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Is the Pope Catholic?

Is the Pope Catholic?

September 12, 2023 | 1,624 words | Religion, Politics, Economics

Asking whether the Pope is Catholic used to be one of those funny rhetorical question that do not require an answer.  Like asking does a bird fly, or if a bear defecates in the forest.  But these days that first question is not so funny to some people, and not so rhetorical.

In the decade since Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected/elevated to the papacy as Pope Francis, the complaints levied against him by conservative critics, especially conservatives here in the United States, have grown more pronounced with each passing year.  What started as semi-polite sniping over his so-called fuzzy pastoral emphasis has evolved into almost open warfare over much more serious issues.  He is now routinely accused of undermining the faith, and teaching error.  “Schism” is a word his critics are referencing quite a bit lately, when discussing the current pontiff and what lies ahead.

After ten years of this persistent opposition, Francis is now starting to return fire.  At age 86, and with his health having started to fail, he might be sensing the impending end of his run, as older people frequently do.  Last month he described the loudest conservative voices in American Catholicism as backward-looking moralists (“indietristi”) who are disconnected from the roots of the Catholic tradition and its history.  That tradition and history, as Francis understands it, is about the ongoing discernment needed to help live the Gospel message in current realities.

So who is right?  We are each expected to choose a side in this raging controversy, to either condemn Francis and champion his critics, or vice versa.  But my mind does not work that way.  I see merit on both sides.  The concept of unchanging truths the conservatives rally behind resonates with me.  On the other hand, I also think knowing the mind of Christ is no easy task, and is always a work in progress.  With Pope Francis being rather conspicuous in making a case for the latter approach.

I guess I have not been able to muster the same level of outrage toward Francis that his harshest critics exhibit on a regular basis.  Is encouraging priests to welcome and minister to people who are gay, divorced and remarried, as Francis does, a blatant violation of established doctrine?  Instead of dismissing the effort out of hand, as conservatives are wont to do, maybe we should be having an intelligent discussion about what the word “welcome” means in this context.

And why are we arguing about who is more Pro-Life?  Pope Francis has always upheld church teaching on abortion, and has been unequivocal in his defense of the innocent unborn.  Why do conservatives find fault  when he adds: “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned.”  The latter concern does not undermine the integrity of the former position.

That Catholics of goodwill are so contentious, with the opposing camp picking apart every utterance and perceived mis-step the current pontiff makes, is a sign of the times.  The relentless partisanship of our politics has spilled over into every other aspect of our lives.  Another factor contributing to the alarm some folks are feeling is how different Francis is, stylistically and in doctrinal emphasis, from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Both those men participated in and were products of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the big worldwide conclave in which the Catholic Church finally set aside its long-running objections to the American Experiment, and signaled that liberal democracy based on pluralism could be a legitimate form of social organization.  A little late to the party, you might say.  But better late than never, right?

These two helped craft the famous “liberating” documents that came out of that Council’s deliberations, yet as pope each went on to steer the U.S. hierarchy in a decidedly conservative theological direction.  As if to counterbalance what they still considered to be a very real problem, namely, the overwhelmingly secular influence of American culture.  

It has been clear from the start of his papacy that Pope Francis does not see this course-correction project as his top priority.  He is more interested in other things, like promoting from-the-ground-up collaboration within the church, which may lead to including lay people and even women in decision-making roles.  This is a hot-button issue for conservatives, who think such collaboration is opening a Pandora’s box that will result in confusion and error, and possibly even schism.

Hence all the talk of Francis “flipping the script” in a big, dramatic way.  But I find that to be largely a matter of interpretation.  He is, in fact, repeating many of the same themes his immediate predecessors stressed.  JPII and Benedict XVI did more than just push a conservative theological line, after all.  They also spoke and wrote extensively about the much broader mosaic of Catholic teaching around protecting life and promoting human flourishing.  Just as Francis does.

