Friday, September 14, 2018

A Modest Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fear (the Woodward Book)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Bookshop

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

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

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










Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Nativity of Mary

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

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

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

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



Thursday, September 6, 2018

A New Religious Typology of the US

The Pew Research Center has just recently published The Religious typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion. It prints out at just under 100 pages and is well worth reading and studying. It an be found at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2018/08/28163522/Full-Report-08-28-FOR-WEB.pdf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Alone

According to The Economist (September 1-17, 2008), 22% of American adults "always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated." The plague of loneliness is such that in January the British Prime Minister appointed "a minister for loneliness." (The same survey cited above found the same result for 23% of British adults.)

So I am not alone in feeling alone!

Loneliness itself is not new, of course. According to the article in The Economist, loneliness is "a reflex honed by natural selection. Early humans would have been at a disadvantage if isolated from a group."

The problem is that human beings are still disadvantaged when isolated, but the long-term isolation seems to be on the rise. until the 20th century most people lived in families, My father, for example, had 2 brothers and 4 sisters; and, apart form his military service during World War he never lived out of easy commuting distance from his siblings. Nowadays, however, more and more people live alone. Even worse, "From 1985 to 2009 the average size of an American's social network - defined by the number of confidants - declined by more than one-third." And, as everyone knows by now, membership is churches and other voluntary associations is on the decline. It seems as if the traditional ways in which most people experienced automatic connection with others or were able to forge personal connections of their own with others are all in serious decline.

Of course, technology gets a good deal of the blame as well. As The Economist notes, "A sharp drop in how often American teenagers go out without their parents began in 2009, around when mobile phones became ubiquitous.

So what is to be done? Turning off the phone would certainly help! Even in contexts where there are actually other people around, withdrawal into one's phone can be an obvious way of isolating oneself. That is why, for example, in my own religious community, I have made it my personal policy to leave my phone in another room when i go to dinner. 

In the UK, the National health Service has apparently started "social prescribing" - sending patients to social activities in lieu of giving them medications! That sounds very interesting. But if loneliness is systemic, if it is built into the very structure of modern life, the problem may prove beyond fixing.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Labor Day


Today is Labor Day, a federal holiday since 1894, which sadly long ago joined most of our other national holidays in losing much of its original civic significance to become just another "holiday weekend" – an opportunity for shopping and other diversions. Even when I was a child and the American labor movement was still strong, Labor Day was already becoming more about the end of summer vacation, the last day for women to wear their white shoes and men their straw hats, and the imminent return to school and normal activities - and so less of a serious civic celebration of American workers (and the affluence their astounding productivity had helped to produce).

That great post-World War II quarter century or so of unprecedented, nation-wide, across-the-board prosperity and a strong labor movement seems such a distant memory now in the present era of increasing economic inequality. Solving our society’s economic problems has been made even more problematic by the globalization of economic activity, which, while undoubtedly beneficial in certain significant respects, has not benefitted everyone and has in the process rendered obsolete so much that used to be taken for granted. That challenge, however, only makes it that much more urgent to recover an authentic understanding of human nature and human solidarity – and of fulfilling human labor as an essential component of a productive economy and a good society. As the United States Bishops’ reminded us a year ago, work can be a place of great sanctity, giving expression to the deep yearnings of the human person; where people are permitted to—and, indeed, do—embrace work as a cooperation with God's creative power, the mundane can become transcendent. 

In a particular way, Labor Day celebrates the essential role of labor unions in making possible a more just and equitable society. As far back as 1986, in their Pastoral letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops were warning against the already increasing efforts to undermine labor unions” No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing  [Economic Justice for All, 104].


For this year's Labor Statement from the Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the USCCB, go to: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/labor-employment/labor-day-statement-2018.cfm

Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Decisive Generational Change

