Friday, September 30, 2016

Reading Andrew Sullivan's "I Used To Be a Human Being"

The other day, I spent some "quiet time" - itself a very revealing neologism - reading and re-reading Andrew Sullivan's powerfully poignant and challenging article "I Used to Be a Human Being" in the September 19 issue of New York Magazine. But I actually found and read it not in print but on line, which is, of course, part of the problem!


Sullivan starts by describing his experience at a meditation retreat at a former Catholic novitiate in central Massachusetts, part of his search for healing from his technology addiction. (At a meeting I attended two years ago, someone came up with the great phrase "abuse of electronic devices" to describe our harmful over-indulgence in smartphones and other such technology - and abuse not of the devices but of ourselves and one another.)

Sullivan describes his "addiction" and its effects in stark terms: I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. ...Every minute i was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.

All this has been made possible, of course, by the ubiquitous smartphone, which, Sullivan reminds us, didn't even exist 10 years ago: The device went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade. However harmful finally to who we really are, this addiction, Sullivan suggests, is also deeply rooted in our human evolution: Since our earliest evolution, human have been unusually passionate about gossip. ...When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other - routed through our social networks - we are close to helpless.

Sullivan's account of his retreat experience is reminiscent of the spiritual awakening that a traditional religious novitiate often facilitated through silent encounter with nature. I was especially taken with his beautiful but simple description of beginning to notice things while walking through the forest:  I began to notice not just the quality of the autumnal light through the leaves but the splotchy multicolors of the newly fallen, the texture of the lichen on the bark, the way in which tree roots had come to entangle and overcome old stone walls. The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it — was foiled by an empty pocket. So I simply looked. At one point, I got lost and had to rely on my sense of direction to find my way back. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. Well, of course, I had always heard it, but it had been so long since I listened.

Listening, of course, is critical to social living - as social living is to authentic and fulfilling human life. You are where your attention is, Sullivan reflects. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

In the process, Sullivan notes, the oldest human skills atrophy. For all its economic efficiency, our online and automated life denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

From which Sullivan draws the relevant political conclusion (particularly pertinent in this present, particularly contentious political year): Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.

Borrowing an insight from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, Sullivan likewise links our technological transformation with our seemingly rapidly advancing secularism: Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

Our modern abandonment of any sense or experience of Sabbath, Sullivan cites, as one very recent contribution to our contemporary crisis that is simultaneously religious and human: The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are.

Sullivan the Catholic also offers some practical advice to Christian churches on how they can counteract this loss: If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

Sullivan concludes his essay with a description of his gradual re-immersion into technology in the year since his retreat, and ends with this warning: But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

I read Sullivan's essay twice - itself a challenge in our hyper-distracted world. And it occurred to me that someone should try to fashion an explicitly Catholic religious retreat based upon it. For it raises the right questions, suggests some of the right answers, then leaves us with the dilemma posed by the destructive world we ourselves have invented. and challenges us whether we are still responsive to the outcry of whatever is left of our souls..

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tuition-Free College

Listening this year first to Bernie Sanders and now to Hillary Clinton advocating for tuition-free college education, I am reminded of how we actually used to have that in this country - at least in some fortunate places. I am reminded too of how fortunate I was to live in such a place and so was able to get a quality college education, that I could never have afforded had I had to pay for it.

My alma mater - The City College of the City University of New York - was the oldest of what are now The City University’s 24 schools and was long considered the system’s flagship campus. Founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847, it was the first free public college in the United States, intended to provide access to free higher education based on academic merit to the children of New York’s poor immigrant and working-class families. And for over a century many second and third generation immigrant and working-class families made good use of the great opportunity which City College (commonly called “CCNY” or “City”) provided. Because of its high academic standards, City was sometimes even called “the proletarian Harvard.” No other public college has produced as many Nobel laureates as the 10 whom City graduated between 1935 and 1954, for example. During that same period, City was also well known for its left-wing political radicalism and activism, a place where Trotskyists debated Stalinists in the Shepard Hall (photo) cafeteria! That was before my time, of course, but when I started at City in 1968 it still enjoyed both an excellent reputation academically and a popular political perception as Berkeley East (from even before Berkeley became Berkeley)!

The unfortunate Mario Procaccino (a City College alumnus and John Lindsey's Democratic opponent in the 1969 mayoral election) famously said "City College is what New York is all about. ... That school is the soul of our city."

City College is located in Harlem, in a section known as "Hamilton Heights," on a hill north of Columbia University. When I was an undergrad there from 1968 to 1972, its two campuses spanned several city blocks from 130th to 141st Streets along Convent Avenue. The beautiful Gothic-style buildings on the North Campus had been built with intensely folded metamorphic rock taken from the excavations for the IND Subway line earlier in the century. Until the early 1950s, the less impressive, but greener, more campus-like South Campus, where I would end up taking most of my courses, had been the campus of the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. (Manhattanville’s alumnae included Rose Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, and Joan Kennedy.)

