Sunday, February 26, 2023

A Lent for Our Time


Today is traditionally known as Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day liturgical season of Lent (in Latin Quadragesima). Of course, in the present Roman Rite Lent now begins on the increasingly popular Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the four following days were a later (already more than a thousand years old) addition to the (now increasingly less popular) Lenten season, which actually still starts counting the 40 days today, ending on the Thursday before Easter. This Sunday’s importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert!

But before we get to the desert, the Church today takes us all the way back to the beginning – to the garden [Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7]The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed – formed, incidentally, out of the clay of the ground, the same ground out of which God made the various trees and, a little later, the various wild animals and various birds of the air. The story is a familiar one, which we are apt to allow to gently pass over us (in one ear and out the other, as the saying goes). But its presence and prominence in this Lenten liturgy suggests that would be a mistake. It’s a story, to be sure, but more like a meditation, a study in story-form of who we are and where we've gone wrong.

In this story, that says so much, we learn that life itself is a gift. So too is the world, which we are not the owners of, but more like tenants. And, if our contemporary world environment is becoming, because of our greedy and destructive behavior, much less of a garden and more like a desert, the story has something to say about that too!

In the middle of that original garden grew a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the story suggests served as a kind of boundary, not to be touched, let alone eaten from.  It is a reminder that we human beings didn’t make the world, we don’t own it, and we are not completely in charge.

Neither, for that matter, is the smart, cunning serpent, the tempter, who acts as if he were in charge and whom tradition treats as a figure for the devil – the same Satan who will tempt Jesus in the desert, pretending there to be in charge of all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.

The devil is thus a liar, albeit a subtle, cunning liar, who lied to Adam and Eve as he will later lie to Jesus in the desert. Like the seductions of modernity and of our modern politics, the devil is indeed a subtle, cunning liarSuperficially, of course, what the serpent says to Eve is true. Adam and Eve will not die – at least not right away. And their eyes will be opened to know what is good and what is evil. But, when what the tempter promises actually happens, then we quickly see how well we have been deceived!

True they did not die right away, but die they eventually did. Through one man, Saint Paul says, sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all. The same ground we once came from, originally filled with the Creator’s breath of life, to that same ground we must, on account of sin, return now in death – as we were so dramatically, ritually reminded this past Ash Wednesday. (In case the ashes themselves weren’t clear enough as a symbol of death, we were wisely told: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return!)

As so often unfortunately happens with our limited Lectionary, the first reading ends abruptly. Adam and Eve try to repair the damage they have done by making themselves clothes – in effect hiding from one another. They will soon also try to hide from God, for the tempter has taught them to think of God as an enemy, as an oppressor. But, so the story continues, God does not desert them nor abandon them to their guilt. That’s good news. And it looks ahead, looks forward, to the even bigger and better news Saint Paul proclaims in the second Sunday scripture reading [Romans 5:12-19]But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.

Unfortunately, far fewer will likely hear today's Gospel of the devil's lies to Jesus in the desert [Matthew 4:1-11] than probably received ashes four days ago. Yet I remain convinced that one of the (possibly many) reasons for the popularity of those ashes is in its shock value as a statement of the truth in a world dominated by lies and liars. Back when I used to preach on Ash Wednesday, I rhetorically used to ask what made those ashes so popular and answered my own question with some variation on the theme, "because it is true." In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with disinformation, with images and words we cannot even begin to sort out, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, not to mention the infamous, political Big Lie about the 2020 election and all the lies which that has spawned, in this therapeutic age when we are routinely fed false narratives of human happiness and fulfillment, for once at least we are being told something that is simply and unambiguously TRUE.

We live in a world which prizes safety, comfort, and feeling good about oneself - three lies that are ubiquitous even in religion.  Yet, each year, Lent, with its sobering message of mortality and fragility and its solemn challenge to repentance, somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lie of our narcissistic self-absorption. 

Thanks to Adam’s sin, the garden has become a desert. That is where we find ourselves now, and so where we encounter the devil – just as Jesus did. But because Jesus has himself not just encountered but defeated the devil, our own victory over Satan is already in sight. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Women Talking (The Movie)


"If God is a loving God, then he will forgive us himself. 

If God is a vengeful God, then he has created us in his image."

Women Talking is a 2022 American film, nominated for Best Picture, based on a 2018 book, itself inspired by actual events that had transpired at a remote and isolated Mennonite religious community in Bolivia. The opposite of an action movie, this film features almost all talk - serious talk among the afflicted women of the community about what to do when confronted with monstrous evil and how to reconcile responding to the evil with the received requirements of their faith, within which forgiveness may sadly be confused with and interpreted as permission.

The viewer enters the story in medias res, so to speak, requiring either pre-knowledge of the plot or intense attention and interpretation. The actual historical background involves a series of horrific events in the years 2005-2009, when 150 women and young girls in the community (called the "colony" throughout the movie) were apparently drugged and raped by men of the community. One of the men was caught in the act, and the crime was reported to the Bolivian authorities. A trial followed in which eight of the men were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In the movie, it is 2010. Most of the men of the colony are away (apparently to post bail). The women have been left behind and have two days to decide whether to stay and forgive the men, to stay and "fight," or to leave. The heart of the film is thus an intense debate among 11 leading women of the colony to decide this. In the end, they decide to leave - for the safety of their children, to remain steadfast in their pacifist faith, and to be able to think for themselves.

