Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From Disgust to Humanity

For my birthday last week, someone gave me University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum’s book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press, 2010). My friend knows I used to be a political scientist, specializing in political theory; and so I guess he reasoned that this might interest me.
Nussbaum has written an advocacy book, but a reasonably balanced and readable one, which mainly makes its case in constitutional-law terms and is thus both very accessible to the ordinary reader and also very relevant to likely legal outcomes of contemporary controversies in our current “culture war.” Animating the author’s argument is her commitment to the individualistic philosophy of John Stuart Mill, specifically the idea that people should be free to choose their own conduct, so long as it does no harm to others. Identifying what constitutes “harm to others,” of course, can be problematic; hence, her use of the idea of “disgust.” People are offended by all sorts of things, some of which are directly offensive or even dangerous to others. These come under the legal concept of “nuisance” and are, Nussbaum recognizes, rightly regulated.
What she calls “projective disgust,” however, is often less a reaction to genuine danger than it is a vehicle for stigmatizing a group or category of persons by imaginatively associating them with primary objects of disgust. She illustrates how historically African-Americans in the United States, Jews in Nazi Germany, and Untouchables in India, for example, have been the objects of such emotions, and have been subordinated and demonized in consequence. She regards such “politics of disgust” as an unsuitable basis for lawmaking, and argues instead for a “politics of humanity” based on a principle of “equal respect” - the idea that all citizens are of equal worth and deserve equal dignity.

She applies this principle to law as it relates to sexual orientation. To illustrate this principle, however, (and it is that basic principle that I am really interested in here) she first examines the development of freedom of religion in Colonial America. She shows how policies of fair and equal treatment of different religions developed not because the religious beliefs of others were respected or valued in themselves or considered any less erroneous, but because other persons came to be respected as fellow citizens, whose dignity entitled their consciences to equal treatment.
Her point, of course, is that one can consistently consider the beliefs or behaviors of others as wrong or misguided and still recognize their personal dignity and their legal right to hold such beliefs and behave accordingly. One wonders, however, how effectively this principle can survive in a society in which a sort of political correctness increasingly tends to dominate public discourse inhibiting the honest articulation of disagreements on moral matters. It would have been helpful if Nussbaum had addressed this issue.

More significant, however, is her philosophical commitment to Millian individualism. She recognizes – with apparent regret - that the U.S. “is not a Millian nation,” and that “ideas of public morality still control a good deal of our legal thinking.” She links the appeal to disgust with “a solidaristic conception of society.” (Her negative take on solidarity reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s alleged comment that there is no such thing as “society.”) Thus, she frames the debate “about the sort of society we wish to have” in terms of “the age-old debate between the proponents of collectivism and proponents of important spheres of individual liberty.”
There is, of course, a very good case to be made for individual freedom – and indeed, I think, for the classical liberal argument that a good society is one which expands “certain rights of personal decision and association.” If anything, the ever increasing power of the modern state and its increasing involvement in so many aspects of ordinary life add additional weight to the case for protecting zones of individual liberty. The presenting question, it seems to me, is thus not between “collectivism” and “liberty” but between solidarity and liberty. Valuing solidarity requires us to retrieve the pre-liberal, classical insight that human beings are by nature social and can only thrive in relationship - and so to situate individual liberty within a more comprehensive understanding of human existence that recognizes and values a foundational network of bonds between persons and between persons and society. One of the functions, I think, of well functioning political arrangements and institutions should be to enable solidarity and liberty to complement each other in a mutually supportive relationship. For this to happen in our current context, however, we would somehow have to recharge our sadly diminished capacity for productive political deliberation and debate about what constitutes the common good.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chrism Mass

The annual Mass of the Chrism, celebrated by the local bishop in his cathedral, at which the three holy oils to be used in the celebration of the sacraments in the coming year are blessed and all the priests present publicly renew their commitment to priestly service, is ideally celebrated on Holy Thursday morning, but is commonly celebrated in many places today.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan is an especially splendid setting for such a celebration. Unlike some American cathedrals, it is large enough to assemble a realistic representation of the local Catholic community. Modeled on the great Gothic Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, it is very beautiful – obviously built to be a place of worship. It’s also a “People’s Church,” always full, a true house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).

