Friday, February 28, 2014

Competing Claims in a Morally Conflicted Society

Growing up in the 1950s and early 60s, we were strictly enjoined not to offer any kind of congratulations or to give a gift or to attend as a wedding guest at an invalid marriage - e.g., the second marriage of a divorced person. I think that was well understood, as was the reasoning behind it. But I don't ever recall a case of anyone in the pubic business of providing wedding services refusing to do so on the grounds that a particular marriage was invalid. Nor did I ever hear of those who held public offices which involved issuing marriage licenses or performing civil weddings refusing to do so when the marriages in question involved someone with a still-living divorced spouse. Nor did I ever hear any ecclesiastical prohibition of such persons performing their public duties. A clear distinction, widely and apparently comprehensible to all, seems to have been made between personally participating in an invalid marriage and engaging in ordinary public or commercial activities that related to invalid marriages which were nonetheless legal in civil law.

Then came the "Public Accommodations" provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which responded to the very real problem in certain parts of the United States of businesses refusing to serve African-Americans. I remember a family acquaintance who was very uncomfortable with the idea of being compelled to socialize with someone of another race. Yet she was equally adamant that, if one were in any kind of public business, then, of course, all customers had to be served regardless of race. Undoubtedly, there were people in 1964 who had genuine religious objections to, say, serving all comers at an integrated lunch counter. But, in the balancing act which has historically characterized the negotiation among competing personal rights and constitutional claims, the country in 1964 resolved that balance in favor of public access for all. 

Most of the time the negotiation balancing competing rights and constitutional claims can be resolved in a common-sense way. For example, Quakers need not serve in the military and the Amish need not be forced to attend school beyond a certain age. On the hand, an Amish market that sells its vegetables to all customers willing to pay may not refuse to sell to someone because he or she will serve the food in an institution of higher education. This is the kind of common-sense negotiation among competing rights and constitutional claims that has worked most of the time in American history. Again, I recall the example of the devout Catholic notary or justice of the peace who routinely issues marriage licenses or performs civil weddings for divorced people with spouses still living.

Not all situations are equally neat or lend themselves to clear adjudication. Undoubtedly, there will always be some borderline issues, where the line seems somewhat uncertain between actively participating in actions one believes to be immoral and merely engaging in ordinary public or commercial activities the beneficiaries of which may happen to be engaging in actions one believes to be immoral. There will always be some such tensions, and the negotiating among competing rights and constitutional claims can on occasion become complicated. How the adjudication of competing rights will be resolved will likely vary  in such cases - depending on the nature of the issue, on the intensity of the moral claims being invoked on both sides, and on the degree of burden a resolution will likely impose. And there may on occasion be situations in which one party may not be morally able to accept society's solutions, thereby putting him or herself in a position of disobedience. But no one should have any illusions about the cost to all concerned when things reach such an extreme, in particular the erosion of the social fabric that results. If anyone does doubt it, all he or she needs to do is consult the history of the past several decades.

In a world decisively conditioned by the European religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) famously insisted that those with fundamentally conflicting religious beliefs could not live in peace with one another. Modern, constitutional, democratic societies have rejected Rousseau's claim. Experience (especially American experience) suggests that it really is possible for societies to survive (and even thrive) in which different individuals and groups adhere to deeply held different beliefs about right and wrong and advance at times competing claims of personal rights. That experience also affirms, however, that for this to happen it is necessary for the society to respect the competing claims of rights of both parties, balancing them with a common commitment to making such a society actually work, with the adjudications and adjustments that that inevitably entails. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

After the Ball

In the next to the last episode of season 4 of Downton Abbey, Dame Maggie Smith, the indefatigable Dowager Countess of Grantham, added to her seemingly endless supply of wise and witty bon mots with one of her best this one addressed. to the luckless Edith: All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one, then the next, and the next, until at last we die.. Why don't you get us an ice cream? Not a bad take on life in general - and not a bad summation of Downton Abbey's season 4, in which the characters coped with sundry problems of varying degrees of seriousness and managed to make do.

In the finale, the enigmatic Mr. Bates helps the Crawleys save Britain and the Empire from a royal scandal, thus preserving the Prince of Wales to self-destruct in a real scandal (and constitutional crisis) some 13 years later. As a result, HRH came to Rose's Coming Out Ball, thus elevating her to one of the star debutante's of the 1923 London season. Meanwhile, Mr. Bates' critical role in saving the Prince's reputation from the scurrilous foreign (i.e., American) press solidified the family's loyalty to him - just in time to avoid any unpleasantness about whether he did or didn't have a hand in the evil Mr. Green's demise. This unimaginative quasi-rerun of Bates' earlier false accusation of murder in season 2 was, to my mind, tedious at best. At worst  it took the attention away from Anna, whose personal reaction to and recovery from her trauma would have been a more interesting focus, as would have been a look at how the family and/or the Law would have addressed her situation. Instead the attention was shifted to her long-suffering but somewhat mysterious husband. And, really, no character should be accused of murder twice in the same series!

The other, less than imaginative, quasi-rerun is the leitmotif of whether Mary will marry and whom - her "desire of suitors" as they were called in an earlier episode, "Mary's men" as they were less elegantly termed in the season finale. The gentlemanly contest between Tony and Charles, each of whom as far as one can tell would make Mary a suitable consort, continues (presumably) into next season. The only interesting thing about that reprise of Mary before marriage to Matthew is how she relates to Charles as a presumptively middle class critic of her aristocratic way of life - only to learn in the season finale that he is heir to an Irish peerage and will probably end up better situated than Lord Gillingham.

