Sunday, March 26, 2017

Seeing as God Sees

The Gospel according to John portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel is a truly monumental miracle, for, as the formerly blind man himself testifies, it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.

And, just as the blind man receives physical sight, he is also gradually given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” He receives his physical sight through a series of steps in which Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns able to see.  Meanwhile, he gains increasing insight into who Jesus is - a growth in faith which exactly parallels the unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see but are spiritually blind - obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.

God, however, has his own way of acting, as the story of his surprising selection of David as Israel’s king illustrates. Not as we see does God see. What God does can come as a complete surprise. What God wants of any of us may also be a surprise.

It’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel account to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life.  At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world. Saying “Yes” to Jesus inevitably means saying “No” to other options.

Fifty years ago today, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical Populorum Progressio ("On the Development of Peoples"). Paul VI's perceptive and well-timed call to look around us and see the contemporary world’s challenges echoes Jesus’ invitation to the blind man to see for the first time and his challenge to the rest of us to start seeing in a new way. In faithful continuity with our Catholic tradition, Paul brought new light to the analysis of modern society and the politics it produces, challenging such concepts as profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right. Fifty years later, Populorum Progressio continues to challenge our still unconverted world.

All of us are being called to constant conversion throughout our entire lives, and Lent is intended to be an especially transformative time for each of us, just as the blind man’s encounter with Jesus proved totally transforming for him. Lent challenges us, as Jesus challenged his adversaries and Blessed Paul VI challenged his contemporaries, to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.

This challenge to live as children of light and to keep on producing every kind of goodness is ongoing. The conversion we are all called to is a continuing challenge to say “Yes” to Christ and “No” to other options. It continues throughout the entire course of life. That is why we need to avail ourselves of every available resource, including and especially what the early Church charmingly called “the second plank after shipwreck” – the sacrament of Penance, in which, through the ministry of the Church, we receive forgiveness and so may be repeatedly reconciled with God and with his Church.

If we manage to do nothing else during this Lent, let us at least make it a point to do that.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 26, 2017.

(Photo: The Golden Rose Given by Pope Benedict XVI to the Basilica of the national Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Cartoonishly Malicious"

"Cartoonishly malicious" is how Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern characterized the bill that House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican accomplices tried (unsuccessfully) to foist upon the American people this past week. Tone deaf to the very same anti-establishment populism that propelled President Trump into the White House, Ryan, et al., proposed a stereotypically Republican replacement for Obamacare. They sought to repeal a law which has successfully brought health insurance coverage to some 20 million Americans who would otherwise have gone without it. And they sought to replace it with a substitute which would have left that many and more Americans without health insurance in order to (surprise!) reduce taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

In effect, the malicious part of the Republican agenda was compensated for by the  party's cartoonish inability to transition from opposition to governance. Perhaps after lying to the American people about Obamacare for seven years, they had actually begun to believe their own propaganda that Obamacare was "failing" (even "exploding") and that their constituents - many of them major beneficiaries of Obamacare - really shared their representatives' overriding desire that they should lose their health insurance so that some very rich people could get even richer. Such delusions reflect the self-confirming bubble in which so many politicians and their ideological accomplices have been living for so long. All that, combined with a president who is admittedly a novice at the business of government and who apparently has little substantive interest in health care policy anyway, resulted in a legislative debacle that saved the day for many poor and middle class consumers of health care. “We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” said the House Speaker. 

That was an admission of political failure, although not yet an admission of ideological failure. Only if and when that admission comes will he and his colleagues be able actually to assume the adult role and responsibility of governing a country.

Speaker Ryan and his accomplices have had seven years to come up with an alternative to Obamacare. During that time, instead of doing the unglamorous, wonky work of crafting an alternative policy, they settled for casting some 60 show votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act - votes premised on the certainty of a presidential veto. It is likely that they expected Hillary Clinton to win the White house in 2016 and thus thought they could continue the same silly routine. Being suddenly saddled with grown-up responsibility has proved obviously very disconcerting to a party that, stuck with an intrinsically unpopular ideology of its own making, has grown accustomed to stopping others from governing rather than governing itself. 

Where does this leave the President? Perhaps he might follow the path some were earlier predicting he might - pursue his populist agenda with potentially popular programs like infrastructure, making deals with Democrats when the Republicans prove uncooperative. Two months ago that was a not implausible scenario. But it becomes harder to envision as his problematic leadership in so many other areas has continued to alienate the majority of the country that voted against him in the first place.

March 25

On the twenty-fifth day of the month Gabriel first came to St Mary with God’s message, and on that day St Mary conceived in the city of Nazareth through the angel’s word and through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind... And then after thirty-two years and three months Christ was crucified on the cross on the same day. And as soon as he was on the cross, creation revealed that he was truly God: the sun grew black, and the day was turned into dark night from midday until the ninth hour.

The above is from a 9th-century Old English Martyrology's entry for March 25, reflecting the unique perception of this very special date throughout the Church's history. (For both the reference itself and the translation, I am indebted here to A Clerk of Oxford - - a blog whose author describes it as a "blog about the literature and history of medieval England, as well as about saints, churches, folklore, Vikings, poetry, and anything else that interests me." For this and other ancient and medieval citations, I am especially indebted to her wonderful post on this subject one year ago when Good Friday fell on March 25.) 

