Friday, July 31, 2020

A Fifth American Republic

President Obama gave the eulogy at Congressman John Lewis's funeral in Atlanta yesterday, and (as the saying goes) hit it out of the park. (I don't like sports analogies and seldom use them, but they have the advantage that they are so widely understood.) Of course, Obama rose to prominence in 2004 on the power of his oratory, and it was his oratory that helped him attain political power. So we expect good words for him, and we got them.

Early in his speech, he reminded us that "this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to forma  more perfect union." 

It is a commonplace to note that this country was founded with an imperfect 18th-century constitution and then refounded, so to speak, through civil war and the three reconstruction amendments. That refounding gave us a second chance to attempt that more perfect union. Our second republic got off to a good start, but then regressed when northern lack of interest allied with southern racism to undo most of what had been accomplished. The formal constitutional structures of the second American republic - the reconstruction amendments - remained in place but were not enforced, and so the second republic, so promisingly born, became the regime of Jim Crow and the capitalist Guilded Age. The Progeressive Movement did little about Jim Crow but did set in motion a movement to address that other cause of systemic inequality. When finally the capitalist system came crashing down in the Great Depression, another refounding moment occurred - the New Deal - defined not in constitutional amendments but in activist legislation and a  "constitutional revolution" in jurisprudence that radically reframed the role of the federal government in the interest of democracy and the majority of Americans. That third American republic won the Second World War and went on to provide the greatest period of widespread prosperity and relative equality in American history. In time, that led to the Civil Rights Movement, which sought to correct the great remaining failure of American society. Through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a fourth American republic was founded, which further perfected the union. Like the second republic, however, it faltered and foundered, especially in the wake of the disastrous election of 1980. The attempt to nail the fourth republic's coffin shut came with the disastrous 2013 Shelby County v, Holder decision of the US Supreme Court, which enabled the political agenda of voter suppression. 

The obvious answer to America's present predicament is another refounding of democracy - a fifth American republic. and President Obama in his masterful eulogy laid out the essential elements of its agenda:

1. Adopting a renewed Voting Rights Act to restore what has been taken away;
2. Making sure every American is automatically registered to vote;
3. Adding polling places, expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday;
4. Statehood for DC and Puerto Rico; 

and - essential to achieving all of the above - "eliminating the filibuster," which Obama reminded us is just "another Jim Crow relic."

What an agenda that would be for the first 100 days of an American fifth republic!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Buried Treasure

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sell all he has and buys the field.

It may be one of the most fought over pieces of real estate in the world; but, as anyone who has ever been there can attest, much of Israel is arid desert – basically a bunch of rocks. Working such land is hard and exhausting work. So it’s easy to imagine the surprise, excitement, and joy of someone who, having turned over hundreds of rocks, suddenly sees something completely unexpected, something with the potential of transforming his life for the better!

Perhaps, we are supposed to see ourselves in these parables. Like the field hand and the pearl merchant, we too have hopefully found in God’s grace something we neither earned nor could have expected. Like them, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the gift – buying the field or the pearl – in other words, responding fully to the opportunity, recognizing that it is an all-or-nothing decision on our part. In life one either takes advantage of an opportunity, or one misses the opportunity.

That is how we might unpack these particular parables in normal times. But, to use Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “this is no ordinary time.” Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has taken over our world, has transformed the landscape of our ordinary lives in all sorts of ways, has highlighted the fragility of life on this planet, has undermined our personal sense of security, and so left us without a lot of the things we used to treasure and wondering what we may have left for us to treasure. Like the fishermen in the parable, whose net has pulled in all sorts of stuff, we too may find ourselves forced to unload a lot, maybe most of what we might otherwise have valued, lest we ourselves get caught in the net and strangled by false securities.

How right Solomon was to ask God for the gifts of wisdom and understanding. Would that more world leaders were like Solomon in knowing what they lack and what they need – and what their people need from them!

In such a terrible time as this that we are now living through, perhaps we might reimagine these parables from God’s point of view, so to speak, and see ourselves as the treasure God has found for himself in the midst of the ordinary life of the world, and for which he has invested his most precious possession, his Son, Jesus, in order that we might be treasured by him forever.

Of course, a treasure found in a field or carefully extracted from a net probably requires careful care and cleaning. But a God who is willing to get involved in our world from the inside – by becoming one of us and living our life in our world – is not going to shrink from the added work of nurturing and perfecting his treasure in his people.

God has always been busily involved in our messy, mixed-up, dangerously unpredictable world. The work God has begun in us, that same work continues in our daily life as his people, his Church, where the messy, mixed-up, and dangerously unpredictable in us is attended to, so that – as Saint Paul said - we in turn may be called, justified, and glorified.

