Monday, April 30, 2018

The (Lame-Duck) Speaker vs. the (Fired) House Chaplain

“May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” That prayer, offered by the Jesuit Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Father Patrick J. Conroy, earlier this year, may (at least so it has been widely rumored) be what cost the Catholic House Chaplain his job. Apparently, praying for "benefits balanced and shared by all Americans" was just a prayer too far for the lame-duck House Speaker, an Ayn Rand fan since high school, who notoriously has focused on the opposite of guaranteeing that benefits be anything but "balanced and shared by all Americans."

The 60th Chaplain of the House of Representatives and only the second Catholic ever to serve as House Chaplain, Father Conroy was chosen by former Speaker Boehner and has been serving in that post since May 2011. He has now become the first chaplain in history ever to be fired from that office! One might have thought that the Lame-Duck Speaker would have enough other, more worldly matters to preoccupy him, but apparently not. 

As Spencer McBride wrote Saturday in The Washington Post “Every week in churches throughout the country, clergymen offer sermons and prayers that urge men and women to pay special attention to the needs of the poor and those whom society has marginalized. … Yet when the same, seemingly noncontroversial sentiment is uttered in a polarized chamber of Congress, sensitive political agendas will too often serve as the lens through which lawmakers view such remarks. At stake in the firing and replacing of Conroy as chaplain is the transformation of a congressional position designed to promote civil discourse into nothing more than another tool of partisanship.”

Obviously, for the Congressional Majority, echoing Jesus' priorities for the poor and marginalized may be quite controversial indeed!

Sunday, April 29, 2018


Every day during the Easter season, the Church at Mass reads from the Acts of the Apostles – the evangelist Luke’s account of how the Risen Christ’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit transformed a small group of 120 disciples into a missionary movement that spread from Jerusalem to Rome, how a small Jewish sect became a world Church with a universal mission.

To us who already know the story, the Church’s growth and expansion may seem like a natural development, both obvious and inevitable. Back then, however, it was one learning experience after another. And one of the leading figures in that process was Saint Paul, who makes his first Sunday appearance in this year’s readings of Acts in today’s 1st reading [Acts 9:26-31].

At that point Paul – then still known as Saul – was not yet the leading figure he would soon become. In fact, when he first tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem, they were all afraid of him, not knowing that he was a disciple. That was hardly surprising, given his recent history as a ferocious persecutor of the new Christian movement. As we all know, our past actions often linger with us long after we would like them to be forgotten. (Not for nothing did the European Union try to establish a right to be forgotten in social media!)

So what we now take for granted, namely that every new member of the Church needs a sponsor, was also the case even for Saul, who was, in effect, sponsored by Barnabas, who took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and in effect testified to them that Saul’s conversion was the real deal.

This episode raises an interesting question that is in some sense always with us. How do we remain open to the possibility that God is telling us something new or doing something unexpected, while at the same time distinguishing what is truly from God from what is not, what is authentically holy from what is transient, temporary, a passing fad, or just plain false? Just this past month, in his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, Pope Francis warned against “all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace.”

The classical religious answer is what we call discernment. “Without the wisdom of discernment,” Pope Francis has written, “we can easily become prey to every passing trend.” We need discernment, the Pope writes, “to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow.”

At some level we do this all the time. So we speak, for example, of people discerning their vocation, their calling in life, or of attempting to discern what God is calling us to do in new situations as they arise in our lives. Acts illustrates how the apostolic community did it – by looking at the results. Anticipating John’s injunction in today’s 2nd reading [1 John 3:18-24] that love is not just about word or speech but about deed and truth, Barnabas told the apostles about Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ and confirmed its authenticity by the evidence of the genuineness of Paul’s transformation. As Saint Therese of Lisieux famously said: “Love proves itself by deeds.”

As a practical matter, that is one more reason why being – and remaining – connected with the larger community is so important, lest, as Pope Francis warns, we grow “isolated, lose our sense of reality and inner clarity, and easily succumb.” Paul may have been personally called by the Risen Christ to become his apostle. Even so, he had to have his credentials validated, so to speak, by the judgment of the authorized leaders of the Church, who in turn based their judgment on what the Church community actually experienced in regard to Paul, as attested to by Barnabas.

As Jesus’ farewell address in John’s gospel illustrates [John 15:1-8], the future for which we hope is already present in our union with the Risen Lord – a union which is not myself alone, or Jesus and me alone, and Jesus and me and my friends alone, but rather Jesus and the whole Church (of which I am a part). The choice for a life in union with Christ is a choice of a life of communion with Christ’s Body, the Church, within which we are both welcomed and challenged, forgiven and changed, taught and fed.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN April 29, 2018.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


At a General Audience on January 8, 2014, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis referenced Saint Paul's famous identification of Baptism with Christ's death (Romans 6:3-4) to describe Baptism as no mere "formality" but as "an act that touches the depths of our existence. A baptized child and an unbaptized child are not the same. A person who is baptized and a person who is not baptized are not the same. We, by Baptism, are immersed in that inexhaustible source of life which is the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love in all of history; and thanks to this love we can live a new life, no longer at the mercy of evil, of sin and of death, but in communion with God and with our brothers and sisters."

