Whitehead at Crisis: Person of the Year? Phooey!

What if someone had told you one year ago that Time magazine would name the Pope its Person of the Year for 2013, and Crisis magazine would be pissed off about it? What a difference a year makes.

In an article on the Crisis website posted today, Kenneth D. Whitehead does his very damndest to minimize the significance of Time‘s naming Pope Francis as the 2013 Person of the Year.

Whitehead says the Time nod “used to be a kind of national test of the prominence and importance of a public figure” (my italics), but asks — in a sentence that’s hard to read without a petulant tone in your head — “Who even still reads Time today?” He goes on for paragraphs about how the print magazine industry has declined; Whitehead, after all, could not even find a copy of Time at his local drugstore.

Whitehead also makes much of the fact that some of the other candidates for this year’s designation from Time were people of more questionable character: the “law-breaker and a fugitive from justice” Edward Snowden; the “proud lesbian” Edith Windsor; Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad; and Ted Cruz — not the right-wing extremist, mind you, but the guy whom “the magazine’s editors certainly do see … as a right-wing extremist rather than any kind of an honoree.” (He forgot Miley Cyrus. I had read Miley was a runner-up, too.)  “Indeed,” Whitehead writes, “it becomes somewhat questionable how much of an honor the award really is when we consider what the pope’s competition was.”

Whitehead does generously allow that “the fact that he was selected no doubt does represent a positive outcome of sorts” (my italics). “Still,” he goes on, “it is hard to give much credit to Time’s estimate of what is truly important or has had a significant impact on our lives in 2013. That the bishop of Rome and earthly head of the Catholic Church was able to prevail in this particular company surely cannot in and of itself be considered one of the more salient accomplishments of the papacy in modern times.”

So yes, it’s lovely that Pope Francis was able to get the Time nod, we can suppose. But first of all, what does Time know, and second of all, he is the Vicar of Christ, dammit, so what would you expect? Popes deserve Person of the Year awards every day with their breakfast cereal, just because they’re popes; Time shouldn’t even need another reason.

Ah, the reason. Whitehead is none too pleased with the reason Francis got this designation. He writes, “Like many commentators, Time assigns great weight to the emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on mercy, healing, forgiveness, poverty, simplicity, and the like; this emphasis, along with his personal, informal, almost casual style, certainly has attracted renewed attention to the Church and perhaps even to the Church’s authentic message.”

Note that it’s “commentators” — not Catholics, Christians, or even people — who value such stuff. And I love that perhaps near the end of the last sentence there! Francis’s simplicity and humility might possibly have something to do with the Gospel, but this surely has little to do with anything.

And of course, Whitehead does not miss the fact that part of the interest that many have in the Pope is the hopes they bear that some Church teachings that they don’t like will change. Whitehead: “Unlike many of those who have been attracted to what Time calls the ‘tonal shift’ of Pope Francis, however, the journal does sort of understand that the substance of Church teaching is not going to change, indeed cannot change. Pope Francis does not have the power to change it, even if he wanted to, which he manifestly does not.” Of course, he manifestly does have the power to develop Church teaching, and development of doctrine has at times come in forms that most people-in-the-pew (and even the highest Church authorities who had previously condemned such proposed development as heresy) would say looks a lot like change. But never mind that.

Whitehead goes on, letting us in on what he really thinks of Francis with this sentence: “Typically, [Pope Francis] even reaffirms his commitment to Church teaching at the very same time that he is delivering himself of the kind of remarks that have elicited yet another version of ‘hope and change’—yes, that’s what it is!—at least in the minds of some.” There you have it. Pope Francis is, in the mind of Whitehead (a defender of Paul Ryan and one-time Reagan Administration official) a lot like Barack Obama. We know what that telegraphs to readers of Crisis.

Whitehead concludes his commentary on the Time honor by acknowledging that Pope Francis is having and inevitably will have an effect on the life of the Church:

The pope necessarily does establish a tone, and whatever he says does have an effect; but it does not change the substance of what has been preserved and handed down through the centuries by the successors of Peter and the bishops in union with them. Pope Francis too continues in this same line; and meanwhile, the Church herself goes on as before virtually everywhere, sanctifying souls and carrying out her myriad good works, even in the midst of the sins that her members also, unhappily, commit. Pope Francis himself regularly goes to confession, after all, just as Catholics must.

Somehow that sounds a lot like “despite the fact that Francis, a sinner, will have an effect on the Church, the Church will survive.”

