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

Passengers


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







Sunday, May 14, 2017

Built into a Spiritual House

Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone chosen and precious!
It was just seven weeks ago – on my 69th birthday, as it happened – that I was privileged to be present for the unveiling of the cornerstone of our new diocesan cathedral. Originally, of course, a cornerstone was exactly that - the first stone set in the construction of a building’s foundation. Over time, what we now call a cornerstone has evolved into a stone ceremonially set in a prominent location on the outside of a building, usually with an inscription indicating the date of the building’s construction. (See, for example, the cornerstone from the former parish school building, on display in the vestibule of the church, or the cornerstones of the present and former rectories near the main entrance of the parish office.) Just as a church building is symbolic of the entire Church community, the cornerstone of a church building is symbolic of Christ himself. We just heard Saint Peter tell us to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house – of which Christ is the chosen and precious cornerstone.

On the night before he died, Jesus tried to console his disciples with the now familiar image of his Father’s house’s many dwelling places. Apparently, his disciples felt the need for even more reassurance “Master, show us the Father,” Philip said to Jesus in the Gospel we just heard [John 14:1-12]. And how did Jesus answer? “Whoever has seen me,” he said to Philip, has seen the Father.” Jesus is, as it were, our direct line to God, and we experience God’s presence and activity in our lives most fully and effectively in our experience of Jesus.

Now the normal way we meet Jesus – and also the normal way we share him with others – is in that aforementioned spiritual house, the Church, where we do so not as isolated individuals, but as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own,” as Saint Peter proclaimed in today’s 2nd reading [1 Peter 2:4-9], quoting God’s own words to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai [Exodus 19:5-6].

What God told Israel and applies now to the Church is to be the link between God and the world, which we are because, like Philip, we too experience Jesus, the Risen Christ, living among us, always present in our spiritual house, his Church.

As our unique and indispensable connection with Christ, the Church continues Christ’s mission in us and in our world, proclaiming the uniqueness and centrality of Christ for all the people of the world, thereby echoing Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.”

It was precisely the apostles’ confidence in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence – as Lord – in his Church, that enabled them to take the bold step we just heard described in today’s 1st reading, from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 6:1-7]. – a forerunner of further and even bolder steps the Apostles would courageously take to put power into their words.

If nothing else, this episode and others like it remind us yet again of the perennial problem of factional conflict, of cultural and ethnic divisiveness, and of ideological division and polarization, that characterize our world and can so easily undermine the unity and universality even of the Church and thus get in the way of its mission – not just in 1st-century Jerusalem but in every time and place. Then as now, aspects of life within the Church community can sometimes seem simply to replicate the conflicts and divisions that themselves seem to define our secular society – so much so that some have suggested that Americans increasingly choose their denomination or their local parish on the basis of their politics! 

But there was more to the story of the apostolic Church than out-of-control factional conflict. After all, the Jerusalem Church didn’t split into separate sects. Instead of a threat to their unity, this episode shows us how - trusting in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence as Lord in his Church - the apostles responded to the challenge they faced with creative confidence. Thus, the apostles paved the way step-by-step for their little sectarian community to expand and eventually to become the world-wide, multi-cultural Church it now is.

In 1851, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, wrote to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Today we continue to be challenged to manifest once more that “true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds,” which is what it will take for us to continue to be that powerful link that Christ intended his Church to be to all types of people – a Church as alert as were the apostles to the challenges and equally as ready to respond to the opportunities.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 14, 2017.



Friday, May 12, 2017

Our Lady of Fatima

It was 100 years ago tomorrow that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared for the first of six times in Fátima, Portugal, to three shepherd children, Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto. Lúcia Santos eventually became a Carmelite nun, lived to be 97, and died on February 13, 2005. Francisco and Jacinta Marto, however, died young (as Our Lady had apparently told them they would) - Francisco on April 4, 1919 (at the age of ten), and Jacinta on February 20, 1920 (at the age of nine). They were both beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II on May 13, 2000. In March, Pope Francis approved a further miracle attributed to Blessed Francisco and Jacinta’s intercession, the final step necessary prior to their canonization as saints.