On the one hand, this pandemic moment makes us shed the illusory security of false treasures. On the other, it challenges us to treasure ourselves and one another as God does, deploying God’s gifts of wisdom and scientific knowledge to understand our situation and so bond with all our brothers and sisters to heal our broken world.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 26, 2020.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Re-Imagining Parish

The Congregation for the Clergy this week issued a new Instruction, "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church," which was actually approved by the Pope and promulgated last June. It deals with the theme of the pastoral care of parish communities, which it traces back to the “House Churches” of the New Testament, but which are experiencing a particularly new challenge as “people are less associated today with a definite and immutable geographical context,” requiring “a new discernment around community” and “new forms of accompaniment and closeness.”

As one would expect in almost any contemporary Instruction of this sort, the document stresses the Church's evangelizing mission. Emphasis is placed on the parish as an inclusive community, "the context in which people express their lives in terms of relationships, reciprocal service and ancient traditions," where, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist, "the Christian community welcomes the living presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord, receiving the announcement of the entire mystery of salvation."

Unsurprisingly, the Instruction follows Pope Francis and Evangelii Gaudium is opposing "the dynamic of evangelization" to "the criterion of self-preservation," which particularly animates the document's discussion of various possible parish structures. A particularly relevant cautionary note is sounded in the reminder "that the faith of the People of God is interwoven with familial and communal memories. Often, a sacred place can evoke important milestones in the life of past generations, where faces and occasions have influences personal and familiar journeys."

The document stresses the absolutely essential role of the priest who has been duly appointed to be the pastor of the parish. But it also highlights the multitude of individuals and communities that participate actively in the parish’s mission and the formal structures and institutions (e.g., finance councils and pastoral councils) that assist in making that mission a reality. The Instruction has its highly hortatory moments as, for example, when it advocates aspects resembling religious community life. "When the presbyterate experiences community life, priestly identity is strengthened, material concerns diminish, and the temptation of individualism gives way to profoundly personal relationships." On the other hand, it also addresses such very practical matters as the terms of pastors and the "moral duty" to offer one's resignation when one turns 75. (It gets somewhat hortatory again in imagining that such post-pastors should not thereby feel "demoted" or "punished.")

As they certainly deserve, deacons get considerable attention in this Instruction. Intriguingly, it also takes up the neuralgic issue of Mass Offerings, which in turn offers an opportunity to remind priest to "offer virtuous examples in the use of money, whether it be that of a sober lifestyle, without excess on a personal level, or that of a transparent management of Parish goods."

Finally, it emphasizes how "pastoral activity needs to go beyond merely the territorial limits of the Parish, to make ecclesial communion more transparent by means of the synergy between ministers and diverse charisms, structuring itself as a'pastoral care for all,' at the service of the diocese and of its mission."

I often wonder just who is the anticipated audience for documents such as this. An Instruction is not a legislative document or a dogmatic pronouncement. It restates existing law and applies established magisterial teaching to the situation at hand. In this case, the situation is the actual life and mission of the parish, a practical exploration of possibilities  for the context within which most Catholics experience being Church.  Even were we not in the midst of the shattering crisis created by the pandemic, this would be an important issue. The Instruction speaks predictably does not say everything that could be said on the subject, but it lucidly sets some helpful parameters and points to possibilities, which make sit a good foundation for further efforts at re-imagining parish for a post-pandemic Church.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Church in a Post-Pandemic World

Church doors have been open again for some time, and certainly some of us are very happy to be back, even if it means we have to wear masks, sit in designated sections, sanitize our hands, and do any number of other necessary but burdensome things. Sunday attendance hovers around 1/3 what it was a year ago. The question so many are asking, of course, is what about the other 2/3? When will they come back? Will they come back? And, underlying that, there is the other question we also ought to be be asking: What kind of Church will we be to come back to? 

There will obviously be superficial changes that many may welcome while others deplore. Such 20th-century revivals of long-abandoned ancient practices, such as Communion from the chalice and congregational participation in the exchange of peace, may well be gone for good - as may such liturgically dubious Protestant imports as hand-holding at the Lord's Prayer. For all the fuss they engendered (and admittedly intense advocacy in some quarters), how little such practices actually added is evident from how easily we have adapted to their absence.

We are what we do. Rituals and symbolic actions are important. But such superficial 20th-century accretions have never been at the heart of the Church's life. 

More problematic, of course, has been the loss of congregational singing.  Hopefully, we'll eventually find a reasonably safe way to "pray twice" again!

On the other hand, assembling on Sunday - whether Communion is received under two species or only one or not at all - assembling on Sunday has been at the heart of the Church's life since apostolic times. For the liturgy, as Vatican II taught, "is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 2).

“Every Sunday is a great Feast and a time of joy," Thomas Merton wrote in his Journal on October 1, 1939, at a moment in world history hardly festive or joyful, even compared to today's tragic atmosphere.

