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On Education: 3 Counsels from My Little Plato

On my desk, I have a little bust of Plato. And every now and then I found it staring right at me as if it had something to say. My attempts to get it to finally speak always went unanswered; in fact, the silence was deafening. I almost gave up but recently something changed. Since I was introduced to The Republic in high school, the question “What would Plato think?” has always lingered in the background for me on any given topic, whether that be the cultural/political landscape of America in 2020 or the role contemporary education has to play in creating such a landscape. I’ve always sensed that behind those questions, Plato would ask me about education and its implicit view of human nature and reality. This doesn’t surprise me given that education is at the heart of his tome, The Republic. Knowing this, I opened my copy of…

Teetering on the Edge

The Amazon Synod’s final document and Pope Francis’s post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia both describe a social and environmental crisis of historic proportions, a crisis Francis portrays as “provoking a cry that rises up to heaven.” This crisis now threatens the Amazon region with ecocide and ethnic cleansing, and—because of the role the Amazon rainforest plays in regulating global climate patterns—it also threatens the planet as a whole. Yet the synod’s urgent message was largely drowned out in the United States by ideological controversies about the ordination of (married) viri probati, the value of inculturation, and racist accusations of idolatry. A year later, the “dramatic state of destruction” to which the synod’s final document refers has only gotten worse, and Catholics in the Global North still seem none the wiser. 

Many of the Amazon region’s poorest residents live in rural communities and informal settlements. Development of the region has led to economic growth in recent years, but there is little evidence that living conditions are improving. Food security remains a persistent problem; workers in extractive industries are exposed to diseases like malaria and rabies; and there is a severe lack of health and sanitation infrastructure.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of these preexisting problems, and indigenous communities have been hit the hardest. Celia Xakriaba, a Brazilian indigenous leader and activist, has described the public-health risk indigenous communities are facing as one of extermination. Her warning is borne out by a recent report that shows that members of indigenous communities are being infected with the virus at around twice the rate of other Brazilians, and that they are also more likely to die once they have been infected. The report points to governmental neglect, the lack of health-care facilities, and the growing invasion of indigenous lands by illegal extractive industries as reasons for this disproportionate outcome. The Arara people, for example, who have the highest known rate of COVID-19 infection of any tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, are also among those most affected by illegal logging and mining.

The rest of the world shares not only in the consequences of the Amazon’s destruction, but also in responsibility for it.

Even before the pandemic arrived in the Amazon region, the expropriation of indigenous lands was already on the rise: the Indigenist Missionary Council reported 160 illegal land grabs in 2019, up from 96 just two years earlier. Most government employees (including enforcement officers), activists, and NGO workers retreated from the Amazon as the virus approached in an attempt to protect indigenous communities and limit the spread of the disease. Tragically, however, extractive industries have exploited this absence and deforestation is now accelerating. Although President Jair Bolsonaro has deployed the military to the region in an attempt to prevent a repeat of last August’s fires, satellite data show that the rate of deforestation remains much higher than it was last year.

Violence against indigenous peoples and the government employees assigned to protect them has also increased. According to Human Rights Watch, the deforestation of the Amazon is largely driven by organized criminal syndicates that defend their interests with threats, intimidation, and violence. Their crimes often go uninvestigated and unpunished. Against this background of violence and impunity, human-rights groups have been warning that some indigenous groups are at risk of “imminent massacres.” The government has yet to pay these warnings any heed.

 

Climate change and deforestation, both of which are driven primarily by economic forces in other parts of the world, are making what is already a bad situation in Amazonia much worse. While the rate of deforestation decreased from a peak in 2004 until the early 2010s, recent years have seen a steady, and at times dramatic, increase in the trend. In August 2019 alone, deforestation was over three times higher than it had been in the same month of 2018. This was accompanied by a 30 percent increase in the number of fires, an event that made headlines and galvanized public opinion around the world. By last June, environmental and civil-society groups were predicting that this year’s fire season could be even worse, and, as of this writing, it is still possible that those predictions could come true.

Much of the blame for this has fallen on Bolsonaro, who has encouraged illegal deforestation and undermined the rule of law. He has also gutted many of the public agencies responsible for environmental protection and pursued policies that limit their actions. But the blame is not Bolsonaro’s alone and deforestation is by no means limited to Brazilian territory.

In Ecuador, oil concessions continue to expand inside the country’s protected areas and President Lenín Moreno has repeatedly broken his 2017 promise to respect indigenous communities’ rights to determine how their lands are used. Two pipelines associated with those concessions burst in May, polluting the waterways that some 27,000 indigenous people rely on for food and water. Deforestation is on the rise in Bolivia as well, largely as a result of forest fires.

While deforestation can sometimes be reversed and its effects mitigated, the situation in the Amazon appears to be reaching a point of no return. In a letter published at the end of last year, two leading scientists, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, warned that “the precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we.” In their closing paragraph, they write, “today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: the tipping point is here, it is now.”

The tipping point to which Lovejoy and Nobre refer has been an active topic of discussion in the scientific community since the early 2000s but has yet to be addressed or even acknowledged by policy-makers. The mechanism for this tipping point is simple but dramatic. When rain falls in the Amazon, it is absorbed by the soil, taken up by the trees, and eventually released back into the atmosphere to fall somewhere else in the forest an average of five to six times before leaving the system. It is through this recycling process that the Amazon conserves water and keeps its ecosystems alive. As deforestation advances, this cycle is predicted to lose momentum and, finally, to stop, resulting in dramatic reductions in rainfall, a dieback of the forest, and the conversion of large areas to a dry savanna ecosystem. Such a transformation would have disastrous implications for climate change. It would also generate a humanitarian crisis.

As the forest disappears and ceases to regulate the amount of water flowing downstream, a few things are likely to happen. Food production will suffer in a general way as much of the region’s agriculture relies on the Amazon for rainfall and pollination. Water security and sanitation will also be compromised; cholera normally spreads in the dry season when clean rainwater becomes unavailable and more frequent and extreme droughts will exacerbate this trend. Indigenous groups and others who rely directly on local ecosystems will be the most vulnerable. They are likely to lose both their homes and their ways of life.

Indigenous groups and others who rely directly on local ecosystems will be the most vulnerable. They are likely to lose both their homes and their ways of life.

The Ribeirinhos, a group of approximately seven million floodplain residents with mixed indigenous and European ancestry, are one such particularly vulnerable group. Their economic activities are entirely structured around the river’s seasonal cycles and both droughts and floods can lead to food shortages. When the annual floodwaters recede, Ribeirinhos take advantage of the moisture and nutrients left behind to plant crops in the floodplain. At the same time of year, fish get trapped in lakes and ponds, which normally provide enough food for nearby communities. However, episodes of drought confine the fish to smaller, more crowded bodies of water, causing some of them to die from the lack of oxygen. Droughts also make Amazonian fish more vulnerable to overfishing and poaching at the hands of commercial operations, which compromises the long-term availability of food for subsistence fishers. When the dry season ends and the river again floods its banks, fish become much harder to catch and all but the most financially secure Ribeirinhos experience severe seasonal food insecurity. In years with more extreme flood cycles, this season of hunger lasts even longer. Recent years have already seen several historic droughts and floods, which appear to be the first signs of a general destabilization of the ecosystem. And barring a dramatic turnaround in deforestation and carbon emissions, the situation is likely to get worse.

