Sunday, September 30, 2018

Room Enough for All

Jealousy - as Britain’s Queen Alexandra famously said in 1910 - is the source of so many problems in life.

Well, you hardly need me to tell you that – or that there is plenty of jealousy in the world, or what its causes are. Evidently, there was plenty of it in the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 9:38-43, 47-48] – as illustrated by the apostles’ angry reaction to the unnamed “someone” they had caught casting out devils in Jesus’ name – as well as in the Old Testament story of Joshua’s jealous reaction to Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp [Numbers 11:25-29]. I think we can all recognize some of ourselves in the behavior of both Joshua and Jesus’ apostles – the first Bishops of the Church. Jesus’ startling response – like that of Moses before him – seems to go against what we should all recognize as one of our most ordinary and deeply embedded patterns of human behavior, being part of a group.

As we have been hearing now for the past several Sundays, Jesus had, for some time now, been instructing his followers about what was going to happen when they got to Jerusalem – and what that experience should translate into in terms of their own attitudes. Yet the impression one gets over and over again – in the Gospels as in ordinary life, when things get repeated over and over, there is usually a reason, an instructional purpose – the impression one gets is that the future first Bishops of Jesus’ Church just didn’t get it. On the contrary, we see them again focused on themselves, on being insiders, on being important members of a prestigious and powerful inner circle!

Like members of any adolescent prep-school clique, college fraternity, or any other exclusive group at any age, the apostles seemed obsessed with distinguishing who’s in from who’s out, who’s up from who’s down, who’s rich from who’s poor, who’s smart from who’s dumb, who dresses well from who doesn’t, who’s cool from who’s not - and equally obsessed with having it all without having to sacrifice anything, let alone a hand, a foot, or an eye. That sounds a lot like us, like our American society today, doesn’t it?

Of course, in the world we human beings have built for ourselves, our world works best by building barriers, something we are forever doing at every level. That is who we are. It expresses what we want and determines how we act – in our families, in our relationships, in our careers, in our country, in our churches, whatever.

The good news of the Gospel is that by his life - and above all by his death – Jesus has liberated us from this deep-seated, but ultimately enslaving and self-destructive, need to be forever comparing ourselves, to be forever in competition, to be forever keeping score, counting our possessions and calculating our coolness. Jesus challenges us to free ourselves from this unending universal human obsession about ourselves, and about our group, which is just a collective version of our obsession about ourselves.

And, of course, all those things that we want so much all come in limited quantities. That presumably is a big part of their appeal, what makes them so attractive and desirable. To the extent that I get a lot, someone else gets less, little, or nothing at all. That is the heart of our economic and political life, which is why economic and political life are so largely about conflict, because the reality is that there really is never enough of all the stuff we want – certainly not enough for everyone! And, as today’s 2nd Reading [James 5:1-6] reminds us, those at the top of the economic pyramid tend to try to guarantee that it stays that way.  So the perennial task of economic systems and governments is to figure out how most satisfactorily to allocate all those scarce, limited benefits that we all so desire, which can only work when people are willing to limit their desires and allow others to get their share.

The kingdom of God, however, has no such limits. It has room enough for all of us. It’s the ultimate (and perhaps the only) genuinely “win-win” situation. But it also entails a completely novel and completely unique notion of what winning means, enabling us to accomplish mighty deeds in God’s name, transforming our “lose-lose” world into something we would otherwise never have been able even to imagine.

Like the apostles, our natural inclination is to spend our energy vainly competing to accumulate more and more – tangible goods like wealth, power, security, and status, and those equally elusive if less tangible ones like affirmation, respect, and love. Jesus, however, is challenging us, as he challenged his apostles (and as only he can), to feel, to walk, and to see our way through life with his hands, his feet, and his eyes – and so to feel, to walk, and to see things the way God does.

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 30, 2018.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Defend Us in Battle"

In 1957, as a nerdy nine-year old, I chose Michael for my confirmation name, because I was attracted by the bellicose militaristic image of Michael the Archangel in the prayer then regularly recited as part of the so-called “Leonine Prayers for Russia” recited after Low Mass: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. 

The origin of those so-called Leonine Prayers dates from 1859, when Leo's predecessor, Blessed Pope Pius IX, faced with the growing prospect of Italian unification and its imminent threat to the papacy’s temporal power over the central Italian Papal States, prescribed certain prayers to be recited after Masses celebrated in those territories. In 1884, in the context of the continued conflict between the Holy See and the now unified Kingdom of Italy, Pope Leo XIII ordered that those prayers be recited throughout the world. Two years later he added the now familiar Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. The Papal States were never really recovered, of course, but in the 20th century Benito Mussolini managed to solve the long-festering conflict to the satisfaction of both sides. So, after the 1929 reconciliation between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy, Pope Pius XI directed that the prayers should continue to be said but with the new intention for the Church in Russia. 

Those "Leonine Prayers" were required to be recited only after Low Mass. In the United States at that time, however, Low Mass had de facto become the most commonly experienced form of Mass for most lay Catholics. With the effective end of Low Mass after Vatican II, however, the 1964 Instruction Inter Oecumenici suppressed the obligation to recite those prayers. Even so, the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel has remained popular and is presently experiencing a certain resurgence in its popularity and usage.

Today, of course, is the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel, traditionally known in the English-speaking world as Michaelmas.  (In our contemporary calendar, Michael shares the feast with the other two biblical archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, which effectively only diminishes the attention actually given to those other two, who previously each had a feast of his own.) 

