Sunday, June 28, 2020

More Than a Cup of Water

Had it not been for the pandemic, this would have been my last Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception. But then came COVID-19, and as a result I am still here – for another 6 months anyway.

Coming and going is, sadly, an occupational hazard of priestly life, particularly in religious communities. It is a hazard because, generally speaking, people are healthier and happier the more stable and less disrupted their lives are. 

Jesus was obviously a disruptor, intentionally so. Even so, he certainly understood that he was asking a lot of his apostles. Having himself as a child been a political refugee from Herod’s terror, Jesus would have directly experienced the stress of leaving home and facing an uncertain welcome elsewhere. So he softened his challenging call to embrace instability and disruption a bit by putting in a plug for hospitality. Whoever receives you receives me. … And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward [Matthew 10:37-42].

Jesus’ words reflected the high value in which hospitality and welcoming were held in his society, something also illustrated in our reading from the Book of Kings [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a]. The Shunemite woman gave Elisha more than a cup of cold water. She gave him dinner and a room! In this, she foreshadowed the generous women in the Gospels, like Martha and Mary, who offered hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, welcoming them into their home, serving ever since as models for the high spiritual value the Church has placed on reaching out and welcoming down through the centuries right up to our own time.

Inspired by Jesus’ own words in his parable about the Last Judgment, “I was a stranger and your welcomed me,” Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks famously prescribes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. Nor have hospitality and welcoming been confined to monasteries. When 17-year old Annie Moore crossed the threshold of the New World as the first immigrant to pass through the new Ellis Island immigration Facility on January 1, 1892, she was welcomed by, among others, Father Callahan of the Mission of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, who blessed her and gave her a silver coin, a symbolic expression of hospitality and welcome. Annie Moore’s story – along with the stories of so many others, among them my own grandparents and the parents and grandparents of so many of us assembled here today – ought especially to impress themselves on our consciousness, both as Catholics and as Americans. For we have always been a Church of migrants and strangers, in more ways than one. Migrants, strangers, and other marginalized communities have always been the face of our Church in this country – in our parishes and in our schools and in our other social ministries.

But, as we assemble today, as we do every Sunday, to profess our faith as migrants and strangers passing through this world en route to our final homeland, we have been forcefully reminded especially during this past month of our country’s complicated history, and of our many failures as a country, as a Church, and as individuals – what the US bishops already 20 years ago described as “failures of understanding and sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination that deny the unity of the human family, of which the one baptism is our enduring sign.” [Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity, USCCB, 2000]

As fallen and sinful human beings, we will always inevitably fall short of Jesus’ challenge to a new way of living, to a new way of being human together. But by baptism into Christ, we are no longer permitted to be strangers to one another, for we have been brought beyond the ordinary human limitations of family and race, and raised instead with Christ to live in newness of life, responding to one another and welcoming one another as we would never otherwise have known how to do or dared to have tried.

As Pope Francis said when he spoke to Congress in 2015: “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us give opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 28, 2020.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Reckoning with Woodrow Wilson

In a Saturday email to the members of the Princeton community, University President Christopher Eisgruber announced that, on his recommendation, the Princeton University Board of Trustees, which as recently as 2016 had voted to keep Woodrow Wilson's name on the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (photo) and Wilson College, has now voted to change the names of both those campus institutions. 

According to Eisgruber,  "the trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms." The Board thus altered the previously operative presumption "that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.” 

Taking an iconclastic approach toward the legacies of the past periods whose values were different is problematic at best and ultimately an impoverishment of civilization. I was certainly saddened when the Taliban blew up the pre-islamic 6th-century giant Bamyan Buddhas in 2001 and when ISIS destroyed to pre-Islamic ancient cultural treasures of Palmyra and Mosul. But that is not what we are talking about here. Rather we are considering the presently relevant legacy of a relatively recent historical figure whose beliefs and behavior have adversely affected the history of the past century.

Admittedly. unlike the infamous Confederate monuments erected explicitly to recall the "Lost Cause" and in support of "Jim Crow," Princeton's extravagant honors to its former President were well intentioned at the time and were hardly meant to celebrate slavery or segregation. Naming the School of Public and International Affairs after Wilson was likely an easy call in 1948 at a time when Wilsonian liberalism very much colored the academic and cultural establishment's take on American history and when invoking Wilson's famous dictum "Princeton in the Nation's Service" still resonated without complexity or controversy. Likewise, naming the University's first "residential college" after Wilson was a logical and appropriate acknowledgment of positive aspects of Wilson's efforts during his tenure as the university's president. As President Eisgruber noted, "Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism."

It is, moreover, only fair to acknowledge that "Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today -- including its research excellence and its preceptorial system -- were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership." While I have long been critical of Wilson's World War I intervention and its catastrophic effects on Europe, there is much of his legacy to Princeton that was and remains admirable. We are, after all, complicated creatures - all of us.

