Sunday, March 31, 2019

Laetare Sunday: a Father and his Sons

Today is Laetare Sunday, which gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Our Lenten pilgrimage is half-over, and we are already half-way to Easter.  So, on this 4th Sunday of Lent, the Church replaces her somber violet vestments with bright rose-colored vestments, adorns the altar with flowers, and allows for a greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the joy which we are meant to feel at mid-Lent as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion and discipleship. At an earlier time in the Church’s history, when the observance of Lent was so much stricter, this mid-Lent moment of relaxation must have been much valued and much more appreciated than it is now, when it is hardly noticed apart from the always popular rose vestments.

Speaking of popular, the Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday in this year of the 3-year Lectionary cycle (which I will not get to preach on this year, since I will be celebrating the Scrutiny Mass instead) is the ever-popular (perhaps overly popular) Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, commonly called the "Parable of the Prodigal Son," sometimes the "Parable of the Two Sons" (which is closer to what it is actually about), sometimes the "Parable of the Forgiving Father" (the main point of the parable). 

Of course, the main figure in the parable is, in fact, the father, who is obviously meant to represent God (as God has been revealed to us by Jesus). That he must be meant to represent God is evident not just from the context (cf. Luke 15:1-3), but from the obvious fact that he hardly resembles your typical human father.

On the other hand, if we forget that the parable's father is a stand-in for God and consider him and his family in human terms, then we get a very messy situation, indeed a veritable parable of family dysfunction. We start with a common-enough story of a bad (but presumably charming) younger son, who gets his way with his father, and a good, dutiful, older son, who seems unappreciated and hence is full of frustration and resentment. It would not be hard at all to find any number of analogies for that in human families and society. (An obvious Old Testament analogy is, of course, Jacob's favoring his son Joseph over Joseph's older brothers and the extreme jealousy and resentment this then produced in the older brothers.)

As the parable begins, however, the bad son really does go too far, successfully manipulating his father to give him his inheritance in advance - and then leaving town. Did he always plan to escape village life for the big city, or did he leave because what other option would there have been after doing such a  despicable thing to his father? In any case, he leaves, lives the high life, then loses everything, and is reduced to a total loss not only of money and resources but of any residual self-respect. Coming to his senses, he remembers how he manipulated his father in the past and reasons how he can do so again. So he heads home, having prepared a silly speech to conceal his arrogance in the subtle language of false humility. 

That his father sees him from a distance is not, presumably, a statement about the father's good eyesight, but rather is intended to suggest that his father was on the look-out for him, that his father wanted him back. (So the bad son's guess that his father would take him back was accurate.) The son starts his rehearsed speech, but his overjoyed father has no interest in anything other than getting his son back. He promptly restores him to his proper status and throws a party.

In a world without refrigeration, if you kill a fattened calf then you pretty much need to invite everybody. What the neighbors thought of the prodigal son is unstated. Perhaps they too appreciated his manipulative charms. Or perhaps they despised him as he deserved to be despised, but came anyway out of respect for his father.

The only one who didn't come was the older, dutiful son, whose frustration and resentment now finally explode. After all these years of faithful service, now he too finally misbehaves. If the neighbors can come out of respect for the father, how much more should the dutiful son do so? In an honor-based family culture, the son's place is by his father's side, supporting him, not undermining him, no matter how righteous his resentment!

Never one to stand on his own dignity, the father goes out to plead with his son, an astonishing reversal of roles, surely as shocking to the neighbors as the father's undignified earlier running to welcome back his younger son.  Father and older son argue, the son finally getting to express his long-felt frustration and resentment. And there the parable ends, the conflict unresolved - leaving us (who presumable identify with the dutiful son) to decide whether to come in and join the party on the father's terms or else to remain outside condemned to a forever of frustration and resentment.  

As the context makes clear - to them (those who complained that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them), Jesus addressed this parable - we are presumed to identify with the older son and are being challenged, like to older son, to come to the party, to enter the kingdom, not on our own terms, our own human notions of entitlement, but on the Father's terms.

While such behavior on the part of an ordinary human father might be unusual in human terms, God's behavior as exemplified by the father in the parable vividly illustrates the topsy turvy character of the kingdom, where the standards of this world no longer apply and we are challenged to live on God's terms rather than on our own. 

Finally, the father's lack of preoccupation with his dignity (dividing his property,  seeking his son, running to him, going outside to plead with the older son) suggest a new, very different model of behavior, both individually in our interpersonal relationships and institutionally as a Church in relation to the secular world.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Towards a Saner World

The middle section of Andrew Sullivan's weekly article in Friday's New York magazine  -
is even more than usually especially well worth reading. 

It is about "intergenerational care," the kind of inter-generational mixing that was routine for most of human history (until our own unhappy age of culturally prescribed loneliness), and focuses on his own experience of growing up with his elderly grandmother in his childhood home. I too grew up with my grandmother in my childhood home. She brought a unique dimension to our family life and was our family's link not only across time, connecting the different generations, but also across space, connecting us Americans with an Italy that was both left behind but always somehow the in the background.

