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.

Results

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

College_Size

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

Cardinal_Shares

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

Population_Shares

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

Gini_Coefficients

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.

Did Teilhard de Chardin Ever Ask the Beasts?

A couple of months ago, Chris and I went to hear Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Teilhard Association, an organization dedicated to promoting the work of the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (we sometimes have unusual ideas about what makes for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon). Johnson’s argument, a variation on the thesis of her latest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, was that Teilhard, despite having worked out an impressive synthesis of Catholic doctrine with an evolutionary understanding of the origins of life on Earth, was held back by an anthropocentric mindset that kept him from fully appreciating the inherent dignity of nonhuman life and the irreducible value of the natural world. Although Johnson conceded that his thought can be “grown forward” in ways that transcend this limited perspective, she nevertheless maintained that Teilhard, like most Christian thinkers throughout history, espoused a worldview in which creation is ultimately subordinate to humankind.

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Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ at American Teilhard Association Annual Meeting; May 3rd, 2014

Teilhard’s oeuvre is formidable, both in terms of the quantity of his output and the density of his prose, so the fact that I’ve read a few of his books by no means makes me an expert on his views. Yet even though Johnson went out of her way to praise what she saw as Teilhard’s strengths, I had a sense that her characterization of him as someone who failed to recognize the intrinsic worth of the other residents of our planet – animal, vegetable, and mineral – was somewhat unfair.

In the weeks after the talk, I worked my way through Teilhard’s Future of Man, a collection of essays that develop his ideas about how homo sapiens, far from representing the terminus of evolution, is actually still in the process of growing and developing, no longer by way of “natural selection” but now through its own conscious action upon itself. As I read the book, I came across a number of passages that further convinced me that while Teilhard’s attention was mostly trained on humanity, his perspective was in fact broader than Johnson implied.

Unfortunately, no transcript or video of Johnson’s remarks at the ATA meeting is available. Since I want to be careful not to mischaracterize her views, I’ll focus instead on two quotations of hers from sources that are available: one from Ask the Beasts and another from a talk on the book given at Boston College last July.

Here’s Johnson, during the Q&A following her lecture at BC (at around 80:45 in the video):

There’s a great movement in theology today – I speak the name of Tom Berry and Brian Swimme calling on Teilhard and so on, in taking the cosmos and the power of the cosmos and getting that into our spirituality, making us understand that. And what I am trying to do is to say – my criticism of Teilhard and of Tom Berry is that they are still focused on the human person, and the plants and animals are left out in many ways. Not deliberately! It’s the era that people live in. And that – what I was trying to do very explicitly is to say, those insights are wonderful, and we need to apply them to the rest of life on our planet. In other words, cosmos is one thing, and it’s beautiful and it’s mystical – it lifts you up! – but I want to say, get down and dirty with biology.

And here she is on pg. 11 of Ask the Beasts:

Teilhard de Chardin[‘s]… scientific and religious passions fuse in ‘a mystic’s vision of holy matter,’ a sense that God is working in the evolutionary world which is pressing forward toward final convergence in the Omega Point, which he identifies with Christ. In view of the ultimate purpose of the evolutionary trajectory that has produced human life, his interpretive model sanctifies human endeavor that builds the earth toward that final destiny. Teilhard’s orientation of evolution to its eschatological future remains valuable, though criticism perdures that it credits the natural process with a too clear, almost linear sense of direction, and subsumes the natural world into human destiny. For all the nuance now needed, his work, poetic and pervaded with deep spirituality, has made a lasting contribution not least by integrating science with faith at a time when the two existed in watertight compartments.

Criticism about Teilhard’s alleged belief that evolution proceeds linearly may indeed perdure, but as far as I can tell it does so without justification. For one thing, Teilhard did not think evolution was like one of those drawings where the monkey gradually stands up straighter and straighter and becomes less and less hairy until it finally turns into a human. He subscribed to the scientific consensus that evolution is a divergent process whereby simpler life forms give rise to a wide variety of more complex life forms (and that “similarity to humans” is not the only criterion by which we can call one creature more “complex” than another):

Formerly ‘instinct’ could be treated as a sort of homogeneous quantity varying (something like temperature) on a scale running from zero to the point of Reflection representing human thought. Now we have to accustom ourselves to seeing things differently. It is not along a single line that Consciousness has emerged and is increasing on earth, but along an immense fan of nervures, each nervure representing a particular kind of sensory perception and knowledge. There are as many wave-lengths of consciousness as there are living forms. (Future of Man, pg. 227)

This is followed by an intriguing footnote:

i.e., in seeking to grasp the interior world and associative faculties of an animal it is not enough to try to diminish or decenter our own picture of the world: we have to modify our angle of vision and our way of seeing. Failing this we fall into the anthropomorphic illusions which cause us to be amazed at the phenomena of mimetism, or by mechanism arrangements which we ourselves could only carry out with the full aid of science, whereas the insect or the bat seems to have acquired the skill directly. (227)

Examples of seemingly preternatural talents in the animal kingdom abound. Dolphins can use echolocation to perceive the size and shape of objects that are concealed from their sight, and can communicate this information to human trainers. When I learned about this ability, I was amazed; how can dolphins pull this off when humans would require advanced technology to accomplish the same thing? What would it be like to have this kind of sixth sense?

Teilhard would say that we shouldn’t imagine it to be like wearing a pair of goggles hooked up to a sonar device. Animal consciousness is not just human consciousness with certain abilities subtracted and others added on. The subjective experiences of other creatures may very well be entirely orthogonal to our own. When Teilhard criticizes “amazement” in this footnote, he is not saying we shouldn’t be awed by the wonders of nature. In a sense, he is criticizing those of us who are not awed enough by nature, and who assume that the human mind is the best reference point for understanding animal minds. Some anthropocentrism!

To be sure, Teilhard did think that humans were objectively the most advanced organisms in the known universe because of their capacity for reflective thought. Yet he did not think that natural selection was destined to produce homo sapiens per se, although he did believe it would tend over time to produce conscious, self-aware creatures of some sort:

It is perfectly possible that in the general spectrum of Life the line ending in Man was originally no more than one psychic radiation among countless others. But it happened, for some reason of hazard, position or structure, that this sole ray… among the millions contrived to pass the critical barrier separating the Unreflective from the Reflective…

Because it did so (and although in a sense, I must repeat, this ray was only one attempt among many) the whole essential stream of terrestrial biological evolution is now flowing through the breach which has been made… [T]here has occurred, at a first ending of time, the breaking of the dykes, followed by what is now in progress, the flooding of Thought over the entire surface of the biosphere. (pp. 227-229)

In a later essay in Future of Man, Teilhard once again writes about this metaphysical fungibility of humans and other hypothetical rational creatures in a passage about the “Noosphere,” his term for the network of cognitive interactions among human beings, which he believed was growing into a kind of “super-organism” with the advent of modern communications technologies (some read Teilhard as having successfully predicted the invention of the Internet with his talk of the Noosphere):

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to regard all the biological stems composing the Biosphere as proceeding equally, each according to its own orientation, in the universal direction of considered thought. But what is even more certain… is that if a given Phylum X, shall we say, preceding the anthropoids, had succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness, Man would never have come into existence: instead of him, Phylum X would have woven and constituted the Noosphere. (pp. 283-284)

Although Teilhard is in principle open to the idea that some animals are subjects of mental experiences, he is also convinced (perhaps wrongly) that, as an empirical matter, no other creatures have in fact “succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness.”

Ask the Beasts charges Teilhard with “subsuming the natural world into human destiny,” and it is true that most of Teilhard’s work is concerned with situating humankind in an evolutionary universe. But as Johnson admits, this is largely a function of the era in which he lived. His Jesuit superiors forbade him from publishing many of his writings during his lifetime, a period when the theory of evolution was still viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the institutional Church. Teilhard’s project was to illustrate how an evolutionary worldview is compatible with Catholic doctrine on subjects like free will and sin, and so his emphasis on humanity should not be read as an attempt to justify the reckless domination of nature.

There are many who do try to justify such domination though, and Johnson is performing a great service by identifying the philosophical and theological errors involved in these arguments. When I asked her after the ATA keynote about what she thinks Pope Francis should say in the encyclical on the environment he’s said to be drafting, she replied that he ought to insist that nature is good and beautiful apart from its practical uses, and avoid even caveated claims that “it’s all here for us.”

There is certainly a sense in which the Church’s and Teilhard’s ideas about “the beasts” are anthropocentric, but it seems to me that a distinction needs to be drawn between a benign or even salutary sort of anthropocentrism that sees human beings as the stewards of creation and a more pernicious sort of anthropocentrism that would license humans to do with creation as they wish. Johnson, in advocating for a strict anti-anthropocentrism that rejects any “focus on the human person” as inappropriately narrow, blurs the distinction between the two and makes it appear as if Teilhard and/or the Church share in or are even partly responsible for the mindset that is leading us toward ecological ruin.

According to the description of Ask the Beasts on the publisher’s website, Johnson wants theologians “to look out of the window, so to speak, as well as in the mirror.” It would be wonderful if Francis were to use his first solo encyclical as an opportunity to underscore the urgency of the threats posed to the global ecosystem by global warming, deforestation, and the like, and to articulate clearly that plants and animals have more than just utilitarian value. And – who knows? – he might even consider the work of his fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin as he brainstorms what he wants to say. If he looks closely enough, I think he’ll find Teilhard to be a more helpful resource than he might seem at first glance.

A Q&A with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is an author, poet, and teacher living in New Jersey. He is a staff writer for The Millions and has had his work published in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, and Shenandoah. His new collection of short stories, Good People, will be published later this year.

