Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Nation Diminished


The Commission on Presidential Debates hosted a 90+ minute farce, falsely labelled a "debate," in which President Trump gleefully trashed the established debate format, symbolically reenacting on-stage his trashing of the institution of the presidency  and established norms of governance these last four years. Now I am already on record (cf. "Why Debates?" August 26) as no fan of these quadrennial performances, especially now when many have already started voting and when, in our deeply divided country, most voters' minds are already made up. I doubt this debate changed many minds. But it did diminish - if, after four years of this, it were possible  further to diminish - the stature of the United States, which once held itself up as a model of stable, democratic, constitutional governance.

Since no one seriously expects the President to follow the rules in subsequent debates, any more than he did in the first one, the Commission on Presidential Debates could cancel them. But, of course, it won't. Too much is invested in maintaining this absurd practice, no matter how embarrassing and demeaning to our national self-respect it becomes. But then, of course, our entire presidential electoral process has become embarrassing and demeaning - from its absurd length to its increasingly undemocratic outcomes in which twice already in less than 20 years (2000 and 2016) the candidate rejected by the majority of voters has become president.

Some 83 million watched the first  presidential debate four years ago. My guess is that as many or more probably did so this time. It will be interesting to learn how many actually watched - and how many turned it off at some point.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Defend Us in Battle

In the post-conciliar calendar of Pope Saint Paul VI, today is the feast of the three Archangels, Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. But, while an aspect of this feast has always honored all the angels (cf. the Collect of the Mass), today's feast has long been associated primarily with one angel in particular, Saint Michael the Archangel. Hence today's traditional English name Michaelmas.

The feast originated in the 5th-century dedication of a Roman Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel on the Via Saleria. Hence, its official title, prior to the post-conciliar calendar reform, was "The Dedication of Saint Michael the Archangel." Like many other great feasts it was at one time a holy day of obligation. (Its proximity to the autumn equinox also made it one of the "quarter days" in medieval England when financial accounts came due.)

The biblical readings from Daniel and Revelation used in the current Mass also highlight Michael, with no mention of the other two recently recently added archangels Gabriel and Raphael (who used to have their own separate, if lower ranked, celebrations on March 24 and October 24 respectively.) Michael's prominence in the Old Testament is suggested by the his image as Israel's defender - her "prince" (Daniel 10:21) and is reinforced in the New Testament as the one who leads the heavenly hosts in combat against Satan and defeats him (Revelation 12:7-9).

It was obviously this which inspired the famous 19th-century "Prayer to Saint Michael," which eventually became one of the so-called "Leonine Prayers" which came to be recited by the priest (in the vernacular) after Low Masses (Masses with no singing), originally for the recovery of the papal states. It was the bellicose imagery of that frequently heard prayer that motivated me as a nerdy nine-year old to choose Michael as my confirmation name!

But Michael has another aspect, which is the origin of his statue at the top of Hadrian's tomb in Rome, transforming it into the Castel Sant' Angelo. (Photo; the Castel Sant' Angelo with Saint Michael the Archangel at the top, taken by me in 2012.)

The legend is that, during a prolonged period of plague in 590, Pope Saint Gregory the Great led a procession on the occasion of which the pope had a vision of Saint Michael the Archangel atop the castle, wiping the blood from his sword on his mantle, and then sheathing it as a sign of the end of the plague. 

As of yesterday, the global death toll from the coronavirus had reached 999,273, which means it will very soon surpass 1 million. Perhaps Michael and his feast could be repurposed as an occasion for intercessory prayer for health and safety in this post-modern, pandemic-prone world.

Monday, September 28, 2020

How We Live Now (The Book)

"It’s a little like losing your life while still being alive, this experience. Everything I knew in New York—everything we knew—is gone: stores, restaurants, concerts, subway rides, church services, movie theaters, museums, nail salons. When a memory comes, you almost wonder if it is true—it seems so impossible to imagine again—if it happened at all."

So writes photographer and author Bill Hayes, who portrays and chronicles aspects of life in New York City during the earlier months of the pandemic in How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic, which depicts this strange, unique, transformative time which we all - and the city - have been struggling through.

Last New Year's Eve, Hayes recalls having had "a sensation I remember clearly; it was almost like having a premonition: The year ahead is going to be such a joyful one. Boy, did I get that wrong."

He sure did!

Hayes is a photographer, and the particular appeal of his book is the photos. Particularly poignant, of course, are his before-and-after pictures. So early on, for example, we see a fantastic photo of Eighth Avenue on a December night in 2019, a very New York photo of the street crowded with cars, red lights everywhere, a “fiery red Milky Way on the streets of Manhattan.” Then we see the same scene in early April, essentially empty, looking "like a sky snuffed of its stars." 

"I can see already how photography can document the rapidity with which things are changing," he writes, "and equally, how street photography as I’ve practiced it may never be the same."

Anyone who knows New York understands the absolutely vital part played by the subway system in the city's very life. I have often wondered when (and if) subway ridership will return to normal - and what that new normal might look like. His photo of an empty L Train at rush hour on April 22 is amazing to look at - beautiful in some sleek post-modern way, but terrifying too in its implications for future urban life. 

Here is how Hayes describes his last subway ride, on March 13, at the onset of the pandemic: "People were not yet wearing masks and only a few wore gloves like me, but everyone was doing their best to keep as far away from everyone else as possible. More people stood than sat, bunched together, for example—a rarity; you could practically get tackled for a spare seat in earlier times. This is not how New York, the New York I knew, operated."