Admittedly the pathologies of modernity - from Sunday store openings to Sunday sports - had already decisively undermined the Lord's Day, long before the pandemic. 

It may be that those who miss Mass most intensely will eventually come back to something like regular Sunday attendance, but the very fact that there is such widespread anxiety that many others may not is truly telling. It may be a mistake to hang too much on the hook of Sunday Mass; but it really is the only ordinary opportunity for religion to compete with secular priorities, if only for one feeble hour. And we may be losing that one hour now even faster than we expected. If religious sensibility is formed and then nourished primarily by and through the liturgy, what will be the effect of liturgy's absence on the strength of religious sensibility, indeed on its existence? Has religion's increasing absence from society during this period of pandemic actually confirmed a long-term trend in that direction - and maybe even have accelerated it?

Crises can, of course, contribute to religious revival. In his memorable Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, for example, Tony Judt recognized how religion (particularly Catholicism) "basked in a brief Indian summer of restored authority" after the Second World War. Judt ascribed Catholic success in Europe in the immediate post-war period to the Christian Democratic parties connected with it and, even more, to the sense it then offered "of continuity, of security and reassurance in a world that had altered violently in the past decade and was about to be transformed even more dramatically in the years to come." 

Continuity, security, and reassurance may be just as much needed now as then, but religious institutions seem somehow less effectively equipped to offer them. At one ideological extreme, a quasi-integralist reactionary religious politics may seem attractive to some, but even that seems increasingly to be more about politics and less about religion, while in the cultural mainstream religion's apparent absence during the pandemic may have amplified its already evident absence and silence in the public square. And therein may lie the unique challenge of out time.

And yet this pandemic challenges us - as perhaps few other world events recently have - to focus on the care we owe to ourselves and to one another in our common home. "See how they love one another" was how some described the early Christians. We all know that whether as individuals or as a Church community we have not always lived up to that as well as we should. But we are being especially challenged to do so today. As citizens, we understand that living in society, being in community with others, imposes burdens. As Christians, we believe that the love we should have for one another will make those burdens more bearable.

As Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego recently said
 in his homily at the ordination of a new Auxiliary Bishop: "The pandmeic has worn us down and made us fearful of the way forward. ... Patterns of parish life that have sustained community and the proclamation of the Gospel for decades have been ruptured by the isolation of these months and the atomization of all social life that we have witnessed. there is a great danger that that pandemic is creating a culture of increased disengagement within the life of the Church that will persist long after a vaccination is found. ... There is  no more important work for the Church in the coming months than consoling those who have been broken and bringing to our world the understanding that God provides the only enduring foundation for the journey of life on this earth."

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Hagia Sophia

On May 13, 609, an old Roman Temple, the Pantheon was reconsecrated as the Church of Saint Mary and, the Martyrs. Over the centuries, many other churches have been created out of former temples, or built upon the ruins of temples which formerly had stood on that site. In medieval and early modern Spain, churches became mosques and then reverted to churches again after the reconquista As a result of the Protestant Reformation, countless Catholic cathedrals and churches became Protestant churches and still remain so. More recently, after the French conquest of Algeria the Ketchaoua Mosque in Algiers became the Cathedral of Saint Philippe in 1832. After Algerian independence, it became a mosque again in 1962. Turkey's restoration this week of Hagia Sophia as a mosque after almost a century as a museum must inevitably be viewed in the context of that common historical pattern.

Constructed as a Christian basilica,  Hagia Sophia  served for nearly nine centuries as the cathedral of the patriarchs of Constantinople and was widely esteemed as the greatest church in the world. (On first entering it, Emperor Justinian supposedly said, "Solomon, I have outdone you!") It was for a while turned into a Latin Catholic cathedral after the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204, but then became an Orthodox cathedral again after the Byzantine Empire regained Constantinople. After conquering Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror turned the world-famous basilica into a mosque. Its Byzantine mosaics were hidden and Islamic architectural features were added to the building. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey as a modern and secular republic. He allied Turkey with Western secularism and secularization, establishing his own Turkish type of laïcité. Hagia Sophia was declared "a unique architectural monument of art," and was preserved as a museum, which enabled some of the Byzantine Christian mosaics to be revealed again after so many centuries. Modern Turkey, like so much of the Muslim world, seems inclined to reject this Western secularist path. As one symbolically  powerful expression of that change, Turkey's present pro-Islamist government has now restored Hagia Sophia to its previous, post-Christian status as a mosque.

