Friday, May 20, 2022

At the Movies Again


After a hiatus of more than two years, I have (for now at least) rediscovered the joy of going to a movie theater (even if it cost $21 and had to endure half an hour of noisy ads for obnoxious action movies). And what better film to force me back to the real movie experience than the second Downton Abbey movie? After six successful seasons and a full-length film sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era takes the Crawley family saga forward into 1928 - and geographically to the south of France (a foreign country occasionally referred to during the original series but one to which we have never previously been transported, except with unhappy consequences during the Great War).

The popularity of Downton Abbey has been phenomenal. The six-season series was the most viewed PBS drama ever. (Its highest number of viewers was a weekly average of 13.3 million viewers during season four.) Likewise, the movie sequel proved an unsurprising success at the box office, earning some $194 million. We will know soon enough whether this second movie will fare as well. Certainly this viewer has not yet tired of the aristocratic Crawleys and their extended household and social network, both upstairs and down. Regarding the epic's long-term future, Downton's creator Julian Fellowes recently said: "I'm not going to go on forever. So I think there would be a real difficulty getting Downton to go on forever. Whether it's come to an end or not, I couldn't tell you." 

Fellowes' coyness aside, the series must come to an end, and this film is as good an ending as any. But enough about about!

Meanwhile, we have this second Downton movie, which features many of the classic cast - all the main ones, including once again Samantha Bond back as Lady Rosamund, but sadly without Lady Mary's second husband Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode).

It involves no unnecessary revelations ("spoilers") to say that, in the 1928 iteration of Downton Abbey, the unexpected excursion to France follows from the Dowager Countess' having inherited a villa in the south of France from the Marquis de Montmirail, with whom she had once been briefly involved in some fashion back in the 1860s. When asked why she didn't turn it down, she answers, “Do I look as if I’d turn down a villa in the south of France?” So off they go, Lord and Lady Grantham, their daughter Edith and her husband (Lord and Lady Hexham), and the supposedly retired (but back whenever there is a movie) butler, Carson. Also invited, for particularly relevant reasons, are son-in-law Tom Branson and his new wife, Lucy (a marriage already predictable froim the end of the previous movie). Obviously, one can never have too many weddings in a saga which is, after all, ultimately about family!

Meanwhile, as Lady Grantham says, "the modern world comes to Downton," as Lady Mary, responding to the ever increasing financial challenges of keeping the estate going in the 20th century (a perennial theme of the series), allows Downton to play host to the making of a movie. Reprising the wartime transformation of the house, this entails the disruption of ordinary routines and relationships by the intrusive presence of movie stars and film crew, including stars from a very different social class, highlighting as Downton does so well the complex dynamics of class in an inexorably changing Britain. 

That's probably as much as I should reveal on the film's opening day - exceprt to say it is a beautiful film and not to be missed!


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A Gentler American Christendom?

In December 1831, having reflected on the U.S. constitution and The Federalist Papers, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), then in the course of his momentous visit to America, observed that “only a very enlightened people could have created the federal constitution of the United States, and that only a very enlightened people singularly accustomed to representative forms is capable of operating such a complicated machine and of maintaining within their separates spheres the various powers, which otherwise would not fail to clash violently with one another.”

Tocqueville was not alone in stipulating the pre-requisite political culture presumed to be required for a particular political system such as that of the U.S. to perdure. Thus, John Adams famously wrote: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other" (To the Massachusetts Militia, October 11, 1798).

Tocqueville's particular contribution involved assessing the viability of a modern liberal polity characterized by a lack of a historical pre-liberal alternative. The traditional pre-liberal alternatives included monarchical and aristocratic arrangements, but also other cultural components, most notably some version of union of throne and altar, whether as actual empirical reality or an idealized integralist aspiration.

Tocqueville saw in the U.S. an alternative to all of that. Hence his fascination with religion's role in 19th-century American democracy and especially (for obvious personal reasons as a French Catholic aristocrat) the surprising compatibility of Roman Catholicism with American democracy, a recognizable reality in place well before the official Catholic magisterial rapprochement with modern democratic pluralism in the mid-20th-century.

Tocqueville appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of modern society with its fragile connections among individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with a regime of liberty. In 19th-century Europe, the Catholic Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order that sought to constrain it.  In surviving liberalisms's assaults, 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. Accordingly, in Democracy in America, Tocqueville recognized “that the Catholic religion has erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy,” but he observed that , while American Catholics were "faithful to the observances of their religion," they nevertheless constituted "the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States."

However counterintuitive that then seemed on both side of the Atlantic, it became one of the major projects of a certain development of 20th-century Catholic political philosophy to make something like that American accomplishment normative for the new post-Christendom era in which we now find ourselves. One of the preeminent architects of this project was the French Catholic convert and Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), who without actually disowning the "sacral society" associated with the Catholic Middle Ages, attempted to express a completely new relationship between religion and modern, democratic, pluralistic, post-confessional societies.

What Maritain attempted to mainstream in 20th-century Catholic political philosophy could be called "A Gentler Christendom." That is the title of a recent First Things essay (originally delivered as a lecture for the Morningside Institute) by conservative Catholic author and NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, who argues that Maritain "was essentially describing something like the mid-century American model of church-state relations, of Christian politics playing out in a pluralist society, albeit reimagined in his argument for a society with a Catholic majority rather than a Protestant one." Douthat sees Maritain's model "in the role that Protestant churches, eventually joined by the Catholic Church, had played in the United States for generations." In this model, Douthat suggests, "the state could disentangle itself from the church without disentangling Christianity from politics, without undermining Christian faith, without even abandoning the ideal of Christendom itself."

