Saturday, 9/30/17


  1. Pope Francis’ high-wire act
  2. Catholic kid anecdote
  3. Air Force Academy kerfuffle
  4. Police shooting data, not anecdote
  5. He said what?!?!
  6. Tending the soul, polishing the brand
  7. The incredible shrinking soft-spot


Francis’s way of engaging sinners is a high wire act. He wants to help people hear the Gospel by setting aside for the moment the hard words of judgment. He wants to speak about mercy without setting out the reasons they need mercy, which most already know. He speaks to them as a doctor who wants them healed: he makes the offer of healing first, then gives the diagnosis, then presents the treatment the patient may not like. Which was the way Jesus often speaks in the gospels.

The pope takes risks in doing so. Pastoral care that doesn’t begin with condemnation will be taken as approval, because so many people want the pope’s approval. Much of the media, aided by dissenting Catholics, keeps getting the story 180 degrees wrong. The message the world hears may not be the message the pope wants it to hear.

Speaking of mercy without speaking of sin can also decline into lazy, unadmitted approval. I don’t think Francis has done that, but it is a risk he runs with his way of speaking.

But — and this strikes me as a crucial point in thinking about these things — [his critics’] way of dealing with (not engaging) the particular sinners is also a high wire act. It takes just as big a risk, and maybe a bigger one. They’re doing something very risky without knowing it.

Few see this because we can’t so easily see their victims …

The harm of sin is easy to see. It’s especially easy to see when we think — as we usually do — of categories like “people remarried without annulments” and not actual people. Actual people complicate the narrative.

Most of us don’t see those who don’t know the moral law because we’ve presented it so badly or crudely or simple-mindedly. From the outside, they look like people who’d told God to get lost and now suffer the consequences. We don’t see those who’ve experienced the Faith as Bad News, not as a Gospel. Or we do see them, but we dismiss them as willful sinners, as people deserving only denunciation, as men and woman refusing to do what God wants them to do …

(David Mills at Ethika Politika)

I’ve tended — officiously, since I’m not Roman Catholic — to side with Francis’ critics, but I trust David Mills enough to hear him out. It was hard to know where to stop the copy-and-paste, so I’d suggest that you distrust my summary and go read it yourself — if you care about the condition of the Catholic Church and especially if you’re worried about Pope Francis’ approach to things.

I’ll shut my officious mouth now.


Among young Catholics who are serious about the Faith, I would be hard-pressed to name very many who over the past few years have become more committed to American conservatism—that is, right-wing liberalism—or who have become more enamored of modern trends in theology and liturgy. Some of these people are moving left, toward a re-examination of socialism or at least social democracy; others are moving right, toward a reexamination of aristocratic, monarchic, or corporatist (or, less benignly, ethnonationalist) political and economic arrangements. (Very few, I should note, are moving toward the left-liberalism of the Democratic Party.) Nearly all of them, as other writers have noted, are exploring and embracing the depth of the Church’s theological and liturgical traditions.

This is the unifying conviction that brings together the encyclical-reading eggheads and the everyday nine-to-five working men, the Marx-reading quasi-leftists and the Falange-curious corporatists, the homeschooling stay-at-home moms and the vocation-discerning bachelors: Living the Faith seriously is no longer compatible with respectable, mainstream American culture …

Rejecting any compromise with bourgeois respectability, this cohort then feels free to explore the depth of the Church’s intellectual and theological tradition—including the treasury of social teachings that open up horizons well beyond what everyday Republicans and Democrats can view. This exploration comes with risks, of course. The rejection of the boundaries of respectability open up some frontiers better left unexplored. And the embrace of radicalism can easily become a prideful end-in-itself that relishes shock and transgression …

(Brandon McGinley at Mere Orthodoxy)


So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.

(Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy, responding to racist messages on whiteboards outside rooms of some black cadets)

You’d probably seen or heard that already. I immediately cheered. Then I started thinking about why I had immediately cheered. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Anonymous political pamphleteering notwithstanding, messages anonymously written to harass and alarm ordinary people aren’t the kind of speech I value. From a galloping horse, I don’t think it’s what the free speech clause of the first amendment values, either.
  • The General didn’t call out anyone in particular, but pretty clearly drew a line in the sand. If you’re not bright enough to figure out that getting caught at this crap will get you expelled, you’re not bright enough to be eating up tax dollars to try educating you.
  • Perhaps above all, this is a United States military academy. Cadets aren’t there on the taxpayer’s dollar to become educated individual warriors. They are there to to become educated leaders of teams of warriors. Unit cohesion matters. Racism, even if covert, is not conducive to unit cohesion.

I say this to draw my own line in the sand: my approval of the General’s comments does not, I think, conflict with my near-absolutism on the first amendment in general. People still should be allowed to offend — openly, expecting blowback in the form of counter-speech.