Journaling (which is what textually this book most resembles) can be very rewarding as an exercise in self-exploration and self-clarification. Making one's day-to-day story really interesting for others is much more of a challenge. Literature - like life - flowers much more from getting out of and beyond oneself than from tedious self-absorption. But every now and then, the author makes an observation that says so much more than the words he employs or the seemingly banal circumstances being described. So, for example, on a walk one day Hayes visits a favorite bookstore and is thrilled to find it open - admittedly operating in an unusual way. No one was allowed inside. But, from the street, customers could call out a title or a topic and the staff would find what they were looking for. Evocatively, he says, "I felt like I was in a metaphorical breadline—a breadline for feeding the brain and the soul." What a wonderful image for this special post-modern intellectual and spiritual poverty! What a testimony to the transcendent power of books - even in this increasingly post-literate era!

In words but much more so in pictures, Hayes has invited us to reconsider the city and what it means.

How we live now - not just in New York - now seems so incredibly different from how we once lived not so long ago, a past that somehow now appears so distant. We have lost more than 200,000 fellow citizens. And we have lost so much else that we may never recover.  And when this nightmare is over (if in fact it ever is), what will we build to replace what we have lost?

Sunday, September 27, 2020

From NO to YES


One of the age-old questions people persistently ask is whether and how much people can really change. Is it actually possible to start over, or are we fated to follow the same patterns, for better or for worse, all our lives? How we answer that will likely determine our attitude on any number of issues. And we’re not necessarily consistent in how we answer. Starting over, wiping the slate clean, doing something new, starting all over again, that is – or at least was - part of the language of America, what it meant to be an immigrant and come here in the first place. Americans have long been the most mobile people in the world, the least rooted, the ones most ready to pick and go and try something else. On the other hand, most of us, most of the time, are as likely to resist that and seek stability instead. And sometimes we may feel stuck – in a place, in a job, in a relationship, in addictive or otherwise destructive behavior, whatever. We’re all increasingly aware of how limited our choices can sometimes seem, and may really be.

It is true, of course, that we can never completely undo the past. Who we have been and what we have done – our actions, our choices, our mistakes, our failures, not to mention those of our parents and those who preceded us – are part of who we are now. We are in some sense always products of our past. And being honest and realistic about who we have been, where we have come from, and what we have done or failed to do, to recognize our limits and learn to live with them, has real value.  But it can also immobilize. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way things are,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!” 

And, of course, sometimes that may be all too true – at least on a human level. Yet change – real, fundamental change of heart - is just what Jesus was inviting the people to do with his story of the man with the two sons. As parables go, this one seems simple, a simple example of changing one behavior for another. But, as Jesus’ concluding words of rebuke suggest, changing it for the better just doesn’t always happen. There is absolutely nothing automatic about it.

As he often did, Jesus told a simple story to make a serious point. Paul applied it to all of history, in which Jesus himself is the change. Paul wrote the familiar words we just heard to the Christian community he had founded and left behind at Philippi. Paul wrote to thank them for their generosity in the past and to encourage them to face the future.

Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, he advised them. Paul’s idea of encouragement was to identify with the fundamental truth about Jesus, which he proceeded to express – not in his own words but with what most likely was already a well-known Christian hymn, an early profession of faith in Jesus:

Who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … becoming obedient to the point of death ... Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name. 

In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, self-centered behavior (which dominates and directs most of human history going all the way back all the way to Adam), Jesus changed course. Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient, and his obedience to his Father has changed our human history and has made it possible for each of us to undo our own destructive patterns of the past and alter the course of our own personal history, by creating new possibilities for us, both in relation to God and to one another.

Jesus’ obedience to his Father was not some isolated act. It was a total attitude that characterized his whole self. That was how God originally intended all of us to live. We cannot return to that original innocence; but, with God’s help, we can change course – like the first son in the parable in today’s Gospel [Matthew 21:28-32], who first answered, “I will not,” but who then afterwards changed his mind.

It is still true, of course, that we cannot undo the past, and that we are in some sense always products of our past – both our own personal past and the collective past of our shared human history. But the good news of the Gospel is that something new really has happened in the world in Jesus.

And because of that there is now no sin that we cannot break away from. No, we cannot undo the past, but acknowledging the past can set the stage for changing course in the present. That’s what repentance is – something we can now do, not on our own, of course, not all by ourselves, but by being remodeled in the image of God’s Son, who empowers us to share in his new life – already here and now in the community of his Church on earth and then forever when our risen selves are joined with Christ completely in the kingdom of the Father.

That’s one reason why we traditionally begin Mass with a confession of sin. Personally, I’ve always liked the traditional Anglican Confession of Sin. It starts out with a blunt admission of past failures: We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done. And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.

But then the next word is But! That But is God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake of his Son, as a result of which the prayer concludes grant, O most merciful Father for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of his holy Name.

In Jesus, the direction of human history has been changed, and the entire human race has been offered a change of heart, given the chance to change course, once and for all. In telling us this parable about two sons, Jesus makes clear that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failure to follow, but rather, having (as Saint Paul says) the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, to let ourselves be changed. Let’s get going, Jesus is inviting us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading!

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 27, 2020.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Our Imperiled Health Care

Today the Church commemorates Saints Cosmas and Damian, Syrian brothers, who were also physicians and who offered free care to the poor. Martyred under Diocletian in 303, they are accordingly venerated as patrons of physicians and other medical professionals. (The photo, taken by me in 2012 is of the site of their relics in the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the lower part of which is in the ancient Roman forum and incorporates ancient Roman structures.)