I think Douthat's description does justice to what Maritain was doing, while also recognizing how Maritain's "optimism was timebound and ill-fated." Yet, contrary to contemporary integralist interpretations, Douthat defends the long-term viability of aspects of Maritain's model. Thus, he argues against the more integralist claim that it has been primarily secular (and anti-Christian) state power that has driven "American Christianity's retreat." Instead he highlights later internal Christian divisions, the "failure to respond effectively to social and economic and technological changes," and "theological civil wars and failures of leadership." He points out how the justly famed American Catholic subcultural infrastructure had flourished during earlier period of anti-Catholic opposition only to collapse a century later "because of terrible internal divisions over how to adapt, or not, to the social trends and changes of the era," as well as the triumph of "therapeutic forms of spirituality," and he juxtaposes all that with the even more dramatic collapse of pre-pluralist, more traditionally integralist models in Quebec, Spain, and Ireland. 

The empirical evidence, for Douthat, rather "suggests the moral and spiritual advantages of putting limits on faith's temporal ambitions, and trying to wield power within pluralism rather than over and against it." He concludes "religious power wielded too much against pluralism, with political ambition substituting for real faithfulness, will corrupt and enervate and bring about its own reward."

Presumably representing an integralist alternative to Douthat's Maritain-modelled "Gentler Christendom," Edmund Waldstein highlights how "secularism has always opposed Christianity in the name of freedom," and that the Enlightenment turned "the spirit fo Christian reform" against Christianity. He suggests that Maritain's "less subtle followers" may have conceded "that the church had been the enemy of human freedom, and secular Enlightenment its tru defender." His alternative model is how he interprets the Church's 16th-century Counter-Reformation strategy "not to water down Catholicism, but to radicalize it, to draw more deeply from the sources of tradition to invigorate the present." 

In response to Waldstein, Douthat agrees on "restoring a thick and rigorous internal culture for the faith, after so much thoughtless iconoclasm, moral laxity, and bland cultural conformity." But he questions Waldstein's assumption that that calls for a full integralist political theology that "political life, too, must submit to God." Among other things, Douthat sees in this a misplacing of priorities. "The two immediate realities of the church in much of the world today are institutional crisis and numerical collapse," which suggests "that the church needs to figure out how to govern itself before it aspires to any other sort of governance, and hoe to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively before it imagines itself ruling a society it has reconverted."

Finally, he challenges integralism to answer "why its vision was ultimately abandoned by so many within the church itself." If, Douthat challenges integralism, those who ultimately dismantled integralism were "people who thought of themselves as faithful Catholics, and if this happened in different ways almost everywhere at once, then anyone who wishes to restore such a system needs a clear account of why Catholics themselves so universally rejected it." By way of illustration, he notes that Quebec and Ireland "in the first half of the twentieth century simply did not feel like shining examples of Christian freedom lived in obedience to truth."

He concludes "the record requires more than a few concessions to tolerance and mercy" and "requires a greater reckoning with why that form of Christendom was both defeated and abandoned and an account of why its revival would not bring the same unhappy destination round again."

As Tocqueville once told his colleagues in the French parliament: "believe me when I say that the real cause, the effective cause that deprives men of power, is this: that they have become unworthy of wielding it.”

It seems Tocqueville and his American religious contemporaries may have been on to something after all.


Saturday, May 14, 2022

One Million Dead

From the onset of the pandemic until the end of my term as pastor on December 31, 2020, I wrote a daily email to my parishioners which frequently included updated statistics on the number of covid cases and deaths worldwide, in the U.S., and in Tennessee. Since then I haven't paid that much attention to those steadily rising statistics, but I could hardly not notice this past week when the U.S. pandemic death toll finally passed one million. "One million empty chairs around the family dinner table," President Biden said in a video message marking this tragic milestone. "Each irreplaceable, irreplaceable losses. Each leaving behind a family or community forever changed because of this pandemic." The President has even ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff this weekend in recognition of our collective national loss.

And loss it is. Not just the one million tragically dead, but the millions who survive them, who have tragically lost parents, spouses, siblings, caregivers, friends, colleagues. And then the are all those who were sickened with the virus, some extremely severely at the time, and many still afflicted with the mysterious mix of symptoms we casually call 'long covid." so, yes, indeed, there is plenty to mourn this weekend.

Back in March 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, the new White House coronavirus response coordinator projected as many as 200,000 covid deaths "if we do things almost perfectly." That seemed shockingly high at that time.

One obvious response to such a shocking prediction might have been to "do things almost perfectly." Presumably that would have meant a major investment in mass testing and mitigation measures (.e.g., masking). Well, we know how that went! 

The one thing we did do "almost perfectly" was the amazingly rapid, unprecedentedly rapid, development of effective vaccines. But then the same politicization of the pandemic that caused a casual attitude toward masking and social distancing, especially among certain populations and in certain parts of the country, took over and diminished the social benefit of such an amazing and unprecedentedly rapid scientific breakthrough. Thanks to irresponsible politicians, pundits, religious leaders, and others, vaccination rates did not rise as high as they should have, while a narcissistic "done with covid" mentality took over everywhere, even among many of the vaccinated - shedding masks prematurely as if the pandemic were gone for good.

The pandemic is not gone for good, although thankfully vaccines and new therapeutic drugs have radically diminished the likelihood of severe disease in most cases. Still, the virus's continuance in circulation increases the potential for new variants, some of which might prove less constrained by existing vaccines and therapeutic measures.

It seems as if we never learn from experience. 

Meanwhile, we haltingly mourn those we have lost and hope another new virus isn't lurking somewhere ready to exploit our unpreparedness to "do things almost perfectly."


Monday, May 9, 2022

Another Trump-Biden Book


Historically, one-term presidents who have been defeated for re-election and lost control of Congress to the other party have not been popular party favorites. In this as in so many other things, Donald Trump has proved to be an exception retaining almost total control of the Republican party more than two hears into his post-presidency (or possible pre-presidency if he runs again and is re-elected in 2024). That alone is enough to explain the continued fascination with Trump as candidate and president, and the quantity (and high quality) of books about Trump and what we may well call this Trump-era in American politics.

The latest such effort is This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America's Future (Simon and Schuster, 2022), by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, which was the talk of the town (that is, DC) and of the more politically oriented mainstream media in the run up to its publication earlier this month.

