Why the NBA’s Officiating Crisis Matters

All’s well that ends well. At least, that is how the NBA is hoping basketball fans feel after the Golden State Warriors, the best (and most entertaining) team in the league, triumphed over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in this year’s Finals. And with this week’s draft, many NBA fans will be looking to the future rather than to the past season or postseason, as hope springs eternal—just as did for the Warriors when Stephen Curry slipped to them just over six years ago.

But all is not well in the Association. The NBA is facing an officiating crisis. It threatens the integrity of the sport and the legitimacy of the league. Read More

Pope Francis: Love is Stronger than Death

One of my favorite lines in Laudato Si is when Pope Francis writes, “How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles!” Faith gives us the belief that creation and history are infused with real meaning, which is why our own lives have worth and purpose. Conversely, nihilism is the most logical worldview if one embraces the type of strict materialism that he describes above. Read More

Church and Labor Leaders on Solidarity and Faith

Yesterday, the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (where I am a graduate fellow) co-hosted an event at the AFL-CIO headquarters that brought together Church and labor leaders. The topic was “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity & Faith.” The event was a follow-up on last year’s “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism” conference. This year’s conference, which sought to offer an affirmative alternative to the “poisoned spring” of libertarianism, could not have come at a better time, with Pope Francis’ new encyclical set to be released later this week.

Francis, building on his predecessors, will outline an ecological ethic dedicated to protecting creation and promoting integral human development—an ethic rooted in the personalist belief in the dignity and worth of the person and a communitarian commitment to social justice and the government’s role in promoting the common good. At the very heart of Francis’ message will almost certainly be yesterday’s main topic: solidarity. And his message will stand in stark contrast to the market morality, hyperindividualism, obsession with self-interest, and anti-government mentality trumpeted by the champions of libertarianism.

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Politics Sucks, But Don’t Check Out

Neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party has a platform or priorities that fully reflect the principles of Catholic social teaching. Money has infected the American political system, threatening the very foundations of representative government. Politicians run polls so they know to avoid words like poverty and social justice, which don’t win votes. Major challenges go unaddressed as polarization grows and divided government seems to be the default setting—a recipe for inaction as our parties purify themselves ideologically. Lobbyists write bills, politicians beg for money, and the public is too often duped by negative campaign ads that play to their worst instincts. Cable news shows preach to the choir or offer intentionally worthless debates based on bumper sticker slogans and superficial analysis.

It is an ugly scene. There is no use sugarcoating it. Anyone who seeks to live virtuously is tempted to turn off the noise, ignore the idiocy, and focus on their everyday life. Many idealistic young people look to NGOs to change the world, hoping to sidestep the filth of politics. This escape would be nothing new. The Gilded Age was an era when the best of men sat on the sidelines, while the greedy and corrupt pursued politics for their own ends. To run for office was to risk losing one’s reputation for honesty and integrity. (Of course, many non-white men and all women did not have the opportunity to opt-out, as they were undemocratically excluded by others.)

The temptation to flee the political sphere is understandable, but it is not acceptable. Pope Francis recently made this point, saying, “If Christians were to disengage in their direct involvement in politics, it would betray the mission of lay faithful, called to be salt and light in the world always in this kind of presence.” Pope Francis is right: “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”

People have both a right and duty to participate in government (the bishops and patriarchs who have cozied up to dictators in certain parts of the world and prefer secular authoritarian regimes run by mass murderers to systems where the public can participate may need to be reminded of this, but that’s a different issue). Pope Francis has explained:

“None of us can say, ‘I have nothing to do with this, they govern. . . .’ No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!”

The Gilded Age would not have turned into the Progressive Era if ethical citizens did not enter the political arena to promote the common good. They risked their own purity to serve others, and the country benefited.

The 20th century featured some of humanity’s darkest moments, particularly when totalitarianism was on the march, destroying everything in its wake; but it also showed the difference good men and women can make when they stand by their principles and refuse to back down. Pope Francis recently highlighted a couple of these exemplary public servants:

“Think of De Gasperi. Think of France: Schumann, who has a cause for beatification. One can become a saint through politics. And I don’t want to name more: two examples of those who pursued the common good are enough.”

When those of us in the West wish to ignore mass atrocities, many turn to the ‘ancient hatreds’ defense, which at its core states that those fighting (those non-North American or Western European people, naturally) are so savage and consumed by hatred that they must inevitably fight given their proximity to one another, and there is nothing anyone else can do to stop them. Thus, we are free to ignore children being set on fire by their own government or whole communities slaughtered. But if one looks at the history of ancient hatreds and perpetual conflict, it is hard to top the history of enmity in Western Europe.

Yet in the wake of World War II, outstanding public servants— Alcide De Gasperi , Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monet, and others—put an end to the constant, senseless wars that had taken place for centuries in Western Europe. Many were driven by their Christian faith to build a new world out of the ruins of a horrific war. They laid the foundations for the European Union and post-war peace. They helped to establish free democracies and more just societies. They helped to build Christian Democratic parties that reflected many of principles found in the Church’s social encyclicals. These fine politicians, who resisted the totalitarian temptation and the frightened conformity of too many other Christians, acted with courage and prudence to make extraordinary contributions to the common good.

