Monday, February 29, 2016

Annus Bisextilis

Of all the curious causes I could have embraced in my youth, perhaps the most curious one which I did (sort of) embrace was advocating for the adoption of the so-called "World Calendar." I guess that was what came from reading too much as a kid! While I can't recall the exact date, I can definitely recall picking up the book in the local public library that first turned me on to the idea of a "World Calendar." (That would have been sometime in the early 1960s). 

Anyway, what the "World Calendar" purported to be about was creating a constant, unchanging, predictable calendar, on which the same date would fall on the same day of the week each year. The thing that presently prevents this - the problem with the present Gregorian calendar, if you will - is the 365th day, which usually occurs on the same day of the week as January 1 did. So every year, the same dates occur one day later in the week from the year before. Factor in Leap Year (technically called an "intercalary year" or a "bissextile year") every four years, moreover, and it all gets even more varied and complicated!

What the "World Calendar" proposed was to begin each new year uniformly on Sunday, January 1. In fact each three-month quarter (thus April 1, July 1, and October 1) would begin uniformly on a Sunday. The first month of each quarter would have 31 days, the other months 30. So each quarter would end on a Saturday. What then of the final 365h day? The solution was a "World Holiday," which would fall between Saturday, December 30, and Sunday, January 1, but would not be any day of any week. Every fourth year, moreover, there would be an additional "Leap Year World Holiday," falling similarly somewhere between Saturday, June 30, and Sunday, July 1. It was precisely the sort of abstract, ahistorical, and culturally insensitive rationality that the French Revolution (which did briefly invent its own crazy calendar) would have appreciated!

My advocacy for this scheme was non-obsessive and reasonably low-key, though I did encourage my family and friends to take it seriously. I finally came to my senses, however, late in 1963. On December 4 of that year, the Second Vatican Council adopted its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Conciiium). Studying it (as we were required to do in high school religion class that week), I read its concluding Declaration "On Revision of the Calendar," which stated that the Council "does not oppose efforts designed to introduce a perpetual calendar into civil society" but "only in the case of those systems which retain and safeguard a seven-day week with Sunday, without the introduction of any days outside the week, so that the succession of weeks may be left intact." That was when I realized that - like the French Revolutionary calendar, which had the abolition of the biblically based 7-day week as one of its goals - the "World Calendar" would be hugely problematic religiously - and not just for us Catholics, but for all Christians, Jews, and Muslims!

So, so much for the "World Calendar," but I still like the idea of a "World Holiday." Specifically, I think today, February 29 - this extra day we have every fourth year - should always be a holiday!

"Leap year," as everyone knows, was first introduced into the Roman calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. Caesar intended it to occur every fourth year. The Gregorian Calendar we now use corrected Caesar's calculations by omitting 3 leap years every 400 years - e.g., not adding the extra day in 1700, 1800, and 1900., but doing so in 2000 (That is why the Julian and Gregorian calendars are now a full 13 days out of sync.) For reasons that made more sense to an ancient Roman than to us, Caesar inserted the extra leap year day in late February - duplicating the sixth day before the Kalends of March, which in the Roman way of computing dates was February 24. Hence the Latin term for leap year is annus bisextilis, i.e., a year in which the sixth day before the Kalends of March occurs twice. (February 23, the seventh day before the Kalends of March, was the Roman feast of Terminalia, devoted to Terminus, the god of boundaries, temporal as well as geographical, which likely explains Caesar's choice of the following day.) 

So, for example, in the old liturgical calendar, the sixth day before the Kalends of March, February 24, was the feast of Saint Matthias. But in leap years, when there were two sixth days before the Kalends of March, Saint Matthias was celebrated on the second of them, February 25 (see photo). Sadly, to no noticeable advantage to anyone, the present, post-conciliar calendar reassigned Saint Matthias to May 14. So another quaint survival from liturgical antiquity was gratuitously abandoned.

Be all that as it may, we still have this oddity of leap year, which gives us a February of 29 instead of 28 days and means for the next 12 months that every date will fall two days of the week later instead of the usual one. (Hence the term "leap year.") Having recovered from the rationalist folly underlying the "World Calendar," I can now better appreciate the charm of having such variety in our calendar. 

Not surprisingly, all sorts of popular folkloric customs have developed over the centuries in regard to leap year. There is, for example, the British-Irish tradition (dubiously associated with Saint Brigid of Kildare) that a woman may take the initiative and propose marriage to a man in Leap Year. 