“So much of our politics, public life, public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast, and insult, and phony controversies, and manufactured outrage,” former President Barack Obama said in his eloquent eulogy for Senator John McCain at the latter's funeral service in Washington's National Cathedral. Contrasting McCain to today's "politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear,” Obama said. “John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”
This was one occasion when listening without watching was definitely insufficient. What we needed as a nation was to see the congregation - the closest thing to perfect attendance among our nation's political and cultural elite, as "bipartisan" an assemblage as we are likely ever to see. One wonders if they were all actually listening - and watching one another - and realizing how their very presence represented a rebuke to our current "politics, public life, public discourse" that have become so "small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast, and insult, and phony controversies, and manufactured outrage.”
As we have been reminded over and over this week, Senator McCain was a heroic veteran of the Vietnam War. But what seems to stand out for me in watching how he has been remembered is our national nostalgia for something pre-Vietnam (something indeed which our conflicted Vietnam experience helped destroy). To me McCain seemed  to embody not the contentiousness of the Vietnam era and the "culture war" it unleashed, but the earlier values of the "Greatest Generation," the World War II generation, my parents' generation. He seemed to embody and live by the values my generation was initially instructed in, but which we collectively lost in various ways. What is being praised about McCain's politics reflects the older values of an admittedly imperfect but united nation, before we separated ourselves from one another and sorted ourselves out according to the vagaries of our ever-shifting divisive identity politics. 
In mourning McCain, maybe we mourn as well the loss of that sense of national community and communal purpose that made possible precisely that politics of hope rather than fear that is increasingly now merely a memory.



Priestly People


Back in the 16th century, in the aftermath of the European conquest of the “New World,” the Dominican theologian Francisco di Vitoria [1492-1546] pointed out what he called “many scandals and cruel crimes and acts of impiety,” that accompanied – and in his view undermined - the attempt to evangelize the Native American population. He wrote: “It does not appear that the Christian religion has been preached to them with such sufficient propriety and piety that they are bound to acquiesce in it.” Then as now, scandal and sin obscured the Gospel’s message and undermined the Church’s mission.  Nowadays it is moral failures and failures of leadership primarily on the part of those of us who publicly represent the Church that have scandalously disfigured the Body of Christ, obscured the Gospel’s message, and undermined the Church’s mission. Meanwhile, in this terrible time of testing for the Church, opposing factions within the Church are attacking each other with even more than the usual ferocity, mimicking the hyperpolarization we see in secular society, further obscuring the Gospel’s message and undermining the Church’s mission. As the great 20th-century American convert-theologian Avery Dulles [1918-2008] once warned, "A polarized society simply cannot attract new members or new leaders of high quality."

The situation recorded in today’s Gospel [Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23] between Jesus and the Pharisees was somewhat different. For one thing, the Pharisees themselves were for the most part good people with the best of motives.  The Pharisees were one of several factions in 1st-century Jewish life. Other major factions included the somewhat aristocratic Sadducees (who were the Temple priests), the Zealots (who wanted to liberate Israel from Roman rule), the Essenes (who lived a quasi-monastic life in the desert), and then, later in the century, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, the faction that came to be known as Christians.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were committed to take religious observance as seriously as possible, while combining that with life in society. They promoted a day-to-day spirituality, that sought to make the Law come alive in daily experience, relating its commandments to the various spheres of life, and so living an active, involved life but remaining - as Saint James says in today’s 2nd reading [James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27] - unstained by the world.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees’ zeal and dedication were widely recognized, Although not a Pharisee himself, Jesus engaged in discussions with Pharisees and accepted dinner invitations to Pharisees’ homes. Nonetheless, the Gospel reports that Jesus also sometimes had some very harsh words for the Pharisees. What Jews call the Torah - the statutes and decrees Moses taught the people to observe - was God’s gift to Israel, a sign of God’s special closeness to his people even in the regular routines of daily life. It challenged the people to become wise and intelligent enough to observe it, and so serve as a witness to the nations. The Pharisees’ problem was that, while the Law was supposed to be a special sign of God’s closeness, here was God himself present in Jesus, but the experts in the law were completely missing the point.

In their desire to build what was called a “Fence around the Law,” the Pharisees, who, like Jesus himself, were all laypeople, not Temple priests, had apparently adopted rigorous rules of ritual purification that applied primarily to the Temple priests - thus taking seriously the biblical image of all Israel as in some special sense a priestly people. The evangelist, trying to explain all this to his 1st-century Gentile Christian audience, emphasized that this tradition of the elders represented a human addition to God’s commandments. The Gospel clearly portrays Jesus as a higher authority than the Pharisees when it comes to the interpretation and application of what God commands as opposed to merely human custom.

Identifying what is essential to living an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out from the human and cultural envelope within which we inevitably receive it, is – always has been, and will always remain – a constant challenge for as long as the good news of Jesus brings new people from every nation, culture, and language into his Church.