The discussions that lead to their decision are the dramatic heart of the film. They are emotionally intense, as one would expect, and intellectually intense as well, which stands out that much more against the structural background of the women's lack of education. (The women don't know how to read, but, as the narrator boldly expresses it, "that day we learned how to vote.")

Visually, the film is bare and stark. The drama is all in the discussion - the "women talking" - as the women come to a new consciousness by means of deliberation and debate. The women represent several different generations of experience, and the wisdom gained by experience, refined through the crucible of intense suffering and a struggle with religious faith.

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Church's Mission in a Polarized World


In this increasingly conflicted era, when more and more people are worried about "polarization," Glenmary Father Aaron Wessman, his religious community's Vicar General and Director of Formation, has written The Church's Mission in a Polarized World (New City Press, 2023). 

Fr. Wessman starts from the widely experienced reality of polarization and division in the U.S., where "good, thoughtful, and caring people are being subsumed into the vitriolic intensity of cultural polarization." As a Catholic priest, he finds it "devastating" that those "united in divine bonds by the power of the Holy Spirit treat their fellow Christians with contempt beyond contempt," which leads to the painful admission "that the Church in the United States has, in part, lost her way through this valley of tears." 

Wessman draws on both religious and secular literature on the subject of polarization, of which there is now an abundance. For example, he follows Ezra Klein's 2020 Why We’re Polarized, referencing three now familiar contours: "sorting, homogenization, and intensification," and Journalist Bill Bishop's study of U.S. geographical sorting in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. The by-now familiar  result is that "most people throughout the United States are unlikely, within the county they live in, to have any in person, sustained interaction with people from a different political persuasion." 

As is widely recognized, religion plays an important part in contemporary polarization. When it comes to Catholics, Wessman notes, while U.S. Catholics "are equally represented in the Republican and Democratic parties, 48 percent, and 47 percent, respectively," there is however an underlying  "racial sorting" within the Church, in which "most white Catholics identify as Republican (57 percent) while most Hispanic and Black Catholics identify as Democrat (68 percent and 85 percent." Yet, even recognizing the legitimacy of making distinctions, there is a certain sense in which "Christians cannot be satisfied being separated by bastions with the out-group world if that separation hinders their missionary movement." Accordingly, Wessman highlights the contrast between our contemporary cultural "othering" and what he calls a "catholic" approach to the world - as demonstrated, for example, by Saint Justin Martyr, Matteo Ricci, and, perhaps above all, by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In today's polarized society however, Catholics seem increasingly "more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church.” Strikingly (but hardly a surprise for anyone who has been involved in pastoral ministry in the United States in recent years), neither conservative nor liberal Catholics seem to rely primarily on their religion to form their moral perspectives.

Partcularly problematic, he feels, is the increasing reliance on the metaphor of war. Recalling the 2019 Sohrab Amari-David French imbroglio within the right wing Catholic world, Wessman
worries that "Ahmari’s invective against French showed that it was now unapologetically acceptable to some to use war as a lens to view interactions not just between two different political parties, but between members of the same Body of Christ." In contrast, he calls for what he terms "a missionary view of the ‘other’," a recognition that the "other" has "an inherent value that cannot be ignored, suppressed, or rejected."

The specifically religious alternative he envisions, then, depends on rediscovering discipleship, which (with a nod to Bonhoeffer) he notes has inherent costs. Throughout the book, the author has regularly returned to his experience of Hurricane Florence for his images and language. So now, near the end, he borrows further from that experience to speak of "crossing over into the storm of one’s out-group." This image of "crossing over" is explicitly religious and ineradicably Christian, connected as it is with the incarnation and God's self-emptying in Christ. "Jesus’ example should provide ample evidence that any Christian seriously dedicated to following Christ, and putting on ‘his mind,’ cannot help but feel called to engage in some manner of crossing over in his own missionary discipleship, to deepen Christ’s incarnational movement in the world."

Such behavior is, of course, the opposite of the narrowed vision, oversimplified analysis, and pigeonhole categorization of others that characterizes our normal posture in our polarized world. To live such an alternative requires authentic connection with the faith community and its unique spiritual resources. "Christians should not be naïve to think that they can maintain this essential aspect of missionary discipleship without regularly being fed themselves—fed by the sacraments, by prayer, and by communion with other Christians."

Negative or affective Polarization, such as we are currently experiencing in our society seems almost intractable in political and cultural terms. Fr. Wessman's focus, however, is on the Church's mission in this polarized world, which challenges us to look at these issues through a distinctive lens and to risk responding as disciples.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Church after Innovation


Andrew Root is a Professor of Youth and Family Ministry, who has written several books on ministry in our secular age - most recently The Church After Innovation: Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity and Enrtepreneurship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2022).

Root starts with an account of a Lutheran synodal event at which he spoke. a previous speaker , whom he nicknames "Applebees Boy," argued that the Church needs to be innovative and creative - or else die." Root also meets "Synod Executive Guy," a stereotypical church bureaucrat with the responsibility of disbursing money from the sale of closed churches. He, of course, favors investing in innovation. Later Root meets "Bearded Brown Turtleneck," who represents the interests of more traditional pastors, who would like some of the money so they can maintain their existing institutions and continue their ministry. "A few of them could have really used a roof repair. But as they spoke, they didn’t justify their opposition in such self-serving ways. Rather, they talked of liturgy, creeds, and sacraments. Innovation was wrong because it wasn’t deep, because it ignored the tradition, because it was a fad, just a hipster spin on church growth."