The book dramatically retells the now increasingly familiar story of the catastrophic final year of the dysfunctional Trump Administration and the halting and increasingly ineffective first year of the Biden Administration. Martin and Burns highlight how our problematic political system was devastatingly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic and the January 6 Trumpist insurrection, and Biden's thus far minimally successful supposed return to political normalcy. 

By the authors' own account, they initially "envisioned a richly reported account of what was sure to be a memorable presidential campaign" - which they have given - but as they "lived through and covered the events of 2020, the extraordinary aftermath of the election and the tumultuous months since, it became clear" to them that this "crisis in American politics, in the years 2020 and 2021, deserved something more." So they crafted "a work of history—to capture the campaign yet also the equally important story of how the election and its violent conclusion shaped this country and its two political parties."

Sunday, May 8, 2022

To the Ends of the Earth


History, as Pope Saint John XXIII is supposed to have said, is the greatest of teachers. Thus, it is no accident that the bulk of the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is history of one sort or other. And thus it is also that every day of these seven weeks we call the Easter season the Church reads from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, actually the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, his continuation of the story of Jesus in the history of the Church.
Acts tells the amazing story of the Church’s growth, of the gradual but definitive expansion of its membership and the widening of its mission as the Good News spread – first in Jerusalem, then through Judea, then into Samaria, and eventually into the Greek-speaking, pagan world of the Roman Empire. All this took place, not by happenstance, but as part of God’s long-term providential plan – as Saint Paul makes clear quoting Isaiah in today’s 1st reading: I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.

We get some sense of what that is supposed to mean from the Book of Revelation’s inspired vision of the heavenly liturgy, with its great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. But how do we get from here to there? Getting from here to there – that’s the mission of the Church and the history of the Church, modeled for us in the Acts of the Apostles.

It’s called the Acts of the Apostles, but it is Paul who eventually emerges as one of (if not the) central figures in the history of the Church’s growth and expansion - perhaps because Paul was bi-cultural and bi-lingual, a Jew from a Greek city (and a Roman citizen besides). Such human and cultural considerations are always important, always have an impact on how effectively the Church fulfils its mission.

Most important, of course, Paul’s conversion to Christ was so complete that it compelled him to share Christ with everyone. Paul recognized in the Risen Lord, who had appeared to him, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and God’s plan to include all people in that promise. Ultimately it was Christ who counted, and Paul saw no conflict between being a Gentile and faith in Jesus – thus making it possible for the Gospel to become Good News for all.

The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but the Church’s mission hasn’t. There is always a natural temptation to turn inward, to become a cozy community, caring a lot about ourselves, concerned with who we are and what we have. As a Church, we have been doing a lot of that lately. Indeed, ever since the 1960s we have been doing lots of that. It is certainly arguable that the Church may be less effective in her pastoral ministry and her missionary outreach to the wider world than might otherwise be the case, whenever more energy is directed to internal battles between and among factions and interest groups within the Church. But the mission of the Church, our literally quite Catholic mission, remains that of the Good Shepherd, whose voice in the world we now are – we, who have been commanded, as Paul was, to be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.

On this annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we are also reminded of what we might call the “personnel needs” of the Church for it to fulfill its mission of making the Good Shepherd’s voice heard in today’s world. The wonderful story Acts tells of the growth and expansion of the Church needed people like Paul and Barnabas to respond to the Risen Christ’s invitation to full-time involvement in the mission – even at the risk, as Acts acknowledges, that such a life might put one at odds with prevailing cultural and societal trends.

All the more reason, therefore, why it is so necessary for all of us to be always ready to respond filled with joy and the Holy Spirit to the challenge of God’s call – whatever in particular it may be in our individual lives – and ever on the alert to identify, encourage, and support some future Paul or Barnabas, who may be right here in our community today and whose energy and commitment will be needed if the Good Shepherd’s voice is to continue to be heard in our world.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, May 8, 2022.


Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Making Sense of the Endless Easter Season


Sometime back in the 1980s, one of my seminary classmates ventured the opinion that the Easter season, as we now have it, is simply too long and should be confined to one week (in other words, to the existing Easter Octave). His argument, if I recall it correctly, was that it was just too difficult to sustain so much enthusiasm for seven long weeks. Certainly, in our contemporary world of radically reduced attention spans combined with our current addiction to celebration by anticipation (e.g., the way we celebrate Christmas before December 25 rather than starting on December 25), it seems our current seven-week Easter season is problematic. (In this discussion, I am, of course, completely prescinding from the obvious fact that, for many people, probably none of this matters at all. In a modern secular world, where religion itself, let alone liturgy, barely impinges upon the ordinary routines of life, whether it is Easter Time or, say, Advent, may matter much less than religious professionals would like to imagine.)

In any case, our current seven-week Easter season is itself a relatively recent construct, dating back only to Pope Saint Paul VI's 1969 calendar reform. "The fifty days from theSunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday are celebrated in joy and exultation as one feast day, indeed as one 'great Sunday'" (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 22). This post-conciliar Easter season certainly recognizes some diversity within it - the Octave of Easter, Ascension Day, and the nine "weekdays from the Ascension up to and including the Saturday before Pentecost." But the prevailing tendency of the reformed calendar (evident even more so perhaps in its treatment of Lent) was to flatten such internal seasonal diversity in favor of a unified, somewhat monochromatic conception of the season as a whole.

Thus, for example, one of the most commented upon features of the contemporary version of the Easter season is the replacement of the traditional collects of the (themselves renamed) Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. The traditional collect for "Low Sunday" famously spoke of having completed the paschal festivities (paschalia festa peregimus), while those of the subsequent Sundays said nothing specific about Easter at all. This was seen as a serious problem by the liturgical bureaucrats charged with revising the Missal, and those collects have all accordingly been replaced - perhaps the best evidence of the intention to establish a uniformity in the Easter season over the seven-week period.

