Sunday, January 29, 2017


On a recent visit to a local bookstore, I picked up a copy of Conclave, by British novelist Robert Harris, noted for his fictionalized accounts of power and its corruptions. Since the book was about ecclesiastical politics and was on sale at 50% off, I bought it - and quickly read it. It is the sort of book that someone interested in both religion and politics and their intersection might be easily attracted to and would find interesting reading. For 280 pages, the novel takes us through the events following the death of a pope and the contentious and religiously, politically, and personally polarized conclave that follows. 

The conflicts and divisions (seen mainly through the perspective of the Cardinal Dean, Cardinal Lomelli) are what we might expect. They present a plausible portrayal of the conflicts and divisions in the contemporary Church, filtered in the novel through the personal ambitions and rivalries of different cardinals participating in the conclave. The unexpected arrival of a hitherto unknown cardinal (named by the deceased pope in pectore) predictably at first gives the novel a kind of vaguely Shoes of the Fisherman feel, which creates a certain expectation of how it will end, an expectation that persisted in my mind throughout, despite all the twists and turns and personal ups and downs of the plot  And, as different papabili rise and fall in the balloting and are eventually eliminated by a cleverly constructed series of personal scandals and various political machinations that punctuate the otherwise routine sequence of rituals and ballots, the book does indeed seem to set us up for a predictable outcome. Then comes a shocking and radically challenging six-page finale which no one, no matter how attentive to contemporary ecclesiastical conflicts, would likely have expected (and which I will not reveal lest I spoil the book for anyone).

So unexpected was the ending that I almost think of the novel as two separate stories. The first is a well-crafted, entertaining, and at times insightful, but altogether conventional account of the explosive mix of spirituality, religion, ideology, and personal and national ambitions, in spite of which the Holy Spirit may yet providentially produce an inspired outcome The second suggests a scenario so implausible and so spiritually and religiously problematic that (at least for the reader who retains a spiritual and religious perspective on the subject) completely cancels the conveniently providential interpretation of the first story, submerging it in moral ambiguity anticipated by - but now far exceeding - the moral ambiguities that characterized the first story. The joy of a stereotypical happy ending gives way to unexpected and highly problematic irony, reflected in the (literally ironic) statement: "The Holy Spirit had done its work. They had picked the right man."

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Catholic School Memories

As Catholic communities throughout the United States observe this year's Catholic Schools Week, it is a commonplace to acknowledge that that fewer Catholic children attend a Catholic school today than was the case 50-60 years ago, in what we might recall as a kind of "golden age" of Catholic education in America. But for those who do the benefits are still evident. Attending a Catholic school cannot guarantee that one will continue to identify as a Catholic and actively practice the faith as an adult, but it does seem to make a significant difference. And, for those coming from poorer backgrounds, Catholic schooling can also make a marked difference in their future socioeconomic status. In short, Catholic schools continue to rank among the American Catholic Church's most admirable successes.  

All of which makes me think back to my own experience as a Catholic school pupil in a very different time. 

In 1950s New York where I grew up, parish and neighborhood were largely one and the same and were in many ways largely self-contained communities. Of course, people went out of their neighborhoods to work elsewhere in the city, and the wider world's influence was certainly felt within those communities. But, for most of us kids, most of our day-to-day needs, both social and spiritual, seemed to be met there in the parish. Such neighborhoods were overwhelmingly hard-working blue-collar, working class communities – at a time when strong unions and the general post-war prosperity instilled the forward-looking optimism that goes with a sense of collective upward mobility.

The parish school itself (see photo above) was an old, early 20th-century building, barely able to accommodate the 1400 or so students enrolled in it in my time. In winter, the heat sometimes didn’t work, and we would sit in class with our coats on. Such privations would be unacceptable today, but then they seemed perfectly normal, completely coherent with how we lived – in apartment buildings where likewise the heat often didn’t quite work in winter! 

As for the Sisters who taught us, religious life - apart from celibacy and not having children of one’s own – did not seem harder than the lives most working people lived at that time, and in some respects it may even have seemed more secure. But surely teaching anywhere from 50 to 60 kids five days each week had to be a real challenge. Some of my teachers, my 8th grade teacher, for example, were quite experienced. Others were inevitably less so. For example, for my 5th grade teacher, we were her first class. The amazing thing about the parochial school system in those days was that putting a girl in a habit and sending her into a crowded classroom barely out of novitiate and telling her to control and teach a class of more than 50 kids somehow managed to work – and really worked quite well. As I remarked at the time of my 50th High School reunion in 2015, we became judges and lawyers, policemen and priests, teachers and truck-drivers.  So, in that sense certainly, school did its job and did it very well. Again, what made it all work so well was that it was coherent with the rest of our world. Adults at that time fully supported the school and the Catholic sub-culture it represented, and they valued the Sisters and so almost always sided with them.

It was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations, starting with gender roles and family life and moving onward and outward from there. Not everyone benefited equally from those rules and expectations. For some, in the end the burdens may have outweighed the benefits. But, for the majority, the burdens seemed bearable and paid off as guideposts toward a reasonably predictable and stable way of life.  In the half-century and more that followed, enormous economic and cultural changes would eviscerate the opportunities available for working class people with modest educational background and radically diminish their prospects for financial and social stability in successfully functioning families – something recent events, in particular the 2016 election, have made our society so much more conscious of. Social change always has winners and losers, and we should never pretend otherwise.

