Friday, June 7, 2024

Love to the End


In his book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Walter Cardinal Kasper, considered the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which the Church celebrates today. "In many centuries," Kasper wrote, "veneration of the sacred heart of Jesus functioned as a special expression of faith in God's love and mercy." In Jesus' heart, "we recognize that God himself has a heart for us, who are poor, in the broadest sense of the word, and that he is, therefore, merciful. In this way, the heart of Jesus is an emblem of God's love, which became incarnate in Jesus Christ."


Historically, the devotion to the Sacred Heart has been strongly associated with the Jesuits, who have promoted it vigorously over the centuries.


John’s Gospel’s account of the death of Jesus on the Cross highlights the blood and water which flowed from the dead Christ’s side, traditionally seen as a symbolic birth of the Church through the sacraments of baptism and eucharist. Thus, according to the 13th-century Franciscan, Saint Bonaventure, Jesus’ side was pierced so that the Church might be formed from his side as he slept on the Cross, and, when the blood and water gushed forth, the price of our salvation might be poured out as if issuing from the hidden fountain of his Heart and might give power to the sacraments of the Church to bestow the life of grace. In the same place, Saint Bonaventure addressed Christ in these words: “to this end was your side pierced, that an entry might be open to us. To this end was your heart wounded, that in it we might be able to dwell secure from alarms from without.”


The recognition of the love of God for us expressed in the heart of his Son took on a special importance in a period in the Church’s history when devotion seemed to have cooled and God’s love had become an abstraction. Now again, on this annual solemnity of the Sacred Heart, this message of God’s overwhelming love and mercy may be important to recall now and to meditate upon on now in this cold-hearted and troubled time. 


Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, June 7, 2024.

Photo: Altar of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, on wich are inscribed the words Dilexit nos in finem ("He loved us to the end"). Above the German-carved statue of Jesus inviting all to take refuge in his Sacred Heart is a painting of the Blessed Sacrament in a Monstrance, adored by Angels, with above it the Holy Spirit portrayed as a Dove.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

D Day + 80


Today is the 80th anniversary of World War II's D-Day, the long-delayed, much anticipated, cross-channel, Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. The amphibious landing of American, British, Canadian, and other forces in Normandy that day was a logistical accomplishment of monumental proportions, with military and political consequences of comparably monumental significance. 

So today U.S. President Joe Biden, Britain's King Charles III and Queen Camilla, French President Emmanuel Macron, and other international leaders are joining many others in Normandy to commemorate what wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his famous D-Day Prayer, called "a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity." Fittingly, in addition to the  secular ceremonies, the Catholic Diocese of Bayeux-Lisieux is celebrating several D-Day Anniversary Masses on the Normandy beaches themselves and at Bayeux Cathedral. (The cathedral has also hosted a D-Day-eve ecumenical service, attended by Britain's Princess Royal.)

These anniversary celebrations are rendered somewhat bittersweet by the realization that the "Greatest Generation," that fought and won that war, has largely passed from the scene. My own father, who landed in France on D+2 (June 8, 1944) and who left me a map (photo) of his service in Europe between then and V-E Day (May 8, 1945), died in 1999, just a few months shy of what would have been his 80th birthday. All my uncles who had fought in that war and almost everyone else I grew up knowing from that generation has gone. We inhabit a world bereft of heroes. 

Tellingly, the U.S. Congress has been emptied of World War II veterans for a decade now. There was a time when Congress was full of them. The House reached its peak of  WWII veterans in 1969, when there were 327 of them in the House. The Senate's veterans membership peaked at 81 in 1975. (Also six of the eight presidents who served from 1973 to 1993 - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush - were WWII veterans.) It was no accident that the most productive Congresses in modern U.S. history were when the "Greatest Generation" dominated. The power of that shared wartime experience united politicians of widely different backgrounds and beliefs, and their experience wining that war had taught them both what governmental power could accomplish and the importance of American engagement with the wider world. The loss of that shared worldview, of that generation's patriotism, and of their willingness to work together despite different backgrounds and beliefs has greatly diminished not just Congress but America.

Not so long ago, this anniversary also served as a celebration of what the Second World War accomplished and the new - largely democratic and increasingly prosperous - political and social order established in the Western part of the post-war world. But that world and that post-war political and social order have been shattered in part by globalization and the perhaps inevitable changes in the worldwide balance of power and in part by the very non-inevitable U.S Trump-MAGA withdrawal from world leadership. May today be a wholesome reminder of the importance of American leadership in the world and a warning of what happened a century ago when American had withdrawn from and shunned such leadership.