The Pope then encouraged his hearers to be aware of the date of their baptism. "It is important to know the day on which I was immersed in that current of Jesus' salvation. ... To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing it is losing awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past – and not by our own will but by that of our parents – and, thus, has no impact on the present. Indeed, we must reawaken the memory of our Baptism. We are called to live our Baptism every day, as the current reality of our lives. If we manage to follow Jesus and to remain in the Church, despite our limitations and with our weaknesses and with our sins, it is precisely through the Sacrament that we have become new creatures and are clothed in Christ. It is by the power of Baptism, in fact, that, freed of original sin, we are inserted into Jesus' relation to God the Father; that we are bearers of a new hope, for Baptism gives us this new hope: the hope of going on the path of salvation our whole life long. And this hope nothing and no one can extinguish, for it is a hope that does not disappoint. Remember, hope in the Lord never disappoints. Thanks to Baptism, we are capable of forgiving and of loving even those who offend us and do evil to us. By our Baptism, we recognize in the least and in the poor the face of the Lord who visits us and makes himself close. Baptism helps us to recognize in the face of the needy, the suffering, and also of our neighbor, the face of Jesus. All this is possible thanks to the power of Baptism!"

What a wonderful catechesis - simple and pointed - on the lifelong significance of an event which, for most of us, took place when we were infants and so cannot possible be remembered! But, just as we cannot possibly remember the actual day of our birth, we can all know and celebrate its anniversary on our birthday, we can all know and commemorate the anniversary of our baptism. 

And so, today, I recall and commemorate my own baptism - 70 years ago today.

In her classic 1955 amalgam of liturgical and popular piety, Around the Year with the Trapp Family, Maria Trapp recommended that families reverently wrap and keep their children’s baptismal candles – “and remind each other to light our candle for any of us in case of sudden death, as a symbol that we want to die in our baptismal innocence, that the light which was kindled at that solemn moment has not been extinguished voluntarily by us.” Maria Trapp regretted that, as refugees, most of her family no longer possessed their original baptismal candles. Actually, neither do I. I have many pictures of my baptism to  recall the event, but I have never seen my baptismal candle. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if, in keeping with the liturgical minimalism which ruled in the American Church at that time, the priest would brought one lighted candle to the baptistry, which he then presented to each set of godparents and then immediately took back! Unlike the common practice nowadays of lighting an baptismal candle during the ceremony and then actually giving it to each family, I suspect my godparents never actually got a candle and never brought one home and that no one would have known what to do with one if they had! 

Obviously, one can go through life perfectly fine without having one's own baptismal candle as a keepsake of the event. But, as Pope Francis is trying to teach us, we ought not to go through life forgetting our baptism or thinking of it merely as some social ceremony celebrated by our families way back in the distant past. Commemorating the anniversary of our baptism may indeed help us to recover more of Bsptism's lifelong and ongoing significance for each of us and for the Church we are each an inseparable part of now ,thanks precisely to our Baptism. 

(Photo: the Baptismal Font at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN .)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Good Shepherd Sunday

The familiar image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, is a very popular one – even in our modern, urbanized society, in which most of us are not shepherds and know next to nothing about sheep. What we do know is that the luckier sheep live to provide us with wool, while the less lucky sheep become lamb chops.

And that may be precisely the point – precisely what makes Jesus so special as a shepherd. Jesus the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – a totally unexpected reversal of roles, one which brings about a totally new kind of relationship between the shepherd and his sheep.

In most ancient religious understandings, what distinguished the pagan gods was their much envied freedom from death in contrast to our inescapable mortality. But by becoming one of us and experiencing our human predicament by dying, Jesus overcame this separation between God and us, and so reversed not just the traditional job description of shepherd, but also the pagan idea that human beings exist, like sheep, simply to serve for the satisfaction of the gods.

It turns out, in fact, that God actually takes satisfaction precisely in this reversal. This is why the Father loves me, Jesus says, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. So an age-old separation has been overcome, and something new has happened in our world. A brand new connection has been created between God and us by the Good Shepherd, who accepted the limits of our mortal life in order to bring us with him to something new beyond those limits.

Now that’s all well and good, but didn’t it happen such a long time ago? And not much really seems to have changed in the world, has it? Whether in far-away Syria or around the corner in Granger County, how many lives are still being lost or ruined, how many of the Good Shepherd’s flock still seem to be sacrificed for others’ power, domination, and control? We hear the Good Shepherd’s Easter news year-in and year-out, but if we are not paying proper attention it can begin to sound abstract at best.

But there was nothing abstract, certainly, about Peter’s sermon in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the aftermath of the first post-Pentecost miracle, an amazing cure which Peter somewhat modestly calls a good deed done to a cripple. It all happened, Peter proclaims, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom God raised from the dead … ‘the stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

What a claim! The sheer boldness of it – that humanity can be saved and that Jesus Christ is its one and only savior!

Recognizing the boldness of that claim and taking it seriously – making it our own claim – is what Easter time is all about. Admittedly, given the inevitable limits of our attention, it takes some effort to keep up that Easter enthusiasm – to keep it from wilting along with the Eater flowers!

And so we celebrate Easter for seven weeks, during which we read every day from the Acts of the Apostles – to recall the fervor of those very first Christians, who were transformed forever by the presence and power of the Risen Lord, experienced in the here and now in his word and sacraments. And we see how eager they were to share that experience with everyone around them – an eagerness we need to learn from, for each of us is being propelled by the power of the Easter story to trust in its power to transform the world. For, as Peter’s sermon makes clear, the universal power of Jesus’ name is not limited or constrained by any human failure to hear it.

