Friday, May 14, 2021

The First Debate


With just one month to go until early voting starts, eight of the Democratic candidates for mayor met last night for their first "debate." It was on-line, not in person. So we miss the drama of who gets the center spot (so central to the 2020 Democratic presidential debates) and the intriguing spectacle of how the candidates interact with one another, which is sometimes maybe the most interesting aspect of such events. I had another commitment, so I only saw the first hour or so of the debate, and frankly saw nothing that made any one of them stand out in ways he or she hasn't already stood out in this relatively lackluster campaign. (The NY Times writers' scorecard gave their highest rating, 7.3, to former journalist Maya Wiley and their lowest rating, 4.8, to Shaun Donovan, who seems to be running on Obama's imagined coattails, and lumped al the others in the middle with ratings from 6.0 to 6.7.)

In a better world, the pre-pandemic orgy of 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates might have taught us something, but obviously we seem to be beyond earning. I remain not a fan of the "debate" format, which really is not a debate (and, almost by definition, cannot be when there are eight participants). Watching a zoom-style debate highlights the individual environments of the various candidates and makes the image they choose to project about themselves in the way they set up their home backgrounds one of the few interesting distinguishing features about them.

The great challenge for most voters this year will be navigating the new system of Ranked-Choice Voting, which asks them to choose not just a favorite candidate but a 2nd, 3rd, 4th and even 5th choice as well! Ideally, Ranked-Choice Voting is an improvement over the typical first-past-the-post system that frequently favors more ideological candidates with fewer but more intense supporters. Ranked-Choice Voting favors more moderate figures who can appeal across the spectrum to people as an alternative or "second best" choice. That is especially helpful in other jurisdictions where the General Election may be a real contest and a party can hurt itself by nominating someone who appeals to its intense ideological base but cannot appeal more broadly.

The frontrunners in the Mayoral race are obvious, but no one knows how it will turn out once voters' alternative preferences have been factored in! (Nor should we underestimate the possibility of many "bullet votes" for one candidate only - both from intensely ideological voters who want their candidate at all costs and, maybe more lively, from nay voters who find Ranked-Choice Voting too complicated and confusing and just vote the old-fashioned way.)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Ascension Thursday


Ascension Thursday, May 13, 2021.

One of the many joys of being back home in New York is celebrating The Ascension of the Lord on its proper day. The experience is embellished when one gets greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that, in the entire city, what we New Yorkers call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holy day. (Of course, I don't have a car and so don't park on the street. So "alternate side of the street parking" is not quite the existential issue it may be for some.)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] is said to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” Growing up, of course, what I remember most about the Ascension was that we got off from school! But, of course, we had to go to Mass in the morning, and at least some of us may have noticed and may still remember the wonderful ritual of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. (One of many powerful symbols and ceremonies since pointlessly deleted in the systematic ritual impoverishment of the Church's worship in the late 20th century.)

The point of that ancient ritual, of course, was not that Jesus is gone, but that he is now present to us in an alternative and very new way. But what exactly is that new way?

Historically speaking, Ascension commemorates the last of the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. After Easter, the Risen Jesus no longer walked around and spent time with his disciples the way he did before he died and rose. Rather, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading [Acts 1:1-11], what he did instead was to appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 daysspeaking about the kingdom of God. Then, he was taken up, and those appearances ceased. (Hence, the traditional practice of extinguishing the Paschal Candle, the visible symbol that recalls those appearances.)

But, if Jesus doesn’t walk around and live among us on earth as he did before, then where exactly is he? And in what way are we still connected with him? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we publicly profess every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father, where, as the letter to the Hebrews assures us he lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34]

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven (photo). The footprint and the idea that the pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may seem a bit fanciful, but it does make the important point that it is Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now in glory with God. So the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. And, in the Preface, the Church prays: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for.

Meanwhile, in this interval between Ascension and the end - a time full of problems and challenges of every sort, of seemingly apocalyptic crises and intractable conflicts in the world and politically inspired divisions even within the Church in our country, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries - in this interval between Ascension and the end, the Risen Lord remains with us though his gift of the Holy Spirit. The Church continues Christ's life and work in our world, by the mission and action of the Holy Spirit, whose "great work," wrote Servant of God Isaac Hecker in 1873, is the salvation, the sanctification of mankind upon earth and their glorification hereafter by means of the Church."

So, far from being absent, Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, is still very much present among us by the power of his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in the Church, through which we remain connected with him, so that, through us, he can continue his work of transforming our world. Again, as Pope Francis, has reminded us: “In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness” [Gaudete et Exsaltate (2018), 15]

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Holy See Signals "Stop"



Until this week, there was a widespread expectation that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their forthcoming June meeting might make some sort of pronouncement regarding our second Catholic President's right receive Holy Communion. Any such pronouncement would potentially have been problematic on several counts - not least because, according to Pope Saint John Paul II's 1998 Motu Propio "On the Theological and Juridical Authority of Episcopal Conferences" (Apostolos Suos, 24), a Bishops' Conference may not normally interfere in any individual Bishop's authority in his own diocese. And, however much support any such statement might have garnered within the USCCB, it would most certainly never have not been unanimous, which it would have had to be to be issued by the Conference with the kind of doctrinal authority, to which "the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops" (Apostolos Suos, 22). 

One would think that those limitations would have been sufficient to discourage what must seem to many to be a strange, manifestly partisan, dangerously divisive, and pointlessly quixotic effort, which would accomplish nothing in terms of eliminating the evil of abortion, while reinforcing the perception that this whole issue has increasingly become less about life and more about partisan political advocacy.

Now, however, a direct intervention from the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has seemingly signaled a further bright red light, signaling "Stop." The "red light" came in the form of a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the CDF, to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, current President of the USCCB. The text of the letter does not seem to be accessible as yet, but several sources (Crux, America, NCR) have reported on it.