Another somewhat tired theme that the series can't seem to shake is Tom's susceptibility to somewhat demanding, strong-willed women. Of course, such was Sybill, but she was an earl's daughter. These others (the latest being the tiresomely pushy Sarah Bunting) are, on the other hand, of his own class. They constantly cause him embarrassment and make him second-guess his changed relationship to the family, who are - as the Dowager Countess reminds him at the Ball - his people now.

Edith, on the other hand, continues to amaze. She seems determined to make her life work for her. And one cannot fail to be impressed. Let's hope she will continue to amaze in the fifth season!

The over-arching thematic of aristocratic family life in a time of (downward) transition is what the series is supposedly ultimately all about. The problem, of course, is that by itself that is not very interesting, since we all know that story already and who won in the end. It is only made interesting by inviting the audience to empathize with and identify with the aristocratic characters - thus forcing the audience to reconsider the politically correct narrative that sees "progress" in the decline of the old ways. The self-consciously "modern" Martha Levinson's constantly repeated contrast of herself as the future versus the Dowager Countess as the past only highlights how one wealthy, privileged elite immersed in traditional relationships has been replaced by another wealthy privileged elite unmoored from traditional relationships. The Levinsons (mother and son) are apparently meant to represent the triumph of capitalist calculation over traditional sentiment - the monetary demystification of what Marx's Communist Manifesto famously called "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" and the family's "sentimental veil."

Those old ways of "feudal relations" and the family's "sentimental veil were, of course, conspicuously ritualized in the ceremony of the debutantes' being presented at Court, portrayed in all its charm (and absurdity) in the season finale. On the one hand, the ritualistic formality of the event is impressive and suggests an ordered stable world. On the other hand, however, that world is sadly giving way - what with titled aristocrats' pathetic efforts to marry new money and the heir to the throne's refusal to do as expected of him (i.e., marry properly). Frankly, watching the scene I found it hard not to feel some sympathy for King George and Queen Mary forced to sit there and be curtsied to by a long line of frivolous young women with no better purpose in their lives. It is no wonder that the present occupant of King George's throne, already over half a century ago, abolished debutantes' presentations in favor of other events with a more interesting and diverse guest-list!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reading The City of God

In the ancient pagan Roman calendar, today (February 23) was the festival of Terminalia – a feast in honor of the god Terminus, who unsurprisingly served the god of boundaries. I confess to perpetual perplexity when it comes to the ancient Roman calendar and the confusing way in which the Romans measured days and months before Julius Caesar somewhat reformed such matters with the introduction of the Julian calendar in 46 B.C. In that strange Roman way of counting dates backwards, February 23 was (at least in non-leap years) the 7th day before the Kalends of March, which in the earlier period may have correspond to the end of the old year and beginning of a new one. (Whatever quibbles one might entertain about this or that aspect of the reformed liturgy’s stripped-down calendar, its definitive abandonment of nones, ides, and kalends merits my fullest approbation and most enthusiastic applause!)

It would appear that the Romans, like most people both before and since, marked the boundaries between properties. The ancient Romans being as we well know an extremely religious people, they treated such markers as the image of the god of boundaries and honored said images with decorations and sacrifices on this day. When the great Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (on which Washington, DC’s marble General Post Office was modeled) was being built, existing religious shrines had to be moved from the site – just as at the turn of the 20th century ancient ruins and medieval buildings on that site had to give way for the construction of modern secular Italy’s Victor Emmanuel Monument. But Terminus supposedly refused permission to move his shrine, and so Jupiter’s great Temple had to be built around it. The Romans being not only very religious but also experts at interpreting their religious stories in a politically favorable way, they took Terminus’ stubborn refusal to move as a positive omen of the city’s stability.

I’m mindful of all this because, since early January, I have been reading Saint Augustine’s The City of God (along with many others who are part of a “City of God Reading Group” on Facebook that is reading the classic a few chapters at a time intending to finish next December). One of the problems with interesting modern people in reading The City of God (besides its length) is the tedious treatment of Roman religion and Roman history that dominates the early books. In his determination to exonerate Christianity of the charge of harming the Roman state, Augustine argues in seemingly unending detail that the pagan Roman gods had over the centuries that they were supposedly in charge themselves failed to protect the Romans from wars, civil wars, and other comparable calamities.

To us, of course, this all sounds like Augustine tiresomely beating a dead horse. But, of course, in his time this was still a real issue. Augustine had grown up in a world in which classical paganism was still s serious alternative to Christianity (as were philosophies like Neo-Platonism and post-classical new religions like Manichaeism). Indeed, Augustine’s life and career can be said to span the terminus between the classical Roman world and the medieval Christian world, in which (apart from the incursions of Islam, which conquered Augustine’s own North Africa and made successful inroads into Western Europe until the 8th century) Christianity would enjoy hegemony until the onset of modernity.  So one of the many reasons I believe for Augustine’s perennial relevance is precisely that he does not take the case for Christianity as essentially settled – as his great medieval disciples and successors would. Since we too cannot presume to present Christianity’s case as settled in this secular post-modern world, Augustine should be able to speak to us with heightened relevance.

Even in strictly secular terms, Augustine raises important issues that remain especially relevant today. There is, for example, his perennially telling question: “Why must an empire be deprived of peace, in order that it may be great?”  Using the analogy of the human body, Augustine argues, “it is surely better to be of moderate size, and to be healthy, than to reach the immense stature of a giant at the cost of unending disorders – not to rest when that stature is reached, but to be troubled with greater disorders with the increasing size of the limbs” (III, 10).  Later, Augustine asks: “Is it reasonable, is it sensible, to boast of the extent and grandeur of empire , when you cannot show that men live din happiness, as they passed their lives amid the horrors of war, amid the shedding of men’s blood – whether the blood enemies or fellow-citizens – under the shadow of fear and amid the terror of ruthless ambition?”  (IV, 3).

