Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Medieval Heroine and the Modern Nation

At his second inaugural, on March 4 1865, Abraham Lincoln famously said of the two opposing sides in the Civil War:  "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. ... That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." What Lincoln said of the American Civil War can presumably likewise be applied to most conflicts, in which each side believes (or at least hopes) God is on their side and will grant their prayers in preference to those of their enemies. In most actual conflicts, however, there is little obvious reason to suppose that the advancement of one or the other side's political interests is also automatically God's will. More often than not in history, as Lincoln observed, the prayers of neither side get answered fully.

History, however, does suggest one apparent exception, one famous instance in which God did seem to favor one side in a war. That was when Saint Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431), whose feast day in the Church calendar is today, the 590th anniversary of her execution, responded to revelations she had received from various "voices" and led the French armies to important victories over the English during the Hundred Years' War and secured the coronation of King Charles VII. I know of no reason why God should have sided with the French over the English in that conflict. But, based on the fact of Joan's canonization in 1920, one must infer that he did.

The medieval France Joan fought and died for was barely a nation state in the modern sense, but she has nonetheless become a patron of the modern French nation state. That modern French nation state in the last century and a half has lost one and then won two wars against Germany, which in the modern era had long since replaced England as France's natural enemy. Now, of course, instead of another actual state the greater threat to French nationhood may be the bureaucratic anti-democratic globalism represented, for example, by the European Union, whose spirit has shifted, as Massimo Faggioli has noted, "away from its origins, which were inspired in part by Catholic social teaching, and toward the technocracy of the neoliberal age" (The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving toward Global Catholicity, Orbis, 2021, p. 25). 

Ultimately, the problem with invoking Saint Joan today against any real or imagined national enemies, as some may seek to do, resides in the reality of those same "Voices" that inspired her. Without her supernatural inspiration, even a nation becomes just one more temporary political cause. It may be good. It may be bad. It may, more likely, be some mixture of both. But it will always be temporary.

(PhotoDrawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, dated 10 May 1429. This is the only known contemporary representation of Joan, although the artist never actually saw her.)

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Wrong of Rights (The Book)

Thirty years ago, Mary Ann Glendon wrote: “discourse about rights has become the principal language that we use in public to discuss weighty questions of right and wrong, but time and again it proves inadequate, or leads to a standoff of one right against another” (Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, NY: The Free Press, 1991)Our American obsession with individual rights and the anti-social and anti-political impact of our American addiction to rights-language has been an ongoing preoccupation of mine at least since back when I was in academia. Deplorable decisions like Roe v. Wade (1973), DC v. Heller (2008), and Citizens United v FEC (2010) represent a malignant trio of dubious decisions, which have in common the Court's creation of questionable constitutional "rights," which have their basis not so much in anything in the constitution as in contemporary political ideologies. Such cases have not only done enormous damage to our society and our politics, they have also contributed to the judiciary having become ry having be the Court's undesirable status as our political system's "most dangerous branch" - to borrow the title of The Most Dangerous Branch David Kaplan's insightful 2018 book.

Now, Columbia University legal scholar Jamal Greene has further enlightened this discussion of what he calls "rightsism" in How Rights Went Wrong: Why Our Obsession with Rights Is Tearing America Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2021). For Greene, our exaggerated rights regime highlights "a common but unrecognized problem in American law: in striving to take rights seriously, we take them too literally. We believe that holding a right means getting a judge to let us do whatever the right protects. ... But in a modern, cosmopolitan society, rights are not few and precious. They are many and ubiquitous."

If the problem of the 20th century was (as W.e.B. DuBois said) the color-line, that of the 21st century, Greene says, is the right-line. "Our opponent in the rights conflict becomes not simply a fellow citizen who disagrees with us, but an enemy out to destroy us. Law becomes reducible to winners and losers, to which side you are on, which tribe you affiliate with. With stakes this high, polarization should not just be expected but is indeed the only sensible response." In contrast, Greene, proposes "a strategy of rights mediation," in which U.S. courts should "recognize more rights, but weakly. In determining that someone holds a constitutional right, judges should be more generous, more respectful of the differences among us, of the idiosyncrasies of our personal values and commitments. But that same respect should lead judges to be more discerning in deciding how far my right goes as it comes predictably into conflict with the rights of others." This "would mean shifting our collective emphasis from whether the Constitution includes particular rights to what the government is actually doing to people and why."

Greene goes back to the American founding and recalls that the framers were less interested in protecting minorities' "rights" (as we tend to treat the matter today) than in protecting the majority from factional or executive tyranny and state and local autonomy from federal interference. For various reasons that had to change and did, but in a way which has become unsustainable today.

The peculiarly absolutist way rights jurisprudence has developed in the U.S. (in conspicuous contrast, for example, to Canada or Germany) had frustrated the very purpose and possibilities of politics. "The purpose of politics is to negotiate over disagreement. The purpose of law is to set the ground rules for that negotiation. But negotiation requires that each side have leverage. The American approach to rights conflicts makes that impossible." 

It also increases political polarization and alienation. "Treating a rights conflict as a question of who has rights and who doesn’t degrades our relationship to the law and to each other. By denying the loser any claim of rights, the court tells him not just that he has lost but that he does not matter. Although the loser’s interests and projects remain important—perhaps even essential—to him, he is made an outsider to the law. He may become suspicious of political institutions. He may choose to participate in civic life sparsely or even subversively." 

For those unfamiliar with the history of the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights, Green offers a crash course - quite different from the popular version being promoted today. So, for example, whereas the currently fashionable view is to view the first amendment as protecting individuals form religion, Greene shows how its original purpose was to protect religion (in the form of state and local churches) from federal interference. As for the novel view that the second amendment was about protecting an individual gun right, Greene recognizes that ads "rubbish." His treatment of keep constitutional cases over the course of American history highlights the high price we as a society are paying for our increasing ignorance of even basic American history.

Ultimately what Greene proposes is not the obviously unrealistic alternative of no rights, but "a better way to think about rights. Embraced and practiced successfully the world over, it’s an approach that, by encouraging decision-makers to mediate rather than discriminate among rights, by emphasizing mutual respect for multiple and competing values and commitments, brings rights closer to justice and aspires to bring us closer to each other. The suggestions offered for how courts should address three trenchant conflicts in particular—over disability rights, affirmative action, and campus speech—are invitations, not manifestos, in the spirit of humility to which we all should aspire. I don’t have all the answers to these challenges, and neither do judges."

Thursday, May 27, 2021

An Overlooked English Martyr

I recently rewatched "on-demand" the two seasons (2019 and 2020) of the STARZ series, The Spanish Princess, based on Philippa Gregory's fictionalized version of the familiar story of Henry VIII's unlucky first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It is a sequel to two previous series: The White Queen about Henry's maternal grandmother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville (ancestress of all English monarchs since Henry VIII and all Scottish monarchs since James V), and The White Princess about Henry's mother Queen Elizabeth of York. Apart from the absurdly ahistorical and contrived ending to the second season of The Spanish Princess, its intertwined stories of Catherine, her (fictionalized composite character) lady-in-waiting Lina de Cardonnes, and Catherine's sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland, and their families are all superbly portrayed. But the character I find most interesting is the tragic Yorkist Princess Margaret Pole ("Aunt Maggie"). She was devoted to Henry VIII's older brother Prince Arthur whose household she and her husband managed. But her life and relationship to the Tudor dynasty (including her Yorkist cousin Queen Elizabeth) had been forever damaged by the execution in 1499 of her (probably mentally defective) brother Edmund, then the last legitimate male representative of the Yorkist line, as part of the cost of securing the usurper Tudor line and to make possible Arthur's and Catherine's wedding and the English-Spanish alliance it was meant to guarantee. "Aunt Maggie" is perfectly played by Laura Carmichael, who as Downton Abbey's Lady Edith certainly knows something about playing a privileged character with lots of bad luck. 

The real "Aunt Maggie," Margaret Plantagenet (1473-1541), was daughter of Edward IV's and Richard III's traitor brother George, Duke of Clarence. Margaret was married off in 1487 to King Henry's cousin, Sir Richard Pole, whom she loved and with whom she was apparently happy, but who died in 1505 leaving her a poor widow with five children. Richard Pole had been Chamberlain for Henry's first son, Arthur, and Margaret in turn became lady-in-waiting to Arthur's wife, Catherine of Aragon, a role she resumed later when Henry VIII married his widowed sister-in-law. After Henry VIII's accession, he made her Countess of Salisbury in her own right. She was very wealthy and prominent, and King Henry supposedly considered her the saintliest woman int he kingdom. Her son Reginald Pole entered the Church but served on the continent, thereby avoiding Henry's Reformation, eventually eventually returning, during Mary Tudor's Catholic restoration, as a Cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury - the last Catholic Archbishop in that long line.  His opposition to Henry's religious policy led him to send the King his treatise, Pro ecclesiasicae unitatis defensione.  Margaret's and her son's fidelity to the Catholic faith (and their potential claim as surviving Yorkist heirs to the English throne) eventually caused Henry VIII, England's 16h-century anticipation of Stalin, to imprison her in the Tower in her old age, where she was eventually executed 480 years ago today on May 27, 1541. Her son, Cardinal Pole, subsequently said he would "never fear to call himself the son of a martyr." In 1886, Margaret she was duly beatified by Pope Leo XIII. May 28 is the date assigned for Blessed Margaret Pole's liturgical commemoration.

Margaret was but one of many martyrs of Henry's Reformation, of whom the most famous was, of course, Saint Thomas More (portrayed in the series as Margaret's friend and tutor to her son, the future Cardinal). But, of the multitude of English martyrs of the Reformation, the often overlooked martyr Margaret lived a life that dramatically encompassed all the complex factors and conflicting interests of that era that pushed and pulled people in so. many different direction and played such a significant part in that tragic (but hardly inevitable) chain of events, which - together with the dangerous combination of despotic power and narcissistic self-absorption in Henry himself - brought about the tragic accident that became the English Reformation. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A Fierce Family Fight for a Very Vacant Throne

According to Article 2 of the Sardinian Statuto Albertino of 1948, which served as the Constitution of the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 through 1946, succession to the throne is hereditary according to the so-called "Salic Law." (Il Trono è ereditario secondo la legge salica.) In other words, the thousand-year old House of Savoy, which provided modern Italy its four kings, followed what is called agnatic primogeniture, by which succession is hereditary among male heirs, excluding all female descendants. The present Pretender to the vacant Italian throne, Vittorio Emmanuele di Savoia (b. 1937), who would be Vittorio Emmanuele IV if he were actually king, is the only son of Italy's last reigning king, Umberto II (1904-1983), who reigned for one month in 1946. Since only male heirs could claim the crown, Vittorio Emmanuele and later his only son, Prince Emmanuele Filiberto (b. 1972) - but not Vittorio Emmanuele's three sisters - were permanently exiled from Italy by the 1948 Constitution, until that provision was repealed in 2002.

Since the republican Constitution exiled only the two ex-Kings and their Queens (King Vittorio Emmanuele III and Queen Elena and King Umberto II and Queen Marie-Jose) and their male descendants, the exile never applied to the cadet branch of the family, descended from Vittorio Emmanuele II's second son, Amedeo, 1st Duke of Aosta (1845-1890), whose great-grandson Amedeo, the 5th Duke of Aosta (b. 1943) lives in Italy and is, in theory, the heir presumptive after Emmanuele Filiberto, who has two daughters but no son. So, if the traditional order of succession were to be followed, assuming Emmanuele Filiberto has no son in his old age, his successor as Pretender would be Amedeo, or, after him, Amedeo's own son, Prince Aimone, Duke of Apulia (b. 1967). 

Meanwhile, however, Prince Vittorio Emmanuele, has decreed an amendment to the law of succession, designating his 17-year-old granddaughter Princess Vittoria, whom the NY Times describes as "a burgeoning Instagram influencer" (whatever that is) as heiress presumptive after her father Prince Emmanuele Filiberto (cf. Jason Horowitz, "Paris Teenager's New Gig: Would-Be Queen of Italy"). 

Unsurprisingly, the Aosta branch has objected and perhaps reasonably so, since there exists no mechanism to alter the constitutions and dynastic statutes that govern deposed royal families. In contrast, when, for example, Denmark decided to allow women to succeed to its throne in 1953, it changed its constitution, and so Denmark currently has a Queen - Margrethe II. Since then, Sweden (1980), the Netherlands (1983), Norway (1990), Belgium (1991), Denmark (2009), Luxembourg (2011) and the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms (2011) have revised their succession laws even more radically, adopting what is called absolute primogeniture, according to which the oldest heir inherits regardless of sex. But deposed dynasties have no such option obviously available to them.

The senior and junior branches of the House of Savoy have not always gotten along. Famously, on May 21, 2004, following a dinner at Madrid's Zarzuela Palace on the eve of the wedding of the present King of Spain, Vittorio Emanuele punched his third cousin Amedeo in the face, causing him to fall down the steps, which reportedly caused Spain's then-King Juan Carlos to say that "never again" would he permit such an abuse of his hospitality. Then, in 2006, Amedeo declared himself to be Duke of Savoia and Head of the Royal House, claiming that Vittorio Emmanuele had forfeited his dynastic status in 1971 when he married without the authorization of his father, ex-King Umberto, something which had historically been a requirement. This has since divided Italian monarchists, some of whom still support the last king's son, Vittorio Emmanuele, others of whom have transferred their loyalty to Amedeo. 

One wonders whether this latest unilateral move on the part of the senior branch of the family to alter the law of succession is just another move in that longstanding feud, one which will guarantee its continuance into future generations. Without this provocation, the feud would presumably continue into the next generation, but would then resolve itself when the males of the senior Savoia line died out, to be replaced in right order by the Savoia-Aosta branch. Such things have often happened in history. (Thus, when the Comte de Chambord died in 1883, the claim to the vacant French throne passed without qualification to the rival Orleanist branch of the Bourbon  family, represented now by the Comte de Paris.)

All this squabbling, of course, can only highlight the less than illustrious modern history of an ancient and venerable dynasty, one once known, among other things, also for its piety (and its custodianship of the famous Shroud of Turin from 1453 until ex-King Umberto's death in 1983, when he willed it to the Holy See). In fact, at least two modern Savoia women are now Servants of God - Vittorio Emmanuele II's daughter, Princess Maria Clotilde (1843-1911) and Vittorio Emmanuele III's wife, Queen Elena (1873-1952). Indeed, had he had the chance, it is widely believed that Umberto II would have become an exemplary king, who would have served Italy well, perhaps better than the uninspiring Republic that replaced him. His stature, however, has not successfully been passed down to his heirs.

As a result, many, maybe most Italians may not feel much reason to miss the dynasty that not so long ago successfully created a modern and unified Italy. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

A Lasting Legacy of Discord

This year 2021 is, among other things, the 150th anniversary of the infamous Paris Commune, the notoriously violent and bloody sequel to the Franco-Prussian War and the overthrow of Napoleon III's Second French Empire, a regime which had been allied with the Church. In the wake of the French defeat in the fall of 1870, the Parisian proletariat had risen up in March 1871, with the ominous cry, "Vive la Commune!" Unsurprisingly, the Commune quickly turned to attack the Church. In his great political pamphlet, The Civil War in France, Karl Marx analyzed the Commune as the first historical example of what Marxist theory called "the Dictatorship fo the Proletariat," and described how: "Having once got rid of the standing army and the police, the physical force elements of the old Government, the commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the 'parson power,' by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies."

That, of course, was just the beginning. By the end of May, many lives had been lost as the national government violently suppressed the Commune and the Commune retaliated by murdering some 74 hostages, among them 24 priests, of whom the most famous was the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy, murdered 150 years ago today, wearing the cross of one predecessor archbishop who had died during the 1848 revolution and the ring of another predecessor murdered in 1857.

After the defeat of the Commune, Archbishop Darboy got a fancy funeral on June 7. But the bizarre intransigence of the Comte de Chambord (the grandson of King Charles X and thus the Legitimist pretender to the French crown), who refused to accept the throne unless the white Bourbon flag were restored also, resulted in the compromise of the Third French Republic. (From Rome, Pope Pius IX remarked, "Henry IV said Parish was worth a Mass, Henry V finds France not worth a serviette.") 

The post-Commune French Republic was, for a while at least, seized with a certain sort of remorse. Fifty members of Parliament participated in a Mass of expiation celebrated at Paray-le-Monial, site of Saint Margaret Mary's revelations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the 17th century. Then, by a vote of 389 to 146, Parliament approved the public erection of a shrine dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Paris (photo) on Montmartre, the site of the martyrdom of a much earlier Archbishop of Parish, Saint Denis, in the year 250. (The shrine that had historically marked that site had been destroyed by the Revolution in 1793.)

"This imposing Romano-Byzantine pastiche in brilliant white (still the fifth largest tourist attraction in Paris) was regarded as an attempt to expiate the revolutionary tradition recently so grimly active on the city plain below." (Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War, Harper Collins, 2005, p. 338.)