As reported by the above sources, Ladaria's letter reiterates earlier guidance requiring two stages of dialogue - first, among the bishops themselves, then, between bishops and Catholic politicians in their jurisdictions - and warns that the "possible contentious nature" of a national policy might "become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United states." The letter also advises the U.S. Bishops "to dialogue with other episcopal conferences as this policy is formulated in order to learn from one another and to preserve unity in the universal church." Given that no other national episcopal conference is comparably preoccupied with this issue, it may seem fairly obvious what lessons might likely be learned from dialogue with others outside the U.S.

Ladaria's letter also advised that any statement on this subject "would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics [politicians], regarding their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel fo Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament." And it pointedly states "it would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest accountability on the part of Catholics."

Obviously, the debate is not about the Church's definitive teaching about abortion and euthanasia, about which there can be no legitimate dissent. Rather, the debate is about what practical political and legal approaches ("prudential judgments" in Church speak) may be most appropriate and effective in this particular pluralistic, non-confessional, secular society, in regard to which an authentic dialogue between religious and political leaders as recommended by the CDF letter would be most desirable. Indeed, a return to real dialogue about these moral, political, and legal issues among citizens in our society would be most desirable, in place of the current "culture war," tribal shouting match.

Meanwhile, within the Church, it remains the laity who are primarily responsible for political life and whatever degree of relative justice political life may at its best aspire to achieve. President Biden is not another Saint Louis IX. Nor, as president of a modern secular state, does he enjoy Louis IX's less saintly successors' authority within the Church. One of the features of the last century and more of Church history has been the progressive exclusion of lay public officials from roles of leadership and authority within the Church, thereby diminishing an entire dimension of lay representation and practical wisdom, which had been until relatively recently a taken-for-granted aspect of Catholic life. That said, Biden is certainly the most publicly prominent Catholic in this country - and (after the Pope) perhaps the most publicly prominent Catholic in the entire world. That prominence poses challenges, but it remains more an opportunity to be valued than a problem to be dismissed.

The first comparably prominent layman to exercise leadership and authority in the Church was, of course, Constantine. According to one wonderful legend, Constantine challenged the Novatian Acesius, asking why he separated himself from communion with the rest of the Church. Acesius said he objected to the Church's leniency in allowing certain Christians whom he considered sinners to participate in the sacraments. Constantine responded: Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone to heaven.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Unlocking the Cage



As more and more Americans get vaccinated, it is now clearly time - or at least very close to time - for most of us to start trying to live somewhat normally again (whatever "normal" might actually mean in a post-pandemic world). As someone who has not entered a restaurant since March 7, 2020, nor been to a movie theater, I need to hear that message as much as anyone. About 14 months ago, as the covid-19 pandemic spread uncontrollably and seemed poised either to kill us or totally take over the lives of those it didn't kill, we did the only thing we could. We responded by locking ourselves in a cage, guarded by distance, masks, and an abundant, obsessive-compulsive, overuse of hand sanitizer. That all made perfect sense at the time.

But that was then, and now is now. Thanks to the scientific miracle of highly effective vaccines developed with unprecedented speed, it is possible to stop the transmission of the virus - assuming, of course, people all get vaccinated. Sadly, many people around the world do not yet have that opportunity, and until they do the virus will to some extent remain a a real and permanent threat to all of humanity.  Sadly, too, there are many who now have the opportunity to get vaccinated but have not done so for political reasons. The only morally response to that is to require proof of vaccination - for schools, for example, much as has long been the case with regard to other vaccinations.

But, back to my problem. After 14 months, it has become easy to stay inside and not go anywhere. Too easy. And, all too often, the impression has sometimes been given that getting vaccinated makes little difference and that one should still maintain distance, wear a mask, etc. Of course, as long as there are unvaccinated people among us, some of those precautions may still make sense in certain settings. As long as I can't be confident that absolutely everyone on the bus has been fully vaccinated, I want the bus to require everyone to wear a mask. That makes sense.

But it also makes sense to start unlocking one's personal cage. Once you have been vaccinated and your family and friends as well, what then should you be doing? For sure, still wear a mask on the bus - for society's sake. But, as importantly, take that bus and go somewhere!


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Living Lies



“If a prerequisite for leading our conference is continuing to lie to our voters, then Liz [Cheney] is not the best fit,” according to Ohio Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the nine other Republican House members who, with Cheney, chose to acknowledge their Emperor's lack of clothes and accordingly voted to impeach President Trump in January. Clearly, lying is indeed now a prerequisite for whatever passes for "leadership" among the Trump personality-cult that is the contemporary opposition party. When Utah Republicans booed their Senator and 2012 presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, who as senator twice voted to convict Trump, they called him (of all absurd things) a "communist." Romney responded “aren’t you embarrassed?” Obviously, most Republicans are not.

Indeed, whatever one thinks of the "severely conservative" (as he called himself in 2012) Romney (of whom I am no more a fan than I am of Liz Cheney, neither of whom could I ever imagine voting for), he is obviously no "communist." Calling rival American politicians "communist" was always a bizarre and unprincipled tactic even in the worst years of the Cold War. Its evident absurdity three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union just exemplifies even further the  fantasy world which the Trump cult increasingly inhabits and its commitment to lies and more lies. One of the many ironies of our current crisis is that that Trump cult's organizational expression in the contemporary Republican party, in its sectarian character and its indifference to truth, increasingly rather resembles the only actual "communist" entity of any remaining significance still in existence, the Chinese Communist Party. And both seem to be devoted to Lenin's infamous call to employ "a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn toward those who disagree with us.”