I don't know what to make of that in today's very changed society. But I still think the extra day should be a holiday!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

God's Patience

Why do bad things happen to good people? Long before it inspired the title of a popular 1980s best-seller, this was a perennial problem and an endlessly asked question.

Since even Jesus in today’s Gospel avoided answering the question directly, neither will I be so presumptuous as to venture an answer here. Jesus’ refusal to speculate why bad things happen to good people in life – or, for that matter, why good things happen to bad people – appears almost as enigmatic and mysterious as God’s answer to Moses’ somewhat impertinent insistence on asking God’s name. Maybe I Am merely means that God exists, as opposed to false gods who do not. Or maybe it was God’s way of telling Moses that some things about God that are just mysterious - as if God were saying, “I am who I am and that’s all you need to know.” Maybe that’s why the real Moses (in contrast to Cecil B. DeMille's movie version of Moses) refrained from asking God the obvious question, why it has taken God so long to react to his people’s suffering in Egypt and hear their cry of complaint.

He may not have asked, but Moses may still have wondered.  Well may we wonder as well. Likewise, those anonymous some people who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices may well have wondered why good Galilean pilgrims on pilgrimage in Jerusalem had been killed by Roman soldiers. And why, for that matter, had 18 innocent people been accidentally killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them?

The last example reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s famous 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which revolves around seeking some connection among the apparently random victims of a bridge’s collapse – in the hope of explaining why they, in particular, died instead of someone else.

Of course, no one needs to read a novel to find plenty of comparable examples in real life. And all these things inevitably inspire people to wonder. Could it be that we, whose lives have so far been spared, are somehow more worthy or deserving or virtuous than those who weren’t spared? The very universality and randomness of so much human suffering would seem to rebut the logic of that theory, even if it is precisely our all-too-human desire to impose some order and logic on the apparently arbitrary randomness of so much of what happens that causes us to invent such theories in the first place.

As if to preempt any such suggestion, Jesus just rejected it out of hand. By no means! Jesus tells us, for we are all sinners and so all desperately in need of conversion and repentance. Hence his parable – simultaneously so comforting and so threatening – of the unproductive fig tree.

Now most people would probably agree that the whole point of cultivating a fig tree is to produce figs. A fruit-less fig tree hardly warrants the work involved in cultivating it year after year. If there were ever an obvious application for the slogan “three strikes and you’re out,” this would seem to be it. After all, how likely would it be that, after three fruitless years, yet another year’s effort might make the tree bloom at last? Not much!

Yet the gardener in Jesus’ parable is willing to give it one more try. Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.

To us, impatient people that we are, the thing to do with an unproductive tree would be to stop wasting soil and effort and just cut it down. But God patiently postpones cutting us down. He gives us extra, even lavish attention, cultivating and fertilizing us, revealing himself to us more and more clearly, and more and more fully,  through Moses and others, finally sending us his Son as his final and fullest revelation of himself, his final and fullest expression of his patience and mercy, the final alternative to our dismal history of lost opportunities.

As this saga of God’s long-lasting mercy toward the human race reveals so dramatically, God has been incredibly patient to us in spite of everything. The challenge, however, is that, while God’s patience and mercy may be infinite, we are not. We  have to avail ourselves of God’s limitless patience and mercy in the inevitably limited time each of us has.

Lent is our annual reminder, our annual wake-up call, challenging us to bear fruit, to put God’s patience and mercy to good use – now.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 28, 2016.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Going My Way

Most people are familiar with the 1944 movie Going My Way, which featured Bing Crosby as a modern young curate, Fr. O'Malley, and Barry Fitzgerald as an old irish pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbons, at a certain Saint Dominic's parish. Members of my generation should also recall the TV series of the same name and theme, that aired for some 30 episodes in the 1962-1963 season. (TV Seasons were serious seasons back then!). It featured Gene Kelly as Fr. O'Malley, Leo G. Carroll as Fr. Fitzgibbons, and added Dick York as Tom Colwell, an old friend of Fr. O'Malley and Director of the Community Center that serves the neighborhood kids. I recently learned that the TV series is now available on DVD, and I have been gradually watching it, episode by episode, enjoying it all.

