Sunday, April 30, 2023


One of the traits of right-wing discourse is reference to the government as the "regime." This is a bowdlerization of the usage of the term "regime" by the famous conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973), who was once very ideologically influential (at least within a certain narrowly constructed philosophical circle). Strauss has been credited by some for the "restoration of regime consciousness." Like the tendentious use of "government schools" as a pejorative for "public schools," the abuse of the term "regime" is peculiarly problematic. 

Even weirder, however, is the bizarre fondness in some right-wing intellectual circles of the term "The Cathedral" as a pejorative to refer to whatever certain authors consider "the establishment" (a hostile establishment, of course, hostile to them), an alliance of perceived elites whom they don't like in academia, media, government, and even business.

Now people misuse words in service of their ideological agenda all the time. If the Right does it, so does the Left. (Look at the increasingly ubiquitous ideological use of the benevolent sounding term "care," as in "abortion care," or "reproductive care") 

What is particularly peculiar about this distorted use of the word "cathedral," however, is that it is even employed by people for whom "cathedral" should otherwise be a very positive term, people who profess to be practicing faithful Christians of one sort or other. One must assume that such people are aware that "cathedral" is a Christian term with a very specific religious reference in Churches and denominations which possess an episcopal structure. A church can be very important in a community's religious life without being a cathedral (e.g., Saint Peter's Basilica, Westminster Abbey), But a cathedral church, even a rather small and artistically indifferent one, is inherently important in the life of the local religious community.

So it is more than passing strange to see and hear this noble, religious term being used in such an abusive way to refer to what certain authors disdain and despise.

Is this yet one more example of the increasing surrender of right-wing Christianity to a purely political paradigm? Is this, then, one more piece of evidence to support the claim that religion on the American political right is increasingly being reduced to becoming largely a vehicle for the expression of political and ideological identity? If so, the cost to humanity will be more than merely linguistic.

What Are We to Do?

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, "What are we to do, my brothers?"

To repeat the same news over and over - to oneself or to others – is sometimes a sign that one has little or nothing to say. Alternately, however, it may suggest that there is something so important that it must be said over and over, so that it can be accepted and become part of the things that matter most in one’s life. that is obviously the case with the news of the resurrection. To hear the proclamation of Jesus' resurrection, over and over, during these Easter Sundays strengthens our faith by the witness of others’ faith - in particular the faith of the apostles and those other early disciples who were the first to model the good news of the resurrection in their life together and so witness it to the world. Hence one of the most noticeable features that distinguishes Easter from other seasons of our Catholic liturgical year is the daily reading from the New Testament book known as The Acts of the Apostles. Through our journey through the book of Acts, we identify ourselves with that first generation of Christians in their experience of the Risen Christ, becoming like them a community of disciples which witnesses to the presence and action of the Risen Lord in his Church, a community which expresses its new experience in its worship.

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, today's reading from Peter’s Pentecost sermon [Acts 2:14a, 36-41], we witness Peter wanting his hearers to feel personally impacted by his message – not simply hearing some new bit of information about which one might or might not care, and from which we might move on to some other item as we do all day long in our “information age.” Accordingly, his hearers, we are told, were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” 

Some 50 years ago, in a grad school paper on the change in world-view which the “global resource crisis” - as it was then called - might require, I took that verse for my title, using an older, more euphonious translation, “Brethren, what shall we do?” In that case, of course, it was bad news the reader was being asked to respond to - the early warnings of our current climate crisis, which - thanks to our widespread failure to respond - regularly keeps producing even more bad news.

Like the bad news about our changing climate, the good news of the resurrection challenges us to find the right response, a response which engages the whole person and ideally a whole community.

Today, for the 60th year in a row, the Church observes the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, a conciliar-era initiative bequeathed to the Church by Pope Saint Paul VI. "This providential initiative," Pope Francis has reminded us, "seeks to assist the members of the People of God, as individuals and as communities, to respond to the call and mission that the Lord entrusts to each of us in today’s world, amid its afflictions and its hopes, its challenges and its achievements."

In today's Church, Vocation Sunday signals both good news and bad news. The good news, of course, is that we have all been "called to a faith that bears witness, one that closely connects the life of grace, as experienced in the sacraments and ecclesial communion, to our apostolate in the world." Within this cosmic call, each of us is challenged to discern his or her special part in which Pope Francis calls the church's vocational "symphony," to ask the question, “Brethren, what shall do?” - and then to respond accordingly. Tomorrow, I will with gratitude and joy participate in the celebration of a 102-year old priest's 75th anniversary of ordination. Obviously, such longevity is a rare gift, which most of us will not be given. The point is not the length of one's life but how one uses that span of time to ask and answer that basic question, “Brethren, what shall do?”

The bad news, of which we are all aware, is that in our country at this time insufficient numbers appear to be asking and responding to this question in a way which will provide for the Church's communal life to flourish and its outward-facing mission to the world to continue.

