Monday, January 27, 2020

Caucusing in Iowa

I have only been to Iowa once. About 15 or so years ago, I spent several days in Davenport, one of the "Quad Cities" on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River opposite Illinois. Needless to say, however, I have never personally experienced the famous Iowa Caucus, which, since the 1970s, has functioned as the de facto beginning of the presidential primary voting process. Of course, the caucus system is far from flawless. It is obviously less representative than a primary. To which may be added the commonly expressed criticism that Iowa is itself a somewhat unrepresentative state. That said, while I have never participated in an Iowa Caucus,  I would surely have liked to! 

Whatever its faults, the caucus (now just one week away) is an illustrative example of citizen participatory politics. People actually have to show up and listen to one another! (Obviously the caucus system dates back to a time - not that long ago - when conversation was more common, not having yet been destroyed by the ubiquitous cell phone.)

The caucus is sometimes described as "a gathering of neighbors." Iowans gather at a designated location in their local precinct - a school, some other public building (e.g. a library), a church, or even a private home. Caucus goers indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area; and, for some 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidate. Then the supporters for each candidate are counted. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of a designated percentage of participants. So, after this, supporters of non-viable candidates have another 30 minutes to choose another candidate to support. Then a final count is taken, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers the ones reported to the media, which then draws its customarily weighty conclusions from them. 
There are two things that I think are particularly wonderful about these caucuses and that i wish were replicated elsewhere. The first is the level of direct personal participation, which involves not just voting but persuading others and/or being persuaded by others.The second is that (unlike most American voting processes) a voter's second choice may matter and may end up being decisive - an altogether more reasonable way than our usual "first-past-the-post" voting methods.
Like all forms of direct democracy, the caucus calls for a degree of personal participatory commitment in excess of what our typical primary and general elections require, as a well as a disposition toward politics as deliberation and debate in which one participates, as opposed to politics as entertainment which one consumes. Such caucuses may never catch on  more widely and will likely forever remain unrepresentative of the wider electorate. But (along with the personal, "retail politics" campaigning they inspire) they are a valuable and distinctive component of our overall election experience, the loss of which would impoverish the process even further - even more than it has already been impoverished.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Sunday of the Word of God

For centuries in the Roman Rite, liturgical feasts of double rank or higher routinely took precedence over the Office and Mass of an occurring ordinary Sunday, so much so that in some places green vestments seldom ever even made an appearance. The 20th-century liturgical movement reprobated this practice; and, beginning with Pope Saint Pius X's reforms, the celebration of a feast in preference to an occurring Sunday was gradually reduced to the relatively few such occasions in the current calendar. So now thematic Sundays, superimposed on the liturgical formularies of the Sunday without actually altering them, have become increasingly common. For example, the Sunday unofficially called "Good Shepherd Sunday" has for over half a century now been the "World Day of Prayer for Vocations."

Now, by the Motu Proprio Aperuit illis, issued last September on the feast of Saint Jerome, Pope Francis has designated the 3rd Sunday per annum (this year, January 26) as "The Sunday of the Word of God." (This year marks the 1600th anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome, the ascetic Scripture scholar who translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate and is one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church.) Aperuit Illis  takes its name from the Gospel quote with which it begins, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45).Its immediate practical object was the establishment of "The Sunday of the Word of God," to highlight the centrality of the Sacred Scriptures to our Christian identity - specifically the three-fold relationship among "the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred scripture." This observance, the Pope suggests, will also "be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity." The Pope proposes that on that Sunday the proclamation of the Word be highlighted, the honor due to it be emphasized, and "that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God's word." 

"Devoting a specific Sunday of the liturgical year to the word of God," the Pope claims, "can enable the Church to experience anew how the risen Lord opens up for us the treasury of his word and enables us to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world." This newest papal initiative seems especially timely. The Bible, the Pope points out "belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words." It "is the book of the Lord's people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity."

