Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Divider


The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 (NY: Doubleday, 2022), by NY Times Chief White House correspondent Peter Baker and his wife The New Yorker's "Letter from Biden's Washington" author Susan Glasser, is but the latest in the seemingly endless journalistic retellings of the (still ongoing) Trump saga. And it is still ongoing - as the authors frankly warn in their epilogue, even making the warning comparison with Napoleon exiled at Elba, from which as we all know he returned to Paris for one final fling as Emperor. But, whereas Napoleon was definitively defeated the second time, and there was never any doubt that the other Powers would coalesce to defeat him decisively, there can be no assurance of either in Trump's case.

In the veritable forest of Trump-era books, Baker and Glasser's excels in its enormous detail and effective argument. The case for the damage Trump has done is clearly and convincingly made, the result of hundreds of interviews and references to texts, emails, and other documentary records. And it reads like the frightening adventure story that it is. While undeniably focused on Trump and not in any sense a wide-ranging history of the era, it fills us in on all sorts of related, otherwise significant events that occurred during Trump's reign - for example, Jared Kushner and the development of the Abraham Accords.

Inevitably in a book about Washington, this is also a book about staffers and politicians, the obsessive lust for relevance which animates so many of them and which has helped guarantee Trump's complete takeover of the Republican party - and the occasional opposition that prevented things from getting even worse, for example, "for the first time since Richard Nixon's final days, a defense secretary who saw his job as constraining the president of the United States rather than empowering him." On the other hand, "Republicans were now defined by their choices about whether and how to accommodate their leader and his strongman style."

As its title indicates, this is also very much a book about how Trump "profited from" America's internal schisms "and widened them." Much of the book details the "intense and toxic" Trump White House. "It was personal, it was political, it was philosophical. And from the very start, it was all-consuming. The polarization that Trump encouraged in the outside world, he fostered inside his own building too."

Trump's private reality radically differed from the public realities of his predecessors - for example, his "idée fixe that had not evolved since the 1980s: the conviction that the country had been taken for a ride by foreign allies and adversaries alike." Such nationalistic resentments reflected the very personal resentments and grievances of "a man never accepted by the exclusive set whose approval he so craved."

At the time, Trump's ideological emptiness had briefly caused me to wonder whether he might actually be able to forge a novel and successful path. Baker and Glasser muse on what might have been. "Trump more than any president in generations had come to the White House without strong party affiliation or philosophical moorings and in theory might have bridged the capital's divides had he chosen to." 

Of course, one cannot write about Trump's presidency and its unprecedentedly dysfunctional personnel situation without considering the family component. We learn about the emotionally fraught relationship between the two Donalds, senior and junior. "When Ivanna gave birth, he objected to sharing his name with his newborn son. 'What if he's a loser?' he asked." During the troubled time of his parents' divorce, Don Jr. reportedly yelled a this father, "You don't even love yourself. You just love your money." Don Jr. eventually joined the family business, but the relationship remained troubled until the campaign, when he "eventually became a leading surrogate for his father. More than anyone else in the family, he channeled the culture war grievances that animated his father's campaign crowds" - becoming, in Roger Stone's words, "the voice of undiluted Trumpism."

At the opposite end are the favorite child, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who "believed they were the only ones who truly understood Trump and had his best interests at heart." Baker and Glasser show that Trump seems to have been originally a bit ambivalent about Jared and Ivanka's roles in the administration, how they were a thorn in the side of presidential staffers (and, apparently, the First lady), and how they were among the first to accept reality and detach themselves from the post-election Big Lie. "Whatever Trump said, neither Jared nor Ivanka believed then or later that the election had been stolen." They "had no interest in being part of the show."

In a presidency which numbered so many unprecedented and traumatic moments, culminating in the unprecedented if by then predictable refusal to recognize the results of the election, the pandemic stands out as perhaps both the most representative illustration of Trump's dysfunctional presidency. Baker and Glasser describe what they call "classic Trump," who "had some of the world's smartest scientists, the most experienced disaster relief managers, and highly educated economists whose job was to prepare for moments like this working for the government, but he did not trust them. He was looking for someone to tell him how to get out of this situation without having to do what they were telling him to do."

After a particularly crazy pre-Christmas meeting about overturning the election results, Trump himself is quoted int he book as saying, "in 200 years there probably has not been a meeting in this room like what just happened." What a wonderfully self-aware recognition of what the whole experience of Trump's presidency was for the country!

Having recounted in detail the events surrounding the end of the Trump presidency, including his second impeachment, Baker and Glasser leave us with this warning about a possible Trump second term, when many of the restraints that ostensibly inhibited his first term would be gone. "Trump would not make the same mistake of hiring advisers who stood up to him - he would choose matadors like Mark Meadows not obstacles like John Kelly. He would pursue vengeance against his enemies. He would politicize the courts, the Justice Department, and the military. He would challenge allies and seek common cause with autocrats. We know he would do these things because those are exactly the things that he did and said for all four years of his first term in the presidency."

At least we cannot claim not to have been forewarned!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Undoing Knots


Today in certain places and calendars is commemorated Mary, the Mother of God, under the title Undoer of Knots. This devotion has become more widely known during the pontificate of Pope Francis, who years ago embraced this devotion and the image associated with it. Maria Knotenlöserin is a baroque painting by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner (1625-1707), which shows Mary standing on a crescent moon, surrounded by angels, with the Holy Spirit above her (in the form of a dove), her foot on the head of a serpent (symbol of Satan), while she unties knots from a long ribbon. It is believed that this image of Mary untying knots is derived from Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who described how the ancient knot of Eve's disobedience had been loosened by Mary's obedience (Adversus Haereses, III, 22).