Aside from such expressions of heroic sanctity, obviously doctors do ordinarily deserve to be paid, as do all health-care workers - and, indeed, all workers. Today's commemoration does however, remind us of the persistent problem in our society of the excessive cost of health-care for many - what we might call the rationing of health-care by the "death panel" that is American capitalism.

There are numerous ways for societies to provide adequate health care to their citizens, as exemplified in the diversity of systems across the spectrum of economically advanced societies. Among such societies, only the United States fails so dramatically at this important social and political function. And the reason for this failure is rooted in the perverse American approach to health care as primarily a vehicle for the few to make money at the expense of the many who are sick or may become sick.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") wasn't able to address, let alone solve, all the inequities in American health care, but it was a major step forward. Its guarantee of health care coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions and its provision for young people to remain on their parents' plans until age 26 have been among its most universally appreciated benefits, while the expansion of Medicaid has resulted in one of the greatest expansions of health care coverage. Since our dysfunctional Supreme Court permitted states to refuse to expand Medicaid, poor people in certain Republican states have missed out on this opportunity. That is just one more thing that will need to be corrected when and if it is possible to repass a more comprehensive version of the ACA, which may not be "Medicare for All" but which will need to be something significantly similar in its effects. (Richard Nixon considered "Medicare for All" in 1973. It is hardly a novel idea.)

Of course, the covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies and inequities in our health care system even more dramatically. On the long-standing political principle that crises create opportunities for real reform, this is the time to respond to this terrible tragedy by finally universalizing access to adequate health care. Personally, I see no persuasive value in retaining a system of private insurance - a third-party profiteering from people's medical needs and diverting resources into bureaucratic mechanisms focused on denying care. However, there are several successful national health-care systems around the world which do incorporate private insurance. Were the U.S. to adopt something similar it would still be an improvement on where we are now. While I personally prefer expanding Medicare and Medicaid to include many more people as the best route to take, virtue-signaling squabbles over Medicare-for-All versus other approaches should not get in the way of the more important goal of increasing access to quality health care for all Americans.

This is especially so in view of the current crisis caused by the virtual certainty that some defender of the capitalist oligarchy's obsession with reducing Americans' access to health care will soon be sitting on the Supreme Court. Coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and the ACA's other accomplishments are again threatened by a lawsuit brought by several Republican states and supported by the Trump Administration. That case will be argued before the Supreme Court on November 10.

After two near-death experiences - one in the Court in 2012 (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius) and another in the Senate in 2017, when the late Senator john McCain's vote saved the ACA - one would think enough was enough; but apparently health hath no fury like oligarchs determined to take away people's health care!

And all of this comes in the middle of a global pandemic that has already unnecessarily stolen the lives of more than 200,000 Americans! The Senate, that has been unable (a.k.a. unwilling) to legislate pandemic relief, is rushing to confirm yet another Federalist society acolyte, while it can still get away with it, presumably with the reliably safe expectation that such a Justice will compliantly fulfill the governing party's good of taking away people's health care.

All of which further highlights the immediate necessity of reforming and restructuring a Supreme Court that has for most of American history served us ill much more often than it has served us well.

Friday, September 25, 2020

I Voted


Election Day is still over a  month away, and the first "Debate" hasn't happened yet But, like most voters I have already known for a long time how I would vote. And so, having received my Absentee Ballot, I voted. In this time of unprecedented political crisis, in which the very heart and soul of majoritarian democratic governance are threatened, others should do the same as well. 

Some part of me misses the communitarian experience of everyone voting together on the same day. But our country has bigger worries right now, and nostalgia increasingly just gets in the way of what needs to be changed, which is a lot.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Confirmation Memories


I love finding these old photos from a seemingly simpler era. These two portray my Confirmation, 63 years ago today, September 22, 1957.

In the first photo, we are all in two lines (as we so often were in those days), wearing our confirmation gowns (red for boys, white for girls) and holding our all-important name cards. I guess I was looking directly at some family member holding a camera - all the while very attentively guarding my name card. Whatever its theological and spiritual significance, I experienced confirmation primarily as just another rite of passage. Indeed, some years later at my 8th grade Baccalaureate Mass, the priest referred to confirmation as "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age" (in contrast to our graduation which, he suggested, represented more of an actual accomplishment.) 

What was particularly important to me about confirmation was that I got to choose a name. I chose Michael for my confirmation name, because I was attracted by the bellicose militaristic image of Michael the Archangel in the prayer which we then regularly recited as part of the so-called “Leonine Prayers for Russia” recited after Low Mass. Because that was what I cared the most about, that is the part of the ceremony I best remember.

When my turn came to kneel before the Bishop on his faldstool in front of the High Altar, a priest took the card out of my hand and announced my confirmation name to the Bishop (in what I would later learn was the nominative case). The Bishop then addressed me (in what I would later learn was the vocative case): Michaele, Signo te signo crucis; et confirmo te chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. ("Michael, I sign you with the sign of the cross and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.")