Nick wrote or was featured in a number of insightful pieces over the last couple of months, including an essay about writing as a sacramental act, a beautiful list of reflections on teaching English, and an interview on the state of Catholic writing with The Jesuit Post. We reached out to Nick to ask a few additional questions about literature, art, teaching, faith, and New Jersey, and he graciously accepted our request.

In “Sacrament of Fiction,” you wrote: “The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.” Why did you return to New Jersey after college? To what extent does a sense of place influence or weave its way into your work? Given the political and economic tumult that our state seems to face rather consistently, what role (if any) do you believe art and literature can have in shaping public policy?

There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each with its own culture and power structure. That observation would apply to any state, but New Jersey is unique in that this fragmentation occurs in a small state with marked economic inequalities in bordering towns and counties. I grew up in a suburban area of the state, my family is from an urban section, and I live in a rural part–Sussex County–which looks like Vermont.

I came back to New Jersey after college for family, and for those geographic and cultural diversities. I actually think being from New Jersey forces one’s imagination to be on high alert, because of all these stratifications. But I don’t often write about this state in my fiction. Place is essential to my work, but not exactly this place. I’m attracted to fiction in which topography dictates culture, so I lean more toward pastoral writers like Ron Rash, Jayne Anne Phillips, Thomas McGuane and Cormac McCarthy. My fiction tends to be set in the West, Midwest, and Southwest, for those reasons. I can write essays about this state, but my fiction is set elsewhere. Our truths are strange enough, I guess.

Now, that’s an interesting question about art and literature in relation to public policy. I worked in a county elections office one summer, and watched all of the handshake agreements and constant “meetings” between local officials and election officers. That made me incredibly skeptical of politicians, and the idea of parties, especially. Unfortunately, I think New Jersey is a place of endless squabbles and backstabbing (or frontstabbing?), so a scene from Hamlet might be most appropriate for what happens at the Statehouse.

I think art and literature can help people transcend the ephemera of the political world. That doesn’t result in the governor’s administration actually making a pension payment, nor does it lower our property taxes, but it might give some solace. More practically, art and literature adds nuance and texture to single-column, talking-point style reporting. There is a great political and social novel to be written about the theater that is Chris Christie’s New Jersey: from Xanadu to closed lanes, we’ve got high drama for low reasons. I tend to think writers and artists do better helping make sense of policy rather than directly shaping or building it.

In what ways is teaching similar and/or dissimilar to writing as a vocational, devotional endeavor?

Although I get paid to teach, if done well, it is also a selfless pursuit, focused on helping students discover themselves intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Teachers are only a part of this process, but they are an important part. At some level, teaching is a kenotic activity. Writing is an inherently selfish activity. I hope that my teaching somehow evens-out my tendency to write (since I think writing for publication is, effectively, the claim that my words are somehow worth the time and money of an audience). There is certainly a penitential aspect to the teaching-writing equation.

Both endeavors require an absolute attention toward an audience, which includes mediation between performance and genuine feeling. Since I write two essays a month for The Millions, an online magazine that covers books, writing, and publishing, I need to craft pieces that are worth reading on the screen. We have a wide audience, but they are a discerning one. When it comes to teaching, I have had students who took several different courses with me, say that I seemed like a different person in each course. I’ll take that as a compliment. When Thomas Merton said “what we have to be is what we are,” I think he was more concerned with our internal than external selves. As a teacher, I play to the audience while trying not to get played (Flannery O’Connor said if a student doesn’t find a teacher’s methods or content to his taste, “Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” She’s funny, but she never taught high school English. There needs to be some compromise.). There’s a difference between being emotionally raw, wearing your emotions on your sleeves and slacks, and being genuinely interested in the well-being of your students. Many teachers leave the profession because they take it too personally. The same goes for writers.

You’ve published novellas, nonfiction books, poetry collections, and essays. Does your writing and composition process differ for each of these forms?

Yes. My novellas have been pared down from novels. This Darksome Burn, which was published last year, is more than 200 pages less than its longest version. I’m a big fan of almost maniacal line-revision on the printed page (with as sharp a pencil as possible). I like to pare away, clear the chaff, and add more.

I take the same approach to short essay writing. My book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight, was a different beast. That required so much research and sourcing and comparing that I held-off on worrying about the prose until the content was finalized. It was a weird feeling to not write a paragraph and then revise it, but the book was meant to impart information, not be lyric.

I can draft a poem very quickly, but I always put those manuscripts in a desk drawer and let them sit for a few weeks before thinking about revision. I print one poem per page at 14 point font (the errors jump out a bit more there, and it also forces me to make sure my lines aren’t too long). After a line-edit, I do one more run-through since I sometimes am too heavy on concision. I have to resuscitate the rhythm of a line before the poem is finished.

If you had to choose one writer and/or theologian who most influenced the way you think about belief and your craft, who would you select?

This is such a difficult question! Let me start with the runners-up. The only theologian who has really formed me is Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, but he has not had as much influence as Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, Thomas McGuane, Ron Hansen, and Don DeLillo. If I had to pick a runner-up, it would be DeLillo. Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school and university. His work is profoundly Catholic, but he does not appear to have practiced the religion as an adult. We differ in that sense, but I often learn best from writers who are not quite like myself.

I would choose DeLillo over Dubus and O’Connor because, ultimately, even though I write about the West and Southwest, my soul is from Newark. I’m a Northeast guy with that sensibility, and it’s a sentiment DeLillo captures in everything, from Underworld to Point Omega to my favorite work of his, End Zone, which is set in Texas but is narrated by a character from New York.

The writer who has lived a life of faith that I try to emulate is Ron Hansen. I love his range: he moves from historical fiction like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to a postmodern theological thriller, Mariette in Ecstasy. His collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, has helped me as a writer, and has been a spiritual document for me as a Catholic. He’s been the model of a Catholic writer who publishes in the secular world not to proselytize, but to widen the cultural conversation.

The Church has seen a significant amount of change since Francis became Pope. You’ve written about your youthful aspirations to become a priest; do you think we’ll see more substantial changes in Church policy or doctrine in the coming years on subjects such as married priests? Would these kinds of changes be good for the Church?

I think we have seen changes in delivery and tone under Francis, more so than we have seen doctrinal shifts. He appears to be more self-aware of the theater of his role than Benedict. Outside observers, particularly lapsed Catholics or those who have never had a faith, expect swift dogmatic moves. His humble gestures are in the tradition of the name he has taken, and have certainly improved the face of the Church. Fr. James Martin, one of America’s most known Jesuits, has been in magazines, on websites, and on television and radio stations with a consistent refrain: Pope Francis is a brilliant, compassionate man who will likely not deviate from traditional church teachings.

In regards to married priests, I think Francis’s presence will hopefully create more reasonable dialogue about priestly celibacy (and, really, the emotional and physical identities of priests overall), but I do not think the Church will shift its stance here. While still a Cardinal, Francis said that celibacy is “a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.” Some media markets have run with that statement, but to again echo Fr. Martin, it is important to remember that Francis is both a theologian and a Jesuit, prone to extemporaneous thinking. I think that is a positive trait. He is open-minded and dynamic. I don’t think it means he is necessarily malleable. It’s not my place to say whether priests should be married are not. There are instances of Lutheran pastors (and those of other rites) converting to Catholicism and remaining priests, but this gets into theologically murky territory that I don’t have sufficient background in to comment. I think the best thing for the Church is to view the laity as “their people,” not a separate entity. That seems to be happening more under Francis.

In response to Dana Gioia’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” you noted the following in an interview with The Jesuit Post:

The ultimate problem is that we are lacking a Catholic critical infrastructure…. Without this critical infrastructure–without conversation and contradiction–we are left with a provincial literature. Catholic stories published in Catholic magazines for Catholic readers, or Catholic books reviewed on Amazon by Catholic reviewers who gauge the writer’s fidelity to Catholicism as you would rate a vacuum.

This quote suggests an aversion to literature that falls in an exclusively “Catholic” genre. Would you say that “Catholic literature” should instead be more of an approach, a movement to interpret and discuss all secular art from a faith-based frame? What steps could we take to initiate conversations on a broader scale? What kind of infrastructure would you want to see created?

I do have an aversion to literature that forcefully identifies itself as Catholic in a genre sense, as if self-identification is an affirmation of aesthetic quality. I like the idea “approach” much better, for the reasons you mention; articulating Catholicism as a worldview. I happen to think it is a wonderfully nuanced worldview. Catholic faith and Catholic Mass are intrinsically analogical and performative. Catholic schooling and upbringing are excellent preparations for sensitive artists. As Catholics, we are taught close reading, the power of song to transform story, the possibility of something being simultaneously a symbol and a real thing, the wealth of community, the models of saints, and more—all experiences that translate well into the creation of, and appreciation for, art.

In order for a return to a significant presence of Catholic arts and letters in the wider secular discussion (as in the time of Flannery O’Connor), we need a recognition of certain aesthetic standards, and the acceptance that not all work written by Catholics (or about Catholics) is necessarily good. There is a difference between private and public literature. Private literature is cathartic, personal, immediate. It does not need an editor. Public literature needs an editor, a publisher, an audience. It needs distribution and discernment. In order for these Catholic conversations to reach a “broader scale,” we need men and women writing from a Catholic worldview articulating that aesthetic sense in the largest and most influential markets, magazines, and locations. I think of Mary Karr, Dana Gioia, Gregory Wolfe, and Paul Elie. But four is not enough.