Even without the restoration of "the Most Christian King," the Church made a significant recovery in France after the defeat of the Commune. There were even serious attempts to reach out to the French proletariat. Such efforts ultimately failed, however. "They presupposed a Christian working class, hostile to the spirit of the 1789 Revolution, whereas, in fact, the whole tendency of the period was in favour of that Revolution." (Adriene Dansette, Religious History of Modern France: Volume I From the Revolution to the Third Republic, tr. John Dingle, Herder, 1961,  p. 342.)

In 19-century Europe, the Catholic Church desperately struggled to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order that sought to constrain it. In reaction, the 19th-century Church sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with liberalism and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. The predominant approach was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon the Church’s political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state and upon the traditional constitutional arrangements (for example, the union of throne and altar) that appeared most compatible with the Church’s social and political position, if only because of the security this seemingly offered in the face of frightening and unpredictable change. 

One American alternative, associated with Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), to that primarily political approach enthusiastically supported the Church’s full spiritual authority over its own members but envisaged a social solution in which citizens could combine commitment to true religion with democratic and republican political institutions. His was a thoroughly religious form of discourse, uniquely attempting to address novel social and political concerns.


Meanwhile, already in the 1830s, the 19th-century’s most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), had famously described American democracy’s utterly unexpected compatibility with Catholicism:


These Catholics are faithful to the observances of their religion; they are fervent and zealous in the support and belief of their doctrines. Nevertheless they constitute the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States; and although this fact may surprise the observer at first, the causes by which it is occasioned may easily be discovered upon reflection.


De Tocqueville was, of course, well aware that his social insights into American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism and what Catholicism had to offer to America hardly corresponded to conventional wisdom – on either side of the Atlantic. Changes in both Church and State in the 20th century opened a much needed path for reconsideration and for exploring new ways around the impasse that had been created by the existential conflict between religion and modernity that the French Revolution had institutionalized. Although in the 20th century both Church and State have sought to put behind them aspects of this unhappy legacy of conflict, so far the effort seems only partly successful. It now remains to be seen how well those new 20th-century pathways will hold up under the cultural and social stresses of this increasingly conflictual 21st century.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Pentecost Sunday


Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021
Acts 2:1-11
Galatians 5:16-25
John 15:26-27; 16:12-15

Yesterday, I attended the ordination of two new priests. At the center of the ordination rite is the ancient ritual of the “laying on of hands.” Silently, the Bishop lays his hands on the head of each one to be ordained. Then, the other priests present symbolically join in and also lay their hands one by one on those to be ordained. This "laying on of hands” is an ancient gesture. We find it in the Acts of the Apostles, and in his letter to Timothy Saint Paul refers to having himself done it to Timothy. It is done globally to the whole group at Confirmation, and it occurs in every Mass at the Eucharistic Prayer. It is a symbolic gesture which signifies the Church’s prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down upon those being confirmed or ordained or at Mass on the bread and wine to be consecrated. It is a very solemn and powerful gesture, the importance and significance of which is inherently evident, just from seeing it.

That is how the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are ritualized in the Church’s sacraments. But, at the very beginning of the Church's history, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit were even more dramatically on display, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And the 120 disciples gathered in that Jerusalem Upper Room were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Many of us perhaps hardly ever think or talk about the Holy Spirit at all, and if we do we may often imagine him as a bird. A strong driving wind and tongues of fire may be a bit more exciting than the descent of a dove, but it may still seem somewhat elusive as an image of who the Holy Spirit is. God is, by definition, difficult to describe. Who the Holy Spirit is may be hard to pin down, but the great lesson of history is to learn who God is from what he does. And what he does at Pentecost is to kick-start the mission of the Church by getting it out of that Upper Room. As one modern Easter hymn, Michael Ward's In the Breaking of the Bread, recalls what happened that first Pentecost, “they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.”

In 1897 when Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, she was too frail to walk down the long aisle of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. So she remained in her carriage, while the Jubilee Thanksgiving Service was held outside, in front of the cathedral. That prompted a scowling comment from her cousin, the Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, complaining that the Gospel was being proclaimed out in the street – apparently forgetting (or ignoring) the fact that the street was where the Gospel had first been proclaimed!

Indeed, it was just as Jesus himself had promised: When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning. So, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church left that Upper Room, never to return. Instead “they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.”

And just who was there out in the street to tell? In Jerusalem that Pentecost, there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. Pentecost (Shavuot), which our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated this past week, was one of the three annual pilgrimage festivals which brought many Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem from all over the world. So the second thing the Holy Spirit did was to breakdown barriers, beginning with the basic barrier of language. When the apostles spoke, each person in the crowd heard them speaking in his or her own language. To those who knew their Bible, the meaning was clear. The Holy Spirit was undoing the misfortune of there being multiple languages in the world, the damaging diversity of languages that had come about as a result of human beings’ sinful attempt to construct a tower at Babel [Genesis 11:1-9] to get them to heaven on their own. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, however, the Church undoes this historical disunity of the human race, reuniting it in something new, the kingdom of God.

Artistic renditions of that first Pentecost (like the above photo from the Roman Missal) frequently focus on the 12, typically depicted as grouped in a circle around Mary, the Mother of the Church. In at least one famous mosaic, however, each of the 16 nationalities that are mentioned in the story (listed from east to west to add some geographical specificity to the idea of every nation under heaven) is represented by a pair of figures, thus representing the universality of the Church. The point of the Pentecost story is not - as it is sometimes misinterpreted to be - some celebration of society’s diversity. Rather, the point of the Pentecost story is the overcoming of the harmful consequences of the world's divisions in the Church’s unity and universality, which are among the accomplishments of the Holy Spirit.

Both before and after the Tower of Babel, of course, the damage done by human sinfulness had taken many destructive forms. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul listed at least 15 of them. Too often, too many Christians seem at times to have gotten into the habit of singling out this or that individual vice for special opprobrium – as if the only sins that ever matter were, say, the sins against the sixth commandment - as if idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, etc., weren’t just as important. Earlier this month, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith felt it necessary to warn Americans about the error of misleadingly giving "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." Again, what do we say (and do) about idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, etc.? Paul’s list is a long one, and we need to take it all to heart.

Thanks, however, to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, there is another list. Thanks to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the damage can be undone – in the lives of those guided by the Spirit, who live in the Spirit, and who follow the Spirit. In a world, which still seems to resemble the Tower of Babel more than the Kingdom of God, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are also evident in the fruit of the Spirit – in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We need no precise picture of who the Holy Spirit is, when we witness what he does, when we witness – and live – the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

(Photo: Pentecost, Roman Missalcopyright 2011, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

A Relic of Isaac Hecker

Relics of canonized Saints and beatified Blesseds have traditionally been venerated in the Church, because the bodies of Saints and Blesseds were, during their lives on earth, living temples of the Holy Spirit and the instruments of their holy lives and heroic virtues. Authentic relics of Saints and Blesseds are preserved and venerated by the Church in a way which guarantees their safety, reflects their sacredness, and serves the devotion which is rightly given to Saints and Blesseds. Relics are also preserved in the case of a Servant of God, someone in the process of being considered for eventual beatification on the way to canonized sainthood. (The relics of a Servant of God, however, may not enjoy any public veneration until he or she has been elevated to the honor of the altar by beatification.) 

Some years ago, Fr. Frank Sabatte, a priest, who is also an artist and directs Openings, an artistic ministry that seeks to connect creativity and transcendence, was studying Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s 1888 death mask. In the process of examining the mask closely and found a number of human hairs embedded in the plaster. 

There is no doubt that these remnants are Isaac Hecker’s hairs! As Fr. Sabatte has explained it, the way that death masks were made required that the face be covered with an oil or grease like petroleum jelly. In Hecker’s case, one can see that they slathered some on his scalp as the hair is slicked back. Then plaster of paris was applied to the area to be cast and a negative mold made.  It would be common for hairs to be caught in the plaster and pulled out and for the hairs in the mold to be transferred to the casting. There is simply no other explanation for the presence of these hairs as they are embedded in the plaster cast.

Hecker's hairs have been removed and preserved in a suitable container, which will serve as a reliquary, if and when Hecker is eventually beatified.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Mission of the Holy Spirit

On this day in 1845, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the future Founder of the Paulist Fathers, who had become a Catholic the previous summer, received the sacrament of Confirmation - the sacrament most commonly associated with the Holy Spirit - together with his brother George, like Isaac also a new Catholic.