The second photo shows the Bishop who pronounced those momentous words. He was a Dutch Augustinian, Peter Canisius van Lierde (1907-1995), who at that time held the office of "papal sacristan," a post he occupied for 40 years from 1951 through 1991. (A year later, as papal sacristan, he would be the one to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction - better known now as “Anointing of the Sick” - to Pope Pius XII, a service he would repeat again in 1963 for Pope Saint John XXIII.) Ordained a priest in 1931, he earned doctorates in both theology and philosophy, and then headed the Augustinian College of Santa Monica in Rome, where he sheltered various refugees, military officers, Jews, and anti-fascist politicians during the war.

(There is actually a YouTube video about him in late life, Pietro Canisio Van Lierde, which ,despite its Italian title, is almost entirely in French: )

In September 1957, Bishop Van Lierde was visiting my Bronx, NY, parish of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine to consecrate the finally finished upper church and then celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee Mass on September 9 and 10 respectively. (The parish was staffed by Augustinian friars and its patron saint was a 13th-century Augustinian friar and the first Augustinian to be canonized. Their province patron was Saint Thomas of Villanova, on whose feast day I was confirmed.)  

At Mass earlier that day - unusually for that time, my Confirmation took place on a Sunday, so of course we all attended Mass earlier that morning - an older student said "Congratulations" to me. I remember I thanked her, although what about being confirmed quite warranted congratulations was not completely obvious either then or now, since it was, after all, "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age." More accurately, of course, for most of history Confirmation was something that happened to you when a bishop happened to be available. But, in 1950s New York, there were plenty of bishops and so Confirmations occurred regularly and thus appeared to be determined more by one's age (or grade-level in school).

As I recall, Confirmation seemed less of a big deal than the energy invested in it would seem to suggest. But it was part of a way of life sanctified by the building in which it occurred. It was that great gothic-towered parish  church, that dominated the neighborhood both physically and socially, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space, and that that taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. (Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, as we were then happily taught to say.) That was something I never forgot – both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Supreme Court and the Looming Struggle over Democracy

On February 13, 2016, on the day Justice Antonin Scalia died, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell famously said: "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president." On September 28, 2020, on the day Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, however, he hypocritically abandoned his newly contrived precedent and took the exact opposite position: "President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate." Needless to say, the difference between the two situations has nothing to do with the constitution or legal precedents, and everything to do with the Republican party's determination to grab for itself another Supreme Court seat.

Of course, the Constitution says nothing about such situations. It simply authorizes the president (presumably as long as he is president, i.e., until 12:00 noon on Inauguration Day) to "nominate" Justices, dependent on the "advice and consent" of the Senate (Article II, Section 2). In 2016, President Barack Obama, as he was surely entitled to do, nominated Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. The Senate, as it too was entitled to do, decided not to consent to his nomination. In 2017, the new president nominated someone else, who then received the requisite confirmation from the Senate.

That Supreme Court appointments carry such weight is an extremely unfortunate aspect of how our political system has evolved, a reflection of the excess power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself over time, a process that has made it, in David Kaplan's famous words, "the most dangerous branch." In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself famously pointed out the judicial over-reach in Roe v. Wade, arguing that "a less encompassing Roe, one that merely struck down the extreme Texas law and went no further on that day ... might have served to reduce rather than fuel controversy."

Maybe some future Congress will reassert the constitutional balance, but for that it would be unwise to hold one's breath in expectation. For now, we are stuck with an over-mighty Supreme Court and the distortions this causes in our politics - not least that the composition of the Court was a major motivator for many Trump voters in the 2016 election and may well become a major motivator for voters on both sides in the 2020 election.

The Supreme Court constitutes one part - a very consequential part - of the looming struggle over democracy. A president elected by a minority of Americans and a Senate elected by a minority of Americas, and their political party apparently determined at all costs to exclude the majority from political power, will probably proceed to seat on the Supreme Court some creature of the Federalist Society, who can be counted on to preserve, protect, and defend the capitalist oligarchy.

What would an alternative, majoritarian, agenda look like?

In the event such a movement were to acquire control of both the presidency and both houses of Congress, some basic steps to restore democratic legitimacy might include:

1. Abolishing the filibuster (itself a recent innovation, the abolition of which would be essential in order to accomplish almost anything else)

2. Immediately passing pandemic relief legislation and provisions to strengthen our weakened public health infrastructure

3. Restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act the Republican Court destroyed in 2006 in Shelby v. Holder, with additional adaptations to address more recent voter suppression efforts and new challenges from foreign interference

4. Expanding Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA to ensure universal health care coverage for all Americans

5. Finally passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform

6. Offering full statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico

7. Increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices  

8. Sending to the states a constitutional amendment establishing suitably staggered 15 year terms for Supreme Court Justices.

That should keep a new Congress and a new President busy for a while!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Il Venti Settembre

Not only Rome but any number of other Italian cities have a Via XX Settembre, a street named to commemorate the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy 150 years ago today, the event that ended more than a millennium of papal rule over Rome. In fact Rome had actually been proclaimed the capital of the new Italian kingdom in 1861, but at that time Emperor Napoleon III's French troops were still stationed there to keep Rome papal. With the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in the summer of 1870, however, those troops were recalled. That, followed by the precipitous French defeat, freed Italy to conquer Rome.

Apparently, King Victor Emmanuel II's government had been willing to leave the so-called "Leonine City" (much of which is today papal territory again as Vatican City) under the Pope's de facto control. But Pope Pius IX remained intransigent in his insistence on papal sovereignty over Rome. The Italians then marched across the papal frontier and besieged Rome. After a token - purely symbolic - resistance, during which the Italians famously breached the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia (where the Via XX Settembre now begins), the Pope surrendered the city. The unification of modern Italy was complete - territorially at least.