The infrastructure component you discussed was well-covered in “The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia, but I would add that we need to bring the private versus public conversation to the undergraduate and graduate classrooms in creative writing. We need top-notch writing programs at Catholic universities, training young writers to also write criticism for wide audiences, not simply peer-reviewed journals (which are excellent, but don’t reach enough readers beyond the academy). These movements will be slow, but they are necessary. Catholicism is a tremendously misunderstood and misrepresented religion, culture, and intellectual space. Catholic writers need to do the work of correcting these errors while inspiring adherents to look at their faith with new eyes.

Thanks again to Nick for responding to our questions. Check out his latest novella, This Darksome Burn, here. For more information on Nick, visit www.nickripatrazone.com.

The Church as an Institutional Ethical Consultant

I enjoyed reading Matt’s recap of Daniel K. Finn’s “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk” lecture at Fordham. One paragraph of Matt’s write-up, in particular, stood out to me:

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

As important as Finn’s thesis is, Matt’s observation speaks to the underlying issue with any sort of ecumenical-economic dialogue: it’s always a one-way discussion. No matter the extent to which the Church incorporates economic theory into papal encyclicals and other official documents, there’s no guarantee major economic institutions will integrate Christian ethical principles into their organizational frameworks.

Matt’s main point still stands, indeed. Not only are most forums for conversation usually initiated by the Church, but most ethical discussions in the business and finance community are reactive in nature. Prosperous environs are not conducive to calls for temperance. It’s clearly not a coincidence that major banks instituted more responsible protocols after the damage of the risk-fueled 2008/2009 crisis had already been done.

So what, if anything, could encourage secular organizations to engage the Church in constructing moral guidelines? Is it ludicrous to even consider this happening on anything more than a miniscule scale?

Perhaps. But the papacy of Francis has presented a unique opportunity for the Church to capitalize on its current favorability and crossover appeal with nonbelievers and non-Christians. And if we think of Francis’ first year as a period in which the papacy regained respect from secular society, it’s possible that the next few years could see the Church itself become a body worth consulting for guidance.

What I’m proposing, in effect, is a scenario wherein the Church heavily promotes itself as a sort of Christian Ethical Consulting Firm, a body that provides advice for organizations looking to reshape their culture. In effect, members of the Church could work with businesses and major economic groups to provide advice for growth and success within a Christian ethical framework.

Why would this scenario appeal to big businesses? The public’s post-crisis perception of most major institutions is still deeply negative; banks, in particular, continue to look for ways to make it seem like they’re working to atone for their sins. The Church could take advantage of this opportunity (be it sincere or simply superficial) and gradually work to advise the company on more responsible practices going forward.

To suggest that big banks would go to a religious institution for advice seems slightly crazy, especially given that the profit-maximization objectives of most financial institutions are in opposition to the Church’s economic philosophy. Without question, there would be limits to the Church’s ability to achieve the kind of economic justice described in Rerum Novarum or John Paul II’s encyclicals. Goldman Sachs would not begin donating its quarterly profits to charity after a brief morality sesh with Timothy Dolan. But the underlying goal would be a gradual integration of Christian ethics into different facets of a bank’s macro workflow, with the intent of achieving responsible outcomes over the long term. Not only is this kind of guidance going to look good from a PR standpoint, but it could engender business practices that might actually lead to more temperate growth and development. I’d bet that, in retrospect, the Bear Stearns board would have jumped at the opportunity to take on the Church as a consultant in exchange for moderately lower short-term profits.

The key to this scenario, of course, is the Church’s ability to employ people for this kind of consulting work who know what they’re talking about. If there is one concrete outcome from this year’s upcoming Synod of Bishops, I hope it’s the elevation of lay Catholic leaders in business, medicine, science, and other professions to more influential roles in the Church. Espousing a theology with effective, measurable outcomes requires the input of those who know their disciplines best and who also have a deep sense of faith and service. Their views should be viewed with equal weight to those of cardinals and bishops, at least in matters of their expertise.

The good news is that this is already happening! Late last year, the Financial Times ran a detailed story of how lay bankers were helping clean up the Vatican Bank’s messy finances. Just a few days ago, the panel of the Vatican’s new Council of the Economy (a sort of “ministry of finance”) was announced, and it includes seven laypeople with backgrounds in financial governance and executive leadership. I’d imagine lay professionals have long been asked to assist in high-level Church initiatives, but Francis has indicated a more extensive and foundational role for these kind of experts going forward. Let’s hope this is the case.

As noted above, there’s no need for this kind of consultation to be limited to business and economic matters. There are plenty of areas where the Church could apply its ethical principles in service of secularists who would otherwise have no interest in learning about Church teaching. Marriage comes to mind as an intriguing case study. The oft-cited statistic is that 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Much has been said of how the Synod will likely tackle the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics later this year, but what if the Church worked to tackle the breakdown of civil marriage as well? Perhaps a consultant board could provide services to couples who are considering getting married, with a message of, “Let us help you make the most of your commitment to each other so that it’s as rewarding as possible.” It could employ lay relationship counselors to provide advice along the journey, advice rooted in secular language with distinctly Christian underlying principles.

The important phrase in the previous paragraph is “in service of.” Right now, one fears that non-Christians might view the Church with an attitude of skepticism for what Pope Francis would call its “legalistic” trends: pronunciations of what not to do combined with a focus on the consequences of these transgressions. The Church as a “consultant” would instead emphasize gradual reformation with a combination of firmness, compassion, and logic. You won’t engage nonbelievers by telling them what they’re doing wrong, but you might get their attention by proving to them the advantages of the Church’s way.

Most studies of Church attendance in the last few months have not found any measurable impact of the so-called “Francis Effect.” That is, there has been no jump in people attending mass despite the Pope’s high favorability. And that makes sense. One man might make people more understanding of the Church as an institution, but it’s difficult to single-handedly convince non-believers that Catholicism’s beliefs and practices are a worthwhile paradigm. Even if the Church doesn’t adopt the measures outlined above, the general conceit should be its priority going forward: engaging more effectively with non-believers on their grounds. This requires the presentation of ideas and beliefs in a way that makes sense on a secular level.

To be frank: my comparison of the Church to an “ethical consultant” is somewhat watered-down and clinical. It strips the mythology of a communion of people into a panel which provides advice sapped of explicit Christian associations. No doubt this would strike many as foolishly ineffective or a betrayal of the Church’s tradition, but I’m finding myself increasingly drawn in the other direction. The Church’s size and ability to unite believers across countries, languages, and governments is an advantage it should leverage. Using that weight to make a concerted push for dialogue with nonbelievers, on their terms, is something the Church can – and should – do.

Returning to Matt’s original question about economists and Christian ethicists: imagining the Church operating in the aforementioned manner wouldn’t turn the one-way street of economic-ecclesiastical dialogue into a two-lane highway. But it would provide a broader and more effective set of tools to make sure that conversation keeps growing and the effects of such dialogue have progressively greater impact. Francis has laid the groundwork for this type of cooperation to begin in earnest; let’s see if we can’t take those next steps to make it happen.

“Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk”

Last Monday after work I made what I was surprised to learn is a very long trek from lower Manhattan to Fordham University in the Bronx to attend a talk by Daniel K. Finn, an economic ethicist at the University of Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. The lecture, sponsored by Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, was entitled “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk,” and marked the kickoff of a planned two-year series of events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s economic encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The main objectives of Finn’s talk were a) to encourage economists and theologians/ethicists, particularly within the Catholic academy, to engage in more interdisciplinary discussion, and b) to critique the tendency within academia for different subject areas to self-segregate into inward-looking cliques (he accompanied his introduction of this idea with a nice illustration of silos). As promised by his title, Finn made a compelling case for why popes and economists need to talk, but I had been hoping that he would deal more extensively with what practical steps might be taken to further promote and even institutionalize this kind of dialogue.

In the first half of the lecture, Finn summarized studies from a subfield known as behavioral economics that have sought to illuminate the psychological impacts of poverty. He focused in particular on an observation from the literature that the stress associated with a chronic lack of basic necessities leads to “reduced mental bandwidth,” and to shortsighted decision-making, poor impulse control, and weaker problem-solving abilities. This in turn can generate self-defeating patterns of behavior that can keep someone from rising out of poverty.

Such an empirical finding can have clear implications for public policy. Finn argued, for example, that accepting this understanding of why poverty persists would militate against imposing a fixed lifetime limit on the amount of welfare benefits that can be collected by a given individual, since this sort of restriction misunderstands the nature of “poverty-induced tunneling.” In other words, the intended incentive effects of such a limit will tend to be attenuated by the fact that the poor are focused not on making plans for far in the future, but on short-term subsistence. A better alternative might be to institute a cap on what can be collected during a given spell of poverty or unemployment (e.g. to allow a maximum of X dollars to be collected every Y months).

Although he didn’t deal explicitly with how “popes” might assimilate the fruits of such research into Church teaching, Finn did mention that Pope John Paul II is known to have consulted with economists when writing Centesimus Annus, his landmark social encyclical. At a more practical level, a better understanding of how to break cycles of poverty can assist Church-affiliated organizations like Catholic Relief Services in designing more effective strategies for promoting growth and development.

The latter half of the talk dealt with the contributions that popes and other churchmen, theologians, and ethicists can make to the dialogue with economists. In addition to simply reminding economists that their research ought always to be conducted with an eye toward fostering the common good, the exhortations of Church leaders can contribute to a deeper, more fundamental rethinking of what is possible in the realm of political economy. Finn quoted liberally from Benedict XVI’s 2009 treatise on the global economic order, Caritas in Veritate, to show what form this kind of rethinking might take. We can see hints of the Benedictine (and Franciscan!) vision of “commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends” in organizations like credit unions or grocery co-ops or health insurance co-ops, but these types of arrangements remain exceptions to the basic order of capitalism.