In that initial period of his life, animated by a self-conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, Hecker had discerned the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in God’s providential care for him and had identified his own inner aspirations and longings with the action of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thereafter, one of his strikingly distinctive emphases as a Catholic - in his own personal spiritual life, in his reflections regarding his Paulist religious community, and in his general spiritual teaching – would be his intense personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to foster among the faithful an increased appreciation of and openness to the fundamental activity and inspiration of the Holy Spirit operating in each individual and in the life of the Church. Throughout his Catholic life, his unfailing commitment to the Church’s mission remained rooted in a deeply felt, intensely lived personal experience of the indwelling presence and action of the Holy Spirit: 

"An act of entire faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things – in its infinite love, wisdom, power; that it is under its influence and promptings up to now my life has been led. Though not clearly seen or known, He has directed every step. On this faith, on this principle, promised to act now and in time to come. To be above fear, doubt, hesitation, or timidity, but patient, obedient, and stable." (From private memoranda made in Europe during his illness, 1874-1875, The Paulist Vocation, p. 90.)

One can discern early anticipations of Hecker’s appreciation of the mission of the Holy Spirit already in his pre-conversion period as a young spiritual seeker, searching for God among the multiple religious and cultural expressions existing in his time, most famously among the Transcendentalists and at Brook Farm. At that time, however, his search preoccupied him primarily with Christological and ecclesiological questions, and Hecker’s more properly developed reflections on the Holy Spirit were most fully expressed later in his life, largely in somewhat scattered form in mostly unpublished essays written in the 1870s and 1880s in the aftermath of the First Vatican Council and then in The Church and the Age, a collection of twelve articles published as a book in the year before his death.

Hecker was no systematic theologian and did not write as one. What he wrote was not some “theology” of the Holy Spirit but an appreciation of how the activity of the Holy Spirit is experienced in the Church and of the individual, ecclesial, and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity in the world.


Thus, in proposing the Catholic Church as “the radical remedy of all our evils,” Hecker immediately pivoted to an exposition of the Mission of the Holy Spirit:

"It cannot be too deeply and firmly impressed on the mind that the Church is actuated by the instinct of the Holy Spirit, and to discern clearly its action, and to cooperate with it effectually, is the highest employment of our faculties, and at the same time the primary source of the greatest good to society. … The essential and universal principle which saves and sanctifies souls is the Holy Spirit. … The actual and habitual guidance of the soul by the Holy Spirit is the essential principle of all divine life. … Christ’s mission was to give the Holy Spirit more abundantly. … In accordance with the Sacred Scriptures, the Catholic Church teaches that  the Holy Spirit is infused, with all his gifts, into our souls by the sacrament of baptism, and that without His actual prompting or inspiration, and aid, no thought or act or even wish, tending directly towards our true destiny, is possible."                                                                                                                   

On this basis, therefore, Hecker proposed his essential program, first, for personal Christian perfection:

"The whole aim of the science of Christian perfection is to instruct men how to remove the hindrances in the way of the action of the Holy Spirit, and how to cultivate those virtues which are most favorable to His solicitations and inspirations. Thus the sum of spiritual life consists in observing and yielding to the movements of the Spirit of God in our soul, employing for this purpose al the exercises of prayer, spiritual readings, sacraments, the practice of virtues, and good works."                                                                                    


And inseparably then the social renewal the world needs:

"The light the age requires for its renewal can come only from the same source. The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul." (The Church and the Age, pp. 22-26)                                                                                  


Here Hecker has effectively posited three renewals: that of the age (the world, society), dependent on that of religion (the Church), itself inseparable from that of the individual.


In a diary begun in Egypt, in 1873, he deepened his lifelong reflection on the mission of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church:

"To wish to enlarge the action of the Holy Spirit in the Soul, independently of, or without the knowledge & appreciation of the necessity of the external authority of the Church, her discipline, her laws, her worship, etc. & the spirit of obedience, would only be opening the door to eccentricity, schism, heresy, & spiritual death.

"He who does not see the external authority of the Church, and the internal action of the Holy Spirit in an inseparable synthesis, has not a right or just conception of either."

Lest there be any ambiguity about how Hecker understood “a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” however, Hecker himself wrote to Hewit in 1875: “I anticipate no special outpouring of the Holy Spirit – in the miraculous sense, no more than the present action, of the action of the Church in any age was miraculous.” Through the Church and its sacraments and its worship, “the object of Christ in the church is,” wrote Hecker in his later years, “to come in personal contact with the soul, and by the power of his grace to wash away its sins, communicate to it fellowship with God as the heavenly Father, and thereby to sanctify it.” (Catholic World, 38, October 1883).

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Unmasking Conundrum


Every day more and more of us are getting fully vaccinated. Great news! The point of getting vaccinated is (1) not to get sick oneself or spread the disease to others, and (2) to resume living something resembling a normal pre-pandemic life. So certainly it is very good news to hear that fully vaccinated people can safely begin to go about unmasked in all or most situations.

