Sunday, July 30, 2023

Treasure Found and Cherished


The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sell all he has and buys the field.

It may be one of the most fought over pieces of real estate in the world; but, as anyone who has ever been there can attest, much of Israel is relatively arid desert – basically a bunch of rocks. Working such land is hard and exhausting work. So just imagine the surprise and excitement and joy of the ancient farmer or field hand who, having turned over hundreds of rocks in his life, suddenly sees something completely unexpected, something with the potential of totally transforming his life for the better!

Obviously, we are supposed to see ourselves in these parables. Like the field hand and the pearl merchant, we too have found something we neither earned nor could have expected. Like them, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the gift – buying the field or the pearl – in other words, responding fully to the opportunity, recognizing that it is an all-or-nothing decision on our part. In life one either takes advantage of an opportunity, or one misses the opportunity.

But we can also imagine these parables from God’s point of view. Like the farmer, God has been tilling the rocky unresponsive soil of this unpredictable world – and has found us in the soil of the world. We are the treasure, which God has found for himself in the midst of the ordinary life of the world – a treasure for which he has invested his most precious possession, his Son, Jesus, in order that we might become God’s permanent treasure and so be treasured by him forever. In order that this precious treasure should not remain buried and hidden, God gave us his Son and filled his Church with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, a treasure found in a field inevitably requires careful care and cleaning. And so do we. But a God who is willing to get involved in our world from the inside – by becoming one of us and living our life in our world – is not going to shrink from this necessary work of nurturing and perfecting his treasure in his people, by means of our grace-filled life together in his Church..

Whether we picture him as farmer or merchant or fisherman, God has always been busily involved in our messy, mixed-up, unpredictable world. The work God has begun by finding us for himself, that same work continues in our daily life as his people, his Church, where the messy, mixed-up, and unpredictable is gradually being cared for, cleaned up, and transformed – or, to use St. Paul’s words from today’s 2nd reading, called, justified, and glorified.

Whether we think of ourselves as having been dug up from under a pile of rocks or fished out of the sea, we are God’s people in whom God has invested so much – invested himself, in fact – and we are now in the lifelong process of being transformed into God’s treasure - called, justified, and glorified.

The more we give in to what God is doing with us, the more we will identify ourselves fully with what God is doing in our world and so become co-workers ourselves in the mission of farming – or fishing – the world for God’s kingdom of heaven.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, July 30, 2023.


Friday, July 28, 2023

Vichy Retold

What is it about World War II that it still resonates and fascinates, now still after almost 80 years? My generation, of course, grew up in the aftermath and under the long shadow of that war. We were surrounded as kids by veterans of the war and by a seemingly endless supply of war-related movies. Yet, even as the "Greatest Generation" has faded from the scene and as we Boomers begin our own fade away, interest in World War II continues. One factor, I suppose, is that it was not only the largest great power military conflict of all time but also the last of its kind. One of the evident benefits of nuclear weapons is that they have successfully deterred another World War II style conflict between the great powers. There is also the idea that World War II was "the good war," perhaps our last unambiguously good war, the last war the U.S. actually won.

Yet, even when it comes to World War II, popular fascination focuses on certain familiar times and places while others, where the war did not seem to go as well, tend to get less attention. One of those other times and places is the French collaborationist Vichy regime and the United Stats' perplexing relationship with it. Stepping into this gap, distinguished 20th-century military and war historian Michael Neiberg has written a history of the relations between Vichy (led by Marshall Petain and Pierre Laval) and the western Allies, When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance (Harvard U. Pr., 2021), which I have just finally gotten around to reading.

The fall of France wa unexpected. France did, after all, have the largest army in Europe at the time. The British, obviously, were traumatized by France's quick defeat and ignominious surrender. So too was the United States, whose isolationism (or, more accurately, non-interventionism) had largely been premised on the benefits of relying on the British navy and the French army. All of a sudden, the latter was gone, and the U.S. seemed much more exposed (especially from the proximity of French territories in the Americas).  

From the start, the U.S. tried to maintain good relations with supposedly neutral Vichy. The British had inevitably alienated Vichy by its apparently necessary attack on the French fleet. The British had also recognized Charles de Gaulle, whom Vichy, of course, considered a traitor, as leader of the "Free French." The U.S. was not encumbered by the baggage of the conflict between Britain and Vichy about the French fleet. Moreover, the U.S. for as long as possible stubbornly - obsessively, one might suggest - refused to recognize de Gaulle. Instead, it made every effort to remain on good terms with Vichy, in spite of Vichy's increasing unpopularity in the U.S. and the increasing popularity of and respect for de Gaulle among the American public.

In addition to this basic error, the American response to the French situation was plagued by a failure to appreciate the importance of their empire to the French. Continued French control of North Africa and the rest of the French Empire was important to all the otherwise competing factions among the French.

Neiberg's account gets even more detailed and interesting when it is time in the narrative for Operation Torch, the American and British invasion of French North Africa in November 1942. Operation Torch forced the ostensibly neutral Vichy French officers in North Africa to choose sides. The most significant one to do so was, of course, the infamous Admiral Darlan, whose decision to cease fire and make a deal with the Americans certainly saved many lives. It was,  however, a collaboration with unsavory Vichy types that American (and British) public opinion was increasingly horrified by. It was a marriage of extreme convenience, which had the advantage for the Allies of avoiding having to settle the rivalry between the two competing non-Vichy French Generals - de Gaulle (favored by the British) and Giraud (favored by the Americans). Again the Americans backed the wrong horse. 

By this time, of course, the Americans - at least the American military - understood that there were no perfect choices. Neiberg quotes Eisenhower as saying of the French, "all of these Frogs have a single thought - 'ME'." 

