Sunday, June 30, 2019

Look Ahead!

Burying people properly – or the equivalent in other cultures that have other practices for taking care of the dead – is a very important thing for most people in most of the world. That is one reason why we Christians consider it one of the seven corporal works of mercy. Nowadays, of course, cremation competes with traditional Christian burial, and after-the-fact memorial services and so-called “celebrations of life” often replace real funerals. So Jesus’ strange words, Let the dead bury their dead, might not sound quite so shocking to some people today as they would certainly have sounded to people in Jesus’ time.

In the ancient world, being properly buried was something people worried a lot about, and providing a proper burial for one’s relatives was an absolute never-to-be-neglected social and religious responsibility. And even hardened, post-modern hearts can still be moved by the famous episode near the end of Homer’s Illiad, when King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to give him the body of his son Hector, so he can be given a proper funeral. So maybe Jesus’s harsh words still have their capacity to shock even us!

Of course, it’s not as if the potential disciple Jesus was talking to had just lost his father that day. In pleading, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” what he probably meant was something like “Yes, I’ll follow you – when I’m ready, when my affairs are all in order, someday, but not right now.” 

But things don’t always go according to plan. Who knows when one’s life will be in order and one will finally be ready? God’s call comes when God calls – whatever plans we may have made and whether we are ready to respond or not. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying about the problem of planning one’s political career in advance – surely all the candidates who were on the debate stage last week have heard it  - that there is no timing in politics, just time. Well that’s the way it is with God. It’s not our carefully thought-out and well-planned timing that counts, but God’s time.

Jesus’ exaggerated-sounding, shockingly over-the-top statement is saying that this is the moment and now is the time to respond. God’s call, when it comes, is always now – always in the present, pointing us forward, never looking backward.

Even Jesus’ closest disciples sometimes seemed much more intent on looking back than ahead. Hence, their preoccupation with the old quarrel with the Samaritans – a typical example of forgetting everything but one’s grudges. Of course, Jesus understood the power and pull of the past, its hold on us, the way it can constrain us. But he was free enough to live in the present, and he wanted his disciples to do the same.

Looking back to what was left behind risks turning one in upon oneself. Our self-absorbed society encourages that – with legions of therapists and counselors and advice columnists and life coaches and personal trainers and spiritual gurus for those who can afford them. But becoming a disciple is all about getting outside of oneself. Living in the present pushes us forward to the future – free for the fullest possible involvement in God’s great plan for the salvation of the world.

For freedom Christ set us free, said Saint Paul. We are being invited to live in a new kind of freedom, free to join ourselves to God’s great plan for the salvation of the world – free to reduce our emotional dependence on all those things that keep us stuck in ourselves, all those things that keep us so anxious and inhibit us from moving ahead. As Pope Francis has written, “the Lord is calling us to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference and the throw-away culture” ” [Message for 2019 Day of Migrants & Refugees].  The fact is, when it comes to what matters most, we can’t look back and move ahead at the same time. We have to choose between what holds us and frightens us here and now and the freedom to follow Jesus into the future.

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 30, 2019.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Great Debates (1b)

Whatever one thought of the previous night's performance, last night's second debate (or, more precisely, first debate, part two) was presumed in advance to be the more important because of the presence of more of the top-tier candidates (as rated by popular polls). Participating in this second round were former Vice President (and presumptive front-runner) Joe Biden, and his main (other than Elizabeth Warren) rivals in the polls - Bernie Sanders, Pete Bittigieg, and Kamala Harris - and another group of (so far) low-polling, minor candidates - Michael Bennet, Kristen Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.

A debate with 10 candidates is still a crazy format. As Rachel Maddow said afterwards, "we should never try it again."  There were too many over-the-time-limit answers and too many interruptions and talking over each other. There really needs to be a mechanism for the moderators to exercise more effective control.

That said, I suspect each of the 10 was satisfied in having accomplished what he or she set out to do.  

Last night's debate was noticeably different from the previous night's, however. The sense of urgency to defeat Trump was much more evident. Kamala Harris arguably had the best night. She began by challenging the standard motif of asking Democrats how they plan to pay for their programs and suggested that standard needs to be applied to tax-cutting Republicans. But her best moment was when she confronted Joe Biden on his history on race, especially his position (decades ago) on school busing, which she was able to personalize to great effect. If Biden is the front runner, then the challenge of the debate becomes to outperform the front runner. And she did that. She highlighted her prosecutorial skills, and one could clearly imagine her taking the case to Trump in a debate. 

Biden is not helped by his inability (not unlike Trump) ever to acknowledge that he made a mistake! Nor is he confident enough about his own record to say the obvious - that busing was an extremely unpopular policy in the 1970s and has generally been perceived as having failed in any case. Biden has to hope that (like Obama in 2012) doing poorly in the first debate does not doom him! The other septuagenarian, Bernie Sanders, seemed to hold up better, perhaps because he doesn't change. He says the same thing time after time, as shrilly as ever. He has his clear, consistent position, and he just keeps making his radical critique of a system rigged in favor of wealth inequality. 