Sullivan's article is an appeal to take that once virtually universal experience of inter-generational community seriously again as a recipe for finding ourselves in a saner world, repairing "human bonds, broken by capitalism and modernity and loneliness."

Everyone should read it!

Friday, March 29, 2019

Dynastic Politics

For several Sundays since the beginning of March, CNN has been airing  a series entitled The Bush Years: Family, Duty, Power, which purports to be "the story behind the Bushes - America's most powerful political dynasty." Episode 5, scheduled for this past Sunday was pre-empted by TV's obsessive-compulsive coverage of the reactions to the Mueller Report. That says more about cable news than it does about the Bushes, but it made me pause to consider why I care about this series at all and why I wished CNN had stuck to its Sunday schedule and abandoned its All Mueller, All the Time routine for some other occasion!

It is, as I have often remarked, one of the curiosities of American culture how mesmerized we have repeatedly become by powerful, wealthy families (e.g., Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes), apparently confirming the thesis that monarchy and aristocracy are ultimately much more natural - and perhaps for that reason much more congenial to many - as a way of organizing social and political life. Back in 1988, I remember how a close friend, a former graduate school classmate, horrified me by telling me he had voted for George H.W. Bush for president. His reason? Bush came from a good family, was well bred, had an aristocratic (in American terms) background which better prepared him for serious leadership. With my own academic background in classical political philosophy I had to admit his argument made a certain sort of sense (although its applicability in our contemporary context may seem increasingly strained).. 

It is an argument that seems to resonate as well with the makers of this documentary. CNN had previously done a documentary series on the less properly pedigreed but correspondingly that much glamorous Kennedys, who made up for what they lacked in old-school substance with celebrity style. The series about the less glamorous but better pedigreed Bushes employs lots of old footage, replete with interviews with family members, historians, and  journalists, to weave together an attractive portrayal of complex individuals living out their complex heritage in complex contemporary circumstances. Personality and character count - in politics as in the rest of life. So there is much to be learned about public figures from their family dynamics and the personal and private highs (like heroism in war) and lows (like the death of a daughter) that they have experienced both before and during their public careers.

Since the Bush family story is well known, I think it is the overall trajectory rather than the already familiar details that a series such as this may serve to highlight. The first President Bush may have presented himself as a self-made conservative Texas oil-man, which in some ways he was. But he was also (and inescapably so) the son of a liberal Republican Senator from Connecticut, who supported civil rights and birth control, who opposed Joe McCarthy, and whom President Eisenhower could envisage as a possible future president. The family history from grandfather Prescott Bush to grandson President George W. Bush is an interesting family story, but it is also the even more interesting story of the evolution of the Republican party and of the virtual extinction of the high-browed, high-minded, moderate-to-liberal republicanism that once characterized the "establishment" of both the party and the nation. My friend who voted for Bush in 1988 may well have hankered for the virtues of that "establishment," but the compromises candidate Bush had made to get to 1988 already heralded the demise of those virtues in our national political life (and even more so in Bush's political party).

Most Americans don't spring from prominent, Bush-like families, and few achieve anything comparable to the Bushes' political power. But duty (the middle term in the series' sub-title) is accessible to all, or at least can be when citizens are socialized accordingly. So, along with dramatizing the evolution of the Republican party and its consequential impact on our political culture, the series also illustrates the significant impact of generational change - from the duty-governed political ethos of the "greatest generation" of the President Bush who fought in World War II (as did Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford) to the very different moral world-view and values of subsequent generations.

What the two English-speaking imperial capitals (Washington and London) have in common right now is the sorry spectacle of the collapse of the political class. (The political class is more diverse in background than the old oligarchy of Roosevelts and Buishes that tied to pass itself off as an aristocracy. It includes the newer "meritocratic" elite, arrivistes like the Clintons and Obama.) This collapse may have multiple roots, but one of them is certainly the loss of the older rationales for exercising power, rooted in family and duty. The Bush Years celebrates what it chronicles, but it also chronicles its definitive demise. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

After Mueller

Perhaps only President Trump (and presumably his Republican party acolytes) could have the effrontery to claim "Total Exoneration" based on Attorney General Barr's summary of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Report - given that one of the very few sentences actually quoted by Barr from Mueller's report states: "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

It is, of course, completely unsurprising that in our post-fact, post-truth world, each faction simply goes to its respective corner and reproduces its talking points. All the more reason, therefore, why the entire report (or, at least, those parts which are legally able to be released) should be made public immediately. Furthermore, the House should subpoena, Barr, Rosenstein, and, above all, Mueller himself to testify under oath about the report's conclusions.

Based on Barr's summary, it seems we can conclude that:
1) there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election;
2) "The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities" [Mueller's words]; and
3) as already quoted from Mueller above, "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

Granted that the President and his associates have been cleared of any explicit conspiracy with the Russians, that still leaves plenty for Congress to investigate.

