Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Praying People

The annual National Prayer Breakfast will take place in Washington, DC, this coming Thursday, February 2. It is not an event that is usually on most people's radar. The only occasion it was on mine, the only time I can ever recall commenting on it, was three years ago, coinciding with the first impeachment and acquittal of President Trump, who spoke at the event (as presidents do). At that time, I wrote:

And what a desert American religion is in right now! That desert was fully on display the very next morning at the so-called National Prayer Breakfast. That event dates back to the middle of the last century, and every US President since Eisenhower has participated in this once honorable event. Speakng just before the President, this year’s keynote speaker, Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, addressed the audience of more than 3,000 on that foundationally Christian theme. Then the recently impeached President spoke and expressed his essential disagreement with the keynote!

On such occasions, I am again reminded of my favorite quite from Southern Baptist Russell Moore back in October 2016, regarding ostensibly religious figures who ally themselves with this President:  "The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about."

Mitt Romney's father, George, who also aspired unsuccessfully for the presidency back in the 1960s, was born in Mexico where his devout Mormon grandparents had had to flee to avoid persecution by the US. government. A practicing member of the LDS Church, Mitt Romney, knows something about real religious persecution and real religious freedom - in contrast to the fevered "Flight 93" apocalypticism so often invoked by some ostensibly religious people to justify their alliance with this impeached President. This week Romney reminded anyone who was listening that faith is about God and God's Kingdom and not about political power and idolatrous prayer.

The annual tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast (originally called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) goes back to 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration. It is held every year on the first Thursday in February and often features speeches by special guests as well as the President. Out of an apparent desire on the part of Congress to return the event somewhat back to its original spirit, a new organization, the "National Prayer Breakfast Foundation," will oversee the event this year, and the number of the attendees is being limited to members of Congress, the  Administration, their families, and their guests. (It  will still be live-streamed online and on C-SPAN.)

In the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries, for example, the presence of an Established Church facilitates religion's decorative role in civil life - part of what Walter Bagehot called the "dignified" dimension of a country's constitution. Even without the benefit of formal religious establishment, displays of religious ritual and, in particular, invocations of religious language and exercises of public prayer have been a ubiquitous part of American civic life from the very beginning. The National Prayer Breakfast is an honorable part of that long tradition. As its misuse in recent years by Republicans' religious allies has made evident, however, the line between dignified prayer and idolatrous prayer can be an easy one to cross.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Beyond the Baby Boom


We of the "Baby Boom" generation have more or less always taken it for granted that we would be at the center of society's attention - and in recent decades at least the holders of most of the power in American society. That is largely still true, but changing. Hence, this latest book on Boomers and their power, The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America (Viking, 2023), by Philip Bump, a national columnist for The Washington Post. As the author observes about us boomers: "They opened their eyes and everyone around them was working to meet their exceptional needs."

In case anyone doesn't already know, the "baby boom" refers to the generation born in the aftermath of World War II, the great period of post-war prosperity from 1946 through 1964, when the annual average of births int he U.S. was around 4 million (compared with the 1930s average of 2.4 million). "In 1945, the year before the boom began, the population of the United States was about 140 million. Over the next 19 years, 76 million babies were born."

Born in the most prosperous era in American history, we boomers have accumulated material wealth and all that goes with that. Obviously, individual boomers are rich, poor, and everywhere in between, but as a group we Have been wealthy and powerful. We are 23% of the population, but are 43% of the country's homeowners, for example. "Since 1989, those aged 55 and older have always controlled at least 54 percent of the wealth in the country. By 2019, that figure was over 70 percent."

We are also whiter than subsequent cohorts, which is due to the very specific circumstance of having been born in the period of U.S. history with little immigration, thanks to the restrictive legislation of 1924. My grandmother was an immigrant, as were several aunts and uncles, but no one I knew of my own generation.

What that means for the future, Bump shows, may be less straightforward than some have assumed. 

Given the complex but hardly insignificant continued role of religion in our politics, it is noteworthy that while somewhat less religious than our predecessors, boomers are still significantly more so than those waiting to replace us. "The boomers were less inclined to embrace religious identifiers than their elders, yes, but they still embraced them. And they did and do so to a more robust degree than their own kids, over whom religious institutions have been wringing hands and for whom those institutions have been crafting appeals." Indeed, it is still the case that "More boomers go to church one or more times a week than never go."

Politically, boomers vote more and are overrepresented in Congress. We are also more likely to identify with one of the two political parties. "Boomers were more likely to be members of one of the parties, with 67 percent identifying as Democrats or Republicans. Among millennials, only 54 percent did so."  And it is significant that the only age group Trump won in 2016 "were those aged 50 and up—that is, the baby boomers and those older."