In 1969 (in the spring of my freshman year) a student takeover of part of the campus caused the administration to promise early implementation of “Open Admissions.” In the future, any graduate of a New York City high school would be eligible to enroll at one of the schools in the City University system. (This benefited me indirectly in 1972, the summer after I graduated, when I worked at City as a curriculum counselor for incoming students who were academically unprepared and required remedial classes.) In time, this changed state of affairs would change people's perceptions of the school. And at a time of urban social breakdown and diminished financial resources, one tragic result would be an end to the tradition of free tuition in 1976.

That, however, was all in the future when I enrolled as a freshman in September 1968. There were, of course, core curriculum requirements in math and science that had to be met. So I studied geology and astronomy, subjects that even a non-scientist like myself found somewhat interesting. (This was, after all, the great decade of space exploration that ended with the July 1969 moon landing!)  More to my liking, I took introductory courses in history, economics, sociology, and American Politics, and advanced to courses in International Relations, Russian history, Soviet Politics, and Sociological Theory. I also studied philosophy, literature, and Classical Mythology, and German.

Eventually, I chose to major in political science. Politics had always fascinated me. And, after all, this was the late sixties, when the very foundations of the conventional post-war political order were being undermined everywhere in the West by student protests and serious radical movements. City College, with its stellar faculty full of World War II era European refugees, was a perfect place to pursue such interests. I studied International Relations with a Czech refugee, who had served in the Czech Government-in-Exile during World War II. I took Comparative Politics with a Romanian-born expert on Central and Eastern European politics, who had made his scholarly reputation studying the Holocaust’s impact on Romania and Hungary. I studied Soviet politics and Marxist Critical Theory with an old German socialist, whose “New Trends in Marxism” seminar exposed me to the Frankfurt School and other contemporary “New Left” and psychoanalytic appropriations of Marxism. City also had some wonderful American-born faculty. There was Joyce Gelb, who taught American Politics, Marshall Berman, who authored The Politics of Authenticity and with whom I studied Ancient and Modern Political Theory, and George McKenna, who taught American Political Thought. Of course, I had never previously read a word of Plato or Aristotle, let alone Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, or Freud. So I had a lot of intellectual and even more cultural catching up to do. But I was an avid reader and an eager learner.

Both on and off campus, those were turbulent, violent years, not just in the United States but around the world. Student demonstrations and campus takeovers disrupted my spring semester in both 1969 and 1970, my freshman and sophomore years. If “Open Admissions” was the long-term consequence of the spring 1969 campus closing, the much less consequential effect of the spring 1970 campus riots was the administration’s decision to close for two weeks before the 1970 election, ostensibly in order to give students more of an opportunity to participate directly in the electoral process.

I don’t know many students really got very actively engaged in the election campaigns that fall. I did briefly volunteer to pass out leaflets for Arthur Goldberg, the Democratic candidate for Governor, who was challenging Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for a third term as New York’s Governor. Rockefeller had once unwisely said something to the effect that the Long Island Railroad would become the best in the nation. So, on a day when the LIRR was on strike, we passed out anti-Rockefeller leaflets to Long Island bound commuters caught in massive traffic jams. Rockefeller won anyway.

The late sixties and early seventies may not have been the best of times in human history, but it was a wonderful time to be a student. And I was able to be one because - and only because - of the existence of a tuition-free college. I was grateful then, and am, if anything, even more grateful  now!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Saint Wenceslaus and Social Solidarity

Christmas is still almost three months away. But one popular Christmas carol is especially appropriate on this day, when the Church calendar commemorates "Good King Wenceslaus." Historically, Saint Wenceslaus, martyred on this date by his pagan brother and now patron saint of the Czechs, was a 10th-century Duke of Bohemia - not quite a king. However, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I later conferred on Wenceslas the dignity and title of King, which warrants the references to him in the legends about him as King Wenceslaus - indeed Good King Wenceslaus.

It is not, however, Wenceslaus' ducal or royal status or even his martyrdom that the familiar Christmas carol specifically extols but his solidarity with the poor. The carol recounts the legend of how Wenceslas and his page braved the harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the day after Christmas ("the Feast of Stephen'). Along the way, the page found the trek in the snow too difficult and wanted to give up, but the saint encouraged him to follow in his holy footprints. 

The page, of course, is a stand-in for the rest of us, forever tempted to prioritize ourselves and and our individual and private preoccupations over the challenge of solidarity with others. 

