Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Carrying Him into the World


After the horrible hiatus of the covid pandemic and despite its continuing dangers, more and more people have been traveling here, there, and everywhere. And, among those many trips, some certainly are visits with family and friends.

Now, as we all well know, family visits are not always what we would like them to be – especially, perhaps, in this fraught period of political polarization and division, when it may be a challenge not to cause or exacerbate conflict! Sometimes, we visit only grudgingly – more a matter of duty than desire. How fitting, then, to hear today about a visit by one person whose motives, we know, were never mixed! 

The traditional site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home is the little town of Ein Karem, some 5 miles west of Jerusalem – a journey at that time of several days from Galilee through Samaria to Judea. Obviously, we cannot know now exactly what Mary may have thought or felt as she undertook that difficult journey. The story says she set out in haste. No procrastination, no putting off what might seem merely a dutiful but burdensome social obligation. Perhaps, she sought to draw on the wisdom and strength of her older relative. Surely, she must have wanted to make contact (in a world without Twitter) with the only other person who had thus far been let in on God’s great plan, that was even then quite literally taking shape in the bodies of these two remarkable women.

Instead of shouting her good news to the world (which until then had reproached her for being childless), Elizabeth was waiting silently for the miracle’s full meaning to make itself known. Instead of cautiously keeping quiet, Mary rushed to tell all to Elizabeth, thus showing her own complete confidence in God who had totally taken over her life.

Back in 5th century North Africa, one of the great Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine, said: “If God’s Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity, and we would have been in despair.”

The God for whom Elizabeth silently waited for so long, the God whom Mary carried in her womb so faithfully, has come at last to live with us. In the process, he connects us not only with himself but with one another. As he brought Mary and Elizabeth together, filled with the Holy Spirit, so he leads us to one another and unites us, thought the same Holy Spirit, in a new community, formed by faith, directed by hope, and alive with love. And we, as a result, must never let things be the same again!

And they won’t be - and we won’t have reason to despair ever again - if, like Elizabeth, when we hear him coming, we offer him the hospitality of our hearts, and if, like Mary, having conceived him in our hearts, we are willing to carry him into the world with confidence – so that Christ can truly be our hope and become so for all the world.


Homily for the feast of the Visitation, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, May 31, 2023.

Photo: Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

American Christianity's Fate (The Book)


It is perhaps a paradox of contemporary society and politics that "Americans in the twenty-first century find themselves in an increasingly secular society saddled with an increasingly religious politics." Paradox or not, David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at Berkeley proposes to explain this phenomenon from within the larger scope and context of the history of American religion, specifically American Protestant Christianity, in Christianity's American Fate: How Religion Became More conservative and Society More Secular (Princeton University Press, 2022).

Many associate the increasing power and politicization of conservative evangelicalism, but Hollinger stresses that "Trump took advantage of a white evangelical culture that was well in place before he came along and is likely to remain a factor in American public life after he is gone." But evangelicalism has long been in competition with another strain of American Protestantism, what we typically call "mainline" or even "liberal" Protestantism, but which the author labels "Ecumenical Protestantism," which "channeled through Christianity the Enlightenment's perspective on belief and its generous view of human capabilities." Contrary to what he sees as the popular view "that evangelical churches flourished because they made greater demands on the faithful," he argues that "ecumenical" churches sought to impose greater social obligations, "especially the imperative to extend civil equality to nonwhites," while "Evangelicalism made it easy to avoid the challenges of an ethnoracially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture." A more nuanced position perhaps might acknowledge that more conservative Churches have been more demanding in matters of belief and sexual morality, while liberal Churches have put more emphasis on social justice and accepting the challenges of modern science.

In any case, he contends that the once powerful mainline American Christianity has been "hollowed out" by the departure of those he calls "post-Protestants" (among whom he includes himself), who have been replaced  "by white evangelicals allied with conservative Catholics on issues of sexuality gender, and the limits of civic authority." In large measure, much of the book is an account of how this came to be.

He adopts Martin E. Marty's terminology of American Protestantism's "two-party system," which persisted throughout the 20th century and into the present century. Two important changes which opened things up, he argues were Jewish immigration and the broadening experience of American Protestant missions abroad. Urbanization also played a role as did the increasing de-Christianization of academia, which he sees as somewhat Jewish-influenced, along with the increasing replacement of ministers "by mental health professionals as authorities for dealing with personal problems." During the interwar years, the Protestant "two-party system was on full display." At its post-war zenith, the liberal, "ecumenical" party "took for granted that Protestant Christianity was the proper foundation for world order and that it was up to Americans to establish it."

To a certain extent, ecumenical Protestantism's impulse "to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it," opened it to increasing secularizing challenge. a gap developed between "cosmopolitan leaders" and small town and rural laity and pastors, and the growth in higher education encouraged an exodus of young people out of the more liberal churches, while those who remained began to have fewer children. Ecumenical leaders "abandoned to opportunistic evangelicals the classic missionary goal of conversion, the powerful claim of a proprietary relationship to the American nation, and a host of other aspirations to which many white Americans remains attached," meanwhile accommodating "perspectives on women and the family that reduced their capacity to reproduce themselves."

By the 21st century, "post-Protestants and post-Catholics began to go on record about their lack of religious affiliation." (More than one-third of born Catholics no longer identify as such in the U.S., and about 17% of such post-Catholics profess no affiliation.)