So what is the problem? Obviously, if we were all in fact fully vaccinated, there would be no problem. But right now more than half of the country continues to be unvaccinated. So how does a store owner, bus driver, or the host of an event know for sure who is or isn't safe to come inside unmasked? He or she can't, of course. One way would be to require proof of vaccination, the sort of thing that schools, for example, have done for decades. But we are not doing that now, and probably won't be doing that any time soon. So the only sensible alternative is for store owners, bus drivers, and event hosts to continue to require masks - to continue to require everyone to be masked in the store on the bus at the event.

That necessity saddles the already vaccinated with the serious moral burden to continue to go about masked in many paces and situations - an obligation we have as ordinary human beings and fellow-citizens to cooperate with one another for the sake of the wider community. In a good society that would be self-evident and would hardly be seen as a burden at all. In American society, however, long ridded with a persistent streak of individualistic selfishness - strongly strengthened as a predominant cultural curse since the moral disaster of Ronald Reagan's presidency - such selfishness gets in the way of our cooperating with one another to promote the common good. (That same selfishness explains much - maybe not all, but much - of the so-called "vaccine hesitancy," as well as such bizarre behaviors as hoarding gasoline, thud creating the very shortages the hoarding was ostensibly intended to protect against.)

So, apart from purely private gatherings with vaccinated friends and family, I have to expect for the foreseeable future to continue going masked on the buds or to a store or church or almost anywhere else.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Final Act Begins


The Sunday after the Ascension, May 16, 2021.

Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

1 John 4:11-16

John 17:11b-19

Some years ago, I read The Last Word, by N.T. Wright, a prominent Protestant biblical scholar and (at that time) the Church of England’s Bishop of Durham. Wright proposed we think of history as if it were a play in five acts. The first act is creation. The second is the fall and sin’s consequences for the human family. The third is the story of God’s Chosen People from Abraham to Jesus. The fourth is the decisive and climactic act is the story of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Israel (after whom, as Vatican II reminded us, we neither need nor expect any further revelation). That then has become the foundation for our current fifth act – the present, the time of the Church, which presupposes all that preceded it, as we tell and retell the world the story of creation, sin, and salvation in Christ, while moving forward toward out final destiny.

Historically speaking, this fifth act – the time of the Church, our time – began when the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Before his ascension, the Risen Lord had told them to remain in Jerusalem to await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that they were a community of some 120 disciples, united under the leadership of the apostles, praying together during that interval, in that in-between transitional time, which the Church’s calendar traditionally recalls during this annual "novena" of nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. Saint Augustine described them as "together in one house, praying; because they were now awaiting in faith itself what they were expecting in their prayer and their spiritual desire. They were new wineskins, the new wine was expected from heaven; and it came" [Sermon 267].

Meanwhile, one of the tasks that preoccupied the community during those days was filling the vacancy among the 12 that had been created by the defection of Judas. Just as the nation of Israel had historically traced itself back to the 12 sons of Jacob, likewise the Church going forward would forever after trace itself back to the 12 official witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Hence, the unique job description Peter proposed: it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us … become with us a witness to his resurrection.

The 12 would in time be succeeded collectively by the Bishops of the Church, who are our link back to the witness of the apostles. Bishops preach the word, celebrate the sacraments, and individually govern particular local Churches while collectively collaborating with Peter’s successor in governing the universal Church, thus linking us all together across space and time - relating each local Church to the universal Church all around the world and the universal to the local in every place, while linking us back in time to that original Jerusalem Church.

It was Peter, as the recognized leader of the 12, who took the initiative in this matter and established the criteria for selection, and that it was the whole community that proposed the candidates. They didn’t propose themselves. As then, so now, it is the Church which finally and authoritatively calls individuals to ministry. Individuals don’t appoint themselves. Guided by God’s grace in their lives, individuals may offer themselves for service to the Church; but their calling needs to be tested and affirmed by the institutional discernment of the wider Church community through its authorized leaders. The whole community, however, retains a certain role in this. Just as it was the whole community that nominated Matthias, so today every local Church community, every parish congregation, needs to be alert to identify each Matthias within it and to encourage each Matthias to respond to both the inner promptings of divine grace and the external promptings of others.

Thus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church has been sent into the world, as Jesus himself was sent into the world by the Father, consecrated to witness to truth in a world searching for hope and meaning.

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]