One of the minor candidates, California Congressman Swalwell kept highlighting his "pass the torch" generational pitch. At first, that seemed mainly to be an attack on Biden. But then, when he took on Pete Buttigieg about the problem of police and race relations in South Bend, it seemed that he was challenging Buttigieg for the generational-change lane that is one of Buttgieg's strengths. (Swalwell's campaign is focused particularly on guns, and he was especially eloquent on that issue.)

Buttigieg's main strength in the debate was his calm. measured manner, a studied contrast both to the chaos swirling around him on the debate stage and to the chaos constantly created by President Trump. If voters are looking for a stylistic alternative to our bombastic business as usual, Buttigieg stands out. He also got to highlight his status as a veteran, which does not matter the way it once did, but may still be an asset (and certainly helped him in the gun debate). He was also the only candidate to mention religion, exposing in the process his party's self-imposed weakness with that constituency, while challenging Republicans' hypocrisy regarding religion. Republicans, he insisted, have lost all credibility to use religious language ever again.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a debate with more of the top tier candidates, the minor candidates seemed that much more minor. As governors do, former Governor Hickenlooper highlighted his executive experience and accomplishments, but seemed not to go anywhere. Andrew Yang distinguished himself mainly by not wearing a tie.  He spoke the least, which especially hurt him since his ideas, while interesting, are so different from the others that they need some real explaining. Marianne Williamson, whom I had never heard of before this election, made some interesting points - including at one point arguing for reparations, a distracting issue which no one picked up on.

As an old man myself, I am sensitive to the pitfalls of generational appeals. But Buttigieg does seem to be making the right kind of generational argument, which is that it is not about being old or young but about the distinctive challenges of this time, which will not be met by seeking to revert back to the politics of any previous period. Biden's weakness is less that he is old than that he may come across as wanting to return to the way we once were. But, as Buttigieg likes to point out, the pre-Trump "normal" wasn't working well for lots of Americans, which was why they were willing to bet on Trump in the first place.

The next debates will be July 30 and 31 in Detroit. Will the field remain static, or will it have changed appreciably by then?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Great Debates (1a)

We continued our quadrennial trajectory into the abyss of an American presidential campaign last night with the much awaited first of 12 Democratic Presidential Debates.  Having 10 candidates on stage together is itself kind of crazy and perhaps not the best way to produce a serious discussion (something our campaigns - and the way journalists cover them - are unlikely to do in any case). In fact, however, it was more of a discussion - and debate - that I had expected. All the candidates did get to be heard, and some really debated each other (e.g., Julilan Castro vs. Beto O'Rourke).

Elizabeth Warren was the presumed front-runner of the 10 and did not disappoint. She started strong and stuck with her campaign's emphasis on how the economy is working well for the few but nor for most. She seems to view everything through the prism of the need to reclaim politics and government from the influence of corporate greed, which is not a bad prism to use. She is especially effective, I think, at using that prism to explain why private health insurance is not such a great thing. She had less to say on immigration, where Julian Castro stood out above the others. In fact, if there was one candidate who probably raised his public profile significantly last night it was Castro, thanks to his impassioned and powerful performance. Fellow Texan Beto O'Rourke spoke more Spanish than Castro but otherwise seemed overly scripted and was generally outperformed by Castro and others. 

From the end of the line, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio interrupted and otherwise forced himself on the audience's attention. (There may be a good case for a rule against such interruptions and for making moderators crack down more forcefully on such behavior.) He made a coherent case why he thinks he should be seen as a serious presidential candidate. He made a good argument for why the terms of the immigration debate are wrong and need to be changed, and he intervened in the foreign policy segment to raise the ignored issue of Congress's responsibility to resume its rightful role in war-making. But I doubt he won any more points on likeability than he came in with, and that probably matters more in this kind of contest.

Tim Ryan made much of himself as a representative of communities that have been left behind and argued strongly about the Democratic party's "perception problem" as coastal, elitist, and not having much to offer to those left behind. But he tripped on foreign policy, where he was outshone by Tulsi Gabbard, who very effectively highlighted her military service and her strong emphasis on ending our endless wars. 

Easily dismissed as a one-issue candidate (although admittedly climate change may really be the most important issue in the long run), Jay Inslee showed that he can connect coherently and compellingly on other issues as well, and made a good case for the value of executive experience (unfortunately for him at a time when experience is, if anything, even more than usually devalued by voters).

Health care generated a lot of energy. If Warren compellingly made the case for "Medicare for All" and an end to private health insurance, Amy Klobuchar effectively made the case for a more moderate, step-by-step process, expanding Medicare to cover those without insurance while letting those with satisfactory insurance stay that way. 

I had never heard a word from John Delaney before. Like the other minor candidates, he made his case for himself well. He has no chance of advancing in the race, but, like DeBlasio, Ryan, Gabbard, and Inslee, he showed that the minor candidates may still have things to say that are worth hearing.