The overused (and at times tiresome) terminological distinction between being both/and as opposed to either/or nonetheless has some real meaning and value in politics. A healthy, well balanced society needs both its left and right wings, both progressive advocacy and cautious conservatism. If the Left's political purpose is to push society forward towards a more just and equitable future, the Right's role is to steer society prudently according to the truth of human nature and the lessons of human history. Even if the United States somehow survives the Republican party's Trumpist abandonment of constitutional democratic norms of governance (a survival which is by no means a certainty at this stage), the absence of anything resembling a serious conservative opposition party has already decisively damaged American politics for a long time to come.

(Photo: The Emperor's New ClothesIllustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen's first illustrator.)

Friday, May 7, 2021

Making Sense of Mother's Day


A friend of mine once characterized Mother's Day as "a conspiracy of florists and greeting card companies." It is hard to disagree completely with that characterization; but, as with most such witticisms, it gets the story only partly right.

A more pointed critique would be that Mother's Day (and Father's Day and, for that matter, the way we obsessively "honor" our veterans) are all examples of our very American tendency to "honor" people in symbolic, virtue-signaling ways, which are completely contradicted by prevailing public policies. Somehow a society that falls all over itself to "honor" mothers every May manages to have the least pro-family, pro-mother, pro-child policies of any other comparably advanced society.

This disconnect may matter more than ever right now, when the Great Recession followed by a global Pandemic have highlighted the hopeless dysfunction and inequality in our society and the damage done in particular to children and families. And, speaking of children and families, have we not noticed that marriages are fewer, family-formation is down and our national birthrate is shockingly low (the lowest since 1979)?

So maybe Mother's Day might be reimagined as an occasion for actually thinking about (and eventually doing something about) this disastrous state of affairs. In which case, all the money spent to enrich those florists and greeting card companies might turn out to be well spent!

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

What Would Karl Say?



When I was in college and grad school in the late 1960s and early-mid1970s, Karl Marx, who would be 203 years old today, was all the rage - in particular, the writings and ideas of the so-called "Young" Marx - the Feuerbachian transformer of Hegeliansm and theorist of Entfremdung ("alienation"), popularized by "Frankfurt School" critical theorists like Theodore Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Jurgen Habermas. Simultaneously critical of both capitalism and of Leninist communism, and turned on by existentialism and Freudianism and whatever else seemed to fill in the gaps, my generation of students absorbed the vocabulary and some of the substance of the "Young" Marx's critique of society, starting with Ludwig Feuerbach's critique of religion.

Even then, however, the real-world prospects for any transformation of the world in any way that even remotely resembled Marxist categories appeared increasingly unlikely - and, if any thing, even less so after the collapse of the pseudo-Marxist Soviet regime two decades later.

As my one-time mentor Sheldon Wolin wrote in 2004, Marx's "predictions of the inevitable collapse/overthrow of advanced capitalism by a successful working-class revolution seem a relic of nineteenth-century romanticism. Instead of a steady growth in proletarian power, let alone in revolutionary ardor, organized labor underwent a dramatic, seemingly irreversible decline during the latter half of the twentieth century, suggesting that it is the workers who have been defeated - but by a different revolution" [Politics and Vision, Princeton U. Pr., 2004, p. 407].

Back in my day, "old left" ideas about proletarian revolution were giving way to "new left" alternative "revolutionary" identities, much as traditional liberal and social democratic commitments to the working classes have since been replaced by the vagaries and superficialities of "woke" progressivism.

Yet Marxist language and categories continue to enjoy a remarkable shelf life. For me, what remains interesting and viable from the historical wreckage of Marxism is what was perhaps Marx's main observation and insight - his recognition and appreciation of capitalism as the ultimate global agent of modernity's destruction of all that preceded it. 

As Ferris Jabr wrote in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine, "significantly elongating life without sustaining well-being is pointless" ["How Long Can We Live?"] Analogously, that is what global capitalism has done, it has radically improved human productive capacity, while radically altering and undermining the spiritual and moral dimensions of human life and the political character of society, thus preventing the political order from remedying the damage inflicted by capitalism on its citizens and (as we have more recently come to appreciate) upon our common home, the natural world. Thus, to quote Wolin again, Marx "set out to probe the question of why the state failed to promote that generality of shared advantages and burdens for its members which, according to Hegel, was the true mark of the political [p.412].

That probe remains the preeminent challenge for any post-capitalist political theory, as, analogously, the post-capitalist practical political challenge must be to rebuild a constituency to maximize rational political action and to minimize capitalist market mystification that disempowers citizens, as the governing political orthodoxies have been doing in American politics since 1980.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Slowing Down the Conclave



Alberto Melloni, professor of history of Christianity at the University of Modena/Reggio Emilia, has written an interesting and provocative piece in the April 24 issue of The Tablet, "How to Elect a Pope," in which he argues for reforms in the current conclave procedure. He makes some very valid and useful points. Unfortunately he begins with an apocalyptic scenario, which he says "demands an urgent revision of the rules," a scenario the risks of which he himself acknowledges no revision in the rules would effectively eliminate.

Melloni worries, rightly, that "well funded and well organised lobbyists and campaigners" and "powerful pressure groups or the emperors of social media" may in effect wield the infamous "veto," which Catholic monarchs wielded in papal elections as recently as 1903. His greatest fear seems to be the "revelation" of some supposed past behavior "rendering a newly elected pope unsuitable for office," the very thing that was attempted in 2013 when accusations were thrown against the new Pope Francis about his behavior during Argentina's 1970's "Dirty War." He is right that all such risks cannot be eliminated, and my guess is that, barring the highly implausible election of a very young, totally unknown prelate, who had never said or done anything of note, such scenarios will be increasingly likely, because that is the world and media universe we are now living in.

