Friday, October 19, 2018

Impeachment: An American History

Impeachment: An American History (Modern Library Random House, 2018), a collaborative effort by four authors, Jeffrey Engel, John Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker, is the latest big-name contribution to this growing genre of books about one of the most seldom used but so much more talked about constitutional provisions, the impeachment of a president. (The book focuses exclusively on this and on the three relevant historical cases, and does not, for example, examine the somewhat more common impeachments of federal judges.)

The fact that impeachment is being so widely discussed again - 20 years after the Republicans so famously misused it in a partisan attack against a popular Democratic President - reflects the inflamed partisan passions of the present. As Alexander Hamilton observed, impeachments "will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly to the accused." (Today perhaps the order is reversed. It is the agitated passions of a partisanly divided country that may cause, rather than be caused by, impeachments.)

The first chapter, "The Constitution," by Jeffrey Engel retells the familiar  story of the founders' efforts to forge a constitutional structure strong enough to  hold the 13 fractious states together in an effective union, while sufficiently containing federal power to preserve liberty. He emphasizes how George Washington was the model for the framers. (Washington was the founders' Cincinnatus-like alternative to the more threatening historical precedents of Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell.) For "none had ever seen him put his own needs above the nation's. Consequently any future chief executive who demonstrated the opposite ... would be so unlike the president they envisioned as to warrant removal and dishonor."

Impeachment was familiar from British law as a vehicle for removing problematic officeholders (but not, of course, the king). What the founders did was extend its scope to the chief executive as well. Again, the framers were preoccupied with balance - with holding a president accountable  for malpractice but not compromising the authority of the office by making him an easy target for political foes to remove at whim. In addition to treason and bribery, one could be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors," a phrase from English law that Blackstone in 1792 argued  referred to "public wrongs" that "area breach and violation of the public rights and duties, due to the whole community." At the time, Hamilton stressed that they were, by nature, "political" offenses.

The first presidential impeachment was that of Andrew Johnson, who has inherited the White House after Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Fellow Tennessean Jon Meacham recounts that infamous story. When I was in school, we were taught to take Johnson's side against the radical Republican Congress - a view reinforced byJohn F. Kennedy's account in Profiles in Courage. The view that the Senate had spared us (by one courageous vote) the tragedy of a presidential eviction from the White House, became, i believe, one of the major psychological obstacles to subsequent impeachments - a hurdle that was overcome in the 1970s. Meacham corrects that false image of Johnson as an agent of Lincoln's goal of national reconciliation by recalling the reality of Johnson, the racist Democrat out to thwart Congressional Reconstruction of the South. "For his obstructionism Johnson was eventually impeached (but not convicted) by a Republican majority in Congress ths thad come to see him as an impediment to the work of the nation." Johnson's story shows "how impeachment is a weapon of politics - and that any era can find itself amid a crisis over the removal of a president if the passions of the hour are ferocious enough." When Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas cast the deciding vote to acquit, a precedent was set, Meacham suggests, that the House could "act emotionally," but "the Senate would be expected to act rationally, giving future generations a precedent hat was more daunting than inviting."

The Johnson acquittal preserved the independence of the executive and prevented Congress from creating a de facto parliamentary system. Fast forward a century to the infinitely more powerful presidential office occupied by Richard Nixon, impeachment was still "s discredited constitutional remedy," according to Timothy Naftali's retelling of the familiar Watergate story, the crisis that threatened to upend that "prevailing view." Naftali highlights the critical part played by Peter Rodino (the House Judiciary Committee Chair) in ensuring that the process was as bipartisan as possible - deliberately "exorcising the ghost of Andrew Johnson's partisan impeachment." This strategy "made swaying the undecideds possible." This the subpoena resolution passed 33-3, and the first and second articles of impeachment passed the committee 27-11 and 28-10.