Blessed Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit Fatima - in 1967 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the apparition. Pope Saint John Paul II, who credited his survival of an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, visited Fatima three times. Many pilgrims are expected to join Pope Francis (who consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on October 13, 2013) when he visits Fatima today and tomorrow to celebrate the centenary and to canonize Blessed Francisco and Jacinta, making them the Church's youngest non-martyrs among our canonized saints.. 

As a shrine, Fatima may suffer somewhat by comparison to the more visited shrine of Lourdes. I've been to both places several times and freely admit that I have always preferred Lourdes. Up in the Pyrenees, Lourdes excels in terms of natural beauty, with its grotto, and the river, and the fortress up above. Although the exact spot where Mary appeared is identified in each place, at Fatima the original tree she appeared on is obviously long gone. The chapel that marks the exact site (photo) is nice, but lacks the verisimilitude of the Lourdes grotto. Likewise, Lourdes has a virtually universal appeal as a center of healing and a place where the ministry of caring for the sick is very visibly highlighted, whereas Fatima's message about praying the Rosary for peace, with its references to war and Russia and the whole unhappy history of the 20th century, has run the risk at times of being more narrowly politicized.

Still, I have celebrated Mass in both the Lourdes grotto and Fatima's apparition chapel. Both are places of profound spiritual significance for our age, highlighting dimensions of the Christian story that especially needed to be recalled in our time.

Hard-to-control popular apocalyptic obsessions about Fatima's "third secret" also have at times distracted from the apparition's primary message. When I was growing up, there was all sorts of speculation in the run-up to 1960 about the "third secret," which it was widely expected would be revealed in that year. (I can remember being one of several altar boys sitting int he altar boys' sacristy after Mass on January 1, 1960, speculating about how soon the much anticipated "third secret" would be revealed.) But 1960 came and went without any revelation. It was only finally in 2000 that the content of the "third secret" was made public. 

I remember that day well. There had been much speculation in the press that the Pope would reveal the secret during his Jubilee Year visit to Fatima. That Saturday morning, celebrating the Mass of the feast in our parish in Toronto, I tried to dampen such speculations in my  homily by saying the we all knew that the Pope's purpose in going to Fatima was to beatify Francisco and Jacinta - not to reveal any secrets. After Mass, I heard on the news that the content of the "third secret" had just been made public that day! That afternoon while out for a walk in our neighborhood, I bumped into someone who had been at the morning Mass. She jokingly said to me, "Well now we know for sure which of you is not infallible!"

As presented to the public in 2000, the "third secret" is about the persecutions experienced by the Church in the 20th century and includes the assassination attempt on Pope Saint John Paul II on the 1981 anniversary of the  apparition at Fatima. In his commentary at the time, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote that it "will probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred.” On the contrary, he stressed: “The purpose of the vision is not to show a film of an irrevocably fixed future. Its meaning is exactly the opposite: it is meant to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction.” 





Thursday, May 11, 2017

Belonging without Believing: Crowns Included (Holy Matrimony on FX's The Americans)


After some 20 or so years together playing husband and wife (and becoming real parents with a real family in the process), Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings suddenly got really married in this week's episode of  FX's The Americans - and by a real Russian Orthodox priest! The series has been full of surprises, with serious issues being addressed amid gratuitous sex and murderous mayhem. There have been too many subplots to keep track of at times. But one constant has been Philip and Elizabeth's family dynamic and their complex relationship, which has weathered so many stresses and has somehow gotten stronger and more genuine over time. Like their assumed American identities, their marriage had been just another manufactured document until Philip surprised Elizabeth with the suggestion that they make it real. 

As committed communists, Philip and Elizabeth are presumably faithful atheists. As Clark, Philip went through the motions of a Protestant wedding with Martha, but that was, of course, completely phony. More seriously, Paige's serious religious commitment and her pastoral relationship with Pastor Tim have forced them to acknowledge religion's reality and role in their own immediate family. But who ever expected this?

It seems we were being prepped for this in last week's episode's curious scene in which Philip met up with a former contact of Gabriel’s, who just happens to be a Russian Orthodox priest. That scene was a reminder that Orthodoxy has always been entwined with the State. Some have even described  the Orthodox Church as essentially a department of the State. It has often been alleged that the Soviet Union used Russian Orthodox clergy as agents, for example, to infiltrate ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches. So the idea of an Orthodox priest as someone Gabriel was "running" seemed perfectly plausible.

