Wednesday, August 30, 2023

"Decent" (i.e., "Liberal") Politics


Michael Walzer, the author of some 27 books and 300 articles, is a political theorist and professor emeritus at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, previously of Harvard, and emeritus editor of Dissent. His latest book is The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On "Liberal" as an Adjective (Yale U. Pr., 2023). (Full disclosure: some 50 or so years ago, Walzer descended from the heights of Harvard to teach a graduate seminar on Thomas Hobbes at Princeton. I was a participant in that wonderful seminar. I doubt I made any impression on Walzer, but he made a memorable impression on me.)

Written during the pandemic, while Walzer was a home locked out of his office, this is admittedly not some seriously footnoted, academic work of political theory. It is "an argument about politics - about the best kind of politics. It's not quite a program, more like a hope." The fact that The Struggle for a Decent Politics is not written in the form of an academic work contributes to two of the book's greatest virtues. It is eminently personal - perhaps Walker's most personal book. It is also inclusive in regard to a wide range of issues that Walzer personally cares about, that he thinks other should care about, and contemporary political theory most definitely needs to care about.

The two adjectives in the title are the key to the book. This is about achieving a "decent" politics - not a perfect politics, or an ideal politics, or a utopia, or a pure implementation of an ideology. The inherent modesty of the goal is inherent to an appreciation of the other adjective, "liberal," which (while not utterly devoid of substance) is more about an attitude, a set of pre-political moral or ethical or attitudinal commitments than a vision of the good life. Indeed, I would say that it is of the very nature of modernity that it has made any common vision of the good life, any collective pursuit of the good life, practically impossible. Much as Saint Augustine first affirmed a totalistic definition of justice and then shifted ground and invoked a realistic, achievable, practical relative kind of justice, I think Walzer's "liberal" adjective is a descriptor for an analogous, secular, very relative justice.

Walzer applies the adjective as a modifier and qualifier to several nouns to political ideologies and identities he considers of contemporary relevance. They happen, of course to be ideologies and identities he has been personally and/or professionally engaged with over the course of his life and career. So he attempts to describe, in turn, what we might call the moral or ethical attitudes off liberal Democrats, liberal Socialists, liberal Nationalists and Internationalists, liberal Communitarians, liberal Professors and Intellectuals, and liberal Jews.

He starts from the liberal constraints early modernity imposed on politics as "a kind of disaster avoidance for everyone involved." That important (life-and-death kind of important) but modest attitude about politics makes for what we also call civility. In the process, he addresses all sorts of practical, contemporary, "hot-button" issues. The hottest button, in view of the current legal problems of a certain former president is Walzer's sensible assertion that "'Lock him up' is not a chant for liberal democrats during or after an election. It is better to say, even in the case of a Donald Trump: 'This is not what we do'." Walzer also expresses "a touch of skepticism about civil liberties absolutism," a high valuation citizenship, including "civil religion," the importance of citizens' "sense of efficacy" (which he believes "angry, resentful, dysfunctional" Capitol rioters lacked, in part because of "a not unreasonable belief that the country's rulers had given up on them"), and the importance of "enhanced education" in what he calls "critical empiricism."

When looking at liberal socialism, he obviously favors liberal "constraint and accountability" over "an undemocratic dictatorship of the vanguard of the proletariat." In terms of contemporary issues, he recognizes that "affirmative action doesn't change the hierarchical character of capitalist society; it just moves some people into higher positions." And he insists on "a strong and democratically accountable state" as "the most likely agent for democratic engagement."

Liberal nationalism he considers "the oldest form of nationalism," tracing it back to the 19th-century Italian Risorgimento. He prefers that to "cosmopolitans," whose opposition to nationalism is inevitably also hostility to democracy, and who prefer men and women, as they believe they should be, to actually existing people. He identifies cosmopolitanism with Kant's "soulless despotism." Importantly, he points out that Democratic socialists have only been successful in democratic national states. (Perhaps somewhat inconsistently - although obviously he doesn't see it that way - Walzer opposed Brexit and "marched with friends in London in support of remaining in the European Union." Obviously, he doesn't see the EU as a "soulless despotism," but many democracy advocates in Britain did. All of which just illustrates how, all theorizing aside, all of us have our particular class consciousness and in-group biases.)

Regarding immigration, he recognizes "the value of particular obligations in the lives of individuals" and that "collectives, like nation-states, can also be obligated to some people more than to others." He recognizes the uniqueness of the American case, where patriotism "has no ethnic content" and "doesn't appeal to an ancient history." Thus, much of what passes for contemporary U.S. nationalism "is less an ideology that sets us apart from foreigners than one that divides us at home." What he calls "Trumpian nationalism," in any case, "isn't so much a nationalist as a populist politics."

Tackling communitarianism, Walzer inevitably confronts the ghost of Rousseau's communitarian civic republicanism and instead advocates for "a form of social life that falls short of communal intensity but is crucial to the decencies of everyday existence." 

On the more tricky terrain of feminism, he is against trying to enforce "Enlightenment ideals" abroad. He is, however, more open to requiring such adjustments on the part of immigrants. He would require teaching "civics and American history even in privately run religious schools committed to a different curriculum." He is ambivalent about tax-exemptions for religious organizations that exclude women from top positions, recognizing that women are engaged in the "educational and charitable activities that the exemptions fund." He is also sensitive to the problematic aspects of multiculturalism, which "is definitely bad for gays and lesbians," and defends what he calls "a soft multiculturalism" which aims "at eliminating all forms of sexual subordination while leaving room for the politics of difference." In practice, that may prove one of the tougher needles to thread.

Closer to his professional home, he wants to distinguish academic faculties from political organizations, and observes that "scholars who kowtow to the powers that be compromise or degrade their scholarship, whoever the powers are." Walzer recognizes as "the right response," the resentment and anger which "the casual racism of the old professoriate" produced in newly desegregated colleges and universities. "But somehow in our sentimentalizing culture, anger got changed into a plea for comfort: I'm offended; I'm insulted; my feelings are hurt." Walzer advises students to "look to be respected, not consoled," and says "sensitivities encouraged become ever more sensitive." Of particular interest is his advocacy on behalf of the "academic proletariat" who have little or no chance of professional advancement.