This becomes especially challenging in times of significant and rapid cultural change such as we have been living through in our lifetimes. The family, for example, as a social institution is radically different from what family was a century ago. In addition to traditional extended families and modern nuclear families, we also have single-parent families, multi (i.e., more than 2) parent families, blended families, childless families, and individuals single by choice. Identifying what is essential for an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out amid the many human and cultural envelopes we have inherited - or adopted – is no small challenge, especially since so much depends on really getting it right.

On the other hand, creating and maintaining some sort of recognizable cultural envelope – a sort of “Fence around the Law” - within which one can live a moral life in community with others and that can be passed on to the next generation is also important. Some – not all, but some - of the difficulties we have experienced in recent decades have certainly been exacerbated by discovering how fragile the cultural envelope we inherited has been in practice, leaving us less certain and less confident about how to proceed. Sorting out which of what today’s Gospel calls human traditions are best suited to foster an authentic life in today’s context is one of the greatest challenges we face going forward.

How we navigate our way through these opposing challenges matters, lest we delude ourselves, as James warned us against in today’s 2nd reading. If anything, Jesus actually challenged his hearers to an even more demanding standard. Listen to the list of sins Jesus warned against: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (Imagine if we all gave up folly!)

In Jesus, God has become present to transform us into the priestly people which the Law was meant to signal, to turn us around, to turn our entire lives around, to authentic, life-long, day-in, day-out discipleship – or, as James more poetically expressed it, that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 2, 2018.



Thursday, August 30, 2018

Operation Finale

I was in the 8th grade when Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem after the Israeli government's successful operation to locate him in Argentina and secretly abduct him to stand trial in Israel. I was already in high school a year later when he was finally executed. I can well remember all that happening and that it was considered important, but I doubt I reflected more deeply about those events until later when I read Hannah Arendt's famous (and somewhat controversial analysis) of Eichmann and of his trial, Eichmann  in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The story is a familiar one, of course, an illustration of Israeli effectiveness at accomplishing what few others seemed interested in (although the German Eichmann-hunter, Fritz Bauer, is given a cameo in the movie). The film tries hard to create suspense, and indeed many things did go wrong that imperiled the mission, but again we all know how the story ended, so suspense is ultimately lacking. More effectively the film focuses in particular on one member of the Mossad Team, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), in effect telling the story through his interactions with Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and the ghosts in his own haunted memory of the Final Solution.

Like those TV documentaries that have tried to dramatize the hunt for Eichmann and his successful abduction and extraction for Argentina, the movie mainly illuminates the bizarre experience that Eichmann's captors had to endure, cooped up with him for days on end, essentially staring evil directly in the face. In the process, while Kingsley does a great job giving some sort of personality to the character he plays, in the end one is left with yet another illustration of what Arendt so famously - and fittingly -termed "the banality of evil." 

In 1960, the war was, of course, still a recent memory. (I can remember being in Vienna just a decade later and having lunch there with someone from that generation who was still arguing the case that the West should have sided with the Reich against Russia.) So, historically speaking, we are not surprised at the horrifying evocation of the Nazi movement's continued survival and ideological resonance in the conservative  Argentinian ambience. At the time, the world would have dismissed most of them largely as losers who would not accept the verdict of defeat. Some 60 years later, they seem almost totemic figures, symbolizing a perennial type of hatred that seems successfully to resist final defeat.

Historically, the Eichmann trial brought the Nazis' Final Solution (as the Holocaust was them much more likely to be called) to center stage in a way which had been avoided hitherto - and which made it forever harder to forget. That, of course, was a major part of Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion's purpose. As Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale), speaking not so much as the Prime Minister but more as the collective voice of the long-suffering Jewish people,  tells the agents in one of the film’s finest scenes, “If you succeed, for the first time in our history we will judge our executioner, and we will warn off any who wish to follow his example.” 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

In this Terrible Time

In this terrible time of testing for the Church, when opposing factions within the Church are going after each other with even more than the usual ferocity, the Church today recalls the life of one of her greatest saints, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church, along with Saint Ambrose, Saint jerome, and Saint Gregory the Great.

Augustine's greatest boast was that he praised the grace of God, and he is rightly referred to as the Doctor gratiae, the Doctor of Grace. His teaching on grace is reflected in the words - literally lifted from Augustine's writing - which we will pray shortly in the Preface of the Saints, in crowning their [the saints'] merits, you [God] crown your own gifts.

