Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Assumption

In Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (Yale U. Pr., 2009) Miri Rubin writes of the medieval celebration of the Assumption: "Everything about the feast was designed to remind participants that Mary was seated alongside her son in heaven.  The Assumption set Mary apart from other saints and reassured those who sought her intercession and help as she sat alongside her son there. ... All the senses were touched by the Assumption. ... European devotion had never  spoken of Mary as elaborately before. Written for an occasion when heaven and earth met, it was fitting that sermons for the Assumption used ornate language, full of pomp. ...The Assumption celebrated the enduring hope of heavenly intercession, the hope that linked heaven and earth" (pp. 139-140).

Sandwiched into the middle of the post-modern work week, filled as it already is with frenzy, fury, and folly, the Church's great annual summer "feel-good" festival of Mary's Assumption - the oldest and most important of all of her feasts - may perhaps pass almost or entirely unnoticed. While this neglect in no way diminished Mary's heavenly glory, it does diminish - and deprive us of - the joy we ought to derive from it.



Celebrated at least since the 6th century, Mary's Assumption was finally fully defined as a dogma only in my lifetime. As the then Pope, Pius XII, wrote on that occasion:

Christ's faithful, through the teaching and the leadership of their pastors, have learned from the sacred books that the Virgin Mary, throughout the course of her earthly pilgrimage, led a life troubled by cares, hardships, and sorrows, and that, moreover, what the holy old man Simeon had foretold actually came to pass, that is, that a terribly sharp sword pierced her heart as she stood under the cross of her divine Son, our Redeemer. In the same way, it was not difficult for them to admit that the great Mother of God, like her only begotten Son, had actually passed from this life. But this in no way prevented them from believing and from professing openly that her sacred body had never been subject to the corruption of the tomb, and that the august tabernacle of the Divine Word had never been reduced to dust and ashes. [Munificentissimus Deus, 14].

Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church as we are now with the Church as we hope to be. when Christ has destroyed every sovereignty and every other authority and power. And the last enemy to be destroyed in death. [1 Corinthians 15:26-27]


Conscious as we all are of our own death to come, death often seems like the ultimate atttack on all our hopes. Our world is full of natural disasters, inexplicable personal tragedies, and deliberate destruction. Violence and sickness seem to surround us. So powerful does the dragon of death appear, that it dared to attack even Jesus. Only after death had done its worst did God decisively step in, conquering death by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.


Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there. For where she is, there we hope to be.



Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2018.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

For the Life of the World


There are times in many people’s lives when nothing at all seems to go right, despite all our best efforts. We try our best, but it just isn’t good enough. Too much is being demanded of us; too much seems to be expected of us. We get worn out and want to give up – just like Elijah in today’s 1st reading [1 Kings 19:4-8].

Elijah was – and is - the most remembered prophet of the Old Testament. The familiar Transfiguration story suggests that Elijah in some sense personified the prophetic part of Israel's history (as Moses personified the Torah). Although not the author of any particular prophetic book, Elijah was a powerful prophetic personality at a critical time in Israel's history. He appeared on the scene, virtually without introduction, in the Northern Kingdom during the disastrous reign of King Ahab in the 9th century BC. His story is told in a series of incidents beginning in the first book of Kings. It is a story of faith versus the political corruption of religion by politics that remains radically relevant in every era - and especially our own.

The city of Haifa in Northern Israel, a major seaport and Israel’s 3rd largest city, originated as a settlement at the foot of Mount Carmel, a mountain famous for its association with Elijah. The Carmelite order traces its origin to hermits who lived on Mount Carmel and maintain a monastery there to this day. A large statue of Elijah [photo] marks the supposed site of his famous confrontation with the 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal, in which he had dramatically demonstrated the superiority of Israel’s God, resulting in the end of Israel’s 3-year long drought. But, after what should have been his moment of greatest triumph, Elijah had to flee from Ahab’s pagan Queen Jezebel, who was determined to kill him.  So he descended from the mountaintop of elation into the desert of despondency, which is where we encounter him at the beginning of today’s reading - on the run, exhausted in body, broken in spirit, and filled with an overwhelming feeling of failure: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Elijah's battle against the pagan Queen and her false god had put him in direct conflict with the King, who called him troubler of Israel [1 Kings 18:17] - comparable in today's terminology to calling him an "enemy of the people" or a spreader of "fake news.” Elijah's mission included incidents of great success but also experiences of seeming defeat and the discouragement that accompanies constant conflict with popular worldly power. So when Jesus himself at one point expressed his own frustration at having been rejected [Luke 4:24-27] he referred back to the example of Elijah.

