Sunday, January 31, 2021


Some Thoughts on this 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 31, 2021.

I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”  Unlike the unclean spirit, the people in that synagogue, in this Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1:21-28), did not know Jesus’ true identity. They did, however, recognize how he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. And that astonished and amazed them. It’s not just that they recognized that Jesus was a genuine teacher. They recognized that he was a very different kind of teacher from the scribes with whom they were familiar. And it all came down to a question of authority. Jesus’ distinctive authority is emphasized at both the beginning and the end of the Gospel account. And, lest we still miss the point, this Sunday's 1st reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) also deals with the issue of authority.

Recently, we in the United States inaugurated our 46th President. As president, he has a lot of authority. There are, obviously, a lot of other people in the country (and in the world) with authority. Most of that authority, however, like the President’s is limited in some way. That is what makes it legitimate authority. It follows certain rules, and it may not exceed the limits that those rules authorize. When those rules are transgressed, when those limits are circumvented, authority loses its legitimacy and resembles the malevolent, personal, charismatic authority of a mob boss or "populist" politician. 

The scribes enjoyed legitimate authority to teach the people, but they could legitimately teach only what they themselves had been taught. Jesus evidently exercised a very different type of authority. It was not the normal legitimate authority that comes with an office or an assigned place in some social hierarchy or religious chain of command. A social scientist might categorize Jesus as someone with personal, charismatic authority. Charismatic authority resides in the person, and not in an office or role. Charismatic authority may be benign on malignant. The Beatles had a benign kind of charismatic authority for my generation. Unfortunately for the human race, the last 100 or so years in politics have produced many more malignant charismatic authorities. hence the  effort to circumscribe personal political authority with rules and "guardrails."

A social scientist might well explain away the Jesus phenomenon as a clear case of charismatic authority. That’s probably how the scribes saw him, and why they opposed him so strenuously.  The people, however, unlike the scribes seemed somewhat more pleased with what they saw, which to them may have resembled some sort of transgressive, populist, charismatic authority. Only the unclean spirit saw something more. Only the unclean spirit saw the while picture, because he understood the true source of Jesus’ authority. “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” 

As God’s Son – as God himself – Jesus’ authority is in a class by itself. It is neither the legitimate authority of the scribes, nor the personal authority of a charismatic leader. It is the one thing that no one was really ready for – holy authority, the divine authority of God himself.

All through history, people have always tried to connect with God, although preferably on their own terms. Left to themselves, the gentile pagans tried to do so, by engaging in such sinful practices as spiritualism, divination, and astrology. Over time, the people of Israel had learned to shun all such practices. They had come to understand that all communication between God and his people would ultimately be only on God’s terms. It was to spare them the frightening experience of having to deal with God directly, that God had communicated through a series of intermediaries, known as prophets, the greatest of whom had been Moses. By Jesus’ time, however, even prophecy seemed to have stopped. All the people had left was the legitimate authority of the scribes. In itself, of course, that was a fairly fine thing to have, but it wasn’t as exciting as having a prophet like Moses. (It’s a bit like the difference between our benignly charismatic Founding Fathers back in the 18th century and our current 117th Congress today.)

Israel, however, had reason to hope. Moses had promised that prophecy would not disappear forever. One last prophet will be raised up from among their kin to bridge the gap between God and us once and for all. Unlike a merely charismatic personality, however, this prophet will be full of God, rather than full of himself. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, is that One with holy, healing authority – as the unclean spirit could see, whether or not anyone else could (or would) see.

The fascinating paradox of today’s Gospel account is that it is precisely by sharing in the unclean spirit’s fortunate insight into the true nature of Jesus’ holy, healing authority that we can best hope to avoid the unclean spirit’s unfortunate fate. And it is also by sharing in the unclean spirit’s fortunate insight into the true nature of Jesus’ authority that we can now hope to share in the holy and healing freedom that the possessed man in the Gospel story experienced - as a physical foreshadowing of what is in store for all who accept Jesus’ authority in their lives.

Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of people in the United States profess some degree of belief in Jesus Christ. How, however, is that ostensible acceptance of his authority effectively reflected in recognition that Jesus really is the way to an abundant life in eternity and to a life that makes real sense here and now?

What authority does Jesus, the Holy One of God, effectively exercise in my life? What difference does it make for me that I acknowledge his authority. What has it actually meant for me in my life so far? What might it mean for me in the future? And what might it mean for the wider world, if I actually acknowledge Jesus’ authority in my life?

(Photo: Jesus exercising his unique healing authority, Mural, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NYC.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Trial

Yesterday's ceremonial swearing in of the Senators as a Court for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump for his offense against that very body could not camouflage the revealing vote which the Senate then took on whether to proceed at all. By a vote of 55-45, the Senate defeated Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's objection that the trial would be unconstitutional since Trump is now out of office. So the trial will begin as scheduled on February 8. But the fact that 45 Republicans voted as they did demonstrates Trump's continued control of his party and renders the possibility of conviction (and hence disqualification) increasingly unlikely. So what now is the point of the trial?

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

Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (The Book)

Last week witnessed both the inauguration of the second Catholic president of the United States and the sorry spectacle of clashing Catholic responses to that momentous event. On the one hand, Pope Francis' message to the new president 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. However, the Pope's warm words clearly contrasted with the somewhat cold and confrontational tone of the statement issued by the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Massimo Faggioli's new book about President Biden, his faith, and the Church in the U.S., Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, seeks to address this apparent conflict and its significance.

Italian-born, Faggioli has been writing and teaching in the United States for over a decade. He is currently on the faculty at Villanova University and is a regular commentator on the American religious and political scene. With the benefit of his more globally sensitive perspective on the American scene, he considers what he calls "the Catholic question in the United States: What does it mean to be both Catholic and American? Throughout American history, in ways not faced by members of other Christian churches, Catholics have had to engage in a certain kind of negotiation and mediation with their own Church, both on the national level and in terms of their relationship with the Vatican." 

Faggioli sets his study of the second Catholic president against the background of the history of the Catholic Church in America and the fate of previous Catholic presidential candidates. For the first Catholic U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, "his being Catholic was a problem for important sectors of the Protestant establishment of the nation; for the second one, the country has no problem with his being Catholic, but a not insignificant segment of the American Church—from among its bishops, its clergy, and its faithful—has a problem with his Catholicism."

In short, "Biden’s election represents a vindication of the history of American Catholicism as a history of the search for a compatibility between the Church and a pluralist constitutional democracy." Since Kennedy's time, however, significant segments of the American Church, in varying degrees opposed to both President Biden and Pope Francis, have dramatically changed in a way that has renewed that old alleged incompatibility between Catholicism and pluralist constitutional democracy.

Faggioli recalls how Kennedy "adopted a separationist vision that departed from Catholic theology of the time on the relationship between church and state and prefigured the contribution of American Catholicism to modern Catholic doctrine on religious freedom." In contrast, since then, "American neoconservativism has mounted a polemic against the Kennedy presidency, accusing him of having secularized the presidency and even Catholicism itself," while, on the other hand, Biden has an "easygoing way of carrying his faith in public." The latter reflects both Biden's personality and personal life-story, but also "a credible Catholicism because it is more lived than proclaimed." The former reflects the changes in both religious and political life during and after the Reagan era and a certain "evangelicalization of American Catholicism" and "Catholic conservatism’s rejection of Pope Francis." 

That conflict between Pope Francis and a revived contemporary, neo-integralism in American Catholicism is central to Faggioli's analysis, which highlights "the overlap that exists between support for Trump among practicing Christian voters (including many Catholics) and the attempt by influential sectors of the American Catholic Church to delegitimize Pope Francis both ecclesially and politically." Hence, the "obvious unease over the election of Biden—who embodies an understanding of faith in the public square that is far removed from that of the "culture wars'."

The great strength of Faggioli's analysis is its global perspective, which puts the distinctive dimensions of the American Catholic experience in a wider, world-wide perspective. That world-wide context is evident in the overlap, for example, between integralist opposition to President Biden's presidency and someone like pro-Trump Archbishop Viganò's so far unsuccessful "coup attempt" against Francis' papacy.