Obviously this obliteration of the building's centuries of Christian history is an incalculable loss to the world's artistic and cultural heritage. (I have always wanted to see Hagia Sophia, wonder of the world that it is, but, between this and my advancing age, I guess now I never will.) Even so, it is a bit extreme to suggest, as Thomas Madden did last week in First Things that "Hagia Sophia should no more be a mosque than the Parthenon should be restored to the worship of Athena." The obvious flaw in Madden's argument is that there is no significant cult of Athena today. If Greek nationalism were to take a "pagan" turn and replace Greek Orthodox Christianity with classical Hellenism as its defining national identity, then maybe there might be a movement to restore the Parthenon to its original cultic character. At present, however, most Greeks do not worship Athena. But most  Turks today do identify as Muslims, whatever their degree of religious observance. So the Parthenon analogy, while clever, is irrelevant.

Still that leaves a lot of issues potentially on the table. It remains to be seen what this will mean long-term for the Turkish regime, for Turkey's position in the Muslim world, for Russia's standing as protector of Orthodox communities in the Middle East, for the Middle Eastern Christians themselves, whose position is so increasingly precarious, and for the secular European project. While this may or may not be a decisive moment in some Huntingtonian clash-of-civilizations nightmare, it poses political as well as religious challenges, not least for future ventures in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Infallibility at 150

150 years ago today, under the imminent shadow of the Franco-Prussian War (soon to be followed by the Italian conquest of Rome), the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) adopted the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, which famously defined the Infallibility of the Pope, much to the delight of Blessed Pius IX (Pope 1846-1878) and many others, for whom this was, so to speak, the jewel in the maybe much more important crown of papal primacy.

Romanum Pontificem, cum ex Cathedra loquitur, id est, cum omnium Christianorum Pastoris et Doctoris munere fungens, pro suprema sua Apostolica auctoritate doctrinam de fide vel moribus ab universa Ecclesia tenendam definit, per assistentiam divinam, ipsi in beato Petro promissam, ea infallibilitate pollere, qua divinus Redemptor Ecclesiam suam in definienda doctrina de fide vel moribus instructam esse voluit; ideoque eiusmodi Romani Pontificis definitiones ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae irreformabiles esse.

That the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when exercising the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, through his supreme Apostolic authority, defines a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possesses that infallibility, which the divine Redeemer willed his Church in defining doctrine of faith or morals; and therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not  from the consent of the Church.

It is commonly claimed that Vatican I resolved the relationship between the Pope and the Bishops basically in favor of the Pope, leaving it to Vatican II (1962-1965) to balance Vatican I with its renewed emphasis on the episcopacy, both on the level of the local Church and also universally through the concept of episcopal collegiality. There is certainly something to be said for that interpretation, as far as it goes. Yet it remains undeniably the case that the Church is today probably about as pope-centered as it is possible to be. To the outside secular world, it often seems that the Pope is the Church. Certainly he is her personification and spokesman, in a way that no one else is and that (at least under ordinary circumstances) it seems can be shared with no one else. Within the Church, the ordinary Catholic may experience the Church most personally and directly at the parish level, but beyond the parish it is again primarily the Pope who represents and speaks for the Church for most Catholics. Most may never make it to Rome. But, for those who do, attending a papal audience or Mass in Saint Peter's or even the Sunday Angelus in the square - even watching such events on TV - is likely to seem way more exciting than anything that happens on the local level. I remember some 25+ years ago, when a local bishop planned a diocesan youth day (inspired by his experience of the recent WYD in Denver) a religious sister warned that he was not the pope and wouldn't have a helicopter to arrive in! Of course she was correct. Having attended several papal events in Rome and elsewhere (including WYD in Cologne), I know well the excitement and enthusiasm that the papal presence inevitably generates.

Some of this is inherent in modernity and the papacy's successful employment of modern media and of celebrity culture. It is also inherent in modern governance which is technologically capable of a degree of centralization and reaching into all aspects of local life, which we typically take for granted now, but which would simply have been impossible in earlier ages. Accordingly it has rightly been emphasized how Infallibility was itself, so to speak, the jewel in the ultimately much more important crown of papal jurisdictional primacy, which was in many ways the great practical accomplishment of the modern papacy in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Church of the 19th and 20th centuries, internally united and strongly centralized by papal jurisdictional primacy proved powerfully formidable when faced with the threats to her freedom from secular society, especially the rising power of modern national states. But the familiar formula of Vatican I, ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae, a direct reference to the infamous Gallican Articles of 1682, was also directed internally - as, for example, Shaun Blanchard has argued, as a response to "the crucial (and in some cases still unresolved) theological and ecclesiological struggles within the Catholic Church itself in the early modern period," prior, that is, to the external threats posed by the French Revolution and what followed. [See "The Twists and Turns That Led to the First Vatican Council," Church Life Journal, ]

In the wake of Vatican II and the internal turmoil that followed within the Church, it can be argued that the ecclesiological concerns of the 18th century seem to have returned from their long hibernation during the ultramontanist winter that followed Vatican I, facilitated for some by an ideologically idealized interpretation of Vatican II ecclesiology.