Congress also has other things to do, however. One of the many unfortunate consequences of Watergate (besides journalistic self-righteousness) has been our epidemic of obsession with political scandal. Just as legislation should not primarily be done by the courts, neither should our politics primarily be fought out in judicial proceedings. The Democrats did not win so overwhelmingly in 2018 because voters were obsessed with White House scandals but because voters were justifiably worried about protecting their health care and other such issues. And the Democrats will win the presidency in 2020, if they win it, not by obsessing over White House scandals but by offering voters an alternative to the present Administration which addresses the issues voters care about, something Democrats used to be rather good at and could still become good at again.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Again, the Electoral College

At least one presidential candidate has now added her voice to the chorus of those calling (increasingly loudly) for the abolition of the Electoral College. This is not a new issue, inasmuch as the Electoral College long ago ceased to work as intended and has become increasingly awkward to defend. In the past, I have argued, here and elsewhere, for the retention of the Electoral College; but my commitment to that view has been eroding somewhat. In a Burkean kind of way, I tend to be wary of altering archaic institutions, even if - especially even if - they no longer work the way they were intended to work, but do in fact work in a way we have all become predictably used to. 

On the other hand, two of our three 21st-century presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, have been elected by winning electoral majorities while losing the popular vote. This is not a desirable outcome in a society which requires some significant element of democratic legitimacy. Winning an electoral college majority while losing the popular vote is an outcome which we successfully avoided between the elections of 1888 and 2000 but which, having happened in 2000, happened again in 2016 and may be more likely to happen again in the future given the closeness of contemporary elections and the apparent disinclination of contemporary candidates to broaden their support  beyond their narrow base. So, if there are authentic advantages to the electoral college which remain real, its disadvantages certainly seem to have increased.

On the other hand, every change has its unintended consequences, an argument at minimum for very careful consideration of as many ramifications as possible. Moreover, there are at least two well known "unintended consequences," which can clearly be anticipated, and about which we should be seriously concerned.

The first concerns the closeness of recent elections and the many possibilities - in our chaotic and decentralized electoral system - for legal challenges. Whatever its flaws, the electoral college does give us a way to settle the election definitively. At some point (usually in early January), Congress must count the electoral votes and declare a winner. However flawed that process, it seems better than a multitude of court challenges which may go on indefinitely.  In the 2000 case - calamitously - Congress failed to fulfill its constitutional role and instead let the Supreme Court decide the election - in effect permitting the Court's Republican majority to appoint their candidate as president. In a closely divided country, a purely popular vote system could easily produce contested elections on a regular basis. Do we really want any future contested presidential election ever again to be decided by the Supreme Court - an overtly partisan body that is unelected and unaccountable? 

To address this problem, any constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college would have to make effective provision for nationally (not state) administered elections and for adequate mechanisms to resolve challenges in a way which gives the result real legitimacy. Otherwise we will be much worse off than we are now when it comes to democratic legitimacy.

The second consequence we should be concerned about is the effect upon the two-party monopoly. While 3rd-parties and independent candidates have done plenty of mischief (e.g., in 2000 and 2016), the electoral college usually functions as a practical barrier limiting the power of 3rd parties and independent candidates, which in turn maintains our two-party system. Of course,there is nothing morally or politically superior about a two-party system. Indeed, I have always believed a European-style multi-party parliamentary system would be better. However, just like single-member districts on the local level, the single-member presidency pushes us in a two-party direction. In a European-style multi-party parliamentary system, governing coalitions can be formed after the election. In the U.S. that clearly cannot happen. Historically this has led to coalitions being formed before the election in the form of two parties which have themselves incorporated diverse interests. At minimum, the possibility which direct popular election offers of more than two seriously competitive candidates increases the likelihood of no one candidate winning a majority. That would likely require either a second-round vote or some sort of ranked choice voting system. These are not bad options. Indeed, the latter especially might be a very good option. My point is only that these problems need to be considered before any constitutional change is made, and the mechanism for resolving them needs to be incorporated into the change.

Abolishing the electoral college in favor of a system where every vote counts wherever cast would clearly have other effects as well in terms of how campaigns are conducted, etc. Every 20th-century reform to "democratize" our electoral process has weakened our political parties and increased the power of what would otherwise have been extreme ideological fringes at the expense of the center. Anyone proposing to abolish the electoral college should also be aware of and have thought about all these effects and their long-term political impact.

Amending the constitution can be done, but it is cumbersome and time-consuming and only works when there is a real consensus. We are nowhere near there as yet, for all the noise the subject has generated. Even so, if this is to be debated seriously (which would be a good thing), then the many side-effects and how to address them also need to be part of that debate. Otherwise we shall either end up with no change at all or with a change we are not adequately prepared happily to adapt to.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

God's Patience

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” Long before the popular 1980s best-seller, long before school shootings and synagogue and mosque massacres had become a part of our contemporary world, that was a perennial problem and an endlessly asked question.

