Some Thoughts on this 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 31, 2021.
Sunday, January 31, 2021
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
Last year at this time, I was of the view that, while the case for conviction might be a winning one on the merits, there was no actual likelihood of conviction, and that, therefore, there was little point in proceeding with impeachment. That being the case, it might be preferable, I believed then, to leave the decision to the American voters, who did indeed do in November what the Senate had failed to do in February. (At what cost, however, given all that transpired between February and November!)
Now, however, the issue is presidential misbehavior after the election, for which the the only remaining political sanction would seem to be impeachment, conviction, and disqualification. The 1876 impeachment and trial of Secretary of War, William Belknap, provides a precedent that leaving office does not confer immunity against impeachment and its possible consequences. But Belknap was acquitted, as Trump seems now likely also to be, which he and his supporters will presumably again interpret as exoneration.
Of course, the trial could have been begun while Trump was still in office, if the then-Leader McConnell had not delayed the proceedings. Yesterday's vote has now confirmed that there is not much likelihood of the Republican party changing its course, even after an incited mob's assault on the Capitol.
That said, what now is the point of proceeding to Trump's second trial, besides guaranteeing permanent historical opprobrium for Trump? Presumably, impeachment itself is something of a sanction. The mere prospect of leaving office having been impeached may indeed deter some presidents from such last-minute bad behavior, a worthwhile deterrent to be sure.
In the long-term, however, the real deterrent would be to elect better presidents, who accept the norms of law and constitutional democratic governance - and, while we're at it, Senators who do too!
Meanwhile, absent an unusual bipartisan consensus, the likes of which should not be expected in our currently polarized politics, it would seem that the impeachment provisions in the Constitution (as far as presidents are concerned) have become moot again, as they were for over 100 years after the unsuccessful precedent of 1868.
Monday, January 25, 2021
Saturday, January 23, 2021
Friday, January 22, 2021
With Donald Trump gone (at least from the White House), the U.S. is now a country in recovery. As we all know, however, being "in recovery" can be a long, protracted process. As George Packer recently wrote, “America under Trump became less free, less equal, more divided, more alone, deeper in debt, swampier, dirtier, meaner, sicker, and deader.” That is a lot to recover from!
Recovery requires recognition of what went wrong in the first place, and what went wrong with America started long before Donald Trump traumatized the political process. It is interesting, to say the least, that one of the passages in President Biden's Inaugural Address that seems to have ruffled the most feathers was this:
I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial.
Recovery requires recognition that these harsh and ugly realities are not new. And, if they have been successfully exploited by the modern Republican party, that party did not invent them. They have been an integral part of the American experience, and so, as President Biden observed, "have long torn us apart." There is a lot that presidents and politicians can do to combat such evil forces, starting with naming them and denouncing them as President Biden has done, but that process itself is but a call to conversion, and conversion is a long-term project, the work of a lifetime in an individual and of generations in a society. If, as Max Weber so famously said, "Politics is as strong and slow boring of hard boards," that "takes both passion and perspective," that is indeed the sort of task that confronts us today, as we strive to recover from the long-standing social maladies that our short-term flirtation with Trumpism has exposed.
There are also more manageable, shorter-term challenges, of course. Thus, in 2019, Jack Balkin described Trump's presidency as a "disjunctive" one, a failed presidency, akin to those of Adams, Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter, one that marks the end of a particular political era, in this case the Reagan era that began 40 years ago with the disastrous election of 1980. There can be no question that extricating ourselves from this pandemic and its consequences and addressing our other pressing political and social problems calls for positive government action on a scale analogous to the New Deal, and so requires the definitive interment of the destructive Reaganite ideology that found its final fulfillment in the incompetent governance of the Bush and Trump Administrations. From all that too, it is now time to recover. That too will take time and effort, but primarily it requires the will to abandon definitively the failed Reaganite paradigm (in which both parties have been complicit) and to return to a more humane, authentically traditional understanding of society and government. To quote Weber again, "This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today."
Thursday, January 21, 2021
Like our first Catholic president, exactly 60 years ago, our second Catholic president began his inauguration day by attending Mass. The homilist, Fr. Kevin O'Brien, SJ, the President of Santa Clara University, acknowledged the historical parallel and acknowledged its appropriateness. "As you have done so often in your public and private life and during the campaign, Joe and Jill, you ground this day in your faith and in the familiar readings and prayers of these sacred rituals."