Not necessarily so opposed to all innovation as such, Root challenges his readers to dig deeper below the surface of the contemporary fad. He wants us to grapple with innovation and creativity's connections with contemporary capitalism and with the inherent contradictions in late capitalism. Thus the early chapters focus on the historical evolution of work and our attitudes about work. In part this is a variation on the classic Weberian thesis about Protestantism, work, and capitalism (appropriately updated by Daniel Bell's 1976 classic, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism).

In any case, whereas "once Protestantism and its commitments flowed directly into work, shaping work, now the ways we work in late modernity (driving toward permanent innovation) have come flowing back into the church, shaping what counts as ministry."

Meanwhile, capitalism's cultural contradictions combined with the unique experience of the Baby boom generation (a term I think Root rarely if ever employs, but which chronologically best identifies "the children of the 1950s and 1960s were creatures whose habitat was completely cordoned off from any self-denying work for the first time in history. They knew little to nothing of the childhood work on farms and factory floors from earlier American generations. This self-denying work was far removed from the experience and the imagination of the new American suburbs and the children.")

But capitalism requires such a sense of duty. So the "new source of duty became the self. It seemed perfect. It felt like a freedom beyond the contradiction of capitalism for the worker. But it wasn’t. It was deeply expressive and bound within you. But it was still a duty. You were now accountable to the project of your own self. You owed it to your self to work hard and advance."

Furthermore, for Root, it was Freud, whom he nicknames "the Viennese worm that exposes the true self," who has taken "us down a road where the self becomes fundamentally our own project."

Chapters 7 and 8 further develop the theme of the contradiction between contemporary capitalism's culture of innovation and  what the Church is ultimately supposed to be about. For one thing, "commitment and the neoliberal economy of permanent innovation don’t necessarily go together. Innovation produces engagement, but not necessarily long-term commitment." Drawing on Andreas Reckwitz, who builds off Foucault, Root writes about what he calls "an expressive creativity dispositif," in which - only in which - "in a dispositif that glorifies expressive creativity can disruption and insecurity (over routine and security) be embraced as a better way of being." But the "cultural realities that accompany expressive creativity corrode the faith life of the Christian confession. They become problematic for faith formation."

Chapter 9 returns to the period when money became so much more prominent. He recalls the story of Saint Francis, who "chose to be in the world naked with God, rather than follow the money." He links the reforming movement sin the medieval (Catholic) Church with the galvanizing effect of money, while also becoming "the object or target of the reforming spirit itself." Root regards the medieval Dominicans as especially interesting "for us as we seek to respond to singularity and recognize how innovation imposes an aesthetic of self-interest on workers." Root focuses on Meister Eckhart whose "mystical path, even inside a moneyed world, became the way to keep the self from curving in on itself, stripping money of its divinizing dreams and therefore its ability to overcome our desires and to inhabit our minds."

In chapter 10, "The Three Amigos of the Mystical Path," Root proposes resources from the past: "three fourteenth-century companions who will assist us in combating the inflation of the self. Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and the Mysterious Frankfurter all enter the mystical path for the sake of embracing the world and finding God squarely in it." He then concludes, in chapter 11, with some more modern German figures - Friedrich Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Theirs was German Romanticism's response to French Enlightenment empiricism. 

Root concludes: "Perhaps in our secular age of authenticity and the drive for singularity, what the church needs isn’t innovators and entrepreneurs but poets who pray. We need more Eugene Petersons than Rick Warrens, more Kendrick Lamars than Mark Zuckerbergs. We need poets who seek the epiphanic, losing their self in the beauty of the event of God’s arrival, recognizing that their poems are prayers. Their prayer is poetry. Can innovation be epiphanic? Maybe. But not as it’s constituted now, not without its crucifixion, not without its release from an expressivist, Napoleon-like will to dominate by disruption. Innovation, without bearing the cross, is too bound in the logic of money. It is therefore obsessed with forming (schooling) not poets but entrepreneurs. As we’ve seen, innovation overindulges the subjectivity of creativity, glorifying not gift but performance."

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The President in Kyiv


What an edifying picture to see the President of the United States visit Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the nation-state which has become the symbolic, as well as geographic, border between Western civilization and Russian barbarism! What better way for a U.S. President to spend "Presidents Day"!

(Apart from an obligatory afternoon meeting, I myself spent Presidents Day much less heroically rewatching HBO's 2008 John Adams, about another American President underestimated by many in his own time.)

Here at home, a lot of the talk has been about how the bipartisan consensus in support of Ukrainian independence may be fraying. Meanwhile, America-hating, Hungary-loving appeasers spread their anti-Western, anti-democratic poison on the internet, under the guise of sparing the world an (always possible but in practice probably unlikely) nuclear war. None of this is really new. The U.S. went through a similar moral ordeal before Pearl Harbor, when long-standing American self-absorption and tunnel-vision about the world were exacerbated by the bad taste left by Woodrow Wilson's questionable military adventure in Europe in 1917-1918. Now it is the traumatical legacy of two decisively lost wars - Vietnam and Afghanistan - that leaves a bad taste and threatens to exacerbate the perennial problem of American isolationism.