Meanwhile, the "transformation of the global Christina profile" has "greatly strengthened the claims of American evangelicals that they - not the mainliners - were the true exemplars of the ancient faith." This may be exacerbated by the liberal churches' relative decline in interest in issues of economic inequality in favor of identity politics and a suspicion of the older "universalist ideology that had been a defining feature of ecumenical Protestantism, and that served as a justification for its progressive engagements of the 1940s, 950s, and 1960s."

What the author considers the most significant challenge to conservative Christianity's increasing dominance in the U.S. is "the vitality of African American Protestantism." African -American Christians are often doctrinally conservative evangelicals, but African Americans "have had a worldly education in American social practices that inoculated them against many of the ideas white evangelicals found compatible with evangelically flavored theologies."

Apart from historical interest, why should contemporary secular liberals like this book's the "post-Protestant" author care about all this? The author is clearly an advocate for a liberal secularized fulfillment of the spirit of ecumenical Protestantism, which he worries is now in retreat as evangelical Protestantism increases in political power, imperiling (in his understanding) the variant of democratic politics which political and cultural liberals have cherished. Thus, he revealingly regards the 1940s "conscience exceptions" to conscription as not a threat to democracy, but he does see a threat in the contemporary application religious liberty (which he revealingly puts in quotes) to groups he is less ideologically sympathetic to. Of course, he is correct in recognizing that in the contemporary intersection of and conflict between religious liberty and an increasingly intrusive anti-discriminatory legal regime lies one of today's great religious and cultural battlefields, the resolution of which will in part depend upon the extent ot which religion continues to be valued by enough of contemporary society for it to continued to occupy the privileges accorded it by the Constitution.

Even apart from specifically spiritual reasons, religion remains a powerful force for many people, as the author acknowledges, because "churches have long been vital centers of community, sustainers of cultural tradition, and settings in which to contemplate some of life's terrors and enigmas."

The author concludes with the curious claim that "American Protestants have always been subject to conflicting appeals, voiced by two of Christianity's greatest figures, the Apostle Paul and Immanuel Kant." I wonder whether even the "ecumenical" Protestants whose heritage the author would apparently like to see a revitalized version of to compete with the now dominant evangelical form of contemporary Protestantism would so readily accord Kant a position - as a Christian figure - on a par with Saint Paul. Perhaps the inability to locate an alternative to evangelical Christian politics in a more universally recognizable manifestation of authentic Christianity than Kant highlights the very problem the author aspires to resolve!

Monday, May 29, 2023


Spoiler Alert: If, for whatever reason, you have not yet watched the series finale of Succession, read no farther. And, whether you read this or not, by all means watch the series finale!

I was right about at least one thing. Unsurprisingly, Lucas Mattsson did betray Shiv. That pales in comparison, of course, only to Shiv's final betrayal of Kendall; but it perfectly facilitates the alternately heart-warming and sad scenes of the "sibs" in their semi-final reconciliation and their final breakup. What a way to end the series!

It is hard to end a successful series. Finales do not always live up to a series' promise. But this one did.

At last, it is time to answer the question that has been the leitmotif of the entire season: Who will replace Logan as Waystar CEO? In reality, however, the actual corporate succession was always a secondary theme to the intra-family destructive dynamic among the sibs and their collection of comparably damaged underlings. For all their horribleness as people and the harm they have done to the world, they still remain people like us - richer than we will ever be but otherwise like us - desperately desiring love and respect and repeatedly (and finally) failing decisively to achieve either.

Stipulate again that that these are all very bad people. The poison has really dripped through, to quote Kendall. Nor are any of the "sibs" suitable to run the company. "I love you," Logan said, in his last words to his children, "but you are not serious people." That said, the "sibs" qualify as traditionally tragic figures whose well deserved unhappy fate nonetheless moves us profoundly. At one point or other I have rooted for each of them to win something (if not necessarily CEO, but at least something). From day one, of course, the story has revolved around Kendall's arc - a promised heir, repeatedly frustrated, a failed son who periodically rises to the occasion only to fall again. Kendall began the series with lots of money but unfulfilled aspirations and self-induced failures and ends it even more money but having lost everything else - his lifelong ambition (since age seven) to be CEO, his father, obviously, but also his wife and his children and, of course, his siblings. He could yet start his own business and maybe do any number of other things with his billions, but he will always be alone and unloved.  All he has left is Colin (not unlike his father at the beginning of this fourth season). Colin's life also appears empty (and he could conceivably yet perhaps turn on Kendall and report him to the authorities for his  misadventure with the waiter!).

Meanwhile, Shiv - having dethroned Kendall at the very moment that was supposed to be crowned - seems ready to settle down in her new subordinate role as wife of the new crime boss. ("Boss" may be too flattering to Tom, who admittedly has gotten the high status he always wanted, but he will likely have little power and lots of humiliation. What normal person would choose to be a "pain sponge" for a boss who wants to have sex with your wife?) Shiv's betrayal of Kendall clears the way for her to reengage with her hitherto at best transactional marriage. ("Are you interested in a real relationship?” she had earlier asked Tom.)  Will Tom and Shiv stay together and raise the next generation of damaged failsons? Will Shiv, who is not as smart as she thinks she is but is still smarter than her "empty suit" husband, become the power behind Tom's uneasy throne?

And what of Roman? From the start he seemed to have the least promise, and he also ends up at the end very rich but also very alone. He seems personally undone and truly done with it all. Of course, he is still rich enough to do any number of interesting things with his life and his billions, but he doesn't really seem to want to do anything at all, now that the poisoned CEO chalice has eluded him also. Perhaps, that passivity is liberation? As Kendall said to Roman, "Maybe you're well adjusted, and I'm a business psycho." More importantly, Roman got to utter the self-evident (but seldom admitted) truth when, during the climactic sibling conflict scene, he acknowledged, "we're nothing."