Michael is mentioned three times in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, which identifies him as Michael the great prince, the protector of your people. According to Jewish tradition, Michael acted as Israel’s advocate and defender against the guardians of other nations and particularly against the evil angel who was Israel’s accuser. That tradition is reflected in the New Testament Book of Revelation, chapter 12, which describes a war in heaven in which Michael and his angels defeats Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. Jesus himself, without mentioning Michael, seemed to be referring to this when he said that he had watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening (Luke 10:18).

According to Revelation, Satan and the other fallen angels, having been cast out of heaven and thrown down to the earth, continue there to make war on those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus .The New Testament Epistle of Jude recounts another Jewish tradition according to which Michael fought the devil when he tried to claim the body of Moses, and said to the devil The Lord rebuke you!

Catholic tradition celebrates an apparition of the Archangel Michael on Monte Gargano in Italy at the end around the year 490 and used to commemorate that liturgically in another feast of Saint Michael on May 8.  Michael was also said to have appeared in 708, asking for a church to be built on what is now known as Mont Saint-Michel, which remains a pilgrimage site to this day. Most famously, he is supposed to have appeared with a sword over the Roman mausoleum of Hadrian in 590 during a devastating plague. To celebrate that event and the end of the plague, Pope Saint Gregory the Great renamed the building Castel Sant'Angelo, the name by which it is still known today (photo above, taken by me in 2012).

So it is hardly surprising that this great Archangel should continue to be invoked throughout the Church, especially in times of trouble.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Elephant in the Room

I didn't catch all of the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing yesterday, but I saw quite enough of it. In some ways it was like watching two different hearings. In the first, Professor Blasey Ford told her story and answered questions calmly, firmly insisting on her harrowing account of what allegedly happened to her years ago, in a way that certainly seemed believable, while she herself certainly came across as sincere and honorable. She asserted her "100 percent" certainty about the identity of her attacker, invoking her scientific expertise as a psychologist to clarify why that particular memory is so certain. Her account of her attackers' laughter was particularly powerful. However uncomfortable and unhappy she may have been about being there and having to testify publicly, she seemed to succeed in effectively making her point, in spite of the awkward committee procedure which chopped up her testimony into 5-minute segments and caused the questioning to alternate awkwardly between the hired Republican prosecutor and the sympathetic Democratic senators. (At times I felt as if I were watching an aristocratic Edwardian dinner, where at a periodic signal from the host everyone would have to turn and switch conversation partners!)

Then came Judge Kavanaugh's turn to testify. Expressing both personal anger (justifiable if he is innocent) and partisan Republican rage, Kavanaugh appeared to be behaving as his White House mentor may have wanted him to. If so, it seemed to have worked, when the President tweeted in response: “Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him.” Kavanaugh's aggressive behavior also seemed to liberate some of the Republican Senators to speak more aggressively in turn. I could hardly help wondering, however, what would be the reaction if Professor Ford, or any other woman or, for that matter, any poor or otherwise non-privileged person of either sex were to talk that way to the committee?

Of course, instead of all his histrionics, Kavanaugh, if he is innocent as he claims, could have served his cause much better by asking for - calling for, indeed demanding - an FBI investigation. This not only has he refused to do, but he seemed to go out of his way to avoid answering directly every time that question was posed. There is no better illustration of the committee majority's bad faith, of their determination to impose Kavanaugh on the Court no matter what the facts, than this suspicious reluctance to seek a normal investigation.

This is indeed the proverbial "Elephant in the Room," this Republican unwillingness to ask for a fuller investigation, and in particular the refusal to subpoena the one witness whose testimony could actually make a difference one way or the other - Mark Judge, Kavanaugh's classmate and friend (and memoirist of hedonistic preppy culture), who is alleged by Professor Ford to have been present.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The 25th Amendment and Democratic Contituionalism

President Trump should take some comfort in the fact that, for all the foolish talk and Washington gossip suggesting some rash, high-level scheming about invoking the 25th Amendment, that Amendment itself is actually very scrupulous about protecting presidential power. It would, in fact, be more of a challenge to employ the 25th Amendment against a healthy and functioning president than it would be to impeach him. And that is as it should be in our society. Adopted in the 1960s to address a real, if thankfully usually only hypothetical, problem, the 25th Amendment was never intended to become a vehicle for subverting democratic constitutionalism.

The Twenty-fifth Amendment was submitted by Congress to the states on July 6, 1965, and was adopted as part of the Constitution on February 10, 1967. Those dates tell us a lot about the amendment's historical context and intended purpose. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination (and in the anxious context of the Cold War with its assumed need for permanent readiness), there was renewed concern about the vacancy in the office of Vice President, highlighted by the old age of the then Speaker and Senate President pro tem (the two next in line for the Presidency according to the 1947 Presidential Succession Act), The circumstances of Kennedy's assassination also highlighted concerns about possible presidential disability, a concern already on the table thanks to President Eisenhower's health crises in the 1950s and the memory of Woodrow Wilson's even worse health problems in 1919 and after. Those examples illustrate the kinds of situations the framers of the Amendment (and the general public) had in mind when worrying about presidential inability.

Section 1 of the Amendment settled the old debate (dating back to John Tyler's assumption of the title of President in 1841) and declared that the Vice President becomes President (not just Acting President) if a President dies, resigns, or is removed from office. Section 2 provided a mechanism for selecting a new Vice President whenever that office might become vacant. That provision has been invoked twice since - replacing the resigned Spiro Agnew with Gerald Ford in 1973 and then, after Ford's assumption of the Presidency upon Nixon's resignation, filling the vacancy with Nelson Rockefeller. Obviously no one anticipated Watergate in the mid 1960s, but it proved a stroke of luck that this provision was adopted, making the Watergate crisis somewhat easier to resolve.

