Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The World's Most Dangerous Man" (the Book)

One doesn't need to read Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough:: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (Simon and Schuster) to know that private wealth is bad and that being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin." To know that, all one needs to do is read scripture and listen to Jesus's words, which repeatedly made that point (a message much of modern Christianity has forgotten or ignored in favor of other subjects on which Jesus had much less to say). Nor need one read her book to wonder whether the present President of the United States may well be what his niece describes. That said, her book helpfully amplifies the picture we already have.

What would otherwise be a biography based on insider family gossip, in the hands of  a niece who is also a qualified clinical psychologist, becomes a psychological portrait of President Trump by a relative who combines her direct firsthand family experience with clinical analysis. Unsurprisingly, when one family member turns against another in this way, there is a inevitably some sad family history in the background and some element of getting back at others in the clan. The author herself acknowledges worrying about this: "I concluded that if  spoke publicly about my uncle,  would be painted as a disgruntled niece looking to cash in or settle a score." Mary is the daughter of Fred Jr. (the President's older brother) who is presented as having been badly broken down by his domineering father, Fred Sr. (the patriarch of the family business, the son of the successful immigrant Trump from Germany who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic). Mary's father famously left the family business to become a pilot, but eventually became an alcoholic and lost this job and his marriage and died at 42. It was Uncle Donald who lived up to his father's brutal expectations and was amply rewarded for it, whereas, when Fred Sr. died, Fred Jr.'s children (the author and her brother, Fred) were excluded from his will. This in turn led to the litigation which led to the supposed non-disclosure agreement, which was the basis for the Trump family's efforts to stop her book. 

Trump's pathologies, if that is what they are, have been on public display for decades. This sad story about horrible rich people, once salacious local entertainment for New Yorkers, has acquired world-historical significance because of the unlikely election of Uncle Donald as president in 2016. It is as if the HBO series Succession's story of how one mean old capitalist damaged all of his children - but most especially the son who most desperately sought to please and succeed him - has come to life off-screen. As someone once said to me about the family drama of another problematic New York politician, Why does anyone bother to write fiction?

I understand what the author is attempting, but personally I would probably have preferred less psychological jargon. Sometimes I felt I was taking a tour of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 finding every diagnostic category that could be applied to the Donald.  At the outset she assures us he meets the "nine criteria" for narcissism. Frankly I find all that clinical diagnostic language almost numbing, whereas the actual story she tells is so raw that the ultimate tragedy of it all almost tells itself. (The psychological approach does, however, add intriguing insights - such as her view that Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mitch McConnell all "bear more than a passing psychological resemblance to Fred," Donald's father.)

It is a sad, Succession-style story of family dysfunction (facilitated by wealth), which has allegedly left the author's uncle "incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information." We have become more than usually accustomed to political tell-all books by observers of this Administration. Here the President's public presentation mirrors the family story - in Mary's words turning "this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family." This book brings us inside the story, and invites us to survey the many cracks in the family portrait. 

The author quotes an article calling her uncle "Frankenstein without a conscience," but then applies that to the President's father, who is in many ways the ultimate villain in the story. - "a high-functioning sociopath" who "seemed to have no emotional needs at all." The damaged son in turn damages the entire nation, his niece argues. "The atmosphere of division my grandfather created in the Trump family is the water in which Donald has always swum, and division continues to benefit him at the expense of everyone else. It's wearing the country down just as it did my father, changing us even when it leaves Donald unaltered. It's weakening our ability to be kind or believe in forgiveness, concepts that have never had any meaning for him."

If Fred, Sr. is the villain, the victim - or, rather, the main victim, inasmuch as everyone is is a victim to some extent - is the author's father, Fred, Jr. ("Freddy"), whose unhappy life story is retold in all its tragic detail, whose father simultaneously told him "that he had to be an unqualified success and that he never could be." Slowly but surely, the second son replace his older brother as the center of their father's world. "Fred accepted Donald's arrogance and bullying - after he actually started to notice them - because he identified with the impulses."

While much of the story of Donald's rise may be familiar, his niece effectively dismantles any mythology of merit, making it very clear how much Donald depended on his father - not just his father's money but his political and other connections. As for minor members of the clan, Mary uses their deference to their father's preference for Donald to illustrate the same sycophancy that establishment Republicans would eventually come to display. 

The sad story of the fight over the will and the medical insurance just highlights what we, of course, already know. "If your only currency is money, that's the only lens through which you determine worth."

The moral of the story? We knew that already. Private wealth is bad, and being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin."










Sunday, July 12, 2020

Seeding the Good News in a Bad News World


A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing that familiar opening line to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!

Having lived virtually all my life in cities, parables about famers sowing seed sound somewhat exotic to me – and, maybe even somewhat strange. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ actual hearers – the original audience for this parable - would have understood. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farmer-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been be very difficult - and inefficient. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean a lot will be wasted, but it probably guarantees that some will fall on good soil and take root and produce fruit. So what may seem like inefficiency to us turns out to be really quite efficient indeed!

Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and how he expects his Church to behave in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.
  
We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it, if in fact all we do is talk. We honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who travelled to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from France to Canada like Saints John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.