Parochial schools in those days were fairly basic. We had no kindergarten, just 8 grades. So in the fall of 1953, my mother took me to the local public school for 1st grade. Then, the following year, I started 1st grade again at parish school. (Why I could start 1st grade in public school but not in the parish school I can’t say, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the overcrowding in the Catholic school. This was the post-war “baby boom,” after all!) 

Unlike the public school, which involved a fairly long walk back and forth, the parish school was just across the street. I had laywomen as teachers in grades 1, 3, and 4, and Dominican Sisters in all the other grades. The school was so crowded that classes were half-day sessions through grade 5. By that time, a new parish high school had been built, and the old high school building became part of the elementary school, virtually doubling the amount of space available. Midway through 3rd grade, I was “skipped” to the middle of the 4th grade. Having students “skip” a grade was also, I suspect, one more way of dealing with the widespread overcrowding!

I most certainly did not want to “skip.” I craved stability, and being wrenched out of my class and dropped down into the middle of a grade, the first half of which I had already missed was certainly traumatic. In particular, what I had missed that first term had been long division – something I struggled with for quite some time. I cried a lot that spring, struggling with my long-division homework. But, long-division aside, I liked school. Each September, when school resumed and we got our new textbooks, I rushed to read through the entire history book as quickly as possible, so eager was I to learn, so in love was I with other times and other places.

It was, of course, the height of the Cold War. We were all caught up in the fear of communism and of nuclear war, a danger brought home to us by the semi-annual civil defense drills, when – at the sound of the air-raid siren - we would all crawl under our desks at school (or run and hide in a nearby building if it was summer and we were playing in the park).

Needless to say, in a 1950s parochial school, it was not politics but religion that permeated every day of the school year and every subject of study. We prayed at the beginning and the end of the day (and before and after lunch). We recited the Morning Offering in the morning, various other prayers throughout the course of the day, and an Act of Contrition at day’s end. (Was that because we had sinned so much at school?) Whenever one of the priests came into the classroom to speak to us or to our teacher, before he departed we would reverently request his priestly blessing. Then we would all (including Sister) dutifully drop to our knees while Father raised his hands in a semicircle and then made the sign of the cross over us, saying Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritu Sanctus. Meanwhile, from celebrating Our Lady’s birthday on September 8, to the daily Rosary in October, decorating the crib at Christmas, and making the Stations of the Cross in Lent, all the way to Mary’s annual May Crowning at the end of that month, the calendar followed a set cycle of taken-for-granted devotions that punctuated the year and marked the recurring rhythm of months and seasons.

And, of course, there were the special life-cycle celebrations for which the school faithfully prepared us. On Saturday, June 4, 1955, at an 8:00 a.m. Solemn High Mass, I made my First Communion. But what I actually remember most about my First Communion was all the hours we spent practicing beforehand. The Sisters were not about to leave anything to chance!. As for the actual act of Communion itself - kneeling on the altar step to receive the sacred Host on my tongue, as the priest prayed, Corpus Domini nostri, Jesu Christi custodiat anuman tuam in vitam aetaernam, Amen – that memory is much less vivid. Perhaps that is because it merges in memory with so many other subsequent trips to the altar rail. For many of us in my generation (brought up post-Pius X), that would be at least once a week. That was a lot of Communions! 

As was the norm at that time, I had made my First Confession the day before my First Communion.  After that, confession also became another regular routine. On the Thursday before the First Friday of every month, the whole school marched over to church for confession. What a trial we must have been for the poor priests who had to listen to our trivial offenses for hours on end! I have often wondered if that experience may help account for why so many in my generation retained so little appreciation for this sacrament and approach it so rarely!

The other life-cycle sacrament was, of course, Confirmation, which I received in 5th grade on Sunday, September 22, 1957. The most memorable thing about that was the Bishop – a Dutch Augustinian, who held the exalted post of sacristan to Pope Pius XII. (A year later, he would be the one to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction - better known now as “Anointing of the Sick” - to the dying pope, a service he would repeat in 1963 for Pope Saint John XXIII.) He visited our parish to consecrate the finally finished upper church and to celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee Mass, and so must also have been impressed into service for that year’s confirmation class.

But much more important to me than confirmation in my life at that time was becoming an altar boy. In those days, it was considered a great privilege to serve Mass. I eagerly went with my classmates to the rectory chapel where we practiced the complex maneuvers of moving the missal from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side and then back again, carrying (and kissing) the cruets with the wine and water, ringing the bells, walking with the priest at the altar rail carrying the communion plate, and so much more. And, of course, there was the Confiteor and all the other Latin responses to learn, starting with Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam!

Serving as an altar boy – at Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, Low Masses, Sung Masses, Nuptial Masses, Funeral Masses (for which we got out of an hour or more of school), Benediction, Stations of the Cross, Forty Hours, and the crowning event in 8th grade, Christmas Midnight Mass – was among the more unambiguous joys of my Catholic school boyhood.