Yet once again external social realities and political and cultural threats loom large on the horizon as they did in 1870. Inevitably there is only one component of the Church's constitution that can effectively represent the Church to the world, that can effectively make the Church's case to the world, and also (hopefully if perhaps paradoxically) that can bring the world's case to the Church's needful attention in turn. In a certain sense, that seems to be what the present papacy is attempting to accomplish. Certainly Laudato Si' stands as a shining example of the papacy's unique capacity to bring the world's case to the Church's attention. (How successfully is another question, clearly not quite answerable as yet.) 

Whatever one makes of the interesting spectacle of the current ultra-ultramontanism of the Church's "progressive" post-conciliar factions, perhaps it reflects a belated acknowledgment of the reality that there seems no other effective option for being Church in the contemporary world (just as there are increasingly no effective alternatives to centralized bureaucratic governance in the secular world).

And wasn't that more or less what was recognized 150 years ago?

(Photo: Tomb of Blessed Pope Pius IX, Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls, 2012)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Band Plays On

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1987, San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts published And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic a book that chronicled the early spread of HIV and AIDS, highlighting the governmental indifference and apathy that allowed the epidemic to get worse. (It was made into a TV docudrama in 1993.) 

Since then, the world has experienced severe but relatively localized calamities such as SARS and Ebola. One would think the lessons from those experiences might have been taken to heart by those with political power, those with the ultimate responsibility for public health. I suspect they were in fact taken seriously by some - just not by the political party that would be in power in Washington and many states when the global coronavirus covid-19 pandemic would once again challenge government leaders to actually lead. 

Around the beginning of March, as the approaching pandemic was finally intruding into our consciousness, I mentioned at a meeting that I thought the U.S.should imitate Italy and just shut everything down. I was, of course, roundly mocked for this and was told to calm myself down. Then, within another week, we were in fact largely shut down. It was a harrowing time for many, but by May the pressure was already on to reopen everything, which largely happened in May and June, with consequences we are now experiencing.  We have all seen the graphs that highlight how at one point the U.S. and the E.U. (comparable in population size) were experiencing about the same number of cases but are way apart now, with the U.S. having the most cases in the entire world. What went wrong?

Well, obviously, had we used the lockdown period to augment our testing and tracing capabilities, and had we reopened less precipitously, and had everyone acted sensibly and observed proper precautions like wearing masks and maintaining physical distance, then our situation today might very different. Obviously, there has been a catastrophic failure of political leadership on the part of the president and his political party. In her now famous book about her uncle, Mary Trump noted that he has "never needed to acquire expertise in order to attain or retain power (which partly explains his disdain for the expertise of others)." She also suggests his inadequate response to the pandemic early on was "because of his fear of appearing weak or failing to project the message that everything was 'great,' 'beautiful,' and 'perfect.' The irony is that his failure to face the truth has inevitably led to massive failure anyway. In this case, the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of people will be lost and the economy of the richest country in history may well be destroyed."

Obviously, leadership matters. To quote Shakespeare: if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it.

If the president had shown even modest leadership and empathy, then others, with greater skill and expertise, might have been empowered to assist him in a common endeavor, and ordinary Americans (or at least most of them) would have done whatever they would have been called upon to do. Instead, however, the failure at the top has allowed free expression to the worst elements of American exceptionalism - deplorable libertarian nonsense and a nonsensical populist denigration of science and expertise - evidenced, for example, in the widespread failure of so many to cooperate with such minimal but essential behaviors as wearing face masks whenever in proximity to others.

Even now, with cases increasing alarmingly all around us, I constantly encounter people without masks, not observing physical distance, etc. 

And the Band Plays On.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The World's Most Dangerous Man" (the Book)

One doesn't need to read Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough:: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (Simon and Schuster) to know that private wealth is bad and that being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin." To know that, all one needs to do is read scripture and listen to Jesus's words, which repeatedly made that point (a message much of modern Christianity has forgotten or ignored in favor of other subjects on which Jesus had much less to say). Nor need one read her book to wonder whether the present President of the United States may well be what his niece describes. That said, her book helpfully amplifies the picture we already have.

What would otherwise be a biography based on insider family gossip, in the hands of  a niece who is also a qualified clinical psychologist, becomes a psychological portrait of President Trump by a relative who combines her direct firsthand family experience with clinical analysis. Unsurprisingly, when one family member turns against another in this way, there is a inevitably some sad family history in the background and some element of getting back at others in the clan. The author herself acknowledges worrying about this: "I concluded that if  spoke publicly about my uncle,  would be painted as a disgruntled niece looking to cash in or settle a score." Mary is the daughter of Fred Jr. (the President's older brother) who is presented as having been badly broken down by his domineering father, Fred Sr. (the patriarch of the family business, the son of the successful immigrant Trump from Germany who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic). Mary's father famously left the family business to become a pilot, but eventually became an alcoholic and lost this job and his marriage and died at 42. It was Uncle Donald who lived up to his father's brutal expectations and was amply rewarded for it, whereas, when Fred Sr. died, Fred Jr.'s children (the author and her brother, Fred) were excluded from his will. This in turn led to the litigation which led to the supposed non-disclosure agreement, which was the basis for the Trump family's efforts to stop her book. 

