Thank you, Papa: Comments on a Unique Papal Succession

Lots of us are thinking and writing with an unusual mixture of heavy heart and curiosity today, with the news of the unusual retirement of a pope. There’s gratefulness for his service and sadness at its forthcoming conclusion, yet without the grief that typically accompanies the news of a new and needed conclave. Since there’s no shortage of content flying around the Internet today, I’ll keep my comments fairly brief. (Well, they were brief when I started…)

For people who’ve disliked Benedict XVI, my hunch is that you shouldn’t read “good news” into this. Benedict XVI’s resignation appears to be because of the global “New Evangelization” he encouraged, in humble recognition that he lacks the energy and health to lead and shepherd it. That’s how I read his letter.

So here are a few interesting facts, a few things to keep in mind, and a few hunches about what’s next. (I could be wrong on a few of these details.)

  • It’s pretty interesting that the last time this occurred (1415) was about a hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, and yet two-thirds of Church history still occurred before that time.
  • Only cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, and they typically elect one of their own (although I believe any bishop is technically eligible). One fellow will have turned 80 two days before Benedict XVI’s retirement. According to Wikipedia, which is not infallible (pun intended), there are 118 cardinals eligible to vote.
  • The rules around election change upon occasion, and apparently have so recently. Although John Paul II edited the rules to allow for a simple majority to elect the pope in case a super-majority (2/3) could not be reached after numerous efforts—that is, the presence of an entrenched minority—Benedict XVI chose to revert to the previous rules. So, a solid consensus is required here. But I don’t think they will have trouble.
  • It’s not obvious to me that particular cardinals wish to be pope. Besides constituting a strike against your candidacy, I suspect the converse is far more likely: many greatly fear it. These are men with monumental obligations already—and not young—and hence the prospect of becoming pope is likely met with considerable trepidation. Bottom line: this is not at all like American Idol. Be glad about that.
  • Pope Benedict will apparently return to being known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger after Feb 28. I would’ve guessed “Bishop of Rome, Emeritus.” He intends to retire to a monastery, Castel Gandolfo presumably, and I strongly suspect will live largely outside the public eye. He will not participate in the conclave.
  • Pope John Paul II was appointed a bishop at the young age of 38 and a cardinal at 47. That’s very uncommon. For comparison, the youngest cardinal today is 53, an Indian, and the first cardinal from the Syro-Malankar rite (in contrast with the Latin rite, the most familiar of them).
  • As in 2005, there will be plenty of speculation—more than ever, given social media—about whether the next pope will be non-European. The odds remain against it, just like they remain against any particular cardinal’s election. It will happen eventually. Maybe this time, maybe not. An American? Probably more unlikely. Many of us stateside love our Cardinal Dolan, and think he’s a fine evangelist of the Faith; his election, too, remains unlikely, of course.
  • Benedict XVI’s reasoning behind his resignation, as articulated in his letter, suggests one of the few signals here to the college of Cardinals, and that is to elect a more youthful pope. Of course it’s a bit humorous to talk of youth when your youngest member is 53. But my hunch is that our next pope will be no older than age 70. How many cardinals are under 70? 43, by my count. Five Americans are among them. Nine others will be 70 upon his resignation.
  • Gerhard Ludwig Müller currently occupies the position from which Benedict XVI become Pope, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Müller is not a cardinal, I believe, and therefore unlikely to be selected. His successor is an American, William Levada, but unlikely to be selected due to age (he’s 76).
  • Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, is a plausible European candidate, especially if the New Evangelization weighs considerably on the conclave. (I predict it will.) He’s an accomplished book author, as was Ratzinger, and is 68 years old.
  • If you’re looking for both youth and longevity (as a cardinal), there are 11 cardinals who are under age 70 and were appointed as such by John Paul II. There are no Americans among them. All of the American cardinals under 70 were appointed by Benedict XVI. Which is fine and not a knock against any of them.
  • I guess if I had to place a hedge around a baker’s dozen names of cardinals under 70 that I think reflect the spirit of (and experience with) the New Evangelization, some very overtly so, I think it would include these, in no particular order: Robles Ortega, Tagle, Dolan, Schönborn, Bozanic, Turkson, Braz de Aviz, Betori, Filoni, Gracias, Erdö, Pengo, and Onaiyekau. Although this narrows the 118 down to 13, my logic here is complicated, includes some gut instincts, and I’m frankly probably wrong. But hey, I’ll be in good company, since most observers will be incorrect in their guesses.
  • Importantly, I know nothing—literally zippo—of the interpersonal relationships the cardinals have with each other, and who might be considered “frontrunners” for their longstanding respect, warm relationships, etc. Keep an eye on Whispers in the Loggia.