Of course, the old Paschaltide (like the current Easter season) had certain distinctive features that perdured uniformly throughout the entire time, notably the numerous alleluias, the Regina Caeli, and the Vidi Aquam. But, then as now, apart from the octaves, an ordinary saint's day took precedence over a ferial day. (In practice the ferial Mass was seldom celebrated anyway, yielding as in most of the rest of the year to the then much more popular Requiem Mass.)

That said, the current Easter season's predecessor seemed to take a more realistic, less uniform approach to sustaining prolonged celebration. Thus, the pre-conciliar Paschaltide, which ran from the beginning of the Mass of the Easter Vigil to None of the Saturday within the Octave of Pentecost, was explicitly defined to include a distinct season of Easter, a season of Ascension, and the Pentecost Octave. The difference between the Easter and Ascension seasons within Paschaltide was dramatized best by the requirement that the Paschal Candle, a symbol of the uniquely paschal presence of the Risen Christ, be solemnly extinguished after the Gospel at the Mass on Ascension Thursday and then removed from the sanctuary. Nowadays, of course, the paschal candle keeps reappearing all year (at baptisms and funerals, for example, and in many places where the baptistery is not really separate from the main body of the church it remain visible all year long). So the fact that it remains an extra 10 days after the Ascension may not seem so counter-symbolic as it obviously is. (Then again, I once witnessed the Paschal Candle ceremonially extinguished after the Gospel on Pentecost, an even more symbolically confusing conflation of old and new. Hopefully, no one went home imagining that it was the Pentecostal tongues of fire that were being extinguished!)

In addition to the major variations already mentioned, the traditional Paschaltide also included the "Lesser Litanies," that is, the three Rogation Days" on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the Ascension. (In Milan, they were more logically celebrated on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after the Ascension.) And the Octave of Pentecost included the summer Ember Days, somewhat contradicting the ancient notion that there should be no fasting during the Easter season.

But, other than celebration fatigue and the shortened attention span problem already alluded to, perhaps the difficulty resides not so much in the desire to sustain celebration for too long a time as in the flattening of that same time by the downgrading of Ascension and Pentecost. Along with Christmas and Epiphany, the feasts of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are the five principal festivals of the liturgical calendar, still distinguished as such in the Roman Canon and previously distinguished by Octaves. There is a certain logic to dividing "the  50 days" into an Easter 40 and an Ascension 10, not least in order to correspond with some fidelity to the biblical account. The modest reference in the present arrangement to the weekdays between Ascension and Pentecost as ever so slightly set apart from the rest of the season represents a minimalistic vestige of that division. In the absence of an Ascension octave, treating Ascension Thursday (obviously always on Thursday) as the end of the specifically Easter season, followed by a nine-day period of preparation for Pentecost would be one way of making sense of the season.

That still leaves the problem of Pentecost and its now lost octave. Whether due to the reformers' apparent antipathy to octaves in general and to an overly literal obsession with the number 50, the destruction of the Pentecost octave can only be seen as a (presumably irreparable) loss. According to the familiar story, when Pope Paul VI went to vest for Mass on the day after Pentecost in 1970,  and found green vestments laid out for him, he asked "Where are the red vestments?” He was told that the Octave of Pentecost had been abolished. “Who did that?” he supposedly asked, only to be told “Your Holiness, you did.” And so the story concludes, the pope wept. Whether true or apocryphal, the story does express the damage done to the liturgy by the gratuitous abolition of the Pentecost Octave. More recently, Pope Francis has made a small gesture to correcting that mistake by instituting the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, to be celebrated always on the Monday after Pentecost.

Restoring a sense of Easter not as a uniformly flat time but as a season with several (specifically three) peak moments might help to retrieve Ascension and Pentecost as feasts truly celebrating the beginning of the Church's current life.

Meanwhile, on the ground in the real world of contemporary American religion, the peak moments of the otherwise flattened Easter season will continue to be First Communions, Confirmations, Graduations, maybe May Crownings, and the biggest American pseudo-religious commercial feast of all, Mother's Day.

(Photo: Easter 1963, St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, Bronx, NY)

Sunday, May 1, 2022

May Day

One of the ironies of modern history is that May Day, for centuries a major seasonal turning point (the first day of summer) in an agriculturally oriented, nature-based calendar, became in the 19th century a day dedicated - of all post-agricultural, post nature-based things - to modern industrial labor and the proletariat it produced. Before it became an International Workers' Holiday, May Day was more about dancing around the maypole and crowning the May Queen (a remote antecedent of the contemporary Catholic May Procession and Crowning). Undoubtedly, some contemporary "neopagans" may be reconstructing some of those older nature-cycle pagan festivals and again celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival

May Day still survives as a workers' holiday, of course, but barely (following the collapse of communism and the eclipse of socialism). In the United States, where we have a different "Labor Day" holiday and May Day has accordingly always resonated less among the "working classes" than in Europe, it is the labor movement itself which has been eclipsed. In the 20th century, as Michael Kazin has shown in What it Took To Win: A History of the Democratic Party (Farrar, /Strauss, and Giroux, 2022), the U.S. Democratic Party became briefly, but very successfully, an American Labor Party. But those days appear long gone, and the U.S. Democratic Party has long since abandoned its identification with the "working classes" (to the party's own electoral detriment, as well as the detriment of the "working classes").

The political abandonment of the "working classes" has come about much more slowly in Europe. Moreover, the mid-20th-century post-war period in Europe was characterized by authentic religious outreach as well. This was reflected, for example, in the Mission de France and the "worker-priests" movement and, somewhat more superficially, in the mid-1950s invention of the Roman Catholic liturgical feast (photo) of S. Joseph Opifex, assigned by Pope Pius XII to this date, somewhat ironically referred to in the feast's original office as "a day which the workers have adopted as their own." While the new festival famously failed to outperform the more popular leftist May Day, in the process the new observance did displace another relatively modern feast in the Catholic calendar, that of the Patronage of Saint Joseph, celebrated in the 19th century on the Third Sunday after Easter and then in the 20th century on the Third Wednesday after Easter. Pius XII's ineffective innovation still survives - somewhat vestigially and not much noticed - in the Church's contemporary calendar.