The finale opens with the two sides (Kendall and Roman vs. Shiv and Mattsson) armed and ready for battle before the board meeting. We've been through enough with this family to know that a lot will happen in the episode and that the sides may switch, maybe more than once, and that the seemingly predestined winners will likely lose. Along the way, however, we get treated to the family's most incredible highs and lows. Roman, having been injured in his atypical encounter with the non-rich world, has fled to his mother. Shiv and Kendall fly there too in order to win Roman over. (It still amazes me how these people can just get up and get into a private plane and jet off somewhere as if it were just the most normal thing in the world!)

While with their mother, they learn the truth about Mattsson's plans and so forge an alliance. In the process, they reenact what seems to have been something of a childhood game, which reminds us yet again that these three were really once kids together, and that at some level they still hunger to recapture that childhood closeness. Even Caroline seems to soften enough to express some pleasure at seeing them apparently on the same side. (Wisely, she thinks the GoJo deal may be an opportunity for them to free themselves.) Those family feelings get reinforced in one of the series' relatively rare, but very charming familial scenes. In their father's (now Connor's) apartment, they all watch a video of Logan and some of his cronies all acting like normal, nice, fun-loving human beings, all of which triggers their own childhood memories and they (for the last time in the series and perhaps for the last time ever in their lives) share a tender moment and hold hands together. Part of me would have liked it to end there, as if that could possibly be perpetuated, as if Waystar and the succession struggle could disappear and these people could really just become a functional family. But there were enough minutes left to suggest something more had to happen, and so, seemingly inevitably, came the traumatic, tragic ending.

So much has been said about Succession's relationship to our present decadent social reality. In the end, it seems to me that, above and beyond what it may be saying about rich media moguls and dysfunctional failsons, it combines the universal story of our human desires for love and respect, often corrupted by our own or others' tragic flaws, often frustrated by our own mistakes (and, dare one say, sins) with a painfully on-point presentation of our contemporary American society, governed by greed, dominated by the entire panoply of the Devils "works and pomps."

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Pentecost Then and Now: Isaac Hecker and the Mission of the Holy Spirit


In 1866, the day after the solemn opening ceremony of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) wrote: "The opening yesterday was grand, imposing and solemn. It seemed to me like a vision of Pentecost Day" [Letter to Fr. Tillotson].

Today is Pentecost Sunday, which commemorates the Risen and Ascended Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church. The Acts of the Apostles recounts not only the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit but more especially the effects of that event in the dynamic communal life and expansive growth of the apostolic Church. Not for nothing did past periods consider the Acts of the Apostles "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit." As the Church's unique link with her Risen and Ascended Lord, the Holy Spirit continues Christ's dynamic life and transforming work in the world. As Yves Congar, the great 20th-century scholar of the Holy Spirit stressed, just as Christ enables us to know the Father, the Spirit enables us to know, recognize, and experience Christ, bringing about our intimacy of union or communion with Christ [I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 1, part 1, ch. 2].

In the 19th century, the mission of the Holy Spirit in the Church had great resonance and occupied a central place in Isaac Hecker's spirituality. So Pentecost Sunday seems an especially fitting occasion to reflect upon Hecker's understanding of the mission of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

In the formative, first phase of his life, when he was "Earnest the Seeker," Hecker was animated by an increasingly conscious appreciation of God’s Providence that opened him to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s care for him. Through that experience, he recognized the grace to attach himself to the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his life. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote the rest of his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Hecker’s enthusiasm for his new faith and his commitment to the Church would permeate all his subsequent activities. All his diverse pastoral and missionary efforts and accomplishments would remain rooted in his abiding trust in God’s presence and action in his own life and in the world in which he lived. His conversion was complete, and his spirituality was generously and determinedly evangelizing – expressing a prayerful, lifelong, intimate cooperation with God’s design for human beings. Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die” [“Dr. Brownson and the Workingman’s Party Fifty Years Ago,” Catholic World 45 (1887)].

One can discern early anticipations of Hecker’s appreciation of the mission of the Holy Spirit already in his experience as a young spiritual seeker, searching for God among the multiple religious and cultural expressions existing in his time, most famously among the Transcendentalists and at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. Having, however, discerned the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in God’s providential care for him, Hecker had identified his own inner aspirations and longings with the action of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thereafter, one of his strikingly distinctive emphases as a Catholic - in his own personal spiritual life, in his reflections regarding his Paulist religious community, and in his general spiritual teaching – would be his intense personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to foster among the faithful an increased appreciation of and openness to the fundamental activity and inspiration of the Holy Spirit operating in each individual and in the life of the Church. Throughout his Catholic life, his unfailing commitment to the Church’s mission remained rooted in his deeply felt, intensely lived personal experience of the indwelling presence and action of the Holy Spirit.  As he wrote in the mid-1870s: "An act of entire faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things – in its infinite love, wisdom, power; that it is under its influence and promptings up to now my life has been led. Though not clearly seen or known, He has directed every step. On this faith, on this principle, promised to act now and in time to come. To be above fear, doubt, hesitation, or timidity, but patient, obedient, and stable." [From private memoranda made in Europe during his illness, 1874-1875]. 

