Monday, October 31, 2011

All Saints Day

In November 1887, the founder of the Paullist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, wrote in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World: “When, in 1843, I first read in the Catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home.” The doctrine of the communion of saints had a decisive impact upon young Isaac Hecker’s spiritual search, leading him into the Catholic Church a year later.

The communion of saints unites past and present, permeates the Church’s worship, and punctuates the Church’s calendar with so many feasts and memorials of saints, culminating today in this great annual celebration in honor of all the saints. All Saints Day celebrates in particular that part of the communion of saints known as the “Church Triumphant” – not just the thousands of saints officially recognized as such by the Church, but all the holy men and women, known and unknown, who have attained the goal for which we all aim. Living now for ever with God and praising him for ever in heaven, the saints – that great multitude from every nation, race, people, and tongue of whom we heard in today’s 1st reading [Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14] – helps us by interceding on our behalf, uniting their prayers with ours.

The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just today but in every Mass everyday, signifies our union, as the still struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror that heavenly community of angels and saints – and so transform the world according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.

Deliberately celebrated on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued relationship with them – a communion which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us not only with the saints already in heaven but with all who have gone before us with the sign of faith.

Homily for All Saints Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 31-November 1, 2011.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Should I Vote?

There are, broadly speaking, two normative theories about voting. There is the classical view that only those with a certain stake in society should be the ones who vote. Historically, this theory has been the basis for age and property qualifications, for example. An alternative “modern” view favors as broad a suffrage as possible, and that is the view that became dominant in the 20th century in most democratic societies. In the U.S., the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (1920) guaranteed women the right to vote; the 23rd Amendment (1961) allowed DC residents to vote for President; the 24th Amendment (1964) outlawed the poll tax; the 26th Amendment (1971) extended the right to vote to 18-year olds; and the Voting Rights Act (1965) finally enforced the15th Amendment (1870) guaranteeing the right to vote to descendants of former slaves. Even so, younger people and poorer people still tend to vote less than older and more affluent citizens - suggesting that the old norm connecting voting with an actual stake in society is still somewhat operative, although no longer at the normative but now only on the behavioral level.

Low voter turnout is, of course, endemic in American elections and is generally an occasion for considerable hand-wringing and lamentation. Those who lament our low-voter turnout seem to combine a “classical” concern with the moral and communitarian value of political participation with a “modern” desire to maximize such participation. A lot of us certainly were brought up to think of voting as a sort of civic obligation. Rarely does one’s individual vote make the decisive difference, after all. And nowadays most districts are “safe” districts for one party or another; and, even in hotly contested presidential elections, I’ve usually had little doubt who would win my state’s electoral votes, with or without my vote. For me voting, while certainly an important way to express my personal political preferences, has always been primarily a privileged civic ritual, which signifies a connection with and participation in the larger society, both national and local. Hence my reservations, which I expressed here last year at this time about “early voting,” which seems to reduce voting to something like a convenience-store transaction, by realigning what should be a communitarian civic ritual with people’s indiviudal timetables rather than a common civic calendar.

As it happens, I will be out of town on Election Day. So, to vote at all, I must either have filed for an absentee ballot (a somewhat cumbersome process) or (much more conveniently) have voted early. So, to exercise my franchise, I must already have decided not just whom to vote for but whether to vote at all.

Whether to vote at all? That’s not a question I was brought up to ask myself. Apart from the years when I was serving in Canada, I have generally been faithful to the participatory ideology that holds up voting as a civic obligation, regardless of whether one’s vote is likely to “matter.” But I didn’t vote in this year’s city primary. (I wasn’t alone in that apparently. The turnout was incredibly low). The fact is that I just didn’t know enough to make any kind of meaningful choice among the various candidates. Traditionally, that was one of the functions of political parties and why one voted for a political party (which presumably stood for something one agreed with or promised benefits one wanted) and not primarily for an individual (about whom one typically knew next to nothing). There may still be an argument for voting that way (by party loyalty), although parties admittedly are not what they used to be. In any event, what happens when party identification is not highlighted in elections – as is often the case in certain “nonpartisan” local elections?