Photo: Map drawn by my father to commemorate his service in Europe, from his landing two days after D-Day until V-E Day, May 8, 1845.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

After the Verdict

The Wall Street Journal Review Section (June 1, 2024, C3) said it simply and straightforwardly: "Trump was convicted by a Jury, not by his political enemies." It was, the WSJ observed, "12 ordinary citizens, not Biden, Soros or Merchan, who unanimously pronounced Trump guilty on 34 felony counts. In fact, the Trump trial shows why juries have long been considered an important anti-corruption device." Ultimately, of course, the voters will reaffirm or nullify the jury's verdict in November, but, as the WSJ said," we should give some thought - and many thanks - to he 12 citizens who served on the jury. ... Somewhere the Founders are smiling, even if Donald Trump is scowling." 

Not just Trump, but all of MAGA world is scowling - and, more than scowling, attacking the judicial system itself.   Nothing is surprising anymore! In this era of low trust in institutions , popular trust in the bedrock democratic republican institutions of an independent judiciary and trial-by-jury may be another casualty, with consequences increasingly catastrophic to contemplate.

Of course, there have always been some legitimate legal concerns about this case. There remains the real possibility that legal issues may result in its being reversed on appeal, the consequences of which can only be guessed at. There is also the argument to which I have been totally unsympathetic, reflected in Jonathan Chait's comment that the case may be "too marginal a violation to be balanced against the social and political costs it raises" ("Trump's Conviction: the Case for Misgivings," New York, June 3, 2024). Even so, such reservations if any "are political, not legal."

 Because, whatever happens on appeal, the jury has determined the facts of the case and has found Trump to be guilty on the facts. In MAGA world, however, this uncomfortable new information can only be evaluated in a way that aligns with the already established party line. In the rest of the world, however, Trump's conviction confirms criminal behavior on the part of someone with a familiar pattern of disrespect for law and disregard for the norms long expected of participants in our civic life. 

His supporters' over-the-top reactions only serve to highlight the danger and menace the MAGA movement may portend for our country's future.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Founding Partisans


The 2015 theatrical musical success Hamilton happily may have saved Alexander Hamilton's picture on the $10 Bill. As a long-time Hamiltonian, I am grateful for that. But Jefferson has a beautiful memorial in Washington, DC, which Hamilton does not have, although as the first Secretary of the Treasury, his statue stands in the plaza south of Washington's Treasury building. The personal and political rivalry between the two de facto founders of the two-party system dominated the first decade-plus of the republic's history, and their two alternative trajectories continue to haunt American politics after more than two centuries.

In varying degrees, the Founders feared political parties as a dangerous threat to civic republican virtue. Nonetheless, partied emerged immediately even in the period preceding the constitution's ratification. University of Texas historian and biographer H.W. Brands has chronicled the development and rise of political partisanship the early republic in Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics (NY: Doubleday, 2023). A topic of perennial interest in American history, his book could hardly be more timely.

Notwithstanding the Founders' (especially Washington's) disdainful stance toward political parties, which they saw as a relic of monarchical government, by the end of Washington's first term the inevitability of parties was becoming obvious. If "nothing so signaled republican virtue - nothing so demonstrated the difference between the old world of Britain and the new word of America - as the banishing of parties," nonetheless Madison himself wrote in 1792, "In every political society, parties are unavoidable."

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were the leading (if personally opposed to each other) Federalists. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the latter likely more strongly than the former) had supported the new Constitution in the federalist-antifederalist conflict over ratification, but they quickly evolved into leaders of the opposition party during Washington's nominally non-partisan but generally pro-Federalist administration. Jefferson's and Madison's Democratic-Republican (or simply Republican) party largely replaced the Federalists after the election of 1800 and eventually became the ancestors of the Jacksonian Democratic Party, which is (institutionally at least) the ancestor of the contemporary Democratic Party. The original Federalist party's demise resulted din Monroe's "era of good feeling," but opposition to what became the Democratic Party eventually led to the Whig Party and then the Republican Party, the institutional ancestor of the moderns Republican Party. 

George Washington, in his "Farewell Address," cautioned against "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," which he saw as especially inimical to republican government. undoubtedly reflecting his classical education but nonetheless prophetically anticipating our present political situation centuries later, Washington warned how the "horrid enormities" of partisan dissension could cause future citizens "to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual."

The story of the ideological conflict between federalists and antifederalists prior to the constitution's ratification and then the personal and partisan political rivalry between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans - and of the personal and political rivalry between my heroes Hamilton and Adams, which eventually undid the Federalists - is a familiar one, which Brands retells masterfully. There is no need to recapitulate all of that here. There are, however, a few points that particularly stand out as significant for us today.

The first is the built-in bane of American politics, the continued existence of the states as competing sovereignties. As Hamilton predicted, "The forms of your state constitutions must always give them great weight inner affairs and will make it too difficult to bend them to the pursuit of a common interests, too easy to oppose whatever they do not life and to form partial combinations subversive of the general one." Hamilton shockingly told the Constitutional Convention that the states "are not necessary for any of the great purposes of commerce, revenue, or agriculture." Brands shows how even Madison, who he shows started out as a leading pro-constitution federalist, saw the need to circumvent the state legislatures in order to found the new government directly on the people of the nation. "It will be expedient in the first place," Madison argued, "to lay the foundation of the new system in such a ratification by the people themselves of the several states as will render it clearly paramount to their legislative authorities."