Unless one was serving at an earlier or later Mass, all of us were required to attend the Sunday 9:00 a.m. Children's Mass, at which each class sat in its assigned pews. We went to Communion in perfect formation, and at the end genuflected together in response to Sister's "clicker," before exiting the church again in perfect formation.

Once I was in high school and could go to any Mass I wanted on Sundays (in a parish with 13 Sunday Masses, I usually attended the 11:00 “High Mass.” I loved the music, but above all I loved the ritual, beginning with the Asperges, when the priest appeared in an appropriately colored cope and went up and down the main aisle sprinkling the congregation with holy water. I suppose I was already was developing into an embryonic liturgical enthusiast!

Since I went to the parish high school, that transition was less abrupt than it might otherwise have been. School was still just a block away, and the priests who formed much of the faculty were already familiar from the parish where I had served their Masses as an altar boy. We were about 30 in a class, and many classmates were new guys from other parishes.

Our principal liked to say that one should learn as much in four years of high school as in eight years of elementary school. The principal was also our math teacher, and he was devoted to the “new math.” as it was then called. In fact it was so “new” then that for the first month or so of my freshman year we had no textbook and had to used mimeographed copies of the first few chapters of the text until the books finally arrived! We also took lots of standardized tests on various Saturdays. Such tests were the rage at the time and especially loved by our principal who aspired to heighten the school's academic standard.

Then as now, sports were an important part of high school life and of the social hierarchy adolescents (with adult connivance) create for themselves. But my extra-curricular activities were safer ones like the school newspaper, the yearbook, and the annual school musicals.

In 1929, in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, Pope Pius XI had warned against coeducation.  My elementary school classes were co-ed through 7th grade, but we had separate boys’ and girls’ sections in 8th grade – almost as a rehearsal for high school. Unlike the many exclusively all boys’ or all girls’ schools, our high school was what was then called “co-institutional.” In a “co-institutional” school, both boys and girls were enrolled and shared the same building, but in separate “Departments.” These were in effect separate schools each with its own separate faculty and administration, its own separate entrance and stairway, separate lunch periods, and of course completely separate classes in our separate sections of the building. The system had its advantages and its disadvantages, as any system does.
Other than attendance at school Masses and the annual Holy Week retreat in the lower church, one of the very few official school activities in which boys and girls participated together was the annual school musical. Each year, the school put on a variety show, directed by someone who went from school to school putting on such programs. These were light-hearted musical reviews, with corny titles like Just for Kicks (“JFK”) in 1961 and Mad About Manhattan in 1962. Being in the “chorus” of those shows every year was for me one of the highlights of the spring term. To be sure, I didn’t discover any latent talent, but I had a great time and genuinely enjoyed the whole collaborative project, both rehearsals and performances, as well as the “cast party” on the final night, at which one of my favorite priest-teachers would get up and sing The Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

It was a very different time - virtually another world. But it suggests that when school and surrounding environment are coherent with one another, great things can be accomplished!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Chosen Instrument

In 1954, Pope Pius XII's Commission that was preparing for the eventual reform of the sacred liturgy discussed - seriously - the abolition of today's feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Several speakers seemed to favor reducing its rank and combining it with the Commemoration of Saint Paul (at that time another Pauline feast still celebrated on June 30). One Monsignor, however, highlighted the importance of Paul's conversion in the history of the Church, which he felt rendered the feast "indispensable." Fortunately, for whatever reason, that argument eventually prevailed. And so we still celebrate the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul today.

Pius Parsch called Paul's conversion "a most decisive moment in the development of God's kingdom on earth." After the Ascension and Pentecost, the only moment in the Acts of the Apostles as decisive as Paul's conversion would have been the "Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). But in the complex collection of events subsumed under that heading, Paul's role was paramount. 

Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. Indeed, if the saint was a martyr, his or her death is itself often the principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, and the two are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, we have - thankfully still - this additional celebration of St. Paul, focused on the event in his life that we commonly call his “conversion.” That great event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared, highlighting what it means for someone to be converted to Christ and to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples. 

Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew well educated in the Law and a Pharisee, a member of the 1st-century lay group most zealous about Jewish religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from the Diaspora. (More Jews lived outside of Israel than in it at that time.) He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.

All of this proved to be so very important, because one of the defining issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how they should relate to one another within the one and the same community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world - the Roman Catholic Church.

What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendants and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the same God whom Paul had always served so enthusiastically as a Jew. What changed was that now Paul now recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.

And because the converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized that there need be no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people.

Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”  But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been initially addressed to him – as we also must do, as the Church continues to fulfill its destiny to become a truly global community in which faith in Christ simultaneously transcends and accommodates the diverse multiplicity of human cultures, languages, and ways of life.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Silence (the Movie)

The Augustinian Fathers who staffed my home parish and taught me in high school were part of a province which included a mission in Japan. So at a fairly early age I learned about the terrible persecution of Japanese Catholics that began with the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597 and the amazing story of the Christians who somehow secretly maintained the faith in clandestine communities without priests (and hence without any sacraments except Baptism and Matrimony) until the re-opening of Japan to foreigners in the late 19th century. The "miraculous" (as it seemed to Blessed Pope Pius IX at the time) survival of this underground Catholicism for some 250 years amazed the world.