But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute at present a somewhat shrinking 20 percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”

Well before the pandemic took over our lives, Sunday Mass attendance was declining dramatically. And, since 2000, Catholic marriage rates are down almost 50%, infant baptisms are down 40% percent, and adult baptisms more than 50%.
.
So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.

As American Catholics we need to examine our consciences concerning the ways we have allowed the good news to be heard as bad news by so many in our society. Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.

As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter 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 fraught with the greatest of deeds.  But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 12, 2020.


Friday, July 10, 2020

The Reason for Notre Dame

I still remember where i was when I heard of the tragic Notre Dame fire on the Monday of Holy Week one year ago. Like many others I applauded President Macron's commitment to rebuild the great cathedral. He created some anxiety, however, with his hint that he favored some sort of "contemporary gesture," something neither the cathedral nor the contemporary world is in any further need of!.

Apparently, his commitment to a quick reconstruction - in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics - may have been decisive in protecting the cathedral from those who want to replace its spire with something more modern. (There have even been proposals suggesting a swimming pool on the cathedral's roof!) According to the announcement made this week, it seems the cathedral's reconstruction will respect its original medieval Gothic design - and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's 19th-century Gothic spire, which replaced the original medieval one, which had been removed in the previous century.

It is obviously appropriate to build modern buildings in modern styles. If there is a problem with modern architectural styles it is not that they are modern but their style - or lack thereof. However one responds to modern architecture - and there are obviously many different examples of modern architecture from beautiful to bland to ugly -  it is not some modern building that is being reconstructed. Nor is Notre Dame just another example of medieval beauty, of which there would remain many in the world even were Notre Dame not to be rebuilt. More importantly, Notre Dame expresses a medieval cultural and religious sensibility, the loss of which has made modernity more impoverished than most moderns may willingly acknowledge. It is a sensibility which needs to be experienced, in the ways in which such a medieval building is intended to be experienced, in order to fill some of the void that sadly stands at the heart of modern experience.

I don't typically quote Rod Dreher, but what he recently wrote ("Weird Christianity," May 20, 2020) about his first encounter with Chartres Cathedral expresses something of what a church like Notre Dame is meant to do - and still can do even in this cold and soulless age:

"It wasn’t until I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral at age 17, on a tour group, that I was confronted by a form of Christianity that overwhelmed me. Nothing in my life in small-town America in the late 20th century had prepared me for the grandeur of God made manifest in that Gothic cathedral. What kind of Christianity inspires men to build this kind of temple? That was probably the first time in my life that I was truly struck by awe, in the old-fashioned sense. I remember standing there, in the center of the labyrinth, looking all around at the stained-glass windows, the arches, and the vaults, thinking, 'God does exist — and He wants me'.”

That is why it is so important that places like Notre Dame be rebuilt and maintained. That is why the real Notre Dame - not one with a "contemporary gesture" - is so very needed now, as much as it was back in 1345, maybe even more so.









Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Challenge of Retrieving the American Founding

American audiences applaud King George III's bravura performance in Hamilton. But however much we may sing his song and secretly wonder whether what he was saying would turn out to be the truth, we all know who is going to win and whom we are supposed to be rooting for. After the Revolution, the Loyalists largely left, and there was really no one left to challenge the fundamentals of the founding consensus. 

According to the common view that Louis Hartz famously formulated in 1955 in The Liberal Tradition in America, the U.S. had no feudal past and hence no French-style social revolution - and no Tory-like political party to propose alternatives to the established Liberal consensus. Americans might be federalists or anti-federalists, Republicans or Democrats, but they are all classical Liberals at heart, all operating within the commonly accepted liberal republican consensus.

And how could it be otherwise? Without a monarch and a shared history of centuries of common experiences and values, with what could this new nation hold itself together, especially as more and more people from all over the world with all sorts of different historical experiences kept joining? It had to be some sort of common civic identity rooted in a common consensus based on the foundation the founders had laid.

The one conspicuous exception was, of course, the ante-bellum South, whose slave-owning ruling elite fancied themselves faux aristocrats and self-consciously developed a distinctly anti-Liberal ideology in order to justify slavery and eventually secession. But that exception was eradicated - at least in theory - by the Union victory in the Civil War.

Another philosophical framework that might have offered a somewhat more subtle alternative to ideological American Liberalism - focused less on the individual and more on social solidarity and the common good - might have been Catholicism. But the Catholics who immigrated to America for the most part knew next to nothing about such ideas. And what Catholics came to care most about politically was becoming as American as possible - Catholic Americans but primarily Americans.

So there never has been any significant ethical and philosophical foundation on which to build American society other than the founding narrative. It may be flawed, but all narratives are  at least to some degree. Think of the French Republic’s famous history textbook, taught throughout the French colonial empire, which began its narrative with the words Nos ancêtres les Gaulois (" Our ancestors the Gauls").

The issue then is not inventing some new national narrative, as 20th-century totalitarians tired so hard to do. (That they were notoriously unsuccessful was evident, for example, in how much about the Soviet State could be best explained by remembering Russia.) The issue is rather how to retrieve our already very powerful and attractive national narrative with some mix of honesty and inclusion. A musical like Hamilton is admittedly entertainment, but it is also a powerful and effective exercise in civic education, which attempts to retrieve the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive manner.

