Friday, October 30, 2020

Thank You, Lord!

This is the homily I preached at Mass at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, on October 29, 2020, celebrating the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a priest on October 28, 1995. The entire Mass may be watched at:

The Gospel we just heard is, by design, the same one which was read at my ordination 25 years ago. Despite the Lord’s explicit command, I must confess that I have not, to my knowledge, healed any sick these 25 years. But I do hope at least to have been better about fulfilling the rest of the Lord’s command: whenever you enter a city say “The kingdom of God has come near.” Often enough, I have felt more like Thomas Merton when he prayed; “I have no idea where I am going [and] do not see the road ahead of me.” But, now so many years down that road, I feel closer to Saint Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi: straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

25 years doesn’t seem like such a long time, but it has been long enough to make a lot of difference in our world. Back then, as many of you may remember, we still wrote letters and made phone calls. We read the paper in the morning and watched the news together at the appointed hour in the evening. But that common and shared experience of all living in the same world was sadly not to last. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical, “we no longer have common horizons that unite us.”

Of course, as the Good Witch said to Dorothy, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” By October 28, 1995, I had already lived almost two-thirds of the life allotted me so far. I had already lived almost half a century, a pilgrim’s progress of fits and starts that had led me to that day, and has continued to lead me to this day.

Unlike Servant of God Isaac Hecker, I did not know already at an early age that God had “a work for me to do in the world.” I doubt I knew much of anything then. When I did start knowing things, forming ideas, having hopes, dreaming dreams, they were limited by time and space, as are all our ideas, hopes, and dreams – apart from the Good News of God’s kingdom.

But dominating that space, in those foundational early years, there was the great gothic-towered church across the street, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space and taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. That was something I never forgot – both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure.

I admit I am easily bored by the parable of the sower. But I have learned to see my time in that story’s space. For, at one time or other, I have been like the thorns or the rocky ground, letting God’s grace be choked or wither. But then at other times, I have flourished in that rich soil seeded by the Church, in which God’s grace and mercy have taken root and produced fruit.

Like the seed, I may have been all over the place. But God never gives up, because that is who God is and how God is. God never gives up on the commitment he has made to each of us. And, despite all obstacles real and imagined, that was something that somehow I always sensed.

I sensed it long before I’d ever studied and been taught by Saint Augustine that God has made us for himself and that our hearts remain restless until they rest in him.

In the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa, whom I once dressed up as at a Princeton grad students’ Halloween party, sometime in the mid-1970s, prayed this prayer:

Thank you, Jesus, for bringing me this far.

In your light I see the light of my life.

Your persuade us to trust in our heavenly Father.

You command us to love one another.

What is easier?

Well, sometimes certainly it doesn’t seem so easy, does it? So often, in this vale of tears, the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand can come across as no news at all, or, even worse, as bad news, or maybe as good news sort of learned once upon a time but long since forgotten. That is why the world so desperately needs the Church – to show the world what Good News the Kingdom of God really is, Good News that is actually at hand for anyone and everyone.

In promoting Servant of God Isaac Hecker for sainthood, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan called him “a man of the Church.” That indeed he was. That indeed is what any and every priest is challenged to be. Not his own man, purveying the fake news of worldly wealth and creative power, but a man of the Church, tasked to try to show a way for all to see God’s light, to trust God’s love, and to live that love together among God’s people, with whom we share our common home on this poor fragile planet – dangerously overheated in so many frightening ways but desperate for the warmth of God’s grace and mercy.

25 years ago, I made my own this 8th-century prayer of Saint John Damascene:

Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to minister to your people. I do not know why you have done so, for you alone know that. Lord, lighten the heavy burden of my sins through which I have seriously transgressed. Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the path. When I open my mouth, tell me what I should say. By the fiery tongue of your Spirit make my own tongue ready. Stay with me always and keep me in your sight.

I did not know then whether I might make it to this day or what path might take me here, an amazingly grace-filled path, punctuated by thousands of Masses - daily Masses, Sunday Masses, school Masses, Spanish Masses, Italian Masses, Wedding Masses, Funeral Masses - an amazingly grace-filled path from Toronto, Canada, to New York, NY, to Knoxville, Tennessee: singing Christmas carols on Bloor Street and blessing Saint Anthony’s Bread, living through the soul-searing sadness of 9/11 and the welcome comfort of weekly breakfasts with parishioners at the Flame, the spiritual uplift of pilgrimages to famous shrines and a summer spent studying at Windsor Castle, the challenge of walking for miles in the pre-dawn dark at World Youth Day and the adventure of saint-school in Rome, and, then, finally, back to this beautiful and historic Knoxville church, and the amazing adventure of chairing meetings, paying bills, replacing a boiler, restoring the church ceiling and climbing the scaffolding to touch a century-old ceiling painting, blogging and e-mailing and eventually even live-streaming, teaching and learning, preaching, praying for the sick, baptizing babies, burying the dead, caring for the cemetery, then ending up in a global pandemic that has challenged and stretched all of us in ways we had hardly ever expected.

As Pope Francis recently wrote, “having failed to show solidarity in wealth and in the sharing of resources, we have learned to experience solidarity in suffering.”

Until recently, I had never expected to celebrate this anniversary here in this community of Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, whose priest and 24th pastor I have been privileged to be these last 10 years. Paradoxically, I guess I can thank this terrible pandemic for that! In this terrible time, when almost everything we took for granted seemed to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all the empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and personal self-sufficiency, I still cannot heal the sick.

