Friday, February 27, 2015

Stopping the Islamic State without making matters worse

Thomas Reese  |  Feb. 27, 2015Faith and Justice

The actions of the so-called Islamic State have been so horrendous that they have garnered almost universal condemnation. It is difficult to find anyone who does not want to see them stopped. This provides both a challenge and an opportunity to U.S. foreign policy, but we must make sure that we do not simply make matters worse by repeating the mistakes of the past.
Much of the discussion of the Islamic State lacks nuance and a respect for the complexity of the political and religious situation. The focus has been on a military solution to the crisis. Those who want a quick solution say send in the U.S. military. Those who do not want U.S. casualties say we must train Iraqi troops to take on the Islamic State.
It is a wonder that anyone can make these arguments with a straight face. The U.S. military has not won a war since 1945. It fought to a stalemate in Korea; it lost in Vietnam; and Iraq and Afghanistan are in shambles with their futures still in doubt.
The U.S. experience of training foreign troops has been equally disastrous. Graduates of the School for the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation went on to support Latin dictators with horrendous human rights records. The South Vietnamese army evaporated as soon as we left. The Iraqi army abandoned Mosul to an invasion of pickup trucks. The Afghan army still cannot handle the Taliban.
How many decades does it take to train troops to defend their own families and cities? The Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban are able to train their people at low cost faster than we can kill them, but the U.S. military requires billions of dollars and decades to train people to defend themselves from attack. We must supply our allies with the most sophisticated equipment, while Islamic State troops capture slices of Iraq and Syria from the backs of pickup trucks.
The U.S. military spends like the New York Yankees and plays like the Chicago Cubs.
This does not mean that individual American soldiers are not dedicated and brave, it simply means that the military and civilian leadership in the Pentagon still calculates victory in terms of dead enemies and territory reclaimed. They continue to focus on winning battles while they lose the war. The cost has been thousands of U.S., Afghan, and Iraqi casualties, the alienation of the Muslim world, and billions of dollars blown up in futile attempts to kill every enemy.
The problem is that we continue to see terrorists and fanatics as a military problem rather than a political problem. I have no doubts that if we put thousands of U.S. troops back into Iraq and Syria, we will be able to take back the territory won by the Islamic State. The cost will be bloody. Civilians killed as collateral damage will quickly outnumber those directly killed by the Islamic State. Mosul will be totally destroyed as we "save it." The Iraqi army and its Shia militias will help us defeat the Islamic State, but the Sunni population will suffer and become more embittered.
What can the U.S. do?
First, increase aid dramatically to those taking care of refugees from Syria and Iraq. It is a scandal that we are quick to spend money on arms but slow to care for the victims of war.
Second, as Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have said, it is "licit" to use force to stop the unjust aggression by the Islamic State and to protect minorities and civilians from attack. Stopping the further expansion of the Islamic State is an essential first step. But, as the pope and bishops have emphasized, "the use of military force must be proportionate and discriminate, and employed within the framework of international and humanitarian law."

But the U.S. bishops are correct in saying, "While military action may be necessary, it is by no means sufficient to deal with this terrorist threat."
In a Feb. 23 letter to President Barack Obama, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., and Las Cruces, N.M., Bishop Oscar CantĂș​ accurately describe the deeper causes of the conflict. "Political exclusion and economic desperation are manipulated by the self-declared Islamic State. In Syria and Iraq, they exploited the exclusion of Sunnis from governance. Inclusive governance and meaningful participation in political and economic life inoculate populations against the false promises of extremism."
The two bishops, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace respectively, acknowledge that the administration "has worked with Iraqi officials to encourage the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq that respects human rights and religious freedom for all." But this work is far from being a complete success.
It may be time to recognize Iraq as the failed state it is. The Kurds already have their independent territory and it is time to allow the Sunnis to have theirs. The Sunnis joined the fight against Al-Qaeda when they were promised greater autonomy, but that promise was broken and the result is the Islamic State.
If the U.S. thinks that a Shia-led government and military is the solution, then it has learned nothing in all these years of fighting in Iraq. When we try to leave again 10 years from now, we will be faced once again with another Sunni insurrection in Iraq.
The only people who can truly defeat the Islamic State are the Sunnis. But they will not take on the Islamic State if the result will be subjugation by a Shia-led national government. It will not be easy to win over the Sunni population again. They were lied to too many times. But no military solution will work that does not respect their legitimate aspirations for autonomy.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Sunday, February 22, 2015


After a month and a half of saying the Spanish mass, I hope I am improving so I can be understood. The people are glad I am there, but I am wondering if they are just being polite. I think I need to listen to Spanish radio so I can get my ear in tune to the proper pronunciation of words. I felt like I had greater ease today with the language, but I am practicing in a vacuum and I think I need to evaluate soon if I am helpful to them overall.