Retrieving the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive direction differs from destroying or undermining that narrative. That (ironically) is what our present president seems intent on doing, not only by his undermining of traditional American liberal political norms but by his thoughtless identification of that narrative with its ideological enemies, the Confederates whose statues and flag he is so ridiculously defending.

The same could be said of the other extreme for which vandalizing statues and symbols seems a substitute for serious engagement with the  removed issues at hand. Of course, Confederate monuments should never have ben erected, ere eventually erected with malevolent intent, and should certainly be promptly removed. But vandalizing statues of other historic figures is a largely pointless exercise which substitutes exhilarating destruction for the harder work of constructing something new. The structures that actually do need to be undone are such social evils as over-policing, zoning laws and other policies that maintain residential and educational segregation, a distorted health care system that spends more than other nations with poorer outcomes, etc. Such efforts at political and social reconstruction would be best undertaken within a common commitment to the long-term promise of the founding narrative and would in turn renew that narrative for a better national future.


Tuesday, July 7, 2020

SCOTUS Gets It Right on the Electoral College

Ever since the disastrous elections of 2000 and 2016, in which the candidate rejected by the popular vote received a majority of the electoral college vote, there has been increased dissatisfaction expressed about our electoral college system. It is not quite clear how best to reform or replace it, what form of direct popular election would work best, or what its unintended side effects might be. But there is probably a considerable consensus that the present system should at least operate the way we expect it to - with electors voting for their party's nominee. That's what we presume will happen when we call the election in November, a full month before the electors actually cast their ballots.

Apparently the Supreme Court agrees with this common expectation. According to yesterday's unanimous decision in Chiafalo v. Washington, states may (as 32 states plus DC now do) require electors to vote as expected and also (if the state chooses to) sanction them if they don't. By 1832, every state except one (South Carolina) had switched to popular election of electors, and the system we have since come to take for granted has assumed that the electors will vote as expected. Citing an earlier precedent, Justice Kagan's opinion allows this "long settled and established practice" to have "great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions" - in this case the provision allowing states to appoint electors  "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct."

Undoubtedly, it was the intent of the Framers for electors to exercise their own judgment. They would, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." Already by the election of 1800, however, the political party system had developed to provide that "information and discernment" for voters.

There were several so-called "faithless electors" in 2016. What on election night in November had seemed like a 306-232 win for Trump turned into a 304-227 tally - not enough to alter the expected result, but certainly one additional discredit to our system (in trouble enough already).

Making it more likely that that the system will work the way we expect it to may be small consolation to the increasing number of Americans who no longer want a system which works in effect to disenfranchise so many citizens and which twice in two decades has produced a president rejected by the majority of voters. But surely improving that system should not depend on the arbitrary caprice of individual electors displaying even greater contempt for the will of the voters. That much, at least, we should all be able to agree on.

Monday, July 6, 2020

"The $10 Founding Father"

I've always admired Alexander Hamilton. Back in the 1970s, my American political thought professor suggested a show should be made about him, heroically titled "Alexander." I never quite expected that to happen and was accordingly surprised and pleased when "the $10 Founding Father" became the subject of a Broadway hit. Of course, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterpiece may not have been stylistically what any 1970s professor or student might have expected. But, as everyone now knows, it has succeeded, both as art and repurposed history. (And it may also have happily helped save Hamilton's honored place on the $10 bill.)

Needless to say, until now I have never seen or ever expected to see the show - Broadway being well beyond my price range. But now, for a modest fee (infinitesimal compared to theater prices), a filmed version of the theatrical production (with the original cast) is now available for streaming. So I spent some significant part of July 4 watching what I'd admired from afar but had never expected to see for myself.

Obviously, watching on my laptop cannot compete with or really compare with watching it live in a theater. Nor, since it is a filmed version of a particular live performance, is it a proper "movie," with all that that experience entails. I will leave it to the theater and film critics to analyze those aspects of this unique production. Even so, the performance - its music, its lyrics, its acting - is fantastic.

As always, it helps to know some history already. Undoubtedly, it helps to have read Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton, on which Lin-Manule Miranda based his musical. But even the viewer with no knowledge of American history at all could learn a lot from this pop version of Hamilton's life - from his arrival as an immigrant in New York to his service on Washington's staff in the Revolutionary War, his marriage, his authorship of The Federalist Papers, his service as Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, his rivalries with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his affair with Maria Reynolds, the death of his son, his role in the 1801 election of Jefferson over Burr, and his death in a duel with Burr.