The Japanese persecution of the Church and the moral dilemmas it created form the historical background for Martin Scorsese's new film Silence, based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 Tanizaki prize winning novel of that name. A Japanese Catholic, Endo seems to have been acutely conscious of Catholicism's marginal status as an imported Western religion in Japan, a theme which emerges as central in the film. The title, of course, refers to God's silence in the face of human suffering, a popular mid-20th-century theme in literature and film. (I think back, for example, to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's many religiously themed films.)

The story starts in Macau when the Portuguese Jesuit superior there learns that Father Cristovao Ferreira has committed apostasy in Japan. Unwilling to believe this, two of Fr. Ferreira's former students, Fathers Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) set out for Japan to find him. Once there (guided by a Japanese Christian who repeatedly lapses and then repents), they are sheltered by and minster to a grateful community of Japanese Christians, but their presence brings the government persecutors closer. Several native Christians are tortured and killed. The two priests separate, but they are themselves eventually captured, and more Japanese Christians are tortured and killed. Fr. Garrpe dies a martyr, but Fr. Rodrigues is targeted by the authorities to follow Ferreira in publicly abandoning the faith, which he eventually does. Having first called Ferreira a disgrace, Rodrigues finally follows him in repeated apostasy and an apparently frustratingly empty life as a married Japanese Buddhist.

The movie takes a long time (too long?) telling its story, and Endo's theme that Japan is a "swamp" in which Christianity cannot easily take root is reflected physically in the apparent dreariness of the setting.

The story seems to want us to focus on how Rodrigues should respond to the tragedy unfolding around him, whether apostasy represented a morally legitimate response on his part, whether what purports to be Christ speaking to him at a critical moment is an authentic inspiration or rather a temptation from Satan. But these questions can be asked and answered only against the background of the martyrdom of the lay Japanese Catholics. In keeping with Endo's anxiety about whether a Western religion can really take root in Japan, the missionaries are invited to analyze and question how authentic the faith of the Japanese really is. Yet the Japanese converts' faithfulness to what they have been taught, their reverence for the priests, their evident love and desire for the sacraments, and finally their silent but heroic witness as martyrs speak volumes about their actual faith, however unsophisticated they may be in their appropriation of it. Whether intended or not, the film sets up a contrast between the simple faithful who accept martyrdom - certainly not joyfully, but certainly faithfully - and the more sophisticated priests, whose theological and cultural sophistication fails them and who in the end fail in fidelity. Paradoxically, the story suggests that the imported Western faith may have been able to plant deeper roots among the Japanese converts than among some of the Jesuits themselves!

Of course, not everyone is a hero. Not everyone is ready to accept martyrdom in any age. Our modern sensibility makes us uncomfortable judging those who choose an alternative when faced with difficulties we ourselves do not have to face. The tragic/comic figure of Kichijiro, the Christian who lapses and betrays Rodrigues and who constantly comes back to confess may represent one such, perhaps not atypical alternative. And as long as Rodrigues remains Christian, he accepts Kichijiro's repeated repentance and absolves him, but then he no longer does so after his own apostasy. 

Rodrigues' contemporaries would no doubt have been horrified by his apostasy, as he himself was initially by Ferreira's. Only our sentimental age which would reduce religion to therapy can comfortably re-interpret it as a process of discernment. But even the film negatively presents Rodrigues' post-Christian life in Japan, portraying it as meaningless and vacuous and anything but heroic or admirable.

Our modern sensibility seeks a more satisfying ending, which is presumably the point of Rodrigues' wife sneaking a cross into her dead husband's hand in his coffin, leaving us to hope that perhaps he persevered in the faith at least at some level.

What we can know, however, what history tells us, is that the Catholic faith did survive in the "swamp" of Japan through the perseverance of silent generations of lay men and women, and that, however marginal a Western import it may still appear, it does still survive as a faithful witness there now.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

President Trump

The first Presidential Inauguration I can recall was President Eisenhower's 2nd Inaugural in 1957. Actually, I don;t recall the Inauguration at all, just watching the parade. The first one I can really remember was, of course, John Kennedy's in 1961, which fell on on a snowy Friday that closed school, freeing me to watch the whole event from start to finish. Even now Kennedy;s inaugural stands out more vividly in my memory than any of the subsequent ones.

Nowadays, the media covers the arrivals not just of the principals but of almost everyone else. And with the ceremony moved since 1981 to the West Front of the Capitol, that means lots of footage of people climbing up and down seemingly endless stairs inside the building on the way from the east entrance to the west.

That said, the inaugural ritual still really revolves around three highly symbolic moments. The first is the arrival of the president-elect at the White House, his welcome by the outgoing president, and their ride together to the Capitol. (See CNN photo above). This tradition, which dates back to Jackson and Van Buren in 1837 is rightly regarded as one of the great symbolic rituals of democratic governance and the principle of the peaceful transition of power. (The practice of the outgoing president actually coming outside to wait for and welcome the president-elect in the north portico is actually a newer addition to the tradition, dating back only to 1961).The second is, of course, the actual swearing-in (a constitutional requirement) and the inaugural address, both of which date back to George Washington's 1st inaugural in 1789. The inaugural address is the substantive as opposed to symbolic part of the ceremony, suggesting the tone the new Administration aspires to set. The third is the very new tradition of the now former president's formal departure from the East Front of the Capitol. (When I first started watching inaugurations. the new president left the stand and went to his congressional luncheon, while the now retired president was more or less left on his own). 

