Eight big stories that shaped 2010

As we ring in 2011 with prayers for the world, our nation, our towns, our jobs and our families — and a fervent wish for peace, balance and a chance to do some good where we can — let us look back at a teeter-totter of a year, where high-riding America suddenly found herself hitting the ground of reality with a thud. War is not over; the economic recovery is slow-to-stagnant and those who are not yet struggling themselves know someone, or love someone, who is. 

We learned a few things in 2010: Service economies are hard to grow when housing markets are closed; Brett Favre is not unbreakable; your kids will hear you better if you text them; shooting a TV does not make “Dancing With the Stars” go away; the stock market doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on realities; a college degree in anything but the hard sciences really may not be worth it, after all; Russia is still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; Christian oppression is not just for ancient Romans, anymore; reality TV has turned half the nation into voyeurs and the other half into exhibitionists; the wrong people want to be the exhibitionists; TSA patdowns may feel like a flashback to a bad dating experience; airport metal detectors are so graphic the only mystery left is your blood type; and no matter how many channels your cable package provides, you will not get away from the ubiquitous Sarah Palin! 

Levity aside, 2010 may have been a mostly uncomfortable, disorienting year, but there were some hopeful notes: Adult stem cell therapies made promising gains in treating tumors, spinal-cord injuries and HIV infection; hardy Christmas retail sales made for a cheerful year-end; and polls show a growing opposition to abortion in America. As we move forward on those positive notes, let’s take one last look at the big stories of 2010. 

Elizabeth Scalia is an online columnist and contributing writer at First Things, where she also blogs as The Anchoress, and is editor and manager of the Catholic portal at Patheos.com.

Pope Benedict XVI: A Vicar Victorious

The 265th successor to St. Peter had been enjoying a fairly good run of it coming into 2010. The cardinal who had been derided as “God’s Rottweiler” and whose election had caused gnashing of teeth from the usual corners both secular and sacred, had proved over five years to be a gentle, pastoral and professorial shepherd whose encyclicals, documents, travels and talks were uniform in message: Look at Jesus; focus on Jesus; discover Jesus; trust the reality of Jesus. He spoke the message aloud to cheering throngs; he murmured it into tearful hearts sharing with him the grief of injuries inflicted long-before, but never healed. Under his attention and care, the “long Lent” of 2002 had begun to wane; if the Church was still aching and ashamed of past sins, she was beginning to feel a lessening of the burden — a measure of peace. 

And then, Lent began again. It seems always within that penitential season, the ugly stain resurfaces, and more penance is needed. In 2010, the weeks leading up to Holy Week had the Church roiling. The New York Times, hawking “evidence” that the pope — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — had conspired to cover up horrific crimes and protect bad priests, gave front pages and distortive headlines over to their “scoop,” while protests erupted in Rome and elsewhere in Europe. There were calls for Pope Benedict to resign; calls for his arrest. There were unhelpful, hapless defenses made by members of the Roman Curia. 

Through the crescendo of rage that greeted Holy Week, the Vicar of Christ remained steadfast; Easter came, and the Lent of 2010 — eventually overtaken by clear voices speaking truth and by Pope Benedict’s own transparent holiness — did come to an end. If the noise stirred briefly again in anticipation of the pope’s historic visit to the United Kingdom, the church-shared prayers of Anglican Evensong in Westminster Abbey, the adoration amid thousands, Pope Benedict’s fond interaction with the youths and the beatification of John Henry Newman silenced his detractors. 

And then, the publication of “Light of the World,” his book-length interview with German writer Peter Seewald; the not-very controversial “condom controversy” again confounds those who would caricature the pope. In picking up the book, they meet a man humble and open, driven to refocus the Church and the world on Jesus, the Christ, the True Victor. And that is all.

As clergy sex abuse crisis rocked Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter to Irish Catholics in March urging prayer and penitence. “I am praying earnestly that, by God’s grace, the wounds afflicting so many individuals and families may be healed and that the Church in Ireland may experience a season of rebirth and spiritual renewal,” he wrote.

In addition to his successful visit to Great Britain, the pontiff traveled to Malta, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain.