In his chapter, "Liberal Jews," Walzer strongly defends American "separationism," which he distills to four practical principles. He repeats his endorsement of history and civics classes, which he calls the "first language" our political community as an established constitutional democracy. He recognizes the American cultural reality - that religious references work well in American political discourse - but wants to ensure that no one is excluded. He rejects any right to "refuse to serve people whose religious or secular practices" one does not approve of. But he believes illiberal religious people "can also live comfortably in a secular state even if they don't help to sustain it. They have only to give up the commitment that everyone else must live as they do." This, I think, highlights the relative character of Walzer's proposals.

As an ideological as well as pragmatic liberal, Walzer wants "acceptance of difference as a good thing." That is farther than I think one need go, and would certainly be problematic for some - especially religiously motivated people - to go. On the other hand, acceptance of difference as an inexorable fact of life in a fallen world (the only kind of earthly world we will ever live in) is in my judgment at the heart of what any "decent politics" must require. Walzer has reminded us that political life is contingent, a constant challenge of better or worse choices among irresolvable differences. 

As a guide to how to implement such a decent politics (whether denominated as liberal or with some less historically and philosophically fraught term) Walzer's work offers a soundly argued practical guidebook, however much many may disagree about particulars.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Emminent Doctor, Exemplary Bishop

In his monumental, but eminently readable and edifying autobiography, Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (Princeton U. Pr., 2023), the great historian Peter Brown recounts how, as a medieval history undergraduate at Oxford in the mid-1950s, he had to choose "a special Historical subject, carefully studied with reference to original authorities." Brown chose Saint Augustine (354-430), the Roman-African Bishop of Hippo, whose feast the Church celebrates today, on this anniversary of his death. 

Brown's choice "would prove to be a crucial step" for him, "back to the world of Rome in its last days." For Brown that proved to be "an exciting range of topics," among them "the end of paganism, the workings of imperial government, the crisis of the cities, and the first fateful decades of the barbarian invasions." It also introduced him to the distinctive. history of North African Christianity, where "the version Christianity upheld by Romanized Africans such s Augustine was challenged by the fierce resistance of the populous Berber villages of the Numidian plateau." Augustine's story also illustrated the exciting joining of "the inner life of individuals to the wider frame of their culture."

Almost two decades later, Brown's own magisterial study of Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (U. of California Pr., 1967), would prove to be both intellectually and spiritually formative for me in my own journey of mind and soul. Brown's approach in that defining work was "to learn to hear Augustine clearly as he spoke the unfamiliar language of an ancient Christian from a millennium and a half ago, and then to pass on what I had heard to modern readers."

Famously, Augustine authored what is generally considered the first autobiography in Western literature. Hence, Brown's conscious effort to compose a Biography of Augustine, not what he called a "Life and Times." In doing so, Brown "claimed a place for individual subjectivity, for ideas, for culture, and for religious experience as proposer object of historical study for young and old alike in a modern university." Looking back, Brown believes that he took into himself "something of Augustine's profound sense of the complexity of the self, and of the hiatus between the depths of the inner world and the brittle surface of things." How well does that describe Brown's work (obviously) but also the challenge of appreciating what made Augustine such a world-historical figure for whom there is still an important place in contemporary experience.

One of the challenges with "convert" saints (and similarly with other converts, who may someday in the future be saints, like Isaac Hecker) is to balance the singular significance of the conversion experience and the spiritual journey leading up to it, to balance all that with a fuller appreciation of the post-conversion journey within the faith, within the Church. Augustine, according to Brown, "had passed through a dangerous moment of euphoria and had emerged with a more gray but more solid view of. himself and of the world." That is key, I think, to a full appreciation of Augustine as Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor (to use those traditional liturgical titles). A parallel insight is also key, I think, to a full appreciation of someone like Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), who was surely no Augustine but who, like Augustine, left a legacy self-consciously rooted in and expressed in terms of personal spiritual experience.

Brown's Augustine was an important book not just because of its content but because of its having been written at a special moment in Western intellectual history. As Brown has noted, the readers and reviewers of his book "belonged to what was, perhaps, the last generation in Britain and Europe where some form of familiarity with traditional Christianity could be taken for granted." I remember, right about the time I was being introduced to Brown as a grad student in the early 1970s, a colleague in psychology responded to an undergrad's complaint about the human-centric world view of some text she had been assigned to read by telling her that, well, the author's assumptions were Judeo-Christian - to which she responded that she had no acquaintance with whatever was Judeo-Christian! (This, from a Euro-American undergrad at an elite U.S. university in 1972!)

Brown's insight highlights how Augustine still speaks so directly to understanding the inner life of modern humans and the common outer condition of our contemporary world.

At the turn of the millennium, Brown brought out an updated second edition of what had by then become a classic. By then, my time on the margin of academic life had long receded into the past. Instead, I was engaged more or less full-time in pastoral ministry. By then, too, Brown had encountered newly found letters of Augustine which were primarily reflections of the concerns and preoccupations Augustine had in later life as an active, very busy Bishop in a very complex, diverse, robust late Roman, pre-medieval urban world. This too highlights the contemporary salience of Augustine the pastor, at least as much as Augustine the thinker. The Saint Augustine the Church celebrates today exemplifies both the thinker and the pastor, the eminent Doctor and the exemplary Bishop.

Photo: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Church Window, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church (Augustinian Friars), Bronx, NY.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

From Pan to Peter


Among the many wonderful things which one can watch on YouTube, there is a series of videos from the Italian TV coverage of the coronation of Pope Saint John XXIII on November 4, 1958. (TV was still somewhat new then, and that showed in the comparatively unself-conscious way the ceremony unfolded. Today, everything would be more carefully and artificially choreographed. Everyone on screen would appear exactly where he is supposed to be, when and only when he is supposed to be there, doing exactly what he is supposed to do, with nobody else in the TV frame.) 


Anyway, several times during that lengthy ceremony, the Choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”).  Also, that Gospel account was chanted, not once but twice – first by a Latin deacon, and then by a Greek deacon. I think that’s what called making a point!


Today’s Gospel takes us back in time - from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to Peter himself. Caesarea Philippi was situated some 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory ruled by King Herod’s son Philip, hence the name. That place is now known as "Banias," a deformation of its pre-Roman name, "Paneas," referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location at Israel’s northern border at the foot of Mount Hermon. That border was obviously a lot easier to cross then, in Jesus’ time, than it is now; but it was still a border, laden with symbolic spiritual significance. 