That said, still the darker aspects of Wilson's legacy cannot forever be ignored. As President Eisgruber wrote: "Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today."

It is that legacy of long-term harm - both in regard to race (and, I would add, in international relations) that challenges and ultimately undermines that old liberal establishmentarian consensus about Wilson's proper place in our history.

Nor was that consensus ever quite so unanimous as its adherents and promoters believed. 

In 1919 after King George V had met with Wilson at Buckingham Palace,  the king told an aide: “I could not bear him. An entirely cold academical professor – an odious man.”

Friday, June 26, 2020

What Will We Want from a Post-Pandemic World?

I drove to a local bookstore yesterday. All my life I have loved bookstores, and they have often been a place for me to go to pass a free hour or two. That may be a commentary on the overall lack of excitement in my life. Even so, wasting time in a bookstore is one of the things I have most missed these past few months. So, having heard that the store was open again, I made a brief visit, just for the sheer joy of having somewhere to go, even if I was too cowardly to browse any actual books or buy anything in the cafe. Perhaps next time!

What do I want from next time? As more and more of us emerge (rightly or, more likely, wrongly, given that the disease is actually on the increase in much of the country), as we emerge from physical and moral isolation, from physical and anti-social distancing, what will we look for? And how will we relate to one another from behind our masks?

Will it be back to business as usual? Surely, the suspension of society has revealed so many of our society's defects - surprisingly so, perhaps, but no less definitively. Surely, the intense sadness that has gripped our communities cries out for something different - not just for more of the same that has served us so poorly so far!

Clearly, the simple pleasures one took for granted until recently - browsing a bookstore, sharing a meal in a restaurant, visiting a friend - represent the tip of the iceberg of what we value and want from our world. Their absence has dug down deeply below the surface of such expectations.

What form might such expectations take today and tomorrow in a world that has had to learn to live without such simple pleasures? Both for better and for worse, what form will our fellowship take?  In what new ways will our heightened fragility strengthen or enfeeble us to express our shared humanity and care for our common home?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Relocating TR

In On the Concept of History, written at the end of his life by the German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, (1892-1940), he noted “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” If that is true of what we do in history, is it not also as true of us who make history? Certainly it was true in a demonstrable way of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), soldier, statesman, conservationist, and the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909), now in the news this week because of the decision to remove his monumental equestrian statue (photo) from the entrance to New York's famed Museum of Natural History.

I have walked past TR's statue many times over the years, without paying all that much attention to it, except perhaps being favorably reminded by it of his family's connection with the museum and of his own noteworthy role as an early environmentalist (or, as we would have said then, a conservationist). His great-great-grandson, Kermit Roosevelt III, who supports the statue's removal, seemed to me to strike the right balance. "That's a statue that people thought at the time was celebrating about him, but people's thinking at that time was very inflected by white supremacy. ... He wanted a society where what's best about our natural parks, our natural resources was shared widely and available to everyone and I think he should be remembered as an egalitarian and a conservationist."

I think Kermit got it just right. TR represented - embodied even - both what was best and what was worst about the Progressive Era in American politics, its morally advanced aspirations and its morally problematic prejudices. He himself embodied that ambivalence in his own personality - a stalwart supporter of progressive policies and advocate for economic and social justice, whose "cowboy" thinking about foreign relations was infected with an excessively aggressive appetite for ostentatious military conflict and with then widely shared racial prejudices.

TR's example ought to remind us of something which should be of no surprise to those who still believe in original sin - that good and evil impulses continually coexist in most of us and thus also in the societies and institutions we create. When reckoning with the legacy of monumental historical figures who have made a major impact on our society and need to be remembered, the honest thing to do and the most culturally constructive thing to do is to acknowledge both the good they did and aspired to do and the darker side of their legacy and that of their contemporaries - and not to allow either to cause us to forget or ignore the other.

Memorials to TR abound in this country - from his hometown New York City to Mount Rushmore. This particular monument, with its problematic images of other races, no longer serves a suitable social purpose and will properly be moved to some less ostentatious location and more socially sensitive context.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Law and the Culture War

One of the more memorable moments in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons is Saint Thomas More’s lecture to William Roper about the value of the law:  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?... Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Unfortunately, we have all long since become used to the notion of the law as just one more partisan weapon in our ongoing national culture war - an increasingly warranted notion given the way each side more and more approaches and uses the law that way. The judiciary itself has hardly helped, and the fact that so many of the more politically sensitive and culturally divisive issues are apparently decided by courts on obviously partisan lines has regularly reinforced this perception. So when such an issue is resolved and a decisive precedent is set by the Supreme Court in an at least apparently bi-partisan way, (as happened this week with Bostock v. Clayton) we need to take notice.

