Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Two Sons

 The familiar words we just heard from Saint Paul [Philippians 2:1-11] were written from prison to the Christian community Paul had founded at Philippi, to thank them for their generosity in the past and to encourage them in facing the future, a future that probably seemed even bit as worrisome for them as ours does for us.

Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, he advised them. Paul’s idea of encouragement was to identify with the fundamental truth about Jesus, which he proceeded to express – not in his own words but with what most likely was already an existing Christian hymn, an early profession of faith in Jesus:

Who, though he was in the form of God, 

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … 

becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him 

and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 

that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend … 

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior, Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. On this day of almost government shutdown, we are again invited to contrast the self-centered pursuit of power, domination, and control, which directs so much of human behavior and history, with Jesus, whose obedience has made it possible for us to undo that destructive pattern and alter the course of human history, by creating new kinds of relationships for us, both with God and with one another.

Jesus’ obedience to his Father was not some isolated act. It was a total attitude that characterized his whole self. In the biblical account, that was how God originally intended all of us to live. We can no longer return to that original state – or, indeed, to any past state - but, with God’s help, we have been enabled to change course – like the first son in the parable in today’s Gospel [Matthew 21:28-32], who first answered, “I will not,” but who then afterwards changed his mind.

It is certainly true that we cannot undo the past. How well we all know that! But that obvious fact can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and a particularly poisonous excuse, to do nothing, becoming silent spectators in the story of life. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way it is,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!”


It’s true, of course, that we cannot undo the past, and that we are all in some sense always products of our past, both good and bad - both the things that have happened to us that we couldn’t control and all the good and bad decisions and choices we have made and the long-term consequences they have caused. But the good news of the Gospel is that, while we cannot undo that past, we can change course in the present, by remodeling ourselves in the image of God’s Son and so share in his new life – already here and now in the community of his Church on earth and then forever when our risen selves are joined with Christ completely in the kingdom of the Father.


America used to be known as the land of second chances. That may or may not be true anymore. But, in telling us this parable about the two sons, Jesus makes clear that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failures; but rather to do like the first son and change. Let’s get going, Jesus is telling us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading us!


Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, October 1, 2023.


Thursday, September 28, 2023

Another "Debate"


It is not as if the nation needs further evidence that presidential debates have outlived any usefulness they may have once had and are now just embarrassing entertainment. Nonetheless the Republican party's seven "also rans" (technically still "also runnings") provided such evidence in abundance last night. It is, of course, difficult at best to organize a genuine "debate" among so many candidates. The moderators, for the most part, asked good questions, but without the authority to shut off the candidates' microphones they could not prevent the event from degenerating into an exercise in mutual shouting at and over one another. This will perhaps please those ho have become accustomed to the idea that politics is another form of Springer-style entertainment. But it continues to be catastrophic for the future of the Republic.

The absurdity of the multi-candidate format was, of course, further, highlighted by the absence of the only candidate that matters, the front-runner and presumptive nominee, former President Donald Trump. Attacking the absent Trump is largely what Chris Christie's campaign is all about, and he did so - labelling the off-stage (but very much at the center of the stage) Trump "Donald Duck." In theory, it should only getter better from here, but actually the discourse consistently got worse. The Governor of North Dakota tried to talk policy, but policy is not what this campaign cares much about, and anyway he is the Governor of North Dakota! Nikki Haley and Tim Scott shouted at each other, obviously competing for donor class endorsement and looking ahead to the South Carolina primary. Haley distinguished herself by lamenting what a poor job Scott has done as the Senator whom she appointed back in 2012, while Scott further distinguished himself by focusing on the cost of the curtains at her official ambassadorial residence in New York (curtains purchased in any case by the previous Obama Administration).

Of course, some more important. matters came up. Several candidates seem eager to wage war in Mexico. And Mike Pence seems to believe that school shooters (who often kill themselves or get killed in the altercation) would be deterred by the death penalty, rather than reducing access to guns. And on and on it went.

The candidate they all seemed to despise (deservedly so) is, of course, Vivek Ramaswamy, who tried to be nicer this time, but who earned the best put down of the night when Haley said, "Every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber from what you say." Indeed, we should all feel a lot dumber from hearing the lot of them!

When not shouting over each other, the candidates spent a lot of time and effort not answering the specific questions they were asked. The moderators deserve some praise for following up and reminding the candidates that they had not actually answered the actual question. But they failed to ask the most obvious questions concerning Himself the Dear Leader's four indictments on 91 felony charges - certainly an appropriate topic, especially considering the candidates' apparent obsession with law and order!

We've come a long way from Kennedy and Nixon debating Query and Matsu in 1960. Those days are gone forever. Would that the debates would be gone too!

Meanwhile the real campaign, which may determine the very survival or extinction of American democracy continues outside the debate hall.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023


The Hollywood Writers' Strike may be ending, but it is neither the only nor the most important labor strike this season. Indeed, I am currently feeling a certain sort of nostalgia for an earlier, politically more coherent time when "working class" Americans understood their own interests at least sufficiently to be union members and to strike periodically.  Most vividly, I can remember the 1957 steel strike, but there were lost of strikes, big and small, back when organized labor still had real clout and real relevance. Then came a string of anti-labor presidents, starting with Jimmy Carter, and the political transformation known as Neo-liberalism.

By background and inclination, however, President Joe Biden is different from his recent predecessors. He has consistently come across as pro-labor and, therefore, pro-union. And so today he will become the first American president to join a picket line in the current UAW StrikePolitics is about taking sides. Justice is also about taking sides. So more power to president Biden for taking sides in this perennial conflict between the workers who produce our nation's wealth and the CEOs and shareholders who pocket most of it.

In so doing, Biden, our second Catholic President, is also reflecting some of the best traditions in the American Church. As George Cardinal Mundelein (1872-1939) famously said at the Chicago Holy Name Convention in 1938: "Our place is beside the poor, behind the working man." In 1935, the U.S. Bishops abandoned their general policy of not supporting specific legislation in order to endorse the Wagner Act, which officially supported labor's right to organize and which established the National Labor Relations Board. 

In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, Gary Gerstle recalled how at the beginning of the 20th century Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson both "rejected the notion that the free market constituted a natural order whose energies were beyond the capacity of humans to manage or redirect. They believed that unregulated markets had produced an intolerable imbalance in power and wealth between employers and employees."