At the time I wondered whether the priest would reappear in some religious way. It seemed too much of a setup when he ended their meeting with the suggestion that Philip try prayer, which he suggested was a great solace “when you live this kind of life.” Philip hasn't yet turned to prayer, but he did decide to make his marriage real - and turned if not to prayer then at least to the Church's ritual to make their marriage real.

It was a simple marriage service - presumably the bare minimum for validity. But the priest prayed, invoked the Trinity multiple times, blessed the couple (who were holding lighted candles), and even ritually crowned them. Since obviously a Soviet civil wedding was an impossibility in the US, perhaps this seemed to Philip like the only way to do it that was really Russian (maybe more Russian even than a soviet ceremony).. 

What Philip and Elizabeth don't yet know (but the audience does) is that the Soviet Union has less than a decade left to live and that the Orthodox Church will soon be poised to reassert itself as the more meaningful and vibrant expression of Russian reality. Like perhaps many others among their contemporaries, Philip and Elizabeth seem to be discovering belonging without believing. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

You're Fired!

It was Saturday, October 20, 1973. I and my three suitemates were preparing to host a party in our quarters in Princeton University's Graduate College when the news came of the "Saturday Night Massacre," President Nixon's firing of the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (It was so named because both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his Deputy William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, which caused them both to resign. Cox was finally fired by the infamous Robert Bork, who was then Solicitor General.) When Melissa, one of our guests arrived, she angrily declared, "He [Nixon] is going to get away with it!" And we - political scientists, historians, and economists - all nodded our heads in agreement. So much for our predictive skills! As everyone knows, in the end Nixon did not get away with it.

Whether or not the "Saturday Night Massacre" is actually an apt analogy to invoke in the aftermath of President Trump's termination of FBI Director James Comey, time will tell. (John Dean definitely does not consider it an appropriate analogy and said so quite clearly when interviewed yesterday.) And indeed my and many others' immediate recollection of 1973 may have more to do with today's overheated political climate than with the actual facts in the case.

The only point of similarity is that Comey and the FBI are apparently investigating the Trump campaign in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 election. The irony in all this is, of course, that Comey kept quiet about his investigation during the actual campaign, even as his irresponsible comments about Hillary Clinton may have tilted the election in Trump's favor. In an election that was decided by a small margin of votes in each of three states, any number of factors may have contributed to the unexpected outcome. But it is hard not to put at least part of the responsibility for that outcome on Comey's outrageous behavior. To add to the irony, it is precisely Comey's problematic behavior and comments in his first intervention last July that the Administration has now cited as the grounds for his dismissal!

On the one hand, clearly Comey should have been fired - both for what he said on July 5 and then for what he did on October 28. Besides possibly throwing the election to Trump, he inevitably undermined whatever confidence the public would otherwise have in the FBI. In that sense, one could say that President Trump did the right thing yesterday. But then why wait until May to do what any president should have done months ago? Crazy conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this, but (as is so often the case) one doesn't have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to be troubled by both the act and the timing and to wonder whether the stated explanation and motives really tell the full and true story.

One big difference between 1973 and now is, of course, the character of the Republican party. It remains to be seen whether the Republican-run Congress will face up to its responsibility to ensure that Comey's replacement is committed to continuing the investigation - or, better still, appoint an Independent Investigatorto do so.




Monday, May 8, 2017

The Dinner

Roger Ebert didn't care much for The Dinner, a film by Oren Moverman, based on Herman Koch's 2009 Dutch novel of same name (subsequently translated into English and published in the US in 2013). But I have a soft spot for movies about politicians and/or family dysfunction. So I went to see it today. It is a challenging film to follow, but worth the extra effort. The original Dutch The Dinner was set in Amsterdam. The movie version is American in every way. It stars Richard Gere as Stan Lohman, a congressman and candidate for Governor and Paul Coogan as Paul Lohman, a retired school-teacher,  his somewhat estranged - and seriously psychotic - brother. Laura Linney plays Paul's wife. Rebecca Hall plays Stan's wife and Chloe Sevigny as his former wife and the mother of his children.