I will leave it to constitutional lawyers to parse the particulars of Justice Gorsuch's Opinion. For partisans on both sides of the argument, civil rights for gay and transgender people also involve moral assertions which are inevitably way beyond the capacity of any human court to resolve. The Court's capacity is much more finite - to figure out how we are to live together peaceably, precisely in a world where at least some of the underlying points at issue remain unresolvable politically. After all, if all Americans had been in agreement about the rights and wrongs of civil rights and racial equality when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, that legislation would hardly have been necessary. Its purpose was to establish a social policy, going forward, to treat citizens of different races (and other relevant categories) equally - regardless of whatever contrary beliefs (however strongly affirmed and conscientiously or religiously based) many citizens might continue to hold. The Court has now resolved a particular contemporary dispute about the interpretation of that law - interpreting the statue's reference to discrimination on the basis of sex as applicable to forms of sex-related discrimination not overtly at issue in 1964. The Court cannot adjudicate moral beliefs. It can, however, articulate a prudential decision that legal equality shall be the society's public policy. 

(From a democratic perspective it would likely be better - in this area as with so many other intensely contested issues - if Congress had resolved the matter legislatively, clarifying the application of the earlier statute on this issue one way or the other. As a practical matter, however, Congress has largely long since abandoned its constitutional role. As a result we are increasingly governed by the Executive branch, by statutory regulatory agencies, and by the Judiciary, as contemporary American society's de facto policy-makers.)

Both sides in this debate have been - and continue to be in their response to Bostock - intensely moralistic and uncompromising. This only highlights their mutual irreconcilability and makes harder the kind of political compromises that will be necessary in those areas where there will likely be clashes between competing rights, as in the inevitable clash between the statutory law on non-discrimination in hiring and firing and the constitutional rights of religious institutions in internal hiring and firing. 

I an old enough to remember when some religious institutions and authorities strenuously opposed divorce and fought against the liberalization of divorce laws - until that battle was decisively lost. One might still argue against the desirability of divorce on moral or other grounds and even organize one's own personal life accordingly. But no civil servant refuses to sign marriage licenses for divorced people who remarry.  Civil society's stance on marriage and divorce is what it is, however differently religious communities may regard the matter in their internal practices.

Civil laws in a pluralistic secular society are necessarily what they are. They do not resolve ultimate philosophical and theological questions of right and wrong, good and bad, but rather express some kind of consensus concerning practical policies about how people are entitled to be treated within a society.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

For the Life of the World

A week ago, we celebrated First Holy Communion for 11 of our younger parishioners. It reminded me of my own First Communion, 65 years earlier. When I posted my First Communion picture on my blog 10 days ago, my sister, who has been sorting out our mother’s things,  an accumulation of decades and decades of memories, told me she had found my First Communion armband and would save it for me. What does one do with a 65-year old First Communion armband?

Most of us can remember our First Communion. Hopefully we remember more than the fancy outfits, photos, and presents. Hopefully, we remember it as a special moment of joy and grace that has been repeated over and over again, every time we have received this sacrament. Presumably we have done that many times, since we have all lived in this relatively unique period in the Church’s history when frequent Communion has been both encouraged and the common experience of most of us – at least until our recent experience of the sudden suspension of so much of the Church’s public sacramental life because of the pandemic that continues to threaten us. That unwanted and unexpected experience should invite us to reflect more seriously on what may have been in danger of becoming at times a relatively routine activity.

But however frequently or infrequently received, Holy Communion can never be allowed to become routine, for, as we just heard from Saint Paul, the bread that we break is a participation in the body of Christ, thanks to which, we though many, are one body.

But what does it mean to be “one body”? Preaching on Pentecost Sunday to another group of First communicants in early 5th-century North Africa, Saint Augustine famously told them to listen to Saint Paul if they want to understand being the Body of Christ. He told them what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. … So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true. [Sermon 272]

The New Testament tells us how, from the beginning, Christian communities devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers [Acts 2:42]. As the Church grew in size and expanded in influence, the Church’s experience of sharing in the one body of Christ, would in time transform, first, the Roman Empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it still must continue to transform each one of us and the wider world which we are all a part of.
The current crisis which we are experiencing in our country, the consequence of a long legacy of injustice and institutionalized violence, mixed in for good measure with a global pandemic, has reminded us how we are all part of the common sufferings of our society, sharing common responsibilities to one another and to our one world.

When Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their sharing in the body of Christ, much of what he had to say was in fact a criticism, warning them that they were in danger of missing the main point and receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy way, doing so to their peril.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing their worldly divisions and inequalities with them - any more than we can. That is why what happens at this altar is so important, intended as it is to enable us to go beyond our individual self-enclosed limits and self-referential relationships and so bring a new unity to the world. For Jesus’ command to his disciples to do as he did is an invitation to a whole new way of life, made possible for us by what Jesus himself has already done on our behalf.
Today’s celebration invites us to focus in a particularly active and conscious way on the purpose of Christ’s presence in this sacrament, this sacrament of our unity, this sacrament which makes the Church what it is in our world. This annual festival invites us to a fuller, more conscious, and more active participation in the body of Christ, the Church, by believing firmly, celebrating devoutly, and living intensely Christ’s real bodily presence given to us for the life of the world.

Homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 14, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website

Friday, June 12, 2020

Damnatio Memoriae

On July 9, 1776, fresh from hearing the Second Continent Congress's Declaration of Independence a New York mob pulled down the gilded lead statue of King George III at Bowling Green, an event immortalized by mid-19th-century artist Johannes Oertel in his oil painting Pulling Down the Statue of King George III (photo), now in the NY Historical Society Museum. (Although some parts of the statue were eventually salvaged, much of it became bullets for the Revolutionary cause.)

The statue of King George III had stood in New York only since 1770. Most of the statues whose future is being debated these days (or which have actually been toppled in some cases) are considerably older.  In the spirit of the ancient Roman practice of Damnatio Memoriae, renewed efforts are being made to erase if not all memory then at least all trace of public honor of historical figures who, often for very good reasons, are no longer deemed deserving of such honor. 

Recent history has abundant examples of re-enactments of what happened to the statue of New York's last king. Most of us can remember vividly the pulling down of the statue of Sadaam Hussein in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Earlier, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its former "satellites" led to all sorts of monuments being removed. 

Statues and other such monuments may memorialize history, but they are also always political expressions. As political values change over time, so do those that society chooses to remember and memorialize. Of course, some historical figures enjoy surprising staying power - long after the demise of the regimes they represent. People still bring flowers to the statue of Julius Caesar on Rome's Via dei Fori Imperiali, although the empire his conquests helped create is long gone, and few are those who pine for its restoration or wish to be governed by a Caesar today. Sometimes statues survive because they acquire a contemporary symbolism above and beyond the historical figure they portray. Rome's monumental statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II is much more impressive than that of Caesar, although the historical person portrayed was obviously much less so, and his dynasty was evicted from Rome a mere 35 years after his statue was erected. It survives, however, as a historical commemoration to the 19th-century unification of Italy and as a symbol of commitment to secular modernity. (Of course, one can question or even oppose secular modernity, but the presence of that monument forcefully challenges anyone who does so to recognize secular modernity's historical power and continued appeal.)

But what is to be done when a society wants to reject outright what a monument or statue symbolizes? In the United States, we have the unique problem of statues and military bases which honor traitors who fought against the United States in the American Civil War, memorials erected for the most part much later as symbols of resistance against racial integration and civil rights for African-Americans. These doubly hateful objects obviously should never have been permitted to be erected in the first place and have no legitimate purpose now. This is  especially true of the statues of such Confederates in places of honor in, of all places, the U.S. Capitol!

Inevitably, however, there will be other monuments and statues, which will become controversial as society's values evolve. There is no easy or obvious answer to many of the dilemmas such situations raise. Like the Roman statues of Julius Caesar and Vittorio Emmanuele II, such monuments remember historical figures whose actual accomplishments - however problematic - certainly need to be remembered. Even more importantly, they may have acquired additional layers of historical and cultural meaning, which transcend the individuals portrayed and even the original context of the monument's erection. (The statue of Christopher Columbus at New York's Columbus Circle is as much about celebrating the Italian-American experience as it is about 1492.) So any decision to destroy or relocate a monument or statue is inevitably a complicated one, which can only be reached after an authentic process of deliberation and debate and some sort of societal consensus.  Had there been such a process in New York in 1776, would George III still be honored in Bowling Green? I doubt it. On the other hand, we might still be able to see his statue somewhere else, contextualized as part of a fuller national story, which faithfully remembers New York's 112 years as a British colony.

A society's history entails both continuity and change. More than two centuries after American independence, six states are still named after British monarchs. Such symbolic continuity expresses more fundamental social, political, and cultural continuities which continue to enrich us. That said, to live is to change. As our social, political, and cultural values have experienced constant revision, the memories we have highlighted and the way we have remembered them have changed as we have changed. 

So too with the memories memorialized in our monuments, which (when not simply forgotten) may inspire us and affirm our values or may just as well challenge us to rethink our past and remember something different. Just as even churches have been renamed and rededicated in changing circumstances, there are times to rename a street, a town, or a fort, to erect a new monument or replace an old one, all the while remaining attentive to the power of historical memory to put our present moment in a larger perspective.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

How Far We Must Yet Go

On this date in 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave an Oval Office Address (photo), known as the Report to the American People on Civil Rights. Timed to coincide with the integration by federal officials of the University of Alabama, Kennedy's speech proposed new legislation which would eventually become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kennedy was a Cold War president, primarily focused on foreign not domestic policy, pressured by circumstances - the growing visibility and rising militancy of the Civil Rights movement - to respond. But, when he responded, Kennedy rose to the occasion on an issue which he acknowledged "is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."