According to Pope Francis' biographer Austen Ivereigh (The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, 2014), Fr. Bergoglio (as he then was) made a pilgrimage to Augsburg where he contemplated this painting, which spoke to him at that critical juncture in his Jesuit vocation. According to Ivereigh, Bergoglio "took back with him a load of Maria Knotenlöserin prayer cards. In the 1990s, after a local copy of the painting—known in Spanish as María Desatanudos was hung in a church in Buenos Aires, it took off in an extraordinary way, leading Bergoglio later to say he had never felt so much in the hands of God."

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio also sent his seminarians copies of this image of Mary as problem-solver, which became very popular and is the object of monthly pilgrimages. Since then, he has composed this prayer: Mary, Undoer of Knots, pray for us. Through your grace, your intercession, and your example, deliver us from all evil, Our Lady, and untie the knots that prevent us from being united with God, so that we, free from sin and error, may find him in all things, may have our hearts placed in him, and may serve him always in our brothers and sisters. Amen.

Until relatively recently, I had, I must admit, never heard of this devotion. Its imagery is immensely powerful and capable of universal appeal, however. Each of us has experienced a multitude of knots limiting and burdening our lives. For those of us in this  journey-to-completion stage of life, the knots most often have to do with whatever remains unresolved from the past - unresolved failures, losses, hurts - while often holding onto anger about what should have happened or perhaps not have happened, regretting missed opportunities or roads not taken. There is more than enough to be unraveled there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

To Drink or Not to Drink

As the pandemic appears to recede - although actually what is receding are our precautions, not the pandemic itself - one of the most seemingly self-evident precautions is being questioned. No, I am not referring to wearing a mask - the most obviously self-evident precaution of all - but to not drinking from the common chalice at Holy Communion. For some this abstention is straightforward. For others it is surprisingly fraught. Such differences may as much reflect how people perceived this far-from-universal practice even before 2020.

Twenty-three years ago, flying home for my father's funeral, I packed my personal Mass chalice (photo) with me. It had been an ordination gift from my parents, and so I wanted to use it at the funeral Mass. Of course, it showed up on the security camera, and I took it out to show the agent. When she saw it she said, "Oh, I know what this is. Tell me, what is your opinion about Communion under both forms?" Surprise by the question, unexpected in such a setting, I simply said, "Some people favor it; some don't; it's a matter of choice in those places where it is allowed." That satisfied the agent at the time. It satisfied me too, because I thought I had given a good answer that avoided all the ideological baggage that has come to be attached to this relatively rare practice.

But what was relatively rare historically and geographically became increasingly common in the United States since the 1970s. The first time I ever received from the chalice was at a students' Mass at Princeton in the mid-1970s. From Princeton, I moved to Milwaukee. My first year there, the practice was introduced for general use in parishes. In seminary, of course, communion under both species (sub utraque specie, as we used to say in Catholic-speak) had become the norm, and it was increasingly becoming the norm in many of the parishes in which I subsequently served as a deacon and as priest - certainly not in all of them and certainly not all the time, but often enough as to acquire an aspect of normalcy. 

All this was obviously a far cry from Vatican II's rather limited and modest concession: "The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact, communion under both kinds may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity, in cases to be determined by the Apostolic See, as, for instance, to the newly ordained in the Mass of their sacred ordination, to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession, and to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 55). As with so many such limited and modest concessions, the post-conciliar period saw a dramatic extension way beyond anything the Council Fathers had voted for. Even so, it seems safe to say that communion from the chalice, however common it may have become in many places in the US, has never become a widespread norm in most of the world

In the places where it had been implemented, however, it was often popular with many. Of course, as any Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion could attest, many others passed by the chalice without drinking. No doubt their reasons were varied, but one constant concern has consistently been fear of infection. Just one month prior to the pandemic, we were instructed in the diocese where I was then a pastor to suspend communion from the chalice until the end of February because of a serious flu outbreak. We were permitted to resume the practice on March 1, 2020, but I delayed reintroducing it while waiting to see if that strange new virus which they were talking about on the news might impact us. Within weeks, we were literally closed, thanks to that strange new virus. For the next two months, most people would have to settle for "spiritual communion." Since the reopening of the churches and the gradual loosening of other health precautions, my impression is that communion under one form only remains still the norm in most places, even those that had previously permitted communion from the chalice.. 

But some have argued for a resumption of the option of sharing the chalice, resulting in no small amount of understandable debate on line and elsewhere.

When people have become used to doing something, even when those who do it are actually a minority, they naturally miss it if deprived of it and want it back. So I can easily understand the sentiments of those who had become accustomed to receiving from the chalice prior to the pandemic, who now miss it, and who actively desire its return. I can also as easily appreciate the feelings of those for whom communion from the chalice is frightening or at least discomforting (for many of whom that was already the case, of course, even prior to the pandemic).

Perhaps one of the consequences of having attended Mass in the older rite for years growing up prior to the later liturgical revisions and then having lived through the many and various subsequent changes is that those many variations may come to appear just that - legitimate alternative ways of worshipping in this or that place, at this or that time, with no ultimately exclusive claim. Thus, if I were to attend Mass in a typical, present-day U.S. church, it would absolutely never occur to me to kneel down for communion. If circumstances suddenly changed, however, and I were directed to kneel at the altar rail as we all did until relatively recently in liturgical history, I would similarly have no problem doing so. (My aging knees might have a problem, but that is a different story altogether.)