The film's name refers to the lengthy dinner the two couples have together at a ridiculously high-end restaurant. The meal and the pretentiously sycophantic staff are almost a parody of the absurd lifestyle of the privileged rich. But the purpose of the dinner is to discuss a horrendous crime in which their sons have been involved - a vicious attack on a homeless woman whom they set fire to in the ATM where she had sought shelter. While we become aware of this crime early on, the two couples don't actually get around to discussing it until much later. In the interim, we have numerous flashbacks highlighting Paul's psychotic episodes and his estrangement from his brother (who he believes monopolized their parents' affection). All this has obviously taken a toll on his family- notably on his son. Stan, the politician, besides running for governor is in the process of getting a mental health bill passed. He is someone who, as his wife says late in the film, is much better at governing than at parenting.

One expects Stan to come across as superficial and strategic. In some respects he is. But that is overshadowed by the psychotic and rude and otherwise dysfunctional behavior of his brother - both at the dinner and throughout the film's flashbacks. The two wives seem focused on holding things together - in particular, protecting their sons, regardless of what they have done.

Stan approaches the family crisis strategically - as he might approach a political problem. But his is the most clear-headed and clear-eyed perspective. Paul is too hopelessly resentful to function effectively as a parent, and the two wives are single-mindedly protective of their sons, who seem to be on the verge of getting away with their crime. Only the politician seems capable of looking at anything like a larger picture and at least acknowledging the crime's large moral and social complications. His conflation of morality with strategy leads to him to advocate a painful but more morally sound course of action. But, under pressure, from his wife, he temporizes. In the interim, even more tragedy ensues.


“They have their privilege and they have their lives, and they don’t really see other people as human,” is how Moveman characterized the characters on SiriusXM. “There’s a lot of self-preservation, a lot of self-interest dictating policy and I think that is at the core of some of these characters’ behavior. In a sense the film portrays the terrible human and social cost such a society exacts on all. Meanwhile the glitzy restaurant and its absurdist rituals of social status and privilege provide a kind of elitist entertainment that at some level tries to beautify the self-absorbed narcissism of the privileged and cover over their indifference to the wider world. 






Sunday, May 7, 2017

Abundant Life

To repeat the same news over and over again is one way to highlight its importance. To hear the proclamation of the resurrection, over and over, during these Easter Sundays strengthens our faith by the witness of others’ faith - in particular that of the apostles. That is why one of the most noticeable features that distinguishes Easter from other seasons of our Catholic liturgical calendar is the daily reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Through our journey with the original apostles through the book of Acts, we identify ourselves with that first generation of Christians in their experience of the Risen Christ, becoming like them a community which witnesses to the presence and action of the Risen Lord in his Church, a community which expresses its new life in its worship.

In today’s 1st reading from Peter’s preaching to the people that first Pentecost Sunday [Acts 2:14a, 36-41], Peter wanted his hearers to feel personally impacted by his message – not simply hearing some new bit of information about which one might or might not care, as we do all day long in our “information age.” According to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter was apparently quite successful. The people, we are told, were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?”

The proclamation of the good news – whether in 1st-century Jerusalem or 21st century Tennessee - ought always to lead to that same invitation to respond with true conversion of heart, in repentance which resolves guilt with forgiveness and the freedom which comes from forgiveness. As Peter told the people, the promise is made to all those ... whomever the Lord our God will call. The apostles’ message of the call to conversion was, initially of course, an invitation to identification with Christ in baptism. But, once we have been baptized, we are repeatedly exhorted, as Peter exhorted his hearers in today’s 2nd reading [1 Peter 2:20b-25], to follow in Christ’s footsteps, living the new life made accessible to us by Christ’s death and resurrection, remaining united with him no matter what.

We hear this message repeated, Sunday after Sunday, during this Easter season, as something intended not just for the 1st century, but for every time and place and for ourselves here and now.

