Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Cartoonishly Malicious"

"Cartoonishly malicious" is how Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern characterized the bill that House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican accomplices tried (unsuccessfully) to foist upon the American people this past week. Tone deaf to the very same anti-establishment populism that propelled President Trump into the White House, Ryan, et al., proposed a stereotypically Republican replacement for Obamacare. They sought to repeal a law which has successfully brought health insurance coverage to some 20 million Americans who would otherwise have gone without it. And they sought to replace it with a substitute which would have left that many and more Americans without health insurance in order to (surprise!) reduce taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

In effect, the malicious part of the Republican agenda was compensated for by the  party's cartoonish inability to transition from opposition to governance. Perhaps after lying to the American people about Obamacare for seven years, they had actually begun to believe their own propaganda that Obamacare was "failing" (even "exploding") and that their constituents - many of them major beneficiaries of Obamacare - really shared their representatives' overriding desire that they should lose their health insurance so that some very rich people could get even richer. Such delusions reflect the self-confirming bubble in which so many politicians and their ideological accomplices have been living for so long. All that, combined with a president who is admittedly a novice at the business of government and who apparently has little substantive interest in health care policy anyway, resulted in a legislative debacle that saved the day for many poor and middle class consumers of health care. “We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” said the House Speaker. 

That was an admission of political failure, although not yet an admission of ideological failure. Only if and when that admission comes will he and his colleagues be able actually to assume the adult role and responsibility of governing a country.

Speaker Ryan and his accomplices have had seven years to come up with an alternative to Obamacare. During that time, instead of doing the unglamorous, wonky work of crafting an alternative policy, they settled for casting some 60 show votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act - votes premised on the certainty of a presidential veto. It is likely that they expected Hillary Clinton to win the White house in 2016 and thus thought they could continue the same silly routine. Being suddenly saddled with grown-up responsibility has proved obviously very disconcerting to a party that, stuck with an intrinsically unpopular ideology of its own making, has grown accustomed to stopping others from governing rather than governing itself. 

Where does this leave the President? Perhaps he might follow the path some were earlier predicting he might - pursue his populist agenda with potentially popular programs like infrastructure, making deals with Democrats when the Republicans prove uncooperative. Two months ago that was a not implausible scenario. But it becomes harder to envision as his problematic leadership in so many other areas has continued to alienate the majority of the country that voted against him in the first place.

March 25

On the twenty-fifth day of the month Gabriel first came to St Mary with God’s message, and on that day St Mary conceived in the city of Nazareth through the angel’s word and through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind... And then after thirty-two years and three months Christ was crucified on the cross on the same day. And as soon as he was on the cross, creation revealed that he was truly God: the sun grew black, and the day was turned into dark night from midday until the ninth hour.

The above is from a 9th-century Old English Martyrology's entry for March 25, reflecting the unique perception of this very special date throughout the Church's history. (For both the reference itself and the translation, I am indebted here to A Clerk of Oxford - - a blog whose author describes it as a "blog about the literature and history of medieval England, as well as about saints, churches, folklore, Vikings, poetry, and anything else that interests me." For this and other ancient and medieval citations, I am especially indebted to her wonderful post on this subject one year ago when Good Friday fell on March 25.) 

Of course, we don't know the actual date of the Annunciation, anymore than we know the actual date of Christ's birth. (Presumably, if we knew the one then we would also know the other, at least approximately.) As for the date of the crucifixion, the most common historical guesses (based on when Passover would have fallen on a Friday night during Pontius Pilate's tenure in Jerusalem) are April 7, 30 AD, or April 3, 33 AD. So the classical chronology that assigns the Incarnation and the Crucifixion to the spring equinox on March 25 is obviously much more symbolic than literal. But what symbolism! Here (thanks again to A Clerk of Oxford) is the Venerable Bede (672-735) explaining some of this symbolism, connecting Christ's incarnation and crucifixion to the cosmology of creation:

It is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lights every man that comes into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it. And in the celebration of the supreme solemnity, it was necessary that Christ precede the Church, which cannot shine save through Him... Observing the Paschal season is not meaningless, for it is fitting that through it the world's salvation both be symbolized and come to pass.