That said, Melloni does raise some other important concerns and does make some very sensible suggestions to address them. At present, we have more cardinals than ever, from more far away places than ever - a far cry from when there were only a few cardinals all or most of whom lived in Rome and participate in the government of the Church. At the same time, the cardinals seldom meet together, and have not done so now for some time. This means that a conclave could be composed of cardinals most of whom do not know each other and have little experience of interacting with one another. That alone would make it hard for them individually to decide whom to vote for and for sufficient votes to coalesce around an appropriate choice. All of which seem to highlight Melloni's fear of outside pressures in the pre-conclave.

So Melloni proposes that the cardinals (all of them, including the non-electors) should all live together at Santa Marta from the time they arrive. This would help them get to know one another and hopefully offer "more opportunities for genuine dialogue." Less logically in my opinion, he then proposes to restrict the general congregations to the cardinal electors alone. This might make the meetings somewhat more manageable in terms of size, but might also diminish the quality of the discussion by eliminating some of the most experienced voices. He further would exclude all cardinals over 75, further diminishing the pool of experienced participants. Had such a rule been in force, we would, of course, have no Pope Francis and would have never had Pope Saint John XXIII (and possibly no Vatican II). I am all for reforming the process, but not necessarily by reducing either the number of participants or the number of papabili.

To my mind, his most important proposal and the one most likely to produce real benefit is to start with only one ballot per day, gradually increasing the number if the conclave continues beyond a few days. As he points out, the two 21st-century conclaves "each lasted less than 28 hours." Quick conclaves please the press, but do not promote deliberation and discernment and do not necessarily benefit the Church. They favor obvious front-runners, especially so given the already mentioned ignorance so many cardinals may have about one another and about the multiplicity of options they might have if they took the time to consider them all. 

I am sure some might fear that a longer conclave would give the impression of a Church divided and conflicted (which, of course, happens to be the case right now anyway, something everyone already knows about). To me, that is either a rationalization for our contemporary shortened attention span or yet another unjustified concession to the media and its politicized and sensationalized agenda. In fact, I think a conclave that lasted as long as a full week might well offer the necessary opportunities for deliberation, debate, and discernment, which really should be the point of a conclave.

Melloni's bottom-line is that he wants to avoid the risks to the Church posed by conclaves "such as we had in 2005 and 2013, run according to the same rules and in the same conditions, but with a group of cardinals even less familiar with each other, and perhaps even more emotionally exposed and vulnerable to external pressures and manoeuverings." On that, I think, he is right.

Most modern popes have tinkered with the electoral process. Pope Francis would do well to slow down the next conclave by implementing Melloni's proposals regarding the number and frequency of ballots.


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Discernment Now as Then


The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021.

Every day during this and every Easter season, the Church at Mass reads from the Acts of the Apostles – the evangelist Luke’s account of how the Risen Christ’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit transformed a small group of 120 disciples into a missionary movement that spread from Jerusalem to Rome and how that small Jewish sect became a world Church with a universal mission.

To us who already know the larger story, the Church’s growth and expansion may seem like a natural development, both obvious and inevitable. Back then, however, it was one learning experience after another. And one of the leading figures in that process was Saint Paul, who makes his first Sunday appearance in this year’s Sunday selections from Acts in today’s 1st reading [Acts 9:26-31].

At that point Paul – then still known as Saul – was not yet the leading figure he would soon become. In fact, when he first tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem, they were all afraid of him, not knowing that he was a disciple. That was hardly surprising, given his recent history as a ferocious persecutor of the new Christian movement. As we all know, our past actions often linger with us long after we would like them to be forgotten. (Not for nothing have some argued for a "right to be forgotten" in social media!)

So what we now take for granted, namely that every new member of the Church needs a sponsor, turned out to be the case even then for Saul, who was, in effect, sponsored by Barnabas, who took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and in effect testified to them that Saul’s conversion was the real deal.

I think this episode raises an interesting question which in some sense is always with us. How do we remain open to the possibility that God is telling us something new or doing something unexpected, while at the same time distinguishing what is truly from God from what is not, what is authentically holy from what is transient, temporary, a passing fad, or just plain false? Not for nothing has Pope Francis warned against “all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace.”

In the current environment, it is easy to observe how politics decisively defines the identities of more and more Americans, and how for many one's religious affiliation - one's identification with a particular denomination or with a specific faction within that denomination - is determined increasingly by one's political identity. Whereas once upon a time one's religious beliefs might have been thought to form - or at least inform - one's political positions, nowadays the reverse seems increasingly true.

Hence the importance of what is classically called discernmentAnd so we speak, perhaps sometimes too simplistically or casually, of discerning one's calling in life, or of discerning what God is calling us to do in new situations as they arise in our lives. Acts illustrates how the apostolic community did its discernment – by looking at the results. Anticipating John’s injunction in today’s 2nd reading [1 John 3:18-24] that love is not just about word or speech but about deed and truth, Barnabas told the apostles about Saul’s encounter with the Risen Christ and confirmed its authenticity by the evidence of the genuineness of Saul’s personal transformation and what Saul was newly contributing to the Church's life and mission. As Saint Therese of Lisieux famously said: “Love proves itself by deeds.”

As a practical matter, that is one more obvious reason why being – and remaining – connected with the larger Church community is so important, lest we grow isolated from the experience of others in the community and lose the much needed sense of perspective which we get from interaction with others and learning to appreciate their experiences. Saul had been personally called by the Risen Christ to become his apostle. Even so, Saul still had to have his credentials validated, so to speak, by the judgment of the authorized leaders of the Church, who in turn based their judgment on what the Church community was actually experiencing with Saul, as attested by Barnabas.