Since we have been blanketed in snow, I showed the parishioners one of my paintings at the end of mass in hopes of thinking about la primavera, the springtime. I showed them the blue tree I painted and they seemed impressed.

We also took the choir out from behind the columns today and we had them sing a communion meditation standing in front of the congregation. We sang "Nada Te Turbe," a song they all love. The congregation enjoyed it and it was done a capella. The choir received a round of applause. After mass, everyone kept humming the song on their way home.

I brought some food to mass today as well because we only have white bread with butter after each service. Everyone descended upon the food and stuffed extras into their handbags. However, it really connected them to me, so even if the language is not working, the care for their souls (and their bellies) is working.

Many keep asking me if I will stay. I think they are trying to find out if I will stay (rather than wishing for this language-challenged priest to move on.) Somehow I have to step up my conversational skills soon.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pope Francis' reform of the Roman Curia is moving too slowly

Thomas Reese  |  Feb. 19, 2015Faith and Justice
As Pope Francis approaches the second anniversary of his election as pope, progress on reforming the Vatican Curia is moving too slowly. It should be moving faster.
The college of cardinals met in consistory on Feb. 12-13 to review the progress made so far and to discuss future reforms. The cardinals heard from the nine-member Council of Cardinals, which has been spearheading the reforms for Pope Francis.
The greatest progress has been made in reforming the finances of the Vatican, which has mainly focused on where the money is -- the Vatican bank, the Vatican City State, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), and the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples. A new Secretariat for the Economy was also created to supervise Vatican finances.

Reforming Vatican finances is a priority for Pope Francis who listened to the complaints about financial scandals from the cardinals at the time of his election.
In theory, this is the easiest part of Vatican reform. Financial reform is neither rocket science nor theology; it is simply good management practices developed by businesses, governments, and nonprofits to provide transparency and accountability. It requires clear procedures, training of employees, and proper supervision.
Applying all of this to the Vatican is a challenge, but everyone knows what is required. There may be resistance, but strong, steady leadership can prevail. This does not mean that scandals will end. In the short run, there should be more scandals as the bad actors are caught by the new system.
Reforming the Roman Curia, the part of the Vatican that helps the pope in his Petrine ministry, is more difficult.
The Roman Curia is made up of the Secretariat of State, nine congregations, 12 councils, three tribunals, and a host of commissions, academies, institutes, and other offices. Each of these was created in response to a perceived need or priority of a previous papacy.
Reforming the Roman Curia requires a theological vision for the Petrine ministry, a sense of what the church needs today, and a practical understanding of how to organize people to implement it.
First, what is the theological vision of the Petrine ministry? Is the pope an infallible, absolute monarch in whom all wisdom resides or is he first among equals who acts collegially with the college of bishops?
If it is the former, then all important decisions will be referred to the pope or to those to whom he has delegated decision-making power in the Curia. Any issue that is in doubt must go up the chain of command.
If it is the latter vision, then the church needs a system for encouraging discussion and consensus building in the college of bishops. Here the Curia is in service to the pope and the college of bishops; curial officials are not decision makers.
Second, what are the needs of the church today? Does the church need more stability or change, unity or pluralism, clearer teaching or better witness, should it be challenging or accommodating, devotional or prophetic?
Another way of asking this question is: what are the pope's priorities? What does he want to focus on and what does he want to delegate to others?
Third, all of this has to be organized into offices with people with specific responsibilities. Management experts note that different types of organizations are organized differently. An entrepreneurial startup is not run like an established utility. An emergency room is not a factory. The department of motor vehicles is not the Marines. A business office is not a research lab.
Reform of the Roman Curia is difficult because there is no consensus on the Petrine ministry, the needs of the church today, or the practical issues of management.
Perhaps the first place to start is by asking Vatican officials and local bishops what issues are being decided in Rome that should be decided at the local, national, or regional level? For example, if a priest and his bishop agree that the priest should be laicized, why does his case have to go to Rome? Do liturgical translations have to be micromanaged in Rome?
This was one of the issues raised by the cardinals as they met in consistory on February 12, according to Vatican  spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi. He reports that they discussed the notion of subsidiarity, or how the Roman Curia might share and divide responsibilities between local dioceses and bishops' conferences. But no details were given. If this ever gets beyond the discussion stage, it will have a profound impact on the Vatican congregations, which have much of the decision-making authority in the Vatican.