For what it is worth, Cory Booker spoke the most. Having been both a mayor and a senator, one might have expected him to be higher in  the polls than he is. His performance at the debate confirms that he is serious and forceful, but that probably won't dethrone Warren from the lead or block Castro from possibly overtaking him.

Like the infamous 1976 Ford-Carter debate, history may remember last night mainly for the microphone problem that halted the debate briefly near the mid-point.

All in all, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. The format is absurd, and moderators should be able simply to turn off the microphone when candidates go over their time. But the questions were mostly good, and the exchange gave a good insight into where the party is going. I was pleased that there were no silly "horse race" questions. and that the Mueller/impeachment issue, so dear to so many pundits, was left for last. Delaney rightly pointed out that issue's low salience among ordinary voters. Trump's potential legal problems are important, but not primarily as an issue in 2020. The country has much more immediately pressing problems to grapple with..

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A Cheer for Libraries

The public library was a saving godsend to me when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time there, reading and learning. The library was also someplace to go when there seemed to be no place else. It was a safe and comfortable world in the then and there, even as it opened my imagination to what was way beyond the then and there. 

I started out frequenting our local Francis Martin Branch, a half-mile walk north on University Avenue to West 181st Street. When I outgrew that, I would walk to the bigger Bainbridge Avenue branch. Later, when I lived downtown, I frequented the charmingly castle-like Jefferson Market Branch in Greenwich Village (a former courthouse), The Donnell Library on West 53rd Street, just off 5th Avenue, and finally the Mid-Manhattan Library on 5th Avenue at East 40th Street - at that time the circulating branch of the main library across 5th Avenue on 42nd Street, the iconic NY building (photo) with its famous lions, named Patience and Fortitude. 

So it was with interest - and a some joy - that I read the Atlantic article, "When Libraries are 'Second Responders'," based on James and Deborah Fallows travels across the country to see how local communities cope with our seemingly insurmountable national problems. Along their way, they reported on the emerging role of public libraries as what they call "second responders":

The article recites a series of examples of libraries serving as all-purpose community centers providing vital social services for often unserved or ill-served populations. "Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible." For those lacking other resources, these can include medical information, financial guidance, and even funeral planning. The article references a Pew Research Center poll, according to which "78% of people say libraries  help them to find information they can trust. " And, as always, "libraries make themselves appealing to schoolchildren of any age as a safe, warm place to do homework or just hang out when they can't or won't go home." It seems libraries are increasingly filling the social space once inhabited by churches - and a now retreating government.

So, a cheer - in fact, three cheers - for libraries!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Catholic Schools Past - and Future?

My (Grades 1-8) elementary School (photo), which first opened its doors on September 10, 1907 and from which I graduated 58 years ago today, closed its doors for the last time this month. In its last years, it was housed in the more modern facilities of the former parish high school, from which I also graduated, 54 years ago today, and which closed in 1991. (The original parish high school had opened in 1927, ten years after the elementary school, and moved into its new building in 1958. As a 10-year old, I attended its Dedication by Cardinal Spellman on November 9, 1958.)

The late Chicago Catholic sociologist, Father Andrew Greeley devoted a lot of his scholarly energy to making the case for Catholic schools. He famously worried whether a sufficient number of contemporary Church leaders were sufficiently appreciative of the long-term value of Catholic schools and sufficiently committed to keeping them open. Of course, even when Church leaders are very committed to Catholic schools, the obstacles to keeping them viable may sometimes seem overwhelming, and there may genuinely seem to be no other options left but to close. If, however, it is true, as is increasingly claimed, that the median age for leaving the Church is now around 13, the case of making a serious commitment to Catholic education, especially  at the elementary level, certainly seems unassailable.

Of course, back when I graduated elementary school, there were 1400 students in the parish school. (We were the "baby boom" generation, after all!) Tuition was $1. per month per family. Obviously our education cost more than that. Presumably it was heavily subsidized by the parish community, which was "all in" when it came to support for Catholic education. The cost of our education was also subsidized by the religious communities who taught in the schools, whose members were obviously not being paid for their services at what would be considered fair compensation rates by today's standards. And, while we got a good education, it was no-frills. We typically had 55+ students in a class, went home for lunch, had little or no science, etc.

None of that could be replicated today. Catholic schools today must meet all sorts of expensive educational standards and social and parental expectations and must pay teachers (who are now primarily lay people) a just wage. Such considerations may make maintaining a broadly accessible Catholic school system seem increasingly problematic today. 