Section 3 and Section 4 deal with the potentially much more confusing situation of presidential disability. Section 3 allows a President voluntarily to transfer  his powers to the Vice President temporarily until the President is again able to resume them. (Fans of The West Wing will remember President Bartlet invoking that provision after his daughter had been kidnapped.) Section 4 provides a mechanism for the Vice President and the Cabinet do do this in a case where they believe the President is genuinely disabled in some way and cannot or will not do so himself. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President. It then goes on to specify how the  President can challenge this and get his powers back and how Congress is to adjudicate such a dispute.Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

Section 4 has never been invoked. and, for all the persistent chatter about invoking it, I doubt it ever will - apart from the rare kind of case it was obviously intended to apply to, i.e., a President physically or mentally disabled as Woodrow Wilson may have been after his stroke or John F. Kennedy might have been had he physically survived his shooting. To invoke it in any other case would suggest a situation in which the President's own chosen Vice President and Cabinet (all of whom, except for the Vice President, he could legitimately and freely fire at will at the first hint of their opposition to him) would gang up on him in what might best be termed a Cabinet Coup. What extreme level of political dysfunction would be required for such apocalyptic disloyalty on the part of the Vice President and the Cabinet? And, assuming such an unlikely development, wouldn't the President fight back? The Amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress to support the Vice President and the Cabinet in such a conflict with the President. That is, of course, a higher threshold than the majority vote required for the House to impeach a President and the two-thirds in the Senate to convict. Apart from evident physical or mental illness, the obvious and appropriate avenue to remove a seriously misbehaving president  (not just a president one disagrees with) is that provided by the original constitution - impeachment in the House, and trial and conviction in the Senate - difficult but easier both procedurally and politically.

Impeachment and Trial is a seldom used but comprehensible political process, properly reserved for the most serious situations. A misguided, politically motivated impeachment such as that attempted by the Republicans against President Clinton twenty years ago was rightly rejected by the voters who recognized its political impropriety. A misguided 25th Amendment Cabinet coup would, if anything, be infinitely more problematic. And imagine its effect upon the President's supporters, who are already alienated from a political system they perceive as stacked against them and in favor of Washington elites?

Several federal judges have been successfully impeached and removed from office, and it is not hard to imagine that even more may be in the future. They are, after all, unelected potentates with life-long tenure against whose misbehavior there is no other legal recourse but impeachment. A president, on the other hand, is elected for a limited term. Apart from "treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors," for which impeachment is appropriate and apart from obvious physical or mental disability for which the 25th Amendment is indicated, the appropriate answer to a problematic president is electoral defeat if he runs for re-election and in the meantime maintaining a strong and powerful opposition in control of Congress. The occupant of the White House and the composition of Congress are ultimately in the people's gift. They are decisions that ought to rest with the voters, not with bureaucratic cabals however well-intentioned. That is what democratic constitutionalism demands of its citizens.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Demon Alcohol

Whatever the Republican Party's candidate for the Supreme Court did or didn't do during his rich, privileged, elitist education, one consistent theme that runs through all these sad stories is the widespread abuse of alcohol in such settings. With so much at stake in this controversy, thinking about the plague of alcohol abuse (including and especially underage alcohol abuse) is obviously only one of many more pressing concerns. Even so, and setting aside for the moment all the other important issues and the personalities involved, I keep wondering how and why have we as a society gotten to such a place where being drunk can be thought of as common and routine among many young people? Whatever else did or didn't happen in all these stories, drinking and getting drunk seems central - for the alleged attacker, for the alleged victims, and for whatever witnesses were present. 

Admittedly alcohol abuse is nothing new and has always been a major problem in many societies. A century ago, Prohibition was an ill-conceived - and ultimately unsuccessful - extreme attempt to address this issue in the United States. Some societies seem more successful than others in fostering more balanced cultural attitudes about alcohol usage. It does seem to help somewhat when alcohol usage is predominantly associated with home and meals and when public displays of drinking and drunkenness are socially scorned. Part of our contemporary problem may be that, while we have made such significant strides in some areas, out-of-the-home drinking remains a widespread epidemic in certain age groups and social situations - while no longer receiving the appropriate amount of public scorn necessary to counteract it. At present, all sorts of behaviors that were once more common and socially accepted are no longer socially accepted and so have become less common. Do we need a comparable social re-evaluation of public drinking?

Monday, September 24, 2018

China's "Provisional Agreement" on Bishops

After the ecclesiastical debacle of the French Revolution, Pope Pius VI made peace with a calmed-down post-revolutionary France, negotiating a Concordat with Napoleon in 1801, which remained in effect through various French regimes until the secularist government separated Church and Sate in 1905. The Concordat with Napoleon reconciled the Catholic Church with post-revolutionary French society, restoring the Church to legal status. The.Church lands and endowments that had been confiscated by the revolution were not returned, but Catholic clergy in exile or underground were able to return to the (now state-owned) churches, and the public practice of Catholicism was once more legal.  Although Napoleon and his successors remained very involved in the appointment of bishops (as had his predecessors "the Most Christian Kings" of France), Napoleon relied on the Pope to reorganize and reduce the number of French dioceses, thus paradoxically increasing papal power within the French Church, inadvertently perhaps weakening the traditionally anti-papal "Gallican" tendencies in the French Church.