Bump's account is journalistically engaging. He interviews the person officially identified as the "first baby boomer" (born January 1, 1946), and he entertainingly  rents a golf cart to explore around The Villages, the infamously enormous senior living community in Florida, some of whose residents call themselves "frogs," since they are there until they "croak." 

On the other hand, he seems never to have met a number he didn't appreciate, and the book is filled with an overwhelming number of charts and graphs (128 by one reader's count). That's probably information overload, but one can not look at the charts and just read the text and still get the message. There is, perhaps, too much of that (text) as well, as he seems determined to examine as much as he can about America's changing landscape. At times, it feels that the book will never end, much as it must feel to many that the baby boomers' presence and dominance will never end. But, of course, we will eventually end. And so does the book. In the process, he succeeds in providing the best on-offer analysis of the implications on the coming generational change in American politics.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Tár (The Movie)


I have to admit I have struggled to figure out what to say about Tár, Todd Field's 2022 hit, "Best Film of the year" according to the New York film Critics Circle and others, and of course one of the nominees for the upcoming oscars. It stars Cate Blanchett, who performs brillliantly as star conductor Lydia Tár, whose imperious (and, by some accounts, abusive) behavior dominates the movie and precipitates her eventual dramatic downfall. The film is susceptible of multiple interpretations. It can be seen as a reasoned attack on "cancel culture." It can also be seen as a justified defense thereof. It can be seen as a critique of how contemporary identity politics and "cancel culture" can corrupt the arts, education, and human relationships. It can also be seen as illustrating how widespread abuses of power (to which contemporary identity politics and "cancel culture" are in part a reaction) can corrupt the arts, education, and human relationships. The fact that the film is simultaneously susceptible of such contradictory interpretations highlights both the film's complexity and the real-world complexity of those issues and perhaps provides a vehicle for reflecting upon them further. Meanwhile, while some see Lydia Tár's triumphant career careening to a deserved (or, at least, predictable) collapse, others see a confusing mix of real and imaginary sequences, which leave her final fate uncertain.

Without wading into the "cancel culture" quagmire, I think it fair to say that the film portrays the Berlin Philharmonic's star conductor Lydia Tár (born plain Linda Tarr from Staten Island) as a human disaster - not, perhaps, unlike many others who hold positions of comparable power. She is married to Sharon, who is also the orchestra's First Violin, and she depends upon and tyrannizes her personal assistant, Francesca. It is implied that she has groomed other young aspiring musicians in the past, a pattern apparently being repeated in real time with a new, young cellist, Olga. Unsurprisingly, her behavior seems to be recognized as such by those around her - and apparently tolerated by them all, at least as long as they have to. Meanwhile, one of her previous targets, Krista, has been blacklisted by her after their relationship went wrong, and Krista's suicide seems to become the event that triggers a professional reckoning, accompanied by all sorts of strange sensitivities to sound, nightmares, and bouts of pain. 

A lot is left implied that in reality would need to be cleared up. What exactly happened between Tár and Krista is hardly established beyond doubt. As is often the case, we are in the realm of suspicion and allegation, although there is certainly evidence of Tár's susceptibility to particularly poor judgment in such matters (poor judgment presumably exacerbated by her apparent power to get away with it). On the other hand, Tár's ultimate response to all this seems somewhat out of character (at least as her character has been portrayed thus far in the film). Indeed, her behavior becomes bizarre beyond belief - assuming, of course, that we are still in the realm of real behavior and not fantasy. What exactly are we supposed to think about this remains itself mysterious.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Friends of God and One Another

Some 30 years ago, a majority of American men had a half-dozen or so close friends. Today, half as many do, and many say they have no close friends at all. That’s a problem if, as is widely believed, having friends enriches one’s life and is probably good for one’s health. Aristotle famously said that no one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all sorts of life’s other goods.


One cannot read the opening words of Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy without appreciating the intense bond of friendship between the two. I am grateful to God, Paul writes, as I remember you constantly in my prayers, night and day. I yearn to see you again, recalling your tears, so that I may be filled with joy.


As friends, Paul and Timothy (and Titus, another friend of Paul whom we commemorate today) shared a common mission - the mission which Paul had received directly from the Risen Lord and which Timothy had received from Paul, the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.


Jesus, as we just heard in the Gospel, famously sent his disciples out on mission in pairs, not just because a group effort would be more efficient but because of the greater witness value of non-competitive, collaborative life and work in partnership. In the Middle Ages, Saint Dominic, one of the patrons of the Paulist Fathers, whom we will commemorate later this week, discerned the special witness value of such an apostolic manner of life for his time and place. And, in the 20th century, the Second Vatican Council likewise highlighted how such an evangelical life witnesses to God’s kingdom at work in the world through the Church.


In today’s climate of predatory individualism, a dead-end into which our consumerist culture seems increasingly capable of absorbing even religion itself as well as so much of the Church’s life, the renewed witness of shared life and mission cannot be underestimated.