Hecker was not a systematic theologian. What he wrote was not some “theology” of the Holy Spirit but his personal appreciation and discernment of how the activity of the Holy Spirit is experienced in the Church and of the individual, ecclesial, and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity in the world.

The Church and the Agea collection of twelve articles published as a book in the year before Hecker’s death, represents the most comprehensive summary of his most mature thought on the themes that had preoccupied him for most of his life. It offers Hecker’s mature insights on his lifelong faith in the complementary action of the Holy Spirit within the individual and the Holy Spirit’s action in the authority of the Church. Repeating themes long prominent in his earlier speaking and writing, The Church and the Age can confidently be turned to as a summary and synthesis of his most fully developed and mature spiritual discernment.


Thus,  in proposing the Catholic Church as “the radical remedy of all our evils” in The Church and the Age, Hecker pivoted to his exposition of the Mission of the Holy Spirit:  

"The essential and universal principle which saves and sanctifies souls is the Holy Spirit. … The actual and habitual guidance of the soul by the Holy Spirit is the essential principle of all divine life. … Christ’s mission was to give the Holy Spirit more abundantly. … In accordance with the Sacred Scriptures, the Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is infused, with all his gifts, into our souls by the sacrament of baptism, and that without His actual prompting or inspiration, and aid, no thought or act or even wish, tending directly towards our true destiny, is possible. ... Thus the sum of the spiritual life consists in observing and yielding to the movements of the Spirit of God in our soul, employing for this purpose all the exercises of prayer, spiritual reading, sacraments, the practice of virtues, and good works."
On this basis, therefore, Hecker effectively posited three interrelated renewals: that of the age (the world, society), dependent on that of religion (the Church), itself inseparable from that of the individual: 

"The light the age requires for its renewal can come only from the same source. The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul."


As contemporary Hecker scholar John Farina has recently suggested, the 19th-century was widely perceived at the time as an era of change, progress, transformation, and expansion, as secular society was responding to the novel economic, political, and social forces that had been unleashed in its midst. It may well have appeared to many Christians as a sort of secular analogue to the apostolic era portrayed in Acts. Hence the strong positive resonance of "Spirit" language in 19th-century American religion.

Historically associated with spiritually regenerative transformation (as in Acts), "Spirit" language has, however, also been associated at times with deformation disruption, and revolution That was also how the 19th century was widely experienced and perceived by many Catholics and other Christians at the time (and by many since). Probably the greatest historical example of such a seemingly distorted use of "Spirit" language had been the lasting legacy associated with the medieval apocalyptic monk Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), famous for his trinitarian interpretation of history as three ages or epochs and especially for an increasingly radical interpretation of the present third era of the Holy Spirit in which the Church would be in varying degrees transcended. While Joachim himself was seen as saintly in his own lifetime, his problematic interpretation of history has influenced various theological, philosophical, and political apocalyptic movements - Catholic, Protestant, and secular. (myself first encountered Joachim as an undergraduate studying the 20th-century German Marxist Ernst Bloch, which suggests where such tendencies can lead!).


Lest there be any ambiguity about how Hecker understood “a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” Hecker himself  wrote to longtime Paulist colleague Augustine Hewit: “I anticipate no special outpouring of the Holy Spirit – in the miraculous sense, no more than the present action, or the action of the Church in any age was miraculous” [February 13, 1875](In this, Hecker seemed to be echoing Aquinas [cf. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 106, art. 4].)

In a diary begun in Egypt, Hecker continued his lifelong reflection on the mission of the Holy Spirit specifically in relation to  the life of the Church, within which the action of the Holy Spirit is primarily experienced: "To wish to enlarge the action of the Holy Spirit in the Soul, independently of, or without the knowledge [and] appreciation of the necessity of the external authority of the Church, her discipline, her laws, her worship, etc. [and] the spirit of obedience, would only be opening the door to eccentricity, schism, heresy, [and] spiritual death. He who does not see the external authority of the Church, and the internal action of the Holy Spirit in an inseparable synthesis, has not a right or just conception of either."

A century and a half later, we may hear in Hecker an anticipation of Vatican II's contemporary reminder of how the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, endowing the Church with diverse hierarchical and charismatic gifts, distributing graces among the faithful of every state of life, equipping them for various activities and responsibilities that benefit the renewal or increase of the Church. These charisms, the simpler and more widespread as well as the most outstanding, should be accepted with a sense of gratitude and consolation, since in a very special way they answer and serve the needs of the Church [Lumen Gentium, 12].

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

How Will Succession End?


How will Succession end? In another few days, the whole world will know, and all speculation will cease. Until then, however, the world has been inundated with such speculation, which will only increase in the run-up to Sunday's grand finale.

Roman having precipitously (but hardly unsurprisingly) fallen out of contention at the end of episode 9 (leaving an opening for Kendall to hit it out of the park with his spontaneous eulogy), Kendall has clearly positioned himself as head of the family ready now to claim the crown originally promised but denied him four seasons ago in the series' pilot. (The story sort of started with Kendall's loss. Will it then end with him, either winning or losing?) This time, however, the challenge to Kendall's takeover comes from his sister Shiv, who is allied with Gojo's Lucas Mattsson in his attempt to take over Waystar, which she hopes (based on the flimsiest of assurances) to run as its American CEO, presumably freezing out her brothers (and maybe - or maybe not - her husband).

Of course, neither Kendall nor Shiv has had much of a successful track record over the course of the series' four seasons. Both are smart, but neither as smart as he or she seems to think. Kendall has fallen repeatedly, but has shown a resiliency that has brought him back from the lowest depths into serious contention at this point. Shiv, for all her scheming, has been repeatedly outmaneuvered, by her father, her brothers, her husband, and now maybe by her ostensible ally.