Whitehead covers all this ground before he even gets to the fact that The Advocate also named Francis Person of the Year. Thankfully, he does not go on at length on that, but he does say that the designation represents “jaw-dropping wishful thinking.” I’m not sure how jaw-droppingly wishful The Advocate is, since the publication was quite clear in its article that Francis opposes gay marriage. Though it does indeed express a hope that the Pope’s new tone might possibly lead to acceptance of gay marriage, what it seems most impressed by is that Francis has “spoke[n] compassionately” about gays. And that’s something that ought not be wishful.

And speaking of jaw-dropping, have a look at the comments at the bottom of Whitehead’s article, if you’re brave. Scary stuff.


Pope Francis’s Prayer for Families

Introduced today by the Holy Father in Saint Peter’s Square:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer.

“The solution is solidarity”: Mary Elizabeth Hobgood’s Dismantling Privilege

dismantling-privilege-ethics-accountability-mary-elizabeth-hobgood-paperback-cover-artWorking through an engaging and challenging book is a great way to wrap up a year. At the close of 2013, Mary Elizabeth Hobgood’s Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability has been a pleasure. Though there is plenty in the book that I will not mention here, three of its major themes are race, economics, and sexuality, and Hobgood left me thinking about all three more deeply.

For Hobsgood (who teaches theology at the College of the Holy Cross), whiteness is about far more than skin color. On a cultural level, it’s about denying our own relationality and our connectednesss to one another and to community. Hobgood says we who are white deny ourselves of these as the price of maintaining the competitive, efficient, and technologically advanced capitalist society that we have built for ourselves. Having bought into such a society, all of the unearned privileges that come with whiteness are, unconsciously, what we think we deserve for our willingness to forgo things that are so basic to being human. The unearned privileges of whiteness are our “emotional compensation for the suffering involved in being faithful to industrial morality” (49). And our fear and distrust of non-whites are rooted in our resentfulness that they have managed to hold onto those things better than we have.

The damage we’ve inflicted on non-white people through the social structures that support our whiteness is, of course, obvious, both in our history and in our present. But Hobgood points out that we have also hurt ourselves, through the emotional and moral damage that have come with all this self-denial. By forsaking relationships with the earth and the people around us, we have denied our own relational nature. “The system of white racial identity is constructed to diminish the relational capacity of whites” (61).

Hobgood also offers a compelling look at economic structures. With our concepts and systems of markets and money, we ignore the relational and historical aspects of our economy. We keep ourselves ignorant of our connections to the people who make our clothes and provide our food. We find ways to talk about poverty in terms of the failures or weaknesses or bad luck of people who are poor, ignoring history and social structures that, as contributing factors, loom high above such minor considerations. Hobgood points out that we rationalize shipping jobs overseas for the drastically lower costs involved, and congratulate ourselves at how appreciative these workers are for the jobs and the wages that are so much higher than they would be without us there, “never mind the centuries of colonial and neocolonial impoverishment by the West, which robbed them of control over their land, labor, and resources” (94).

All of this is profoundly non-Christian and anti-Christian. “Though largely ignored by First World Christians, biblical tradition is clear that poverty is not a mark of having sinned [or of personal failures], but a result of being sinned against” (68). She’s right that “beyond diffuse sentiment and generalized moral challenge … none of the official churches assists people in analyzing the roots of poverty and other forms of economic injustice” (70). As with whiteness, the damage done extends to the privileged elites whom the system supports, as well as to the poor who are hurt by it. “Everyone’s sense of virtue is degraded” (84). Capitalism robs us of our capacity to trust others, and “trust is essential for human flourishing and the development of empathy, cognition, and creativity” (100).

Less compelling and harder for me to agree with was Hobgood’s chapter on sexuality, which is so radical as to seem disconnected with reality. “Human beings,” she writes, “are socially constructed, not necessarily biologically constructed, as male or female” (108). There’s far more here than a call for greater respect and acceptance of gay people or acknowledgement by the churches of gay marriage. Hobgood argues, “‘Properly gendered’ (heterogendered) makes and females, heterosexuality, monogamy, or even biological maleness and femaleness is not a natural or universal human condition” (122). Following through on these principles, she advocates “freedom in gender and sexual expression” and “gender fluidity and fluidity in sexual practice” (124).