At this Mass, as the rite requires, the Archbishop asks the priests “to renew your dedication to Christ as priests of his new covenant,” to sacrifice “your own pleasure and ambition to bring his peace and love to your brothers and sisters,” “to celebrate the Eucharist and the other liturgical services with sincere devotion,” and to teach "the Christian faith without thinking of your own profit, solely for the well-being of the people you were sent to serve.”

In recent years, it seems to have become a custom in New York for people to applaud the priests as they leave the Cathedral. Now I admit that I have never been much of a fan of applause in churches anyway, but I have always found this particular experience especially discomforting. Like all acts of kindness, compliments should, of course, be accepted in the spirit in which they are given. Gratitude would certainly seem to be the right response to the love and respect people so generously give their priests. And it is, after all, only human to like being liked and appreciated. Still, it is awkward to make such lofty promises - and then be publicly applauded for it!

Obviously, there are – always have been - especially talented, particularly personable priests who have really touched people’s lives and had a major positive impact on those around them. But what should one make of general applause for us all ? I think there is something deeper going on here – an insight so fundamentally Catholic that we may take it for granted. In their respect and love for their priests, people are not really focused so much on the talents and personalities of particular priests (important though those may be) but rather on the presence of the Risen Christ active among his people, a presence uniquely experienced in the sacramental life of the Church. Like the oil that is blessed on this occasion for use in the sacraments, we priests are ordinary stuff set apart to do an extraordinary job. And, as with the oil so with us priests, it is really the Risen Christ who is the principal actor.

So I guess the right response is to pray that I - and all priests - will become better supporting actors.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week

Counting forward from today, it is six days until Easter. I presume that is why today’s Gospel (John 12:1-11) originally got assigned to this day - because of the opening words, Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany.

It tells the familiar story of how Mary (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfumed oil. When Judas protested her extravagance, Jesus told Judas to leave Mary alone because she was doing it for him. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

To me, this has always been a great introduction to what we do as Church during Holy Week. The great ceremonies of Holy Week are, well, ceremonious. They are intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, over-the-top. They are, in short, extravagant - in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil, the Church pulls out all the stops this week. In this case, however, it is we who are the beneficiaries.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday

The Gospel proclaimed to begin the Palm Sunday procession recounts Jesus’ festive Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The rest of the story, what we call the “Passion,” proclaimed during the Mass which follows the procession, reveals the ultimate destination of that journey – to the cross & the tomb. We, of course, are the intended beneficiaries of this. It all happened, as we say every Sunday in the Creed, for us & for our salvation.

So it is no accident that the cross is the central symbol of Christianity, because the cross of Jesus is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows us where he is taking us.

In a world where suffering & death always seem to have the last word, the death of Jesus was God’s great act of solidarity with us in our ordinary day-to-day suffering & our ultimate mortality.
In itself, of course, there is not much to be said in favor of suffering. Nor can it be claimed (at least not without further qualification) that we are automatically “ennobled” somehow by suffering. One can easily live one’s entire life imprisoned alone in anger & pain - and then die that way. Jesus, however, gives us a counter-example, as every word he utters in his passion shows him reaching out to others – to the women of Jerusalem, to his executioners, to the convict being executed along with him – finally commending himself once and for all to his Father.
So this Holy Week we are invited to accompany Jesus to the cross and to the tomb
- to be consoled as were the women of Jerusalem,
- to be forgiven as were his executioners,
- to be remembered in his kingdom as was the dying criminal,
- and, finally, to be commended to his Father with whom he now lives,
- because, thanks to Jesus’ cross, death no longer has the last word in our world.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Day After

Well, I finally bought my train ticket. Every time I clicked on the senior discount, however, the price went up! Eventually, I called and was told that the price for the ticket which I was trying to purchase already counted as a discounted price. Hence, when I clicked on the senior discount, it reverted to full price! So, in the end, it was cheaper to buy the discounted advance ticket at the regular adult rate. So much for waiting!