Hamilton, the immigrant outsider who made his way inside and became a great nation-builder, has always embodied a special sense of America's promise. Hamilton, the Broadway hit, transposes that perennial promise into the cultural expression of Obama-era multicultural progressivism, a novel take to be sure, but one well within the ultimate logic of Hamilton's story. In this repressive nightmare which we are now living through, that seems almost as far away as the founding era itself. Optimistic Obama-era multicultural progressivism appears almost as distant as the founders in their knee-breeches, and in its own measure flawed like them. Yet it speaks so eloquently of the power of America's founding promise that we can keep reverting to both the founding event and the founders themselves in new and imaginative ways, a retrieval which we will have to try to do again, on a much bigger stage, if and when our current national nightmare ever ends.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

After Independence


It has been said that there are two truly American holidays. Thanksgiving Day (in late autumn) looks inward to the heart and soul of America, and so is celebrated at home, at table, among family and friends. Independence Day (in summer) looks outward to the world of nations and states, and so is celebrated (as John Adams said it should be) “by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

Well, maybe not this year, a year conspicuously lacking in a lot of those things, those social activities Adams – and many of us – just took for granted until a few months ago. Even our gathering for Mass today takes place under unusual circumstances, which reflect the reality and the ongoing virulence of this pandemic, and its multiple effects on our spiritual and religious experience as well as on our social existence as citizens. Meanwhile, especially in the last several weeks, our awareness of the pandemic’s different impacts on different groups and of other past and present unjust social circumstances have increasingly forced us to face up to the moral dilemmas and unfinished business of our often painful national history. Not for the first time – and probably not the last – all Americans are being challenged to come to terms with our problematic past and its poisonous effects on our present, so as to be better able to face our future united in a common life with a common purpose.

It is always challenging to reexamine our history - just as challenging as it is to reconsider our own personal stories. We are all always more comfortable with whatever versions of our national and personal stories we have gotten used to telling ourselves. But however awkward, it is a perennial challenge to be faced – all the more so when we really take seriously our citizenship in the kingdom of God and how the additional demands of God’s kingdom alter all our other commitments, all our earthly loyalties, all our ethnic and national histories, all our personal and racial stories.

As Pope Saint Paul VI once said, "Jesus Christ is … Lord of the new universe, the great hidden key to human history and the part we play in it." [Homily, Manila, 1970]

Indeed, Saint Paul, in our second reading today from his letter to the early Christian community in Rome, at that time the imperial capital of the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever then known, reminds us that, even while we remain thoroughly engaged in the otherwise ordinary-seeming life of our world, we are simultaneously living a new life, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s idea is that Christ’s new life has become our new life too, thereby reversing the death-ward direction of our ordinary existence and empowering us to allow ourselves and our entire lives – public and private - to be re-shaped by the Gospel’s stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.

As Catholics, of course, we have a long history (going back to Roman times) of thinking seriously about how to relate our faith to civil society – a long tradition of practical wisdom which we need to take seriously both as disciples and as citizens.

What resources does our faith offer to help us heal our civic life this Independence Day? What lessons have we learned from the past, and what can we do together – now - both to promote the common good of our country and to care for our common home this planet earth?

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 5, 2020.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Independence Day 2020

In the 1760s colonial elites objected to paying their share of taxes to cover the cost of keeping North America British rather than French. By the mid-1770s this movement had developed into a full-scale armed rebellion. And in July 1776 representatives of the rebellious faction, expressing their "decent respect for the opinions of mankind," declared "the causes which impel them" to independence from Great Britain. 

It has been estimated that they represented perhaps 1/3 of the colonists, another 1/3 remaining loyal to the legitimate government in London, the rest probably waiting to see how things turned out. How it turned out was determined militarily, as such issues of sovereignty and borders almost invariably are, by victory in war. The war for independence was a long war, won in the end thanks to the military and naval support of King Louis XVI of France, who may or may not have been inspired by the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence but who certainly saw the opportunity to weaken his British rival. Many of the "loyalists," as they came to be remembered, left. Many went north to what remained of British North America and helped populate what became English-speaking Canada. The rest of the former colonists accommodated themselves to the new realities and started to build a new country.

Old conflicts about whether to be British or American gave way to new battles about crafting a constitution, conflicts between "federalists" and "anti-federalists." A series of great and small compromises cobbled together an amazingly resilient constitution and "a more perfect union" got off to a hopeful start under the providential leadership of George Washington, whom his former sovereign, King George III, reportedly called "the greatest man in the world." But conflicts continued, as Hamiltonian Federalists fought Jeffersonian Republicans. If I could go back in time, I would certainly be a Hamiltonian and vote for John Adams, never for the aristocratic, pseudo-populist Jefferson. But, no matter, Hamiltonian nationalism and Jeffersonian populism both survived and in various ways have animated American political debates and divisions ever since.

There was one other division, of course, which predated the constitution, predated independence - America's "original sin" of slavery, which finally brought the young, socially and economically energetic, relatively egalitarian republic to an impasse, to be resolved, as such conflicts almost invariably tend to be resolved, by another war, a traumatic Civil War. A decisive victory in 1865 should have resolved the conflict; but, after a short interval of relatively successful "Reconstruction," the defeated confederates were allowed to regain power and reimpose a racist regime, which would take yet another century to be dismantled - and even now remains a force to be reckoned with in the hearts and minds of too many.

Meanwhile millions of newcomers, many unwanted, came to this new nation, seeking mainly freedom from want but in the process embracing other freedoms as well. When we celebrated our Bicentennial in 1976, I was struck by how the celebrations in New York that day were as much about this country's diverse immigrant experience as about what happened in Philadelphia in 1776, although what had been proclaimed back then in Philadelphia had been amazingly assimilated by the immigrants the nation had itself assimilated, creating a country uniquely based more on a civic identity than on a racial or ethnic one. 