Of course, watching the series today in black-and-white, with its seat-belt-free big cars and wall portraits of Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy, is nostalgic on multiple levels. Not only did I watch it as a teenager myself in 1962-1963, but the world it portrays is instantly recognizable to me as the the Catholic Church and the New York City of my childhood, a simpler (but not uncomplicated) world in which the Church was seamlessly interwoven with all aspects of neighborhood life, when there was still real neighborhood life. And, on top of that, it was filmed and is set in the Manhattan theater district and used the facade of Saint Malachy's, the famed "Actor's Chapel at 239 West 49th Street (photo), as its "Saint Dominic's." I myself was once part of the Saint Malachy's community, having ministered there as a deacon during the early 1990s.

The post-war world in which the TV series was set was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations, bot religious and secular, starting with gender roles and family life and moving onward and outward from there. To be fair, not everyone benefitted equally from those rules and expectations, and for some in the end the burdens may have seemed to outweigh the benefits. But, for the majority, the burdens paid off as guideposts toward a reasonably predictable and stable way of life.  In the half-century and more that has followed, both Church and society have changed, and such stable urban neighborhoods have largely disappeared. Enormous economic and cultural changes have eviscerated the opportunities available for working class people with modest educational background and have radically diminished their prospects for financial and social stability in successfully functioning families. Social change always has winners and losers, and in this case there certainly have been lots of losers.

That said, the 1960s TV series captures that world well. Of course, it is somewhat idealized in that the problems presented to the priests will invariably get satisfactorily resolved by the end of the episode, often due to a quick turnaround in someone's attitude, thanks to Fr, O'Malley's benign influence. It is idealized too in how good the priests are at everything - and how they are unfailingly available always whenever anyone has a problem. Even then priests couldn't really solve all problems, of course, but they probably did have more resources available - notably the good will of the other major players in their relatively stable, intact communities. 

As a teenager, I regularly turned to the parish priests as the only source of guidance I knew. My parish was staffed by a religious order. So there were several priests I would pester over the years with my personal problems. Just like the characters in Going My Way, I thought nothing of showing up at the rectory and asking to see Father so-and-so and taking up his time with my latest worries. Looking back, I marvel at the patience they all showed. They may not have had the answers I needed. But at least they listened and at least tried to be helpful. As in the TV show, no one ever turned me away or said he was too busy. I will always be grateful to them, and for them. Years later, when applying to the seminary myself, I referenced how priests had been very helpful to me in my time of turmoil and how I hoped to be similarly helpful myself. In fact, few people nowadays ring the bell to ask the priest for personal advice. As religion has diminished in importance, the context for most problems has likewise changed, and there are lots of other, more cutting-edge resources for people to turn to But there was a time when people routinely didn't have those resources, and Going My Way captures that time and place so well.

Could such a series be made today? The TV sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s  were creatures of their time. Today people have different expectations. A successful series probably would have to show more development in its characters over time. It wouldn't do to repeat the same sort of scenario week after week with little or no change. But I think parish life still provides interesting material of significant human interest - provided, of course, an audience can accept the premise that what these characters are doing is worthwhile. And, maybe more to the point, can accept characters who themselves believe that how they are living and what they are doing as priests is really worthwhile.

Scriptwriters and producers would likewise have to accept that premise. In the late 1990s, ABC attempted a series about parish life. It was called Nothing Sacred, and was set in a contemporary parish in Chicago. It won an award or two for attempting to grapple with religious faith in a contemporary context, but It was canceled after 15 episodes. As in Going My Way, the priest who was the show's star excelled at everything he did. But, unlike Going My Way, he was sometimes at odds with the Church. In other words, he did not seem so certain about how he was living and what he was doing as Fr. Fitgibbons and Fr. O'Malley did decades earlier. Unlike the strong, united, self-confident Church of the 1962, which Going My Way so accurately reflected, Nothing Sacred reflected a very different world, one in which the Church had lost so much of her self-confidence and was weakened in her ability to influence the world around her because of her own internal divisions and conflicts. Reflecting the media's obsessive preoccupation with such divisions and conflicts whenever treating religion, Nothing Sacred got caught up in that - and so was controversial from the start. By casting its clergy as participants in an internal ecclesiastical culture war, Nothing Sacred missed an authentic opportunity to portray the more diverse reality of day-to-day parish experience.