Peter Baker recounts the third case - the hyper-partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton 25 years later. "It exposed and deepened the corrosive, media-saturated partisanship of a new era." It "was not so much a search for facts or even a debate about what this generation of Americans believed constituted high crimes and misdemeanors than it was another political contest to be won or lost." Meanwhile, Clinton's popularity only increased during the scandal. "The public delivered its own verdict." The "almost pornographic precision" of the independent counsel's report "was a public humiliation but a political boon" for Clinton, helping him to "portray it as an illegitimate and offensive exercise." Whereas an incumbent president's party typically loses seats in a president's sixth year, in 1998 the Democrats won seats in the House (the first time since 1822).

In the final chapter, Jeffrey Engel brings the story into the present, in which impeachment talk seems to have become routine, as "more Americans than ever have become sore losers, willing to kick over the playing board rather than play out a poor hand." Comparing the three cases, Engel argues that a president impeached for purely personal transgressions is least likely to be convicted in a Senate in which no party has a supermajority. But, if as with Nixon, the transgressions are more tied to misuse of presidential power, then - assuming the evidence is widely accepted - he faces a real risk. Engel adds that such a consensus is less likely today. Finally, there is the Johnson-like situation in which the circumstances prompt Senators to break with their party - a situation unlikely to occur today. "It would require a genuine constitutional crisis of the sort Johnson's opponents generated, couples with a clear train of irrefutable evidence agreed upon by all sides such as sunk Nixon, and then frosted by a president's wild unpopularity, the very opposite of Clinton, for his judges in any impeachment trial to make their vote anything more than a referendum on the prior election's results."

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sad and Worried

Sometime in the 2nd half of the 3rd century, a young Egyptian named Anthony arrived at Church, just as the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 10:17-30] was being read.  The future Saint Anthony of Alexandria, the so-called “father of monks,” was 19 or 20 at the time (what we now call a “young adult,” the age group the church is especially focused on right now in the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment meeting in Rome). Hearing Jesus’ words, Anthony felt that they had been spoken directly to him. And so, not long after, he gave away his possessions in order to lead a more seriously spiritual life in the Egyptian desert. Ever since, many have followed Anthony as priest, brothers, and sisters, interpreting Jesus’ words as a call - not necessarily for everyone in exactly the same way - to embrace a Gospel style of life, formalized eventually in what we now call the vocation of consecrated religious life in the Church.

All that, obviously, was still far in the future when Jesus looked lovingly at the rich man and said, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, then come, follow me.” These words, we are told, caused the rich man to go away sad.

So what, exactly, was the source of his sadness? Here was this man, someone who seemed to have it all, who seemed to have everything going for him, everything to live for, and who, on top of all that, had observed all the commandments. Yet, when he was personally invited to have a closer relationship with Jesus by changing his relationship with the world, his face fell, and he went away sad. Why? Because, we are told, he had many possessions.

That, the Gospel seems to be saying, is what possessions will do to you!

I like to think that one reason the rich man was so said was because he was lonely – in the way that wealth isolates people from one another (as Jesus himself illustrated in his famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The remedy for the rich man’s isolation, Jesus seems to be suggesting, is likewise a renewed relationship with others, one which privileges people over possessions. Last Sunday, we heard a story about how lonely Adam was when he was still, literally, all alone in the world. A lot of people today are lonely in a world that is full of people because so many things separate us – wealth, obviously, which is so unevenly shared and so builds barriers between people, but other things too, technology, for example, which, far from connecting us as promised, seems instead to isolate us at a deeper level.

Is it any wonder that so much of our religious talk tends to focus on other issues, other subjects, other sorts of sins – rather than on this problem of possessions, on the spiritual danger in riches, the thing that Jesus diagnosed as the greatest threat, the greatest obstacle to becoming who God created us to be, the greatest obstacle to our ending up where God wants us to be?

It wasn’t just the rich man, after all, who was shocked and dismayed by Jesus’ words. After all, in the kind of society in which Jesus’ lived, wealth was seen as a sign of blessing – a notion which our own consumerist American society seems to have taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder Jesus’ disciples were exceedingly astonished and worried “who can be saved?” No wonder if we, who live in the richest society in the history of the world, if we too ask that same question and ought to be worried as well!