Live and learn!

Isn’t that one of the things getting old is supposed to be about anyway?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Fiery Furnace

Yesterday’s Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel about the three Jews cast into the fiery furnace by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar is one of those memorable biblical stories, the grand drama of which may overshadow its complex and challenging message for believers in every age.
The story itself is straightforward enough. Having conquered Judea, King Nebuchadnezzar (presumably as part of an overall strategy for governing his multi-cultural kingdom) integrates some of his new subjects – "Israelites of royal blood and of the nobility, young men without any defect, handsome, intelligent and wise, quick to learn, and prudent in judgment" – into the kingdom’s administrative elite. Among these are Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael (their names Babylonianized as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago), who initially seem to thrive in their new role - until, one day, the king erects a golden statue (of himself?) and orders everyone in the kingdom to worship it. When it is reported that these three royal officials, despite their privileged position in society, refuse to conform, the king orders them thrown into a fiery furnace.
What one might miss amidst all this drama is, first of all, how successfully the three had served their king until then. To me, this reflects the desired state of affairs in a pluralistic society. Believers have a kind of “dual citizenship” – citizens of the kingdom of God, but also citizens of earthly kingdoms, which make legitimate claims upon them and which they in turn seek to participate in as fully and effectively as possible, engaging in all the normal activities that characterize social and political life. The crisis came about for the three men only when the king insisted on the state as the focus of everyone’s ultimate loyalty. This put them in a political dilemma that could be resolved morally in only one way.
The Book of Daniel is an “apocalyptic” book. Its point is to reassure its readers who are experiencing either the reality or the threat of religious persecution that (despite all present indications to the contrary) the future belongs to the just - for God will eventually vindicate his people. So it is no surprise when the three men survive their fiery ordeal. Indeed, “they walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord” - in a stirring song of praise which has for centuries been an integral part of the Church’s Morning Prayer on Sundays and feast days.
Again easily missed in all this drama is the stark answer the three give the king before being thrown into the furnace: “If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O King, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
Although the reader already knows that God will intervene miraculously to save his servants in this particular case, the reader also knows that that doesn’t necessarily happen every time. What the three themselves know is only that, whether it brings them success or failure, whatever the cost to whatever good they might otherwise accomplish by conforming, and even if it means giving up good and socially beneficial things - their privileged place at court, their place at the table in the implementation of public policy, and even in this extreme case their actual physical lives - they must still refuse to do the politically correct thing. Their only authentic and legitimate option is to stick with what they know to be unchangeably right.
A political philosophy of limited government can degenerate into an ideology of libertarianism or (in the American constitutional context, for example) an ideology of “states rights.” A balanced philosophy of limited government, however, concerns itself with the common good but recognizes that the State is not the source of ultimate moral value. It is precisely in this recognition – that the State cannot claim to be either the source of value or the arbiter of moral right and wrong – that freedom of religion functions not only for the benefit of individual believers and their religious, educational, and charitable institutions, but also for the larger moral benefit of the social and political community as a whole.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


For the past several years, I have found myself looking forward to Wednesday more than any other day of the week (except, of course, the Lord’s Day). Why? Well, every Wednesday morning, I have breakfast with a small group of friends in a local Manhattan diner. On any given Wednesday, the conversation can span a multitude of topics. We may talk about everything from how soon scrambled eggs should be eaten after they are cooked to the benefits of the new Health Care Reform legislation to the latest interesting (or not so interesting) thing that’s happened in our individual lives. But the point is not so much what we talk about but what we say to one another by being there.
In a world in which one can be reached - and can reach out in turn – by phone and email virtually 24 hours a day, it is still possible to feel alone and isolated much of the time. Aristotle’s astute observation that without friendship life would hardly be bearable is every bit as true now as it was some 23 centuries ago. (Despite all claims to the contrary, human nature and what makes for human well-being haven’t changed much, if at all).
So thanks for Wednesdays and to the good friends who make Wednesdays something to look forward to!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting There