Watching Kennedy's address that evening, as an unsophisticated high school student in a parochial corner of the Bronx, I never imagined that 57 years later our country would continue to be challenged by the same unresolved moral and legal issue. I could foresee neither the genuine social progress that lay ahead in so many areas of our national life, nor the stubborn persistence of our country's foundational racial divide. As Boston's Cardinal Archbishop Sean O'Malley recently wrote, recalling his early years of priesthood in Washington, DC, "to know that fifty years later four police officers would see themselves entitled to murder a black man with impunity makes clear how far we must yet go to achieve racial equality." 

The current crisis has highlighted not only the long-standing sin of racism but the (not unrelated) social and political problem of over-policing and the militarization of our police, such that instead of functioning as community peacekeepers, police increasingly appear and act more like occupying foreign armies. Indeed, as Matt Ford recently wrote in The New Republic ("The Police Were a Mistake: Law enforcement agencies have become the standing armies that the Founders feared"), American police have increasingly come to resemble the very standing army that the Founders with rare unanimity (and the Constitution they composed) so strongly opposed..

Hence the urgency of the (perhaps poorly named) "Defund" movement, which aims (depending on who is using the term and how)  to reallocate to more productive purposes resources presently poured into the militarization of police equipment, tactics, and training, to reform overly militarized police practices, possibly returning to more traditional relationships with local communities, to reappraise "qualified immunity," and maybe even to restructure local police forces the way Camden successfully did a few years back. The list of needed reforms is long, and enacting even some of them might significantly improve matters. But one thing that most obviously has to change is the relatively recently cultivated image of police as a military force occupying alien territory. (Former NYC Mayor Micheal Bloomberg boasted back in 2011 that he had his "own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.")

Sunday, June 7, 2020


According to the famous legend, Saint Patrick is said to have used a shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity when evangelizing Ireland in the 5th century. The fact that Patrick had to resort to using a shamrock illustrates the challenge of talking about the Trinity.

Created in the image and likeness of God, we all have a built-in natural longing for God. So we can theorize about God’s existence by our ordinary natural reasoning process. But who God is - in himself - that is something we cannot possibly know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us. So the doctrine of the Trinity is our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is. 

On the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself. Who God is in himself is how God acts. And so how God acts reveals who God is.

Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as he did to Moses in today’s 1st reading, as one who reveals himself in how he acts toward us: a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity. It was to such a God that Moses prayed – as we all pray – do come along in our company … and receive us as your own.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who, as the visible image of the invisible God, came down from heaven, so that the world might be saved through him. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church, so that we can become the people Saint Paul instructs us to be: Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.

This is what our external sharing in God’s inner life involves. Just as God’s inner life is itself a unique kind of community, so too our life as Church is a unique community in unity, a distinctive way of living, a new way of being human together.

As we survey the sad wreckage of our society and the long legacy of damage individualism has done to our ability to live as humans together in God’s company, we recognize all the more urgently how uniquely demanding and uniquely necessary is our full participation in the life of the Trinity through this new way of being that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have revealed to us and called us to share in.

As the 4th century Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, famously wrote in one of his letters: “When we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit himself.”

Hence, the Church faithfully follows Saint Paul in praying: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 7, 2020. 

Friday, June 5, 2020


Almost 50 years ago - on September 21, 1970 - The New York Times inaugurated its "Op. Ed." page. Literally "opposite the Editorial Page," it was intended to contribute "toward stimulating new thought and provoking new discussion on public problems." The idea was to add to the paper's regular columnists "two or more contributors six days a week, writing on the widest possible range of subject matter and expressing the widest possible variety of opinion." At the time, my Marxism professor, an old Weimar intellectual, one of many such refugees whose presence at that time enriched the City College faculty and New York's Upper West Wide, remarked that the Times was now becoming interesting to read!

With characteristic self-importance, the paper proclaimed that day that it was creating "an intellectual forum from which, to paraphrase Terence, nothing will be foreign that relates to man and his society." While I would agree with my old professor that the op. ed. page made the Times more interesting, I doubt I would ever have ascribed to it the degree of importance it continues to claim for itself!

So what to make of the current controversy about Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and his infamous "Send in the Troops" op ed, initially posted on-line on Wednesday and originally scheduled to appear in print on Sunday. The article apparently set off a firestorm of opposition within the Times itself, initially prompting Opinion Editor James Bennet to defend his decision to run the piece, a position he and the paper have been in retreat from ever since. Apparently it has been quite a controversy within the Times, a controversy that has spread outside because it fits so stereotypically into the contemporary "culture war" between those whom Times writer Bari Weiss has labeled the "wokes" and the "liberals."