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

The 2010 documentary Inside Job, in which Matt Damon explains the financial crisis, features a discussion about the uncomfortably close ties between the financial industry and business school/econ department faculty, and the ways in which these ties can distort and bias economic research. I personally am fortunate enough to work with morally upstanding economists on a daily basis, but the near-universal lack of ethical training as a component of degree programs in business and economics is something that worries me.

As insistent as recent popes have been that their social teaching is generally applicable to the whole of humanity, and rises above the level of ecclesiastical law binding only on Catholics, the Church will nevertheless have to build coalitions with those outside of Catholicism if it hopes to overcome the perception that its forays into discussions about political and economic concerns are driven by narrow sectarian interests.

I think that Finn and others like him have started in a logical place by zeroing in on Catholic universities, though. Kenneth Garcia, in a book called Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University, argues that Catholic colleges ought to focus more on recruiting intellectuals who are well-trained in both their own particular subject area and the broader philosophical and ethical tradition of the Church. This is a tall order, and at least one reviewer expressed skepticism that there are very many of these strange beasts out there to be recruited (not to mention that previous attempts to accomplish something similar, even at Garcia’s own university, have not necessarily ended well). But if Finn’s exercise in silo-breaking is to succeed, it would seem that these are the places where it will have to get off the ground first.

A day or two after Dan Finn’s talk, I read a review by Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter of a forthcoming book by Andrew Abela and Joseph Capizzi entitled A Catechism for Business, which attempts to offer practical advice for Catholics seeking to integrate their moral principles with their professional work. Although Winters is critical of the free-market sympathies of its authors, one a moral theologian at Catholic University of America and the other the dean of CUA’s business school, he nevertheless believes that the book makes a unique contribution:

A Catechism for Business consists of quotes drawn from the Church’s teaching on issues of business and economics and one can only hope that many Catholic businesspeople will better acquaint themselves with that teaching via this medium. They certainly would be inclined to change some of their business practices and, what is more important, the whole way business is conceived in our hyper-commercial U.S. culture…

This Catechism is a worthwhile project and I hope it will be widely distributed and read. And, I believe the conversation between traditional advocates of Catholic social teaching and economists like Abela should continue, if only to convert him from his evident devotion to the fuzzy free-market thinking we associate with the Austrians not the Apostles. But, Abela is sincere, not sinister and his collaboration with Capizzi in producing this Catechism has yielded a fine compendium of Church teachings which, if taken seriously by the business community, could result in a far more humane economy than the one those businessmen have erected on their own.

Winters seems to equivocate about precisely how broad an audience the book might be able to attract, writing first that he hopes it will be read by “many Catholic businesspeople,” but then later that it would be wonderful to see it “taken seriously by the business community [in general].”

My own sense is that a book by two academics at CUA replete with quotations from papal documents will struggle to get a hearing outside of the Church. But in the age of Francis, who knows? People like Finn, Abela, and Capizzi are doing important work, but they should be cognizant of the fact that they may need to use different language when talking to different audiences. A multiplicity of approaches will be required if we really want to “build better economies.”

Will the Geographic Profile of the College of Cardinals Really Change Under Francis?

The Pope’s Promotions

Earlier today, Pope Francis formally elevated 19 Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal in a ceremony known as a “consistory,” marking the first time that he has made such promotions since his election last March. As with all of Pope Francis’ “firsts,” the announcement of his first picks for the cardinalate had generated a significant amount of buzz in light of his evident intention to dramatically shift the geographic distribution of the red hats.

Since their main responsibility is to elect the next pope, there is naturally a great deal of interest in the cardinals – where they come from, who they are, and what issues they care about. In the run-up to the conclave that elected Francis last March, the Pew Research Center produced a graphic showing how the percentage of cardinals from each region of the world compared to the percentage of the world’s Catholics living in those regions. The visual was stark: while Europe only accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics as of 2013, it was home to over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave. Latin America, with nearly 40% of the global Catholic population, could claim only 17% of the cardinal electors as its own.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Francis is accelerating a trend toward the “de-Italianization” or “de-Europeanization” of the College of Cardinals that has been at work for some time. National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin observed in January that “[f]ewer cardinals [from] the Roman Curia [the Vatican bureaucracy] will allow the Pope to choose more widely from the Church’s resident archbishops, thereby giving a more equitable distribution of cardinals from around the world.” In keeping with his emphasis on caring for the poor, Francis’ choices included clerics from developing countries like Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Nicaragua. Bishop Chibly Langlois was selected as the first cardinal from Haiti, one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

But looking at how the nationalities of the cardinals have evolved over time only tells half the story. As the Pew graphic emphasized, one also needs to take into account the ratio of cardinals to Catholics in a given region to get a sense of whether that part of the world is represented as fairly as another.

Of course, when I talk about “representation,” I don’t mean to imply that the cardinals represent the laity in the same way that congressmen represent their constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the College is a quasi-democratic institution with a protocol for electing the pope that resembles the protocol used by the Electoral College to elect the President of the United States, the cardinals do not literally poll the faithful on who they want to be pontiff. Moreover, the College’s role in the actual governance of the Church is generally very limited, despite the fact that it is sometimes referred to as the “papal senate” (though the amount of input that its members have varies from papacy to papacy, and may well be reaching a high-water mark under Francis).

That said, there are clear reasons to prefer a distribution of cardinals roughly commensurate with the global distribution of the Catholic population. One is that the issues that appear most pressing to the Church in Rome may not seem all that important or urgent to the Church in the Third World, and vice versa. For example, the European and North American bishops and cardinals are more likely to worry about secularism, church-state conflicts, the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, and bioethical controversies than their counterparts elsewhere. In Africa, the most pressing concerns are hunger, genocide, and Islamic extremism. In South America, starvation and poverty again top the list, along with environmental degradation and governmental corruption. A Church that becomes too myopically Eurocentric will be unable to react appropriately to problems in other parts of the world.

I was curious to see whether the geographic distribution of the cardinalate has in fact become significantly more or less equitable over time, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 and starting crunching the numbers.

 

Data and Methodology

The first step was to find some data. Fortunately, virtually all of the hard work of compiling information on the College of Cardinals had already been done by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda, who curates a wonderfully comprehensive website on “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.” 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 figured it would be enough 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 data 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 publish 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 thought 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 region of the world 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. Since I argued at the outset that we should care about the geographic distribution of the red hats because it can affect the Church’s global perspective, I figured it was logical to count men working in the Holy See as Italians/Europeans. (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 decided to 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. I don’t want to bore non-econ geeks with a mathematical discussion of the Gini coefficient*, so I’ll stick to essentials: 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 I had population data at time t 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, not all cardinals are permitted to cast votes for pope during conclaves; that privilege is reserved to those under 80 years of age. Since their right to vote for pope 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.

 

Results

The following figures provide the key takeaways of my investigation.

Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2014

Graph_College_of_Cardinals_Size

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).

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2014

Graph_Cardinals_Region_Shares_2

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.

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2014

Graph_Population_Shares

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 clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not grown in proportion to the growth in their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

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

Gini_Graph_All

This final graph 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 regional representation in the College will remain at current levels going forward.

The pattern seen in this graph 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 0.359 on March. 13th, 2013 to 0.278 today, and the coefficient for the electors from 0.329 to 0.216). Yet it is also clear that the long-run trend over the past several decades has been toward greater inequity, reversing an earlier trend that stalled out around the time of Paul VI’s reforms. Even though Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made an effort to extend red hats to bishops from beyond the European continent, this analysis suggests that Catholic population growth outside of Europe has proceeded even faster than the “de-Europeanization” of the College.

On top of that, the projections for 2020 offer some cause for concern. Even if the present diversity of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient is expected to actually rise modestly over the next few years (to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors). This would imply that Francis and future popes might have to be even more aggressive about looking to the ends of the Earth for new “Princes of the Church” if they are serious about making the Catholic hierarchy more geographically inclusive.

____________________________________________________

*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.

Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and The Ethics of Debate

I finally got around to listening to a recording of the evolution-creation debate in which onetime Dancing with the Stars contestant (oh, and Science Guy) Bill Nye faced off against Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. The event was held at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky on February 4th, and was essentially what I and everyone else expected it would be. Ham gave an impressive-sounding yet fact-free performance, and Nye made an earnest – if less silver-tongued – effort to explain how we can be quite sure that the Earth is not 6,000 years old.

Nye’s decision to participate in such an exchange attracted a great deal of criticism before it even took place. University of Chicago professor and New Republic contributor Jerry Coyne argued, along with many others, that having a well-known scientist appear at an event like this would only perpetuate the false impression that the controversy over creation and evolution is actually a live one among mainstream scientists, and that there are good arguments on both sides.

The notion that some ideas are sufficiently preposterous that one shouldn’t even engage their proponents in public is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, belief in a “young” Earth is in fact ludicrous, and giving people the sense that such a belief constitutes a serious scientific hypothesis is intellectual malpractice. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, nearly half of Americans believe that the world and human beings were created in their present form within the last ten millennia; the last thing we need to be doing is signaling that science is on the fence about the truth of such a claim.

On the other hand, that nearly half of Americans believe such a thing is an indication that there really is a live controversy here – not among scientists, but certainly in the broader culture. And if mainstream scientists want more people to accept that evolution by natural selection is the most compelling account of the origin of mankind and of all present life on Earth, then they’re going to have to think of new and creative ways to explain the evidence and convince them to change their minds (and to reassure them that modern science does not conflict with most of the world’s major religious traditions). Importantly, they’re going to have to do a better job of talking about evolution in forums where those most skeptical of the theory are most likely to hear them. Refusing to engage creationists at all will only further convince them that they are victims of a hostile secular culture intent on suppressing their freedom to express themselves.