In The Church and the Age (1887), Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the Founder of the Paulist Fathers, wrote: “The reading of the Bible is the most salutary of all reading. We say to Catholic readers, read the Bible! Read it with prayer, that you may be enlightened by the light of the Holy Spirit to understand what you read. Read it with gratitude to God’s Church, which has preserved it and placed it in your hands to be read and to be followed.”

Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Trial

As Alexis De Tocqueville famously observed in his 19th-century classic Democracy in America, "There is hardly any political question in the United States that sooner or later does not turn into a judicial question." That American peculiarity is now very much on display in the ongoing impeachment trial of the president. That strangely solemn and stately proceeding is now at last underway, and it already has warranted comments about how exhausting it is - a commentary on contemporary attention-spans as much as on the absurd schedule adopted by the Majority Leader and his party. 

The House Managers, led by the eminent Adam Schiff, are providing the country with an eloquent exposition of presidential corruption. The contrast between the Managers' performance thus far and the comparatively unserious performance of the President's lawyers' speaks volumes - even while highlighting the fundamental disorder at the heart of our contemporary political malaise, of which this trial is neither a cause nor a solution. 

As Gail Collins observed in The New York Times“Schiff elevated the saga with a lot of American history. He mentioned the founding fathers 28 times in the first 15 minutes. … For much of our modern history Republicans have tended to be the ones continually quoting the founding fathers, usually in regard to the dangers of an over-powerful federal government. Now the tables have turned.”

Meanwhile, each side seems especially preoccupied with complaining about the process. Process is important. Proper procedures are essential to good order, civility, fairness, and democratic governance. But debates about process should support the stage not dominate it. The seemingly endless argument about hearing witnesses and access to documents is especially attractive to both politicians and the media commentariat, because it is so understandable and so obviously touches on the fairness of the proceeding. The result, however, as, Osita Nwanevu noted in The New Republic, "The trial, so far, is largely about the trial itself."

Of course, inasmuch as the trial is not really about removing the president from office (an outcome no one seriously expects as an even remote possibility), there is a sense in which this trial is inevitably about the trial - or rather about what the trial reveals (or, at least, confirms).

Obviously the president is on trial - only the third president in history to experience this indignity. So what the trial reveals (or confirms) about presidential corruption is important - if not for the intended purpose of an impeachment trial, then for the judgment of the voters later this year and, maybe more importantly, for the judgment of history.

However it is not the president alone who is on trial. It is the 21st-century United States, what we have become as a society and whether we still have a capacity for constitutional self-government, that is on trial at least as much - and ultimately more importantly.


Monday, January 20, 2020

The NY Times Endorses

With the Iowa Caucus now just two weeks away, The New York Times' editorial board has announced its endorsement, and in a break with convention has endorsed two competing candidates. According to its endorsement, the editorial board argues that there are at present "three sharply divergent visions of the future" for voters to choose from. 

On one side is President Trump's "white nativism at home and America First unilateralism abroad, brazen corruption, escalating culture wars, a judiciary stacked with ideologues and the veneration of a mythological past where the hierarchy in American society was defined and unchallenged."

On the other side, however, there are two competing opposition visions, that "differ most significantly" not in "the what but the how, in whether they believe the country's  institutions and norms are up to the challenge of the moment." . Hence the Times' somewhat surprising decision to endorse one representative of each - "the most effective advocates for each approach" - Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

The Times deems both what it calls the "radical" and the "realist" models worthy of serious consideration. "If there were ever a time to be open to new ideas, it is now. If there were ever a time to seek stability, now is it."

I think the Times gets it right that there are two different visions currently competing to repeal and replace Trump. The problem is, of course, that we know that already, and part of the Democrats' (and the country's) problem is discerning which would be more effective. By endorsing one from each, the Times probably has not helped the debate move beyond that recognition to make the necessary choice. This is the current conundrum, which one suspects Iowa caucus-goers will still be struggling with right up to the last minute.