In a particularly focused way, this 60th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations challenges us to focus on what is and will be required for the good news of the resurrection to continue to be heard, to continue to be spread from place to place, and to continue to be passed on from this generation to the next, in the life of the Risen Christ’s Body, the Church. It calls us to a renewed confidence - not unlike that of  those first Christians - in the Risen Lord’s promise to be with his Church forever and never to abandon it, regardless of all contrary indications in the present and our all too human fears for the future

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Rematch (continued)

During one of the outdoor negotiating scenes in episode 5 of this final season of Succession, Swedish tech billionaire Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard) says about ATN (the Roys' news network, which is the series' obvious analogue to Fox news), "The graph is horrible ... I don't think news for angry old people works." Like the Roy brothers, the Murdochs may resist this analysis. Even so, it is probably the case that the model of "news for angry old people" will work only as long as there are lots of angry old people around. Demographically, "the graph is horrible." However in the short run (and American electoral politics is primarily about the short run) the model has worked and continues to work. It could yet re-elect a twice impeached, already once defeated (twice in the popular vote), and criminally indicted former president, with catastrophic consequences for constitutional government and democracy both at home and abroad.

Coincidentally, a dominant mantra on the political right (and among the right's enablers in the mainstream media) has been the President Biden is old. At 80, he is indeed old, by any conventional measure. Yet that remains an odd complaint coming from a crowd whose voter base is largely also old and whose presumptive standard bearer is only four years younger than President Biden. Highlighting the President's age, however, is an unsubtle way of suggesting he is physically and mentally unfit for office, that he is no longer competent. 

Meanwhile, even while suggesting that the President with the most successful record of accomplishment so far of any president since LBJ is barely able to function, the same anti-Biden noisemakers blame him for every real and imaginary calamity and threaten a veritable apocalypse will befall us if Biden is elected.  Of course, consistency long ago became a casualty of the contemporary post-truth approach to politics, in which cause and effect no longer matter.

Reflecting on the political and cultural significance of a likely Biden-Trump rematch, I recently wrote that the existential importance of the coming electoral contest reflects the unsettled underlying divisions in our society that are reflected in the issues that continue to be contested despite Trump's 2020 defeat. I have long been of the view that, as Matthew Sitman has recently written, "the only verdict on Trump and the MAGA movement that finally matters will be delivered through politics - their defeat, or not, in contests for power." The electoral defeat Trump and the MAGA movement experienced in 2020 has so far proved insufficient for this purpose. A much more decisive defeat will be required. Nothing else really matters as much (including Trump's legal woes). Indeed, that may all be as it should be. In a quasi-democratic constitutional system, delivering a decisive electoral defeat is the desirable political solution to what remains fundamentally a political problem. And the stakes could hardly be higher.


Tuesday, April 25, 2023


It's now official. To absolutely no one's surprise, President Joe Biden has announced (via video) that he is running for a second term. Unlike Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, Biden faces no serious primary challenge. (Just as well, since - as those two examples illustrate - a primary challenge usually proves fatal for a president's pursuit of a second term.) So we can safely expect the Biden will be the Democratic party's nominee in 2024. Somewhat less certain (but by far still the most likely scenario) we may plausibly expect former President Donald Trump will be the Republican party's nominee in 2024. So we are being set up for a rematch of 2020.

It has been a long time since our two parties have produced such an explicit rematch. One would have to go back to 1956, when President Eisenhower ran for re-election against Adlai Stevenson, whom he had defeated in 1952 and would go on to defeat again in 1956. While, that is not exactly an encouraging precedent for the Trump camp, it is also largely irrelevant, both because of the way our two political parties and the nominating process have evolved and because of the personal and political uniqueness of Trump.

There is an opinion out there that the American electorate is not looking forward to a rematch and that voters would probably prefer a different choice between two different (and preferably younger) candidates. I think there is some truth to that. Yet, as history shows, when the time comes, it is a binary choice and voters do choose - and do so somewhat predictably. It has been suggested that some may stay home or walk away (perhaps to some mischief-making third party). Perhaps some will, but again history suggests that, when the time comes, most voters come home to the party with which they identify. (A third party candidate would, almost certainly hurt Biden and guarantee Trump's election.)

I think the familiar scenario of voters coming home to the party with which they identify is by far the more likely in 2024 than voters staying home. Over and above everything else, of course, there is the motivating force known as Donald Trump. Recent history suggests that Trump motivates voters to vote for him, who might not otherwise be regular or committed Republican voters. And, on the other side, Trump is the single most forceful motivator for anti-Trump voters to turn out for Biden and the Democrats. Four years ago, Biden did not start out as the likely next president - or even as the likely next nominee. Yet he won with the largest number of votes ever, while his opponent lost but in the process won the second highest number of votes ever.

My guess is that Trump will continue to motivate voters on both sides and will be the best asset the Biden campaign will have. This is not to denigrate Biden's fantastic record of presidential accomplishment which certainly dwarfs not only Trump's pathetic record (which his supporters probably don't care that much about) but also the accomplishments of the previous Democratic president. On his record alone, Biden should be the obvious frontrunner in his re-election bid. Such is the sorry state of our present politics, however, that such considerations count less than they once might have. 

