Wednesday, October 31, 2018


According to one recent study that I saw somewhere, while there are about 1.4 million practicing Presbyterians at present in the United States, there may be as many as 1.5 million who claim to practice some form of paganism. Then, of course, there was the recent, highly insightful, almost 100-page Pew study, The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion, the most striking finding of which (to me) was how widespread "New Age" beliefs are even among the "highly religious." These include belief in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology and the belief that spiritual energy can be located in spiritual objects, such as mountains, trees, and crystals. Thus 29% of those the study terms "Sunday Stalwarts" hold that latter belief, along with  95% of the "Diversely Devout," 99% of the "Spiritually Awake" and 98% of the "Religion Resisters."

All this suggests abundant food for thought as we face another Halloween. For many, Halloween is just an excuse for children - and increasingly all too many adults - to dress in costume and demand candy from their neighbors and even from perfect strangers. That adults do it too seems at first thought to be bizarre at best, although in a society in which adults have now for decades imitated kinds in how they dress on a daily basis, perhaps it is not so bizarre that they should imitate kids on Halloween as well. (Elsewhere, reflecting on the increasingly popularity of Halloween among adults, I suggested that my generation, having enjoyed Halloween as a happily harmless children's holiday when we were young, just don't want to give it up even after we should have long ago outgrown it!)

Halloween, however, has another dimension. An ancient pagan holiday, it was incorporated into the Christian calendar late in the first millennium when All Saints Day was moved to November 1. In effect, this ritualized the triumph of Christianity over older European paganism by celebrating the triumph of God's grace (exemplified in the saints) over sin and Satan. Now, however, more than 1000 years later, the new Halloween seems instead increasingly like a celebration of a resurgent paganism.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"All Persons Born ... in the United States"

In 1920, my maternal grandparents and their 5 children immigrated to the United States from Catania in Sicily. Many of their countrymen had made that same journey in the half-century since Italian unification. Why exactly my grandparents chose to cross the Atlantic then I do not know, and there is now no one left to amplify that part of the story. In any case, after settling in New York, they had one more child, my mother, born in 1922. Sometime thereafter, my grandparents and the younger children returned to Italy, leaving the two oldest to make their own way in America. By 1930, however, they decided to return to New York. Immigration was more difficult then than it had been a decade earlier. But they were able to return and reunite the family thanks to my mother's American citizenship. For all the vile nativism in vogue at that time, my mother's U,S, citizenship was not in doubt. If instead President Trump or someone with similar views to his had been able to alter American history, my mother might have had to remain in Italy. Whatever would have happened to her, had she survived the Second World War, she would almost certainly not have met and married my father, and I would never have ever existed! Thanks be to God - and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - they did meet, and I do exist.

The constitutional text is clear. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States (amendment 14, Section 1). The Civil War had undone the Supreme Court's evil Dred Scott Decision on the battlefield, and the 14th Amendment then codified the consequences of that victory in the Constitution, settling the status of freed slaves and their descendants as citizens once and for all. Since then, generations of immigrants have benefited from this constitutional provision, and this country has grown great thanks to them and their descendants.

Now president Trump claims the constitutional guarantee of citizenship can be undone - not by a constitutional amendment but by a mere Executive Order - about as brazenly unconstitutional a claim as such claims get. Perhaps he is just trying to ensure that his supporters get out and vote, making his pre-election "closing argument." Perhaps, he actually believes it. Perhaps he and his advisers actually believe they could get away with it - now that the Republicans control the Supreme Court.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Beggar by the Road

Most people (at least most of the time) try to ignore beggars as much as possible. That’s easier to do perhaps when one goes everywhere by car, where we just pass people by, without paying them much attention one way or the other. It’s more of an issue if you are walking, which is how nature meant people to travel. And, obviously, Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a walking world, where one walked almost everywhere – to go almost anywhere – where just passing by without either noticing or ignoring was really not an option.

Even so my guess is that most people in Jericho generally ignored Bartimaeus as much as possible. Being ignored remains the typical experience of the powerless in most societies, except when it serves the interests of the powerful to exploit their poverty and powerlessness as we have seen recently in political fear-mongering about the so-called "caravan" of Honduran refugees. But more usually the powerless are ignored. The fact that we now know his name (one of the very few people Jesus healed whose name we know) might mean he later become a familiar figure in the early Church. But that was way off in the future that fateful day that Jesus passed through Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd [Mark 10:46-52] – an exciting glamorous occasion for the locals, not unlike the circus coming to town or a presidential candidate’s campaign event.

Probably knowing that otherwise he wouldn’t be noticed, Bartimaeus shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” He had to make a nuisance of himself – just to get noticed at all. The crowd, of course, tried to shut him up – until Jesus did just the sort of thing he was becoming famous for doing. No doubt to the chagrin of his disciples, who were probably enjoying the parade and their part in it, Jesus stopped to pay attention some nobody – reaching out (as Jesus so often did) across the boundaries that are supposed to keep people in their proper places. Had Jesus actually been a modern political candidate, presumably he’d have had an advance man – or team of advance men – precisely to prevent such things from happening! Notice, however, how quickly the crowd got with the program. Unscripted events have a certain popular appeal all their own. As soon as the people realized that Jesus was actually interested in Bartimaeus, suddenly their scolding turned to encouragement.

Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” was the same question he had asked James and John in the Gospel we heard last week. But what a difference in response! The answer they gave was what one would expect form two young, talented, upwardly mobile disciples, just beginning their careers. Poor Bartimaeus simply said, “I want to see.” Unlike James and John, Bartimaeus wasn’t on some fast track to anywhere. He was, in fact, on a very slow track to nowhere, and he understood that perfectly well.

Beggars, it is said, can’t be choosers. So they ask for what really matters. James and John’s request reflected their greed. Bartimaeus’ request reflected his need. In his closest companions and dearest disciples, Jesus found demanding ambition. In Bartimaeus, he found faith.

The story could have ended there. But, in spite of Jesus’ instruction, “Go on your way,” Bartimaeus did not do so. Instead, we are told, he followed on Jesus’ way. Having himself found healing and salvation, he wanted to share what he had found with others. Bartimaeus seems to have immediately understood what so eluded James and John – what so many Christians have failed to understand – namely, that God’s gifts are given not just for ourselves, but are meant to be shared with the whole world, this world which God loves so much that he has chosen to become a part of it.

Like Bartimaeus, all of us have been changed – and challenged – by the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our lives. Like him, we too now have to live that change, in our ordinary everyday lives as believers, in the wide and complicated variety of situations in which we find ourselves – as family members, students, workers, and citizens.

For, in the end, as is often said, we – individually and as a Church community – may be the only experience of Christ many people will ever have in life, the only face of Christ they will see, the only word of God they will hear. So if we fail the Bartimaeus test, if we fail to become credible and inviting witnesses, then we run the risk of concealing rather than revealing the face of Christ; and the word of God may seem strangely silent, precisely when and where it most needs to be heard. The love of God may appear absent, if it isn’t being shared. I’m reminded of Saint Catherine of Sienna’s remark, back in the 14th century: “Preach the truth as if we had a million voices, for it is silence that kills the world.”

Of course, it’s easy to settle for less. It’s always tempting to be satisfied with who’s in and who’s out. The crowd in Jericho was content to keep Bartimaeus quietly on the side of the road, quite literally in the dark. But, by not playing his prescribed part, Bartimaeus enabled them to experience truth and grace way beyond the limits of their expectations – truth and grace to be shared with all – the only alternative to a future spent in darkness.

In the dark, Bartimaeus symbolizes where we are on our own. Following Jesus, Bartimaeus exemplifies the community we can become through the healing, forgiving, and transforming power of Christ present and active in our world. The crowd in the Gospel got the message. Once they realized what Jesus wanted, they stopped hindering Bartimaeus and instead helped him to follow Jesus. The truly happy ending of this story will be when all of us also do the same!

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 28, 2018.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Statesmanship Recalled

It seems as if it were only yesterday that the world was commemorating the centennial of Sarajevo and the guns of August! Yet now a full four years have passed, and we are about to recall the centennial this November of the Armistice, which ended the absurdity of World War I - the war which Pope Benedict XV at the time correctly called the "suicide of civilization."

Today the Church calendar commemorates one of the few authentically admirable statesmen during that terrible and pointless war, one who was also at the end one of that war's conspicuous victims, Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), Austrian Emperor and (as Charles IV) King of Hungary (1916-1918). Deprived by the vicissitudes of history and by the narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness of the war's victors of the opportunity to lead central Europe into a better future than the painful one the 20th century gave it instead, this last Hapsburg Kaiser recalls an older ideal of political leadership that entailed life-time service and sacrifice for one's subjects, statesmanship as a moral as well as political vocation, one which few, if any, of our contemporary political figures remotely resemble.

In his homily at Kaiser Karl's Beatification in 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II said:

The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV.

From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Saturday, October 20, 2018

An October Saturday 45 Years Ago

45 years ago, on Saturday, October 20, 1973. I and my three grad school suitemates hosted a party in our quarters in Princeton University's Graduate College. It was not something we did often. Then as now, graduate students tended on the whole to a much more serious and sober lifestyle than undergraduates. But living in the Graduate College was intended to foster a kind of academic community life, and such social gatherings were positively encouraged.

As we gathered, the came the shocking news of the "Saturday Night Massacre," President Nixon's firing of the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (It was so named because both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his Deputy William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, which caused them both to resign. Cox was finally fired by the infamous Robert Bork, who was then Solicitor General, and later almost made it to the Supreme Court!) When one of our guests arrived, she angrily declared, "He [Nixon] is going to get away with it!" And we - all political scientists, historians, and economists - all nodded our heads in learned agreement. So much for our predictive skills! As everyone knows, in the end Nixon did not get away with it, thanks to the surprising resilience of our constitutional institutions and of a still surprisingly strong civic culture. 

A lot has changed since 1973, including our capacity to be shocked by almost any type of political misbehavior. Our civic culture has changed too, but not for the better And, of course, one very big and important difference between 1973 and now is the character and culture of our political parties and in particular the Republican party.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Impeachment: An American History

Impeachment: An American History (Modern Library Random House, 2018), a collaborative effort by four authors, Jeffrey Engel, John Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker, is the latest big-name contribution to this growing genre of books about one of the most seldom used but so much more talked about constitutional provisions, the impeachment of a president. (The book focuses exclusively on this and on the three relevant historical cases, and does not, for example, examine the somewhat more common impeachments of federal judges.)