Meanwhile, fate intervened with the Christmas-Eve assassination of Admiral Darlan. Neiberg recounts the unrealistic expectations of the royalists that killing Darlan would clear the way for the Comte de Paris to come to Algiers and establish a unity government as King Henri VI. Needless to say, that didn't quite work out either!

In deference to the absent Soviets (preoccupied with Stalingrad), the January 1943 Casablanca Conference was supposed to focus on military matters only, but France post-Darlan had to be dealt with. According to Neiberg, "policy on France came to symbolize American missteps as much as it reflected an inability to force the British to hew to American desires. It may also have reminded [U.S. Secretary of State Cordell] Hull of American inexperience on the world stage." The British saw the Americans' continued backing of Giraud as a continuation of their support for Darlan and, before him, Pétain, and the British continued to back de Gaulle.

Eventually, of course, de Gaulle outwitted Girard and the Americans, and by the liberation  of Paris in August 1944, he was clearly the leader of a post-Petain France. Meanwhile, Petain. Laval, and what was left of Vichy were taken to Germany. "The morbid and bizarre scene of the French government that the United States had once recognized being a virtual prisoner of the Nazis in a castle run by the Gestapo revealed what a broken reed America’s Vichy policy had been all along. Although Cordell Hull and his historian William Langer continued to defend the policy as the best of a bad set of choices, the events of 1944 revealed the leadership of Vichy France as the German prisoners they had been all along."

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Their Names Live On and On

I recently read somewhere that, in the United States today, maybe more than two million grandparents are taking on the primary responsibilities required to raise their grandchildren. This particular phenomenon of grandparents as parental substitutes is a response to some of the particular problems that increasingly characterize our society and the contemporary collapse of the family as we have until recently known it. That said, in both better and worse times and places and in various configurations of family structures, grandparents have often played a major role in the formation and socialization of their children's children.

In my own experience, for example, while I grew up in an intact, stable nuclear family (with a large nearby network of aunts, uncles, and cousins), my mother's mother lived with us until her death when I was 19. Her presence and the influence of her presence were profound. On a purely practical level, her presence made it possible for my mother to work part-time, which was financially necessary. My grandmother's presence in our home also connected us, more than anything else might have, with our family's past pre-immigration history and with the actual experience of being immigrants. Finally, my grandmother's personal piety had a particularly powerful personal influence on me and on how I came to appreciate the Church's life and worship as an essential component of a meaningful life.


All that is worth recalling today as the Church commemorates Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The New Testament is surprisingly silent on the subject of Mary's family and her life prior to the Annunciation. The earliest known account of her family of origin is found in the Protoevangelium of James a non-canonical, "apocryphal" text from the late second century, which identifies her parents as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. The liturgical commemoration of Mary’s birth is connected with the dedication of an ancient church in Jerusalem, now known as the Church of Saint Anne, built on a site which eventually came to be identified with the home of Saints Joachim and Anne.

Devotion to Saint Anne developed early in the East, later in the West. Once it did develop, however, 
Saint Anne became patroness not just of grandmothers but women seeking a husband or hoping for a child. 

According to the Protoevangelium of James, Joachim and Anne were a generous couple, who donated a third of their income to the poor, a fitting image for today when so many grandparents find themselves the de facto heads of poor families!

Today’s fast ought to inspire us to think of our grandparents with gratitude, for what they may have done for us directly and indirectly in how they raised and formed our parents. To them, may we apply the words we heard in our first reading, from the Book of Sirach:

Their virtues have not been forgotten; their wealth remains in their families, their heritage with their descendants … Their bodies are peacefully laid away, but their name lives on and on.

Homily for Saints Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, July 26, 2023.

Photo: Copy of Karl Müller's The Education of the Blessed Virgin, depicting Mary as a young girl kneeling by her mother, Saint Anne, holding an open book. St. Anne's Altar, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York.


Tuesday, July 25, 2023

An Ambition Worth Aspiring To

Long before Martin Sheen made it fashionable, the Camino de Santiago was one of the best known and well-travelled pilgrimage routes in the world. It has been a continuous site of Catholic pilgrimage since at least the 9th-century discovery of the relics of Saint James the Apostle, after which the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela has been one of the favored destinations of pilgrims from all over the Christian world. Sadly, I myself have never made the Camino, but I have been to Compostela with pilgrims from this parish, had the privilege of celebrating Mass there, and hugging Santiago’s statue (photo) as pilgrims traditionally do.

The New Testament tells us nothing about Saint James' eventual journey to Spain. The Gospels do tell us that, along with his brother John, James was one of Jesus’ earliest disciples and a member of the smaller inner circle that witnessed both the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. The Gospels also give us this famous account of James and John’s ambition and the jealousy it provoked among the other apostles.

In today’s Gospel [Matthew 20:17-28], Jesus has again told his disciples what lies in store for him in Jerusalem. The first time he did this, Peter had tried to talk him out of it, prompting both a severe reprimand and a no-nonsense instruction on what being a disciple really means. The second time, the disciples they argued among themselves about which was the greatest. When asked what they’d been arguing about, their silence suggested at least some sense of embarrassment. Here, however, with no hint of embarrassment, two of Jesus’ most favored disciples (and thus the ones most especially susceptible to a sense of entitlement) request that they be given the best seats in the kingdom. 

Not surprisingly, the other 10 quickly became indignant. Apparently, they were not so thrilled with the particular status hierarchy favored by James and John. Jealousy (as Britain’s Queen Alexandra supposedly said 113 years ago) is the source of so many problems in life. The 10’s jealous indignation in turn prompted yet another much needed instruction from Jesus, clarifying both what his life is about and what the life of any would-be disciple must be about.

