Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How many Divisions does the Pope have?

Like so many of his recent predecessors in the White House, President Trump is traveling to Rome today to be received in audience by the Pope.  On April 29, 1903, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope Saint John XIII then still a seminarian in Rome, wrote in triumphalistic tones in his journal (posthumously published as Journal of a Soul) about the visit of Britain's King Edward VII to Pope Leo XIII, whom Roncalli called "the poor old Pope, held like a prisoner in his own house." Leo's future successor was moved "to thank the good God who holds the keys of men's hearts and who, through all the intrigues of politics, finds a means of making known the glory of his name and the glory of the Catholic Church."  

And, in fact, King Edward's visit to the Vatican really was a tribute of sorts to Leo's success in restoring prestige to a beleaguered papacy after the Italian conquest of Rome and the many other humiliations the 19th century had inflicted upon both Pope and Church. If anything, papal prestige is even higher today, thanks largely to the widespread growth and expansion of the Church around the world. Thanks to its increased influence, more states than ever before in history now have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. (When the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome in 1870, there were just 16 diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See. By the time Italy and the Church made peace in 1929, the  number had grown to 27. With the recent establishment of relations with Myanmar earlier this year that number has passed 180.) 

Both the Holy See and the United States are global powers, albeit very different types of global powers, which makes tomorrow's meeting of Pope and President at least symbolically significant. At times, of course, the relationship has had more practical impact. Papal diplomacy has been credited with playing a role in the Obama Administration's restoration of relations with Cuba, and of course the Cold War cooperation between the Pope and President Reagan is now legendary. More importantly than any of that, however, the Pope himself and the Holy See as an institution serve as a global reference, reminding political actors of imperatives beyond the important but limited constructs of national interests and international relations.

So Pope and President, each of whom has a very different mandate, should not normally be expected to look at the world's problems through the same lens. It is hardly likely that this Pope and this President will. Everyone remembers their apparent disagreement a while back about Trump's proposed border wall. Even so, this Pope and this President have some things in common, which may make their relationship more interesting. Both came to their current office as outsiders. Both remain reluctant to subordinate themselves to some of the more traditional expectations of their office. Both seem to have a keen sense of public relations and the value of direct communication with their constituents over the  heads of traditional filters. Both seem to appreciate the contemporary primacy of image over more traditional concerns. Both have a somewhat critical stance toward the very institutions that they need to work through in order to accomplish substantive goals, and both likewise maintain a comparably critical perspective toward inherited global political and economic arrangements. 

How many divisions does the Pope have? Stalin is supposed to have asked Winston Churchill, when the latter spoke up about the rights of the Catholic Poles. It turns out that he may still have quite a few!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mater Si, Magistra No?

Mater si, Magistra no was a once provocative phrase originally used by William F. Buckley (allegedly suggested to him by Gary Wills) in Buckley's journal National Review in his negative response to Pope Saint John XXIII's 1961 social encyclical Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher"). It was a take-off on a then popular anti-Castro expression, Cuba si, Castro no. Appropriating the slogan in this way, Buckley meant to convey that one could be a devout and loyal Catholic son or daughter of Mother Church while rejecting particular Church teachings. In subsequent decades, the phrase came to characterize the more widespread phenomenon, on the left as well as on the right, of dissent from other authoritative Church teachings (e.g., on contraception).