Unsurprisingly, the first and third ritual moments were well executed and even mildly moving, while the oath-taking (complete with Hail to the Chief and 21-gun salute) were what one would expect. It was the speech that everyone was waiting for - to hear how the new president would interpret the ritual and apply it to the practical politics of governing. 

My first reaction to President Trump's address was that it sounded more like a campaign speech than an inaugural address. I assume that was the intention - to make clear that the radical populist agenda on which Trump campaigned was for real and that he does in fact intend to govern differently. In this regard, the crucial reference was when he said that the ceremony was not about merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another - but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. Historically, Donald Trump had never been a Republican, and he never really campaigned as one. He was always more like an Independent candidate who, instead of running independently, had successfully taken over the Republican party as a vehicle for his campaign.

The speech served notice - on the Republican elite as much as on everyone else - that Trump, who ran as a nationalist populist, plans to govern as one. Were he historically oriented, he might have referred to himself in Roman terms as tribunus plebis. A more proximate - and American - analogy would be Andrew Jackson, probably the most nationalist populist president (successfully so) we've ever had.

Jackson, of course, counts as the second founder of the Democratic party (after Jefferson). The irony is that today's Democratic party - itself increasingly uncomfortable with Jackson's legacy because of its commitment to identity politics - has in fact largely abandoned much of the substance as well as the style of Jackson's democratic movement and the tamer version of nationalist populism which sustained the Democratic party until relatively recently in its identity as the party of the "common man." Strains of that still survive, of course. One could quite easily picture Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren composing parts of Trump's speech - more so than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. 

It was a divisive speech in that it spoke primarily to Trump's nationalist populist base - those who feel (with some good reason) that they have been the losers in the transformation of American society, their economic and social interests ignored and their culture and morals contemptuously looked down upon by the condescending elites who have been among the winners in the transformation of American society. But, just as Barack Obama spoke to his own constituencies (even mentioning atheists) at his inaugural, it should come as no surprise when Trump speaks to his constituency at his.

Of course, when he promises I will never, ever let you down, Trump is certainly raising the expectations of his hearers higher than they might have otherwise dared to hope. He had better make good on many of his promises, or the disappointment and anger at yet another betrayal will be an even greater challenge to President Trump and the rest of the ruling political establishment.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Prayer on Inauguration Day

During my 2005 sabbatical summer at Saint George's House, Windsor Castle, we dutifully prayed for Queen Elizabeth II at daily Morning Prayer and Evensong, which we recited together in the Garter stalls of Saint George's Chapel. Of course, England has an Established Church (of which the Queen is the Supreme Governor). So praying for the Queen according to The Book of Common Prayer was, well, as it should be. On the other hand, we don't have an established Church in the United States. So when and how to pray for the our governmental leaders may seem less obvious. 

That we should do so, however, should also be obvious. First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Paul's prescription to Timothy was consistent with the common 1st-century Jewish practice of offering a daily sacrifice for the Emperor in the Jerusalem Temple and reflected the early Christian appreciation of the civilizational benefits associated with social and political community. 

At the beginning of the American political experiment, the first Catholic Bishop of the United States understood and articulated both our dependence upon government and our responsibilities toward it. In 1789, Pope Pius VI  appointed John Carroll (cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence)  the first Bishop of the Baltimore. (He would become Baltimore's first Archbishop in 1808). On November 10, 1791, Bishop Carroll composed this famous prayer to be recited in parishes throughout the United States. It is still well worth reciting - especially as this Inauguration Day dawns

We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his Excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Looking Back at the Obama Presidency

Today is the last full day of Barack Obama's presidency. It has been an eventful 8 years - even if not the transformative time the President originally might be. For example, far from heralding a post-racial America, the mere fact of an African-American president seems to have driven a not insignificant segment of white America to distraction, the most extreme example of which was the racist "birther" movement which sought to de-legitimize the President by questioning his status as a natural-born citizen. 

And tomorrow the leading proponent of that lie will be inaugurated our 45th President. So much for a post-racial society!

Obama will always be remembered in history as the first non-white American president, and that is obviously an historically significant fact about him. But, both for better and for worse, his presidency, like any presidency, has always been about much more than that. An obviously intelligent and thoughtful man, who thinks in real sentences and answers questions in real paragraphs, Obama fatally assumed that good policy can create good politics, whereas the opposite may be closer to the truth - as the 2016 election has again proved.

As president, Obama can claim two enormously significant domestic accomplishments - the Affordable Care Act, thanks to which some 20 million more Americans now have health insurance, who didn't have it before (but are now in danger of losing it again thanks to the election) and, secondly, avoiding another Great Depression by his response to the economic calamity he inherited from his predecessor. He deserves enormous credit for both these accomplishments. 