It is certainly true Francis does not mince words when speaking extemporaneously, especially when it comes to the economic stuff.  JPII and Benedict XVI were erudite and maintained proper decorum in their public statements, and this made it possible for conservatives to truncate the elaborate economic teaching they put down on paper, and frame it in a very limited way that flatters their preferred agenda.

Francis may be a little salty at times when responding to journalists, but in his plain-spoken way he is merely reiterating long-held church teaching on economic/social justice and care for the less-advantaged.  And he has made it impossible for conservatives to misconstrue his meaning on that score.

Conservatives really liked the staunchness and fidelity the last two popes displayed on certain theological subjects, and continue to cite those men wistfully.  But only because they conveniently overlook everything else those popes had to say that they do not much care for.

This current pope says quite a lot conservatives don’t much care for, and he seems to draw more than a few moral equivalencies they take issue with.  Such as tying together violations of pelvic theology conservatives consider to be doctrinally pre-eminent, with lying and cheating at the office to advance one’s career.  It seems Francis never tires of calling out those who are pre-occupied with sins below the waist but don’t lose any sleep over the exploitation of workers.  

There’s the rub, as far as I am concerned.  Conservatives can tell themselves their argument with Francis is over sexual morality or worship styles or climate change or a myriad of other things.  But what really sticks in their crawl is the way this pope openly challenges a revered concept like enlightened self-interest, and in the process comes across as anti-American or even worse, anti-capitalist.

In this regard Francis is not flipping the script at all.  Quite the contrary.  He is working from a very old and familiar one, at least in its broad outline.  A script used by every Catholic pope since our nation’s founding, each of whom have regarded the American Experiment with suspicion.

Over the last couple of centuries, a steady stream of pontiffs has issued periodic warnings about “Americanism” and “modernist” trends.  True, in the early days Catholic objections were centered on the separation of church and state, originally feared to be a danger to both individual souls and the state at large.

But Catholic tradition and history is about learning how to live out the Gospel message in current realities.  And so we find the nature of Rome’s complaint about the United States may have changed in some of the particulars, but remains in essence what it has always been:  It is our celebration of the individual, at the expense of concern for the common good, that has come under constant scrutiny.

We Americans have always taken issue with this Catholic critique of our way of life.  We do not appreciate being lectured on the common good.  And we certainly don’t appreciate having this same, tired lecture delivered by an aging pontiff from a backward Third World country who lacks a proper understanding of our singular achievement, a robust engine of economic growth predicated on small government and limited taxation.

Today’s conservatives continue to miss the larger message Rome has been trying to send them for centuries, and are pre-occupied instead by the new emphasis Francis is placing on being more pastoral toward those who have fallen short of their baptismal promise, and more inclusive toward those outside the mainstream.  Or how he consistently decries economic injustice and the treatment of migrants, while insisting on a universal right to health care, housing, and decent jobs.

Even though every pope in the modern era has talked and written at length about the very same things.  Including his two immediate predecessors.  

Accusing this pope of undermining the faith and teaching error is a very serious charge.  I have read the relevant papal documents promulgated over the last decade, the ones now being used as the basis for these mutinous claims.  And I just do not find the egregious violations of doctrine his detractors are coming up with.  If you are worried Pope Francis may be creating confusion and spreading doubt by unpacking the Gospel message and applying it to current realities, as some of his critics most assuredly are, the solution to that problem is to be a better teacher, not to skimp on the teaching.  

Shouldn’t we be trying to educate people in the fullness of the faith?  That is how I see Francis, that is how I experience his pontificate.  His critics strike me as wanting to “keep it simple, stupid” out of fear the rank and file may be too cognitively-limited to grasp the whole truth in all its splendor.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Pro-Trump, or anti-Democrat?

Pro-Trump, or anti-Democrat?

August 28, 2023  |  762 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Economics

There are now four big legal cases pending against former President Donald Trump. He is facing dozens of criminal charges and will go on trial several times in the next 18 months, as he campaigns to become president again in the 2024 election.