While I realize that these currents of thought exist out there, it’s hard to see how they are compatible with the Christian moral tradition and Catholic teaching. It’s one thing to criticize the patriarchal structures of the church or advocate opening the sacrament of marriage to gay couples; it’s a whole other thing to discard the value or normativity of monogamous marriage. I had a sense that Hobsgood’s positions here might sound fascinating in the context of academia, but would wreck havoc in real life. (Indeed, we’ve been inching closer to “gender fluidity and fluidity in sexual practice” for decades and are worse off for it.)

Also pushing Hobgood from the realms of credibility are seemingly wild-eyed assertions such as: “Catholic women have learned that without their intact hymens or multiple experiences of married motherhood, they have no right to exist” (132); and “This belief [that sexual desire is beyond the control of men] is supported by traditional moral theology that defined birth control as more sinful than rape because with rape procreation, the only legitimate purpose of sexual desire, was at least possible” (132-133). (I have a fairly thorough familiarity with “traditional moral theology” and have yet to stumble across even an obscure suggestion of this latter kind, much less its strong presence in anything close to formally endorsed doctrine or theology.)

In all of the above aspects of life, Hobsgood says, the solution is solidarity, and on this point she is surely right. By our rejection of solidarity and relationality, we have damaged people, society, and our very selves in myriad ways. Dismantling Privilege has challenged me in new ways to stand against this powerful cultural current and become more truly the person — and the person in community — that God created me to be.

[I should note that the copy I read is the first edition of the book, published in 2000. I see the publisher, Pilgrim Press, released a revised and updated edition in 2009, and I’m not sure what differences it may include.]

Krista Tippett on being against the commercialization of Christmas

Despite what Fox News would have us believe, the real War on Christmas is, of course, its commercialization. The idea that we have to mark the sacred feast by flying headlong into a national spending rampage is a surer sign of our secularization than any generic holiday greeting from the Walmart cashier will ever come close to being. So protesting that commercialization by refusing to participate in the annual buying rites is surely something that many serious Christians have considered already.

Still, this new reflection by Krista Tippett (one of my favorite voices on radio) on Christmas and why she’s not giving gifts this year articulates things afresh and is worth a look. My two favorite passages:

I don’t like — don’t approve, refuse to throw myself into — the spirit of obligatory gift-giving. In my lifetime, this has become existentially linked to a commercial orgy that has now even co-opted the ritual angle. We have Good Friday and Maundy Thursday; we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Unlike Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, however (though like “fiscal cliff”) these terms are repeated and reported by the most serious of journalists. Like all mantras of ritual, they work on us from the inside. They are an economic event by which we measure a certain kind of cultural health.

This form of cultural health is not health at all. It is overwhelmingly an exercise in excess and trivia.


Here’s what I take seriously. There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and spiritually exacting. And it’s no less rational — no more crazy — than economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.

Of course, not giving gifts, either to avoid complicity or to protect one’s own spiritual well-being, makes good sense. But it also would take a good bit of courage, even audacity, because it risks misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or incomprehension by family members and loved ones. It’s not surprising that Tippet, as she acknowledges, did not take this step until after her own kids were grown. And though completely understandable, waiting until then inevitably means first joining the annual spending rites with much gusto at the time when not doing so could perhaps make the most difference, before finally turning one’s back on them. It’s a capitalistic version of Saint Augustine’s classic prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”

We of the Christian community need to find a way to think this through together, with greater attentiveness, cooperation, and intention. It could represent an important grass-roots ecumenical effort with real consequences both inside and outside the church.

Saint Marianne’s remains on the move

We were living in Syracuse, NY, a decade ago, and one happy thing about calling that city home was the “presence” of Mother Marianne Cope (or at least her remains). Mother Marianne was a “blessed” during our years there; she has since been canonized a saint, by Pope Benedict in October 2012.

Saint Marianne was born in Germany and raised in Utica, NY, before taking up a religious vocation with the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse. She was administrator of a hospital that still thrives in Syracuse and also the mother superior of the congregation when, in 1883, she moved with six other sisters to Hawaii, to take up humble and heroic work of Saint Damien De Veuster in the last years of the latter saint’s life. She ministered to victims of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) there for 35 years. Though she had planned to go just temporarily, to help the other sisters establish their work there, she became so engaged in the humble and heroic ministry that she never left, dying there in 1918.

At her canonization, Pope Benedict commented in his homily:

At a time when little could be done for those suffering from this terrible disease, Marianne Cope showed the highest love, courage and enthusiasm. She is a shining and energetic example of the best of the tradition of Catholic nursing sisters and of the spirit of her beloved Saint Francis.