The place had been a place of worship for Pan since the third century BC, with a temple built there somewhere around 20 BC. Not only was this a place probably devoted to the most literal pagan forms of nature-worship, but it also was a place that, even earlier, was probably a focus of Canaanite Baal worship.

It was to that faraway, pagan place that Jesus took his disciples and challenged them with what is, in some sense, still the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As befits the prominent role he is being prepared for, Peter answers on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One], the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to Pan, the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one true) God.


Then, as now, Peter speaks for the Church – not just for his fellow apostles, but for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not some mere human opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself, at that stage, still probably at best only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission. 


Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, where, for centuries since, Peter has continued to speak - on behalf of the Church for the sake of the whole world. In a Church that now, as so often in her past, seems much more divided than united, Peter serves as the visible source of the unity of the Church across space and time. Across space, “people of every nation, culture, and tongue” (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer) are “gathered as one,” so that “in a world torn by strife and discord,” we “may stand forth,” as a Universal Church, “as a sign of oneness and peace.” Such a unity across space is, in turn, uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time - our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church. 

In this conflicted era of disunity and discord, when people frequently form their religion to fit their politics rather than the other way around, our unity across time in professing the ancient apostolic faith of Peter, makes possible our present unity across space as Christ’s Church in our world, which in turn fosters – for both the Church and the world - our future hope for both space and time in the kingdom of heaven.


 Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, August 27, 2023.

Photo: Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, 2012.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

That Weird GOP Debate


What is to be said about yesterday's weird first GOP debate of this 2024 election season? Even before the debate had begun, wasn't it already weird that the acknowledged frontrunner was absent from the stage? Wasn't it also weird that the same frontrunner is campaigning with four (!) indictments over his head and is scheduled to surrender in Atlanta later today, presumably in prime time to suck the air out of any alternative balloons taking off after last  night?

Absent, I think Trump was still very much missed by an audience that has become accustomed to being entertained and affirmed by his anger, hatred, and ill will (to use the familiar phrase from the old Litany of the Saints). Like the other famous TV character from Trump's borough, Archie Bunker, Trump channels - better than most of his competition - the anger of the chronically disrespected and the hatred of the other that are the hallmarks of contemporary identity and grievance politics. (The left, of course, enjoys its own version of identity grievance politics, likewise rooted in anger and hatred.)

That said, there was plenty of anger, hatred, and ill will on display on stage last night in Milwaukee. When all is said and done, that is what the Republican Party is primarily about, whatever the fantasies of old-style "normie" Republicans who still care (or pretend to care) about budgets, spending, and deficits. That old time religion was briefly on display at the beginning of the debate. Despite the widespread media expectation that the debate would begin with a question about Trump, it began with a question about "Bidenomics."  In a sign of what was the come much of the rest of the night, former Governor Nikki Haley was the only one who represented the real world, pointing out that it was the Republicans who bore primary responsibility for so much recent spending and deficits.

In general, the questions reflected well on the moderators. They asked a range of appropriate questions and tried (with minimal success) to keep the contestants within the time rules. The reality is that there is no incentive for a candidate to observe the rules. So the only way to deal with that problem is to turn off the microphone as soon as a candidate's time is up!

In general, Nikki Haley acquitted herself well. On spending, abortion, Trump, Ukraine, and foreign policy generally, she was again the closest thing to an adult in the room in recognizing the existing political realities, even when they conflict with the party-line within the Republican information bubble. She was especially effective on foreign policy against Vivek Ramaswamy, the young, generational-change candidate, who showed himself to be both full of himself and a good entertainer (maybe the greatest assets in a Trump cult) but otherwise not really ready for presidential prime time. If the point of these debates is for someone to emerge looking "presidential," Nikki Haley came closest to doing that. I doubt she could win the Republican nomination; but, if she could, she might make a formidable obstacle on Biden's road to reelection.

The other figure who performed surprisingly well and emerged looking a bit more "presidential" was former Vice President Mike Pence, in spite of his slobbering, super-sanctimonious, self-referential evangelicalism. Both Haley and Pence managed to come across as experienced political figures who had at least thought about the issues and maybe had some reason to be on that stage.

This was all in conspicuous contrast to the on-stage, ostensible front-runner, the charm-challenged Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who tried to evade giving direct answers and returned again and again to his Florida record. His one notable accomplishment was, of course to keep Florida's schools open during covid, and that, maybe more than anything else, is what got him on that stage. But he seemed  so angry and surprisingly small, far from "presidential." He may have held his own, but he did nothing to advance his cause.

Senator Tim Scott did not live up to the good press he had been getting in some quarters. Former NJ Governor Chris Christie's best moment was when he called Trump's conduct beneath the office of President and responded the the audience's boos by saying “This is the great thing about this country. Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.” 

Both when the audience booed and when the audience cheered, it was always obvious that the real front runner, the candidate the audience really wanted, was not there. The question going into the debate was whether any of the candidates was actually seriously seeking to depose Trump. Only Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (who actually brought up the 14th amendment and was booed for it) could conceivably claim that mantle. Haley did boldly say that Trump is the most unpopular politician in the country, but she and the others (except for Christie and Hutchinson) all raised their hands to indicate that they would support Trump even if convicted of crime. (The one to do so most enthusiastically was, of course, the Trumpy demagogue Vivek, who also promised to pardon him!)

Again, the debate moderators deserve credit for at least asking some good questions, that represented an intrusion of reality into the FOX propaganda bubble. The best example of that , perhaps, was the second quesiton - a question on climate change asked by a young person, an acknowledgment of how serious that issue is for the rising generation. But the responses did not reflect either the real world relevance or the seriousness of the issue. There was a lot of evasive, deflecting of the issue, blaming India and China, as if  that relieved Americans of the need to deal with the crisis. And the youngest candidate, Ramaswamy, displayed the greatest ideological hostility to responding to the crisis, an obvious moral disqualifier, which may well win hom extra points in alternative reality Republicanism.

The debate done, now the world's attention turns, as it must, to the true Republican frontrunner and newsmaker, who will surrender himself at Fluton County, Georgia, Jail today.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Maria Regina

A long-standing Christian liturgical practice, which, in fact, predates Christianity and which lasted well into the 20th century, was to prolong the celebration of the greater festivals for a full week, what was called an octave (eight days). Some relics of that still remain in the calendar. Thus, for example, today's feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary comes, not accidentally, exactly one week after the celebration of her Assumption. As we all know, the fifth and final glorious mystery of the Rosary is the Crowning of Mary, which follows chronologically and conceptually the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption. So there is a certain liturgical logic at work here.

