Author: Jana Bennett

The Ryan Budget: Scholars versus Magisterium Again?

A timeline of events: April 5, 2011 – Paul Ryan’s budget is submitted to the House Budget Committee. April 29, 2011 – Congressman Ryan writes a letter about his budget/fiscal ideas to Archbishop Dolan, partly responding to his January letter to members of Congress. May 11, 2011 – Catholic scholars publish an open letter to Speaker Boehner. May 18, 2011 – Archbishop Dolan responds to Congressman Ryan. The letter is published by the congressman. Googling “Ryan and Dolan” yields some interesting results relating to this timeline. Some have suggested that Archbishop Dolan is tacitly approving the Ryan Budget and, by the same token, speaking against those Catholic scholars who made their request to Speaker Boehner (though it should be noted: the audiences of the scholars’ letter and the archbishop’s letter are different, even if drafted both to Republican members of the House of Representatives). Others have insisted that we read Archbishop Dolan’s letter in its proper context: it is a response to Rep. Ryan’s letter, not an approval of his budget. Of course, Archbishop Dolan expresses “appreciation” of the fact that Ryan’s letter discusses the important issues that the bishop seeks to address, but on my own reading, it does not go quite so far as to approve outright Ryan’s letter, but rather that the congressman recognizes the principles of Catholic social teaching: It is clear that all of...

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Would you like a slice of reality with that ideal?

One of the complaints that people sometimes make about Catholic social teachings is that they don’t seem very related to “real life.” For example, the Catholic social tradition often discusses fairness in wages and the concept of “decent work”. Of course, the term “just wage” is hotly debated, as is “decent work.” What would it mean to have a just wage? How would one account for disparities between peoples’ life/family situations? Some have made good choices and some bad. And “decent work” is, well, “nice work if you can get it.” In the past few months I have been struck by the petulance with which people discuss “collective bargaining” and “those government workers who get all these perks that we’re paying for.” Somehow, in the minds of many, these so called perks are luxuries that ought to be done without (and let us remember, the perks amount to: pension plans, the “good” health insurance, and three extra vacation days on average – so 11 vacation days rather than 8. And even with 11 days, we still are dwarfed by most other nations.) Strangely enough, though, these “perks” sound quite a bit like what Pope Benedict XVI writes about in Caritas in Veritate: [Decent work] means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively...

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Stepping Down from the Ivory Tower: Pange Lingua and the Triduum

As I was participating in tonight’s Holy Thursday mass, I remembered that Thomas Aquinas wrote one of the great hymns that we sing today – Pange Lingua. This patron saint of ours was a very intimidating person, in more ways than one, wasn’t he? Augustine is another one who wrote some amazing homilies, clearly tagged for non-ivory-tower audiences. It’s rather unfortunate, I think, that the City of God gets so much attention, because his homilies are packed full of rich metaphors and theological ideas. I have one sermon tacked on my office door that answers the question of why Jesus came to earth only to die: that bread may be hungry, and the fountain thirsty; that the light might sleep, and the way be weary from a journey; that the truth might be accused by false witnesses, and the judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge; that justice might be convicted by the unjust, and discipline be scourged with whips hung up on a tree; that strength might grow weak, eternal health be wounded, life die. One of the reactions I sometimes get when I say I’m a theologian is that we’re too cerebral and don’t participate in “faith on the ground” as much as we should. Maybe that’s because we don’t often write for “popular” audiences? I can’t say I know any...

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Subsidiarity and the Case of the Missing Lunch

I’m fond of telling my students that pretty much anything should be considered a “moral theology” question. (They don’t often believe me.) Consider the news headlines about the ban on homemade lunches. My knee jerk reaction was to think “How unfair! Parents ought to be able to decide what their kids eat.” Except that then I have second, and I believe better and more rational thoughts, for it turns out that the “homemade” lunches mentioned in the article consist in cheetos, sodas, and other processed foods. Should we care about this or is this truly a problem for the parents alone? On one hand, these foods are cheaper and more enjoyable for kids, making this a win-win situation for many parents. On the other hand, associations (though not causations, as researchers are careful to note) routinely show up in studies – links between nutrition and child obesity (and with it, the rise in obesity-related diseases), and nutrition and one’s ability to do well in school. So the principal decided to take it upon herself to ban them except in cases of medical necessity. Granted that parents who object could likely find studies that support the opposite claims (as is usually the case when it comes to scientific studies), it is the principal in this case who has the authority to ban the lunches from her school. She’s apparently not...

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Hate Speech, the Internet, and Edwardian Society

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Westboro Baptist Church members’ right to free speech, even at funerals, is by now old news. But I was interested in this piece at the BBC. Louis Theroux filmed a documentary of the group a few years ago but, strange in documentary-land, returned during the Supreme Court questioning to get an updated version. What he found were people who had left the church and he remarks: The family regard it as their duty to “rejoice in all of God’s judgements” – murders, cancer, natural disasters, and the loss of their loved ones to the lures of carnality and fornication (the word covers a multitude of activities in the Phelps lexicon, including probably hand-holding and playing the harpsichord in mixed company). When I raised the subject of their lost membership, the Phelps parents did their best to stick to the script and express satisfaction. But it was all rather forced and unconvincing and a bit sad. Though most of us would say that we are not “like that” and though I have never, ever met anyone from any political persuasion who liked what the Phelps do, their court case, their sadness should make us reflect on ourselves and our own use of language. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have been somewhat of a target of the Phelps’ vitriol. Back when...

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