Every year at this time, in observance of George Washington's birthday, Washington's "Farewell Address" is read aloud in Congress. There is much wisdom to be gleaned from our first President. But, like the rest of us, he was also wrong on some things. He was, most obviously, wrong about political parties, which, now as then, are essential for a successfully functioning democratic polity - something which Washington and the other Founders simply did not understand, given their historically conditioned fears about democracy and their aspirations to aristocracy (which in practice usually means oligarchy). Likewise, while Washington may have been right about the merits of neutrality and avoiding foreign entanglements as a weak nation in the 1790s, his view on that has long since been rendered moot by a very changed world situation, in which it is no longer the British Empire but the United States which is the primary power in the world, with all the burdens and responsibilities which that entails.

The U.S. is, however, hardly the only power, however primary it may be. As de facto leader of the Western world against retooled imperial Russian barbarism, its sphere of influence must nevertheless include all of Europe, all of whose ancient (and some not so ancient) states, which - with the unfortunate possible exception of Hungary - have learned from history the terrible cost of being abandoned to the Russian sphere.

Saturday, February 18, 2023


As holidays go, "Presidents Day" definitely promises more than it delivers. To start with, the official, legal holiday (both federal and New York State) is still Washington's Birthday. Of course, George Washington's actual birthday is February 22, and it was duly celebrated as a holiday on that date until 1970. Then, presumably in order to give federal employees a three-day weekend, the unfortunate Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 moved Washington's official birthday to the third Monday in February, which is always the Monday before February 22. The new holiday soon became known as "Presidents Day" (sometime with, sometimes without an apostrophe, further evidence, if any were needed, of its confusing character). 

When I was growing up in school in the 1950s and early 1960s, February was the "Month of the Presidents," two presidents in particular. In addition to Washington, many states celebrated a legal state holiday on February 12, Lincoln's Birthday. Many mistakenly think the two were somehow officially merged when "Presidents Day" was created. In fact, Abraham Lincoln's birthday was never a federal holiday. So the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 could hardly have merged it into anything. I suppose some of the states where Lincoln's Birthday was a holiday may have done so. But, at least the last time I checked, Lincoln's Birthday was still an official legal holiday here in New York, albeit a barely noticed one, if noticed at all. The NYC public schools no longer observe it. Nor technically do they observe Washington's Birthday or "Presidents Day," having replaced them with a week-long "Midwinter Recess."

They'd all probably be better off staying in school that week. And, if they also learned something about our presidents during that week, so much the better. Of course, one of the inevitable and obviously foreseeable consequences of the unfortunate Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 was the dilution of whatever historical and cultural consciousness accompanied our civic holidays, turning them into, at best, merely leisure time opportunities and, at worst, occasions for commercial sales and orgies of shopping. Undoubtedly workers deserve leisure time, and I have not quarrel per se with long weekends, but rather with the loss of holidays' historical and civic significance. In any case, apart from government employees, it seems a lot of people nowadays have to work on days like "Presidents Day" anyway!

As the ill-fated French Revolutionaries learned in their time, tinkering with calendars can be risky at best and will likely fail in the end. That said, perhaps a desirable solution to the holiday dilemma would be, first, to keep as full holidays only the few that are actually widely observed as days of leisure by most workers, - e.g., New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Then, in the other months - February, March, April, June, August, October - simply to create a monthly artificial holiday - say on the second or third Monday of the month - and somehow make it possible for most workers really to get the day off and enjoy a leisurely long weekend. As for the other civic holidays - e.g., Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln's Birthday, Washington's Birthday, Juneteenth, Columbus Day, Veterans Day - let them be observed in schools and churches and by social and civic organizations in ways that publicly call attention to their historical importance and real significance, sparing them the indignity of being turned mainly into excuses for special sales in stores!

One Year of War

In a few days it will be one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. That heroic nation has been at war now for a full year (actually longer). Europe and the U.S. are not at war in the same sense. We are not in daily danger of Russian terror bombings and wars crimes. In a deeper, profounder sense, however we are at war. For in this war, Ukraine has recalled Europe and the U.S. to what the "West" is about, to the true values of the West, which Ukraine has increasingly embraced, progressively leaving behind its centuries of entanglement in the anti-Western Russkiy mir. Decolonizing itself, disentangling itself from Russian culture, including the historic caesarism of the Russian Orthodox Church, Ukraine, personified by its once Russian-speaking president, is aligning itself with Europe and the West. Hence the symbolic (as well as strategic) significance of President Zelensky's pre-Christmas visit to the United States and his more recent visits to the United Kingdom (photo) and the EU. Ukraine really wants to be part of Europe, and seems to want it more and more the longer this war lasts.

Of course, Western Ukraine has always been more European than Russian. Western Ukraine's largest city, Lviv, once capital of the Kingdom of Ruthenia, became part of Poland (as Lwów) in the 14th century. Following the partition of Poland in 1772, it became part the Austrian Hapsburg empire and became known by its German name Lemberg. On the eve of the First World War, the city was 51% Roman Catholic, 19% Greek Catholic, and 28% Jewish. So much for the claim that Ukraine is historically, culturally, and religiously Russian!