Jesus himself says he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also he must lead, and they will hear his voice. The Savior of the world calls all people to his Father, as he continually transforms the world through the uniquely saving power of his death and resurrection. In Jesus, God can now be found in every aspect of human life, in places and people where one might least expect, in situations which our limited imaginations may even turn into obstacles to God’s presence.

As Pope Francis has just recently reminded us, in his Apostolic Exhortation, On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, “God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.”

Our mission, our mission as a Church animated by the power of the Risen Christ, is to go beyond the limits of our imaginations, and become, like those otherwise ordinary people whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, effective witnesses to God’s saving power in our world through the death and resurrection of his Son.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 22, 2018.

Friday, April 20, 2018

James Comey's "Higher Loyalty"

It is almost the end of his book when former FBI Director James Comey  offers his concluding assessment of the President of the united States: "this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty." Comey predicts that the Trump experience will leave the presidency weaker and other institutions stronger, and that the next president will re-emphasize values. Perhaps. But political systems are seldom significantly self-correcting. Perhaps instead this president (whom Comey may have contributed to putting in office) may leave all institutions weaker and those values Comey would like to see re-emphasized will be gone instead, and our American political culture changed forever for the worse?

These are fair questions - and fairly put to someone whose actions in 2016 may have been one of the factors that helped throw the election to Donald Trump. Just as Ralph Nader may be remembered by history as much or more for helping elect George W. Bush in 2000 than for any contributions to consumer safety, James Comey may be as much or more remembered for the part he may have played in putting Donald Trump in the White House than for his subsequent firing.

Yet, for all the presumed interest in Comey's assessment of President Trump, the book is really about Comey himself, not about the President. He doesn't even get to the saga of the Clinton emails until chapter 10, almost 160 pages into the story. Presumably, we are intended to read and evaluate the Comey-Clinton and Comey-Trump episodes in the light of that larger life-story. Readers will likely decide for themselves how much they really care about that larger life-story and the arc of righteousness it is presumably intended to portray.

Which is not to suggest that the larger life story is devoid of interest by any means! For example, New Yorkers might find especially interesting his account of his time working for Rudy Giuliani in the U.S. Attorney's office and his critique of Giuliani's "imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted."

Regarding the Clinton email issue, Comey acknowledges how little there was there! He states, for example, that the case came nowhere near David Petraeus' case "in the volume and classification level of the material mishandled." But the issue with his initial (July) response to the Clinton case was not his obviously correct conclusion but his self-justifying need at the time to amplify that conclusion. All this, of course, stood in stark contrast to his strange view that "there was no good reason for the FBI to speak about the Russians and the election."

What Comey will always be remembered for, of course, was his last-minute intervention, his October Surprise. indeed, one of the lawyers on the team at the time actually asked him directly: "Should you consider that what you are about to do may help elect Donald Trump President?" To that, in his characteristically self-righteous way, he says he responded "but not for a moment can I consider it. ...If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost."

Obviously, it was the institutional interest of the FBI that he feared for. But what about the United States itself and its democratic and constitutional institutions, rule of law, international standing, etc., that might be lost? 

Undoubtedly Comey sincerely means it, when he says: "I hope very much that what we did - what I did - wasn't a deciding factor in the election." And we may never know for sure how much of a deciding factor it really was. (In such a close election, almost by definition every factor may be decisive.) Yet the question remains a legitimate one, whether and to what extent his personal preoccupation with his understanding of his role may in some way have isolated him in his decision-making - confining him in an abstractly legalistic framework isolated from real-world implications.

None of this, of course, diminishes the seriousness of his evaluation of the President's personality and behavior. Unfortunately, however, he clutters that evaluation with gratuitous observations about Trump's physical appearance, which may reflect elite assessments about the importance of appearance, etc. (It should never be forgotten that it was precisely the electorate's eager rejection of certain elitist assessments of what matters that was most certainly "a deciding factor" in the election.) Comey is on more relevant ground when he critiques, for example, Trump's apparent lack of curiosity. Such deficiencies certainly count for more than any failure to meet cultural elite expectations about physical appearance.

Comey's account clearly is more about Comey than about anyone else. It tells us hardly anything we don't already know about President Trump (or candidate Clinton). In our politically polarized culture, each reader will likely interpret those already known data according to his or her tribal loyalty. Comey's misfortune may lie in the degree to which each tribe may be predisposed to fault his account - and with it his larger life-story and its implied arc of righteousness.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Israel at 70

A lot of good things happened in 1948.  Harry Truman was re-elected President of the United States. The present Prince of Wales was born. I was born. And Israel was born - or, rather reborn, after almost 19 centuries which the Jewish people had spent in exile. That exile ended 70 years ago, on May 14, 1948, with modern Israel's establishment as a sovereign sate. In the Jewish calendar, the date was 5 Iyar 5708. According to that calendar, Yom Ha'atzmaut  (Israeli Independence Day) is being celebrated today.

The United States, under President Harry Truman's forthright and courageous leadership, immediately recognized the Jewish state. Israel's Arab neighbors, however, did not. They immediately invaded the territory of the new nation, resulting in the first Arab-Israeli war. Seventy years and several wars later, some Arab states (Egypt, Jordan) have since made peace with Israel. But Israel remains beleaguered by the implacable hostility of many of its would-be neighbors who still deny its right to exist, and the Jewish nation remains the object of vehement hatred by enemies around the world.

Belatedly, the Holy See, under Pope Saint John Paul II (Pope 1978-2005), who strenuously promoted Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, finally recognized Israel in 1993. Although 45 years overdue, this was nonetheless an important step in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, which was such an important agenda item for the 20th-century Church.