Going My Way actually did that - albeit in an idealized and sentimentalized fashion which today makes it seem anachronistic and nostalgic. But, if one can descend from the throne of our (justified or not) 21st-century cultural superiority in order to identify with a very different time and place (but one still within living memory), Going My Way is great entertainment and still leaves the watcher with something worthwhile to think about.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Supreme Court and the Election

The President "shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ... Judges of the supreme Court." Article II. Section 2, of the US constitution couldn't be more explicit. If "originalism" and "textualism" were true schools of constitutional interpretation, their ostensible proponents would be vocal making this point and pushing for a quick filling of the current Supreme Court vacancy. But "originalism" and "textualism" typically go out the window when they conflict with the interests of a particular political party.

Of course, it is far from clear which political party will ultimately benefit from the current imbroglio about whether or not to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Those who want the presidential election to be a referendum on the future direction of the Court may well get their way, with either President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump selecting the next Justice around this time next year. That would perhaps be the most democratic outcome.

But, of course, whatever the Framers may have intended the Supreme Court to be, they certainly never intended it to be democratic. The House of Representatives was intended to be the one truly democratic branch of government. According to the then fashionable theory of "mixed constitution," the Senate and the Supreme Court were to be the aristocratic branches of government, chosen in ways which involved the mass of voters as indirectly as possible. That is no longer so true of the Senate, since the 17th Amendment made senators directly elected by the people. Justices of the Supreme Court, however, are not only appointed, but appointed for life. And these unelected and for all practical purposes unaccountable, life-time appointees have been endowed - not so much by the constitution as by the evolution of American political culture - with almost absolute power to undo the democratically expressed will of the people as enacted into laws by Congress.

That is the heart of the problem. A judiciary that is somewhat insulated from day-to-day popular opinion and political pressure makes good sense in so many ways. But a politically unaccountable judiciary that claims the kind of political power that the current Supreme Court exercises is another matter altogether. Aristocracy ostensibly means rule by the best. In practice, what society usually gets is what Aristotle considered aristocracy's degenerate form - oligarchy, rule by the rich.  More often than not, the Supreme Court could be more accurately described as representing not an aristocratic principle but an oligarchic one. That was the case in the 19th century when it supported slavery (e.g., Dred Scott). That was the case in the early 20th century, when the Court regularly struck down progressive labor legislation. It has continued to be the case in the 21st century (e.g., Citizens United).

Naturally, everyone can identify decisions he or she agrees with.  The Brown decision on May 17, 1954, was one of the major moral turning points in American history. Even that, however, represented a belated reversal of a bad 19th-century Court decision. And it could also be argued that, if Congress had done its proper job and vigorously enforced the 15th Amendment all along, neither decision would ever have been needed. Indeed, so often when the Supreme Court produces a laudable outcome, it is compensating for the failure of Congress to fulfill its responsibilities. In a political system so fundamental dysfunctional as ours has become, recourse to the judiciary is sometimes the only available remedy.

So the future direction of the Supreme Court will likely be a major issue in this election. If so, that should fire up the more ideological "base" voters in both parties, producing a higher turnout election - and an even more politically polarized Court. But should it? Should this election really be mainly about which party gets to control the Supreme Court? Should the Supreme Court have ever accumulated so much unaccountable undemocratic power that it matters so much which party controls it?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

That Now Famous Funeral Homily

Never having been a fan of the late Justice Antonin Scalia's legal jurisprudence or of its political consequences and, in any event, having had other things that I had to do on Saturday, I caught only snippets of his televised Funeral Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. But I have since had the opportunity both to watch and to read the now somewhat famous funeral homily preached at that Mass by the late Justice's son, Father Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington. That homily has gotten so much attention - deservedly so, I believe - because  (unlike so much of the tepid fare frequently served up at so many funerals today) it did what a funeral homily is supposed to do. It did what any homily, if it is truly a homily, is supposed to do. It preached Christ.

Perhaps the most clever - and for that reason most quoted - part of his homily was when he said: 

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

It is He whom we proclaim. Jesus Christ, son of the father, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. It is because of him. because of his life, death and resurrection that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God.

In those two short paragraphs, Father Scalia eloquently expressed the purpose of the Funeral Mass - not "a celebration of life," that is, of the deceased's now completed earthly existence, but a celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Church's prayer of intercession on behalf of the recently deceased to commend him to God's mercy in the confident hope that he too will come to share in that new life made possible for all as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I am nowhere nearly so eloquent as Father Scalia, but that is what I always at least try to do when celebrating a funeral.

But it cannot be denied that there is a whole contrary set of expectations about what a funeral is supposed to be about - a thoroughly secular set of expectations that have infected our once cherished Catholic funeral customs and have increasingly made funerals more about the deceased instead of about Christ, a celebration of the deceased person instead of intercessory prayer for God's mercy to the deceased person.