The United States certainly could use a Christian Democratic Party animated by the principles of Catholic social teaching. But realistically, what we need today are regular men and women who believe in solidarity, human dignity, social justice, and the common good, who are willing to enter the arena, to expose themselves to the muck of contemporary American politics and to fight to protect the vulnerable, to transform the system so that is serves the people, and to avoid being corrupted in the process.

Who will fight for the vulnerable people in desperate need of a mosquito net, medicine, or their next meal, while free market fundamentalists recklessly push to slash life-saving programs? Who will really fight? Who will speak up for the child in the womb and his or her desperate mother? Who will fight to ensure that those in the twilight of their lives are not discarded and those in their first years are not immediately abandoned, left to drift away from their God-given potential?

Christians are called to be salt and light. We are called to be thorns in the sides of our own political parties. We are called to be the unrealistic fools who resist the status quo and work relentlessly to upend it. We are called to pursue a loved-based justice through politics. Don’t check out.

Pope Francis: Fight Poverty, Heal Families

Pope Francis made some key points connecting poverty and the state of families at his weekly general audience earlier today. He said:

Healthy families are the “mainstay” of healthy individuals and communities, he said, so if that cornerstone is removed, “everything collapses.”

“Today’s economy often specializes in the enjoyment of individual well-being, but widely practices the exploitation of family relationships. This is a serious contradiction,” he said, criticizing economic and political experts as being “stingy” in not recognizing or including the “enormous work of the family” in their analyses and balance sheets.

“A new civil ethics will come about only when those responsible for public life reorganize social bonds starting with the fight against the perverse spiral” of poverty, he said.

Fighting poverty is not just a matter of families getting “bread” on the table, the pope said; it is about having jobs, stable employment, education, health care, housing and transportation.

The conditions found in poor neighborhoods and “the reduction of social services — health care and schooling — cause further difficulties” for families, he said.

Spread by the mass media, “fake models” of the family based on “consumerism and the cult of appearance” also harm families, he said, and have a greater impact on poorer families and increase the breakdown of family ties.

The church and its members are called to heal families and fight poverty, he said.

You can read the full report from CNS here.

Churches Aren’t M.I.A., But Haven’t Done Enough for the Poor

Robert Putnam, one of the country’s premier political scientists, recently sparked a debate over whether or not faith groups have been absent in the fight on poverty, saying:

Historically, churches had been major, major movers on issues of social and political equality in America, but as I noted in [my 2010 book] “American Grace,” somewhat surprisingly even though inequality has been rapidly growing, faith leaders were, with some notable exceptions, missing in action….

Poverty has not been at the top of the public agenda of either the Catholic Church or evangelicals….

Individual charity, however important, is not adequate to solve the big changes that have happened in America….

The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for. This is the most obvious point in the world. It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.

President Barack Obama added to this conversation at the recent Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life event Overcoming Poverty: The Moral, Political, and Policy Imperative of AND:

There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this is oftentimes viewed as a “nice to have” relative to an issue like abortion.  That’s not across the board, but there sometimes has been that view, and certainly that’s how it’s perceived in our political circles.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times called these claims ridiculous. Douthat rightly highlights the extraordinary amount of work Christian churches and charities do to assist the poor. Many on the frontlines fighting for the poor were infuriated by Putnam’s comments. And the Catholic Church (along with many other churches) has been a consistent voice for economic justice and increased assistance for the poor. The media is largely to blame for overlooking these efforts, often focusing on controversial issues and ignoring the Church’s defense of the poor. But the impact of the culture war in undermining efforts to deliver economic justice for the poor is real, and Douthat is wrong to downplay it.

Douthat argues, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.” True, there are many parishes where you will not hear about abortion or gay marriage, but there are just as many where you will not hear about upending the unjust social structures that leave the poor behind. The bigger issue is the way organized religion came to be linked in the minds of so many with right-wing politics over the past two and a half decades, as the Religious Right rose in stature (and the Republican Party increasingly embraced free market fundamentalism).

The results of this culture war have been disastrous for organized religion, including the Catholic Church. It has driven many from the Church and alienated millions of millennials. It is not just the media’s fault. Both the political left and the right are to blame for the toxic culture war; Douthat is right to call out left-wing culture warriors’ pro-choice maximalism.

But the reality is that some Catholic leaders, including bishops, are also to blame for the state of the culture war, its impact on the Church, and the way it has distracted many from a full commitment to the poor. The Catholics who have distorted the theological concept of intrinsic evil to support their right-wing political agenda are complicit. Those who have stretched prudential reasoning to cover imprudence and insincere politicians peddling ideologies infected by hyperindividualism are complicit. Those who use the body and blood of Jesus Christ as a tool to coerce politicians into conformity on just a couple of political issues, ignoring those affecting the poor, are complicit.