Although the Assumption traditionally had an octave, today's particular feast of Mary as Queen dates back only to the 1950s and was originally celebrated in May. It is intended to present Mary  in the full context of her present heavenly glory as the Mother of God who is also thereby Mother of the Church.

That heavenly glory and Mary's ongoing relationship as Queen with the rest of the Church is illustrated in the beautiful, elaborate mural by the great American artist William Laurel Harris (1870-1924), on the upper wall above the door to the sacristy, right behind the altar of Our Lady. (Most of you can't see it from where you are sitting right now, but when you get the chance you should stop and take a look.) The mural portrays Christ crowning his Mother, while above the Father and the Holy Spirit are symbolically represented. Grouped around the principal figures are a collection of saints - among them, Saints Casimir, Clare, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Luke, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Mary Magdalene, Augustine of Hippo, Monica, Anthony of Padua, Bernard of Clairvaux, Philip Neri, Alphonso's Liguori, and John of the Cross.

What a great image of the Communion of Saints! What a glorious reminder of how we are all connected and brought together in the kingdom of the Risen Christ, where Mary continues to intercede on our behalf!

Homily, Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, August 22, 2023.

Photo: The Crowning of Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mural by Willian Lauren Harris, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Section Three: Yes and No


The "Section Three," in the title above, refers to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (passed by the Reconstruction Congress in 1866 and ratified in 1868). Section 1 of the Amendment famously nullified the infamous Dred Scott Decision, established the important principle of birthright citizenship, and imposed on the states the obligations of "due process" and "equal protection." Section 2 replaced the famous "three-fifths compromise" with one-person, one-vote, and provided penalties (to the best of my knowledge never enforced) for states which deny some citizens the vote. Section 3, which is what concerns us here, states: No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The 14th Amendment was adopted to reconstruct the country on a new basis after the crime of secession and the resulting Civil War. Section 3 responded to a particular historical situation. Having served that purpose, is it still relevant? That it remains relevant is the contention of two conservative legal scholars, William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, authors of "The Sweep and Force of Section Three," which can be found at:

I am not a lawyer, and my modest knowledge of constitutional law is ancient and admittedly minimal. But, for all the legal language and arcane references, the authors' 126-page case is clearly argued and quite convincing. Amendment 14, section 3, is part of the U.S. Constitution and remains fully operative today. Not specifically limited to the Civil War, it applies to any "insurrection or rebellion." Congress in subsequent statutes did use its power to lift the penalty, removing it from those on whom it had been imposed, but it did not prospectively remove it in unknown future cases. The penalty remains in force and has automatic legal effect, like other constitutional disqualifications (e.g., being too young, not being a citizen, or, in the case of  the post-22nd-amendment presidency, having already been elected twice). The authors cite the example of Couy Griffin, an elected County Commissioner in New Mexico, who participated in the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Some New Mexican citizens filed a quo warranto suit seeking his removal. A court heard the case and ruled he had been disqualified as of January 6, 2021, and ordered his immediate ejection from office. The authors explain the many and various procedures provided for removing officials and/or preventing disqualified candidates from running for or being appointed to office. (The authors obviously recognize the likelihood of a court challenge by a candidate disqualified from the ballot on such grounds and the consequent responsibility of the Court to adjudicate such a case applying section 3.) 

The authors recognize the argument that section 3 "seems harsh, unforgiving, undemocratic, unAmerican (?), even ... unconstitutional(!?)." In response, they stress that "amendments change the Constitution." So, to the extent of any conflict between them, they argue, section 3 overrides earlier constitutional provisions, for example, provisions prohibiting Bills of Attainder or ex post facto laws, and mandating due process. Much more problematically, they also argue that, "to the extent of any inconsistency between them, Section Three overrides, supersedes, or satisfies the free speech principles reflected in the First Amendment."

Considered solely as a legal argument, apart from its contemporary relevance and application, I perceive two principal potential problems. The first is that there must be some sort of adjudication of guilt or its equivalent (as happened in New Mexico) to justify removal from office or from the ballot. So, in the contemporary context, it might be one thing to keep off the ballot someone who has been tried and found guilty of some crime related to January 6, and quite another thing to try to exclude from the ballot someone who has not yet been held accountable in any other forum. 

The second problem is the broader societal concern for free speech. I understand that, because it comes chronologically later, in case of conflict the 14th Amendment takes precedence over the First. And I accept the authors' argument that there is a difference between engaging in insurrection and the free speech protected by the First Amendment, that "even under modern doctrine, free speech does not protect categories of speech that overlap with Section Three" and that "Section Three's terms will not often reach pure speech." Still, there seems something a bit too cavalier about the assertion that "Section Three should be construed, to the extent fairly possible, consistently with the free speech principles memorialized in the First Amendment," but that, in case of conflict, "Section Three must control." Are we sure that is what we want?

After some 100+ pages of legal argumentation, the authors apply their argument to the case of Donald Trump and argue - convincingly - that section 3 does indeed disqualify him from future office. "All who are committed to the Constitution should taken note and say so."

So far, so good. That is the "Yes" in the title. I agree with the authors' literal, "originalist" interpretation of the 14th Amendment. But now comes my "No" - not an absolute, definite "No," so much as an alternative political emphasis to be considered along with the legalistic one.

The authors obviously put the constitutional text at the top of their ranking of values. However, there are other values in politics. The U.S. Constitution itself in its Preamble proposes pre-constitutional values in support of achieving which the Constitution was proposed as a means, not presumably as an end in itself. 

In any case, one pre-constitutional political value is democracy. Following aspects of the classical political tradition and the creative theorizing of my grad school professor, Sheldon Wolin, I value democracy not just as a system of elections but as a more total political experience in which ordinary citizens are empowered to participate as true political actors. That said, what is at issue here is elections - that is, the right of citizens to choose those to be entrusted with public office. (It is in support of this value that I have always opposed term limits and disapprove of the 22nd amendment.) 