In 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (whose own given name, of course, was Joseph) made the best of what the calendar offered, somewhat unconvincingly calling this observance in honor of Saint Joseph the Worker "a liturgical Memorial very dear to the Christian people." Recalling how it had been established "to highlight the importance of work and of the presence of Christ and his Church in the working world," he expressed his "hope that work will be available, especially for young people, and that working conditions may be ever more respectful of the dignity of the human person." 

Two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759), spoke disapprovingly about what he called “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition,” which he called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” How ironic that it is precisely such ordinary, unappreciated “persons of poor and mean condition,” whose social and economic well-being our society has largely neglected for decades, are now seen as “essential workers” - poorer people in low-paying jobs that our wealth-worshipping society habitually disrespects and whom this present pandemic so directly endangers.

We celebrate (or don't celebrate) "Saint Joseph the Worker" in the context of our current covid crisis, which has highlighted society’s collective dependence for survival on ordinary workers. These are workers ordinarily treated as unimportant compared with rich and powerful people whose work benefits largely only themselves and people like them - and certainly not society at large.

Friday, April 29, 2022

An Imaginative Adventure in Constitution-Making


Back in the 1970s, there was some talk (in the end, only talk) about invoking Article V to convoke a new constitutional convention. I was mildly supportive of the idea, mainly because I envisioned it as a rare opportunity to revive the participatory citizenship that had been eclipsed by the late 20th-century model of Americans as consumers rather than citizens. in fact, a new constitutional convention had no realistic chance of happening then. Nor does it now, although now (unlike then) there is increasing awareness of "how the document has helped foster a hopelessly broken government."

The author of that diagnosis, Political Scientist Beau Breslin, has recently responded to this discouraging reality with an imaginative exercise, A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation's Fundamental Law (Stanford U. Pr., 2021). The basis for Breslin's exercise is Thomas Jefferson's idiosyncratic (to my mind, completely crazy) that each generation should be free to start the constitutional process over again. One doesn't have to be a full-bore Burkean to sense the absurdity of Jefferson's position. Even so, one can also appreciate its appeal. In any case, Breslin takes Jefferson's idea and imagines what would have happened had the U.S. constitution been renegotiated and rewritten by each "generation." For Jefferson, that would have been every 19 years. Recognizing the increasing length of modern lifespans, Breslin opts for imagining new constitutional conventions in 1825, 1863, 1903, 1953, and 2022.

Obviously this is an exercise in counter-factual history. However, Breslin works hard to imagine how each constitutional rewrite might have worked out, based on what was actually happening in American society at the time - including, for example, what was being written in new or revised state constitutions in each period. so, while obviously an exercise in imaginative fantasy, Breslin's imagined constitutional renegotiations do open a window into the complexities of our constitution's adaptiveness to the dramatic changes in society.

Personally, while I have no use for Jefferson's anti-historic theory of generational independence, I do believe that times and circumstances do change and that with those changed times and circumstances comes a need for social and political change, including institutional adaptation. Breslin's book both recognizes this and show us how it might have happened (and could yet happen through our more cumbersome amendment process).

In Breslin's account, the first such imagined "convention" occurred in 1825, one year after the contested 1824 election, in which the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson (who had gotten the most votes in the original election). Unsurprisingly, the convention reexamined the Electoral College. And, in a major victory for the Jacksonian Democrats, the 1825 Constitution provided for the popular election of presidential electors. In a similar vein the new document guaranteed universal white male suffrage. (Both were in fact the actual direction in which most states were tending at the time.) Bringing the federal constitution into greater harmony with most state constitutions, the imagined 1825 document relocated the Bill of Rights as the first article of the federal constitution, thus highlighting its priority. But an attempt to include a right to education was voted down. Even staunch Jacksonians "could not see their way to supporting the interests of the free common man if that meant states had to relinquish control over their own educational systems." Breslin's imagined convention's most significant change to its 1787 predecessor was one which was not reflected in American historical reality, a change in the manner of staffing the federal judiciary.

The 1863 convention occurred, of course, during the Civil War. As part of the dramatic fiction, Breslin has it relocated from Philadelphia to Boston to avoid danger from Lee's Confederate army. Not surprisingly, given the absence of representatives from the southern states and the  dominance of the radical wing of the Republican party, what this convention produced closely resembles the actual federal constitution as radically amended after the Civil War by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. In fact, the three Reconstruction Amendments did actually give the U.S. a radically revised constitution, but (we all know the sad story) the federal government failed to enforce that new constitution - with calamitous consequences we are still dealign with today.

The next 50 years were defined by the rise of commercial capitalism and urban immigration, thus definitely putting behind the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian vision. As Breslin notes, "the framers of the 1863 Constitution likely would not even have recognized their own country in 1903." In actual history, of course, Theodore Roosevelt was president, and it was the Progressive Era. So unsurprisingly, women's suffrage passed at Breslin's 1903 convention, but proposals to recover for Native-Americans a degree of self-rule over Indian lands was defeated. finally, reflecting the then reigning imperial turn in American foreign policy, the convention enhanced presidential power in that are, allowing the president to "pursue strategic national interests abroad" and  to "execute all necessary and proper policies  to protect the country;'s vital global interests."

So again the imaginary 1903 convention largely condenses what actually happened. (In fact, the constitution has never really been amended to reflect either American Empire or the imperial presidency that necessarily accompanies it, but Breslin's device does reflect the de facto acceptance of almost unlimited presidential power in this area.) 

Imagined constitutional changes cannot stray too far from what actually has happened for obvious reasons. "Efforts to raze the prior Constitution altogether and take a fresh look at what a twentieth-century generation might might desire failed" at Breslin's imagined 1903 convention, "because of expediency and because of a belief that the basic architecture of the American political system still functioned reasonably well."