Maybe neither will win the prize. Maybe Mattsson and the dubiously designated President-elect Mencken will seek power, domination, and control through someone more malleable and pliable for their purposes. So how about Greg as CEO? A horrifying thought, but this series has been all about horrifying people thinking and doing horrifying things. (One of the series' singular dramatic accomplishments has been how successfully it has portrayed some of the world's worst people in a way which makes them more than occasionally seem sympathetic.) 

But, while Greg has his fans, others have more plausibly suggested Gerri, an obviously more meritorious choice, although this is definitely not a celebration of meritocracy! This show is all about those who have getting more and those who don't have getting even less. Either way, one highly plausible scenario is certainly for the Roy "sibs" to end up doing what they do best - failing. Remember Logan's last words to them: "I love you, but you are not serious people." Shiv rightly calls Kendall and Roman "dumb and dumber," but in truth they are all failures - even Connor, although he at least seems to stand more of a chance than they of making a moderately happy marriage.

Obviously, who will or will not succeed Logan is a central theme of Succession. That is the show's title, after all. But Succession has always been about more than just who will become CEO. It is, first and foremost, a family story, a family tragedy of stereotypically "Shakespearean" proportions. For most of us most of the time, I think the family story has been central. But there is also a larger socio-political dynamic, as the family dysfunction spills out into the larger world from which the Roys are largely insulated and isolated. Has ATN (the show's unsubtle surrogate for FOX) damaged America as Logan has damaged his family? Have both America and the Roys been irretrievably damaged by predatory capitalism as personified in Logan? It was Kendall who asked whether the poison drips through, and it is he who shows how much it has done so by showing himself finally to be truly his father's son, and like Logan giving up trying (in Uncle Ewan's words), and becoming instead the kind of disastrous dad and corporate monster that Logan was.

Amidst all the horror, however, it is good to remember that this is a family story and, as such, it has its tender moments, now and then, in each season when the characters' humanity is allowed to poke through from their damaged selves - scenes such as the "sibs" recreating their childhood during a break at Shiv's wedding in season 1 or the tender hug between Kendall and Shiv when Kendall tells her he will not be the one in season 2, or the three seemingly just enjoying each other's company early in season 4 and their grieving hugs after Logan's death. Others too occasionally demonstrate human feeling and a capacity for reconciliation. Think of Caroline reaching out to Kerry at the funeral and the shared grief (mixed seemingly with a sense of liberation) of Logan's four women seated together at last in the same pew.

What would I like to see happen? What would be the best outcome for these unhappy damaged people? Perhaps if Mattsson got his way with Waystar and ATN and the "sibs" got out and reverted to their earlier plan to buy Pierce and somehow learned to run it somewhat successfully together, recovering some of the fragmentary good feelings they had enjoyed earlier in the final season, while Connor and Willa settled down to genteel life in Logan's old apartment, that would be perhaps the best possible outcome for the family, especially if Shiv and Tom tried to make a go of it now that they are to be parents. I don't actually expect any of that. The ending, I fear, will likely be darker. For not only are they all terribly damaged people, but they have, wittingly or not, done a lot of damage in the world from the macro level (President Mencken) to the micro (the dead waiter). Only in a fairy tale world would all that get wiped away, but some rough justice may be at play in the catastrophic collapse of the house of Roy.

Jackie Onasis, whose real funeral was held in the same church where Logan's TV funeral was, once famously said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much.” I think a lot of ordinary people - the kind Logan still had some grudging respect for but his children can never connect with - would agree with her. At bottom, Succession is a sad story about one generation after another doing a bad job raising their children, with catastrophic consequences. Likewise on a macro level, the likes of Logan and Kendall, having failed as parents, fail as flagrantly to care for the world they live in. It cannot end well!

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

I Told Them So

I told them so. Not literally, of course. I have no direct access to "them," nor would "they" ever have likely listened to me. But what I thought and said at the time, others also thought and said, others who did have access and who certainly should have been listened to. The Democrats in Congress and the White House had their chance to avoid the current crisis and the distasteful compromises they may yet have to make to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves. They had a chance to avoid all this by raising the debt ceiling last year, when they still had a modicum of control over Congress. Better yet, of course, they should have completely abolished the debt ceiling, an absurd example of American Exceptionalism that makes no logical, fiscal, or moral sense. (The debt ceiling may even - thanks to the 14th Amendment - be unconstitutional, although that has never been tested.) But, with their typical lack of imagination and their addiction to totally short-term thinking, our leaders missed that opportunity. 

So now we are saddled as a country with an unnecessary crisis and the danger of default, a catastrophe so monumental that it seems hard to imagine the Democrats not caving in to at least some degree to Republican villainy. Elections have consequences. Republican control of the House made this catastrophe very likely. Yet nothing was done to avert it. 

How many times must we repeat this ridiculous exercise? Most countries do not operate this way, and whatever one believes about "American Exceptionalism," the U.S, doesn't have to either. The debt limit could be indexed to rise automatically, or it could be suspended, or better yet abolished entirely. Instead, it has become, as Ezra Klein once wrote, "a cocked gun that reckless legislators could use to hold their own country hostage unless they got what they want."

Monday, May 22, 2023

Uncle Ewan's Eulogy

Spoiler Alert: If, for whatever reason, you have not yet watched last Sunday's episode of Succession (season 4, episode 9, "Church and State"), read no farther!