The Times endorsements appear problematic also because of whom they chose to represent each faction. The Times recognizes the pivotal part played by Bernie Sanders in articulating the radical case and how effectively that case matches the present moment, even while expressing concerns about "rigidity and overreach."  The Times rightly recognizes Sanders' uncompromising rigidity and sees "little advantage to exchanging one over-promising divisive figure  in Washington for another." Almost by default, therefore, the endorsement falls to Warren, Sanders' only serious competitor in the radical lane. 

Fair enough, but the case for Warren as the party's nominee and possible next president is much harder to make than the case for Warren as the more desirable "standard-bearer for the Democratic left." 

Turning to the party's more moderate candidates, there have obviously been many more candidates to choose from, many of whom have failed to ignite interest on the part of this year's potential voters.. A few have, but the Times seems surprisingly dismissive, for example, of Pete Buttigieg, whose youth and performance so far warrant from the Times a condescending "look forward to him working his way up." Andrew Yang is a less plausible candidate than Mayor Pete, but he still deserves better than the "hope he decides to get involved in New York politics." The treatment of Michael Bloomberg (whom the Times twice endorsed for NY Mayor) is more even-handed, if dismissive in the end. More problematic is the dismissal of Joe Biden, who is, after all, still the closest candidate (prior to any actual voting) to an apparent front-runner. Biden's age is a legitimate concern, but like Mayor Pete's position at the other end of the age spectrum, the Times seems to make more of it than necessary. More to the point is the observation that "merely restoring the status quo will not get America where it needs to go as a society," which is, I suspect, Biden's greatest weakness - but more as a possible president, than as a candidate.

All of which leads the Times to settle on Amy Klobuchar. My impression is that she has been under-appreciated by those polled thus far and probably deserves more consideration from the real voters when they start voting. The fact remains, however, that she has so far failed to move her candidacy forward. Iowa may change that, of course. But, if not, it is hard to see her unseating Joe Biden as the spokesman for the more electable wing of the party.

The dilemma - two weeks before Iowa and perhaps continuing all the way to Milwaukee - is that a Bidenesque "return to normalcy" is too limited a response to the crisis that caused Trump to be elected in the first place, but that the those who most vocally articulate the need for something more radical than a mere "return to normalcy" may be more flawed - both as possible presidents and as candidates - than their supporters are willing to recognize. If Biden had not insisted on running, the more moderate, electable lane might have been clearer and those competing in that lane might have been able to make more of an impression.  But that is not the way this contentious campaign has played out. 

Again Iowa could surprise us. Iowa could really shake things up. But, if not, then the actual options for Democratic primary voters will appear all that much more limited and The Times' set of endorsements less helpful than  hoped.

Saturday, January 18, 2020


In modern monarchies, the principal expectation of princes and princesses, it has been said, is that they look good and behave well. The latter can be a challenge - especially since it is a life-long expectation which, under modern conditions, must be lived out under intense media scrutiny and without the supportive social consensus which behaving well once enjoyed. 

The older system, in which a Royal Highness was expected (virtually required) to marry another Royal Highness (or, more daringly, at least a Serene Highness) had the obvious advantage that royal spouses knew from the start what was expected of them and so were as prepared as one could be expected to be to fulfill those expectations. That system is effectively gone; and princes and princesses are now expected to make more modern, more romantic marriages with all sorts of otherwise non-royal persons (provided, of course, the government gives its consent). 

In the case of Britain's House of Windsor, the late Queen Mother Elizabeth was a non-royal person who proved to be a great asset to the family and (after unexpectedly becoming Queen) to her country. Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, made a more conventional marriage to a royal prince to whom she was already related. After her, however, British royal marriages have followed the modern taste, with manifestly mixed results. Fortunately, the next two Queens-in-waiting - Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge - seem to have gotten the role right. Others, however, have been less successful, as recent history has highlighted. 

Like Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and Sara, the Duchess of York (to cite the most obvious recent examples), Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, at least initially endeared herself to the public and the press. But, as these and other examples sadly illustrate, behaving well is a lifelong challenge which not everyone is always up to, especially given the capriciousness of contemporary media scrutiny, which is as eager to cast down and destroy those it initially lifts up and inflates. 