There remain, it seems to me, two compelling arguments for voting - even in local elections where, generally speaking, one has so much less information to base one’s vote on. The first is simply that voting keeps one in the habit of voting, whereas not voting breaks the habit and so contributes over time to even more progressive disengagement from civic life – a problem increasingly endemic in our society (and particuarly problematic among “emerging adults”). The fact that many non-voters are less rooted and engaged in society may in fact make them poorer voters, more susceptible to the fads of the moment, Voting may not necessarily cure them of that, but non-voting certainy won’t and may instead deepen their disengagement. A second argument for voting is that today’s typical non-voters really do have a serious stake in society, inasmuch as so much of our present predicament is rooted in public policies that have been redistributing wealth from the poorer to the richer and from the younger to the older. It may be fun to fulminate in Zucotti Park, but it is a poor substitute for serious engagment in the real political process. (And, of all people, those Baby Boomers who are waxing so nostalgically for the 60s right now, should really know better from our generation’s own experience!). The fact is that disengagement from the real poltiical process always increases the effective power of those who already have plenty of power (perhaps too much of it).

"You Have But One Master"

When I was a graduate student, getting my doctorate in political philosophy, more years ago than I care to remember, dinner most days was in the Graduate College Dining Hall, a grand Gothic structure dominated by a stained glass window featuring the “Seven Liberal Arts,” beneath which was inscribed a quote from today’s Gospel [Matthew 23:1-12], Nec vocemini magistri, sed magister vester unus es Christus (“Do not be called teachers, for your one teacher is Christ”). I remember, even then, thinking that rather odd in a grad school setting, since most of those eating there fully expected to end up as university professors somewhere.

In the almost 4 decades since, I have had the privilege of answering to two of the titles treated by Jesus as problematic in today’s gospel – first, as a teacher in a university and then as a priest, on whom Catholic tradition bestows the honorable and affectionate title of “Father.” (I just celebrated my 16th ordination anniversary two days ago – the feast of the Apostle Jude, the same St. Jude so commonly invoked as the patron of hopeless cases and lost causes).

Today’s gospel gives us some of what are sometimes called Jesus’ “hard sayings,” in which Jesus challenges us when we would rather be affirmed and draws a line in the sand when we would rather he were more inclusive. In today’s gospel, he harshly criticizes the behavior of the scribes and the Pharisees (whose authority he tells us to respect, but whose behavior we are not to imitate).

In 1st-century Israel, the scribes (some of whom were also Pharisees) were legal experts. The Pharisees themselves were pious laypeople trying to live lives of faithful observance of both the written law and the oral traditions that surrounded and were intended to protect it. In Jesus’ time, they were just one of several significant Jewish factions.

Later, however, after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, they would emerge as the dominant element, that would eventually evolve into what we have since come to call “rabbinic” or “orthodox” Judaism. In the memory of Jesus’ occasional quarrels with the scribes and the Pharisees, the early Christians no doubt saw their own conflict (as a breakaway Jewish group) with the new Jewish establishment that opposed the early Church. Hence the gospels’ recurrent emphasis on stories that portray Jesus in conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees.

In the process, the scribes and the Pharisees became kind of anti-models of what was expected of disciples. Jesus’ words were addressed to all his disciples – not just to those destined for positions of authority and leadership. But it is an easy leap to treat the scribes and the Pharisees as anti-models for how leaders in particular are to behave.

Certainly the prophet Malachi’s outburst against Israel’s priests in today’s 1st reading [Malachi 1:14b – 2:2b, 8-10] rather reinforces such an interpretation. If nothing else, it shows that criticism is one of the constants of human society. We live in an age right now in which it is exceptionally challenging to be any kind of public figure. The media love to build people up and then tear them down – particularly presidents and presidential candidates, but not just them.

Often, of course, we criticize our leaders as a way of excusing ourselves.

Thus we criticize politicians as if we weren’t the ones who had elected them! Church life is also – all too often – a fractious arena of rancorous factional bickering. In a world where everyone is a critic, laypeople complain about their priests, and priests complain about their bishops – much too much, of course, and (as often as not) as a way of excusing ourselves for our own failings. Perhaps, it was ever thus. The early Church certainly saw its share of factional in-fighting. Maybe they highlighted these sayings of Jesus in the gospel precisely in the hope that its hearers would take Jesus’ words more to heart in their own cases.

Still, being accountable goes with the territory – as it should. Back in the 4th century, St. Augustine famously said: “With you I am a Christian; for you I am a bishop.” All of us are accountable – individually and collectively – for how we live our lives and what kind of disciples we are. Those of us in positions of leadership are also accountable in a special way to and for those we have been appointed to lead.

But the fundamental focus of Jesus’ challenge to his disciples in the gospel is that it’s ultimately not about us. It’s about God, our one Father in heaven and our one teacher and one master, Jesus Christ, who has made it possible for the word of God to be, as St. Paul [1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13] said, at work in us now – even in spite of ourselves.

Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 30, 2011.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

125 Years

One day, more than 25 years ago, when we were both in seminary, my best friend was teasing me about something or other. Having provoked me sufficiently, he then tried to run away. Being a good seminarian, he ran right into the chapel, where he claimed sanctuary. When I caught him there, he said: “I’m safe here. We’re in a church!”
What is a church? Churches are special places – very special places. From the earliest human history, people have set apart special places for worship. In virtually every civilization, temples and shrines of various sorts have been among the major public buildings – and typically the most beautiful.
Today we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the dedication, on September 19, 1886, of our own “Church on Summit Hill,” Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.
It is no accident that one and the same name, “church,” is used for both the people who continue Christ’s presence in the world and the place where we assemble to experience his presence most directly, by proclaiming his word and celebrating his sacraments.
When we celebrate the dedication of a church, we celebrate a place, a very special and sacred place unlike any other. We also celebrate a parish, the people this sacred place represents and to whom it means so much. And we celebrate a relationship, the relationship that binds a parish together across space and time. Our unity across space and time as Christ’s Church in the world in turn fosters our future hope for both space and time when the church reaches its final perfection in the heavenly temple.
On the anniversary of the dedication of a church, the community, whose church it is, prays: We thank you now for this house of prayer in which you bless your family as we come to you on pilgrimage. Here you reveal your presence by sacramental signs, and make us one with you through the unseen bond of grace. Here you build your temple of precious stones, and bring the Church to its full stature as the body of Christ throughout the world.
We remember with gratitude today those faithful 19th century Catholics who decided to build a church here on this particular hill to meet the needs of the growing Catholic community in Knoxville. We give thanks for everything that has happened in this beautiful building – for Christian lives begun at its font, fed from its altar, and commended to God from its door, for 125 years of Masses and confessions, of first communions, confirmations, and weddings, of preaching and teaching, of silent prayer and lighted candles. We pray that this sacred space may long continue to witness to God’s presence and action in our world, here in Downtown Knoxville, sanctifying the lives and labors of all who live or work of visit within site of its steeple.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


One of the recurrent sillinesses of our current political shouting match (in which everyone shouts as shrilly as possible, and no one really listens to anyone else) is the recurrent use of the term “ObamaCare” to refer to the health care reform proposed by President Obama and enacted into law by Congress a couple of years ago ("The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" of 2009). By analogy, the equally silly term “RomneyCare” is used to refer to the health care reform enacted in Massachusetts in 2006 during the governorship of Mitt Romney.
Reminiscent of the silly Republican custom of referring to the opposition as the “Democrat” party (instead of the Democratic party), “Obamacare” is obviously yet another example of the nearly universal tendency to resort to name-calling and sloganeering as an alternative to intelligent discussion and debate. But it is really even more than that. What it is also is a (so far fairly successful) attempt to obfuscate the bi-partisan background of President Obama’s healthcare plan – in particular, its most controversial element, the individual insurance mandate.
The legal controversy over the constitutionality of the mandate will presumably be resolved by the Supreme Court sooner or later – and probably sooner rather than later. My knowledge of constitutional law is too limited for me to anticipate the outcome of that case. This appears to be new constitutional terrain. Thus the Court will likely (to keep the analogy) break new constitutional ground when it finally rules. Philosophically, on issues on which the constitution provides no particular answer, I tend to favor judicial deference to the democratic branches of government. (The point of the constitution, after all, was to create a government that can actually govern, that is, solve the pressing problems confronting the country). Pragmatically, there is also a very good practical reason for the Court to follow this course. If the Act is declared unconstitutional, then the number of uninsured will likely continue to grow as health-care costs continue to increase. The result eventually (in politics, eventually need not be that far off) will be another outcry for health-care reform. Absent an individual mandate, it is hard to imagine how the problem can be resolved primarily through private insurance. Forbidding an individual mandate might paradoxically make some form of single-payer, public plan (“socialized medicine”) that much more likely.
It was to avoid that outcome (so unpalatable in our American political culture) that the individual mandate was adopted. Recall that candidate Obama opposed the individual mandate when it was proposed by candidate Clinton. The idea of the individual mandate, however, goes back much farther than the 2008 Clinton campaign.
It goes back at least as far as 1989, when it was advocated by thinkers at the conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation’s 1991 "Responsible National Health Insurance" plan incorporated the idea, which was also endorsed by another influential conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute in 1992. During the debate occasioned by the Clinton Administration’s 1993 health care plan, some congressional Republicans introduced a proposal requiring the purchase of insurance coverage for emergency care. At the time it was seen for what it really is - a "free-market" alternative to a single-payer plan.
For this reason, despite his earlier campaign opposition to the individual insurance mandate, President Obama eventually accepted and incorporated the idea in his plan as the only realistic way to keep private insurance affordable for all.
So, whatever the substantive merits or demerits of "ObamaCare," calling it “ObamaCare” is more than just immature silliness. It represents a real effort to rewrite the history of how we got to where we are – something which is always deplorable and dangerous.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Non-Judgmentalism and Its Discontents