Augustine is one of those few saints whom modern non-Christian thinkers might still take somewhat seriously. Unlike later, medieval Doctors of the Church, Augustine, lived, ministered as a Bishop, and wrote in a world in which the Christian faith and the Church were not not yet quite the unchallenged options, a time when paganism, while definitely in decline, still posed a challenging alternative. Augustine's encounter with all the major philosophical and religious options on offer in his time highlights his continued relevance in our pluralistic world in which Christian faith and the Church are no longer the only or obvious alternatives for those searching for meaningful answers and a fulfilling way of life.

At this particular juncture in our history, however, in this terrible time when opposing factions within the Church are going after each other with even more than the usual ferocity, it is Augustine's intense commitment to the Church and to the Church's unity that may stand out as most relevant right now. We live in a politically polarized society, and those divisions are powerfully present in the Church as well. It has been said that in American society today, our rival political factions are motivated most by their hatred for each other. And I think it not too much of an exaggeration to say that there is some of that - actually too much of that - even in the Church. 

If anything that was even more so in Augustine's time, when the Church in North Africa, was violently (very literally violently) divided by what historians call the Donatist schism. Augustine's commitment to the authentic Catholic Church was simultaneously a commitment to the Church's unity. As Augustine once famously said:

We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father. [On Psalm 32CCL 38, 272-273]

Homily on the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 28, 2018.




Monday, August 27, 2018

Senator John McCain



In all its civic solemnity, this week's state funeral will offer a wholesome contrast to the series of scandals that have increasingly enveloped our national capital (and elsewhere). I read somewhere that Senator McCain will be only the 13th U.S. Senator to receive the rare honor of lying in state at the Capitol. I don't know who the other 12 were, but there can be no doubt the honor is eminently fitting in this instance.

I never voted for McCain nor would I ever have been tempted to do so, but that only serves as a reminder that we are more than our partisan tribal allegiances, something demonstrated by McCain's congressional career which called both him and others out of their narrow tribal corners, which is one reason he is so genuinely remembered and so widely mourned, one reason too why the two men who defeated McCain for the presidency, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, will be speaking at his funeral.

As everyone knows, McCain, the son and grandson of four-star U.S. Navy admirals, lived up to the tradition of patriotic service he had inherited, flying combat missions in Vietnam and eventually being shot down and captured in 1967, and then enduring five and a half years of suffering as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. His wartime injuries left him disabled and unable to lift his arms above his shoulders for the rest of his life. Significantly, he later worked to establish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, and made several trips to there promoting reconciliation between the two former enemies.

McCain was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and the Senate in 1986, where he remained until his death as a member and eventually the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. While a relatively reliably orthodox Republican on many matters, he also practiced the now almost forgotten art of bi-partisan cooperation. He sought serious immigration reform and, most famously, campaign finance reform. His heroic final legislative legacy was to save Obamacare when his party villainously tried to destroy it. 

Maybe after all he had gone through, he understood better than many of us do that every day is a gift - to be enjoyed to be sure - but also an opportunity to do something worthwhile. That same experience may also have taught him how some things really are more important - a lot more important - than becoming president.

Speaking of presidents, the peculiar dynamics of McCain's funeral will highlight very visibly the contrast between the late Senator and the incumbent President. That contrast is real and significant for sure. Yet that is but one obvious example - a subset, so to speak - of the glaring contemporary contrast between what politics is supposed to be about and what we voters have instead allowed it to become. McCain represented a version of politics that increasingly no longer exists in America. No Platonic Guardian, McCain made mistakes along the way. But he was also able to acknowledge, admit, and correct them. He was, in short, a patriot, in the good sense of that much misused word.

McCain appreciated his country and felt honored to serve it. In that, he recalls an earlier era and earlier attitudes, which were once more widely held, attitudes about duty, honor, and integrity. His life was a reminder to a society, that seems to have forgotten, that to be given a position of public trust and honor (whether in government or elsewhere) is itself an honor and a weighty responsibility.



Sunday, August 26, 2018

To Whom Shall We Go?


Near the end of the 2006 film The Queen, the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) comes to the palace for his regular audience, in the course of which, he reassures Her Majesty that her temporary drop in popularity had been - just that – temporary. To that, the older, wiser, and much more politically experienced Queen replies: “you saw those headlines, and you said, ‘one day that will happen to me.’ And it will, Mr. Blair, suddenly and without warning.” And, of course, by the time the movie was made that was exactly what had happened -probably why that scene was in the film in the first place and why it got the audience reaction it did at the time!