Jesus’ refusal in today’s Gospel [Luke 13:1-9] to speculate why bad things happen to good people– or, for that matter, why good things happen to bad people – appears almost as enigmatic and mysterious as God’s answer to Moses’ somewhat impertinent insistence on asking God’s name. Maybe God’s answer was his way of telling Moses that some things about God that are just mysterious, as if God were saying, “I am who I am and that’s all you need to know.” Maybe that’s why the real Moses (in contrast to the famous movie’s version of Moses) refrained from asking God the obvious question, why it has taken God so long to react to his people’s suffering in Egypt.

He may not have asked, but Moses may still have wondered.  Likewise, those who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices may well have wondered why good Galilean pilgrims on pilgrimage in Jerusalem had been killed by Roman soldiers. And why, for that matter, had 18 innocent people been accidentally killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them?

The last example reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which revolves around seeking some connection among the apparently random victims of a bridge’s collapse – in the hope of explaining why they, in particular, died instead of someone else.

And all these things inevitably inspire people to wonder. Are we, who have so far been spared, somehow more worthy or deserving or virtuous? The universality and randomness of so much human suffering would seem to rebut any such theory, even if it is precisely our all-too-human desire to impose some order and logic on the apparently arbitrary randomness of so much of what happens that causes us to invent such theories in the first place.

Yet Jesus just rejected any such suggestion. By no means! Jesus says. For we are all sinners and so all desperately in need of conversion and repentance. Hence his parable – simultaneously so comforting and so threatening – of the unproductive fig tree.

Now most people would probably agree that, if the whole point of cultivating a fig tree is to produce figs, a fruit-less fig tree hardly warrants the work involved in cultivating it year after year. If there were ever an obvious application for the slogan “three strikes and you’re out,” this would seem to be it. After all, how likely would it be that, after three fruitless years, yet another year’s effort might make the tree bloom at last? Not much!

Yet the gardener in Jesus’ parable is willing to give it one more try. Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.

To us, impatient people that we are, the thing to do with an unproductive tree would be to stop wasting soil and effort and just cut it down. But God patiently postpones cutting us down. He gives us extra, even lavish attention, cultivating and fertilizing us, revealing himself to us more and more clearly, and more and more fully, through Moses and others, finally sending us his Son as his final and fullest revelation of himself, his final and fullest expression of his patience and mercy, the final alternative to our dismal history of lost opportunities.

As this saga of God’s long-lasting mercy toward the human race reveals so dramatically, God has been incredibly patient toward us in spite of everything. The challenge, however, is that, while God’s patience and mercy may be infinite, we are not. We have to avail ourselves of God’s limitless patience and mercy in the inevitably limited time each of us has.

Lent is our annual reminder, our annual challenge to start bearing fruit, to put God’s patience and mercy to good use – now.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 24, 2019.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Apollo 11 (The Movie)

Last year, it was Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong in First Man – reviewed here last November at

In this new documentary, however, Neil Armstrong plays himself (as does everyone else in the story). Apollo 11 uses real footage from that 1969 NASA Moon Mission. Besides camera footage from the moon itself, we get to watch the crowds (both VIPs and ordinary people) gathering to watch the launch and the reception of the astronauts on their return. For those of us above a certain age, the story is familiar, well remembered for the exciting event it was. I was 21 and had spent that summer Sunday afternoon at the beach at Far Rockaway with some friends. but we were back on the "A" train and home just in time to watch the TV coverage of the actual touchdown by the lunar module on the moon's surface. Later we watched as Armstrong took his famous "giant leap for mankind." 

It is perhaps hard to explain to a post-modern world, which has lost  a sense of excitement or engagement with great public purposes beyond one’s own narrow and immediate interests, the excitement that space exploration had for my generation, but exciting it most certainly was - and not just because we were beating the Russians (although that too was very important at the time).

Stylistically, this is a very much in the moment documentary. It lacks the looking backward commentary we are so used to hearing in such documentaries. It lets the event speak for itself - 8 well documented days in 93 amazing cinematic minutes - including hitherto unseen footage from the time. What commentary we do get was  in effect part of the event itself, commentary that accompanied the event at the time - including even some of the on-air words of that era's most familiar spokesman, anchorman Walter Cronkite. Hearing his voice again after all these years only adds to the authenticity of the portrayal.

We know the story already and how it ends, of course. We won't be surprised so much as awed - awed by the amazingly audacious ambition that underlay the event and the human and technological know-how that made it possible. We may come away grateful that human beings can aspire and accomplish so much - and saddened by how thoroughly diminished more recent generations' ambitions and aspirations have become.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Holy Ambition

Presumably, no one here remembers the Teapot-Dome scandal from almost a century ago. But, if you are a Downton Abbey fan like me, then you do remember Maggie Smith explaining to Penelope Wilton how that scandal was the usual one of people exploiting a public good for private profit.  It’s indeed an old story, a story common to every time and place, this very human temptation to exploit some public good for one’s private purpose. So perhaps we should not be at all surprised by the audacity of James and John, for whom the kingdom of God which Jesus was revealing suggested to them an opportunity for personal professional advancement.