The Church's successful peace with post-revolutionary France at the start of the 19th century seems a relevant model to recall as the Church seems poised to make peace with a somewhat similarly calmed-down China some 70 years after its revolution. No two historical cases are the same, of course. Unlike France in 1801, Catholics remain a minority in China, and the history of the Church in China is very different from its experience in historically Catholic countries like France. Also the "provisional agreement" (the full details of which are still not completely clear) falls short of any restoration of diplomatic relations. Still by apparently allowing the Church to function publicly and legally in China, under the leadership of Bishops in communion with Rome, this "provisional agreement" may represent a major breakthrough, every bit as historically significant for the Church's future as Pius VI's Concordat with Napoleon in 1801.

The "price," if one must put it that way, for this was papal recognition and acceptance of the illicitly ordained Bishops of the schismatic "Patriotic Church."  Church unity and avoidance of schisms has always ranked high among the Church's priorities, and rightly so. Hence the importance of bishops being in communion with the Holy See, something which until now has been problematic for the Chinese government which has treated papal participation in the appointment of bishops as foreign interference in internal Chinese affairs.

The issue is not per se the involvement of the government in the selection of bishops. The historical reality is that governments have more often than not been involved in that process. At the time of the agreement with Napoleon, probably the only bishops appointed by the Pope exclusively without reference to the civil authority were in the Papal States (where, of course, the Pope was the ciivl authority) and in the newly independent United States with its idiosyncratic constitutional regime regarding religion. 

By another historical irony, it was the 1871 Italian Law of Guarantees (adopted after the Italian conquest of Rome from the pope) that gave the pope the right to choose the 237 bishops of the Kingdom of Italy. Until then, the various rulers of pre-unification Italy had made the appointments (with confirmation by the pope). The 1905 French law repudiating the Concordat and separating Church and State likewise had the paradoxical effect of giving the pope greater freedom in appointing bishops in France and the overseas territories ruled by France. A century later, we now take it for granted that in almost all countries the Pope can freely appoint bishops as he chooses. Hence the provision in the current Code of Canon Law (Canon 377 §1): The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected.

But it would be a denial of history not to recognize that, until recently, civil society having a major or even predominant role in the appointment of bishops has been more or less the norm. And it still is in certain situations. Since 1996, for example, this has been the norm in Vietnam, where the Holy See proposes three candidates from whom the government selects one. As with the Concordat with Napoleonic France, which facilitated a vibrant rebirth of French Catholicism after one of the greatest disasters in Church history, these are adaptations to Church procedures that serve the interest of Church unity and ecclesial communion among bishops in the ever-changing context of modern States, which may increasingly view the Church as an outsider to society.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Powerless and Dependent

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I would really like it if the Gospels included some more personal information about Jesus and his disciples.  Today, for example, wouldn’t it be interesting to listen in on the disciples’ conversation en route to Capernaum? We can picture Peter, perhaps still stung by Jesus’ rebuke in last week’s Gospel, reminding the others that he was still in line for the top job! We can almost hear Andrew answer, “OK, brother, but don’t forget that I met him first, and I introduced you to him!” And John chiming in, “but I’m the one he’s closest to!” And, of course, Judas, “I’m the one he trusts with the money, without me where would you all be!”

Of course, the Gospel [Mark 9:30-37] only hints at all that. It does tell us that, when Jesus asked what they had been arguing about, they were suspiciously tongue-tied. And Jesus, ever the teacher, took the opportunity to teach them a lesson. Actually, this was the second time Jesus had tried to teach them what lay ahead. But they failed to understand. So, in a world without internet, power-point presentations, and all other such gimmicks, Jesus employed a child as his instructional aide.

Children induce all sorts of reactions in people. A baby is a sure attention-grabber in any gathering. In our society, children are considered cute, innocent beings, to whom we are expected to react positively and benevolently.

Prior to the 20th century, however, there was little of the sentimentality we now attach to children and family life. In giving such prominence to a child, Jesus was giving visibility to someone who was not important and who would normally have been invisible in adult society. For most of human history, the family was primarily a socio-economic unit, not the emotional unit our sentimentality has since turned it into. A father owned the rights to his children’s labor as the owned all the other property in the family. With the economic and social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, adults began to view children as having distinct needs of their own and requiring emotional nurture from adults. Hence the new policy of awarding custody primarily to the mother after divorce, whereas previously it would have more likely been the father who got the children.

Back in the 1970s, I had a college work-study job which one day involved my attending a meeting held at a pre-school facility on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in what would then have been a pretty poor neighborhood. While we were meeting, one of the children showed up as usual, not realizing that the center was closed that day, prompting someone to comment. “That’s a smart kid! He knows he’s better off here than at home!” How smart or not he was I can’t say, but what I took away from that was that, smart or not, he was a child and so was dependent on adults’ schedules – dependent and hence powerless. His powerlessness was in part the perennial powerlessness of the poor, of course; but being a child made his powerlessness that much more so. Even rich, privileged children, after all, are ultimately dependent on adults to exercise their power and privilege on their behalf.

Yet when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples what following him is all about, he pointed to a powerless child. Thus he sought to teach his clueless disciples the paradox of the powerless Christ, who, in obedience to his Father, assumed our ordinariness as his own to meet us where we are at our most powerless – in the darkness of death, where all our obsessive human preoccupation with power and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, all come to nothing.