In 2020, Biden successfully positioned himself and presented himself as the anti-Trump. Normally that would not work a second time, running as an incumbent. But, with Trump as the Republican candidate, it may well work again. And, as in 2020, Biden remains the best-placed Democrat, both in terms of personality and political experience, to make the anti-Trump case.

Personalities aside, there are existentially important issues at stake in the coming contest for president. Ideally, the outcome of the 2020 election should have settled those issues. Unfortunately, it has not. The fact that the 2020 election's outcome remains contested in some quarters on the extreme right just highlights the fact that those issues have not yet been settled - much as Appomattox did not definitively settle the issues that ignited the Civil War. Hence, the symbolic appropriateness of the 2024 being a rematch in every way.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Peace That Conquers Fear


Today’s annually repeated Gospel [John 20:19-31] captures the novelty and uniqueness of the resurrection in its account of the disciples’ two encounters (one week apart) with the glorified body of the Risen Christ. No one witnessed Jesus’ actual resurrection first-hand. What was witnessed initially was just an empty tomb – a necessary condition for the resurrection to have happened, but insufficient evidence in itself. Something more was needed, and something more did happen – in the form of a series of encounters in which the Risen Lord demonstrated to his disciples that he was the same Jesus who had lived and died (hence the wounds in his hands and side), now alive again in a unexpectedly new and wonderful way (hence his presence among them, although the doors were locked.)

Fearful for their safety, the disciples had hidden behind locked doors. Perhaps this was the same “upper room” where they had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where they would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. If so, how appropriate! Since apostolic times (long before it ever became part of the modern secularized "weekend"), Sunday, the first day of the week, has been the special day, the irreplaceably privileged day, when Christians assemble in their churches to encounter Christ, the Risen Lord, present through the power of his Holy Spirit in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.

On that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Surely, that was no mere wish on his part! Christ, the Risen Lord brings not some social or political peace, but the peace that conquers fear. It is clear enough from the locked doors just how fearful the disciples must have been.

Many of us do in fact spend much of our lives behind locked doors – a sensible practice perhaps in our violent, crazily gun-drenched society, but one obviously rooted in fear. There are also the many locked doors which one doesn’t see, but which one feels nonetheless. We may not be so afraid of the authorities as the disciples were, but our fears are no less real, wounding us in all sorts of ways, wounds we carry within us, concealing them as best we can.

Yet, when Jesus came to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side – and the disciples rejoiced. As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal the continuity between the Jesus who really and truly died on the cross and the now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds and impart his forgiveness in the sacraments of his Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

For the resurrection was not just some nice thing that happened to Jesus - and then leaves the rest of us and everything else in the world completely unchanged. It was – and is – the foundation of what the first letter of Peter, from which we just heard [1 Peter 1:3-9], calls an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading future inheritance to which, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we already have access here and now in the present.

It is fitting, therefore, that this 2nd Sunday of Easter is now known also as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” Through the many wonders and signs done through the apostles, as recounted in today’s 1st reading [Acts 2:42-47], and which we have experienced ever since in the unique sacramental community that is the Church, the Risen Lord has revealed his Heavenly Father as a God of mercy and himself as “Divine Mercy Personified.” The resurrection is, indeed, as the Pope Saint John Paul II said, some two decades ago, “a miracle of mercy,” which “has radically transformed humanity’s destiny.”

Like Thomas, none of us were there on that first day of the week, but we are here today - on this first day of this week. The celebration of Sunday is, as the Catechism says, “at the heart of the Church’s life,” “the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice,” “a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church” – the Church, which professes its faith in the Risen Lord and his new creation, and “so bears, nourishes, and sustains” our faith. The first day of the week, the day on which God began the work of creation, has become our day of re-creation, the beginning not just of another week but of a whole new way of life, pointing us forward to the fullness of that new creation in which, living for ever with the Risen Christ, we will finally become most fully human.

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, April 16, 2023.

Photo: Paschal Candle, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Where Are We Going?

Tom Nichols ("The Narcissists Who Endanger America," The Atlanticprobably got it right when he identified narcissism as a common trait linking compromisers of our national security - from those older, more traditional spies like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen to those ostensible "whistleblowers" like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to the young braggart Jack Teixeira, whose main motivation seems to have been to impress teenagers in a chat group and thus establish himself as an important person in an ultimately unimportant community of ultimately unimportant digital gamers. Indeed, Nichols identifies what he calls "a protracted epidemic of nacissism" of which Teixeira and his ilk are products. 

Of course, spies and leakers may have old-fashioned ideological motivations, or they may be motivated by greed, but neither seems to have been the case in this latest instance. And, inasmuch as someone like Robert Hansen seemed to have been motivated in some significant measure more by personal grievance than by those more traditional causes, obviously one cannot accordingly ascribe narcissism exclusively to the young. Hansen, however self-absorbed he may have been and however much he may have privileged his own personal grievance over the common good, was also smart and successful, in ways Teixeira does not appear to be. Perhaps before asking what motivates a chat-group gamer to betray his country one should first ask what would motivate anyone with aspirations to adulthood to be a chat-group gamer in the first place?