Worst of all, it is far from obvious that the nationwide Catholic community is "all in" when it comes to support for Catholic education the way it was back then. Catholic schools may be the American Catholic Church's greatest success story for the sheer number of poor and immigrant, working-class students it educated and made into a successful and stable middle class. It is sadly less clear how successful it was in passing on all the community-wide commitment that motivated the original effort behind Catholic education in this country. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Joe Biden's Nostalgia Problem

What Barack Obama famously called the Democratic party's "circular firing squad" has been visibly at it again in the recent contretemps over front-runner Joe Biden's comments, reminiscing fondly about collaborating easily with the segregationist old-guard in the 1970s Senate Democratic caucus. If nothing else, this dispute highlights the increasing rift between the multitude of Democratic voters, who care more about issues like health care and immigrants's rights and defeating Trump and the (overwhelmingly white and well off) "woke" elite who seem so much more preoccupied with expressive politics than with either Democratic policy goals or effectively defeating Trump.

That said, however, Biden's nostalgic gaffe has highlighted a significant transformation at the core of contemporary politics that Biden's nostalgia for civility and bipartisanship ignores. In his June 19 New York Magazine, "The National Interest" column ("Joe Biden's Segregationist Nostalgia Is Even More Ignorant Than It Sounds"), Jonathan Chait illuminated this better than most of the commentary and punditry which has largely focused more on  agreeing or disagreeing with the "woke" elite's  attack on Biden. (To read Chait's full article, go to:,

Biden's comments, Chait contends, suggest "that he has not grasped any of the tectonic changes in American politics" since Biden's early political formation.(Since I am only five years younger than he, I too was formed politically in that same era, and much of what was formally taught about American politics in college and graduate school reflected that widespread consensus about American politics, even as early signs of its impending erosion were already visible.)

Chait's basic contention (backed-up by an easy-to-read graph) is that in the 20th century, "while the Republicans were moving right, and the Democrats were moving left, there was a long period in which the parties overlapped. During that time, bipartisanship was the norm. Biden came of political age during the period when polarization had reached its historic nadir." Any American of my age can well remember that partisan overlap and the bipartisanship which it facilitated. At the time political scientists and others prognosticated about the prospects of partisan realignment. For better or for worse (almost certainly for the worse), that realignment has since become a political fact. After a realignment process that took the greater part of the 20th century, the once more conservative Democrats have become the liberal party and the once more liberal Republicans have become the conservative party. And so we have arrived at a realigned political party system that resembles the 19th century more than the 20th. "Today's partisan division," Chait argues, "reflects the same elemental conflicts between Yankee socially progressive advocates of energetic central government and Southern 'strict constructionist' defenders of the existing social hierarchy  that divided the political system of the 19th century."

Moreover, from the New Deal until the 1990s, while the presidency oscillated back and forth between the two parties, Congress remained fairly consistently under Democratic control. As a political science professor in the late 1970s, I complacently assumed that state of affairs was permanent. Indeed, the Republicans seemed to be a permanent minority party in Congress - until Newt Gingrich changed that in the 1990s. But, once that changed, then with it went away any incentive for the minority party to be bipartisan. As Chait correctly notes, when the parties cooperate voters tend typically to reward the party in power. When the opposite happens, they typically reward the opposition. "To ask the opposing party to compromise with the majority party is to ask it to undermine its own political interest." 

It is this reality which Biden himself experienced in the massive Republican obstructionism during the Obama Administration, which he seems to be forgetting (or pretending to forget) in his 20th-century nostalgia for civility and bipartisanship. Perhaps, Chait suggests, Biden "shares the inability of many old people to surrender the lessons of their youth."

Whatever the explanation (and there may be better ones that stereotyping us older people), Biden is, I think, almost certainly wrong in thinking that there is any serious prospect for civility and bipartisanship - as long as the Republican party retains control (or any realistic prospect of control) of either house of Congress. And, given the inherent gerrymandering which is constitutionally mandated by the existence of the states and the US Senate to represent them, that is not likely to change any time soon.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

O Sacred Banquet!

When I was growing up (admittedly a long time ago), Sunday was a special day.  In my family, we all went to Mass, of course. But we did that separately, at different times throughout the morning. What we all did together as a family came after that, in the early afternoon - Sunday dinner, which was intended to be special in every way. Now that I am old and sadly distant from all that, I look back fairly fondly on those Sunday family dinners, for what they represented - or at least what I nostalgically want them to represent.

Corpus Christi celebrates a very different sort of Sunday meal, every bit as important, indeed so much more so, since it takes us beyond the narrow, exclusive bonds of family, creating a new and more completely inclusive community where we all eat and are satisfied.
But, of course, we are not all satisfied, certainly not all of us all the time, which is one reason we need to come back, again and again, week after week. After all, even those miraculously fed on that faraway Gospel lake shore were only satisfied for at best a little while, before they got hungry again. Saint Paul’s account of what Jesus did at that Last Supper, the oldest written recollection of that most famous meal in all of human history, says nothing about being satisfied. Rather it looks back to the past , commanding us to eat and drink in ritual remembrance of Jesus’ death, and looks ahead to the future, proclaiming Jesus’ death until he comes again, which is, of course, what we do every time we come to Mass and celebrate the Eucharist.