But when it comes to debating fringe ideas, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere, right? Would it be acceptable to debate a neo-Nazi? A racial segregationist? These are difficult questions, but it seems to me that a good rule of thumb ought to be whether the position in question is reasonably widespread among the general population. If it is, then those who are sincerely convinced of its wrongness have a duty to do what they can to combat it, and if that involves walking into the belly of the beast, so be it. In such a situation, the benefit of broadcasting one’s message more widely most likely outweighs the potential cost of lending credibility to the other side.

In any case, the Nye/Ham debate is worth watching even if, like me, you’re already convinced that creationism is based on a category mistake. Nye strikes a wonderful balance between being forceful and polite, assertively pressing the case for evolution while maintaining a corny sense of humor throughout. His tone is one of mild-mannered incredulity rather than raw condescension; he refers to Ken Ham’s arguments about Noah’s Ark as “really extraordinary claims,” for instance, sounding all the while as if he were genuinely a bit surprised to hear what Ham believes about the Great Flood. Feel free to skip the first twelve minutes or so of the YouTube version though, which feature a clock counting down to the start of the event (this video appears to have been less than intelligently designed).

I would have liked to see the two men delve more deeply into the relationship of science and theism/agnosticism/atheism beyond merely reciting their talking points, which for Ham consisted of repeatedly mentioning that the inventor of the MRI is a young earth creationist, and for Nye that billions of religious people accept the theory of evolution, as if a headcount alone could definitively settle the question of whether and how reason and faith are compatible.

But really, the debate just made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days of messing with creationists on Conservapedia. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of having your account blocked for “liberal bias” (e.g. observing that there is no evidence humans coexisted with dinosaurs), then you’ve been missing out.

What Michael Brendan Dougherty Gets Wrong About Our “Vaguely Commie” Pope

Michael Brendan Dougherty, formerly of The American Conservative, took an extended leave of absence from blogging about politics and religion early last year to start the baseball newsletter The Slurve, but he’s finally returned from his hiatus to throw #slatepitches for The Week. On the first anniversary of the announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation, he makes the case that Pope Francis has indeed changed the tone of the Catholic Church’s engagement with the world – for the worse:

If the church’s tone under Pope Francis has changed at all, it has actually become harder, more lashing, and even snarky.

The story of the last two papacies to which most of the media is slavishly dedicated goes like this: Pope Benedict was a meanie who, in the memorable phrasing of Rolling Stone, “looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares.” By contrast, Pope Francis is your super-chill, vaguely commie friend, who plays with animals and responds to sin with a cool shrug.

The truth is somewhat different. Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar. His views of economics may be even further to the left than his successor’s. His encyclicals and his books are gentle and reflective. His letter to the atheist author Piergiorgio Odifreddi typifies the tone. Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

He has condemned “airport bishops.” Christians who complain too much, he called “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.” Can we even imagine how much crap Pope Benedict would have taken from the media if he told nuns not to become “old maids?” Francis said just that, though.

Sometimes it is not exactly clear whom the pope intends to lampoon. The pope has dumped rhetorical acid on “Christians of words,” who “are rigid! This type think that being Christian means being in perpetual mourning”… Catholics of a more traditional bent really cause Francis to bring out the stick. He has called them “triumphalists” and “restorationists.” He dubs those that send him notes enumerating the number of rosaries they have prayed for him “Pelagians,” after the heretic who denied the necessity of divine grace for salvation…

I agree with Dougherty that, at least in some respects, the differences between Benedict and Francis have been dramatically exaggerated in the popular press. Many an internet quiz has attempted to lure readers into misattributing quotations from Benedict to his successor (or to misattributing quotations from his successor to New York City’s “Marxist mayor” Bill de Blasio).

But I think he engages in a similarly unwarranted form of exaggeration when he lauds the pope emeritus for “condemning errors in the abstract” while criticizing the current pontiff for “making it personal.” Are Francis’ attacks really that personal? It isn’t as if he’s called out particular individuals for their transgressions by name, and he must not be that specific if even Dougherty admits that he sometimes can’t figure out “whom the pope intends to lampoon.” Indeed, the fact that Francis has refrained from publicly taking aim at even some of the most flagrantly egregious offenders and limited himself to bemoaning sourpusses and neo-Pelagians could perhaps be interpreted as a mark of admirable restraint.

On top of that, there is really no substantive difference between criticizing “people” who hold ideologies to which the Church is opposed and criticizing the ideologies themselves. Would Dougherty object to Francis reframing Benedict’s famous denunciation of “the dictatorship of relativism” as a denunciation of the actual “relativists” themselves? Arguing that there is any real difference here is an exercise in hair-splitting.

Francis’ “highly stylized papal idioms” and pithy formulations are almost certainly one of the main reasons why he has endeared himself to so many. Far more people will remember a sermon that takes comical shots at “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner” or “sourpusses” than one that drily reminds listeners to maintain a positive outlook on life. Yes, there are ways in which Benedict was unfairly maligned – the Rolling Stone quote about the knife-fingered gloves comes to mind – but his introverted and “wonky” personality did in fact make it hard for him to connect with the average Catholic, in the same way that many conservatives accuse Barack Obama of being hard to relate to because of his “cerebral” and “aloof” demeanor (perhaps Dougherty would agree?). Francis’ use of humor doesn’t detract from his preaching, it enhances it.

Dougherty would likely point out that I’ve failed to show that Francis has “softened” the Church’s tone, only that his putative snarkiness is not as bad as it seems. But the real aim of his argument is to show that Francis’ rhetorical style is counterproductive, and I think it’s abundantly clear from the many and varied manifestations of the “Francis effect” that exactly the opposite is true.

In any case, Francis has already offered us, toward the end of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a preemptive apology for any infelicitous expressions he might use over the course of his papacy:

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. (Evangelii Gaudium, 208)

Maybe Dougherty should stop being a whiny sourpuss. I feel bad for putting it so bluntly, but… the pope said it first!

Libresco on “Having Better Fights”

Rarely, if ever, does Patheos, a wide-ranging site dedicated to “hosting the conversation on faith,” have to help one of its writers relocate from the atheism section to the Catholicism one. Yet that’s precisely what it had to do in the case of Jewish-secularist-turned-Catholic Leah Libresco, who writes the Patheos blog “Unequally Yoked: A Geeky Convert Picks Fights in Good Faith.” Libresco’s announcement of her conversion in June of 2012 took many of her readers by surprise and brought her a great deal of media attention, including an appearance on CNN.

I only learned of Libresco a few weeks ago, and as I was reading through some posts by and about her I came across a video of a talk she gave last March at Chicago Ideas Week entitled “Having Better Fights About Religion.” I immediately felt some kinship when she mentioned her background as a debater and her tendency to be “a little too pugilistic for her own good.” Chris and I have been friends since serving together on our high school’s debate team, and I can certainly sympathize with the fact that there sometimes seems to be a tension between having fun arguing with people and wanting to build bridges and bring everybody together. I have a strong, reflexive impulse to play Devil’s Advocate whenever anyone makes a confident assertion about anything, but I also want people to think I’m a nice person! What to do?

I like to think that the tension is really an illusion, and that my love of argument serves my love of getting people to agree with each other by helping to illuminate areas of common ground and to get to the bottom of what a given disagreement is fundamentally about. It was great to hear Libresco articulate this and to describe “all debate as being about building a more accurate model of reality.” She critiques the mindset that sees argument as a sport, and explores various ways in which we can have “better arguments” that are structured so as to make sure people “lose the ones they ought to lose” (she describes her conversion to Catholicism as the best time she’s ever had losing an argument).

The video offers a number of highly practical tips for engaging in more productive disagreement, something we at RM are always on the lookout for. Chief among them is the concept of an “ideological Turing test”, which Libresco borrowed from George Mason economist Bryan Caplan for an experiment on her blog. The idea is to have people answer a series of questions as if they subscribed to some belief system to which they really don’t, and to see if others can identify whether or not they’re who they say they are. Libresco’s example involved theists and atheists trying to impersonate one another, but the same setup can be used with people who belong to different political parties, etc. Her observations about what makes for a good Turing test are worth listening to in full.

Her talk is also really funny, and belies the stereotypical image of bridge-building and consensus-finding as dry, humorless tasks that are far more boring than the fun times being had by the partisans (just think of the contrast between Paul Krugman’s centrist punching-bags, the “Very Serious People,” and his own colorfully provocative brand of liberalism). I hope to write more in the future about why the “unfunny moderates/hilarious everybody else” dichotomy is a false one, but suffice it to say that Libresco is living, breathing, joke-cracking proof that wit and openmindedness can – or perhaps must! – coexist.

Now go watch the video.

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]

A Q&A with Fordham’s Charles Camosy

Chris and I recently finished reading For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action by Charles Camosy, an assistant professor in the theology department at Fordham University. In the book, Camosy makes the case that committed Christians – especially those who consider themselves pro-life – ought to take seriously the idea that non-human animals deserve to be brought within the ambit of our moral concern. After surveying the history of Christian and Catholic thinking on animals (and angels, and aliens!), Camosy turns his attention to some practical questions: should Christians (or anyone else) eat meat? Should they own pets? Visit zoos? Hunt?

Camosy is the author of an earlier book entitled Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, in which he compares and contrasts the secular ethical philosophy of Princeton’s Peter Singer, who is widely considered one of the fathers of the modern animal welfare movement, with the ethical teachings of Christianity and Catholicism. Since that time, he and Singer have held several joint public appearances and have made common cause with one another in trying to persuade people of the moral value of animals.

Camosy was recently featured in a series of video interviews on The Dish, where he offered some helpful elaborations on a number of themes from For Love of Animals. But Reasonably Moderate was curious to hear more about some of what didn’t make it into the book, and so we reached out to Professor Camosy to see if he would be willing to discuss his ideas with us further. He was kind enough to respond to some questions via email, and the following is a lightly edited version of our exchange.