Most of us don’t lead such significant public lives like Elijah’s, of course. So our own dramas of frustration and failure seldom seem so dramatic. Occasionally, the feelings of otherwise ordinary un-public people sometimes spill out in public - even erupting in violent acts such as we have so often witnessed in our country in recent years. At the other extreme, some try, with greater or lesser degree of success, to keep such feelings behind a defensive wall, in an attempt to insulate both themselves and society from their effects. In between these extremes, feelings of frustration and failure frequently spill out in bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling – malicious behaviors, which Saint Paul said grieve the Holy Spirit of God.

In contrast, Paul instructed the Ephesians to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done!

So how does one get from here to there?

Ready to give up, Elijah fell asleep under a broom tree. But God would not let Elijah’s rejection and discouragement be the end of the story. Awakened by an angel, he found the nourishment he needed and which he would not normally have expected to find there in the desert. He should have recognized that as a sign that help was actually on the way. So depressed was he, however, that even after eating and drinking, he fell asleep again - only to be wakened and fed again.  Elijah was ready to give up even on God, but apparently God was not willing to give up on Elijah.

God really did demand a lot from Elijah. Hence God’s unwillingness to let him give up, but hence also his readiness to accompany Elijah on the way, personally providing him with what he would need.

None of us is Elijah, of course. Yet God does expect results from each one of us as well. And we too may feel at times as if too much is being expected of us. After all, who can really be expected to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving – especially when doing so seems to produce so few - if any – good results?

Yet what the great 4th-century Doctor of the Church Saint Gregory Nazianzen [329-390] said of the priesthood applies universally, certainly to anyone who presumes to speak as God’s prophet: We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify... [cf. CCC 1589].

Just as God was prepared to accompany Elijah and personally provide him with whatever he would need, he does the same for us on our own difficult, tedious journey.  As Saint Paul has reminded us, Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God. Paul’s reminder is always timely – but never more so than in those times and situations when we too feel discouraged and are tempted to give up.

As we have been hearing in the Sunday Gospel readings these late summer weeks, the Eucharist is the visible food Christ gives us for the journey – our life-long journey out of the desert of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling to the mountain where, having experienced for ourselves God’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, we can at least begin to become people of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness for the life of the world.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 12, 2018.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Waiting for War

Iris Origo, A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, with an Introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, and an Afterword by Katia Lysy.


On June 10, 1940, the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini, announced Italy’s declaration of war against Britain and France. That day, FDR famously commented, “the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” That same day, at her estate at La Foce in Italy, Iris Origo listening on the radio, heard Britain’s Duff Cooper speak of “a nation led to destruction by a single bad man and France’s Paul Reynaud’s lament, “Le monde, qui nous regarde, jugera” (“The world, which watches us, will judge”).  Meanwhile her husband Antonio and others confined their comments to “ci siamo” (“there we are,” i.e., "that's it").

Iris Origo (1902-1988) was a British-born writer, married to an Italian nobleman, Antonio Origo, who devoted much of her life to their Tuscan estate La Foce. In 1947, she published Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, which made her famous. An earlier "war diary," covering the period leading up to Italy's ill-fated entry into the war as Germany's ally, was only recently published in 2017. Exceptionally well connected (including among her friends the U.S. Ambassador, who happened to be her godfather) she recorded in her diary gossip of the highest quality, as well as public news (in the golden age of radio), and her own varied observations. 

Her account confirms what is now conventional wisdom that the once seemingly promising (to Italians and non-Italians alike, among them for a while Churchill) Fascist regime foolishly - and fatally - gambled its and Italy's future on an unpopular alliance with Germany. On March 28, 1939, she wrote "there is another chill in the air: the universal distaste for Germany as an ally. The part of the speech received with the least applause is that which reaffirms the solidity of the Axis."