No wonder they found him hard to understand! It seems being a disciple means more than merely listening to Jesus’ words and possibly preaching them to others. No, it means being led, by him and with him, where he was led. It means leaving behind our perpetual preoccupation with wealth, power, and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, our competitiveness with one another and within our own selves - the passions that the Epistle of James so strongly warns us about, causing us to covet but not possess, to envy but not obtain, to ask but not receive. From middle and high school popularity contests to our national political campaigns, it’s all about who is up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, who's rich and who's poor, who matters and who doesn't.

In contrast, Jesus challenges us to come to know Christ with the powerless, dependent transparency of a child – a child who knows he or she is better off in here with Jesus than out there on one’s own.

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 23, 2018.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Responding to Smartphone Addiction

Today's NY Times contains an article about one country's attempt to address the plague of smartphone addiction among young people: The article is France Bans Smartphones in Schools Through 9th Grade. Will It Help Students? (It can be accessed online at:

The French law applies to what we would call elementary and middle school students and prohibits use of smartphones anywhere on school grounds except in cases where their use is assigned by a teacher. Students may bring their phones to school but must keep them out of sight in lockers or school bags.

The reasoning behind the law seems obvious. "It's a message we send to society: Do not always be on your phones," said the Education Minister, who also mentioned "mastery of math, of general culture, the ability to flourish in social relationships, a capacity to discuss with others, to understand and respect others" as among the "tools" today's students need to acquire. but perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the law were made by those doubting it. On teacher said, "If I confiscated them [smartphones], my students would not come anymore to class." Or the student who said, "I could leave it at home and pick it up after school, but I'd be missing something. I would not feel good at all." the authors describe interviewing that student and another. "During an interview in a cafe, both girls restrained themselves from doing much texting, but kept touching their phones."

Obviously, phones at school present a very special problem, since school is were students are socialized to be productive members of society and, even more basically, decent functioning human beings. so the importance of creating a phone-free environment ought to be evident. that it may not be so sufficiently evident to parents and other adults suggests a larger problem, however. Thus, one teacher argued that as an "answer to the addiction problem, the proposed law was putting the responsibility in the wrong place. "Who buys the phones for the children? he asked. "Who doesn't give them a framework and set limits on using them? Parents."

Indeed, I think adults are not culpable just for facilitating the next generation's phone usage, but also for their  own usage and the harm it has done to social life and basic human decency. Adults, including generation that grew up with serious schooling and without any of the distractions of smartphones, are often as addicted and ill-mannered as youngsters when it comes to smartphone usage.

Of course, smartphones are a great invention and have all sorts of valid and positive uses. But like any technological innovation - going all the way back to Tubal-cain's invention of bronze and iron tools (Genesis 4:22) - the same invention can have both good and bad uses and both good and bad social effects. Banning smartphones from school is a wonderful move, but it is only a first step. What we really need to to cultivate social disapproval of using a smartphone (as has so successfully been done with smoking in public) in situations where one is socially engaged with others. I own an iPhone, and I use it daily. But when I sit down to dinner with others, for example, I leave my phone in another room if possible and so avoid any temptation to use it when I should be talking to the people I am with.  Banning  (both formally and informally) even the presence of such devices at table in restaurants and other public eating places and at meetings and other such settings where people are supposed to engage with each other would not only be a good thing but may be becoming a very necessary thing!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Our Over Mighty Supreme Court

As the country appears poised for some version of a reprise of Anita Hill's epic 1991 confrontation with Clarence Thomas in the updated form of Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s challenge to Judge Brett Kavanagh, whatever the outcome, this seems as good a time as any to rethink the Supreme Court’s outsized role in our contemporary society. It is that outsized role which  the Supreme Court has assumed over time, which is what has made these appointments and confirmation processes seem so apocalyptic.

I have long been unimpressed by judicial supremacy, by the insouciance with which the judiciary rides roughshod over the will of the people as expressed through their democratically elected representatives. Of course, as we all know, this is not supposed to be a democracy. The Founders, following Aristotle and Polybius intended a mixed constitution, in which the perils of popular rule would be protected against by mixing monarchical and aristocratic restraints (the presidency, the senate, the judiciary, etc.) The problem is not the Founders' design but the systemic contemporary weakness of the legislative branch that has thrown the system so far out of balance.

It makes sense that the different branches increase and decrease in power relative to each other according to circumstances. Historically, had Congress done its job and enforced the 15th Amendment guaranteeing African-Americans the vote (as the Amendment itself authorized Congress to do), Reconstruction would have ended very differently and Jim Crow probably never happened. Unfortunately Congress failed in one of its most monumental historical failures. With access to the elected branches unconstitutionally closed to African-Americans, it was necessary and proper to turn to the judiciary, and for the judiciary to balance the other branches' malfeasance by playing an activist part in the 20th-century civil rights revolution. 

But from that positive development an unfortunate lesson may have been learned which led to turning far too many political controversies into legal cases about rights. Abortion was an obvious early example. In the unfortunate 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court arrogated to itself a controversial question, which various states were already in the process of addressing in different ways, and which foreign countries largely resolved through the political process - with the result that the United States has the most radical abortion regime of any Western society, because of which the country continues so many decades later to be totally and unresolvably polarized.

This was but one example of the larger problem of turning too many political controversies, which ought to have been resolved by elected officials through the political process, into issues of "rights" to be resolved by an unrepresentative judiciary. What was "an essential tactic in the early years of the civil rights movement," Mark Lilla has written, has become "the habit of treating every issue as one of inviolable right, leaving no room for negotiation" which has inevitably "cast opponents as immoral monsters, rather than simply as fellow citizens with different views." (Cf. The Once and Future Liberal:After Identity Politics, 2017, p. 113).