Homily for the Feast of Saints Timothy and Titus, Disciples and Companions of Saint Paul, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, New York, January 26, 2023.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Triangle of Sadness (the Movie)


Chances are that I might not have seen Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund's Oscar-nominated film Triangle of Sadness had it not been for its nomination. Such is the still real (although one would be hard-pressed to explain why) standing of the Oscars that an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture almost automatically makes a film a must-see. The film received an 8-minute standing ovation at Cannes (where Östlund won his second Palme d’Or), which may say as much about elite culture's masochistic appreciation of art which highlights the soul-destroying inequality of contemporary capitalism and the almost comic vulgarity and contemptible shallowness of the rich.

There are many such films. The Menu most recently comes to mind. What Triangle of Sadness reminds me of most, however, is Lina Wertmüller's 1974 movie Swept Away - updated, of course, to portray the far greater vulgar excess and moral shallowness of contemporary consumer capitalism. It offers much the same moral parable of unexpected calamity overturning the corrupt social order and empowering the competent, hardworking servant class at the expense of the thoroughly dependent and useless idle rich class. Since many more characters are involved than in that memorable 1974 shipwreck, there is also a lot more room for complexity even within the oppressive class structure. 

The film follows Carl, a male model, in what is portrayed as a corrupt and oppressive profession, and his girlfriend Yaya, also a successful model. In that particular profession, female models make more money than male models, an inequality which introduces tension into their romance, and sets the stage for one of the varied reversals the shipwrecked survivers will eventually experience. To amplify their vacuousness, Carl and Yaya supplement their income as "social influencers," which gets them a place on a luxury cruise on a large yacht. The cruise highlights the dysfunctionality of almost everyone involved (not just the wealthy guests but also the captain) and proves no match for a storm which makes many of the passengers sick and a subsequent pirate attack, which is what leaves the survivers marooned on an apparently deserted island. 

There, of course, necessity inverts the reigning social pyramid, and Abigail, a lowly member of the yacht's cleaning staff who has survival skills beyond the capacity of the helpless rich, asserts herself in predictable ways. It is more like Lina Wertmüller than Lord of the Flies, but  that possibility too is never too distant. Here too civilization turns out to be not too far away, after all.

Triangle of Sadness - the title comes from Carl's career's "professional" vocabulary - could have cut down some on the amount of vomit and excrement and thus become a shorter, tighter film, with its principal focus highlighted that much more. That said, it is well worth both the extra time and some unsightly (somewhat humorous) scenes.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Sunday of the Word of God


On September 30, 2019, to mark the 1600th anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome (the ascetic Scripture scholar who translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate and is one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church) Pope Francis issued the Motu Proprio Aperuit illis, designating the Third Sunday per annum as "The Sunday of the Word of God." Aperuit Illis takes its name from the Gospel quote with which it begins, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). 

The Pope's immediate practical object in establishing "The Sunday of the Word of God," was to highlight the centrality of the Sacred Scriptures to our Christian identity - specifically the three-fold relationship among "the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred scripture." This observance, the Pope suggested, will also "be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity." The Pope proposed that on that Sunday the proclamation of the Word be highlighted, the honor due to it be emphasized, and "that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God's word." We did that in my first (and last) observance of the Sunday of the Word of God as a pastor in January 2020 (photo).

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

However one feels about the totality of post-conciliar liturgical developments, I think that the Council's call that there should be more varied and suitable reading from scripture in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium 35) has to be counted as one of the reform's greatest successes. Even there, of course, critics can quibble about the details. Some fault the shortness, lack of context, and consequent incomprehensibility of many pericopes. Others object to the congregation's being bombarded by too many words. Though they appear somewhat contradictory, pastoral experience suggests that both those objections have some significant merit. That said, however, even considering all such objections, the overall increase in the amount of scripture proclaimed and, in particular, the congregation's increased exposure to the Old Testament and to more of the Gospel texts has to be considered a great improvement in the life of the Church.

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

Photo: The Book of the Gospels exposed for veneration to celebrate the first Sunday of the Word of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 26, 2020.

Friday, January 20, 2023

"Unconditional Surrender" + 80


One of the big screen's most famous films, Casablanca, was released nationally in the United States on January 23, 1943, conveniently coming out during the even more influential wartime Casablanca Conference of January 14-24, 1943, eighty years ago this week.

Following the successful Anglo-America invasion of (nominally neutral) French North Africa in Operation TORCH in late 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met in Casablanca, in what was then French Morocco, to plan Allied military and political strategy going forward. This meeting has probably been overshadowed in our shrinking historical memory by the later meetings of the "Big Three" at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam, but was nonetheless a meeting of major significance. 