No Ukraine does not need Russia! On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a revived Russian Empire that didn't incorporate much of Ukraine, particularly at least the non-Hapsburg parts that, after the partitions of Poland, came under Russian rule. And, of course, the caesarist Russian Orthodox Church famously traces its own institutional origin back to Kiev and the conversion of Kiev's Grand Prince Saint Volodymyr I (Vladymir in Russian) in 788. Had Germany and Austria won the First World War, an independent Ukrainian Kingdom would likely have been born out of the fragmentation of the Tsar's empire. Instead, western Ukraine became part of the newly reconstituted Poland, while the rest of the country fell under Soviet control. And, under Stalin, Ukraine paid a heavy price for its absorption into the Soviet version of the old Russian Empire. At least 3.9 million Ukrainians starved to death in Stalin's genocidal Holodomor, "the "Great Famine." Stalin also purged the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, of his supposed political enemies, resulting in the loss of a generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia. 

The entire Ukraine was reunited under Russian rule thanks to the German-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939 and the decisive Soviet victory over Germany in 1945. (Conquered for Russia by Catherine the Great, Crimea was transferred to Soviet Ukraine in 1954. Thus, that largely Russian-speaking peninsula found itself part of the new Ukrainian state in the aftermath of the latter's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, where it remained until Putin reconquered it for his renewed Russian Empire in 2014.)

An independent, pro-Western, European-oriented Ukraine both strategically and symbolically will threaten any prospect of a truly renewed Russian Empire, bringing Western European civilization's borders that much further into the old imperial domain, while fatally undermining imperial Russia mystical self-understanding that is being promoted by Putin and supported by his Russian Orthodox Church. What that might mean long-term for Russia remains one of the major unknowns of this conflict.

Less unknown, Ukraine's valiant struggle against Russian imperialism has inspired a renewed enthusiasm within the Western alliance. While internal cultural conflicts continue to undermine the West's social, political, and religious historical heritage, a recovery of historical memory may be in process as the West rediscovers the difference between it and the horror of Russkiy mir.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Creating Coalitions


Assistant Professor of history at George Washington University and coeditor of Dissent magazine, Timothy Shenk has expansively tackled the challenge of forming viable political majorities in America - "the narratives, policies, and symbols—in short, the ideas—that produce coalitions" - in Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy (‎Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).

Illuminated by his detailed treatment of how coalition building has happened through American history, Shenk effectively equates coalition building with democracy - "as both a practical necessity and a moral obligation," at least "for anyone who believes that politics can be more than a way for the few to exploit the many."

Shenk starts from the evident fact of American history that, for most of our history, "one party has tended to dominate: Jeffersonians in the early republic; Democrats in the age of Jackson; Republicans during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, then again from the 1890s down to the Great Depression; and Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats in the Depression and postwar years. But neither party has been able to put together an enduring majority since the collapse of the New Deal coalition."

The universe has plenty of political analysis and punditry about the collapse of the FDR New Deal coalition and how to revive something similar today. What distinguishes Shenk's effort is his extensive study of what it took for previous political coalitions to be formed and to deliver (or not). In the process, he focuses on those he calls "the democratic elite, the portion of the ruling class whose authority derives, at least in theory, from the public’s consent. And they have a power that’s unique to modern democracies: the ability to form electoral coalitions that bind millions of people together in a single cause."

Shenk starts with the founding generation and its ambiguous approach to democracy and political parties.  "A dose of oligarchy is just what the framers wanted," he agues. "They saw elections as a check against the dangers of democracy, a way of supplying the political class with the authority that came from representing the public while keeping power in the hands of the right sort of rulers." 

As is well known, for all their wisdom and prescience in so many respects, the founders were woefully wrong about political parties. When parties did arise - rather quickly as it happened - they were at first "parties against parties." Soon enough, however, the Jeffersonian "Republicans had pulled off the first realignment in American history, creating a strong and durable majority that kept the party in power while slowly choking the life out of the Federalists."

Soon enough, in the Jacksonian era, popular political parties (as we understand them) were taking their place on the political stage.  And, with them, came the professional politician - e.g., Martin Van Buren, who "considered partisan struggle essential to a functioning democracy. Parties channeled the inevitable conflicts in a democracy toward productive ends."  The Jacksonian coalition - the ancestor of the Democratic Party as it was until living memory - was a coherent "coalition of urban workers, western frontiersmen, and Southerners of all sorts."

The mention of southerners, of course, points to the unique racialization of American politics that would be (and remains) one of our politics most enduring features.

Meanwhile, opposing the Jacksonian-VanBuren Democrats, arose the Whigs. "Although both parties had coalitions that cut across class lines, Whigs tended to draw support from merchants, planters, and industrialists," while "they denied "the existence of class conflict."In an era when mass immigration first became politically salient, "Whigs were also the party for evangelicals looking to improve the country’s moral character (and wary of Democratic acceptance of Catholics)."

From VanBuren and the Democrats, Shenk moves on to Charles Sumner and the new, radically anti-slavery Republican party. "Aside from abolition itself, however," the radical Republicans' victories were rolled back with the collapse of Reconstruction. The biggest winner in the Republican war against the slave power was, arguably, the same as in the Jacksonian war against the money power: Northern capitalists."

Thus, post-Reconstruction American politics became "battles between competing partisan tribes divided along lines of race, ethnicity, faith, and region. Republicans won native-born Protestants and the South’s dwindling number of African American voters, while Democrats relied on Catholics, immigrants, and the Solid South." This impasse was broken only by the rise of Populism, personified by William Jennings Bryan who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896. "Bryan’s victory dealt a stinging rebuke to the Democratic establishment, upended Republican electoral calculations, and brought the American political system closer to a full-blown crisis of legitimacy than at any time since the Civil War."