In the course of the last decade, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team of researchers conducted a study of 18-23 year old young adults in the United States, including in-depth interviews with some 230 of these “emerging adults.” One result is Smith’s well written – and rather challenging (to the adult world) – new book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011).
The concept of “emerging adulthood” refers to a completely new stage in the life cycle in late 20th-century America. The book identifies six “macrosocial changes” in particular that have combined to produce this: growth in higher education, delay in the age of marriage, economic developments which have undermined previous patterns of stable, lifelong careers, increased parental financial and other support for their children well into their 20s, the widespread availability and use of birth control, and the widespread influence of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories resulting in “a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individualistic subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism.”
The result is what the authors call the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. They look at five problematic areas of young adult life: “Morality Adrift,” “Captive to Consumerism,” Intoxication’s ‘Fake Feeling of Happiness’,” “the Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation,” and “Civic and Political Disengagement.”
The first chapter, “Morality Adrift,” really tells the essential story (amplified in the remaining chapters by specifics about the four specific dysfunctions related to consumerism, intoxication, sex, and civic disengagement. It will hardly surprise anyone who has observed the moral evolution of American society in recent decades that emerging adults overwhelming embrace a highly individualistic approach to morality, understood as essentially a matter of individual opinion and personal choice, precluding any moral judgments of others’ behavior. Even those with somewhat serious views about the moral wrongness of others’ actions tend to believe they should keep such views to themselves. Not all are total moral relativists, of course, but what emerges is the widespread weakness of moral reasoning about moral decision-making and what constitutes a morally coherent life, rooted presumably in poor moral education. Many simply “do not have a good handle on what makes something a moral issue or what the specifically moral dimensions of such situations are.” The blame for this, the authors argue, resides in the adult world, where those responsible for socializing today’s youth have failed to teach them.
The pernicious consequences of our non-judgmentalist culture’s de facto elimination of moral reasoning are everywhere in evidence – not least in emerging adults’ relationship with our consumer society (of which the particular problems related to alcohol, drugs, and sex may be, in effect, special examples). The authors conclude “that many emerging adult lives are complex, fraught with difficulty, and often beset with big problems, serious confusions, and misplaced values and devotions.” Besides “a lack of elementary reasoning abilities for sorting out basic moral questions,” some of the problems stem from “sexual involvements that do not turn out they way emerging adults had been led to expect” – an implicit reference, possibly, to the ideology that underlies so much modern sex-education. Other problems have to do with “the significant role of intoxication,” a role related to “stress, anxiety, boredom, and temporary relief,” and to emerging adults’ detachment from community life and politics, reflecting their “despair about the prospects for change and a grim outlook for the future.” The authors see “extremely shallow notions of what a good life could be, in which mass consumerism and material possessions define an extremely limited horizon of vision.” American individualism has successfully liberated emerging adults “from the formative influences and obligations of town, church, extended family, and conventional morality,” in the process exposing them “to the more powerful influences and manipulations of mass consumer capitalism.”
Inasmuch as the contemporary phenomenon of emerging adulthood is all about postponing the real adult world of obligations and accountability, some of this might not seem so surprising. Still the authors warn against the easy temptation to dismiss some of this as merely youthful behavior, as if the social situation of emerging adults today were the same as that of your people in the past – even the relatively recent baby-boomer past.
The authors conclude that “our own adult world is itself also failing in those same ways” and that what we adults are teaching our youth “too often fails to convey what any good society needs to pass on to its children.”
It seems to me to be an obvious follow-up question how churches and other religious institutions, in particular, have been complicit in this. The authors stress the desirability of emerging adults having “relational ties to mature adults outside of their age group,” in contrast to the widespread disconnect emerging adults experience from more mature adults. They specifically suggest that religious communities can play a part here. Indeed, many emerging adults were engaged in religious communities earlier in life; but, whereas many religious congregations devote significant resources to children and teens, they “seem to passively accept that their ties to youth will be lost after the high school years.” The plea for deep engagement with emerging adults on the part of churches is certainly well taken, despite the obvious difficulties and however much it may challenge business as usual.
I wonder, however, how well equipped religious communities and congregations actually are to do this - without in the process taking emerging adult culture as the frame of reference in the hope of keeping (or even just getting) emerging adults’ attention? It is one thing to recognize the historical novelty and perhaps even uniqueness of emerging adulthood. It's quite another thing - itself a fallacy in moral reasoning - to infer that the truth of what constitutes a good life has fundamentally changed. How well equipped are contemporary religious communities and congregations to offer a viable alternative to moral relativism, consumerism, and individualism – even at the risk of being perceived as challenging? How captive may many religious communities and congregations themselves appear to be to non-judgmentalist individualism? And may that have been all too much of what today’s emerging adults may themselves have picked up from their fleeting childhood experience of religion?