Some have suggested that discomfort with drinking from the shared chalice is more an instinctive esthetic reaction rather than a rational scientific one. Maybe so. But it may well be that such intuitive esthetic emotional reactions may be one way we protect ourselves from danger. For some certainly, this is one example of that.

This seems to me to be the kind of case where such sensitivities may be more relevant (at least pastorally) than the ideological claims advanced by both sides of this discussion. Let it be stipulated that both sides make good arguments. In our polarized society, however, in which assertion is what matters and persuasion is no longer very valued by either side, maybe those arguments are just that - intellectual arguments that can convince no one not already on the relevant team.

So where do I come down now on this issue? I guess I am still more or less where I was on March 1, 2020, when re-institutionalizing the shared chalice was momentarily an optional decision. Absent an explicit command from higher authority, at present I think the practical sensitivities against resuming the practice probably outweigh whatever arguments there are for doing so. Some may sincerely miss drinking from the chalice, and I appreciate the sincerity of such sensitivities, but I suspect many more remain relieved that unnecessary health risks are not being multiplied right now.

Monday, September 26, 2022

American Christianity's "Jesus Problem"

In his September 23 column, "Evangelicals Decenter Jesus," for The ThIrd Rail ("a newsletter examining the disputes that divide America"), conservative Christian commentator David French addressed what he sees as a particularly problematic aspect of contemporary American Christianity, what he labels "a Jesus problem."

French prefaces his principal argument with a discussion of the increasingly political rather than religious salience of the term "evangelical." He fits American evangelicals into three broad categories. The first consists of  ethnically and politically self-identified evangelicals of any race or ethnicity (including nonwhite evangelicals who tend to vote Democratic). The second consists of self-identified white evangelicals, who are "religiously heterodox (ranging from biblical fundamentalists to casual Christians) but remarkably ideologically uniform," whom he calls "the core constituency of the Republican Party." The third is those he calls "the theological evangelicals," who actually profess to believe Christian faith's "key tenets." What beliefs they actually prioritize, however, is the subject of French's argument.

French cites a recent study which suggested that "even this cohort struggled with basic Christian doctrine, especially regarding Jesus." On the other hand, "the respondents were remarkably orthodox on a very specific topic—sexual morality. Most evangelicals may misunderstand who Jesus is, but 94 percent said that sex outside of traditional marriage is wrong, 91 percent said that abortion is a sin, and 67 percent disagreed with the idea that the Bible’s 'condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today'.”

Herein lies the problem, as French sees it. He suggests that American evangelicals have made sexual ethics "the shortcut answer" to who is a disciple and who is a heretic. For French, however, "the core of the faith is not its moral codes but rather faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and a focus on Jesus is both profoundly humbling and profoundly hopeful." And, furthermore, "even if you live your life compliant with the most strict of sexual codes of conduct, you will still, inevitably, fall short in countless other arenas of life." Hence, the hope in "a God who is gracious, who sacrificed himself to atone for our sins," which should make  Christians "among the most humble and most hopeful communities in the land."

But, French insists, "when the Church leads with its moral code—and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself—the effect isn’t humility and hope; it’s pride and division. When the Church chooses a particular sin as its defining apostasy (why sex more than racism, or greed, or gluttony, or cruelty?), it perversely lowers the standards of holy living by narrowing the Christian moral vision." One result, he argues, "is a weaker religion, one that is less demanding for the believer while granting those who uphold the narrow moral code a sense of unjustified pride. Yet pride separates Christians from each other, and separates Christians from their neighbors."

Thus, he concludes that "in the quest for morality," many have "lost sight of Jesus—but it is Jesus who truly defines the Christian faith."

French is not the first or the only Christian commentator to worry about this apparently pervasive reformulation of Christian faith into a preoccupation with ethics, and specifically sex. Of course, sex is important, and a right ordering of one's sexual behavior is important - as is the right ordering of one's moral behavior in all other areas of life. The question is whether a preeminent preoccupation with sex sufficiently exhausts Christian ethics and whether a preoccupation with ethics expresses the fullness of the Christian life, which is, first and foremost, an encounter with the Risen Christ, whose gracious gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church empowers people to live a new life (not necessarily a sinless life, but a new, grace-filled life nonetheless).

Formed by faith in the Creed and an encounter with Christ in the sacraments, Christians strive to bear the fruit of good works, while always, of course, falling short (as all acknowledge whenever they pray the Lord's Prayer). Sadly, however, the contemporary preoccupation with ethics (especially sexual ethics) as an identity marker has both narrowed the Church's message and even further divided Christians from one another. It is noteworthy how many religious divisions among contemporary Christians are rooted in disputes about sexual ethics - very conspicuously so, among so-called "main line," non-evangelical Christian denominations, some of which have been literally tearing themselves apart. This, of course, reflects a peculiar feature of contemporary culture which increasingly defines people - and expects them to define themselves - primarily if not exclusively in terms of their sexuality. If anything, that in turn should suggest the desirability of deemphasizing such issues as a Christian counterweight to secular society's contemporary obsession with sexual identity and sexual expression. Whatever a person is, he or she is much more than his or her secular sexual (or any other) identity. And, for a professed Christian, it should be faith in Christ and life as a member of his Church which must be one's primary identity.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Today is the 108th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (celebrated yearly on this last Sunday in September). 

The recent spectacle of asylum-seeking refugees from Venezuelan communism coming to New York as tragic victims of a Republican political stunt serves only to highlight the plight of the many migrants and refugees on our own borders, let alone those all over the world, as wars and the climate crisis constantly cause increasing movements of desperate people all over the world. Meanwhile, the challenging Ken Burns program The U.S. and the Holocaust has reminded us that the pathological fear and distancing of the other has a long history.