I was reminded of all that recently with the publication of an excellent new Buckley biography, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr., by Al Felzenberg, a political scientist and scholar of the presidency, presently a lecturer at the Annenberg School of Communicatio- and (full disclosure) a former grad school classmate of mine at Princeton in the 1970s. Dr. Felzenberg provides a detailed account of Buckley's life, his career as a public face of and mentor to the revitalized conservative movement in the second half of the 20th century, and, as the title suggests, his personal and political interactions with the presidents (at least the Republican presidents) who dominated that period. The "odyssey" part of the title may be more problematic, since, although he did evolve in certain respects which Felzenberg details, basically Buckley began, continued, and ended as a convinced and polemical conservative throughout his entire public life. That said, as a study of Buckley's beliefs and how he promoted them, irrefutably influencing his era, Felzenberg's book is a tremendous success. Significantly, he highlights two of Buckley's greatest accomplishments - his "fusion" of disparate philosophical factions in a common anti-communist movement and his "gatekeeper" role, which functioned to de-legitimize more extreme and conspiratorial edges of the movement - some of the very elements which seem to be reasserting their influence on the right today under the rubric of "populism." An elitist by personality and background, Buckley (as Felzenberg relevantly shows) never quite resolved the competing claims of elitism and populism in his own thinking and in the movement at large.

Felzenberg acknowledges and highlights the significance of Buckley's Catholicism - and the influence it apparently had in moderating his inherited racial prejudices. But, unless I missed it, Buckley's 1961 reaction to Mater et Magistra and the larger, life-long Mater si, Magistra no question of how he reconciled his highly individualistic (almost libertarian) orientation with the communitarian-oriented teaching of the Church is hardly addressed. Perhaps what that really reflects is how - apart from his rejection of the most extreme  (and conveniently atheistic) version of libertarianism promoted by Ayn Rand - Buckley himself managed somehow sufficiently to compartmentalize his faith and his socio-political beliefs such that the challenges one proposed to the other could themselves be minimized or ignored. 

In this, unwittingly perhaps, Buckley became a paradigm for contemporary American Catholicism's internal divisions, which virtually mirror the larger social and political divisions in American society at large. Like the country, Catholicism in America is largely polarized between between its right and left wings which tragically seem increasingly to be moving in separate politically rather than religiously defined directions, despite the challenge to both by the authoritative teachings of the Church's magisterium.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Learning from Experience

From Jerusalem, the city of Samaria to which the Deacon Philip traveled in today’s 1st reading was about the same distance as, say, San Francisco is from Walnut Creek. The Samaritans were, so to speak, the Jews’ next-door neighbors. Neighbors, however, don’t always get along, as we all know. The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, but over the centuries, thanks to a complicated history, they had acquired a separate identity, worshiping the same God but in a different place and in a different way. The result was two groups, whose differences from one another came to matter more than what they had in common, causing them to regard each other with suspicion and hostility. (Being suspicious of and hostile to other people who are different in some way seems to be typically human behavior – now as then.)

Yet, surprisingly, none of that seems to have stopped Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to them. Nor did it prevent the Samaritans from paying attention to what was said by Philip. The result was great joy in that city and yet another leap on the Church’s part, another experience of expansion, growth, and diversity (in keeping with the whole trajectory of the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles which, can be summarized as: Good News travels fast. Good News travels far. Good news builds the Church and heals the world.)

Even so, what Philip was doing and had done inevitably raised some serious questions back in Jerusalem. So Peter and John went to Samaria to see for themselves what was happening and to interpret what it all meant. Surrounded by Samaritans, strangers whom they would until then have probably preferred to avoid, Peter and John recognized God’s grace at work in in this unexpected way in that unexpected place, and so they laid their hands on the newly believing Samaritans, and they, in turn, received the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. So, if the Samaritans were going to become believers like them, then they had to be connected by that one Holy Spirit with the rest of the Church led by the apostles.

Luke’s point in telling us this story seems to be to stress the importance of the unity and universality of the Church, specifically its apostolic leadership, which links us with the Risen Christ, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Church continues Christ’s presence and action in our world today.

The apostles may well have been surprised initially, both by Philip’s initiative and by the Samaritans’ response. Surprised or not, they saw in what was happening the direction they were intended to go. Acts constantly presents the Church as learning from experience, confident that, thanks to the Risen Christ’s continued presence in the Church through his Holy Spirit, what happens in the world really is significant.