But one gives up some of that in the military.


The [Washington] Post has indeed found that there’s a strikingly consistent number of fatal police shootings each year: close to 1,000 people of all races. But that figure includes the armed and the unarmed. Fatal police shootings of the unarmed — the issue Kaepernick and Reid cite — are far fewer. In the first six months of this year, for example, the Post found a total of 27 fatal shootings of unarmed people, of which black men constituted seven. Yes, you read that right: seven. There are 22 million black men in America. If an African-American man is not armed, the chance that he will be killed by the police in any recent year is 0.0000006 percent. If a black man is carrying a weapon, the chance is 0.0000075. One is too many, but it seems to me important to get the scale of this right. Our perceptions are not reality.

In other policy areas, left-liberals tend to agree with me on this general logic. They usually insist on not confusing an anecdote for solid data. They point out, for example, the infinitesimal chance that you will be killed by a terrorist in order to puncture the compelling and emotional narrative that we are a nation under siege by jihadists. They note that the public’s view that crime has been rising is, in fact, a fiction drummed up by Trump — and they cite the kind of data I just provided to prove it. But when it comes to race and police shootings, the data take second place to emotion. … [O]n the deaths of unarmed black men, the left-liberal characterization of the problem just does not match the statistical reality.

(Andrew Sullivan) Slavery, Jim Crow, KKK and lynchings are an important backdrop — one might even say “an extenuating factor” for overreation. But statistically, all we apparently have is some shootings, with a few shootings of unarmed black men were captured on video, which intensifies the impression.


One of Donald Trump’s Federal District Court nominees is said to have “referred to transgender children as part of ‘Satan’s plan’ and defended the use of gay ‘conversion therapy.'”

I trust Professor Friedman to have accurately conveyed that information, and his blog is very scrupulous about avoiding commentary or editorializing. So no blame there.

But the two charges he conveys are the sort of vague accusations that are intended to stop just short of actionable slander. From the Right, for instance, we once got the charge that a perennial local liberal candidate for moderately high office was “affiliated with the Church of Satan,” the substance of which was that the candidate had at least one religiously flaky or provocative friend. “Affiliate,” you see, is very, very elastic, like “referred to” or “compared to.”

I suspect that this nominee may have said something such as these:

  • Satan is at work in the world and one of the ways is sowing sexual confusion. A really outrageous example is parents helping their confused young children “transition,” or even commercialize a confused child (e.g., Lactatia, “[e]ncouraged by his supportive parents”). In other words, it’s not that the child is “satanic” and not even an accusation that the parents are more than deluded by satan, who, after all, is notoriously sneaky.
  • Homosexuals who are troubled by their sexual orientation should be allowed to pursue, and professionals should be allowed to provide, efforts to gain insight and strategies for avoiding unchastity — or even to change sexual orientation. There has not been, and probably cannot be, proof that no such efforts are helpful and that all such efforts are harmful, so the law should keep hands off.

I don’t recall knowing anything about this nominee, nor do I think he has been among the Trump nominees universally hailed as stellar by people I trust (including the libertarian-leaning law profs at Volokh Conspiracy). So maybe he’s a misfire from a White House that has done awfully well in judicial nominations. But I’m not jumping on weasel-words to condemn him.


It’s interesting to compare Chance’s song with Taylor Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is also about a young star coping with celebrity. The former stands out from the current cultural moment; the latter embodies it. Swift is a phenomenally talented and beautiful songwriter who has lost touch with herself and seems to have been swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era.

The video to that song, which has been watched 478 million times on YouTube so far, contains a string of references to Swift’s various public beefs — with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and so on. If Donald Trump or his political enemies made a video about their Twitter wars, it would look like this.

The crucial lyric is “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” The world is full of snakes. The only way to survive is through combat. (“I got smarter. I got harder in the nick of time.”)

This is a song for a society without social trust ….

(David Brooks) “Chance” is Chance the Rapper, who on Stephen Colbert’s show Monday eschewed the “completely prepackaged and professionalized” and “put[] on a display of vulnerability, trust and humility.”

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

A person has a soul, which is what Chance is worrying about. A brand has a reputation, which is the title of Swift’s next album. A person has private dignity. A brand is a creation for an audience.


My soft spot for Roy Moore got smaller Friday. Amid a lot of same-old same-old, something I didn’t know.:

He’s a committed birther, espousing the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States as late as December of last year. In 2015 his foundation and his wife shared a video declaring that Obama is a Muslim. He wrote a column in 2006 arguing that the House of Representatives should not seat Keith Ellison because he is a Muslim. He holds the crank view that certain communities in America are under Sharia law — though he was unable to name any in an interview with Vox‘s Jeff Stein.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.