Pope Francis has made migrants and refugees one of the major public priorities of this pontificate. The Pope's inspiring Message for this day may be accessed at:
Coincidentally this year, on this same Sunday the Church proclaims the Gospel in which Jesus tells the challenging parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We hear that same parable every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest who has to read Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously dressed in purple!
Other than his wardrobe, we know next to nothing about the rich man. He is sometimes called Dives, which is just the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable, Homo quidam erat dives (“There was a certain rich man”). In what we smugly call the “real” world, it is typically the rich whom we remember. They are the ones we look up to, admire, and cater to. In his classic work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adan Smith famously characterized the "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," as "the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." And he added: "That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages."
But, in the kingdom of God, it is the poor, weak outsiders, among whom in today's world we may certainly number many migrants and refugees, who matter. (As Lactantius famously said: Those who are useless to men are useful to God.) Thus, in Jesus’ parable, it is the marginalized beggar whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man serves as a sort of “everyman” figure. He could, of course, be almost anyone in any prosperous, capitalist society structured to serve modern liberal individualism.
In traditional, pre-capitalist societies, where the amount of surplus wealth produced is inevitably relatively low, there are usually lots of poor people – not necessarily all as poor as Lazarus, but poor enough to be close to the margin. And the danger of becoming marginal would be a very real worry for the multitude of working poor, just barely making it.
Thus, the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood the parable; and, in a society without modern notions of privacy, they could picture those they could not really avoid (as we so incessantly seek to avoid noticing the poor among us and the refugees knocking on our national door.). Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side, much as the societies from which many must migrate and the societies which they seek to enter may be next-door neighbors. Yet, the parable suggests that, for the rich man, side-by-side had become separate. That, of course, is also what border walls do.
Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was especially wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that he obtained his wealth dishonestly. Within the narrow-minded world which wealth creates, he was likely seen as a fine, upstanding citizen. His failing in the parable is precisely that of that narrow-minded world which wealth creates, a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus, and his consequent personal failure to bridge the great chasm his wealth and his border had created between himself and Lazarus. It is not that he was personally hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was disconnected and indifferent. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way we live in this country today.
But then the man died. In fact, they both died, as indeed we all will one day or other. It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This is the only parable in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person one has become over the course of one’s life.
And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed in life, the border between himself and Lazarus, is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.
The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. Something of that sort famously does happen in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. There, the rich man himself (the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham relies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – the teller of the parable. Knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.
So, are we listening?

Photo: Pope Francis prays at a cross on the border with El Paso, Texas, before celebrating Mass at the fairgrounds in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 17, 2017. (CNS/Paul Haring).

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Mercy - God's Idiosyncrasy

In the first season's final episode of the 2019 Starz miniseries The Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon cleverly waylays Henry VIII on the road in order to be the the first to tell him of the death of his father and his own accession to the throne, telling him his father had "passed into God's mercy." Assuming the scene - and therefore the conversation - to be completely fictional, I nonetheless wondered whether the felicitous expression Catherine used was also an invention or perhaps reflected an obscure Britishism of which I was unaware. That latter thought reoccurred to me two weeks ago as I listened to the official Proclamation of King Charles III's accession, which began by announcing that it had "pleased Almighty God to call to his mercy" the late Queen Elizabeth II. There it was again - God's mercy at the moment of death, this one very obviously not fictional.

Today is traditionally the commemoration of Our Lady of Mercy, historically associated with the visions of Saint Peter Nolasco, Saint Raymond of Pennafort, and King James I of Aragon, leading to the founding of a religious order for the purpose of redeeming Christian captives from their Muslim captors. With variations of title, "Our Lady of Mercy" has often been portrayed sheltering people under her mantle - as, for example, in the 15th-century Ravensburger Schutzmantelmadonna, pictured above.

Theologian Walter Cardinal Kasper famously called mercy "the justice that is idiosyncratic to God" [Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, tr. William Madges, Paulist Pr., 2013, p. 89].

By way of contrast, I recently read a rather curious article by a right-wing Catholic convert concerning a certain contemporary American bishop. "For those committed to small-tent Catholicism," the author suggested, that particular bishop's "emphasis on God’s mercy is a red flag." Setting aside for the moment the horrifying substance of this statement, it is its distinctly political language which really ought to come across as "a red flag." I take it "small-tent" is the opposite of "big-tent," a term typically used to refer to political parties and other analogous coalitions which aspire to broaden their base by appealing to a wider range of people, either for ideological reasons or simply to win more votes. It is a perfectly legitimate term, a useful term in its proper context, but it is obviously a properly political term. Its use here highlights the increasing tendency on the part of some to subsume religious faith and practice to the pursuit of political power.

By analogy, I suppose, big-tent Catholicism might suggest a style of religious practice preoccupied with reaching out to include others not already inside, which might, as circumstances suggest, refer to a wide range of people - everyone from inactive Catholics to the unchurched. It sounds suspiciously like the Church's mission of evangelization, what Pope Saint Paul VI suggested is the Church's essential mission - in keeping with Jesus' parting instructions to his Church in Matthew 28 and with what has been revealed to us about God himself, as we heard at Mass just this past Sunday, that God wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).

Perhaps I should not try to speak for those who use the term, but I have to suppose that small-tent Catholicism is intended to be the opposite. Instead of a tent open on all sides as Abraham's supposedly was, this tent has its sides closed to keep others out, thus denying hospitality to those wandering in the desert - and in the process missing out on who might be met. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13;12). What must be the spiritual mindset of one for whom "emphasis on God’s mercy is a red flag"? In contrast, in tomorrow's liturgy, the Church will pray: O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy (Collect, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time).