Like most people my age, I am more likely "liberal" than "woke," and I worry when exposure to ideas and opinions that differ from one's own is perceived as threatening rather than challenging, when ideas and opinions (and their authors) are to be cancelled rather than responded to and rebutted. That said, only the State is ever constitutionally prohibited from abridging free speech. All of us draw the line somewhere at what we will listen to or read,  what we deem worthy of being taken seriously or responding to - whether because the opposing idea or opinion is factually false or because it is morally abhorrent. Media platforms are no exception, although given their greater social significance (especially in the case of the Times), how broadly or narrowly that line is drawn, how inclusive or exclusive the limits of acceptable speech,  really does matter. The original aim of the op. ed. page, to expose us to "the widest possible range of subject matter and expressing the widest possible variety of opinion," so that "nothing will be foreign that relates to man and his society," remains valid and important - maybe more now than then in our polarized, tribal culture in which most people increasingly expose themselves only to ideas and opinions that they already agree with.

That said, however, while allowing unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas to be heard has its place, that was not necessarily the case in this instance. Senator Cotton is, after all, a United States Senator (seen by some also as a potential presidential aspirant some day). As such, he already enjoys a position of immense power and importance and can easily express his views and publicize them to his heart's content. There is no need for an Op.Ed. page to promote the ideas and opinions of people like that, in effect enhancing his already powerful platform. Even if his views were not factually questionable or morally abhorrent, even if his views were more morally palatable, he would have no need of precious space on the Times' platform to make his case. By all means, the Times should be ready and willing to allow different voices to be heard on its pages. Ideally, they should actually contend with each other on those very pages. And, just as candidates for elective office often benefit and become stronger candidates from having had to respond to serious opponents in party primaries, learning to listen to ideas and opinions to which one objects and learning to respond substantively to them (not just express negative feelings about them) will often make one a better advocate for one's cause, while better understanding why others think differently. (One of our greatest problems right now is the inability of many people on either side of our tribal divide to understand at all how and why people they disagree with think the way they do.)

A well edited op.ed. page can contribute greatly to diversifying our public debate and who participates in it. But to do so the value of an op. ed. page is precisely in creating space for those on the other side of the balance of power, those who might otherwise have a harder time getting a hearing. 

(Photo: Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Past, Present, and Unknown Future of Frequent Communion

65 years ago today, I made my First Holy Communion (photo), preceded the day before by my First Confession. I have often recalled those momentous events of grace and joy in my young life, but our recent and current experience of the suspension of so much of our public sacramental life due to the present pandemic invites further reflection. Frequent Communion (and Confession) as we have known and experienced them in my lifetime have largely been historically unique, distinctly 20th-century phenomena, which have set the era which is now ending apart from most of previous Church history and so likely may not be a realistic guide to whatever it is that lies ahead. 

When I made my First Confession and Communion in 1955, the Church seemed to be generally moving in an upward direction - up in numbers and up in its adherents' increasing intensity of observance. A lot had happened to contribute to this - not least the trauma of the Second World War. Here, however, I will focus solely on the changes in sacramental practice surrounding Confession and Communion.

It was Pope Saint Pius X (1835-1914, Pope 1903-1914) who is generally credited with making frequent Communion a 20th-century papal priority. Of course, it had always been deemed desirable, at least on some theoretical level, for the faithful to receive Communion frequently. Practice was clearly another thing, but the prayers of the old Roman liturgy clearly were written with more than just the celebrant's Communion in mind. Indeed, the Decree on Frequent Communion, issued under Pius X in 1905, was titled Sacra Tridentina, because it began by citing the Council of Trent's expressed desire that all present at each Mass should communicate sacramentally (Session 22, "On the Sacrifice of the Mass," chapter 6). Common practice, however, was, as I said, quite another thing. This was what Saint Pius X sought to correct. And, over the course of the 20th century, the movement he fostered largely succeeded.

So, by the time I made my First Communion, 50 years after Sacra Tridentina, we were more or less being socialized in Catholic school to receive as often as possible. Of course, one had to be in the state of grace (hence the increase in confessions in the mid-20th-century), and one had to be fasting (hence the mitigations in the fasting laws, first to facilitate afternoon and evening Masses in 1953 and then universally in 1957). And, of course, there were those occasions, such as funerals when Communion was by custom still simply not distributed. And I can remember attending weddings in the late 1950s, when I could legally have gone to Communion (since more than three hours had passed since I had eaten breakfast), but did not do so, nor did anyone else do so who was not in the wedding party. 