Established in 1264, this feast of Corpus Christi highlights the Church’s devotion to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. According to tradition, two 13th-century contemporaries, the Dominican Friar St. Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Friar St. Bonaventure, began composing texts for the feast. But, when Bonaventure visited Thomas and read the antiphon Thomas had composed for today’s Evening Prayer, he threw his own manuscript into the fire.

Thus it is the words of Saint Thomas that summarize what we celebrate today – and every day – in the Eucharistic sacrifice: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is consumed, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given us.”

The custom most associated with Corpus Christi is the procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance - if possible outside through the local streets with great solemnity and communal festivity, as a public witness of the Church’s belief in and devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Recent popes have revived the custom at the papal level, celebrating Mass at Rome’s Cathedral, the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran, and then going from there in procession with the Blessed Sacrament up the Esquiline Hill to the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the procession concludes with Benediction outdoors.

In 1984, I got to attend a particularly impressive Corpus Christi procession in Montreal, Quebec, where we followed the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets of the Old City to the historic basilica of Notre Dame. But perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving, outdoor eucharistic procession I’ve ever attended was not on Corpus Christi but the one that takes place every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under a tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried at the end of a procession of sick pilgrims and their caregivers to the massive underground basilica. Empty, the basilica (the only structure large enough to contain the vast number of pilgrims present on any given day) resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediction, however, the effect is awesome – awesome in the sense the Patriarch Jacob used the word in Genesis: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God [Genesis 28:17]. It is no accident that verse is traditionally used in the Mass for the Consecration a church.

We build and maintain churches to be “awesome,” so that “awesome” things can happen there - so that the community of faithful we call the Church (with a capital “C”), can assemble to pray, to hear God’s word, and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist in which Christ is present in a unique way in his Body and Blood. Prefigured by the bread and wine offered by the priest and king Melchizedek [Genesis 14:18-20], the Eucharist was established as a sacrament by Christ at the Last Supper [1 Corinthians 11:23-26], and now is celebrated daily on our altar and  permanently reserved for adoration in the Tabernacle. Today’s celebration is meant to highlight all of that, all the while inviting us to a deeper devotion to and recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is that Real Presence which is so vividly celebrated in the traditional Corpus Christi procession, in which the Church ritually acts out the reality of Christ coming into our world, walking our streets, so to speak.

In the Eucharist – and in the life we share together as Christ’s Church united by and through the Eucharist we celebrate – Christ comes among us. And he remains with us, blessing the streets we and he walk together, nourishing our ordinary and sometimes somewhat messed up lives with the real, flesh-and-blood presence of God himself, who invites us to eat again and again until we have more than enough.

Homily for Corpus Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 23, 2019.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Our Overheated World and Caring for Our Common Home

Summer starts today. More precisely, summer will start here in Knoxville, TN, at 11:54 a.m. The summer solstice makes this the longest day of the year. Here in Knoxville, there will be 4 hours and 53 minutes more daylight than on the Winter solstice in December.

The arrival of summer is certainly welcomed by many. I have never been one of them. For me, summer has always been the least attractive season, perhaps because I grew up in a humid coastal city before air-conditioning was common in homes. Probably the summers I most enjoyed were when I was in less humid places - like my summer studying in Guadalajara in 1988 and my summer studying in Jerusalem in 1993 and my sabbatical summer in the United Kingdom in 2005. 

Now I live in en even hotter and very humid place, where thankfully everything is air-conditioned and I spend as little time as possible outdoors. It is one of the ironies of our crazy contemporary culture that summer and places with longer summers have become increasingly popular, precisely as a consequence of air-conditioning, the whole point of which is to make it not feel like summer. That is at best bizarre, but more importantly is itself another contributor to our changing climate. If nothing else, summer's annually increasing heat from Alaska to Texas and the storms and other threats that brings ought to prompt increased attention to the challenge of our changing climate

Speaking of our changing climate, the Bishops of California - a state that has long been on the cutting edge of cultural change and social development, and which because of its unique geography is very obviously suffering from immediate effects of climate change - have just recently issued a Pastoral God Calls Us All to Care for Our Common Home. Its title is an obvious reference to Pope Francis' great encyclical Laudato Si', issued four years ago.

While, of course, California has its own distinct geography and history, it has constantly led the way for the rest of the country in so many ways - both for better and for worse, So, I think we may fittingly see this Pastoral as a model for our entire country to consider - and for our individual states and particular local communities, all of which will have to deal with some, if not all, of California's climate issues.

Notably the Pastoral proceeds on a positive note, highlighting the blessings and benefits generations of Americans have historically found in California's rich natural beauty. Accordingly, it invites us "to reflect together on ways we can more faithfully and effectively care for creation as a hymn of thanksgiving for our common home." At the same time, the Pastoral also acknowledges how historically "many have exploited California's riches for personal gain, creating injustices that have degraded the environment and harmed its residents, especially the indigenous and the poor." This emphasis on the effects of our degraded environment on the poor reflects Laudato Si' and points the way to "a Catholic perspective on environmentalism," which "is expressed by concern for creatures and land, but also for where people live, work, play, and pray" and recognizes the impact of land-use decisions' "crucial role in environmental justice - the integration of social justice and environmental protection - and in public health."