That view would increasingly rise to political dominance in FDR's New Deal and in the corresponding alliance between the Democratic Party and organized Labor. As Michael Kazin, in What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, has observed, the New Deal Democrats became "the closest thing the United States would ever have to a party dependent on the support of organized labor."

That alliance famously began to break down in the 1970s, as the Democrats began their contemporary evolution to a party dominated by a higher status, college educated, non-working class component. In 1972, the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted to remain neutral in the presidential race between Democrat George McGovern and Republican President Richard Nixon. That was the first time since the 1920s that that body representing most union members had failed to endorse the Democratic nominee, and it reflected the increasing alienation between the Democratic Party and its formerly working-class constituency. One dire consequence of this parting of the ways has been that, during subsequent decades of economic growth, the  benefits have disproportionately gone to the rich, and that the Democrats have seemed to offer relatively little to those working class families whose incomes have hardly increased at all.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which paradoxically has increasingly attracted more and more working class voters, had long ago consolidated an intensely anti-labor, anti-union political and policy stance. This became increasingly the basis of national policy especially after the ascent of Ronald Reagan, who emphasized an ideology of personal, individual freedom and antagonism to what the New Deal had accomplished.

In 1981, Reagan famously fired more than 10,000 air traffic controllers who had gone on strike for better pay and improved working conditions. Reagan’s action signaled a more hostile stance toward unions than any administration had in decades. Symbolically, Gerstle suggests, Reagan's action "carried as much significance as the refusal of the Democratic governor of Michigan and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 to send National Guard or federal troops to Flint to oust the autoworkers occupying the plants of General Motors. This 1930s refusal signaled that a president and his party were serious about compelling corporations to reach fair agreements with unions that had organized their workers. Similarly, Reagan’s firing of an entire workforce for going on strike was the equivalent of a president sending in the troops to break a strike. It served notice that the president and the dominant party were now ready to eviscerate labor’s power." Indeed, the American labor movement has hemorrhaged members since the 1980s. As Gerstle notes, "there is no more powerful form of market deregulation than stripping government of its ability to strengthen workers in their negotiations with employers."

It is hardly accidental that, among the current crop of anti-Trump Republican primary candidates, Reagan's 1981 action has been recalled and invoked as an example to be followed (despite the obvious difference between public-sector and private sector workers).

For his part, "Populist" candidate Trump is trying to position himself as the candidate for the working class, despite the record of his presidency and the predilections of his party. Presumably, Biden's trip today to Michigan is intended in part to rebut Trump's curious claim.

As perhaps befits a president of his age (and the wisdom and experience that accompany old age), Joe Biden is a throwback to that older alliance between the Democratic Party and organized labor - in a way that recent Democratic presidents never were or really even appeared to want to be.

What impact Biden's gesture may have in the forthcoming election, in the absurdist theater that American politics has become, is anyone's guess. But three cheers for the President for taking sides in this perennial conflict between democracy and plutocracy!

Photo: Then-candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks outside the UAW Region 1 offices on Sept. 9, 2020, in Warren, Michigan: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Monday, September 11, 2023



Last week, while in Washington for a meeting, one of your former pastors and I were reminiscing about our time together here. And, of course, our recollections inevitably turned to that terrible day 22 years ago, a day still marked in memory, so terrible to remember that it lacks even a name and is known only by its numerical date, 9/11.

Many of us who were here then remember how the sunny serenity of an absolutely beautiful late summer New York City morning was suddenly transformed into an experience of horror beyond anything most of us had ever imagined we’d see so close to home. And how quickly, everything changed! Our country and city were being suddenly and savagely attacked, and we all got to see the ugly face of evil in a way my generation had never really experienced it before.


Soon, even the corner Starbucks shut down, as police barricades went up, closing our street to regular traffic. For days that stretched into weeks, we went around in a daze, past churches and firehouses draped in black, past posted pictures of missing persons who would never be found, staring at the vacant place in the skyline, as military jets patrolled the now grimly gray, but otherwise empty sky. We watched over and over again as TV told and retold the story, punctuated by occasional accounts of heroic courage and poignantly loving final conversations – powerful lessons not just about how to face death, but how to live a life that makes sense.


Today, we still remember – and mourn – those whose lives were wickedly cut short on that day of terror. Our ability to remember one another is one of the things that makes us most distinctly human. When we remember those who have died, we acknowledge our common humanity with them. And we also recognize our continued relationship. Remembering the dead is a fundamental and universal human need, which we neglect at our peril. (Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said that, to understand a community, one should visit their cemetery.)

From earliest times (and down to today in the Church’s daily prayer and in every Mass), the Church also has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers on their behalf. St. Monica famously said to her son St. Augustine: “I ask only this of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.” So, besides being a fundamental and universal human need, remembering the dead is also a religious duty, that expresses our faith and our hope.

Meanwhile, of course, life goes on. The world, with its seemingly intractable social and political problems and conflicts continues to challenge us. We assemble here today, as individuals each bringing his or her own worries, fears, and hopes, and also as citizens collectively concerned for the security of our country, conscious – as world events continue to remind us – of how perilous life can be and how fragile the network of social bonds on which we depend for our survival. But, also and above all, we are assembled here in this holy place, in this our parish church, around this sacred altar as members of the Body of Christ, the one and only Savior of the world, whose own death and resurrection teach us that death no longer has the last word in our world and so challenge us to follow him and so find love in a hate-filled world.


Homily, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 11, 2023.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Like a Gentile or a Tax Collector


To anyone raised in an Anglo-American legal tradition, today’s Gospel almost has a degree of what we call “due process” sound to it.  Some years back, when I was stationed in Canada and this Gospel came up, someone suggested preaching wearing a wig and holding a judge’s gavel, to which I replied that in my case a wig at least might be a good idea.


Be that as it may, this is a “due process” kind of Gospel – this procedure which Jesus outlines to deal with (and hopefully even resolve) conflicts within the community of the Church. Jesus doesn’t pretend, as religious people sometimes try to do, that there will be no conflicts. But it is a very specific sort of “due process” that Jesus proposes – religious rather than secular (obviously), but also communitarian rather than individualistic and oriented toward reconciliation rather than punishment. Nowadays, reconciliation may have become an overused word (overused, that is, as a word, not necessarily as an attitude or practice, where it is more likely underused).