Are these not still important questions – still pressing as we prepare to mark the centennial of the beginning of one of the most bloody and destructive centuries in human history? 

And doesn’t Augustine’s famous de-mystification of Roman imperial rule – “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? (IV, 4) – still rightly haunt us today? 

Are our modern and post-modern substitutes for truly divine justice any more secure guarantors than the shrine of Terminus turned out to be for the ancient Romans? 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

To Peter's Chair

After almost a year in office, Pope Francis has managed to maintain the media’s interest. Of course, much of the coverage reflects considerable ignorance of basic facts about the Church and the papacy (perceived through the prism of secular political categories) combined with a predictable emphasis on some fairly ephemeral things. Still, good publicity is better than bad – and better than being ignored. If a pope has the right skills, he can put popularity and celebrity to good use, utilizing for the Church’s purposes the stage the media seems willing to give him. 

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the annual liturgical celebration of the primacy of Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome. In 2012, I was privileged to celebrate this feast in Rome itself, assisting at the Papal Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on the occasion of consistory at which Pope Benedict XVI created a number of new cardinals. I was among the priests at the foot of the papal Altar - just yards away from the Pope himself - and who distributed Holy Communion to the throng filling the basilica. It was one of the genuine high points of my study-time in Rome.

This year, I am celebrating the feast much more modestly – the regular Saturday morning 8:30 Mass in the parish. Pope Francis, however, has had a busy week of meetings earlier in the week with his special 8-man Cardinals’ Council and then later with the full College of Cardinals. And today he celebrates his first Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals. Nineteen prelates (18 of whom will be present at Saint Peter’s) are to be elevated to the Sacred College. At the Consistory, each new cardinal will receive his red biretta and ring and be assigned his titular church in Rome. A consistory is a joyful celebration of a far-flung and diverse Church's unity and universality, personified in the Pope, which is why this feast is such a fitting day for a consistory.

In a sermon on the anniversary of his own election as Pope, Saint Leo the Great (who reigned as pope from 440 to 461) paraphrased Jesus' words to Peter that we hear in today's Gospel (Matthew 16:13-19) thus: As I am the invulnerable rock ... the foundation beside which there can be laid no other, so you too are a rock, in my strength made hard, and I share with you the powers which are proper to me. ... Upon this strength, I will construct an eternal temple; and my Church, which is to rise to the height of heaven, shall be founded on the firmness of this faith.

Every church building - built and dedicated exclusively for its one and unique purpose - is an image for the Church, God's People who are both the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. What better symbol is there of the Universal Church in all its diversity unified through time and space by Peter and its successors than the great temple that stands on the Vatican Hill built upon the tomb of Peter, the shrine of his profession of faith? It is indeed Christ's Church, rising to the height of heaven, founded on the firmness of Peter's faith

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Belgium on the Cutting Edge of the Culture of Death

"What's Wrong with Belgium?" asks Tracey Rowland in a recent post in Crisis Magazine. (Actually, there is a lot that's wrong with Belgium, a society deeply divided between its French and Flemish speaking populations.) Roland's response is that Belgium's "Catholic culture has been trashed by a couple of generations of intellectuals at war with their own heritage."

Well, the same could be said, of course, for much of contemporary Europe, its Christian heritage having been increasingly marginalized in both Protestant and Catholic countries. Belgium (fittingly the headquarters of the strongly secularist and democratically deficient EU) stands out only for being  one of the leaders in pushing the moral and cultural envelope in once-Christian Europe. The latest example is new legislation allowing the euthanasia of children. (Belgium has already allowed euthanasia for adults since 2002, and euthanasia is also legal in its neighbors, The Netherlands and Luxembourg).

The proposed legislation seems to have widespread support in Belgium (75% according to one calculation). If so, that speaks volumes about the transformation of Belgium and its neighbors since World War II. Curiously, some opponents are pinning their hopes on Belgium's King Philippe (b. 1960), who acceded to the throne last July on the abdication of his 79-year old father King Albert II. The speculation is whether Philippe might follow the example of his saintly uncle, King Baudouin, who in April 1990 famously refused to sign a law legalizing abortion. (On the other hand, nothing comparable occurred in 2002 when Belgium's current euthanasia law reached King Albert's desk.)

Baudouin's cousin, Italy's last king, Umberto II, was once asked by a British journalist why his father, King Victor Emmanuel III, had signed the declaration of war against Britain and France in 1940, knowing full well Italy's woeful military unpreparedness. Supposedly, Umberto said something to the effect that in the modern world a king must do what everyone wants him to do. The actual facts in that particular case may or may not support Umberto's answer. It is far from certain that the war was all that popular in Italy even in 1940. It is possible that the King (who could still count on the loyalty of the military) might have been able to act differently - as he did three years later when he finally removed Mussolini from office. Be that as it may, the principle certainly still stands. A modern constitutional monarch may exercise all sorts of political influence, but in the final analysis he cannot veto a law enacted by the democratically elected legislature.

In 1990, Belgian politicians produced a clever constitutional compromise. Having heard officially from the King that he could not act against his conscience and sign the law, the Government declared the King temporarily incapacitated. Acting as a collective regency, the ministers all together signed the bill into law. Then, the next day, the King's incapacity came to an end, and Baudouin resumed his reign.

But that was 1990 - a generation ago. There was much more tolerance for conscience and religious liberty then than there is now in society and especially among governing elites. In 1990, the Brave New World of the Culture of Death was still new and still controversial. Today it is more and more the norm in the moral wreckage of increasingly post-Christian societies.