None of these embarrassing entanglements has made a dent in Mr. Trump’s popularity among the Republican faithful, a fact that baffles many interested observers, including me.

What is the source of this man’s enduring appeal? Those who are experiencing hard times have looked past his days as a ruthless, publicity-hungry real estate speculator, and bought into his newly-minted man-of-the-people schtick. They are inexplicably filled with hope as he riffs off-handedly about reviving manufacturing, bringing back jobs, limiting immigration, etc. They are sympathetic when he rails against “media elites” who persecute him at every turn.

Others of a religious bent are captivated by his role in the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and consider him as nothing less than having been ordained by God to restore the moral fiber of the nation. They will readily quote Bible passages in support of their far-fetched assertion. All this love and devotion, despite a documented history of fleecing the people in his employ and taking license with women of his acquaintance.

But lately it has occurred to me the real reason Mr. Trump sits atop the polls is a silent majority of sensible, often quite successful voters who are not so much smitten with him, as they are virulently anti-Democrat. The people I have in mind are frequently put off by Trump’s antics. But they stick with him because they really aren’t that fussy about who heads the Republican ticket. They just don’t want another four years of Joe Biden – or any other Democrat – in the White House.

This contingent will back Trump despite everything, until another legitimate contender emerges from the Republican field. Since he has captured the disgruntled white working class, along with white evangelicals and other conservative Christians, that might be a tough nut for a challenger to crack.

This calculus may not bother Democrats, who relish having Donald Trump as a foil. But it’s very bad news for the country as a whole.

Reflexively voting for your party’s presidential nominee while being less than thrilled with the actual candidate is nothing new. But in Mr. Trump’s case we have now reached a new low. Republican loyalists are being confronted with a meritless, emotionally-driven carnival barker in the mold of Lonesome Rhoads, the fictional character from that wonderful 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd.

Trump’s egregious behavior makes him patently unfit for high office, let alone re-election to the highest office in the land. Given his dubious track record, such hardcore Republican partisanship by otherwise level-headed voters can only be attributed to an unmitigated belief in the American Experiment, as spelled out in our founding documents.

According to those documents, freedom of opportunity – an “absence of obstacles,” as James Madison put it – is the most important ingredient in the pursuit of happiness.

This fancy talk translates into a maniacal insistence on lower taxes and smaller government. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez may epitomize what many of us would like to see in an elected official: yesterday’s humble waitress is today’s confident U.S. representative. But when she touts the Democrat party line on free healthcare, free college tuition, etc., many Americans write her off as just another purveyor of unwieldy and un-workable policies.

If I were a high-priced political consultant I might see this as an open-and-shut case of the Democrats needing much better “messaging” around their core issues. But I’m not, so I find myself inclined instead to view this as a thorny problem for the other major party. It is Republicans who must admit their laissez-faire approach to economic life has left too many of their fellow citizens outside the “circle of exchange,” as a famous papal encyclical described the situation in 1991, after a decade of Reaganomics.

It is Republicans who need to show concern over our finding a political and economic system that organically breeds fairness. Since we already know how to deliver outsized prosperity to the clever and advantaged like clockwork.

These “freedom first” voters should really stop complaining about what they ominously describe as encroaching socialism, because such complaints are downright unseemly when issued by the well-off. Better they step back and take stock, and own up to the obvious excesses and blatant oversights of the political/economic system we have now. And maybe ask themselves: Can Donald Trump help me with that discernment?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Forgiving Student Loans

Forgiving Student Loans

July 5, 2023  |  738 words  |  Politics

The student loan forgiveness plan the Supreme Court threw out last week, just before adjourning for the summer, was one of the Biden administration’s more ambitious and controversial proposals.  So it should come as no surprise this latest ruling is generating such a passionate response.

As with any contentious issue, it is always a good idea to take in both sides of the argument, and respect an honest difference of opinion.  But in this case, some of the opinions I am hearing strike me as less than honest.