Neither Pope nor King benefited from the 59-year cold war between Church and State that ensued. Midwifed by Mussolini, the 1929 Lateran Treaty benefited both Pope and King, both the Church and the Italian State - something Pope Saint Paul VI in effect acknowledged when, on the 100th anniversary of the conquest, he celebrated il significato "provvidenziale" di quella perdita del potere temporale.

The "providential" significance of that loss of the temporal power! Providential.

An atavistic affection for a long-lost Christendom once institutionalized in the fiction of the "Holy Roman Empire" still survives in certain quarters, reflected in a surprisingly uncritical attachment, for example, to the anti-democratic (and increasingly secularist) European Union. For the most part, however, history has moved on. Paul VI was right in recognizing as "providential" the Church's liberation from the downward drag of temporal power. To be sure, the contemporary context creates its own problems for the Church's mission in the world. But the Church is more free now to carry out its mission effectively than it was when the Pope was saddled with the status of a European sovereign, ruling a principality in a severe state of decline and pointlessly standing in the way of his own citizens' political and social aspirations.

(Photo: Porta Pia 2012).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rage (The Book)

It's only been publicly available since Tuesday, but by then its contents were already familiar to us from countless pre-publication excerpts, interviews, and, of course, the now famous tapes. Those tapes in turn have given rise to some debate about what Woodward should or should not have done with them at the time, and whether it might have mattered in terms of people's responses to the pandemic. While not unimportant in itself, that debate  is also something of a distraction, both from the main argument of the book and from the important issues in this election. Bob Woodward is not running for President. Donald Trump is. His character and his handling of the presidency for the past four years are at issue in this election, not this book or the judgments of its author. While the author is not the candidate, his book is, however, a source of further information about the character of the candidate.

Trump books are proliferating, but Bob Woodward remains the establishment star when it comes to presidential journalism, a journalism that goes all the way back to the Watergate story which made him famous in the first place. Trump also cooperated personally with Woodward, with 17 interviews, both in the Oval office and over the telephone, the first of them just as the House was about to impeach the President and about three months before the pandemic took over the world. (He had not cooperated with Woodward on his 2018 book Fear: Trump in the White House.

The book's title too comes from the President himself - from a conversation which Woodward and Robert Costa had with Trump in March 2016. When Woodward referred "a lot of angst and rage and distress" in the Republican party, Trump said "I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have.". Few truer words have been uttered in the course of this presidency!

Since the book is already so familiar, there is no need to to repeat what we have all already heard. Much of the book is, in fact, a recapitulation of familiar history, especially as seen by and through the establishment figures who initially agreed to serve in the Trump Administration - the "guard rails" as the media have often referred to them, "guard rails" that were in the end ineffectual and are now largely gone in any case.  The story of General James Mattis is illustrative. Maybe Mattis was right to take the job of Secretary of Defense when Trump offered it to him. Or maybe not. Woodward recounts how, having been offered the post of Defense Secretary, he called his 94-year old mother, a World War II Army Intelligence veteran, who, he knew, hated Trump. “How can you work for that man?” she asked him. Maybe his mother was right! In the end, as we all know, Mattis finally felt he had to quit. Woodward quotes Mattis: “When I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.”

But, at this late stage in the story, we hardly need another book - even one by Bob Woodward - to tell us all this. Or to remind us of the failures of Trump's management style, what former Chief-of-Staff General Kelly called "Crazytown." Or of the President's barbarous assault on the international institutions and structures built up largely by the U.S. in the post-World War II era. Again, we already know all this.

What we did not know, at least not in detail, was how Trump truly reacted to the pandemic, and it is Woodward's singular contribution to have recorded in his interviews the President's real-time reaction to the crisis from its start. After detailing how Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield responded to the first revelations from China, Woodward introduces us to the President's own responses in his 8th interview (March 19, 2020). At this point it was clear to Woodward that Trump understood the severity of the situation.

“Part of it is the mystery,” Trump said. “Part of it’s the viciousness. You know when it attacks, it attacks the lungs. And I don’t know—when people get hit, when they get hit, and now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.” 

So it seems that all those people who endanger themselves and others by their refusal, for example, to wear masks out of fealty to their Dear Leader are expressing their fidelity to a presidential posture that contradicts what the President privately knew to be the case.

On February 7, Trump told Woodward about "the 'dynamite behind every door,' the unexpected explosion that could change everything." Woodward's account reinforces his conclusion "that the 'dynamite behind the door' was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan."

Based on the picture his account portrays, Woodward unsurprisingly concludes: "Trump is the wrong man for the job."

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

We Liked Ike


Tomorrow's Dedication of Washington DC's new memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (photo above from the official Eisenhower Memorial web page) had originally been planned for May 8, the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, an altogether fitting occasion to remember and celebrate the man who led the Allied invasion of Normandy and as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Western Europe successfully completed his mission with Germany's unconditional surrender. But then Covid-19 intervened and forced the event's postponement until now

As usual on such occasions, there has been the customary controversy about the design and appearance of the memorial, in this case particularly about the statue of Eisenhower as a boy.  As with all such monuments, there is also always the intriguing question what the person being honored might have thought of it. None of that is unimportant, but it is all less important than the fact that finally the 34th president is at long last receiving the honor that is surely his due.