Closing the Year for Priests with a June 11 celebration in Rome, the pontiff said that the year had been a “summons to purification.”

Haiti's Year of Hell

The new year had barely shaken off the confetti before the first and greatest natural calamity of 2010 struck the impoverished island of Haiti, and with frightful force. On Jan. 12 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the town of Léogâne, approximately 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, leaving 250,000 dead, including Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot. The presidential palace, the United Nations headquarters and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption were destroyed. Around 300,000 were injured, and more than a million Haitians were left homeless; those whose homes survived slept outside for months as aftershocks continued into March. 

With thousands dead and morgues quickly overwhelmed, the scene was a hellish mix of mass graves and “stacked” funeral pyres. “Haiti,” remarked Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, then the chairman of the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services, “is the broken and bloody body of Jesus in the arms of his Blessed Mother and crying out to the world for aid and assistance.” 

International organizations mobilized to begin delivering aid and medical assistance. When red tape, bad roads or dangerous opportunists slowed the process down, clever solutions were found. American Jesuits in Haiti, possessing a well-equipped mission center and control of a water well, joined with ex-Marines to form “Team Rubicon”; with the help of pilots and donations, medicos, aid and provender were flown into the Dominican Republic and then convoyed into Haiti bringing critically needed assistance to the stricken area while other organizations were still trying to get their people on the ground. 

Nearly a year into the recovery, Haiti is still suffering. Housing reconstruction is complicated by land grievances, and the tiny nation is now dealing with a cholera epidemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 at this writing. 

Poverty, hunger, crime and the lack of basic human necessities will keep Haiti and her people trapped in a living nightmare for years to come.

Catholic Relief Services reported in December that over the past year it, along with its partner Caritas Haiti, had provided food to nearly 900,000 people and provided emergency shelter materials to more than 215,000 people.  

Donor nations have been slow in making good on the $9.9 billion pledged for Haiti’s rebuilding, with only $265 million contributed as of Oct. 26, the latest date for which information was available from the World Bank.

Rise of the Tea Party

A movement many in the press first characterized as “racist,” “uneducated” and “violent” credits its start to an epic February 2009 public meltdown; CNBC’s Rick Santelli, standing on a trading floor and disturbed by the cost of the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, began to shout “stop spending!” and “we need a Chicago tea party!” 

Within a few months, tea parties were being organized all around the country, attracting middle-class participants by the thousands. Having been mocked by political pundits and the press for much of 2009, the movement claimed a PR victory in March when David Letterman invited tea partier Pam Stout on to his late-night talk show. Whatever Letterman’s motives — it is not unthinkable that he intended to exhibit Stout as a specimen of quirky Middle American provincialism — Stout’s appearance and manner helped normalize tea partiers in the public mind, and further panic the mainstream. 

As the movement began to coalesce, moderate Republicans found themselves denigrated as “RINOS” — Republicans In Name Only — while others were quick to distinguish themselves as “more libertarian” or “conservative, not Republican.” Some “RINO” candidates were defeated in primary challenges by tea party-approved candidates like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle. Both candidacies were ultimately doomed by weak experience and weaker media skills, but others fared better; in Florida and North Carolina, Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley, respectively, benefited from the approval of local tea parties, and if The New York Times editorial board referred to movement candidates as “insurgents,” other media outlets credited the tea partiers with an overall “good showing” in an electoral debut. 

It is impossible to know what the tea party will look like in two years. The alliance formed by “fiscally conservative” libertarians and “everything conservative” social-cons will evolve as the economy does, and a parting of the ways may be inevitable. Meanwhile the GOP must beware; tea partiers will no longer steep in silence. The victories of 2010 are clearly probationary, and if “RINOS” do not align with movement principles, and become “real” Republicans, by 2012, third party options are on the table.

Global Warming Debate

After an admission of data manipulation by the University of East Anglia in 2009, skepticism was already on the rise, but in 2010 theories of manmade global warming began to take a beating with the general public. Yet the Vicar of Christ remained steadfast in reminding Catholics on the importance of being good stewards of the earth. 