Electoral democracy is not an ideal or perfect form of government. The U.S. has been incredibly lucky in that elections have produced Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Joe Biden, when the same system could conceivably have elected Aaron Burr, John Breckinridge, General George McClellan, and Charles Lindbergh, or re-elected Donald Trump. Yet, notwithstanding religious, right-wing, integralist fantasies, the alternatives actually on offer in the modern world to a system of democratic elections are all worse.

Trump, et al., in their efforts to subvert the 2020 election attacked some of the bedrock principles of a system of democratic elections. They thus eminently deserve the corresponding legal sanctions, including the application of the disqualifying clause of the 14th Amendment.

That said, there remains a case for "No."

The current criminal prosecutions of the prospective Republican presidential candidate have already taken our country into dangerous territory. True, the system survived the Wilson Administration's prosecution of minor party opponent Eugene Debbs.  It may well survive the Biden Administration's prosecution of its principal political opponent, but how well and at what cost? I am no expert in Israeli politics. I cannot help wondering, however, whether the current crisis in Israel might have been avoided or at least taken a less dangerous turn if the legal system had not insisted on trying to prosecute the Prime Minister. Will Israel be better off because the Prime Minister must make alliances and pursue many unpopular policies in order to circumvent possible prosecution? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

So, while the authors' conservative, constitutional, originalist, textualist argument in favor of using section 3 to disqualify Trump's candidacy may be legally correct, it may yet prove politically problematic in ways which will further undermine our democratic system rather than support it.  The fact that Trump may be the preferred choice of a significant minority of American citizens speaks volumes about aspects of American society that I believe are radically wrong. But I do not see how depriving those citizens of the right to vote for the candidate of their choice in the long run corrects any of those wrongs. I remain convinced that the best way to exorcise the Trump factor from American politics is a decisive electoral defeat.

Of course, the case for applying section 3 remains legally compelling. Thus, in The New Republic, Matt Ford has endorsed the authors' argument. As that argument becomes better known, I imagine many more will do so as well. It is an argument that speaks powerfully to an important current in American political thought. On the other hand, there is that other current to which I have referred above. Thus, in The New York Times, Ross Douthat has argued that, even if the authors' argument "were deemed correct on some pure empyrean level of constitutional debate ... their correctness would be unavailing in reality, and their prescription as a political matter would be so disastrous and toxic and self-defeating that no responsible jurist or official should consider it." Douthat considers not just the fact that many American voters have preference for Trump, as I noted above, but also the particular political context and background for that preference. "The idea that the best way to deal with a demagogic populist whose entire appeal is already based on disillusionment with the established order is for state officials — in practice, state officials of the opposing political party — to begin unilaterally excluding him from their ballots on the basis of their own private judgment of crimes that he has not been successfully prosecuted for … I’m sorry, the mind reels." 

Mine too! No legalistic argument will likely carry much weight with people who are already disillusioned by and cynical about the system and the elites who operate within it. (The authors are admittedly conservative, but they remain conservative elites, separated by a yawning cultural gap in the real world from most of the MAGA folks who follow Trump.)

Meanwhile, the train has already left the station on the Trump prosecutions. The fantasy that "no one is above the law" will be neither more nor less true when this is all over. What will be the actual consequences remains yet to be seen. But, to quote Douthat again, "to try a man, four times over, whom a sizable minority of Americans believe should be the next president, is an inherently political act. And it is an especially political act when the crimes themselves are intimately connected to the political process, as they are in the two most recent indictments."

Perhaps, one light at the end of this tunnel may be provided by the fact that the Georgia prosecution is a state case. It may yet be transferred to federal court because of a certain arcane legal doctrine. Assuming, however, that it remains in state court, then it could be televised. That could, of course, degenerate into a circus, another O.J. trial. But it could also offer all citizens - including those enclosed in completely self-referential, ideological and informational bubbles - a rare opportunity to experience the event directly, unfiltered by FOX (or, for that matter, MSNBC). Watching the trial unfold, watching the evidence being presented, defended, refuted, the way the jury will watch it, may be an eye-opener for many and may (I dare not say "will," but it "may") by sheer evidentiary experience permit reality to break through the preconceived polarities of our politics. 


Thursday, August 17, 2023

Stalin's War (The Book)


If anything, the Oppenheimer movie has increased interest in all things World War II, already a focus of so much attention and the topic of so many books. This summer, I have read Sean McKeekin's  thought-provoking Stalin's War: A New History of World War II (NY: Basic Books, 2021). The "new" in the subtitle refers not just to its being yet another massive (666 pages of text plus another 100 or so of notes) study of the war, but to the way it untypically centers its narrative on Stalin and the Soviet Union rather than on Hitler and Germany or on the Western Allies (U.S. and U.K.).  It challenges the preferred Western narrative that focuses on the Allies "Good War" against Hitler and the Nazis, with a resulting happy ending for the U.S. and Western Europe at the war's end. In contrast, as is well known, not only did a disproportionate amount of fighting and dying happen on the eastern front, but there was no real happy ending in the east. "For subjects of his expanding slave empire, Stalin's war did not end in 1945. Decades of oppression and new forms of terror were still to come," concludes McKeekin on the last page of this book.

That Stalin emerged as the big winner from World War II there can be no real doubt, despite the terrible losses the Soviet Union suffered, especially between June 1941 and June 1944 when Soviet soldiers (and civilians), admittedly aided and provisioned by the U.S. and Britain, served as cannon fodder in place of Western soldiers. And the Soviet Union emerged from that war with significant gains in Asia as well, where it had not been engaged against Japan until the end (and where, in fact, Stalin in his neutrality had effectively been an aid to Japan against the U.S. and Britain). Obviously, the U.S. also won the war. Indeed, the U.S. emerged from the war almost unscathed and immeasurably enriched and empowered, unlike Britain which was nominally victorious but effectively diminished. The U.S. clearly emerged as the war's principal victor and the dominant and most powerful country in the world. And, just as clearly, it remains difficult still today to imagine any alternative scenario in which the Soviet Union would not have emerged as it did, as the only other serious, post-war Great Power.