Stranded as we presently are in hac lacrymarum vale, I value Abraham's tent being open on all sides and so appreciate a big-tent Catholicism, which has not forgotten that mercy is most characteristic of God. For, as Portia famously said, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation (Merchant of Venice, act 4, scene 1). That being so, how fortunate for us that mercy is, indeed, "the justice that is idiosyncratic to God"!

Photo: Ravensburger Schutzmantelmadonnac. 1480, attributed to Michael Erhart, Bode Museum, Berlin (originally in the Liebfrauenkirche in Ravensburg, Upper Swabia). 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Re-Encountering the Rituals of Mourning

The recent, televised-around-the-world state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the ten days of national mourning which preceded it represented a sudden collective re-engagement with the traditional rituals of mourning, which a post-modern, secular society seemed to be shedding at an indecently rapid rate. Of course, the very public nature of a state funeral and the widespread interest it evokes inevitably make it a very distinctive experience, which obviously cannot be replicated at the more private level of an ordinary individual in an ordinary family. Apart from size and scale, however, it was once more plausible to see in such an occasion essentially a grander expression of what went on in smaller, more modest settings when dealing with the experiences of death and mourning.

Thus, for example, in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's grandiose stare funeral in November 1963, my high school religion teacher used the opportunity to point out to us the fundamental similarities between the President's funeral and that of any other ordinary Catholic. I thought at the time that his lesson was somewhat contrived, given the obvious uniqueness of the ceremonies surrounding a state funeral and national mourning. On the other hand, having been an altar boy and having served many funeral Masses during those years - at a time when all funerals were ritually virtually identical - I could see his point. At that time (and for centuries before) the primary purpose of a Catholic funeral was unambiguously and singularly clear. It was to intercede on behalf of the departed for his or her eternal salvation. Surrounding that single-purpose religious rite, a whole host of social customs and related rituals had evolved to facilitate the mourning process, to guide the grieving community safely through its sorrow and then back into everyday life. If at a state funeral the grieving community constituted the entire nation, at an ordinary funeral the community was primarily the deceased's family and his or her extended communities of town or village or - in mid-20th-century urban America - neighborhood and parish.

But that was then, and this is now. The nation remains. It remains singularly the only community of sufficient size and scale to meet its citizens' common needs and the only community with sufficient historical and symbolic claims on people's primary loyalties. As such, it can still successfully put on a state funeral and engage its citizens in the tried and true rituals of public, communal mourning. For most ordinary people, however, the traditional communities within which and by which they might have been ritually mourned - mainly family and church - have been devastatingly weakened by the corrosive forces of modernity. Families are fewer, smaller, more scattered. Churches play less and less prominent a role in ordinary people's lives and have increasingly lost the self-confidence required to reassert their role in a meaningful way. The nation remains real enough for its members to experience common grief and participate in common rituals.  But, as families and churches become less salient and in almost every relevant way weaker, ordinary people's experience of grief is increasingly privatized and unmoored from the common rituals which once existed in order to help them make sense of their experience. 

Thus, it seemed to me both unsurprising and altogether appropriate that some of those queuing up to mourn their queen also referenced relatives and friends who had died, many of whom may have been deprived of any meaningful funeral rites and their mourners likewise deprived of meaningful ceremonies through which to ritualize their experience. The royal funeral was, first and foremost, a celebration of civic identity and communal connection, as well as a genuine expression of affection for a much beloved monarch. Simultaneously, however, it also functioned as a somewhat vicarious substitute for once meaningful communal rituals which increasingly weak families and increasingly irrelevant churches no longer seem to be able to perform - at great social and psychological cost to us all.

Photo: Crowds queue near Tower Bridge en route to the Queen's lying-in-=state in Westminster Hall. Andrew Testa for The New York Times. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Come, Holy Spirit!


65 years ago today, I was confirmed. Confirmation is officially the second of the Catholic Church's seven sacraments, although in contemporary Catholic practice it is typically the fourth, perhaps one of the many mistakes we continue to make regarding this sacrament. In the above photo from my confirmation day in 1957, we were all in two lines (as we so often were in those days), wearing our Confirmation gowns (red for boys, white for girls) and holding our all-important name cards. I guess I was looking directly at some family member holding a camera - all the while very attentively guarding my name card. Whatever its theological and sacramental significance, I personally experienced confirmation primarily as just another life-cycle celebration, a "rite of passage" (a term with which I was then surely still unacquainted). Indeed, some years later at my 8th-grade Baccalaureate Mass, the priest referred to confirmation as "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age" (in contrast to our graduation which, he suggested, represented more of an actual accomplishment on our part). 

According to the Baltimore Catechism, question 330, which we faithfully memorized, "Confirmation is the sacrament through which the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way to enable us to profess our faith as strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ."

Whatever that actually meant may have been less than completely clear to me at the time. What was particularly important to me about my my confirmation was that I got to choose a confirmation name. I chose Michael for my confirmation name, because I was attracted by the bellicose militaristic image of Michael the Archangel in the prayer which we then regularly recited as part of the so-called “Leonine Prayers for Russia” recited after Low Mass. Because that was what I cared the most about, that is the part of the ceremony that I best remember.