My father, a member of the 'greatest generation," who happened to share a birthday (October 14) with General Eisenhower, served in the European theater in World War II. Then I in turn grew up in the glorious years of the Eisenhower presidency. It is hard to overstate what a difference the 1950s were from the decades of Depression and War which had preceded, how even people of very modest means, like my parents, experienced those years as a time of new opportunities and possibilities. Thus, when Senator John F. Kennedy was contemplating seeking the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956, his father wrote to Sargent Shriver: "you are going into an atmosphere where over 65 million persons are working and getting better pay than ever before….So you have an economic condition that is excellent; you can’t offer anything to anybody from laborer to capitalist that can persuade him that he can do better." [Quoted in Fredrik Logevall. JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century NY: Random House, 2020, p. 627.]

Of course, I had been spared both the Depression and the War and so took the amazing socio-economic progress of the 1950s for granted. To the extent that I paid attention to politics, my opinions were conventional. The topics I was most aware of and most interested in were foreign affairs, i.e., the Cold War, especially its periodic crises - Hungary and Suez in 1956, Lebanon in 1958, Kruschev's visit to the U.S. in 1959, and the U-2/Parish Summit Crisis in 1960 - and the space race, precipitated by Sputnik in 1957.

Through all of that, Eisenhower was a constant - a dignified, reassuring, encouraging presidential presence - comparable perhaps to Kaiser Franz Josef's symbolic resonance in pre-World War I Austria. Everything about the presidency seemed - and was - more dignified then. When there was a crisis in Hungary or Suez or wherever, the President addressed us on TV from the Oval Office, and the National Anthem was played at the end of his speech.

In the decades since Eisenhower, presidential scholars, notably my Princeton mentor Fred I. Greenstein, have retrieved his reputation and revealed his political skill, practical wisdom, and good sense, qualities that coexisted with the modesty and humility that made him successful both as a military and political leader and as a person empowered to represent and symbolize a nation. Eisenhower also set the Republican party on a course which it would have done better to remain on, instead of the misguided detours it has taken since the disastrous election of 1980. Thus, he famously said in 1954:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Stupid they may still be, but negligible they unfortunately no longer are!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

“The Odd Man Out Among the Virtues.”


Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.

The biblical author wrote that early in the 2nd century B.C., but his observations seem as pertinent today as then, his conclusions as true today as then. All of us, individually and collectively, surely have had our share of experience with wrath and anger, and have certainly seen their consequences. Being sinners, as we all are, we may also, in our own lives and in our own behavior, also have hugged wrath and anger all too tightly, to our own detriment and that of the world.

Wrath and anger certainly seem to be the primary descriptors of our public life as a nation, as we increasingly sort ourselves out into separate and mutually despising geographical and cultural communities, while the world’s seemingly intractable social and political problems and conflicts continue to challenge us. The scriptures we just heard do not directly address those challenges. They do, however, say something important about who God is, what kind of relationship God has chosen to have with us, and what kind of people we are being called by God to become through the personal and social choices we make.

The Gospel today focuses our attention squarely on forgiveness, which Alan Wolfe [Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, Norton, 2002] famously referred to as “the odd man out among the virtues.” The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks so insistently is not another word for being nice, for going along so we can all get along. Nor is it what our therapeutically oriented society would have us focus on – letting go of hurts and resentments, for our own good, to get on with life. That may be good advice. It may make life less stressful, which, to be sure, is all to the good. But the forgiveness of which Jesus speaks is something significantly more than that.

Peter’s question – Lord, if my brothers sins against me how often must I forgive? – is a very humanly framed question. It is not about forgiveness, as such, but about me. What is the minimum I must do to qualify as a good person? Jesus answers with a parable about God – about what God is like, how God acts, and what God’s actions mean for us, and what conclusions we need to draw from that for our own actions.

The debtor in the parable stands for each of us. His absurd attempt to make a deal and his ridiculous promise to pay his debt in full are absurd and ridiculous because they are so obviously impossible to fulfill and only show how hopeless the situation actually is. God obviously understands this. So he forgives the loan.

Sadly, however, the debtor servant seems to believe he somehow struck a deal, which is what humans do whenever they think they have somehow placated God on their own. This is not unlike the familiar arrogance of those who loudly shout about how they have earned their advantages all on their own, who think that they have pulled themselves up the ladder of life, whereas in reality they have grasped the hands of others and walked the path others have paved for them.

The parable tells us that God does not make deals. Indeed he disdains deals and deplores deal-makers. Since God does not want our sins to be a source of hostility between us, he reconciles us on his own. He forgives our sins, cancels our hopelessly unpayable debt, without any deals or deal-making. Forgiveness is free. And, moreover, it is freeing. It makes us free – free from a slave’s fearful machinations for an altogether new kind of relationship with one another. So now we too can forgive – and indeed have to forgive, just as God forgives us.

Sadly, the servant who was forgiven the large debt thought that it was his own cleverness that had hoodwinked the king. So he failed to experience the freeing effects of forgiveness in his own life – something that showed right away in his treatment of his fellow servant.

Being angry, remaining resentful, holding grudges, seeking revenge – all that is the most natural thing in the world. It is our alternative experience of something different – the new life we have received through God’s forgiveness – that makes it possible for us, as people who are conscious of having been first forgiven ourselves, to become agents of God’s reconciliation in our world.

And so, assembled here today (and every Sunday), we may be burdened by the weight of our debt and the fragility of the social bonds on which we depend for our survival in a hate-filled world. But, gathered together as one, as members of the Body of Christ, we feel the forgiving power that frees us for something so new and so different.