But, of course, the racial and ethnic divides remained real, to the detriment of the acquired civic identity. And especially in times of stress, demagogic appeals to the militarily defeated but still living religion of white supremacy still have power to undermine the national unity promised by our unique civic identity, as has so dramatically been evident in recent years.

So 244 years later, that same "decent respect for the opinions of mankind" demands a continued accounting, a continued resolve to attend to the unfinished business of both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, to fulfill the promise of "a more perfect union" proposed by the Constitution, a promise turned into a possibility by the transformed Constitution created by the Civil War.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

American Catholics: A History

I grew up when schools still taught history. Also I attended to a Catholic parochial school. So the history we learned about the European settlement of the future United States started with the Spanish and French explorers, settlers, and missionaries, in contrast to an Anglo-centric narrative focused on the 13 coastal colonies. Years later a grad school classmate mentioned visiting the site of the first Mass in the U.S. I knew he meant the site in Maryland, but I couldn't resist saying it was a long trip fromPrinceton to St Augustine, Florida! He got my point. Of course, we need to recognize and appreciate the central role of New England in constituting our American character, but as a Catholic I am also always conscious of the other people (some of whom got here earlier) who also played important parts in our American story.  

So, in anticipation of Independence Day this year, I have treated myself to Leslie Woodcock Tentler's new account of American Catholic history, American Catholics: A History (Yale University Press, 2020). And it was with the greatest satisfaction that I noted how the author devotes the first part of her book, "On the Fringes of Empire," to the stories of Spanish and French explorations and settlements and the Catholic missionaries who were so central to them. That, of course, was just the beginning of the great ethnic and cultural variety that has been American Catholic life and which, Tentler suggests, "constitutes a metaphor of sorts for our shared experience as a nation." She asks: "What is more central to our national history than the creation of one out of many - the building of a nation almost entirely peopled by immigrants and their descendants?" (Servant of God Isaac Hecker saw something similar, if somewhat uncritically, in the 19th century, ascribing this simultaneous accomplishment of "the republic and the Catholic Church" to "divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people.)

Tentler divides her history into five parts, beginning each with a brief profile of an exemplary figure from the period. For Part I, She profiles colonial-era, Jesuit missionary priest Eusebio Kino. (Kino represents Arizona in Statuary Hall, along with three other priests - Saint Junipero Serra for California, Saint Damien de Veuster for Hawaii, and Fr. Jacques Marquette for Wisconsin.) Part II, "Growing with the Nation, 1815-1870," opens with a profile of Dominican missionary priest Samuel Mazzuchelli, who served both on the "frontier" and in Dubuque. Part III, "A Turbulent Passage, 1871-1919," opens with the story of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, rightly recognized now as patron saint of Italian and other immigrants. Part IV, "Exuberant Maturity, 1920-1962," begins with convert John C. Cort, Catholic Worker activist and founder of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, admittedly "hardly a typical Catholic of his own or any other generation" (and the only one of the five I had never heard of before). Finally, Part V, "A World Unbound, 1963-2015," profiles Patricia Crowley, one of the leaders of the 1950s Christian Family Movement and lay member of the 1960s Papal Birth Control Commission. The profiles are short (as is the book(, but the selections speak volumes.

Tentler's treatment of the "frontier" experience in Part II is a healthy reminder of how priest-poor the U.S. Church was at that time and the consequent infrequency of access to the sacraments that characterized much American Catholic experience, especially in the first half of the 19th century. The situation was different in the cities, where most Catholics converged, making the Catholic Church the largest denomination in the U.S. by the 1850s. For many 19th-century American Catholics, however, their Catholicism was hardly what we later came to expect in the 20th century. "Many of the Catholics arriving from Ireland in the antebellum years had hardly been catechized at all. Nor had they been habituated to anything approaching the regular practice of their religion." And, although that was an era of strong anti-Catholic nativism, Tentler tells a story of much less well known positive patterns of getting along between Catholics and non-Catholics. She also highlights the remarkable role played by Religious Sisters in the Church's life - notably in schools and hospitals - and the positive effect the Sisters' ministry had on non-Catholic opinion, particularly during and after the Civil War. Catholics' participation in that war (on both sides) also highlights the sensitive subject of the American Church's relationship with slavery and its imperfect record on race.

As one would guess from the Mother Cabrini profile, Part III highlights the immigrant experience and the era it produced. Nine million immigrants came to the U.S. in the first decade of the 20th century! Tentler describes both the strain this put on the Church's resources and how effectively and successfully the Church - clergy, women religious, and laity - responded. She profiles in particular the paradigmatic experiences of Italians (then called "the worst Catholics that ever came to this country") and Poles. Assimilation succeeded also in the religious realm, as more and more Catholics, men as well as women, became more regular in observance. Tentler also covers the complex and confusing internal factional fights within the 19th-century American Church, culminating in the Americanist crisis - and then later the Modernist crisis that followed - and their largely different impacts on clergy and laity. That the Church so successfully weathered all this set the stage for her most successful era that was to follow.