And in the end I’ll be pleased with whomever is selected. Indeed, that attracted me to Catholicism in the first place–that I didn’t have to discern and decide so much as to defer to the remarkable wisdom of others. While days like today feel bittersweet, my wife remarked how neat it is to be feeling such sentiment together with Catholics around the world. Our pastor is leaving, and we anticipate his absence with some sadness, yet mixed with confidence.


Porn Use and Support for Same-Sex Marriage, Part II

Although I didn’t blog on it here, back in December I published a piece about the empirical connection between porn use and support for same-sex marriage among men, using the notorious-but-wonderfully-valid-and-versatile dataset called the New Family Structures Study.

It turns out I’m not the only one saying it, which is always nice. Scholars from Indiana University and the University of Arizona are reporting the same phenomenon in the General Social Survey, the granddaddy of datasets. The article itself is appearing soon in the journal Communications Research.

When asked to explain the connection, lead author Paul Wright remarked that “pornography adopts an individualistic, nonjudgmental stance on all kinds of nontraditional sexual behaviors…” and added that “since a portion of individuals’ sexual attitudes come from the media they consume, it makes sense that pornography viewers would have more positive attitudes towards same-sex marriage.”

And that’s not much different from what I said in Public Discourse, where I concluded with the simple observation that, “contrary to what we might wish to think, young adult men’s support for redefining marriage may not be entirely the product of ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties, and a noble commitment to fairness. It may be, at least in part, a byproduct of regular exposure to diverse and graphic sex acts.”

Despite the negative press I get, friends, rest assured: I’m not making this stuff up!


Reflections on the new F-Word

I spent the weekend in South Texas at a generous friend’s ranch. It just happens to be located in the Eagle Ford Shale. In the handful of times I’ve been there, it keeps getting busier each time. It’s not the place where the average Texan, let alone the average cosmopolitan, would care to put down roots, but it has a beauty of its own if you have the eyes to see.

Moreover, there’s a beauty in seeing that Americans still make, deliver, install, and transport material goods. I do nothing of the sort, and regularly wonder whether I create anything of genuine value or not. I suppose I do, and I don’t wish to trade places with the roughneck or the truck driver, but nor do I wish to denigrate their work—ever—or their character without just cause.

A journalist friend wrote me a few weeks ago to ask whether I had any thoughts about an article that appeared in the New York Times on January 15, in which the writer discusses the particular sex-ratio problem that has rapidly arisen in towns in the heart of hydraulic fracturing country.

For those who didn’t see it, the article describes the “stifling and dangerous environment” that has emerged with so many single men—1.6 such men per single woman. Not exactly two boys for every girl, I realize, but the ratio is skewed. In North Dakota as a whole, about 58 percent of their unmarried 18-to-34-year-olds are men. Indeed, that’s just about as skewed—in fact—as the nation’s universities, wherein 57 percent of students are women.

As someone who’s written about sex-ratio effects on relationship formation, I find the natural experiment fascinating. The sex-for-money exchange is in full view in the article, and it’s expensive, far more so than in areas where the imbalance is either old (think Alaska), far more modest (which is ideal), or reversed—where you find women competing for men’s attention and sex is cheap. Life in the Gold Rush was no picnic, either. It was no doubt even more extreme in its sex-ratio disparity, and—sadly—didn’t carry the reality of wealth to those who are willing to work hard, as the f–cking boom has, just the chance at striking it rich.

But the Times story seemed far more dedicated to making f–cking seem like a terrible thing. It not only rapes the environment, but it serves indirectly to raise fears of the same among women.

A few days’ worth of my own observations about life near Carrizo Springs, Texas—probably about the same as that of the Times writer in Williston, North Dakota—revealed little more than this: people who want to work, who can endure the hardships of long days and short nights, cramped and expensive housing, and who can avoid the hazards that accompany life in “boom” towns, can earn a remarkable living and—if scrupulous—can save considerably for the future.