Unlike Hitler's position of virtually absolute power in Germany, Mussolini always governed with certain potential checks on his power. It is widely recognized that the Italian military owed its loyalty primarily to the Crown not to Mussolini. As the latter's popularity declined, due to the German alliance, the King's freedom of movement increased. (That was what finally happened in July 1943 when the King removed Mussolini from office and the whole Fascist edifice came tottering down.) So, for example, on March 31, 1939, she records an officer recently returned from Ethiopia saying "that the army is intensely anti-German. The King anti-war. If there should be a division of opinion on the subject between the King and Mussolini, the army would follow the King."  It was, of course, Italy's tragic fact that, after four decades on the Italian throne, the little old King proved so inept at seizing the available opportunity sooner than he did.

Origo's attitude toward Mussolini himself is suggestive regarding his personal and his regime's weakness.. On May 14, 1939, she wrote "Mussolini does not want war. He has never wanted a real war - only, at home the 'heroic' state of mind which its imminence produces (and which he achieved by such minor campaigns as Abyssinia and Spain) and abroad, the achievement of his expansionist aims. He does not want war now because he believes that he can achieve these aims without it." The Duce's actual behavior - staying out until the fall of France, then joining when he erroneously thought it was all over but the peace conference - confirmed her insight.

It has often been noted how, having nobly declared war in alliance with Poland, Britain and France then proceeded to do next to nothing for months. As a British national, Origo was acutely conscious of and sensitive to Britain's poor image and diminished respect. On April 16 1940, she quoted one woman's lament: "Will England never arrive in time and save a small country before talking about it." 

She also records some interesting observations about the role of religion. Besides the Crown and the military, another potential check on Mussolini's aspirations to absolute power was the Church. Origo had lots of friends in Italian aristocratic circles. Writing on July 30, 1939, about one  pro- Fascist family that was nonetheless part of the old "Black Nobility," she seemed convinced that "where there is a clash between the two [Fascism and Catholicism] Catholicism wins." On the other hand, literally on the very eve of Italy's entry into the war, she wrote that most Italian Catholics "have been content to accept the fact that, in actual practice, it has been easier in the last twenty years than in the fifty years of intense anti-clericalism after 1870, to bring up their children in a Catholic atmosphere at  home. They are prepared to yield in principle, where they can gain in practice. And it is this same fluid adaptability ... that has rendered possible the German alliance."

Perhaps of most immediate interest in today's context are are observations about how people grew increasingly cynical and distrustful of all news - and this long before the corrupting influences of contemporary social media!

Indeed, more than the recounting of comments of prominent people, it is her observations of a society on the verge of self-induced collapse that makes her Diary so well worth reading. She recalls an experience not that long ago or far away. She evokes  a mood, a mood that was contagious, and illustrates why it could so easily become so.


Sunday, August 5, 2018

Road Not Taken


I first learned about the greenhouse effect as an unsuspecting undergrad at New York's City College. That was in the early days of the environmental movement. (I attended the first-ever Earth Day Central Park in 1970 while an undergraduate.) It was a time when we were all increasing in awareness of a multitude of environmental threats, of which, I suppose, I saw the global warming due to  the greenhouse effect as just  one more  of them. It was also a time when the expectation was that we would somehow get a handle on these problems and solve them. (Nixon established the EPA that same year 1970). To the extent that I thought about those issues in grad school, not much changed in the way I continued to think about them - and expect that they would somehow be solved by a combination of political action and scientific and technical inventiveness. I do remember one professor in an International Law seminar saying that what was really so worrisome about this issue was how the people who knew the most about it (i.e.., scientists) seemed to be the most concerned!

Indeed they were! 

That much is clear from a two-part article in The New York Times Magazine, called "Losing Earth," by Nathaniel Rich. It examines a decade when the causes and consequences of climate change first became well known. If one reads nothing else serious this week, one should probably read this  fascinating and saddening account - https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-change-losing-earth.html?emc=edit_ma_20180803&nl=magazine&nlid=3839392320180803&te=1

The story Rich recounts is, as I said, fascinating - and infinitely saddening. For there was a time - not really all that long ago, in living memory of many of us alive today - when the crisis we are now experiencing as Climate Change was already sufficiently well understood and when the world's major powers were closer than they have ever since been to adopting a global framework for addressing its causes.