Of course, we don't know the actual date of the Annunciation, anymore than we know the actual date of Christ's birth. (Presumably, if we knew the one then we would also know the other, at least approximately.) As for the date of the crucifixion, the most common historical guesses (based on when Passover would have fallen on a Friday night during Pontius Pilate's tenure in Jerusalem) are April 7, 30 AD, or April 3, 33 AD. So the classical chronology that assigns the Incarnation and the Crucifixion to the spring equinox on March 25 is obviously much more symbolic than literal. But what symbolism! Here (thanks again to A Clerk of Oxford) is the Venerable Bede (672-735) explaining some of this symbolism, connecting Christ's incarnation and crucifixion to the cosmology of creation:

It is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lights every man that comes into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it. And in the celebration of the supreme solemnity, it was necessary that Christ precede the Church, which cannot shine save through Him... Observing the Paschal season is not meaningless, for it is fitting that through it the world's salvation both be symbolized and come to pass.

Having been born on March 25, I have always had a special fondness for the feast of the Annunciation, even long before I learned from our much more symbolically attuned ancestors how filled this date is with so much additional significance for the story of salvation. Over the years (most recently last year), my March 25 birthday has fallen on Good Friday, not to mention Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. And, in 1948, the year of my birth, it fell on Holy Thursday, which may have contributed to my life-long affection for the birthday of the priesthood.

All in all, March 25 is a great day to have been born!

(Photo: Mural of the Annunciation at the Paulist Fathers" "Mother Church," New York City.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Today marks the mid-point counting the days numerically from Ash Wednesday to Easter. So this coming Sunday is Laetare Sunday, when the Church replaces her somber violet vestments with bright rose, adorns the altar with flowers, and allows for a greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the joy that we are meant to feel as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion. 

At a time when the observance of Lent was much stricter, this mid-Lent moment of relaxation was much valued. Thus in 1216, Pope Innocent III said: On this Sunday, which marks the middle of lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart.

Unfortunately, the virtual disappearance of the Introit and the other antiphons of the Roman Missal  from most worshipers' ordinary Sunday experience has sadly made such traditional titles as Laetare Sunday somewhat obscure, if not meaningless to most people today. Laetare Sunday gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Appropriately, today’s Roman station church is the Basilica of Santa Croce, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem,” an early 4th-century basilica built around part of the Empress Saint Helena’s imperial palace in order to enshrine the relics (above all that of the True Cross) which she had brought back to Rome from Jerusalem. Originally, the floor of the basilica was covered with earth from Jerusalem. Thus, the church’s unique title, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem theme associated with this Sunday also accounts for another very venerable custom connected with this day, that of people returning home to visit (and bring flowers to) their “Mother Church” on this day. Especially in Britain and Ireland, this custom evolved into visiting (and bringing flowers to) one’s mother on this Sunday. Hence, its British title “Mothering Sunday.”

Laetare Sunday is traditionally also the day for Popes to bless the Golden Rose. From Fulk IV, Count of Anjou, in 1096, to Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg in 1956, the Golden Rose was usually awarded by Popes to Catholic Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses, and occasionally also to churches. Beginning with Blessed Paul VI in 1964, it has been awarded exclusively to churches and shrines. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave it to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, where it remains on display for the public to view (photo). Pope Francis presented it to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa on the occasion of last year’s World Youth Day in Poland.

Above all, this midpoint of the Lenten season is also a fitting occasion to emphasize the Sacrament of Penance as an important part of our spiritual preparation for Easter. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Go to Joseph

Saint Joseph has been commemorated in the Latin Church on March 19 since the 15th century and has been venerated as the Patron of the Universal church since the 19th century.

In the progressive development of devotion to Saint Joseph in the Church's history, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic, a reformer of religious life, and a Doctor of the Church, who lived on the cusp of the modern era, was a major influence. In her Autobiography (c. 1567), she wrote:

I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.

In the 19th century, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), also recommended devotion to Saint Joseph, whom - in a famous sermon delivered during the U.S. Civil War (March 19, 1863) - he somewhat surprisingly categorized as "The Saint of Our Day."

The life of St. Joseph is both interesting and instructive.… What faith! What obedience! What disinterestedness! … He attained in society and in human relationships a degree of perfection not surpassed, if equaled, by the martyr’s death, the contemplative of the solitude, the cloistered monk, or the missionary hero. … Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced. St. Joseph stands forth as an excellent and unsurpassed model of this type of perfection.

Correspondingly, the heightened emphasis on the liturgical commemoration of Saint Joseph is itself relatively modern. The feast's "traditional" (pre-1970) Mass and Office date back only to Pope Clement XI in 1714. That Office especially highlighted the parallel between the Old Testament Joseph and the New Testament Joseph. Thus the lessons of the 1st Nocturn were taken from Genesis 39-41, the story of the Old Testament Joseph, while those of the 2nd Nocturn were from a sermon by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux explicitly comparing the two Josephs. The two were obviously very different historical figures, but each of then had his vocation revealed to him through dreams, and to each of whom was entrusted the task of managing and providing for the earthly survival, in the first case, of God's Chosen people, and, in the second, of God's Son himself - and  now, by extension, his Church.