As Jesus’ farewell address in John’s gospel illustrates [John 15:1-8], the future for which we hope is already present in our union with the Risen Lord – a union which is not Jesus and me alone, or Jesus and me and my friends alone, or Jesus and me and my political party alone, but rather Jesus and the entire universal Church, toto orbe terrarum ("throughout the whole world"). The choice for a life in union with Christ is a choice of a life of communion with Christ’s Body, the Church, within which we are both welcomed and challenged, forgiven and fed, taught and transformed.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Joseph Opifex



From pre-Christian springtime fertility festival to the day designated by the Second International for its Marxist-themed workers' holiday, May Day has been all things to all people. In 1955, Pope Pius XII tried to compete with the Communist workers' holiday by establishing a new liturgical feast of Saint Joseph the Worker (Sanctus Joseph Opifex). While the new festival failed, obviously, to outperform the more popular May Day, in the process it did displace in the Catholic calendar another relatively modern feast, that of the Patronage of Saint Joseph, celebrated in the 19th century on the Third Sunday after Easter and in the 20th century on the Third Wednesday after Easter. Pius XII's ineffective innovation still survives - somewhat vestigially and not much noticed - in the contemporary calendar. That said, its annual occurrence in this Year of Saint Joseph offers another occasion to consider Saint Joseph's significance. 

In 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (whose own name was, of course, Joseph) made the best of what the calendar offered, somewhat counterfactually calling this observance in honor of Saint Joseph the Worker "a liturgical Memorial very dear to the Christian people." Recalling how it had been established "to highlight the importance of work and of the presence of Christ and his Church in the working world," he expressed his "hope that work will be available, especially for young people, and that working conditions may be ever more respectful of the dignity of the human person." Sixteen years later, after a world-wide economic recession, a pandemic, and other more prosaic efforts by global capitalism and the elites it enriches to diminish further the power of workers and all respect for the dignity of the human person, Pope Benedict's words seem as significant today as they were then. The approaching 130th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical Rerum Novarum two weeks from today further highlights the need for new responses to these persistent problems which have particularly characterized the past 40 years.

(Photo: Saint Joseph's Altar, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY)


Thursday, April 29, 2021

100 Days



Just as generations and decades have become increasingly popular - if pointlessly arbitrary - markers, much that same might be said for the infamous "First 100 Days" by which we insist on judging our contemporary presidents. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president on March 4, 1933, the country was in shambles; and it was FDR's decisive leadership in his first 100 days and the special session of Congress which met during that time that dramatically uplifted the nation's spirits and started the country on the road to recovery - and in the process provided pundits and others with this pointless but popular measure of every new Administration.

Joe Biden may be the first president since FDR to inherit a country as comparably devastated - above all by the global pandemic and its manifold consequences, all exacerbated by four years of misgovernment by his predecessor. So the impetus for immediate, decisive, and dramatic action is similar, which may make the "100 Days" less an arbitrary journalistic gimmick than it would normally be. Certainly, as in 1933, the country is in crisis and has ousted one president and elected a new one in the expectation that the new president will make a difference in ways his predecessor had failed so ignominiously to do.

And Biden has not disappointed. On the eve of his 100th day, our second Catholic President and thus the most prominent and influential American Catholic, addressed the Congress in a sort of unofficial "State of the Union." He gave his address in an unusually semi-empty House Chamber, with only about 200 people present and without the usual extraneous guests in the gallery, in order to exemplify Covid precautions. There was an added strangeness to this, in that - thanks to the Administration's success in getting so many Americans vaccinated - such precautions may soon be ancient history. One hopeful benefit of the smaller audience, however, was that there were fewer opportunities for Republicans to engage in childish silliness and misbehavior. It also, of course, highlighted how the speech was being actually addressed directly to the rest of us. (At least since LBJ started giving State of the Union Addresses in the evening instead of at noon, Congress has long been more of a prop than the main audience on such occasions anyway.)

The strange setting also enabled the President to highlight the unique "crisis and opportunity" that is, effect, the state of our union right now.

The speech celebrated the many amazing accomplishments already achieved in the first 100 days and challenged Congress to act - to argue and debate but above all to act. At the end, he articulated the overarching question: Can democracy deliver? And he challenged Congress and the American people all to "do our part." The speech was Roosevelt-like in inspiration. (Indeed, his closing words were reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor day radio Address in 1941.) 

It was good - for the first time in many decades - to hear a President speak like a traditional Democrat and friend of the working class (in other words, neither Clintonian neo-liberalilsm nor woke progressivism). It was refreshing and encouraging to throw away - hopefully for good - the destructive government-is-not-the-solution Reagan playbook that has undermined this country for the past 40 years.

There remains, however, one important difference between FDR in 1933 and Biden in 2021. While FDR's actions altered and transformed America, Biden has so far, for the most part, mainly proposed to do so. His proposals would likely change an America desperately in need of transformation - on as significant a scale as FDR and LBJ's legislative accomplishments. But, apart from the already passed and monumentally significant ARP, most of Biden's agenda has yet to be enshrined in legislation. And, like LBJ, he has only until next year's election to get that done. The reality remains that the Democratic Party's hold on Congress is so fragile that caution and moderation serve no purpose, nor do obsessive appeals to a long-gone chimerical bipartisanship. The goal at this point must be to accomplish whatever one can, as much as one can, as quickly as one can, before the likely loss of congressional control in 2022 puts a virtual end to all domestic legislation, while in fact the only possible hope to avoid that 2022 loss would be to have actually accomplished a lot that actually makes a difference in people's lives and can drown out the obsessive nihilism of the culture warrior opposition.

(Photo: President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on the eve of his 100th day in office, as Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stand behind him on the dais. Melina Mara/Pool/Getty Images)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Oscar Night



The 2021 Academy Awards have come and gone. As always, some people get really excited by the Oscars, while others pay no attention at all. In recent years, the latter group seems to have been increasing and, I suspect, may perhaps have hit an all-time high this year. After all, most of us haven't set foot in a movie theater in over a year. At its best, Oscar Night is basically an exercise in elite Hollywood narcissism, minimally connected with the realities of ordinary Americans' lives solely because of the ultimate power of the box office, which at least reminds the people applauding themselves at the ceremony what actually sells with ordinary viewers. Take that away, and in a world in which fewer people than ever have actually seen the movies being lauded, what is left?