There are two intertwined tragedies in this sad story. The first is personal. It is hard (not impossible but increasingly difficult) for a modern person, socialized in expectations of personal autonomy, to embrace and adapt to a vocation of lifelong duty to one's country (or any other comparably higher value). Everyone needs some space to be him/herself - the very thing that our intrusive modern media (and the celebrity culture it has created) make so problematic. 

The public tragedy, however, is that the very thing that our contemporary culture makes so difficult has never been more needed. Not that long ago, those who embraced a vocation of dutiful service and commitment were doing something that the rest of society still understood and somewhat respected. Now, however, the total descent of our society into a slough of individual autonomy, personal self-realization, and moral libertarianism has made such old-fashioned notions as duty, service, and commitment increasingly incomprehensible. Yet, of course, it is, if anything, precisely that regrettable reality which makes the contrary vocational witness so necessary. Never have the witness of duty, service, and commitment been more needed than now when almost everything about our society and the values our society promotes have become contrary to that witness and in need of correction by it.

Friday, January 17, 2020

1917 (The Movie)

Back when there used to be just five Oscar nominees for Best Picture, I sometimes tried to make sure I had seen all five of them before the night of the awards. With more nominees nowadays, that is harder to do. And there are certainly some nominated films that I simply have no interest in seeing. So far I have seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The irishman, Little Women, and now 1917. All four are excellent and deserving of an Oscar. As for the rest, other than perhaps Marriage Story, I simply have little or no interest in seeing them. So I guess I probably won't, which is fine.

I did, however, finally get to see Sam Mendes' fantastic World War I film, 1917. One might have thought we had become surfeited as a society with World War I after its recent four-year centennial, not to mention the long legacy of almost a century of World War I movies. Perhaps World War I was just so horrible an experience and so determinative for all that would happen in the century that has followed that we can never really get enough of it. 

Directed, and produced by Sam Mendes the film is based in part on Mendes' grandfather's story and recounts the mission of two British corporals sent to deliver a message, warnign of a potential ambush after an apparent German retreat. 

It is obviously "the Great War." It is obviously set in France. The Germans are obviously the enemies, etc. But beyond that, the film virtually ignores the geopolitical dimension of the war.  It concentrates entirely on the war's human participants - primarily the two British corporals sent out on a special (and especially dangerous) mission, and others encountered along the way (other British soldiers, the occasional enemy soldier, a French civilian). 

It portrays the devastation wrought upon the French countryside by the war and the devastation of all the participants' lives, and it dramatically captures the sheer terror and unpredictability of war.

From the viewpoint of the collectivity, the nation, a war may be a great success or it may be a disaster. Looked at in individual terms, however, it is always tragic, and it is the individual experience of war's tragedy that is highlighted in this film - along with many individual acts of ordinary and extraordinary heroism, sacrifice, and human kindness along the way

Thursday, January 16, 2020

On to the Senate

All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment, while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against Donald John Trump, president of the United States. Last evening, the newly appointed seven House Managers walked the Articles of Impeachment across the U.S. Capitol to the Senate Chamber. They were then invited to return at noon today for the above-mentioned ritual reading of the Articles, after which the Chief Justice will be escorted into the Chamber to take his Oath and then to swear-in the Senators as prescribed by the Constitution in Article 1, section 3.

It was mildly edifying to watch what, in my world, we might call a procession, as the Articles of Impeachment were silently carried across the Capitol. When they arrived at the destination, it was nice to see communication taking place in a human manner, not by cellphone, text message, email, or tweet! It was Congress visually expressing its institutional constitutional primacy in a rare ritual, which in the case of a president has been carried out only twice before in our history.