The fact that impeachment is being so widely discussed again - 20 years after the Republicans so famously misused it in a partisan attack against a popular Democratic President - reflects the inflamed partisan passions of the present. As Alexander Hamilton observed, impeachments "will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly to the accused." (Today perhaps the order is reversed. It is the agitated passions of a partisanly divided country that may cause, rather than be caused by, impeachments.)

The first chapter, "The Constitution," by Jeffrey Engel retells the familiar  story of the founders' efforts to forge a constitutional structure strong enough to  hold the 13 fractious states together in an effective union, while sufficiently containing federal power to preserve liberty. He emphasizes how George Washington was the model for the framers. (Washington was the founders' Cincinnatus-like alternative to the more threatening historical precedents of Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell.) For "none had ever seen him put his own needs above the nation's. Consequently any future chief executive who demonstrated the opposite ... would be so unlike the president they envisioned as to warrant removal and dishonor."

Impeachment was familiar from British law as a vehicle for removing problematic officeholders (but not, of course, the king). What the founders did was extend its scope to the chief executive as well. Again, the framers were preoccupied with balance - with holding a president accountable  for malpractice but not compromising the authority of the office by making him an easy target for political foes to remove at whim. In addition to treason and bribery, one could be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors," a phrase from English law that Blackstone in 1792 argued  referred to "public wrongs" that "area breach and violation of the public rights and duties, due to the whole community." At the time, Hamilton stressed that they were, by nature, "political" offenses.

The first presidential impeachment was that of Andrew Johnson, who has inherited the White House after Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Fellow Tennessean Jon Meacham recounts that infamous story. When I was in school, we were taught to take Johnson's side against the radical Republican Congress - a view reinforced byJohn F. Kennedy's account in Profiles in Courage. The view that the Senate had spared us (by one courageous vote) the tragedy of a presidential eviction from the White House, became, i believe, one of the major psychological obstacles to subsequent impeachments - a hurdle that was overcome in the 1970s. Meacham corrects that false image of Johnson as an agent of Lincoln's goal of national reconciliation by recalling the reality of Johnson, the racist Democrat out to thwart Congressional Reconstruction of the South. "For his obstructionism Johnson was eventually impeached (but not convicted) by a Republican majority in Congress ths thad come to see him as an impediment to the work of the nation." Johnson's story shows "how impeachment is a weapon of politics - and that any era can find itself amid a crisis over the removal of a president if the passions of the hour are ferocious enough." When Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas cast the deciding vote to acquit, a precedent was set, Meacham suggests, that the House could "act emotionally," but "the Senate would be expected to act rationally, giving future generations a precedent hat was more daunting than inviting."

The Johnson acquittal preserved the independence of the executive and prevented Congress from creating a de facto parliamentary system. Fast forward a century to the infinitely more powerful presidential office occupied by Richard Nixon, impeachment was still "s discredited constitutional remedy," according to Timothy Naftali's retelling of the familiar Watergate story, the crisis that threatened to upend that "prevailing view." Naftali highlights the critical part played by Peter Rodino (the House Judiciary Committee Chair) in ensuring that the process was as bipartisan as possible - deliberately "exorcising the ghost of Andrew Johnson's partisan impeachment." This strategy "made swaying the undecideds possible." This the subpoena resolution passed 33-3, and the first and second articles of impeachment passed the committee 27-11 and 28-10.

Peter Baker recounts the third case - the hyper-partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton 25 years later. "It exposed and deepened the corrosive, media-saturated partisanship of a new era." It "was not so much a search for facts or even a debate about what this generation of Americans believed constituted high crimes and misdemeanors than it was another political contest to be won or lost." Meanwhile, Clinton's popularity only increased during the scandal. "The public delivered its own verdict." The "almost pornographic precision" of the independent counsel's report "was a public humiliation but a political boon" for Clinton, helping him to "portray it as an illegitimate and offensive exercise." Whereas an incumbent president's party typically loses seats in a president's sixth year, in 1998 the Democrats won seats in the House (the first time since 1822).

In the final chapter, Jeffrey Engel brings the story into the present, in which impeachment talk seems to have become routine, as "more Americans than ever have become sore losers, willing to kick over the playing board rather than play out a poor hand." Comparing the three cases, Engel argues that a president impeached for purely personal transgressions is least likely to be convicted in a Senate in which no party has a supermajority. But, if as with Nixon, the transgressions are more tied to misuse of presidential power, then - assuming the evidence is widely accepted - he faces a real risk. Engel adds that such a consensus is less likely today. Finally, there is the Johnson-like situation in which the circumstances prompt Senators to break with their party - a situation unlikely to occur today. "It would require a genuine constitutional crisis of the sort Johnson's opponents generated, couples with a clear train of irrefutable evidence agreed upon by all sides such as sunk Nixon, and then frosted by a president's wild unpopularity, the very opposite of Clinton, for his judges in any impeachment trial to make their vote anything more than a referendum on the prior election's results."