When it comes to human behavior, there really does seem to be nothing new under the sun. In today’s Gospel [Matthew 20:17-28], Jesus has again told his disciples what lies in store for him in Jerusalem. The first time he did this, Peter had tried to talk him out of it, prompting both a severe reprimand and a no-nonsense instruction on what being a disciple really means. The second time, the disciples then argued among themselves about which was the greatest. When asked what they’d been arguing about, their silence suggested at least some sense of embarrassment. Here, however, with no hint of embarrassment, two of Jesus’ most favored disciples (and thus the ones most especially susceptible to a sense of entitlement) have audaciously applied for the best seats in the kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the other 10 quickly became indignant. Apparently, they neither accepted nor were willing to cater to the particular status hierarchy favored by James and John. The 10’s jealous indignation at the two brothers’ sense of entitlement in turn prompted yet another much needed instruction from Jesus – clarifying both what his life is about and what the life of any would-be disciple must be about, a vocation in which neither entitlement not jealousy has any rightful place.

What makes this incident stand out so wonderfully is the brilliant way Jesus handled his hard-to-teach disciples – both the 2 ambitious brothers and the 10 jealous others. Jesus was obviously a very good teacher. He recognized his disciples’ natural ambition. Rather than simply condemning them, he affirmed their ambition and then gave it completely new content.

So you want to be great, Jesus asks his disciples – and, through them asks us. OK, then, be great – but not by imitating all those rich and prominent people you all admire and envy so much, but by imitating me. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How’s that for an ambition to aspire to, an accomplishment to envy?

If following Jesus is to have any real meaning, Jesus is telling us, then it must be different with us from the way it is with the rest of the world. By his own life – and above all by his death – Jesus illustrated that, by showing how different it is with him from the way it tends to be with us in our world. Our task is not to accommodate that world, which is just being the way the world is, but to change our relationship with that world – but to do so first and foremost by letting Jesus himself change us.

Homily for the annual Ecumenical Lenten Service, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 20, 2019.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bugnini's Reforms (The Book)

Few figures have seemed so influential in the post-conciliar liturgical transformation of the Roman Rite than Annibale Bugnini (1912-1982), the Italian Vincentian priest (and later Titular Archbishop) who participated in Pius XII's and John XXIII's pre-conciliar liturgical commissions and then played a leading role in implementing the post-conciliar liturgical reforms. He was personally closely associated with Pope Paul VI until his sudden dismissal and eventual assignment as Nuncio to Iran.  As such he has been both much admired by some and reviled by others as "a ransacker of the liturgy, the man responsible for its devastation."

From its inception the goals and outcomes of the liturgical reform have been debated and argued over - unfortunately not always with appropriate prudence and charity. Not satisfied with evaluating the wisdom and prudence of what the Church has experienced, some have gone farther and sought to question the legitimacy of any real reforms at all (at least any reforms after 1570).

Into this fray, Yves Chiron's short but thorough biography attempts to clarify the actual facts of the nature and extent of Bugnini's impact. Chiron presents a basic account of Bugnini's life from his childhood and religious formation in a pious Umbrian household and his education in Sienna, where "he loved liturgical ceremonies early on and would visit several churches to serve Mass or sing in the choir." Bugnini joined the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), where he "came into closer contact with liturgical studies" and discovered the work of the great Idelfonso Schuster, who also influenced the future Pope Paul VI. As a young priest, Bugnini "experimented with a kind of dialogue Mass." In 1945, he joined the directorship of the review Ephemerides Liturgicae. He was one of the founders of post-war Italy's Centro di Azione Liturgica. Then, in 1948, he was appointed Secretary to Pius XII's Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the liturgy, from which he graduated to the more prominent role he played in the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical reforms.

It is the kind of life story that one would expect for someone who was so personally  and professionally devoted to the liturgy and became involved early on in the 20th-century liturgical movement. The controversy about Bugnini really revolves around the more fundamental controversy about the liturgical movement - about how and why it changed so dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the Council and embraced an apparently more radical transformation of the liturgy than most people (including most supporters of the liturgical movement and probably most of the Council Fathers) had ever expected. 

As Alcuin Reed notes in his Foreword to Chiron's book, the fact that there was a liturgical reform is not what is controversial, since there have been reforms in the past and will probably be again in the future. "Rather the controversy lies in the assertion made by many that Bugnini orchestrated and directed the liturgical reform beyond the mandate" of the Council and its liturgical constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. There exists, of course, a more extreme critique concerning the Council itself, but the issue here concerns the more mainstream argument about whether the final reform exceeded the Council's mandate (and the extent of Bugnini's role in it). 