That was still far from the case, however, at the beginning of the 20th century. On January 26, 1904, Theodor Herzl had an audience with Pope Saint Pius X (Pope 1903-1914)  to seek support for the Zionist effort to restore a Jewish state in the Jews' biblical homeland (in what was then still a part of the Ottoman Empire.)  Herzl recorded his account of the meeting in his diary. [Cf. Raphael Patai, The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, tr. Harry Zohn, 1960)].

According to his account, the Pope responded: "Noi non possiamo favorire questo movimento. Non potremo impedire gli Ebrei di andare a Gerusalemme—ma favorire non possiamo mai. ... Gli Ebrei non hanno riconosciuto nostro Signore, perciĆ² non possiamo riconoscere il popolo ebreo. [We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. .... The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people]."

Thus was a powerful opportunity missed to move forward toward reconciliation between the Church and the Jewish people. 

Twenty years before the restored State of Israel came into being, in March 1928 the Holy Office under Pius XI (Pope 1922-1939) decreed: "just as it reproves all hatred between peoples, so [the Apostolic See[ condemns hatred against the people formerly chosen by God, the hatred that today customarily goes by the name of anti-Semitism" [AAS 20, Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich, tr. Kenneth Kronenberg, p, 82]. But a sort of religiously rooted antagonism remained - for example, in the infelicitous wording of the Good Friday prayer pro perfidis judaeis. Some serious proposals were actually made at the time to reform the prayer's unnecessarily harsh-sounding language and also restore the genuflection which accompanied all the other 8 Good Friday intercessions but was - for absurdly spurious reasons - omitted from the prayer for the Jews.  But unfortunately nothing came of those efforts. Another missed opportunity!

It was only finally in the 1955 Holy Week reform of Pius XII (Pope 1939-1958) that the genuflection was restored to the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews. Then four years later, Pope Saint John XXIII (Pope 1958-1963) ordered the omission of the word perfidis.

Then came the Second Vatican Council. Already in the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council declared "In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (Romans 9:4-5). On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (Romans 11:28-29)." [Lumen Gentium, 16]. Then, in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Council recalled “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.” Citing Saint Paul again, the Council repeated: "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle (Romans 11:28-29)." Finally, the Council asserted, "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ." [Nostra Aetate, 4 ].

The Council's repeated privileging of Romans 11:28-29 implies a renewed appreciation of God's covenant with Israel. Obviously that does not answer every immediate question or provide a practical solution to every political problem involving Israel's still contentious relationship with some of its neighbors. But it ought at least to exclude any sympathy or support for those who still, 70 years on, deny Israel's legitimacy.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sunday after Sunday

Some years back, an acquaintance who apparently takes more than an average amount of interest in churchy stuff (like the liturgical year, for example) remarked that Easter time is too long, that 50 days are just too much to sustain interest. I suppose he had a point. In our fast-paced world of truncated attention spans, impoverished rituals, and diminished imaginations, who has the time, patience, or interest for seven weeks of celebration? Even the Easter lilies have given up by now. As Americans, we are all addicted to celebrating everything in advance. Halloween candy is on display in the supermarket for at least two months. By Halloween, however, the shelves are already being restocked for Christmas. And so it goes, all year long.

But the Church – in her providentially counter-cultural wisdom – does the opposite. We hold off on celebrating until the day itself (or, in the case of Easter, the night before) and then keep on celebrating for weeks – weeks that to some may seem to drag on and on, apparently with no end in sight.

Part of the problem, of course, can be just figuring out what exactly we are celebrating for seven long weeks. Even the most symbolically challenged modern observer probably gets it eventually that there is something special about the number seven. Those in the know can elaborate endlessly on the season’s symbolic significance, historical antecedents, Jewish parallels, and so much more. At the end of the day, however, the question always remains. So what?

It probably happened naturally enough - once the Jewish Passover had been reinterpreted as the Christian Easter - that the 7-week period from Passover to Pentecost reappeared as the Easter season. As the rapidly growing Church organized its initiation rituals, this acquired the eminently practical purpose of providing the newest members – those baptized at Easter – time to understand their experience and better appreciate what it meant for the rest of their lives. In effect, Easter time exists precisely to answer the question, So what now?

That is why the Church reads every day during this season from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ life, and thus the ongoing story of the Risen Christ’s continued life and work in the world, as experienced in his presence and action in his Church. Who better to answer our So what? Question than the 1st Christian generation, whose exciting experience the Acts of the Apostle recalls for us?

Today’s 1st reading [Acts 3:13-15, 17-19] is an excerpt from Peter’s 2nd sermon. He may have been new at his job, but he was already quite good at it. He got right to the point of what had happened and why it mattered. He outlined and summarized the central tenets of Christian faith – the significance of Jesus’ life and mission, how his death has revealed him to be God’s suffering servant, how his resurrection confirms him as the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ, promised by all the prophets, all of which challenges us to repent and be converted.

How to do this John elaborates in our 2nd reading [1 John 2:1-51], another standard Easter season staple. Jesus Christ the righteous one is our Advocate with the Father and expiation for our sins and for those of the whole world. And the way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments – being transformed, truly perfected in him by conforming ourselves to the truth of his words.

Obviously, that may be easier said than done! Like the disciples in the Gospel [Luke 24:35-48], we may all be more than a bit startled and terrified by the realty of the Risen Christ and his challenge to our lives.