As a Pastoral produced by a Bishops' Conference ought above all to be, this is a deeply Catholic document. As such it recalls basic Catholic notions - for example, the importance of the classical virtue of prudence. "In the Catholic tradition, prudence is the practice of moral wisdom to take political action in light of anticipated events, especially those indicated by reason and science." "Prudent climate adaptation requires the balancing of multiple social goals, even while conditions are changing."

It is also a profoundly political document, in the proper sense of "political," in that it focuses us on the common good and challenges us to common, shared action. "Wile individual actions are helpful, shared action for the common good is morally required of us."

Thanks to the polarization that has increasingly infected Churches no less than society and the widespread contemporary scandal of unholy alliances between religion and reactionary politics, the road from aspiration to action is increasingly a challenging one - both within religious communities and institutions and, a fortiori, at the properly political level. Many things have gone wrong in America but surely one of the most consequential has been the widespread loss of faith in the primacy of political action, i.e., shared action for the common good. I am reminded of something the late Tony Judt said in an exchange with his son, which appeared in The New York Times in June 2010:

"I don't think the challenge is to convince Americans about pollution or even climate change. Nor is it just a matter of getting them to make sacrifices for the future. The challenge is to convince them once again of how much they could do if they came together.

(Photo: June from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is widely considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

Monday, June 17, 2019

Going, Going, Gone!

During their 3-day meeting in Baltimore, the Bishops of the United States listened to a presentation by Bishop Robert Barron (LA Auxiliary, Chair of the USCCB's Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, and best known for his "Word on Fire"). Barron spoke about young people leaving the Church and what might possibly be done about it. According to Barron, "Half the kids that we baptized and confirmed in the last 30 years are now ex-Catholics or unaffiliated."  He repeated the now familiar statistic that, for everyone who joins the Church, six (or more precisely 6.45) leave, and that the median age for leaving is now 13. Most leave, studies suggest, because they simply do not believe what the Church teaches and have just drifted off.  Most, he claimed, are more ambivalent about religion than hostile.

Barron is a controversial figure, and he considerably complicated his case by referencing an even more controversial figure, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Putting all that aside, however, the subject is certainly one of the most important issues facing the contemporary Church in the United States, whether or not Barron (an anyone else) can identify an alternative path for adequately addressing it.

This issue is especially important and pressing because our contemporary context is so different from the way things used to be. Undoubtedly, there were always Catholics who were indifferent (or even hostile) to the Church, but that was in a society in which Church membership was presumed and a certain minimal conformity was widely expected. On  the one hand, this may have masked real alienation that ought to have been better attended to. On the other, however, it posed fewer obstacles to the Church's mission in the present and to passing on the faith to each subsequent generation. "A culture that takes its life from a religion is no doubt better than one that does not," Thomas Merton noted in 1941. But then, Merton continued, "the distinction often becomes lost between the kind of acts that belong to the religious life and the kinds of activities that are entirely customary and traditional and totally human in their significance" (Journals, October 18, 1941)

In any event, we no longer have the luxury of living in such a culture. All that has changed, and the greatest mistake is to continue acting as if little or nothing has changed. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's observation: "We live in a world whose main feature is change, a world in which change itself has become a matter of course to such an extent that we are in danger of forgetting that which has changed altogether." (Cf. "Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political thought," in Thinking Without a Bannister: Essays in Understanding 195301975," ed. Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2018).

One important change is that our contemporary situation makes more demands on people's comprehension of their faith and the Church's teachings than was the case in the past, since our culture constantly exposes us to alternative perspectives, and increasingly those alternatives are attractively and intelligently presented. Being better equipped to give a coherent account of one's faith when challenged (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) will always be important, and the inability to do so may leave too many of us too easily susceptible to attractive alternative perspectives, whether of science, or of history, or of the human condition in general. (At the same time, we need to be wary of one-sided, triumphalist approaches to our story which ignore or minimize our historical mistakes and present failings.)

This reality runs up against the unfortunate fact that in our current context more and more of us may approach Church the way we in this society tend to approach most things - as consumers. It must, after all, be acknowledged that one reason alternative views may be so attractive is that they can reinforce the consumerist impulse to create one's own identity, an identity that is coherent with one's desires rather than challenging of them. In fact, however, we will find little affirmation for our consumerist culture in the embracingly inclusive but morally challenging message of Jesus as presented in the New Testament.