Also, in 1990, after almost 40 years on the Belgian throne, King Baudouin was personally quite popular, and the monarchy more valued as one of the few institutions holding the fragmenting country together. Many who might have disagreed with the King about abortion were willing nonetheless to respect his sincerity. Many also probably felt some sympathy for the King, whose strong personal commitment to children could be seen through the painful prism of his childless marriage. (Queen Fabiola had been pregnant 5 times and had miscarried 5 times.)

But the situation is certainly very different today, when anti-Christian ideology is increasingly in the driver's seat.

King Baudouin's action was admirable as a conscientious public profession. It deserves to be considered as an act of heroic sanctity in the event he should be seriously considered for canonization. But it made no difference in terms of the actual political outcome. And it raised (and raises) significant questions from a political and constitutional standpoint. Referencing Baudouin's action in 2005, when the Spanish Cortes was debating the legalization of same-sex marriage (an unrelated, but comparably controversial issue), the Catholic King of increasingly post-Christian Spain famously said, "Soy el Rey de España y no el de Bélgica" ("I am the King of Spain, not of Belgium").  

It is important to recall that the official acts of a monarch are not primarily his personal moral choices or the personal moral choices of an elected politician, but the actions of the Crown. Belgium has a multitude of problems, particularly political problems caused by politicians. The supra-political, constitutional character of the office of King is, on the other hand, one of the country's few remaining assets. Undermining the monarchy will not appreciably aid the pro-life cause, and it could well further strengthen its already stronger opponents.

Defenders of the human rights of the sick and of life in general have a lot of work to do to transform societies that have embraced an alternative path. But the internal moral transformation of post-modern secular societies will require powerful personal persuasion and will not be accomplished by purely symbolic gestures, however courageous or admirable.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Complaining About the Weather

Why do people complain about the weather? Or even talk about it as much as we all do? I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that the weather is so completely out of our control. We talk about it as if doing so compensated for its hegemonic power over us (so contrary to our contemporary culture of autonomy and choice). And we complain about it because it's so safe to do so. The weather is nobody's fault, after all. Still, it can get a bit tiresome, especially when it plays to some semi-official elite consensus about how we should feel about the weather.
Lately, I have been hearing lots and lots of complaining about the winter weather. To which, my instinctive response (albeit often unexpressed) is that, well, it is winter. and, if you don't like winter, well, spring will be here soon. That's what seasons do. They come and go, more or less in order and on schedule.
Of course, when I examine my conscience, then I too must admit to being guilty of the same offense - every summer. By the beginning of September, if not before, I am invariably so sick, tired, and fed-up with hot weather, and I am ready to say so to anyone who will listen. So I am certainly no better than those who get on my nerves for complaining there has been too much snow or that it has been too cold!
To be fair, there has been a lot of snow this year, which has caused considerable inconvenience - the more so to the extent that our society likes to operate on the assumption that nature doesn't exist or at least has no impact on our lives and so can't quite grasp the concept that winter is not really the right season to be doing a lot of travelling. And kids really do belong in school, and they have had far too much time off from school for their own - and society's - good. But these are the difficulties that naturally accompany weather. Every season has its inconveniences. For example, my first spring in Knoxville was significantly complicated by some serious hail storms that damaged the church's roof, not to mention my car, and that caused the cancellation of a day-long staff planning meeting, and also forced me to spend a night sleeping on the floor at Dulles Airport!

The remedy? There is none. Extreme weather (exacerbated and increased by climate change) is here to stay. The seasons will continue to come and go in order, each with its own challenges and inconveniences. And, of course, we will all continue to complain!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

To Fulfill Our Mission

Strong words! Serious words! Jesus’ message on that mountaintop in Galilee [Matthew 5:17-37] was meant to challenge – and continues to challenge – not just you and me, but a whole way of life, that of his 1st-century contemporaries, our way of life today. You may have heard something different, Jesus says, but I say to you! On the other hand, Jesus also assures us that his message is not something totally new. I have not come to abolish, he says, but to fulfill. In doing so, Jesus invites us also to fulfill our mission in life. Remember his words from last Sunday, of which today’s gospel is a continuation, commanding us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to our natural human tendency to do the minimum, to take the short cut, to focus on ourselves. In the new kingdom, to which Jesus is inviting us, anger and insults and contempt are as out of place as murder and must give way to the tough tasks of reconciliation and forgiveness. Obviously, anger and insults and contempt do less damage externally than murder does, but they still say something about what I am like inside, about what  is going on in my heart. Jesus challenges us to confront the powerful subtlety of sin within ourselves and out seemingly infinite capacity to makes excuses and do the minimum, to take the moral shortcut to mediocrity. And, as the little parable about the gift at the altar illustrates, nothing can compensate for closing ourselves off from others, for staying focused on ourselves.
Jesus in today’s Gospel is telling all of us that, if we want to respond effectively to his challenge to full Christian commitment, then we have to look at ourselves – at all our feelings and emotions and experiences – in the light of what God has made us for and how he expects us to get there, and then stretch ourselves by accepting the Lord’s invitation to full membership in the community of his disciples, who care for and support one another to be – not just what we can be- but what God himself is enabling us to become.
That is at the heart of what life in the Church is all about. No one of us is perfect, and we don’t get there on our own, but we can advance together as a community within which we care for and support one another, helping one another to do more than the minimum and in the process spreading the kingdom’s frontiers farther and farther into the world beyond us.
Today is the 3rd Sunday before Lent, and that means it is time to speak about this year’s Bishop’s Appeal. Abruptly put that way, it sounds like a change of subject. But it is not really. Doing our part, both individually and as a parish community to support the mission of the Church has always been part of what it means to be part of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles and letters of Saint Paul, there are a number of clear references to the collection Paul was taking up to support the Mother Church in Jerusalem [Acts 11:29-30; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Galatians 2:10]. In doing so, Saint Paul was trying to accomplish two things. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were in real need, and Paul wanted his somewhat better-off Gentile Christian converts to help them out. But he also wanted the different local communities to understand that they were all part of one Church, all on the same journey together. As I said earlier, we don’t get there on our own. We advance together as a community within which we care for and support one another, helping one another to do more than the minimum and in the process spreading the kingdom’s frontiers farther and farther into the world beyond us.
Our parish is where we experience Church most closely, most directly, most intimately, and that is why we all love our parish and support it in so many ways, not just financial. But our parish is one part of our local Church in East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville, which is in turn one part of a Universal church with a world-wide mission. To advance the Church's mission, we all have to pull together as a local Church, as a diocese, to make possible the things the Church needs to do – the absolutely essential work of Catholic Charities, for example, which responds to so many human needs in our communities. Another is the formation of future priests and deacons - necessary if the mission of the Church is to continue into the future. So this is not just some “special collection.” This is at the heart of being who we are and doing what we are called to do in the world.
Many of you who have contributed in the past have already received a letter in the mail. Maybe you have already sent in your pledge. If so, thank you. If you haven’t yet, you’ll have a chance to pledge next Sunday. So please give it serious thought this week.
The Bishop’s Appeal is obviously not the only thing we do as a diocese, as the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. But it is an important part of making all those other things we do possible.

Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time and the 2014 Bishop’s Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 16, 2014.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Missing Septuagesima

With the Christmas season now well behind us, can Lent be far off? Thanks to the vagaries of the calendar, Lent and Easter actually arrive rather late this year (March 5 and April 20 respectively). Early or late, however, they remain the centerpiece of the Church's yearly cycle, as the mysteries they celebrate stand at the center of the Christian life. Indeed, life is the very heart of Easter. As the great Pius Parsch (The Church's Year of Grace, Volume 2) put it, "Whereas at Christmas Christ manifested Himself primarily as light, He now [at Easter] manifests Himself in the Church and in the soul as life."

For centuries, Lent was preceded by a preparatory period of three successive Sundays - Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Those Latin names meant the 70th, the 60th, and the 50th day before Easter. Some 1200 years ago, the Emperor Charlemagne is said to have asked why Sundays that were seven days apart were being numbered as if they were ten days apart. And even he, the King of the Franks and Western Roman Emperor that he was, couldn’t get a good answer to his question! To make matters even more confusing, the kick-off Sunday - Septuagesima - although ostensibly 70 days before Easter was actually only 63 days before Easter! Arithmetic aside, the supposedly 70-day Septuagesima season was traditionally seen as a symbolic season of exile - analogous to the biblical 70-year Babylonian Exile.

Septuagesima wasn't quite Lent, of course. It fact it directly overlapped with the popular time of Carnival, culminating on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Importantly, for example, the traditional Lenten prohibition against the solemnization of marriage did not yet apply until Ash Wednesday. (Thus my parents were married 67 years ago today, February 15, 1947, on what was that year the Saturday before Quinquagesima Sunday - the last Saturday  before Ash Wednesday.)

The Septuagesima season did, however, already share some of Lent’s liturgical features – in particular, purple vestments, no Gloria, and, most notably, no AlleluiaFor centuries, the Saturday before Septuagesima was the day when Alleluia was said or sung for the last time at the end of Sunday's First Vespers, after which it was not heard again until the end of the Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday morning. In the Middle Ages, the omission of the Alleluia was popularly ritualized by mock funeral rites in which the people, singing the 11th-century hymn Alleluia dulce carmen, would "bury" the Alleluia (presumably to await its resurrection at Easter). In keeping with the exilic motif, the medieval author William Durandus (1237-1296) wrote: "In the Babylon of our earthly life we sit by the streams, weeping as we remember Sion. For as the children of Israel in an alien land hung their harps upon the willows, so we too must forget the Alleluia song in the season of sadness, of penance, and bitterness of heart." At a time when people's ordinary lives still somewhat followed and reflected the rhythm of the liturgical seasons, these practices alerted people visually and otherwise that Lent was on its way. 
In that traditional calendar, tomorrow would be Septuagesima Sunday. In the new calendar, however, Lent starts suddenly on Ash Wednesday, without any preparatory period. But then, of course, the contemporary Lent lacks the strict fasting that so strongly characterized the traditional Lent. So perhaps not quite so much preparation is needed now! The 1960s elimination of Septuagesima was likely a well-meaning attempt to highlight Lent in our modern, post-fasting time.

The reformed liturgy has served the Church well in many ways and has much to recommend it. Like all human endeavors, however, it has its limits. One of its weakest links may have been the unexpected way in which it tinkered with the traditional calendar. In any listing of its more questionable calendar revisions, the elimination of Septuagesima - whose magnificent Mass formularies, dating back to the era of Saint Gregory the Great, resonate so well with the theme of evangelization - surely should rank as among the more problematic. Its arithmetic may have been off, but the Septuagesima season was liturgically rich, and those riches are now largely lost forever.