But both accomplishments were limited and flawed. While Obama cannot be blamed for the intense opposition to the Affordable Care Act from a political party whose main talking point these past several years has been their desire to take away the health insurance Obamacare has made possible, his mistaken "good policy = good politics" approach proved catastrophically inadequate at translating the benefits of Obamacare for ordinary voters  to understand and appreciate. Bill Clinton failed dramatically in his 1990s effort to resolve the health care crisis. But, had he succeeded in getting serious health care reform passed into law, one suspects that he would have done a better job of explaining and promoting its merits. The unfortunate political (as opposed to policy) history of Obamacare suggests he might have done better to adopt a more Democratic plan (perhaps Medicare for all?) instead of the Republican plan he adopted, which the Republicans then rejected and left it for him to defend.

As for dealing with the economic crisis he inherited, again there can be no question that the country is in important respects better off now than it was when Obama took office. But the Administration did little to address the growing economic inequality which that crisis has highlighted so blatantly. Again there may be many factors to explain the working class disaffection that Trump's "populism" effectively capitalized upon. But certainly the Administration's elite-oriented approach to dealing with the economic crisis, in which the perpetrators of the problem were never really held accountable and have continued to profit, has to be counted as one of them. (For a fuller discussion of this theme, see, for example, Matt Stoller, "Democrats can't win until they recognize how bad Obama's financial policies were," The Washington Post, January 12).

Related to this is the continued deterioration of the Democratic party itself - from its historical identity until the 1970s as the party of the "common man" to a 21st-century elite party primarily interested in identity issues. Providing suitable bathroom access for transgendered people is important, but so is addressing widespread economic inequality and the collapse of the working class and of rural and working class families.  

Which brings us to Obama's greatest domestic failure - the nationwide electoral decline of the Democratic party on his watch. Early on, we Americans disregarded George Washington's warning and threw in our lot with political parties as the primary vehicles for accomplishing our social and political goals. As presidents, both Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, were criticized for neglecting their responsibility as party leaders to build up and strengthen their political party. Obama has arguably done an even poorer job than they did, thus severely imperiling his own legacy of policy achievement. A president needs a strong political party through which to govern effectively while in office, and it is part of his job to leave a strong political party in place to continue promoting his policies after he leaves office. Again good policy does not automatically create good politics.

Obama's community organizing background and his commitment to a notion of the common good are sometimes seen as points of contact with Catholic Social Teaching. And certainly there are such points of contact, which in a less polarized religious climate might have been the basis for a stronger relationship between the Administration and American Churches. That said, however, it must be acknowledged that Obama is a thoroughly post-modern person, who appears to see the world through a highly individualized, morally and culturally libertarian lens. That lens was well expressed, for example, in Justice Anthony Kennedy's notorious 1992 declaration: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Whatever that may be, it is most certainly not Catholic social teaching! Between elite moral and cultural libertarianism and the social solidarity sought by Catholic Social Teaching, there is (metaphorically) as great a chasm as that in Luke 16:26 between the self-actualized rich man and Lazarus.

In foreign affairs, Obama's record is mixed. The nuclear deal with Iran was a genuine accomplishment, although as is usually the case in foreign policy we will have to wait a while longer to see how well it actually works. We might say the same about his overdue ending of our anachronistic approach to Cuban policy. Syria, however, has been an unmitigated disaster. Of course, the options for the US in Syria have largely been bad, and maybe a more pro-active policy might not have significantly bettered the situation. But, not having tried, we can't know for sure. What we do know is that Syria is a political and humanitarian disaster which has spilled over and destabilized much of Europe and that this de-stabilization of Europe is in turn contributing directly to a breakdown of the post-World War II international order and the consensus on which it has relied.

It is not entirely Obama's fault, of course, that the entire post-World War II international order is now being challenged, but the weakness of American foreign policy in recent years has helped set the stage for whatever will happen next under President Trump.

In the end, of course, history will evaluate (and repeatedly re-evaluate) this president as it evaluates all presidents. He leaves office more personally popular than most of his predecessors (except for Eisenhower and Clinton), and that itself is an accomplishment, which speaks to the core qualities of the man, however intractable the problems he confronted.   

Last but far from least, the Obama Administration has been commendably free from scandals of any sort. And, in addition to being a model of freedom from conflicts of interest and personal misbehavior, the President has also been a model husband and father. The priority he placed on having dinner with his family, for example, represented a truly counter-cultural witness to authentic family values, which one wishes more politicians would prioritize in their lives instead of just talk about. Barack and Michelle Obama have done a fantastic job not only at how they have behaved and presented themselves personally in the White House, but in how they have raised their daughters there, in all of which they have been an admirable example for the country. 

And for all of that they will certainly be missed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

President Obama's Farewell

President Barack Obama gave his presidential "Farewell Address" last night.  The usual site for such speeches (in my lifetime) has been the White House's Oval Office, obviously the most dignified setting for such an event. But the President (perhaps expressing a post-modern preference for personalizing these things) spoke from Chicago, his home town as an adult. (Contemporary cosmopolitans often have more than one "home town.")

The first such "Farewell Address" I can remember was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People on January 17, 1961. Historically, it probably ranks with George Washington's "Farewell Address" (never actually delivered, but rather published in Philadelphia's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796) as one of the two most memorable such offerings. Eisenhower's was justly famous, of course, for his profound warning: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.As a 12-year old watching him speak in the traditional dignity of the Oval Office, I barely noticed those words and had no sense of their significance until several years later.