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Permanent and Burning Enthusiasm"

Tonight we kick off the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Dedication of the present Immaculate Conception Church in Downtown Knoxville, TN, with a Parish Mission preached by one of the Paulist Fathers' renowned misison preachers.
Parish Missions have been an important part of Paulist ministry from the very beginning – in fact from before the beginning. In the 18th century, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1896-1787) founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) with an emphasis on preaching missions to revitalize religious practice. From 1726 to 1752, St. Alphonsus personally preached missions throughout the region of Naples for the greater part of each year giving missions even in the smallest villages. A special feature of his method was the return of the missionaries, after an interval of some months to consolidate their work by what was called the "renewal of a mission." As a young Redemptorist priest, Isaac Hecker was sent back to the US in 1851 as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band. The missionaries conducted 14 parish missions their first season. The first - at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village in New York City – was the first-ever English language mission in the United States. Seven years later, the newly founded Paulist Fathers pledged “to carry on the missions in the spirit of St. Alphonsus.”
Parish missions were intended as a type of parish renewal experience, which sought to elevate the spiritual life of the faithful and reconcile back to the sacraments those who had lapsed or become alienated – and thus contribute to what Hecker, in a letter to Orestes Brownson, called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country.” One consequence of that, Hecker believed, would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. “The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker wrote to Brownson in 1851, “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.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

God and Caesar

Just 40 years ago this week, the then Shah of Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire with a visit to the tomb of King Cyrus near Persepolis. That’s the same Cyrus to whom the prophet refers, in this Sunday’s 1st reading [Isaiah 45:1, 4-6], as the Lord’s anointed, whose right hand the Lord grasps. In the ancient world, apparently one way a god conferred royal authority on a king was by grasping his hand. Thus, Cyrus was seen as receiving royal legitimacy from the God of Israel, just like David, the preeminent model of an anointed king in Israel’s history. What’s so striking about this, of course is that Cyrus was a Persian – a pagan – and yet reigned apparently as God’s anointed. Some 5½ centuries later, pagan rule was again a reality in Israel. Hence the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians in this Sunday’s Gospel [Matthew 22:15-21]: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
My high school math teacher was especially fond of this story. He used to use it to illustrate the attempt to create a “perfect dichotomy” – a case in which there are exactly two (and only two) mutually exclusive possibilities. The motivation behind the question is evident from the fact that this was an ad hoc alliance between the Pharisees, who generally tied to keep maximum distance from the ruling Romans, and the Herodians, who were, in effect, collaborators with the Romans. The Gospel tells us they were trying to entrap Jesus in speech – trying to make him come down on one side or the other and get himself in trouble, whichever way he answered.
Like political candidates today, who are experts in how not to answer the question they are being asked and instead answer the one they want to answer, Jesus cleverly circumvented the either/or of this supposedly perfect dichotomy. It was Jesus’ cleverness in doing this that so impressed my math teacher, as it has impressed people for centuries every since.
Well, as a witty way out of a trap, Jesus’ response was superb. But if instead we consider the question itself as an honest dilemma deserving an honest answer, then what do we make of Jesus’ clever retort, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?
Modern western liberal democratic societies tend to take the individual as the starting point for discussion. The issue then becomes the basis for and the extent of one’s obligations to society. The idea that paying taxes to support the common good, for example, (or compulsory military service such as we used to have, to take another example) are essentially infringements upon one’s individual rights reflects this individualistic modern starting point. Reconciling individual freedom with social and political obligations was not the central issue, however, in this encounter between Jesus and his opponents - nor would it probably have made much sense as a way of framing the issue, either to their contemporaries or to most people in most societies. The underlying issue was rather the relationship between two comprehensive (and potentially competing) sets of loyalties – loyalties to two comprehensive (and potentially competing) communities.
Whatever ambivalence the Pharisees may have felt about the Roman Empire, the early Christians by and large appreciated the benefits of Roman rule. More than once, the New testament instructed them to obey the law and honor the Emperor, insisting that one’s religious obligations to God, while absolute in themselves, do not cancel out one’s membership in civil society and one’s consequent obligations to its defender, the State [Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17].
Within the Church, Christians were, of course, expected to resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, not taking their disputes to secular courts, for example. But that didn’t mean that the State should not use its courts, its police, its army, as needed to provide peace, security, and some reasonable measure of justice for society as a whole.
Of course, everything got much more complicated when all of a sudden (and somewhat unexpectedly) the Emperor became a Christian and Christians began to exercise serious political power at all levels of society. Whether as public officials or as ordinary citizens, who vote, pay taxes, and affect public policy in any number of ways, we enjoy the peace, security, and justice that civil society makes possible, from which derive corresponding obligations. It’s interesting in this regard that the Catechism [2239] says that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude.” After all, Jesus did say “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Civilization doesn’t come free. Nor does our faith allow us any excuse to act as if it did.
As for “what belongs to God,” the long list of the Church’s martyrs testifies to God’s uncompromisingly absolute claim on our consciences – in the face of any and all competing secular claims. There exists a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. Some things are simply wrong – always and everywhere. No society, whether ancient or modern, whether dictatorial or democratic, whether rigidly united or wildly pluralistic, no society can make something right which is intrinsically wrong. And no one, who takes his or her citizenship in God’s kingdom seriously, may collaborate in promoting as right what is in fact intrinsically wrong.
Within what legitimately “belongs to Caesar,” however, within civil society’s legitimate sphere of action and responsibility, it is more often than not a matter of trying to approximate what will work best in specific circumstances. The ordinary dynamics of politics and economics have not been repealed by the Gospel, which does not provide us with a formula for which policies will produce a more prosperous economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. What the Gospel does give us is a new outlook on life, within which we may see some of those things in a new way. When it comes to practical questions of economic policy or foreign policy, for example, we have to figure these things out, as best we can whether as citizens or as statesmen or both, by using the best human knowledge we have – always aware that, because we are human and our human wisdom is limited, we may make mistakes, and also that, when it comes to making such practical policy judgments, reasonable, morally sincere people, applying the same general principles, may well come to different but comparably compelling conclusions.
Jesus first asked his questioners to show him the coin. Then, taking into account all that the coin signified, Jesus challenged his hearers – challenges us - to live as loyal and committed citizens in the world and simultaneously as faithful citizens in the kingdom of God, our dual citizenship shaped by the interconnected demands of a faith that is inevitably public and never something purely private.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Who Shall Wear St. Edward's Crown?