Referencing how your wife responsibly scrimped and saved back in the day to pay off her student loan, as one partisan TV commentator staunchly declared, when judging by the speaker’s appearance that activity presumably took place some forty years ago, is hardly germane to the struggles today’s young people face when paying for their higher education.

When this same commentator goes on to talk about student loan forgiveness “sending the wrong message,” and encouraging people “not to be responsible for their actions,” it comes across as dismissive and condescending.  “What’s next,” this old grouch harrumphed on TV, “not paying your mortgage or your credit card bill?”

A wide-ranging proposal such as student debt forgiveness deserves careful review before being implemented.  But the conservative scrutiny we are hearing in the wake of this latest ruling strikes me as simplistic, and designed to ”fire up the base.”  It generates a visceral reaction from that segment of the population fortunate enough to have made it through the gauntlet of paying for higher education with their financial viability intact.  Which is just another example of the “haves” lacking any clue about the economic realities faced by their “have-not” neighbors who live in a different part of town.

It also demonstrates zero recognition of a basic fact:  Increased federal aid to students over the last forty years has enabled colleges to raise tuition far beyond the cost of inflation.  Check out the insider testimony of Al Lord, former CEO of Sallie Mae.  When he led that organization, Mr. Lord viewed student loans as a good investment for families, and he made Sallie Mae the biggest student lender.  Then in retirement he joined the Board of Penn State and learned first-hand that colleges are incredibly inefficient businesses, with the student-loan program enabling that inefficiency.

Salaries rise; bureaucracies expand; more courses – like “History and Analysis of Rock Music” and “Ultimate Frisbee” – are offered; dorms, dining rooms, and recreational centers become more lavish.  Mr. Lord was stunned to learn how big Penn State’s budget was, about $5 billion in 2014.  And how quickly it grew, to $7.7 billion in 2021.

Al Lord was also stunned to discover how much his grandchildren’s college educations were costing, as much as $75,000 a year per child.  He had known colleges were raising their prices faster than inflation, but he figured it would have to stop.  It hasn’t.  “They raise them because they can, and the government facilitates it,” Mr. Lord told the Wall Street Journal.

With all that said, a college education is still a good idea, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is enhanced employment opportunities.  But the way middle-class families currently finance that education is clearly not sustainable.  It is also clear colleges have taken advantage of the situation – of the expanded access to loans made available to students – to add lots of window dressing and beef up compensation for their headliners.

As with so many of our dicey political issues, in this case there is plenty of blame to go around, now that the time has come to find a solution.  Conservatives have a point when they blame “big government” for creating the student debt problem.  But instead of smugly applauding the Supreme Court for striking down the Biden plan and leaving it at that, why not consider turning the other cheek?   Instead of pounding your chest and patting yourself on the back, take a moment to consider the struggle families of modest means face in gaining access to higher education.  

If the idea of student debt forgiveness offends your sense of personal responsibility, let me ask you:  Given today’s inflated tuition costs, what is your alternative to having these young people postpone marriage and family and home ownership for decades while they pay down this onerous debt?  If the Biden plan is not to your liking, show me yours.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Voting Third Party in 2024

Voting Third Party in 2024

June 21, 2023 | 690 words | Politics

Have you ever voted for a Third Party candidate in a Presidential election?  In my experience people who do tend to be idealistic and are also usually a little bit ornery.  (I am both and confess to voting Third Party on occasion.)  Reviving that option seems to be a recurring theme, given the rather lackluster Republican and Democrat  candidates we have been presented with in recent years.  With a likely Biden-Trump re-match in the offing, some otherwise sensible citizens are once again starting to explore their options, and are talking up the possibility of going rogue in the voting booth next year.