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, October 14, 2018.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Every Day Is Extra - John Kerry's Memoir

John Kerry, Every Day is Extra (Simon and Schuster, 2018), is an engaging (but very long) memoir. Kerry is a diplomat's son, with recent European family connections, a scion of privilege educated in private-schools both here and abroad, a Yale graduate, who became a naval combat officer in Vietnam War, than an activist veteran against the war and a Massachusetts politician, a U.S. Senator from 1985 to 2913, and President Obama's second Secretary of State, as well as the third Roman Catholic to run for President as the nominee of one of our two major parties.

In our "Upstairs-Downstairs" world, Kerry's account of his privileged, if lonely, childhood is inevitably intriguing. Many of us may also have been lonely as children and many may even have experienced the after-effects of family dislocation and tragedy as he did, but most of us non-preppies can only envy Kerry's as-if-it-were-the-most-ordinary-thing account of his privileged education and of going sailing with President Kennedy, and shake our heads in wonder at his elitist fondness for risky and dangerous play (which even included running with the bulls in Pamplona). It is perhaps in the nature of pseudo-aristocratic privilege that it is taken for granted. Were that less so, he might perhaps have fared better in 2004 when populist resentment - along with smears against his war record, which he clearly continues to resent - contributed in some measure to derailing his presidential ambitions. (Historians should have a field day analyzing how rich Republican heirs to privilege have so much more successfully presented themselves to ordinary voters that equally elitist Democrats have been able to do.)

The obvious deviation from pure privilege was, of course, his service in Vietnam, although that was still a time when well-off heirs of "the greatest generation" were often then still committed to service in a way which has since diminished. Kerry's account of his wartime experiences and especially of the loss of friends in war, along with his flamboyant opposition to the war afterwards, is a good counterbalance to the earlier narrative of entitlement. The two together equipped him well for a career in politics.

In the Senate, Kerry famously teamed up with John McCain and, having somehow reconciled their own different ways of responding the the trauma of the war, worked together to reconcile the country, conclusively addressing the neuralgic POW/MIA issue and helping to normalize US post-war relations with Vietnam. Kerry's account of bipartisan cooperation (and friendship) in the Senate serves additionally as yet another nostalgic reproof of what Washington has become in recent, increasingly dysfunctional, decades. That he considered making McCain his running mate in 2004 (like McCain's later consideration of Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mare in 2008) raises interesting questions about how differently history might have been had such imaginative and courageous directions been taken.

Instead of McCain, Kerry chose John Edwards, at that time a very attractive figure in Democratic politics. Running mates are more often a drag than an asset to presidential candidates, but Kerry lost the race himself. Edwards didn't lose it for him. He would do better to imitate McCain in minimizing his after-the-fact criticism of an unfortunate running mate.  

The last and densest part of the book deals with Kerry's career as Secretary of State. His authentically admirable achievements in that role - the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Parish Climate Agreement - highlight the ambiguity of the Obama legacy. Those were great accomplishments, but the Obama Administration somehow failed to persuade the domestic American audience of their value, thus leaving open the door to Trump's destruction of what should have been two monumental achievements and a long-term legacy.

Kerry's immigrant grandparents were originally Viennese Jews, and Kerry's Catholic father's faith was somewhat  lapsed, but his Protestant mother made sure he and his siblings were raised Catholic. It was an authentically Catholic upbringing, which he remembers positively, but also as somewhat conventional. "It was," he writes, "that period when practicing families shared the experience and the habit of attending but without  much meaning." He wore his Saint Christopher medal in Vietnam, but returned with more questions than answers about his faith. He came home "with gratitude that every day was extra," but uncertain about "God's will working in strange ways."

He found reinforcement for his faith in, of all places, the U.S..Senate, where he attended the weekly Wednesday-morning Senate Prayer Breakfast. The Prayer Breakfast reflects the predominantly Protestant religious style endemic to so much of American history and civic religion, with senators offering testimonies about their relationship with God and its role in facing life's challenges. It might seem like an unusual place to strengthen one's Catholic faith, but it seems to have done so (much as my own exposure to some of the best of elite Protestantism at Princeton enriched my own Catholic faith life).