Back in 1969, I celebrated my 21st birthday by registering to vote (which in those days one had to be 21 to do). This year, I expect to mark my 62nd birthday later this week by, for the first time, paying the senior rate for an Amtrak ticket!
In its own way each of these rituals marks a major milestone in life. Voting is the basic form of participation by adult citizens in our political process, and 21 was traditionally the recognized age of adulthood. Of course, achieving adulthood has always been much more of a process, marked by many moments and rituals – going away to college, getting one’s first real job, being drafted into the military, and getting married and starting a family. Likewise, becoming what our society calls a “senior citizen” similarly has several starting points, the principal one probably being turning 65 and qualifying for social security and Medicare. Some movie theaters, however, admit one at a senior rate already at age 60. (In a city, where $9.00 for a movie is considered a bargain, this is no small matter!)
Like becoming an adult, becoming a “senior” seems to be a process, marked by significant steps. Whereas the earlier process of becoming an "adult" was marked by increasing levels of responsibility, however, the process of becoming a “senior” seems to be characterized more by increasing entitlements. (Whether this arrangement is “just” and how beneficial it may actually be for society are important, if complex, questions, which certainly need to be addressed in our current society, but which I am not certainly not presently prepared to try to answer – at least not here, at least not today).
In any event, getting there - surviving to 62 – seems to me to be a big thing. After all, most people who have ever lived probably didn’t manage to make it this far. If nothing else, that seems like something one ought to be very grateful for. So, whatever else there may be to be said on the subject of getting older (and I think there is actually a lot of good stuff to be said about it), my first reaction to the experience is one of sheer overwhelming gratitude. It’s been a rocky ride at times, but it has been a great gift.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Another Homily

To try out this new blog, yesterday I posted a version of my homily for this morning's 8:00 Mass. Here is today's second homily - the one I gave at the 10:00 Mass for the 3rd Scrutiny of those preparing for baptism at Easter. (Posting was easier the second time. So I guess I am getting the hang of it!)
This 5th Sunday of Lent was formerly called “Passion Sunday.” It marks the traditional beginning of the final phase of Lent (with just 2 weeks to go till Easter), as the Church deliberately focuses our attention more & more on the climactic final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and the supreme significance of those events for each one of us today. The gospel we just heard recounts the final miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus & invite us to faith in him.
In John’s gospel, however, the raising of Lazarus also had – as a direct consequence – the authorities’ fateful decision to have Jesus executed. So life & death are mixed together in this story in more ways than one. The same event that is intended to suggest the new life that Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of Jesus’ enemies) in a decision for death.
It starts out as a story about the wonderful human friendship between Jesus & Lazarus. What starts out as a story about human friendhsip quickly becomes a story about a dramatic extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan & so serves also as a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ & his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.
Friendship (as Aristotle observed) is something without which life would hardly be bearable. The friendship of Jesus & Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha & Mary, who first sent him news of their brother’s fatal illness. Strangely, however, he initially ignored their message, thus setting the stage for a series of conversations, the most important & familiar of which was Jesus’ conversation with Martha, who started by seeming to scold Jesus (as perhaps only a good & true friends could) for his not having shown up in time.
It is no certainly accident that Jesus’ conversation with Martha was the Gospel reading traditionally read in the Roman liturgy at funerals.
No doubt we have all had the experience at a funeral or a wake of wanting to say something significant but ultimately having little more than the tried & true common expressions of conventional consolation – to answer the sad & anguished feelings that inevitably rise from broken hearts. Perhaps, that may have been how Jesus’ initial response sounded to Martha.
Listening in on their conversation today, we hear his one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, along with her matter-of-fact response, rather matter-of-factly ourselves. We forget that most people in the ancient world agreed that, whatever else might happen to people after they die, dead people definitely do not rise back to life from the dead. Among the Jews, however, there was one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – that held the rather distinct view that, whatever else may happen to people after they died, there would someday (presumably when the Messiah comes) be a general resurrection of the dead.
Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, hinted, however, ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha (nor anyone else) would have understood at the time, since no one was expecting the Messiah (or anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else. (For that matter, no one was really expecting the Messiah to die - let alone rise from the dead!)
We, however, read the story backwards, so to speak. We start from Easter, from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has already risen from the dead, & then we work backwards, understanding his death & his entire life in light of that.
Lazarus was brought out of his tomb to resume his ordinary life (& then to die again eventually). Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, & Lazarus himself emerged still bound hand & foot. In Jesus’ case, however, no one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is an altogether new & different kind of existence, the decisive defeat of death & the recreation of our dying old world.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed - & still poses – to all who see only the familiar world we now know. John’s gospel goes on to tell how the political elite decided, as a result of this event, not only to execute Jesus but to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus also. One is reminded of a scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, in which Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”
Martha’s invitation to Mary, the teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another – and to a world which so desperately needs to hear it, a world which seems increasingly at a loss about what in fact Christian faith actually professes.
What Christian faith affirms is not some pre-modern, mythological worldview in contrast to some supposedly scientific one – as if pre-modern people really didn’t understand that people die & once dead really do tend to stay that way. What Christian faith affirms is the hope – our hope – in a God who, rather than giving up on us, can create something new – in contrast to a worldview that refuses to allow for anything actually new.
After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many (we are told) believed in him, but others went to report him to those in authority. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which the raising of Lazarus was meant to be an advance hint, likewise challenges each one of us to respond – one way or the other.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The 5th Sunday of Lent