Reaching a tipping point in the Amazon could also be disastrous for public health in a more general way. The region is already considered a global hotspot for emerging infectious diseases, and one recent study suggests that deforestation may be the primary culprit. Biodiverse ecosystems like the Amazon are always more likely to harbor pathogens, and disturbing those systems can provide opportunities for new diseases to emerge. The current destruction of the Amazon and the concomitant movement of persons between cities and the forest, all against a general background of marginal social conditions and a lack of health and sanitation infrastructure, create an ideal situation for outbreaks to turn into epidemics. Cases of malaria have been on the rise again in Brazil as deforestation rates have accelerated in recent years, and an epidemic of yellow fever, another disease associated with deforestation, killed 745 people between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2018.

 

The ongoing social and environmental destruction of Amazonia is not just a local or South American problem. The whole world depends on this region for its role in regulating climate. The rainforest keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere by storing carbon in organic forms, accounting for about 10 percent of the planet’s biological carbon storage. Conservation and reforestation could buy the world a lot of time as we try to cut carbon emissions. Current predictions by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that 2030 is the year by which we will have either averted or committed to 2.7 degrees of warming, a level they describe as catastrophic. Some studies show that tropical rainforest conservation and reforestation could extend that deadline to 2040.

Nor is the loss of carbon storage the only way changes in the Amazon might affect regional climates in other parts of the world. Some climate models show that the changes to atmospheric circulation that would result from massive deforestation in the Amazon would alter North Atlantic and European storm tracks, cause cooler temperatures in southern Europe, and lead to a winter-warming trend in parts of Asia. The consequences of crossing the tipping point in Amazonia would be truly global.

The rest of the world shares not only in the consequences of the region’s destruction, but also in responsibility for it. Deforestation is driven by the global economy, and particularly by consumption in the world’s wealthier countries. Brazil produces about 30 percent of the world’s soy, much of which is exported to Europe and China. The large-scale cultivation of soy is responsible for both deforestation and carbon emissions. And while many large export firms have made pledges to source their soy sustainably, on land outside the Amazon region, their expanding operations often displace other land users, pushing them to the receding edge of the rainforest. Beef exports to Europe and the United States are also a problem: the Brazilian supply chain is so opaque that one can rarely tell whether a particular cut of meat came from a cow that grazed deforested land.

More generally, commodities that depend on tropical deforestation have become so integrated into global supply chains that it is all but impossible for consumers to know what damage they are doing by buying a particular product. Large companies have been rated for their impact on tropical deforestation (ironically, Amazon rates very poorly), and there are certifications for more obviously forest-related products like paper and timber (look for labels from the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance), but the ecological implications of one’s choices as a consumer are often obscure. Brazilian soy is used as animal feed in other parts of the world, which means pork raised in China can indirectly cause as much deforestation as timber from Brazil, and wood pulp, though normally used to make paper, also shows up in food products, textiles, and cellophane. Illegally mined gold is used in our electronics, and oil from indigenous lands in Ecuador ends up in our gas tanks.

Fortunately, there are some signs that the international community is waking up to its responsibility for the devastation in the Amazon. The 2019 fire season was highly effective in mobilizing public opinion and raising awareness. This June a group of investment firms, which together manage around $3.75 trillion, expressed concerns over deforestation and human-rights abuses in a letter to Brazilian ambassadors. Seven European firms, with more than $2 trillion in managed assets, explicitly threatened to divest. And yet, despite these signs of hope, divestment is far from a panacea. The Economist estimates that publicly traded companies are responsible for only around 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Nor is it clear that pulling money out of Brazilian government bonds at a time when social and environmental services are already being gutted is a good idea. We have to find better ways to respond.

While most Ribeirinhos spend months out of the year skipping meals for want of a refrigerator, and while indigenous people across the Amazon are losing their lives to protect their lands, most of us in the United States are complacently unaware of the ways our lives are connected with theirs. As we grow in awareness of our complicity with the forces that are destroying the rainforests, we will discover that nothing short of a moral and economic revolution is likely to be an adequate solution. It won’t be enough to express concern, adjust our habits of consumption individually, or change the way we invest. A problem of this scale and urgency will require collective action and global cooperation. That is why the Amazon Synod called for alternative economic models, and why Pope Francis condemned (ongoing) colonial relationships. It is not news either to Rome or to residents of Amazonia that much of the destruction has resulted from economic activities and policy decisions in the Global North, but, if the synod’s reception in the United States is any indication, it is still news to many of us. 

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“The Social Dilemma” and the Silent Carthusians

The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma—a film about the dark side of social media explained by the Silicon Valley innovators behind it—is a kind of public service for the digital age. Most of us talk about how addictive our smartphones are. We are concerned about the role social media is playing in the rise of outrage and polarization in adults, and isolation and depression in kids. Some might even already be aware of the mechanics behind all of this. But this documentary offers a full look behind the curtain to anyone who wants to see it—and it’s not pretty. One particularly impressive figure is Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris has coined the phrase “human downgrading.” Technology, he argues, is “downgrading our attention span, our relationships, civility, community, habits”—and all very much by design. The result…

The Integralism of Adrian Vermeule

Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has lately become an intellectual celebrity among reactionary Catholics in the United States. His reputation is due not only to an unusual talent for polemics and public debate, but also to a willingness, rare in elite academic circles, to passionately identify with the Christian faith. He does not compartmentalize or soft-pedal his Catholicism. Vermeule’s work has especially resonated in recent years because he has compellingly articulated a number of important truths about our current situation. He is critical of unrestrained capitalism and shallow materialism, and appeals instead to a politics of the common good. He’s an active—and frequently provocative—participant in the debates about the fate of “liberalism” that have followed the victories of right-wing populist movements both here and abroad.

Vermeule’s prominence in these debates has earned him his share of critics. It’s not uncommon to hear him described as a sophisticated, sometimes slippery defender of theocracy. If I, too, find myself troubled by Vermeule’s work, it’s not because he brings his Catholic faith to bear on contentious political debates. As someone who converted from an ardent atheism to Roman Catholicism over a decade ago while still a graduate student at Berkeley, I appreciate his attempts to draw from Church tradition while addressing high-level questions of political and legal theory. Even so, some of Vermeule’s work is seriously flawed, and some of his ideas are dangerous. And this is because his thinking is not Catholic enough.

Like many conservative converts to Catholicism, Vermeule seems to have been attracted to the supposed salvific political powers of the Roman Catholic Church. In a 2016 interview in First Things, he recounted abandoning a milquetoast Episcopalian faith after he realized there was “no stable middle ground between Catholicism and atheist materialism. One must always be traveling or slipping unintentionally, in one direction or the other.” If civilization was to be rescued from moral decline and collapse, the Church would lead the way. As he explained in a 2017 essay, the Catholic Church “serves as a kind of ark,” saving society from “the universal deluge of economic-technical decadence, and the eventual self-undermining of the regime.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Vermeule reveres such Catholic critics of liberalism as the philosopher Joseph de Maistre (who rejected the French Revolution in favor of monarchy) and the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (who once proclaimed the Roman Church alone was politically capable of overcoming modern individualism). Vermeule seems to enjoy provoking members of the liberal intelligentsia by coyly advancing almost-forbidden ideas.

This gift for controversy was apparent in a manifesto Vermeule published in the Atlantic in March. There he recommended that conservatives abandon their longstanding originalist jurisprudence in favor of “common good constitutionalism.” His brief sketch of this legal theory mentioned tenets of Catholic social teaching such as subsidiarity and solidarity, but it also argued for the return of “hierarchies,” “rulers,” and “political domination.” When interpreting the common good, Vermeule later suggested, judges should defer to the executive branch and the “administrative state, within reasonable boundaries.” It all amounted to a case for vastly expanded presidential power, written against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies—and provided a glimpse of the formidable intellectual and political project Vermeule has undertaken since becoming Catholic.

 

Integralism exists in a complex relationship with darker elements on the Right.

The name for that project is “integralism,” and Vermeule has become its foremost defender in the United States. Integralism seeks to subordinate temporal power to spiritual power—or, more specifically, the modern state to the Catholic Church. Integralism doesn’t always fit easily into the prevailing categories of American politics, and can’t be reduced to the ethno-nationalism and Prosperity Gospel hucksterism so prevalent on the Right. Integralists do not usually fear-monger about immigrants the way many nationalist conservatives do, for example, because they portray themselves as loyal to the Church, especially the pope, not the flag. But as demonstrated in Vermeule’s Atlantic essay, integralism exists in a complex relationship with darker elements on the Right, and they overlap in two key ways: a fixation with reinstating “Christian values” via executive rule and a visceral disgust for the liberal tradition. In both cases, Vermeule has drawn deeply from Carl Schmitt’s work to support those positions.

Vermeule’s debt to Schmitt is no secret. In a 2017 First Things essay, “A Christian Strategy,” he praises Schmitt for grasping that “the universal jurisdiction and mission of the Church require it to be flexible in different places and times, willing to enter into coalitions that would be unthinkable for anyone with a merely political horizon.” Vermeule displays similar flexibility himself, drawing from Schmitt but adapting him to contemporary debates. Unlike Schmitt, he uses the prestige of the social sciences in order to advance his often tendentious ideological claims. (He’s not alone in that, a phenomenon I critically examine at length in my recent book, We Built Reality). Vermeule makes clear the need to replace Schmitt’s metaphysical obscurities with what he calls the “simple causal intuitions and models” of “the social sciences, including economics, law-and-economics, and political science.” It’s a sophisticated strategy of translating Schmitt’s authoritarianism into the sober findings of social-science research and the institutions of American democracy.

That strategy is seen in the way Vermeule adopts the central Schmittian doctrine of rule by supreme executive. Vermeule began to elaborate his view of executive power in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Terror in the Balance, published in 2007, Vermeule and his coauthor Eric Posner made a case for deferring to the president on policies that include “coercive interrogation” (i.e. torture), ethnic profiling, surveillance, military trials, and the indefinite detainment of enemy combatants. Vermeule and Posner stated their neutrality on practices like torture—at the time, Bush-administration policy—while insisting on the supposedly descriptive, social-scientific finding that the executive alone had “the resources, power, and flexibility to respond to threats to national security” in the age of terror. In their view, the consolidation of executive power was simply “natural” and “inevitable.” This was an excellent example of how intellectuals can provide a rationale for terrible abuses while avoiding any straightforward endorsement of them.

Vermeule and Posner’s defense of rule by executive was presented largely as a sociological fait accompli in their next book, The Executive Unbound (2010). There, instead of providing a standard ethnographic or empirical study of the modern state, they employed the methodology of law-and-economics pioneered at the University of Chicago, where they both taught. This approach depicts politics as a series of ideal game-theory scenarios and follows the economist Milton Friedman in assuming that social theory did not need to accurately describe reality per se. Such a methodology leaves researchers free to build abstract models of human behavior based on a few axioms of supposedly transcendental rationality. The result is a narrow vision of human beings as strategic, self-interested preference-maximizers.

Part of Vermeule and Posner’s case for a supreme executive is their assurance that it will not devolve into bald-faced tyranny. That sanguine view also rests on a methodological assumption: that as rational actors, executives will be checked by a strategic assessment of the game scenarios and “institutional mechanisms” facing them, such as popular opinion and elections. Vermeule and Posner claimed that a president, even if unchecked by other branches of government, is unlikely to veer into wanton falsehood or cruelty because he needs “credibility in order to persuade others that his factual and causal assertions are true and his intentions are benevolent.” For them, rational-choice theory justifies the astonishing assertion that an executive who is above the law will not abuse such power.

 

The history of liberalism is richer and more complex than its critics typically allow.

Schmitt’s influence on Vermeule is also evident in the latter’s invocation of the so-called crisis of liberalism. Vermeule often depicted this crisis as external to the state in his immediate post-9/11 writings; it was brought on by waves of terror, technological innovation, and globalization. But as his thinking developed, he began to present the crisis as internal to liberal states—the enemy within was liberalism itself. The idea that liberalism is beset by a constant condition of moral and spiritual emergency is a commonplace on the Right these days, but before its widespread currency, Vermeule spent years arguing that it was a factual finding of the social sciences. In his current integralist writings, the explanation for this crisis frequently takes one of two forms.

The first, more straightforward claim is that liberalism is destined to fail because it follows a deterministic process of decline. This is the view expounded in Vermeule’s 2018 essay “Integration from Within,” that “the progression...from one form of liberalism to another unfolds by logical dynamic, an inner necessity.” Vermeule often presents liberalism as being propelled by an “internal mechanism” of “relentless aggression,” a kind of moral avant-gardism that can never be satisfied, let alone reversed. For liberalism, he argues, “yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what.” He chastises conservatives like Ross Douthat for failing to acknowledge that liberal regimes always move in this direction.

This mechanistic conception of liberalism faces a problem similar to that of early orthodox Marxism. Culture and politics do not evolve according to predictable linear stages, but are the result of the creative agency of human beings. The history of liberalism is richer and more complex than its critics typically allow, and it can always take on new, unexpected meanings—as it certainly has in the United States. Liberalism should be thought of more like a literary genre, with new forms and innovations continually emerging.

Vermeule sometimes seems aware of this problem. In another 2018 essay, “Some Confusions about ‘Classical Liberalism,’ Progressivism, and Necessity,” he acknowledges that liberalism may not necessarily collapse. But after making this concession, he once again marshals the authority of the social sciences to insist that, while liberalism might not decline in fixed stages, it nevertheless has a “structural propensity” to collapse—which could happen at any moment.

This second defense of the crisis-of-liberalism thesis still requires that liberal politics be understood as taking a single, unified form—as opposed to a variety of forms possessing what Wittgenstein would call a “family resemblance” to one another. Establishing a fixed, ahistorical core to any ideology is a highly problematic endeavor, involving a deeply flawed philosophy of social science. But even if liberalism could be reduced to a set of timeless formulae, it would still need to be empirically demonstrated that it is essentially unstable.

To solve this problem, Vermeule has drawn on the work of the Polish social theorist Ryszard Legutko, who has characterized the inner essence of liberalism as a particular form of liturgy or religion. In this view liberalism is a kind of aggressively secular “Festival of Reason.” As Vermeule puts it: “liberalism is in fact a liturgy, centered on a sacramental celebration of the progressive overcoming of the darkness of bigotry and unreason.” Liberalism in all times and places, then, turns out to be the hidden worshipping of reason alone. This disordered form of worship generates defective social bonds and Jacobin-style outbursts of political terror directed at the unenlightened (or, as we might put it today, the un-Woke).

It should now be clear how the “crisis of liberalism,” in either of the two guises Vermeule has described, relates to his understanding of executive power. When Vermeule portrayed liberalism as imperiled by foreign enemies after 9/11, he tended to describe the resulting emergencies as cyclical and periodic. They could therefore be confronted only by an executive unfettered by the rule of law, one who can torture, racially profile, and indefinitely detain if necessary. The background to these post-9/11 writings was the frantic Islamophobia that convulsed the United States in those days, and Vermeule’s arguments from that period may be read as subtle efforts to justify the targeting of religious and racial others, especially foreign-born Muslims. But in his later writings, the emergency created by the supposed crisis of liberalism is more or less permanent because the enemy is within: American liberals and their allies. That crisis can be resolved only by a supreme executive and administrative state that inculcates Catholic morality, replacing liberalism’s disordered worship with genuine religion. Regime change now begins at home.

 

Until Vermeule reckons with Catholic teachings he finds inconvenient, his “Catholic integralism” will lack theoretical integrity and should not be described as Catholic.

It’s not surprising that, in a country where Catholics are a minority, Vermeule does not expect his integralist regime to take power democratically; instead, it will have to be imposed from above—or rather, from within. In “Integration from Within,” he argues that Catholic integralists should endeavor to become the “elite administrators” who occupy “the commanding heights of the administrative state.” Once in such positions, they will deploy the lessons learned from “behavioral economics that agents with administrative control...may nudge whole populations in desirable directions.” As a Harvard law professor, Vermeule is well placed to train such an elite cadre and help them find positions in key American institutions. He tidily summarized this plan for regime change in a 2018 essay, “Ralliement,” as the “integral restoration of Christendom” via “executive-type bureaucracies.” As in the early Soviet Union, a vanguard assumes the burden of reeducating ordinary citizens. What this will look like in detail (for example, what happens to gay people or other nonconformists in such a regime) remains unsettlingly vague. This is most likely by design: Vermeule’s disciples can thus project their fantasies onto the blank canvas of a post-liberal utopia without him being on the hook for their cruel and wild imaginings. His integralism thus fuses sober, quasi-scientific analysis with the most extravagant wish-fulfillment.

Vermeule’s plan for regime change at home, however, is not just practically dubious, a recipe for destructive ideological crusading. It relies on premises that often clash with the Church’s basic theological and philosophical precepts. Take, for example, his heavy reliance on rational-choice and decision-theory models to make his case for executive supremacy. Vermeule’s economistic conception of agency is false as a picture of human behavior and therefore generates an empirically false theory of the state. The best current sociologies of the state have long made clear that rule by a supreme, unitary branch of government is always to some degree an ideological myth. Modern states actually consist of networks of governance and “governmentality,” points well known to political theorists and sociologists. By contrast, Vermeule’s adoption of rational-choice theory, insulated from sociological and historical evidence, allows him to idealize how the state works.

Nor does his description of human beings as rational preference-maximizers fit the Catholic Church’s understanding of human beings. The entire logic of Christian selfhood is centered on the possibility of various forms of agape—a self-emptying love of the other. This stands in sharp contrast to the calculating agent of decision theory, which makes sense only within an extreme form of liberal ideology.

In a grand irony, Martin Heidegger’s famous comment on Schmitt also seems to fit Vermeule: he still thinks as a liberal. At the methodological level, Vermeule’s vision of human agency is shaped not by agape but by a strain of liberalism that came to prominence in the late twentieth century and envisioned all individuals as market actors. Some may suppose that he left all this behind when he converted to Catholicism. But he has continued to draw on his old theories in his integralist writings. For example, in a brief essay published in May, “Deference and the Common Good,” Vermeule argued that judges “should broadly defer to the administrative state, within reasonable boundaries,” and backed up this claim by citing his fusion of Schmittian executive rule and rational-choice theory in The Executive Unbound and other writings from that period.

If Vermeule has changed his mind, then he needs to offer an alternative philosophical grounding for his vision of executive rule or clarify the relationship between his earlier and more recent work. That might prove useful to those who follow his writing: after all, his economistic approaches to the state have been explained in university-press books and peer-reviewed articles, while his current integralist work takes the form of occasional essays and blog posts. Still, until Vermeule provides a different justification for his program of “integration from within,” it continues to be best understood as derivative of the economistic thinking associated with the Chicago School.

Vermeule also goes astray when he jettisons those aspects of the liberal tradition that have been affirmed by the Church. The liberal tradition is the most important ideological movement in history to have articulated and defended human rights, and its influence can be found in Catholic social teaching’s affirmation of the infinite dignity and worth of the individual person, which includes the need for “human rights” (a term adopted without reservation by the U.S. bishops). It’s not merely that Catholic social teaching has serendipitously developed to overlap with important aspects of the liberal tradition: the Church’s engagement with the liberal tradition has actually deepened its understanding of what is required to uphold human dignity.

This is not to say the relationship between Catholic social teaching and liberalism is uncomplicated. The liberal tradition must be carefully sifted to determine which of its elements can be affirmed and which others must be rejected by Catholics. But Vermeule simply has failed to do this work. His refusal to think with the Church in this area results in a tendency to emphasize the worst elements of liberalism while ignoring the best.

Take, for example, his long flirtation with unbounded executive power and his willingness to provide cover for such practices as torture. For the Church, no earthly authority has the unbounded power to make life-and-death decisions that Vermeule seems to grant his executive; the requirements of human dignity always place limits on any exercise of force. Vermeule must choose between Schmitt’s unbounded executive and the Church’s vision of dignity and human rights. He cannot have both.

Although integralists often portray themselves as unusually devoted to the pope, that says more about their valorization of authority than their attentiveness to what recent popes have actually taught. The same year that Vermeule published his book-length permission slip for the Bush administration’s torture program, Pope Benedict XVI offered a very different assessment of what was happening. Benedict wrote that the infinite dignity of the human person meant that “the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” Shortly thereafter, the United States Bishops affirmed this teaching in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: “The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism.”

Vermeule’s integralism encounters further difficulties with its retrograde insistence on subordinating secular to spiritual power. Gaudium et spes clearly states that the Church “does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority” and “by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system.” Instead, “the Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent of each other.”

Until Vermeule reckons with Catholic teachings he finds inconvenient, his “Catholic integralism” will lack theoretical integrity and should not be described as Catholic. I’ll leave it to others to decide what description might be more fitting.

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Stop Shaming Public Schools

This fall, at long last, my dream is coming true: my youngest child is off to school with his big brothers. I never imagined they’d be wearing masks and having their temperatures checked at the door, but after six months stuck at home, we’re grateful school is happening at all.

The Catholic school my kids attend has a big-enough building and small-enough classes to meet social-distancing requirements. It also has a dedicated faculty, staff, and principal who spent the summer months scrambling to stay abreast of ever-shifting guidelines in preparation for offering full-time instruction both in person and online. I am thankful for their efforts and proud of all the work diocesan schools are doing to serve families. But I must object to that work being used to disparage the public-school system and its employees, or to paint too rosy a picture of the progress our country has made in combating COVID-19.

On September 2, the New York Post ran a photo of a Catholic school classroom on its cover. The students’ empty desks are surrounded by see-through barriers. “Outclassed Again,” the headline says. “De Blasio delays school openings, as Queens Catholic academy is ready to go.” Ten days later, alongside a photo of children in Catholic school plaid, the Post published an editorial: “Here’s what functional NYC school systems look like—and it puts DOE to shame.”

The paper’s jeering coverage of public education consistently ignores the reasons Catholic schools are able to “function” when public schools cannot. Public schools are obligated to serve all comers and to provide transportation when necessary. The “social distancing” that everyone hopes will make in-school learning safe is impossible to achieve in a crowded building or on a full school bus. And providing virtual instruction to such a vast body of students requires sorting through a bewildering array of variables (for one thing, many children lack reliable at-home internet access; some public-school students lack homes, period). It is highly dishonest for the New York Post to ignore all those factors and hold up Catholic schools as an example of “how leaders who actually put education first can handle the challenge of restarting schools amidst a pandemic”—especially when you consider that the Archdiocese of New York permanently closed twenty of its schools in July.

The paper’s jeering coverage of public education consistently ignores the reasons Catholic schools are able to “function” when public schools cannot.

Diocesan school leaders can’t control the angle of press coverage like this. But they should be wary of embracing it. That September 12 editorial heckling the Department of Education included this egregious smear: “At Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx, an industrious maintenance worker roamed the halls wiping doorknobs, staircase rails, walls, hallways and other contact points. At regular city schools, custodians are grumbling about having to skip their second jobs and fishing trips to sanitize their buildings.” I read it by following a link from the official Twitter account of the Archdiocese of New York Catholic Schools, where it was shared with the comment, “This @nypost editorial says it all.”

I can’t comment on the soundness of the decisions being made by the New York City Department of Education. But I know who I see using the pandemic to stuff their pockets, and it isn’t fat-cat maintenance workers. The Post’s implication that public-school educators are unconcerned with their students’ wellbeing is disgraceful. And while it is true that Catholic schools can be a lifeline for students served poorly by public education, I have also known families who have moved their children out of Catholic schools because the public system provides—is required to provide—services for learning disabilities and other special needs that Catholic schools can’t always accommodate. “Putting education first” is not as simple as it sounds.

Catholics should be standing in solidarity with all our neighbors as we do our best to cope with this crisis. We degrade our witness when we allow Catholic schools to be used in a propaganda campaign against public services—or against an honest reckoning with the facts. As the 2020 election approaches, conservatives are eager to exploit the Catholic school success story to advance the claim—let’s call it what it is, a conspiracy theory—that liberals are dishonestly playing up the threat of COVID-19 to make President Donald Trump look bad.

The truth is, my kids and their schoolmates are part of a broad experiment to find out whether masks and distancing and all the other safeguards in place are enough to prevent the spread of the virus. All of us, public and private, parents, teachers, and administrators, are looking for the best way forward in a highly unstable situation. That situation is not the fault of teachers’ unions, or lazy public-school janitors, or even (despite his many sins) Bill de Blasio. It is a direct consequence of the reprehensible failure of the Trump administration to protect Americans from COVID-19. We are all still scrambling, months after schools first shut down in March, because we have inadequate testing and tracing, no national recovery plan, and a president who undermines public trust and sneers at his opponent for wearing a mask. The real scandal we’re all facing isn’t the lack of a functional school system. It’s the lack of a functional federal government.

Issue: 

How Strong is the “STRONGEST Argument Against Catholicism”?

Capturing Christianity, Cameron Bertuzzi’s YouTube platform, recently released a 90-minute video called “The STRONGEST Argument Against Catholicism w/ Dr. Jerry Walls.” In it, Bertuzzi sits down with Dr. Jerry Walls, a philosopher at Houston Baptist University, who presents what he views as the best argument against the Catholic claim. There’s actually a lot to like about the video. First, both men seem to be genuinely interested in the truth. Walls calls the question a “family dispute” between Catholics and Protestants, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge those things that he thinks Catholicism gets right. Indeed, Walls (a graduate of Notre Dame) has written a book defending the idea of Purgatory from a Protestant perspective. For his part, Bertuzzi appears to be on his way towards the Catholic Church, and seems to be genuinely trying to sort out the competing claims of Protestantism and Catholicism. The crux…

Pope Francis’s Call to Fraternity

In what may turn out to be his final major teaching document, Pope Francis has issued a bracing call to a fractured world to discover what he calls “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words.” It could hardly be more timely.

Although he did not pen Fratelli tutti in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the virus hovers over its first chapter, in which he grimly surveys a world sliding back into fragmentation, egotism, and polarization, incapable of the consensus needed to cope with the challenge. But the encyclical was conceived in response to a much broader crisis in modernity, not just the pandemic, and it is on the persuasiveness of its diagnosis and prescription that it will be judged.

Like Laudato si’ in 2015, Fratelli tutti is inspired by the saint of Assisi, where on Saturday Francis signed his encyclical after Mass at the basilica. It was his first trip outside Rome since the lockdown, and the first time an encyclical has been signed outside the Vatican in more than two hundred years.

Fratelli tutti looks back to that iconic medieval act of border-blind fraternity: the meeting of the poverello with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt in the midst of the Crusades. The 800th anniversary of that event lay in the background to the so-called Abu Dhabi “document on human fraternity,” which Pope Francis co-signed with the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute, Sheikh al-Tayyeb, in February 2019. Fratelli tutti develops the themes of that document, and ends with its declaration of principles.

To describe Fratelli tutti as valedictory encyclical does not mean—pace Italian commentators speaking of “the beginning of the end of the pontificate”—that this papacy is running out of steam: if anything, the COVID-19 crisis has re-energized Francis with an urgent sense that the Church needs to be at the center of reshaping the post-pandemic world. Many popes—one thinks of Saint Paul VI—can go on for many years after penning their final encyclical.

The main reason to think of Fratelli tutti as just that is that it bundles together a number of themes that in recent years have been rumored to be the basis for his final teaching document: the challenge of migration, the globalism-nationalism debate, as well as the need for a more definitive magisterial rejection of the idea that a “just war” is still possible in our time. It is almost as if, sensing his time coming to a close—not an irrational thought for a pope on the eve of his eighty-fourth birthday—he needed to package them all together.