In what I found one of the most truly interesting segments of his book, Kerry recounts how the likes of Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, and Ted Stevens (a tragically widowed Senator from Alaska) shared their experiences and spirituality with their colleagues. The effect of this on him was politically as well as religiously significant. "No matter which side of a debate we'd be on - and frequently it was the opposite side - because of the common ground we'd found together that morning, Ted [Stevens] was no longer just one of the Republican senators. he was a friend." A common ground in shared suffering fostered a mutual respect that made possible a bipartisan comity that sadly seems increasingly elusive.

Kerry's spiritual struggle to reconcile his inherited faith with the experience of seemingly pointless human suffering which he had encountered in the Vietnam War gives this otherwise interesting but conventional account of a privileged person's political career path a genuine depth it might otherwise lack. Perhaps the presidential campaign of the third Catholic to run for that office might have benefited from his having shared some of this with the American people even earlier.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Conciliar Ultamonanism

With Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard, 2018), Jesuit Church historian John W. O'Malley has completed his trilogy of books on the three ecumenical councils of the modern Church. Beginning with his book on Vatican II in 2008 and a book on Trent in 2013, he has now completed the series with Blessed Pius IX's under-appreciated, in-between council Vatican I. More than an account of a single council (which actually met only from December 1869 though the following summer), O'Malley tells the story of the development of the modern Church, "the story of how the Catholic Church in a relatively short time moved to a new and significantly pope-centered mode" - that is, the pope-centered ultramontane Church I was born into and have lived my entire life within. 

The Vatican Council itself, which met on the very eve of the Kingdom of Italy's September 20, 1870, conquest of Rome was the (literally) defining episode in the historical process in which the Pope's spiritual authority within the Church reached its glorious zenith precisely as the Pope's temporal power came to its inglorious end. O'Malley masterfully situates this development in the larger historical context of the definitive defeat of Gallicanism, which had accorded greater prominence to national Churches in relation to the papacy, had recognized national states as legitimate actors in ecclesiastical matters, and had considered the consent of the Church essential for a papal pronouncement to be irreformable. It was above all that last belief which Vatican I explicitly rejected, leading to the pope-centered Church of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In between, there was the Council itself, which O'Malley describes in detail - even such details as the poor acoustics in the transept of Saint Peter's where the Council met and how rainy days diminished attendance (since for many Council Fathers that meant walking to the basilica in the rain and then sitting soaking wet in the cold basilica for hours). More importantly, O'Malley effectively portrays the factional politics both inside and outside the Council hall and also among those not invited but who took a great interest nonetheless. (In another display of the Church's changed relationship with the worldly powers which the Council codified, this was the first time that Catholic princes were not invited as participants, thus ending centuries of lay participation in such events).

The Council was in its time the largest and most international Church assembly in history. That too pointed ahead to the contemporary pope-centered Church - no longer primarily perceived as a principality competing in Italian and European politics but more like the universal, multi-cultural community that Acts 15's "Council of Jerusalem" had first made possible, its unity and universality across time and space centered in the petrine ministry of the pope.

Vatican I was, of course, the first Council attended by Bishops from the United States. Prior to traveling to Rome as an assistant to Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore and Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans of Columbus, Isaac Hecker had expressed his confidence in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the forthcoming Council and assured his New York parishioners in a "Farewell Sermon" that, rather than choose between faith and reason, grace and nature, liberty and authority, the Church would “embrace and reconcile them all, giving to each one of them all that is justly due to it.” [“Father Hecker’s Farewell Sermon,” Catholic World, 10, December 1869, pp. 289-293.]

His analysis after the Council was even more perceptive: “The Church has been prepared for a movement of this nature by the decrees of the Vatican Council on Papal authority, which have settled its rightful position, defined its exercise, and declared these decisions to articles of the Catholic Faith. This elevation and settlement of the spiritual authority of the Church gave the main stroke to the task of the Tridentine epoch and has prepared the Church for a fresh start. [“On the Mission of New Religious Communities” (1876)].