Now none of this formality and ritualized behavior is likely to alter the anticipated outcome. But it may perhaps serve as a reminder of things that are more substantial, more important, more expressive of value than the tribal screaming which in recent decades has increasingly replaced real politics - tribal screaming, of which the target of today's impeachment rituals has shown himself such an effective practitioner and exploiter. Perhaps the best to be hoped for from this process will be a dramatic ritual reminder of the aspirations enshrined in our fragile constitutional arrangements and a renewed interest, on the part of at least some, in valuing and repairing those fragile arrangements and the society they are intended to serve and may yet protect from the triumph of tribal screaming.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Responding to Trumpian Pseudo-Isolationism

Isolationism - a go-it-alone and/or stay-out-of-it attitude toward the rest of the world - has always plagued American politics. Pearl Harbor and the inevitability of World War II dealt traditional isolationism a severe blow and led to the U.S. definitively becoming the dominant world power, assuming its rightful role in world affairs, supported at home by a bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy. Vietnam cracked that consensus and gave rise to a new left-wing variant of pseudo-isolationism, a soft version of which was, for example, George McGovern's campaign plea, "Come home, America." The debacle unleashed by the 2003 neo-conservative Iraq war empowered the pseudo-isolationist wing of the Democratic party to push for Barack Obama over Hilary Clinton in 2008. It also empowered right-wing pseudo-isolationism, which eventually found its victorious spokesperson in Donald Trump.

Democratic pseudo-isolationism has sometimes seemed dangerously close to certain left-leaning, unpatriotic, anti-American attitudes which instinctively seem to blame the US for the world's problems. On the other side, Republican isolationism has sometimes seemed to coexist with a sense of grievance that thinks the US has been taken advantage of by others (including our own Allies) and to coexist even more oddly with a reflexively aggressive, militaristic, approach to international threats. The Trump Administration's subversion of NATO and other alliances reflects this obsession that the US has somehow been taken advantage of (a win-or-lose mindset that cannot appreciate common shared interests and outcomes where everybody can "win"). This stupid outlook has obviously been intrinsic to the Trump Administration's aversion to accommodation with Iran and its rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) which the Obama Administration had successfully negotiated - an admittedly imperfect agreement in that it did not end all Iranian misbehavior, but a very good one in that it accomplished something very important which benefited all parties to the agreement and left the region and the world at least moderately better off.

The current crisis  if, of course, a direct consequence of the Trump Administration's ill-advised withdrawal from that Iranian Agreement, sacrificing the limited but real benefits of the agreement while getting absolutely nothing in return other than than the superficial satisfaction of sounding bellicose.

Consistent with his politics of grievance, Trump campaigned successfully on the idea that the US is ill-served by its international alliances and commitments - an argument rendered significantly more plausible by the abysmal failure and human cost of our bipartisan foreign policy establishment's commitment to "endless wars." Obviously Trump had a point which resonated - and still resonates - with a lot of Americans, especially those whose sons and daughters have borne and will bear the principal burden of such adventures. His position - like all pseudo-isolationist positions - is, however, also potentially problematic because dangerously unrealistic. The dangers of Trump's approach are exacerbated further by his simultaneous personal attraction (and a significant segment of his political base's attraction) to an aggressive, bellicose,  militaristic posture, which coexists uncomfortably with the perennial isolationist impulse to stop the world and try to get off.

Both sides of Trump's pseudo-isolationism have been on conspicuous display in the recent crisis Given that the Republican party is hopelessly compromised by its reflexive subservience to the President and by its own very evident division between bellicose neo-conservative types and more isolationist types, it will really fall to the Democrats to surface some serious alternatives that respect both the inevitability of American involvement in managing world conflicts and the realistic limits of both actual American power and what actual Americans are willing to undertake and endure. Asking such questions at Tuesday's debate would serve the country better than the probably predictable silly sound-bite questions about whether Trump has been right or wrong in his Iran policy (the answers to which we already know without the need for asking the questions).

Monday, January 6, 2020

One Year from Today

One year from today, as the law dictates, the Congress will meet in joint session to carry out the prescriptions of the 12th Amendment, which stipulates: The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;—The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed. And with that legal formality, barring some even more dramatic system failure, the endless 2020 presidential election will finally come to its conclusion. 