Not being British - or Canadian or Australian or any of the other nationalities directly affected by this issue - I obviously have no personal stake in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to change from a cognatic to an agnatic order of succession to the throne and to amend the 1701 Act of Settlement to allow the sovereign to marry a Roman Catholic. What any foreign country chooses to do with its constitution is rightly its business and in principle none of mine. That said, as a sometime political scientist with an appreciation for the continuity of political institutions and their role in the continuity of cultures, I can’t resist commenting.
As for the proposed changes themselves, admittedly they seem harmless in the abstract. In the real world, however, constitutional tinkering tends to have unintended or unforeseen side-effects. Also such exercises often serve as substitutes for serious public policy aimed at more pressing but somewhat more intractable actual problems. All of which warrants a certain “hermeneutic of suspicion” whenever constitutional change of any kind is proposed in any country.
In the 16th century, St. Thomas More accepted martyrdom because he opposed both King Henry VIII’s attempt to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine and its principal public policy consequence – the Act of Supremacy by which the King and Parliament usurped power over the Church. St. Thomas did, however, accept that Parliament could legislatively alter the succession to the throne. There can be no question that the laws of succession (like all political constitutions) are human contrivances which can legitimately be changed whenever circumstances warrant. In my own lifetime, Sweden and Belgium changed from male-only succession to “agnatic primogeniture,” that is, an order of succession based exclusively on birth-order without respect to sex. Hence, Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria, rather than her younger brother, will inherit the crown when her father, King Carl Gustav, dies. Even earlier in my lifetime, Denmark changed from male-only succession to “cognatic primogeniture,” that is, an order of succession in which both men and women can succeed to the throne but brothers have precedence over their sisters – the system that has long been in place in such kingdoms as Britain and Spain. Perhaps Prime Minister Cameron’s proposal reflects post-modern sentimentality – a desire to be on “the right side of history.” Even so, in societies where gender equality is now accepted as the norm, it may seem reasonable to apply the same principle to royalty.
The same might be said for allowing royal marriages to Catholics - although one wonders whether what this really reflects is actually the diminished importance of religion. A few years ago, when the current Crown Prince of the Netherlands married an Argentinian Catholic, she was expected to embrace the Protestant faith with which the Dutch Royal Family is historically identified. Likewise, when the Danish Crown Prince married an Australian Anglican, she became Danish Lutheran. The current Queen of Spain was born a Greek princess, but converted from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism before marrying Catholic Spain’s current king (much as her mother, a German princess, had converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy to marry the future Greek King Paul). In counties which have an Established Church or even just a strong historical-cultural association with a particular Church, it has always been seen as reasonable to expect their royalty to reflect that. So I suspect that that what this really reflects is the increased irrelevance of religion in post-modern Western societies - and hence its perceived irrelevance in relation to royal consorts.
The principal problem with these proposals, however, is not in the theory but the possible political and social costs of putting them into practice. The British Crown is unique in that its wearer is king or queen of some 16 sovereign states, all of whom must agree on any change. Thanks to the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the royal succession cannot be altered in any individual Commonwealth monarchy except with the consent of all the other states involved. (It gets even worse. The Canadian constitution, if I recall correctly, requires unanimous agreement of all the provinces to make any change in the order of succession.) In other words, the process itself invites political mischief by disgruntled obstructionists within some – or even only one – of those 16 states.
This has happened before. In the 1936 Abdication Crisis, replacing Edward VIII with his brother George VI required agreement among the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The political mischief took place in Dublin, as Ireland took advantage of the crisis to pass something called the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, effectively diminishing the monarchical character of the Irish constitution.
In theory, the proposed changes are reasonable, sensible, and even desirable. But what contentious constitutional cans of worms would this process open up?
And aren’t there many much more pressing problems right now that all countries need to be attending to and expending their limited political capital on?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Elections Do Have Consequences