But instead of discussing the congregations, the focus of attention during the February consistory was shifted to the councils, which have little decision making authority.
The 12 pontifical councils were formed after Vatican II and most were set up to help implement the council. Most have names that reflect the prominent issues of the council: laity, Christian unity, family, justice and peace, migrants and refugees, interreligious dialogue, culture, and communications. Many dioceses in the United States also opened offices to deal with at least some of these topics.
A pontifical council is headed by a president, usually an archbishop but sometimes a cardinal. Under him is a secretary and undersecretary plus a staff. Each council also has an advisory board of cardinals, bishops, and sometime laity. They can also have lay and clerical consultors.

In fact, most of the pontifical councils act like think tanks rather than bureaucracies. They have little decision making authority. The Council for the Laity has the canonical authority to approve the statutes of international Catholic lay organizations, and that is about it. For the most part, councils only have the power to exhort and persuade, not to order.
So what do these councils do?
For the most part, they talk, write, and publish on the topics of their competencies. They receive visitors interested in these topics and they attend international meetings on the topics. In all of these ways, they push the pope's views on these topics with bishops, clergy, and laity as well as in the international arena, but they don't have the authority to force anyone to do anything. Anything they want to publish must be reviewed by the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith and by the Secretariat of State.
There is a proposal to merge some of these councils into two congregations, one dealing with laity and one dealing with justice, peace, and the environment. It is hoped that this will reduce staff and make the offices more efficient. 

The first congregation will be created by merging the current councils for laity and family. The second congregation will be created from merging the old councils for justice and peace, health care, migrants and refugees, and include a new office for safeguarding creation.
The creation of these two congregations is being presented as a major reform. "Now the laity will have a congregation just like the clergy, bishops, and religious," it is asserted.
Only cardinals could think that this is a big deal. The laity certainly do not care. The only real difference here will be that a congregation must be headed by a cardinal while a council can be headed by an archbishop. A lay person will not be able to head the Congregation for the Laity, but could head an office, like an office for the family, within the congregation. 
The most likely result of these mergers is that less will be done. Fewer documents will be written, fewer conferences will be attended, fewer initiatives will be taken because there will be fewer employees and their initiatives will have to go through another layer of review before seeing the light of day.
In my opinion, the best result of these mergers is that there will be three fewer positions that must be filled by archbishops and might be filled by cardinals in the Curia. Anything that reduces the number of archbishops and cardinals in the Curia is good. On the other hand, there will be two more positions that must be held by cardinals. That is bad. 
That it took the council of cardinals two years to come up with this reshuffling of boxes on the organizational chart simply shows that they really don't know what they are doing. It should have taken two months to develop this plan, not two years. At this pace, Pope Francis will be dead before real reform hits the Curia.
A conspiracy theorist would say that getting the council of cardinals to focus on this reorganization was a way of distracting them from any real reform in the Curia. Let the cardinals talk about the councils. Keep them away from the congregations. 
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cheer up, New England

During these snowy days, keep the following in mind.

A. We have time to savor the Patriots' Superbowl victory.

B. We will have great stories to tell of this massive record-setting snowy period.

C. The three months that we consider to be winter: December, January, and February are almost over. We are more than two-thirds of the way through those months. We will get outside soon. The days off provide us with the time to catch up on those projects we've delayed.

D. February is more than one-third of the way over and it is the shortest month.

E. Look ahead to Valentine's Day to lift your spirits.

F. Go to the movies because the Oscars are in a couple of weeks.

G. Ash Wednesday is next week so we'll focus upon the ways we need to change rather than being preoccupied with the snow.

H. The snow days mean that illnesses like the flu won't be spread. Also, school vacation week begins in next week. This was originally designed to curb the spread of the cold and flu.

I. St. Patrick's Day is right around the corner.

J. tells us that the sun rises at 6:48 a.m. and sets at 5:09 p.m. That means it is still light around 5:30 p.m. The increased daylight gives great hope. From the darkest day of the year - December 14 until today, we have gained 74 minutes of daylight, One hour and fourteen minutes of daylight, and the rate of increased daylight will accelerate quicker at this time of year.

K. We advance the clocks forward in one month.

L. On this date in 1967, the Beatles wrote "A Day in the Life." February is the month they landed in the U.S.

M. The cold that settles in for the next few days is actually good. It means the meltdown will be slower and sustained. Fewer roof collapses and flooded basements result from a sustained diminishment of snow. Also, less permafrost will occur on the soil as the snow acts as an insulator.

In other words, this will soon be a distant memory. Use it as a nice time to help your neighbor. Be safe when shoveling and be of good cheer. We'll get through this.