(Photo: Statue of Saint Joseph, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN)

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Benedict Option: Then and Now

This coming Tuesday is the traditional day for remembering Saint Benedict, who died in 547. (Paul VI's calendar transferred his feast from March 21 to July 11.) Benedict is the patron of Western Monasticism and a patron saint of Europe, deservedly so. He is in the news again now, however, mainly thanks to Rod Dreher's new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The book develops a theme that Dreher has been arguing, at least ever since his encounter with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, which famously ended by recalling Saint Benedict's monastic response to the collapse of Roman civilization as a model for a renewed relationship with our contemporary culture as Western Christian civilization continues to collapse.

In honor of the imminence of Saint Benedict's traditional day and conscious of contemporary political and cultural chaos, I read Dreher's new book this week. The Benedict Option is obviously not a call to everyone to drop everything and become a Benedictine, but it does propose salutary lessons from Saint Benedict's Rule and the Benedictine way of life. Benedict's Rule, Dreher rightly recognizes, proposed a way of life "for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith." That is what makes it perennially relevant - not just for monks who live a celibate community life vowed to stabilitas loci and conversio morum. All people in whatever state of life who desire to live a morally and religiously serious life can draw from the deep well of Benedictine wisdom, suitably adapted to the distinct circumstances of the varied vocations and states of life Christians are called to live in the world.

True to the historical analogy underlying his argument, Dreher begins with a somewhat apocalyptic analysis of contemporary civilization and how it got to where it is today.  All such analyses - even the best one ever, Saint Augustine's The City of God - necessarily generalize and somewhat oversimplify. That said, Dreher does present a coherent and cogent account of our "long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning" to today's "place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection."

So - to quote Chernyshevsky and Lenin - what is to be done?

Born in 1967, Dreher was raised a Methodist. He became a Roman Catholic in 1993, but then abandoned Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006. This gives him a wealth of knowledge of different forms of Christian religious experience to draw upon, which he does in a somewhat eclectic way. He is also a political and social conservative and writes from that particular perspective. Indeed, it seems to be his discovery of the ineffectiveness and (dare one suggest?) moral bankruptcy of conservative American religion's self-induced subordination to the Republican party that constitutes much of the background for this reexamination of the mode of Christian engagement with the world. He diagnoses the politicized conservative American Christianity that has been so evident now for decades as "content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian."

Thus, he warns, for example, against an unbalanced obsession with religious liberty. "If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow."

And Dreher actually recognizes that there are real Christians who are not in sympathy with the agenda of the Religious Right. "For another," he notes, "the church is not merely politically conservative white people at prayer, Many Hispanics and other Christians of color, as well as all who, for whatever reasons, did not vote for the divisive Trump, do not thereby cease to be Christian." 

It is not that Dreher abandons the agenda of the Religious Right, but rather that he recognizes how the pursuit of political power has not only failed to accomplish its stated religious goals  but in the process also has helped to undermine religion even further. And, applying the brilliantly prescient insights of Philip Rieff (whose 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic remains the classic go-to text to start studying this phenomenon), he examines and challenges contemporary American Christianity's deterioration into therapy. "The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything," he observes, "even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves."

But The Benedict Option is not just a critique of contemporary society but a road map for an alternative, which - not unlike Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, but from a more explicitly religious premise and with a more explicitly religious end in view - is rooted in non-governmental initiatives undertaken by families and intentional local communities. "The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage." But this he recognizes will require - among Christians themselves and within their churches - a real re-creation of a lost Christian culture.

Se he calls, for example, for a serious re-engagement with the liturgy - an obvious if somewhat easy call coming from someone who is Eastern Orthodox and a challenge to less liturgically oriented Christian communities. There is a lot of wisdom also in what he has to say about that challenge of technology. And he has a lot to say about Christian education - education as Christian formation. "For generations," Dreher nots, "the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth without putting up much of a fight." While I would certainly part company with him in his sympathy for home-schooling - a practice I have never understood and feel no attraction to at all - I was intrigued by his treatment of "Classical Christian Schools," which represent a voluntarist return to the traditional goal of classical education. Surely one of the greatest of our contemporary culture's self-inflicted wounds has been the virtual disappearance of classical education. Any movement that revives classical education among even a small subset of young people deserves some support. As with medieval monks incidentally salvaging classical culture while primarily focused on saving their souls, a serious recommitment to classical education would represent yet another Christian contribution to boosting human civilization.