Perhaps it was little more than just another thowaway line in the new (and very good) political-campaign movie, The Ides of March - the observation that modern Americans seem disposed to choose relaitvleu inexperienced candidates over the more experienced, e.g., Kennedy over Nixon in 1960, Carter over Ford in 1980, George W. Bush over Gove in 2000. To these one could easliy add Clinton over George H. W. Bush in 1992, and Obama over McCain in 2008. The case is actually renedered even stronger when one considers how in each instance the relatively inexperienced future President had also beaten more experienced rivals for his party's nomination - beginning with JFK's primary and convention victories over Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson in 1960 and right up to Barack Obama's win over the obviously more experienced and manifestly more qualified Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Interestingly, all these examples occurred in the Democratic Party. One would have to go back to Wendell Wilkie in 1940 to find something comparable among the Republicans. (Of course, McCain was the more experienced and qualified candidate for the 2000 Republican nomination. In our officially republican but unofficially actually quite aristocratic and monarchical politics, however, George W. Bush qualified by being the heir apparent of a previously reigning political dynasty.) The much remarked current malaise among Republicans right now in part stems from the dissatisfaciton of some in that party with the implications for this election of their tradition of choosing the more experienced (or at least longest standing) candidate as their nominee. But that is another discussion.

What all this does seemt o confirm, however, is the long-standing problematic of politics in an Americna society that seems to distruct politics (which then translates in to the even more serious problematic of government in a a country with a certain antipathy to being governed). This has long been institutionally evident in such constitutional anomalies as initiative/referendum/recall politics (whihc have helped make California, for example, so ungovernable) and the more recent craze for term limits (whihc will make states and localities less and less governable - unless they are lucky enough to have apopular and powerful Mayor who can brazenly create an exception for himself as happened in NYC just a couple of years ago).

As Americna society settles into a pattern of prolonged decline and the need for serious politics and energetic government correspondingly increases, we seem to persist in seeking solution which will only further trivialize our politics and so diminish our abilty to govern ourselves wisely and well.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Postmodern Liberal State vs. Religion