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sad and Worried

Sometime in the 2nd half of the 3rd century, a young Egyptian named Anthony arrived at Church, just as the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 10:17-30] was being read.  The future Saint Anthony of Alexandria, the so-called “father of monks,” was 19 or 20 at the time (what we now call a “young adult,” the age group the church is especially focused on right now in the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment meeting in Rome). Hearing Jesus’ words, Anthony felt that they had been spoken directly to him. And so, not long after, he gave away his possessions in order to lead a more seriously spiritual life in the Egyptian desert. Ever since, many have followed Anthony as priest, brothers, and sisters, interpreting Jesus’ words as a call - not necessarily for everyone in exactly the same way - to embrace a Gospel style of life, formalized eventually in what we now call the vocation of consecrated religious life in the Church.

All that, obviously, was still far in the future when Jesus looked lovingly at the rich man and said, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, then come, follow me.” These words, we are told, caused the rich man to go away sad.

So what, exactly, was the source of his sadness? Here was this man, someone who seemed to have it all, who seemed to have everything going for him, everything to live for, and who, on top of all that, had observed all the commandments. Yet, when he was personally invited to have a closer relationship with Jesus by changing his relationship with the world, his face fell, and he went away sad. Why? Because, we are told, he had many possessions.

That, the Gospel seems to be saying, is what possessions will do to you!

I like to think that one reason the rich man was so said was because he was lonely – in the way that wealth isolates people from one another (as Jesus himself illustrated in his famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The remedy for the rich man’s isolation, Jesus seems to be suggesting, is likewise a renewed relationship with others, one which privileges people over possessions. Last Sunday, we heard a story about how lonely Adam was when he was still, literally, all alone in the world. A lot of people today are lonely in a world that is full of people because so many things separate us – wealth, obviously, which is so unevenly shared and so builds barriers between people, but other things too, technology, for example, which, far from connecting us as promised, seems instead to isolate us at a deeper level.

Is it any wonder that so much of our religious talk tends to focus on other issues, other subjects, other sorts of sins – rather than on this problem of possessions, on the spiritual danger in riches, the thing that Jesus diagnosed as the greatest threat, the greatest obstacle to becoming who God created us to be, the greatest obstacle to our ending up where God wants us to be?

It wasn’t just the rich man, after all, who was shocked and dismayed by Jesus’ words. After all, in the kind of society in which Jesus’ lived, wealth was seen as a sign of blessing – a notion which our own consumerist American society seems to have taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder Jesus’ disciples were exceedingly astonished and worried “who can be saved?” No wonder if we, who live in the richest society in the history of the world, if we too ask that same question and ought to be worried as well!

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, October 14, 2018.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Every Day Is Extra - John Kerry's Memoir

John Kerry, Every Day is Extra (Simon and Schuster, 2018), is an engaging (but very long) memoir. Kerry is a diplomat's son, with recent European family connections, a scion of privilege educated in private-schools both here and abroad, a Yale graduate, who became a naval combat officer in Vietnam War, than an activist veteran against the war and a Massachusetts politician, a U.S. Senator from 1985 to 2913, and President Obama's second Secretary of State, as well as the third Roman Catholic to run for President as the nominee of one of our two major parties.

In our "Upstairs-Downstairs" world, Kerry's account of his privileged, if lonely, childhood is inevitably intriguing. Many of us may also have been lonely as children and many may even have experienced the after-effects of family dislocation and tragedy as he did, but most of us non-preppies can only envy Kerry's as-if-it-were-the-most-ordinary-thing account of his privileged education and of going sailing with President Kennedy, and shake our heads in wonder at his elitist fondness for risky and dangerous play (which even included running with the bulls in Pamplona). It is perhaps in the nature of pseudo-aristocratic privilege that it is taken for granted. Were that less so, he might perhaps have fared better in 2004 when populist resentment - along with smears against his war record, which he clearly continues to resent - contributed in some measure to derailing his presidential ambitions. (Historians should have a field day analyzing how rich Republican heirs to privilege have so much more successfully presented themselves to ordinary voters that equally elitist Democrats have been able to do.)

The obvious deviation from pure privilege was, of course, his service in Vietnam, although that was still a time when well-off heirs of "the greatest generation" were often then still committed to service in a way which has since diminished. Kerry's account of his wartime experiences and especially of the loss of friends in war, along with his flamboyant opposition to the war afterwards, is a good counterbalance to the earlier narrative of entitlement. The two together equipped him well for a career in politics.

In the Senate, Kerry famously teamed up with John McCain and, having somehow reconciled their own different ways of responding the the trauma of the war, worked together to reconcile the country, conclusively addressing the neuralgic POW/MIA issue and helping to normalize US post-war relations with Vietnam. Kerry's account of bipartisan cooperation (and friendship) in the Senate serves additionally as yet another nostalgic reproof of what Washington has become in recent, increasingly dysfunctional, decades. That he considered making McCain his running mate in 2004 (like McCain's later consideration of Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mare in 2008) raises interesting questions about how differently history might have been had such imaginative and courageous directions been taken.

Instead of McCain, Kerry chose John Edwards, at that time a very attractive figure in Democratic politics. Running mates are more often a drag than an asset to presidential candidates, but Kerry lost the race himself. Edwards didn't lose it for him. He would do better to imitate McCain in minimizing his after-the-fact criticism of an unfortunate running mate.  

The last and densest part of the book deals with Kerry's career as Secretary of State. His authentically admirable achievements in that role - the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Parish Climate Agreement - highlight the ambiguity of the Obama legacy. Those were great accomplishments, but the Obama Administration somehow failed to persuade the domestic American audience of their value, thus leaving open the door to Trump's destruction of what should have been two monumental achievements and a long-term legacy.