What makes this story so wonderful is the brilliant way Jesus handled his hard-to-teach disciples – both the two ambitious brothers and the ten jealous others. Jesus was obviously a very good teacher. He recognized his disciples’ natural ambition. Rather than condemning that, he affirmed their ambition and gave it completely new content.

You want to be great; Jesus says to his disciples. OK, then, be great – but not by imitating all those rich and prominent people you all admire and envy so much, but by imitating me. For “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How’s that for an ambition to aspire to, an accomplishment to envy?

According to Acts, James was the first of the Apostles to be martyred – in the year 42. So obviously he took Jesus’ lesson to heart.

If following Jesus is to have any real meaning, Jesus is telling us, then it must be different with us from the way it is with the rest of the world. By his own life – and above all by his death – Jesus illustrated that by showing how different it is with him from the way it tends to be with us. Our task is not to analyze the world, which is just being the way the world is, but to change the world – but to do so by letting Jesus first change us.

Homily for the feast of Saint James the Apostle, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, July 25, 2023.


Monday, July 24, 2023

Oppenheimer (The Movie)


Like many of my generation, I grew up grateful to be alive because the atomic bomb had ended the war with Japan before my father and the other GIs who had just won the war in Europe might have been transferred to the Pacific Theater, where many of them would certainly have been slaughtered in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. I am still grateful that, thanks to the atomic bomb, Japan surrendered earlier than expected, that my father was thus spared, that I was subsequently born, that I have lived through the atomic age (even with all its attendant anxieties and ambiguities). I have now no other world except the nuclear one, a world in which as kids we hid under our desks in ostensible fear of nuclear annihilation and then went out and played as if nothing were ever goofing to change.

One of the primary architects of this age, J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the "father of the atomic bomb," was the director of the Los Alamos lab during World War II, where he played a pivotal role in the research and development that produced the atomic bomb, that successfully ended the Second World War. After the war, Oppenheimer became the Director of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and, among other things, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, the latter move suggesting a certain insouciance on his part about the reality of technology's inexorable advance in a dis-enchanted scientific age, regardless of moral considerations or catastrophic consequences. (If in doubt about that, just check the planet's increasing temperature!)

As Oppenheimer himself acknowledged in 1948: "it was clear that with nations committed to atomic armament, weapons even more terrifying, than those already delivered would be developed; and it was clear even from a casual estimate of costs that nations so committed to atomic armament could accumulate these weapons in truly terrifying numbers." (Foreign Affairs, January 1, 1948) Such is the reality not only of nuclear weapons in a nuclear age but of all technology in a dis-enchanted, scientific, technological age.

Oppenheimer is an epic, must-see, 2023 film, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and based on the Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005).  Among others, the film stars Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt as his wife "Kitty," Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, and Robert Downey, Jr., as Oppenheimer's enemy, AEC Chair, Lewis Strauss. 

As is typical of very long movies, Oppenheimer is very long - likely longer than it needs to be. And, as is also typical of "arty" movies, its artistry may be overdone and thus get in the way of the story. That said, its length is worth sitting through, and its artistry of entangled timelines, constant scene-shifting amid a confusingly large cohort of famous scientists (whose names most of us no longer remember or never knew), and its gratuitous back-and-forth from color to black-and-white are all worth the extra work they impose on the audience. 

Apart, obviously, from the dramatic, convincingly scary, central scene of the Trinity atomic test, this is largely a three-hour talk-fest, following Oppenheimer's life and career from his early student days, problematic political alliances, and several sexual relationships, through his rise to scientific prominence as a theoretical physicist, through his direction of the Manhattan Project and his subsequent concerns about the bomb's implications for humanity's future, to his post-war career at Princeton and his later persecution due to his alleged past communist connections and his apparent opposition to the H-Bomb and ambivalence about what he and science had wrought in the world. 

Presumably everybody already knows something about the story of the atomic bomb, the competition to build one ahead of the Nazis, its eventual use to win the war against Japan, its initiation of a whole new concept of military and deterrence strategy, and all the varied moral and ethical debates it and its much more powerful successors in nuclear weaponry have generated. This film successfully lays all that out in the context of one scientific genius's personal struggles, cultural commitments, and political allegiances. It also provides a particularly powerful - if far from flattering - insight into scientists at work and the role of personal and professional rivalries in the scientific enterprise and the damage such rivalries can create when accompanied by access to political power. It also highlights the transformation of the United States, thanks to World War II and then the Cold War, into a much more security-obsessed society, (while also illustrating the real threats to national security from enemies abroad and from enemy agents closer to home).

Through Oppenheimer's eyes, we enter into the realization of what it has meant to unleash more powerful and destructive weaponry than the world has every known, the link between the amazing possibilities of science and the amazingly terrifying forces science has set free. So far at least, the regime of deterrence has worked and mutually assured destruction has been avoided, but not without enormously corrupting consequences in human relationships and in the rarified intellectual recesses of science itself, now more and more complicit in taking the world to an unknown brink. As the film's final conversation suggests, the chain reaction did not literally set the atmosphere on fire and destroy the world, but in other ways maybe it has accomplished something similar.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Reading About Spain


Once one of the world's greatest empires, modern Spain's history has generally been more cautionary than exemplary. Yet contemporary Spain seems surprisingly successful in what it has accomplished - or, perhaps, more pointedly, in what it has avoided - in its justly famous transition from brutal civil war and decades of dictatorship to democracy and a renewed European identity. It also, of course, constitutes a classic study in Catholic integralism followed by rapid secularization, something it shares most notably with Quebec and Ireland.

Michael Reid writes for The Economist but has been following Spanish affairs since his first visit as a university student in 1971. The title of his book, Spain: The Trials and Triumphs of a Modern European Country (Yale U. Pr., 2023) highlights his focus. For contemporary Spain has, in brief, become a modern European country. It has specific problems in the public administration sector and, above all, in unresolved regionalisms (for which he seems inclined to favor a somewhat federalist solution), but basically it has become a normal, modern, secular society and European state.