But I am at least still able to witness how God has revealed himself to us in Jesus our Lord who brings us together in his Church, through which we may have hope that the Kingdom of God really is at hand to heal our broken world - that God’s power is greater than the forces that dominate our world, and so can overcome all the obstacles and worries which, if we let them, will threaten to separate us from God and from the salvation he intends for us.

So, yes, thank you, Lord, for bringing me this far.

And, thank you, all of you, for making this journey with me. It has been my great honor and my joy to have been your priest, and I will miss it very much.

And now may all of us together continue to help one another on our ongoing journey into the Kingdom of God, where the news is always good and true for all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

25 Years

By the end of the day today, I will have been ordained a priest for 25 years!

Were it not for the pandemic, my 25th anniversary would have been celebrated very simply with a private Mass in the Motherhouse chapel with perhaps a handful of local New York friends in attendance. But, because of the pandemic, my term as pastor was unexpectedly extended. So I have an unanticipated opportunity to mark my anniversary with the parish community I have served these past 10 years. On the other hand, in a year when even the Al Smith Dinner went “virtual" and when there has been so much disruption and suffering, a simple celebration seems appropriate. 

That said, as I mark this occasion, I do want to use it  to thank God and the Church for these 25 fulfilling years. And, in a particular way, I want to thank the people of the three parishes where I have served for accompanying me on this wonderful 25-year journey. My anniversary Mas tomorrow will be offered in particular for all the people - living and deceased - of Saint Peter's parish, Toronto, Saint Paul the Apostle parish, NY, and Immaculate Conception parish, Knoxville. I thank all who helped and supported me along the circuitous route that took me to that day 25 years ago, and all those who have sustained and encouraged me since that day. It has been my greatest privilege and my greatest joy to have been a parish priest, and I will surely miss it.

Meanwhile, I have indulged my curiosity about what other memorable events have coincidentally occurred on this date.

Probably the most memorable and most important historical event that occurred on this date was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, which made Constantine Roman Emperor. Shortly after, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Also on this date in 1886 the Statue of Liberty was dedicated.

On this date in 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act.

On this date in 1922, Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Benito Mussolini his Prime Minister.

In 1929, this was Wall Street's "Black Monday."

On this date in 1958, Pope Saint John XXIII was elected to succeed Pope Pius XII.

And, on this date in 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated its Decree on Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis.. 

And I am old enough to remember at least those last two events very well!

Finally, in the liturgical calendar, today is celebrated as the feast of the holy Apostles Saints Simon and Jude, the latter universally invoked as the patron of desperate causes and hopeless cases, a particularly providential coincidence!

Tomorrow, I will solemnly celebrate my 25th anniversary at a Mass live streamed on Facebook for the benefit both of friends and family around the country and of parishioners and friends here who, because of the pandemic, prefer not to attend in person. I will post my anniversary homily and the link to the video of the occasion later this week.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Francesco (The Movie)

Francesco, the new documentary about Pope Francis, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky,  made its U.S. debut yesterday at the Savannah Film Festival. For a lot less that what it would have cost me to travel to Savannah, I bought a ticket and watched it in the comfort of my own home!

The film follows Francis' pontificate (largely through archival footage), highlighting his personal style and way of addressing issues of global import. It begins with the sad scene of the Pope walking alone in a wet Saint Peter's Square during last march's pandemic Urbi et Orbi. Sad scenes of other empty cities highlights the Pope's message of how the pandemic has challenged us to rethink our priorities: "a time to choose about what matters and what passes away." In a sense that is the theme of the entire film.

The documentary illustrates the main themes of this pontificate. It starts with the Pope's expressions for the environment and about climate change and especially its damaging effect on the poor. There is also footage from his 2015 address to the U.S. Congress. Then on to the issue of immigration in its worldwide dimension. The film overwhelms its audience (as his journeys have undoubtedly overwhelmed Francis) with the immensity of this global humanitarian disaster.

The immigrant experience is a natural lead into the story of the Pope's own family, Italian immigrants in Argentina. We hear his account of his calling to the priesthood. The documentary does not hide from the criticisms levelled against him in his home country, and attempts a convincing response to those criticisms. It also delves into his complicated history with his own Jesuit Order and how, by his own admission, he learned form his early mistakes.

From his pre-papal experiences, we are introduced to his efforts at inter-religious dialogue, which bring us back to immigration and his evident repudiation of the wall ostensibly being built by the U.S. at its southern border. Were it not for another issue raised later in the film, this would probably have attracted the most media attention. The juxtaposition of the Pope's words with President Trump's speaks loudly, if briefly, as do other very brief scenes form the summer's American reckoning with racism.

It is just one more unfortunate consequence of the contemporary "culture war" that so much of that has been largely ignored by those preoccupied with a much narrower range of issues.

Unsurprisingly, the part that has gotten the most attention in the U.S. - and has riled up the Pope's predictable opponents - has been the Pope's words on civil unions for same-sex couples. The Pope is portrayed as saying: "What we have to have is a civil union law [ley de convivencia civil]. That way they are legally covered. I supported that."