The media have been filled with questions like what was a 21-year-old doing with a security clearance? That is a very good question. But the more basic question, perhaps, is why a chat-group gamer with no apparent higher ambition than to impress teenager chat-group gamers was entrusted with any real-world responsibility at all, let alone access to national security classified documents! And the perhaps even more basic question is what has gone so radically wrong with our society that such activities actually exist as alternatives to growing up and assuming adult responsibility. (The social media platform Discord, where this mischief initially took place, describes itself as "Where just you and a handful of friends can spend time together. A place that makes it easy to talk every day and hang out more often.")

Of course, young (and many not so young) men have always been obsessed with impressing other young men, and many young men have been tempted to chronically anti-social behavior. I think it was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan who suggested that every generation is in a sense invaded by a new generation of barbarians, in the form of its young men. And it was Barbara Tuchman, I think, who ascribed the endemic violence of the middle ages to the medieval population's relative youth.  In any case, it has been the traditional role of society's essential institutions to perform the necessary socializing and civilizing functions to transform the next generation from swaggering but insecure adolescents into the next generation of parents, productive workers, and engaged citizens. That something has gone radically wrong in the United States in recent decades as the breakdown of traditional social institutions and most accompanying civilized expectations has upended this necessary generational socialization process appears increasingly evident in the dysfunctionality and fragility of so many young (and some not so young) people who are now on-line rather than forming families and building careers.

That this was not always the case in the United States and that it is still not the case in much of the rest of the world highlights the situationally specific character of these contemporary pathologies, which in themselves have little to do with age and a lot to do with six decades of institutional social breakdown and correspondingly increasing bad manners. The contemporaneous collapse of the cultural and political norms that are necessary to sustain democratic governance is but further evidence of how far gone we are as a society.

Dare one ask, Where are we going?

Friday, April 14, 2023

Breakfast with the Risen Lord


Modern pilgrims can quickly sense the contrast between the dry, dusty desert of Judea (where Jerusalem is) and the relatively lush, green of Galilee (where today’s Gospel [John 21:1-1-4] is set). Renewed annually by winter’s life-giving rains, the land around the Sea of Galilee is at its greenest in spring. And so, it was to that place at this season of the year, that Peter and six other disciples returned. It had been from those familiar shores that Jesus had originally called them to follow him. Now they’d come home – back to what they knew best. They went fishing.

But this was to be no normal fishing expedition!

There’s a lovely little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this event. In front of the altar is a rock, traditionally venerated as the stone on which the risen Lord served his disciples a breakfast of bread and fish. Staples of the Galilean diet, bread and fish seem to be staples of the Gospel story itself! Just a short walk away is another church, marking the site where Jesus had (not so long before) fed 5000+ people with five loaves and a few fish. Presumably, the disciples would have well remembered that earlier meal. Surely, we should as well, as we also assemble here at the table lovingly set for us by the risen Lord himself, here in this church. As surely as on that distant lakeshore, he feeds us with food we would never have gotten on our own.

Typically, in these stories of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is the sense that, while this is certainly the same Jesus the disciples had followed in life and who had died on the Cross, something about him is now different. Hence, the dramatic moment when Jesus is recognized, as when the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” But recognizing the risen Christ is not the end of the story. It is but the beginning of a life lived in love, in a community of love. We learn that love by following the risen Lord. Peter leads the way, dressing up for the occasion, jumping into the sea and swimming to Jesus ahead of the others. As his role requires, Peter here is already leading his flock, leading here by example. His example illustrates for the rest of us what it means, first, to recognize the risen Lord, and then actually to follow him.

Homily for Easter Friday, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, April 14, 2023.

Photo: Paschal Candle, Saint Mary's Old Cathedral, San Francisco

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Stages of Grief

Spoiler Alert: If, for whatever reason, you have not yet watched last Sunday's episode of Succession (season 4, episode 3, "Connor's Wedding"), read no farther!

The inevitable moment which we have all been expecting since the series' pilot episode several years ago has finally come. The moment Logan's children have been anticipating, in part perhaps dreading, in part perhaps eagerly expecting, has come - and come as a surprise, somewhat blindsiding them. A show all about succession to the capitalist version of a throne must at some point vacate the throne, if the succession is going to occur. 

So Logan Roy has died. He died, however, not (as we might have expected) as a series finale scene but in the third episode of the final season. He died not at center stage surrounded by his children, but very offstage in his private plane, far away from his family, surrounded only by his sycophantic company flunkies and far away from his children. Of course had he been a better father, he would have been on that extravagant boat in New York Harbor attending his son Connor's wedding and would have died surrounded by his children, not on a plane flying to finalize one more business deal. Instead, like Stalin, he died, in effect, alone. Even Stalin at least died at his own dacha. Logan died in his plane, in effect nowhere.