By coincidence, his feast falls this year in the same week when the representative of a major American political party actually seemed to brag about not paying taxes, which he seemed to consider "smart." Obviously, American society - or at least some significant segment of it - is dangerously deficient in its commitment to social solidarity, as compared with the characters in the carol!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Poldark Returns

Season 2 of the BBC's new Poldark series (starring the perfectly cast Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark) debuted on PBS Sunday night - just three weeks after Season 2's British debut. In a two-hour long episode, the series brought us back to the story's hero at his lowest point and saw us safely through his trial and acquittal to resume his complicated relationship with his family, his social class, and the wider world of economically depressed late 18th-century Cornwall.

Of course, even though in his case all the forces of the establishment seemed so stacked against him, we all knew that Ross would get off somehow. The series could hardly continue if its hero and star had been hanged! So, for all the wonderful acting and suspenseful moments, the season opener was really just that - a stage-setter for whatever will follow in Ross's family, social, and business lives.

Two themes, however, really stood out, which have permeated the series throughout and will undoubtedly continue to structure our filtered experience of 18th-century Cornwall.The first, of course, is Ross's stubbornness, his (hot-headed at times) absolute refusal to make the most simple of sensible compromises with social convention, thus almost guaranteeing his conviction and execution. When he finally took the witness stand, armed with a very contrite statement written for him by his lawyer, Ross quickly abandoned that and launched into an eloquent defense of his actions against what to him seemed to be a corrupt establishment in service solely of the interest of the propertied classes (of which he himself is, of course, himself a member). Obviously, we are supposed to applaud his integrity and his courage. But, like his family and friends, we might also with he would try to be just a little bit more accommodating, a little bit more concerned about the adverse consequences of his righteousness on those he loves.  The question Ross's character poses is not just why Ross so often seems intent on being his own worst enemy, but the larger issue of what is integrity and what is self-righteousness and where and how does compromise fit in to an honest but also socially responsible life?

The second theme is the perennial one of the relationship between the coolest kid in the class (Ross) and his less charismatic (and jealous) companions who deep-down love him, and wish they were more like him, and really would like to be his friend, if only he would deign to let them. In the case of a George Warleggan, the comparison of himself with Ross leads to implacable hatred and opposition. In the case of cousin Francis it leads to an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, failure, and self-hatred.

Inseparable from these two powerful themes is the romantic challenge of a seemingly unending love triangle of Ross, Demelza, and Elizabeth - and its effects on Elizabeth's husband Francis and would-be suitor George. 

Add to these the wonderfully interwoven sub-plots (Dr. Enys, Verity, etc.) and the exquisite evocation of that late w8th-century world in turmoil, and Season 2 promises to be everythign Season 1 was and more. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

That PRRI Religion Report

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a very sobering report - which no pastor, parent, or other religiously concerned person should ignore - on the increasingly remarked phenomenon of the "Nones," that rapidly growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. The report, which is actually quite short and easy for the non-statistician to read and comprehend, is entitled Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion - and Why They're Unlikely to Come Back. It can be easily accessed online at

It wasn't all that long ago that the US was widely seen as the great outlier in the seemingly inexorable dynamic of secularization that has already transformed what was once Christian Europe. Either the US is (for whatever reason) belatedly just catching up with other "First World" societies, or somehow something else (more unique to the US) is at work here having a similar effect in what is really a very short time. In this regard, it is not entirely unlike the rapid - and (for that reason) until recently unexpected - radical transformation in popular attitudes toward LGBT people. In fact, there may well be a substantive connection between the two developments. At minimum, the two trends have proceeded in tandem as part of an overall societal transformation.  Hence the importance of studies such as this one.

According to the aptly named Exodus report, while only 25 years ago just 6% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, today it is 25%, which makes the "Nones" the largest identifiable "religious group" in the country. The numbers are even more frightening regarding young adults (ages 18-29), 39% of whom are now religiously affiliated. Among Catholics, the numbers are also very telling. some 31% of Americans claim to have been raised in a Catholic home, but only 21% identify as Catholics now.

As the young adult numbers might suggest, abandonment of one's religion seems to occur early in life. Of the Nones, 62% say they abandoned their childhood religion by age 18.

Particularly revealing are the reasons cited for leaving one's religion. The most mentioned reason was ceasing to believe in the religion's teachings. The second was having been raised in a family that was never that religious. The third was the experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gays and lesbians. Catholics in particular cited this third reason more than others did.

There is a lot more in the Report, but these fundamental findings should be enough to inspire some serious self-examination among pastors, parents, and other concerned about the future of religious faith in America.

In a world in which church attendance is no longer a mark of social respectability, it should come as no surprise that many of those who grew up in religiously relatively lukewarm families have taken the next step and gone all the way to becoming unaffiliated.  Still the number one reason given for disaffiliating is no longer believing church teachings. Of course, there have always been any number of reasons for unbelief, which have undoubtedly proliferated since the ascendancy of modern science.  But, while there may be many reasons why religious belief seems increasingly implausible to so many people, surely the fact that so many report simply ceasing to believe in religious teachings ought to challenge those whose responsibility it is to pass on the faith to the next generation to consider why we have been doing so poorly.  