Add to that the fact that this has been an exceptionally hard and unhappy year for so many. So who wants to see so many movies entirely devoted to depressing topics, as so many of this year's nominees are?

In some years, I usually made an honest effort to make sure to see all the nominees for Best Picture (at least when there were still only five of them to see). This year, I saw fewer than usual, of which the expected (and actual) winner, Nomadland, was one. I concede that it has merit as a movie. It is the film's politics (or lack thereof) that bother me. (Cf. my earlier review of the film in February at https://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2021/02/nomadland-movie.html.)

Set against the background of the Great Recession and the hollowing out of the once great American working class, the film could have been - and really ought to have been - a powerful critique of what has happened to this country since 1980. Instead, the tragedy of elder poverty and the criminality of a political and economic system that has gleefully produced the tragedy  of elder poverty get lost in a haze of American individualism and a pseudo-libertarian, romanticized freedom of the open road.

As for the Oscar show itself, the introductions to the awards were often way too long, as were many of the acceptance routines, while there was less of the customary music and fewer excerpts from actual films - and, of course, lot of privileged elites' political posturing and virtue signaling. All in all, a tiresome night!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Of Shepherd and Sheep



The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021.

Today's annual "Vocation Sunday" Gospel's image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd [John 10:11-18], is a very familiar and popular one – even, it seems, in our modern, urbanized society, in which most of us obviously are not shepherds and mostly know next to nothing about sheep. What we do all know, of course, is that the luckier sheep live to provide us with wool, while the other sheep become lamb chops.

For all its obvious ambiguity, the ruler-as-shepherd image is an ancient one, at least as ancient as Plato. That, I suspect, may be precisely what makes Jesus so special as a shepherd. This shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – a somewhat unexpected reversal of roles, a reversal of roles which brings about a new kind of relationship between the shepherd and his sheep.

In most ancient pagan religious understandings, one of the things that most seemed to distinguish the gods from us was that the gods enjoyed a greatly envied freedom from death - in contrast to our own inescapable human mortality. But, by becoming one of us himself and experiencing our human predicament by his voluntary death, Jesus overcame that separation between God and us, and so reversed not just the traditional job descriptions of shepherd and sheep, but also the pagan idea that human beings exist, like sheep, simply to serve for the satisfaction of the gods.

It even turns out, furthermore, that God actually takes satisfaction precisely in this reversal. This is why the Father loves me, Jesus says, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. So an age-old separation has been overcome, and something new has happened in our world. A brand new connection has been created between God and us by the death and resurrection of the Good Shepherd, who accepted the limits of our mortal life in order to bring us, together with him, to something new beyond those limits.

Now that’s all well and good, but didn’t it happen such a long time ago? And not much really seems to have changed in the world since then, has it? After all, as the 6th-century Saint Anastasius of Antioch famously said, apropos our Easter faith, people still die and bodies still decay in deathAnd all we have to do is tune in to the news to see how the same sad patterns keep repeating themselves - killings by police, for example, to mention just one obvious example of a long-standing serious American social problem very much in the news right now

Easter comes and goes, year-in and year-out, and it all begins to sound routine, doesn’t it? If anything the routine is reinforced in our churches and parishes and parish schools by the predictable repetition of the annual activities and events that routinely recur to punctuate this season. (Of course, now that I am no longer involved in parish life and no longer mark the routine passage of time by the annual recurrence of precisely those predictable activities and events, I miss them all very much!)

In any case, there was certainly nothing routine about Peter’s sermon in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 4:8-12], in the aftermath of the first post-Pentecost miracle, an amazing cure which Peter somewhat modestly called a good deed done to a cripple. It all happened, Peter proclaimed, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom God raised from the dead … ‘the stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

What a claim! The sheer boldness of it – that humanity can be saved and that Jesus Christ is its one and only savior!

Recognizing the boldness of that claim and taking it seriously – making it our own claim – is what Easter time is all about. Admittedly, given the inevitable limits of our attention, it takes considerable effort to keep up that Easter enthusiasm – to keep it from wilting along with the Easter flowers in last week's cold snap!

And so we have to make the effort, a conscious and deliberate effort, to take seriously directions the calendar gives us and so celebrate Easter for seven wonderful weeks, during which we recall the fervor of those first new Christians, who were transformed forever by the presence and power of the Risen Lord, experienced in the here and now in his word and in the Church's sacraments. And we see how eager they were to share that experience with everyone around them – an eagerness we need to learn from, for each of us is also being propelled by the power of the Easter story to trust in its power to transform the world. For, as Peter’s sermon makes clear, the universal power of Jesus’ name is not limited or constrained by any human failure to hear it.

Jesus himself says he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also he must lead, and they will hear his voice. The Savior of the world calls all people to his Father, as he continually transforms the world through the uniquely saving power of his death and resurrection. In Jesus, God can now be found in every aspect of human life, in places and people where one might least expect, in situations which our limited imaginations may even turn into obstacles to God’s presence - itself also a particularly apt lesson for Vocation Sunday.

Our mission, the mission of the Church animated by the power of the Risen Christ, is to go beyond the limits of our imaginations, and become, like the otherwise ordinary people whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, effective witnesses to God’s saving power in our desperately needy world.