The Pope's reference to his past support for such legislation presumably refers back to when Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 when then Cardinal Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, unsuccessfully urged his fellow Argentinian bishops to support civil unions as an alternative. In a 2014 interview with Corriere della Sera, Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, reaffirmed the Church's teaching on marriage, but distinguished from that the civil society's efforts to regulate relationships in terms of their economic and social effects, for example, health care. Presumably, the Pope regards such civil arrangements and protections as falling within the legitimate autonomy of the state. Unless one is willing to abandon completely the post-conciliar project of peaceful coexistence with modern secular pluralistic societies, some acceptance of the state's claim to legitimate autonomy in the sphere of social and economic arrangements seems unavoidable. It is plausible that a less confrontational position on civil unions, such as that Bergoglio was proposing in Argentina, might have opened up some space for political compromise. It is plausible that by excluding the possibility of any compromise, the most extreme outcome became that much more likely

In the U.S., at least since Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) forestalled further public discussion and possible compromises through the political process, legal marriage equality has largely left civil unions behind. But the Catholic theology of marriage cannot incorporate that outcome. So, in a sense, all civil marriages not recognized by the Church (same-sex marriages obviously, but also, for example, all "traditional" marriages where one or both spouses are civilly divorced from a still living partner) are, in effect, "civil unions" as seen from the Church's perspective. In speaking about them in this way, the Pope has provided a more positive framework for relating to those in such unions, one which respects both the Church's own irreformable teaching on marriage and the legitimate autonomy properly exercised by civil society in its own specific sphere.

Admittedly, in its 2003 Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appeared to take a more restrictive view regarding acknowledging civil society's autonomy to regulate non-marital relationships (non-marital from the Church's perspective, regardless of how the state labels them). Presumably the Pope is here again proposing a more expansive (but hardly radical) interpretation of the legitimate autonomy of civil society. 

The confusion arises because fidelity to the doctrine about the nature and purpose of marriage often gets contrasted with the actualities of legislation in a non-confessional secular state with a pluralistic population. The 2003 Considerations actually acknowledged that it did "not contain new doctrinal elements" [1]. The doctrine remains what it has always been, that marriage "was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose" [2]. Neither this nor any other pope is able to change that. The 2003 Considerations was a doctrinally informed guide to political activity in certain circumstances, circumstances which constantly change, and which certainly have changed significantly since 2003.

The CDF Considerations acknowledged that civil law's scope "is certainly more limited than that of the moral law" [6]. Obviously in a non-confessional secular state with a pluralistic population (for example, the United States), it is hopeless to expect that civil law will ever completely conform to the moral law. Thus, the United States has long legally permitted divorce and civil marriage after divorce. One could substitute civil divorce and remarriage in the warning words of the CDF document in Considerations, 6.. Making that substitution, we would get: "Legal recognition of [civil divorce and remarriage] would obscure certain basic moral values  and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage." That would certainly be true - even more so than in the case of same-sex unions, in that divorce is far more pervasive in society and involves many more people (husbands and wives, parents and children) than the much smaller number of same-sex couples. (Indeed, if there is any question about how faithfully the Church's teaching about marriage has been received in contemporary society, that problem predates the relatively recent legal debate about same-sex unions - as the divorce rate illustrates.)

While the Church in the past did mobilize (unsuccessfully) against liberalized divorce laws, that failure highlights the social reality that the Church must coexist with citizens with very different beliefs. This raises many practical and pastoral problems for the Church, which must minister to those in all sorts of irregular situations. That, of course, brings us back to the Pope's comments, which have nothing to do with diminishing the doctrine about the nature and purpose of marriage (which is irreformable), but have everything to do with creating space for a a more fruitful framework for relating pastorally in practice to the many who are in such unions.

The documentary depicts the Pope's personal charisma and highlights his ability to connect directly with people of all backgrounds and experiences. It seems intended to inspire imitation - pastoral efforts to overcome the many diverse barriers that otherwise may seem to exclude authentic encounter and dialogue of any kind.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Being Neighbor

What a scene! Jesus might as well be a modern political candidate being challenged on all sides – Pharisees, Sadducees, scholars of the Law, each posing some complex question, clearly trying to trap him in his answer!

Few, however, would have quarreled with Jesus’ response, taken directly from the book of Deuteronomy. For centuries, both before Jesus and since, devout Jews have recited those words daily.

The lawyer had only asked for one commandment – the greatest one – but Jesus also offered him another familiar one, from the book of Leviticus. Nor was this some isolated injunction. Today’s 1st reading – from Exodus – illustrates just how demanding the Old Testament is in regard to how to treat one’s neighbor. Hence, the Jewish law’s emphasis on just treatment of immigrants. Prejudice against foreigners is not new, nor was it confined to ancient Israel. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they too had once been foreigners and were descended from immigrants – as are most of us here today.

So Jesus’ statement that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God was not some new invention. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which suggest that, when one wrongs one’s neighbor, one also offends God, in which case God’s wrath will make itself felt!

Jesus is here setting out the essential basis for moral living – not something added on to the rest of one’s life, but its essential component. The Bible does not offer quick and easy answers to each and every ethical question that may arise. But it does describe a relationship, a way of being with one another, on which we are challenged to build our individual and collective moral lives.

In Luke’s Gospel, the lawyer - wanting, we are told, to justify himself - follows up by asking, who is my neighbor?  In the account we just heard, there is no follow-up question. Probably, people took for granted that my neighbor is a fellow-member of our community, someone I feel connected to.

We can, of course, expand that, as Exodus did, to include foreigners and immigrants. We can keep expanding wider and wider to include ever more people, until we come to consider everyone in the world a neighbor. And, to some extent, that was what Jesus did with the lawyer’s second question in Luke. We are all familiar with his answer – the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan story plays a central role in framing Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship. The Pope’s purpose, he writes, is “that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words,” [FT 6] “a different culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another.” [FT 57] 

In this politically polarized time, Pope Francis invites us to see one another as neighbors – something our present tribal, culture-war politics tries to prevent. So he reminds us of the ancient Christian conception of “the common destination of created goods,” the realization that “the world exists for everyone,” which is why “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property,” which “cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment.” [FT 118-120, 122]

Making this a friendlier, more fraternal, more neighborly world also requires us to dialogue with one another. “Authentic social dialogue,” the Pope reminds us, “involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns.” [FT 203]. He calls for a “cultural covenant,” which “respects and acknowledges the different worldviews, cultures, and lifestyles that coexist in society.” This is something sadly very obviously lacking nowadays – not just in our politics, but everywhere, even within the Church, where, for many, partisan politics predominates, where some seem to despise those they disagree with, whom they label "bad" Catholics or "false" Catholics or “cafeteria" Catholics, and who even employ the internet to mock the Pope and his efforts to guide the Church through this difficult and dangerous time.