Perhaps the collapse began with Dr. Rajendra Pachauri apologizing for claiming — without evidence — that Himalayan glaciers might vanish within 25 years. 

Perhaps it began with Snowmaggedon — the giant blizzard that slammed into the East Coast and shut down Washington, D.C., for nearly a week; it left hundreds of thousands without power in southern Indiana, New York City, Washington, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the New Jersey coast. 

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stood by its hypothesis, even though the panel acknowledged that there has been no real “warming” since 1998. 

Still, in “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict XVI emphasized Catholics’ responsibility in reversing climate change: 

“Meanwhile, in view of the threatening catastrophe, there is the recognition everywhere that we must make moral decisions. There is also a more or less pronounced awareness of a global responsibility for it; that ethics must no longer refer merely to one’s own group or one’s own nation, but rather must keep the earth and all people in view.”

Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

On April 20, 11 workers were killed and 17 others were injured when an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit caused the unit to burn and sink, precipitating the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Two days after the event, Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler stated that oil was leaking from the site at the rate of “about 8,000 barrels [340,000 gallons] per day.” 

By June, it was estimated that as much as 1.7 million gallons of crude oil was spilling daily into the gulf. Images of dead sea turtles and dolphins, and brown pelicans struggling to take flight while covered in oil had a predictable effect on the public, while the damage to local fishing and tourist industries spurred both Democrats and Republicans to raise their voices in frustration at the inability of BP to contain the leak and the slow reaction time of the federal government. 

In an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Democratic political consultant James Carville, a Louisiana native and resident of New Orleans, ranted toward Washington: “Man, you got to get down here and take control of this! Put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving! We’re about to die down here!” In a separate interview, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal fumed over bureaucratic red tape charging the Feds with “a lack of urgency.” 

Although the BP well was finally capped in mid-August, cleanup of the Gulf is still ongoing and scientists are beginning a yearlong study of the ocean and shore environments, seeking to identify long-term effects. 

A more immediate concern is to reignite the regional economy. Government tested seafood from the area and pronounced it “safe,” but sales are still depressed, and tourism has dropped off dramatically. 

Given the national economy, one could speculate that even without the Horizon Deepwater disaster these industries might be hurting. But tarballs trump idle speculation; in late November BP projected that it would pay out approximately $6 billion in damage claims — a large figure, but substantially lower than the $20 billion the company had anticipated. 

Six days after their announcement, President Barack Obama declared a seven-year moratorium on all new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. And in the Atlantic. And the Pacific. 

As of this writing, home heating oil and gasoline prices are rising.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which received a $1 million donation from BP, has played a leading role in offering relief to families affected by the oil spill through its Catholic Charities, operating five oil spill relief centers and providing emergency assistance to more than 37,000 people and distributing more than $845,000 in food vouchers. 

At their June meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla., the U.S. bishops offered prayers and solidarity to oil spill victims, saying, in part: “We pray first and foremost for those who died in the initial explosion and for the grieving members of their families. We express our prayerful support as well for the families and individuals whose lives and livelihoods have been so negatively impacted by the oil that daily contaminates water, beaches and God’s creation in the Gulf Coast area. In a special way, in our difficult economic times, we are mindful of those who have lost their jobs and income.” 

In July, Catholic Charities USA President Father Larry Snyder testified at a congressional House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee hearing, urging the federal government to take steps to further assist individuals and families hurt by the oil spill.

Struggles of President Obama

With January unemployment numbers at 9.7 percent, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to announce a “hard pivot” away from his laser focus on health care in order to zoom in on job creation. He did this by focusing once more on health care until his reforms finally passed. The resulting “summer of recovery” unemployment figures lowered to 9.5 percent; by August they were rising again. 

In September, the president finally made his “hard pivot,” announcing $50 billion in spending for “shovel ready” jobs repairing the nation’s roads and railways. But when an October study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco determined that the net job creation derived from nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus spending was ... zero, the president sheepishly admitted his late discovery: That there was no such thing as “shovel ready” jobs. 