Pope Francis waited until Biden's actual oath-taking at noon to send his greeting:
On the occasion of your inauguration as the forty-sixth President of the United States of America, I extend cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers that Almighty God will grant you wisdom and strength in the exercise of your high office. Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding. At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses, I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice. I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good. With these sentiments, I willingly invoke upon you and your family and the beloved American people an abundance of blessings.
The Holy Father's message highlighted the hoped-for coherence between Biden's political priorities and those broadly associated with the Church's traditional teaching about political principles rooted in social solidarity. (His warm words contrasted favorably with the cold and confrontational tone of the statement issued by the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.) The Pope's prayer for the divine gifts of wisdom and strength will surely be much needed as President Biden struggles to heal this wounded nation and so help us all move past our increasingly severe civil and religious divisions.
(Photo: The now familiar photo of Pope Francis greeting then Vice President Biden at the Vatican in 2016.)
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
In his Inaugural Address, President Biden called on us as Americans to "end this uncivil war that pits red against blue. Rural vs. urban. Conservative vs. liberal. We can do this, if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” Poignantly, he invited us to join him "in a moment of silent prayer, to remember all those we lost in the pandemic." Looking ahead, he challenged us with what we have yet “to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities,” and specified some of those challenges, highlighting how national unity is an actual task not just an aspiration.
It was a prayerful inaugural celebration, that began with last evening's prayer service for covid's victims with Cardinal Gregory on the Washington Mall and this morning's Mass at Saint Matthew's Cathedral, attended by many of our national leaders of both parties. It incorporated an unprecedented Inaugural Day visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns with most of his living predecessors (but his immediate predecessor) that in its simple solemnity captured the serious uniqueness of the occasion, before concluding with a festive (if pandemic limited) walk to the White House.
Everything about the day's solemnities signified that the Trump horror show is finally finished and that it is time for the country to come together and get to work. The reckoning with the previous era remains to be completed, but a new era has begun.
(Photo: President Joe Biden takes the Oath of Office, Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
The first Inauguration to celebrate the free and peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another was that of John Adams, who succeeded George Washington on March 4, 1797. Even more consequential, however, was that of Adams' successor, Thomas Jefferson, on March 4, 1801, the first time a president of one political party, defeated for reelection by the leader of the other political party, surrendered power peacefully. In 1801, Adams simply left the White House early in the morning on March 4 and, as an ordinary citizen, boarded the stage coach for the long trip back home to Massachusetts. Since then, just as the entire inaugural ceremony has become much more elaborate, the peaceful transfer of power from president to president and party to party has been ritually symbolized in a special way by the custom of the president-elect calling on the outgoing president at the White House and the two of them then riding together to the Capitol. The last president to refuse to participate in this ritual was the first president to have been impeached (but not convicted) Andrew Johnson, who held his last Cabinet meeting at the White House as Ulysses S. Grant was being inaugurated. (Because of his declining health after his stroke, outgoing President Woodrow Wilson skipped the ceremony itself, but he did ride together with President-Elect Harding from the White House to the Capitol.) As symbols go, this has become an important and much cherished one. Seeing the two ride together and the outgoing president being properly saluted with Hail to the Chief, followed by the new president taking his oath and then being saluted in the same way, confirms our comfortable conviction (perhaps conveniently too comfortable conviction) about the nobility and permanence of our American constitutional order, which we have until now largely taken for granted.
Until this year! It should, of course, have come as no surprise to anyone that Donald Trump, having consistently disgraced the high office of president for four terrifying years and having sought to subvert the people's will as expressed in the recent presidential election, would not be present to play his prescribed part in this ritual celebration of constitutionalism and democracy. A reflection of our tragic time and the terrible calamities which have befallen our country, tomorrow's Inauguration events will be unlike any other we have recently experienced.
For one thing, unlike the incoming president, who denounced riots and rioting last year, the outgoing president stands accused of having incited the unprecedented riot at the U.S. Capitol that was intended to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes on January 6 - a riot that resulted in the deaths of five people and endangered many others. The result is that this will be the first ever Inaugural which coincides with the impeachment of the outgoing president. Donald Trump has thus managed to become the first president to be impeached twice, which means half of the presidential impeachments in our national history will be forever associated with his name! Trump's second impeachment was also the most "bipartisan" presidential impeachment in history, inasmuch as 10 Republican House members broke party ranks to vote for the president's impeachment.