In that fourth period of "Exuberant Maturity," the Catholic population, after a brief dip thanks to the decline of European immigration and the Depression, grew, and "Catholics' confidence surged with their numbers, as did Catholics' political influence." It was an era of consolidation and powerful bishops with a public presence. It was a period of vibrant parish life, centered on an upsurge in Eucharistic piety, and active lay organizations, and the phenomenal institutional expansion of Catholic education. It was also the era of increasing Catholic isolation on the issue of birth control. But it was politically a confident time too. After the traumatic defeat of Al Smith came the FDR coalition, of which Catholics were a significant component (and probably would have been anyway even if FDR hadn't quoted Quadragesimo Anno) and eventually even the election of a Catholic president. That was, of course, the Catholic world in which I was born and experienced my foundational religious formation. To apply Winston Churchill's famous phrase about the Edwardian era: "The old world in its sunset was fair to see."

But it was sunset, as the final section, "A World Unbound," inevitably shows. Tentler begins, unsurprisingly, with Vatican II, which she believes was generally well received. "Since American Catholics had long ago made their peace with political modernity, many of the council's reforms came as welcome validation." Even so the changes proved sufficiently startling as to produce an inevitable institutional crisis. She notes for example, how the Council had neglected to "address the meaning of priesthood in an updated church." Perhaps the Council didn't anticipate how much updating was going to happen. That was clearly the case with the liturgy, the are where the impact hit ordinary Catholics most immediately. For all her enthusiasm for the Council, Tentlere admits that the liturgical reform we finally got came from Pope Paul's commission more than form the council itself. Maybe more to the point, as other divisions developed in the 1960s, "differences over the liturgy assumed an overtly political cast." The Mass "ceased to be an invariable source of Catholic unity." The key point she makes is that "Had the council never happened, the cultural ferment of the 1960s might plausibly have had the same effect,' for example, in regard to attitudes about authority and sin. "The culture of fear that permeated preconciliar Catholicism was bound to elicit a backlash as Catholics rose in educational attainment and social standing." Overall, she provides a good survey of postconciliar Church life - its stresses, but also the vitality of new movements such as the charismatic renewal and cursillo and even Call to Action. Inevitably, of course, the crises in the priesthood and religious life (especially among Sisters) gets a lot of attention. She focuses perceptibly on the effect of the erosion of communal support for religious vocation and lifestyle. This largely reflected changes in the wider culture, of course, but the internal erosion of community life in religious orders has also played  a prominent part, as she notes especially in regard to Sisters. She praises how since the Council "growing numbers of sisters have challenged Catholics to a new mode of selflessness." But, she asks, "Can this challenge survive sisters' near disappearance? If it does not, we will all be the poorer." In material terms, one inevitable result has been church closings, which have "severed Catholics from their pasts, both personal and communal" and have "distanced Catholics from a distinctively Catholic orientation to the material world."

Tentler truly recognizes and, I think, wants to celebrate the varied accomplishments of the postconciliar period. But she wonders about its future. "Can lay leadership ever fully substitute for the labor and inspiration of the male and female religious who underwrote not just the Catholic schools but also the various Catholic movements for spiritual renewal and social reform?" And how can the Eucharist continue as "the principal source of Catholic unity and identity ... if the Catholic future brings more and more priestless Sundays?"
Tentler's focus throughout her five-part history of almost 500 years of American Catholic experience is "What did it mean to be a 'good Catholic' at particular times and in particular places? How many Catholics, and which ones, were best able to approximate the ideal? What about the religious imaginations of the seemingly lukewarm?" Her effort to answer those questions effectively probes the complex edifice of American Catholic communal history and may leave the reader ready to seek to learn even more about the amazing story she tells.







Sunday, June 28, 2020

More Than a Cup of Water


Had it not been for the pandemic, this would have been my last Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception. But then came COVID-19, and as a result I am still here – for another 6 months anyway.

Coming and going is, sadly, an occupational hazard of priestly life, particularly in religious communities. It is a hazard because, generally speaking, people are healthier and happier the more stable and less disrupted their lives are. 

Jesus was obviously a disruptor, intentionally so. Even so, he certainly understood that he was asking a lot of his apostles. Having himself as a child been a political refugee from Herod’s terror, Jesus would have directly experienced the stress of leaving home and facing an uncertain welcome elsewhere. So he softened his challenging call to embrace instability and disruption a bit by putting in a plug for hospitality. Whoever receives you receives me. … And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward [Matthew 10:37-42].

Jesus’ words reflected the high value in which hospitality and welcoming were held in his society, something also illustrated in our reading from the Book of Kings [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a]. The Shunemite woman gave Elisha more than a cup of cold water. She gave him dinner and a room! In this, she foreshadowed the generous women in the Gospels, like Martha and Mary, who offered hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, welcoming them into their home, serving ever since as models for the high spiritual value the Church has placed on reaching out and welcoming down through the centuries right up to our own time.