But Bryan was defeated. The new realignment, which Shenk calls "democratic conservatism," he sees as "an early demonstration of what became a global pattern in the twentieth century: a party of the right defying the hopes of radicals and the fears of reactionaries by reconciling industrial capitalism with representative government."

This produced the Progressive Movement, followed by what Shenk calls "the culture wars that dominated politics in the 1920s—Prohibition, immigration, Jim Crow," all of which "cut across the parties," with "the most reactionary voices" on the Democratic party side. The arrival of the Great Depression, however, ended "the cross-class coalition that had kept Republicans in power for a generation." This produced what Adlai Stevenson called "the party of everyone" - the New Deal majority, which Shenk calls "the strongest and strangest coalition in American history ... a brittle colossus, able to push through historic reforms but always in danger of cracking open." This, of course, has since happened: "The parties traded the core of their old coalitions, with Democrats picking up the Northeast and Republicans gaining the South and West. At the same time, the connection between income and partisan affiliation broke down, pushing working-class white people into the GOP and drawing educated professionals toward the Democrats." 

This is, of course, familiar territory. "If the New Deal order was made by an economic crisis, it was undone by a social one." In this regard, Sheck's chapter on Phyllis Schlafly as one of his coalition-builders is especially important. While the polarization she and her allies produced didn't quite deliver an enduring Republican majority, it has "remade American democracy."

In the present, Shenk sees "a comprehensive breakdown in American politics. There’s the steady buildup of popular discontent with a status quo where elite self-dealing and technocratic gatekeeping deny most people real influence over government. Plus the distorting effects of an electoral system that all too often converts a strategically placed minority of voters into an electoral majority. Then there’s the failure of self-proclaimed champions of democracy to assemble a coalition large and durable enough to reform this antiquated system. And don’t forget the polarization machine that turns campaigns into apocalyptic struggles between good and evil while holding the results close enough to keep the battle going another day."

"If there’s an abiding winner in the long history of American democracy," Shenk concludes, "it’s the people with money." Hence, his invocation of the great democratic tradition of coalition building ""as both a practical necessity and a moral obligation," at least "for anyone who believes that politics can be more than a way for the few to exploit the many."


Monday, February 13, 2023

Pinocchio nell'Era Fascista


Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is a 2022 animated musical fantasy, loosely based on Carlo Collodi's 1883 Italian classic Le avventure di Pinocchio. Storia di un burattino (The Adventures of Pinocchio, Story of a Puppet), reset in Mussolini's Fascist Italy sometime during the interwar period (perhaps at the time of the Ethiopian war). Translated into some 250 languages, Collodi's book long ago became a children's classic. If nothing else, everyone knows its lesson about lying! My generation learned the story (or at least a certain version of it) mainly from Walt Disney's 1940 animated musical, the second such Disney film (following Disney's first animated success Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

The familiar story involves Geppetto, an old Italian woodcarver, and his wooden puppet Pinocchio, who eventually, having learned to be good, becomes a real boy. Jiminy Cricket plays the role of Pinocchio's conscience to guide Pinocchio in matters of right and wrong through various encounters with temptations to wrongdoing.

De Toro's reimagining of Pinocchio politicizes the fantasy. Twenty years earlier, during World War I, Geppetto lost this beloved son Carlo in an Austrian aerial bombardment. Still mourning, Geppetto cuts down a special pine tree out of which he makes a wooden puppet, which (with the intervention of the spirit world) comes to life overnight. When Pinocchio follows Geppetto to Mass, he attracts attention from the village Podestà, who orders him to go to school. Temptation intervenes in the form of a traveling carnival, which separates Pinocchio from Geppetto and sets up the search motif, which eventually leads Geppetto to end up inside a giant fish. Meanwhile, having realized what he has gotten into and what kind of malevolent boss he is working for, Pinocchio mocks Mussolini, which ends his circus career and gets him inducted into the military by the Podestà, whose son Pinocchio befriends. (The Royal Italian army is, one supposes, del Toro's politicized alternative to having Pinocchio turn into a donkey!) 

After getting out of one predicament after another, Pinocchio finally reunites with Geppetto inside the giant fish and eventually sacrifices himself by detonating a naval mine inside the monster. At his encounter with Death, however, he demands to be sent back to life earlier than usual in order to save Geppetto - even at the cost of becoming mortal himself. Geppetto and the others are saved, but in the process Pinocchio appears to have been killed. However, the Cricket (here named Sebastian) having done his duty to steer Pinocchio in the direction of good, claims the promised fulfillment of his one wish and thus causes Pinocchio to be revived, after which they return to Geppetto's home to live out the old man's final years in apparent happiness.

It is a beautiful retelling of a beautiful story about life and death (the shortness of the former and the permanence of the latter), about love and loyalty, about family and friendship, and about the perennial moral challenge of learning to live a good life. It's not really so suitable for easily frightened children, but it is something everyone else should certainly see.

The role of the supernatural (specifically of what, for lack of a better term, I'm calling here "the spirit world") is an integral and especially fascinating element in this story and in de Toro's retelling - as is his intersection of that with the conventional Catholicism (accurately portrayed) of Italians of that time and place. I remain somewhat personally perplexed, however, by the politics of del Toro's rendering. What is the intended significance of setting the story in Fascist Italy? After all, how many movie watchers in the historically challenged rising generations even know about Fascist Italy, let alone recognize and understand all the historically specific Fascist-era allusions? I'm all for educating them about such matters, of course, but I fear our culture's increasing commitment to historical ignorance will remain well in place. Is Fascist Italy here just an analogy for any bad time and place (presumably past)? Or is it an analogy for all times and places (including our self-imagined more "enlightened" era)?