And that is why we must meet - as the disciples did, as the early Christians did, as Christians of every time and place have done – every 1st day of the week, to re-encounter our Risen Lord, listening together with one another, learning together with one another, here at the altar where the still wounded but forever living Lord promises us his peace as he feeds us with his own Body and Blood.

As Pope Francis has just recently reminded us, in his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, Growth in holiness is a journey in community. Side by side with others.

It has often been remarked that the change in Jesus’ original disciples – from self-absorbed individuals, confused, scared, and hiding from the world, into a community of convinced and confident disciples, who would become a world-wide Church – was the most visible and dramatic human effect of the resurrection.

So that is why we have to come back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next, to learn how to make our own the experience of those 1st Christians. In the early 5th century, the North African bishop Saint Augustine famously told the newly baptized members of his congregation: When you were baptized, it is as though you were mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it is as though you were baked. Be what you can see and receive what you are. Be a member of the Body of Christ in order to make your Amen true. [Sermon 272].

Ultimately, that is the task of a lifetime in the Church, the slow transformation of our lives into the offering the Risen Christ makes to God on our altar today.. These seven weeks are barely long enough just to begin – just to begin to make our own the story of those 1st Christians and so discover the real difference the Risen Christ can (and does) make among us, right here and right now.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 15, 2018.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Call to Holiness in the Contemporary World

On Monday, the Holy See issued Pope Francis’ March 19 Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, “On the Call to Holiness in the Contemporary World.” This is Pope Francis’ third Apostolic Exhortation. (The previous two were Evangelii Gaudium in 2013 and Amoris Laetitia in 2016.) This Exhoration's "modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities" (2).  Since neither holiness itself nor the Holy Father's stated goal are novel, we would expect this to cover a lot of familiar ground, which it does; but it does so in the present Pope's preferred personal style, while highlighting some especially significant contemporary concerns.

He begins by situating our earthly human situation in relationship to the saints who "preserve their bonds of love and communion with us"(4). He quickly moves on from that to a recognition of signs of sanctity in the ordinary lives and activities of people, for example, "parents who raise their children with immense love" (7). In this the Pope stresses the inherently communitarian character of salvation: "we are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual" (6). "In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness" (15). The Holy Father returns to this theme later, when he warns against isolation and the consequent loss of "our sense of reality and inner clarity" and reminds us that "Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others" (140-141).

Unsurprisingly - especially in light of the recent CDF Letter Placuit Deo - the Pope revisits his preoccupation with two perennial heresies, "two false forms of holiness that can lead us astray: gnosticism and pelagiansm" (35). Regarding the former, he warns against those who have "an answer for every question," which "is a sign that they are not on the right road" (41).More pointedly, he warns that "God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone's life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there" (42). Regarding what he considers contemporary pelagianism. he references the two great medieval Doctors. Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas, to remind us both that "not everyone can do everything" and that "in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once and for all by grace" (49).

The central chapter is an extended mediation on the Beatitudes, which he treats as Jesus' own explanation of holiness. This section especially merits close reading and extended reflection. It concludes with a timely treatment of the centrality of a "lively recognition of the dignity of each human being," something which "involves a constant and healthy unease" (98-99). In this regard, he again identifies two dangers. There are those "who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord," thereby reducing Christianity to "a sort of NGO"(100).  On the other hand, there are also those "who suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend." Hence he stresses the sacredness of "the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery and every form of rejection" (101).

In this connection and with obvious implicit relevance to contemporary events, the Pope warns against those who treat the situation of migrants  as "a secondary issue compared to the 'grave' bioethical questions." He dismisses that as the approach of "a politician looking for votes" not that of "a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children" (102).

The Holy Father next looks at some "expressions of love for God and neighbor" which he considers particularly important in light of certain of contemporary culture's dangers and limitations, such as "a sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism; and all those forms of ersatz spirituality - having nothing to do with God - that dominate the current religious marketplace" (111).

As a spiritually formed Jesuit, the Pope obviously understands that holiness is also a constant combat, and he focuses our attention particularly on the Devil. "We are not dealing merely with a battle against the world and a worldly mentality that would deceive us and leave us dull and mediocre, lacking in enthusiasm and joy. Nor can this battle be reduced to the struggle against our human weaknesses and proclivities (be they laziness, lust, envy, jealousy or any others). It is also a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil" (159)
For Francis, "the conviction that this malign power is present in our midst" is what "enables us to understand how evil can at times have so much destructive force" (160)

Fittingly, Francis concludes with a reflection on discernment, without which, he warns, "we can easily become prey to every passing trend." (167) and he asks "all Christians not to omit, in dialogue with the Lord, a sincere daily 'examination of conscience'."  (169)

While wordy, Gaudete et Exsultate is not as wordy as so many other modern Church documents. Its subject and the Pope's style of expression make it relatively accessible to most. Those same qualities ought also to make it easy to summarize for those who inevitably will not actually read it. 

Unsurprisingly, some journalistic accounts have immediately sought to highlight how this or that passage tilts the score one way or the other in the contemporary tribal divisions within the Church, divisions which sometimes seem to replicate the divisions of our poisonously politically polarized society. To read it exclusively in that way, however, misses a major opportunity to transcend some of those divisions.