What is especially interesting about McKeekin's work is how he forces the reader to approach the war from Stalin's perspective. From the beginning, Stalin got a lot of what he wanted. The war itself was something Stalin probably wanted more than Hitler. He had hoped for a catastrophic conflict between Germany, on the one side, and Britain and France, on the other, each imperialist capitalist country diminishing the other. Instead, however, he got a relatively quick German victory, which was inevitably a threat to the Soviet Union. As for Poland, which had always been a threat to Russia and had been until recently a quasi-ally of Germany, the infamous 1939 pact between the two dictators had been as much Stalin's initiative as Hitler's and had originally served Stalin's interests even more than Hitler's. Stalin took more of Poland than Hitler did, while waiting to enter the war until Hitler had effectively defeated Poland, thus enabling Stalin to preserve Russia's "neutral" status. Hitler remained very dependent on Stalin for materials. Meanwhile, Stalin was able to expand his empire into the Baltics. His only mistake was in Finland, an adventure which almost (but didn't) provoke a war with the West.

The author treats all of this in great detail, together with Stalin's most notorious war crimes (e.g., Katyn). He is somewhat guarded in his appreciation FDR's wartime policy toward Stalin (as Churchill himself eventually became), and is particularly dubious about Harry Hopkins and some of FDR's other interlocutors with Stalin. FDR was also more generous to Stalin than to Churchill, who was effectively forced to mortgage the British Empire to the U.S. FDR's politically and morally dubious policy of "unconditional surrender" (which was his idea not Churchill's) was intended to assure Stalin of Western seriousness, a pledge that the West would not negotiate a separate peace with Germany. (Meanwhile Stalin himself made overtures for a separate peace with Hitler!) Personally, I have long doubted the desirability of the "unconditional surrender" policy. Politically, of course, Truman could hardly have reversed FDR so soon even had he wanted to. Had he been able to do so, however, perhaps the Soviet involvement in the Pacific Theater could have been avoided. 

One can imagine how different decisions on this or that matter might have made some marginal difference in the final outcome. On the other hand, as always when engaging in revisionist history or any sort, the question remains what was the alternative? What outcome could there have been instead? 

The U.S was extremely generous in its aid to the Soviet Union. Had we not been so generous, however, would the Society Union have been able to win the war on the ground for us in Europe as it finally did? Yes, FDR should have pressed Stalin to start a second front against Japan - just as Stalin constantly pressure the allies to do so in Europe. In the end, however, that might well have given Stalin even more leverage in Asia than he got. And, on the traditionally most controverted outcomes (e.g., Poland), it is hard to imagine the map of Europe turning out that much differently.

But maybe the point is not so much to imagine an alternative outcome as to recover a more accurate picture of the past. It is helpful to re-travel this familiar territory with a focus on what Stalin wanted and what Stalin got, instead of the more usual emphasis on FDR's and Churchill's response to Hitler - as if they alone were the primary actors and Hitler alone the primary villain. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

A Very Special Day


"To day is the holy day of the Assumption of the dear blessed Mary other of our Lord and Saviour Jesus. Oh may I be found worthy of her regard and love." So wrote the then 24-year old Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker in his Diary on August 15, 1844, exactly two weeks after his entry into the Catholic Church.

La Madonna di mezz'agosto was how my Sicilian grandmother used to refer to today's festival of the Assumption (typically termed the "glorious" Assumption) of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which has been celebrated on this same date for so many centuries.

Early on in American history, the Assumption received special attention and solemnity in the newly created the United States as the patronal feast of Baltimore, the first U.S. diocese (then encompassing the entire territory of the new country). In his first pastoral letter to his extensive American diocese, Bishop John Carroll called on all U.S. Catholics to celebrate the feast: "to unite with one heart, and in one earnest supplication to the father of all mercies, and the giver of every good gift, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, that he may be graciously pleased to preserve, increase, and diffuse a sincere and well-grounded attachment to the principles of our. holy religion; to advert from us the seduction of error and pestilential infidelity; to awaken and renew in us the spirit of solid piety, and of watchfulness over your unruly passions; to animate us to the fulfilling of all the commandments; to pour down on our country blessings spiritual and temporal; and to receive our grateful and humble thanks for the innumerable favors, which we continually receive from a Bountiful Providence." 

Certainly, that remains a worthy prayer agenda for this happy feast in our own troubled time as well!
Early traditions saw Mary's death (her "Dormition") as an extraordinary event. It is thought that traditions about Mary's "Dormition" and her accompanying Assumption can be traced as far back as the 2nd century. According to one of the most influential accounts, Mary's life ended in Jerusalem and she was buried there by the apostles. Thomas, however, was characteristically absent. After his late arrival, the tomb was reopened and found empty, as a result of which the apostles believed her to have been taken up ("assumed") into heaven.  According to Saint John Damascene (c.675-749), Saint Juvenal,the Bishop of Jerusalem,  recounted this to the emperor at the Council of Chalcedon (451).
Whatever may be inferred from these narratives, Eastern Orthodox Christians affirm that, after Mary had died a natural death, her final resurrection was anticipated and she was carried completely, body as well as soul, into the glory of heaven. Accordingly, they celebrate the Dormition of Theotokos on August 15, preceded by a strict 14-day fast. Roman Catholics likewise affirm faith in Mary's body-and-soul assumption and celebrate it on the same date (although without any preparatory fast). Catholic teaching, now formally dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, leaves it an open question whether Mary actually died and was then raised up to heaven or whether she was directly assumed into heaven without having died first.

In 1946, Pope Pius XII, in a letter to the world's bishops Deiparae Virginis Mariae, asked them:
"Do you, venerable brethren, in your outstanding wisdom and prudence, judge that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith? Do you, with your clergy and people, desire it?" To this inquiry, the Pope received an unsurprisingly resounding response, which he characterized as "outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful." This showed, the Pope claimed, "the concordant teaching of the Church's ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs" (Munificentissimus Deus, 12). 

Those were the days! Try to imagine such concordance in the conflict-ridden factionalized Church of today! Try to reimagine the missionary self-confidence and future-oriented hopefulness expressed in that Holy Year of 1950, in the papal bull defining the by-then fully accepted Catholic doctrine.

Preaching at the Sixth national Marian Congress of France in July 1950, the Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli (Pope Saint John XXIII) composed this prayer:

O Mary, Mother of Jesus and our Mother too! We hail you with this cry that all generations repeat, contemplating the mysteries of your life and the splendor of your Assumption. Once more we hail you as blessed, beata; intercede for us, O glorious Queen of the world and be ever mindful of us, particularly in the dangers and needs of the present hour.