It seems like any comprehensive argument for the consistently just treatment of non-human animals is subject to exceptions, your own included. You say, following the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that killing a non-human animal should be considered immoral… but that there are cases where it is justified, i.e. in situations of great need. You say that animal testing is to be avoided… but that in some cases the benefits may outweigh the costs. How can we establish consistent ethical principles for our interactions with non-human animals when there are so many potential caveats?

I’m not sure that there are “so many caveats.” Any moral principle which doesn’t involve an intrinsically evil act is going to have cases with grey area and uncertainty. In the case of moral concern for animals, the principle that “we may not cause animals to suffer or die except in cases of need” is one which has clear and unambiguous applications in the way that most of us interact with animals. Right now, just getting the moral status and treatment of animals on the radar of most Christians (and others) is the key priority. Let us stop the wanton killing and torture first, and then we can worry about grey areas and tough cases.

On a related point, you maintain in the book that persons – conscious, self-aware beings, or “substances of a rational nature” – have irreducible moral value, and that there is no sort of utilitarian calculus that could be invoked to justify violating or overriding their natural rights.

You also write eloquently in defense of the idea that at least some animals – dolphins, elephants, great apes – are in fact persons. But what about animals that are not persons or not quite persons? Do these creatures also have irreducible value? Even if, lacking subjective experience, they are in many ways no different from unthinking things like trees or rocks?

To be clear, while I write in defense of that argument, I never make the argument myself. I think the best of the Christian tradition means taking such arguments seriously, but I stop short of claiming that any animals are, in fact, non-human persons. That said, your question is a good one, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. One thing that needs doing is distinguishing between those beings who have “irreducible” value and those which have “intrinsic value.” All creation has intrinsic value which comes from it having been made “good” by God in its own right.

This, however, is perfectly consistent with a being also having instrumental value with respect to humans and other creatures. For instance, a tree is good, full stop. However, for a proportionately serious reason, we may still cut down the tree and use it for some other end. The intrinsic value of the tree means that we need to have a good reason to cut it down. Persons, however, are the kinds of things which have irreducible value such that they can never be radically reduced in this way.

I want to consider the possibility that there are some animals who, while perhaps not full persons, come so close that we may need to create a new category for them. Chimps may not be persons, but their traits (self-awareness, vocabulary, rationality, capacity to love, etc.) make them so much more valuable than trees (and even other kinds of creatures, like small fish) that perhaps we need a new category of moral status to give them proper value and protection. The person/non-person binary needs to go away.

You use the phrase “animal liberation” at least a few times throughout For Love of Animals, a phrase that was popularized by Peter Singer when he published his book of the same name back in the 1970’s. Singer is (or was) a preference utilitarian, and as such he doesn’t believe in the idea of “animal rights.” Yet many within the “animal movement” do make use of a rights-based discourse. Do you think that animals have rights? Do they need to be “liberated”? Are either of these philosophical lenses compatible with Catholic teaching?

Animals certainly need to be liberated. Seen within the great traditions of liberationist ethics (now fully on display in the person of Pope Francis), non-human animals – along with prenatal children, the old, the sick, the mentally disabled, and many other kinds of humans – are clearly a vulnerable population which has been violently pushed to the margins by the powerful who find their dignity inconvenient.

This is not to say that animals and human persons have equal value. They don’t. Do animals have rights? I’m not so sure, and in some ways the discussion of animal rights is a distraction which feeds into our already horrifically polarized discussion between liberals and conservatives. The Catechism claims that animals “are owed kindness.” The language of justice is used. Does this mean that animals have a “right” to kindness? Especially given the polarized discussion about this question, I’m not so sure that attempting to answer it is the best use of our attention and time. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that we owe animals kindness, and on what this means in terms of changing our social structures, individual behaviors and habits.

Do you think that it’s wrong to eat animals not raised in factory farms or confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s)? If we treat animals well while they are alive, are we justified in killing them for food? Even if this is not done in a “situation of need”?

The English translation of the Catechism is clear that both (1) causing animals to suffer and (2) killing animals should be done only in situations of need. The Latin translation is less clear about killing, and perhaps with some reason. Those who support the gross structural sin of factory farming participate, it seems to me, in a far more serious evil than those who support smaller farms that treat animals well. That said, I still think it is wrong to cause animals (especially sophisticated animals like pigs and chickens) to die for something other than a very serious reason.

You seem to have struck up a productive intellectual partnership with Peter Singer, and your previous book discussed ways in which your opinions could challenge his and his could challenge yours. His influence on your beliefs about animals is clear; are there any ways in which his thinking about animals has changed as a result of your interactions?

Yes. At a recent public event at which we co-presented, Singer admitted that our interactions have contributed to his changing his mind about how we’ve come to treat animals so terribly in the developed West. In his book Animal Liberation, the main culprit was clearly Christianity and the sanctity-of-life ethic. He now believes that in blaming Christianity this way, the story he told was “one-sided.”

Personally, I hope he goes further and admits that Christianity had virtually nothing to do with how we treat animals. Humans have killed and abused animals for our purposes since before our ancestors had any sense of organized religion at all. It has been, and continues to be, primarily about power. We can torture and kill animals for our benefit, and so we do. If we do want to blame ideas or social structures for the particular way in which we treat animals in factory farms today, however, I think we should lay that blame at the feet of the secular Enlightenment. This, after all, is what produced the structures of capitalism, consumerism and the technological imperative – which, in turn, drives these farms to (literally) idolize the goal of maximizing “protein units per square foot.”

We very much appreciate Professor Camosy’s taking the time to provide such detailed responses to our questions. We hope to be posting some of our own thoughts and reactions to his book in the near future, so stay tuned!

Camosy and Singer at Rutgers

I’ve written previously on this blog about my admiration for the work of Fordham’s Charlie Camosy, in particular his book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, which systematically compares and contrasts the views of “Singerites” and Christians/Catholics across several controversial areas of moral inquiry. As Chris noted on our Twitter a couple of weeks ago – you should follow us on Twitter, by the way – Camosy has a new book out entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action about the status of non-human animals in the Christian ethical tradition, which we have purchased and hope to dissect here at RM in the near future.

Camosy and Singer seem to have struck up an intellectual and pedagogical partnership akin to the partnership-that-never-was between Singer and fellow Princeton professor Robert P. George. The two held a public forum at Rutgers University last month that Chris and I had hoped to go to but were ultimately unable to attend. Fortunately, a recording is now available online! It’s quite long, but well worth watching. (Warning: it’s even longer than those Blankenhorn videos I’ve been plugging.)

One of the most important points that Camosy makes is that one should always aim to engage his opponents in a spirit of “intellectual solidarity,” trusting that their arguments are made in good faith and that both parties share a genuine interest in discovering the truth. He explains that he originally studied Singer’s work in an attempt to refute it, but over time found that, despite still disagreeing strongly with various conclusions of Singer’s philosophy, the differences between them were smaller than he had imagined. He came to realize that each could nudge the other to consider ethical questions that he might previously have ignored.

The discussion offers a model for how people with sharply different worldviews can come to engage one another productively. The moderator, Rutgers philosophy professor Jeff McMahan, not only does a great job steering the conversation but is also literally a moderating influence, stepping in at one point to defuse an awkward exchange with an outraged audience member and to reiterate a rule against ad hominems.

There’s a lot more to be said about Singer, Camosy, and the surprising areas of overlap in their ostensibly divergent worldviews, but for now we’ll just let you digest this video while we finish reading For Love of Animals. Hopefully it’ll get you amped for whatever we might drop when we’re done.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops: Right on Immigration, Wrong on Immigration Reform

This piece was previously posted at Millennial Journal

The Bishops Take a Stand

Left-leaning Catholics are used to being disappointed: disappointed by the Republican Party, for its apparent indifference to the economic travails of the working class; disappointed by the Democratic Party, for its slow but steady drift away from a big tent approach and toward the same with-us-or-against-us culture war mentality on divisive social issues that has overtaken the GOP; disappointed by conservatives within the Church, who insist that Catholics are morally obligated to vote against pro-choice politicians, but that one’s views on war and peace, gun control, poverty reduction, or the death penalty are merely matters of “prudential judgment;” disappointed by the media, which have tended to portray developments within the Church, justly or unjustly, in a generally negative light (at least until the election of Francis); and disappointed by the Catholics who in turn portray the media as persecuting the Church and who equate sophisticated anti-Catholicism in America with the mass murder of Christians in the developing world.

In recent years, these Catholics have also at times been disappointed by the Bishops, who so often demonstrate their political tone-deafness and frustrating knack for contributing to at least some of the trends driving intolerance of the Church in modern society. While those most sympathetic to the Bishops’ political positions and rhetorical strategies are certainly correct in claiming that they often do talk about other things that the mainstream media simply fail to notice, they tend to overlook the fact that there really are dramatic disparities in the amount and nature of attention the Bishops pay to different issues. Sure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has spoken out against the GOP majority’s sustained push in the House of Representatives to cut funding for nutritional assistance programs, but have they sponsored a “Fortnight for Food Stamps” to rally Catholics against the Republicans’ attacks on the social safety net?

Given the expectation among liberal Catholics that reading a front-page story about the Bishops’ latest comments on matters of public policy will quite possibly result in vigorous facepalming, it ought to be especially satisfying to see the USCCB not only siding largely with President Obama and the Democrats on the issue of immigration reform, but backing the cause with nearly as much energy as it spent fighting the administration over the Affordable Care Act. Although the issue is in danger of slipping off the political radar entirely as Washington is consumed by another series of fiscal skirmishes and the current government shutdown, it seems that their commitment to making sure it doesn’t disappear is genuine and strong.