Thus, when my turn came to kneel before the Bishop on his faldstool in front of the High Altar, a priest took the card out of my hand and announced my confirmation name to the Bishop (in what I would later learn was the nominative case). The Bishop then addressed me (in what I would later learn was the vocative case): Michael, Signo te signo crucis; et confirmo te chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. ("Michael, I sign you with the sign of the cross and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.") And that was it! Perhaps because we were so many, or perhaps because the Bishop was a foreigner, there were no Bishop's questions to terrify us.  Once we were all confirmed, we recited some prayers together and left the church in the same orderly way we had entered (minus the name card). An irreverent observer (had there been any present) might have wondered what the fuss was all about.

At Mass earlier that day - unusually for that time, my Confirmation took place on a Sunday, so, of course, we had all attended Mass earlier that morning - an older student said "Congratulations" to me. I remember that I thanked her, although what about being confirmed quite warranted congratulations was not completely obvious to me either then or now, since it was, after all, "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age." More accurately, of course, for most of history, Confirmation was something that happened to you when a bishop happened to be available. Hence we hear those marvelous stories of medieval villages lining up the local kids along the roadside to be confirmed on the occasion of a bishop riding by. But, in 1950s New York, there were plenty of bishops available, and so Confirmations occurred regularly according to a schedule that appeared to be determined by one's grade-level in school.

Thus, Confirmation seemed even then to be less of a big deal than the energy invested in it would seem to have warranted. For all sorts of reasons, we still manage to make a big deal out of Confirmation, but now in a different context in which fewer young people are likely to get confirmed. By continuing to celebrate it out of its proper order, moreover, we may give the impression to those who do get confirmed that confirmation is the sacramental culmination of Christian initiation, instead of the Eucharist. Not only does that distort the relative importance of those two sacraments, it burdens Confirmation with an obligation it seems hardly equipped to fulfill.

Back in 1957, however, my Confirmation was just another part of a way of life sanctified by the building in which it occurred. It was that great gothic-towered parish church, that dominated the neighborhood both physically and socially, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space, and that taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. (Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, as we were then happily taught to say.) That was something wonderful, which remains with me to this day!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Synodality in America


For the last year, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been involved in what is called the diocesan phase of the 2021-2023 Synod. American Catholic communities - primarily and particularly parishes - have been meeting and dialoguing for the past several months, with varying results. Admittedly a very, very small contingent of American Catholics actually participated, which should certainly surprise no one. Nor should anyone be surprised that most participants are older rather than younger. That said, the various reports from around the U.S. have been synthesized. That composite result has now been made public in the USCCB's report, entitled National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod. This document is available free on the USCCB website.

Unsurprisingly, the Synthesis recognizes that this process was originally "met with a combination of excitement, confusion, and skepticism," but that the process itself has been experienced in a very positive manner. What else was unsurprising? Well, almost breathtaking in its obviousness is the observation that "Parish life and social activities foster a sense of community and strengthen personal relationships among members." 

Equally unsurprising to anyone familiar with the lay-of-the land in the U.S. Church in this post-pandemic era are the "enduring wounds" diagnosed by the synodal process. Thanks to recurring scandals, trust in the Church hierarchy is "weak." The pandemic, meanwhile, has accelerated "a trend towards disengagement and intensifying the isolation and loneliness of many, youth and the elderly in particular." Perhaps, more stress might be put on the recognition that this is "accelerating" a trend already very much in process when the pandemic began. 

The religious and political polarization that everyone sees as a defining characteristic of our time gets the attention it deserves. The Synthesis recognizes "the divisive political ideologies present in our society have seeped into all aspects of our lives," and "that the differences over how to celebrate the liturgy 'sometimes reach the level of animosity'." Somewhat surprisingly, the Synthesis admits that for many "the perceived lack of unity among the bishops of the United States, and even of some individual bishops with the Holy Father, as a source of grave scandal." Talk of "grave scandal" about officialdom's behavior is strong language in an official document. It at least suggests some sincere effort to get out of officialdom's bubble.

Again somewhat unsurprising if one is familiar with what seems to be the trend in public opinion, but, of course, somewhat more problematic because it potentially involves doctrinal issues is the perception "especially for some youth" of "the church as hypocritical and failing to act consistently with justice toward" certain "diverse communities." Obviously especially problematic is this very strange statement: "Ordination for women emerged not primarily as a solution to the problem of the priest shortage, but as a matter of justice." (Note the political rather than religious language employed here.) What do such statements actually accomplish, except perhaps to provide ammunition with which some may wish to diminish the document's more plausible contributions in other areas?

Put positively, a commonly expressed desire is "to be a more welcoming Church where all members of the People of God can find accompaniment on the journey." More substantively, there is apparently a widespread desire for "lifelong formation," and for help in understanding "the connection between Catholic social teaching and outreach beyond the borders of the parish." Some "want their pastors and bishops to explore more deeply with the laity how best to participate in understanding the mission of the Church and its efforts to evangelize it members and the world."

On the other hand, there is a lot of sadness. "Practically all synodal consultations shared a deep ache in the wake of the departure of young people and viewed this as integrally connected to becoming a more welcoming Church" and "Young people's waning participation in parish life was a source of great pain for many older community members." The tragic consequences of the loss of Sunday was specifically noted. Clear concerns were also expressed about the desire for "greater transparency regarding decision making."

The Synthesis concludes with an appreciation of how "the rediscovery of listening is a basic posture of a Church called to ongoing conversion is one of the most valuable gifts of the synodal experience in the United States." It recognizes that "one may agree or disagree with some of the perceptions heard and expressed, but we cannot assume they have no importance in lived reality." This is a wholesome counter to the tendency in today's polarized society to dismiss out of hand any facts that don't automatically fit one's personal or political paradigm.

To the extent that we actually listen, the Synthesis suggests, "perceptions become more realistic and less based on broader cultural or political narratives."