How satisfactory that conclusion will be remains to be seen. As I wrote here a few days ago, whatever the result it will likely leave about one-half of the country's population pleased but still very angry - and the other half just very angry!

In one sense, that may be the most important point of all. Despite the ubiquity of politics in contemporary American life, despite the ways so many other aspects of life have been corrupted by polarization imported from secular politics, our politics seems increasingly incapable of fulfilling our communal needs in anything like a satisfying way.

Meanwhile, what impact will our latest foreign-policy imbroglio have on the increasingly fragile state of our international relations? In the Middle East? With our European and other Allies? And what impact, if any, will that have on the election? What about impeachment? Will it be forgotten by election day? Or will the Republicans successfully use it as an issue in their favor? What other surprises will happen along the way, and what difference, if any, will they make in the election's outcome. 

Will the Australian apocalypse catch fire (so to speak) with the American public and push the escalating climate crisis more to the center of our election-year debate? Or will one more danger sign be ignored, wasting that much more preciously limited time before the United States awakens (let alone responds to) the peril that threatens the planet?

And, of course, who will be the Democratic nominee? Will the front-runner remain the front-runner all the way, or will his campaign falter?  Will Biden successfully advocate a Harding-like "return to normalcy" (exactly 100 years after Harding's election)? Or will the Democrats nominate someone with a more ambitious agenda for America after Trump? 

Of particular interest to me, what role will religion play in the coming campaign, given the patterns of religious politicking we have seen so much of in recent decades? Preaching about the Epiphany yesterday and reflecting on the collaboration of the chief priests and the scribes with King Herod, I was reminded of Psalm 146, Put not your trust in princes. Then as now, supposedly religious people, like those Jerusalem chief priests and scribes allied with Herod, presumably knew the words of that psalm, but somehow they totally and tragically missed its point! They remind me of something Reinhold Niebuhr famously said half a century ago about clergy who got too close to unworthy political leaders (in that case, President Richard Nixon): "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties."

In his 2018 Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsulate (101), Pope Francis warned against the "harmful ideological error" of dismissing or relativizing certain forms of social engagement "as superficial, secular, worldly, materialist, communist, or populist," as if "the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend." In a sentence which ought perhaps to be seen as foundational for authentic political engagement, the Pope asserted: "We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty."

One year from today, how much will any of this have mattered?

Sunday, January 5, 2020


Entering our church today, you will have noticed an alteration in our nativity scene. The shepherds have been joined today by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds came and went the same day and so were long gone by the time the magi arrived on the scene.) 

In his recent Apostolic letter “On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene,” Pope Francis summarized the significance of the story of the magi: The Magi teach us that people can come to Christ by a very long route. Men of wealth, sages from afar, athirst for the infinite, they set out on the long and perilous journey that would lead them to Bethlehem (cf. Mt 2:1-12). Great joy comes over them in the presence of the Infant King. They are not scandalized by the poor surroundings, but immediately fall to their knees to worship him. Kneeling before him, they understand that the God who with sovereign wisdom guides the course of the stars also guides the course of history, casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly. Upon their return home, they would certainly have told others of this amazing encounter with the Messiah, thus initiating the spread of the Gospel among the nations.

The title “magi” suggests that they were wise, learned men, probably from Persia, perhaps astrologers. Beyond that, however, we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).

We may be very curious about such things, but Matthew’s Gospel tells us none of these things. It does, however, tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi.

First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, Gentiles, pagans. They represent the majority of the human race – past and present – where (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. In other words, the magi had only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as Saint Paul said in his famous speech to a pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25].  Natural knowledge, human knowledge, scientific knowledge may be limited, but it is real knowledge. We moderns would do well to re-learn the ancient lesson that there is a lot to be learned from the world.

That said, the Epiphany story also tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, for the full story our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world. And the interpretive key to Jesus’ story is God’s revelation of himself not in nature but in the history of Israel.