Both by intellectual conviction and by emotional inclination, I remain a Hamiltonian believer in government – in a strong activist government. I have no libertarian tendencies, I and have no fondness for claims of states’ rights. None of that is blinding me, however, to the problematic aspirations of the postmodern liberal state (which Hamilton, of course, could never have envisioned) and in particular to its heightened hostility to religion (which would, of course, have horrified Hamilton). That is why Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Opportunity Commission, argued yesterday before the Supreme Court, could prove to be such a critical case.
The case concerns a teacher at a Lutheran school. In 2004, she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, for which she received treatment. After a semester, she wanted to return to work, but the school hired a replacement. In response, the teacher threatened to sue the school for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Filing a lawsuit, however, would violate the church’s policy that conflicts be resolved internally, and so she was fired. (I’m guessing that this internal conflict resolution policy is that Church’s commendable attempt to remain faithful to the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, where he strenuously opposed Christians suing one another in pagan courts).
The Equal Opportunity Commission contends that she was illegally fired in retaliation for filing a discrimination lawsuit. The school invokes the legal doctrine of “ministerial exception,” which bars such lawsuits so as to prevent secular judges from interfering in a religious institution’s mission. The extent of the concept of ministerial exception’s applicability to non-ordained church employees seems somewhat murky. Hence the potentially precedent-making character of this case.
During oral argument, Justice Elena Kagan asked the government’s attorney if the 1st Amendment entitled the church to hire and fire employees without government interference. The Assistant Solicitor General replied, “We don’t see that line of church autonomy principles in the religion clause jurisprudence as such” – a response Justice Kagan characterized as “amazing.” When Chief Justice Roberts asked if the Administration recognized anything special in the fact that this case dealt with a religious organization, the government’s attorney answered that it made no difference whether it was a religious group or a labor group or other association – a response Justice Scalia called “extraordinary.”
When Justice Breyer asked how the government differentiated this case from that of a woman who might sue the Roman Catholic Church for gender discrimination for ordaining only men to the priesthood, the answer was “The government’s general interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace is simply not sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests, based on gender roles that are rooted in religious doctrine.”
Does that mean that this over-reaching government might someday decide that its “interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace” had suddenly become “sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests”? No wonder the Christian Science Monitor has characterized the Administration’s argument as embracing “a line of analysis that would have virtually eliminated the ministerial exception.”
Fifty years ago, churches were among the major supporters of the Civil Rights movement. In the intervening decades, however, the culture has changed dramatically; and the concept of illegal discrimination has long since metastasized into something much more extensive and ominous – an additional weapon in the secularized cultural elite’s arsena,l abetting the postmodern liberal state’s increasingly totalitarian aspirations. It’s obvious that all authentic churches and religious institutions in the United States have a strong interest in the outcome of this case.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

No Excuses

Recent events have keenly focused our attention on the fragility of our national and global economies. As we survey the shambles of a system that not that long ago seemed so strong and sound, we may more easily appreciate the Prophet Isaiah’s description of the vineyard that had so dramatically failed to produce its expected crop of grapes [Isaiah 5:1-7]. Just as we, in our society, seek explanations for the things that have gone wrong, likewise the Prophet Isaiah was not just seeking but providing an explanation for the disasters that Israel was facing. In that case, of course, there was no ambiguity about why things were going so badly in Israel. The vineyard in Isaiah’s song represented God’s People who, in spite of all God had done for them, had failed in fidelity.
Centuries later, Jesus used the same image of the vineyard to challenge his hearers regarding their own behavior by judging the way those whose task it was to harvest the vineyard either did or didn’t live up to their responsibilities [Matthew 21:33-43].
When vintage time drew near, the landowner in the parable, naturally sought to collect his share of the harvest and so sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. Now, as is always the case in conflict situations, both ancient and modern, how we hear and interpret the facts depends in large part upon whom we identify with in the story. Once could, for example, identify with the tenants, constructing an interpretation in which right is on the side of the "oppressed" peasants. If one sides with the tenants, of course, then one will make excuses for their failure to fulfill their contractual obligations to the landowner – just as all of us at times try to make excuses for failing to fulfill our obligations, whatever they might be.
Yet, even though this particular parable does not begin with the typical introduction, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” it is pretty obvious, nonetheless, that we are intended to hear and interpret it in continuity with Isaiah’s vineyard song. In other words, we are intended to hear and interpret it from the standpoint of the landowner, who is obviously the parable’s stand-in for God.
In thus structuring the story so that the tenants have no excuse, Jesus has set it up so that neither can we claim any excuse for our own personal irresponsibility. Historically, of course, Jesus addressed this parable to the chief priests and elders of the people, with whom he was in conflict. Through them, however, he is now addressing this parable to all of us, for whom it should be obvious who is being referred to, when the landowner sends his son. Hence his question (What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?) is addressed as much to us, as it was in the first instance, to the chief priests and elders of the people. And, like them, we all know the obvious answer, even before we hear them say it.
This, of course, is what conversion challenges us to do – to look at ourselves and at our relationship with God without excuses, from God’s point of view. When we do that, then we necessarily have to re-evaluate everything – just as the stone that the builders rejected was re-evaluated in order to become the cornerstone. And then we will become a new kind of tenant – a people that will produce fruit.
Now that’s actually meant to be good news. In other words, there is a solution to the basic human predicament. We can get right again with God (and with one another). Unfortunately for those in the parable’s original audience whose failure to respond positively to Jesus provided the historical basis for the parable, what’s meant to be good news for the world may have sounded like bad news for them. The challenge of the parable is to recognize the incredible opportunity God has given us in sending us his Son – a life-transforming opportunity to change our ways as tenants in God’s vineyard and get on board as full citizens of his kingdom.

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 2, 2011.