Obsessed as we are in our society with individual rights, when we speak of “due process” typically what get emphasized are legal guarantees for the individuals involved. The “due process” Jesus outlines here does do some of that, but the focus is less on the individuals and their rights or sensitivities and more on the community. Maybe even more importantly it is a process aimed at reconciliation. In that regard, it reminds me of the process in Church law for dealing with problematic people in religious communities. The problematic person is warned and given a chance to change course several times before the process ends in expulsion. That’s because the goal of the process is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community. Expulsion may end up being necessary, but always only as a last resort - as it is in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel.


Only after three tries – individually, in a small group, and finally involving the whole community – is the person excommunicated. Even so, the story doesn’t quite end there. The excommunication which Jesus outlines is specified as: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.


Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. Devout, observant Jews avoided (as much as possible) having contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them. That served a certain purpose on that society, as judicial proceedings and punishments do in our society.


Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, he may be muddying the waters a bit, because, of course, we can all recall how Jesus himself sometimes treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may in fact (as they clearly are in this case) be outside because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided, highly conflicted North African Church of the fourth century, Saint Augustine (354-430), speaking of the heretical and schismatic Donatist Christians he had to oppose so vigorously, said: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)].


I am a long-time fan of medieval mystery stories, like Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles (set in 14th-century Cambridge) and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century Shrewsbury). In the final Brother Cadfael book, Cadfael (who, over and above his avocation as an ersatz detective, is first and foremost a Benedictine monk) has, sadly, broken his vow of obedience. But, when, at the end of the story, he returns to the monastery and kneels before his Abbot, the Abbot simply responds: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”


Unlike Cadfael and his brother monks, we live in a conflict-obsessed society driven by social media and what some have called “cancel culture.” Clearly, we cannot be unaffected by all the vitriolic conflict that surrounds us. But, whatever we are or do as a community of disciples, our goal can never simply be to cancel one another. Rather, it must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now at this altar, and forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 10, 2023.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Encourage and Build


If we were meeting back in New York, today we would be celebrating the feast of Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Kolkata as she now is. But her feast has not made it into Washington’s calendar. So instead, we are celebrating a Votive Mass – the Votive Mass for Religious Vocations.


In the Gospel we just heard [Luke 4:31-37], Jesus came to Capernaum on a Sabbath and drove out a demon. In Judaism, the sabbath is the great day of joy and freedom. What more fitting day to do a miracle! What more fitting day to drive out a demon! Gathered in their synagogue on the sabbath to hear the old stories of what God had done in the past to free and save them, the people unexpectedly got - not just to hear, but to see - God freeing and saving them anew. In so doing, Jesus shows the true nature of God’s kingdom, freeing us all from the demonic powers that can keep us captive.


In our time, someone like Mother Teresa appeared as an unexpected intrusion in the ultra-cynical, ultra-skeptical second half of the 20th century. In first-century Capernaum, Jesus also appeared somewhat unexpectedly, driving out demons with his astonishing authority that gripped the crowd then and still holds us spellbound.


We all know from pastoral experience that, when anyone who seems in any way strange shows up, anxiety arises as no one knows what to expect next. The man possessed by the demon was strange, in the usual sense. But Jesus turned out to be stranger still and even more unpredictable – challenging those there to recognize what God is doing here and now, to recognize (as Saint John XXIII famously said) “the hidden guidance of divine providence in the present course of events.”


We notice also how, once forced out of him, the demon could do the possessed man no further harm. That man, that day, experienced what Saint Paul [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]expressed more generally for all of us – that God did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation, from salvation’s one and only source, Jesus Christ.


And how do we respond to that? The Capernaum crowd reacted with astonishment and responded by spreading the news. That’s a start, a good start. But Paul, who had done a lot of news-spreading himself, challenges us to the next step. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up.

Sometimes, we may be tempted to think that we have done enough when we spread the good news, give the word a voice. But then what? 


In actual fact, most of our work – as a parish priest for 25 years, I would say almost all my work – has been about that next step, encouraging and building up, building Church in a contentious world where its presence is increasingly fragile. 


(Whenever I hear those words of Saint Paul, I am reminded of Bruce Nieli back in 1981 inviting me to follow Hecker’s call to build Church!) Of course, that was also Saint Francis’s call some six centuries earlier. Is there anyone in this business, past or present, from the Pope going to Mongolia to this group gathered here, whose call it isn’t?


But how do we do this? Do we do this all across the board? Do we encourage one another (while there is still time, as Hebrews says [Hebrews 3:13])? Do we encourage one another and so build together?


The Church may be a mystery. But she is not mysterious. The Church, the ongoing building and repair of which is our ongoing job, is part and parcel of our present reality, which may still be more demon-possessed than we care to contemplate. What divides the world also divides the Church – divides and wounds, wounds us deeply.


If we aspire to be, in actual fact, that communion of saints – that image that so attracted Isaac Hecker to the Church – that communion of saints that we profess to believe in, then we have to take the communion part much more seriously, as an antidote to the division and distress we absorb from the world around us. For God did nor destine us for wrath. 

Homily, Opening Mass, Paulist Fathers' General Council Meeting, the Paulist House of Studies, Washington, DC, September 5, 2023.

Friday, September 1, 2023

50 Years in Knoxville

Back when I was a pastor in Tennessee in the 2010s, an elderly monsignor once recalled how, at the beginning of the summer of 1973, there had been a total of four priests in the entire city of Knoxville, but then in September the Paulists came and the number of priests in the city doubled! 

Actually, the Paulist Fathers have been serving the Church somewhere in Tennessee continuously since 1900 - that is, for 123 of 165 years of existence as a Catholic Religious Community.  For the first 54 of those years, the Paulists were missionaries in Middle Tennessee. In 1900, at the invitation of the Bishop of Nashville, the Paulists purchased a farm and a large house, known as Hundred Oaks, in Winchester TN. The Winchester mission house was dedicated to Saint Francis de Sales and its chapel to Saint Michael the Archangel (in memory of which the small house chapel in the current Knoxville Paulist residence is also dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel). Hundred Oaks became the home base for an extensive missionary effort. Several Middle Tennessee parishes, nurtured from their beginning by the Paulists Father, are still thriving today. The mission to Middle Tennessee ended in 1954, when the Paulists sold Hundred Oaks and transferred their Tennessee foundation to West Tennessee, to Saint Patrick's Parish, Memphis, where they served until 2013.

