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The meeting of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq in Baghdad on May 28, under the auspices of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was an encouraging step in the direction urged by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. The meetings agenda was confined to the war in Iraq and how to improve conditions in that war-torn country. The policies of the Iranian government pose a serious challenge to the United States on another important front. Iran continues to pursue its uranium enrichment program in defiance of the international community. The unexpected detention in Iran of two academics with dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship presented yet another obstacle to wider progress in any bilateral negotiations.


For all of his poisonous bluster calling for the destruction of Israel, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not enjoy strong support among his own people, as recent elections have shown. Different factions are at work within Iranian society, so mixed signals in the conduct of international diplomacy are inevitable. But one thing is clear: the posturing of Vice President Cheney and those neoconservative warriors who insist on a provocative display of U.S. military strength in the region promotes a strategy destined for disaster. If this continues, the United States will have learned nothing from the historic blunder that was the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in 2003, which turned that country into a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. Patience in diplomatic negotiations is a far better strategy than military posturing. Patient dialogue promises greater stability in the region by both limiting the dangers of nuclear proliferation and ending the spiral of violence in Iraq.


Spanish historians speak of La Leyenda Negra or the Black Legend, a negative version of Spanish history advanced by generations of Anglophile historians magnifying the crimes of imperial Spain and overlooking those of their British adversaries, especially the tyrannical Tudor monarchs. The iconic centerpiece of the legend has always been the Inquisition. Viewers of the Public Broadcasting Systems Secret Files of the Inquisition during the week of May 9-16, saw an updated version of the legend. Telling the story of the institution from its origins in the persecution of the Cathars in the 13th century, through the infamous Spanish Inquisition and the founding of its Roman counterpart, the series, despite concern for historical accuracy, makes only a faint stab at offering a balanced presentation. The abstract comments of a present-day Vatican official cannot compete with the detailed history and dramatization of what the Catholic Church today regards as sinful behavior committed in the service of the Truth. Viewers will have no sense, for example, of how for decades both civil and church officials, including popes, opposed the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition and attempted to limit the harm it could do. The series appears to be an instance of PBSs genteel, middlebrow hostility to organized religion. The forthcoming series A History of Unbelief, to be hosted by Jonathan Miller, who admits to little knowledge of religion, is another example. Believing Americans can take solace in the solid work still being done by Bob Abernethy in his Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, though member stations seldom schedule it, as they do miniseries, in prime time.


An overflow crowd gathered last month to see a film (A Model for Matisse) and hear a reading (from Blue Arabesque). The event was sponsored by the Fordham Center for Religion and Culture. The filmmaker Barbara Freed met the writer Patricia Hampl there for the first time, but they already had much in common. Both had produced new works focused on the art of Henri Matisse; both had discovered an extraordinary friendship between the artist and a local woman, Monique Bourgeois, who entered his life in 1941 at age 16. She was his night nurse, later became his model, then entered a Dominican convent as Sister Jacques-Marie and was to be his lifelong friend. 

Their friendship was full of color, joy, teasing, affection and letters, in which Matisse expressed the spiritual side of his art. The friendship blossomed into the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence (France), which Matisse considered his masterpiece. In the hourlong documentary (readers should insist that their local museums show it), one sees a mature artist, still recuperating from abdominal cancer surgery, cutting out his famous shapes, some of which were made from colored papers painted by Sister Jacques-Marie. The talented nun built a plywood model of the chapel that Matisse used for four years as he tended to every aspect of the designthe ceramic tile glaze, the stained glass window patterns and colors, the tabernacle placement, the stations of the cross, the vestments. He wanted the changing light through the windows to fill the black and white drawings around the room with life. When Sister Jacques-Marie noticed that from inside the chapel, one could see the outside world through the windows, Matisse said, Of course, you have to pray for them too.

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