Friday, September 14, 2018

A Modest Proposal

Today's feast of the Holy Cross is a reminder that throughout almost all of the Church's history - that is, from the 4th century or earlier until 1969 - the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of next week would have been observed in the Roman Rite as Ember Days. The four sets of those annual fast days corresponded, symbolically at least, to the beginning of each of the four seasons, and early on also acquired a connection with ordinations. It serves no purpose to repeat how they were abolished, except to recall that the pre-conciliar Papal Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy (commonly called the "Pian Commission") never envisaged such a development. According to the Minutes of the Commission's February 5, 1952, meeting, All were agreed that the Ember Days should be upgraded and that their celebration should be really observed. And we can be reasonably certain that none of the Council Fathers who voted for Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963 foresaw such a development.

In any case, the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (45-47) clearly envisage their continuance (although not that of the ancient Ember Day Masses) at least in some form, and the Episcopal Conferences are directed to "arrange the time and manner in which they are held."  So there is nothing right now to stop the USCCB, for example, from restoring all 12 Ember Days or even just some of them. If in fact the original Ember Days were the penitential part of Church's response to the challenges for human survival posed by our dependence on the natural environment and to the need for ecclesial survival by providing the Church with sufficient and suitable clergy, then they would seem to be an obvious ancient resource crying out to be retrieved in response to our comparable contemporary concerns. The fact that fasting for religious reasons has become completely counter-cultural actually argues strongly in its favor. The recent restoration of Friday abstinence in England and Wales suggests that it is not hopelessly impossible to try to do it.

Besides being days of fasting, the traditional Ember Days were part of a precious liturgical patrimony well worth recovering. The Roman Station for each Ember Wednesday was always Saint Mary Major, and the Mass had three readings - 2 Old Testament "Lessons" before the Gospel. The Station for Ember Friday was always the Church of the Holy Apostles. That for Ember Saturday was Saint Peter's, and the Mass had seven readings - 5 Old Testament "Lessons" (the fifth always from Daniel's account of the three young men in the fiery Furnace) and a New Testament Epistle before the Gospel. Originally a long Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning vigil, the Ember Saturday Mass also became the preferred occasion for ordinations - a suitably sober occasion for so significant a sacramental celebration. 

My last recollection of an Ember Day liturgy goes back 51 years now to the day of my grandmother's funeral. By then – September 1967 – the Mass was almost entirely in English. Only the Canon was still recited silently and in Latin, and even that was to change by the end of that year. Other than language, however, it was still essentially the same old Funeral Mass . The celebrant still wore black and chanted the traditional “Absolution” prayers over the body at the end. While all that was going on at the main altar, however, my attention was distracted by the side altars, which were all still being used by priests celebrating their private Masses in penitential purple for the Ember Friday in September.

It is a foolish fallacy to think that one can recover the cultural ambience of that long-lost world which made such practices seem so sensible. And it would be at best a wasteful exercise in romanticism - and at worse a distraction from more pressing present problems - to make that a disproportionate priority. But there were real reasons - solid, sound, human and religious reasons - why people prayed and fasted as they on those 12 days each year century after century. For the most part, those reasons remain relevant today. Perhaps it is time to reconsider an ancient remedy and rediscover what aspects of it can still serve us in today's time of intense need.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fear (the Woodward Book)

In between meetings Tuesday, I took a quick drive to the bookstore to buy Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House. It was about 11:30 on the morning of the book's official release date when I got there - just in time to purchase the last available copy! 

Donald Trump is, I believe, the 8th President about whom the Pulitzer-Prize winning author has written. Not all his president books have been as memorable as his famous accounts of the end of the Nixon presidency, but they have set a certain standard of journalistic history and constitute a contemporary version of a great tradition, to which his latest work is a worthy addition. Based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews with sources inside the Trump administration, it highlights in scrupulous detail the President's already well known (and  much commented on and written about) strange relationship with the office of president. It thus gives greater credibility to earlier tell-all books that have emerged from and about this White House.

Much attention inevitably will be directed at the question of exactly who Woodward's sources were, especially given the extreme character of the description of this administration. This can only be exacerbated by the possibly coincidental, possibly not, publication of the "Anonymous" op ed in The NY Times last week - just one day after the first excerpts of Fear appeared. The two accounts seem to complement each other, raising interesting questions about who is doing what in the White House and more important political and constitutional questions about who should be doing what in the White House.

One of the challenges for the public when reading this sort of political journalism is sorting out and evaluating what is interesting insider gossip, reflecting inevitably inside-the-Beltway preoccupations with who is up, who is down, who is in, who is out - preoccupations typical of any royal court and which will always continue to fascinate. 