Her body remained in Hawaii until 2004, when it was moved back to Syracuse just prior to her beatification. It has been kept in a modest shrine beneath the altar of the main chapel of the Sisters of St. Francis motherhouse. Now she’s going back to Hawaii.

The Associated Press reports:

The relocation is necessary because the buildings of the campus where her remains are housed no longer are structurally sound, requiring the sisters to move to another part of Syracuse, the order said. A piece of her remains, known as a relic, will stay behind in Syracuse.

The sisters decided “through great deliberation and prayer” to return the remains to Hawaii, Sister Roberta Smith said.

“Hawaii is a major destination for the people the world over, and having St. Marianne’s remains there would ensure a steady stream of pilgrims who could continue to be inspired by her, seek her intercession and imitate her dedication and faith,” Smith said.

Bishop Larry Silva of the Honolulu diocese called Marianne’s return a “wonderful blessing.” The sisters approached him a couple of months ago about the possibility of returning her remains, Silva said, and he learned of the final decision Wednesday.

I suppose it all makes sense, but as a former Syracusian who visited the tomb with my family, the move is disappointing.

Happy birthday, PEPFAR.

We ought not to let 2013 pass without marking the 10-year anniversary of one of the most remarkable accomplishments of George W. Bush’s presidential administration. Indeed, it may be one of the most successful U.S. diplomatic initiatives of our generation and certainly the one most admirable for its impressive combination of scientific-medical research, government action, and humanitarian aid. (H/t NPR.)

It’s unfortunate, given all of that, that so few Americans are very familiar with The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. In more formal legislative terms, we’re talking about the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 (and renewed five years later as the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008). The legislation provided tens of billions of dollars ($15 billion in 2003 and $48 billion in 2008) of U.S. foreign aid to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa, with a success that has been dramatic and undeniable.

Here’s Harold Varmus — the 1989 Nobel Prize-winner in physiology and medicine — summarizing that success well (in a narrative of the law’s origins that is well worth a look):

[B]y preventing and treating HIV infection on a large scale in the developing world, PEPFAR has turned around declining life expectancies in many countries and likely saved some countries—even an entire continent—from economic ruin….

By 2012, it was estimated that PEPFAR had supplied more than five million patients with antiretroviral drugs, up from 1.7 million in 2008; that nearly a million infants had been protected from HIV transmitted from their mothers; and that nearly fifty million people had been tested for infection. Recognizing these accomplishments and many more, the most recent report from the IOM concluded that “PEPFAR has played a transformative role…(in)…the global response to HIV….” and cited “the pride, gratitude and appreciation expressed by partner country governments, implementing partners, providers” and others. Calling PEPFAR “a lifeline” that has restored hope, the report ended by saying that “PEPFAR has achieved—and in some cases surpassed—its initial ambitious aims.”

One of the most dramatic aspects of PEPFAR’s success is the effect on life expectancy in African countries. After the arrival of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and prior to the initiation of PEPFAR in the early 2000s, life expectancies had been falling precipitously in African countries with a high prevalence of HIV infection. But the number of deaths in such countries fell steeply after the start of PEPFAR. Effects like these explain why PEPFAR has such high visibility in many African countries and has inspired so much gratitude toward the United States.

We truly do have President Bush to thank for this in some very real ways. Bush was, as Varmus explains, “deeply involved strategically at every stage—conception, development, launch, and implementation—of this large, complex, and hugely successful project.” He did it against the anti-foreign-aid instincts of his own party, against the objections of some legislators whom he could most often count as allies, and to the general indifference of some who would have been far more enthusiastic about the idea had it not been Bush proposing it.

The work continues. Just last month, the U.S. Congress demonstrated continuing commitment to the legislation through the passage of the PEPFAR Stewardship and Oversight Act of 2013. PEPFAR is surely one of the brightest parts of the legacy of George W. Bush, not to mention an accomplishment in which every U.S. taxpayer also has played a part.

Learning to live, learning to die: West on Dorothy Day

If you’ve got about 45 minutes to treat yourself, I recommend some time with Dr. Cornel West. America magazine’s In All Things blog has posted the full video of an address he delivered in November at Catholic Worker’s Maryhouse in New York City.

The title of his talk is “Dorothy Day: Exemplar of Truth and Courage,” but I’m not sure the title does justice to the inspired, contemporary, and freewheeling nature of the talk. As should be anything that lives up to who Dorothy was, West’s address is both a delight and a challenge.

More helpful background on the talk and on West himself, as well as the video, is here.