Of course, the liturgy is not a museum-piece. More significant than the loss of a liturgical season is the fact that it hardly matters - that people's lives no longer reflect the rhythm of the liturgy. The challenge for today is to relearn how to make the connection between faith and ordinary life in radically unprecedented circumstances.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Saint Valentine and the Benefits of Marriage

The Roman Martyrology's traditional entry for today - Die 14 februarii memoria Romae via Flaminia iuxta pontem Milvium, sancti Valentini, martyris - refers to a certain Valentinus, martyred on February 14, at Rome on the Via Flaminia near the Milvian Bridge. Beyond his martyrdom, nothing very certain is known about his life - as Pope Gelasius I himself acknowledged when he added Saint Valentine to the calendar in 496. How he became patron of lovers and of romance would seem to be anybody’s guess.

Gelasius I also abolished the pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia, which used to occur on this date. It honored the wolf which had nursed Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders. But originally Lupercalia was probably pre-Roman, and the festival had strong associations with fertility and even romance. So one popular theory is that the romantic customs connected with Lupercalia survived in barely christianized form in Saint Valentine's Day.

One influential later legend about Saint Valentine claims that he incurred the Emperor's hostility because he performed marriages in defiance of an imperial edict. Whatever actually happened historically, that legend does at least attempt to make a connection between the actual martyr saint and the romantic associations which have long since come to characterize his day, and does so in a way which speaks to a contemporary concern.

Our society could certainly use someone like Saint Valentine’s help again today. There is no longer an emperor attempting to outlaw marriage, but marriage and stable family life are widely recognized as being in an increasingly precarious state - as evidenced by the abandonment of marriage by many and the common acceptance of divorce among those who do marry, all of which is being exacerbated in today’s stratified society by increasing economic inequality, which makes marriage less and less accessible to many in less favored socio-economic circumstances. Thus, for example, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, published in 2012, Charles Murray claimed that less than half of working-class young adults (ages 30-49) are married. And, in Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America (published in 2013 by The National Campaign to Combat Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, The Relate Institute, and The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia) the report’s authors argued that more than half of those without college or university degrees have their first child while unmarried.

It is perhaps possible to dismiss Valentine's Day as little more than a commercialized exploitation of the nearly universal desire to have someone to love and be loved by in return. But perhaps the legend of Saint Valentine spreading the benefits of marriage may deserve some more serious attention - and not just once a year - as we as a society grapple with extending access to the social benefits associated with marriage and family stability to those less socio-economically well off.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Good and Bad in Both

First Thoughts is a conservatively oriented blog site, part of the interesting First Things website connected with the right-leaning, intellectual journal First Things,  founded in 1990 by the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus. Earlier today ( academic and author Peter Lawler (editor of the quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and from 2004 to 2009 member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics) posted “A Defense of Downton’s Nostalgia,” as a rebuttal of sorts to George Will’s Washington Post critique of an earlier piece Lawler wrote in appreciation of the popular PBS series  

I suspect Lawler and Will likely agree on much more than they disagree on, but Will's critique of Lawler leads him to observe that Will "is getting more libertarian, even embracing the libertarian brand of judicial activism." We can leave it to the two of them to sort out their disagreements, but I think Lawler has noticed something very important, namely how the most extreme element in American conservatism - its libertarian wing - increasingly is crowding out more traditional (religious and communitarian) perspectives. Thus, Lawler argues that Will's real objection is to Lawler's "thought that the effects of economic freedom aren't all good."

What has provoked all this is Lawler's view that Downton Abbey "highlights both the greatness and the limits of traditionalism" - a way of life in which everyone "knows his place, his relational responsibilities,” where “there’s an emphasis on breeding, on manners and morals,” and where “the characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figur­ing out one’s place in the world.” Highlighting “the tension between aristocratic tradition­alism and modern progress,” Downton Abbey forces viewers “to confront the good and bad in both.”

My guess is that those on the ideological extremes - be they libertarians, for whom the individual trumps community and economic freedom trumps prescribed relationships, or extreme progressives, for whom the individual also trumps community and for whom personal lifestyle freedom trumps prescribed relationships - will equally find Downton difficult to take.

For all its aristocratic nostalgia, Downton does admit an appreciation for other, more modern values. In an important conversation in season 3, Matthew tells Mary that he realizes that Lord Grantham views Matthew's concern to make the estate operate successfully as "middle class," but adds that "the middle classes have their virtues too, and one of them is husbandry." On the other hand, it is Robert's role to remind his modernizing daughter and sons-in-law that relationships matter along with money. Thus, the very revealing recent episode in the current season when he lends money to the son of a recently deceased tenant farmer so he can pay off his father's debt and assume the tenancy himself (even though it would be more modern and efficient for the estate to foreclose). What decided it for Lord Grantham was the young tenant's reminder that his family had been farming the land for generations "in partnership" with the Crawleys. 

Undoubtedly that young farmer desired a decent living and the many good things and opportunities modern life increasingly had to offer. But he also craved the sense of belonging to be found in a traditional network of prescribed inter-dependent relationships. How to refine and humanize those modern desires, absent the restraining guidance of traditional relationships, is the ongoing problematic of post-modern existence.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lady Edith Chooses Life