Having watched Spain's dictatorship-to-democracy and religious-to-secular transitions from afar but with great interest, I found especially profitably reading the sections of Reid's book that highlight how well the political transition worked and why. That transition, he writes "broke almost two centuries of relative decline, political instability and episodes of fratricidal conflict," not only replacing the 1939-1975 dictatorship with a democratic constitutional monarchy but replacing the largely downward trajectory of Spanish history with a new direction. 

Towards the end of the book, the author recalls the elderly Generalissimo Franco's comments to President Nixon's representative Vernon Walters in 1971. Franco told Walters he had created some institutions, Juan Carlos would take over as king and "Spain will go a long way down the road that you people, the English and the French, want: democracy, pornography, drugs and so forth. There will be a lot of crazy things but none of them will be fatal for Spain." When Walters asked him how he could be so sure, Franco replied, "Because I left something that I didn’t find on taking over the government of this country 40 years ago. ... The Spanish middle class. Tell your president to trust the common sense of the Spanish people, there won’t be another civil war."

Avoiding another civil war, was, of course, the common motivation that made the transition work. It was the first of the two "powerful ideas" Reid cites as guiding the transition: the "imperative to avoid any repeat of the Civil War of 1936–39" and the imperative "that Spain should become a normal Western European country." So far, at least, fidelity to those two principles has largely worked well for Spain.

Unlike previous Spanish constitutions that "had been dictated by the winning side in internal conflicts and rejected by the losers and were thus rendered ephemeral," the transition's architects were committed "to reach broad and durable agreements." Reid identifies two specific "historic compromises. The left accepted a parliamentary monarchy instead of the republic it had fought to defend in the Civil War, whereas the right accepted devolution in place of Franco’s unitary, centralised regime." 

Equally critical was the amnesty law, the so-called Pact of Forgetting. Reid emphasizes the historic distinction that Spanish democracy was not imposed from outside (as in post-war Germany and Italy), but rather "arrived through agreements between moderate supporters of the dictatorship and a realistic democratic opposition." One critical pillar of this process "was the amnesty law and a broad understanding not to use the past as a political weapon." Reid does not doubt the wisdom of that course. A problem at present is that "younger generations and some on the left worry that Spain never addressed the crimes of its past and some of the deeper scars." Reid recognizes the value of some parts of the historical memory movement, such as the right to know where one's civil war relatives were buried, but he is wisely concerned about some other aspects that look "like the government establishing official history and deciding who was good and who was bad." 

More basically, he concludes, "truth, justice and reconciliation form an impossible trinity. Arguably, Spain’s transition to democracy was successful precisely because it did not incorporate transitional justice, which might well have delayed it, made it more violent or prevented it altogether." 

It seems to me that the so-called Pact of Forgetting represents a realistic recognition that everyone remembered all too well what had happened, how horrible the civil war was, and wanted to avoid another one at all costs. It is precisely today's left-wing efforts at ostensible remembering that represent a forgetting of that fact, with all the divisive risks that that entails. 

Reid's retrieval of the actual history of the Civil War also requires him to acknowledge that it was really a civil war, reflecting genuine divisions within the society. "There was civil war, not genocide. Almost half the country had voted for the right in 1936." He also recognizes that, had the Republic won, "Spain would almost certainly have suffered a Communist regime, just as Eastern Europe did after 1945."

It is often been observed that when the modern Left abandons (in practice, if not in theory) much of its traditional egalitarian economic agenda, it falls back on its old hobby-horses - like anti-Catholicism. Reid does not seem to have much sympathy for the Church and seems to favor modern separationist ideology, but he does recognize how complex that can be in a country like Spain.

Franco, Reid recognizes, was never much of a fascist. He was at most "a fascist of convenience rather than conviction." After the war, "Franco swiftly distanced himself from the Axis. Almost overnight, the regime’s ideology began to stress Catholicism, in the Spanish conservative tradition dating back to the nineteenth century or even to the Counter-Reformation."

If Franco wasn't much of a fascist, neither was he mucf a monarchist. At the outset of the civil war, he secured the backing of his fellow generals, many of whom "hoped for and expected a swift post-war restoration of the monarchy. Franco turned this conditional mandate into one of the twentieth century’s longest-lasting personal dictatorships." (Interestingly, Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and Italy's Foreign Minister for 1936 to 1943, wrote in his famous Diary in March 1939 that Mussolini conveyed to Franco his opposition to any restoration of the Spanish monarchy. Ultimately, in following Mussolini's recommendation, Franco was just doing what he was inclined to do anyway to serve his own agenda, just as in not following Mussolini into war as Germany's ally he was also serving his own agenda - successfully as it turned out.)

One consequence of Spain's isolation under Franco "was a burning desire to join the rest of Europe, in customs and laws as well as politics and the economy." Secularization seems to have become an important part of that Europeanizing process. He notes that in 1975, "more than nineteen out of twenty Spaniards were baptised Catholics and 60% of them attended mass. In 2001 82% of respondents to the CIS poll still defined themselves as Catholic, but only half do now. Only about a fifth still go to mass regularly. Not only has the number of marriages declined each year over the past decade or so but in 2019 only a fifth of weddings were in a church. Nowadays almost half of children are born to women who are not married. The ‘national Catholicism’ of the Franco regime swiftly dissolved into official secularism." 