“I loved him, I suppose, and I suppose some of you did too, in whatever way he would let us and we could manage. But I can’t help but say he has wrought some of the most terrible things. He was a man who has here and there drawn in the edges of the world. Now and then darkened the skies a little. Closed men’s hearts. Fed that dark flame in men, the hard mean hard-relenting flame that keeps their heart warm while another grows cold. Their grain stashed while another goes hungry. ... You can get a little high, a little mighty when you’re warm. Oh yes, he gave away a few million of his billions but he was not a generous man. He was mean, and he made but a mean estimation of the world and he fed a certain kind of meagerness in men. Perhaps he had to because he had a meagerness about him and maybe I do about me too, I don’t know. I try. I try. I don’t know when but sometime he decided not to try anymore and it was a terrible shame.”

So spoke Uncle Ewan at his brother Logan Roy's funeral in the next-to-last episode of Succession. This post is not a commentary on that long-awaited funeral episode, or on season four, or on the series as a whole. All that will have to wait until after next Sunday's grand finale. Here, I am reflecting on Ewan's words (and Kendall's rebuttal) and their larger significance for how we reflect on our society.

Speaking somewhat unexpectedly, Ewan's steps to the pulpit of Saint Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue were momentarily blocked by his grandson Greg (acting on behalf of Kendall and Roman) and his niece Shiv. And, having heard his eulogy, one can easily see what the Roy "sibs" were afraid of!

Obviously, Ewan's words were directed personally and primarily at Logan. In doing so, however, Ewan has summarized his belief about the meaning of what Logan did with his life, to which he has so long objected so strongly. On one level (as has repeatedly been alleged), Logan Roy may be seen as some sort of surrogate for someone like Rupert Murdoch, but he is also a surrogate for the capitalist mega-rich (and their MAGA enthusiasts) and what they have done and are continuing to do to our world. One could as well address Ewan's eulogy to all the powers-that-be in American capitalist society, a society which likewise feeds that "certain kind of meagerness" in people - in us.

Of course, Kendall got up to make the case for what the "sibs" considered "the other side." As such, they were personally painful for the "sibs," not least because of their obvious accuracy about their father. Acknowledging his father's faults, even publicly calling him a "brute," Kendall made the case - not just for Logan but for the destructive dynamism at the heart of capitalism, which Logan is meant to represent. In a world in which Logan is not longer living and hence no longer around to give or withhold his approval of his desperately desirous-of-pleasing him children, there is still the money, the only real measure of value in the world capitalism has created. 

And, of course, as Kendall asserts, it has created value. Kendall's speech in praise of predatory capitalism represents one of the most on-point portrayals at least since Karl Marx's eloquent praise of capitalism's destructive accomplishments in The Communist Manifesto.

“I mean look at it,” Kendall says. “The lives and the livings and the things that he made. And the money. Yeah, the money. The lifeblood, the oxygen of this, this, this wonderful civilization we have built from the mud. The money. The corpuscles of life gushing around this nation, this world, filling men and women all around with desire, quickening the ambition to own and make and trade and profit and build and improve. I mean great geysers of life, he willed. Of buildings he made stand. Of ships, steel hulls, amusements, newspapers, shows and films and life. Bloody, complicated life. He made life happen. And yes he had a terrible force to him, and a fierce ambition that could push you to the side, but it was only that human thing. The will to be and to be seen and to do. And now people might want to tend and prune the memory of him, to denigrate that force, that magnificent, awful force of him, but my God I hope it’s in me, because if we can’t match his vim then God knows the future will be sluggish and grey. You know there wasn’t a room from the grandest state room where his advice was sought to the lowest house where his news was played where he couldn’t walk and wasn’t comfortable. He was comfortable with this world and he knew it. He knew it and he liked it. And I say Amen to that.”

Was the living Logan really all that comfortable with this world (a highly ironic observation when made so proudly in the sanctuary of a church)? As was hinted in season four, episode one (in his weird conversation with Colin), maybe he was not so completely comfortable. But still certainly comfortable enough to animate him to such heights of civilizationally amazing yet humanly terrible capitalistic accomplishment. And in those competing assessments of a brother and a father are expressed our own culture's long-standing ambivalence about the civilizationally amazing and humanly terrible world we have greedily wrought, a world which, whatever else may be said about it, struggles mightily not to end up "sluggish and grey."

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Isaac Hecker and the Church in Our Age