Given the calamitous events of two weeks ago, this is also perhaps the most high-security inauguration ever, with Washington transformed into a fortress city Add to that the omnipresent consequences of the covid pandemic, and this traditionally public event will likely have the least participation on the part of the ordinary public of any modern inauguration. This is the way we live now. Instead of the national unity and sense of common purpose that we expect at an Inauguration, we have fearful finger-pointing among members of Congress, mirroring the conflicts that continue to tear America apart.
Not since FDR has a president been inaugurated under such inauspicious circumstances. Not since Lincoln has a president been inaugurated at a time when so many citizens have lost faith in the very same system that this ceremony exists to celebrate.
(Photo: President Eisenhower and President-Elect Kennedy leave the White House for the capitol, January 20, 1961, the first such transfer from one president and party to another that I can remember.)
Monday, January 18, 2021
Whiling away the hours in New York quarantine, I recently "binge-watched" all eight episodes of season one of Bridgerton, the new Netflix period-piece, costume drama, set in the marriage competition of the social season of 1813 Regency London, that premiered on Christmas Day. The show is based on the series of novels that chronicle that lives and romances of the eight Bridgerton children, in the Regency London's "ton," its aristocratic, supposedly well-mannered, high-society. Season one centers on Daphne, the eldest daughter of the large Bridgerton family, who has just been presented at Court, and how her debutante season plays out for her and her eventual marriage to the super-eligible but emotionally damaged Duke of Hastings (played perfectly by Regé-Jean Page). It also highlights the brutal competitiveness of that society through the contrast with the comparably privileged but less lucky Featherington family and the influence of "Lady Whistledown," an anonymous gossip columnist whose daily newsletter is read by everyone in society, including Queen Charlotte herself. (Historically, prior to his illness King George III and Queen Charlotte themselves are reported to have had a rather happy marriage based on genuine friendship, a reality alluded to in the series.)
Bridgerton portrays a seemingly privileged, comfortable world of people who don't have to work for a living, but whose lives are almost completely controlled by a society largely focused on shallow physical appearances and a relentless preoccupation with who is up and who is down. It is Jane Austen-like in its portrayal of the social mores of the era as they affected men, women, family, marriage, and social status. But, having been written now rather than then, it has a somewhat stronger, harsher edge than Jane Austen's novels and includes very un-Austen-like love scenes. (Some viewers may think the love scenes too much, but they are an unavoidable component of the plot-line.)
The series virtually screams the women characters' complaints about the limitations the social system of aristocratic marriage (and society as a whole and in particular the men in their lives) imposed on them. But, in fact, the men too are trapped in the system and its demands and try to rebel in various ways, as illustrated by the ups and downs experienced in particular by Daphne's three older brothers as well as the Duke of Hastings himself.
Underneath the beautiful costumes and period-piece glamor, Bridgerton raises serious, perennial issues, not just about the status of women but about the nature of human fulfillment and its relationship to family duty. Its characters probe the meaning of marriage as a social institution and what love and friendship have to do with it. (The Duke's description to Queen Charlotte of the friendship between him and Miss Bridgerton in episode 5 is as good as it gets.) Refreshingly the series also portrays family life in an attractively positive way, how a loving family with lots of children is really something desirable, something that can actually make people happy, both men and women.
Sunday, January 17, 2021
In church language, we usually use the word “vocation” in two complementary senses – first, for God's general call to all to be converted and become a disciple, and, secondly, for the particular call to some of those disciples to undertake lives of full-time ministry in the Church. In the Gospel, the two vocations came together for Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. In Peter’s case, one could say he went from fisherman to disciple, to apostle, to Pope – all in one encounter!
Samuel’s case may have been a bit more typical. He was just a boy, but he was already being brought up to be devoted to the Lord, which is surely how many religious vocations begin, are nurtured, and flourish. Then, gradually, Samuel heard the Lord’s voice calling him to a more special mission.
Listening to Samuel’s story, I am inevitably reminded of our Paulist Fathers' Founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker. I particularly recall Hecker’s account of his own boyhood, as he described it in statements made towards the end of his life: Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.
For all the drama we may be inclined to associate with God’s call, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call comes typically in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. Two things clearly stand out in all these accounts. The first is that the intended recipient of God’s call must be receptive, and let the Lord take the initiative. In short, he or she needs to LISTEN. In this “information age” of toxic social media, we have all become accustomed to being inundated by all sorts information, much of which we have no real need for, and some of which (as current events keep reminding us may be false and poisonous).
So it is becoming increasingly hard for many of us even to imagine having a reason to listen to anything new or different from anything that conforms to that we have already heard before, what we already think we know.. But God doesn’t impart pre-packaged, pre-digested information. He calls us personally into relationship with him, and it is to HIM that we need to listen.