Yet while it can feel like a potpourri—chapters on globalism/localism, politics, peacemaking, religions acting together for the common good—there is at the heart of Fratelli tutti a big idea, which I will come to shortly. And it has many of the virtues of his other landmark documents: streams of quotes from local bishops’ conferences and other religious leaders (especially al-Tayyeb), as well as contemporary culture—my favorite footnote is from a famous samba by the Brazilian poet-musician, Vinicius de Moraes— along with thinkers (especially Paul Ricoeur) and previous popes. Benedict XVI’s 2007 social encylical, Caritas in veritate, is especially prominent.

There is a second reason for thinking that Fratelli tutti closes out the teaching of this pontificate: it is the last of a triptych of landmark teaching documents concerned with restoring the three vital relationships of human existence: with our Creator (Evangelii gaudium, 2013), with creation (Laudato si’, 2015), and now with our fellow creatures (Fratelli tutti). There is little doubt that these three documents—the first of which, an exhortation, had the length, depth, and magisterial weight of an encyclical—will be considered the teaching backbone of the Francis era.

How does Fratelli tutti compare with the other two? At 43,000 words it is shorter than Evangelii gaudium (47,000) and Laudato si’ (45,000), but will still strike some as too long. Despite some impressive chapters and some brilliantly acute depictions of the contemporary world, Fratelli tutti has neither the personal, charismatic power of Evangelii gaudium nor the startling genius of Laudato si’; and, as is to be expected of any teaching document issued this late in a highly expressive pontificate, much of it will feel familiar.

Still, it remains an impressive document that speaks with uncanny directness to the breakdown of our time. Who but the pope could mobilize the Good Samaritan to confront post-truth politics, the corrosion of civility, the lies of populism, and the decline of the nation-state? Simply to hear Francis say that “things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures,” or that “the biggest issue” facing the world right now is employment, brings a sense of relief. At least the pope gets it, and says it doesn’t have to be that way.

Fratelli tutti has one clear advantage over all his previous documents: it is superbly translated. Take, for example, paragraph 42 on the growing loss of privacy. A typically unimaginative Vatican translation from the Spanish original might have read: “In digital communication everything wants to be shown and every individual becomes the object of gazes that poke at people, stripping and exposing them, often anonymously.” Yet the English version of Fratelli tutti reads: “Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously”—a fine rendition. Having read both Spanish and English, it’s clear that little has been lost in translation, and there are quite a few gains.

Still, the challenge of rendering the title remains. Because Fratelli tutti has no official English translation—the Vatican is leaving it as it is, because the pope did not want to change St. Francis’s own words—some Catholic feminists in the Anglo-Saxon world have claimed the title excludes women, because the saint was addressing his fellow friars.

Yet the original words of St. Francis in the Admonitiones were in Latin, fratres omnes, which could be rendered as either frati or fratelli. By using the latter, the encyclical universalizes the saint’s audience: he is addressing not just his fellow friars but the whole of humanity. Like hermanos in Spanish, fratelli in Italian is a masculine plural noun that includes the female. When Italians want to know how many brothers and sisters you have, they ask, “Quanti fratelli hai?” So the English translation of Fratelli tutti can only be “Brothers and Sisters All.” In case there’s any doubt, the encyclical resolves the issue not just in its first line—“‘FRATELLI TUTTI’: With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters…”—but throughout the text, which speaks always of “men and women.”

 

Without fraternity, liberty descends into permissiveness and avarice, a license for the powerful to possess and exploit, while equality is reduced to a kind of abstraction.

At the core of Fratelli tutti is Francis’s conviction that the world is fast losing its sense of the oneness of the human family. With the disappearance of the common good, dialogue, and solidarity as animating social ideas, humanity is fast sliding into the darkness of civil strife, conflict, tribalism, and nationalism.

In part this is the outgrowth of a lopsided modernity. Of the three great aims of the French Revolution—liberty, equality and fraternity—the Western world has been obsessed with the first two, while ignoring or downgrading the third. Yet without fraternity, liberty descends into permissiveness and avarice, a license for the powerful to possess and exploit, while equality is reduced to a kind of abstraction, with endless squabbles over identity and a constant temptation to uniformity. Only a proper sense of the worth of every person and a recognition of his or her dignity provides an adequate basic principle of social life. “Unless this basic principle is upheld,” says Francis, “there will be no future either for fraternity or for the survival of humanity” (107).

These observations come in the third chapter, “Envisaging and engendering an open world.” The first chapter—about the world’s need of a savior—is called “Dark clouds over a closed world,” while the second chapter, “A stranger on the road,” features an exegesis on the Good Samaritan. The pattern of conversion can be read in those headings: from a fearful, isolated clinging to identity and tribe to another kind of humanity, in which compassion for the needs of all living beings—the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider—become a new kind of identity.

“Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off,” says Francis in paragraph 70. Religious belief and belonging are not enough to save us from this choice: the fact that it was the priest and the Levite who passed by is not to be overlooked: “It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way that is pleasing to God…. Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (74).

Toward the end of Chapter Two, Francis gently applies the screws again. Given what believers come to understand through the words and presence of Christ in the poorest and neediest—that God loves every man and woman with infinite love, so conferring dignity upon them—“I sometimes wonder why,” the pope ponders, “it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence.” Today, he says, there can be no excuses, yet there are Christians who justify violent nationalism, xenophobia, and contempt, a fact that should prompt preachers and catechists to “speak more directly and clearly about…our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters.”

Chapter Three then fleshes out the implications of this hermeneutic shift, which expresses itself in self-transcendence, ultimately the measure of a person’s spiritual stature. “Yet some believers,” Francis adds pointedly, “think that it consists in the imposition of their own ideologies upon everyone else, or in violent defense of the truth, or in impressive demonstrations of strength.”

He defines fraternal love as action directed toward others, “considering them of value…apart from their physical or moral appearances.” This is the love that, when cultivated, makes possible social friendship: now, “every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country.” Such social friendship creates a “true universal openness,” as opposed to “the false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people.”

It is at this point, halfway through the third chapter, that Francis touches on what is arguably the big idea of Fratelli tutti. If the unifying idea of Laudato si’ was Romano Guardini’s contrast between the exploitative “technocratic paradigm” and the Gospel way of relating to the created world as gift, here Francis tells us in a footnote that his reflections have been inspired by an early essay by the French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur titled “Le Socius et le Prochain” published in a collection called Histoire et Verité. The hermeneutic contrast here is between “the Associate” and “the Neighbor”: the person reduced to their static role, versus the fellow creature of God.

Reflecting on the Good Samaritan, Ricoeur says Jesus’s answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is that “the neighbor is not a social object but a behavior in the first person…. One does not have a neighbor; I make myself someone else’s neighbor.” To do so requires moving out from a social role (le socius) to make yourself a neighbour (le prochain). The priest and the Levite are trapped in their roles and social functions, and are defined and limited by them; whereas the Samaritan—as a “nobody” and a despised foreigner—demonstrates a capacity for encounter and self-transcendence. Hence the shock of Matthew 25, to discover that Jesus is “in” the poor who are helped and served, a secret that remains veiled to those stuck in their social identity.