As O'Malley notes, "the centralization of authority that Pastor Aeternus promoted was a phenomenon that in the secular sphere had greatly accelerated in the nineteenth century. It resulted in a very modern standardization of procedures on a worldwide basis... At the same time it called people out of their provincialism and nationalism and forced them into a more expansive vision of the church and, consequently, of the world."

In the triumphant ultramontanism of the post-Vatican I Church, some foolishly foresaw some sort of end of history (to echo Francis Fukuyama's comparable mistake in 1989 in light of the end of the Cold War). It was widely asserted that Vatican was the last such event, that it had rendered future Councils redundant. Then came Pope Saint John XXIII, whose feast day Thursday will mark the anniversary of his opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. 

Like Vatican I, which met in the shadow of the threatened Italian conquest of Rome, Vatican II met under the dark cloud of the Cold War. (The Cuban Missile Crisis came later that month.) Like Vatican I, Vatican II tried to respond to the new and apparently unprecedented world situation the Church found herself in by reclaiming her relevance and her competence to speak to the world. The triumphant ultramontanism of Vatican I made possible the self-confident ultramontanism of Vatican II, enabling Church to address the still pending challenges of modernity and prepare herself for the fresh start she would need to accompany an even more globally centralized while simultaneously fragmented post-modern world.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Ever-Expanding Horizon of the Kingdom

Today’s Gospel [Mark 10:2-16] has 2 complementary messages – one focused on human life lived in family and society, and another focused on our life in God’s kingdom. The reading from the creation story [Genesis 2:18-24] reinforces the social message about marriage and family life, while the reading from Hebrews [Hebrews 2:9-11] highlights the Gospel’s second message.

American Christianity tends to focus a lot on family life, forgetting perhaps that Jesus and the New Testament in general were much more focused on God’s kingdom and showed relatively little interest in or enthusiasm about marriage and family life. The Gospel gets at marriage and family life largely by the back-door of divorce. The context in which we talk about divorce today is, of course, different from what it was then. It is different even from what it was 50 years ago. But you hardly need me to tell you how completely social attitudes toward divorce have changed just in my lifetime. What once was relatively rare and obtained with some degree of difficulty, often only as a last resort, and often exposing the divorced persons and their families to some significant social disapproval has now become as common and socially acceptable as marriage itself. (There are even greeting cards you can buy now to send to people when they divorce.)

And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Nowadays fewer people are choosing to get married at all. Less than half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with more than three-quarters of the population half a century ago. And the number of Catholic marriages taking place in the United States has declined even more dramatically during the same time period. 

And then, thanks to increasing economic inequality in our society, there is also a very visibly obvious class component to this phenomenon of fewer people getting married. Marriage is increasingly more likely among the generally better off, better educated, successful classes, while poorer people with fewer social advantages are much less likely to get married. More highly educated people also marry later in their careers, enjoy more stability,  and are much less likely to divorce. Meanwhile, for those increasingly left behind, the Church has less and less of a visible presence.  As a result the "good news" of God’s kingdom, that it is the Church's mission to speak, seems to too many today to be either bad news or, as is increasingly the case, no news at all.

So many young people today face truly challenging prospects - personal and professional, private and public, environmental and economic, social and structural. However distinctive today's context, such challenges are not entirely unprecedented. The Good News of God’s Kingdom offers an alternative of much needed communal solidarity with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness. So one would think the Church would have something to say - perhaps plenty to say to today’s world. Yet so much of what the Church says - or is perceived to be saying - seems to too many people today to be at best somehow off-topic.

This month’s Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocation Discernment, that is meeting in Rome right now represents an opportunity – as Pope Francis said in his opening homily to the Synod last Wednesday - to get up and look directly into the eyes of young people and see their situations.

In that same homily, Pope Francis challenged the Synod delegates – and through them the whole Church - to listen to one another, in order to discern together what the Lord is asking of his Church. And this demands that we be really careful against succumbing to a self-preservation and self-centredness which gives importance to what is secondary yet makes secondary what is important. Love for the Gospel and for the people who have been entrusted to us, challenges us to broaden our horizons and not lose sight of the mission to which we are called.

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 7, 2018.