Whereas “consumerist individualism has led to great injustice,” Pope Francis calls for “kindness,” which “frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy.” [FT 222, 224]

And, as we here in the United States come to the end of another angry, hateful political campaign, the Pope reminds us that politics, properly understood, “involves a constant attention to the common good and a concern for integral human development” [FT 276]

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets, Jesus says, depend on these two commandments.

Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 25, 2020.

Photo: Pope Francis signs Fratelli Tutti in Assisi, October 3, 2020.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"Packing" the Court

"Court Packing" (a label leftover from FDR's attempt to enlarge the Court in the 1930s) is one of those hostile, polemical terms that has since become standard usage even among those who support what it refers to. In this, it resembles "Obamacare," originally a derisive term used by the opponents of universal health care, but soon happily embraced by all. "Court Packing," however, does still sound vaguely problematic in some way, somewhat scary even, which is one reason why I generally prefer to avoid the term if possible, and speak instead of reforming the Court by enlarging it.

That said, although the size of the Supreme Court - like the institution that is the Court itself - has acquired a quasi-sacral significance in our crazy politics, it is helpful to remember that the number of justices changed several times from 1789 to 1869. At various times, the Supreme Court had as few as six and as many as ten justices. Until 1869, the number of justices corresponded to the number of Circuits, because Justices were originally expected to "ride circuit." Since there are now 13 Circuits, it could be argued that 13 Justices would make historical sense - as well as being just the right number to overcome the imbalance brought about by the Republican version of court packing which we have been living with for years(In 2016, for example, the Republicans arbitrarily reduced the Court to eight Justices for one year, and threatened to reduce it further if Clinton were elected president by never confirming any of her appointments.)

Like the constitution itself, which we used to amend fairly frequently, the Court has changed with the country. One big problem we have today - part of our contemporary allergy to actual politics - has been our reticence to change either Court or constitution as the country has changed.

This would matter much less, of course, if the Court had a more modest role in our national life as an "originalist" reading of the constitution might suggest it should - in other words, had the court not evolved into what David Kaplan correctly calls "the most dangerous branch." One of the ironies of the present situation is that it is obvious that Supreme Court appointments are now political appointments (whatever may have once been the case) and that how Supreme Court Justices act can increasingly be confidently predicted by knowing their political party (not necessarily in all cases, but increasingly so). Yet in spite of  this, a strange quasi-religious reverence for the Court causes many to flinch from reasserting the proper power of Congress in regard to the Court's membership and jurisdiction. We act as if Congress were some dangerously powerful body that needs to be checked by an all-wise, life-tenured, aristocratic court of Platonic Guardians, whereas the opposite is in fact the case. Congress has grown weaker (has weakened itself) over time, while the Court has grown in power and abandoned all pretense of self-restraint (except during confirmation hearings).

Exactly what, one might ask, is the proper place of such a thoroughly politicized Judiciary in a modern democratic society?

"Packing" the Court - that is, increasing the number of justices - may be a short-term necessity to overcome the questionable legacy of two recent presidents who were both originally elected against the will of the majority of voters and whose appointments were then confirmed by a Senate which by its very structure negates the will of the majority of Americans. It may be a short-term necessity in order to make health care accessible to all, to protect voting rights, to reduce the power of money in elections, and to enact reasonable restrictions on gun violence.

But it may also be a long-term necessity - to reassert the role of Congress as a co-equal branch of government and to increase the sadly diminishing democratic legitimacy of our national institutions.

But what may really be needed in the long-term solution is a more complete reform of the Court, which retains its legitimate independence while making it more reflective of American society. There are all sorts of ideas floating around. My preference is for a constitutional amendment which would reshape the court with justices appointed for fixed terms (12, 15, or 18 years), their appointments staggered every two years (thus giving to every president at least two appointments but to no one president power over multiple future generations). To get to that, however, the nation needs to rediscover its power over the constitution, which was meant to be amended and which was amended numerous times in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rediscovering and reasserting that power is what would make Americans citizens again - instead of the subjects we have allowed ourselves to become. . 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Mächtig durch des Glaubens Stütze

The Church calendar commemorates several familiar medieval kings - for example, England's Edward the Confessor, Germany's Henry II, and, most famously, France's Louis IX. Nor is there any shortage of canonized queens - Margaret of Scotland, Elizabeth of Portugal, Elizabeth of Hungary, for example. In the modern world, by contrast, sanctity in political leadership seems to have been much less frequent, or at least much less frequently recognized.

Today the Church in certain places commemorates Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), the last Austrian Emperor and Apostolic King of Hungary (1916-1918), who heroically tried - and abysmally failed - to extricate his country from the "suicide of European civilization" (Pope Benedict XV) that was "The Great War" (World War I). In the end, we could call Karl one of the few authentically admirable (if admittedly ineffective) statesmen during that terrible and pointless war, one who was also at the end one of that war's conspicuous casualties, as was what he represented.

Less than two years after his accession, Karl found himself cheated out of both his crowns. Yet, as he wrote to Pope Benedict XV in 1919, "In all my troubles, I have never lost my faith, I have never despaired."