It’s not a life for the faint of heart, to be sure. And it cannot be easy. Crime no doubt has risen, in step with the population. Nevertheless, bars and nightclubs—prominently featured in the article—have always carried an element of risk for both men and women. (I still recall my father’s quality advice: “Son, nothing good happens after midnight.”) Strangely, though, the reader is not treated to a declaration of actual crime rate increases. Instead, we see we see classic journalese: “Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes,” which may mean the increase was too negligible to document it in print with numbers. I don’t know. I presume crime has increased. The author spent most of his ink talking about fear of sexual assault and near-experiences of it.

The reader is treated to multiple references of vigilante justice in the article, which we cosmopolitans know nothing of anymore. Such justice is simply assumed to be skewed, prone to historical and contemporary misuse, or—like the rest of the article—bad for women. Maybe. Maybe not.

A friend of mine recounted her experience in a Los Angeles Starbucks wherein she was vocally sexually harassed by another customer, only to watch fellow patrons pretend they didn’t hear anything. She asserted to me that it could not have occurred in her hometown south of Houston. Somehow I doubt that would happen in Williston, either, which of course contains no Starbucks. The only Williston Starbucks franchise is in Vermont, where they’ve banned the f-word.

Predictably, readers of the Times piece—and its spinoffs—seem horrified. As if the acquisition of their gasoline, electricity, or heating oil has ever been a clean, safe, and socially-organized process. I’m not against renewable energy. No, just against false assumptions about how any of it comes to be. Mass energy production is a messy business.

What the article—and the reality itself behind the piece—suggests is not simply that community sex ratios matter (they do), but that rapid sex-ratio change lends itself to an elevated degree of social (and hence sexual) instability, at least temporarily. There is more angst and uncertainty about expectations and behavior. It reminds me of Kai Erikson’s book Everything in its Path, about the challenges of rebuilding community after an earthen dam gave way and the resulting flood wiped out a West Virginia town. Rapid change is hard on community.

Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about the Times piece. Such journalism continues to stroke cosmopolitans’ obsessions about where they live (and where they don’t), and to stoke their concerns about masculinity and the male working class in America. Indeed, this is a group of men who cannot catch a break. We’ve written of their vulgar ways, their underachievement, and their flight from marriage. I’m not disputing those. But when finally the market offers them an economic ray of hope in return for their mobility and hard work, leave it to us to bash them from another angle.

In an energy-thirsty nation, one in which we have watched living wages fail to keep pace with globalization and technology, let’s cut the working man of America a break. Neither your iPhone nor your Prius runs on will power.


Hang in There, Mom and Dad

I’ve been crunching NFSS numbers again, mostly assessing the sexual and relationship behaviors of young adults between ages 23-39. I don’t intend to make much of age-at-first-sex in my next book, but there are some interesting patterns worth noting.

Only 18 percent of respondents who reported first sex before age 14 also said their parents were—and are still—married; the same is true of 26 percent who reported first sex at age 14, 31 percent at age 15, 38 percent at age 16, 43 percent at age 17, 41 percent at age 18, and 57 percent above age 18.

Obviously, delaying first sex won’t likely keep your parents together (although it’ll probably please them). The other way around, however, makes more sense: intact families are conducive to adolescent thriving and wiser decision-making, and likely provide an environment in which sexual coupling doesn’t look quite so attractive, or is simply more difficult to make happen. Of course, marriage alone doesn’t cause this to occur, but rather is the context in which the things that likely matter here—better monitoring, more fulfilling parent-child relationships, better boundaries about romantic relationships—are far more likely to happen. Single parents and stepfamilies can recreate such things, to be sure. It’s just harder. And it’s less common, frankly.

Among all respondents who’ve already reported an age at first sex—that is, have already had sexual intercourse—those whose parents were and still are married reported a mean age at first sex of 18.6. Respondents whose parents divorced and in which the respondent lived with his mother (who remarried) reported an average age at first sex of 16.0.

I could compare other types of household structures and parental experiences, but none of them report as high an average age at first sex as do those whose moms and pops are still married. The two that come closest are when mom is divorced but has no romantic relationships until the respondent leaves the home, or when one parent dies and the surviving parent reports no new relationships. (Both hover around 17.8). After that, having been adopted by age 2 is next, at 17.6.

Marriage isn’t a cakewalk. I get that. Heck, I experience that. Some are better than others. Some seem to win the lottery, while others simply endure, and most of us are somewhere in between. Insert all the qualifications here about leaving violent situations, etc. Yes, I hear you.

But the fact remains—sticking around may not fit your optimal vision of a good life, but it’s the best, on average, for kids. I’ve only discussed one outcome here—average age at first sex. There are others. Scores of them. If you possibly can, hang in there, moms and dads.