Kerry's immigrant grandparents were originally Viennese Jews, and Kerry's Catholic father's faith was somewhat  lapsed, but his Protestant mother made sure he and his siblings were raised Catholic. It was an authentically Catholic upbringing, which he remembers positively, but also as somewhat conventional. "It was," he writes, "that period when practicing families shared the experience and the habit of attending but without  much meaning." He wore his Saint Christopher medal in Vietnam, but returned with more questions than answers about his faith. He came home "with gratitude that every day was extra," but uncertain about "God's will working in strange ways."

He found reinforcement for his faith in, of all places, the U.S..Senate, where he attended the weekly Wednesday-morning Senate Prayer Breakfast. The Prayer Breakfast reflects the predominantly Protestant religious style endemic to so much of American history and civic religion, with senators offering testimonies about their relationship with God and its role in facing life's challenges. It might seem like an unusual place to strengthen one's Catholic faith, but it seems to have done so (much as my own exposure to some of the best of elite Protestantism at Princeton enriched my own Catholic faith life).

In what I found one of the most truly interesting segments of his book, Kerry recounts how the likes of Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, and Ted Stevens (a tragically widowed Senator from Alaska) shared their experiences and spirituality with their colleagues. The effect of this on him was politically as well as religiously significant. "No matter which side of a debate we'd be on - and frequently it was the opposite side - because of the common ground we'd found together that morning, Ted [Stevens] was no longer just one of the Republican senators. he was a friend." A common ground in shared suffering fostered a mutual respect that made possible a bipartisan comity that sadly seems increasingly elusive.

Kerry's spiritual struggle to reconcile his inherited faith with the experience of seemingly pointless human suffering which he had encountered in the Vietnam War gives this otherwise interesting but conventional account of a privileged person's political career path a genuine depth it might otherwise lack. Perhaps the presidential campaign of the third Catholic to run for that office might have benefited from his having shared some of this with the American people even earlier.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Conciliar Ultamonanism

With Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard, 2018), Jesuit Church historian John W. O'Malley has completed his trilogy of books on the three ecumenical councils of the modern Church. Beginning with his book on Vatican II in 2008 and a book on Trent in 2013, he has now completed the series with Blessed Pius IX's under-appreciated, in-between council Vatican I. More than an account of a single council (which actually met only from December 1869 though the following summer), O'Malley tells the story of the development of the modern Church, "the story of how the Catholic Church in a relatively short time moved to a new and significantly pope-centered mode" - that is, the pope-centered ultramontane Church I was born into and have lived my entire life within. 

The Vatican Council itself, which met on the very eve of the Kingdom of Italy's September 20, 1870, conquest of Rome was the (literally) defining episode in the historical process in which the Pope's spiritual authority within the Church reached its glorious zenith precisely as the Pope's temporal power came to its inglorious end. O'Malley masterfully situates this development in the larger historical context of the definitive defeat of Gallicanism, which had accorded greater prominence to national Churches in relation to the papacy, had recognized national states as legitimate actors in ecclesiastical matters, and had considered the consent of the Church essential for a papal pronouncement to be irreformable. It was above all that last belief which Vatican I explicitly rejected, leading to the pope-centered Church of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In between, there was the Council itself, which O'Malley describes in detail - even such details as the poor acoustics in the transept of Saint Peter's where the Council met and how rainy days diminished attendance (since for many Council Fathers that meant walking to the basilica in the rain and then sitting soaking wet in the cold basilica for hours). More importantly, O'Malley effectively portrays the factional politics both inside and outside the Council hall and also among those not invited but who took a great interest nonetheless. (In another display of the Church's changed relationship with the worldly powers which the Council codified, this was the first time that Catholic princes were not invited as participants, thus ending centuries of lay participation in such events).

The Council was in its time the largest and most international Church assembly in history. That too pointed ahead to the contemporary pope-centered Church - no longer primarily perceived as a principality competing in Italian and European politics but more like the universal, multi-cultural community that Acts 15's "Council of Jerusalem" had first made possible, its unity and universality across time and space centered in the petrine ministry of the pope.

Vatican I was, of course, the first Council attended by Bishops from the United States. Prior to traveling to Rome as an assistant to Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore and Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans of Columbus, Isaac Hecker had expressed his confidence in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the forthcoming Council and assured his New York parishioners in a "Farewell Sermon" that, rather than choose between faith and reason, grace and nature, liberty and authority, the Church would “embrace and reconcile them all, giving to each one of them all that is justly due to it.” [“Father Hecker’s Farewell Sermon,” Catholic World, 10, December 1869, pp. 289-293.]

His analysis after the Council was even more perceptive: “The Church has been prepared for a movement of this nature by the decrees of the Vatican Council on Papal authority, which have settled its rightful position, defined its exercise, and declared these decisions to articles of the Catholic Faith. This elevation and settlement of the spiritual authority of the Church gave the main stroke to the task of the Tridentine epoch and has prepared the Church for a fresh start. [“On the Mission of New Religious Communities” (1876)].