Having been born on March 25, I have always had a special fondness for the feast of the Annunciation, even long before I learned from our much more symbolically attuned ancestors how filled this date is with so much additional significance for the story of salvation. Over the years (most recently last year), my March 25 birthday has fallen on Good Friday, not to mention Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. And, in 1948, the year of my birth, it fell on Holy Thursday, which may have contributed to my life-long affection for the birthday of the priesthood.

All in all, March 25 is a great day to have been born!

(Photo: Mural of the Annunciation at the Paulist Fathers" "Mother Church," New York City.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Today marks the mid-point counting the days numerically from Ash Wednesday to Easter. So this coming Sunday is Laetare Sunday, when the Church replaces her somber violet vestments with bright rose, adorns the altar with flowers, and allows for a greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the joy that we are meant to feel as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion. 

At a time when the observance of Lent was much stricter, this mid-Lent moment of relaxation was much valued. Thus in 1216, Pope Innocent III said: On this Sunday, which marks the middle of lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart.

Unfortunately, the virtual disappearance of the Introit and the other antiphons of the Roman Missal  from most worshipers' ordinary Sunday experience has sadly made such traditional titles as Laetare Sunday somewhat obscure, if not meaningless to most people today. Laetare Sunday gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Appropriately, today’s Roman station church is the Basilica of Santa Croce, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem,” an early 4th-century basilica built around part of the Empress Saint Helena’s imperial palace in order to enshrine the relics (above all that of the True Cross) which she had brought back to Rome from Jerusalem. Originally, the floor of the basilica was covered with earth from Jerusalem. Thus, the church’s unique title, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem theme associated with this Sunday also accounts for another very venerable custom connected with this day, that of people returning home to visit (and bring flowers to) their “Mother Church” on this day. Especially in Britain and Ireland, this custom evolved into visiting (and bringing flowers to) one’s mother on this Sunday. Hence, its British title “Mothering Sunday.”

Laetare Sunday is traditionally also the day for Popes to bless the Golden Rose. From Fulk IV, Count of Anjou, in 1096, to Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg in 1956, the Golden Rose was usually awarded by Popes to Catholic Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses, and occasionally also to churches. Beginning with Blessed Paul VI in 1964, it has been awarded exclusively to churches and shrines. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave it to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, where it remains on display for the public to view (photo). Pope Francis presented it to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa on the occasion of last year’s World Youth Day in Poland.

Above all, this midpoint of the Lenten season is also a fitting occasion to emphasize the Sacrament of Penance as an important part of our spiritual preparation for Easter. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Go to Joseph

Saint Joseph has been commemorated in the Latin Church on March 19 since the 15th century and has been venerated as the Patron of the Universal church since the 19th century.

In the progressive development of devotion to Saint Joseph in the Church's history, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic, a reformer of religious life, and a Doctor of the Church, who lived on the cusp of the modern era, was a major influence. In her Autobiography (c. 1567), she wrote:

I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.

In the 19th century, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), also recommended devotion to Saint Joseph, whom - in a famous sermon delivered during the U.S. Civil War (March 19, 1863) - he somewhat surprisingly categorized as "The Saint of Our Day."

The life of St. Joseph is both interesting and instructive.… What faith! What obedience! What disinterestedness! … He attained in society and in human relationships a degree of perfection not surpassed, if equaled, by the martyr’s death, the contemplative of the solitude, the cloistered monk, or the missionary hero. … Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced. St. Joseph stands forth as an excellent and unsurpassed model of this type of perfection.

Correspondingly, the heightened emphasis on the liturgical commemoration of Saint Joseph is itself relatively modern. The feast's "traditional" (pre-1970) Mass and Office date back only to Pope Clement XI in 1714. That Office especially highlighted the parallel between the Old Testament Joseph and the New Testament Joseph. Thus the lessons of the 1st Nocturn were taken from Genesis 39-41, the story of the Old Testament Joseph, while those of the 2nd Nocturn were from a sermon by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux explicitly comparing the two Josephs. The two were obviously very different historical figures, but each of then had his vocation revealed to him through dreams, and to each of whom was entrusted the task of managing and providing for the earthly survival, in the first case, of God's Chosen people, and, in the second, of God's Son himself - and  now, by extension, his Church.