The episode is deceivingly titled "Connor's Wedding." We should have known by now that some of the show's more powerful moments happen at (or at least in connection with) weddings. Connor does indeed get married. Damaged like all his siblings, he is nonetheless proving to be the one who is most level-headed and is seemingly not in mourning for someone he feels never loved him, but is ready to move on with his life with Willa. But, while this may prove to be the most successful marriage of the lot, Connor's wedding is not the heart of the episode. The previous episode had indeed prepared us for the wedding. But, as always with poor Connor, his big moment was overshadowed by the perennial drama that is his family. 

The focus, as usual, is on the other kids and their complex mix of reactions. Kendal wants to impose order and control on what has no order and cannot be controlled. Shiv just seems to fall apart (although she will pull herself together to make the business-necessary statement on behalf of the family/firm). Roman is in complete denial and remains effectively in denial until he actually sees his father's body being offloaded from the plane at Teterboro Airport. The emotionally tumultuous scenes of the three of them trying to say some suitable final words (loving but also ambivalent) over the phone to their dying father (who probably can no longer hear them) are among the series' best. Logan's final words to his children the night before had also been ambivalent. He told them he loved them but also that they were not serious people, both of which were probably true.

Part of the appeal of Succession, I suppose, is the obscene opulence in which these characters live - their boats, their private jets, their travels, their complete insulation from any of the tasks and struggles of ordinary life. But death cannot be cheated, even by the narcissistic super rich. Another part of Succession's appeal, I suppose, is the flagrant amorality of the characters. Their complete insulation from life's ordinary tasks and struggles seems also to free them from any sense of moral accountability for their actions or for being the terrible people they are - something the rest of us can watch with self-righteous disdain (and maybe a certain element of envy). But, in this moment of ordinary universal human experience, from which they cannot escape despite all their wealth (as reflected in the absurd if poignantly revealing conversation between Kendal and Frank), the three siblings just seem to go to pieces, much as ordinary people might

Weddings also tend to bring the siblings (at least Kendal, Roman, and Shiv) together. (Think of the almost tender boat house scene at Shiv's wedding in season 1.) But Logan had skipped this latest wedding, as he had in the end skipped Caroline's and as he had almost skipped Shiv's. He died as he lived - sacrificing his family for business machinations - to be, as Roman said, a monster.

There is so much in this powerful episode. Inevitably, however, attention will now shift to the new form the succession struggle must take now that the throne is finally actually vacant. Can the kids remain united? They may have to, if only to keep the sycophantic business staff from taking over, or long-serving, long-suffering Gerri (whom Logan commanded Roman to fire as one of his last acts), or the people on the Board, or who knows who else? And what about the minor relations? Greg? Tom? (One wonders if Tom may now regret having chosen Logan over his wife!)

The future of the family/firm promises more twists and turns. For now, however, Logan's completely un-extraordinary death and the psychic toll it takes on those around him offer enough to rivet our attention.

Monday, April 10, 2023

America Coming Apart?

Anyone preoccupied with political polarization and democracy in America's deficits and prospects would do well to check out Harvard Professor James T. Kloppenberg's encyclopedic review of the relevant literature "Coming Apart? The future of democracy in America," in the April 2023 issue of Commonweal.

Kloppenberg, Harvard's Charles Warren Professor of American History, is suitably professorial in the wide-ranging sources he cites, sources central to exploring and understanding important aspects of our polarized present and the dilemmas of our democratic development. His language is academic - not in being excessively abstract, incomprehensible, or excessively narrow - but in its somewhat monistic preoccupation with seeing American history through what many might dismiss as a narrowly "woke" lens, that largely only sees racism and white supremacy. The author wants his readers to know that he is part of the "us committed to what we consider social justice." That said, he readily recognizes "the anger and resentment felt by those opposed to our efforts, for reasons they consider legitimate, or those left behind economically." Perhaps it is some sort of compensatory reflex that requires him to express "surprise" that many of those same "left behind" feel "disrespected, disgraced, invisible, and subordinated." Surely he should recognize, how historically and culturally limited it is to describe many of those same "left behind" as having "once dominated" this nation "so completely that their power went uncontested." Multiple generations of poor immigrants and working-class children of immigrants would surely be amazed to hear that they "once dominated" the nation, let alone that they dominated it "so completely that their power went uncontested"!

All that having been said, after that first couple of paragraphs, most of the rest of the article reflects serious historical study and analysis and a thorough command of the relevant sources. While recognizing that "strident polarization" is not new in American history, that author rightly recognizes that, especially when compared with the less polarized mid-20th-century period, something is distinctive about our present predicament, which he proceeds to try to explain. 