And all this we have to do together, as the Risen Lord's Church. We can’t be seriously spiritual without being really religious.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Lessons from a Funeral


Few rituals straddle the intersection between religious faith and future hope, on the one hand, and the increasingly narrowing horizons of secular society, on the other, than do funerals. And seldom is that more obvious than when secular society becomes an invited guest at a Christian funeral, which happens every so often when public officials' funerals are celebrated in churches with unabashedly Christian rituals. Of course, many ostensibly Christian funerals are increasingly Christian in name only, deteriorating more and more into incoherent "celebrations of life" or some similar neologisms. What a blessing, then, when a semi-state occasion like the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh illustrates, on world-wide TV, the essential meaning and purpose of a Christian funeral service!

In the United Kingdom, only the sovereign (and anyone she designates) gets a full "State Funeral." The only such event in the current Queen's reign was the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. So Prince Philip would not have had a full "State Funeral," in any case. Even so, the strange circumstances of the present pandemic put additional limitations on what would otherwise have presumably involved the presence of many representatives from all over the Commonwealth and the wider world, as well as the participation certainly of many more musicians. Having worshipped daily in Saint George's Chapel during my summer sabbatical at Windsor in 2005, I am familiar with the site and so suspect that it could easily have fit many more, even with social distancing, but it was obviously important to be obedient to the official restrictions, however arbitrary they may seem. In the end, the unusual circumstances may have made the ceremonial details stand out all that much more, amid the sad images of the royal widow alone with her immediate family, all the while thereby highlighting even more the religious ritual itself.

With only a handful of singers instead of a full choir, the simpler music managed to convey the mood maybe even more effectively than would likely have been the case otherwise. Even the National Anthem's muting of its normally (and appropriately) triumphant sound seemed to make it uniquely fit the occasion, further highlighting the aloneness of the Queen, symbolically linking her bereavement with that of so many who have been unable to mourn their loved ones with full ceremonial this past year. 

Of course, most of the military and ceremonial flourishes were unique to the military and royal occasion. But there were other features of this modern but very Anglican service that other liturgical churches could appreciate and appropriate - among them the welcome presence of black vestments (matched by a congregation wearing appropriate funeral attire) and the even more welcome absence of any homily or eulogy. (There were, admittedly, appropriately personal references integrated into the Program and the Prayers recited by the Archbishop and the Dean, but they were modest encroachments on the liturgy compared with what happens when a homily - more typically a eulogy labeled a homily - is preached.)

If there has been any long-term benefit in the wake of the unanticipated forced abridgment  of so many funeral rites because of this pandemic it may be in the recovery of the basics of what a funeral service is supposed to be about, which we saw so beautifully on display in the dignified and somber, but faith-filled rites celebrated on Saturday for the Duke of Edinburgh.

(Saint George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, site of the Duke of Edinburgh's Funeral)



Sunday, April 18, 2021

"Be a Member of the Body"



The Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021.

Years ago (more years than I care to. count), a colleague remarked that the liturgical Easter season is too long, that 50 days are just too many, to sustain interest, let alone a sense of celebration. Certainly, he had a point. In our fast-paced present of abridged attention spans, ritual minimalism, and diminished imaginations, who anymore has the time, the patience, or the interest for seven weeks of celebration? Haven't even the Easter lilies given up by now? (One reason I have never been all that fond of Easter lilies is in fact that they last such a short time!) 

As Americans, we are all addicted to anticipating everything, to celebrating everything in advance. Halloween candy is on display in the supermarket for at least two months, but by Halloween itself the shelves are already being restocked for Christmas. Then by Christmas for Valentine's Day. And so it goes, all year long. Our American lust for anticipating and commercializing everything is ill-suited to the timing and rhythm of the liturgical year.

But the Church – in her providentially counter-cultural wisdom – does the opposite. The liturgy holds off on celebrating until the day itself (or, somewhat problematically in the case of Christmas and Easter, the day before). Then we are expected to keep on celebrating for days and even weeks – weeks that to some may seem to drag on and on, apparently with no end in sight.

Part of the problem, of course, can be just figuring out what exactly we are celebrating for seven long weeks. Even the most symbolically challenged modern observer probably gets it eventually that there is something special about the number seven. Those in the know can elaborate endlessly on the season’s symbolic significance, historical antecedents, Jewish parallels, and so much more. At the end of the day, however, the question always remains. So what?

It probably happened naturally enough - once the Jewish Passover had been reimagined as the Christian Easter - that the 7-week period from Passover to Pentecost reappeared as the Easter season. And, as the modern Church has reorganized its initiation rituals, this has acquired the eminently practical purpose of providing the newest members – those baptized at Easter – time to understand their experience and better appreciate what it meant for the rest of their lives. In the early Church, that time was in fact one week, the one week my onetime colleague would have liked us to revert to. In effect, the modern extended Easter season seems to exist precisely to answer the question, So what now?

That is why the Church reads every day during this season from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ life, and thus the ongoing story of the Risen Christ’s continued life and work in the world, as experienced in his presence and action in his Church. Who better to answer our So what? Question than the first Christian generation, whose exciting experience the Acts of the Apostles recalls for us?

Today’s 1st reading [Acts 3:13-15, 17-19] is an excerpt from Saint Peter’s second sermon recorded in Acts. Peter may have been new at his job, but (at least as he is portrayed in Acts) he was already quite good at it. He got right to the point of what had happened and why it mattered. He outlined and summarized the central tenets of Christian faith – the significance of Jesus’ life and mission, how his death has revealed him to be God’s suffering servant, how his resurrection confirms him as the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ, promised by all the prophets, all of which challenges his hearers - which is to say, us - to repent and be converted.

Precisely how to do this is what John elaborates in our second reading [1 John 2:1-51], another standard Easter season staple. Jesus Christ the righteous one is our Advocate with the Father and expiation for our sins and for those of the whole world. And the way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments – being transformed, truly perfected in him by conforming ourselves to the truth of his words.