Faggioli's more global orientation highlights the inevitably different perspectives and interests that have been and will continue to be the case between the Holy See and the United States, and "obvious differences between Francis and Biden" in those areas, but also and very interestingly the "uncertainties" of previous American presidents, from Kennedy to Obama, "about foreign policy in areas where religion played a key role." Most importantly - and a challenge for all factions in American society - Pope Francis "has gone further, offering an indictment (never explicit, but clear nonetheless) of the globalized 'American way of life'.” 

That said, the new president seems close to being on the same page with Pope Francis, insofar as the Pope "has sought to encourage a truce between ideological factions within the Church, especially on issues of life and sexual morality, which are central to the self-understanding of Catholicism in the United States. Francis is an anti-ideological Catholic who has made no secret of wanting to call off the “culture wars.” Ultimately, it comes down to conflicting and perhaps irreconcilable "understandings of the role of religion in society."

More basically, Faggioli sees in both Biden and Pope Francis, "the refusal to give up a theology grounded in an optimistic evaluation of creation, a stance that emphasizes incarnation and sacramentality. History is a locus for grace, and grace occurs in the struggle."

The peculiar paradox of the present moment in the relationship between Catholicism and American society starts with the fact that "Biden is the first Catholic president to publicly express a religious soul—not a vaguely Christian one, but a distinctly Catholic one, confidently but not bellicosely." He "represents old Catholicism—the era of the American Catholic Church that was shaped by its schools and the religious orders that ran them with solidly trained staff (mostly women) and at almost zero cost, and a history of Catholic immigration from high-density Europe." but his ascent to presidential power parallels a dramatic decline in the Church's institutional presence and power. For Faggioli, "the temptation to treat the president as a Catholic to be disciplined" has "failed to hide the weakness of institutional Catholicism in the United States."

It is often noted how politics has become the prime definer of identity. I have even heard it claimed that people increasingly choose their religious denomination (or perhaps their parish?) primarily on the basis of politics. For Faggioli, such polarization is at the heart of the Church's present condition in the U.S., in which "the two Catholic ecclesial parties have adopted the platforms of the two political parties, bending theological orthodoxy to fit ideological orthodoxy." The Church in the U.S. has become "a Church that is now addicted to its own extreme polarization." It is not unreasonable to surmise that, to the extent that the Church has been less effective in its outreach to the wider world in recent decades, this has, at least in some measure, been because so much Catholic energy has been sapped by internal divisions about the Church's terms of engagement with the world.

As the most prominent Catholic in the United States for the next for years - and perhaps for the present the second most prominent Catholic on the world stage - President Biden would seem to be uniquely positioned to help refashion the Church's public face - a non-integralist public face focused less on the acquisition of political power and more on the challenge of being a leaven of grace in a pluralistic, constitutional, and democratic society.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Sunday of the Word of God

By the Motu Proprio Aperuit illis, issued in September 2019, on the feast of Saint Jerome, Pope Francis designated the Third Sunday per annum (this year, January 24) as "The Sunday of the Word of God." Aperuit Illis  takes its name from the Gospel quote with which it begins, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). Its immediate practical object was the establishment of "The Sunday of the Word of God," to highlight the centrality of the Sacred Scriptures to our Christian identity - specifically the three-fold relationship among "the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred scripture." This observance, the Pope suggests, will also "be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity." The Pope proposes that on that Sunday the proclamation of the Word be highlighted, the honor due to it be emphasized, and "that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God's word." 

"Devoting a specific Sunday of the liturgical year to the word of God," the Pope claims, "can enable the Church to experience anew how the risen Lord opens up for us the treasury of his word and enables us to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world." This newest papal initiative seems especially timely. The Bible, the Pope points out "belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words." It "is the book of the Lord's people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity."

Today's 1st Reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) illustrates what the proclamation of the word of God can accomplish. The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.” The result was that the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. In response, God repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.

In The Church and the Age (1887), Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the Founder of the Paulist Fathers, wrote: “The reading of the Bible is the most salutary of all reading. We say to Catholic readers, read the Bible! Read it with prayer, that you may be enlightened by the light of the Holy Spirit to understand what you read. Read it with gratitude to God’s Church, which has preserved it and placed it in your hands to be read and to be followed.”

(Photo: Pope Francis venerates the Book of the Gospels, Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome)

Friday, January 22, 2021

A Country in Recovery

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

Our Second Catholic President

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

A New Era Begins

"Our long national nightmare is over," was the most remembered opening line from President Gerald Ford's remarks after taking the Oath of Office following Richard Nixon's resignation  in August 1974.  If Watergate was actually our long national nightmare," what words can we use to describe the far greater horror of the past four years? Well, we'll leave that question for another day. Today is a day of celebration as a new era begins, even in this period of pandemic and social division and unrest. However dark the sky, the sun is starting to shine through, as for the first time in four years, we heard Hail to the Chief played for someone deserving of it, someone actually chosen by the people of our nation. 

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

Inauguration Day

"There is no ceremony more splendid than the inauguration of an American President," proudly proclaimed Theodore H. White in The Making of the President 1960, his historic and now classic celebration of the American electoral process as it was in the mid-20th century. "Inauguration is a ceremony of state, of the visible majesty of power," he continued. "And though the powers of the office are unique, even more spectacular and novel in the sight of history is the method of transfer of those powers—the free choice by a free people, one by one, in secrecy, of a single national leader." 

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


Some Thoughts on the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 17, 2021.

We are but a little more than two weeks into a new year. In three days, we will inaugurate our new president, the second Catholic president in our country's history. It is a season of new beginnings on so many levels, coming at a time when we are all hoping for a new and better future. And, in this season of new beginnings, the Church today also recalls the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission. Indeed, today’s Old Testament reading [1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19] and Gospel [John 1:35-42] must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream texts! 

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

What Next?

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

The Baptism of the Lord

In a normal (pre-pandemic) time, the secular Christmas (the one that most people actually care about) would have started somewhere around Halloween and then gone on almost non-stop until suddenly fizzling out on Christmas Day itself - the day when Christmas actually begins according the Church’s calendar. As Catholic Christians, we are called to live in and by liturgical time, and to keep Christmas and Epiphany as they are meant to be kept, especially in this time when the Church community is so distressed by political divisions. Of course, the Church’s Christmas cannot go on forever either, and in the contemporary calendar it is today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord which more or less brings the season to an end. This focus on Christ’s baptism by John makes that event the formal culmination of the entire Advent and Christmas cycle.
Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned in three of the four gospels and alluded to in the fourth. It was also explicitly referred to by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles on the occasion of the baptism of the first pagan converts. So it was obviously well remembered and had apparently made an important impression, as the public starting-point of the Jesus story.
John’s baptism had been a ritual of repentance, dramatizing one’s need for conversion and one’s willingness to start anew, as their ancestors had when they had first passed through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. By being baptized by John, Jesus blended into the mass of anonymous sinners that we are. By being baptized as one of us, Jesus joined us (which was, of course, the point of his becoming human and being born in the first place.)
Jesus joined us in the water, but then, on coming up from the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
Not just Jesus alone but the whole Trinity joined in to reveal who Jesus is!
In Mark’s account, the voice speaks only to Jesus, It is Jesus himself who will reveal himself through his life and mission. Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.   
Jesus, God’s beloved Son, has made us also beloved sons and daughters of his Father. But being beloved is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Having let us in on his story, on who he is and the total trajectory of his life, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to identify with that trajectory and to recognize the intended trajectory of our own lives and to respond accordingly.

(Photo: The Baptism of Christ, c. 1500, by Giovanni Bellini, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy)

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Daughters of Yalta (The Book)

The Yalta Conference was one of the most important and controversial episodes of the final year of World War II. Catherine Grace Katz has authored yet another account of that conference, but written from the very distinct perspective of three young women who were present as aides to their fathers. The Daughters of Yalta The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War retells the familiar story, but with a focus on Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman, each of whom attended as personal assistant to her much more famous father. Such an emphasis on the role of family members - especially female family members - may seem a bit old-fashioned, a throwback to an earlier aristocratic and royal world, where family was what mattered and women played prominent (if sometimes subdued) roles.

The general outline of what happened at Yalta is a familiar one. The wartime alliance was in many respects a mismatch, with mutual suspicion and ideological incompatibility temporarily subsumed under the need to cooperate against a common foe. That cooperation had worked, and Germany's defeat was in sight early in 1945. But, the closer that came, the more the allies' differences about what the future of Europe should look like became more relevant. One unavoidable reality was that the Soviets, having done most of the fighting in the war and borne the brunt of the war's casualties, cared very much about controlling eastern Europe through which Germany had twice invaded Russia in the 20th century and was in fact now in a position to do so. Well aware of this problem but no longer in any position to do much about it without American support, Churchill remained desperately invested in the "special relationship" with the U.S. and in his personal relationship with Roosevelt. However Roosevelt remained wary of Churchill's imperial commitments and seemed to be distancing himself from Churchill in the hope of charming Stalin. Much has been made of Roosevelt's declining health at Yalta, and this account highlights that part of the story, since one of his daughter's roles was to insulate her father from stress as much as possible both to protect his health and to keep his condition as private as possible. Even so, this account confirms the conventional wisdom that Roosevelt's confidence in his own ability to charm Stalin was probably much more of a problem in terms of the final outcome than his health was.

The account highlights how Roosevelt cared less about Poland and eastern Europe than Churchill did and had two fundamental priorities regarding Stalin - first, getting him to join the Pacific War (a commitment Stalin honored on schedule in August 1945, by which time Roosevelt would be dead and Churchill out of office) and, second, guaranteeing Soviet participation in the United Nations organization. Katz emphasizes that Roosevelt was deeply attached to the idea of the UN - not because he naively believed it would guarantee perpetual peace but because he pragmatically hoped it could keep the peace for 50 years or so. 

Seeing the conference through the daughters' perspective does not add much to this already familiar story. But it does highlight the personal and inter-personal aspects of the conference which the daughters had to deal with - everything from dealing with the difficult personalities of people like Harry Hopkins and James Byrnes to the appalling physical conditions at Yalta. Interesting in its own right, the story of what a shambles the Tsarist place and the Crimean countryside were really helps to bring home what a totally destructive disaster the German invasion had been for the Soviets. The three women's excursions to explore the region really highlight this aspect, which we Americans, who did not suffer similarly from the war, often fail to appreciate about the Russians' experience and the particular perspective it gave them at Yalta. 

And then there was one episode which was certainly unexpected and particularly striking. Towards the end of the conference, the three women were out together experiencing as much as they could of their Soviet surroundings, when they "found themselves standing in front of a small Orthodox church. There was a service beginning inside. For a moment, they hesitated while deliberating whether to go in. Timidly, they decided to take a peek. As they looked inside the church, they were met with a surprise. Robert [Harry Hopkins's son and the American cameraman] said he had thought 'religion was stifled in the Soviet Union.' But this church was brimming with people." The ambivalent survival of religion even in Stalin's Russia reveals something significant about our contemporary condition:

"Nobody knew if Stalin would allow religion to thrive after the war, or if the Russian Orthodox Church was simply living on borrowed time. In a sense, this little church faced a similar uncertainty about the future as the three young women standing in the doorway watching the service. Everyone, from Sarah, Anna, and Kathy, to the children in the church waiting for their parents to come home, looked forward to the end of the war and the peace agreements that the conference at Yalta was meant to foster. After nearly five years of sacrifice, loss, and heartbreak for soldiers and civilians alike, the world yearned for a return to normality. But was the pre-war state of normality a world to which they wanted to—or could—return?"

Those who value the importance of individual personalities in history will appreciate this up-close account of the personalities of FDR, Churchill, and Averell Harriman - their authentic accomplishments and their personal flaws. The social interconnectedness of the three families also illustrates elite relationships and behavior, which continued to play an important role in society and politics, just as the interrelationships and behavior of their aristocratic and princely predecessors had, not so long before.