Meanwhile, in 1973, the Bishop of Nashville invited the Paulists to East Tennessee to assume pastoral responsibility for the oldest Catholic parish in the city of Knoxville, Immaculate Conception, founded in 1855. The current Victorian Gothic structure, the second church on the site, was dedicated on September 19, 1886. In a famous photograph taken one week after that church’s dedication, Immaculate Conception parishioners posed in front of the parish’s original 1855 stone church with the new church in the background. Of the parishioners in the photo, I believe that in my time 24 were still able to be identified by name. I love that picture, which (as a major scene from Knoxville's urban history) can also be seen in certain secular settings as well as at Immaculate Conception Church. That photo powerfully portrays the Knoxville Catholic community of the time and shows their strong sense of identification with their parish church - built by their efforts and commitment. The familiar photo highlights their justifiable joy in their accomplishment and their sense of responsibility for its future. In 2011, 125 years later, Immaculate Conception parishioners were invited to repeat that 1886 experience. A new photograph (above) was taken in front of the main entrance of the church on West Vine Avenue, immediately after the Solemn Anniversary Mass of Thanksgiving. Since then, both photos have been prominently displayed in gratitude for Immaculate Conception parish’s past, in celebration of its present, and as an expression of hope for its future.

In 1973, the Paulists also assumed pastoral responsibility for the campus ministry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, at what is now Saint John XXIII parish. With one pastor and one parochial vicar at each parish, the Paulists became a major addition to the Catholic clergy in the city of Knoxville, which became the seat of a third Tennessee diocese in 1988. Over the years, various Paulist priests have served the city as police chaplains and a chaplain to the 1983 World's Fair, and have served the diocese as Dean of the Smoky Mountain Deanery, Diocesan Consultor, and Chair of the Presbyteral Council.

From 2010 through 2020, it was my privilege to serve as Immaculate Conception's 24th pastor. Though small in size, the beautiful "Church on Summit Hill" has had a long and distinguished history of pastoral service in the city of Knoxville, where it was the only Catholic Church for its first 20 years. An important presence in Knoxville's urban skyline and a vital resource for faith and community in the city's again growing and busy downtown, Immaculate Conception parish continues to thrive now as a multi-cultural, multi-faceted Catholic community and the center of Paulist mission and outreach in East Tennessee. As such, it embodies Servant of God Isaac Hecker's grand vision to extend Christ's life and mission in our time and place and so serves as a vital and vibrant sign of the Church's reach to all who live or work or visit within sight of its spire.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

"Decent" (i.e., "Liberal") Politics


Michael Walzer, the author of some 27 books and 300 articles, is a political theorist and professor emeritus at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, previously of Harvard, and emeritus editor of Dissent. His latest book is The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On "Liberal" as an Adjective (Yale U. Pr., 2023). (Full disclosure: some 50 or so years ago, Walzer descended from the heights of Harvard to teach a graduate seminar on Thomas Hobbes at Princeton. I was a participant in that wonderful seminar. I doubt I made any impression on Walzer, but he made a memorable impression on me.)

Written during the pandemic, while Walzer was a home locked out of his office, this is admittedly not some seriously footnoted, academic work of political theory. It is "an argument about politics - about the best kind of politics. It's not quite a program, more like a hope." The fact that The Struggle for a Decent Politics is not written in the form of an academic work contributes to two of the book's greatest virtues. It is eminently personal - perhaps Walker's most personal book. It is also inclusive in regard to a wide range of issues that Walzer personally cares about, that he thinks other should care about, and contemporary political theory most definitely needs to care about.

The two adjectives in the title are the key to the book. This is about achieving a "decent" politics - not a perfect politics, or an ideal politics, or a utopia, or a pure implementation of an ideology. The inherent modesty of the goal is inherent to an appreciation of the other adjective, "liberal," which (while not utterly devoid of substance) is more about an attitude, a set of pre-political moral or ethical or attitudinal commitments than a vision of the good life. Indeed, I would say that it is of the very nature of modernity that it has made any common vision of the good life, any collective pursuit of the good life, practically impossible. Much as Saint Augustine first affirmed a totalistic definition of justice and then shifted ground and invoked a realistic, achievable, practical relative kind of justice, I think Walzer's "liberal" adjective is a descriptor for an analogous, secular, very relative justice.

Walzer applies the adjective as a modifier and qualifier to several nouns to political ideologies and identities he considers of contemporary relevance. They happen, of course to be ideologies and identities he has been personally and/or professionally engaged with over the course of his life and career. So he attempts to describe, in turn, what we might call the moral or ethical attitudes off liberal Democrats, liberal Socialists, liberal Nationalists and Internationalists, liberal Communitarians, liberal Professors and Intellectuals, and liberal Jews.

He starts from the liberal constraints early modernity imposed on politics as "a kind of disaster avoidance for everyone involved." That important (life-and-death kind of important) but modest attitude about politics makes for what we also call civility. In the process, he addresses all sorts of practical, contemporary, "hot-button" issues. The hottest button, in view of the current legal problems of a certain former president is Walzer's sensible assertion that "'Lock him up' is not a chant for liberal democrats during or after an election. It is better to say, even in the case of a Donald Trump: 'This is not what we do'." Walzer also expresses "a touch of skepticism about civil liberties absolutism," a high valuation citizenship, including "civil religion," the importance of citizens' "sense of efficacy" (which he believes "angry, resentful, dysfunctional" Capitol rioters lacked, in part because of "a not unreasonable belief that the country's rulers had given up on them"), and the importance of "enhanced education" in what he calls "critical empiricism."

When looking at liberal socialism, he obviously favors liberal "constraint and accountability" over "an undemocratic dictatorship of the vanguard of the proletariat." In terms of contemporary issues, he recognizes that "affirmative action doesn't change the hierarchical character of capitalist society; it just moves some people into higher positions." And he insists on "a strong and democratically accountable state" as "the most likely agent for democratic engagement."

Liberal nationalism he considers "the oldest form of nationalism," tracing it back to the 19th-century Italian Risorgimento. He prefers that to "cosmopolitans," whose opposition to nationalism is inevitably also hostility to democracy, and who prefer men and women, as they believe they should be, to actually existing people. He identifies cosmopolitanism with Kant's "soulless despotism." Importantly, he points out that Democratic socialists have only been successful in democratic national states. (Perhaps somewhat inconsistently - although obviously he doesn't see it that way - Walzer opposed Brexit and "marched with friends in London in support of remaining in the European Union." Obviously, he doesn't see the EU as a "soulless despotism," but many democracy advocates in Britain did. All of which just illustrates how, all theorizing aside, all of us have our particular class consciousness and in-group biases.)