Poor tragic Edith! Always the least loved, least appreciated of Downton Abbey's Crawley sisters, who knows it and tries to compensate by being a serious person (she even gets up for breakfast), achieved a new status last night. Unluckily always falling for unsuitable men, pregnant now with the missing Michael Gregson's baby, Edith travels to London - accompanied by the correspondingly unserious Rose - to get an illegal abortion. Being jilted at the altar was bad, but bringing an illegitimate child into the world - Edith's admittedly privileged but also rigidly demanding world - would be about as bad as it could get scandal-wise. Her mother had said it all when, meaning to comfort her obviously distressed daughter, she said, "we all have bad feelings, it's acting on them that makes you bad." Little comfort, indeed, for Edith who had acted on her feelings for Michael, and who now, faced with the starkest consequences of that action, was contemplating yet another, even more horrendous act.
The only one Edith dares to share her secret with is her lonely aunt, Lady Rosamund, herself  disappointed in love in an earlier season, who has, till now, mainly made herself useful by serving as the family's London hotel (and an occasional inconvenient scold). At first Rosamund responds predictably, but then offers to accompany Edith to the abortionist. Perhaps this was the show's nod to contemporary sensibility that exalts "choice."  Perhaps it was meant as an insight into Rosamund's softer side (which we have actually seen a bit of before). Perhaps it was primarily a dramatic device to facilitate the subsequent conversation in which Edith changes her mind. Perhaps it was all of the above. In any case, when Edith and Rosamund arrive at the abortionist's dreadful place of business, Edith (who clearly understands that she is about to kill a baby, as she had earlier said to Rosamnund, "I am killing the wanted child of a man I'm in love with"), suddenly realizes that she cannot go through with it. She tells her aunt that she could never look at her niece and nephew again and bravely leaves the abortionist's place to return to face the inevitable scandal at home.
There is something beautifully powerful about the way Edith's final decision is presented. She realizes what she is doing and recognizes its impact in starkly personal terms. She chooses life, even though she knows the ensuing consequences cannot be easy for her - or for the whole, larger Downton world.

Edith is an unlikely hero. She cannot compete with her sisters either in the allocation of affection within the family or in the high-stakes marriage market. (That Sybil chose to marry down was widely recognized as an expression of her free-spiritedeness. No one would have suggested she had no other options or couldn't do better - precisely what one might have suspected in the case of Edith's choice of the eminently respectable but otherwise unsuitable Sir Antony.) Like any number of similarly under-valued people in real life, Edith has tried to compensate by being serious - by being of service to others and by working. Of course, that just isn't good enough. It can never equal the advantages of beauty or a charming personality. So she soldiers on, looking for love and repeatedly finding it in less than suitable settings (while handsome suitors of suitable status - three of them at the moment - seem to be falling all over themselves to get to Mary.) And yet, when faced with one of the greatest possible threats to her own (and her family's) reputation, Edith recognized in her inconvenient baby the same value as her much desired niece and nephew, and she chose life.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Saving Civilization

Yesterday I saw the new movie The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney and such other worthies as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham). It is a wonderful movie that I think everyone should see. It is based on Robert Edsel's even more wonderful 2009 book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which tells the story of Allied effort in final year of World War II to salvage and recover Europe's historical and artistic treasures that had been looted by the Nazis and were in danger of being destroyed or irreparably lost. 
I've always been interested in the history of World War II (especially the European Theater where my father and several uncles fought). After all, when I was growing up the war was still recent history, and its impact overshadowed everything. By the time I first read Edsel's book in 2009, all that had long changed, of course. Still, the story fascinated me. Perhaps it seemed especially salient to me then, since one of the major art treasures in the story is the "Bruges Madonna," one of the very few extant copies of which is housed in our own Paulist "Mother Church" of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York. At that time, I was Associate pastor there and often gave tours of the Church. Those tours were primarily religious and historical but they, of course, also highlighted the church's artistic treasures, which are part of the precious patrimony of the church and of which the bronze copy of the Bruges Madonna (photo) is certainly one of the most notable. 
The original in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) in Bruges, Belgium, is a marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, and it is the only known Michelangelo sculpture outside Italy. Except when stolen, it has been in that church since 1514. It was first stolen by the French in 1794, after the French Republic conquered the Austrian Netherlands. It was stolen a second time 150 years later in 1944, wrapped in mattresses and taken by the retreating Germans. Its subsequent recovery in Altausee, Austria, is a major episode in the book and (along with the search for the Ghent altarpeice) serves as a major leitmotif for the movie.
World War II has often been seen (then and since) as a war to save European civilization. As the movie tries to argue, destroying a civilizations's cultural achievements is effectively to destroy that civilization itself. Conversely, saving its achievements is a critical component of saving a civilization. That is why the work of the "Monuments Men" was so important and is so deserving of belated recognition. That so many of the artifacts of our civilization find their homes in churches further highlights the inescapably Christian character of European civilization. That is a reality contemporary society, which seems increasingly so out of touch with its past, seems increasingly inclined to forget - to its loss and its peril.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Beatles