Unfortunately that decade coincided with something else - a political revolution in the United States that began with the disastrous election of 1980. According to Rich:

"After the election, Reagan considered plans to close the Energy Department, increase coal production on federal land and deregulate surface coal mining. Once in office, he appointed James Watt, the president of a legal firm that fought to open public lands to mining and drilling, to run the Interior Department. 'We’re deliriously happy,' the president of the National Coal Association was reported to have said. Reagan preserved the E.P.A. but named as its administrator Anne Gorsuch, an anti-regulation zealot who proceeded to cut the agency’s staff and budget by about a quarter. In the midst of this carnage, the Council on Environmental Quality submitted a report to the White House warning that fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” alter Earth’s atmosphere, leading to “a warming of the Earth, possibly with very serious effects.” Reagan did not act on the council’s advice. Instead, his administration considered eliminating the council."

Watt and Gorsuch! Recognize those nasty names?             

"By the end of 1982, multiple congressional committees were investigating Anne Gorsuch for her indifference to enforcing the cleanup of Superfund sites, and the House voted to hold her in contempt of Congress; Republicans in Congress turned on James Watt after he eliminated thousands of acres of land from consideration for wilderness designation. Each cabinet member would resign within a year."

But the direction had been set. Meanwhile, even apart from that problem, there remained the even more fundamental problem of the inherently short-term reference-point for American politics and politicians:

"This was the only political question that mattered: How long until the worst began? ... Politicians were capable of thinking only in terms of electoral time: six years, four years, two years.

As I said above, this is one article that everyone needs to read. It is fascinating, but ever so saddening, as we realize how close we almost came to addressing this problem that is now breathing down upon us - its hot breath quite literally doing so around the world right now. Even were our dysfunctional political leadership to undertake now at this late date to address the crisis, there is already irreversible damage that has been done to our world.

Dare we still hope in the human future?








Friday, August 3, 2018

The Death Penalty and the Development of Doctrine

In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II famously included slavery among "the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances" (VS 81). Referencing the obvious fact that slavery had widely been accepted as just part of the way things were for most of human history, John Noonan, in A Church Than Can and Cannot Change (2005), described the Pope as having "discovered" the intrinsic evil of slavery. Sarcasm aside, Noonan was trying to come to terms and deal directly with the clearly complicated question of doctrinal development, when something like slavery, once widely seen as normal, has become certainly sinful, and when something like charging interest, once certainly seen as sinful, has become not so.

Such questions will undoubtedly appear again in connection with Pope Francis' apparently definitive proscription of capital punishment.  Actually, that doctrinal development has been in process for several decades now. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, promulgated by Pope Saint Pius V in 1566, clearly recognized the State's power to execute criminals, a teaching the "general and abiding validity" of which Pope Pius XII affirmed as recently as 1955. The 1983 Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2267), however, expressed a much more nuanced view of the legitimacy of capital punishment, affirming it in theory but then in practice somewhat limiting what had been affirmed. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II went further, stating that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent," and the Catechism's text was subsequently amended to reflect that added nuance. 

Now it has been amended again, eliminating any nuance. The amended text of section 2267 now states:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person," and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

This felicitous formulation avoids "intrinsic evil" language and the problems inevitably associated with that approach. It thus also avoids the popular contemporary tendency to pass ex post facto judgments on previous generations. It acknowledges that the death penalty used to be considered "appropriate" and "acceptable" but now no longer will be - because of "an increasing awareness" and "a new understanding." The long-term effect of thus incorporating concepts like "an increasing awareness" and "a new understanding" into the Church's moral pronouncements at such a high level remains to be seen, but seems likely to be significant.

As with slavery, this doctrinal development follows and aligns with an already changed secular outlook in most Western societies. Here, however, the U.S. remains something of an exception. It will be most likely in the U.S., if anywhere, that there may be some strong expressions of dissent from the Pope's pronouncement, perhaps especially in those circles that have sought in recent decades to realign Catholicism with the ideology of one particular political party. That strange alliance may in turn help maintain the US in its outlier position versus the rest of the world on the question of capital punishment, while in the process unfortunately continuing to diminish the Church's already fragile moral voice and standing in the US. 

In contrast, Pope Francis, who has already undertaken to reinvigorate the Church's moral voice and standing in the wider world by confronting this century's challenge of climate change and "caring for our common home" (an effort nobly begun by his predecessor, Pope Benedict), has taken yet another powerful step in that direction with this latest challenge to American exceptionalism.