It really ought to be satisfying, but alas, it isn’t. As happy as I am to see the Bishops endorsing a legislative initiative of the Democratic Party with the full force of the episcopal bully pulpit and finally drawing public attention to the fact that the social vision of the Church does not map perfectly onto the platform of either major party, I’m afraid I have to point out that I think the Bishops have gotten this one wrong, too.

Mind you, this is not to say that they should be backing the majority Republican view. To the extent that the dominant conservative position on immigration is founded upon principled objections to the sort of proposals that have been embraced by most congressional Democrats and many congressional Republicans (and not on raw xenophobia), it is largely misguided as well. Ever longer and taller border fences are probably not the best use of public resources.

It is also not to suggest that their hearts are in the wrong place. I am well aware of the irony involved in appropriating the argument that Catholics can differ over matters of “prudential judgment” but not over “fundamental moral precepts” when I just alluded in my opening paragraph to the way in which that argument has been used as a cudgel by those with a minimalist understanding of what it means to be pro-life. That said, I really do think the Bishops are right about the principles that ought to inform the immigration debate, if not about the policy. In fact, I think they’re more right about those principles than most of the politicians involved in the ongoing national conversation, including many Democrats.

In an editorial published in USA Today several months back, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and current President of the USCCB, opened by saying that

[i]mmigration reform is an issue close to Catholic hearts. America has wonderfully welcomed generations of immigrant families, and our parishes, schools and charitable ministries have long helped successfully integrate immigrants into American life.

This column kicked off a summer of advocacy by the Bishops, which included preaching about immigration at Sunday Masses and lobbying Catholic legislators to support reform. The New York Times at the end of August quoted Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the USCCB, as saying that “[w]e want to try to pull out all the stops… They have to hear the message that we want this done…”

On June 27th, the United States Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (BSEOIMA) of 2013, the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill authored by Senators Bennet, Durbin, Flake, Graham, McCain, Menendez, Rubio, and Schumer. Not only does the bill deviate from the Washington norm of naming legislation with clever backronyms – they couldn’t have thought of something pithier than “BSEOIMA”? – it also fails to comport with the norms of justice and fairness that the Bishops have declared must be made manifest in any overhaul of the immigration system.

As I see it, the BSEOIMA should be opposed (by everyone, but especially by the Bishops) for three primary reasons:

  1. The bill moves U.S. immigration law away from a system that values and prioritizes family unity and toward one that evaluates potential entrants on the basis of their economic utility;
  2. The bill expands so-called “guestworker programs” that offer immigrants little recourse in the event of mistreatment or exploitation by their employers;
  3. The bill threatens to exacerbate deeply entrenched economic problems that affect the well-being of large segments of the American population, without taking any measures whatsoever to counteract these trends.

Competing Visions of the Purpose of Immigration

Currently, U.S. immigration law allows U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to sponsor certain categories of relatives in their own bids to legally enter the country. Although permanent residents are only permitted to sponsor their spouse or child, citizens may also sponsor their parents or siblings. The Gang of Eight bill would put an end to sponsorship of siblings.

It gets worse, though. Since there are quotas on the number of visas that can be issued for each category of family member in a given year, as well as restrictions on the percentage of these visas that can go to potential entrants from given parts of the globe, there are long waiting lines to be approved for legal entry – lines that can last for decades. The Gang of Eight bill does not simply bar the brothers and sisters of American citizens or permanent residents from petitioning for citizenship in the future, it actively culls those who are currently standing in line. Relatives who have been waiting for years to join their loved ones in America will now be denied the opportunity to do so.

And for what purpose? There might understandably be a need to tighten up the law if citizens and green-card holders were allowed to sponsor third cousins twice-removed, and there is little doubt that the difficulty of detecting fraudulent petitions would increase if such distant relatives were permitted to petition for entry. But we’re talking about brothers and sisters!

It turns out that the purpose of this provision has nothing to do with preventing fraud. Rather, it is motivated by the belief that decisions about which immigrants to welcome into the country should be based on judgments about their expected economic value. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Gang of Eight, has declared that

[g]reen cards should be reserved for the nuclear family. Green cards are economic engines for the country. This is not a family court we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing about [sic] an economic need.

This vision of the ultimate purpose of immigration is directly at odds with that of the Church, as articulated by Dolan in the editorial quoted earlier:

[F]amily unity, based on the union of a husband and a wife and their children, must be a cornerstone of immigration reform, because strong families are the foundation of the robust communities that integrate immigrants into American life.

One can try to interpret the allusion to the “union of a husband and wife” in a number of different ways. It could be a reference to the issue of same-sex marriage, which has since been divorced from the immigration debate by the Supreme Court’s June ruling invalidating Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It could even be an endorsement of Lindsey Graham’s position that only the “nuclear family” should qualify for preferential treatment under immigration law.

Yet it is undeniable that these are in fact two radically divergent understandings of what immigration is for. According to the utilitarian perspective that sees green cards as “economic engines,” immigration is only a means to an end. The immigrant is granted the privilege of entering our country on the grounds that he is likely to be more productive than others who are similarly situated. According to the Church though, immigration is a natural right. As the Catechism puts it,

[t]he more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

In Graham’s opinion, the purpose of immigration law is to restrict the entry of those who will not increase America’s GDP; in the Church’s view, legal restrictions on immigration are at best a necessary evil, a kind of administrative inevitability that should interfere as little as possible with the right of foreigners to seek “the means of livelihood which they cannot find in their country of origin.” Of course, “various juridical conditions” like visas, background checks, and the like will always be necessary to keep track of newcomers and to ensure that they are not engaging in criminal activity or otherwise threatening the well-being of others. Restrictions on the entry of individuals with communicable diseases might also be an example of sensible regulation in this area.

Now, it is certainly true that even “prosperous nations” are limited in the number of immigrants that they can reasonably be expected to welcome, especially if the immigrants that they receive end up requiring public assistance or the help of the social safety net. Difficult choices about whom to turn away are unavoidable, and it is entirely appropriate to consider skills and employability when making the tough calls. This doesn’t change the fact that family unity ought to be the priority. It should not be considered a luxury or treated as a subordinate concern. If we faced a situation in which we were up against the absolute limit of how many immigrants we could let in to the U.S., then it might be justifiable to cancel sibling sponsorship so as to maintain sponsorship for parents and children. We are clearly up against no such constraint.

The page on the USCCB website devoted to comprehensive immigration reform says that “[c]hanges to family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.” Nowhere does it specify that only “nuclear families” count as families. Although the theology of the Church certainly privileges marriage as a unique kind of relationship, it would be disingenuous to claim that the Bishops do not have other relations in mind when they speak of “family unity.”

During the healthcare debate of 2009 and 2010, a small bloc of pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) signaled that they would not vote for the final legislation unless stronger protections were included to ensure that federal funds would not be used to pay for elective abortions. President Obama was ultimately able to secure their votes by signing an executive order reaffirming the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortion, but the USCCB was not satisfied. It continued to oppose a piece of legislation that advanced an objective which the Bishops themselves had deemed to be of vital importance – access to healthcare for the poor and uninsured – on account of a hypothetical harm.

If the Bishops were willing to fight legislation containing provisions that could possibly have resulted in outcomes that the Catholic Church would find unacceptable, then surely they must be willing to resist a bill that will in fact lead to the continuation of inhumane policies. Yet anyone who considers it a close call need not base his opposition on this one provision about sibling migration. Even more insidious than the changes to the rules governing family sponsorship are the portions that relate to so-called “guestworker programs.”

The Exploitation of Guestworkers

There are currently two major types of visas granted by the United States: immigrant visas (“green cards”), which are given to “permanent residents” who are seeking to eventually become naturalized citizens, and non-immigrant visas, which include those issued to tourists and others who will only be in the country for a limited period of time.

This latter category also includes the H1-B, H2-A, and H2-B visas, which are issued to skilled professionals (those with a bachelor’s degree or higher), non-skilled agricultural workers, and non-skilled workers in other sectors, respectively. The Gang of Eight bill would not only increase the annual cap on the H1-B visas by over 100,000 per year, but it would create new guestworker programs.

One of these, the “W visa,” would issue up to 200,000 permits to those seeking work in construction, retail, and other sectors. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that describes itself as “pro-immigrant” but in favor of “low immigration” and that describes its mission as creating an America “that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted,” the Gang of Eight bill “would increase annual temporary worker admissions by more than 600,000 each year over the current level.”

Why is this a bad thing? Doesn’t this dovetail with the Catechism’s call for governments to facilitate the migration of those seeking to work hard to improve their lot? Not necessarily. Recipients of H1 or H2 visas are granted a residency status that is contingent on their continued employment by the particular firm that sponsors them. This means that they have to leave the U.S. almost immediately in the event that they are let go by that firm. It’s easy to see how this puts guestworkers in a precarious situation. If they do anything to rock the boat, they can be dismissed and sent back to their home country.

Mary Bauer, the former Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, testified to Congress back in 2008 that H2-A and H2-B visa holders are routinely cheated out of wages and sometimes made to endure abusive work conditions. She argued that “[g]uestworkers… live in a system akin to indentured servitude” and provided numerous examples of troubling and exploitative practices, including workers who are paid less than half the minimum wage but who “because of their vulnerability… are unlikely to complain about these violations;” some whose employers “refuse to provide [them] access to their own identity documents, such as passports and Social Security cards” in order to “guarantee that [they] remain in their employ;” and others who suffer serious injuries but are “discouraged” from filing for workers’ compensation lest they invite investigation of their employer’s problematic business practices. Bauer urged Congress at the time to do away with these programs, or at least reform them so as to stop these abuses. Yet Congress is not currently discussing whether to continue them, but how much to expand them.