We have all experienced such funerals - complete with sadly inappropriate eulogies, that in some cases actually are contrary to the faith and hope that are the Church's message, and sadly inappropriate musical selections completely at variance with the sacredness of the event and its proper purpose. That purpose, of course, is the Church's intercession on the dead person's behalf.

That purpose Father Scalia so excellently expressed when he said: We are here, then, to lend our prayers to that perfecting, to that final work of God's grace, in freeing Dad from every encumbrance of sin. ... We continue to show affection for him and do good for him by praying for him: That all stain of sin be washed away, that all wounds be healed, that he be purified of all that is not Christ. That he rest in peace.

The traditional Communion Antiphon that used to be said at all Masses for the Dead said it all. (That antiphon is still there as one of many options in the present rite, although, like most of the ancient antiphons at least in the United States, it is seldom heard, having been replaced typically by alternative hymns or songs - sometimes good ones, sometimes bad).

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum Sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, cum Sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. ("Let perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord, with your Saints for ever, for you are merciful. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them, with your Saints for ever, for you are merciful.")

Monday, February 22, 2016


So much happens in last night's brilliant next-to-last episode that it is hard to do it justice. It is obvious that the various loose ends are beginning to be tied together - with some happy outcomes and a lot more heartbreak. (But at least Anna is still successfully pregnant!)

At one level, Downton Abbey has always been a tale of two sisters and their forever fleeting attempts to find happiness. When this episode begins, it looks as if Mary has given up on Henry (because, as she admits to Granny, she doesn't want to be a "crash widow" again), while Edith not only gets a proposal but her fiance suddenly inherits a title and becomes the 7th Marquess of Hexham. As Marchioness of Hexham, poor plain Edith would suddenly outrank her father, the 5th Earl of Grantham, and her family. But she has that secret that she has dissembled about every time she had a chance to be honest with Bertie. Once again the chronic problem that so many of these characters have with simply telling the truth gets in her way. When the now titled Bertie breaks it off, it seems less because he is scandalized by Marigold and more because he doesn't want to marry someone who didn't trust him with the truth and whom he therefore can's quite trust. Maybe Bertie and Edith will make up in the final episode and live happily ever after anyway. But the old adage that we are as sick as out secrets keeps coming back to haunt characters who really should have figured that out already!

Speaking of  haunted, Thomas Barrow finally gives up and tries to kill himself. Surrounded by people who are anticipating leaving service and chasing other opportunities, Thomas is the one actually being pressured to leave but who doesn't want to leave the closest thing he has ever had to a home and a place to belong. And Thomas's mean-spirited behavior over the years has not exactly endeared him to his colleagues. But Baxter (who like Anna and Mrs. Hughes is chronically kind) realizes what is happening and saves his life. Some people see through even Thomas's meanness and really do care. So does Lady Mary, who brings Master George to visit Thomas in his sick room. In a moment of mutual self-awareness, both Thomas and Mary recognize that they are people who seem to be best at pushing other people away. Of course, Mary is mean in spite of all her advantages. Thomas is mean because of the chronic lack of love in his life, because he lives in a world which remains unwilling to find a place for him, a world in which even those who are kind to him do so, as it were, in spite of his homosexuality. 

Barrow's brush with death at least gets him a reprieve from being fired. Mary - meanly, of course, but correctly - makes her father feel guilty about Barrow's fate. And even Carson softens, telling His Lordship about Barrow: "I thought he was a man without a heart. I was wrong." There is a lot of admitting wrong in life, and Downton's characters are at their best when they do so.

Meanwhile, at Tom Branson's summons, the Dowager returns and lectures Mary on love. As she did once before with Matthew, Mary finally gives in to her better self. And so the episode ends with a lovely wedding scene (simpler than her previous one, but with the same Best Man). Even Edith comes home for the wedding, after having earlier finally given Mary the tongue-lashing she so richly deserves. But now the order of precedence has been restored, and once again everyone (even Edith) is there to rejoice at Mary's success. "In the end, you're my sister," Edith admits to Mary, "and one day, only we will remember Sybill, or Mama, or Papa, or Matthew, or Michael, or Granny, or Carson, or any of the other who have peopled our youth. Until at last, our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike."