Democrats don’t have much to complain about, really, since re-electing Joe Biden would not be the worst thing in the world.  His deciding to run again was not exactly a surprise, either, since a sitting President almost always tries for a second term.  But given Joe’s advanced age and propensity for pratfalls, I was hoping he might step aside and yield the stage.  If only a second Biden administration could be led by someone other than Mr. Biden.  Could we maybe pencil him in as a sort of special senior advisor, and let someone else hold press conferences, give speeches, and be filmed riding bicycles and walking up the stairs of Air Force One?

The Republican population, on the other hand, has more reason to worry, as the return of Donald Trump to the Oval Office could very well be the worst thing to ever happen to the country.  I can understand the appeal Mr. Trump continues to have for certain voters who feel thoroughly disenfranchised by the machinations of “free trade.”  What baffles me, though, are supporters who fancy themselves more thoughtful than the common rabble, yet still champion Trump as a principled conservative.  Then there is the religious contingent, who revere Donald Trump for having delivered the long sought-after reversal of Roe v. Wade, made possible by the three new Supreme Court justices he appointed while President.  As if a newly minted federal ban on abortion resolves this complicated issue, once and for all.

No Labels, an organization first launched in 2010, works to reduce political polarization and Washington gridlock.  It has amassed a budget of $70 million dollars, secured from an undisclosed source, which is being used on legislative action to establish ballot access for a potential third presidential candidate in 2024.  If the two major parties continue to go off to the extremes, the group argues, then voters should have a more moderate option, a unity ticket of Republicans and Democrats who are willing to compromise to get things done.

Polls show many voters are less-than-thrilled by the thought of a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch.  Statistical majorities tell pollsters they would rather not have either man run.  This would seem to open the door for a third option in next year’s election.  But historical data indicates voters often express dissatisfaction with the apparent front-runners in the early stages of the process, only to return to form and vote for their preferred, established political party at crunch time.

Of course, that might change if voters were given an alternative that could be taken seriously, and if that alternative was on the ballot in all fifty states.  No Labels is laying the groundwork, by petitioning for ballot access around the country.  

I do wonder, though, if this is maybe not the best time to implement their strategy.  While the idea of a unity ticket comprised of a Republican and a Democrat might be just what the country needs, any electoral effort that could result in Donald Trump back in the White House should be scrutinized very carefully.  Being idealistic and a little bit ornery is the familiar breeding ground of Third Party sentiment.  In this election cycle I fear too many of these kindred spirits might already be firmly in the Trump camp.

But let’s see what No Labels can accomplish.  Let’s see if it can get widespread ballot access, and then let’s see who might step forward to take advantage of that access and challenge the Republican and Democrat nominees on a Third Party ticket.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Patrick Deenen Strikes Again

Patrick Deenen Strikes Again

June 16, 2023 | 760 words | Philosophy, Politics

Patrick Deenen’s new book, Regime Change, was just reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and got panned good and hard.  Reading that review reminded me how his previous book, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), received the same chilly reception, most notably in The New York Times.

Since Mr. Deenen traffics in social commentary and cultural anthropology, his not finding a home in either of these two established organs of political opinion is something of an anomaly.  As a serious scholar weighing in on issues of the day, you would expect him to be embraced by one or the other of these prestige media outlets.  That both camps have instead chosen to keep him at arm’s length is a measure of how his analysis defies easy categorization and cannot be consigned to a liberal or conservative silo.

For those who may be unfamiliar, Deenen is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.  This new book apparently seeks to address the unanswered question at the heart of his previous book:  If not Liberalism, then what?  At first blush he may strike you as a conventional conservative, since he likes to reference tradition and the benefits of community life based on shared values.  

But then just when you think you have his number, he fools you by finding fault with the free market and the revered concept known as economic freedom.  Which just happen to be two pillars of the conservative movement for the last several hundred years.  He is not shy in pointing out what he sees as the havoc being wreaked on community life by the laissez-faire philosophy now uniformly employed throughout the First World.  Especially on the lives of those on the lower tiers of the economic ladder.