(Photo: Statue of Saint Joseph, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN)

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Benedict Option: Then and Now

This coming Tuesday is the traditional day for remembering Saint Benedict, who died in 547. (Paul VI's calendar transferred his feast from March 21 to July 11.) Benedict is the patron of Western Monasticism and a patron saint of Europe, deservedly so. He is in the news again now, however, mainly thanks to Rod Dreher's new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The book develops a theme that Dreher has been arguing, at least ever since his encounter with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, which famously ended by recalling Saint Benedict's monastic response to the collapse of Roman civilization as a model for a renewed relationship with our contemporary culture as Western Christian civilization continues to collapse.

In honor of the imminence of Saint Benedict's traditional day and conscious of contemporary political and cultural chaos, I read Dreher's new book this week. The Benedict Option is obviously not a call to everyone to drop everything and become a Benedictine, but it does propose salutary lessons from Saint Benedict's Rule and the Benedictine way of life. Benedict's Rule, Dreher rightly recognizes, proposed a way of life "for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith." That is what makes it perennially relevant - not just for monks who live a celibate community life vowed to stabilitas loci and conversio morum. All people in whatever state of life who desire to live a morally and religiously serious life can draw from the deep well of Benedictine wisdom, suitably adapted to the distinct circumstances of the varied vocations and states of life Christians are called to live in the world.

True to the historical analogy underlying his argument, Dreher begins with a somewhat apocalyptic analysis of contemporary civilization and how it got to where it is today.  All such analyses - even the best one ever, Saint Augustine's The City of God - necessarily generalize and somewhat oversimplify. That said, Dreher does present a coherent and cogent account of our "long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning" to today's "place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection."

So - to quote Chernyshevsky and Lenin - what is to be done?

Born in 1967, Dreher was raised a Methodist. He became a Roman Catholic in 1993, but then abandoned Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006. This gives him a wealth of knowledge of different forms of Christian religious experience to draw upon, which he does in a somewhat eclectic way. He is also a political and social conservative and writes from that particular perspective. Indeed, it seems to be his discovery of the ineffectiveness and (dare one suggest?) moral bankruptcy of conservative American religion's self-induced subordination to the Republican party that constitutes much of the background for this reexamination of the mode of Christian engagement with the world. He diagnoses the politicized conservative American Christianity that has been so evident now for decades as "content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian."

Thus, he warns, for example, against an unbalanced obsession with religious liberty. "If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow."

And Dreher actually recognizes that there are real Christians who are not in sympathy with the agenda of the Religious Right. "For another," he notes, "the church is not merely politically conservative white people at prayer, Many Hispanics and other Christians of color, as well as all who, for whatever reasons, did not vote for the divisive Trump, do not thereby cease to be Christian." 

It is not that Dreher abandons the agenda of the Religious Right, but rather that he recognizes how the pursuit of political power has not only failed to accomplish its stated religious goals  but in the process also has helped to undermine religion even further. And, applying the brilliantly prescient insights of Philip Rieff (whose 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic remains the classic go-to text to start studying this phenomenon), he examines and challenges contemporary American Christianity's deterioration into therapy. "The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything," he observes, "even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves."

But The Benedict Option is not just a critique of contemporary society but a road map for an alternative, which - not unlike Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, but from a more explicitly religious premise and with a more explicitly religious end in view - is rooted in non-governmental initiatives undertaken by families and intentional local communities. "The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage." But this he recognizes will require - among Christians themselves and within their churches - a real re-creation of a lost Christian culture.

Se he calls, for example, for a serious re-engagement with the liturgy - an obvious if somewhat easy call coming from someone who is Eastern Orthodox and a challenge to less liturgically oriented Christian communities. There is a lot of wisdom also in what he has to say about that challenge of technology. And he has a lot to say about Christian education - education as Christian formation. "For generations," Dreher nots, "the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth without putting up much of a fight." While I would certainly part company with him in his sympathy for home-schooling - a practice I have never understood and feel no attraction to at all - I was intrigued by his treatment of "Classical Christian Schools," which represent a voluntarist return to the traditional goal of classical education. Surely one of the greatest of our contemporary culture's self-inflicted wounds has been the virtual disappearance of classical education. Any movement that revives classical education among even a small subset of young people deserves some support. As with medieval monks incidentally salvaging classical culture while primarily focused on saving their souls, a serious recommitment to classical education would represent yet another Christian contribution to boosting human civilization.