That's what family means.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Real Presidents' Day

A week ago, we were treated to yet another one of our recently invented post-holiday American "holidays," namely "Presidents' Day." Actually, "Presidents' Day" - with our without the apostrophe - is not the holiday's official title. When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 was being drafted, there was a proposal to rename the holiday "Presidents' Day" in order to honor the birthdays of both President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln, hence the plural possessive form (with the apostrophe after the "s"). But that failed in committee, and the final bill kept the traditional name "Washington's Birthday," for the transferred holiday. 

Even so, "Presidents' Day" - as an ostensible celebration of multiple presidents, not just Washington or even Washington and Lincoln - has become the common popular name for the holiday. But, of course, the ill-advised transfer of the holiday to a Monday (which never occurs on Washington's actual birthday) guarantees that - like so many other once genuinely civic holidays - it is really what I call a "post-holiday," i.e., a day for shopping or part of an extended school vacation, rather than a commemoration of anyone or anything.

When I was a boy growing up in the 1950s, we had two standard school holidays in February: Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and Washington's on February 22. (The latter was a federal holiday. The former was a state holiday in New York and in most of the other non-confederate states.) There were lots of such civic holidays then - Columbus Day, Election Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Only Labor Day was permanently assigned to a Monday. A "holiday weekend" might happen now and then, but it was not the norm. And there was still at least some awareness of what the holiday's name meant, what the holiday was supposed to commemorate or celebrate. Civic holidays had not then yet become just excuses for shopping or extended vacations, which is all they are now.

More shopping and more week-long school "breaks" may be problematic enough in themselves. (We shop too much in contemporary America, and students learn too little). But they are also a symptom of the loss of our common civic culture. Like liturgical feasts and seasons in the Church's annual calendar, our civic holidays were markers that reminded us of important episodes in our common past and reinforced our civic identity. And, of course, it was our common civic identity that distinguished the US from other societies. If America was once an exceptional nation, it was precisely because it assimilated so many different cultural identities into one common civic identity, which was democratic and egalitarian, and which attracted immigrants from all over the world. We still attract immigrants, but our society has increasingly lost much of its democratic and egalitarian luster - thus eroding America's exceptionalism in the process.

Washington's Birthday (his real birthday, tomorrow, not his phony "post-holiday" a week ago) is a fitting reminder of the common civic culture we have lost. Washington himself embodied so many of the traits we associate with that culture at its best. In failing to remember and honor him appropriately, we also fail to remember and honor those civic virtues he was believed to embody. And we diminish ourselves and further erode whatever may be left of our once-vibrant common civic culture.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Risen (The Movie)

'Tis the season for religious-themed movies and in particular for biblical would-be epics. With yesterday's opening of Risen, this year does not disappoint, which is itself saying something, since many such films are often so disappointingly unimpressive and so have a comparably short shelf life. Risen likely will win no Oscar nominations, but it at last deserves to be seen-- not just for its inherent message but for the clever way it approaches the familiar story.

Risen looks at the events of Jesus' death and resurrection through pagan Roman eyes - the eyes of Clavius, the Roman Tribune who, fresh from slaughtering some Zealots in a minor skirmish, is ordered by Pilate to supervise the shutting down of the Crucifixion. Thus, he becomes the one who orders Jesus's side to be pierced with the centurion's spear. (All of which reminds me of my favorite fictional Passion account as seen through Roman eyes - Louis De Wohl's 1955 novel The Spear, which I read while in high school and which is based on the story of the Roman Centurion [Saint] Cassius Longinus.]

As is to be expected in such films, the acting is modest, but Joseph Fiennes puts in a great performance as Clavius, as does Harry Potter's Tom Felton as Clavius' military aide. As usual, the script takes historical liberties. I don't think any sitting Emperor ever sailed into Caesarea. Certainly Tiberius didn't - and certainly not during that first Easter season! Mary Magdalene was not really "a woman of the street," Saint Bartholomew was probably not to comic figure he is portrayed as, and the word "crusade" still had another thousand years or so to be invented. Nor were any romans or other Gentiles among the first to see the Risne Lord.

That said, the film takes a clever approach - asking us to imagine how Pilate, et al., might have reacted to the news of the empty tomb. Sending his smart and ambitious Tribune to investigate and prove that the disciples have stolen the body, makes for a good plot-line to bring Clavius (who just wants to advance in his career and then enjoy wealth and otium in the Roman countryside) from conventional pagan to potentially converted disciple.