Before recounting the crisis chronologically from Trump's initial decision to run for president (and even earlier, all the way back to his completely unconvincing 2010 conversion to being "pro-life"), the book begins with the now famous incident of Gary Cohn removing a document from the president's desk, the incident that sets the larger tone for the book: "the reality was that that United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader ... a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world."

Woodward's brief account of the campaign highlights two important themes that will matter later - Trump's preoccupation with not spending money and how he hardly expected tow in and how unprepared he was when he did. Woodward quotes Steve Bannon: "Hillary Clinton spent her entire adult life getting ready for this moment. Trump hasn't spent a second getting ready for this moment."

As an historical chronicle, Fear is a journalistic chronicle. It tells the story of the Trump presidency in a succession of short, but well pointed, vignettes, highlighting this or that particularly revealing event or White House personality. Some salient quotes:

"Secretaries of Defense don't always get to choose the president they work for" (Secretary of Defense James Mattis).

"What did you ever really run?" (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Stephen Miller).

"I'll never be a staffer. I'm the first daughter" (Ivanka Trump to Steve Bannon).

"We need to have a process to make sure that we do this in proper order, that we've thought through these things." (Rob Porter to Vice President Pence and others).

"You can fire Comey. You can't fire the FBI" (Steve Bannon to President Trump).

"Bring me my tariffs" (President Trump to Rob Porter).

"I don't want to hear that" (President Trump to Gary Cohn, Secretary Mattis, and others at a meeting at the Pentagon).

"You should be killing guys. You don't need a strategy to kill people" (President Trump at the same meeting).

"He's a f---- moron" (Secretary Tillerson to Gary Cohn at the end of that same meeting).

"The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way" (Reince Priebus to General Kelly after being fired as Chief of Staff).

"He puts natural predators at the table. Not just rivals - predators" (Reince Priebus)

"You never apologize.  Why look weak?" (President Trump to Rob Porter after Charlottesville).

"I can't find a good lawyer" (President Trump).

"Gary's just a globalist. He's not loyal to the president" (Peter Navarro to General Kelley about Gary Cohn).

"What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean Peninsula?" President Trump at a National Security Council Meeting)

"We're doing this in order to prevent World War III" (Secretary Mattis at the same meeting).

"I think we could be so rich, if we weren't stupid. We're being played [as] suckers, especially NATO" (President Trump at the same meeting).

"These military guys, they don't get business. They know how to be soldiers and they know how to fight. They don't understand how much it's costing" (President Trump)

What have we learned from all this? What is the picture that emerges? I think more or less what we already knew. That the President is out of his element and shockingly ill prepared for his office. That those around him are either enablers or underminers - and often underminers of one another, even more than one would expect in Washington. And, particularly tellingly, we are reminded of his preoccupation with money and wealth and how he sees most things through that lens. We are reminded that our president is a businessman - a vocation completely incompatible with public office.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Bookshop

The Bookshop is a film, apparently based on a 1978 novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald. Set in England, mostly in 1959, the movie's protagonist, a middle-aged, war widow named Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), opens a bookshop in a small coastal village in Suffolk, in an abandoned building known as the Old House. She opens her shop against the opposition of the moneyed local elite and determinedly tries to run it successfully until the forces of upper-class entitlement arrayed against her prove overpowering. Meanwhile she makes at two friends. One is the strangely reclusive, book-lover and serious reader, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy). The other is a village girl who works for Florence in the shop and is transformed by the experience.

The brutal, hard-ball politics stand out all the more in the seemingly tranquil setting of a post-war English village. More than that, the preoccupation of some with power, money, and status seems that much more empty when set against the uniquely transforming power of literature, which Florence and her bookstore represent (even if only two people in town really appreciate it).

Intended or not, the story stands also as an elegy to the old-fashioned local bookstore, which I remember well but which hardly exists anymore. Browsing bookstores was once one of my favorite recreations, long before such neighborhood culture-bearers had been eaten up by big chains. The future of even those big stores now seems somewhat shaky. The Bookshop reminds the viewer of a world of alternative possibilities, one which we have largely lost, but within which (as the movie's conclusion recalls) one was never quite alone.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Nativity of Mary

Today is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the more ancient feasts of the Church.

The New Testament is silent on the subject of Mary's life prior to the Annunciation. The earliest known account of Mary's birth is found in the Protoevangelium of James a non-canonical, "apocryphal" - Raymond Brown called it "obviously folkloric" - text from the late second century, which identifies her parents as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. With most saints, the Church commemorates their date of death. By exception, the births of Mary and Saint John the Baptist are commemorated, because these alone were holy in their very birth. (Mary was conceived free from original sin, and John the Baptist was sanctified in Elizabeth's womb according to the traditional interpretation of Luke1:15). The liturgical commemoration of Mary’s birth is connected with the dedication of an ancient fifth-century Marian Basilica in Jerusalem, now known as the Church of Saint Anne. Built on a site traditionally identified with the home of Saints Joachim and Anne.