Arguments about the language of the liturgy or whether we should all pray facing the same way or facing each other are not unimportant, but their salience diminishes if fewer and fewer people are even bothering to be there. And, while not everything can be blamed on the catastrophic collapse of  effective catechesis, surely several decades of that have taken their toll on the mere plausibility of religious belief among those on the receiving end of inadequate instruction.

And then there is the third reason given for leaving religion. When 29% in general (and 39% of those raised Catholics) cite religious negativity toward gays and lesbians as a factor, that certainly says something significant - not least, perhaps, about the prudence of some apparent alliances between religion and right-wing politics in recent decades. (An obvious counter-example worth recalling would be how the Church first fought against the liberalization of civil divorce laws, but then - having decisively and irreversibly lost that battle - it stopped fighting the issue in the political arena, while still retaining its own beliefs about marriage within the life of the Church.) 

This PRRI report raises important issues that are also themselves part of a larger and growing discussion about religion's changing role and uncertain future in American society. There are at least two recent books that go into these and related issues in a way which < I think, really makes them must reads for those who care about America's religious future. They are Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (Convergent Books, 2016) by long-time Newsweek Religion editor, Kenneth L. Woodward,  and  The End of White Christian America (Simon and Schuster, 2016) by PRRI's founding CEO, Robert P. Jones.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Great Chasm

We hear this familiar gospel parable [Luke 16:19-31] every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest or deacon, as he reads Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously all  dressed in purple. (At least we don’t have that problem today!)

Other than his wardrobe, we know very little about the rich man. He is sometimes named “Dives,” which is just the Latin word for rich – thanks to the opening words of the parable, Homo quidam erat dives (“There was a certain rich man”). In what we like to call the “real” world, it’s typically the rich whom we remember. They are the ones we look up to, admire, and cater to. But, in the kingdom of God, it is the poor who matter; so it is the beggar’s name that everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man serves as a sort of “everyman” figure. He could, perhaps, have been one of the complacent in Zion, whose self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption Amos harangued against. Or he could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society such as ours.

In traditional, pre-modern societies, where the amount of surplus wealth produced is low, there is usually a small upper class, a very small middle class, and lots and lots of poor people – not all as badly off as Lazarus, of course, but poor enough to be close to the margin. And, in such a society, there certainly would be beggars. And the danger of becoming a beggar would be a very real worry for the multitude of working poor, just barely getting by.

So the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood the parable. They could picture it. Beggars were visible, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) there was no avoiding them. Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side. But the parable suggests something more. It suggests that for the rich man side-by-side had become separate.

Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was especially wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that he obtained his wealth dishonestly or illegally. Within the narrow-minded world which wealth creates, he may have been seen as a fine, upstanding citizen. His failing in the parable is precisely that of that narrow-minded world which wealth creates, a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus, and his consequent personal failure to bridge the great chasm his wealth had created between himself and Lazarus. It’s not that he was particularly hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was disconnected and indifferent. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way so many live today. We may be citizens of the same country, but we live in separate neighborhoods and consume separate media, in what commentators call our separate silos of information.

In our increasingly privatized and individualistic culture, the very basis for and the extent of our shared social bonds and obligations to one another and society have become problematic to many.

In contrast, the biblical story highlights the essential solidarity of the human race in many ways, beginning with its accounts of creation itself, which reminds us, for example, how in the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of humankind. As the medieval author of The Imitation of Christ famously observed, whoever “seeks to have private possessions loses the things that are common.”

More recently, Pope Francis has stressed this point as one of the principal concerns of his pontificate: “As creatures endowed with inalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family.”

In Jesus’ parable, it was that indifference, rooted in wealth, that so decisively and disastrously separated the rich man from Lazarus. But then the rich man died, and then so did Lazarus - as indeed we all will one day die. It is appointed – says the Letter to the Hebrews - that human beings die once, and after this the judgment. This is the only parable in the Gospel in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person I have become over the course of my life.

And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed in life between himself and Lazarus is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.

The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his 5 brothers back home. Something of that sort famously does happen in a more modern parable - Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, with which I’m sure we are all familiar. There the rich man himself (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham relies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

The obviously intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – Jesus, the one telling us the parable. Our knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.

So, are we listening?

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 25, 2016.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hell or High Water

It has been a while since I have paid money to see a "western"-style crime film, but Hell or High water was well worth the wait - and the money. The movie follows two down-and-out West Texas brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of small-scale robberies against branches of a Texas Bank. Toby, a divorced father of two sons, has come up with this plan to pay off the mortgage and avoid foreclosure on their recently dead mother's ranch - a ranch which just happens to have oil on it - and then leave it to his sons, so that they can have a better life than he and his brother and their mother did. At one point he powerfully likens poverty to a disease passed on from generation to generation. 