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel [John 10:1-10], I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. This life Jesus intends us to have is the life he possesses from his Father and which he shares with us in his body, the Church, in which the Risen Lord remains present forever by his gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

In particular, on this 54th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the Church challenges us to focus in a special way on what is required for this message to continue to be heard, to continue to be spread from place to place, and to continue to be passed on from this generation to the next, in the life of Christ’s Body, the Church. Confident as were those first Christians in the Risen Lord’s promise to be with his Church forever and never to abandon it, we must like them also take seriously our responsibility to do our part in making the mission of the Church actually happen among the people of our day and continue to happen in the future.

As Pope Francis has written in his message for this 54th Annual Day of Prayer for Vocations:

Those who are drawn by God’s voice and determined to follow Jesus soon discover within themselves an irrepressible desire to bring the Good News to their brothers and sisters through proclamation and the service of charity. … As disciples, we do not receive the gift of God’s love for our personal consolation, nor are we called to promote ourselves, or a business concern. We are simply men and women touched and transformed by the joy of God’s love, who cannot keep this experience just to ourselves. … This is particularly the case with those called to a life of special consecration … serenely confident because they have discovered the true treasure, anxious to go out and joyfully to make it known to all.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter and the 54th Annual Day of Prayer for Vocations, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 7, 2017.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Another Executive Order

Today is our annual National Day of Prayer. Who knew? 

Actually, a 1952 federal law, amended in 1968,  requires the President to issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals. Of course, the concept of such an observance is hardly new and is in fact deeply rooted in our American history back to colonial times. Thanksgiving Day, after all, is in theory just that sort of day too - colonial in origin but also proclaimed annually by the President to be observed on a date already stipulate in the law. some presidents have been more enthusiastic about it - holding events at the White House. Others have confined themselves simply to issuing the prescribed proclamation.

Not surprisingly, the infamous Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged the National Day of Prayer in court in 2008. After winning initially in a US District Court, the FFRF lost in 2011 when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "the President is free to make appeals to the public based on many kinds of grounds, including political and religious, and that such requests do not obligate citizens to comply and do not encroach on citizens' rights." (The same court also cited Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, for making reference to God seven times and to prayer three times.)

One reason we hear so little about the National Day of Prayer and why some presidents have made more if it while others have been content to issue the prescribed proclamation is that since 1983 the event has been effectively hijacked by a group called The National Day of Prayer Task Force, a conservative Evangelical Christian organization which organizes Evangelical Christian religious observances of the day each year. The group also proclaims a theme for each year's observance. According to the group's website, this year's theme is For Your Great Name’s Sake! Hear Us... Forgive Us...Heal Us! (based on Daniel 9:19, O Lord, Listen! O Lord, Forgive! O Lord, Hear and Act! For Your Sake, O My God).

Apparently, President Trump has decided to use today to issue yet another Executive Order, intended presumably to please his conservative Evangelical Christian constituency. According to yesterday's NY Times, the President is expected to "offer a vague promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” He will also direct federal agencies to exempt some religious organizations from Affordable Care Act requirements that provide employees with health coverage for contraception." The article suggests that he will also "direct the Internal Revenue Service to exercise 'maximum enforcement discretion' so that religious organizations and other nonprofit groups are not subject to punishment for expressing political views during campaign seasons."

Actually, the law in question (the so-called "Johnson Amendment") does not prevent churches and religious groups from political advocacy. it only precludes their endorsing or otherwise supporting specific candidates. And, as The Times notes, many clergy - including many evangelical clergy - "say they do not want to endorse political candidates from the pulpit because it could split their congregations and distract from their religious messages."

Of course, only Congress can actually completely change or repeal the "Johnson Amendment." All President Trump can do is encourage "maximum enforcement discretion" - a largely symbolic change, given that there has been little evidence of especially strict enforcement of the relevant provision by the IRS over the years anyway. 

The "contraception mandate" - an unwise provocation against churches and religious groups by the previous administration - is, in fact, a regulation which the President probably can obliterate if not by executive order, then by the more deliberative process of repealing or replacing the relevant regulation - a step which may require more than Trump is as yet prepared to do but which would be all to the good if and when it is done. Beyond that, the rest of this seems likely to be more about symbolism for a particular constituency. It remains to be seen what effects it will have and whether and how much the President's conservative Evangelical constituents may be satisfied with such symbolism.