Those who pushed the simplistic solution of merely banning abortion, rather than a comprehensive approach to abolition that includes adequate support for pregnant women and families, are to blame. Those who have been fixated on the fight over same-sex marriage, as the American family has collapsed, in part due to economic pressures, are to blame.

These tactics were used to help a political party whose economic agenda is driven by an economic libertarianism that is entirely incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church (from the universal destination of goods to the preferential option for the poor to the Church’s basic understanding of human dignity and human rights). While the media is wrong to cover every salacious detail of this culture war while ignoring the Bishops’ statements on economic justice, the Church cannot claim total innocence. And the simple truth is that the Church has not done enough for the poor, because it has allowed these pernicious culture war tactics to persist.

But Pope Francis is reversing this. He has reaffirmed that the pursuit of social justice and the defense of human life are deeply interconnected, restoring both to the proper context. He has denounced ideologues and legalism. He is making it clear that those who relish waging the culture war are not the Church. They are not model Christians. They do not reflect what it means to be an orthodox believer. They have distorted the Church’s mission because of their ideology. Surely no one can doubt that Pope Francis has shifted the Church toward a greater focus on the poor and vulnerable.

This is more than a political priority. The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable should animate the Church at every level. But if we follow Francis’ lead, it will become a greater political priority. And it will not just challenge those who have embraced economic libertarianism, but progressives as well. We are living in the Second Gilded Age. Our political system is broken, our economy serves the rich, and we lack the political will to fix this. More spending on existing government programs will not spark real social and economic mobility and offer genuine opportunity for all. Neither party has an adequate commitment to the poor, and Christians should be the ones that change that.

A more radical approach is necessary. And Christians have simply have not cared enough about the poor to embrace this radicalism—the radicalism of one who walks in the Way of Christ. Instead of being defensive about our past efforts to help the poor, the Church should become a poor church for the poor. We must never be complacent about doing enough for the poor and vulnerable. This is our call. This is our mission. This is how we serve the Lord.

Pope Francis’ Morning Homilies and His Vision for the Church

Pope Francis wasted little time in capturing the public’s imagination. And every day there seemed to be something new: an act of humility, a clever expression, or a challenge for each of us who wishes to follow in the way of Christ. We knew Pope Francis was doing something special, but it still took many of us some time to realize how valuable it would be to closely track everything the Holy Father was saying, in particular in his daily homilies. Reading through Morning Homilies, a collection of Pope Francis’ homilies from roughly his four first months as pope, therefore, not only reminded me of some of his most memorable phrases and key concepts, but exposed me to many more that I missed in those first months. It is an excellent collection, whether you have read these before, never read a single one of the pope’s homilies, or are somewhere in between.

Francis reminds us that we are sinners, cautions us against pride, and rails against gossip and slander. He calls for a Church that is free of ideology, saying that “when ideology enters the mind, nothing of the gospel is understood,” as the ideologists “falsify the gospel” and “end up becoming intellectuals without insight and moralists without kindness.” He tells us to embrace humility, kindness, service, and fraternal love. This, he says, is how the salvation of souls is achieved. We are called to do both great things and little things in our everyday lives.

Francis tells us to not be lukewarm Christians who follow “common sense” and embrace “worldly prudence.” This lukewarmness closes us in on ourselves. We are not to become “good-mannered armchair Christians.” We must not spend too much energy pursuing comfort, as “the comfort culture makes us not very brave, makes us lazy, also makes us selfish.” And we shouldn’t over-intellectualize our lives and the faith. Francis reminds us, “Jesus Christ’s salvation is real and actual. Jesus Christ didn’t save us by an idea, by an intellectual program. He saved us by his flesh, by his real flesh and blood.”

In these homilies, Pope Francis warns that the Church must not let bureaucracy dominate and become an NGO, divorced from its authentic mission. He cautions that when “the organization comes first, love collapses, and the poor church becomes an NGO.” Francis endorses Pope Benedict’s statement that the Church does not grow through proselytism. Instead, it grows “by attraction, by witness, by preaching.” He explains, “Christians who are afraid to make bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are unsure of their own faith, unsure of Jesus Christ.” This church loses the courage to go out to the edges. Pope Francis tells us that the Church should neither “go backward” nor embrace an “adolescent progressivism” that simply adopts the values of the dominant culture. We must reject being “slaves to superficiality” or “slaves to rigidity.”

Instead, we are called to trust in God, to embrace mercy, and to pursue the kingdom of God. And this can only be done personally—by each of us, flawed though we are, through our relationships with others. This is how we become “full-time Christians.” This is how we become “Christians in deed and in truth.”

These homilies helped to set the tone for Pope Francis’ papacy and offer us a look at his vision for the Church and for each of us. They are spoken with clarity and conviction. They are merciful but challenging. Francis reminds us that we are sinners, but also that we are called to greatness. Reading these homilies and thinking about how you might translate these lessons into your life might help you to take a step in that direction.