Like Saint Francis de Sales famous masterpiece, The Introduction to the Devout Life, Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation is addressed to all, irrespective of particular vocation or status within the Church, modeling how an authentic spirituality not only can be but actually must be rooted in and reflected in our ordinary life experiences and the opportunities and challenges we encounter. The ordinary hearer of this message may not known anything about gnosticism or pelagiansim per se, but can easily recognize and react against their baneful effects as the Pope presents them. "Holiness," Pope Francis insists, "is the most attractive face of the Church" [9], and that is surely something that is widely recognized and intuitively grasped.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Chappaquiddick (the Movie)

The youngest of the Kennedy brothers, Edward ("Ted") Kennedy (1932-2009) was elected to the Senate in 1962 and served as Senator until his death, accumulating a long and distinguished legacy, in some ways more admirable and more consequential than that of either of his more glamorous brothers. One permanent dark spot on that legacy, however, was the tragic event ever since then known by the name of the island where it took place, Chappaquiddick, now the subject of a movie. Kennedy's behavior at Chappaquiddick does not in itself diminish his accomplishments as a senator, but neither can those accomplishments ever erase the ignominy that justly attaches to that tragic event and to his behavior that week.

Those of us above a certain age can well remember how it all played out - the initial tragedy and the successful spinning of it - that salvaged Kennedy's public career (if not his presidential prospects). A friend of mine at the time speculated that Chappaquiddick and the moon landing were not completely coincidental - that the latter event's evocation of the murdered President (who had first made a landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s a national goal) had cast a particular pall over Ted's thinking and emotions that week and somehow may have contributed to the sad sequence of events, which the movie portrays so effectively.  (Another friend at the time used the accident to argue against seat belts and automatic locks in cars!)

Obviously this is a story about entitlement - how rich, privileged people get special treatment in our society and avoid the full consequences of their misbehavior. It is obviously about how Ted Kennedy took such privilege completely for granted and expected the problem he had created to be fixed for him by others - and how his family (centered on his reprehensible but still powerful father) and the family's cohort of Camelot veterans (notably in the film, Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara) colluded to do the fixing. That is an interesting story, but also an obvious one. And it will not likely shock or even surprise those who have no actual memory of Camelot fantasies!

The more interesting story is the struggle that goes on inside Ted himself, externalized somewhat in the conflict between him and his cousin Joe Gargan. The movie begins, hauntingly, with photos of the older Kennedy brothers - Joe, Jr., Jack, and Bobby. That (and the ever-present moon-landing motif) are powerful reminders of the complex web of expectations Ted labored under, as not only the youngest but the presumed least of the brothers. Toward the end, Ted himself expresses his ambivalence quite clearly in a final confrontation with the initial source of so much of his and the family's problem, his father's ambition.

In the end, Ted himself saves his career by going on TV to tell his version of the story and to appeal to the sentiments and nostalgia of his constituents and the American people at large. I can remember watching that speech. It was very moving. Some of those I watched it with were brought to tears. And, while Kennedy never became President, he did have a long and effective career after all.

It is, of course, one of the ironies of history that in the end Ted would probably be more effective and consequential politically than any of his brothers. At the time, however, that all lay way in the future and probably would have seemed an unlikely outcome. In the end, my guess is that it took the traumatic defeat of his presidential ambitions in 1980 to liberate him finally from the Kennedy curse of White House ambition. Indeed, it was his not ever becoming president that seemed to redeem him and enabled him to play the role he later did play in the Senate. most especially as an advocate for universal health care. There really are much more important things than becoming president! 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Thomas Hobbes at 430

Today is the birthday of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), one of the founding giants of early modern political philosophy, probably best known for his 1651 masterpiece Leviathan with its evocation of a "state of nature" and the need for a social contract to establish political sovereignty as a remedy. His philosophy arose out of an age of intense social and political turmoil, when the traditional social structures and political institutions had been undermined in England,  first in the Tudor era by the Reformation and then in the subsequent Stuart era by full-scale civil war and regicide. 

Living in such a world, Hobbes "put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death" (Leviathan, chapter 11). And, while no one may have actually lived in a pure "state of nature," Hobbes' experience of a society in crisis enabled him to imagine such a theoretical construct well enough as "a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own inventions hall furnish them withall. In such a condition, there is no ,,, Society ... And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (chapter 13). 

In one sense, Hobbes has merely offered a secular account of the history of fallen humanity. His solution, however, is neither a Christian conception of grace nor a classical teleology's  recognition of a natural orientation of human beings to social and political community. Rather, Hobbes in effect accepted the early modern world's radical dissolution of those two alternative interpretations and enshrined early modernity's destructive individualist turn at the very heart of the social and political order meant to heal the threat posed by that very same individualism. This was symbolically illustrated already int he famous frontispiece of Leviathan's 1651 edition (photo). Hobbes's proposed solution to the problem of our state of nature as a state of anti-social disorder was the creation (by covenant) of effective political power. In the frontispiece, the sovereign is portrayed as a powerful king holding scepter and sword, providing peace, order, and justice to the land. The contractual character of this sovereign is illustrated by the fact that the sovereign's body is composed of the citizens whose creation he is. However, as Sheldon Wolin famously observed: "The citizens are not swallowed up in an anonymous mass, nor sacramentally merged into a mystical body. Each remains a discrete individual and each retains his identity in an absolute way (Politics and Vision, 1960).