Patrick Deneen’s big-name reviewers on either side of the ideological aisle are not doing him justice, in my opinion.  As I read them, his critics tend to hone in on an isolated aspect of his message, then accuse him of such blatant faux pas as failing to appreciate the social mobility and freedom of expression universally understood as the crown jewels of Liberalism.  And just to be clear, Liberalism as Deneen defines the term is the sum of social and political conventions that arose in Western nations in the mid-17th century.  These same critics also routinely accuse him of “ignoring the advantages of prosperity” enjoyed since 1800, and denying the “moral virtues encouraged by markets.”  

But Mr. Deneen is doing none of those things, if you ask me.  I suppose I would characterize him as simply trying to help us see the forest, and not be blinded by the trees.  

His unique take does not lend itself to an easy thumbnail sketch or a bullet-point summary.  Deneen’s critics are stymied right out of the gate, it seems to me, by his opening assertion in Why Liberalism Failed that the American Left and the American Right both adhere to the same broad philosophy.  He sees a bipartisan consensus where others see partisan bickering.  In Deneen’s telling, it is this underlying consensus that is responsible for most of what ails us.

This quirky view may explain why neither The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal have claimed him as their own.  By expressing doubt about the continued efficacy of such bedrock principles as free markets, individual liberty, and religious neutrality, Mr. Deneen manages to raise everyone’s hackles, calling into question nothing less than modernity itself.

Recoiling in horror from this bold assessment is a natural reaction, I suppose, because it is so unlike anything we have heard before.  But Patrick Deneen is no anarchist.  He is a gentleman who is challenging our most cherished assumptions in a studious, respectful manner.  Instead of settling for reading his critics, and as a prelude to one day possibly reading the original work, why not start by checking out Mr. Deneen in conversation with others social commentators?

The February 2023 issue of Harper’s magazine features a Forum entitled “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?”  Deneen is joined by (in alphabetical order) Francis Fukuyama, Deidre McCloskey, and Cornel West.  It is a lively exchange and a fun read.  Having him respond to an oppositional point of view in real time is instructive.  I realize this back-and-forth was probably edited to some extent, but Mr. Deneen nonetheless comes across as being pretty good on his feet, and acquits himself quite well.  The coherence of his worldview is what impresses me the most.

The man is on to something, that’s all I’ll say.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Narrative is Problematic

The Narrative is Problematic

May 14, 2023  |  376 words  |  Philosophy, Politics

Which narrative is problematic, you may be asking… Every narrative, I would answer.
It is natural to assemble a story for ourselves that helps explain how and why things happen in this world. Along the way we encounter others who seem knowledgeable in these matters, and we add their understanding to our own. As we get older, our narrative emphasizes what has gone wrong out there, and what should be done to fix all the problems. This, too, is natural.
But there is a tendency to overcommit to a particular narrative, once we settle on a story that suits us. The very thing that starts out helping us discern the larger world can end up getting in the way of our understanding that world even better. Such as learning to appreciate all the component parts of a particular controversy. We get seduced, if you will, by the certainty a narrative can offer. Regardless of how reasonable/unreasonable a given narrative may seem to the casual observer, there is no denying it provides a degree of certitude for the person who embraces it.

This is reassuring, even when it leaves the bearer thoroughly annoyed or frustrated. My point is that instead of settling for this type of certainty, we should always be forging ahead on a quest for wisdom.

“Narrative” as I am using the term is inherently partisan. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since every partisan narrative contains an element of truth. No matter how vehemently we disagree with an opponent’s initial premise, there is still some truth hidden in amongst what strikes us as his or her error.
Yes, some narratives do contain more truth than others, and therefore deserve more attention. But no narrative tells the whole story. No narrative is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Each of us has adopted a preferred narrative we are comfortable with, that we proudly march behind as our banner. And every single one of those narratives is problematic. Because they ultimately prevent us from a deeper understanding of the world and of our fellow citizens. Developing the deeper understanding I have in mind would result in our being much more forgiving than most of us are now, and far less confrontational.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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