Toby's plan is actually quite clever. They only steal loose cash in the cashiers' drawers. Then they exchange it for gambling chips at a casino, which they then turn back in for a check, which can masquerade as gambling winnings. His biggest problem, however, is his hot-headed older brother, recently out of prison, who complicates the plan by taking excessive risks, which eventually lead (abetted by the ambient gun culture) to wider confrontations and eventual killings. Clearly Toby is not a killer by inclination, whereas Tanner seems to find it all quite exciting.

Meanwhile, Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his half-Hispanic, half native American partner, are on their trail. Marcus, more than anyone else, seems to figure out the pattern to the robberies and so correctly guesses the final target.The various relationships and everyone's various interactions highlight the depressing lives and socio-economic conditions of the rural poor. That is what makes the brothers' plight somewhat sympathetic, despite their criminality. Toby in particular comes across as a sympathetic character. Needless to say, no one has a good word to say about the ultimate villain - the bank! Indeed, one telling scene is when Marcus asks some men in a diner across the street from a just-robbed bank, "Y'all been here for a while?" and gets the answer, "Long enough to watch a bank get robbed that's been robbing me for thirty years." That the system is malevolently stacked against them seems to be the common consciousness shared by all - except, of course, the villains who run the bank.

At the end, Tanner has been killed by Marcus, but no one has been able to pin anything on Toby, who has successfully executed his plan, saved the family ranch (with tis oil), set up a trust for his sons, and turned over the property to his family. Now retired, Marcus can't quite let go of the case (which cost his partner his life) and confronts Toby at the ranch. Marcus tries to figure out exactly why Toby did it and is surprised to realize that Toby himself has given everything away to his sons. They part, both mutually scarred, probably forever, by the experience.

In a year when American society seems to be rediscovering the plight of the poor white working class, this film sensitively highlights the socio-economic structures (institutionally represented by the banks) that have worked against the poor - generation after generation - but without sugar-coating the family dysfunction and outright pathology that increasingly accompany many of those lives.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Why Debates?

The first debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is just a few days away. Already I heard one channel promote its "all day coverage." ALL DAY? Why possible need could there be for "all day" coverage? But, more fundamentally, why do we need a presidential debate (let alone 3 of them) at all?

I was 12 at the time, so I can well remember the famous first debate - between Kennedy and Nixon - in 1960. Such debates were an unprecedented novelty then.  In the very first one, which the TV audience famously determined that Kennedy had "won," while radio audiences assumed on the contrary that Nixon had "won," the attractive TV image that Kennedy projected successfully wiped out Nixon's presumed advantage (as Vice President) as the more "experienced" candidate. Given the closeness of that election - the popular vote was something like 49.7% to 49.6% - the debate certainly seemed to have been a major factor. (And it solidified TV's superficial image-making role as the decisive factor in future presidential politics.)

Thereafter, conventional wisdom concluded that debates automatically help the outsider or underdog who benefits from being put on an equal platform with the incumbent or frontrunner. Once everybody realized that, it was problematic whether debates would ever be agreed to again. But then came the historically unique election of 1974. It was obviously in "outsider" Jimmy Carter's interest to debate. But the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, lacking electoral legitimacy and already further weakened by Ronald Reagan's primary and convention challenge, also needed the benefit a debate might offer. So suddenly we had a situation when both sides were open to reinventing the debates. In the end, Ford might have been better off not debating. He lost in a close election. Had he not inadvertently liberated Poland from Soviet domination in one of the debates, who knows how differently the election might have turned out?

President H.W. Bush apparently tried to avoid debating Bill Clinton in 1992, but was pressured to do so in part by the Clinton campaign's calling him "chicken." The result has been that debates between the two (or occasionally among three) presidential candidates have now become routinely expected standard election-year fare. And debates have commonly come to be seen as an opportunity to capture the candidates in a less scripted, less predictable, less candidate-controlled situation (none of which, of course, has anything to do with which of them would make a better president). 

While the debates themselves have often been quite boring, they may provide that rare, unpredictable insight into the personality and character of the candidate. But this year, surely, don't we already know enough about both candidates?

Recently, the veteran political commentator Elizabeth Drew (NYRB) had this to say on the subject of the debates (

The decisive event, they said, would be the first presidential debate on September 26; there would be two more debates but these commentators deemed the first the determining one. This is what’s wrong with the part that debates have come to play in our presidential elections. A one-off event shouldn’t begin to displace the weeks and months of the candidates’ efforts in the campaign. Worse, the qualities that are rewarded in a debate have virtually nothing to do with what’s required to run the government: the sharp one-liner in particular. What does that have to do with solving the great problems the country faces, with dealing with Congress and with foreign leaders? What was the significance of one of the most famous lines of past debates: “There you go again,” (Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter)?