He identifies six factors:

"First, our parties have become more ideologically coherent. Second, our economy is more deeply enmeshed with global flows of capital and labor, which are accepted as inevitable according to the ideology known as neoliberalism. Third, the explosion of college education has blessed new winners and left out, both economically and culturally, many more. Fourth, our media landscape has been transformed by economic and technological changes. Fifth, our practices of active civic engagement, which have intrigued students of American culture since Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831, have withered into a craving for entertainment. Sixth and finally, our long-held national conviction that the future is brighter than the present has given way to anxiety, even dread, that our children will inherit environmental disasters and an economy that rewards only a lucky handful at the top."

The rest of the article is largely an analysis of each of these factors, with copious references to contemporary authors. While rightly acknowledging the racial component of this polarization process, he also pays comparable attention to the economic and social and cultural consequences. Thus, Hubert Humphrey was not only the last Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of white votes, he was also the last to challenge boldly "the prerogatives of organized capital." Meanwhile, older cultural "ideals of solidarity and obligation were collateral damage in the campaigns waged by the counterculture and neoliberals against stodgy neo-Victorian morality. Consecrating liberty empowered the powerful and tightened the screws on almost everyone else." At the same time, the 20th-century's class-based party cleavages have given way. "conservative parties represent high-income and low-educated voters; liberal parties 'have become the parties of higher-educated voters'." As a result, "cultural conflicts" have become more prominent, "especially the resentment felt by the less educated toward the more educated." On the one hand, Republicans blame cultural elites for voters' problems. On the other, "Democrats give them little reason to disagree."

The changes in the American media landscape have also contributed mightily to our present situation. "Because most local papers have shrunk or vanished, many Americans now know less about community issues that really matter to their lives. Filling that vacuum ... are obsessions with the largely symbolic, highly charged issues of the culture wars." So, while citizens increasingly know less, "many are furious much of the time."

What to do with all that fury?

Recognizing "that democracy rests on cultural predispositions, the premises of deliberation, pluralism, and an ethic of reciprocity," Kloppenberg advocates coalition building: "we must surrender our self-righteous insistence that others share our views and cooperate to achieve piecemeal, moderate reform, which requires humility and patience as well as tolerance. Dogmatism and purity tests obstruct Americans’ ability to work together across lines of difference."

Saturday, April 8, 2023

West Coast Easter

For the first time in my now rather long life, I have been spending the Easter Triduum on the West Coast, in San Francisco. (Of my 75 Easters, eleven were celebrated in Knoxville, TN, five in New Jersey as a grad student, four in Washington, DC, as a seminarian, an earlier four in Wisconsin when I was a political science professor, two in Grand Rapids, MI, as a deacon, one in Morgantown, WV, as a novice, and all the rest in New York.) 

I am just old enough to remember Easter before Pope Pius XII "restored" the order of Holy Week, when the liturgical services were still all early in the morning. I can remember as a young child once attending the Mass and procession on Holy Thursday morning and then the joyful moment at noon on Holy Saturday when Lent ended and we happily ate our first Easter eggs. Pius XII's "restored" order of Holy Week encouraged my adolescent liturgical enthusiasm through the excitement of going to Mass at night (an extreme rarity in those days) and the superb drama of the pre-conciliar Easter Vigil, which was then still a real vigil followed by the ringing of the bells, the playing of the hitherto silent organ, and Mass. Those ancient rites have since been reformed and "creatively" adapted (in some cases almost beyond recognition). The ancient Easter Vigil is now just an extra long Mass. So, while I still love the Exsultet and the ringing of the bells, now that I am no longer a pastor with liturgical obligations I am quite content to miss the rest of it.

Even now, however, few experiences still inspire me more than the procession on Holy Thursday night, a Mass which functions as a sort of First Vespers for the first day of the Easter Triduum, a day which ends with the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion in the late afternoon on Good Friday. Walking through the aisles and nave of a still beautiful, mid-19th-century church this past Thursday evening, I gave thanks for the permanently abiding eucharistic presence of the Risen Christ and for my own experience of a priesthood inseparable from that presence.

Regarding Good Friday itself, I found inspiration in a written reflection in the local parish bulletin, composed by my former Assistant Novice Master, who is celebrating his Golden Jubilee of priesthood this year: "The spiritual challenge of our older years is to accept the losses small and great with patience and good humor. ... When we're older, we may not be well enough to attend church, we may not hear well enough to talk with our friends over the phone, but we can still pray for our friends, and we believe those 'Good Friday' prayers offered though our pain and tears have powerful effect."

The way the Triduum is supposed to work, we are meant to go from the overcharged liturgical and devotional activity of the Triduum's first day to the relative inactivity and silence of Holy Saturday. This is reflected in the opening paragraph of the famous ancient Holy Saturday homily on Christ's descent to the underworld, which we read in today's Office: "Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled."

In complete contradiction to the nature of Holy Saturday, however, this supposedly still middle day of the Triduum is frequently a day of paradoxically frenzied activity in most parishes, as the grandiose decorating that used to take place after the Easter Vigil has now been anticipated beforehand. Now that what is supposed to be a day of profound silence and stillness has become a busy day of over-the-top horticultural display, we are paradoxically back where we were when the Easter Vigil was celebrated early Saturday morning and the rest of Saturday took on the inexplicably anticipated appearance of an early Easter.