The film's problem is that, of course, Jesus body will never be found. Neither will the authorities kill off or intimidate Jesus' disciples and so stifle the story that way. So exactly how is the story to end? Clavius improbably gets to witness Doubting Thomas's encounter with the Risen Lord and thereafter even more improbably tags along with the Eleven as they return to Galilee to reenact the rest of John's Gospel, plus a healing miracle imported from the earlier life, culminating in a version of Mathew's Ascension scene. In the Gospel story, no one was pursuing the apostles from jerusalem to Galilee, but the movie's fictionalized Roman pursuit give Clavius a chance to use his soldierly skills to keep the infant Church safe to preach another day. Short of becoming one of the Apostles himself, however, what is Clavius to do? The movie seems at time to be wanting to end but unsure of how to do so.

Still, very timelessness and universality of the historical Christian story lends itself to fictional thought experiments like this one. Risen  represents an admirable approach - and certainly a better one than some attempts, which skirt around the story's challenges and the inherently life-altering dimension of the experience.

Friday, February 19, 2016

In Zika's Shadow

The Zika virus keeps spreading. Until recently, I had never even heard of it. but now we all have, thanks to the terrible damage it apparently does to unborn children. No surprise, then, that the issue came up during Pope Francis' in-flight press conference! 

Paloma GarcĂ­a Ovejero, of Spain's Cadena COPE asked: Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

Regarding abortion, Pope Francis responded clearly and unequivocally: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. ... Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.

Regarding the "lesser evil" of avoiding pregnancy, however, the Pope referenced a purported 1960s precedent from Pope Paul VI: we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. 

Without really resolving the issue, the Pope seemed to leave the question somewhat open: On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

What "needs to be worked on"? Obviously finding vaccines "needs to be worked on." But what about the relevance and potential applicability of the supposed Paul VI precedent?

And, of course, there is always a significant conceptual and moral difference between generically "avoiding pregnancy" and specific methods of doing so. It is not the desirability of avoiding pregnancy that is primarily contested in this case, but rather the means to be employed in doing so.

I do not know the history of whether and how it actually occurred. But, if I understand it correctly, the purported Paul VI precedent applied to a case of religious sisters threatened by rape in a war zone employing measures in self-defense against the consequences of potential criminal acts perpetrated against them. In that case, Pope Francis said, "it was clear." In today’s turbulent world, perhaps there may be other similar instances in which this "clear" precedent might also apply. It is less clearly evident, however, how, if at all, it could apply to normal conjugal relations within marriage, where the issue is not self-defense against criminal activity but the prevention of disease. On the other hand, this is not exactly a new controversy. It has surfaced repeatedly in regard to the transmission of HIV. So however the discussion of this morally fraught topic goes, it is something which would inevitably have enormous ramifications for all concerned. Even the mere mention of it does!

But now that the issue is out there in this way in the media, presumably we can expect to hear a lot more about this. But, of course, complexity has seldom been the media's strength. And given the simultaneously sensationalist and superficial way religious issues tend to be covered in the media, we may expect to hear a lot - but not necessarily anything all that helpful.

Meanwhile, let's all hope for more successful mosquito control and medical progress toward a vaccine for preventing this terrible disease. That really would be helpful!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Pope vs. Trump

It was the top story on the PBS Newshour. Now, how often does that happen? How often does any religion story get that kind of priority? But, then again, how often does a pope appear to inject himself so personally and directly into an American political debate in an election year?

First of all, the context. This was during the Pope's in-flight interview, while on the plane flying home from Mexico, right after his dramatic Mass at the Rio Grande.

On the plane Phil Pullella of Reuters asked the Pope: "Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?"

So the question itself, as posed to the Pope, was a response to Trump's earlier criticism of the Pope as a "pawn" of Mexico on the issue of immigration. Pope Francis' response to that was: "Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.

Having dealt with that, then, the Pope continued: "And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt."

Clearly, whatever Pope Francis does or doesn't actually know about Trump the individual candidate, his response was specific to the question he was asked. If Trump's position is in fact what you, reporter, say it is, then that is not a Christian position.

The problem, of course, is that, while Trump's language may be more incendiary, his position on immigration, extreme as it may be, is in its fundamentals widely shared by other candidates - and voters - in his party as well. Some of Trump's Republican rivals have expressed discomfort with the extremism of Trump's proposals, but they have increasingly gravitated in practice to an anti-immigrant stance. For example, not that many years ago Marco Rubio was one of the Senators leading the effort for comprehensive immigration reform - a position he is now distancing himself from. So, while the question the Pope was asked was only about Trump the individual candidate and Trump's very extreme statements, the deeper religious and moral problem is way bigger than any one candidate and goes to the heart of his party's increasingly exclusivist and polarizing approach to American society as it has evolved for some time now.