Inspired by Jesus’ own words in his parable about the Last Judgment, “I was a stranger and your welcomed me,” Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks famously prescribes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. Nor have hospitality and welcoming been confined to monasteries. When 17-year old Annie Moore crossed the threshold of the New World as the first immigrant to pass through the new Ellis Island immigration Facility on January 1, 1892, she was welcomed by, among others, Father Callahan of the Mission of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, who blessed her and gave her a silver coin, a symbolic expression of hospitality and welcome. Annie Moore’s story – along with the stories of so many others, among them my own grandparents and the parents and grandparents of so many of us assembled here today – ought especially to impress themselves on our consciousness, both as Catholics and as Americans. For we have always been a Church of migrants and strangers, in more ways than one. Migrants, strangers, and other marginalized communities have always been the face of our Church in this country – in our parishes and in our schools and in our other social ministries.

But, as we assemble today, as we do every Sunday, to profess our faith as migrants and strangers passing through this world en route to our final homeland, we have been forcefully reminded especially during this past month of our country’s complicated history, and of our many failures as a country, as a Church, and as individuals – what the US bishops already 20 years ago described as “failures of understanding and sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination that deny the unity of the human family, of which the one baptism is our enduring sign.” [Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity, USCCB, 2000]

As fallen and sinful human beings, we will always inevitably fall short of Jesus’ challenge to a new way of living, to a new way of being human together. But by baptism into Christ, we are no longer permitted to be strangers to one another, for we have been brought beyond the ordinary human limitations of family and race, and raised instead with Christ to live in newness of life, responding to one another and welcoming one another as we would never otherwise have known how to do or dared to have tried.

As Pope Francis said when he spoke to Congress in 2015: “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us give opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 28, 2020.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Reckoning with Woodrow Wilson

In a Saturday email to the members of the Princeton community, University President Christopher Eisgruber announced that, on his recommendation, the Princeton University Board of Trustees, which as recently as 2016 had voted to keep Woodrow Wilson's name on the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (photo) and Wilson College, has now voted to change the names of both those campus institutions. 

According to Eisgruber,  "the trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms." The Board thus altered the previously operative presumption "that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.” 

Taking an iconclastic approach toward the legacies of the past periods whose values were different is problematic at best and ultimately an impoverishment of civilization. I was certainly saddened when the Taliban blew up the pre-islamic 6th-century giant Bamyan Buddhas in 2001 and when ISIS destroyed to pre-Islamic ancient cultural treasures of Palmyra and Mosul. But that is not what we are talking about here. Rather we are considering the presently relevant legacy of a relatively recent historical figure whose beliefs and behavior have adversely affected the history of the past century.

Admittedly. unlike the infamous Confederate monuments erected explicitly to recall the "Lost Cause" and in support of "Jim Crow," Princeton's extravagant honors to its former President were well intentioned at the time and were hardly meant to celebrate slavery or segregation. Naming the School of Public and International Affairs after Wilson was likely an easy call in 1948 at a time when Wilsonian liberalism very much colored the academic and cultural establishment's take on American history and when invoking Wilson's famous dictum "Princeton in the Nation's Service" still resonated without complexity or controversy. Likewise, naming the University's first "residential college" after Wilson was a logical and appropriate acknowledgment of positive aspects of Wilson's efforts during his tenure as the university's president. As President Eisgruber noted, "Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism."

It is, moreover, only fair to acknowledge that "Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today -- including its research excellence and its preceptorial system -- were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership." While I have long been critical of Wilson's World War I intervention and its catastrophic effects on Europe, there is much of his legacy to Princeton that was and remains admirable. We are, after all, complicated creatures - all of us.

That said, still the darker aspects of Wilson's legacy cannot forever be ignored. As President Eisgruber wrote: "Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today."

It is that legacy of long-term harm - both in regard to race (and, I would add, in international relations) that challenges and ultimately undermines that old liberal establishmentarian consensus about Wilson's proper place in our history.

Nor was that consensus ever quite so unanimous as its adherents and promoters believed. 

In 1919 after King George V had met with Wilson at Buckingham Palace,  the king told an aide: “I could not bear him. An entirely cold academical professor – an odious man.”


Friday, June 26, 2020

What Will We Want from a Post-Pandemic World?

I drove to a local bookstore yesterday. All my life I have loved bookstores, and they have often been a place for me to go to pass a free hour or two. That may be a commentary on the overall lack of excitement in my life. Even so, wasting time in a bookstore is one of the things I have most missed these past few months. So, having heard that the store was open again, I made a brief visit, just for the sheer joy of having somewhere to go, even if I was too cowardly to browse any actual books or buy anything in the cafe. Perhaps next time!

What do I want from next time? As more and more of us emerge (rightly or, more likely, wrongly, given that the disease is actually on the increase in much of the country), as we emerge from physical and moral isolation, from physical and anti-social distancing, what will we look for? And how will we relate to one another from behind our masks?

Will it be back to business as usual? Surely, the suspension of society has revealed so many of our society's defects - surprisingly so, perhaps, but no less definitively. Surely, the intense sadness that has gripped our communities cries out for something different - not just for more of the same that has served us so poorly so far!

Clearly, the simple pleasures one took for granted until recently - browsing a bookstore, sharing a meal in a restaurant, visiting a friend - represent the tip of the iceberg of what we value and want from our world. Their absence has dug down deeply below the surface of such expectations.

What form might such expectations take today and tomorrow in a world that has had to learn to live without such simple pleasures? Both for better and for worse, what form will our fellowship take?  In what new ways will our heightened fragility strengthen or enfeeble us to express our shared humanity and care for our common home?



Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Relocating TR

In On the Concept of History, written at the end of his life by the German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, (1892-1940), he noted “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” If that is true of what we do in history, is it not also as true of us who make history? Certainly it was true in a demonstrable way of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), soldier, statesman, conservationist, and the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909), now in the news this week because of the decision to remove his monumental equestrian statue (photo) from the entrance to New York's famed Museum of Natural History.

I have walked past TR's statue many times over the years, without paying all that much attention to it, except perhaps being favorably reminded by it of his family's connection with the museum and of his own noteworthy role as an early environmentalist (or, as we would have said then, a conservationist). His great-great-grandson, Kermit Roosevelt III, who supports the statue's removal, seemed to me to strike the right balance. "That's a statue that people thought at the time was celebrating about him, but people's thinking at that time was very inflected by white supremacy. ... He wanted a society where what's best about our natural parks, our natural resources was shared widely and available to everyone and I think he should be remembered as an egalitarian and a conservationist."

I think Kermit got it just right. TR represented - embodied even - both what was best and what was worst about the Progressive Era in American politics, its morally advanced aspirations and its morally problematic prejudices. He himself embodied that ambivalence in his own personality - a stalwart supporter of progressive policies and advocate for economic and social justice, whose "cowboy" thinking about foreign relations was infected with an excessively aggressive appetite for ostentatious military conflict and with then widely shared racial prejudices.

TR's example ought to remind us of something which should be of no surprise to those who still believe in original sin - that good and evil impulses continually coexist in most of us and thus also in the societies and institutions we create. When reckoning with the legacy of monumental historical figures who have made a major impact on our society and need to be remembered, the honest thing to do and the most culturally constructive thing to do is to acknowledge both the good they did and aspired to do and the darker side of their legacy and that of their contemporaries - and not to allow either to cause us to forget or ignore the other.

Memorials to TR abound in this country - from his hometown New York City to Mount Rushmore. This particular monument, with its problematic images of other races, no longer serves a suitable social purpose and will properly be moved to some less ostentatious location and more socially sensitive context.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Law and the Culture War


One of the more memorable moments in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons is Saint Thomas More’s lecture to William Roper about the value of the law:  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?... Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Unfortunately, we have all long since become used to the notion of the law as just one more partisan weapon in our ongoing national culture war - an increasingly warranted notion given the way each side more and more approaches and uses the law that way. The judiciary itself has hardly helped, and the fact that so many of the more politically sensitive and culturally divisive issues are apparently decided by courts on obviously partisan lines has regularly reinforced this perception. So when such an issue is resolved and a decisive precedent is set by the Supreme Court in an at least apparently bi-partisan way, (as happened this week with Bostock v. Clayton) we need to take notice.

I will leave it to constitutional lawyers to parse the particulars of Justice Gorsuch's Opinion. For partisans on both sides of the argument, civil rights for gay and transgender people also involve moral assertions which are inevitably way beyond the capacity of any human court to resolve. The Court's capacity is much more finite - to figure out how we are to live together peaceably, precisely in a world where at least some of the underlying points at issue remain unresolvable politically. After all, if all Americans had been in agreement about the rights and wrongs of civil rights and racial equality when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, that legislation would hardly have been necessary. Its purpose was to establish a social policy, going forward, to treat citizens of different races (and other relevant categories) equally - regardless of whatever contrary beliefs (however strongly affirmed and conscientiously or religiously based) many citizens might continue to hold. The Court has now resolved a particular contemporary dispute about the interpretation of that law - interpreting the statue's reference to discrimination on the basis of sex as applicable to forms of sex-related discrimination not overtly at issue in 1964. The Court cannot adjudicate moral beliefs. It can, however, articulate a prudential decision that legal equality shall be the society's public policy. 

(From a democratic perspective it would likely be better - in this area as with so many other intensely contested issues - if Congress had resolved the matter legislatively, clarifying the application of the earlier statute on this issue one way or the other. As a practical matter, however, Congress has largely long since abandoned its constitutional role. As a result we are increasingly governed by the Executive branch, by statutory regulatory agencies, and by the Judiciary, as contemporary American society's de facto policy-makers.)

Both sides in this debate have been - and continue to be in their response to Bostock - intensely moralistic and uncompromising. This only highlights their mutual irreconcilability and makes harder the kind of political compromises that will be necessary in those areas where there will likely be clashes between competing rights, as in the inevitable clash between the statutory law on non-discrimination in hiring and firing and the constitutional rights of religious institutions in internal hiring and firing. 

I an old enough to remember when some religious institutions and authorities strenuously opposed divorce and fought against the liberalization of divorce laws - until that battle was decisively lost. One might still argue against the desirability of divorce on moral or other grounds and even organize one's own personal life accordingly. But no civil servant refuses to sign marriage licenses for divorced people who remarry.  Civil society's stance on marriage and divorce is what it is, however differently religious communities may regard the matter in their internal practices.

Civil laws in a pluralistic secular society are necessarily what they are. They do not resolve ultimate philosophical and theological questions of right and wrong, good and bad, but rather express some kind of consensus concerning practical policies about how people are entitled to be treated within a society.