Of course, so much of this depends upon a willingness to stake out a real area of difference, even while remaining engaged in other ways with the current culture. He cites the familiar example of Orthodox Jewish communities.  But the challenges should not be underestimated. After all, the Catholicism in which I grew up, while certainly not as sectarian as Orthodox Judaism, let alone such obvious examples of sectarian separatism as the Amish, was certainly somewhat sectarian. We lived in what is nowadays sometimes dismissively referred to as a "Catholic ghetto," about which - in contrast to its contemporary cultured despisers - there remains, I believe, still much to be said in praise of. Still, it was the very success of the "Catholic ghetto" that led to Catholics' widespread success in becoming more effectively engaged with contemporary society - and in the process not only destroyed the "Catholic ghetto," but led inexorably to the Church's somewhat weakened contemporary condition. Going back is never easy. And the material price to be paid for going back is usually more than most will ever be willing to pay!

Dreher does helpfully argue against seeking conflict for the sake of conflict. "Claiming religious persecution unnecessarily will not help the cause. Instead it will provide the secular left with grounds for claiming that all concern for religious liberty is a sham." Even so, he does perpetuate the alarmist view that sees all sorts of professions as increasingly threatening territory for Christians - what I sometimes call the supposed "bakers and florists" problem.  But in fact this is largely a political problem, created by a particular political agenda. Despite Dreher's curious claim to the contrary, from a biblical and religious point of view participating in the wedding of a divorced person with a previous spouse still living is just as problematic as a same-sex wedding. Any Christian bakers and florists who had no problems in the past serving the former category of customers should experience no more problems in the present with the latter. Doing one's job and serving the public in a non-discriminatory way is not automatically collaboration and an abandonment of one's fundamental religious beliefs, but it may represent an abandonment of a certain culture war political agenda!

Dreher himself quotes a Christian who works in a major company, "The more scared and paranoid we are, the harder it is to make connections and relationships with people who need Jesus."

All of which highlights three fundamental difficulties with the Benedictine analogy.  The first has to do with the historical and contemporary fact (of which Dreher is well aware) of the porous nature of any monastery's separation from the world. After all, whatever Saint Benedict's original intentions, his Order was responsible in large part for the preservation of civilization as well as for much of Europe's evangelization. Then and now, the actual relationship between a monastery and its secular environment  has varied with the circumstances and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Likewise, no matter how intentionally Christians set about to build a vibrant Christian subculture within their local communities, they cannot escape engagement with the wider world. Nor, in fact, are they entitled to, since the essence of the Church's mission remains to evangelize the world - however limited the possibilities for that may be in practice in any concrete political or social circumstance. The challenge has always been simultaneously to build up the life of the Church within the community while reaching out to the world beyond. Neither can be accomplished without the other. "Indeed," as Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote in 1886, "simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it."

A second difficulty has to do with the historical analogy itself. Saint Benedict lived in a world in which not only was the culture collapsing but so were the civil structures necessary for society to function, structures which were themselves weak or virtually non-existent. We may moan about dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, but the structure of the modern State still stands strong, and the power of the modern State is in fact so much greater than that of the State in virtually any previous period of history. I agree that now - as in earlier times - true renewal will come not from the State but from authentic families, schools, and intentional religious communities. But, whatever the relationship between today's State and families, schools, and intentional religious communities, it will be quite different from what it was in Benedict's time. The modern State will inevitably make demands upon them which they cannot easily escape and which will, for better or for worse, condition their actual autonomy to an extent that was not the case in the past. 

Finally, while I applaud Dreher's detachment from the politicized agenda of the Religious Right, I do not believe contemporary Christians can ever completely abandon their nostalgia for Christendom, for the simple reason that it actually existed for more than a millennium. Benedict and his contemporaries did not have that powerful memory. We do, and it will always haunt us with the realization that, if it was once possible for religion and society, in their institutional forms as Church and State, to nourish each other, then at least in theory it might be possible for them to do so someday again. As a result, the temptation to turn to politics to accomplish that will never be all that far away, both for Christians on the Right and Christians on the Left.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Trumpcare vs. Trump's Voters

Students of the presidency know well the perennial problem of presidents getting off to a bad start by beginning with the wrong issue. It could be argued that, in terms of actually accomplishing something that might potentially be of benefit to his voters, President Trump might have done better to start with, say, infrastructure spending. But, of course, he and the party he conquered campaigned on a promise to repeal Obamacare, something Republicans have been screaming about now for some seven-plus years - only to discover, rather late in the day, that their path to the White House depended on the votes of  "working class" and other downscale and rural voters who might actually appreciate government help with their health care more than they crave tax cuts for the already overly wealthy. 

In his sobering but entertaining account of the 2016 election, (Insane Clown Car President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus) Matt Taibbi (author of The Divide and The Great Derangement) echoed what many others have observed over the years about the Republican party's curious relationship with its electorate. 

"In the elaborate con game that is American electoral politics, the Republican voter has long been the easiest mark in the game ... the CEO class has had a brilliantly winning electoral strategy for a generation. ...They get everything from the Republicans because you don't have to make a concession to a Republican voter."  For their part, the role of conservative "intellectuals," Taibbi argued, "was to cook up a sales pitch designed to get them to vote for politicians who would instantly betray them to business interests eager to ship their jobs off to China and India. The most successful trick was linking the corporate mantra of profit without responsibility to the concept of individual liberty."

But 2016 was supposedly different: "The decision by huge masses of Republican voters to defy DC-thinkfluencer types like George Will and throw in with a carnival act like Trump is no small thing. For the first time in a generation, Republican voters are taking their destiny into their own hands." Trump, Taibbi argued, achieved the presidency as "a one-man movement unto himself who owes almost nothing to traditional republicans and can be expected to be anything but a figurehead."

If so, then what exactly is happening in Washington - especially in the current contretemps over replacing Obamacare with Trumpcare? President Trump may not be traditionally schooled in public policy or in Washington politics, but his campaign showed an excellent instinct for understanding and responding to what most bothered a lot of voters. So he may yet well prove to be no "figurehead," who would abandon his voters by uncritically signing into law Paul Ryan's agenda.

Will the anti-establishment anger of Trump's Republican voters for once be truly translated into actual policy, or will business as usual prevail again in Washington with the Republican establishment successfully acting against the interests of many of the very voters who have made their ascendancy possible? That would seem to be the overriding fundamental question defining this curious Trumpcare moment.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Trumpcare Disaster

The numbers are in. To no one's surprise, Paul Ryan's Republican plan to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare will do the opposite of what Obamacare accomplished. Where Obamacare increased the number of previously uninsured Americans who now had access to health care, whether through insurance or through an expansion of Medicaid, Trumpcare will result in some 14 million Americans losing insurance in the short run and as many as 24 million in the long run. Of course, it will also save the government money that it would  have spent on Medicaid and it will provide a tax cut for the rich - a not surprising outcome given that the Republican party's primary priority always seems to be to add to the accumulated wealth of those who are already too rich.

As part of his "populist" rhetoric, candidate Trump promised better coverage for all - the opposite of what his party has proposed. If the Republican plan passes, will President Trump honor his campaign promises and veto it? Or will we once again see the success of the standard Republican strategy of gaining power by appealing to the anxieties of a downscale constituency and then using that power to further the interests of a much more upscale constituency? One way of reading Trump's takeover of the Republican party in last year's primaries was to interpret it as a successful rebellion on the part of the Republicans' downscale constituency against that business as usual. (That is one of the major themes, for example, of Matt Taibbi's entertaining account of the 2016 election, Insane Clown Car President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus).

President Trump has two fundamental problems when it comes to fixing health care. The first is this obvious problem of his political party's distinctly non-populist agenda, which contradicts what candidate Trump promised his voters mere months ago. The second is that, within the limitations of an insurance-based paradigm, there is perhaps no better alternative to Obamacare. Of course, Obamacare could be improved upon by scrapping the private insurance paradigm and going with a government-run, single-payer system (e.g., Medicare for all). But, if that obviously superior alternative was off the table eight years ago, it obviously has no chance today. So Obamacare probably remains the comparatively best possible approach within the limitations created by dependence upon some system of private insurance. President Trump might have done better to exploit his popularity and political capital and to oppose his party on this by taking the initiative with an alternative that made some modest modifications in how Obamacare operates, which he could then successfully relabel as a totally improved Trumpcare. As it is, the Trumpace that his downscale voters will probably get will likely leave them worse off, with no one but themselves to blame. But, since in America we never blame ourselves, the President risks being the one blamed!

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Any modern pilgrim, who has just had the experience of reaching the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor after a high-speed taxi ride up the narrow mountain road might well be tempted to echo Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

Peter presumably had walked up the mountain, but the experience to which he was reacting was anything but pedestrian. For what Peter, James, and John were being treated to was nothing less than an experience of the glory of God, an awesome peak into another world, so to speak, a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature as Son of God and his fulfillment of the Old Testament (represented on the mountain by Moses and Elijah).

No wonder Peter wanted to stay there as long as possible – even to make three tents there, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – as if this were it, and he had finally reached where he wanted to be. He didn’t understand that this was just the beginning – an invitation to join Jesus on his journey.

An ancient tradition dates the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, which is one reason why, every year, the Transfiguration Gospel is read early in Lent. In the actual gospel narrative, however, the time-reference points back to Peter’s profession of faith and Jesus’ first prediction of his impending passion, six days previously.  The unusually explicit time-reference makes it clear that the two events (in both of which Peter plays a prominent part) are connected. In both events, there is the revelation of who Jesus ultimately is and reference forward to his impending death and resurrection. And in both Peter is the spokesman for the others, the one most intimately associated with Jesus and at the same time the one who seems somehow to miss much of the point Jesus was actually making.

Paralleling Peter is the figure of Abraham, who makes his first appearance on the world stage in today’s 1st reading. Until Abraham, human history had been one sinful calamity, one tragic debacle after another – culminating in the decisive breakdown of human society and community at the Tower of Babel.

Then suddenly God intervened in human history in a new way – singling out one specific individual, and through him one particular family and eventually one specially chosen nation – to be his partner, his human partner, in repairing the massive damage we have done to God’s good creation. Under the provisions of the extraordinary covenant God made with Abraham, God and Abraham – and Abraham’s descendants – will collaborate together and so become a blessing for the whole world.