But I am (regretfully) no longer a parish priest, and so I need no longer wrestle with the ambiguities of the Triduum's middle day. I am again free to focus - like most ordinary Christians - on the third and grandest day of the Triduum. Like the multitudes that throng the churches (some of them seldom on most other Sundays), I look forward to the best attended and most inspiring service of the Triduum - Easter morning Mass.

Photo: Good Friday, April 7, 2023, Old Saint Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Good Friday


It’s Good Friday, that so paradoxically named day, the first of three days (beginning at sunset yesterday and ending at sunset on Sunday) when, united with Christians of every time and place, we contemplate Christ crucified, buried, and risen. This is the Passover of the Lord.


The unique story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately wrapped up with the ancient story of the Lord’s Passover. As John's Gospel reminds us, Jesus died on the afternoon before the beginning of Passover, even as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin. His accusers would not enter Pilate’s headquarters in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover.


Passover celebrates the most important event in ancient Israel’s history – not just as something interesting that happened, once upon a time, but as something powerfully real and meaningful in the present, and as a sign of hope for the future. In the challenging words of the Passover ritual: In every generation let all look on themselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. … It was not only our ancestors, blessed be He, that the Holy One redeemed, but us as well did he redeem along with them. … In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.


At the exodus, the blood of the lamb marked the doors of the houses of God’s People in Egypt. In Jesus' time, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, however, now that the great high priest, Jesus, has passed through the heavens, the blood of the lamb has been shed, once and for all, on the altar of the cross – our doorway to salvation.


Marked by the blood that saves us all, the cross has thus become the Church’s door.  The cross is now, thanks to this day, our gateway to freedom and new life, and so a triumphant sign of glory for us and for all.


Of course, in the citadels of imperial power and our postmodern popular secular culture (so like the imperial governor Pontius Pilate in the caustic skepticism that simply dismisses the disconcerting possibility of something so definite and restricting as truth), the cross can only seem an ugly, nonsensical failure - what Saint Paul famously called a scandal and a stumbling block. But the paradoxical power of the cross is that Christ’s true triumph lay precisely not in his dramatically descending from the cross, as if he were some celebrity or actor, but in ascending the cross as a condemned criminal, one of many throughout humanity's long and tortured history – a paradox succinctly summarized by the prophet Isaiah: he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people … But … the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him … and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.


It was this strangely paradoxical text that, not so many years after the events we commemorate today, an Ethiopian court official was reading and struggling to understand, when he encountered the evangelist Philip and asked him: I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? Philip, Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him. With Philip, the unanimous witness of authentic Christian tradition has recognized - in Jesus crucified, buried, and risen - the one who perfectly fulfills the prophet’s paradoxical words.

As the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ side certified, Jesus really died on the cross. Then, bound with burial cloths according to the custom, his body was buried – all of which should then have been the end of the story. Were that the case, of course, we would hardly remember the events we commemorate today. We would hardly remember, let alone mourn, Jesus himself. 


But in fact we do remember, although we do not mourn. Today, instead of mourning, we celebrate the cross of Christ.


As St. John Chrysostom expressed it, so many centuries ago: Before, the cross was synonymous with condemnation; now it is an object of honor. Before, a symbol of death; now the means of salvation. It has been the source of countless blessings for us: it has delivered us from error, it has shone on us when we were in darkness. We were vanquished, yet it reconciles us with God. We were foes, yet it has regained God’s friendship for us. We were estranged, yet it has brought us back to him.


That is why today, in monumental basilicas and soaring cathedrals and tiny churches and rural missions, we will everywhere solemnly salute the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. In every generation, we too must look upon the cross of Christ and embrace it. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find help in our time of need.


Today, we will venerate the cross individually (imitating Mary, his mother standing by the cross of Jesus), for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model one’s life on the mystery of Christ’s cross - despite the difficulties life seems to put in the way, despite the obstacles each individual sinner personally puts in the way. Today too, we will venerate the cross together as the community of Christ’s holy Church - born on the cross in the blood and water which flowed out from Jesus’ side as a sign of the Church’s sacramental life and mission - because it is together as Christ’s Church (united with Mary, the Mother of the Church) that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world.


Passing through life this way, standing by the cross of Jesus and reborn as his Church in his blood and water, we will ourselves become Passover doorways, through which the Risen Lord's gift of salvation will flow from his side to fill our entire world.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Tennessee's Disgrace


One would think, after three nine-year old students and three adult staff were murdered by a beneficiary of Tennessee's toxic gun culture, that it could hardly get worse. In the aftermath of last week's mass murder, however, three Democratic members of the Republican-run Tennessee state legislature - Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville - spoke out and supported student protests on the House floor by demonstrators upset with Tennessee Republicans' refusal to act against our fatal epidemic of gun violence. As a result, two of them, the two Black representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled by Tennessee's Republican-controlled legislature in a seven-hour session - Jones by a vote of 72 to 25, Pearson by a vote of 69 to 26, The third, Knoxville's white, female Representative Gloria Johnson, escaped expulsion by one vote short of the required two-thirds. During the debate leading to his expulsion, Rep. Jones said: “We called for you all to ban assault weapons and you respond with an assault on democracy.”