Along with Churchill and FDR and their staffs, competing Free-French military figures Charles DeGaulle and Henri Giraud also attended (photo), although they played no part in the military planning sessions. FDR described the meeting between the rival French leaders and their perfunctory handshake for the cameras as a "shotgun wedding." However one evaluates wartime Allied policy in Europe in general, FDR's repeated reservations about DeGaulle and his "Free French" proved to be one of his more unfortunate wartime blindspots.

A much more important ally was entirely absent, however. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin claimed to be unable to leave the Soviet Union at that critical juncture in the war. (The battle of Stalingrad was then in its final weeks.) Had Stalin been at Casablanca, he would undoubtedly have pressed Roosevelt and Churchill for the cross-Channel invasion the Americans were somewhat open to, but which Churchill adamantly opposed, preferring instead first to invade Europe through Italy, something which the conference in the end agreed to do. As a kind of compensation to Stalin, Casablanca was when Churchill and FDR agreed on the strategy of aerial bombing of Germany.

Perhaps, the most memorable aspect of the conference, however, was the announcement by FDR at the final press conference on January 24 that the Allies would accept only the "unconditional surrender" of Germany, Japan, and Italy. This unprecedented demand, precluding any possibility of a negotiated peace settlement, was controversial then and has remained so since. (I wrote one of my first grad school papers on the legality - or not - of such a demand in an International Law seminar in 1972.)

And, of course, contrary to what one might have expected, in the end the demand for "unconditional surrender" was somewhat differently applied. On its face, the policy removed any motivation among the Axis powers to change their governments and sue for peace. But, of course, that is precisely what the Italians did just several. months later. It could be argued that the surrenders of Italy and Japan were in some sense only nominally unconditional, in that it was accepted that the defeated countries could retain their own national governments (including Italy's King and Japan's Emperor), albeit under Allied occupation. Only in the case of Germany, did surrender result in the literal extinction of any German government and totally unmediated rule by  the occupying Allies.

It has, of course, long been alleged that, by denying Germany and Japan any serious hope for a negotiated peace, the demand for unconditional surrender served to prolong the war. Whether true or not, that claim clearly makes much intuitive sense, although, knowing what we now know about the actual weakness of internal opposition in both Germany and Japan, it is hard to imagine what alternative scenario might actually have succeeded. It is certainly true that the demand for "unconditional surrender" proved a propaganda boon for the Axis. But it was probably equally so for the Allies, since it announced to the world that they were united and prepared to stick together to the end, theoretically foreclosing the likelihood of either the Western Allies making a separate peace with Germany (as Stalin feared) or the Soviets making a separate peace with Germany (as the Western Allies feared).

On the other hand, 80 years later it is a fair question whether "Unconditional Surrender" has subsequently mythologized how we understand wars will end or how we believe that they ought to end. While wars do sometimes end (as World War II thankfully did) with one side's overwhelming military victory, most wars usually end with one side better positioned than the other but still needing to negotiate the final outcome with the loser. After all, part of the problem with the unsatisfactory way World War I ended and what followed was that, while Germany had by no means surrendered unconditionally in 1918, the subsequent peace treaty treated Germany as if she had done so - with catastrophic consequences that became evident fairly quickly for the future peace of Europe and the world.

Fast forward 80 years to the war in Ukraine. I sincerely hope Ukraine wins, whatever "winning" means. The more complete Ukraine's victory and the more complete Russia's defeat, the better, I believe, for Europe and for the world. That said, it should be obvious that, whatever Ukraine's winning would look like, it would likely look very different from the kind of total victory which the Allies won over the Axis in World War II. All the more reason, obviously, for the U.S. and our European allies to do all in our power to ensure as favorable as possible an outcome for the Ukrainian forces, so that in whatever "negotiation" Ukraine may eventually find itself the balance of power will be overwhelmingly in its favor.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Gas Stoves and other Contemporary Crises


When I was a boy back in the 1950s Bronx, my grandmother used to put a towel over the coffee pot to keep the coffee warm. One morning, the towel caught fire from one of the stove's other gas burners. I immediately shouted "Fire," which brought my mother running into the kitchen, but by then I had already grabbed the burning towel and safely thrown it into the sink. So, I guess, I have always known that there might be some danger associated with gas stoves. (Only recently did I learn about other dangers - e.g. respiratory ailments like asthma - associated with gas stoves.) Fear of fire never stopped me from cooking on a gas stove, of course. Over the years, I have cooked on both gas stoves and electric ones. Of the two, I have probably preferred cooking with gas, but not enough to go to war over it.

Who would have thought that the fight for gas stoves would become a new front in the right-wing's unending culture-war panic? Thus, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin responded to the news that gas stoves may be bad for one's health by proclaiming: “the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.” Of course, as far as we know, nothing is being taken from that particular fossil-fuel advocate's house - or anyone else's house!