Regarding immigration, he recognizes "the value of particular obligations in the lives of individuals" and that "collectives, like nation-states, can also be obligated to some people more than to others." He recognizes the uniqueness of the American case, where patriotism "has no ethnic content" and "doesn't appeal to an ancient history." Thus, much of what passes for contemporary U.S. nationalism "is less an ideology that sets us apart from foreigners than one that divides us at home." What he calls "Trumpian nationalism," in any case, "isn't so much a nationalist as a populist politics."

Tackling communitarianism, Walzer inevitably confronts the ghost of Rousseau's communitarian civic republicanism and instead advocates for "a form of social life that falls short of communal intensity but is crucial to the decencies of everyday existence." 

On the more tricky terrain of feminism, he is against trying to enforce "Enlightenment ideals" abroad. He is, however, more open to requiring such adjustments on the part of immigrants. He would require teaching "civics and American history even in privately run religious schools committed to a different curriculum." He is ambivalent about tax-exemptions for religious organizations that exclude women from top positions, recognizing that women are engaged in the "educational and charitable activities that the exemptions fund." He is also sensitive to the problematic aspects of multiculturalism, which "is definitely bad for gays and lesbians," and defends what he calls "a soft multiculturalism" which aims "at eliminating all forms of sexual subordination while leaving room for the politics of difference." In practice, that may prove one of the tougher needles to thread.

Closer to his professional home, he wants to distinguish academic faculties from political organizations, and observes that "scholars who kowtow to the powers that be compromise or degrade their scholarship, whoever the powers are." Walzer recognizes as "the right response," the resentment and anger which "the casual racism of the old professoriate" produced in newly desegregated colleges and universities. "But somehow in our sentimentalizing culture, anger got changed into a plea for comfort: I'm offended; I'm insulted; my feelings are hurt." Walzer advises students to "look to be respected, not consoled," and says "sensitivities encouraged become ever more sensitive." Of particular interest is his advocacy on behalf of the "academic proletariat" who have little or no chance of professional advancement.

In his chapter, "Liberal Jews," Walzer strongly defends American "separationism," which he distills to four practical principles. He repeats his endorsement of history and civics classes, which he calls the "first language" our political community as an established constitutional democracy. He recognizes the American cultural reality - that religious references work well in American political discourse - but wants to ensure that no one is excluded. He rejects any right to "refuse to serve people whose religious or secular practices" one does not approve of. But he believes illiberal religious people "can also live comfortably in a secular state even if they don't help to sustain it. They have only to give up the commitment that everyone else must live as they do." This, I think, highlights the relative character of Walzer's proposals.

As an ideological as well as pragmatic liberal, Walzer wants "acceptance of difference as a good thing." That is farther than I think one need go, and would certainly be problematic for some - especially religiously motivated people - to go. On the other hand, acceptance of difference as an inexorable fact of life in a fallen world (the only kind of earthly world we will ever live in) is in my judgment at the heart of what any "decent politics" must require. Walzer has reminded us that political life is contingent, a constant challenge of better or worse choices among irresolvable differences. 

As a guide to how to implement such a decent politics (whether denominated as liberal or with some less historically and philosophically fraught term) Walzer's work offers a soundly argued practical guidebook, however much many may disagree about particulars.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Emminent Doctor, Exemplary Bishop

In his monumental, but eminently readable and edifying autobiography, Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (Princeton U. Pr., 2023), the great historian Peter Brown recounts how, as a medieval history undergraduate at Oxford in the mid-1950s, he had to choose "a special Historical subject, carefully studied with reference to original authorities." Brown chose Saint Augustine (354-430), the Roman-African Bishop of Hippo, whose feast the Church celebrates today, on this anniversary of his death. 

Brown's choice "would prove to be a crucial step" for him, "back to the world of Rome in its last days." For Brown that proved to be "an exciting range of topics," among them "the end of paganism, the workings of imperial government, the crisis of the cities, and the first fateful decades of the barbarian invasions." It also introduced him to the distinctive. history of North African Christianity, where "the version Christianity upheld by Romanized Africans such s Augustine was challenged by the fierce resistance of the populous Berber villages of the Numidian plateau." Augustine's story also illustrated the exciting joining of "the inner life of individuals to the wider frame of their culture."

Almost two decades later, Brown's own magisterial study of Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (U. of California Pr., 1967), would prove to be both intellectually and spiritually formative for me in my own journey of mind and soul. Brown's approach in that defining work was "to learn to hear Augustine clearly as he spoke the unfamiliar language of an ancient Christian from a millennium and a half ago, and then to pass on what I had heard to modern readers."

Famously, Augustine authored what is generally considered the first autobiography in Western literature. Hence, Brown's conscious effort to compose a Biography of Augustine, not what he called a "Life and Times." In doing so, Brown "claimed a place for individual subjectivity, for ideas, for culture, and for religious experience as proposer object of historical study for young and old alike in a modern university." Looking back, Brown believes that he took into himself "something of Augustine's profound sense of the complexity of the self, and of the hiatus between the depths of the inner world and the brittle surface of things." How well does that describe Brown's work (obviously) but also the challenge of appreciating what made Augustine such a world-historical figure for whom there is still an important place in contemporary experience.

One of the challenges with "convert" saints (and similarly with other converts, who may someday in the future be saints, like Isaac Hecker) is to balance the singular significance of the conversion experience and the spiritual journey leading up to it, to balance all that with a fuller appreciation of the post-conversion journey within the faith, within the Church. Augustine, according to Brown, "had passed through a dangerous moment of euphoria and had emerged with a more gray but more solid view of. himself and of the world." That is key, I think, to a full appreciation of Augustine as Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor (to use those traditional liturgical titles). A parallel insight is also key, I think, to a full appreciation of someone like Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), who was surely no Augustine but who, like Augustine, left a legacy self-consciously rooted in and expressed in terms of personal spiritual experience.