Obviously, all this transformation of ordinary people leading otherwise ordinary lives in a routine world may be easier said than done! Like the disciples in the Gospel [Luke 24:35-48], we may all be more than a bit startled and terrified by the intrusion of the extraordinary into that ordinary routine, by the realty of the Risen Christ and the challenge this resurrection requires us to experience in our no longer quite so ordinary lives.

And that is why we must meet - as the disciples did, as the early Christians did, as Christians of every time and place have done – every first day of the week, to re-encounter our Risen Lord, listening together with one another, learning together with one another, at the very altar where the still wounded but forever living Lord promises us his peace as he feeds us with his own Body and Blood.

Many of us, of course, have been away from one another and from that altar for far too long, as a result of this destructive pandemic which has so damaged our world and diminished our lives. The disciples' Easter experience and the early Church's Easter-Pentecost experience remind us, as Pope Francis also reminded us a few years back, in his Apostolic Exhortation "On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World," that Growth in holiness is a journey in community. Side by side with others.

It has often been remarked that the change in Jesus’ original disciples – from self-absorbed individuals, confused, scared, and hiding from the world, into a community of convinced and confident disciples, who would become a world-wide Church – was surely one of the most visible effects of the resurrection, dramatically transforming individuals, society, and history.

So that is why we have to come back - now that we again can - Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next, to learn how to make our own the experience of those first disciples and those who responded to their appeal and became those we call the first Christians. In North Africa in the early 5th century, Saint Augustine famously told the newly baptized members of his congregation: When you were baptized, it is as though you were mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it is as though you were baked. Be what you can see and receive what you are. Be a member of the Body of Christ in order to make your Amen true. [Sermon 272].

Be a member of the Body! Ultimately, that is the task of a life lived with others in the Church. It is the slow transformation of our lives, individually and together, into the offering the Risen Christ makes to God on our altar today. These seven weeks are barely long enough just to begin – just to begin to make our own the story of those first Christians and so discover the real difference the Risen Christ can actually make in our lives, in our society, in our history, beginning right here and right now.



Friday, April 16, 2021

The Forever War


If one wanted to identify an example of a traditionalist society better left undisturbed by modernity and its competing ideologies, it would be Afghanistan before the July 17, 1973 coup that overthrew King Mahammed Zahir Shah and set that sad society on the trajectory that led seemingly inexorably to the "Saur Revolution" of April 19789, which installed a pro-Soviet Communist government, which then led to the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the U.S. supported insurgency that followed, ending in the Taliban takeover of the country after the Soviet defeat and departure, followed finally by the 20-year American military intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021, our "forever" war.

Now, 20 years since President George W. Bush went to war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, President Joe Biden is apparently prepared to call its quits. The Afghan adventure is hardly the only extra-constitutional war the U.S,. has waged since the last legitimate declaration of war in 1941, but it has been the longest. (Technically, I suppose, the Korean Conflict has gone on even longer, but de facto in terms of actual fighting that war actually ended in the 1950s.)

A lifelong internationalist, who grew up in the Cold War, I remain sympathetic to the idea the the U.S. as the world's principal Power has global responsibilities which will at times entail military interventions. Both U.S. political parties have their neo-isolationist wings, and all such "America First" arguments, whether of the right or left-wing version, ought to be approached with utmost caution. That said, sometimes retreat is the least bad option among many, and this may be one of those times. There was nothing honorable at all about our 1975 helicopter flight from Saigon, but what really viable alternative was there then, apart from a long-term involvement to maintain an ultimately unsatisfactory status quo - at a price the American people appeared no longer willing to pay? The same seems to be the case now in Afghanistan.

Just as the American abandonment of our Vietnamese allies in 1975 made a communist takeover of the entire country inevitable, so too our projected flight from Afghanistan may mean a return to power by the tyrannical Taliban. It might even mean more opportunities for whatever has replaced Al Qaeda. Of course, the Afghan government could conceivable get its act together and prevent or at least minimize such undesirable outcomes. Whatever happens, if the only alternative is a continued conflict involving American forces, fighting for no attainable objective except to forestall something worse happening the day after we leave, then some humility about what American power can actually accomplish may at last be in order.

There is also the political reality that, outside the elite foreign policy establishment, there seems little popular appetite for a forever war. If we still had a citizen army, as we did until the 1970s, the popular pressure to end this war would have been even greater and would have arisen even sooner. Even so, Donald Trump's knee-jerk, poorly thought-out isolationism was likely one contributing factor (even if only one among many) in his initial success. 

There is no obviously goof outcome here. Senator Reed, the Chair of the Armed Services Committee, may have said it best when he called President Biden's decision "the least of many bad options." 

Admittedly, historical analogies are all inevitably problematic, but the Vietnam analogy is not irrelevant. We now know that many policy-makers had come to doubt our Vietnam policy prior to our eventually changing it. I do not deny or make light of the worries of an earlier generation of policy-makers who were afraid to acknowledge the lack of light at the end of the tunnel. No one wanted to have that last helicopter leave Saigon on his watch. Fair enough. And no one really wants to see the Taliban (or worse) conquer Kabul and be the one not to have done anything about it. But Biden - like those Vietnam-era policy-makers before him - long ago sensed the inability of "endless American military force" to "create or sustain a durable Afghan government." And that concern counts too.

A lot has happened these past 20 years since the U.S. first invaded and occupied Afghanistan, a lot that has made the world situation if anything even more threatening - including a worldwide financial collapse, a global pandemic, and the perennial reality of climate change, along with the rise of China, the persistence of Russia, and the development of newer forms of terrorism that don't require a base in far-away Afghanistan. And, maybe most threatening of all, American society has been fragmented and polarized in dangerous ways. All that needs to be attended to now. That, I presume, is what President Biden means by the battles of "the next twenty years - not the last twenty."