I am not exactly sure what comes next in this long and complex process, which will further filter the ground-level input into something to be discussed at the Synod. If, however, this is what the USCCB is contributing to the next phase, then this may represent a positive and, for the most part, constructive step toward whatever ultimate direction this synodal process may be pushing us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Ken Burns on the Holocaust


I first heard about what we now call the Holocaust from a regular news broadcast on the car radio. We were riding in the family car. So I had to be at least 10 years old, since my father bought his first car in the summer of 1958. The radio news included a mention of the dedication of a new synagogue somewhere in Germany. Of course, I already knew a lot about World War II, which my father and my uncles had fought in and which had been the formative event for my parents' generation - the famous "greatest generation." The war was the subject of numerous war-related movies and was the constant background presence underlying contemporary news events in that "Cold War" decade. Yet I do remember that particular news broadcast on the car radio as precisely the first time that I became aware of the German effort to exterminate Europe's Jews, which that war had made possible.

The U.S. and the Holocaust is the latest Ken Burns' PBS series, a three-part, six-hour program which premiered this past Sunday, continues tonight, and concludes tomorrow. It explores the American response to the Holocaust and the events which led up to it, highlighting what Americans knew and did during that time and relating the crisis created by Nazism to the contemporary American context and considerations about antisemitism, race, eugenics, and immigration. In standard Ken Burns fashion, the program features first-person recollections from the period and interviews with historians and others. Focusing on the controversial American policies on immigration in the pre-war period, the program, in a very balanced and sensible way, recalls such familiar episodes of would-be refugees unable to get into the U.S. and, in particular, the likely less familiar story of Anne Frank's family's failed attempt to secure a visa to the U.S. As the dangers to European Jews escalated, some politicians sounded a very contemporary note. Thus, one ad for the show quotes North Carolina Senator Robert Reynolds: “I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”

In the end, of course, it was military power and the military alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union that ended the Holocaust in the only way that it could have ended - with total Allied military victory and total German military defeat. That said, it is always legitimate to reexamine the historical record and recognize the mistakes and missteps along the way when helpful actions might have been taken but were not, in part perhaps because of ignorance but also, it cannot be denied, because of deeply held racial and ethnic prejudices and anti-immigrant politics, all of which sound so unconscionably familiar. For this reason, it is always helpful to reexamine our history and to reconsider received narratives.

That said, the point of such reexamination and reconsideration ought not be primarily to sit in virtue-signaling judgment on our predecessors, but rather, having been informed by the sad lessons of our recent past, to judge ourselves and our society in our own time and place. The reprise of late 19th and early 20th-century American nativist hostility to immigrants sounds very familiar, as the same sort of hatred of others and theories of racial "replacement" are so very much a part of our contemporary political situation today.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Funeral of the Century

Like many others, I have followed the solemn ceremonies surrounding the death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III almost exclusively on BBC TV. I learned long ago that US TV's coverage can often get sidetracked by our American media's predictable reduction of royalty to celebrity (the very opposite of what royalty is supposed to be) and an equally predictable obsession with conflict and controversy (the perennial temptation of all news coverage, exacerbated at present by our current assumption that all values are up for grabs and all institutions should be suspect). The BBC coverage has not disappointed. As expected, it has been complete, knowledgeable, and reflective of both the monarch's political and constitutional role and the monarch's deep-seated cultural and social significance.

In an era such as ours when all transcendent values are devalued and all essential social institutions are dismissed as anachronisms, monarchy must likewise demonstrate its significance for people, which it has more than adequately done in the last 10 days. I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his series of essays, Present Concerns"Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison." (What an amazingly accurate assessment of contemporary popular culture, especially American popular culture!)

Ours is also an era when feeling and sentiment so totally dominate our responses to events in the world. Hence, it is the emotional reactions which the Queen's death and the King's accession have generated, which may matter most to many who are watching. Seen through that more sentimental filter, I too, like so many others, was moved by the small gatherings of locals in little Scottish villages and road crossings assembled to honor the Queen of Scots on her last journey, the first sovereign to die in Scotland since her ancestor James V died at Falkland Palace in 1542. Comparably moving was the image of the ever-dutiful daughter, the Princess Royal, who had been with her mother at the end and who faithfully accompanied her coffin from Balmoral to Edinburgh to London, as she repeatedly curtsied to the standard-covered coffin. Then there were the London crowds clapping in the rain as the royal hearse returned to Buckingham Palace for the last time, the royal princes walking in formation behind the gun-carriage on Wednesday, the thousands of ordinary mourners queuing up along the Thames for hours for a few minutes of veneration in historic Westminster Hall. Finally, we watched those uniquely British princely vigils by the Queen's four children in both Edinburgh and London and yesterday's vigil of the Queen's eight grandchildren. Tomorrow, we will be impressed by Kings, Queens, Emperors, and other Very Important People arriving by bus at the Abbey to honor the world's longest-serving and most widely travelled diplomat. But we will not see perhaps the most emotionally touching scene of all, when at the end of all this grandeur, the Duke of Edinburgh's coffin will be brought to Windsor's George VI Chapel, where husband wife will be buried next to each other, as any loving husband and wife would wish to be.

But beyond such sentiments, there were also those glorious religious services at Saint Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, Saint Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, and Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, and the amazing religious experiences we will be privileged to witness at Westminster Abbey and at Saint George's Windsor tomorrow - witnessing not just to the Church's particularly public position in that supposedly secular society but more deeply to religion's residual strength as the language and symbolic structure uniquely capable of expressing deeply felt and shared human emotions. The singularly sacral dimension of human life and death and of social and political community has been abundantly on display these ten days. And the vicarious role certain institutions, like monarchy, are particularly well fitted to play in mediating that sacrality has also been abundantly on display.