Abraham is considered the common spiritual ancestor of Judaism and both of its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. In all three religions, Abraham is revered for his faith. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, Muslims, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. [Lumen Gentium 16]

Abraham’s faith summoned him - at an age when most of us are already retired – to go forth to a new land. But Abraham’s assigned destination was vague. We call Abraham our father in faith; but, if Abraham is a model of faith for us, his story also reveals how much real faith really requires. Abraham’s faith was his response to the ambiguous and complicated events in his life in a way that fully reflected his deep recognition of God’s presence and action in those ambiguous and complicated events. His faith meant total trust in and reliance on God through whatever changes might be required and whatever challenges might have to be met.

Change is always challenging, which is why wise people avoid change as much as possible. I often like to quote the 2nd Viscount Falkland’s (1610-1643) famous observation: "where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." Human history has more than confirmed the wisdom of that statement. Still, sometimes change is necessary, and therein lies the challenge – first to know when, and then to know how. It may mean abandoning the familiar for the frightening. It may mean something totally new. Or it may not. Sometimes, the most challenging change may be to undo bad decisions and recent choices in order to return to a lost or forgotten or abandoned older and wiser path.

We all talk at times about making necessary changes in our lives. Sometimes we may even mean it.  But we are just as likely to conclude that we have too much at stake to change course. Lent is our annual opportunity to let Abraham demonstrate the power of faith to overcome our cynicism, despair, defeatism, and spiritual inertia.

That this is possible is, of course, all because of Abraham’s greatest descendant, Jesus, who fulfilled in life and death his nation’s destiny and so made Abraham’s blessing fully available to the entire world.

Even so, our temptation will always be to do the opposite and to think, like Peter, that we are there already - without having to make the journey. But the same God who first called and challenged – and blessed – Abraham also continues to invite us, through Jesus, instructing us as he instructed Peter: "This is my beloved Son … listen to him."

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 12, 2017.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Populorum Progressio + 50

In two weeks, Laetare Sunday (March 26) will mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI's landmark encyclical Populorum Progressio ("On the Development of Peoples"). A lot has happened in 50 years. A lot has changed in the world in 50 years. Yet, for all that has happened and all that has changed, Paul VI's challenge to the contemporary world remains as relevant as ever - and maybe more so. Thus in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the present Pope categorically warned a world, which seems no more ready to listen now than it was in 1967, that we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills [Evangelii Gaudium, 53].

Faithful to tradition, Paul quoted Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on the international imperialism of money to warn against the capitalist economic order and the politics it produces in the form of concepts that present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations [Populorum Progressio 26]  Citing the Church Fathers that the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good [PP 23]  Paul boldly asserted that the common good sometimes demands expropriation [PP 24

Like his contemporary successor, Pope Francis, Paul highlighted not only the material inequalities and injustices that are consequences of an unjust economy but also its spiritual and cultural consequences: even more necessary still is the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism, one which will enable our contemporaries to enjoy the higher values of love and friendship, or prayer and contemplation, and thus find themselves [PP 20] .

Of course, one of the many calamitous consequences of the capitalist economic order and the politics it produces is the devaluation of human solidarity. In contrast, Paul stressed how the social question ties all human beings together in every part of the world [PP 3] This is not only the case across space but equally so across time. Therefore we cannot disregard the welfare of those who will come after us to increase the human family. the reality of human solidarity brings us not only benefits but also obligations [PP 17]. Paul obviously did not foresee our contemporary climate-change deniers, but his words of warning surely should challenge any mentality which would imperil future generations for the short-term profits of certain industries which have disproportionate influence in our politics.

Paul did foresee - and was certainly sensitive to - the culturally destructive dimension that renders economic development so ambivalent. He warned of the tragic dilemma: either to preserve traditional beliefs and structures and reject social progress; or to embrace foreign technology and foreign culture, and reject ancestral traditions with their wealth of humanism. The sad fact is that we often see the older moral, spiritual and religious values give way without finding any place in the new scheme of things [PP 10].

History has not been kind to Paul VI, to whom it fell to try to steer the Church through one of the more challenging periods in her history. Indeed, history will likely judge him harshly in particular for his role in enabling a liturgical radicalism, which, rather than following the plan for authentic reform proposed by the Second Vatican Council, turned out to be more like a dismantling of the Roman Liturgy - a development which was both a symptom of and in its own way a further contribution to the Church's apparently increasing loss of self-confidence in the face of secular modernity. Even so, Populorum Progressio shines as one of the brighter accomplishments of Paul's troubled pontificate, proclaiming a perennially necessary corrective to the spirit of secular modernity and a  message that continues to challenge the world today.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Musicam Sacram + 50

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the post-conciliar Instruction Musicam Sacram, which, despite its felicitous name, was ironically contemporaneous with the virtual disappearance of traditional sacred music in many  communities and its replacement by "folk" and other musical idioms more secular in inspiration. Pope Francis himself, speaking last week to participants at an International Conference on Sacred Music, recently added his own comments to the unending discussion about liturgical music, suggesting sacred music has sometimes suffered from mediocrity, superficiality, and banality. His comments are available for reading on the Holy See's website - but only in Italian!