Then there’s the press’s obsession with determining who “won.” I’ve participated in two debates and it never occurred to me that someone had won them: to name a winner is to make a subjective judgment based on…well, on what? The one-liner or the greater command of the issues? And what does “winning” a debate mean? The debates don’t reward depth of thought or understanding of issues. There’s no time for that. It appears that this year’s debates are being set up by the press to distort the election to a greater degree than ever.

And so, I ask again, Why Debates?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Autumn Ember Week and Praying for our Planet Australian-Style

If we still celebrated the Ember Days, this would be Autumn Ember Week. When the pre-conciliar Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy was laying the groundwork for Sacrosanctum Concilium, there was some consideration of suppressing or transferring the Rogation Days, but to the best of my knowledge absolutely no one was suggesting sending the Ember Days to the guillotine! In fact, at meetings in March and April 1952, the emerging consensus seemed to favor transferring the Rogation Day Litany from April 25 to one of the Ember Fridays or Saturdays, which obviously implied their likely survival. (Of course, no one could then foresee - as even Vatican II itself could not foresee - the widespread collapse into craziness that would characterize the second half of the 1960s.)

Like so many others, I have long lamented the gratuitous loss of the ancient seasonal Ember Days - days simultaneously so deeply expressive of our Latin liturgical tradition and so appropriately relevant to our contemporary concern for the care of creation. Now that they have been lost, we will likely never recover them, but we can still recall and appreciate their spiritual significance, their simultaneously traditional and contemporary message at the beginning of another autumn season.

The autumn Ember Days were traditionally observed on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after September 14, which this year would be today (September 21), September 23, and September 24.  As with all four sets of seasonal Ember Days, the Roman stational church for Ember Wednesday was Saint Mary Major, that for Ember Friday was the Holy Apostles, and that for the lengthy liturgy of Ember Saturday was Saint Peter's.

I actually remember being quite conscious of what turned out to be among the last Ember Days to be observed. It was 49 years ago, on September 22, 1967, and I was attending my grandmother's funeral - still happily celebrated in black with the traditional Subvenite at the beginning and Absolution at the end. But, as my teenaged attention wandered during the Mass, my eyes focused on the side altars where other priests were celebrating their individual Masses for the occurring Ember Friday - all in violet vestments.

Interestingly, in 2008, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference decided to recreate two "Ember Days" - one on the first Friday in March, the other on the first Friday of September. Not unlike the ancient Ember Days, the post-modern Australian autumn and spring "Ember Fridays" are intended as days to petition for favorable weather and fruitful harvest. According to the Diocese of Brisbane, the aim of these days is to connect those traditional petitions "with our responsibility to care for the earth as stewards of the world's resources" and "with a conversion of heart in relation to our care of the earth." Fasting and Abstinence - traditional Ember Day practices - are recommended "to encourage restraint in our exploitation of natural resources" and "solidarity with those who are disadvantaged, especially those who suffer through famine and the inequitable distribution of the world's goods."

Ember Days were traditionally also associated with ordinations. How much more fitting and expressive of the true spirit of sacred orders would it be to reconnect those celebrations with a penitential conversion of heart and with a renewed focus on the multiple challenges the Church and the Church's ministers face in teaching and - witnessing to - the care of our common home!

In our poisonously polarized political atmosphere, where some may feel afraid to speak out for either conversion of heart or the care of our common home, having some sort of restored Ember Days to observe might offer at least a hint of an alternative to the ceaseless celebration of secular consumerism and the exploitation of our increasingly fragile planet.

In that regard, it would be well worth recalling how the Book of Daniel's account of the "Three Young Men," who were cast into Babylon's fiery furnace for standing up to the pagan king, was regularly read as the fifth prophecy on each of the year's Ember Saturdays - not a bad antidote to our debilitating fear of confronting that same secular consumerism and exploitation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The People vs. Fritz Bauer

The recent German film The People vs. Fritz Bauer depicts the true story of  Fritz Bauer (1903-1968), a German-Jewish lawyer and Social Democrat, who, after spending the Nazi years in Denmark and then Sweden, returned to Germany after the war and became a lawyer in the West German justice system. When the film opens in 1957, Bauer is established in Frankfurt  as Attorney General in the State of Hesse. Both in real life and in the film, Bauer was preoccupied with finding and prosecuting Nazi war criminals - not much of a priority in 1950s West Germany and a cause of considerable conflict between him and much of the legal and political establishment. (Hence, The People vs.)