Of course, so much of this depends upon a willingness to stake out a real area of difference, even while remaining engaged in other ways with the current culture. He cites the familiar example of Orthodox Jewish communities.  But the challenges should not be underestimated. After all, the Catholicism in which I grew up, while certainly not as sectarian as Orthodox Judaism, let alone such obvious examples of sectarian separatism as the Amish, was certainly somewhat sectarian. We lived in what is nowadays sometimes dismissively referred to as a "Catholic ghetto," about which - in contrast to its contemporary cultured despisers - there remains, I believe, still much to be said in praise of. Still, it was the very success of the "Catholic ghetto" that led to Catholics' widespread success in becoming more effectively engaged with contemporary society - and in the process not only destroyed the "Catholic ghetto," but led inexorably to the Church's somewhat weakened contemporary condition. Going back is never easy. And the material price to be paid for going back is usually more than most will ever be willing to pay!

Dreher does helpfully argue against seeking conflict for the sake of conflict. "Claiming religious persecution unnecessarily will not help the cause. Instead it will provide the secular left with grounds for claiming that all concern for religious liberty is a sham." Even so, he does perpetuate the alarmist view that sees all sorts of professions as increasingly threatening territory for Christians - what I sometimes call the supposed "bakers and florists" problem.  But in fact this is largely a political problem, created by a particular political agenda. Despite Dreher's curious claim to the contrary, from a biblical and religious point of view participating in the wedding of a divorced person with a previous spouse still living is just as problematic as a same-sex wedding. Any Christian bakers and florists who had no problems in the past serving the former category of customers should experience no more problems in the present with the latter. Doing one's job and serving the public in a non-discriminatory way is not automatically collaboration and an abandonment of one's fundamental religious beliefs, but it may represent an abandonment of a certain culture war political agenda!

Dreher himself quotes a Christian who works in a major company, "The more scared and paranoid we are, the harder it is to make connections and relationships with people who need Jesus."

All of which highlights three fundamental difficulties with the Benedictine analogy.  The first has to do with the historical and contemporary fact (of which Dreher is well aware) of the porous nature of any monastery's separation from the world. After all, whatever Saint Benedict's original intentions, his Order was responsible in large part for the preservation of civilization as well as for much of Europe's evangelization. Then and now, the actual relationship between a monastery and its secular environment  has varied with the circumstances and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Likewise, no matter how intentionally Christians set about to build a vibrant Christian subculture within their local communities, they cannot escape engagement with the wider world. Nor, in fact, are they entitled to, since the essence of the Church's mission remains to evangelize the world - however limited the possibilities for that may be in practice in any concrete political or social circumstance. The challenge has always been simultaneously to build up the life of the Church within the community while reaching out to the world beyond. Neither can be accomplished without the other. "Indeed," as Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote in 1886, "simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it."

A second difficulty has to do with the historical analogy itself. Saint Benedict lived in a world in which not only was the culture collapsing but so were the civil structures necessary for society to function, structures which were themselves weak or virtually non-existent. We may moan about dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, but the structure of the modern State still stands strong, and the power of the modern State is in fact so much greater than that of the State in virtually any previous period of history. I agree that now - as in earlier times - true renewal will come not from the State but from authentic families, schools, and intentional religious communities. But, whatever the relationship between today's State and families, schools, and intentional religious communities, it will be quite different from what it was in Benedict's time. The modern State will inevitably make demands upon them which they cannot easily escape and which will, for better or for worse, condition their actual autonomy to an extent that was not the case in the past. 

Finally, while I applaud Dreher's detachment from the politicized agenda of the Religious Right, I do not believe contemporary Christians can ever completely abandon their nostalgia for Christendom, for the simple reason that it actually existed for more than a millennium. Benedict and his contemporaries did not have that powerful memory. We do, and it will always haunt us with the realization that, if it was once possible for religion and society, in their institutional forms as Church and State, to nourish each other, then at least in theory it might be possible for them to do so someday again. As a result, the temptation to turn to politics to accomplish that will never be all that far away, both for Christians on the Right and Christians on the Left.