Spain's most critical contemporary concern is probably the problematic persistence of regional separatist movements. Here, Reid's apparent advocacy of a more federalist solution seems especially interesting, if still somewhat unlikely. Reid devotes a lot of space to the regionalism problem. There are, however, other, newer concerns. In particular, "the Spanish political class has become increasingly disconnected from the public, operating in a self-referential cocoon that has little bearing on the concerns of citizens. That is how the public perceives them. The electoral system contributes to the disconnection." Then there is the "depopulation" of interior parts of Spain. Finally, there is the universal problem of climate change, which may be especially bad in Spain. "Modelling suggests that the western Mediterranean is likely to face a bigger change in its climate than the rest of Europe."

Reid seems uncertain about the future of the monarchy, which was, of course, crucial for the transition. In my view, in addition to its vital symbolic function, monarchy increases institutional stability. In general, the more elements politically in play, the more conflicts are likely. Monarchy removes one very central element from political conflict. Reid recognizes that for many on the right and in the center, the monarchy has been "a crucial bulwark of the constitution and against extremism." On the other hand, "Juan Carlos’s misdeeds inflicted lasting damage to the institution, especially to its reputation among young people." The future, Reid suggests, may well "depend on how effective Leonor, King Felipe’s elder daughter, proves to be as a representative of the monarchy." The Bourbon monarchy's "second weapon," he suggests, "is inertia, and that may be decisive in its survival."

Reid has considerable confidence in Spanish society's resilience and overwhelming moderation. Even so, he is not complacent about Spain's future.




Thursday, July 20, 2023

Mourning in America


Like most of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was when, as a high school junior, I heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. And I vividly recall the somber weekend that followed, most of which was spent glued to our black-and-white (by then 11-years old and showing its age) TV, watching every moment of the ritual of a Catholic presidential funeral. Ever since, I have been fascinated not only by the U.S. Presidency but by the secular and religious rituals of presidential funerals. Now two presidential historians, Lindsay M. Chervinsky (author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution) and Matthew R. Costello (author of The Property of the Nation: George Washington's Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President) have facilitated a unique look at American society and history through the special lens of presidential funerals. Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture, eds. Lindsay M. Chervinsky and Matthew R. Costello (U. of Virginia Pr, 2023) bring together chapters by diverse presidential scholars to illuminate how different generations of American communities have mourned our presidents and former presidents.

In a volume of this sort, obviously not all presidents' deaths can be considered. The editors settled on a mix of 19th and 20th-century presidents, some better known, some lesser studied - Washington (1799), Jefferson (1826), Jackson (1845),  Zachary Taylor (1850), Lincoln (1865), Andrew Johnson (1875), Theodore Roosevelt (1919), Hoover (1964), FDR (1945), JFK (1963), Reagan (2004), and George H.W. Bush (2018). Some selections, I suppose, were obvious and inevitable. Personally, I would have wished the editors had included William Henry Harrison (1841), the first president to die in office, for just that reason, so as to consider how Americans reacted to that as yet unprecedented occurrence.

George Washington (December 14, 1799) did not die in office but otherwise was the first in every regard.  He died unexpectedly, ill for just two days. At that time, of course, the news travelled slowly. So he was already buried before the news reached more distant parts of the country. While Washington would have preferred a more private interment, he got a grand (albeit completely local) military funeral at Mount Vernon, officiated by a local Episcopal Minister using the Book of Common Prayer. What the chapter explores in particular was the national mourning - at least 419 mock funerals in 16 states and some 300 eulogies and funeral orations. Catholic bishop John Carroll eulogized him in Baltimore on Washington's Birthday in 1800. These widespread commemorations solidified Washington's place as national patriarch, a position he still holds.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, famously died at his Monticello home on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. His predecessor, John Adams, died later that day. Daniel Webster eulogized both of them for having died during "the great day of national jubilee." The author, himself a descendent of one of Jefferson's slaves, mentions all that but focuses largely on the effects of Jefferson's death on his slaves, some of whom were forcibly transported to the Deep South after the "Dispersal Sales" of 1827 and 1829. Some of Jefferson's enslaved descendants eventually fought in the Civil War "to make the United States live up to Jefferson's words."

The volume sets the death of and pubic mourning for our seventh president, Andrew Jackson (June 8, 1845) within the context of 19th-century mourning culture, at time when "death was a familiar companion." But the author also sets Jackson and the mourning for him within the ferociously partisan politics of the period. Whig partisans attacked him in death as in life. He "remained a divisive figure just as he had been a polarizing presence innovational politics." His at times violent and abusive behavior further exacerbated his politically polarizing persona. Of course, Democrats eulogized him. And, after the Civil War, Jackson's stature rose. In the 20th century, he became "a crucial part of a long populist and popular Democratic tradition," a link between Jefferson and FDR. More recently, however, the partisan pendulum has swung again. Jackson and his era have been reevaluated, especially when such factors as Indian removal and the spread of slavery are factored back in to the history. (The author does not make the precise analogy, but in important respects Jackson was the Trump of his time, an outsider - albeit a military hero, unlike Trump - who represented a populist anti-establishment turn in American politics and unsurprisingly polarized the country's politics.)

Zachary Taylor (July 9, 1850) our 12th - and second Whig - president, died, unexpectedly, after little more than a year in office. A high-stature, popular career soldier, Taylor tried to transcend party politics, and that seems to have contributed to how he was mourned and remembered. Even now, he is remembered and celebrated (if at all) more as a general than as a president, and as a president who tried to ignore the deepening crisis in American politics.

Lincoln's assassination on Good Friday 1865, literally days after Lee's surrender, and his famously over-the-top multi-city funeral are all very familiar. This chapter tries to capture the intensely emotional effect - expressed in the wholesale immersion in mourning -  which Lincoln's quasi-martyrdom had primarily on pro-Union northerners and on newly emancipated African Americans. (In contrast "Confederates contradicted comforting visions of universal grief.) The chapter reminds us of the different ways Lincoln has been remembered and used - for example, in the Jim Crow era and in the Civil Right era - and how the ultimate meaning of the Civil War remains seemingly unresolved.

Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, now widely vilified as one of our worst presidents. Impeached (and acquitted) in 1868, he was reelected to his old Senate seat early in 1875 (the only ex-president ever to serve in the Senate), before dying on July 31. President Grant proclaimed national mourning, and Johnson had a grand funeral in Tennessee. Johnson's "legacy rose with Jim Crow and racial segregation," but has since declined. Formed in the Jim Crow era's favorable assessment of Johnson, President Harry Truman spoke at the dedication of a North Carolina monument to Johnson. The author suggests that Truman may also have "identified with the burden of following a larger-than-life predecessor who died in office."

Larger-than-life likewise characterized Theodore Roosevelt, who died January 6, 1919, less than six months after the death of one of his sons in France in World War I. Conveniently abroad at the time, President Woodrow Wilson, who had only won in 1912 because TR's third-party candidacy had split the Republican vote, but who did not particularly care for TR, proclaimed national mourning and lowered flags on federal buildings for 30 days. Millions gathered across the country to honor TR on the national day of mourning. Many monuments were dedicated to his memory. Until recently, a monumental statue of him stood in front of NY's Museum of Natural History, a tribute to our first conservation president. His grandest memorial is, of course, Mount Rushmore, where he joined Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln in 1939. That site, however, is controversially on land which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled had been illegally seized and for which the Sioux Nation should be compensated.

The next president to be considered is Herbert Hoover, who died on October 20, 1964. By then, there had been two more presidential funerals of far greater significance, which will be treated in the next two chapters. Hoover had a distinguished pre-presidential career and a deserved reputation on as a humanitarian, but his catastrophic failure as president during the Great Depression complicated his legacy. "Hard work, diligent networking, and skilled self-promotion had enabled Hoover to recapture much of his early image as a nonpartisan public servant and self-made man. Yet the Great Depression-era president rejected by the electorate ha don't entirely vanished." Hoover had a full state funeral, complete with lying-in-state and the Capitol - the first since Taft's in 1930. His reputation never fully recovered, however, and subsequent interest in him has been modest.

Hoover's nemesis, considered by many to be the greatest U.S. President, was Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president and the only one to serve more than two terms. The story of his presidency - spanning both the Great Depression and the Second World War - is a familiar one. His lengthy service and the crises he confronted, together with the timing and circumstances of FDR's death, have defined his legacy. FDR's obsequies included a long train trip from WarmSprings to Washington, where a. horse-drawn caisson took him to the White House for a short service in the East Room, then back to Union Station for the final train trip to Hyde park where he was buried. The whole thing was done in just a few days. Its simplicity combined Roosevelt's preferences and the exigencies of wartime. Even so, the public movements offered an opportunity highlight the intense bond between FDR and his fellow citizens, which is what, I suspect, made the event so especially memorable for many.

John Fr. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963 and his funeral are even more familiar - at least to my boomer generation, for which it proved to e a defining event. The chapter on Kennedy focuses almost entirely on African American reactions. Subsequent mythology notwithstanding, civil rights had not been one of JFK's big priorities for most of his presidency. That said, "African Americans reacted significantly more intensely than white." Given the intensity of the national - and international - reaction to JFK's untimely death, that is certainly saying a lot! This chapter's treatment of the relatively under-studied AfricanAmerican response to Kennedy is interesting and a valuable contribution to the study of race in the U.S. Personally, however, I missed any treatment of other aspects of the Kennedy phenomenon, such as the unexpected creation of the Camelot myth and how effectively it has been sustained over time. Given that JFK was the first Catholic president and that the funeral took a Catholic ritual form (albeit in the unfortunate form of a Low Mass), the religious aspects of the ritual also deserve further study.  The act that some suggested a purely secular funeral highlights this. That the funeral took place in a church, rather than in East Room, reflected Roman catholic expectations, but also seems to have started a trend, in that all subsequent presidential funerals have involved a service in a church, which had not always been he case in the past. All this highlights the complex interplay of religion and politics in this constitutionally secular but historically most religious modern democracy.

Modern longevity has increased the length of many post-presidencies. Like Hoover, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush died in old age, after being out of the public eye for a while (more so for Reagan because of his dementia, less so perhaps for Bush because of his family's continued political importance and his son's service as president.)

"The Long Goodbye" aptly captures its subject, highlighting first Regan's lengthy final illness and consequent disappearance form public view, and then the lengthy mourning that followed Regan's death, "a week in which Ronald Reagan commanded national attention." A new tradition of lengthy, protracted funerals, with full national media attention, was taking hold - in sharp contrast to the comparatively quick pace of the FDR and JFK funerals. In the post 9/11 world, security was higher than in the past, as 25 heads of state and 180 other foreign representatives converged on Washington. One of the more memorable comments - especially so in light of what has happened since - was Senator Lindsey Graham's observation that Regan had replaced "the scowling face of conservatism with an easy smile, a common touch, and a sense of humor."

The final study deals with the funeral of George H.W. Bush, who died November 30, 2018. Modern longevity made Bush the longest living ex-president, a title pervious held by Ronald Reagan - and before that by John Adams! Long-lived ex-presidents have plenty of opportunity to plan and prepare for their funerals, which Bush did with plans "added to a huge binder." In the 19th-century, only Lincoln's funeral had involved long travel passing through and stopping at several cities. In the 21st-century, Regan and Bush made the prolonged, multi-city, national funeral the norm. In keeping with Bush's low-key but genuine Episcopalianism, the funeral included a church service in each city, including at Washington's National Cathedral. Bush's post-presidency had included collaboration in humanitarian projects with his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton. "This friendship across political lines, in contrast to the polarizing political climate at the end of Bush's life,  inspired a feeling of nostalgia. People longed for the time when he two parties could work together, and governing officials appeared capable of getting things done." Coming midway through the Trump presidency, this became the prevailing leitmotif of the Bush funeral week and how it is now largely remembered.