And that has represented the abiding dilemma of modern societies and institutions - struggling to maintain the minimum amount of community necessary for human flourishing while simultaneously undercutting that end by means of individualistic premises and individualistic orientation. The experience of post-modernity has taken that tension to its logical conclusion and thus transformed the dilemma into a crisis.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ross Douthat and the Future of Catholicism

Years ago, while studying Paulist Fathers' Founder Isaac Hecker's expectations of - and his response to - the First Vatican Council, I was struck by how consistent they were with his long-term priorities. Hecker certainly appreciated the importance of internal Church concerns. After all, most of his active, day-to-day ministry (and that of the community he founded) was about building up the Church in the U.S. But he always understood that the Church exists to evangelize, and he seems to have had little appetite for intra-mural factionalism. One of his “Rules for the Guidance of Writers, Lecturers, and Others Engaged in Public Life” was “To keep our minds and hearts free from all attachments to schools, parties, or persons in the Church, so that nothing within us may hinder the light and direction of the Holy Spirit.” 

Similarly, it has long seemed evident (to me at least) that, to the extent that the Church in the late 20th and early 21st centuries may have become less effective in its outreach to the wider world than had been hoped during and in the initial aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, this has in some measure been because so much ecclesial energy has been diverted by internal disputes and battles between factions and interest groups within the Church. 

This may be one of the larger lessons which NY Times columnist and Catholic commentator Ross Douthat explores in his latest book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster, 2018). Much of the pre-publication interest has focused on the highly controversial, contemporary questions connected with divorce and remarriage. In fact, however, Douthat doesn't even get to that topic until chapter 6. 

Before that, he recalls the two standard narratives of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath - corresponding (more or less) to Pope Benedict's famous formulation in 2005 of a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture vs. a hermeneutic of reform. What Douthat does then is "to attempt a synthesis" in the form of an alternative "third story," which highlights the tension, vagueness, and lack of consensus from the outset on exactly how much and how far the Church could or should change (thus enabling competing interpretations to coexist). As importantly, he also highlights how, while the Council was clearest in resolving the lingering,  past problems of the 19th and 20th centuries  (e.g., "the church's relationship to democracy, to religious liberty, to Judaism"), the Council, understandably enough, offered much less clarity for facing the new, post-modern challenges that could hardly have been anticipated in the optimistic early 1960s, but which were just around the corner in the form of "the sexual revolution and the distinctive crisis that subsequently swept over the church." 

Those of us who lived through that period should easily be able to recognize the essentials of Douthat's narrative, which resulted, he argues, in an "uneasy truce," which allowed the different sides to coexist in the same Church but "also allowed both theories of Catholicism's relationship to modernity to effectively be put to the test at once, on a scale that allows for conclusions to be drawn about their viability, their ability to actually deliver on their promise of renewal for the twenty-first century church."

Like everyone, Douthat has his personal perspective on this history. But here he writes less as a partisan theologian polemically propagandizing for one of the Church's competing factions and more like the journalist that he is in secular life. His analysis of the history of the past half-century leads him to the inescapable conclusion "that the liberal path really did lead very easily to dissolution and decline." That first conclusion probably comes as no surprise. His second conclusion, however, is what makes his story so much more interesting. He argues that the "conservative" alternative has been "a preservationist enterprise more than a dynamic one. It limited decline without producing new growth. It was more successful than the church's liberal wing - but only comparatively." He notes, for example, the persistent (about 50-50) split in the West "even among regular massgoers" on divorce and later on same-sex-marriage (and about 80-20 on contraception). He faults the "conservative" side for failing sufficiently to appreciate the "persistent, entirely understandable appeal" of the possibility "of some kind of reconciliation between Catholicism and late modernity." What Douthat calls "conservative Catholicism" remained, he contends, a defensive and factional counterculture, too self-enclosed, for example, "to grasp the scope of the sexual abuse crisis." And, in the United States, "the ever-tighter link between tradition-minded Catholicism and conservative political operations was," he argues, "one reason among many that the conservative Catholicism of the John Paul II era did not turn out to be a particularly effective missionary force." 

The result was "a shared failure" in which "the church turned inward, litigating its divisions rather than preaching the gospel to the world."

Then in 2013, Pope Benedict - who, Douthat believes, "understood well the limits of the conservative-Catholic master narrative, the extent to which John Paul II Catholicism was a weaker force than some of its apostles wanted to believe" - abdicated, and an Argentine Jesuit became Pope in his place.

Douthat follows Austen Ivereigh's well-known biography - "the best and richest account of Bergoglio's life" - and situates the Pope in relation to Yves Congar's quest for "true reform" as opposed to "false reform" in the Church. He sees him as initially both similar to and different from his immediate predecessors - similar as a liberal "in the context of the council's debates," while trying "to  rein in radical interpretations of its reforms," emphasizing continuity and defending popular piety, but different in coming out of a very different social, economic, and political context as a Latin American, different too in his affinity for a Catholic culture that is "supernaturalist but not particularly doctrinal."

So the initial promise of Pope Francis' pontificate, as Douthat sees it, was his "potential to straddle, rather than worsen, some of the church's internal divides." He notes how Francis' negative attitude toward global capitalism and his progressive positions on immigration and climate change were not really novelties, nor did they threaten any "doctrinal rupture." (What they did threaten, in the U.S. context, was "a peculiarly American marriage of conservative Catholicism and free market ideology," which Douthat argues "deserved a period of papal challenge and self-critique.") 

What Pope Francis seemed at first to promise "was less a revolution than a rebalancing" and "a more explicitly welcoming church," that would be more appealing to those "alienated by a  too frequent conflation of conservative theology and conservative politics" and those "who believed that the church could change its tone even if it couldn't change its teaching."