As O'Malley notes, "the centralization of authority that Pastor Aeternus promoted was a phenomenon that in the secular sphere had greatly accelerated in the nineteenth century. It resulted in a very modern standardization of procedures on a worldwide basis... At the same time it called people out of their provincialism and nationalism and forced them into a more expansive vision of the church and, consequently, of the world."

In the triumphant ultramontanism of the post-Vatican I Church, some foolishly foresaw some sort of end of history (to echo Francis Fukuyama's comparable mistake in 1989 in light of the end of the Cold War). It was widely asserted that Vatican was the last such event, that it had rendered future Councils redundant. Then came Pope Saint John XXIII, whose feast day Thursday will mark the anniversary of his opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. 

Like Vatican I, which met in the shadow of the threatened Italian conquest of Rome, Vatican II met under the dark cloud of the Cold War. (The Cuban Missile Crisis came later that month.) Like Vatican I, Vatican II tried to respond to the new and apparently unprecedented world situation the Church found herself in by reclaiming her relevance and her competence to speak to the world. The triumphant ultramontanism of Vatican I made possible the self-confident ultramontanism of Vatican II, enabling Church to address the still pending challenges of modernity and prepare herself for the fresh start she would need to accompany an even more globally centralized while simultaneously fragmented post-modern world.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Ever-Expanding Horizon of the Kingdom

Today’s Gospel [Mark 10:2-16] has 2 complementary messages – one focused on human life lived in family and society, and another focused on our life in God’s kingdom. The reading from the creation story [Genesis 2:18-24] reinforces the social message about marriage and family life, while the reading from Hebrews [Hebrews 2:9-11] highlights the Gospel’s second message.

American Christianity tends to focus a lot on family life, forgetting perhaps that Jesus and the New Testament in general were much more focused on God’s kingdom and showed relatively little interest in or enthusiasm about marriage and family life. The Gospel gets at marriage and family life largely by the back-door of divorce. The context in which we talk about divorce today is, of course, different from what it was then. It is different even from what it was 50 years ago. But you hardly need me to tell you how completely social attitudes toward divorce have changed just in my lifetime. What once was relatively rare and obtained with some degree of difficulty, often only as a last resort, and often exposing the divorced persons and their families to some significant social disapproval has now become as common and socially acceptable as marriage itself. (There are even greeting cards you can buy now to send to people when they divorce.)

And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Nowadays fewer people are choosing to get married at all. Less than half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with more than three-quarters of the population half a century ago. And the number of Catholic marriages taking place in the United States has declined even more dramatically during the same time period. 

And then, thanks to increasing economic inequality in our society, there is also a very visibly obvious class component to this phenomenon of fewer people getting married. Marriage is increasingly more likely among the generally better off, better educated, successful classes, while poorer people with fewer social advantages are much less likely to get married. More highly educated people also marry later in their careers, enjoy more stability,  and are much less likely to divorce. Meanwhile, for those increasingly left behind, the Church has less and less of a visible presence.  As a result the "good news" of God’s kingdom, that it is the Church's mission to speak, seems to too many today to be either bad news or, as is increasingly the case, no news at all.

So many young people today face truly challenging prospects - personal and professional, private and public, environmental and economic, social and structural. However distinctive today's context, such challenges are not entirely unprecedented. The Good News of God’s Kingdom offers an alternative of much needed communal solidarity with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness. So one would think the Church would have something to say - perhaps plenty to say to today’s world. Yet so much of what the Church says - or is perceived to be saying - seems to too many people today to be at best somehow off-topic.

This month’s Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocation Discernment, that is meeting in Rome right now represents an opportunity – as Pope Francis said in his opening homily to the Synod last Wednesday - to get up and look directly into the eyes of young people and see their situations.

In that same homily, Pope Francis challenged the Synod delegates – and through them the whole Church - to listen to one another, in order to discern together what the Lord is asking of his Church. And this demands that we be really careful against succumbing to a self-preservation and self-centredness which gives importance to what is secondary yet makes secondary what is important. Love for the Gospel and for the people who have been entrusted to us, challenges us to broaden our horizons and not lose sight of the mission to which we are called.

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 7, 2018.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Thinking Old

Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (The Reveries of the Solitary Walker), was the last known writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), author more famously of The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, The Social Contract, Confessions, and Emile, as well as other less well known works. The Reveries of the Solitary Walker was the work of a lonely old man, quite conscious of approaching the end of the line, who describes himself at the beginning of his First Walk as "now alone on earth." In a somewhat similar spirit, as someone who is now already some six years older the Rousseau was when he wrote those words (and as someone who used to do a lot of walking alone even when much younger), I have recovered a renewed appreciation of Rousseau's "walks" - and especially his discussion of knowledge in old age in his Third Walk. (Rousseau wrote long before the silly euphemism "senior" became the politely respectable replacement for the word old. I am happy to stick with Rousseau's more honest language.)

Rousseau's perennial personal appeal is inherent in his paradoxical character. As my graduate adviser wrote 58 years ago: "Few men have been more at odds with society than Rousseau; fewer still have spoken as powerfully of the need for community" (Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision, p. 368.) Our exaggerated contemporary concern with our feelings - and the exaggerated attention we have come to consider that our feelings are entitled to receive - were most famously first articulated by Rousseau. Rousseau reflected both these central themes of his life in his Third Walk, when he mused: "Cast from childhood into the whirlwind of the world, I soon learned from experience that I was not made to live in it and that in it I would never reach the state my heart felt." 
[The text cited here is The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, translated by Charles E. Butterworth, Harper & Row, 1979.]