Sunday, February 12, 2023


If, as is often alleged, football is modern America's authentic cultural religion, then perhaps the Super Bowl and the whole complex of social events and celebrations surrounding "Super Bowl Sunday" serve as contemporary American culture's re-appropriation of something like Christmas and Easter (or, to borrow from the words of one acquaintance, if Thanksgiving is Christmas's anticipation, the Super Bowl is Christmas's culmination). It is, in any case, one of the high points, if not the highpoint, of our contemporary cultural calendar.

Full disclosure: personally I dislike football. It may be no accident that football has become the national "sport" of a society so increasingly defined by rage. Football is, I believe, a gratuitously violent, gruesome gladiatorial spectacle that damages its participants, corrupts our culture, and degrades what we still unaccountably call "higher education." Its violence and danger were very vividly displayed just a few weeks ago when a Buffalo Bills player went into cardiac arrest after tackling an opponent. Thankfully, the player's life was saved by rapid, high-quality, expensive medical intervention, but none of that should obscure the violently dangerous and potentially fatal character of America's most popular "sport." (All of that was, of course, cleverly and successfully obscured in the way the media and everyone else quickly pivoted to treating the almost tragedy primarily as a heartwarming human interest story.)

That said, while I dislike football and will likely pay little or no attention to the actual "game," I will happily attend the local Super Bowl party - not just for the pizza, and chicken wings, and guacamole (all good enough reasons), but for the community experience and in appreciation of the communal value of lavish spectacle which makes such community experience possible. Would that as a culture we still had lavish spectacles of a more uplifting sort!

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Oil on Troubled Water

Homily for the feast of Blessed Pope Pius IX [1792-1878, pope from 1846 to 1878], Paulist Fathers Mother House Chapel, February 7, 2023. 

Sometimes, when I get discouraged in my postulator assignment, I recall how Pope Saint John XXIII wrote of Pius IX: "I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization." Pope John was disappointed in that aspiration, but presumably he got over it.

Pius IX's pontificate intersected - fortunately for all of us here - with the priesthood of Isaac Hecker. As Pope, Pius IX was part of the complex of forces and personalities that Divine Providence mysteriously brought together to make the Paulist Fathers a reality, inspiring in Father Hecker a lifelong respect and devotion towards the Pope who, at their first meeting had affectionately called him "Bravo, Bravo!"

It was at that first meeting that Hecke had famously expressed his vision of the Catholic Church as oil on the troubled waters of the then religiously divided and politically polarized United States. For all that has happened since, the waters seem just as troubled now as then. But do we still have the confidence that he had in the healing power of Christ's Church in our troubled time?

In good 19th-century style, Hecker understood the Church as Christ's continuing incarnation, continuing his healing and saving life and mission in our world - and meeting just as many obstacles as Jesus himself had! As far as we know the Pharisees were generally very good people, perhaps among the best of their time and place. But like so many religious people, then and now, they were stuck in "This is the way we've always done it." We always wash our hands, why don't you? [Mark 7:1-13].

(Actually, I think that probably wasn't such bad advice, but that's another discussion for another day!)

The problem with being stuck in the "This is the way we've always done it" mindset is that it makes it hard to notice anything new, anything different. There, right there, was Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, the Savior of the world, but the Pharisees were so busy washing their hands, doing what they'd always done, that they missed what God was doing.

If we really aspire to be oil on the troubled waters of our deeply divided and politically polarized world, we may need something more than "This is the way we've always done it." We need to be alert to where Jesus is pointing us and how he is challenging us today.

(Photo: Tomb of Blessed Pius IX, Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls in Rome, taken by me in 2012.)

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Who Votes First?


For as long as I can remember, the "first in the nation" presidential primary has been in New Hampshire, one of the smallest and otherwise least electorally significant states. Back in the day, the NH Primary was always held on the second Tuesday in March (the date when town meetings and non-partisan municipal elections are traditionally held in that state). NH state law still stipulates that the presidential primary held be on that date, but it directs the NH Secretary of State to advance the date, if necessary, to ensure that the NH primary always takes place at least seven days before any "similar election" in any other state. New Hampshire's disproportionate importance in the presidential primary process derives primarily from its "first in the nation" position. Hence the date has been moving earlier and earlier. In 2020, it was February 11. Meanwhile, for the past half-century, the Iowa Caucuses have also acquired unique prominence because of their uniquely early position in the election- year schedule.  In 2020, the Iowa Caucuses took place on February 3 - one week before the NH Primary.

All that is now about to change. Meeting in Philadelphia, the Democratic National Committee has voted approved a plan to rearrange the early Democratic presidential primary calendar. South Carolina - the state which saved Joe Biden's primary campaign in 2020 - was awarded the first primary, on Saturday, February 3, 2024, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on February 6, Georgia on February 13, and Michigan on February 27.

What the calendar will actually look like is still unclear. Republican-run New Hampshire is unlikely to change its law to accommodate the Democrats, who may have to skip NH altogether. A Democratic candidate who ran in and won in New Hampshire on an unapproved date would, according to party rules be penalized, losing half the convention votes he or she had won.