Trump's pathologies, if that is what they are, have been on public display for decades. This sad story about horrible rich people, once salacious local entertainment for New Yorkers, has acquired world-historical significance because of the unlikely election of Uncle Donald as president in 2016. It is as if the HBO series Succession's story of how one mean old capitalist damaged all of his children - but most especially the son who most desperately sought to please and succeed him - has come to life off-screen. As someone once said to me about the family drama of another problematic New York politician, Why does anyone bother to write fiction?

I understand what the author is attempting, but personally I would probably have preferred less psychological jargon. Sometimes I felt I was taking a tour of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 finding every diagnostic category that could be applied to the Donald.  At the outset she assures us he meets the "nine criteria" for narcissism. Frankly I find all that clinical diagnostic language almost numbing, whereas the actual story she tells is so raw that the ultimate tragedy of it all almost tells itself. (The psychological approach does, however, add intriguing insights - such as her view that Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mitch McConnell all "bear more than a passing psychological resemblance to Fred," Donald's father.)

It is a sad, Succession-style story of family dysfunction (facilitated by wealth), which has allegedly left the author's uncle "incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information." We have become more than usually accustomed to political tell-all books by observers of this Administration. Here the President's public presentation mirrors the family story - in Mary's words turning "this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family." This book brings us inside the story, and invites us to survey the many cracks in the family portrait. 

The author quotes an article calling her uncle "Frankenstein without a conscience," but then applies that to the President's father, who is in many ways the ultimate villain in the story. - "a high-functioning sociopath" who "seemed to have no emotional needs at all." The damaged son in turn damages the entire nation, his niece argues. "The atmosphere of division my grandfather created in the Trump family is the water in which Donald has always swum, and division continues to benefit him at the expense of everyone else. It's wearing the country down just as it did my father, changing us even when it leaves Donald unaltered. It's weakening our ability to be kind or believe in forgiveness, concepts that have never had any meaning for him."

If Fred, Sr. is the villain, the victim - or, rather, the main victim, inasmuch as everyone is is a victim to some extent - is the author's father, Fred, Jr. ("Freddy"), whose unhappy life story is retold in all its tragic detail, whose father simultaneously told him "that he had to be an unqualified success and that he never could be." Slowly but surely, the second son replace his older brother as the center of their father's world. "Fred accepted Donald's arrogance and bullying - after he actually started to notice them - because he identified with the impulses."

While much of the story of Donald's rise may be familiar, his niece effectively dismantles any mythology of merit, making it very clear how much Donald depended on his father - not just his father's money but his political and other connections. As for minor members of the clan, Mary uses their deference to their father's preference for Donald to illustrate the same sycophancy that establishment Republicans would eventually come to display. 

The sad story of the fight over the will and the medical insurance just highlights what we, of course, already know. "If your only currency is money, that's the only lens through which you determine worth."

The moral of the story? We knew that already. Private wealth is bad, and being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin."

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Seeding the Good News in a Bad News World

A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing that familiar opening line to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!

Having lived virtually all my life in cities, parables about famers sowing seed sound somewhat exotic to me – and, maybe even somewhat strange. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ actual hearers – the original audience for this parable - would have understood. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farmer-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been be very difficult - and inefficient. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean a lot will be wasted, but it probably guarantees that some will fall on good soil and take root and produce fruit. So what may seem like inefficiency to us turns out to be really quite efficient indeed!

Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and how he expects his Church to behave in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.
We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it, if in fact all we do is talk. We honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who travelled to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from France to Canada like Saints John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.

But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute at present a somewhat shrinking 20 percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”

Well before the pandemic took over our lives, Sunday Mass attendance was declining dramatically. And, since 2000, Catholic marriage rates are down almost 50%, infant baptisms are down 40% percent, and adult baptisms more than 50%.
So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.

As American Catholics we need to examine our consciences concerning the ways we have allowed the good news to be heard as bad news by so many in our society. Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.

As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them.  The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds.  But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 12, 2020.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Reason for Notre Dame

I still remember where i was when I heard of the tragic Notre Dame fire on the Monday of Holy Week one year ago. Like many others I applauded President Macron's commitment to rebuild the great cathedral. He created some anxiety, however, with his hint that he favored some sort of "contemporary gesture," something neither the cathedral nor the contemporary world is in any further need of!.