The 1953 iteration of this fantasy project produced a longer constitution, "and the evidence of interest group activity was obvious." Another background difference was that state constitution framing had diminished in the interim, although state constitutional amendments had "increased dramatically" in those 50 years.

Obviously, the 1953 convention reflected the enormous changes in federal and presidential power during the New Deal and two world wars. America "had been molded in FDR's image" and all "were now living in FDR's world." The 1953 convention limited presidents to two terms (in the exact language of the actual 22nd Amendment). Reflecting the increasing primacy of national identity, the convention called for unanimity among all 48 states as a requirement for ratification.

The convention's preoccupation with recent Supreme Court decisions highlights one practical problem with this thought experiment. The 1825 convention had altered the way the federal judiciary was filled. But, since that never actually happened, the court decisions that impacted American society between then and now are the same. 

All of which brings us at last to our problematic present - in the form of the constitutional convention of 2022. Breslin adapts his model to current technology and employs a cumbersome "crowdsourcing" preparation. (And, of course, C-Span covers the convention live.) But the most decisive factor was (i.e., is) "the deep divide - political and otherwise - facing the country."

Unsurprisingly, the 2022 convention is the first  since 1787 to reconsider "the basic architecture of American government." The imagined debate begins with the perennially popular, if controversial, question of term limits. The arguments on both sides are familiar and need not be repeated here. In the end, Breslin's convention limits House members to four terms and Senators to two, but (to my mind much more importantly) prohibits former lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for four years after leaving congress.

Climate change is perhaps the major issue facing the world today. Already, several state constitutions include some reference to the environment. Breslin's 2022 constitution includes a constitutional right (albeit perhaps primarily hortatory) to a clean and healthy environment.  As we all know, the problem with protecting the environment and fighting climate change is not acknowledging its desirability but taking actions that actually require a change in our current, wasteful way of life.

At this point Breslin become effectively an advocate for Sanford Levinson's constitutional reform agenda, addressing "the illegitimacy of the Senate, the inability of the people to vote that they had 'no confidence' in their President, and the absurdly difficult method for amending or reforming the constitutional document." Of course, Breslin's jeffersonian fantasy of regular constitutional conventions were a reality, Levinson's legitimate concern about the inordinate difficulty of amending the constitution would be mulch less salient!

Levinson's proposal for a parliamentary-style congressional vote of "no confidence" reflects the abysmal history of presidential impeachment and its effective irrelevance as a constitutional tool. Breslin's convention adopts "no confidence," but not Levinson's more radical suggestion of  a national recall. (Hasn't California sufficiently taught us the harm recalls can do?) Most importantly, however, at the 2022 convention, the Electoral College is finally abolished, which alone might make such an exercise a valuable one!

Thanks to the crowdsourcing technique (and reflecting our presently polarized politics) controversial cultural questions are also debated at this final convention. Neither side being willing to concede any ground on abortion and a constitutional right to privacy, the convention reflects contemporary reality by tabling the topic and never returning to it. On the other hand, obviously reflecting the apparent trajectory of public opinion (at least until recently), "marriage equality" is more successful in getting enshrined in the constitution. (This book was obviously written before the contemporary Republican party's renewed anti-gay panic.)

Gun rights, like abortion, are an area where the division between Americans is too wide and too deep, and even at a fictional convention no change is possible.

Finally, in an effort to come to terms with America's problematic past, the venerable Preamble (which my generation faithfully memorized in school) is lengthened to list all sorts of now lamented past evils.

Breslin does a very good job getting the reader to play along and imagine these various conventions. It is a salutary reminder that a more participatory process and altered institutions should not be beyond the pale of our imagination. At the same time, it illustrates how, while constitutional arrangements may complicate our political problems and make them worse) they do largely reflect our problems and divisions, thereby limiting the realistic extent of what alternatives may realistically be imagined.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

20th-Century "Soldiers of God" (The Book)

When I was in high school in the early 1960s, I came across a book about the French Worker-Priests Movement, which was by then already past history. It didn't make me want to become a worker-priest, but it did make me mildly interested in the new and lively developments in post-war French Catholicism. I then came across that post-war renaissance of French Catholicism indirectly in college when I first read and studied Albert Camus, who did engage intellectually with contemporary Catholic thinkers in France, especially among the Dominicans. Then in grad school, I delved into Jacques Maritain's political philosophy and the larger trajectory of the evolution of his thought in relation to 20th-century French Catholic political thought. Finally, in seminary, I studied the impact of French nouvelle theologie at Vatican II. 

So it was with eager interest that I recently read Sarah Shortall's fascinating study of some of those impactful 20th-century French Jesuit and Dominican theologians, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard U. Pr., 2021). I am sure that genuine scholars have already adequately reviewed Shortall's fine work. Without attempting anything like a thorough review, there are a few aspects about her study that I would particularly like to highlight.

There are any number of reasons why one should find the pioneering work of those 20th-century French Jesuit and Dominican theologians particularly interesting, not least because of the influence they exerted in the run up to (and during) the Second Vatican Council. Also, while the France in which Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard and Dominicans Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar were formed was one where secularism had legally won, it was a France where Catholicism and ideologies still identified with Catholicism (like the problematic, right-wing Action fran├žaise) were still fighting back. For Shortall, "the key quandary facing the Catholic Church in the twentieth century" became "how to maintain a public role for itself once the institutions of public life has been secularized.” (Analogously, this was one of Paulist founder Isaac Hecker's concerns in the 19th century, a question still unresolved in the U.S. today.) It is her contention that, through the work of these theologians, “the Church became modern by asking, not how Catholics came to ‘accept’ or ‘embrace’ typically modern principles, but how they contested and transformed what it meant to be modern.” (In a sense, that was what Hecker was trying to do in offering Roman Catholicism as an alternative to Protestant Liberalism.)