Of course, quoting Rousseau need not mean agreeing with him. One could contend that Rousseau's elevating of feeling, while not entirely without merit, has nonetheless less us down a difficult and dangerous road. Personally, when it comes to feelings, I find myself more in agreement, for example, with the authors of The Coddling of the American Mind, according to whom "feelings so often mislead us that you can't achieve mental health until you learn to question them and free yourself from some common distortions of reality."

But, getting back to old age and the knowledge that accompanies it, Rousseau began that Third Walk with a reference to the ancient Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly said (according to one of Rousseau's favorite authors, Plutarch) "I continue to learn many things while growing old." Rousseau cites Solon, but then immediately questions the wisdom of the saying. "Adversity is undoubtedly a great teacher," he admits, "but it charges dearly for its lessons; and the profit we draw from them is frequently not worth the price they have cost." More pointedly, he asserts, "Youth is the time to study wisdom; old age is the time to put it into practice. Experience always instructs, I admit; but it is profitable only for the time we have left to live. Is the moment when we have to die the time to learn how we should have lived?"

Obviously, old age is a time for looking back, for the same reason that youth is a time to look forward, because in each case that is what there is more of. But, whereas looking forward when young promises to get one somewhere, the value of looking back in old age is less apparent, especially as one contemplates the transition to an eternity which one believes to be both continuous with and discontinuous from one's present and past.

That, as he grew older, the perennially misanthropic Rousseau questioned the wisdom and knowledge acquired through experience in society seems simultaneously unsurprising and radical. It is unsurprising in that a life filled with frustrations and rejections of one sort or another inevitably disposes one to negativity. Didn't Aristotle say, somewhere, that older people tend to be suspicious because of having often experienced other people's faults? To reach Rousseau's age - or mine - may easily dispose one to reconsider the value of the conventional wisdom one has learned over the years and quite possibly to reject some or even much of it.

Rousseau's argument is also radical, however, in its return to an ancient philosophical theme that "If there is any study still appropriate for an old man, it is solely to learn to die." This, of course, reflects Plato's conception of the philosopher's vocation, expressed by Socrates on the day of his death, that "those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying" (cf. Phaedo, 67e).

If Rousseau's Third Walk thus became in effect an application of his idiosyncratic religious views, it invites the more conventionally religious reader likewise to search out and conserve what genuine wisdom still survives the sad struggles of social experience to guide whatever self has emerged from such struggles in its challenging final chapter, assuaged by a faith and hope that transcend the distortions of feeling.

[Photo: Portrait of  Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788) in Geneva's Musée d'Art et d'Histoire.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Synod on Young People

The 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opened today and will continue through October 28. Its topic is Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. That certainly sounds better than referring to it (as one so easily tends to do) as "the Synod on Young People." It may seem increasingly normal in this era of "identity politics" to to speak of groups (like "young people"), as if their experience were totally unique and disconnected from the fuller life of the Church and the wider human community, but I think it is always at best a bit awkward to do so. 

Yet, without adhering to a generational exceptionalism that treats today's young people as absolutely unique in human history, there is a certain novelty to their situation in relationship to the Church. More than young people in most previous generations, many of today's under-30s largely live in a world in which the Church is simply not a significant presence and from which her absence does not seem to be perceived as a problem. The Church's absence is, of course, a concern to those young people who care about such things - among them the 300 or so young people from all over the world who participated in a pre-synodal meeting in Rome last March, along with the many more who participated online. It is a concern, obviously, to those from older generations who worry about the Church's future prospects in increasingly secularized societies. The Bishops who are attending the Synod represent the whole Church, and it will be quite a challenge for them to represent young people in a way that will be recognizable by young people themselves.

The issue facing the Synod is not so much what is to be done but what is to be said? Synods are, after all, largely if not entirely talk. So many young people today face truly challenging prospects - personal and professional, private and public, environmental and economic, social and structural. However distinctive today's context, such challenges are not entirely unprecedented. The Church can offer young people an alternative of much needed communal solidarity with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness. So one would think the Church would have something to say - perhaps plenty to say. Yet so much of what the Church says - or is perceived to be saying - seems to too many people today to be at best somehow off-topic. As a result the "good news" that it is the Church's mission to speak seems to too many today to be either bad news or, as is increasingly the case, no news at all.

In  his homily this morning for the Opening Mass of the Synod, Pope Francis said:

we will try to listen to one another, in order to discern together what the Lord is asking of his Church. And this demands that we be really careful against succumbing to a self-preservation and self-centredness which gives importance to what is secondary yet makes secondary what is important. Love for the Gospel and for the people who have been entrusted to us, challenges us to broaden our horizons and not lose sight of the mission to which we are called. In this way we shall aim for an even greater good that will benefit all of us. Without this disposition, all of our efforts will be in vain.

So let us pray that the Risen Christ, who is head of the Body that is the Church, will empower the Synod Fathers to speak not just their own words, but the words which the Holy Spirit is challenging the Church to speak on the Lord's behalf (cf. Luke 12:12).