Apparently, his commitment to a quick reconstruction - in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics - may have been decisive in protecting the cathedral from those who want to replace its spire with something more modern. (There have even been proposals suggesting a swimming pool on the cathedral's roof!) According to the announcement made this week, it seems the cathedral's reconstruction will respect its original medieval Gothic design - and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's 19th-century Gothic spire, which replaced the original medieval one, which had been removed in the previous century.

It is obviously appropriate to build modern buildings in modern styles. If there is a problem with modern architectural styles it is not that they are modern but their style - or lack thereof. However one responds to modern architecture - and there are obviously many different examples of modern architecture from beautiful to bland to ugly -  it is not some modern building that is being reconstructed. Nor is Notre Dame just another example of medieval beauty, of which there would remain many in the world even were Notre Dame not to be rebuilt. More importantly, Notre Dame expresses a medieval cultural and religious sensibility, the loss of which has made modernity more impoverished than most moderns may willingly acknowledge. It is a sensibility which needs to be experienced, in the ways in which such a medieval building is intended to be experienced, in order to fill some of the void that sadly stands at the heart of modern experience.

I don't typically quote Rod Dreher, but what he recently wrote ("Weird Christianity," May 20, 2020) about his first encounter with Chartres Cathedral expresses something of what a church like Notre Dame is meant to do - and still can do even in this cold and soulless age:

"It wasn’t until I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral at age 17, on a tour group, that I was confronted by a form of Christianity that overwhelmed me. Nothing in my life in small-town America in the late 20th century had prepared me for the grandeur of God made manifest in that Gothic cathedral. What kind of Christianity inspires men to build this kind of temple? That was probably the first time in my life that I was truly struck by awe, in the old-fashioned sense. I remember standing there, in the center of the labyrinth, looking all around at the stained-glass windows, the arches, and the vaults, thinking, 'God does exist — and He wants me'.”

That is why it is so important that places like Notre Dame be rebuilt and maintained. That is why the real Notre Dame - not one with a "contemporary gesture" - is so very needed now, as much as it was back in 1345, maybe even more so.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Challenge of Retrieving the American Founding

American audiences applaud King George III's bravura performance in Hamilton. But however much we may sing his song and secretly wonder whether what he was saying would turn out to be the truth, we all know who is going to win and whom we are supposed to be rooting for. After the Revolution, the Loyalists largely left, and there was really no one left to challenge the fundamentals of the founding consensus. 

According to the common view that Louis Hartz famously formulated in 1955 in The Liberal Tradition in America, the U.S. had no feudal past and hence no French-style social revolution - and no Tory-like political party to propose alternatives to the established Liberal consensus. Americans might be federalists or anti-federalists, Republicans or Democrats, but they are all classical Liberals at heart, all operating within the commonly accepted liberal republican consensus.

And how could it be otherwise? Without a monarch and a shared history of centuries of common experiences and values, with what could this new nation hold itself together, especially as more and more people from all over the world with all sorts of different historical experiences kept joining? It had to be some sort of common civic identity rooted in a common consensus based on the foundation the founders had laid.

The one conspicuous exception was, of course, the ante-bellum South, whose slave-owning ruling elite fancied themselves faux aristocrats and self-consciously developed a distinctly anti-Liberal ideology in order to justify slavery and eventually secession. But that exception was eradicated - at least in theory - by the Union victory in the Civil War.

Another philosophical framework that might have offered a somewhat more subtle alternative to ideological American Liberalism - focused less on the individual and more on social solidarity and the common good - might have been Catholicism. But the Catholics who immigrated to America for the most part knew next to nothing about such ideas. And what Catholics came to care most about politically was becoming as American as possible - Catholic Americans but primarily Americans.

So there never has been any significant ethical and philosophical foundation on which to build American society other than the founding narrative. It may be flawed, but all narratives are  at least to some degree. Think of the French Republic’s famous history textbook, taught throughout the French colonial empire, which began its narrative with the words Nos ancêtres les Gaulois (" Our ancestors the Gauls").

The issue then is not inventing some new national narrative, as 20th-century totalitarians tired so hard to do. (That they were notoriously unsuccessful was evident, for example, in how much about the Soviet State could be best explained by remembering Russia.) The issue is rather how to retrieve our already very powerful and attractive national narrative with some mix of honesty and inclusion. A musical like Hamilton is admittedly entertainment, but it is also a powerful and effective exercise in civic education, which attempts to retrieve the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive manner.

Retrieving the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive direction differs from destroying or undermining that narrative. That (ironically) is what our present president seems intent on doing, not only by his undermining of traditional American liberal political norms but by his thoughtless identification of that narrative with its ideological enemies, the Confederates whose statues and flag he is so ridiculously defending.

