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Our readersMay 13, 2014

Writing in the World

I read with interest “Writers Blocked?” by Kaya Oakes (4/28), an assessment of Catholic writing today. The “Golden Age” writers Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were read, not because they were Catholic but because they had something to say. Also each of them had a unique voice that identified him or her.

None of them learned to write from other Catholics, though all did find friends who were writers and strong Catholics. The same is true today of Richard Rodriguez. Catholicism is catholic; we live in the same world as everyone else and find our Catholic life out there, not in a separate cloister. (See “Friends of Merton,” by Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., in the same issue.)

Frankly, it might be easier for Catholics if we clung together as we sink into the rising tide of secularism, but it would not be richer. I look forward to reading young Catholic writers to see how they describe this world of calamity and grace we live in. Thanks to America, I will be able to find the best ones.

(Msgr.) Mike Heher
Seal Beach, Calif.

Inclusive Kingdom

I was pleased to read the Of Many Things column of April 28, in which Matt Malone, S.J., states that Pope Francis’ intentional simultaneous canonization of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II has more to do with how we relate to God than to each other. Saints are not perfect people; they are faithful people. There is no kingdom with more room for styles of fidelity than God’s kingdom. Truth is that inclusive.

(Msgr.) Dan Arnold
Erie, Pa.

Coca Challenge

Thank you for “Supply and Demand,” by Robert Joe Stout (4/28). The drug business of coca leaves becoming cocaine is exactly the same in Bolivia and beyond. I became aware of the operation in some detail as I observed it from a “safe distance” in Bolivia from 1956 to 2008. Liberation theologians call it “institutionalized violence,” and it’s on both sides of the great divide that separates “legal and illegal.”

The one big difference in Bolivia and Peru is that the prime matter, the coca leaf, has been part of the cultural fabric of the people for thousands of years. I myself drank coca tea to dissipate stomach cramps many times. Coca leaves also figure in many native religious ceremonies.

The only really effective way to deal with this challenge is by educating would-be consumers, and also addicts who need treatment. The 12-step program really does work.

(Msgr.) David A. Ratermann
St. Louis, Mo.

Urgent Divestment

Re “Getting Out of Oil,” by Doug Demeo (4/21): It is not only Catholic universities that face an “erosion” of their core mission. Whole dioceses in the United States seem to have lost their way in the course of protecting institutional interests rather than being at the service of the whole human community. Pope Francis has used the pejorative term: being “self-referential.”

This is why several of us in the Diocese of Greensburg thank the editors of America for Mr. Demeo’s call to assure the integrity of Catholic universities by establishing “mission communities” that would “grasp the prophetic (and arguably financial) urgency of divesting from fossil fuel corporations.”

Our diocese has taken great pride in its capital campaign, which provides financial security for major stakeholders like diocesan clergy. Now we are calling it to make sure the diocesan investment portfolio is not contributing to climate instability, which will eventually devastate both person and beast in Greensburg and throughout planet earth.

(Rev.) Bernard Survil
Greensburg, Pa.

Cursillo Success

Re “Spanish Import,” by Claudio M. Burgaleta, S.J. (4/7), a review of The Cursillo Movement in America, by Kristy Nabhan-Warren. The Diocese of Erie has a thriving Cursillo movement. In deference to the U.S. national Catholic secretariat, we allow both non-Catholics and marginal Catholics to participate in our nine weekends each year and have no problem clarifying boundaries for sacramental involvement. As a result, we have an impressive track record of activating many dormant Catholics and receiving many non-Catholics into membership through the sacraments of initiation. We believe strongly and sincerely that this is faithful to the founding vision of the movement.

(Rev.) John Jacquel
Erie, Pa.

Francis’ World

As a defense of teaching about business in Catholic universities, “Noble Vocations,” by Joseph J. Dunn (3/24), is intelligent and clear. At the same time, it could leave a faulty impression of Pope Francis’ views on the economy.

The article urges that all students be taught “the larger role of business in society.” Then, in his closing sentence, Mr. Dunn frames these “noble vocations” in the context of “building the world that Francis wants.” Does U.S. society instantiate the world that Francis wants? The author recognizes that it does not. He acknowledges “excesses and abuses in business and in our capitalist society” but does not focus on them. His defense of business schools and the economy, however, would have been more persuasive if he had at least noted the flood of these excesses and abuses reported daily.

Forty years ago, Jesuits in the United States undertook a national effort to evaluate and recommit ourselves to higher education. One of the concerns at that time was that our business schools, considered integral to our whole effort, should teach “ethical thinking.” Pope Francis has considerably raised the ante, pointing out the necessity of conversion of heart. An open-minded reading of “The Joy of the Gospel” demands what has become a main Christian asceticism in post-modernity: serious study, personal reflection and interior prayer to win freedom from our fiercely urgent secular mindset, from “spiritual worldliness,” and to put on the mind of Christ Jesus.

Joseph Tetlow, S.J.
St. Louis, Mo.
Editor’s Note: The full text of Father Tetlow’s response is available on the blog In All Things on America’s website. See “A (Second) Response to ‘Noble Vocations’” (5/6).

Teaching Conscience

Joseph J. Dunn suggests the need for all students of Catholic universities to consider their choices, individual and corporate, from a position of faith, in charity and based on the social doctrine of the church. He asks: “How will our liberal arts graduate turned business person...ponder an ethical question and present a principled solution without understanding the larger role of business in society?”