There seems to be no end to the random assortment of issues - from the drag queen lurking in your local library to the gas stove in your kitchen - that right-wing culture warriors can find to create constant panic.

At this apocalyptic moment, however, my panic and righteous indignation have been triggered by the much more shocking news that Ronzoni - the pasta company founded in 1915 that I grew up revering (Ronzoni sono buoni!) - has ceased production this month of its much beloved, tiny, star-shaped pasta, known as pastina. According to the company's announcement, “We searched extensively for an alternative solution but were unable to identify a viable solution.” So far, some six on-line petitions to save pastina have appeared.

Full disclosure: served as a separate dish (usually with butter) pastina was never my favorite. But pastina in home-made chicken soup may be as close to heaven as one can hope to get in this vale of tears!

The world would probably be better off without gas stoves. But it will be much worse without pastina!

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The "Debt Ceiling" Again

"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned." (U.S. Constitution, 14th Amendment, Section 4).

As predictable as night following day and George Santos telling lies, nowadays when Republicans are in position to do so they threaten to default on "the public debt of the United States, authorized by law." The prospect of another round of performative posturing in this regard re-emerged recently when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified Congress, in a letter to the Speaker of the House, that the U.S. will soon reach its legal debt limit (the amount of money which the U.S. government can borrow to meet its existing financial obligations).

In the same communication, Secretary Yellen said that the Treasury will begin “taking certain extraordinary measures to prevent the United States from defaulting on its obligations,” extraordinary measures which she suggested will work for some limited amount of time, probably through early June. Despite such temporary measures, she warned that it will be “critical that Congress act in a timely manner to increase or suspend the debt limit.”

“I respectfully urge Congress to act promptly to protect the full faith and credit of the United States,” Yellen wrote. Why? Because “failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability.” 

Well, we have all seen this soap opera before. Congress routinely has passed legislation which requires further spending, which typically calls for further borrowing. Unfortunately, instead of automatically (as it should) authorizing additional borrowing in tandem with the decision to spend, Congress must separately authorize the government to borrow what it needs to pay its bills by raising an artificially imposed legislative debt ceiling. When, as it inevitably must, the legal debt limit is reached, the only way to keep paying the government's bills and avoid default and the catastrophic economic consequences default would entail is to raise this debt ceiling. The alternative - the repeated Republican threat to hold the debt ceiling hostage and threaten default -  is irresponsible and ought to be unthinkable. 

Despite the way some Republicans have hypocritically tried to frame this issue, this is not a matter for negotiation. The time to negotiate the price of a product is prior to purchase. Once it has been purchased and taken possession of, there can be no "negotiation" about whether to pay the credit card bill. This has become, as Ezra Klein once wrote, "a cocked gun that reckless legislators could use to hold their own country hostage unless they got what they want."

Most countries do not operate this way, and whatever one believes about "American Exceptionalism," the U.S, doesn't have to either. The debt limit could be indexed to rise automatically, or it could be suspended, or better yet abolished.

So, while it is right to excoriate the Republicans for exposing "the full faith and credit of the United States,” by irresponsibly threatening to refuse pay the government's bills for expenses already appropriated and spent, it is also true that this might have been avoided had the Democrats, for example, acted when they had the chance to raise the debt ceiling in advance during the last lame duck session, or better yet had acted to suspend it for the duration, or even better had abolished it completely. Congress likes to leave problems to be solved at the last minute, an approach to legislating that is proving increasingly dangerous. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Tragic Fall


If Rudy Giuliani was a tragic figure, in the traditional meaning of that term, then his "flaw" was his intense lust for power and relevance, which, when increasingly untethered from traditional norms and human relationships, led him to end his career pursuing his ambition as an acolyte of Donald Trump and a promoter of delusional conspiracy theories (e.g., Ukraine) and the 2020 "Big Lie."

CNN's series What Happened to America's Mayor? continued last night with episodes 3 and 4. Episode 3 started on 9/11, when Giuliani, who was then at the end of his term and had become someone from whom the city was already more or less read to move on, suddenly got a new lease on political life and became "America's Mayor." Yet, even in his well deserved moment of political and reputational stardom, inklings of the once and future Giuliani were evident in his ill-advised (but thankfully unsuccessful) attempt to upend the normal political order and prolong his time in office.

Post-mayor, Giuliani seemed healthy again, had his third wife and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, and (although out of office) occupied a national political platform, from which to parlay the illusion that successfully having steered the city through it moment of greatest crisis, qualified someone as an expert in national security (not unlike the more commonly invoked illusion that success in business qualifies one to be president). But he totally misread the political situation in the 2008 Republican primaries and failed dramatically in his presidential bid.

From here the road would lead seemingly inexorably to hitching his hopes for some sort of political relevance to Trump's unexpectedly rising star. The program highlights how Giuliani appears to have seen Trump as his vehicle to channel anger into power. (The program also reminds the viewer that, as a fellow New Yorker, Giuliani had to have known better than to imagine that Trump was qualified to be president.) 