The second thing that seems to stand out in the biblical accounts is the important part played by the believing community as a whole. As with Jesus’ invitation to his 1st disciples in the Gospel account we just heard, God’s call is first and foremost a challenge to Come, and see. Closely connected with the part played by the believing community as a whole is the guiding role played by particular people in that community – people like Eli in the case of Samuel, John the Baptist in the case of Andrew, and Andrew in the case of Simon Peter. To that illustrious list, many others might be added - Ambrose in the case of Augustine in the 4th century, and the famous American Catholic convert, Orestes Brownson, in the case of Isaac Hecker in the 19th century. Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, Ambrose, and Orestes Brownson all functioned as intermediaries facilitating the special vocations of others.
There have been occasions in history when the community assumed what, by today’s standards, might seem an excessively forceful role in fostering vocations in the Church. Augustine's mentor, Ambrose was famously chosen Bishop of Milan by popular outcry in 374. Then, in the year 391, Augustine, already 36 years old, but baptized only 4 years, visited the North African town of Hippo, Valerius, the Bishop there, knew of Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator and took advantage of the opportunity to announce that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until, weeping, he agreed to be ordained!
That might be a bit over the top by today’s standards and our more modern bureaucratic approach to vocations. All these cases do remind us, however, that one’s sense of one’s vocation is hardly likely to arise in isolation and can even less likely be fostered and flourish in isolation. In our common life together as Christ’s Church – just as in our common civic life as citizens - we all need people like Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, Ambrose, and Orestes Brownson to challenge us recognize what we are being called upon to do. And we in turn need to be ready and willing to play that role for one another!
(Photo: Pietro Perugino, Christ giving the Keys to Saint Peter, Fresco, early 1480s, Sistine Chapel).
Monday, January 11, 2021
In the aftermath of last week's Washington MAGA riot (Trump supporters' violent attack on the U.S. Capitol), media attention has naturally focused on what the Congress should or could do to hold President Trump accountable, in particular, what form that might actually take - for example, Trump's impeachment (increasingly likely), conviction (quite uncertain), and disqualification from future federal office (relatively easy, but only possible if he has first been convicted).
But that is not the only accountability that is needed. Trump is not the only person who needs to be held accountable for what has happened in our country. Whether or not he is impeached, whether or not the 117th Congress can rise to the occasion and deal with its own recalcitrant members, there is also the question of what how various Christian communities in our country can and will examine their own consciences and respond to what David French has called "a violent Christian insurrection" that "invaded and occupied the Capitol."
Why does he call it "a Christian insurrection"?
"Because so very many of the protesters told us they were Christian, as loudly and clearly as they could," French writes. "I saw much of it with my own eyes. There was a giant wooden cross outside the Capitol. 'Jesus saves' signs and other Christian signs were sprinkled through the crowd. I watched a man carry a Christian flag into an evacuated legislative chamber." Also, the attack took place less than a month after the "Jericho March" as it was called, "an event explicitly filled with Christian-nationalist rhetoric so unhinged" that it had caused French himself to warn about “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.”
French's analysis is the most compelling I have read with regard to the religious aspect of what has happened, and it deserves to be read in full:
French contends "that all too many Christians are in the grips of two sets of lies ... the enabling lies and the activating lies. And unless you deal with the enabling lies, the activating lies will constantly pollute the body politic and continue to spawn violent unrest."
Examples of what he calls an enabling lie are "America will end if Trump loses," and "The fate of the church is at stake if Joe Biden wins."
Such enabling lies "not only dramatically exaggerate the stakes of our political and legal disputes, they dramatically exaggerate the perfidy of your opponents. Moreover, when the stakes are deemed to be that high, the moral limitations on your response start to fall away."
"And so the enabling lies spread. They poison hearts. They poison minds. They fill you with rage and hate, until along comes the activating lie, the dangerous falsehood that pushes a person towards true radicalism."
Against all this, he calls upon "courageous Christians who love Christ and His church ... to lead with honesty and understanding," and remember that one's "political opponents" are also one's "fellow citizens," and that there is now "no political 'emergency' that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth."
Again, one really ought to read the whole thing!
Meanwhile, I am also remembering something that the same James Madison, who warned that "there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” also wrote in Federalist 55, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
Sunday, January 10, 2021
(Photo: The Baptism of Christ, c. 1500, by Giovanni Bellini, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy)