As by now everyone in the world knows, Pope Francis offered a lengthy and wide-ranging interview to the editor of Civilta Cattolica, which was subsequently published in sixteen Jesuit-sponsored journals from a variety of countries. As we’ve come to expect practically anytime that this Pope speaks, the interview has provoked a media frenzy. To judge by the headlines in The New York Times and on CNN, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a moral and doctrinal revolution, led by a maverick Pope bent on dragging the old institution into the modern world. I might recommend that everyone take a deep breath and prayerfully (or at least thoughtfully) read what Pope Francis actually said. For what he actually said is beautiful, lyrical, spirit-filled, and in its own distinctive way, revolutionary.
The first question to which the Pope responded in this interview as simple: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (his given name)?” After a substantial pause, he said, “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” At the heart of the matter, at the core of the “Catholic thing,” is this encounter between us sinners and the God of amazing grace. Long before we get to social teaching, to debates about birth control and abortion, to adjudicating questions about homosexual activity, to disputes about liturgy, etc., we have the graced moment when sinners are accepted, even though they are unacceptable. Pope Francis aptly illustrated his observation by drawing attention to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Conversion of St. Matthew,” which depicts the instant when Matthew, a thoroughly self-absorbed and materialistic man, found himself looked upon by Christ’s merciful gaze. Because of that look, Matthew utterly changed, becoming first a disciple, then a missionary, and finally a martyr.
The appearance of an art house film on the philosopher Hannah Arendt has sparked renewed interest in an old controversy. In 1961, Arendt went to Jerusalem as a correspondent for the New Yorker
magazine to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi colonel accused of masterminding the transportation of millions of Jews to the death camps. Arendt was herself a Jew who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany and who had been, years before, something of an ardent Zionist. But she had since grown suspicious of the Israeli state, seeing it as un-self-critical and indifferent to the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians. I think it is fair to say, therefore, that she came to the trial with a complicated set of assumptions and a good deal of conflicting feelings.
Time Magazine’s recent cover story “The Childfree Life” has generated a good deal of controversy and commentary. The photo that graces the cover of the edition pretty much sums up the argument: a young, fit couple lounge languidly on a beach and gaze up at the camera with blissful smiles—and no child anywhere in sight. What the editors want us to accept is that this scenario is not just increasingly a fact in our country, but that it is morally acceptable as well, a lifestyle choice that some people legitimately make. Whereas in one phase of the feminist movement, “having it all” meant that a woman should be able to both pursue a career and raise a family, now it apparently means a relationship and a career without the crushing encumbrance of annoying, expensive, and demanding children.
There is no question that childlessness is on the rise in the United States. Our birthrate is the lowest in recorded history, surpassing even the crash in reproduction that followed the economic crash of the 1930’s. We have not yet reached the drastic levels found in Europe (in Italy, for example, one in four women never give birth), but childlessness has risen in our country across all ethnic and racial groups, even those that have traditionally put a particular premium on large families. What is behind this phenomenon? The article’s author spoke to a variety of women who had decided not to have children and found a number of different reasons for their decision. Some said that they simply never experienced the desire for children; others said that their careers were so satisfying to them that they couldn’t imagine taking on the responsibility of raising children; still others argued that in an era when bringing up a child costs upward of $250,000, they simply couldn’t afford to have even one baby; and the comedian Margaret Cho admitted, bluntly enough, “Babies scare me more than anything.” A researcher at the London School of Economics weighed in to say that there is a tight correlation between intelligence and childlessness: the smarter you are, it appears, the less likely you are to have children!
In “new” atheist and secularist circles today, faith is regularly ridiculed. It is presented as pre-scientific mumbo jumbo, Bronze Age credulity, the surrender of the intellect, unwarranted submission to authority, etc. Time and again, the late Christopher Hitchens, echoing Immanuel Kant, called on people to be intellectually responsible, to think for themselves, to dare to know. This coming of age would be impossible, he insisted, without the abandonment of religious faith. And in standard accounts of cultural history, the “age of faith” is presented as a retrograde and regressive dark age, out of which emerged, only after a long twilight struggle, the modern physical sciences and their attendant technologies. In accord with this cynical reading, the contemporary media almost invariably present people of “faith” as hopelessly unenlightened yahoos or dangerous fanatics. If you want the very best example of this, watch Bill Maher’s film “Religulous.”
It was to counter this deeply distorted understanding of faith that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed an encyclical letter, which has just appeared under the name of his papal successor and bears the title Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). The text—smart, allusive, ruminative, informed by a profound grasp of cultural trends—is, though signed by Pope Francis, unmistakably Ratzingerian. Though it is impossible in the context of this brief article to do justice to its rich content, I should like to gesture, however briefly, to a few of its principal motifs.
There were a number of reasons why I liked “World War Z,” the film based on Max Brooks’s book of the same name. First, it was a competently made thriller and not simply a stringing together of whiz-bang CGI effects. Secondly, it presented a positive image of a father. In a time when Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin are the norm for fatherhood in the popular culture, Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, is actually a man of intelligence, deep compassion, and self-sacrificing courage. But what intrigued me the most about “World War Z” is how it provides a template for thinking seriously about sin and salvation.
As the movie opens, an ordinary American family is alarmed by news of a mysterious contagion that is spreading quickly across the globe. In a matter of days, the disease has reached their hometown of Philadelphia, and they are forced to flee. It becomes clear that a virus is turning people into the walking dead, hungry for human flesh. What is particularly frightening about this iteration of the zombie myth is that the undead of “World War Z” are not the lumbering oafs that we’ve come to expect, but rather are fast-moving, teeth-grinding, extremely focused killing machines.
After a series of close calls, Gerry and his family manage to escape and make their way to a ship off the eastern seaboard. We learn that Gerry had been a special operative for the United Nations, skilled in fighting his way in and out of hot spots around the world. His superiors draft him back into service, charging him with the task of finding out how to contain the virus. Accompanied only by a small team of scientists and military personnel, Gerry wings his way first to Korea and then to Jerusalem, where, at least for the moment, the Israeli government has managed to keep the zombies at bay behind a high and thick wall. Now when Jerusalem came into focus, I realized that the filmmakers perhaps had some ambitions beyond simply another ringing of the changes on the zombie story.