Two years later came the PBS mini-series John Adams. In one episode, the not particularly popular President Adams goes to the theater and unexpectedly receives a rapturous ovation. Unimpressed, Adams, who realizes how temporary and short-lived such a sudden burst of popularity probably will be, says to one of his associates: "A mob is still a mob, even if it's on your side"

What Adams and the Queen understood is that popularity is ephemeral. Obviously, an important lesson for anyone who wants or depends on having a popular following!

Jesus also attracted a popular following in his time. Backtracking through 5 weeks of Sunday Gospel accounts to the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000, we will remember how the delighted crowd responded by attempting to acclaim Jesus as their king – certainly a good barometer of Jesus’ popularity, thanks to his demonstrated prowess as a miracle worker.

Since then, however, just like a modern news audience tracking a candidate’s declining poll numbers, we have watched the steady drop in Jesus’ popularity, as he proceeded to tell his audience things they really did not want to hear. That, of course, is the danger any public figure faces! That's the age-old difference between a serious leader, who tells people what they need to hear, and a populist demagogue, who tells them what he thinks will keep them on his side!

In Jesus’ case, the cheering stopped as it became apparent to people that the miraculous feeding of the 5000 was not just an entertaining interruption in life’s regular routine, much less a ticket to a lifetime of free food, but rather a challenge to reorient their lives in relation to a more permanent reality.

So, at the point at which we pick up the story today [John 6:60-69], the popular disillusionment with Jesus has become aggressively vocal: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  The “hard saying,” of course, was Jesus’ shocking claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Strong language to be sure – a bit too strong for his hearers’ tastes! The Gospel account allows us to listen in on this drama of division and discord which Jesus’ tough talk has caused – as a result of which many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

At this critical juncture, Jesus turned to that most select group of his disciples - the 12 - and asked: “Do you also want to leave?” In effect he challenged the 12 to step up and commit themselves, which they did through their designated leader, Peter, who performs this fundamental function in all 4 Gospels. “Master, to whom shall we go?” Peter asks. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Centuries earlier, something similar had transpired when the Israelites had gathered with Joshua at Shechem [Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b].  Challenged by Joshua, the people answered, reflecting on what they had learned about God through their own experience as a people - how he had brought them up out of slavery, how he had performed great miracles, and how he had protected them along their entire journey.

What was anticipated in Israel’s experience was finally fulfilled in Jesus, who is God’s personal experience of human existence. If we want to encounter God and find life for our world, then we must recognize the human ways in which God has chosen to encounter us – as Joshua challenged the people to recognize in their historical experience, as Paul challenged the Ephesians to recognize even in their domestic family life [Ephesians 5:21-32], as Jesus challenged the 12 to recognize in himself.

And so Jesus challenges us - today and every day - to make our own Peter’s question and answer: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Is Jesus just one option among many? Or have we too come to believe and be convinced that he is the one and only one to go to, and that remaining connected to him is essential?

Just as Peter had to answer the question whether and why to stay or to leave, so too must we – today and every day. It is always easy to find reasons to leave, and in the present-day Church there are certainly plenty such reasons. These include exploitative and predatory sexual behavior by those in positions of trust, flagrant and repeated abuses of power, self-serving secrecy, and an inflated sense of entitlement insulated from any accountability. Certainly the past and present moral failures, and failures of leadership within the Church on the part of those of us who publicly represent the Church scandalously disfigure the Body of Christ and obscure the words of eternal life that are intended to be the Church’s message. Such scandals certainly suggest understandable reasons for someone to re-evaluate one’s relationship to the Church.

And yet, like Peter, I know of no hope – either for me or for the world – without and apart from Jesus, without and apart from remaining personally and permanently connected to the community of Jesus’ followers.

So the question becomes more challenging than ever: what does it mean, here and now, to stay?