As with most serious social problems, there are no easy or obvious answers either to what is to blame or to what should be done. Before being able to offer adequate answers, maybe more self-reflection and self-examination may be required. And what are some of the spiritual and social resources in our Catholic tradition which we can call upon to meet our needs today?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday is now the only occasion (unless one celebrates a Votive Mass of the Holy Trinity) for which the Preface of the Holy Trinity is prescribed. Not that long ago, of course, that preface was prescribed for more than half the Sundays of the year - the "Ordinary" Sundays (or, as they then were, the Sundays after Epiphany and after Pentecost). Pope Clement XIII so prescribed in 1759, although I suspect the tradition of celebrating Sunday as the day most especially associated with the external operations of the Trinity (the day of creation, the day of the resurrection, the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit) must have been much older, going back at least to the medieval origins of today's feast if not before.

I heard the Preface of the Holy Trinity so many times on so many Sundays growing up that I think I could still chant it in Latin - the only Latin preface I might make such a claim for! Serving so many funerals as an altar boy, I must have heard the Preface for the Dead almost as often, but somehow it never stuck the way the Sunday Preface did. It is a beautiful text which, when properly chanted, highlights the wonderful way the words are paired in praise of the Trinity. I tried to find a recording. Although the sound is not the greatest and it is, of course, in black-and-white, I did find this wonderful old video from a Sunday Mass at Ushaw College, Durham, in 1960 - (The  Preface begins at about 48:00.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The New Paganism

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything. This oft-repeated sentence is usually ascribed to G.K. Chesterton. Whoever first said it, modern history has seemed fairly hell-bent on confirming it. Hence the appeal of all-encompassing 20th-century political ideologies. Hence too the revival of various forms of paganism, from astrology to witchcraft, in our contemporary religious marketplace. And one can be fairly certain that these trends have acquired mainstream salience when David Brooks decides to devote his NY Times column to them! (See "The Age of Aquarius, A;; Over Again!, The NY Times, June 10, 2019).

Brooks, of course, draws on significant research that has been produced in recent years - including a 2018 Pew poll, which revealed that 29% of Americans may believe in astrology (as opposed to the mere 22% who identify as mainline Protestants), and a National Science Foundation survey, which suggested that 44% of 18-24 year olds see astrology as somewhat or very "scientific." Of course, anyone familiar with, say, Saint Augustine's writings will know that astrology has been a powerful competitor and challenge to Christianity for a very long time!

Of particular interest is an essay by Tara Burton in The American Interest ("The Great Awokening: The Power of Progressive Occultism"). Burton sees "Progressive occultism" as "the de facto religion of millennial progressives: the metaphysical symbol set threaded through the worldly ethos of modern social justice activism," whose "rise parallels the rise of the religious 'nones,' and with them a model of spiritual and religious practice that's at once intuitional and atomized." She sees "contemporary 'witch culture'," as "the cosmic counterbalance to Trumpian evangelicalism. It's at once progressive and transgressive, using the language of the chaotic, the spiritually dangerous, and (at times) the diabolical to chip at the edifices of what it sees as a white, patriarchal Christianity that had become a de facto state religion."

All of this leaves me with several reactions.

1. Obviously, all of this was already happening before the 2016 election. As with so much else, however, the rise of Trump may have exacerbated these problematic societal trends, but he has not caused them and his inevitable exit will not resolve them. We need to re-learn how to address fundamental civilizational problems without primary reference to President Trump.

2. "White, patriarchal Christianity" may well see itself as "a de facto state religion," thanks to its decades-long, ill-advised alliance with the Republican party. In fact, however, it is at least as accurate - and in the long term probably more so - to see the Trump phenomenon as the successful rise of a post-religious, populist conservatism, which will be no more committed to traditional religious and moral commitments than "progressive occultism." 

3. Burton's key observation, I think, is how this "model of religious practice" is simultaneously "intuitional and atomized." Religions rarely succeed without requiring serious structural and behavioral commitments. Successful religions make demands that, to some extent, subordinate one's individualism to some higher loyalty. How sustainable in the long term are purportedly religious practices that exist primarily as an expression of their adherents' alienation from organized religion, without creating an alternatively structured community with values higher than simply individual autonomy?

4. For traditional forms of Christianity, the ancient competition with paganism is relevant once more, although this time it is Christianity that seems to be in decline and paganism that seems to ascendant. In addition to dusting off the traditional apologetic against astrology, etc., it is necessary to engage in a more radical self-examination about why and how traditional forms of Christianity have become so widely alienating to so many and in this way. 

5. In particular, the decades-long unholy alliance between some forms of traditional Christianity and the Republican party needs to be confronted and the corrupting effect it has had on traditional religion fully acknowledged.