Some of us surely have had the opportunity to follow our founder, Isaac Hecker, in going on pilgrimage in Israel. By his own account, Hecker himself was profoundly impressed by that experience. “In reciting the Gloria and the Credo, after having been in the localities where the great mysteries which they express took place,” he wrote, “one is impressed in a wonderful manner with their actuality. The truths of our holy faith seem to saturate one’s blood, enter into one’s flesh, and penetrate even to the marrow of one’s bones.”
Speaking of flesh and bones, one of those special pilgrimage places is the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. There, pilgrims can still see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven – a bit fanciful, perhaps, as if Jesus pushed off with such physical force that his foot formed an impression in the rock itself!
Well, who knows how vigorous Jesus’ departure may have been? In any case, the Gospel account which we have just heard focuses not so much on Jesus’ going away as on the community that was remaining behind. In this interim in which we live, between Ascension and the end, absent though he may be, our risen and ascended Lord has promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age [Matthew 28:20]. Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being far away, is here - not absent, but present with us in his Church.
Of course – in this prolonged interval between Ascension and the end, in this time of problems big and small of every sort, of conflicts and divisions in both Church and society, in which religion is increasingly subordinated to politics and we increasingly define ourselves by our identities and our enmities – we too may be tempted to doubt, just like the 11 disciples in the Gospel, who are shown to be still struggling between belief and doubt. All the more, therefore, must this glorious solemnity of the Ascension focus us on our risen and ascended Lord’s parting promise to be with his Church always, until the end of the age.
On this date in 1845, 25-year-old Isaac Hecker (who had become a Catholic only the previous August) and his brother George (who had since followed Isaac into the Church) received the sacrament of confirmation together at New York’s original Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street.
People become religious for all sorts of reasons, In Hecker’s case, he had discovered the Church. More than discovered, one could say that he had fallen in love with the Church, which he recognized as the continuation and expansion of the body of Christ in time and space [Egypt, PV, p. 171] – our risen and ascended Lord remaining with our perplexed and troubled world always, until the end of the age. Hecker’s confidence that our Risen and Ascended Lord remains present and active in our world through the Church encourages us in turn to remain faithful to what we have heard and seen over centuries and at the same time to converse with the world in which we live to recognize new signs of Christ’s presence and new paths to pursue.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux famously described the Ascension as “a happy ending” of Jesus’ journey, but we can just as correctly characterize it as the continuation of that journey – now by means of his Church, through which all of us are now joined together on the same itinerary.
On these precious days which we have set aside to reconnect with one another and to reflect upon our founder’s commitment to being Church in our own time and place, on these precious days when we will make our own confident act of faith in the Church’s future through the ordination of our brother Eric, we are being invited to recover some of that post-Ascension excitement that the 11 and those assembled with them, waiting for “the promise of the Father,” must have felt, as we in turn continue to discern our risen and ascended Lord’s challenge to us to be the Body of Christ in this world and so respond to the deepest desires and demands of our contemporaries, whoever they are and wherever they find themselves.

At his first meeting with Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1857, Hecker famously articulated 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 (and a lot has happened since), those waters seem at least as troubled now as then. Our challenge, as Hecker's heirs, is to express and live, in our own time and place, the hope that he had - and that animated his entire adult life - in the healing and saving power of our risen and ascended Lord, still present and active among us in our mission and life together as his Church.

Homily on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, May 18, 2023, at the Mass for the opening of "SERVANT OF GOD ISAAC HECKER AND THE CHURCH IN OUR AGE: A SYMPOSIUM ON THE FOUNDER OF THE PAULIST FATHERS."

Sunday, May 14, 2023

"Great Joy in That City"


The Samaritans were, so to speak, the Jews’ next-door neighbors. Neighbors, however, (like, for example, France and Germany for much of the past several centuries or Ukraine and Russia today) don’t always get along  The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, but over the centuries, thanks to a complicated history, they had acquired a separate identity, worshiping the same God but in a different place and in a different way. The result was two groups, whose differences from one another came to matter more than what they had in common, causing them to regard each other with suspicion and hostility – not unlike many Americans in our culturally divided and politically polarized society today
Yet, surprisingly, the fact that they were Samaritans seems not to have stopped Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to them. Nor did it prevent the Samaritans from paying attention to what was said by Philip. The result was great joy in that city and yet another leap on the Church’s part, another experience of expansion, growth, and diversity (in keeping with the whole trajectory of the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles which, can be summarized as: Good News travels fast. Good News travels far. Good news builds the Church and heals the world.)
Even so, what Philip was doing inevitably raised some serious questions back in Jerusalem. So Peter and John went to Samaria to see for themselves what was happening and to interpret what it all meant. Surrounded by Samaritans, strangers whom they would until then have probably preferred to avoid, Peter and John recognized God’s grace at work in in this unexpected way in that unexpected place, and so they laid their hands on the newly believing Samaritans, and they, in turn, received the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. So, if the Samaritans were going to become believers like them, then they had to be connected by that one Holy Spirit with the rest of the Church led by the apostles.
Luke’s point in telling us this story seems to be to stress the importance of the unity and universality of the Church, specifically its apostolic leadership, which links us with the Risen Christ, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Church continues Christ’s presence and action in our world today.
The apostles may well have been surprised initially, both by Philip’s initiative and by the Samaritans’ response. Surprised or not, they saw in what was happening the direction they were intended to go. Acts constantly presents the Church as learning from experience, confident that, thanks to the Risen Christ’s continued presence in the Church through his Holy Spirit, what happens in the world really is significant.
Faith does not eradicate the many and various differences that exist among people, but it does create a completely new relationship for all of us with God and with one another - in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  Peter, John, and Philip all learned this from their actual experience of how God was acting, drawing different people and peoples together in a completely new kind of community that overcomes the ordinary divisions of our ordinary world.
Likewise, faith alone does not resolve all the problems we will experience even in our new life together as Christ’s Church, which, as we well know, now suffers from sone of the same divisions imported from secular society. It does, however, give us confidence in the Risen Lord’s presence among us in the structures of his Church, and in the power of the word of God, which continues to be proclaimed in the Church, to create a unity which can resolve those conflicts and so transcend our human divisions and limitations.
Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, May 14, 2023.

Friday, May 12, 2023

CNN's Folly

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Leslie Moonves (at that time CBS executive chairman and CEO) famously said back in 2016. And, in case how it was good for CBS wasn’t quite clear enough, he also said, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”

Fun, indeed! I remember right about that time remonstrating with an acquaintance who thought it would be "exciting" if Trump ran for President. Exciting, indeed! Well, we have as a nation paid dearly for such bizarre and narrow notions of fun and excitement!