Faith does not eradicate the many and various differences that exist among people, but it does create a completely new relationship for all of us with God and with one another - in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  Peter, John, and Philip all learned this from their actual experience of how God was acting, drawing different people and peoples together in a completely new kind of community that overcomes the ordinary divisions of our ordinary world.

Likewise, faith alone does not resolve all the problems we will experience even in our new life together as Christ’s Church. It does, however, give us confidence in the Risen Lord’s presence among us in the structures of his Church, and in the power of the word of God, which continues to be proclaimed in the Church, to create a unity which can resolve those conflicts and so transcend our human divisions and limitations.

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, May 21, 2017.

Friday, May 19, 2017


I am not generally a fan of science fiction, but today I saw Passengers, a science fiction film released on the last day of 2016, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, and Laurence Fishburne. The film is set on the commercial spaceship Avalon, which is transporting 5,000 passengers and 258 crew, asleep in “hibernation pods,” on a 120-year journey to colonize the planet Homestead II. Thirty years into its journey, the ship hits a meteor, causing a malfunction that awakens just one passenger, a mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who soon realizes he is sentenced to live and die on the spaceship with no companionship except an android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), After a year of this, he falls for a still-sleeping fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer whose video profile makes her ever more attractive to Jim. After debating internally (and with Arthur) the rightness of awakening her (which as a mechanic he has figured out how to do), his desire for companionship wins out and he does so, leaving her to think that her “hibernation pod” also malfunctioned. She too is overwhelmed by her situation, but like Jim eventually comes to terms with the situation – and, of course, the two fall in love. Their idyll is ruined, however, when Aurora learns form Arthur that Jim had deliberately revived her. But then another pod failure awakens Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a crew-member. He realizes the ship is undergoing multiple malfunctions and must be fixed - or else. Gus himself soon dies of injuries sustained in his pod malfunction. But, with Gus's ID, Jim and Aurora mange to salvage the ship and fall back in love in the process. Jim figures out how to put Aurora back to sleep, but she chooses to remain with him to make a life together. When the crew awakens 88 year later, they discover Jim and Aurora’s house and garden on the ship's main concourse, while Aurora's "book" reveals their story.

The love story is a well done, if formulaic, tale of a doomed couple - a kind of Titanic for the space age - with an excellent cast of attractive actors who turn what would otherwise be an unremarkable sci-fi-thriller into a meditation on what matters most in life and what it really means to live in the present moment, whatever the circumstances.

Monday, May 15, 2017

King Charles III

The one undoubted benefit of the American Revolution in my modest opinion was the replacement of tea by coffee as the preferred American drink. The Revolution's other consequences have always seemed to be more open to honest debate. One of those consequences, which may bear a lot of blame for the long-term debasing of our political culture, has been to deprive us of a King, for which the faux royalty of our celebrity culture have been at best a very poor substitute.  And so with endless fascination Americans constantly gaze across the sea not just at any royal house but at the very same one we so violently abandoned 240 years ago.

Last night's 90-minute PBS drama King Charles III is a televised adaptation of a British stage play by Mike Bartlett, written (like Shakespeare's plays) in Blank Verse, and centered on the accession and subsequent reign of the present Prince of Wales as King Charles III of the UK. It features a highly implausible constitutional fracas in which the King refuses the Royal Assent to a measure limiting the freedom of the press, which sets off a calamitous chain of events within the Royal House, the Government, and the Kingdom at large. 

The conflict motif reminded me immediately of the 1993 BBC series To Play the King (the sequel to the 1990 BBC series House of Cards), which featured a newly crowned King (not explicitly identified as Charles, but obviously modeled on him - even to the point of being divorced) in conflict with an unscrupulous Prime Minister. The King's unsuccessful effort to oppose the PM leads - as such efforts inevitably must lead - to his abdication and the accession of his son. Inevitably, of course, a similar outcome occurs in this drama, in which both the King and the heir are unambiguously identified with their real world equivalents.