By the 1960s, more and more people were going to Communion more and more often. Also Communion was increasingly being given at the proper time in the Mass - instead of before or after or (as was widely the case where there were numerous priests on hand to help) while Mass itself was going on, beginning usually right after the Consecration. More and more, Communion came to be seen as the normal thing to do at Mass. Meanwhile, the post-conciliar drop in Mass attendance left still coming to Church those more committed and so more disposed to frequent Communion, while the equally unanticipated drop in confessions corresponded to a change in attitude about what constituted an obstacle to worthy communion. (Meanwhile, it may have been forgotten that in explicating what represented a "right intention" for receiving Communion frequently, Sacra Tridentina had explicitly ruled out "routine.")

The increase in confessions earlier in the century had obviously been a by-product of all those Communions. It seems highly unlikely that people suddenly started sinning substantially more in the 20th century. But confession had become the thing which one was expected to do in order to receive Communion. So when, all of a sudden, people started receiving Communion so much more frequently, then they  evidently expected to go to confession more frequently too. Then, after frequent Communion had become the norm, even routine, an alternate mindset developed about sin and confession, so that, by the end of the century, confessions were, once again, a much rarer part of the average Catholic's practice, even though the thing that had increased confessions earlier in the century - frequent Communion - continued.

Saint Pius X and those who followed him on the Frequent Communion bandwagon were acting out of the best of intentions. And, by the standards of, say, 1960, they had succeeded. But then, when unexpectedly everything changed later in that decade, more or less all that was left of the pre-conciliar religious revival was routine Communion. It is that latter expectation that has survived into the 21st century, at least in those places where priests and Masses remain sufficiently abundant to allow for it. In much of the rest of the world, of course, Communion is rare because of the increasing insufficiency of priests and Masses.

Then came the Great Pandemic of 2020 and the suspension of so much of the Church's public sacramental life, precisely in those places privileged enough until now to enjoy a relative abundance of priests and Masses, thus creating a brief but important moment of eucharistic equality around the globe.

Now, once again, in many parishes more and more Masses are again being celebrated with congregations present in person and not just via the internet. While there may be many aspects of personal attendance that are attracting people back to church after this hiatus, one of them clearly is the opportunity to receive Communion. In fact, some returnees have explicitly expressed the view that it is being able to receive Communion again that attracts them to return. Given the importance which frequent Communion acquired in the 20th century, this seems utterly unsurprising. But it also highlights once again the discontinuity between the 20th century Catholic experience of frequent Communion and that of previous centuries, not to mention the present discontinuities between different parts of the Catholic world.

A somewhat different perspective was expressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci in a May 26 interview with America about what to consider when reopening churches for congregational worship. Speaking of Holy Communion, he said, "I think for the time being you just gotta forestall that." While Fauci himself is surely old enough to remember when many attended Mass without going to Communion, I suspect that for many of his hearers, formed in the 20th century spirituality of routine Communion, the idea must seem somewhat strange.

But the present pandemic probably has accelerated the process by which if not everything then at least many things that we have gotten accustomed to taking for granted in the 20th century will be very different in the 21st. And that will certainly include how we go to church and what may be or not be routine.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Poison of Deep Grief

O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs
All from her father's death. O Gertrude, Gertrude,
When sorrows come, they come not single spies.
But in battalions! 
(Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5)

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the killing of Polonius produced insanity in Ophelia and an insane desire for revenge in Laertes. In 2020 America, the murder of George Floyd has likewise unleashed long pent-up rage which has plunged our already devastated and conflicted country into an analogous poison of deep grief. The grief is deepest, of course, for the direct victims of institutionalized violence, for their families and friends, and for the African-American community in general, which has endured this for so long. Beyond that, however, there is the deep grief of an entire society, suffering from this self-perpetuating poison of racial and communal hatred.

Particularly poisonous too has been the scandalous manipulation of religion in the service of power, domination, and control, exemplified in the decades-long unholy alliance between one political party and a poisonously politicized deformation of American religion and Christian faith. Hence the righteous religious grief expressed by Washington's Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde in response to the use of the famous Saint John's Episcopal Church across the White House for a profane presidential photo-op, preceded by institutionalized violence against peaceful American citizens in Lafayette Park. Hence the righteous religious grief expressed by Washington's Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory in regard to the presidential photo-op at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine:

I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree. Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace. 

As we thankfully reopen our churches and shrines to the public, it is good to remind ourselves why we have sacred places, what they represent, and how easily religion can be misused.