The same could be said of the other extreme for which vandalizing statues and symbols seems a substitute for serious engagement with the  removed issues at hand. Of course, Confederate monuments should never have ben erected, ere eventually erected with malevolent intent, and should certainly be promptly removed. But vandalizing statues of other historic figures is a largely pointless exercise which substitutes exhilarating destruction for the harder work of constructing something new. The structures that actually do need to be undone are such social evils as over-policing, zoning laws and other policies that maintain residential and educational segregation, a distorted health care system that spends more than other nations with poorer outcomes, etc. Such efforts at political and social reconstruction would be best undertaken within a common commitment to the long-term promise of the founding narrative and would in turn renew that narrative for a better national future.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

SCOTUS Gets It Right on the Electoral College

Ever since the disastrous elections of 2000 and 2016, in which the candidate rejected by the popular vote received a majority of the electoral college vote, there has been increased dissatisfaction expressed about our electoral college system. It is not quite clear how best to reform or replace it, what form of direct popular election would work best, or what its unintended side effects might be. But there is probably a considerable consensus that the present system should at least operate the way we expect it to - with electors voting for their party's nominee. That's what we presume will happen when we call the election in November, a full month before the electors actually cast their ballots.

Apparently the Supreme Court agrees with this common expectation. According to yesterday's unanimous decision in Chiafalo v. Washington, states may (as 32 states plus DC now do) require electors to vote as expected and also (if the state chooses to) sanction them if they don't. By 1832, every state except one (South Carolina) had switched to popular election of electors, and the system we have since come to take for granted has assumed that the electors will vote as expected. Citing an earlier precedent, Justice Kagan's opinion allows this "long settled and established practice" to have "great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions" - in this case the provision allowing states to appoint electors  "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct."

Undoubtedly, it was the intent of the Framers for electors to exercise their own judgment. They would, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." Already by the election of 1800, however, the political party system had developed to provide that "information and discernment" for voters.

There were several so-called "faithless electors" in 2016. What on election night in November had seemed like a 306-232 win for Trump turned into a 304-227 tally - not enough to alter the expected result, but certainly one additional discredit to our system (in trouble enough already).

Making it more likely that that the system will work the way we expect it to may be small consolation to the increasing number of Americans who no longer want a system which works in effect to disenfranchise so many citizens and which twice in two decades has produced a president rejected by the majority of voters. But surely improving that system should not depend on the arbitrary caprice of individual electors displaying even greater contempt for the will of the voters. That much, at least, we should all be able to agree on.

Monday, July 6, 2020

"The $10 Founding Father"

I've always admired Alexander Hamilton. Back in the 1970s, my American political thought professor suggested a show should be made about him, heroically titled "Alexander." I never quite expected that to happen and was accordingly surprised and pleased when "the $10 Founding Father" became the subject of a Broadway hit. Of course, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterpiece may not have been stylistically what any 1970s professor or student might have expected. But, as everyone now knows, it has succeeded, both as art and repurposed history. (And it may also have happily helped save Hamilton's honored place on the $10 bill.)

Needless to say, until now I have never seen or ever expected to see the show - Broadway being well beyond my price range. But now, for a modest fee (infinitesimal compared to theater prices), a filmed version of the theatrical production (with the original cast) is now available for streaming. So I spent some significant part of July 4 watching what I'd admired from afar but had never expected to see for myself.

Obviously, watching on my laptop cannot compete with or really compare with watching it live in a theater. Nor, since it is a filmed version of a particular live performance, is it a proper "movie," with all that that experience entails. I will leave it to the theater and film critics to analyze those aspects of this unique production. Even so, the performance - its music, its lyrics, its acting - is fantastic.

As always, it helps to know some history already. Undoubtedly, it helps to have read Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton, on which Lin-Manule Miranda based his musical. But even the viewer with no knowledge of American history at all could learn a lot from this pop version of Hamilton's life - from his arrival as an immigrant in New York to his service on Washington's staff in the Revolutionary War, his marriage, his authorship of The Federalist Papers, his service as Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, his rivalries with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his affair with Maria Reynolds, the death of his son, his role in the 1801 election of Jefferson over Burr, and his death in a duel with Burr.

Hamilton, the immigrant outsider who made his way inside and became a great nation-builder, has always embodied a special sense of America's promise. Hamilton, the Broadway hit, transposes that perennial promise into the cultural expression of Obama-era multicultural progressivism, a novel take to be sure, but one well within the ultimate logic of Hamilton's story. In this repressive nightmare which we are now living through, that seems almost as far away as the founding era itself. Optimistic Obama-era multicultural progressivism appears almost as distant as the founders in their knee-breeches, and in its own measure flawed like them. Yet it speaks so eloquently of the power of America's founding promise that we can keep reverting to both the founding event and the founders themselves in new and imaginative ways, a retrieval which we will have to try to do again, on a much bigger stage, if and when our current national nightmare ever ends.