Brown's Augustine was an important book not just because of its content but because of its having been written at a special moment in Western intellectual history. As Brown has noted, the readers and reviewers of his book "belonged to what was, perhaps, the last generation in Britain and Europe where some form of familiarity with traditional Christianity could be taken for granted." I remember, right about the time I was being introduced to Brown as a grad student in the early 1970s, a colleague in psychology responded to an undergrad's complaint about the human-centric world view of some text she had been assigned to read by telling her that, well, the author's assumptions were Judeo-Christian - to which she responded that she had no acquaintance with whatever was Judeo-Christian! (This, from a Euro-American undergrad at an elite U.S. university in 1972!)

Brown's insight highlights how Augustine still speaks so directly to understanding the inner life of modern humans and the common outer condition of our contemporary world.

At the turn of the millennium, Brown brought out an updated second edition of what had by then become a classic. By then, my time on the margin of academic life had long receded into the past. Instead, I was engaged more or less full-time in pastoral ministry. By then, too, Brown had encountered newly found letters of Augustine which were primarily reflections of the concerns and preoccupations Augustine had in later life as an active, very busy Bishop in a very complex, diverse, robust late Roman, pre-medieval urban world. This too highlights the contemporary salience of Augustine the pastor, at least as much as Augustine the thinker. The Saint Augustine the Church celebrates today exemplifies both the thinker and the pastor, the eminent Doctor and the exemplary Bishop.

Photo: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Church Window, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church (Augustinian Friars), Bronx, NY.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

From Pan to Peter


Among the many wonderful things which one can watch on YouTube, there is a series of videos from the Italian TV coverage of the coronation of Pope Saint John XXIII on November 4, 1958. (TV was still somewhat new then, and that showed in the comparatively unself-conscious way the ceremony unfolded. Today, everything would be more carefully and artificially choreographed. Everyone on screen would appear exactly where he is supposed to be, when and only when he is supposed to be there, doing exactly what he is supposed to do, with nobody else in the TV frame.) 


Anyway, several times during that lengthy ceremony, the Choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”).  Also, that Gospel account was chanted, not once but twice – first by a Latin deacon, and then by a Greek deacon. I think that’s what called making a point!


Today’s Gospel takes us back in time - from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to Peter himself. Caesarea Philippi was situated some 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory ruled by King Herod’s son Philip, hence the name. That place is now known as "Banias," a deformation of its pre-Roman name, "Paneas," referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location at Israel’s northern border at the foot of Mount Hermon. That border was obviously a lot easier to cross then, in Jesus’ time, than it is now; but it was still a border, laden with symbolic spiritual significance. 


The place had been a place of worship for Pan since the third century BC, with a temple built there somewhere around 20 BC. Not only was this a place probably devoted to the most literal pagan forms of nature-worship, but it also was a place that, even earlier, was probably a focus of Canaanite Baal worship.

It was to that faraway, pagan place that Jesus took his disciples and challenged them with what is, in some sense, still the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As befits the prominent role he is being prepared for, Peter answers on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One], the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to Pan, the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one true) God.


Then, as now, Peter speaks for the Church – not just for his fellow apostles, but for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not some mere human opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself, at that stage, still probably at best only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission. 


Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, where, for centuries since, Peter has continued to speak - on behalf of the Church for the sake of the whole world. In a Church that now, as so often in her past, seems much more divided than united, Peter serves as the visible source of the unity of the Church across space and time. Across space, “people of every nation, culture, and tongue” (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer) are “gathered as one,” so that “in a world torn by strife and discord,” we “may stand forth,” as a Universal Church, “as a sign of oneness and peace.” Such a unity across space is, in turn, uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time - our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church. 

In this conflicted era of disunity and discord, when people frequently form their religion to fit their politics rather than the other way around, our unity across time in professing the ancient apostolic faith of Peter, makes possible our present unity across space as Christ’s Church in our world, which in turn fosters – for both the Church and the world - our future hope for both space and time in the kingdom of heaven.


 Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, August 27, 2023.

Photo: Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, 2012.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

That Weird GOP Debate


What is to be said about yesterday's weird first GOP debate of this 2024 election season? Even before the debate had begun, wasn't it already weird that the acknowledged frontrunner was absent from the stage? Wasn't it also weird that the same frontrunner is campaigning with four (!) indictments over his head and is scheduled to surrender in Atlanta later today, presumably in prime time to suck the air out of any alternative balloons taking off after last  night?

Absent, I think Trump was still very much missed by an audience that has become accustomed to being entertained and affirmed by his anger, hatred, and ill will (to use the familiar phrase from the old Litany of the Saints). Like the other famous TV character from Trump's borough, Archie Bunker, Trump channels - better than most of his competition - the anger of the chronically disrespected and the hatred of the other that are the hallmarks of contemporary identity and grievance politics. (The left, of course, enjoys its own version of identity grievance politics, likewise rooted in anger and hatred.)

That said, there was plenty of anger, hatred, and ill will on display on stage last night in Milwaukee. When all is said and done, that is what the Republican Party is primarily about, whatever the fantasies of old-style "normie" Republicans who still care (or pretend to care) about budgets, spending, and deficits. That old time religion was briefly on display at the beginning of the debate. Despite the widespread media expectation that the debate would begin with a question about Trump, it began with a question about "Bidenomics."  In a sign of what was the come much of the rest of the night, former Governor Nikki Haley was the only one who represented the real world, pointing out that it was the Republicans who bore primary responsibility for so much recent spending and deficits.

In general, the questions reflected well on the moderators. They asked a range of appropriate questions and tried (with minimal success) to keep the contestants within the time rules. The reality is that there is no incentive for a candidate to observe the rules. So the only way to deal with that problem is to turn off the microphone as soon as a candidate's time is up!

In general, Nikki Haley acquitted herself well. On spending, abortion, Trump, Ukraine, and foreign policy generally, she was again the closest thing to an adult in the room in recognizing the existing political realities, even when they conflict with the party-line within the Republican information bubble. She was especially effective on foreign policy against Vivek Ramaswamy, the young, generational-change candidate, who showed himself to be both full of himself and a good entertainer (maybe the greatest assets in a Trump cult) but otherwise not really ready for presidential prime time. If the point of these debates is for someone to emerge looking "presidential," Nikki Haley came closest to doing that. I doubt she could win the Republican nomination; but, if she could, she might make a formidable obstacle on Biden's road to reelection.