Deprived by the vicissitudes of history and by the narrow-minded short-sightedness of the war's victors of the opportunity to lead central Europe into a better future than the painful one which the 20th century would soon give it instead, this last Hapsburg Emperor recalls an older ideal of political leadership that entailed life-time service and sacrifice for one's subjects, statesmanship as a moral as well as political vocation, one which few, if any, of our contemporary political figures remotely resemble.

In his homily at Kaiser Karl's Beatification in 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II said: From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

After two unsuccessful restoration attempts in 1921, he died in impoverished exile in Madeira within the year. But the tragic history of the 20th century has been more than sufficient to rehabilitate both his personal reputation as a statesman and peacemaker and the reputation of his House and its onetime empire. 

In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill wrote about the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy: "For centuries this surviving embodiment of the Holy Roman Empire had afforded a common life, with advantages in trade and security, to a large number of peoples none of whom in our own times had the strength or vitality to stand by themselves in the face of pressure from a revivified Germany or Russia. There is not one of these peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Hapsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought the tortures which ancient poets and theologians had reserved for the damned."

When, as an undergraduate studying German in the summer of 1970, I first visited Vienna's Kapuzinergruft (the Capuchin crypt where most of the Hapsburgs lie buried), there were still daily fresh flowers at the tomb of Karl's predecessor, Kaiser Franz Josef I. Since then, Karl's wife Empress Zita and his son Crown Prince Otto have been entombed there with all the traditional Hapsburg burial rites. But Blessed Kaiser Karl remains buried alone - still in in exile - in Madeira, a lonely symbol still of the tragic turn the 20th century took 100 years ago, the catastrophic consequences of which the world remains still very much imprisoned in.

Political failure that he may have been, Karl embodied the loftiest aspirations of his house and the long-lost  mirage of Christendom, echoed so eloquently in the opening bars of the old imperial anthem:

Gott erhalte, Gott beschütze
Unsern Kaiser, unser Land!
Mächtig durch des Glaubens Stütze,
Führ’ er uns mit weiser Hand!

God preserve, God protect
Our Emperor, our land!
Powerful through the support of the faith,
He leads us with a wise hand!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum

One of the perennial complaints (not by me, but by some) about the 2011 English translation of the prayers of the Missale Romanum has been that the language follows the Latin too literally. It certainly does follow the Latin more literally than the interim translations in use in the U.S. since 1970. Whether it is too literal is another matter - a debatable point I do not propose to address here. However, there is one obvious place - more than one in the sense that it is repeated regularly - where the English translation has gratuitously added a word. I refer to the conclusion to the collect, where the adjective "one" has been added to modify "God."

The traditional Latin conclusion, so familiar to altar boys of my generation, is Per Dominum nostrum Jesus Christum Filium tuum: Qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. This is now translated as Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  

To a casual hearer, that gratuitous one might perhaps sound like a trinitarian affirmation. Or, more likely, since Deus is presumably in apposition to qui and hence refers to Christ, perhaps it represents a more classically Nicean affirmation of the Son's consubstantiality with the Father - Jesus Christ, your son, God, who lives and reigns. Either way, it has always seemed to me to do no harm

At some point early in my priesthood, however, I did realize that the natural cadence of my recitation tended to put the stress on the adjective one. Since I understood that one was not part of the literal Latin text, I consciously adapted my cadence so that the stress might fall more properly on the noun God. Other than that, I doubt I ever again gave the issue much thought.

Until, that is, I recently came across a discussion of this issue on the Pray Tell liturgical blog. For that discussion, go to:

The originating cause of this discussion is apparently a May 13 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments stipulating a change omitting the word one in English translations. The letter is referenced in a notification from the British Archdiocese of Westminster, which is what the blog post cites. As quoted in the blog post:

It is clear from the Latin texts that the doxology emphasises the divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, who intercedes on our behalf, as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, to the Father and which prayer is made in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Son’s role of priestly mediation is made clear. To transfer the Trinitarian relational element in unitate as meaning unus Deus is incorrect.

Unsurprisingly, some of the comments convey the impression that some may think this may be an over-reaction. Perhaps so, perhaps not. Either way, if this change is eventually implemented in the U.S., I shall be more than happy to recite the prayer as prescribed by both the Latin and, now, the English texts!

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Perennial Platonic Temptation and its Political Perils

Back in the day, when I was teaching political science, the fall semester saw the annual rerun of my favorite undergraduate course, Ancient Political Theory.  That course could encompass a variety of authors and political and philosophical questions. But it always and inevitably centered on Plato and Aristotle and invariably had to address the fundamental political philosophical dilemma the two founding giants of philosophy seemed to differ on.

As my Princeton mentor, Sheldon Wolin, wrote some 60 years ago: "the central weakness in Plato's philosophy lay in the failure to establish a satisfactory relationship between the idea of the political and the idea of politics. the problem is not how the one can eliminate the other, but rather how can we gain the necessary knowledge of politics to enable us to act wisely in a context of conflict, ambiguity, and change?" Hence he (like Aristotle) took issue with Plato's approach: "the body politic does not experience 'disease,' but conflict; it is beset not by harmful bacteria but individuals with hopes, and ambitions, and fears that are often at odds with the plans of other individuals; its end is not 'health,' but the endless search for a foundation that will support the mass of contradictions present in society." So "political art," he argued, "would be one framed to deal with conflict and antagonism; to take these as the raw materials for the creative task of constructing areas of agreement, or, if this fails, to make it possible for competing forces to compromise in order to avoid harsher remedies." (Politics and Vision: continuity and change in Western Political thought, 1960, p.43.)