The story in this Sunday’s Gospel recalls scenes in certain places at the end of World War II, when mobs of people, just recently liberated from German occupation, took revenge on those who had collaborated with the enemy – for example, women who had gotten involved with German soldiers. As often happens in such situations, it seems safe to suggest that sometimes it was actually business rivalries and other old scores that were being settled in the guise of post-war revenge. From the way the event is described in the Gospel, Jesus was being asked to take a stand in a situation that seems more like a mob scene than the calm of a courtroom.
Moreover, the mob’s motives for trying to get Jesus involved are unclear & certainly seem suspect. It’s not even completely clear exactly what he was being asked to decide. The whole scene suggests that it was an attempt to trap Jesus in some way. Was the mob trying to get Jesus to render a judgment without first giving the accused the hearing the Law entitled her to? Things like that happen, of course, all too often in human relations, especially in our scandal-driven mass media. Had Jesus gone along with that, had he judged her case without the hearing that the Law entitled her to have, then presumably Jesus would have exposed himself in the process as something less than the prophet he was purported to be.
Of course, Jesus saw through all of this. Instead of playing the mob’s game, he himself cleverly took control of the situation – by silently writing on the ground with his finger. Sometimes one way to silence difficult people is to ignore them. What is more annoying to someone than your deliberately doing something else when he or she is demanding your undivided attention? Certainly, anyone who has ever been in the position of having to wait for someone else’s answer to one’s question or request, or who has ever been kept endlessly “on hold,” will recognize the power in Jesus’ reaction!
Then, when Jesus finally did say something, he totally turned the case completely around. The Law assigned the initiative in executing the sentence to the witnesses, but Jesus’ response forced them to judge themselves instead – in other words, to examine their own lives & their own hearts, to see themselves as God sees them. The result was quite dramatic, as they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.
Now it was the woman’s turn to wait, while her accusers slowly drifted away as Jesus continued to write on the ground. As St. Augustine later summarized the silent drama of the scene: only two were left, misery and mercy.
Finally, the silence ended. Jesus said to her: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Like last week’s wonderful parable of the father and his two sons, this story is a dramatic demonstration of God’s way of dealing with us – and of what God really wants and expects from us in return.
When we honestly examine ourselves without excuses or evasions, when we look directly into our own lives & the depths of our own hearts, and so begin to see ourselves as God sees us, as sinners truly forgiven & invited to reconciliation, the out of that overflowing experience of forgiveness received real reconciliation with one another becomes an authentic possibility – and, more than a possibility, an imperative.