The first Beatles' single to be played on a U.S. radio station was, I believe, I Want to Hold Your Hand. That was in late 1963. But I didn't really become personally conscious of the Beatles until 50 years ago this week when they did their first American tour. On Friday, February 7, 1964, the Beatles landed at the just recently re-named JFK Airport to a tumultuous welcome, that The New York Times estimated included more than 3000 teens standing four-deep on the upper arcade of JFK's International Arrivals Building. (Equally importantly, they were also met by some 200 reporters and photographers who sparred with them at a humorous airport press conference.) All this was prelude, of course, to Sunday, February 9, when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, watched by a TV audience of some 73 million people, myself among them.  To the extent that one can usefully date such things, that was probably the symbolic beginning of the 1960s Youth Culture.
Whatever else one might say on its behalf, The Ed Sullivan Show had never struck me as particularly exciting. But I remember vividly how very exciting The Ed Sullivan Show suddenly seemed that Sunday night. Of course, I myself still had very little sense of what it really meant and even less of a clue as to what it would soon mean for my generation. At just the right transition-point in the affluent, post-war baby boom generation's life cycle, teenagers went wild with excitement at this new sound (a creative marriage of pop, American R&B, and British working-class style) that seemed to suggest that the future might not mean just more of the same. Meanwhile girls especially responded en masse to the Beatles' evident and exuberant heterosexuality.
Within the still staid, still assumed to be predictable, Bronx blue-collar culture I somewhat restively inhabited, two responses captured what I'll call the establishment mood. I remember asking one of my classmates whether he thought the Beatles' hairstyle would catch on in America. He absolutely assured me that it wouldn't. Meanwhile, our English teacher, trying to introduce us to epic poetry, pointed out that an epic had to be about something great, that one couldn't compose an epic about the Beatles. How wrong they both were! How thoroughly the putative certainties of our narrow world were about to be exploded! At that point, of course, I didn't know how it would turn out, what that amazing musical revolution would come to mean in so many respects.
The Beatles began what has often been called the "British Invasion." In short order came The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Zombies, The Animals, and, most long-lasting and most influential of all, The Rolling Stones. Pre-Beatles pop music's lyrics had been quite conventional. It was music to dance to (for those fortunate enough to have someone to dance with.) It was subversive only in the most minimal sense - in that it was something teenagers shared with each other that didn't include adults. (In those days, most of our lives still included adult activities and responded to adult expectations. So that was something new, a foretaste of much more to come.) But teen music, listened to on a transistor radio, was widely still assumed to be something one would grow out of. It certainly wasn't political, for example. In fact, the politically subversive music, such as it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, was "folk music," and that was more popular among certain sorts of adults than it was among teens (the same sorts of adults who would soon invent the incongruous "folk Mass.") Pop music itself was pretty apolitical and unserious, but that too would soon change.
Thanks also to the Beatles, record albums seemed to become more thematic - not just a convenient collection of songs but a vehicle for a coherent message. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would, I guess, be remembered as the best example of this. 
That was all still in the future when John, Paul, George, and Ringo stepped off that plane in New York 50 years ago today. In 1964 few fans - certainly not I - grasped what radical changes were in store for us all, and what we and the world would eventually come to look like as a result. As musicians, the "Fab Four" were creative geniuses. They were also young men of their time and place. The effect of their astounding creativity on that particular time and place produced a new sound to express a new spirit - the genuine spirit of an age of transition and turmoil. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

CVS and Tobacco

I seldom have occasion to praise corporations, but the pharmacy chain CVS earned a gold star today with its announcement that its 7600 stores around the country will cease selling tobacco products by October 1. In a statement issued earlier today, President Obama also lauded CVS for setting "a powerful example" that will help advance "efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs."
Being old enough to remember the 1964 Surgeon General's Report that first sounded the alert against smoking, I am amazed at how thoroughly our society has changed on this important issue. I can well remember how, when cities started outlawing smoking in public places, all sorts of people said it would never work, that people wouldn't conform, that bars and restaurants would go out of business. But here we are in 2014, and smoking - while still a very real social curse and threat to public health - is definitely in decline.
When I was young, smoking was normal. And it was "cool" and sexy. Jacqueline Kennedy, that queen of fashion and style, is said to have introduced ashtrays as White House events.(Talk about the Owl of Minerva taking flight at dusk!) Having reach its apex, smoking and the culture connected with it is now cascading to its nadir. And that is all to the good.
I shop at CVS. I buy all my prescription medications there. I've often stood on line at the cahier watching while someone purchases cigarettes. I'm very happy that's a sight I won't be seeing too much longer. Along with private gun ownership, smoking remains one of the great blights on our culture. Every move to ending it deserves to be applauded.
According to legend, when tobacco smoking was first described to King James I in the early 1600s, he was horrified and said it was something no Christian gentlemen should do. He should have been listened to!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Up and Down at Downton

Mercifully, no one has died or been killed yet in Season 4 of Downton Abbey.  Even so the tension is rising. Will Mary find a new man? Will Tom Branson throw in the towel and emigrate to America? Will Mr. Bates do something stupid to avenge Anna and thus ruin the one really good thing he has in his life? How will Isobel Crawley renegotiate her place In the family and in the larger world of Downton society? What mischief are Barrow and Baxter really up to? Will Mosely make it in his reduced status? And then the really big questions after the latest episode: What is Edith going to do? And how far is Rose ready to go?

Rose’s involvement with the Black bandleader, Mr. Ross, clearly crosses more than one boundary.  To an American audience, because of our troubled racial history, it is the racial dynamic that we notice right away. But, while the racial angle undoubtedly adds further fuel to an already highly combustible situation, this is Britain not America, and I think we are meant to see this relationship (and all relationships at Downton) primarily through the prism of class.

Dramatically, last night’s episode made that point loud and clear, I think, through the way it portrayed both Violet’s and Isobel’s dealings with Peg the gardener, through the sad but comic trials of the downward-mobile Mr. Mosely (almost reduced to becoming Joseph, but spared that assault to his dignity by the superlative sensitivity of the Dowager Countess and Lord Robert), and finally by the snobbery experienced by Mr. and Mrs. Bates at a local restaurant (humorously turned to their advantage by Lady Grantham’s intervention on their behalf). All these little vignettes highlight how social class – a person’s defined social position – dominates everything in that world and is the primary lens through which all experience is interpreted.

We Americans have a history of trying to not quite acknowledge class. And, of course, class in America was never quite the pervasively decisive factor it was in the 1920s Britain portrayed at Downton. Yet, as Lady Edith’s aunt presciently warned her at the end of the previous episode, some things change but some other important things stay the same. Downton is a case study not just in whether Mary and Tom can make the estate a going concern in the modern economy but in how real people completely caught up in the consciousness of class can negotiate the complex challenges of a modern world which is gradually eroding the certainties, securities, and comforts of a world in which the social boundaries and the behaviors that accompany those boundaries are all always completely clear to everyone.