While this is a good question, it raises a much broader question: How many students truly know and understand the concept of forming one’s conscience? As we know, it’s not as easy as it sounds, is never instantaneous, entails communal thought and discussion, is a lifelong task and in many cases requires a great deal of prayer. It is an art, and not easy, but must be done.

These elements of learning should be required core curriculum for all students, not just those in the theology department. Unless generations learn to discern right from wrong and how to avoid a life based on relativism, we are doomed to a society incapable of caring for those less fortunate, and decisions at all levels will simply boil down to what best adds to the bottom line.

Mary A. Callaway
Beavercreek, Ohio

Share Profits Equally

Capitalism works best when all employees are considered owners (and sole owners) of the enterprise. This principle goes to the dignity of the individual. Salaries should reflect ability and prior service, but profits should be shared equally. Think about it.

J. Harvey Stark
Sunset Hills, Mo.

Partners in ‘Crime’

Thank you for the one-sentence news brief (Signs of the Times, 3/10) regarding Megan Rice, S.H.C.J., her punishment of 35 months in prison and the disarmament witness at the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The news brief, however, leaves the impression that she acted alone. In fact, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, both members of the Catholic Worker movement, righteously contributed and received prison terms of 62-months each.

America also neglected to report that Judge Amul R. Thapar, a graduate of Boston College, accused the three of “complete disrespect for the law” despite defense testimony of government noncompliance with the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. and Nuremberg charters and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Sister Megan, Greg and Michael chose the new $19 billion uranium processing facility within the Y-12 compound to transform the thermonuclear cores (used for gravity hydrogen bombs) and ballistic missile warheads into products that sustain rather than annihilate life.

Ben Jimenez, S.J.
Cleveland, Ohio

David J. O’Brien responds to ‘Noble Vocations,’ by Joseph J. Dunn (3/24)

On matters like capitalism, Catholic social teaching and how business actually works, we Catholics have had a lot of arguments over the years, but not much dialogue. Maybe we can do better, even find some common ground.

For example, Mr. Dunn thinks, and I agree, that all undergraduates should have a basic knowledge of business. After all, we should know by now that all institutions, including the university and the church, incorporate business practices, some good, some not so good. Trustees are supposed to ensure that university business practices are both good and effective, yet business competence is promoted without much discussion of politics, even though everyone concerned knows very well that public policies shape their capacity to carry out their mission. And churches and universities, like businesses and unions, spend a lot of money to organize in order to influence those policies.

If we really studied the American political economy openly and honestly, we might find that Catholic social teaching is a helpful resource for evaluating what we learn and helping us turn business, and all work, into vocation. After all “business” is a matter of politics and culture, quite as much, probably more, than a matter of economics.

In Catholic higher education, advocates of “faith and justice” and social ethics for years have made requests for more critical study of business. Often business and professional staff responded that talking about personal ethics was fine: everyone has a conscience and institutions should have codes of conduct. But social ethics is another question altogether: that would involve philosophical assessment of systems and structures and would raise questions about “politics,” which of course has no place in academic research and teaching.

Or does it? Opportunities for research and teaching and almost everything else turn on the allocation of resources. And that in turn depends on ideas and power, culture and politics. That is no secret. Indeed business persons and professionals, including professors, pay dues to professional and trade associations, chambers of commerce and special interest groups of all sorts that lobby governments, seek social influence and educate the public. They set standards and ask governments to enforce them. They advise on policy and are not shy about pursuing their own interests. Everywhere they (we) ask for money and argue that our work serves public purposes.

A few, not many, among us worry that these interest groups do not serve the common good, so they organize alternative associations to carry out their share of public responsibility: think of Physicians for Social Responsibility or the Union of Concerned Scientists. But business schools and their graduates, Catholic or not, are not much involved with such groups.

If business people and professionals would admit the importance of—and their shared responsibility for—culture and politics, Catholic business schools would have the basis for serious intellectual inquiry and education that might actually enable people to think about human dignity, solidarity and individual and corporate responsibility, ideas that are the heart of Catholic social teaching and of the Gospel.

But the key to getting Catholic defenders and critics of American business beyond the argument stage is honesty about what we are dealing with: not politically innocent and culturally immaculate business (or science or law or medicine) but knowledge and careers and institutions embedded in the realities of modern history. I think this is what Pope Francis means when he says realities are prior to ideas.

Another really interesting thing Mr. Dunn and I might do to help the church and the business community is to do some Christian dreaming. We might put the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine on the shelf for a few minutes and think about what the heart of our faith might mean for our business and professional lives.

At World Youth Day in July, Pope Francis told a crowd of adoring Argentine young people that if they were looking for an action plan, they should read the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. “You do not need to read anything else,” he said. If we did take those texts as our starting point, perhaps we would find that both Mr. Dunn’s relative satisfaction with our political economy, and my own ideas about how it should be changed, are wide of the mark.

Each of us is a mission in the world, Pope Francis says. Together we might be able to stir some hope that love and mercy and justice can somehow, sometime, become the informing principles of the world we make together, in part through business. That needed conversation for Catholic higher education—and for the church—may be the starting point for reunifying our community in the common work of evangelization.

David J. O’Brien
The writer is professor emeritus of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
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