Thus, the final episode starts with the 2016 campaign and Giuliani's devoted allegiance to Trump even when others wavered. Interestingly, we learn about Giuliani's personal resentment against Joe Biden, which may have contributed to his obsession with Biden and Ukraine. The program makes a plausible case that the Ukraine fiasco, which led to Trump's first impeachment, might never have happened without Giuliani's involvement.

Then came the 2020 election and its aftermath, when Giuliani played such a prominent part in feeding Trump's delusional response to the election. And thus both those outer-borough guys who had advanced so far beyond expectations ended up trashing their legacies.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in De Regimine Principum (Book I, chapter3), noted that there is a greater disregard of the common good in an oligarchy than in a democracy, and even greater harm in the tyranny that seeks the satisfaction of one person than in oligarchy. If the ordinary Republican party represents the damage done by oligarchy, the deviation into Trumpism was even more destructive to the common good of the country.  The lesson of "America's Mayor" is how easily this can happen.

Monday, January 9, 2023

What Happened?

Thomas Dyja, in New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation (Simon and Schuster, 2021), called Rudy Giuliani "New York's version of Eliot Ness," with a "Jesuitical view of the world." He also said of him that he "had built his career on the belief that everyone was a sinner somehow - you just had to catch them at it." Giuliani's "Catholic righteousness," as Dyja characterized it, "made him look above politics. Which," he added, "was a very good thing when you wanted to enter politics."

The Giuliani myth went through several stages - the mob-fighting, anti-Wall Street U.S. Attorney, the anti-crime two-term mayor, and then the star of 9/11. Since then, of course, that myth has taken a different turn, as Giuliani and his image have cascaded downward in a dramatic decline. That is the topic and theme of CNN's new four-part series, Giuliani: What Happened to America's Mayor? which premiered yesterday and will conclude next Sunday.

Full disclosure, I have never been a fan of the Giuliani myth. I never fell for him any of the three times he ran for mayor. On the morning tragedy struck New York City on 9/11, I had just voted in a party primary for one of those competing to be his successor and, like many New Yorkers, was looking forward to the imminent advent of a new mayoral administration. By then, to quote Dyja again, "Rudy has united the city - everyone was eager to move past him." While the Mayor performed creditably on 9/11 (and benefited in the short-term from the many accolades that fell to him as a result), my turn-of-the-millennium perception of New York on the eve of 9/11 was of a racially divided and politically polarized city, whose mayor's over-sized combative personality's usefulness had long ago run its course. Indeed, had 9/11 not happened, the end of Giuliani's mayoral reign would likely have been remembered most for his marital soap-opera, which caused an acquaintance of mine at the time to ask (just one month before 9/11), "Why does anyone bother to write fiction?"

Mayor Giuliani's prominence in the 9/11 story, however, gave him a new lease on political life. How he failed to translate that into serious success and instead now finds himself in such a discredited situation today will, presumably, be the ultimate focus of the CNN series. While I think no one would have predicted in the aftermath of 9/11 the full depth of Giuliani's fall (just as no one would have then predicted Trump's presidency), there were perhaps some warning signs. For example, until one of the mayoral candidates courageously called his bluff, Giuliani tried to finagle a 90-day extension of his term and even appeared to be angling for a third term (something his successor eventually succeeded at getting for himself, albeit through proper channels). As the former Mayor, Ed Koch, already saw at the time, "He'd be a danger to the country if he were president."

The first episode traces Giuliani's 1980s rise as an outer-borough guy, resentful of Manhattan elites. (What other outer-borough guy resentful of Manhattan elites who also rose to prominence in New York in the 1980s does that sound like?) As a righteous, mob-fighting, Wall-Street fighting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Giuliani was both a personal and professional success and an embryonic populist hero. His first mayoral campaign came in 1989 (the year of the Central Park Five and Yusef Hawkins). He originally expected to run against incumbent Ed Koch, but ended up running against - and losing to - New York's first Black Mayor David Dinkins. The second episode focuses on his two terms as mayor (1994-2001) and the deepening racial division and polarization which increasingly characterized his regime. With the benefit of hindsight, the program highlights Trump-like characteristics Giuliani displayed.

Is Giuliani a "tragic" figure in a classical sense? If so, then he must be both accomplished a flawed. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District and then as Mayor, he was both. The first two episodes do a good job of highlighting how talented and accomplished he was, but how his need to win would get the better of him.

Presumably, the disastrous denouement will come in the third and fourth episodes, set to air next Sunday.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

We Three Kings

Those magic men the Magi

Some people call them wise

Or Oriental, even kings

Well anyway, those guys

They visited with Jesus

They sure enjoyed their stay

Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme

They went home by another way.