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Rosary Month

Next Sunday, October 7 is the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the Holy League, led by Spain and Venice, inflicted a major naval defeat on the Ottoman Empire. Although land conflict with the Ottomans would continue for another century, this decisive defeat marked the end of Ottoman expansion into the Mediterranean. In Catholic Europe, this great victory was credited to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose intercession had been prayerfully sought through the Rosary. To commemorate this, Pope Saint Pius V established the feast of Our Lady of Victory, subsequently renamed Our Lady of the Rosary, which continues to be celebrated in the Church annually on October 7.

On September 29, Pope Francis invited all the faithful "to pray the Holy Rosary every day, during the entire Marian month of October, and thus to join in communion and in penitence, as the people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and Saint Michael  Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always seeks to separate us from God and from each other." The Pope has also asked the faithful to pray the ancient prayer Sub Tuum Paresidium  [We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin], and to conclude with the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel.

In 1946, Pope Pius XII referred to the Rosary as “the compendium of the entire Gospel.” His successor, Pope Saint John XXIII, in a 1962 Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, wrote: "The real substance of the well-mediated rosary consists in a threefold chord which gives its vocal expression unity and cohesion, revealing in a vivid sequence the episodes which bind together the lives of Jesus and Mary, with references to the various conditions of those who pray and the aspirations of the universal Church."

In 1974, Blessed Pope Paul VI (who will be canonized later this month) elaborated on these themes: “the orderly and gradual unfolding of the Rosary reflects the very way in which the Word of God, mercifully entering into human affairs, brought about the Redemption. The Rosary considers in harmonious succession the principal salvific events accomplished in Christ, from His virginal conception and the mysteries of His childhood to the culminating moments of the Passover - the blessed passion and the glorious resurrection - and to the effects of this on the infant Church on the day of Pentecost, and on the Virgin Mary when at the end of her earthly life she was assumed body and soul into her heavenly home. It has also been observed that the division of the mysteries of the Rosary into three parts not only adheres strictly to the chronological order of the facts but above all reflects the plan of the original proclamation of the Faith and sets forth once more the mystery of Christ in the very way in which it is seen by Saint Paul in the celebrated ‘hymn’ of the Letter to the Philippians-kenosis, death and exaltation (cf .2:6-11). … The Jesus that each Hail Mary recalls is the same Jesus whom the succession of the mysteries proposes to us - now as the Son of God, now as the Son of the Virgin - at His birth in a stable at Bethlehem, at His presentation by His Mother in the Temple, as a youth full of zeal for His Father's affairs, as the Redeemer in agony in the garden, scourged and crowned with thorns, carrying the cross and dying on Calvary, risen from the dead and ascended to the glory of the Father to send forth the gift of the Spirit” (Marlialis Cultus, 45-46). 

The Church has long praised the praying of the Rosary and continues to encourage it. For this reason, a special blessing is bestowed upon rosary beads and on those who, as they pray the Rosary, reflect prayerfully on the mysteries of our redemption.

Monday, October 1, 2018


Thanks to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake we have been given one week's grace - one more week before the Senate votes on President Trump's Supreme Court nomination. Flake's Friday afternoon, last-minute, change-of-heart, begun in an elevator, and acted out for all to see on national TV, made for great drama. It highlighted how narrow the Republican Senate majority is, how little it would take to sink this nomination.  Was the lame-duck Senator signaling a dramatic deviation from tribal party loyalty and conservative class interest? Or was it just a reprieve, while (to rephrase Theodore Roosevelt) he and his allies again talk big but carry a soft stick?

The Founders may never have intended the Supreme Court to weigh as much as it does in our system, but the reality is that the Supreme Court is now way overweight with accumulated problematic power - and with no prospect of going on a diet. Hence the increasing controversy concerning each and every lifetime appointment to what has become a largely unchecked, unelected supreme legislature. Perhaps the best outcome would actually be if the seat stayed vacant for a couple of years, and a deadlocked Court came to play a less prominent role in our country's passions and divisions. 

At this point, there is no telling what further information the FBI will be able to surface, let alone whether it will be sufficient to resolve what happened or didn't happen in 1982. We may never know the full truth about that or be able to draw from it any definitive conclusions, but meanwhile we do know other things.

While the issue of individual personal responsibility may never be satisfactorily settled, this epic controversy has highlighted not only our deepening contemporary cultural divide on sex and gender but also the perennial American problem of class - class and its very visible privileges, and class and its not so hidden injuries (to rephrase the title of Richard Sennett's famous 1972 book, The Hidden Injuries of Class). 

Whatever else he did or didn't do, Court-candidate Kavanaugh - high school preppy and college frat brat - represents his social class and its strong sense of entitlement. This was abundantly evident in his hostile stance toward the Senators at last Thursday's hearing. Imagine the reaction had a poor person - or any other non-privileged person - talked to the Senators that way, berating them and interrupting them, as if they - not he - were the ones applying for a job on the highest court in the land! That President Trump, certain politicians, and some commentators found such surprisingly bad manners attractive and a further reason to support him speaks volumes about how we react to class entitlement and how it works so insidiously in our society.

For all sorts of reasons, Americans have historically had a harder time talking about the injuries class causes than do citizens of other societies. But it has never been absent from our reality or all that far from our political conversation.

In his last letter, written June 24, 1826, little more than a week before his death, Thomas Jefferson summed it up well when he famously asserted "the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."