As someone who lived through that period and who can remember the modest expectations that preceded the Council (from the very modest hope that the Council would insert Saint Joseph's name into the Canon of the Mass to the hopes of some that the Council would extend the use of the vernacular and would adopt a multi-year lectionary), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the final reform far exceeded the explicit expectations of the Council Fathers, who would probably not have voted so overwhelmingly for the liturgical constitution had they known what would soon be done in its name. (In the late 1970s, I asked a prominent American Archbishop, a "liberal" and a supporter of the liturgical changes, whether the Council Fathers would ever have voted for the liturgical constitution if they had known how much more radical the future reform would be, and he answered that they certainly would not have done so.) 

On the other hand, Chiron reminds us that Sacrosanctum Concilium article 50 did say: The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved. That same  section also called for rites to be simplified, certain duplications to be discarded, and certain older elements to be restored. Even if this broadly stated mandate did not intend to authorize anything as radical as what actually occurred, it at least leaves lots of room for legitimate argument.

The more extreme version of that argument clearly faults Bugnini personally. Thus, for example, Louis Bouyer in his memoir famously called Bugnini "a mealy mouthed scoundrel" and "a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty."  To his credit, Chiron tries to avoid all such personal characterizations and attacks on his subject's personal character.

Whatever one's view of the merits of what Bugnini accomplished, it seems to me impossible not to conclude that it went well beyond what the Council had envisaged, whether for better or for worse. Even so, the fact remains that the changes all received the Pope's approbation,  however conflicted he may have been and however much (as some stories suggest) he may have really regretted some of the changes. And so the ultimate question may really be whether and to what extent Bugnini may have manipulated the Pope in some way (as Bouyer seems to  suggest) and whether and to what extent the Pope himself failed to control the process. Thus, according to Nicola Giampietro's account, Cardinal Antonelli recalled that on April 19, 1967, "Paul VI, speaking of the course taken by the implementation of the liturgical reform declared that he had been hurt by certain arbitrary liturgical experiments and pained by a certain tendency to desacralize the liturgy." Antonelli added .that the Pope "reconfirmed his confidence in the Consilium" and "did not seem to realize that all the difficulties had been created by the manner in which the reform was interpreted by the Consilium."

In the end, as we know, Paul VI did seem to have lost confidence in Bugnini, who as a result ended up as Nuncio in Iran. By then, however, the new Missal was a done deal. 

Other than as an historical question, does this debate really matter much now? The Council met in the early 1960s. By the time the liturgical reforms were being seriously implemented,  society was already changing radically from what the Council Fathers had been familiar with and from the kind of future they had seemed to envisage in their documents. Should anyone have been surprised that so many things (not just the liturgical reforms) turned out so different from what had been hoped and expected just a few years earlier?

What one can say, however, is that the post-conciliar period of seemingly complete and constant change (not just in the liturgy, but especially in the liturgy, the centerpiece of the Church's life and the area that touched ordinary people's lives so directly) seemed to destabilize and weaken the Church at a time of massive and extreme societal change, in other words, at a time when perhaps a stronger and more self-confident Church might possibly have served society better. The question then becomes: given the division and polarization the reforms produced, were they worth it? How to answer that remains as yet unresolved.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Convening in Milwaukee

The Democratic party has decided to hold its July 2020 National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I suppose that the location of a party's national nominating convention is a matter of major concern mainly to the lucky community which presumably hopes to benefit from the convention's presence, and I'd be surprised if a convention's location sways many votes. (Of course, it concerns the delegates and others who have to travel and spend some time there. I can still recall a certain reporter complaining on TV about Kansas City when it was the site of the Republican convention back in 1976.)

I lived in Milwaukee for four years starting in the late 1970s, and my memory of it is as a rather nice midwestern, lakeside city with a good bus system. Had I had more of a life beyond my work, I would probably have appreciated the city even more. My memories of Milwaukee are mainly positive, but also irrelevant, since I haven't been back there in almost four decades, during which undoubtedly much has changed.

Highlighting the city's diversity and Wisconsin's past as a progressive, pro-labor state, the Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez has been cited as claiming that the party's decision to hold the party's  2020 convention in Milwaukee reflects its values. It is obviously also an effort to reclaim the midwest for the Democrats after the unexpected loss in 2016. “The Democratic Party has again become an every ZIP code party,” Perez said. “We’re listening to people in every corner of the country.”
On the other hand, Brookings Fellow William Frey suggested that, in choosing Milwaukee over Houston and Miami, Democrats "appealed to the base of the party: a largely white Midwestern electorate that stood by them in every presidential election from the 1990s until 2012-though not 2016. They chose the familiar past, over the present and the future."