So begins James Taylor's 1988 song, Home By Another Way, about our friends, the Magi, who came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Almost 20 years ago, in 2005, when I was a parish priest here, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, with the group from the parish. It was the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI's first World Youth Day. Cologne’s great Gothic Cathedral, which was the architectural model, by the way, for our own Saint Patrick’s Cathedral here in New York, was originally built to house the relics of the magi, which were supposedly brought to Cologne by Emperor Frederick Barbarosa in 1164. Thus, the theme for that World Youth Day was We have come to worship Him [Matthew 2:2], and one of our World Youth Day activities was to walk across the Hohenzollern bridge as pilgrims to visit the cathedral and venerate the magi. 

Here in the United States Epiphany now seems little more than a barely noticed, very vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season. It is older than Christmas Day itself, and (noticed or not) it still ranks among the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. In many more traditionally Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Latin America), it is the principal Christmas gift-giving day. In the Eastern Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day, and Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until tomorrow, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

That said, the fact is that we really know next to nothing about the magi. We do not know their names (though tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their social status (though tradition, inspired by Psalm 72, has crowned them kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).

The Gospel tells us none of these things, but it does tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi.

First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, Gentiles, pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples. The pagan magi relied on natural knowledge, and so sought for God through his creation, hoping to find in the phenomena of nature (in their case, the movements of the heavenly bodies), some clues about God and God’s providential plans for the world.

Searching for God in the natural world he created may have been a good start. But the story also tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself not only in nature but in history, in the history of Israel. So it was to the Jewish city Jerusalem, that the pagan magi came to learn the star’s full significance – as revealed in the scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance.

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point of it all. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. They were troubled, instead of being overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities. What disposes some people even today to misplace their priorities such that they too react to the good news of the Gospel as if it were bad news?

And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted scripture. But, for all their knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack the knowledge they needed the most. This, none of them did the obvious thing, go to Bethlehem. Only the pagan magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy when these words were read or sung in the Gospel on Epiphany, everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s dramatic way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi, experiencing what they experienced.

As for the magi, we never hear about them again. We know only what James Taylor chose as the title of his song, that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay there (any more than the shepherds did). They went back to wherever they had lived before, but in the magi’s case they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, so must it be for us. We too must be different now from whatever we would otherwise have been.

Every January, with the holidays behind us, we return, as we all must, to our ordinary activities. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been. So, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with them to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us on that alternate way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being challenged to find and follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, January 8, 2023.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Two Years On


Today is the second anniversary of the attempted coup of January 6, 2021, a date which (to borrow a familiar phrase from FDR) will live in infamy.

I do not pretend to have read in full the massive Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate January 6. I did, however, indulge in enough of a secular break from the 12 Days of Christmas and spent some time reading major parts of it (conveniently available in Kindle version). The Executive Summary, which lays out the fundamentals of the case, is probably sufficient  information for most people's purposes. Combine that with having watched some or all of the televised hearings, and the account becomes quite clear.

In those hearings and in the Committee's Report, the evidence points to "what ultimately became a multi-part plan to overturn the 2020 Presidential election" and leads "to an overriding and straight forward conclusion: the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump, whom many others followed." Almost everything else in the hearings, the Report, and the supplementary documentation further amplifies this conclusion.

It is important to note, as the Committee did, that January 6 did not stand alone, but was the result of the promotion of the "Big Lie" about the election, which began on Election night itself. (Actually, Trump's election denialism goes all the way back to his campaign, indeed to his first campaign.) The Report provides detailed information about the various false claims that were made, the attempts to influence state officials, the fake electors' scheme, the attempts to get Vice President Pence to do what he himself understood he had no legal right to do, etc. The Report also highlights Trump's role in causing the rioters to come to Washington on January 6 and his infamous inaction for 187 minutes while the riot was going on. 

"It is helpful in understanding these facts to focus on specific moments in time when President Trump made corrupt, dishonest, and unlawful choices to pursue his plans."

Earlier on January 6, Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously referenced the feast of the Epiphany in her talk to the Democratic caucus. "Today, January 6, is the feast of the Epiphany," she repeated that evening. "On this day of revelation, let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal."

If healing had been possible in the aftermath of the attempted coup, the opportunity was quickly missed.  The best course of action - if also the most courageous and hence least likely - might have been an immediate invocation of the 25th Amendment, which admittedly was not really designed for such situations. The next best course of action would, of course, have been impeachment, the originally prescribed constitutional remedy for presidential malfeasance. Although not done as quickly as it should have been, eventually President Trump did achieve the distinction of being the second president ever to be impeached. By then it proved too late to remove him, but conviction would still have made a powerful point - and, maybe more importantly, would have disqualified him from running again. But the cowardly lions of the Republican party failed to seize the opportunity to liberate themselves from Trump's control. So instead the insurrectionist spirit survived. It has been evident in Republican antics for the past two years and is dramatically on display in the Republican party's present real-time meltdown on the floor of the House of Representatives.

