Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thomas Merton & Blessed Pope John XXIII

Today is the 45th anniversary of Thomas Merton's death.  I've written elsewhere about Merton's impact on me in my early 20's.  After reading The Seven Storey Mountain when I was 23, I scrambled to read everything I could by Merton, and was particularly taken with his journals (I still consider his autobiographical writings to be his best stuff).  I was so smitten with Merton, in fact, that in a moment of youthful exuberance I had a drawing by Merton tattooed on my shoulder; the drawing is of a monk. (On a side note, my kids love this tattoo and address the monk on my shoulder simply as "Tom".)

I now find myself at Bellarmine University, at which the Merton Center - the official repository of Merton's literary and artistic estate - is located, and I live a short 45 minute drive from the Abbey of Gethsemani, which I visit regularly, often with students.  Honestly, I can't believe my luck.

I'm currently working on a project on Cyril of Alexandria that I hope to finish very soon, after which my goal is to devote far more time to reading and writing about Merton.  Not long ago I went to a lecture by Michael Higgins on Merton and Pope John XXIII.  It led me to look up some of Merton's thoughts on Pope John XXIII in his journals, and I was struck by how much his reaction to John XXIII mirrors the reaction of so many to Pope Francis.  On this "Feast Day" of Merton, therefore, I thought I'd quote his thoughts on the soon to be canonized pope, both at the beginning of his pontificate and at the end.

Less than two weeks after Pope John XXIII's election, Merton writes:
John XXIII seems to me to be a most wonderful Pope and I love him already very much - he is a kind of simple person with a lot of good sense and all of a sudden he seems to me, for this, for his simplicity, to be a great man and I cannot help feeling right away that perhaps he is a saint.  My kind of saint - who smokes a cigarette after dinner. (I have got over the idea that this would immediately disqualify him - that went out ten years ago.)
And upon learning of John XXIII's death, he writes:
May he rest in peace, this great and good Father, whom I certainly loved, and who has been good to me, sending me the stole and many blessings.  And I don't think he has stopped being a father to us, to me.  He will one day be canonized, I think (if we last that long), and I do not hesitate to ask for his intercession now.
On this Feast Day of Fr. Louis of Gethsemani, I do not hesitate to ask for Merton's intercession:

Fr. Louis Merton, ora pro nobis!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"I was called a 'socialist'"

I'm reading Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest at the moment.  I'm not very far into the novel yet, but there's a dialogue between the young 'country priest' and M. le Cure de Torcy early in the book that reminded me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Particularly, it would appear, when it comes to assessing papal documents.

The two are having a conversation about the poor, and at one point M. le Cure de Torcy tells the young priest about the publication of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891, a central document in the history of Catholic social teaching.  His account reminded me of recent reaction by some on the right to Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:
[T]hat famous encyclical of Leo XIII, 'Rerum Novarum,' you can read that without turning a hair, like any instruction for keeping Lent.  But when it was published, sonny, it was like an earthquake.  The enthusiasm!  At that time I was cure de Norenfontes, in the heart of the mining district.  The simple notion that a man's work is not a commodity, subject to the law of supply and demand, that you have no right to speculate on wages, on the lives of men, as you do on grain, sugar or coffee - why it set people's consciences upside-down!  I was called a 'socialist' for having explained it in the pulpit to my mining fellows, and the pious peasants had me sent off to Montreuil in disgrace.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pope Francis the Marxist

I normally don't care what Rush Limbaugh or Fox News have to say about the world.  But, as a result of simplistic readings of Evangelii Gaudium, both Limbaugh and Fox News have come out swinging against Pope Francis.  Limbaugh, as many know by now, suggested last Wednesday that Pope Francis was preaching "pure Marxism."  And today, Adam Shaw, who normally writes video game reviews at, attacked the Pope for what he considers his economic naïveté:
"[Francis] shows himself painfully misguided on economics, failing to see that free markets have consistently lifted the poor out of poverty, while socialism merely entrenches them in it, or kills them outright."
At the heart of their critiques of Francis is the idea that the pope is presenting economic ideas completely out of keeping with prior Catholic teaching.  The reality, however, is that, as Robert Ellsberg (editor of Dorothy Day's journals and letters) wrote yesterday, "little distinguishes Pope Francis from the prophetic utterances of his predecessors."

I have neither the time nor the expertise to provide an in depth argument demonstrating how Pope Francis' economic ideas (which make up only a very small portion of an incredibly rich and complex text, I should add!) conform to prior church teaching.  A few years ago, however, I compiled a list of quotations from various papal documents of the twentieth century which provide some insight into Catholic understanding of economic ideas.  This list is not exhaustive, nor, frankly, does it do any justice at all to the incredible complexity of Catholic social teaching on the economy.  I am, to be honest, somewhat reluctant simply to provide a list of quotations.  'Proof-texting' is one of the worst forms of argument, and I do not wish be guilty of such an argument here.  But in posting these quotations, I simply make a very small gesture toward the notion that the kinds of economic ideas Francis put forward in Evangelii Gaudium certainly have precedent.

But don't take my word for it.  Read the church's social documents yourself.  The USCCB has a helpful link to all the documents here.  Here are some of the pertinent quotations:
It follows from the twofold character of ownership which we have termed individual and social, that individuals must take into account in this matter, not only their own advantage, but also the common good. To define in detail these duties, when the need occurs and when the natural law does not do so, is the function of the Government (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno).

 [T]he civil authority is entirely ordained to the common good of all...The common good concerns the whole person, the needs both of body and soul. Hence it follows that the civil authority must undertake to procure it by ways and means proportionate to it: while respecting the hierarchy of values, they should promote simultaneously both the material and the spiritual welfare of the citizens" (Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in Terris).

Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one's exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities....If there should arise a conflict between acquired private rights and primary community exigencies, it is the responsibility of public authorities to look for a solution" (Paul VI, Populorum Progressio).
Government leaders, your task is to draw your communities into closer ties of solidarity with all men, and to convince them that they must accept the necessary taxes on their luxuries and their wasteful expenditures in order to promote the development of nations and the preservation of peace" (ibid.).
[C]ertain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations. This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the international imperialism of money" (ibid.).

Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution...hinder the achievement of lasting development" (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 32).
[I]t must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution" (ibid., 36).
Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics" (ibid., 37).
 All images from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reactions to Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium

I finished Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, last night.  I wish I had time to write about it, if only because writing helps me understand more fully that which I'm writing about.

Unfortunately, since it's the end of the semester and I'm therefore in grading hell, I won't get a chance to write about it until the New Year.  Perhaps the best way to encapsulate my own reaction to the text is by linking to the gif genius of Mary is my Homegirl (if you haven't had a chance to check out her blog, do yourself a favour and click on the link above).  She records her reactions to Evangelii Gaudium here and here.

Image from