Both those comments illustrate the dilemma that haunts the Democratic party on the eve of the 2020 election - whether it is possible (and desirable) to reconnect with the party's traditional working-class base and whether that will tip the electoral scale in their favor as happened in reverse last time, or whether it is possible (and desirable) to focus on the party's presumed demographic future (minorities, young people, etc.) and whether those constituencies can turn out in sufficient numbers to counterbalance the loss of the older, traditional constituencies. How this dilemma will play out in the primaries, at the convention, and in the general election may well determine not only who becomes president in 2021 but the alignment of our two political parties for the foreseeable future

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Cheating Oligarchs

As a college undergraduate in the late 1960s, the institution I attended was the first free public college in the United States, founded in 1847 to provide access to free higher education based on academic merit to the children of New York’s poor immigrant and working-class families. And, for over a century, many second and third generation immigrant and working-class families made good use of this great opportunity  Because of its high academic standards, the school was sometimes even called “the proletarian Harvard” (a most revealing analogy). Unlike Harvard, however, and unlike so many other more socially desirable colleges and universities, mine was a commuter school. I regularly rode the IND "A" Express Train to 125th Street and, for the most part, cheerfully embraced the regular routine of walking to and from the subway, and waiting for and catching the right trains – the central routine of so much of New York City work and social life. Even though I missed the social side, the community context, of a residential school, mine was, on the whole, personally a great academic experience, and I got a good education - one which eventually even got me into graduate school at the sort of elite Ivy League institution I could never have even contemplated attending as an undergraduate.

Ivy League and other so-called "elite" universities offer a very good education (even better perhaps that the one I received, although mine was very good in its own way). They also offer the sort of social and community experience I craved but didn't have at my commuter school. But the thing they offer that most decisively defines the "elite" university experience and sets it apart so significantly from other otherwise fine educational institutions is access to a potentially life-long network of social standing, political power, and, of course, wealth. In the old days, there was no doubt that such institutions were of the ruling class, by the ruling class, and for the ruling class - a situation softened somewhat by an aristocratic noblesse oblige ethos, part myth, but also part reality, reflected in such mottoes as "Princeton in the Nation's Service," reflected also in the lives and public careers of figures like Franklin D. Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush.

But aristocracy, as the ancient political philosophers taught us and experience has regularly confirmed, can and does deteriorate into oligarchy - rule not by the best for the benefit of all but rule by the rich for the benefit of themselves. Oligarchy - not aristocracy - best describes our American ruling class today. And attendance at "elite" universities - and the interconnected economic, social, and political networks they provide students access to - is a valued key to full participation in our American oligarchy.

So it is hardly much of a surprise that rich people resort to all sorts of mechanisms to game the system to guarantee their heirs access to the institutions that help guarantee the perpetuation of their privilege. The only thing surprising about the recently revealed "scandal" is the resort to overtly illegal means, when there remain so many legal means to maintain privilege - among them "legacy" admissions and athletic admissions. And, of course, for the really rich there are always donations. Wasn't Jared Kushner, for example, accepted into Harvard shortly after his father donated $2.5 million?

Some have noted that many of those involved in the recently exposed cheating scandal were rich enough that their heirs would have done well anyway, regardless of the school they attended. Perhaps. but that only highlights the desperation so many parents presently feel that causes them to go to such great lengths to ensure their children's lifelong access to privilege.

Above all it highlights the American oligarchic elite's strong sense of entitlement, which is at the root of so much of the great gulf that divides our society today.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Royal Books and Holy Bones

In 1992, Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, published The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, which effectively rebutted the long-standing English Protestant story that, on the eve of the Reformation, the Catholic Church in England was a corrupt and decayed institution, little equipped to sustain the spiritual energies of the country. In contrast to that, Duffy showed how vibrantly healthy the Church was on the eve of Henry VIII's power grab and how important a part religious processions and pilgrimages and other Catholic practices played in the lives of the people.

Published in 2018, Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity collects various previously published articles again challenging prevalent prejudices and shedding increased light on (principally) English medieval religious practices in the millennium prior to the Reformation. His focus is primarily on religious practices (e;g;, pilgrimages, popular devotions to obscure Saxon saints and one Lancastrian king) and artifacts (e.g., devotional books, relics of the saints), exploring what it was actually like to live a Catholic life in medieval Europe, particularly in England. The text is enriched with a collection of colored plates, which illustrate the rich artistry of medieval Catholicism.

Even as a child, I was always interested in learning about other religions and liked reading about them in the public library, but my interest was almost entirely in their rituals and other religious practices. I suppose that reflected my own personal feeling for the aesthetic and affective dimension of religious experience, the experience I was familiar with from the centrality of ritual and devotional practices in the Catholicism of my youth. We learned the Creed, of course, and were well catechized - quite well compared to subsequent generations - about what we believed, but it was the yearly round of religious rituals and devotions that were the living heart of post-war Catholic life. Something similar seems to have been at work in medieval England - even if some of the rituals and devotions reflect a material culture and spiritual sensibility markedly different from our own more modern world.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Devil's Lies

Back when Lent was still exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the 3 following days got added on), Lent began today, with this Sunday (as it still does in Milan, Italy, where to this day there is still no Ash Wednesday). In our modern rite, this is the day when those who have responded to the good news of Jesus by becoming candidates for Baptism or full membership in the Catholic Church this coming Easter are presented to our Bishop at our cathedral, to make their own the Church’s faith in Jesus and the Church’s way of becoming his disciple. That faith, that way of becoming a disciple – what St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, called confessing with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in one’s heart that God raised him from the dead – are what Lent has always been about.