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 13, 2020.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

60 years Ago in Houston

It happened to be John F. Kennedy's 7th wedding anniversary, but it was also maybe the most important night (other perhaps than the First TV Debate) of the entire campaign. According to the classic chronicle, Theodore H. White's, The Making of the President 1960: "Originally the Kennedy strategy had been to wait, to hope that the [Catholicism] question could be addressed some time late in October, close to the election, when it could be most effectively dealt with. But decisions in a campaign are forced on one by timing of emotions over which no one has control. The prestige of the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had now, in early September, given respectable leadership to ancient fear and prejudice." (Peale was actually something of a surrogate for Billy Graham, who kept a relatively low profile, but was active behind the scenes, stirring Protestants to action against the threat a Catholic president presumably posed to the values of real - i.e., Protestant - America.) So Kennedy accepted an invitation from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to discuss his religion in Houston, TX, on September 12.  “We can win or lose the election right there in Houston on Monday night,” campaign staffer Ted Sorensen said to a friend as that momentous Monday approached. Indeed, renowned religion writer Kenneth Woodward is of the opinion that "without that powerful and historic speech, it is unlikely that he would have won the election."

The agreed format was for Kennedy to make an opening statement, then submit himself to whatever questions the assembled Protestants chose to ask. Thus, for example, when asked is he would accept direction from the Church in his public life,  he answered: “If my church attempted to influence me in a way which was improper or which affected adversely my responsibilities as a public servant, sworn to uphold the Constitution, then I would reply to them that this was an improper action on their part, that it was one to which I could not subscribe, that I was opposed to it, and that it would be an unfortunate breech—an interference with the American political system. I am confident there would be no such interference.”

The full text of Kennedy's famous opening statement is still worth reading, both for how it reflected the American religious situation at that time and for the clear contrast to that situation today - a situation very different from the one Kennedy confronted in 1960.

He began by listing some of what he considered "the real issues which should decide this campaign," thus attempting to relativize the importance of the religious issue and relegate it to the periphery of prejudice. He then stated his belief in an America "where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote ... and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Sixty years later, we have long passed both those thresholds. The rise of the religious right - has led to lots of clergy lecturing candidates on how to act and congregations on how to vote. At the same time, "religious liberty" is increasingly invoked but in a significantly sectarian way that is far from "indivisible." 

Of course, throughout American history - from the 19th-century Abolitionist movement to the 20th-century Civil Rights movement - clergy and other religiously motivated citizens have acted to influence our public life, fully acknowledging their religious inspiration. When successful, they have usually been able to relate their religious motivations to wider public concerns. That was true even of Prohibition - an example of a predominantly Protestant, religiously inspired, sectarian movement, which successfully connected with more broadly shared serious concerns about the social effects of alcohol abuse, and then failed when that consensus collapsed and other concerns acquired greater prominence. Prohibition then came to be experienced by many as culturally dis-unifying and socially burdensome, more like an anti-pluralist "Protestant Ascendancy" than something suited to American pluralist politics.

Obviously in the context of 1960, it was imperative for Kennedy to minimize such possibilities. And, while he surely could imagine the sorts of situations which he was assuring his Protestant audience would simply never happen in America, he could hardly have anticipated the ways in which American religion itself has changed, and has come to aspire to unprecedented political power, of the sort that Kennedy in his time might have associated more with the Catholic Integralism of Franco's Spain or de Valera's Ireland..

Yet a mere 20 years later, in 1980, the lobbying group Christian Voice issued its first "Biblical Scorecard" rating congressmen on their votes on selected issues. That same year, devout, Sunday-school teacher Jimmy Carter was called "anti-Christ" by evangelical Christians eager to elect a divorced-and-remarried, non-churchgoer as president in his place. Pollster Lou Harris estimated that the 61% of white Protestants who voted for Reagan were 2/3 of his margin of victory.

This religionization (if such a word exists) of American politics - the use of politics by religious groups to acquire political power over others - has significantly altered American politics, almost certainly for the worse. But it has also seriously damaged religion.

Thus Ronald F. Inglehart in "Giving Up on God: the Global Decline of Religion," Foreign Affairs (September.October 2020) has argued that, in addition to "rising levels of economic and technological development," politics also accounts for some of religion's decline in the U.S. Specifically he cites the contemporary Republican Party's adoption of controversial Christian positions on certain cultural issues in order to appeal to some religious voters, and suggests this has had the effect of pushing others, "especially those who are young and culturally liberal, away from religion." In particular, he claims that prominent religious leaders' "uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump" has led other religious figures "to fear that young people will desert their churches in droves, accelerating an ongoing trend." Indeed, Ingelhart argues, where "it once was generally assumed that religious beliefs shaped political views," now the opposite may increasingly be the case. Indeed, that latter phenomenon may be the most problematic legacy of the so-called "religious right," namely the increasing subordination of religion to politics and the pursuit of political power. 

Likewise, Bill McCormick in America (“Whether Trump or Biden wins, the church will keep losing. Where does that leave Christian voters?”has just recently asked the question from inside the tent, so to speak. 

"But as the country continues to secularize, Christians have to ask themselves: Has Christian engagement in politics been good for evangelization? If not, what kinds of political engagement are good for evangelization? What kinds draw people to Christ?" He worries that, for many, ”Christians’ political activity is the public face of Christianity. As the number of Americans attending religious services, identifying with religious bodies or even having religious friends continues to decline, the number of Americans who will know Christianity through its public engagement will increase. They will have to judge Christianity and Christ himself through those fruits."