The film focuses primarily on his pursuit of Adolf Eichmann and the major role he played in helping Israel's Mossad both to find him and capture him in Argentina. Bauer goes to the Mossad because he realizes anyone else will likely alert Eichmann so he can escape. The danger Bauer faces is, of course, that working with a foreign intelligence agency could be construed as treason. As a closeted homosexual. he is also always in danger that his earlier sexual activities in Denmark could be uncovered, for which he could, of course, be criminally prosecuted in 1950s West Germany. That latter theme is highlighted in the film's fictional sub-plot about his friendship with a closeted, married young prosecutor on his staff, Karl Angermann, who becomes his primary collaborator.  That the Angermann plot is fictional becomes evident only at the end, when the concluding screen credits recount the rest of Bauer's story but make no mention of Angermann's fate (a surprise since we last see Angermann in German police custody). 

Later in life, Bauer went on prosecute the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the early 1960s, the main source of his fame. His role in Eichmann's capture only became public a decade after his death.

The 1961 Eichmann trial was a pivotal event (certainly for my generation) in society's actively encountering the significance of what later came to be called the Holocaust. In retrospect Eichmann's trial in israel seems to have been so right, but Bauer had wanted Eichmann tried in Germany as a way of exposing the larger Nazi network still at large and still influential. But neither the Adenauer government nor its American ally wanted to stir up that past. Indeed, the whole film offers a profound insight into the post-war regime of forgetfulness that dominated at that time - in part for very understandable reasons (e.g., the need to focus on a new enemy in the Cold War).

Crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated. As i have often observed, the only actual solution to war crimes is war - i.e., the military defeat of the perpetrators (which was what happened in 1945) It was only the Allies' victory and Germany's unconditional surrender that ended the Holocaust. But what to do afterwards is another and more complicated question. What is the right balance between the post-war pursuit of past war criminals and the very different - but not necessarily unimportant - imperatives of reconciliation and social unity to respond to new and different challenges?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Il sangue si è sciolto, Il miracolo è fatto.

"Il sangue si è sciolto, Il miracolo è fatto" ("The blood has liquefied. The miracle has happened.") announced Crescenzio Cardinal Sepe at 10:38 this morning in the crowded cathedral of Naples to the great joy of all.

Today is the feast of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius, 272-305. Patron of Naples), devotion to whom traveled to the New World with the multitude of immigrants from southern Italy and is now institutionalized in popular Italian street feste such as the one in New York's "Little Italy" neighborhood (where my mother was born almost a century ago).

Gennaro himself was bishop of Benevento, some 33 miles north-east of Naples, and was martyred at Pozzuoli during the "Great Persecution" under the Emperor Diocletian, the last serious Roman persecution prior to the conversion of Constantine. His relics eventually made their way to Naples, including the most famous of his relics, a vial of his dried blood, which is believed to liquefy miraculously three times each year - on this his feast day, on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May (to commemorate the transfer of his relics to Naples), and on December 16 (the anniversary of the day in 1631 when a flow of lava from Mount Vesuvius miraculously bypassed the city, thanks, it was believed, to his intercession).

The presence of Mount Vesuvius - a mere 9 miles from the center of Naples, highlights the paradox of Naples, a vibrant, exciting city, on a beautiful bay, in a setting of of incomparable natural beauty, blessed with  fertile soil, but forever threatened by one of nature's most dangerous and unpredictable destructive forces. In a sense, Naples is like a parable of life itself - the blessings and dangers of ordinary human life on earth as well as of the spiritual journey through life on earth to the kingdom of God. How fitting then that the Neapolitans turn so regularly to a saint who has already passed through the blessings and dangers of this life to assist them as they struggle to do the same! 

One can watch past years' celebrations of the miracle on YouTube. See, for example,

Friday, September 16, 2016

Equipollente Beatus?

Is the recently martyred 85-year-old French priest, Fr. Hamel, murdered by radical Islamic terrorists during the celebration of Mass now an equipollente Beatus? In other words, has Pope Francis "equivalently" beatified him? Is that what happened at the Pope's Mass Wednesday, on the feast of the Holy Cross, with the Archbishop and some 80 pilgrims from Hamel's diocese of Rouen?

"Equivalent" beatification (or canonization) occurs when, without following the complete process prescribed for beatification (or canonization) in the Church's law, a Pope confirms an existing cultus, authorizing official public veneration of someone already widely venerated at least locally. A good example of this was Pope Benedict XVI's "equivalent" canonization of Hildegard of Bingen in 2012. For a variety of reasons, back in the Middle Ages, Hildegard's formal process never quite got completed. Even so, she was widely, if unofficially, seen as a saint - especially in Germany. Pope Benedict remedied the situation by a papal decree confirming her cultus and recognizing her feast day (September 17). This made it possible for him to proclaim her a Doctor of the Church. (Hildegard and Saint John of Avila were both proclaimed Doctors in Saint Peter's Square at a ceremony I was privileged to attend with a pilgrimage group from New York on October 7, 2012.)