Contributing to this has been the Congress's unconscionable abdication of so much of its legislative responsibility - primarily to the president, but ultimately also to the judiciary inasmuch as Congress has been content to see so many contentious issues "resolved" judicially rather than legislatively. The consequence, however, has been an increasingly polarized society, where instead of deliberation, debate, and legislative compromise, each side has engaged in an all-or-nothing high-stakes power conflict, producing a politically polarized and dysfunctional society in its wake.

The tragic outcome of the 2000 election was another illustration of this. A properly restrained Supreme Court would have stayed out of something that was really none of its business, it being ultimately the responsibility of Congress to make the judgment to accept as valid a state's electoral votes.  But we can barely imagine a modern Supreme Court restraining itself from interference that served its majority's political advantage. Even less can we imagine Congress, confronted with the crisis of an election such as we had in 2000, actually stepping up and exercising its constitutional role, rather than readily punting to the Court.

Judicial restraint - the real thing, not the popular political slogan each side invokes when the Court's decision goes the other side's way - would diminish the salience of judicial nominations and confirmations in this all-or-nothing high-stakes contest. In theory, judicial restraint should be easier to achieve since the third branch is formally the weakest branch. Congress could, for example, periodically "pack" the Court by increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices. congress has the power to change the number of Justices and has done so in the past. However, ever since the failure of Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 "court packing" scheme, the number 9 seems to have acquired an almost mystical significance. In 1937, the threat of packing the court, even though it failed, did move the Court to reconsider its obduracy. But there seems little prospect of any comparable reform - or threat of reform - that could have the effect of restraining the Court today. hence the all-or-nothing high-stakes contest over every Supreme Court vacancy - culminating in 2016 in the unprecedented theft of a Supreme Court seat by the Senate's Republican majority.

One possible reform which has attracted some attention and support would be to amend the constitution (a very difficult but not completely unachievable goal) to replace life-tenure with a limited term.  Given the greater longevity of the average contemporary Justice, this could be considered almost a commonsense reform. As long as the bar for impeachment remains high and the terms are long enough, appointing Justices for a fixed term would not diminish their proper judicial independence. Obviously the term would need to be long enough to last beyond the administration of the President who did the appointing. One recent article I read recommended 18 years. Personally I would prefer 10 or 12 years - long enough to be a fulfilling career and leave a strong legacy, but still short enough that each appointment would not need to be seen as verging on the apocalypse.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Modest Proposal

Today's feast of the Holy Cross is a reminder that throughout almost all of the Church's history - that is, from the 4th century or earlier until 1969 - the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of next week would have been observed in the Roman Rite as Ember Days. The four sets of those annual fast days corresponded, symbolically at least, to the beginning of each of the four seasons, and early on also acquired a connection with ordinations. It serves no purpose to repeat how they were abolished, except to recall that the pre-conciliar Papal Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy (commonly called the "Pian Commission") never envisaged such a development. According to the Minutes of the Commission's February 5, 1952, meeting, All were agreed that the Ember Days should be upgraded and that their celebration should be really observed. And we can be reasonably certain that none of the Council Fathers who voted for Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963 foresaw such a development.

In any case, the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (45-47) clearly envisage their continuance (although not that of the ancient Ember Day Masses) at least in some form, and the Episcopal Conferences are directed to "arrange the time and manner in which they are held."  So there is nothing right now to stop the USCCB, for example, from restoring all 12 Ember Days or even just some of them. If in fact the original Ember Days were the penitential part of Church's response to the challenges for human survival posed by our dependence on the natural environment and to the need for ecclesial survival by providing the Church with sufficient and suitable clergy, then they would seem to be an obvious ancient resource crying out to be retrieved in response to our comparable contemporary concerns. The fact that fasting for religious reasons has become completely counter-cultural actually argues strongly in its favor. The recent restoration of Friday abstinence in England and Wales suggests that it is not hopelessly impossible to try to do it.

Besides being days of fasting, the traditional Ember Days were part of a precious liturgical patrimony well worth recovering. The Roman Station for each Ember Wednesday was always Saint Mary Major, and the Mass had three readings - 2 Old Testament "Lessons" before the Gospel. The Station for Ember Friday was always the Church of the Holy Apostles. That for Ember Saturday was Saint Peter's, and the Mass had seven readings - 5 Old Testament "Lessons" (the fifth always from Daniel's account of the three young men in the fiery Furnace) and a New Testament Epistle before the Gospel. Originally a long Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning vigil, the Ember Saturday Mass also became the preferred occasion for ordinations - a suitably sober occasion for so significant a sacramental celebration. 

My last recollection of an Ember Day liturgy goes back 51 years now to the day of my grandmother's funeral. By then – September 1967 – the Mass was almost entirely in English. Only the Canon was still recited silently and in Latin, and even that was to change by the end of that year. Other than language, however, it was still essentially the same old Funeral Mass . The celebrant still wore black and chanted the traditional “Absolution” prayers over the body at the end. While all that was going on at the main altar, however, my attention was distracted by the side altars, which were all still being used by priests celebrating their private Masses in penitential purple for the Ember Friday in September.

It is a foolish fallacy to think that one can recover the cultural ambience of that long-lost world which made such practices seem so sensible. And it would be at best a wasteful exercise in romanticism - and at worse a distraction from more pressing present problems - to make that a disproportionate priority. But there were real reasons - solid, sound, human and religious reasons - why people prayed and fasted as they on those 12 days each year century after century. For the most part, those reasons remain relevant today. Perhaps it is time to reconsider an ancient remedy and rediscover what aspects of it can still serve us in today's time of intense need.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fear (the Woodward Book)

In between meetings Tuesday, I took a quick drive to the bookstore to buy Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House. It was about 11:30 on the morning of the book's official release date when I got there - just in time to purchase the last available copy! 