Internationally, the president seemed equally detached and distracted. His post-election trip to Asia and Indonesia was accounted a “mixed” success — he managed to reassure India that America is a friend, but left South Korea without closing a trade agreement that had previously been described as a “all but done” (it was eventually completed Dec. 3). Europe rejected the president’s Keynesian economic model in favor of deficit reduction and spending cuts. 

Despite his difficulties, Obama successfully triangulated left and right by negotiating a year-end tax-cut-extension agreement with the incoming GOP House leadership, but not without likening the GOP to hostage-takers, calling the Democrats “sanctimonious” and bitterly deriding his own bill.

Church and Social Media 

Despite the success of the movie “The Social Network,” in 2010 we did not need a film to tell us that being “LinkedIn” to social media — via blogs, tweets, Facebook pages and more — is essential if one wishes to promote an idea, an opinion or even a religion. In “Light of the World,” his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI exhibits a thorough understanding of the usefulness and pitfalls of social media, which “can lead to complete depersonalization. Then one is just swimming in a sea of communication and no longer encounters persons at all. But on the other hand it can also be an opportunity to become aware of one another ... to help each other, to go out of ourselves.” 

Considering that the pope sent text messages to pilgrims attending the Sydney World Youth Day in 2008, it was not surprising that he urged his priests to embrace the Internet: “Priests are challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources ... which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.” He warns, however, that priests who take up his charge “should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart.” 

In fact, priests, religious and deacons, as well as Catholic moms and dads, have become very well represented on the Internet, tweeting the Good News, blogging about the latest encyclical, posting videos of liturgies and sharing Scripture. Americans disappointed with scant media coverage of the pope’s visits to Fátima, the United Kingdom, Malta and Spain were able to log on to their computers and access live-streamed events, with timely analysis from a broad range of voices, and they could add their thoughts to the din, to boot. 

It may seem like too much to some — too much information, too many opinions, too much noise — but Internet forums and discussion sites are where humanity is increasingly gathering, like schools of fish. 

Now, as ever, the Net is essential for casting into the deep.

In his 2010 World Communications Day message, Pope Benedict XVI extolled the evangelization potential of social media: 

“The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more St. Paul’s exclamation: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel’ (1 Cor 9:16).” 

In July, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines for using social media by Church personnel that emphasize visibility, community and accountability. 

The Pontifical Council for Social Communications sponsored an Oct. 4-7 Catholic Press Congress in Rome to discuss the present and future role and challenges facing Catholic journalism, including the rise in digital communications.

Defeat of the Democrats

Anyone paying attention on Jan. 19 when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for Massachusetts’ “Ted Kennedy” seat in the U.S. Senate knew that recession-weary voters were ready to throw aside sentiment, tradition and the status quo if it meant creating jobs and hitting the brakes on both government spending and a controversial health care bill that appeared unwieldy, costly, undefined and terrifyingly broad in scope. 

Anyone paying attention to what their neighbors and co-workers were saying, as they stapled tea bags to their hats and hot-footed it to rallies across the country, knew that the predictable media caricatures were missing the point; a hand grenade of public unrest packs a wallop, no matter what it looks like. 

Anyone paying attention when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blithely remarked, “we have to pass [the health care bill] to see what’s in it,” knew that her disregard for the valid concerns of the citizenry came across as arrogant and oddly unserious. 

Anyone paying attention would have predicted an electoral “shellacking” come November. 

Whether implying that their constituents were too stupid to know what was good for them or pooh-poohing concerns about spending and joblessness while channeling John Maynard Keynes, congressional Democrats spent most of 2010 expecting the nation to simply fall in line as they marched resolutely left. 

Controlling both houses of Congress, they muscled unpopular laws into the books despite vociferous objections from the public (before the vote on the health care, the congressional switchboard fielded 100,000 calls per hour) and then seemed gobsmacked to wake up on Nov. 3 with a weakened majority in the Senate and a loss of 63 seats and control of the House. 

It was as if the Democrats simply had not been paying attention. 

Whether the Republicans were remains to be seen; their very future may hinge on how well they comprehended the voter messages of 2010.

In Memoriam