Accordingly, in the early 16th century, Rapahel's famous fresco, The School of Athens (photo), portrayed Plato holding his Timaeus and pointing upward beyond this changing world that we experience, which he believed to be just an image of eternal and unchanging philosophical reality, while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, points to the world of sense and human experience within which political institutions must be developed and practical political judgments made.

It is a perennial temptation of philosophy and religion to aspire to resolve political problems by transcending politics. Paradoxically, a similar impulse can be discerned in forms of modern political thought that try to escape from the challenges of political deliberation and debate through the supposedly impersonal and objective workings of the economic market. The philosophical and religious impulse is motivated by an aspiration for what is good and true, a state of moral "health," unencumbered by conflicting hopes and aspirations, while the modern economic impulse is governed by economic class and greed But both may misdirect political life in ways which inevitably frustrate the particular purpose of politics, namely to enable different interests and aspirations to be fulfilled or, at least, accommodated, within the context of an inclusive community. Needless to say, the political deliberation and debate that such politics presupposes ought to be more than simply talking past one another.

Thus, in his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship, Pope Francis invites "authentic social dialogue," which "involves the ability to respect the other's point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns" (202). 

Like Platonism, integralism - the theory that religious doctrine and morality should be the basis of law and public policy in a state - has admittedly attractive aspects. There certainly were at the time very good historical reasons, for example, to want to support Franco's Spain and DeValera's Ireland (the two most approximate applications of integralism in the 20th century). History, however, has rendered a somewhat different verdict on those efforts, which in the end may have rebounded more to the Church's detriment than to its advantage. (As G.K, Chesterton famously warned,  'When a man believes that any stick will do, he at once picks up a boomerang.")

Symbolic affirmations of and certain institutional supports for a nation's historic religious identity are altogether appropriate in societies where they make historical and cultural sense (for example, the special legal status of the Church of England, analogous arrangements in certain Scandinavian countries, and the institutional support of religious schools in some Canadian provinces). But a wholesale effort to re-align a society's legal system with religious teaching - against the will of many, maybe even most, of its citizens - poses monumental problems, not least for fundamentally failing to distinguish between the ultimate ends of the Church and the vital but different and limited ends of the State.

Voting in contemporary pluralistic societies is a political act, and hence an exercise of the virtue of prudence. It involves the conscientious application of moral principles to actual circumstances with all their inherent complexities and in a context of disagreement within the community. (If political judgments were morally self-evident and everyone agreed on what was good and true, then there would be no need for politics in the proper sense.)

Religion teaches us that lying, for example, is intrinsically evil. The Catechism calls offenses against the truth "fundamental infidelities to God," and labels lying "the most direct offense against the truth," something which is to be condemned :by its very nature. (CCC, 2464, 2483, 2485). Yet, as other have noted, only a very small and specific subset of lies, those defined as perjury, are treated as illegal and punishable by law - and not because those particular lies are more intrinsically evil but because of their particular effect on the common good.

In the fifth century, Saint Augustine articulated the complexity of the distinction between the kingdom of God and human political community. On the one hand, he argued that the Ciceronian definition of a political community as an association in agreement regarding justice and a partnership for the common good would mean that Rome (and by extension any normal, non-Integralist state) failed to qualify as a true political community because it was not fully subject to God's law. On the other hand, Augustine refocused the definition of a political community simply as an association in pursuit of common interest, in which case a pagan (or secular) state could qualify as a true political community (cf. De Civitate Dei, II, 21; XIX, 14, 22).

When Jesus said repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21), which we coincidentally heard again at Mass just yesterday, he wasn't just being witty, coining a clever phrase to escape the trap his opponents had laid for him. He was expressing something significant and true about the complementary but distinct ends and purposes of God's kingdom and earthly politics.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

This Year's Missing Dinner

In a "normal" year, this third Thursday in October would have been the occasion for the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner (commonly called "the Al Smith Dinner"), a grand, white-tie extravaganza at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to raise money for New York's Catholic Charities. It is an event which every four years gets a lot of extra attention thanks to the presence of the presidential candidates. But not this year! The pestilential plague that has upended both our private and our public lives led to an alternative "virtual" event held two weeks earlier, which was then almost universally overlooked because of President Trump's covid-19 diagnosis a few hours later.

As presumably everyone who knows any American political history knows, Al Smith was the New York Governor who ran for president - and lost - in 1928, the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party. (John F. Kennedy was the second in 1960. John Kerry was the third in 2004. Joe Biden is the fourth; and, if elected, will be only our second Catholic president.) Cardinal Francis Spellman started the dinner in 1945, a year after Al Smith's death. Over the years it has hosted many famous speakers, but it is its semi-traditional role as the setting for a joint appearance of the two presidential candidates that has cemented its image in American political history and lore.- Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, Carter and Ford in 1976, Carter and Reagan in 1980, Bush and Dukakis in 1988, the second Bush and Gore in 2000, Obama and McCain in 2008, Obama and Romney in 2012, and Trump and Clinton in 2016. That last presidential-year dinner attracted 10.3 million viewers (and raised $6 million for Catholic Charities).

Traditionally, candidates are expected to be humorous and convivial. In 2016, Trump deviated somewhat from that model, making more unfriendly comments about his rival than would normally have been expected. This year, the pandemic precluded not only a live event but the comedy-act aspect. Both candidates gave more serious speeches. Thus, carefully avoiding all references to his many disagreements with Pope Francis, Trump made a pitch for the votes of conservative Catholics. Biden, in contrast, highlighted his personal Catholic credentials, recalling his first meeting with Pope Francis in Rome in 2013 and then how in Washington in 2015 Pope Francis met with his entire family to console them after his son's death. He highlighted his own journey, in language his co-religionists (especially those of his generation) could comfortably relate to, expressing how his faith had helped him "through the darkness" to live "a life in public service" which was worthy of those he had lost.

