Thursday, May 13, 2021

Ascension Thursday

Ascension Thursday, May 13, 2021.

One of the many joys of being back home in New York is celebrating The Ascension of the Lord on its proper day. The experience is embellished when one gets greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that, in the entire city, what we New Yorkers call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holy day. (Of course, I don't have a car and so don't park on the street. So "alternate side of the street parking" is not quite the existential issue it may be for some.)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] is said to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” Growing up, of course, what I remember most about the Ascension was that we got off from school! But, of course, we had to go to Mass in the morning, and at least some of us may have noticed and may still remember the wonderful ritual of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. (One of many powerful symbols and ceremonies since pointlessly deleted in the systematic ritual impoverishment of the Church's worship in the late 20th century.)

The point of that ancient ritual, of course, was not that Jesus is gone, but that he is now present to us in an alternative and very new way. But what exactly is that new way?

Historically speaking, Ascension commemorates the last of the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. After Easter, the Risen Jesus no longer walked around and spent time with his disciples the way he did before he died and rose. Rather, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading [Acts 1:1-11], what he did instead was to appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 daysspeaking about the kingdom of God. Then, he was taken up, and those appearances ceased. (Hence, the traditional practice of extinguishing the Paschal Candle, the visible symbol that recalls those appearances.)

But, if Jesus doesn’t walk around and live among us on earth as he did before, then where exactly is he? And in what way are we still connected with him? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we publicly profess every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father, where, as the letter to the Hebrews assures us he lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34]

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven (photo). The footprint and the idea that the pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may seem a bit fanciful, but it does make the important point that it is Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now in glory with God. So the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. And, in the Preface, the Church prays: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for.

Meanwhile, in this interval between Ascension and the end - a time full of problems and challenges of every sort, of seemingly apocalyptic crises and intractable conflicts in the world and politically inspired divisions even within the Church in our country, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries - in this interval between Ascension and the end, the Risen Lord remains with us though his gift of the Holy Spirit. The Church continues Christ's life and work in our world, by the mission and action of the Holy Spirit, whose "great work," wrote Servant of God Isaac Hecker in 1873, is the salvation, the sanctification of mankind upon earth and their glorification hereafter by means of the Church."

So, far from being absent, Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, is still very much present among us by the power of his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in the Church, through which we remain connected with him, so that, through us, he can continue his work of transforming our world. Again, as Pope Francis, has reminded us: “In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness” [Gaudete et Exsaltate (2018), 15]

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Holy See Signals "Stop"

Until this week, there was a widespread expectation that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their forthcoming June meeting might make some sort of pronouncement regarding our second Catholic President's right receive Holy Communion. Any such pronouncement would potentially have been problematic on several counts - not least because, according to Pope Saint John Paul II's 1998 Motu Propio "On the Theological and Juridical Authority of Episcopal Conferences" (Apostolos Suos, 24), a Bishops' Conference may not normally interfere in any individual Bishop's authority in his own diocese. And, however much support any such statement might have garnered within the USCCB, it would most certainly never have not been unanimous, which it would have had to be to be issued by the Conference with the kind of doctrinal authority, to which "the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops" (Apostolos Suos, 22). 

One would think that those limitations would have been sufficient to discourage what must seem to many to be a strange, manifestly partisan, dangerously divisive, and pointlessly quixotic effort, which would accomplish nothing in terms of eliminating the evil of abortion, while reinforcing the perception that this whole issue has increasingly become less about life and more about partisan political advocacy.

Now, however, a direct intervention from the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has seemingly signaled a further bright red light, signaling "Stop." The "red light" came in the form of a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the CDF, to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, current President of the USCCB. The text of the letter does not seem to be accessible as yet, but several sources (Crux, America, NCR) have reported on it.

As reported by the above sources, Ladaria's letter reiterates earlier guidance requiring two stages of dialogue - first, among the bishops themselves, then, between bishops and Catholic politicians in their jurisdictions - and warns that the "possible contentious nature" of a national policy might "become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United states." The letter also advises the U.S. Bishops "to dialogue with other episcopal conferences as this policy is formulated in order to learn from one another and to preserve unity in the universal church." Given that no other national episcopal conference is comparably preoccupied with this issue, it may seem fairly obvious what lessons might likely be learned from dialogue with others outside the U.S.

Ladaria's letter also advised that any statement on this subject "would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics [politicians], regarding their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel fo Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament." And it pointedly states "it would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest accountability on the part of Catholics."

Obviously, the debate is not about the Church's definitive teaching about abortion and euthanasia, about which there can be no legitimate dissent. Rather, the debate is about what practical political and legal approaches ("prudential judgments" in Church speak) may be most appropriate and effective in this particular pluralistic, non-confessional, secular society, in regard to which an authentic dialogue between religious and political leaders as recommended by the CDF letter would be most desirable. Indeed, a return to real dialogue about these moral, political, and legal issues among citizens in our society would be most desirable, in place of the current "culture war," tribal shouting match.

Meanwhile, within the Church, it remains the laity who are primarily responsible for political life and whatever degree of relative justice political life may at its best aspire to achieve. President Biden is not another Saint Louis IX. Nor, as president of a modern secular state, does he enjoy Louis IX's less saintly successors' authority within the Church. One of the features of the last century and more of Church history has been the progressive exclusion of lay public officials from roles of leadership and authority within the Church, thereby diminishing an entire dimension of lay representation and practical wisdom, which had been until relatively recently a taken-for-granted aspect of Catholic life. That said, Biden is certainly the most publicly prominent Catholic in this country - and (after the Pope) perhaps the most publicly prominent Catholic in the entire world. That prominence poses challenges, but it remains more an opportunity to be valued than a problem to be dismissed.