And so, every year, we begin our Lent the way Jesus began his mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and popular acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert.

That was where Jesus made his Lent – in the desert, the domain of the devil, whose many titles include liar and father of lies. The devil lied when he equated being Son of God with power to be used for purely personal advancement. He lied again when he tried to divert Jesus from his mission with the kinds of illusions that, in our society especially, pass for success, illusions of being a winner, of being great, thereby anticipating what may ultimately be remembered as one of our contemporary American religion’s most terrible temptations – the temptation to political power. He lied yet again when he equated being Son of God with special effects and popular acclaim, thereby anticipating what may ultimately be remembered as one of our contemporary culture’s most distinctive characteristics – equating celebrity with significance.

The devil’s lies live on in our world today. We know from the sad state of our public life that we don’t have to run off to the desert to be lied to!

The devil’s lies and Jesus’ responses reveal the deeper underlying reality reflected in all the human choices we make – choices that in a real sense both make us who and what we are and reveal us to each other and to ourselves.

Every Lent, the same Spirit that led Jesus into the desert leads us to spend 40 days with him in the same place where it led him, in the desert that threatens and challenges us to choose – to choose not just whether or what to eat, but what we want to make of our life – a life lived in faithfulness to truth or a life lived in thrall to the devil’s lies, to the illusions accompany earthly power, and the delusions that accompany popularity.

When the devil had finished every temptation, we are told, he departed for a time. That time came when Jesus returned to Jerusalem, not to the parapet of the temple, but to the top of the cross, where the devil’s challenge would be confronted again and all his lies finally refuted, when Jesus’ choice of obedience to his Father would finally reveal both who he really is and what true power and glory really are.

Lent is our opportune time to meet up with the real Jesus – undefeated in the desert and victorious on the cross – to learn whether and what kind of difference confessing him with the mouth and believing in him in the heart can really make – for us and for our world.

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 10, 2019.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Alienated America (The Book)

The cover of Timothy P Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (Harper Collins, 2019) features a church building. The church is closed, however, and therein lies the story he seeks to tell. Somewhat in the spirit of Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, the conservative author argues that, underlying the perceived decline of the “American Dream,” has been the collapse of the communal institutions (e.g., churches) that make for a successful society's civic life. Hence the picture of the closed church - rather than, as one might perhaps expect, a closed factory plant, that other ubiquitous symbol of economic and social decline.

It's all about people being linked by institutions. In the book's Preface, for example, the author revealingly reflects on how he and his family could count on their fellow parishioners in a time of crisis. It is the by now fairly familiar theme of better-off people (even if not themselves church-goers) benefiting from dense social networks and civil society's institutions, while less well off, left behind, people increasingly lack such dense social networks. Hence the complaint that "the elites today often lack the courage to preach what they practice.

The election of Donald Trump has heightened interest in the left behind parts of America that so many educated people  are disconnected from, alienated places without those dense social networks. The word places in the book's subtitle is critical. "To understand the phenomenon of alienation and coming apart, we need to co more than consider who these people are. We must consider where they are."

True to that preoccupation, Carney takes the reader to all sorts of surprising places that  illustrate his theories.

Of course, a key component of the contemporary malaise has been the transformation of the global economy (much of it beneficial in many ways), and the consequent economic problems of the once well-off working class. Carney recognizes the economic components of working-class alienation, and in particular its most important negative economic indicator - men dropping out of the labor force. But more fundamental, he believes, has been a cultural collapse: "The most profound social change in America over the past two generations has been the retreat from marriage," And "the working-class retreat from marriage is the fallout of the working-class loss of community."

As the book's cover is intended to illustrate, the preeminent American social institution has been religion. "The unchurching of America is at the root of America's economic and social problems."  Of course, not all social networks and American social structures are church-based, but the author reminds the reader how high a proportion of them actually are - especially those to which non-elites have access..

He notes, for example, that poorer Hispanic Catholic attend Mass as much as wealthier ones, while poorer white Catholics attend less often than wealthier white Catholics. The relevant difference is not income but rather social ties vs. social isolation. (Do I need to mention in this connection how those different Catholic constituencies voted in 2016?)

The "American Dream," the perceived death of which has helped to propel Donald Trump to the White House, was about more than money. All too often, we tend to reduce that image to its material and consumerist components. In its fullest sense, however, as conceived by James Truslow Adams, who coined the term in The Epic of America (1931), it was "a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” 

The problematic deterioration of our contemporary politics has illustrated how deeply damaged our society has become, and how far so much of our American landscape has drifted from universal access to that "American Dream."