Presidential funerals have evolved as the nation has. Today's funerals for former presidents look "strikingly like the funerals for kings." In this, as in so much else connected with the presidency, Washington set a precedent. "The plain funeral he desired never took place, replaced instead by one more useful to those he left behind."

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

After This War


How will the Russia-Ukraine War end? What will the post-war look like?

Russian-born historian Alexander Etkind has written on Russian history and cultural memory in Eastern Europe. His latest book, Russia Against Modernity (Polity, 2023), was written over several months during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Predictions are always problematic - all the more so in wars and especially in a war such as this one, in which almost all the pre-war predictions have proved so wrong. Before the war, many doubted that Russia would actually attack (even though this war is really in a sense just a continuation of the one Russia started in 2014). If it did attack, most assumed Russia would win quickly and easily. Hardly anyone expected that the war would accomplish exactly the opposite of Russia's aims - the at the West would rally to Ukraine's aid and that NATO would become a stronger (and larger) defensive alliance.

Etkind sets his argument is the future as a sort of retrospective analysis of a radically flawed, backward-looking, anti-democratic, environmentally exploitative Russia in conflict with the more environmentally attuned forces of democratic modernity. The author's idiosyncratic approach assumes a lot about the impact climate politics and the consequent character of environmentally attuned modern democracy. He also employ idiosyncratic ideological terminology (paleomodernity vs. gaiamodernity) that can be somewhat jarring and distracting. Such an approach seems somewhat problematic at best, But the heart of his case - that Russia is a dysfunctional petrostate in a kind of generational conflict with the future - makes certain sense.

According to Etkind, "Putin’s aim was to restore the Soviet-style paleomodernity – the reign of oil, steel and smoke, the majesty of military power, the coerced unity of the people. The Soviet Union based its power and glory on socialism – an ideal of brotherhood and the equality of all. Although it failed to materialize, this ideal was relatively effective in containing corruption. Putin and his people wished to combine the Soviet allure with post-Soviet graft. Their reenactment of paleomodernity merged legacies from the Soviet era – resource waste, cynicism and distrust – with the radical novelty of massive and ever-increasing inequality." Putin's "paleomodernity" combined all of the above with the contemporary culture war. "Along with climate denialism, other components of Putinism included cultural conservatism, homophobia, economic inequality and graft. They were all connected." Putin, prior to the war, "explained the energy transition underway in European countries by their “love of non-traditional relations,” a Russian euphemism for homosexuality; here, climate denialism merged smoothly with homophobia.20 Machismo was a persistent feature of Putin’s speeches; in August that year, he said that only masculinity could protect the governments of the world from the designs of American imperialism."

For Etkind, the generational difference constitutes a significant source of conflict. In this analysis, "the rupture of 1991 established a huge difference between generations. In both Ukraine and Russia, the cohort difference between the generations was larger than the ethnic difference between peers of the same generation." Russia's war against Ukraine "a war between two neighboring peoples of similar languages and diverging cultures," he calls "a war between generations: an Oedipus conflict of enormous scale."

Etkind sees some historical analogy also in the case of the 19th-century Crimean War. "Russia was never as isolated in its fight against modernity as in these two wars. In both, the Russian army’s logistics were poor, its weapons obsolete, its morale low, and the generation gap between its soldiers and their political masters tremendous. In both, the anti-Russian coalition was stronger, though its aims were vague. In both, Russia’s disinformation split Western pundits."

Etkind also offers some interesting historical analyses about how an "absence of meaningful differences does not decrease the scale or the cruelty of the mass murder. On the contrary, the lesser the differences the greater the genocide."

What next? Historically, the Russian Empire disintegrated thanks to World War I, while its successor the Soviet Union disintegrated thanks to the end of the Cold War. Without explicitly calling for Russia's collapse, Etkind predicts it. "Empires and federations develop in peace, consolidate in war and disintegrate after defeat." He suggests that "if Russia had not invaded Ukraine it would probably have deferred or avoided its defederation. But revanchism proved stronger than caution, and fetishism stronger than reason."

Etkind's vision of degenerated Russia may seem somewhat fantastical (although I cannot help  but recall Andrei Amalrik's Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? which turned out to b only a few years off). One observation Etkind makes, however, seems especially relevant and timely. In his imagined postwar future, Russia "would never sell oil again either: people abroad had somehow learned to live without oil. So who now needed this Federation?"

One dangerous dynamic he does not address is, of course, is the one Putin is probably counting on. If Trump returns to the White House after 2024, what would that mean for NATO, for Western aid to Ukraine, and ultimately for Ukraine's prospects for defeating Russia? Biden has allied himself with the Zelensky generation, whereas Trump seems unequivocally allied with Putin's generation. Such an outcome would be disastrous in many ways. Not least, it would negate (or at least delay) Etkind's futuristic scenario.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

700 Years


Today marks exactly 700 years since the canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinas by Pope John XXII on July 18, 1323. (A couple of years before, Dante's Divina Comedia anticipated the Church's judgment by assigning places in heaven to both Saint Thomas and his Franciscan contemporary Saint Bonaventure.) Early next year, we will also commemorate the 750th anniversary of Saint Thomas Aquinas' death at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova on March 7, 1274.  And the following year will mark the 800th anniversary of his birth at his family's castle of Roccasecca in what was then the kingdom of Naples. This convergence of anniversaries presents an appropriate occasion not just for Dominicans but for the wider Church to reflect more fully and profoundly on the religious vocation and personal sanctity of Saint Thomas Aquinas, on his monumental contributions to the Church's treasury of philosophical and theological wisdom, and his continuing significance for the life of the contemporary Church.