In the absence of the usual comedy routines, it was left to Cardinal Dolan to inject some light-heartedness. At the end, Dolan reminded everyone of the Catholic political hero the event is named for and recalled that Al Smith was "a happy warrior," but "never a sore loser."

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trust (The Book)

Former South Bend Mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, whose 2019 memoir, Shortest Way Home, sold more than 100,000 copies, has written a second book, Trust: America's Best Chance. Since he is not presently a presidential candidate, one wonders whether his second book may sell as well. Certainly the subject warrants attention as the country continues to careen dangerously down the path of increased division into mutual incomprehending tribes, defined primarily by their distrust and hatred of the other“Presidents after the Trump era will need to return to the basics when it comes to trust and credibility," he notes, perhaps suggesting a job description for a post he might yet someday hope to fill.

Buttigieg effectively brings his own autobiography into the discussion by highlighting how important trust was for him and those he served with in Afghanistan. Given the salience of personal stories in American culture, these may be the most memorable sections of the book.

Buttigieg begins with the obvious "So far," he says, "this young century of ours has a lot of explaining to do." He intends his book not s "a sweeping account of how we got here, or a full assessment of what it is to be alive and American in 2020," but instead "is written in the spirt of what must come next."

A personal historical note: One could certainly have expressed similar sentiments in 1920 in the aftermath of the "Great War" and the Influenza Pandemic. It took a while, but in time - and with good leadership - this country came back quite successfully. The question for today ought to be do we still have it in us to do that again, and can we elect leaders to bring that out in us?

Buttigieg, I believe gets that. Hence his argument about the centrality of trust. Our ability to meet this moment, he argues, depends 'on our ability to cooperate to achieve anything at all. And that will largely depend on our levels of trust." With his Afghanistan battlefield experience in mind, he contends "the cost of too little trust is even higher than the cost of too much."

Unsurprisingly, writing in 2020, he recognizes racism as "America's most pernicious form of distrust ... responsible for more death, more destruction, and more despair than any other force in American life." As importantly, he recognizes and highlights the consequences of the disastrous election of 1980, which resulted in "a new level of effort, even presidential effort, to sow doubt across America in some of our most important institutions."

One ultra-important American institution is, of course, the constitution, whose flaws and democratic deficits are very much on display today. Buttigieg reminds his readers that the constitution was designed to be amended. "This feature of the Constitution was itself an expression of trust: trust in future generations." Our founders "built into the system a way for it to become bigger than their own biases." But in recent decades we seem to have lost our appetite for amending the constitution. "We seem to have lost a level of ambition or imagination that was much more common in virtually every stage of American history but our own." Buttigieg goes on to address other particular policy proposals from voting to taxes, but I think his reminding us that the constitution is meant to be amended and that it has been amended almost continuously in American history until until about 50 years ago may represent his most important policy proposal.

In 2020, "we have reached a stage in which America has little to gain from denying that we, too, are a war-torn country with commensurately deep wounds still open." Indeed, we are. It will take a lot to repair our divisions and heal our wounds, and this book may be one small but helpful step in setting us on that path.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

An Absurd Process

Putting aside for the moment the more fundamental issues of democratic legitimacy involved in the Barrett nomination in the very middle of an election, let us look instead at the absurd process by which the Senate gives its "advice and consent."

Committee hearings are obviously nowhere specified in the constitution. Of course, that is not the problem with committee hearings. The problem is that the present process presumes, indeed requires, the nominee to feign open-mindedness concerning upcoming cases. Like those supposedly "undecided" voters, one wonders whether there really are any such open-minded candidates out there. But, if there were such, it is fairly reasonable to suggest they would have little chance of being nominated. Of course, there have been Justices whose eventual rulings on the bench have turned out to be a surprise. But that was not why they were chosen. In the past, justices have been chosen for all sorts of reasons, including ethnicity, race, and gender. In the current condition of American politics, justices of the Supreme Court are picked primarily because of how they are expected to rule. Whatever Judge Barrett may say during the hearings, everyone knows that the only reason she was nominated was the reasonable expectation that she will rule reliably the way her Republican party patrons want her to. The same would presumably be true of anyone nominated by the next president if by some miracle the process were to be delayed, as it should be, until after January 20. And, given the hyper-political character of the contemporary Court, could it be otherwise?

In her pre-released statement, Judge Barrett said "Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life. The policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches elected by and accountable to the People. The public should not expect courts to do so, and courts should not try,"

If only that were true! I agree completely that courts are neither designed nor equipped either to solve all our problems or to right every wrong. The problem is that courts have claimed this role for themselves and, absent any willingness on the part of Congress to check the Court's increasingly unbridled power, society as a whole has come to share that same expectation. In any case, given the reality that the Court consistently behaves that way and as consistently gets away with it, is it any surprise that virtually everybody, anywhere on the political spectrum, supports or opposes judicial nominees largely in the hope - or fear - that they will advance particular policies and values, regardless of the actions of "the political branches elected by and accountable to the People"?