How and why Trump managed to get elected President in 2016 will be debated for decades to come. Clearly one contributing factor was the all the free attention he received, all the unpaid media coverage he got because he was so entertaining and exciting. His shattering of all the rules of political decorum, which in an earlier era would have served to disqualify and terminate his candidacy, confirmed his novelty and freshness and newsworthiness, how fun and exciting his candidacy was to some. For what might have marginalized others, Trump was normalized and awarded the presidency.

Well that was then. Now, two election cycles later, the news media appear to have learned little - except the perennially cynical lesson that that what is not good for America may still be good for (in this instance) CNN. Of course, the criticism CNN had received for staging what was, in effect, a free Trump campaign rally under the guise of a journalistic exercise has been loud and  widespread. Will it matter, however? Or have we again embarked on the path taken two election cycles ago, as if Trump were a normal presidential candidate, as if the audience at such a "town hall" were traditional voters rather than adherents of an anti-democratic, anti-constitutional cult?

The only difference between then and now is that we have had actual experience of a Trump presidency and MAGA party misrule. So we know now, better than we did then, the danger we are putting our country in, the danger we are putting the world in, if we act as if we didn't really know better. But that seems to have been the way CNN acted. 

As Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic: "The result was a disaster that was not only foreseeable but also as predictable as the laws of physics, a cringe-inducing display that damaged CNN’s reputation, put one of its rising stars in a no-win situation, cheapened journalism, and undermined our political process—all in the span of little more than an hour."

Academics, analysts, and pundits may well examine CNN's motives. Meanwhile, all of us must live with the potentially dire consequences.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

"After Much Debate"

In yesterday’s reading from Acts, we learned about what may have been the single greatest crisis faced by the apostolic Church. How was it possible for Gentiles to become followers of Jesus - whom the first Christians believed was the Messiah and fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel – without first becoming Jews themselves and separating themselves from Gentile culture. We heard yesterday how the Apostles and the presbyters met together, in what we now call the Council of Jerusalem, to see about this matter.

Now we have heard the results of those deliberations [Acts 15:7-21]. Just as Jews could follow Jesus and become Jewish Christians, so too from now on Greeks, while still remaining Greek, could follow Jesus and become Greek – not Jewish – Christians. Likewise, Romans could become Roman Christians, etc. This radical decision simultaneously affirmed both the universal application of Christ to all peoples without exception, while also allowing for diversity within what, in today’s terminology, we would call a multi-cultural Church. Historically, it was this decision that made it possible for Christianity to expand throughout the ancient world and to continue to expand into a truly global community.

Thanks to that fundamental experience, which both Jewish and Gentile converts shared, of the new thing that had happened in the world with Jesus, they felt empowered to resolve the problem, recognizing that the Holy Spirit had really been at work in what was happening – Gentiles joining the Church – and so was with them then in their collective effort to make sense of that development and make it work.

The history of the Church was irrevocably shaped by this event. This “Council of Jerusalem,” as it came to be called, became a model for how to come to grips with new and pressing problems – neither never moving forward nor casually jettisoning the past, but rather carefully considering everything, in light of the fundamental experience of what the Risen Christ has revealed.


Homily for Thursday of the 5th Week of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, May 11, 2023.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

"Dissension and Debate"


For Jews in the ancient world, one of the most fundamental realities was the division of the world into Jews and Gentiles. The first Christians, of course, were themselves all Jews – Jews, who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to fulfill the promises made to Israel.

So imagine the surprise when Gentiles started responding to the good news about Jesus and asking for baptism! As we just heard, there arose no little dissension and debate [cf. Acts 16:1-6]Now, it was always possible, of course, for a Gentile to cross over to Judaism – to become what we might call a “naturalized” Israelite, circumcised according to Mosaic practice, separated from the Gentile world. Yet Peter himself at least once occasion and now Paul and Barnabas on a more regular basis had proclaimed the gospel to Gentiles and had baptized them - without requiring them to become Jews first. How was this possible?

No one should underestimate how unexpected and difficult this development was and how disruptive it was in the life of the early Church.

And yet, faced with a crisis they certainly had not been expecting and for which nothing in their previous background had apparently prepared them, but on which the entire future of Christianity was going to depend, that first generation of Christians nonetheless faced the challenge to resolve the problem in a radically new way, reassessing everything they had assumed up until then in light of the fundamental experience they shared with the Gentile converts – faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Tomorrow, we will hear how they solved the problem, but how they did so is just as important.

In the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states, the greatest thing one could be was a citizen, entitled to participate in community discussion and debate. But citizenship as an active way of life (as opposed to just passive possession of rights and privileges) had seriously deteriorated as small city-states had been absorbed into one enormous empire, and people had lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation. Yet, faced with the unexpected, the Christians felt able to resolve it by confidently open discussion and debate. Their confidence, of course, was in the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ’s gift to his Church.

So often we feel overwhelmed by problems and so react passively, as if we were silent spectators in the story of our lives. It was not easy for the early Christians to reassess their inherited assumptions about the necessity of circumcision and Jewish observance. But they were empowered to do so by the power of the Risen Christ continually present and active in his Church through the Holy Spirit, teaching them, then as now, how to interpret new experiences.

Homily for Wednesday of the 5th Week of Easter (Commemoration of Saint Damien de Veuster), Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, May 10, 2023.