In a letter to the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, whom Pope Francis has appointed his representative to today's commemoration, the Pope praised Saint Thomas as "a man of the church," who investigated "divine mysteries with reason," while he "contemplated them with fervent faith."

Most of my elementary school teachers were Dominican Sisters. From them, I learned bits and pieces about the Dominican Order's history and distinctive liturgy, but above all about the Dominicans' favorite son among the saints and Doctors of the Church, who was also the author of the two hymns (salutaris and Tantum ergo), which we sang so frequently whenever we attended Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  At school, we learned the familiar story of how Thomas met the Dominicans at the new University of Naples, how his family opposed his professing a mendicant vocation, how they kidnapped him in 1244, and how he persevered in his vocation in spite of all family pressure. (During his captivity at the family's castles at Montesangiovanni and Roccasecca, the young Thomas supposedly read through the entire bible and also studied Peter Lombard's Sentences.) 

At some point, I encountered G.K. Chesterton's short 1933 classic account of Thomas's life, The Dumb Ox, which took its title from a famous story about the young Thomas and his classmates as students of Saint Albert the Great.  (Patron saint of scientists, Albert studied Aristotle and wrote a commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, during the very time Thomas studied with him in Cologne.) Maybe more memorable for me than Chesterton's The Dumb Ox was my reading, while in high school, of Louis de Wohl's 1950 historical novel about Aquinas, The Quiet Light, which situated Thomas's religious vocation and theological achievement against the tumultuous background of a medieval Christendom in total turmoil. It was only later, in graduate school, the I engaged directly with the Angelic Doctor, primarily with his political and legal philosophy, some of which seems surprisingly topical today. (For example, at the end of chapter 6 of part 1 of De Regime Principum, Thomas warns about political actors who, not caring about the glory classically achieved by virtuous action, desire only to dominate and will openly commit crimes to obtain what they want.) Meanwhile, on March 7, 1974, a group of us invited Professor Paul Sigmund to dinner at the Princeton Graduate College's faux-medieval Proctor hall for dinner to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Thomas's death. (That same year, as part of the celebration of that seventh centenary, Thomas's relics were finally returned to the Dominican church in Toulouse, France.)

Formed in the Aristotelian-Averroist atmosphere of the new University of Naples (founded by Frederick II as an imperial rather than ecclesiastical institution), the young Thomas arrived at an early appreciation of Aristotle's philosophy - at a time when that was an increasingly controversial position. For Thomas, all truth - whether divinely revealed truth accessible through faith or naturally knowable truth accessible to anyone through philosophy - is truth. There are thus two kinds of truth but only one truth, which admits no contradiction. If Christian doctrine is true, then it must not be contradicted by the wisdom accessible to ordinary human beings, which is based on what we can understand from the world, within which we human beings are rooted. Theology is faith seeking understanding, relating what is incomprehensible to what is naturally knowable. Thomism was Christian history's most systematic answer to the perennial problematic (still very much with us today) of how to connect what is believed by divine revelation with what is naturally knowable both by believers and non-believers - addressing contemporary realities in a timely manner making use of both old and new wisdom.

In the theologically and polarized environment of the early medieval universities, Thomas's profession required him to participate in public disputations. But he treated these primarily as a common effort to arrive at truth rather than as a competition. How unlike the modern university, which one of my professors once described as "a holding company for individual entrepreneurs."

In the 16th century, Thomas was the first "modern" saint to be recognized officially as a Doctor of the Church, joining the ancient Doctors - Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. He is known as Doctor communis, the common or universal teacher. But he is also called Doctor angelicus, the Angelic Doctor, which reminds us how Thomas was always so much more than a university professor.

Thomas was, first and foremost, a Dominican friar, who had successfully resisted the strenuous efforts of his powerful family in order to live the life of a mendicant, a vocation in some ways as controversial in the 13th-century Church as being as Aristotelian was. As an Order of Preachers, the Dominicans were especially devoted to study and cultivated an intellectual vocation, but that was always understood as serving the spiritual benefit of others (as the General Chapter of 1220 had explicitly prescribed). Thomas certainly saw himself as a contemplative, but he accorded the highest religious status to a kind of contemplative life that produced benefits for others in the form of preaching and teaching. Thus, he wrote his Summa ad eruditionem incipientium, for the instruction of beginners. And the same Saint Thomas who excelled as an author and professor, writing and teaching in Latin, also employed his talents as a public preacher in Italian churches. I am reminded of Louis Bouyer's observation in his Memoirs that, unless pursued within the context of Church ministry, theology "loses contact with what gives it meaning," and "can either vanish into fruitless abstractions or degenerate into an almost empty verbal pastime."

When faced with a challenge, Thomas prepared by prayer. He was, above all, a priest, a person of prayer, which he considered the most important contemplative activity and which he also recognized as God's gift. He went to confession daily, said Mass, and then served or attended another Mass in thanksgiving. His devotion to the Eucharist was recognized when Pope Urban IV commissioned him to compose the Office and Mass for the new feast of Corpus Christi (from which were derived those familiar Benediction hymns). Before receiving Communion shortly before his death, Thomas prayed: "I receive you, price of my soul's redemption; I receive you, Viaticum for my pilgrimage, for whose love I have studied, kept watch, labored, preached, and taught."

One may only hope that the same scholarly spirit that contributed so much to the renewal of the Church amid the political and intellectual turbulence of the 13th century may illuminate and inspire the ongoing renewal of religious life and the Church amid today's tumults.

PhotoAclassic image of Saint Thomas Aquinas from an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli (15th century).