Photo: The Crowning of Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mural by Willian Lauren Harris, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Saturday, August 12, 2023


World War I (as a European as opposed to purely Balkan conflict) began in August. So did World War II. (Technically, World War II began September 1, but the immediate run-up to war and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which made war inevitable both happened in August.) Also the Berlin Wall went up in August, and more recently Richard Nixon resigned under pressure in August. So it is obviously nonsense to say that nothing much ever happened or happens in August.

Still, August has long had an auspicious aura about it as the vacation month par excellence. The tradition of August as the holiday month has long been established in Europe. Indeed, it probably goes all the way back to the Romans. The notorious Italian Ferragosto is derived from the Latin Feriae Augusti, established by the Emperor Augustus in 18 BC to celebrate the completion of the harvest and offer a time of rest at the end of its challenging agricultural work. All this fell in the old "sixth month" Sextilis, since renamed in honor of the Emperor Augustus (with an added thirty-first day to make it equal to July, named after Augustus' uncle Julius).

The ancient imperial festivities included horse races, a tradition which survives most famously in the Palio held in Siena on August 16. (Palio is from pallium, a band of fine cloth which was a prize for winners of ancient Roman horse races.) Modern Ferragosto is associated with holiday excursions to the seaside or into the mountains, known as "gita fuori porta,a practice popularized in modern Italy by the 20th-century Fascist regime. 

In the world of un-air-conditioned homes and schools and workplaces in which I grew up, July and August were the recognized holiday months, bounded by the end of school in the last week of June and the resumption of school on the Monday after Labor Day. That pattern largely still persists here in the northeast. August still falls in the vacation season in these parts of the United States, although in many other states school has already resumed, thus shifting the school year's "summer vacation" from July-August to June-July. During my 10 years as a pastor in Tennessee, I learned to treat August 1 as the beginning of the annual work cycle. But the continued observance of Labor Day as an "end-of-summer" celebration reflects the persistence of that more traditional mindset - although increasingly even colleges and universities resume classes before rather than after Labor Day. That was already true for me in seminary, when classes already resumed at the end of the month. Even so, early to mid-August was spent at Lake George in NY's Adirondack region, a traditional summer retreat from the pre-air-conditoning era. (The above photo from across the lake was taken several years later in October 2009.)

Of course, in today's frenzied world of texts and emails that require immediate response and so keep us forever at work wherever we may be physically, pining for August relief from routine may seem almost Luddite. Yet, just as human beings need a weekly sabbath-like day (another enrichment of human life that has almost entirely vanished in just my lifetime), people do need August or something like it in their lives. More work may be getting done than ever before. People may be more productive than ever before. But to what end? And to whose benefit?

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Afire (The Movie)

Afire, which I saw at the Lincoln Center-Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, is the English title for the German film Roter Himmel (literally "Red Sky"), the work of director Christian Petzold. It follows a seemingly social awkward, apparently unfriendly, somewhat clueless, boorishly arrogant, chain-smoking Leon, who is a young aspiring writer, currently working on the unfortunately titled "Club Sandwich." With his much more easy-going and better looking friend Felix, an aspiring photographer, the two have retreated to a beach-house owned by Felix's family on the Baltic Sea near Ahrenshoop. It is a beautiful place, its perfection marred only by Leon's bad manners and the increasingly frightening forest fires nearby. The two expected to be there alone but find that Felix's mother has, without warning him, also let the place out to Nadja, a literary criticism Ph..D. student, currently a seasonal worker selling ice cream at the beach. Spending the nights, first with her and then with Felix, is Devid, a "rescue swimmer," i.e., lifeguard. (The peculiar spelling of Devid's name is ascribed to an old GDR quirk.) 

Petzold has suggested he has been inspired by American and French coming-of-age stories set in summer at the beach. The film follows the four over the course of a few days, toward the end of which they are visited by Leon's publisher Helmut. The narrative unfolds simply. Felix swims, repairs the roof, and takes pictures for his portfolio. Dinners get prepared and shared. Nadja bikes to and from her work at the beach. David hangs around and helps Felix fix the roof. And Leon largely sulks, dissatisfied with the behavior of the others, above all dissatisfied with himself and his unsatisfactory literary output, a dissatisfaction he ineffectively seems to try to take out on everyone else around him. The simple narrative serves as the context for an intriguing character study, as each of the characters turns out to be more than he or she seemed at first.

Meanwhile, the forest fires approach closer, and terrible tragedy ensues, from which eventually emerge better writing and true love.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Greatest of Centuries?

The Greatest of Centuries? Certainly not the 20th, perhaps the bloodiest in human history! Nor the 21st, which so far seems steeped if not in blood then certainly in carnage created by technology and fostered by seemingly unbridgeable human divisions!

In the era and subculture in which I was first formed, however, there would have been no doubt which century was greatest. In my mid-century childhood, in the narrow provincial world of American Catholic culture, the influence of a certain medieval ideal (fed by 19th-century romanticism and by Pope Leo XIII's neo-scholastic revival) was immense. Hence, James J. Walsh's then popular book, The Thirteenth Greatest of Centuries (NY: Catholic Summer School Press, 1907), which this long hot summer has inspired me to recall, revisiting the popular 20th-century Catholic cultural and political project of a revived Christendom. As Church historian Joseph A. Komonchak once wrote: "For a model of its political and cultural project, the Church turned to its own history and found it, not in the state religion of the ancien régime, nor in the Counter-Reformation, but in an idealized Middle Ages" ["Modernity and the Construction of Roman Catholicism," Cristianesimo nella storia, 18 (1997): 353-385, p. 361].

In addition to all the obvious things to applaud about the Christendom of the High Middle Ages (e.g., Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Louis IX, the greatest Latin hymns, the universities), Walsh  - perhaps unsurprisingly given the era in which he was writing - also reflects a certain "whiggish" view of history, which celebrates the development of liberal democratic institutions, organically traceable in important respects to high medieval developments. Whatever the merits and demerits of whiggish historiography, it is not integralism. The post-Enlightenment romantic medievalism that might have inspired one to want to read a book called The Thirteenth Greatest of Centuries certainly served as an antidote to Enlightenment liberalism, but in actual practice probably aspired more to a purification of the present than a return to the past.

Of course, whig history has its own problems, which is its own discussion. So does uncritical romantic medievalism. Putting aside the obvious fact that most (if not all) of us would infinitely prefer to live in a world with electricity and indoor plumbing, not to mention antibiotics and vaccines, no matter how much one looks longingly back at Christendom, there is no going back. One need not embrace either a whiggish philosophy of liberal historical progress or a Marxist materialist dialectic to recognize that historical change is largely irreversible.