Donald Trump is, I believe, the 8th President about whom the Pulitzer-Prize winning author has written. Not all his president books have been as memorable as his famous accounts of the end of the Nixon presidency, but they have set a certain standard of journalistic history and constitute a contemporary version of a great tradition, to which his latest work is a worthy addition. Based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews with sources inside the Trump administration, it highlights in scrupulous detail the President's already well known (and  much commented on and written about) strange relationship with the office of president. It thus gives greater credibility to earlier tell-all books that have emerged from and about this White House.

Much attention inevitably will be directed at the question of exactly who Woodward's sources were, especially given the extreme character of the description of this administration. This can only be exacerbated by the possibly coincidental, possibly not, publication of the "Anonymous" op ed in The NY Times last week - just one day after the first excerpts of Fear appeared. The two accounts seem to complement each other, raising interesting questions about who is doing what in the White House and more important political and constitutional questions about who should be doing what in the White House.

One of the challenges for the public when reading this sort of political journalism is sorting out and evaluating what is interesting insider gossip, reflecting inevitably inside-the-Beltway preoccupations with who is up, who is down, who is in, who is out - preoccupations typical of any royal court and which will always continue to fascinate. 

Before recounting the crisis chronologically from Trump's initial decision to run for president (and even earlier, all the way back to his completely unconvincing 2010 conversion to being "pro-life"), the book begins with the now famous incident of Gary Cohn removing a document from the president's desk, the incident that sets the larger tone for the book: "the reality was that that United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader ... a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world."

Woodward's brief account of the campaign highlights two important themes that will matter later - Trump's preoccupation with not spending money and how he hardly expected tow in and how unprepared he was when he did. Woodward quotes Steve Bannon: "Hillary Clinton spent her entire adult life getting ready for this moment. Trump hasn't spent a second getting ready for this moment."

As an historical chronicle, Fear is a journalistic chronicle. It tells the story of the Trump presidency in a succession of short, but well pointed, vignettes, highlighting this or that particularly revealing event or White House personality. Some salient quotes:

"Secretaries of Defense don't always get to choose the president they work for" (Secretary of Defense James Mattis).

"What did you ever really run?" (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Stephen Miller).

"I'll never be a staffer. I'm the first daughter" (Ivanka Trump to Steve Bannon).

"We need to have a process to make sure that we do this in proper order, that we've thought through these things." (Rob Porter to Vice President Pence and others).

"You can fire Comey. You can't fire the FBI" (Steve Bannon to President Trump).

"Bring me my tariffs" (President Trump to Rob Porter).

"I don't want to hear that" (President Trump to Gary Cohn, Secretary Mattis, and others at a meeting at the Pentagon).

"You should be killing guys. You don't need a strategy to kill people" (President Trump at the same meeting).

"He's a f---- moron" (Secretary Tillerson to Gary Cohn at the end of that same meeting).

"The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way" (Reince Priebus to General Kelly after being fired as Chief of Staff).

"He puts natural predators at the table. Not just rivals - predators" (Reince Priebus)

"You never apologize.  Why look weak?" (President Trump to Rob Porter after Charlottesville).

"I can't find a good lawyer" (President Trump).

"Gary's just a globalist. He's not loyal to the president" (Peter Navarro to General Kelley about Gary Cohn).

"What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean Peninsula?" President Trump at a National Security Council Meeting)

"We're doing this in order to prevent World War III" (Secretary Mattis at the same meeting).

"I think we could be so rich, if we weren't stupid. We're being played [as] suckers, especially NATO" (President Trump at the same meeting).

"These military guys, they don't get business. They know how to be soldiers and they know how to fight. They don't understand how much it's costing" (President Trump)

What have we learned from all this? What is the picture that emerges? I think more or less what we already knew. That the President is out of his element and shockingly ill prepared for his office. That those around him are either enablers or underminers - and often underminers of one another, even more than one would expect in Washington. And, particularly tellingly, we are reminded of his preoccupation with money and wealth and how he sees most things through that lens. We are reminded that our president is a businessman - a vocation completely incompatible with public office.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Bookshop

The Bookshop is a film, apparently based on a 1978 novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald. Set in England, mostly in 1959, the movie's protagonist, a middle-aged, war widow named Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), opens a bookshop in a small coastal village in Suffolk, in an abandoned building known as the Old House. She opens her shop against the opposition of the moneyed local elite and determinedly tries to run it successfully until the forces of upper-class entitlement arrayed against her prove overpowering. Meanwhile she makes at two friends. One is the strangely reclusive, book-lover and serious reader, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy). The other is a village girl who works for Florence in the shop and is transformed by the experience.

The brutal, hard-ball politics stand out all the more in the seemingly tranquil setting of a post-war English village. More than that, the preoccupation of some with power, money, and status seems that much more empty when set against the uniquely transforming power of literature, which Florence and her bookstore represent (even if only two people in town really appreciate it).

Intended or not, the story stands also as an elegy to the old-fashioned local bookstore, which I remember well but which hardly exists anymore. Browsing bookstores was once one of my favorite recreations, long before such neighborhood culture-bearers had been eaten up by big chains. The future of even those big stores now seems somewhat shaky. The Bookshop reminds the viewer of a world of alternative possibilities, one which we have largely lost, but within which (as the movie's conclusion recalls) one was never quite alone.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Nativity of Mary

Today is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the more ancient feasts of the Church.