Barack Obama was still in his mother's womb when Eisenhower gave that address. A lot has changed since then, both for the better and for worse. Accordingly Obama gave a very different kind of speech in a very different, much more emotional kind of setting.  And, while I could genuinely appreciate the emotion of those in the audience, I still found the setting jarring. Not only did it slow his delivery and distract attention from his words, it made the event seem more like a campaign rally than a Farewell Address. Of course, given the historic character of Obama's presidency and what is about to replace it, maybe it inevitably acquires the character of a continuing campaign.

Hence the poignancy of the crowd's chant of "four more years." Of course, he can't have four more years, because of a singularly stupid constitutional amendment that represented mid-20th-century Republicans' revenge against FDR. Five presidents have been affected by that ridiculous amendment. Four of them - 2 Republicans (Eisenhower and Reagan) and 2 Democrats (Clinton and Obama) - ended their second terms with high popularity and most likely could have won a third term had they been able to run. Given what awaits us in a few more days, it is even harder not to lament the undemocratic absurdity of the 22nd amendment!

In many ways, the speech itself was standard Obama oratory. It was very personal, identifying (as he consistently has throughout his public career) his own personal story with the American story, rooted in the Founders' vision of individual rights and the historical struggles of Americans in all their diversity, and in the simultaneous conviction "that we are all in this together, that we rise and fall as one." Not one to shy away from the big picture, his speech was a discourse on "the state of our democracy."

The President praised the gains that have been made and (in standard progressive fashion) pointed to what is yet to be accomplished. There is, it seems, always a certain insatiability to progressive politics, which, whether acknowledged or not, may itself undermine the social solidarity of which Obama so eloquently spoke and which is so necessary for a successful democracy. 

In addition to the obvious challenges to democracy posed by economic inequality and persistent racism, both of which he addressed, he was particularly on target when he highlighted "a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible."

It seems evident that this will not be a quietly retired ex-President. He has outlined an agenda and obviously intends to remain engaged in the arena.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Persistent Russian Threat

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown unnoticed, and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place among the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time. ... The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common sense of the citizens; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

With those famous words, the illustrious 19th-century student of American society and politics, Alexis deTocqueville (1805-1859) concluded his 1st Volume of his classic, Democracy in America, in 1835. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution and the Cold War, deTocqueville correctly anticipated the eventual domination of post-World War II global politics by two great superpowers, the United States and (as it then was) the Soviet Union, the former oriented toward freedom, the latter to its opposite. The end of the Cold War destroyed the Soviet Union (itself just a more powerful reincarnation of the Tsarist Russian Empire that Tocqueville had known). Apart from its continued possession of nuclear weapons, a somewhat reduced Russia quickly lost much of its claim to serious superpower status. Quite unsurprisingly, therefore, the 21st century has witnessed a resentful Russia seeking to restore some her lost luster - under the leadership of its elected Tsar, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. While Putin's national ambitions and his aggressive policies may not be in themselves surprising, the American response has been surprisingly poorly attuned to the persistent character of this threat. And in just 10 more days, the United States will have the most pro-Russian president in American history.

There used to be a bi-partisan, foreign-policy  consensus supporting the containment of the Soviet Union (now Russia). Until 2016, not just the neo-cons but most mainstream Republicans could be counted on to recognize Russia's threat and fully to support this foreign-policy consensus. Then in 2016 the Republican party nominated the most pro-Russian presidential candidate since Henry Wallace broke with the Democrats to run independently on the Progressive party ticket in 1948. Not only did the Republican candidate (now President-elect) praise Putin personally - more than sufficiently amazing in itself - he appeared critical of the NATO alliance, intimated a willingness to recognize Russia's recent annexation of Crimea, and publicly invited the Russians to hack his electoral opponent's emails! Since winning the Presidency, he has publicly doubted the consensus in the US intelligence community about Russian interference in the election and has criticized the very same intelligence community on which he will soon have to rely!

Even more amazingly, he seems to be bringing others in his formerly pro-defense Republican party with him. Some have even taken to praising Julian Assange and Wikileaks, which a year ago they would all almost certainly have recognized as pernicious dangers. An openness to rethinking American policy toward Russia is one thing. Under the right circumstances, it might represent a principled policy proposal. Praising Wikileaks, however, appears to be pure political opportunism - praising an obvious enemy of the United States because it also happens to be opposed to the other political party in an American election!  Surely, an enemy of the United States - be it Russia or Wikileaks - remains an enemy of the United States even when one of our political parties benefits from its antics. Indeed, the very fact of its attempt to benefit one political party in an American election only further confirms its status as an enemy of the United States!

And why would Russia - and Wikileaks - oppose the Democrats and favor the Republicans? One must conclude that they recognize the Democrats as more likely to hold the line against Russia!