Thus, it was to Jerusalem that the magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, where Isaiah had prophesied, Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].

In today’s troubled world, in which anti-semitism is increasing both in our own country and around the world, we would do well to remember Christianity’s origin in Judaism and the special bond that has created. The Church, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. … [and] the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews … decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone. [Nostra aetate, 4]

By way of warning, however, this story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point, thanks to misplaced priorities and the pursuit of religious and political power. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. They were troubled not overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news?

Then as now, the same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities.

And then there were the chief priests and scribes whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

And another warning of what happens when supposedly religious people put their trust in tyrants, when they ally themselves with unworthy political rulers in order to acquire or retain religious or political power or influence in society. Not for nothing does Psalm 146 warn: Put not your trust in princes. Then as now, supposedly religious people, like those Jerusalem chief priests and scribes allied with Herod, presumably knew the words of that psalm, but they totally and tragically missed its point! They remind me of something Reinhold Niebuhr noted half a century ago about clergy who got too close to unworthy political leaders: "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties," he wrote.

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. “The Christian life,” Thomas Merton once wrote [March 3, 1950] “is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places.”

The magi set out as authentic pilgrims and so found what they were seeking – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage, the homage due to a true king.

In the traditional Roman liturgy, for centuries when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was required to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.

As for the magi, we never hear anything about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. As I suggested earlier, nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet.

But the real magi didn’t just stay put in Bethlehem, any more than the earlier arriving shepherds did. Instead they went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before; but, thanks to what they had experienced, they would never be the same again.

And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we like the magi must also be different now from whatever we would otherwise have been.

Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at school, at work, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.

Long before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual date which the Roman Liturgy assigned to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year, thus putting the entire year and all of human time in its proper perspective.

None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new Year of Our Lord 2020 will bring, whether for better or for worse. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with then to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on that new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and to follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, January 5, 2020.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Lessons from Schisms Old and New

The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company (Acts 15:39). One of my seminary professors used to refer to the famous quarrel between Paul and Barnabas in the Book of Acts as the first instance of team ministry - and its failure - in the history of the Church. However that may be, it is certainly an example of what has been all too common in the history of the Church - conflict, followed by separation. There have been many such conflicts caused by many seemingly irreconcilable disputes. The resulting separation in the case of Paul and Barnabas seems to have been relatively amicable - in the sense that each party went its own way without further harm to the other or to the life and mission of the Church. That could hardly be said for most subsequent schisms and conflicts in the Church, the intensity of which often spilled over into politics, producing persecutions and wars. 

In the present instance of the conflict that has apparently ripped apart the United Methodist Church, it may be politics (in the form of so-called "culture war")  that has spilled over into the inner life of the Church. Such conflicts have become increasingly characteristic of contemporary Church life (which increasingly mimics contemporary cultural and political divisions).  What seems distinctive - and hopeful - about the United Methodists' response to their internal disagreements is their apparent readiness to take the Paul-and-Barnabas route of peaceful separation. If this separation proceeds as planned, we may be spared such unedifying spectacles as congregations and denominational structures suing each other in civil courts - scandalously ignoring Saint Paul's warning that to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you (1 Corinthians 6:7).

The fact that the Church is divided - despite Christ's explicit prayer that all may be one (John 17:21) -  is a regrettable result of disagreements during the course of the Church's history, disagreements in theological understandings that in some instances may seem so incredibly abstract as to be incomprehensible to outsiders.  Yet those differing theological understandings meant - and may still mean - much to those involved, one reason why the ecclesiastical divisions between, for example, the Eastern Churches and the Western Church and later within the Western Church at the Reformation still persist.

"We tried to look for ways that we could gracefully live together with all our differences," Methodist Bishop Harvey of Louisiana said in The New York Times. But when that increasingly became impossible, given the perceived seriousness of this issues in conflict, the Methodists settled on separation as what Bishop Harvey called "the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the church to remain true to its theological understanding."