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Holy Week

As a pastor, I always loved Holy Week. Of course, there was always that annual moment of panic, of worry whether the palms had arrived and if there were enough of them. (They always did, and there were always enough!) But, after that, there were few parish occasions more inspiring and unifying than the annual celebration of our basic story. Every day, I miss being a pastor - but never more so than in Holy Week.

"So, on Palm Sunday, with the chant of 'Hosanna filio David' we seem to enter another world," wrote 20th-century liturgical scholar Adrian Fortescue. "One would like to spend these days in something of the nature of a retreat," he continued. "That is not possible for most people. But at least, we should, as far as we can, leave behind our usual cares, at the threshold of Palm Sunday, to take them up again when we come out of the great days after Low Sunday."

I won't exactly be leaving behind my usual cares, much less pending these days on retreat. But - ever desirous of at least spending Holy Week in a parish - I will be traveling across the country to experience Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in a parish. Then, after Easter morning Mass, I will be able to visit my nearby family for a holiday catch-up.

May this special week, when we recall the central story of our redemption be a time of renewal and blessing for the whole Church and for the whole world!

Image: Palm Sunday, The Roman Missal, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ, 2011.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Alea Iacta Est

Those of us who went to school back when schools still taught serious subjects like history will all recognize the popular version of the words attributed by Roman historian Suetonius to Julius Cesar when Caesar led his army across the Rubicon river into Italy on January 10, 49 BC. Since he was doing so in defiance of the Senate and so starting a civil war, the expression alea iacta est (or,  alternately, iacta alea est, either way "the die is cast") has come to refer to passing a point of no return.

It seems like forever now since pundits have been prognosticating and pontificating about whether or not (and, if so, when) former President Trump might be indicted. I too have contributed my modest share to that tiresome discussion. That "Rubicon" has now been crossed, come what may.

As of now, it appears that Trump plans to come to New York to surrender sometime next week, probably on Tuesday. This now matters more than it might otherwise matter since Florida's mischievous Governor (so recently embarrassingly outsmarted by Mickey Mouse) has decided to defy Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime. Who knew De Santis was a proponent of Florida's becoming such a "sanctuary state"?

De Santis' reaction is just the tip of the MAGA iceberg, a potentially Titanic-proportioned iceberg. We may be going down a potentially very dangerous path. The Manhattan DA will definitely need the self-confidence of Caesar himself! It will be a long time (if ever) before we can say (as was said by President Ford in 1974) "our long national nightmare is over."

It is, of course, quite possible in theory (if somewhat improbable in practice) that the case against Trump will play itself out somewhat calmly, resulting in an equally calm acquittal or conviction. More likely, however, this trial (assuming it actually goes to trial) will just further polarize our already hopelessly divided country. The precedent now having been set of a local DA of one political party bringing criminal charges against a former President (and presidential candidate) of the other party, we may perhaps imgine DAs in other places trying the same against President Biden after he leaves office and against other Democratic politicians and presidential candidates, thus conceivably continuing the sad cycle of political dysfunction and democratic decline. Talk about a "long national nightmare"!

That said, this could be the righteous reckoning our society so desperately needs right now with the harmful forces which have increasingly dominated our politics. My personal preference would have been for that reckoning to take a more properly political form - for Trump and MAGA world to be decisively defeated at the polls, which is how things ought to be resolved in a democratic republic, an outcome always preferable to reliance on an imperial judiciary instead of the political process to solve problems. One of the great advantages the Democrats have had in Joe Biden is that he seems to be one of the few who still really trusts the political process to defeat Trump, and he may yet be the one to do so decisively.

But back to indictment-world, my guess is that this further solidifies Trump's hold over the MAGA community in particular and the Republican party in general. One of the curious characteristics of culture-warriors (in religion as in politics) is that it seems to be the conflict itself that energizes them. What culture-warriors apparently care most about is fighting the good fight against enemies they deem to be irremediably evil. That and an obsessive sense of victimhood. (Many years ago, in a completely different context, I once asked an acquaintance to explain why certain people perceived themselves - or, at least, constantly presented themselves - as victims of others' supposed hostility. His answer was that presenting oneself as a victim in that way justifies their hostility to others and their attempts to oppress those others if given an opportunity to do so. That seems to explain well our contemporary culture-warriors - in religion as in politics.)

To his miserable MAGA world, Trump is the offended victim who heroically "fights" back, who perfectly personifies MAGA world's perversely self-invented sense of victimhood and desire for a strongman (or a "King Cyrus") to "fight" on their behalf.

We need no indictment to confirm what a horrendously terrible president Trump was. What it does do is add to our appreciation of just how destructive of our political order his supporters actually are.