Among those ordinary citizens who queued up to honor their queen and certainly among the many elite figures who will participate in her funeral at Westminster Abbey tomorrow, many (perhaps unavoidably) also honor those millionaires, athletes, and film stars C.S. Lewis warned about. How can anyone live in and be a participant in contemporary society and its totally distorted values without in some sense participating in honoring such icons of wealth, power, and celebrity? That is what makes counter-contemporary institutions like monarchy so significant and necessary. Monarchy is one of several such counter-contemporary institutions, one to which only some societies still have access. Religion, more widely accessible in most societies, is another - at least when religion is not tamed and trivialized into therapy.

Monarchies like those that still survive in modern Europe perform necessary political and constitutional functions, which in their absence would still have to be performed - presumably by politicians, who would probably perform them much less well than King Charles and Europe's other current kings and queens. Some mistakenly may suggest that having a king or queen perform political or constitutional functions which some politician could do instead is "anachronistic." And indeed it is anachronistic, but in the best sense of that term - unlike, for example, the U.S. Constitution, which is also extremely anachronistic, but increasingly so in the more dysfunctional senses of that term.

In the modern world, it is the anachronism associated with monarchy which is the source of its immense sacral, symbolic power. It embodies as Walter Bagehot so famously formulated it, the anachronistic dignified dimension (as opposed to the modern efficient element), which elevates a nation's common life. All that too has been abundantly on display these past ten days.

Photo: Queen Elizabeth II's four children stand in vigil while mourners pass as the Queen lies in state in Westminster Hall, September 16, 2022.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Addressing the World's Answers to Its Own Questions

In his engrossing My Journal of the Council, the great French Dominican theologian Yves Congar (1904-1995) recalled a February 2, 1965 meeting of the sub-commission De signis temporum ("On the Signs of the Times"), at which Bishop Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope Saint John Paul II) "made some remarks of an extreme gravity. He said: we are considering only the questions posed by the new world situation supposedly described in chapter I [of Schema XIII, which developed into Gaudium et Spes, the council's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World"]; but this modern world also provides ANSWERS to these questions. And we must reply to these answers, for they constitute a putting in question of our own response. And yet, we are not taking into consideration either these answers or the questions posed for us by the fact of their existence. The Marxist answer really exists: it is not truly being considered here, although it is shared by two fifths of humanity. ... There it is not presented imply as an academic mode of THOUGHT, but it penetrates and shapes the whole of life in which humankind is called to live and work."

The future Pope's intervention "made a very great impression" on Congar. How adequately the contemporary Church has considered not just the modern world's questions but the answers this same modern world has developed remains unresolved. Even in the case of Marxism, the presenting issue for Wojtyla in 1965, it is hardly evident that all of Marxism's alleged answers have been effectively replied to. Of course, some might contend that the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union has definitely falsified Marxism's claims. But surely the Church's own history shows that the failure to come to pass of what was previously predicted does not automatically invalidate an answer! And, even apart from the historical case of the failed Soviet experiment, there remain multiple trends in Marxist theory that still propose themselves as plausible answers to the questions posed by modernity, answers which still require a reasoned reply.

Moreover, a lot else has happened since 1965. For obvious reasons, Wojtyla had Marxism in mind at that time. Since then, however, a new world situation has also offered a range of new ideas and novel answers, which pose comparably compelling and credible challenges to Christianity's answers.

Thus, conservative commentator Ross Douthat, for example, has argued, in To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster, 2018), that Vatican II successfully "dealt directly with problems (the church’s relationship to democracy, to religious liberty, to Judaism) that belonged to the crises and debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." On the other hand, he suggests, "when it looked forward it turned vague and prolix, with many generalizations about the state of modern man and his unprecedented situation and the need for the church to think and act and evangelize anew, but rather less that amounted to a concrete, specific agenda for such action."

This, of course, reflected the situation of the early 1960s when the Council occurred. The Council began, Douthat reminds us, "at a moment of optimism about the church’s institutional strength, its internal cohesion, its capacity to deal successfully with the challenges of the modern age." It ended "in 1965, with the birth control pill newly invented, the divorce revolution just beginning, second-wave feminism just gearing up, and gay rights still the most marginal of causes." Thus, it did not and hardly could have addressed "the issues that broke across Catholicism and Christianity with the sexual revolution, and the distinctive crisis that subsequently swept over the church."

Douthat has hardly been alone in noticing that Vatican II and the post-conciliar styles of thinking to which it gave birth seemed at the time to be very well suited to reconsider the challengingly complex questions posed by the new world situation of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries - including (but not limited to) such contentions questions as democracy, religious liberty, the Church's relationship to the modern economy and to modern social relations, and older questions (now raised in a new context) of the Church's relationship with Judaism, Islam, and other non-Christian religions. As Wojtyla worried in 1965, the answers offered by the Church in response may not have completely countered the compelling character and credibility of some of modernity's own alternative claims, but at least a convincingly credible effort was made, which pointed the way toward new directions for engagement with that new world which the 18th 19th, and early 20th centuries had created. But a lot has happened since then. We are in new and very different territory when we consider the newer, very different questions which have been posed since then - and even more so when we consider the radically individualistic libertarian discourse with which those questions have increasingly been answered.

How may this reality - and, as importantly, a wider recognition of this new reality - impact initiatives aimed at evangelizing or re-evangelizing our contemporary society?

Photo: The Second Vatican Council 1962-1965.