In the 7th century, Pope Sergius I prescribed a procession (in which the Pope and the clergy participated barefoot) to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major on what were then the four great Marian feasts in the Western calendar - Candlemas Day (February 2), the Annunciation (March 25), the Assumption (August 15), and today's feast of Mary's Nativity. The procession assembled at the Church of Saint Hadrian in the old Roman forum, a former meeting place of the Senate consecrated as a church by Pope Honorius I earlier in the 7th century, probably on this date.(Saint Hadiran continued to be commemorated in the Roman Liturgy on this date until 1969.)

The famous 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch described today's feast as "close to our heart, for as members of God's great family we love to celebrate family events; today is our Mother's birthday." Adults may find that formulation odd, but in a certain sense the liturgy itself highlights the familial dimension with the Gospel reading of Matthew's account of the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew's genealogy of Jesus is fun to proclaim but perhaps less fun to preach on. Nonetheless, Matthew must obviously have seen it as a very significant and meaningful way to introduce the story of Jesus. So it seems especially suitable for this feast, which serves as a kind of prelude to God's great masterwork, the Incarnation.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A New Religious Typology of the US

The Pew Research Center has just recently published The Religious typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion. It prints out at just under 100 pages and is well worth reading and studying. It an be found at

What is "new" about this study is that, instead of sorting Americans by conventional religious categories (e.g., denominations), it sorts us by "beliefs and behaviors that cut across many denominations." It classifies Americans into seven categories "based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share,how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives."

The typology identifies three groups it classifies as "highly religious" - Sunday Stalwarts, God and Country Believers, and the Diversely Devout. At the opposite end are two groups, the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular . And, in between, there are two other categories called Relaxed Religious and Spiritually Awake. To get a full appreciation of each category, it is obviously necessary to read the report. Here i shall touch on just a few areas of particular interest to me.

First of all, there is the composition of each group in terms of conventional religious affiliation. Of the Sunday Stalwarts (the most conventionally religious group, both in terms of belief and practice and involvement in both Church and other voluntary associations), 13% are Roman Catholics (compared to 46% who are Evangelicals). Of God and Country Believers (the most pro-Trump and anti-immigrant group), 24% are Catholic  (compared to 41% Evangelical). Of the Diversely Devout (the only group in which whites are not the majority), 29% are Catholic (compared to 15% Evangelical). The Relaxed Religious and Spiritually Awake are respectively 25% and 23% Catholic (compared to 25% and 16% Evangelical). Finally, of the the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular, only 9% of each are identified as Catholic (compared to only 1% and 2% Evangelical).

As already mentioned, the Sunday Stalwarts are the most conventionally religious group, both in terms of their beliefs and practice and their involvement in both Church and other voluntary associations, a correlation that conforms to what we would expect from other studies of trends in American society. They are also the ones most likely to vote, and (along with the other "highly religious" groups) tend to be older. These facts, of course, speak to the apparently greater influence of the "highly religious" in American society - and also to the demographic prospect of their declining influence compared with the younger and also more highly educated non-religious groups.

On the important issue of how religious organizations are viewed socially, somewhat unsurprisingly 78% of Sunday Stalwarts 66% of God and Country Believers, and 61 % of the Diversely Devout view religious organizations positively.  On the other hand only 51% of the Relaxed Religious and only 38% of the Spiritually Awake, and only 9% of the Religion Resisters and 13% of the Solidly Secular see religious organizations positively - an ominous measure for religious freedom in a society more likely to be dominated by some of those groups. In fact, even now, only 45% of American adults overall say they have a predominantly positive view of religious organizations!

In terms of serving as a significant source of meaning in life, religious faith ranked on top only for the Sunday Stalwarts, came in second for the God and Country Believers, and fourth for the Diversely Devout. Somewhat unsurprisingly "spending time with Family" came in either first or second for every group. That it topped the list for two of the supposedly "highly religious" groups and second for the most religious groups evidence of what i like to call the "familialism" that de facto dominates much of American religious practice and pervades many of our American religious institutions.

For me the most striking thing about the study was how widespread "New Age" beliefs are even among the "highly religious." These include belief in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology - and, new at least to me, the belief that spiritual energy can be located in spiritual objects, such as mountains, trees, and crystals. Thus 29% of the Sunday Stalwarts hold that latter belief, along with  95% of the Diversely Devout, 99% of the Spiritually Awake and 98% of the Religion Resisters.

There is, of course, no substitute for reading the entire report. Even so, that data mentioned here are enough to highlight how the religious landscape of the United States cannot be completely captured either in the traditional terms of its denomination divisions or by the modern trajectory of progressive religious decline.