Communism - the depraved ideology that replaced traditional Russian imperial ambition and Russian Orthodoxy as the Russian state's official belief system after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - is thankfully gone. And in Communism's place, traditional Russian imperial ambition and Russian Orthodoxy have now returned to prominence. We are back where deTocqueville left us. His prediction remains as relevant as ever. But is the United States still exceptional enough to be the civilizational bulwark deTocqueville anticipated?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Being Beloved

Having gone on almost non-stop since Halloween, Christmas has finally fizzled out, making the Church’s insistence on still celebrating the Lord’s Epiphany seem at best like some post-Christmas afterthought. But, if we shift gears and allow ourselves to think the way the Church thinks about these things, then we see that today’s remembrance of Jesus’ baptism is actually meant as the culmination of the whole Advent-Christmas season, the event Advent and Christmas have been leading up to.

Today the Church fast-forwards from Bethlehem to an adult Jesus, about to begin his public life, the work he came into the world to do, the long-term point of the Christmas story.

Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned in three of the four gospels and alluded to in the fourth. It was also mentioned by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles on the occasion of the baptism of the first pagan converts, Cornelius, the Roman soldier, and his household. So it was obviously well remembered and had obviously left an impression. Peter treats Jesus’ baptism as the starting-point of the Jesus story – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, after which Jesus went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him [Acts 10:38].

John’s baptism had been a ritual of repentance, dramatizing one’s need for conversion and one’s willingness to start anew, as their ancestors had when they had first passed through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Baptized by John, Jesus blended into the mass of anonymous sinners that we are. Baptized as one of us, Jesus joined us - which was, of course, the point of his becoming human and being born in the first place.

Jesus joined us in the water, but when he came up from the water, we are told, behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:16-17].

Not just Jesus alone but the whole Trinity joined in to reveal who Jesus is. Jesus began his work in the world by being officially identified by his Father as his Son, anointed, as Saint Peter put it, with the Holy Spirit and power, thus setting the stage for the rest of the story of Jesus life and mission in our world.

And not just Jesus’ story, but ours too! Not Jesus’s life and mission, but ours too! Thanks to Jesus, we too – like Cornelius – have become acceptable to God, for Jesus has shared the Holy Spirit with us. Through his gift of the Holy Spirit, we have been empowered to profess our faith in Jesus as God’s Son and to join ourselves with him so as to share in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ baptism anticipates the baptism that elevates each of us to a new relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit and empowers us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world through our membership in his Church.

Jesus, the beloved Son, has made us beloved sons and daughters of his Father. But being beloved is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Having let us in on his story, on who he is and the total trajectory of his life, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to identify with that trajectory and to recognize the intended trajectory of our own lives and to respond accordingly.

(Photo: The Baptism of Christ, c. 1500, by Giovanni Bellini, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

National Migration Week

Epiphany week is observed by Catholics in the United States as National Migration Week, intended as an opportunity for the Church to reflect on the circumstances confronting immigrants, refugees, children, and victims and survivors of human trafficking. The theme for National Migration Week 2017 draws attention to Pope Francis' call to create what he has called a culture of encounter, and in doing so to look beyond our own needs and wants to those of others around us. In the homily given at his first Pentecost as pope, Francis emphasized the importance of encounter in the Christian faith: "For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others."

We’re all familiar with countless artistic portrayals of the Holy Family. It’s safe to say there are more portraits of the Holy Family than of any royal family, let alone any ordinary family. And, of course, at this happy time of the year we have them on display in the familiar Christmas nativity scene. Such nativity scenes invite us to appreciate the circumstances of Christ’s birth, to consider the concrete reality of God becoming one of us, a human being like ourselves.

And yet, if we but read the Christmas story as told by Matthew and Luke – certainly if we do so without passing it though the filters of holiday sentimentality, or the generalized sentimentality which has increasingly come to characterize 21st-century Christianity – then what do we find? An unmarried girl is inexplicably pregnant, but her fiancĂ© marries her anyway, based on a dream he had. She gives birth far from home, under obviously sub-standard conditions, with some animals for company and some strangers for visitors. In the ancient world – indeed for much of human history in most of the world – childbirth was a dangerous, life-threatening experience. Assuming mother and child both made it safely through that, there were further threats in the form of diseases that carried away both rich and poor. And, of course, most people were poor, and so everyone in a typical family – adults and children – lived close to the margin, often hungry or in danger of becoming so. And if you were poor – then as now - you were almost certainly also politically powerless, and that could pose problems too – as it definitely did for the Holy Family, forced to flee from the clutches of the local despot to seek asylum in a foreign land. 

It should not challenge our imagination to picture the Holy Family’s situation. Our contemporary world is full of political refugees. We think of the especially tragic situations in Syria and parts of Africa and all the people those conflicts have displaced, perhaps permanently. But, right here in our own country, we also have immigrants who came here to escape political persecution or oppression or ordinary misery. That’s what Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to do, immigrating to Israel’s ancient enemy Egypt, to escape King Herod the Great’s “killing fields.”

Many families – then as now – experienced similar problems. The Incarnation wasn’t some sentimental novel.  It was - and is - for real. God became one of us, part of our world, a member of a family struggling to make ends meet from crisis to crisis. Like the Holy Family, refugees and immigrants today (and particularly in the American context those who are undocumented), people forced to live at the margins of established societies are particularly vulnerable. The Church's observance of National Migration Week, while an annual event, is if anything even more appropriate and necessary in this time of political transition and turmoil.