Hurting the feelings of Iowans and New Hampshirites does not seem to have worried the DNC too much. Many Democrats have long objected to the outsized influence of those two, predominantly rural states which are so unrepresentative of either the country as a whole or the Democratic voting base. Like Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is also a red state, but its Democratic voters are heavily African-American and so do at least represent a key constituency of the Democratic voting base. Nevada is actually a more competitive state and so may be more important in the general election. It also heavily represents Latinos, another potentially key constituency within the Democratic party. So the logic of the change is largely unassailable. (A case could be made that better than South Carolina would be a more Democratic-voting or more competitive state like Michigan. Such arguments will likely come up next time.)

The way we elect American presidents is best characterized as crazy. The present primary system is bizarre and can easily result in nominating someone who is not the real first-choice of a majority of the party. The inflated importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, because of the media attention that comes with their early position, has only highlighted the unrepresentative character of those states. 

On the other hand, Iowa and New Hampshire were "retail politics" states, where candidates had to campaign in person and interact directly with voters in a way which those states' relative smallness and other distinctive characteristics required but which would be much less feasible in larger states. The quadrennial image of candidates at New Hampshire diners or at the Iowa State Fair speaks to something important in American political self-understanding.

As a practical matter, those small early states have also made it more possible for "outsiders" to get attention and succeed against more favored insiders - famously, for example, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. The more "direct democracy" scale of those contests has also made it possible for opposition figures to outperform establishment expectations, as happened in New Hampshire with Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (leading to LBJ's withdrawal from the race soon after) and Pat Buchanan in 1992 (foreshadowing both George H.W. Bush's eventual electoral loss and the eventual "populist" turn in the Republican party).

"Democracy" has multiple dimensions. The democratic deficit inherent in allowing such unrepresentative constituencies as Iowa and New Hampshire have such disproportionate influence in the primary process is laudably being corrected by highlighting more diverse constituencies in more representative states. In the process, however, another value in democratic politics is being further diminished with the reduced role for the in-person "retail politics" which was so characteristic of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Candlemas Day

The familiar carol concludes on the 12th day, but today is actually the 40th - and final - day of Christmas. In Catholic countries, it is a common custom for the nativity scene to remain in its place in churches until today. So eleven years ago at this season, while I was studying at "Saints' School" in Rome, I took advantage of that unique opportunity of almost a full month between my early-January arrival and Candlemas in which to visit the various presepe, which were on display in Rome’s many churches.

In the western, Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, although for several centuries it was also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel [Luke 2:22-40], Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the ordinary obligation in that society to be purified after childbirth, reflecting ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood, and the requirement of ritual purification after any direct contact with blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s first-born at the time of the Exodus from Egypt). 

But, whatever the official title, a common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has long been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early morning, pre-dawn procession, somewhat penitential in character – with which the more solemn celebration of Mass today begins. This replaced an earlier pre-Christian Roman pagan custom. According to the medieval traditions recounted in The Golden Legend: "On the calends of February the Romans honored Februa the mother of Mars the god of war, by lighting the city with candles and torches throughout the night of that day. ... Since it is hard to relinquish such customs and the Christians, converted from paganism, had difficulty giving them up, Pope Sergius transmuted them, decreeing that the faithful should honor the hold mother of the Lord on this day by lighting up the whole world with lamps and candles."

The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the blessed candles, but also to their light – and to Jesus as the One whom that light symbolizes. In the Gospel, the aged Simeon recites the canticle, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace.” In the Roman Rite,  this canticle, known as the Nunc Dimittis,  is an important part of Night Prayer (Compline). Concerning this, the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch wrote: “As we sing it we see Simeon holding the Child Jesus in his arms and then, with grateful heart, retiring from his earthly service to God. We too are in the Lord’s service. At the close of day we hold the Savior in our arms, mystically speaking; we hold Him in faith, in grace, in the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Altar. Fervently we thank God for His blessings; and we are prepared, if it be His will, to take our leave from the world.”

Coming close to midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a secular version of Candlemas is Groundhog Day. (The fact that both mark this seasonal signpost is obviously not coincidental.) Even those who may never have heard of Candlemas have heard of Groundhog Day and connect it with the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one older way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.

Meanwhile, at the same time as we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple: and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek (Malachi 3:1-4), we hear wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

So, even as we take one last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter. Meanwhile, Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.

Since 1997, Candlemas has also been observed as the World Day of Consecrated Life. Just as on this day candles are blessed symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world, so too religious priests, brothers, and sisters are called to reflect the light of Jesus Christ in the Church. It is obviously an especially appropriate day to pray that God will continue to bless his Church with abundant vocations to these communities so critical to the life of the Church. 

For me at this stage in my life, there is a joining of images and themes. Spending their lives in the Temple, Simeon and Anna seem to me to signify religious life in an obvious way. But they are also - and very pointedly - presented as old, retiring (as Parsch put it) from their earthly service to God.  Obviously, while their age makes them representative figures for Israel's long wait for the Lord whom you seek, at the same time they easily elide into representatives of so many religious priests, brothers, and sisters in the various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (among whom I must include myself) who are also old, who have spent so much of our lives in the Temple, and are now approaching the end and preparing to pray our final Nunc Dimittis.

Homily for the Presentation of the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, February 2, 2023.