The first comparably prominent layman to exercise leadership and authority in the Church was, of course, Constantine. According to one wonderful legend, Constantine challenged the Novatian Acesius, asking why he separated himself from communion with the rest of the Church. Acesius said he objected to the Church's leniency in allowing certain Christians whom he considered sinners to participate in the sacraments. Constantine responded: Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone to heaven.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Unlocking the Cage

As more and more Americans get vaccinated, it is now clearly time - or at least very close to time - for most of us to start trying to live somewhat normally again (whatever "normal" might actually mean in a post-pandemic world). As someone who has not entered a restaurant since March 7, 2020, nor been to a movie theater, I need to hear that message as much as anyone. About 14 months ago, as the covid-19 pandemic spread uncontrollably and seemed poised either to kill us or totally take over the lives of those it didn't kill, we did the only thing we could. We responded by locking ourselves in a cage, guarded by distance, masks, and an abundant, obsessive-compulsive, overuse of hand sanitizer. That all made perfect sense at the time.

But that was then, and now is now. Thanks to the scientific miracle of highly effective vaccines developed with unprecedented speed, it is possible to stop the transmission of the virus - assuming, of course, people all get vaccinated. Sadly, many people around the world do not yet have that opportunity, and until they do the virus will to some extent remain a a real and permanent threat to all of humanity.  Sadly, too, there are many who now have the opportunity to get vaccinated but have not done so for political reasons. The only morally response to that is to require proof of vaccination - for schools, for example, much as has long been the case with regard to other vaccinations.

But, back to my problem. After 14 months, it has become easy to stay inside and not go anywhere. Too easy. And, all too often, the impression has sometimes been given that getting vaccinated makes little difference and that one should still maintain distance, wear a mask, etc. Of course, as long as there are unvaccinated people among us, some of those precautions may still make sense in certain settings. As long as I can't be confident that absolutely everyone on the bus has been fully vaccinated, I want the bus to require everyone to wear a mask. That makes sense.

But it also makes sense to start unlocking one's personal cage. Once you have been vaccinated and your family and friends as well, what then should you be doing? For sure, still wear a mask on the bus - for society's sake. But, as importantly, take that bus and go somewhere!

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Living Lies

“If a prerequisite for leading our conference is continuing to lie to our voters, then Liz [Cheney] is not the best fit,” according to Ohio Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the nine other Republican House members who, with Cheney, chose to acknowledge their Emperor's lack of clothes and accordingly voted to impeach President Trump in January. Clearly, lying is indeed now a prerequisite for whatever passes for "leadership" among the Trump personality-cult that is the contemporary opposition party. When Utah Republicans booed their Senator and 2012 presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, who as senator twice voted to convict Trump, they called him (of all absurd things) a "communist." Romney responded “aren’t you embarrassed?” Obviously, most Republicans are not.

Indeed, whatever one thinks of the "severely conservative" (as he called himself in 2012) Romney (of whom I am no more a fan than I am of Liz Cheney, neither of whom could I ever imagine voting for), he is obviously no "communist." Calling rival American politicians "communist" was always a bizarre and unprincipled tactic even in the worst years of the Cold War. Its evident absurdity three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union just exemplifies even further the  fantasy world which the Trump cult increasingly inhabits and its commitment to lies and more lies. One of the many ironies of our current crisis is that that Trump cult's organizational expression in the contemporary Republican party, in its sectarian character and its indifference to truth, increasingly rather resembles the only actual "communist" entity of any remaining significance still in existence, the Chinese Communist Party. And both seem to be devoted to Lenin's infamous call to employ "a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn toward those who disagree with us.”

The overused (and at times tiresome) terminological distinction between being both/and as opposed to either/or nonetheless has some real meaning and value in politics. A healthy, well balanced society needs both its left and right wings, both progressive advocacy and cautious conservatism. If the Left's political purpose is to push society forward towards a more just and equitable future, the Right's role is to steer society prudently according to the truth of human nature and the lessons of human history. Even if the United States somehow survives the Republican party's Trumpist abandonment of constitutional democratic norms of governance (a survival which is by no means a certainty at this stage), the absence of anything resembling a serious conservative opposition party has already decisively damaged American politics for a long time to come.

(Photo: The Emperor's New ClothesIllustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen's first illustrator.)

Friday, May 7, 2021

Making Sense of Mother's Day

A friend of mine once characterized Mother's Day as "a conspiracy of florists and greeting card companies." It is hard to disagree completely with that characterization; but, as with most such witticisms, it gets the story only partly right.

A more pointed critique would be that Mother's Day (and Father's Day and, for that matter, the way we obsessively "honor" our veterans) are all examples of our very American tendency to "honor" people in symbolic, virtue-signaling ways, which are completely contradicted by prevailing public policies. Somehow a society that falls all over itself to "honor" mothers every May manages to have the least pro-family, pro-mother, pro-child policies of any other comparably advanced society.

This disconnect may matter more than ever right now, when the Great Recession followed by a global Pandemic have highlighted the hopeless dysfunction and inequality in our society and the damage done in particular to children and families. And, speaking of children and families, have we not noticed that marriages are fewer, family-formation is down and our national birthrate is shockingly low (the lowest since 1979)?

So maybe Mother's Day might be reimagined as an occasion for actually thinking about (and eventually doing something about) this disastrous state of affairs. In which case, all the money spent to enrich those florists and greeting card companies might turn out to be well spent!