Obviously the ideal would be for all to agree and for the Body of Christ to be completely united. Short of that, however, it is imperative that all Christians, which remaining scrupulously faithful to their particular theological understandings, recognize, as the Catholic Church teaches, that those who believe in Christ are still in some sense in communion with one another as members of Christ's Body and that separated communities certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community (Vatican II, Unitas redintegratio, 3)

There may be a tendency among some in our world today to give primacy to culture-war politics even in religious matters - as if the sole point of being a Christian were to engage in constant conflict. That too, like division within the Church, is a part of the sinful state of our fallen world. That said, we would do better to follow the famous suggestion of Saint Augustine, so many conflict-ridden centuries ago: We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father. (Commentary on Psalm 32, 29).

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year!

On New Year’s I like to recall what the late comedian George Burns once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new. And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”

New Year’s – especially the run-up to the end of the old year – lends itself to both nostalgic and serious reflections both about the state of the world and about one’s life, about where one has been so far and where one may be going in whatever time may yet be allotted. But New Year’s, as George Burns’ comical comment reminds us, is, by definition, also something new, a gift freely given us that offers an opportunity for hope.  However we may approach the beginning of a new year, that hope has to be a part of it.
Yet for all our holiday cheer, we know that we begin this year at a truly turbulent time in our national life, in a country bitterly and angrily divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, at a time when anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world, menaced as our world now is by our changing climate and other threats.
It’s not for nothing that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our distress is real enough, and our anxiety about it is honest, but so must be our hope, the hope we all share as Church, the hope we have been proclaiming this Christmas season, and on which we must all rely in all things and at all times, all the year round: the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. 
Our hope is founded and focused on Jesus Christ, the one whose birth 2000+ years ago is the very basis for the calendar we mark today. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman – Mary the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church. He was born under the law – that is, he was a member of the Jewish People, circumcised on the 8th day of his earthly life, in fulfillment of God’s covenant with his Chosen People. God’s showing up in the world in Jesus – born to a particular mother, of a particular nation, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history – has realigned all of time and given all of history a new and more hope-filled meaning, giving us a hope for the future we would never otherwise have had.
In the Gospel story we just heard, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are joined by the shepherds. As Pope Francis recently remarked: “Unlike so many other people, busy about many things, the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation.” [Admirabile Signum, 5]. In the 4th century, Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called the shepherds’ arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.”
In most Nativity scenes, including ours here, the shepherds stick around. They will still be here, still kneeling, on Epiphany, when the Magi arrive. In the real story, however, they stayed just long enough to find Mary and Joseph and Jesus – just long enough to be found in turn by God. And then the shepherds went back – back presumably to their work and to their ordinary lives. But nothing for them would ever be the same again. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. However socially insignificant they may have been, however ordinary the lives they returned to, the kingdom of God was being born among them. And, however insignificant and ordinary we and our daily concerns may seem today, the kingdom of God is also being born among us – if only, like the shepherds, we hasten to find it in Mary’s Son.
The same Son of God who revealed himself to the shepherds in the Son of Mary continues to reveal himself to us in his Church. Like the shepherds, we too hasten with wonder to find him and to be found in turn. And, as his Church, we continue doing what the shepherds did, making known to one another and to the world the message about this child in whom the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior have appeared and forever more continue to appear.
Among us this New Year’s Day, no less than among those shepherds so long ago, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary, self-enclosed world and offering it the precious possibility of hope. So may that same precious and powerful hope move us and fill us and change us, as surely as it did those long ago shepherds.
Time has always been very precious – precisely, I suppose, because we have only such a limited supply of it. By becoming part of our time, however, God has turned our limited time on earth into a time of unlimited opportunity. So today he invites us to receive this new year – this year of our Lord 2020 – with gratitude as his gift and to enter it not in fear or anxiety, but with the hope that counts as one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.
Happy New Year!

Homily for the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, New year's Day, January 1, 2020.