"The Committee believes that those who took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and then, on January 6th, engaged in insurrection can appropriately be disqualified and barred from holding government office—whether federal or state, civilian or military—absent at least two-thirds of Congress acting to remove the disability pursuant to Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment." Imagine if Congress had the institutional fortitude to do that!

What the current chaos in the House has highlighted (at 11 ballots and counting) is that Trumpism is very much with us. Far too many people are prepared to believe lies and live by lies. Trump did not so much create MAGA madness as exploit the madness which already existed and which remains alive and well, with or without Trump himself.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

The 12th Day of Christmas


Today is the 12th Day of Christmas. Bring on those 12 drummers drumming! 

Even without such competing distractions as the Republican leadership meltdown on Capitol Hill, secular society has long since left Christmas behind, its legacy lingering only in the sad sight of cast-off Christmas trees in the city's streets awaiting garbage pickup. It is one of the curious characteristics of modernity to have reversed the classic sequence of Christmas celebration. In place of 12 days from Christmas until Epiphany Eve (or 40 days until Candlemas), the celebration of Christmas is anticipated in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas (or even earlier) and ends (instead of begins) on Christmas Day, with a modest postscript preserved in the celebration of New Year. 

Around 1601 or early 1602, back when Christmas was still kept as Christmas, William Shakespeare composedTwelfth Night, or What You Will a romantic comedy believed to have been written as entertainment for Twelfth Night, at that time usually the big end-of-holiday party. (The play's first documented public performance was actually for the last of the Christmas season celebrations, Candlemas Day, February 2 1602.)

The title of that play is just one of the very few remaining cultural links left that remind us that there was once a different way of keeping Christmas from the secular consumerist model (which we have largely all collaborated in). For what it is worth, it is a memory worth holding onto.

So, take a break from the chaos that envelopes us. Happy Twelfth Day!

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The MAGA Mess on Capitol Hill


"The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day" (U.S. Constitution, 20th Amendment, section 2). 

And so the new Congress (including NY's now infamous Congressman-elect Santos) has assembled as prescribed, with the Republicans replacing the Democrats in ostensible "control" of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats keeping "control" of the Senate. The extreme difference between the two parties was quickly evident in Democrats' unified front behind their chosen leadership and the Republicans' internal shambles. Of course, the Republicans' lack of any significant legislative agenda together with the inevitable dysfunctionality of divided government has always made it likely that the House will be more about performative investigating (and possibly impeaching) than legislating. 

But, before anything can happen, the House has to choose its new Speaker. Normally, the party caucuses have settled on their candidates, and the vote is pro forma, a celebratory ceremonial occasion, when Representatives bring their families and take pictures together. But not this year!  

In one sense, it may hardly seem to matter which Republican becomes Speaker, since the Republicans' pathetically small majority means that 118th Congress will be fundamentally governed by the most extreme MAGA radicals in the Republican caucus. That said, the failure (so far) to be able to elect a Speaker further highlights the internal crackup within the already obviously dysfunctional Republican party. Not only did 19 Republicans defect from McCarthy on the first ballot, but to the Republicans's supreme embarrassment Democrat Jeffries actually won a plurality on the first ballot Jeffries 212, McCarthy 203, Other Republicans 19).

The last time the first vote failed, in 1923, it took three days and nine ballots before a speaker. was elected. (The all-time record was 33 ballots in 1855.) A repeat performance might please the chaos agents in the Republican caucus but would otherwise traumatize an already deeply dysfunctional and wounded institution.

It is a by now familiar manifestation of congressional dysfunction that Congress seems addicted to resolving crises at the last possible minute. So there was always the thought that maybe some last-minute solution might be found, or, at least, that the Republican dissenters, having successfully humiliated McCarthy by having forced a second and third ballot, might eventually relent and give him his gavel. The longer this goes on, however, such a scenario seems that much less likely. Even if and when the Republicans can elect a Speaker (whether McCarthy or someone else), how can they hope to govern effectively, whatever "govern" may mean in this MAGA mess world thy have created?

As I write this, the House has adjourned until tomorrow. The vote on the second ballot was the same as the first (Jeffries 212, McCarthy, 203, Other 19). By then, however, the Republican dissidents had coalesced around Ohio Congressman Jim Jordon, who had actually endorsed McCarthy, all of which suggested a deepening degree of intransigence, which continued into the third ballot, at which the Jordan vote increased by one at McCarthy's expense (Jeffries 212, McCarthy, 202, Other 19). Whatever (and whenever) the final outcome, after decades of encouraging extremism, the Republican party's chickens are coming home to roost!