Photo: The President and First Lady pose outside the St. John Paul II National Shrine (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Trumpocalypse (The Book)

"Over the past four years, I have thought and spoken and written about Donald Trump almost more than I can bear. You probably all feel the same fatigue. We are all just exhausted with this worthless man." So writes former Bush speech writer and author of the phrase "Axis of Evil" David Frum, now a passionate "Never Trumper," in Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, an appropriately named apocalyptic sequel to his 2018 Trump book, Trumpocracy: the Corruption of the American Republic. More than most "Never Trumpers," Frum has faced up to the fact that Trump represents the fulfillment of what he had once supported: "I came of age inside the conservative movement of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first that movement has delivered much more harm than good. ... It is long past time to correct course."

Frum covers a lot of familiar ground in his depiction of Trump's monumental failures as president (even before they were amplified by the pandemic) - maybe more so than necessary given the book's likely readership. What is of some significance in his critique, given his presumed audience of similarly minded conservative "Never Trumpers," is his scorn for the Republican Party he once worked for. "As the Republican Party becomes ill adapted for political competition on equal terms, it has redefined its political goals. Instead of thinking how to compete in cities, how to reach the religiously unaffiliated, how to appeal to nonwhites, it invests its energies in the brutal project of preventing those groups from voting."

Frum fully recognizes, however, how the opposition could still lose the kind of people he is writing for: "The great Democratic challenge entering 2020 is that the tone and style of much of progressive politics offends large numbers of Americans who have had their fill of President Trump."

Diagnosticians of our American malaise abound. A more fruitful course is the proposing of possible reforms, which Frum attempts to do. Some of his suggestions are obvious attempts to correct our country's increasingly undemocratic character. He wants to mandate the release of a candidate's tax returns, to abolish the filibuster, to grant statehood to the District of Columbia, to pass a new Voting Rights Act "that addresses the abuses of the present,not the memories of the past." He also wants to reduce gerrymandering and depoliticize law enforcement.

Most importantly, however, he wants to overcome the seemingly intractable tribal division of American society. He reminds his readers that as recently as 2006, Republican Mitt Romney supported universal heath insurance and that as recently as 2007 Bernie Sanders opposed immigration reforms he saw as likely to undermine American workers. Referencing those two perennial issues in conflict, he points out that "Ultra-polarization" has prevented both parties from consolidating their most sought reforms.

Frum's bottom line here is that "If Democrats want to perpetuate their health-care reforms, they must do a better job of solidifying  a sense of national belonging. If Republicans want to safeguard the border, they must offer a better deal to those living on that border's American side."

This appeal to a renewed notion of national solidarity that can accommodate the concerns of both tribes depends, he believes, on transcending the "boomer" generation's heritage of "expressive individualism," which has "severed the bonds of solidarity between citizens."

Neither extreme end of the American political-social spectrum will find fulfillment in Frum's agenda. But, if (as seems likely) the next President is a pre-Boomer moderate Democrat, disposed to nostalgia for a less polarized post-war America as an alternative to Trump's apocalypse, then Frum's proposed reforms offer a sound starting point for that constituency to get beyond mere nostalgia and move forward to retrieve that pre-Boomer unity in a sufficiently forward-facing fashion.

Monday, June 1, 2020

A Nation in Flames

I am old enough to remember the urban riots of the late 1960s, which devastated Detroit and Newark, among other once great American cities. As so often happens with intractable problems, the 1967 riots led to a Presidential Commission, the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Commonly called the "Kerner Report"  (photo), the Commission's findings, released early in 1968 famously said: "This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

At the time the only aspect of that formulation that seemed questionable was its use of the present progressive tense, whereas the present perfect indicative might have been more accurate: Our nation has been two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. One need not agree with the ideological extremism, for example, of the NY Times' "1619 Project," to appreciate that the U.S, has always been a racially divided and unequal society. And, while one can affirm that considerable progress may have been made to overcome this history, the reality of division and inequality along racial lines remains - reflected right now in the disproportionate deaths of African-Americans in this pandemic and in the murders of African-Americans like the one that has triggered the current disorders in Minneapolis. These serious symptoms of a profound social sickness have periodically produced inflammations in the familiar form of the social disorders the Kerner Commission tried to respond to more than 50 years ago and the social disorders on display in our country this past week thanks to our evident failure to respond justly and wisely in these intervening 50 years.

The race-related conflicts of the 1960s were a belated coming to terms with the unfinished mission of the American Civil War. Having won decisively on the battlefield, the U.S. had then failed to follow through on its victory, had failed to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments, and had thus allowed the detestable ideology it had ostensibly defeated to reassert itself victoriously for yet another century. The race-related conflicts we are witnessing today represent the continuance of that thus-far inconclusive struggle to defeat that still pervasive ideology, an ideology still deeply entrenched in American social structures and institutions and in one of our political parties.

Like the forest fires fed by the curse of climate change, the flames currently devouring American cities will burn out. But, like climate change, their underlying cause continues to pose an apocalyptic challenge to a morally leaderless society careening carelessly from one self-induced calamity to another.