The new theological responses the book identifies followed two broad directions. There were the Dominicans, who followed Saint Thomas Aquinas and made "a distinction between the natural and supernatural ends of human life, which allowed it to grant a certain degree of autonomy to temporal affairs," and there were the Jesuits, led by de Lubac, who went back farther than Thomas to the Church Fathers and who "insisted that it was not possible to imagine an autonomous order of human affairs that was oriented to a purely natural end" and so "looked to the Church rather than the state as the primary framework for collective life." Revived Thomism "tied the antimodernist Church of the turn of the century that reinvented itself as the primary defender of human rights and democracy in the latter half of the twentieth century," while the Jesuits rejected liberal politics' premises "including the primacy of the individual, the sovereignty of the state, and the distinction between the private and public spheres." But both approaches transcended (and presumably if retrieved might still help us today to transcend) secular political categories and distinctions between "right" and "left." 

The Leonine renewal of Thomism, was one way out of the 19th-century impasse, an alternative to integralist intransigence. But it may also allow too much to secularism. In contrast (like Hecker) “de Lubac stressed the internal dynamism of human nature, in which the supernatural was already at work, infusing and raising up the natural order from within.”

The first part of the book is particularly interesting for the way it connects the origins of these developments with both the Jesuits' and the Dominicans' experiences of "exile." After the separation of Church and State, the two communities were expelled from France and forced to relocate their formation - the Jesuits to the British island of Jersey and the Dominicans to Belgium. For Shortall, this isolation "served as a powerful stimulus for intellectual production." Not for the first time in the Church's history, the restrictions imposed by state persecution helped renew and revitalize the Church internally. Then, at the opposite extreme, so to speak, from the isolation of exile, compulsory military service during World War I, besides toning down the conflict between Church and State, brought the young Jesuits and Dominicans into contact with a whole other class of Frenchmen. "They were astounded by the level of unbelief they observed among the men they encountered in the trenches" and realized "the need for new apologetic and evangelical tools to bridge" the great gulf between the Church and the French masses.

Shortall also pays attention to something that students of ideas may otherwise overlook: "the need to attend to the communities and institutions in which religious thought takes shape," in particular "the distinctive spirituality fo the order and the affective bonds forged in the course of religious life" and  particularly the crucial role of friendship in the development of ideas.

The second section of the book addresses the experience of World War II, German occupation, and the Vichy regime. For many Catholics, still alienated from the secularist Third Republic, "Petain was the providential man sent to lead the nation in its penance." Shortall characterizes the Petain regime as "a rather vague project of moral and physical regeneration," which accordingly appealed to a wide audience, while achieving "a degree of Church-state harmony not seen since the 1870s." In this challenging situation, "theology became  a key political tool in the context of war precisely because it seemed to be apolitical." For the Jesuits, this period marked the beginning of a shift in focus from incarnation to eschatology, "a reorientation that would shape their postwar theological work in crucial ways." Meanwhile, on the Thomist side, "the war witnessed the first flowering of a distinctly Catholic human rights theory," which simultaneously defended universal human dignity against Nazi totalitarianism, while distancing itself from the 18th-century liberal tradition of rights."

The book's third part highlights the critical twenty years from the end of the war to the end of the the Second Vatican Council. This was the era of postwar Catholic engagement with the Left, the period of the Mission de France and the "Worker Priests" experiment. The Thomist model facilitated "acknowledging the presence of grace in even the most secular and anticlerical milieus." Chenu famously said: "The task of the missionary is not to figure out how the Church, as it is now, will be the shape of the world; it is to discover how the world, as it is now, will be the material for the Church." This was also the peak period of a vibrant Catholic existentialism, which "served as a counterpoint to the main Catholic humanism of the day - the Thomist anthropology that underwrote Jacques Maritain's theory of human rights."

Then came the crisis, the attack on the ressourcement project's "intrusion of historical thinking into theology" and the crackdown on the Catholic Left that even Maritain barely escaped. Even so, Shortall highlights how the movement was actually gaining influence during this period as a new generation of European theologians arose (among them Joseph Ratzinger) who were influenced by the likes of de Lubac, Chenu, and Congar, while Catholic students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America "became engaged in the main currents of French Catholic thought."

With Vatican II, nouvelle theologie came into its own. Yet the debate over Gaudium et Spes highlighted the split between the Thomist incarnational approach, with its positive valuation of worldly affairs, and the Jesuits' more Augustinian and eschatological emphasis on the centrality of the supernatural. "Both groups grappled with the same problem: how to bridge the divide between the church and the modern world without reducing one to the other." The split would be reflected in the post-conciliar split between the journals Concilium and Communio.

A brief Epilogue traces the continuing influence of these theologians in the dramatically changes context of post-Conciliar Catholicism, in which pews and seminaries emptied in Europe while the Church;'s demographic center shifted south. Liberation theologians found "a model capable of overcoming the separation between the natural and supernatural orders and endowing the struggle for social justice with redemptive value." In Europe too the "theological turn" in continental philosophy reflected "the affinities between Catholic antimodernism and secular postmodernism - their shared suspicion of the modern cult of universal reason, the transcendental subject, and historical progress." Meanwhile, secularism itself has come to be better understood as "a positive ideology in its own right, by which the state seeks to manage religion and police the public forms it can assume." 

A century later, that "exile" experience still speaks in part because it remains so relevant!

Rev. Ronald Franco, CSP

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Great Unmasking

It has been said that the one and only lesson we seem to learn from history is that we don't learn from history. So here we go again, ripping off the masks that, along with vaccines and boosters, have been our main protection against the insidious covid virus that shows no sign of departing the scene it has dominated for two years now. (Wearing masks in public has also protected many of us from flu and colds as well.) I flew on a plane Tuesday, the first full day after the infamous Trump-appointed Florida judge's malevolent ruling striking down the CDC's mask mandate. (Why, after all, should the government institution appointed precisely to protect public health be able actually to protect public health?) On the plane, I was one of maybe 10% at most who were wearing masks on the plane. I celebrated Mass in a church today where (thankfully) most congregants were masked but by no means all - even there in a neighborhood with one of the highest infection rates in the nation! Not only do we never seem to learn any lessons from even our most recent history, we seem as a society to revel in that regrettable reality. 