Photo: JFK Addresses Greater Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Labor Day


Today is Labor Day, a holiday which in recent years has become associated more with end-of-summer celebrations than with its original and proper purpose of recognizing the dignity of labor and the importance of work for individuals, families, and society. Labor Day, however, always reminds me of John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York in whose Catholic Schools office I worked for several years. In his homily during a Labor Day Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in 1986, Cardinal O'Connor expressed his strong commitment to organized labor:

“So many of our freedoms in this country, so much of the building up of society, is precisely attributable to the union movement, a movement that I personally will defend despite the weakness of some of its members, despite the corruption with which we are all familiar that pervades all society, a movement that I personally will defend with my life.”

In that spirit, the Catholic Labor Network will be hosting its first annual live streamed Labor Day Mass today with Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, as the celebrant. When Kentucky legislators proposed anti-union “right to work” legislation in 2017, it was Bishop Stowe spoke out boldly in defense of Catholic Social Teaching on unions and worker justice. 

Indeed, as Kenneth Woodward has recalled, in the September issue of Commonweal, in the 20th century, American Catholics influenced politics primarily through two mediating structures in which they had come to play a dominant role - the Democratic party and the Labor Movement.

Much of the injustice and lack of opportunity which characterizes working class life in our country today can be traced directly to the decline of the Labor Movement and to its estrangement from the Democratic party since at least the 1970s

Photo: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York City, 1882.




Sunday, September 6, 2020

Brothers and Sisters Still


An article in last week’s NY Times Magazine addressed the increasingly common experience of those who find themselves at odds or in conflict with family or friends because of political disagreements about the direction of our country and the moral seriousness with which such disagreements are increasingly invested. As a nation are more divided and conflicted now than at any time in our history at least since our own Civil War.  Meanwhile we are separating ourselves from one another geographically and in virtually every other way, including our sources of news and information. Political parties used to disagree about policies, which would then be discussed, debated, and eventually even resolved by negotiation and compromise. Now, however, our ideological disagreements are more like mascots for a nation of competing teams whose main concern is just to hate and despise each other. So thoroughly divided are we that it has been observed that a person’s vote can reliably increasingly indicate “his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” [Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, 2018]

As the scriptures we just heard read to us this Sunday suggest, these are not entirely new problems. Conflict has always been a part of the human condition – at least since Cain killed Abel. But, thanks to our globalized consciousness and our modern media, we are increasingly conscious of living in a world torn apart by constant conflict. We are much more aware than perhaps people used to be of all the big macro-level conflicts that threaten the world’s security and stability. International, intra-national, and tribal disputes, along with social and political protests and the injustices that spark them in the first place dominate the headlines in our own country and around the world. And, in addition, there are, of course, all the ordinary conflicts we have always known about and had had to reckon with in our personal lives - the disputes that divide families, break-up marriages, terminate friendships, and constantly wreak havoc on communities both large and small.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously outlines a procedure for his disciples to deal with conflicts that occur within the community of the Church. Obsessed as we are in our society with ourselves and our so-called individual rights, typically what gets emphasized is settling the score and achieving something called “justice.” Of course, justice is important. We have only to look around our country today to see where the lack of justice has led us. The process Jesus outlines, however, is a process aimed at reconciliation. It reminds me of the process in canon law for dealing with problems in religious communities. A misbehaving member is warned and given a chance to change several times before the process ends in expulsion, because the goal is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community.

There is a wonderful example of that in Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century England, where Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey). In the final volume, Cadfael leaves his monastery on a personal mission of his own. But, at the end of the story, he returns and kneels before his Abbot, who responds simply: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”

Whatever we are or do – whether as an individual or as a community – the goal, as Cadfael’s Abbot obviously understood, must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now and forever in God’s kingdom.

Unfortunately, on this earth at least, not all problems are solvable, as we know all too well. We’re all heard the so-called “Serenity Prayer” - God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. In human terms, some problems just can’t be satisfactorily solved; some conflicts just can’t be peacefully reconciled; and it is an important part of practical human and political wisdom to know which is which and how best to deal with them.

Likewise, even in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is recognized that reconciliation may not always be possible. And so, in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is only after multiple efforts – individually, with small group, and finally with the whole community – that the effort is ended.

Even then, however, the story doesn’t quite end there. Jesus says: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. As much as possible, devout, observant Jews avoided contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them.

Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, there is, – coming from him – a certain nuance to that, because, of course, we are all aware of how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may be there because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided North African Church of the 4th century, St. Augustine (354-430), said of the heretical and schismatic Christians he opposed so vigorously: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)]. So it is hardly surprising that the Church has always recognized reconciling wanderers back to the mainstream of the Church as one of the Church’s constant concerns.

The apostles’ power to bind and to loose includes both the authority to separate offenders from the community and also to readmit them. When Saint Paul addressed this issue, he reminded the Christian community in Corinth, which had taken disciplinary action against an offender, that the offender’s eventual readmission remained the goal of the process [2 Corinthians 2:5-8].

As Pope Francis has reminded us, “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time” [Evangelii Gaudium 24].

So, again, whatever we are or do - as an individual, as a family, as a political or civic community, as a parish, as a Church – the goal (not always achievable, perhaps, but our goal nonetheless) must always be to bring us all back together.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 6, 2020.

[Photo: "Cadfael window," Shrewsbury Abbey]