraq are worthy of condemnation.  Christians should not simply stand in solidarity with their tribe, but with all believers of good will who are unjustly harmed or prevented from worshipping by ISIS’ extremism.  Action should not be a consequence of singular Christian oppression; voices should be raised because innocent people are prevented from exercising religious liberty and  fully practicing their beliefs.

I understand that, as Christians, Gobry and Dougherty feel a particular connection with those who share their conception of the world, and I do not mean to suggest that any omission of other religious groups is tantamount to dismissal of their well-being.  But to focus on Christians to the exclusion or marginalization of other religious minorities carries the whiff of a moral calculus wherein Christians effectively matter more.  We must not risk even the slightest chance of conveying this attitude in any dialogue about religious persecution in Mosul.  Framing the unjust conditions that Christians face within the broader context of Iraqi upheaval and violence is critically important as a testament to the hardship endured by all.

Muslims, Turkmen, and Iraq’s other religious minorities are as much our brothers and sisters as Christians in Iraq.  Christians around the world should not forget them as they pray and work for peace.