Francis notes that “those capable only of being ‘associates’ create closed worlds,” frameworks within which there is little or no room for those who are not part of their group. But he does not run with the rest of Ricoeur’s interesting reflection—that today’s world is increasingly defined by social function, as people move away from nature into organizations and institutions. The problem, says Ricoeur, is not modernity or technology per se, but the tendency to objectify people within the abstract, impersonal relationships of modern life, which in turn “dissimulate the movement of charity behind which stands the Son of Man.” Yet the associate and the neighbor are not antithetical but two dimensions of the same story: our relationship to our neighbor often passes through social institutions. The key is charity: whether directly or indirectly, it is the service of the needs of the other that creates fraternity.

Interestingly, the philosopher observes that it becomes easier to see each other as we are—beloved sons and daughters of a loving God—when struck by what Ricoeur calls “the failures of the social realm,” such as wars or great historical disasters. Only then, “socially stripped,” do we perceive “the depth of human relationships.”

It is odd that Francis did not develop this idea as a key theme of the encyclical, especially in the light of the “social stripping” wrought by the coronavirus. When he concludes Chapter Three by calling for “an alternative way of thinking” based on the “the great principle that there are rights born of our inalienable human dignity,” it is unclear how this conversion comes about (and what prevents it). To this reader, at least, the move from the road to Jericho to the language of rights is too abrupt. Although he later returns to the Ricoeur essay, developing its argument might have made it easier to understand the conversion of mindset Francis is urgently calling for.

 

Chapters Four, Five, and Six offer fruitful contributions to the challenges facing contemporary modernity: of the local/global debate, of the need for a new kind politics to transcend neoliberalism, and of the urgent need for a new kind of civic dialogue that can overcome the paralysis of contemporary polarization. In a darkening time, Fratelli tutti carves out a place in the sun for Catholics and anyone of goodwill who cares about the state of humanity.

Call it a new Christian humanism, an integral personalism, or simply commonsense wisdom at a time when that commodity is scarce: this space will be a vital refuge in the coming years, comparable, in its way, to the one created by the popes of the 1920s and ’30s in the face of totalitarianism. The so-called “third way” of the French personalists, nurtured in the face of fascism and war and promoted in the social encyclicals, became the basis for Christian democracy in the postwar world, and the incubator of the great multilateral institutions the populists now want to throw over.

Francis believes, naturally, in an open world of fraternal gratuitousness capable of welcoming the stranger who brings no apparent benefit. He argues here—as he did in Laudato si’ and as Benedict did before him—for new international bodies capable of meeting border-blind challenges at a time of enfeebled nation-states. But he is no unthinking globalist: the local has something the global lacks, and only the well-rooted can reach out to the other. The local and the global are in polar tension, but they are not antithetical: what is needed is a “healthy relationship between love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family” (149).

Francis’s critique of contemporary politics is robust. A neoliberal technocracy transfixed by the market and a populism that exploits fear to attain power are both failing to work for the common good. The pope calls for a politics of service, motivated by charity, that works to change the social conditions behind suffering; and he wants to see bold international political objectives: the elimination of hunger, for example, and an end to human trafficking.

Chapter Six, on dialogue and friendship in society, takes up the pressing issue of a communications world increasingly marked by verbal violence, in which people jostle to impose their ideas in power plays rather than engage in authentic dialogue to expand everyone’s horizons. “The heroes of the future,” Francis predicts, “will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest.” In an intriguing rebuttal to fundamentalists of all stripes who fear that dialogue erodes truth, Francis argues that there is no need “to oppose the interests of society, consensus, and the reality of objective truth,” which can be harmonized “whenever, through dialogue, people are unafraid to get to the heart of an issue.” He ends by arguing, simply, for a daily effort to be kind, which he says “frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships.”

Chapter Seven, on war and conflict, closes off attempts to justify modern warfare on the basis of St. Augustine’s just-war framework. Although popes have long argued that the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare makes just-war doctrine all but obsolete, Francis’s footnote to paragraph 258 is unambiguous: St. Augustine, he says, “forged a concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day.” In the text itself he explains that in view of the risks of war, it cannot be thought of as a solution, any more than the death penalty can be thought of as a solution to criminality. It would be hard to imagine George Weigel now penning a just-war defense for the invasion of Iraq while continuing to claim the mantle of orthodoxy.

Francis ends Fratelli tutti by taking up the theme of the Abu Dhabi document: that when they reject extremism and fundamentalism and collaborate in freedom, the world’s faiths open the eyes of human beings to their shared dignity and worth, calling them to a human fraternity that embraces all people and makes them equal. If this is to be, after all, Francis’s last encyclical, it is a powerful note on which to end.

“Pray”: The Story of Father Patrick Peyton

Great evangelists are “fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). To win souls for the kingdom of God, many heralds of the Gospel demonstrate a total commitment to Christ that may look a bit reckless in the eyes of the world. Fr. Patrick Peyton was just such an evangelist, and the new film Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, directed by Jonathan Cipiti, tells his tale. Fr. Peyton left humble circumstances in his native Ireland as a nineteen-year-old in 1928 for a new life in the United States. He desired a fortune in material wealth, but he soon found his reward in a life of total devotion to Christ, to Mary, and to the families of his adopted country. Cipiti’s film shows how Peyton miraculously survived tuberculosis by committing himself entirely to the power of prayer, eventually graduating from Notre Dame and becoming a larger-than-life priest who…

Cardinal Becciu, and Beyond

Only once in modern history has a cardinal entered the room for an audience with the pope and left without his red hat. It happened in September 1927, when Pope Pius XI relieved Louis Billot of his position for criticizing the pope’s condemnation of Action Française. On September 24 of this year, Pope Francis delivered another first, demoting a cardinal prefect of a curial congregation, Giovanni Angelo Becciu.   

The news came in a highly unusual evening announcement from the Holy See Press Office, stating that Francis had accepted the “resignation” of Becciu “from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and from the rights of the cardinalate.” The timing was tied to the forthcoming visit by inspectors from the European Council’s anti-money-laundering watchdog, and to the looming publication of an investigative report on Vatican finances by the Italian weekly L’Espresso. Becciu is suspected to have given financial favors to family and friends, and though he is not yet under formal investigation, Francis appointed a special prosecutor on September 28 to look into matters. The day after his firing, Becciu called a press conference to defend himself, as well as hinting that, given the factional wars that typify the Curia, the news could somehow be turned against Francis as well.