In hac lacrimarum valle, masks are a common-sense response to a dangerously ubiquitous but somewhat manageable threat. Common sense! What we used to call "ordinary" means of protecting one's own and others' health and well being. Nothing ultra-burdensome or "extraordinary," just common sense combined with a modicum of public-spiritedness.

Call it individualism or libertarianism or whatever, there is something in American culture that crosses class and other social divisions and unites our society in a rejection of public spiritedness, in a perennially persistent pattern of self-induced self-destruction.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

This Is the Day

Morning has always been my favorite time of day. Although I am almost always awake early, most mornings I have no reason to rush, now that I am in what we euphemistically call Senior Ministry. Morning Mass in the Motherhouse chapel is at 8:15. So most mornings I have plenty of time to sit in silence and savor the early morning quiet.

Every morning is, in a sense, a new beginning, a chance to start over. In 1st-century Jerusalem, the Sabbath Day’s rest would have been followed in the morning on the 1st day of the week by the typical urban hustle and bustle as people returned to their daily work and regular routines. It would have been business as usual too, although much more silently so, for the dead, decaying in their graves, who (then as now) were expected to stay dead. But, when Mary of Magdala came early in the morning, while it was still dark, she saw that the stone, that was intended to be a permanent barrier between the living and the dead, had been removed from the tomb.

John’s Gospel mentions Mary only. Other Gospel writers tell us she was accompanied by other women as well.

Like the tragic images we have seen in recent weeks of mass burials in Ukraine, and like the many abridged, truncated burials during the pandemic, Jesus had been buried in haste. He had died in the afternoon prior to Passover, as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. Having replaced that sacrifice with the sacrifice of himself, he was buried – in a hurry because of the impending holiday. So, the women’s purpose in visiting the tomb was mourn Jesus properly.

Instead, they found something surprising and unexpected. instead of staying in the tomb (as the dead, then as now, were expected to do), Jesus lives again – and lives a totally transformed and gloriously new kind of life. So, this 1st day of the week, we awaken not to business as usual, but to something totally new – to the greatest thing that God has ever done, the most important event in all of history.

And yet, however hard it may be for us to imagine (in this age of omnipresent social media and the 24-hour news cycle), at the time hardly anyone even noticed. It is rather the resurrection’s long-term effects, which we notice, which we experience, and which bring us here today – as Jesus’ body that lived and died and still forever bears the marks of his passion emerges from the tomb to transform our world, starting right here and now with us.

Even so, as we just heard, the first few made aware of this momentous news left the empty tomb more confused than elated: For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

In a world which seems permanently stuck in a dark, pre-dawn position, the disciples needed to experience the kind of change that could only come from the Risen Lord’s living presence among them. And so do we, which is why we are here, where the Risen Lord brings us together as no one else can.

Since have no visual or verbal record the actual moment of Jesus’ resurrection, what we have are the resurrection’s effects – first of all, on the disciples, and then on the world, and finally on us.

The resurrection’s effects on the disciples are what we read and hear in the gospel stories of, first, an empty tomb and, then, of appearances by the risen Lord – and still later in the preaching of Saint Peter and others in the Acts of the Apostles and in the amazing response of those who heard their preaching, and finally in the testimony and letters of Saint Paul, who wasn’t there at all at Easter, but who eventually experienced the risen Lord himself and was forever changed as a result.

The resurrection’s effects on the world were soon evident in people’s responses to the apostles’ amazing story, in how the story has since spread, in the dynamism at the heart of the Church’s existence that has propelled it outward in 2000 years of world-transforming activity.

Finally, its effects are evident in us, transformed in mind and changed in heart, by the unique power of this utterly unexpected event, which has glorified (almost beyond recognition) the humanity Jesus shares with each of us, and which has brought us together in a way in which nothing else could have, empowering us not so much with new knowledge as with a new hope.  (If “knowledge is power,” hope is even more so. Just ask the Ukrainians!)

So, instead of the 1st day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this 1st day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, where death no longer has the final say. We are here, in this holy place today because there is now a new day, on which God has, so to speak, re-created the world in his Son, Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, and buried, but now risen from the dead. That new day is today – and every day from now on, until we too will appear with him in glory [Colossians 3:4].  And so we say: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!

And that is what brings us back Sunday after Sunday, to hear what happened next and so experience the effects of the resurrection ourselves. On my way into the church this morning, I paused at the parish photograph from 11 years ago. I thought of all the people in that amazing photo, whom I had the privilege to know in my 10 years as your pastor, some of them no longer with us, and of all that has happened here for almost 170 years of parish life, that, like the crowd in that picture, has spilled out from this building, into the surrounding society. Today in the bright light of the resurrection, we all join hands and hearts with our predecessors here and with all who have preceded us in the long chain that takes us back to those first disciples, confused and frightened at first, but then overjoyed and empowered by what they – and we - have experienced.

Now, in the Church, we’re not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple singled out in the Gospel story. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, weighed down by so many struggles, run much more slowly. What matters most, however, is where we finally end up. The early Christians esteemed Jesus’ disciples (particularly Peter), but they understood that, even for them, following Jesus was neither automatic nor easy.

So, whether we are runners or walkers, let us also accompany the disciples to the tomb, which in a business-as-usual world would have remained dark and sealed, but from which the stone has been removed – so we too can see and believe. Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so deadly ordinary and old. 

That is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world.

The story of those first disciples and those first communities of Christians invites us to live in the here and now with the assurance that what was happening, there and then, continues to happen as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself through the experience we share as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom we are joined in the Risen Christ’s body and ascend with the Risen Lord to his Father.

Easter invites us to start living, here and now in the present, that new and different future to which the Risen Lord is already leading us.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 17, 2022.