Then, along came the current controversy about divorce and remarriage. Douthat definitely espouses the view that any relaxation of the official position on the reception of Holy Communion by those divorced and remarried outside the Church contradicts the plain meaning of Christ's words and would be disastrous for the Church's mission and life. That argument - along with those of others who propose alternative arguments - are already familiar enough and so do not require repeating here.  

As I said earlier, Douthat's strength here is less as a theologian propagandizing for one side or the other than as a journalist reporting on what is happening and analyzing its implications and likely consequences. So he recognizes the complications created for any theology of marriage by the fact that what many believers do in practice may often be very different from the formulations of official theology. He recognizes what could be called the realities on the ground, both in terms of the ongoing development of annulment jurisprudence (which he seems to support) and variations in communicants' actual behavior (which he seems content to accept). At the same time, however, he also wants to emphasize the societal harm he believes might befall the already challenged institution of marriage and the implications for other contested issues. He is also particularly sensitive to the impact of the arguments for change in relation to the traditional teaching "that the grace necessary to persevere in virtue is always available to ordinary Christians." These are not negligible concerns, however they may be eventually resolved. 

Sensitive to all these concerns on both sides of the issue, his preference, so it seems, would have been that this issue of divorce and remarriage just not have come up! Indeed, it is clear that he considers it an unwelcome distraction from what he initially perceived this pontificate's agenda to be.  "Strip away the marriage controversy," Douthat believes that all the Pope's other projects - e.g. a poor church, for the poor - "would have been far easier to pursue."

Nevertheless, the issue has come up, and Douthat dutifully (if regretfully) recounts the contentious story of the two synods and their aftermath.

Again so much of that is already familiar ground. More interestingly, he turns to historical cases to examine previous disputes - starting with the prolonged 4th-century battle about Arianism, and continuing with Pope Honorius I's apparent error on monotheletism, the 14th-century controversy concerning Pope John XXII's questionable personal views on the beatific vision, and more recently the Church's condemnation of slavery and her shift away from the traditional condemnation of usury. The last seems to him especially relevant for those "traditionalists who argue that the church's shift on usury is a cautionary tale, and that properly much of modern finance capitalism should be condemned as firmly as adultery."

But it is the great 17th-century battle between the Jansenists and the Jesuits  "over how the church should respond to early modernity" that he seems to regard as most relevant for figuring out how most satisfactorily to navigate between the problematic extremes of rigorism and laxism in a way which works for the ordinary late-modern or post-modern person. 

As was already so in the 17th-century, I think that so many of the current tensions within Christian churches (Catholicism included) are responses to ongoing cultural changes within Western societies - changes that have quite consistently been moving the beliefs and opinions of more and more ordinary people in such societies in a new, post-Christian direction. How much to accommodate to secular society and its values, how much to give in to the world - whether the issue is sexuality or trying to reconcile being Christian with being part of a profit-making, commercial, capitalist economy - this is an age-old challenge for the Church, which will always experience the tension between the priorities and concerns of the committed and counter-cultural devout and the somewhat different experience of more ordinary believers who are more at home in the world and more receptive to the directions set by secular society.

Replicating our secular patterns of political polarization, however, it may be that the most committed are also likely to get more and more extreme.  Thus Douthat worries that, as "liberal Catholicism" becomes "more ambitious, more aggressive, more optimistic about how far the church can change," at the other end "many conservative Catholics (again younger ones especially)" may come "to take a darker view of the post-Vatican II era, and to reassess whether there might have always been more wisdom in the traditionalist critique than they wanted to believe." Douthat deplores this "purely reactive sensibility," Hence his somewhat strong criticism of those who he believes may provoke it - among whom he includes the Pope himself.

So Douthat's disappointment with what he has come to perceive to be the direction of the present pontificate goes well beyond disagreements about divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion. What he is looking for is "a distinctively Catholic sort of synthesis - one that would speak to the right's fear that the West's civilizational roots are crumbling and to the left's disappointment with the rule of neoliberalism; one that would offer a Christian alternative to the aridity of secularism, the theocratic zeal of Islamism, and the identity politics of right and left." Such a unified vision, "stressing anew the church's themes of economic and social solidarity without compromising its metaphysical and moral commitments" would, he believes, make Catholicism "more attractive and influential in the wider world." 

One of the unfortunate characteristics of our contemporary, celebrity-oriented society, however, is our obsession with personalities. The papal office, the Petrine ministry, is central to the Church. It unites us across time and space, back to Peter (and Christ) and from one end of the earth to the other. The personality of any particular pope, however, is another matter. The latter preoccupation, which began in the late 19th century with widespread devotion to "the Prisoner of the Vatican," has expanded beyond all previous expectations since the second half of the 20th century, thanks to the intersection of modern media and our modern obsession with celebrity with the increasingly larger-than-life public role of charismatic contemporary popes.

Douthat does a good job setting the larger context that has contributed to the present impasse and the varied potential implications of this situation for contemporary society. His growing preoccupation with the person of the Pope himself, however, inevitably ends up subordinating all else, because his book will instead be read one way or the other depending largely on the reader's personal appreciation of Pope Francis and the Pope's perceived impact on contemporary events. Yet, if his analysis is correct. then the deeper issues at stake have been at issue for a very long time and will remain so - regardless of who is pope. Indeed, the fundamental issue of how to balance a sectarian, counter-cultural imperative with an expansive and inclusive mission and how much accommodation to ordinary life in the world that balance inevitably requires, that issue has been with the Church from the outset and has continued to manifest itself in varied ways through 20 centuries of internal and external turmoil.