A year later, Pope Francis famously "equivalently" canonized Saint Peter Faber, one of the early Jesuits who for some reason had been passed over when his early Jesuit colleagues had gotten canonized in the normal way. So there is nothing novel about "equivalent" beatification or canonization - apart, obviously, from its relative infrequency. The complex formal process remains the norm, but there are exceptions (usually in cases like Hildegard and Peter Faber) where an "equivalent" action by Apostolic Decree seems appropriate.

What makes this instance so surprising is, of course, that Fr. Hamel is not some long-ago and long venerated figure, who, for some reason, never made it through the normal process. Instead he is a very recent martyr, in whose case the normal process could easily be carried out, if desired by the Church, even in an expedited manner.

Actually, two relevant things were explicitly said by the Pope Wednesday. In his very fine homily, Pope Francis spoke of martyrs and martyrdom, of how Christians continued to be martyred today, and called Fr. Hemel "part of this chain of martyrs." And, later in his homily, he referred again to "this example of courage, along with the martyrdom of his life," and then went on to say, "He is a martyr, the martyrs are blessed."

Even more strikingly, after the Mass, the Pope apparently authorized the Archbishop of Rouen to permit images of Fr. Hamel in Rouen's churches and pre-emptively answered the obvious objection by saying to the Archbishop, "If anyone says you don't have the right to do it, tell them the Pope gave you permission."

Normally, in the case of an "equivalent" beatification, one would expect a written Apostolic Decree, which would not only confirm the Blessed's cultus but would also assign him a day in the calendar. That may yet come. In view of what the Holy Father said yesterday, we should perhaps not be surprised if it does come. And what a beautiful benefit to the Church that would be!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Feelings vs. Facts in Politics

"Feelings, not facts, are what matters in this sort of campaigning. Their opponents' disbelief validates the us-versus-them mindset that outsider candidates thrive on." That sad observation comes from the pages of the September 10-16 issue of The Economist. But it could easily have come from the pen or the lips of any honest observer of our current politics - or, more broadly, any honest observer of our culture in the decades since therapeutic values displaced truth from its traditional position of primacy in civilized societies.

Of course, in our private lives people often modify or circumvent the truth to avoid unnecessarily insulting or hurting someone's feelings.  Generally speaking, the desire to avoid gratuitous insults or hurting other people's feelings is a commendable desire. Obviously, no one should ever take personal pleasure in insulting or hurting anyone's feelings or should aspire to do so. If acknowledging the facts and telling the truth has that unhappy result, we naturally weigh all the factors and try to balance different outcomes with multiple considerations in view.

But that has to do with our private individual lives, where the key word is unnecessarily. In a political campaign, it is precisely truth and facts which are so necessary, if in fact voters are to be able to make informed and wise decisions on which the future of the country - and even the world - will rest. Such decisions will be well informed and wiser to the extent that they transcend the limits of feelings. Unnecessarily hurting anyone's feelings always remains undesirable, but the calculus of what is necessary shifts in favor of telling the truth when the public good is at stake - even if, in our contemporary cultural context, truth will perhaps no longer be recognized as a common category by those who inhabit their own separate information silo where facts are pre-determined by their feelings.

An interesting illustration of this is the ridiculous media frenzy about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's recent "basket of deplorables" remark. What she now so famously - or infamously - said was:

We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here; I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas, as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Now, if I were a candidate, heariing myself say "grossly generalistic" might have caused me to pause before going any farther. Could, perhaps, the same or a similar point be made more precisely, less "grossly generalistic"? Couldn't she simply have said some or many of her opponent's supporters are deplorable while some or many of her opponent's supporters are people "we have to understand and empathize with as well"? Obviously from a factual perspective the gross generalization here was to measure the two "baskets" as equal halves. To propose a precise number - or a percentage - easily risks inaccuracy and opens one's larger argument up to greater criticism. That possibility would have been avoided simply by saying "some" or "many" instead of "half."

But, not satisfied with criticizing her for saying "half," many commentators have gone wildly critical of her for having supposedly insulted voters - as if her opponent hadn't been doing that all year! Or, more to the point, as if voters were coddled college students huddling in "safe spaces" because they are too fragile to hear anything (either true or false) that might possibly hurt their feelings - or the feelings of even a few of them!

Largely lost in such fulminations is the substantive issue of whether or not the claim is true. Are some of her opponent's supporters racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it? And are some of her opponent's supporters people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change? 

Prescinding from numbers and percentages, does anyone seriously doubt that this is an arguably factual description of a notable part of the contemporary electorate? Haven't we been reading and listening to such analyses from all sorts of commentators from all over the political spectrum for the greater part of a year? Any intelligent analysis of the present state of American - and especially Republican party - politics has to recognize the reality of both these constituencies and consider their implications for American politics going forward.

It is one thing for the Trump campaign - as a campaign strategy - to feign umbrage at the ostensible insult to the feelings of some of his supporters. It is quite another thing for analysts and commentators to continue our disastrous descent into the primacy of feelings over facts.