The other figure who performed surprisingly well and emerged looking a bit more "presidential" was former Vice President Mike Pence, in spite of his slobbering, super-sanctimonious, self-referential evangelicalism. Both Haley and Pence managed to come across as experienced political figures who had at least thought about the issues and maybe had some reason to be on that stage.

This was all in conspicuous contrast to the on-stage, ostensible front-runner, the charm-challenged Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who tried to evade giving direct answers and returned again and again to his Florida record. His one notable accomplishment was, of course to keep Florida's schools open during covid, and that, maybe more than anything else, is what got him on that stage. But he seemed  so angry and surprisingly small, far from "presidential." He may have held his own, but he did nothing to advance his cause.

Senator Tim Scott did not live up to the good press he had been getting in some quarters. Former NJ Governor Chris Christie's best moment was when he called Trump's conduct beneath the office of President and responded the the audience's boos by saying “This is the great thing about this country. Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.” 

Both when the audience booed and when the audience cheered, it was always obvious that the real front runner, the candidate the audience really wanted, was not there. The question going into the debate was whether any of the candidates was actually seriously seeking to depose Trump. Only Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (who actually brought up the 14th amendment and was booed for it) could conceivably claim that mantle. Haley did boldly say that Trump is the most unpopular politician in the country, but she and the others (except for Christie and Hutchinson) all raised their hands to indicate that they would support Trump even if convicted of crime. (The one to do so most enthusiastically was, of course, the Trumpy demagogue Vivek, who also promised to pardon him!)

Again, the debate moderators deserve credit for at least asking some good questions, that represented an intrusion of reality into the FOX propaganda bubble. The best example of that , perhaps, was the second quesiton - a question on climate change asked by a young person, an acknowledgment of how serious that issue is for the rising generation. But the responses did not reflect either the real world relevance or the seriousness of the issue. There was a lot of evasive, deflecting of the issue, blaming India and China, as if  that relieved Americans of the need to deal with the crisis. And the youngest candidate, Ramaswamy, displayed the greatest ideological hostility to responding to the crisis, an obvious moral disqualifier, which may well win hom extra points in alternative reality Republicanism.

The debate done, now the world's attention turns, as it must, to the true Republican frontrunner and newsmaker, who will surrender himself at Fluton County, Georgia, Jail today.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Maria Regina

A long-standing Christian liturgical practice, which, in fact, predates Christianity and which lasted well into the 20th century, was to prolong the celebration of the greater festivals for a full week, what was called an octave (eight days). Some relics of that still remain in the calendar. Thus, for example, today's feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary comes, not accidentally, exactly one week after the celebration of her Assumption. As we all know, the fifth and final glorious mystery of the Rosary is the Crowning of Mary, which follows chronologically and conceptually the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption. So there is a certain liturgical logic at work here.

Although the Assumption traditionally had an octave, today's particular feast of Mary as Queen dates back only to the 1950s and was originally celebrated in May. It is intended to present Mary  in the full context of her present heavenly glory as the Mother of God who is also thereby Mother of the Church.

That heavenly glory and Mary's ongoing relationship as Queen with the rest of the Church is illustrated in the beautiful, elaborate mural by the great American artist William Laurel Harris (1870-1924), on the upper wall above the door to the sacristy, right behind the altar of Our Lady. (Most of you can't see it from where you are sitting right now, but when you get the chance you should stop and take a look.) The mural portrays Christ crowning his Mother, while above the Father and the Holy Spirit are symbolically represented. Grouped around the principal figures are a collection of saints - among them, Saints Casimir, Clare, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Luke, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Mary Magdalene, Augustine of Hippo, Monica, Anthony of Padua, Bernard of Clairvaux, Philip Neri, Alphonso's Liguori, and John of the Cross.

What a great image of the Communion of Saints! What a glorious reminder of how we are all connected and brought together in the kingdom of the Risen Christ, where Mary continues to intercede on our behalf!

Homily, Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, August 22, 2023.

Photo: The Crowning of Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mural by Willian Lauren Harris, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Section Three: Yes and No


The "Section Three," in the title above, refers to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (passed by the Reconstruction Congress in 1866 and ratified in 1868). Section 1 of the Amendment famously nullified the infamous Dred Scott Decision, established the important principle of birthright citizenship, and imposed on the states the obligations of "due process" and "equal protection." Section 2 replaced the famous "three-fifths compromise" with one-person, one-vote, and provided penalties (to the best of my knowledge never enforced) for states which deny some citizens the vote. Section 3, which is what concerns us here, states: No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The 14th Amendment was adopted to reconstruct the country on a new basis after the crime of secession and the resulting Civil War. Section 3 responded to a particular historical situation. Having served that purpose, is it still relevant? That it remains relevant is the contention of two conservative legal scholars, William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, authors of "The Sweep and Force of Section Three," which can be found at:

I am not a lawyer, and my modest knowledge of constitutional law is ancient and admittedly minimal. But, for all the legal language and arcane references, the authors' 126-page case is clearly argued and quite convincing. Amendment 14, section 3, is part of the U.S. Constitution and remains fully operative today. Not specifically limited to the Civil War, it applies to any "insurrection or rebellion." Congress in subsequent statutes did use its power to lift the penalty, removing it from those on whom it had been imposed, but it did not prospectively remove it in unknown future cases. The penalty remains in force and has automatic legal effect, like other constitutional disqualifications (e.g., being too young, not being a citizen, or, in the case of  the post-22nd-amendment presidency, having already been elected twice). The authors cite the example of Couy Griffin, an elected County Commissioner in New Mexico, who participated in the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Some New Mexican citizens filed a quo warranto suit seeking his removal. A court heard the case and ruled he had been disqualified as of January 6, 2021, and ordered his immediate ejection from office. The authors explain the many and various procedures provided for removing officials and/or preventing disqualified candidates from running for or being appointed to office. (The authors obviously recognize the likelihood of a court challenge by a candidate disqualified from the ballot on such grounds and the consequent responsibility of the Court to adjudicate such a case applying section 3.) 

The authors recognize the argument that section 3 "seems harsh, unforgiving, undemocratic, unAmerican (?), even ... unconstitutional(!?)." In response, they stress that "amendments change the Constitution." So, to the extent of any conflict between them, they argue, section 3 overrides earlier constitutional provisions, for example, provisions prohibiting Bills of Attainder or ex post facto laws, and mandating due process. Much more problematically, they also argue that, "to the extent of any inconsistency between them, Section Three overrides, supersedes, or satisfies the free speech principles reflected in the First Amendment."