If at times a somewhat superficial reading of Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) might suggest an excessively celebratory appreciation of 19th-century American democracy and a somewhat too easy reconciliation of Catholicism and modernity, nonetheless his overall interpretation of what was happening in the world and its challenge for the Church represented (while committed to remaining faithful to the Church's true calling) a real alternative both to a reactionary integralism that would have wished to return to pre-revolutionary absolutism and to a romantic medievalism that would have wished to recover an only partly historical, idealized, gemeinshaftlich Christendom, to which it is inevitably impossible to return.

The key, of. course, is remaining faithful to the Church's true calling, which must inevitably transcend any century, however great. The more alienated from modernity one feels oneself to be, the more extreme will be one's condemnation of the actual present and the more extreme the search for an alternative Christendom, usually identified with some increasingly idealized past. On the other hand, the more willing one is to identify some authentic values in the present, the more able and likely one will be to enable a bridge between that Christian calling and participation in modernity, thereby becoming, what Charles Taylor has memorably called "modern civilization's 'loyal opposition'."

Monday, August 7, 2023

Saint Augustine and the Women Who Formed Him

Browsing in Barnes and Noble recently, I came across a strangely titled book, Queens of a Fallen World: The Lost Women of Augustine's Confessions (Basic Books, 2023), by Kate Cooper, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. So strange did that title seem that I might easily have passed it by, had I not noticed the blurb on the back cover by esteemed historian and Augustine scholar Peter Brown, who labeled it a "masterpiece of the historian's art" and "a rare balance of state-of-the-art erudition and felicitous hypotheses." That was hard to resist. Thanks to Brown, I bought the book. Once opened, it was hard to close.

That said, its title is still somewhat strange. It is really a book about Augustine and the important part played by two women in particular - his mother Monica (obviously) and the unnamed woman who was the mother of his son Adeodatus, whom Cooper calls Una. Ostensibly the book aims to highlight four women - the Empress Justina and Augustine's unnamed betrothed, whom Cooper calls Tacita, in addition to Monica and Una. In fact, however, Empress Justina and 10-yer old Tacita, are themselves personally much less significant than either Monica or Una. 

The book's biographical accounts of the Empress Justina and Saint Monica is interesting, as are the author's much more speculative treatments of the less well documented lives and circumstances of the two unnamed women in Augustine's story. In my judgment, however, the book's major contributions are its detailed analysis of Roman marriage laws and customs, its speculations concerning their eventual effect on Augustine and his "conversion," and his consequent commitment as a Catholic Bishop to a new theology of marriage.

In our current ritualization of Christian marriage, we still practice the Roman dextrarum iunctio (the joining of the right hands) and we still require the consent of the parties; but, in other important respects, Roman marriage (even among 4th-century Christians) was quite different from how we understand Christian marriage today. Marriage between free Roman citizens "cemented a reproductive collaboration between two separate families, establishing a secure answer to questions about property - that is, which among a man's biological offspring could claim rights as his heirs." Concubinage, in contrast, which normally involved a relationship with someone of lower status (a slave or a freedwoman), was not about producing heirs. In fact, "it was seen as entirely honorable for a man to have children whom he did not intend to support."

As anyone familiar with Augustine's story knows, Augustine's parents had not arranged a suitable marriage for their son when he was young, presumably in expectation that a better marriage might be arranged later with a family with wealth and connections which would advance Augustine's career. That was all a perfectly normal and respectable aspiration in that culture.  In the meantime, the young Augustine took a concubine, with whom he eventually had a son, Adeodatus. This was also a perfectly normal and respectable thing to do in that society. Later, when they were all settled in Milan, Monica sought the sort of marriage which would be financially advantageous for Augustine, and an engagement with a 10-year old heiress was appropriately arranged. Thanks to what Cooper calls "the unquestioned cruelty of the Roman approach to family life," Augustine was inevitably expected to end his relationship with the mother of his son. He did so, and she duly returned to Africa. But neither Monica nor her ambitious, upwardly mobile son "seems to have grasped what it would cost him to put the plan into action." Cooper argues that Augustine "had failed to anticipate the agony caused by severing the deep emotional bonds of a long life together - a life that he, at least, had found unusually happy."

Here Cooper gets somewhat speculative. She highlights how "really it was money, not sexual renunciation, that loomed large at the center of the debate" between Augustine and Alypius at that point in the Confessions. In her very plausible reading of Augustine's Confessions, "the received view is not wrong that Augustine was recoiling from sin when he decided not to marry. But the sin that repulsed him was not lust; it was greed." She argues that breaking his engagement "was not a rejection of sex but a revelation about money and loyalty - a refusal to sell himself, a desire to live up to the implicit if unspoken promise that he now saw he had made to Una."

For those whom Cooper calls "civic-minded bishops," like the celibate Augustine and his happily married friend Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, "the outsized craving that was most spiritually dangerous was not lust but the love of money."

As a bishop, Augustine famously "would argue that a man who had lived with a concubine should not be allowed to marry," that (contrary to Roman law and custom) "the church should see the union as spiritually equivalent to marriage," and "that in moral terms an established extramarital relationship carried the same responsibility as the legal bond of marriage." Influenced by his own intensely lived experience, Augustine as a bishop moved the Church's thinking about marriage away from its classical Roman expression and into a radically new and more egalitarian direction.

Augustine's reframing of the Church's appreciation of marriage is well known. What is so interesting and illuminating in Cooper's approach is the emphasis she places on Augustine's personal relationship with the woman Cooper calls Una. That Augustine condemned greed as a sin is hardly a new discovery. But the connection Cooper highlights between greed and the institutional arrangements surrounding Roman marriage and concubinage represents a genuine insight of perennial importance.

The legal and social structures of marriage have changed since Augustine's time, but the phenomenon of men dumping a long-time partner for a younger "trophy wife" or an otherwise advantageous new match remains still very real in today's late capitalist world, where we are again being pressed to recognize the insidious power of greed and its corrupting effect upon all social institutions.  This recognition ought to incentivize us to reprioritize the sins which undermine our moral capacities, our social commitments, and (a new issue) our care for our common home, as Pope Francis calls our environmentally challenged planet.