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 26, 2018.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Is Tyranny Inevitable? An Ever-Relevant Ancient Discussion

It has been decades since I last read Book 8 of Plato's Republic, wherein Socrates describes the deterioration of the ideal society (and in individual terms the corresponding  degeneration of the character of the philosopher). Of course, Plato's analysis was primarily philosophical and psychological and only incidentally historical. The chronological sequence of the inherently inevitable decline of states from the best to the worst, from aristocracy through democracy to tyranny, is obviously more an explanatory device than a rigidly precise historical formula. Still there was a certain historically recognizable logic to the sequence, as subsequent students of the subject could see. And so it was to arrest this seemingly inexorable process that the theory of the "mixed" constitution came to be articulated - from its ancient theorists Aristotle and Polybius to the modern founders of the American constitutional experiment. Primarily, such theories sought their inspiration less from an external, ideational, philosophical analysis of human character and more from contingent political experience itself, making the best of the actual human situation, restructuring it institutionally. What Aristotle had theorized, Polybius recognized in the institutional constraints (what we Americans would come to call "checks and balances") of the Roman Republic. The 18th century American founding followed this tradition, and James Madison in The Federalist explicitly invoked both Polybius and the image of the "mixed" constitution.

But while the "mixed" constitution could certainly slow down the process of decline into tyranny, it still presumed something from its citizens - certainly not the philosophical detachment of Platonic guardians, but a certain sort of commitment to participate in the process and engage with one's fellow citizens within the parameters proposed by those "mixed" institutions - participation and engagement made possible precisely by trust in those institutions. In the American constitutional settlement (both at its founding and as subsequently amended), the perversion of pubic good by private interest always lurks in the foreground. The public or common good depends for its primacy on the the institutional restraints on populist democracy incarnated in constitutional government - made possible by citizens' inevitably imperfect but still sufficient trust in a shared community. 

It is arguable that such trust in a commonly shared community may have reached its height in the collective experience of the World War II "Greatest Generation," and that the last 50 or so years have been characterized by its definitive decline. Perhaps the tipping point may have been the disastrous election of 1980, when citizenship seemed increasingly superseded by consumerism. In any case, our country's current crisis, with its suggestion of democratic devolution into increasingly unchecked and unbalanced tyranny, has been years, decades, in the making. 


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Wisdom for Evil Days


No sooner have we heard the Book of Proverbs tell us come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed, than we hear Saint Paul warning the Ephesians, do not get drunk on wine!

The Book of Proverbs is an ancient Israelite compilation of wisdom sayings, some of which were once widely familiar, for example, Proverbs 13:1 A wise son loves correction. but the senseless one heeds no rebuke - or 16:9 In his mind a man plans his course but the Lord directs his steps. Sadly the wisdom of human experience is no longer typically transmitted in that way. Whatever wisdom people learn nowadays, our modern attitudes are much less impressed with the wisdom inherent in inherited experience.

Proverbs and the other four biblical books we commonly call “wisdom literature” are very different from the rest of scripture. At the beginning of the biblical story, God was very much front and center – personally creating the world, personally revealing himself to Abraham and his descendants, personally liberating Israel from Egypt, and personally leading Israel into the promised land, where he remained accessible through observance of his law and worship at his Temple and then through oracles and prophets appointed to speak on God’s behalf.  Proverbs and the other “wisdom books” are different. God’s word is filtered, so to speak, through the lessons of common human experience. And that is their enduring appeal – so much so that the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton proposed in 1949 that the test of a religious rule might be how “it reflects the calm and the measure” of the biblical wisdom books” [August 8, 1949].

Inspired obviously by today’s Gospel account continuing the story of Jesus’ invitation to enter into eternal life in the Eucharistic banquet, today’s passage from Proverbs invites any and all – everyone in the city, that is, all of society – to partake of the banquet of divine wisdom revealing itself in our experience, enabling us to forsake foolishness and so live and advance in the way of understanding.

Watching how to live, not foolishly but wisely, was likewise Saint Paul’s preoccupation, because as he reminded the Ephesians the days are evil.  So we must be filled with the Spirit to detoxify our hearts from the un-wisdom that so surrounds us. For, not unlike the Roman world in Paul’s time, today’s world can easily seem to be totally unmoored from any kind of wisdom – not just the political world or the economic world or the social world but even (and especially) the life of the Church, whose failings we have seen exposed again and again with no solution in sight.

Certainly we need wisdom – lest, as Saint Paul warns, we continue in ignorance. We need to free ourselves from the frenzy all around us, from the toxicity of our political, religious, and cultural conflicts. We need to free ourselves from the defensiveness that makes everything worse, whether in politics or society or in the Church, where our temptation to defensiveness may be especially strong.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 19, 2018.