That is the real religious and moral challenge embedded in this in-flight Q and A.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

At the Border

Pope Francis concluded his historic pilgrimage to Mexico today with a Mass in Ciudad Juarez, right at the border between Mexico and the US. Across the Rio Grande in El Paso, a large crowd also participated in the celebration, thus creating unity where politics has separated and divided. Indeed, the Pope ended his homily  by addressing his congregation across the border. 

"I would like to take this occasion to send greeting from here to our dear sisters and brothers who are with us now, beyond the border, in particular those who are gathered in the University of El Paso Stadium ... With the help of technology, we can pray, sing and together celebrate the merciful love that the Lord gives us and that no border can stop us from sharing. Thank you brothers and sisters at El Paso of making us feel like one family and one, same, Christian community."

The border as it presently exists is a fitting monument to US nativism, xenophobia, racism, and just plain old meanness of spirit. But even the border couldn't stop the Pope's blessing from reaching those on the US side who were disposed to receive it.

Celebrating the liturgy of this Lenten weekday, Pope Francis based his homily on the account of the Prophet Jonah's mission to Nineveh, and the Ninevites conversion and repentance.  "The great city of Nineveh, was self-destructing as a result of oppression and dishonor, violence and injustice," the Pope reminded his border-straddling congregation. So God sent Jonah "to wake up a people intoxicated with themselves."  To what "great city" and its "people intoxicated with themselves," is that message being addressed today?

The Pope did not allude to the historical site of Jonah's Nineveh, modern Mosul in Iraq, and victim of conquest by ISIS - part of a great regional conflict which has destabilized nations and sent peoples pouring across borders in search of security, creating yet another contemporary immigration crisis.

He did, however, directly address the immigration crisis he could see in front of him, that the could see in the ugliness of the border, where "there are thousands of immigrants from Central America and other countries, not forgetting the many Mexicans who also seek to pass over 'to the other side'. Each step, a journey laden with grave injustices: the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted; so many of these brothers and sisters of ours are the consequence of a trade in human beings." And he acknowledged "the work of countless civil organizations working to support the rights of migrants. ... the committed work of so many men and women religious, priests and lay people in accompanying migrants and in defending life. They are on the front lines, often risking their own lives. By their very lives they are prophets of mercy; they are the beating heart and the accompanying feet of the Church that opens its arms and sustains."

No one there would have been unaware of the US presidential election and of how one political party in particular is pursuing an anti-immigrant strategy that dishonors this country and divides us from our neighbors. 

This Lent, the story of Nineveh remains as relevant as ever.  "There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

President as Nanny

We are supposed to be electing a President (Chief Executive, Commander0in-chief, Leader of the Free World, etc.), but if one listens to the Republicans debate one would think we are electing a Nanny. Parents (those few who can afford to) hire a nanny to care for their children - to keep them safe. But, Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, we do not elect a President to "keep us safe." We elect Presidents to do all sorts of things - to "take care that the Laws be faithfully executed," etc. We elect Presidents to advance our national interests in the world, maintaining the peace if at all possible, defeating our enemies when and if necessary. All of that involves risk - sometimes enormous risk. Safety is, at best, a beneficial by-product of prudent politics and strategy.

But we live in a world where we want to be safe. Te kind of freedom to play and to explore which my generation enjoyed as children is now an historical memory (or, rather, forgotten history). Whether that makes for better adults will likewise be determined by history. The same mentality - taken to a previously unimaginable extreme - accounts for the nonsense on so many of our college and university campuses, where students (by definition one of the most privileged groups in our society) protest against feeling threatened if they hear something they disagree with, something that threatens their excessively narrow, pre-packaged world view and seek "safe spaces" to protect themselves from the real world we have conditioned them to be so afraid of.

So it may be no surprise that some interpret a President's job as to "keep us safe."

But it isn't.

A President's job is to lead the country, to challenge us as citizens and our representatives to address the problems the threaten and befuddle us. ("He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.") In the world beyond our borders, it is his job to use American power to promote our interests and preserve the peace, and (when that fails) to defeat our enemies. None of this happens automatically.None of this can happen without risk or danger. 

A mature country, a mature electorate, should speak with a mature voice, using mature language, when debating what we want in a President.