The drama begins with the present Queen's funeral and highlights the palpable sense of widespread loss, a theme returned to at times throughout, as society tries to recover the anchor her steady reign provided. To be honest, at first I found the Shakespearian style (complete with soliloquies) awkward and distracting. These are, after all, contemporary characters - not figures from the Bard's history plays. Yet, while it may seem awkward - an affectation even - to dress the story up in Shakespearean language, in a weird way it works, which may suggest something about the time-transcending resonance of the subject.

As King Charles' refusal of the Royal Assent quickly unravels into a constitutional crisis unlike any since the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (the last time the Establishment had to rid the nation of an unsuitable monarch), the king himself seems to unravel, increasingly deluded about his role and haunted (literally) by his late wife. Charles grasps the truth that the monarch's vocation is to embody and defend the nation's deepest values, but completely misunderstands the institutional realities within which that calling is to lived and fulfilled.

It is said of the current Queen that she has never made a misstep in her role. That would be a very high bar for any future monarch to meet - especially one like Charles whom the public, after decades of negative press coverage, seems predisposed to expect to make mistakes. But it strains credulity to imagine him making the kind of mistakes that King Charles III portrays him making! As Italy's King Umberto II is alleged to have once told a British journalist, in the modern world a king must do what everyone wants him to do. 

Italy's King Umberto might have saved his own throne had he confronted and challenged his elderly father instead of interpreting his dynastic duty as one of obedience and support in spite of everything. In King Charles III, William, the new Prince of Wales, starts out similarly unwilling to confront and challenge his elderly and increasingly out-of-touch father - unlike his wife whose intense ambition leads her to recognize more quickly what must be done. But when William does act at last, he acts decisively to force his father off the throne and thus restore the monarchy's bond with the people.

The Prince Harry sub-plot is entertaining but seems predictably formulaic. He is the playboy prince who wants the freedom of not being a prince - shades of Shakespeare's Prince Hal in Henry IV - who when the time comes rises to his responsibilities and leaves freedom behind for duty. 

The story is well crafted and the drama well acted, and it ends as it must and should. Still, at what gratuitous cost to the real people being portrayed?

What is it about the present Prince of Wales and presumptive future king that the cultural elite takes such pleasure in treating him so scornfully? Ironically his long apprenticeship has, if anything, made him perhaps the best prepared sovereign-in-waiting in British history - in part because he has made good use of his time as heir apparent to engage with the contemporary world in constructive ways. In addition to doing lots of good works through The Prince's Trust, he has actually shown an interest in ideas and issues. Of course, that can get problematic, since expressing any opinion on almost anything is likely to annoy somebody - the very thing he must not do when he becomes king. But one does not necessarily have to agree with all his ideas or share all his interests to admire the fact that he actually has ideas and interests - beyond such traditionally respectable pursuits as shooting birds and riding horses.

That the real Charles survived an education ill-suited to his temperament is to his credit. That he has recovered as well as he has from a traumatically disastrous marriage to someone so totally unsuited to the role of Princess (and future Queen) as the woman whom he was pressured to marry also is to his credit. (Obviously it was better for all concerned - including the general public - when royals only married other royals, people who understood what was expected of them and generally tried to live up to those expectations. But that age is now gone, and all concerned must make do with our contemporary extravagant expectations about marriage.)

For a far fairer portrait of the actual man who may one day become king, I would recommend reading the latest - and likely best - biography of the present Prince of Wales, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith (Random House, 596 pp.).

Common sense and the wisdom of the ages teach us the absolute importance, if we humans are to flourish, of institutions and the restraints they impose. Common sense and the wisdom of the ages thus teach us to treasure those inherited institutions which have proven their worth over time. If anything, the crisis of contemporary culture (including the symptoms of that crisis which we are witnessing right now at the national level in our own country) should highlight for us what happens when inherited institutions and their values are frivolously devalued