Though the wording of the announcement of Becciu’s firing seems plain, it’s not quite clear what it means in terms of his standing. If Becciu remains cardinal, he still has the rights and duties of all cardinals; he loses those rights and duties only if he loses the red hat. Theodore McCarrick resigned from the college of cardinals on July 28, 2018; Francis additionally suspended him from the exercise of any public ministry and directed him to observe a life of prayer and penance because of the grave allegations of sexual abuse against him. Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who before the conclave of 2013 admitted to serial sexual misconduct, lived until his death in 2018 under similar restrictions and conditions, yet was allowed to keep his title of cardinal. As of now, Becciu has not been suspended from public ministry, or been sanctioned with a life of prayer and penance. (In interviews after his firing, he seemed to complain that his punishment appears similar to that reserved for “pedophiles.”) Besides questions about the canonical meaning of the sanctions against him, it’s also not clear what’s in Becciu’s future. He is seventy-two, and still young by Vatican standards. He is a man of the institution, not a cultural warrior, and so will likely not turn out to be another Viganò or Burke. But it is hard to imagine him quietly retiring, unless the special prosecutor does find evidence of serious crimes.

The Becciu affair amounts to an earthquake for the Vatican and for the Catholic Church in Italy. Over the last decade, even prior to Francis’s election, Becciu has been one of the most powerful men in the Vatican. He was apostolic nuncio to Cuba from 2009 to 2011, and in 2013 was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI substitute of the Secretariat of State, one of the most influential positions in the Vatican, with a portfolio of ecclesiastical and political duties. He has long-standing relationships with Italian political leaders and members of the establishment. In 2018, Francis made him cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

The demotion of Becciu...is unprecedented—not only in this pontificate, but in the Vatican’s modern history.

Diplomatic by nature and training, Becciu embodies the low-profile style of the old diplomatic school. He never demonstrated the extravagance of a Cardinal Bertone (notorious for his lavish apartment in the Vatican) or complacency of, say, a Cardinal Sodano (who was embarrassingly silent on dictators like Augusto Pinochet and on serial predators like Marcial Maciel). But he has family members with significant business interests, and it seems that he favored them. (It’s useful to consider a particular Italian expression here: “tengo famiglia,” which expresses the idea that having a family can cover all manner of sins.) He may also have personally used Vatican money for real-estate deals in London and elsewhere. While Francis has dismissed highly placed officials before (Cardinal Mueller, Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Gaenswein, the editor of the Osservatore Romano, the spokespersons of the Holy See press office, etc.), the demotion of Becciu and imposition of sanctions on his duties as a cardinal is unprecedented—not only in this pontificate, but in the Vatican’s modern history. As such, it also sends a strong message to other top personnel in the Curia, where there is little transparency and where with alarming regularity there are firings and arrests tied to Vatican finances.

The Becciu firing also raises a general question about where we are with this pontificate, almost eight years after it began. Aside from the men (and a few women) doing excellent work in the information departments of the Vatican, those in wider “papal” Rome, and his global Jesuit connections, just who are Francis’s people? There has been minimal turnover in the cohort of cardinals appointed by Benedict, perhaps because of the “co-residency” of the current and former pope. But it is also a reflection of the distance that Francis has always maintained between himself and the Curia. Of the eighty-eight cardinal appointments Francis has made since 2014, only a handful have been for Curia posts, and mostly not in key curial congregations. Almost all of the cardinals appointed by Francis come from—and are destined to remain in—the far corners of the Church around the world, to signal the new global dimension of Catholicism. The cardinals who at the beginning of the pontificate supported Francis (Cardinals Kasper and Marx, for example) are not as visible or active as they once were. It’s been almost two years since the council of nine cardinals was reduced to six members, with no renewals or new appointments. The C9’s most important project, the constitution of reform of the Roman Curia, began in 2014, but work has been repeatedly delayed and it isn’t exactly clear what’s happening with it. Further, in the last year there has been a growing disconnect between Francis’s messaging and that of Vatican institutions that have been working for him since 2013. The documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the Congregation for Divine Worship on the liturgy, and the document of the Congregation for the Clergy on the parish, are clearly at odds with the pope’s ecclesiology.      

There are perhaps three exceptions to the above: the appointment in December 2019 of Manila’s Cardinal Tagle to the Congregation for Evangelization; the naming in October 2019 of the Jesuit Michael Czerny as cardinal at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and of Cardinal Kevin Farrell as prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life. But if Curia politics is a contact sport that must also be played with ruthless delicacy, it’s not apparent what these appointments are meant to accomplish. More change may yet be in the offing, pending nearly a dozen new senior-post appointments Francis could make this fall. This year’s appointment of sixty-three-year-old Maltese Bishop Mario Grech as secretary of the Bishops’ Synod—a key piece in Francis’s vision of a synodal church—might suggest a sense of what’s to come. Further, the announcement that the Secretariat of State will no longer have a separate budget independent from the central budget authority of the Vatican signals attentiveness to curial reform—a step toward the transparency and accountability needed for the Vatican to be included on the EU’s  “white list” of economically reliable countries. In June, the Vatican implemented new procedures for awarding public contracts, which should also help change the culture of doing business for the Holy See and Vatican City. And on October 1, the Vatican released a detailed budget for the first time since 2016—one of the fruits of Francis’s January 2020 appointment of Jesuit Fr. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy. But overall, Francis still seems less focused on the pursuit of institutional reforms than on emphasizing synodality and spiritual conversion.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of the year—or, to put it more precisely, since Francis’s decision not to accept certain proposals for institutional reform approved at the Amazon Synod—the Vatican’s political dynamics seem to have shifted. Once reliably vocal critics like Cardinals Burke, Mueller, and Pell have muted their theological complaints about Francis. Pell has returned to Rome following the fall of Becciu, his Vatican enemy; it remains to be seen if it is only to empty his apartment, or to enjoy an ecclesiastical rehabilitation following the overturning of his sexual-abuse conviction in Australia. Much will hinge on just how correct Pell will prove to have been on curial corruption and the state of Vatican finances, and just what remains to be revealed by Australia’s Royal Commission on his wider role in the handling of the sex-abuse crisis there.

So the fall of Becciu shouldn’t be seen in isolation, but rather in the context of the disconnects between Francis and the Curia, and their effects on his mission of reaching the peripheries he so often refers to. It reflects a more general problem of balance between spiritual reform and good governance, and of the unfortunate separation of the institutional and charismatic dimensions of the Church (as so tragically exemplified by the sex-abuse crisis). On the right bank of Rome’s Tiber River is the burial site of Peter, which symbolizes the church of institutional leadership of Peter and his successors (St. Peter’s Basilica), and on the left bank the charismatic church of Paul (the basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls). Being pope, pontifex, is also about rebuilding the bridges between these two banks.

The Word on Fire Institute: Two Years and Counting!

Two years ago, on the Feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Bishop Barron and the Word on Fire team launched a new initiative. At the encouragement of Cardinal Francis George, Bishop Barron had a desire to see the ministry of Word on Fire take a bold, new step in forming an army of evangelists. Evangelists whose sole focus is inviting a secular world to know Jesus Christ through the beauty, the intellectual life, and the tradition of Catholicism. This new initiative is the Word on Fire Institute. In the span of two years, the Institute has grown to represent 27 countries around the world, have over 15,000 members, and receive several grants for projects spanning the next several years—and believe me, we are just getting started. The Word on Fire Institute exists as the educational arm of Bishop Robert Barron’s ministry. Our spirit can best be understood as…