It was, for example, the political branches that enacted the Affordable Care Act in the first place. Despite repeated promises to repeal it, the Republican Congress failed to do so. Yet, in spite of those obvious actions on the part of those elected by and accountable to the people, a group of Republican Attorneys General, supported by this Administration, have sought to circumvent the political process and enact an alternative policy via the judiciary. Of course, absent a crystal ball, no one can with certainty predict how a Justice appointed by this Administration might rule on that case which will be heard on November 10. But one can do so with reasonably probable certitude (i.e., without fear of error). Were this not the case, would there be any reason for this rushed appointment, this unseemly haste, literally in the middle of an election, not to mention the willful ignoring of more immediate issues in the midst of a deadly pandemic?

Of course, courts could act as Judge Barrett describes in her statement. In that case, judicial appointments would matter much less. Her own appointment might then be much less controversial or, more likely, might never have been made. But that is not the world we live in, thanks largely to repeated congressional failure to check the Supreme Court.

Congress could, of course, as it has in the past, act to limit the federal courts' jurisdiction in certain cases, in accordance with Article 3, section 2 of the Constitution. It could, of course, as it has in the past, alter the number of justices on the Supreme Court and on other federal courts, in accordance with article 3, section 1. (The Judiciary Act of 1789, for example, established a six-member supreme Court. It rose to seven, then nine, then ten, and has been nine since 1869.) And, of course, the Constitution could also be amended to set specific terms for Justices, which could be staggered in such a way as to give each president one or two appointments per term, which would automatically diminish the sense that everything is at stake every time there is a vacancy..

In the absence of such reforms, however, this indefensibly anti-democratic institution stands ready on a regular basis to nullify the popular will on everything from universal access to health care to the role of money in elections. So, of course, court appointments are occasions for periodic national freakouts, exacerbated by a hypocritical and absurd confirmation process.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day, a federal holiday, which has long been a legal and school holiday in certain states, among them my home state of New York. It has been observed in one form or other in the United States since at least the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ expedition in 1792.  Historically, it commemorates Christopher Columbus' landing at San Salvador on this day in 1492, an event experienced very differently by the colonizers and the colonized but an event of enormoous historic import.

In terms of who observes it and how it is observed, Columbus Day has two distinct but not completely unrelated meanings and constituencies. For me and probably for most observers of Columbus Day, it is primarily a celebration of Italian heritage and the Italian-American experience. New York City has the largest Italian-American Columbus Day parade, preceded (at least back in the early 2000s when I was there) by a Mass at the Cathedral in Italian. (On the Sunday before, there is also another parade for the Latino community, commemorating el  Día  de la Hispanidad.) 

If Columbus is primarily a symbol of Italian heritage and the Italian-American experience, Columbus himself long has had a broad appeal among Catholic immigrant groups, for whom he functions as a complement to the country's otherwise predominantly Protestant and English  founding story - a wholesome reminder that groups other than English Protestants were also involved in exploring and settling this continent - and accordingly have as clear a claim as they to be here.

In 1901, the infamous Edward Alsworth Ross, future President of the American Sociological Association, popularized the white-supremacist term "race suicide" and warned "That the Mediterranean people are morally below the races of Northern Europe is as certain as any historical fact." Likewise, after the notorious lynching of 11 Sicilians by a New Orleans mob, The New York Times wrote about "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins." Such elite bigotry eventually led to the 1924 law which severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

In contrast, the celebration of Christopher Columbus' foundational role in American history - an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain's Catholic monarchs - has always served as a counterweight to our country's cultish veneration of its English Protestant "Founding Fathers" and a resounding rebuttal to nativist anti-Catholic and particularly anti-Italian prejudice. The fact that some contemporary politicians may now feel free to demean or diminish Columbus Day is an obvious testimony to the decline of Italian-Americans' political influence and the perceived irrelevance of their immigrant struggles in the new narratives employed by contemporary cultural elites.

Obviously, all this presumes some prior consensus on Columbus as a significant figure for that period of exploration and colonization. It is this aspect of the Columbus story that has, especially in recent years, become even more controversial than it always has been.

Of course, the claim that Columbus "discovered" American was always disputed by others who highlighted the activities of earlier explorers - e.g. Leif Erikson. The historical significance of Columbus lies not so much in his being the "first" European to land here, which he manifestly was not, but that his voyages made a difference in ways that those of previous explorers had not, and that his arrival began the period of sustained European colonization of this continent - the encuentro between the "Old" and the "New" worlds. Religiously, it also marked the beginning of a sustained effort by Christian Europeans to evangelize the indigenous peoples of this continent. That this continent is now what it is, a mixture of people from all parts of the world, is the long-term legacy of what happened on this day in 1492.

How all this happened - how the encuentro between peoples was also a collision with frightful consequences for many, a cause of great suffering among the indigenous peoples, and the occasion of many injustices perpetrated against them - all this has long been recognized. Indeed Columbus himself was faulted for some of his own behavior even in his own lifetime. It is a modern moral conceit to think that only our contemporaries can recognize the moral failings and sins which we as a society have benefited from.

The Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) was famously a passionate defender of the indigenous peoples, whose sufferings at the hands of Spanish conquistadores he documented as he traveled back and forth between America and the Spanish Court exposing and condemning the crimes he had witnessed against the native peoples. 

Acknowledging that the colonization of this continent and the evangelization of its inhabitants were carried out by sinners does not negate the historical significance of the encounter between the "Old" and "New" worlds, which made possible the one world which we now inhabit. There is no "right side of history." there is only history, with its inevitable mix of good and bad. Whether our ancestors came 500 years ago or are recent immigrants, their immigration and therefore our very existence as their descendants are all consequences of the actions and accomplishments of those Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English explorers, settlers, and missionaries who followed the path opened up for them by Columbus.  It atones for no ancient evil and does no present-day service to pretend otherwise..

(Photo: The Statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, New York City)