In my opinion, perhaps the most radical thing that Musicam Sacram did was to breakdown the previously absolute wall between sung Mass and low Mass. It introduced the principle that some parts of the Mass might be sung without requiring that all the traditionally sung elements in a sung Mass must in fact be sung. One curious consequence of this was the widespread disappearance of the practice of singing the Creed, for example. Even more significant, however, by effectively releasing celebrants with limited musical skill from the obligation to sing the celebrant's parts, it largely eliminated the celebrant's musical role and made musical education in seminary seem unnecessary. For example, had I been a seminarian a little earlier, I would presumably have learned the basics of chant. Most likely I would never have become an accomplished singer, but I would at least have been able competently to read the music for the celebrant's parts and to execute them at a minimum standard of acceptability. As a seminarian in the 1980s, however, I never received even an hour of musical training. Hence the common situation in which some parts traditionally sung by the celebrant (e.g., the intonation of the Gloria) have been taken over by musically trained laypersons, while the rest (e.g., the Preface) are usually simply recited.

At the time of Musicam Sacram and ever since, the dominant debate has been about the suitability of the secular musical forms which were introduced into the liturgy, forms which in those early days were often of the guitar-based "folk" idiom. It cannot be denied that some of that music was actually reasonably good music and did genuinely appeal to its audience - a generation, some of whom nostalgically cling to it even today. Of course, one of the motivations for introducing such music was the (even then) dubious theory that that music would somehow appeal to young people and so somehow keep them in the Church. That it could not accomplish any such outcome and in fact failed abysmally at it should not have come as a surprise. Whether good or bad, no music should not have been burdened with the expectation that it could accomplish such an outcome. Today, of course, those who nostalgically cling to the musical innovations of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, etc., sometimes still make analogous claims, despite the obvious fact that their music in no way resembles the music of contemporary young people and makes no actual connection with young people today. 

But the real problem, I think, with what happened to liturgical music in the post-conciliar period is rooted in what immediately preceded it. Liturgically traditional communities today regularly celebrate sung Masses, and they generally celebrate them well, both ceremonially and musically. But that was hardly the experience of most American Catholics on the eve of the liturgical changes. Most American Catholics sadly seldom experienced sung Mass at all - usually only at funerals, Christmas Midnight Mass, and (for the really devout) the special liturgies of Holy Week and Forty Hours. The Sunday High Mass was faithfully celebrated in parishes, but it was seldom the best attended Mass. Most people fulfilled their Sunday obligation at a 30-40 minute low Mass. Other than the hymns at Benediction, most American Catholics had very little familiarity with Catholic liturgical music. (One of my relatives once dismissively said of sung Masses, "Who needs them?") The "folk" Masses and other subsequent musical fads did not replace the Church's rich musical heritage for most American Catholics. They replaced an absence of music.

I myself as a teenager, very much influenced by the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, was perhaps atypical in my preference for sung Mass. But, even so, my exposure to the rich and diverse treasury of traditional sacred music was modest - Gregorian chant as sung by my parish's choir of men and boys and a smattering of sacred polyphony (probably Palestrina). The first time I heard something as elaborate as Mozart's Requiem was January 19, 1964, when it was sung at a televised Pontifical Requiem Mass Cardinal Cushing celebrated at Boston's cathedral for the recently assassinated President Kennedy. (Even Kennedy's actual funeral Mass on November 25, 1963, however, had been a low Mass!)

It has often been suggested that the original aim of the liturgical renewal was to eliminate the low Mass and to restore the sung liturgy to its traditional and proper place in Catholic life by facilitating people's more effective participation in it. In retrospect, however, what happened instead was more like the effective elimination of the traditional sung liturgy in favor of a continuation of a kind of low Mass - now embellished with various musical elements of various genres, some good and perhaps worthy of liturgical use, much of it not.. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Revolutionary Century

100 years ago today, on March 7, 1917, workers at a large industrial plant in Petrograd (the patriotically renamed capital of the Russian Empire) called a strike for the next day, thus setting in motion what we now know as the Russian Revolution - the 20th century's revolution par excellence, ranking right up there with the 18th-century's French Revolution in its disastrous disruption of society and overall harm to the human race. 

At that time, Orthodox Russia still followed the Julian calendar, civilly as well as religiously. So it was still February 22 in Russia. Hence the familiar title "February Revolution" for the calamitous events of March 1917 - and the analogous title "October Revolution" for the even more calamitous Bolshevik takeover on November 7, 1917.

Had there been some more genuine statesmen in positions of power in 1914, they might have successfully prevented World War I from ever even starting - or, failing that, they might at least have stopped it sooner, thus minimizing its tragic consequences. Had there been a more genuine statesman in the White House in 1917 instead of Woodrow Wilson, the United States might never have tipped the scales in World War I with all the destabilizing effects that followed. That first scenario might well have prevented the Russian Revolution. The second might at least have prevented the spread of the revolutionary infection throughout much of Europe at the end of the war and for decades to follow.

Admittedly, the Russian Empire under the Romanov dynasty left a lot to be desired. Still the final decades of the 19th century saw the end of Russian serfdom and the beginnings of a genuine middle class. The turn of the 20th century saw sufficient industrial development such that Russia came to be considered among the major industrial nations by the beginning of the war.  That war and the disastrous revolution it facilitated sent Russia backward economically, not forward. And it would take much of the 20th century for Russia even to catch up again to where she had been in 1914

The international order had to live with the disorder introduced by the Russian Revolution until eventual end of direct Russian imperial domination of Eastern Europe and of Russian meddling elsewhere around the world - and the internal collapse of the Soviet Union itself - in the last decade of the 20th century. For the peoples of the former Russian Empire and former Soviet Union, the legacy has been bitter and the price paid in lives lost cultures destroyed has been high. To this must the be added the toll on a century's moral and intellectual life by a morally bankrupt ideology.

If ever there were any reason to believe that there is a "right side of history," that fallacy should have been decisively discredited by the damage done to real human beings and their societies by the evils unleashed by World War I, notably the Russian Revolution, the damaging effects of which are still so evident one century later.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Nave of Lent

Ash Wednesday and the three following ferial days post cineres are a later addition to the original 6-week Roman Lent, which begins this Quadragesima Sunday, with its station at the Pope's "cathedral" in Rome. the papal basilica of Saint John Lateran (Photo). If Ash Wednesday and the three following days are sometimes imagined as the "vestibule" of Lent, then the four weeks which begin this Sunday, can accordingly be considered as representing the "nave" of Lent. 

The modern popularity of Ash Wednesday easily overshadows the original significance of this Sunday as the original beginning of Lent, but the day's ancient association with the "election" of catechumens for initiation at Easter, revived in the modern Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, still identifies a major transitional moment - for those who are disposed to take notice. (In the traditional Roman Rite, this distinction was even clearer, inasmuch as many of Lent's proper features - the hymns, chapters, responses, and responsories in the Divine Office, for example - began on this Sunday, not on Ash Wednesday. as they now do) 

Again, this Sunday’s historic importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert, the obvious model for our own much more modest 40 days of fasting and prayer!

But before we even get to the desert, the Church takes us all the way back to the beginning – to the garden. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed – formed, incidentally, out of the clay of the ground, the same ground out of which God made the various trees and, a little later, the various wild animals and various birds of the air. The story is a familiar one. So we are apt to let it gently pass over us (in one ear and out the other, as the saying goes). But it’s presence and prominence in this Lenten liturgy suggests that would be a mistake. It’s a story, to be sure, but more like a meditation, a study in story-form of who we are and what we’re about.

In this story that says so much, we learn that life itself is a gift. So too is the world, which we are not the owners of, but more like tenants, renters. And, if - as each year gets hotter and the climate changes more erratically, while climate-change deniers pursue short-term profit at the cost of long-term risk - this world, in which we are tenants, is itself becoming less like a garden and more like a desert, the biblical story has something to say about that too! 

The original biblical garden is traditionally associated with somewhere in what is now Iraq - a place that in the actual present practically epitomizes everything that is the opposite of the biblical garden. As this world, which God has rented to us, deteriorates increasingly ("progressively"?) from garden to desert, everything about the Genesis story seems even more, rather than less, relevant to our situation today.

In the middle of the original garden grew a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the story presents as a kind of boundary, not to be touched, let alone eaten from.  It’s a reminder of limitations - that we human beings didn’t make our world, that we don’t own it, and that we are not completely in charge.

Neither, however, is the smart, cunning serpent, the tempter, who always acts as if he were in charge and whom tradition treats as a figure for the devil – the same Satan who will tempt Jesus in the desert, pretending there to be in charge of all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.

Like the seductions of modernity and of our modern politics, the devil is a liar, but a subtle, cunning liar. Superficially, what the serpent says to Eve is true. Adam and Eve will not die – at least not right away. And their eyes will be opened to know what is good and what is evil. But, when what the tempter promises actually happens, then we quickly see how well we have been deceived!

True, they did not die right away. But die they eventually would, as we will too. Through one man, Saint Paul says, sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all. The same ground we once came from, originally filled with the Creator’s breath of life, to that same ground we must, on account of sin, return now in death – as we were again so dramatically reminded in the ritual of this past Ash Wednesday. In case the ashes themselves weren’t clear enough as a symbol of death, we were also told it in words: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return!

As sadly so often happens with our impoverished Lectionary, the 1st reading ends abruptly. Adam and Eve try to repair the damage they have done by making themselves clothes – in effect hiding from one another. They will soon also try to hide from God, for the tempter had taught them to think of God as an enemy, as an oppressor. But, as the story continues, God does not abandon them to their guilt. That’s the good news. And it looks ahead, looks forward, to the even bigger and better news Saint Paul proclaims in Sunday's 2nd reading. But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.

Thanks to Adam’s sin, the garden has become a desert. That is where we find ourselves now, and so where we encounter the devil – just as Jesus did. But because Jesus has himself not just encountered but defeated the devil, our own victory over Satan is already in sight. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.