6. The good news, such as it is, is that, as Brooks observes "secularism never really comes. Humans are transcendent creatures who have spiritual experiences and instinctively appeal to supernatural powers. Even in the most secular parts of society, there is great and unfulfilled spiritual yearning." Drawing on "re-enchantment" theory, Burton notes how those "alienated from a Christianity" increasingly seen "as repressive, outmoded, and downright abusive," have "used the language, the imagery, and the rituals of modern occultism to re-enchant its seeming secularism." While challenging those so situated to re-engage with a God greater than themselves and their chimerical autonomy, traditional religions need to appreciate this re-enchantment and appropriately repent their collaboration in the modern world's self-imposed disenchantment. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Family Is Everything

"Family is everything," observes William Shakespeare (played by Kenneth Branagh) after the wedding of his daughter in the film about Shakespeare's All is True (directed by Branagh). The film apparently takes its name from an alternative title for the play Henry VIII, the last play performed at the Globe Theater, the day it burned down in 1613. The film follows Shakespeare from then through his final few years until his death in 1616, years spent back home in Stratford with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judy Dench), his daughters, and their husbands. How historical all this is, I do not know. He did have two daughters in problematic, if not scandalous marriages, and he had lost his 11-year old only son in 1596. These facts set the stage for the drama of family - and family dysfunction - that unfolds in the film.

True to history or not, All Is True revolves in large part around Shakespeare's unresolved grief for his dead son, his only male heir, whom he had imagined to be talented like him, and his gradual coming to terms with the truth about his son's life and death. It is also a parable about an upwardly mobile genius's preoccupation - to the point of obsession - with his family's legacy, even having purchased for himself a coat of arms. In the process, it offers insight into the complex gender dynamics of early 17th-century English family relationships, as well as the growing conflict caused by the Puritans within the English Church (a division which will matter much more later in the century).

Shakespeare was a poetic and dramatic genius and is recognized as such in the film, which for the most part avoids controversial questions about, for example, the authorship of particular works and (apart form one brief allusion by the Earl of Southampton) Shakespeare's religion. It does acknowledge his apparent love for the Earl (played by Ian McKellen). He was the presumed addressee of his most famous sonnet (Sonnet 29, When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes), a love which could not be completely reciprocated because of the class distinction between them, a boundary which did not, however, prevent the noble Earl from appreciating him as the great man that he was.

Greatness can be a burden. The film highlights the burden his greatness (and having to cater to his greatness) has imposed on his family. But it also highlights the blessing of having a family to come home to, even when one has so little still in common with them.

Sunday, June 9, 2019


In his homily at the Paulist Fathers' ordination Mass three weeks ago, New York’s Archbishop, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, spoke of our Paulist founder’s devotion to God the Holy Spirit, whose presence, activity, and power permeate the whole life of the Church, the birthday of which we celebrate today. “I hope for a new Pentecost in the Church by directing her children to the interior direction of the Holy Spirit, “Isaac Hecker wrote at the time of the First Vatican Council. Almost a century later, in preparation for the Second Vatican Council, Pope Saint John XXIII prayed God to “Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost.”

Until modern times, Pentecost was observed very grandly as one of the greatest festivals of the Church’s calendar, on a par with Easter. It had an octave equal to Easter’s and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete with a blessing of baptismal water like at Easter). At one time, Kings and Queens were expected to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of that now in Europe is a 3-day holiday weekend. And here in the U.S. we don’t even have that!

“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the “week” of seven weeks that began with Passover. It originated as a kind of thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest. It was to celebrate this festival that devout Jews from every nation under heaven came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar Pentecost story we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles.

By then, Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments, which (according to Exodus) had happened just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt.  Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the covenant at Mount Sinai fulfilled the promise of Israelite nationhood of which the exodus had been but the beginning.
Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fearful followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses empowered to transform the whole world.

In our current calendar, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of Christ’s resurrection should be reflected in our ordinary lives. As his Church, we worship the Risen Lord, now ascended to heaven and seated at his Father’s right hand. Meanwhile, as his Church here on earth, we continue Christ’s work in the world.

And there remains much work to be done.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit symbolically repaired the division of the human race, when strangers from every nation heard the apostles speaking in their own tongue.  Even so, still today, as Pope Francis has recently reminded us, “fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other,” someone different from ourselves, and so deprives us “of an opportunity to encounter the Lord” [Homily, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, January 14, 2018]. Instead, the mission of the Church, which was born on Pentecost, calls us all “to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference and the throw-away culture” [Message for the 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees].

We will be empowered to do this by the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church. Years ago, when most of us were preparing for Confirmation, we memorized the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. We call them the gifts of the Holy Spirit, because we don’t produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and to enable us to live in a new way. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience of the Holy Spirit active in our lives are what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We memorized them too - charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.

As a young man growing up in the Jacksonian era, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers gravitated first to politics as the obvious vehicle for the renewal of society. By his mid-20s, however, Hecker had become a Catholic and now envisioned the renewal of society in religious terms - in terms of openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the effects of the Holy Spirit’s gifts in all aspects of life. “The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age, and the source of all true progress,” Hecker confidently claimed, “consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul.” [The Church and the Age].

That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives. Pentecost ritualizes annually what happens weekly with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, filled with the Holy Spirit, to renew the face of the earth as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 9, 2019.