Considered solely as a legal argument, apart from its contemporary relevance and application, I perceive two principal potential problems. The first is that there must be some sort of adjudication of guilt or its equivalent (as happened in New Mexico) to justify removal from office or from the ballot. So, in the contemporary context, it might be one thing to keep off the ballot someone who has been tried and found guilty of some crime related to January 6, and quite another thing to try to exclude from the ballot someone who has not yet been held accountable in any other forum. 

The second problem is the broader societal concern for free speech. I understand that, because it comes chronologically later, in case of conflict the 14th Amendment takes precedence over the First. And I accept the authors' argument that there is a difference between engaging in insurrection and the free speech protected by the First Amendment, that "even under modern doctrine, free speech does not protect categories of speech that overlap with Section Three" and that "Section Three's terms will not often reach pure speech." Still, there seems something a bit too cavalier about the assertion that "Section Three should be construed, to the extent fairly possible, consistently with the free speech principles memorialized in the First Amendment," but that, in case of conflict, "Section Three must control." Are we sure that is what we want?

After some 100+ pages of legal argumentation, the authors apply their argument to the case of Donald Trump and argue - convincingly - that section 3 does indeed disqualify him from future office. "All who are committed to the Constitution should taken note and say so."

So far, so good. That is the "Yes" in the title. I agree with the authors' literal, "originalist" interpretation of the 14th Amendment. But now comes my "No" - not an absolute, definite "No," so much as an alternative political emphasis to be considered along with the legalistic one.

The authors obviously put the constitutional text at the top of their ranking of values. However, there are other values in politics. The U.S. Constitution itself in its Preamble proposes pre-constitutional values in support of achieving which the Constitution was proposed as a means, not presumably as an end in itself. 

In any case, one pre-constitutional political value is democracy. Following aspects of the classical political tradition and the creative theorizing of my grad school professor, Sheldon Wolin, I value democracy not just as a system of elections but as a more total political experience in which ordinary citizens are empowered to participate as true political actors. That said, what is at issue here is elections - that is, the right of citizens to choose those to be entrusted with public office. (It is in support of this value that I have always opposed term limits and disapprove of the 22nd amendment.) 

Electoral democracy is not an ideal or perfect form of government. The U.S. has been incredibly lucky in that elections have produced Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Joe Biden, when the same system could conceivably have elected Aaron Burr, John Breckinridge, General George McClellan, and Charles Lindbergh, or re-elected Donald Trump. Yet, notwithstanding religious, right-wing, integralist fantasies, the alternatives actually on offer in the modern world to a system of democratic elections are all worse.

Trump, et al., in their efforts to subvert the 2020 election attacked some of the bedrock principles of a system of democratic elections. They thus eminently deserve the corresponding legal sanctions, including the application of the disqualifying clause of the 14th Amendment.

That said, there remains a case for "No."

The current criminal prosecutions of the prospective Republican presidential candidate have already taken our country into dangerous territory. True, the system survived the Wilson Administration's prosecution of minor party opponent Eugene Debbs.  It may well survive the Biden Administration's prosecution of its principal political opponent, but how well and at what cost? I am no expert in Israeli politics. I cannot help wondering, however, whether the current crisis in Israel might have been avoided or at least taken a less dangerous turn if the legal system had not insisted on trying to prosecute the Prime Minister. Will Israel be better off because the Prime Minister must make alliances and pursue many unpopular policies in order to circumvent possible prosecution? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

So, while the authors' conservative, constitutional, originalist, textualist argument in favor of using section 3 to disqualify Trump's candidacy may be legally correct, it may yet prove politically problematic in ways which will further undermine our democratic system rather than support it.  The fact that Trump may be the preferred choice of a significant minority of American citizens speaks volumes about aspects of American society that I believe are radically wrong. But I do not see how depriving those citizens of the right to vote for the candidate of their choice in the long run corrects any of those wrongs. I remain convinced that the best way to exorcise the Trump factor from American politics is a decisive electoral defeat.

Of course, the case for applying section 3 remains legally compelling. Thus, in The New Republic, Matt Ford has endorsed the authors' argument. As that argument becomes better known, I imagine many more will do so as well. It is an argument that speaks powerfully to an important current in American political thought. On the other hand, there is that other current to which I have referred above. Thus, in The New York Times, Ross Douthat has argued that, even if the authors' argument "were deemed correct on some pure empyrean level of constitutional debate ... their correctness would be unavailing in reality, and their prescription as a political matter would be so disastrous and toxic and self-defeating that no responsible jurist or official should consider it." Douthat considers not just the fact that many American voters have preference for Trump, as I noted above, but also the particular political context and background for that preference. "The idea that the best way to deal with a demagogic populist whose entire appeal is already based on disillusionment with the established order is for state officials — in practice, state officials of the opposing political party — to begin unilaterally excluding him from their ballots on the basis of their own private judgment of crimes that he has not been successfully prosecuted for … I’m sorry, the mind reels." 

Mine too! No legalistic argument will likely carry much weight with people who are already disillusioned by and cynical about the system and the elites who operate within it. (The authors are admittedly conservative, but they remain conservative elites, separated by a yawning cultural gap in the real world from most of the MAGA folks who follow Trump.)

Meanwhile, the train has already left the station on the Trump prosecutions. The fantasy that "no one is above the law" will be neither more nor less true when this is all over. What will be the actual consequences remains yet to be seen. But, to quote Douthat again, "to try a man, four times over, whom a sizable minority of Americans believe should be the next president, is an inherently political act. And it is an especially political act when the crimes themselves are intimately connected to the political process, as they are in the two most recent indictments."

Perhaps, one light at the end of this tunnel may be provided by the fact that the Georgia prosecution is a state case. It may yet be transferred to federal court because of a certain arcane legal doctrine. Assuming, however, that it remains in state court, then it could be televised. That could, of course, degenerate into a circus, another O.J. trial. But it could also offer all citizens - including those enclosed in completely self-referential, ideological and informational bubbles - a rare opportunity to experience the event directly, unfiltered by FOX (or, for that matter, MSNBC). Watching the trial unfold, watching the evidence being presented, defended, refuted, the way the jury will watch it, may be an eye-opener for many and may (I dare not say "will," but it "may") by sheer evidentiary experience permit reality to break through the preconceived polarities of our politics.