There are many reasons why adding 600,000 temporary workers to the American labor force every year might not be ideal. The possible exploitation of a not insignificant share of those workers is one important reason. Another is the deleterious impact of drastically expanding the labor force during the worst period of mass unemployment since the Great Depression.

Of Salaries and “Super-Immigrants”

While we should generally be skeptical of complaints that a certain view is not being given a fair hearing in the political arena because it has been sidelined by the “elite consensus,” it is true that there is wide-ranging agreement along the whole spectrum from left to right that increasing the level of skilled immigration would be good for America. Highly intelligent and capable immigrants are, according to the conventional wisdom, likely to develop products or ideas that will lead to more employment and a better standard of living for domestic workers.

Even immigration reform critics like Daily Beast writer David Frum and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat are generally supportive of increasing the number of high-skilled visas, and the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives at one point signaled an openness to working on legislation in this area. Stony Brook economics professor Noah Smith once wondered on his blog what constituency could possibly be against such a win-win policy, writing that “for the life of me, I can’t figure out who is against high-skilled immigration.” Various others in the blogosphere have portrayed the importation of more “super-immigrants” as a free lunch for the American economy.

The problem is that talk of super-immigrants elides an important point, which is that the overwhelming majority of “skilled” immigrants, while no doubt intelligent and productive individuals, are not multifaceted geniuses and do not hold two doctorates or dozens of patents. Very few of them are Randian übermenschen who will start the next Virgin Galactic or Tesla Motors. What exactly would be the impact on the economy of bringing more of them into the United States?

The technology industry, for its part, has insisted that there are not enough American scientists and engineers to fill the positions that need to be filled. The shortfall is allegedly so severe that it can only be adequately dealt with by opening our borders to more foreign workers. Silicon Valley moguls like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have argued that firms like his increasingly have to look abroad to find the talent they need to remain competitive.

But if there really were a shortage of high-skilled workers, then the principles of supply and demand would suggest that wages would be increasing rapidly in the fields hit hardest by that shortage. Yet this is not what has been happening. According to a report from Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell of the Economic Policy Institute, wages in the information technology (IT) sector and for college graduates with majors in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields “have remained flat, with real [inflation-adjusted] wages hovering around their late 1990s levels…” Their conclusion is that

[t]he IT industry was able to attract increasing numbers of domestic graduates during periods of rising wages and employment, leading to a peak in wages and numbers of computer science graduates in the early 2000s. Since that time, the IT industry appears to be functioning with two distinct market patterns: a domestic supply (of workers and students) that responds to wage signals (and other aspects of working conditions such as future career prospects), and a guestworker supply that appears to be abundantly available even in times of relatively weak demand and even when wages decline or are stagnant… immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers appear to provide firms with access to labor that will be in plentiful supply at wages that are too low to induce a significantly increased supply from the domestic workforce.

The Center for Immigration Studies notes that this bifurcation of the labor market in certain sectors could help explain why firms that employ IT or STEM workers are so insistent that they face a shortage of talent:

Employers become accustomed to paying low wages and structure their businesses accordingly. Raising wages seems out of the question; they even [convince] themselves that wages actually don’t matter when recruiting.

Or as the economist Paul Krugman put it in a post on his blog “The Conscience of a Liberal” in late 2012,

[w]henever you see some business person quoted complaining about how he or she can’t find workers with the necessary skills, ask what wage they’re offering. Almost always, it turns out that what said business person really wants is highly (and expensively) educated workers at a manual-labor wage. No wonder they come up short.

While it may be true that there are no good arguments against increasing the number of visas for people who will revolutionize whole industries and create thousands of jobs, there is a simple argument against dramatically increasing visas for skilled workers in general: it will lead to downward pressure on wages in sectors of the economy that have seen flat or declining wages for a decade or more, without doing anything to apply countervailing pressures that might return us to a world in which incomes consistently rise over time.

If it’s true that talk of a shortage of STEM workers (or high-skilled workers more generally) is largely a myth, then there must be a veritable glut of low-skilled workers. After all, unemployment statistics have consistently shown that those in blue-collar occupations were, on average, hit harder than their white-collar counterparts by the recession and its aftermath. Yet wealthy donors to both the Republican and Democratic Parties have lobbied hard for an expansion of low-skilled visas as well, including the H2-A’s discussed above. The super-immigrant argument clearly does not apply in this case. Arguing for an increase in family-based visas that would have as an incidental side effect an increase in the population of low-skilled workers is one thing. Pushing for an increase in the number of work visas allocated to this category is much harder to justify.

What a Better Reform Might Look Like

What would immigration reform look like if we wanted to do it right? And why is the legislation discussed here sufficiently at odds with Christian notions of the common good that the Bishops should actually come out against it? It may seem that the arguments I’ve presented lead to contradictory conclusions. I began by maintaining that U.S. immigration law should be primarily family-based and that provisions regarding sponsorship of relatives should be much less restrictive. Yet I’ve also warned about the dangers of permitting unchecked immigration at a time of mass unemployment. How can we reconcile these apparently conflicting principles?

This is in some sense a false dilemma. We should not have to choose between welcoming foreigners seeking a better life in America and guaranteeing the welfare of native-born citizens. When we say that all men are created equal, we don’t mean that all American men are created equal and that everyone else is somehow secondary. Nationalistic and patriotic sentiments are ultimately no justification for offering preferential treatment to some individuals merely because they happened to grow up on a certain side of the ocean.

While I’m sympathetic to the impulse to encourage shoppers to “buy American” or to promote policies that will “insource” American jobs that have been shipped overseas, it may actually be the case that it would be best for the American economy in the long run if certain industries moved to other countries and new industries were allowed to rise up and take their place. “Our” gain does not have to come at the price of “their” loss. This need not be a zero-sum game.

At its root, the immigration debate is not, as reactionary xenophobes would have you think, about protecting the American homeland from the threat of the other. It’s about protecting the rights and dignity of all people who want to work hard and provide for their families. To that end, we should be pursuing policies that generate both a growing economic pie and that ensure that the poor and middle class are able to share in the fruits of that growth. We should be taking advantage of the fact that the federal government can borrow at historically low interest rates by putting construction workers back on the job repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We should be offering aid to struggling states and local governments to rehire police and firefighters and teachers who were laid off during the depth of the recession. Anxiety about foreign competition for American jobs would diminish dramatically if the economy were booming and anyone who wanted employment could find it.

A sensible, humane immigration policy would involve relatively open borders and would deter illegal entry, not with drones and barbed wire, but by expanding the use of systems like eVerify, which checks a person’s eligibility to work in the U.S. against government databases and which makes it harder for employers to hire undocumented migrants. To combat exploitative work arrangements, we should replace employer-based visas with permanent residency for all new entrants, not just those fortunate enough to have an employer willing and able to sponsor them – a policy that has been endorsed by professional organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This would empower workers by increasing their willingness to challenge their bosses when they act in ways that violate labor laws or nondiscrimination statutes.

As I made clear earlier, we should make family-based immigration as easy as possible and should see to it that immigrants are not separated from their loved ones whenever it is in our power to prevent that from happening. Moreover, we need to recognize that access to certain basic necessities like food or healthcare should not be dependent on legal status or lack thereof. The Gang of Eight bill contains provisions that would make those currently in the country illegally ineligible for most public assistance programs even as it supposedly puts them on a “path to citizenship.” This is an unduly punitive stance that does not advance legitimate governmental interests.

In response to the inevitable criticism that I’ve fallen into the same trap the Bishops fell into during the healthcare debate by making the perfect the enemy of the good, I’ll simply point out that the Gang of Eight bill is not merely less than ideal. I do not suggest that the Bishops ought to oppose the bill because it does not solve every problem out there. They ought to oppose the bill because it creates new problems that have no hope of being solved by any Congress we are likely to have in the near future.

This is not to suggest that it does not contain anything good at all. On the contrary, the provisions that establish the so-called path to citizenship, a process for legalizing the existing population of unauthorized immigrants, are among its most laudable features and should be eagerly welcomed (if anything, the path should be made even simpler). For many people who aim to live and work in the United States, there is currently no way for them to enter the country legally even if they wanted to. That ought to change.

Consider what the USSCB argues on its website ought to be the core elements of any attempt at comprehensive reform: an “earned legalization program;” regulations that ensure “workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers, and family unity;” changes that “increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times;” and enforcement measures that are “targeted, proportional, and humane.” In my view, it’s hard to argue that the Bishops had anything like the Gang of Eight bill in mind when they wrote that list.

Some commentators have pronounced immigration reform dead for the foreseeable future, but it is possible that we may be on the cusp of a renewed push to have the House of Representatives render its judgment on the Gang of Eight bill. While I clearly would like to see this particular incarnation of reform taken off the table, it may end up being defeated for the wrong reasons, including the fact that it doesn’t “build a big enough fence.” I find it frustrating and unfortunate that I have to rain on a rare parade of bipartisanship and argue that we shouldn’t deal with an issue that Congress has actually summoned the political will to address, but I believe that the Gang of Eight bill would ultimately do more harm than good, at least without a concurrent commitment to counteract its negative effects.

The Bishops often style themselves the defenders of unpopular and countercultural truths. Indeed, one can hardly accuse them of choosing their battles out of a concern for their approval ratings. Liberal Catholics should welcome their eagerness to encourage the leaders of both parties to finally tackle the serious problems that plague our immigration system. At the same time, they should hope and pray that this is not the issue where the Bishops decide to stop being countercultural.

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.