The New Testament is silent on the subject of Mary's life prior to the Annunciation. The earliest known account of Mary's birth is found in the Protoevangelium of James a non-canonical, "apocryphal" - Raymond Brown called it "obviously folkloric" - text from the late second century, which identifies her parents as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. With most saints, the Church commemorates their date of death. By exception, the births of Mary and Saint John the Baptist are commemorated, because these alone were holy in their very birth. (Mary was conceived free from original sin, and John the Baptist was sanctified in Elizabeth's womb according to the traditional interpretation of Luke1:15). The liturgical commemoration of Mary’s birth is connected with the dedication of an ancient fifth-century Marian Basilica in Jerusalem, now known as the Church of Saint Anne. Built on a site traditionally identified with the home of Saints Joachim and Anne.

In the 7th century, Pope Sergius I prescribed a procession (in which the Pope and the clergy participated barefoot) to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major on what were then the four great Marian feasts in the Western calendar - Candlemas Day (February 2), the Annunciation (March 25), the Assumption (August 15), and today's feast of Mary's Nativity. The procession assembled at the Church of Saint Hadrian in the old Roman forum, a former meeting place of the Senate consecrated as a church by Pope Honorius I earlier in the 7th century, probably on this date.(Saint Hadiran continued to be commemorated in the Roman Liturgy on this date until 1969.)

The famous 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch described today's feast as "close to our heart, for as members of God's great family we love to celebrate family events; today is our Mother's birthday." Adults may find that formulation odd, but in a certain sense the liturgy itself highlights the familial dimension with the Gospel reading of Matthew's account of the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew's genealogy of Jesus is fun to proclaim but perhaps less fun to preach on. Nonetheless, Matthew must obviously have seen it as a very significant and meaningful way to introduce the story of Jesus. So it seems especially suitable for this feast, which serves as a kind of prelude to God's great masterwork, the Incarnation.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A New Religious Typology of the US

The Pew Research Center has just recently published The Religious typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion. It prints out at just under 100 pages and is well worth reading and studying. It an be found at

What is "new" about this study is that, instead of sorting Americans by conventional religious categories (e.g., denominations), it sorts us by "beliefs and behaviors that cut across many denominations." It classifies Americans into seven categories "based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share,how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives."

The typology identifies three groups it classifies as "highly religious" - Sunday Stalwarts, God and Country Believers, and the Diversely Devout. At the opposite end are two groups, the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular . And, in between, there are two other categories called Relaxed Religious and Spiritually Awake. To get a full appreciation of each category, it is obviously necessary to read the report. Here i shall touch on just a few areas of particular interest to me.

First of all, there is the composition of each group in terms of conventional religious affiliation. Of the Sunday Stalwarts (the most conventionally religious group, both in terms of belief and practice and involvement in both Church and other voluntary associations), 13% are Roman Catholics (compared to 46% who are Evangelicals). Of God and Country Believers (the most pro-Trump and anti-immigrant group), 24% are Catholic  (compared to 41% Evangelical). Of the Diversely Devout (the only group in which whites are not the majority), 29% are Catholic (compared to 15% Evangelical). The Relaxed Religious and Spiritually Awake are respectively 25% and 23% Catholic (compared to 25% and 16% Evangelical). Finally, of the the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular, only 9% of each are identified as Catholic (compared to only 1% and 2% Evangelical).

As already mentioned, the Sunday Stalwarts are the most conventionally religious group, both in terms of their beliefs and practice and their involvement in both Church and other voluntary associations, a correlation that conforms to what we would expect from other studies of trends in American society. They are also the ones most likely to vote, and (along with the other "highly religious" groups) tend to be older. These facts, of course, speak to the apparently greater influence of the "highly religious" in American society - and also to the demographic prospect of their declining influence compared with the younger and also more highly educated non-religious groups.

On the important issue of how religious organizations are viewed socially, somewhat unsurprisingly 78% of Sunday Stalwarts 66% of God and Country Believers, and 61 % of the Diversely Devout view religious organizations positively.  On the other hand only 51% of the Relaxed Religious and only 38% of the Spiritually Awake, and only 9% of the Religion Resisters and 13% of the Solidly Secular see religious organizations positively - an ominous measure for religious freedom in a society more likely to be dominated by some of those groups. In fact, even now, only 45% of American adults overall say they have a predominantly positive view of religious organizations!

In terms of serving as a significant source of meaning in life, religious faith ranked on top only for the Sunday Stalwarts, came in second for the God and Country Believers, and fourth for the Diversely Devout. Somewhat unsurprisingly "spending time with Family" came in either first or second for every group. That it topped the list for two of the supposedly "highly religious" groups and second for the most religious groups evidence of what i like to call the "familialism" that de facto dominates much of American religious practice and pervades many of our American religious institutions.

For me the most striking thing about the study was how widespread "New Age" beliefs are even among the "highly religious." These include belief in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology - and, new at least to me, the belief that spiritual energy can be located in spiritual objects, such as mountains, trees, and crystals. Thus 29% of the Sunday Stalwarts hold that latter belief, along with  95% of the Diversely Devout, 99% of the Spiritually Awake and 98% of the Religion Resisters.

There is, of course, no substitute for reading the entire report. Even so, that data mentioned here are enough to highlight how the religious landscape of the United States cannot be completely captured either in the traditional terms of its denomination divisions or by the modern trajectory of progressive religious decline.