The Constitution, of course, did not abolish the states, but it did try to create a single nation even while compromising with the inevitable continued existence of the states. Compromise characterized the Convention." Brands quotes Benjamin Franklin's famous table and planks analogy: "In like manner here both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition." The centrality of compromise - what elsewhere has been called a "civic bargain" - was central to the Constitution. Its notable absence from contemporary politics is but one of the differences between the character of the founding generation and our contemporary political class.

Franklin is also a good source against the excessively secularist interpretation of the founding which is increasingly in vogue in progressive circles today. "I have lived," Franklin told the Convention, "a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men." Later, as president, John Adams would proclaim a day of fasting and prayer during the crisis with revolutionary France.

The coexistence of the states within the new nation led to the Conventions great compromises regarding representation, which resulted in such anti-democratic anomalies as the Senate and the Electoral College, both of which distort the popular will much more dangerously than they did when the country was so much smaller.

The other important are of constitutional compromise was, of course, slavery. According the Madison, "the great division of interests in the United States" depended on states' "having or not having slaves." The rivalry between northern and southern states would be significant for the formation and evolution of political parties, although the long-term damage inflicted on the new nation by its compromise with slavery would only become fully evident in the following century.

So familiar are we with the glorious story of the Constitutional Convention and the Administration of our first president, that we may need to be reminded - as Brands does so well - what a struggle it was to get the constitution ratified and the new government actually up and running. While so many of the unsuccessful antifederalist arguments may be easily dismissed if not entirely forgotten, some seem significantly prescient.  Virginia's George Mason worried whether the President's unlimited pardoning power "may be sometimes exercised to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the crime, and thereby prevent a discovery of his own guilt." And then there was Jefferson's worry that "a determined incumbent" President "will pretend false votes, would play, hold possession of the reins of government, be supported by the states voting for him." 

Many a present problem was already anticipated in the founding era, which for all its greatness "couldn't have been more myopic" in the item devised for electing presidents.  Brands notes "three misapprehensions" of the framers. "One was that Americans would remain content to let their chief executive be chosen by electors insulated from the popular will." (Already by 1800, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia Maryland, and Pennsylvania all chose presidential electors by popular vote.) The second "was the assumption that the break with Britain had banished the role of parties from American politics." The third - perhaps most astonishing to modern readers - "was that the presidency wasn't a particular prize." In fact, the originally intended electoral system broke down almost immediately. It resulted in awkward inconvenience in 1796 and a constitutional crisis in 1800. Partially repaired by the 12th Amendment, the Electoral College was demonstrating its potential for mischief early on. 

Anyone sympathetic to the Hamiltonian-Federalist vision for America has to regret the historical loss of opportunity created by the unfortunate personal rivalry between Hamilton and Adams - two personalities so monumentally gifted politically but deeply flawed personally.  That said, the estrangement between the two contributed to Adams' defeat in 1800, setting the stage for the first-ever peaceful transfer of power. Brands quotes a contemporary account of Jefferson's inauguration in 1801: "the changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally Beene epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction or disorder."

Or at least it did until 2020! Whatever his other faults, Jefferson got it right when he said at his inaugural that, the election having been decided constitutionally, " all will of course arrange themselves under the will of the law and unite in common efforts for the common good." In that same speech, he warned his countrymen against "a political intolerance as despotic [as religious intolerance], as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions."

Founding Partisans celebrates the way the founding generation successful negotiated the inevitability of political disagreements and the formation of political parties in a way which preserved and fostered the common good through the vehicle of popular republican government. Its lessons for us today are many.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Corpus Christi


As most people know (or ought to know) the Catholic Church in the U.S. is in the midst of a “Eucharistic Revival,” which will culminate in July at a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. (The last one was on Philadelphia in 1976.) A little over a week ago, one of the Eucharistic Processions en route to Indianapolis passed through New York, stopping in Westchester, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, with Benediction celebrated at such unaccustomed sites as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. This National Eucharistic Revival is a contemporary response on the part of the U.S. Church to the challenge to be united around the source and summit of our faith in the Eucharistic celebration.

More than a decade ago, I led a group of midtown-Manhattan parishioners in a series of dialogues with representatives from a local synagogue. We met every month or so for about a year, and we had some very good discussions with good participation from both congregations (although sometimes our discussions devolved into dialogues between myself and the Rabbi about arcane subjects, which at least the two of us found very interesting). 

One such topic was sacrifice. It is widely believed that some form of sacrifice has characterized almost all religions. The word itself, “sacrifice,” means “to make sacred.” Historically it refers to the offering of valuable objects – of food, for example, the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), of incense, of animals, and even of humans - all offered as an act of worship of God and in hope of communing with God. The Old Testament recounts the offerings of Cain and Abel at the beginning of human history (Genesis 4:3-4) and the sacrifice of Noah after the Flood (Genesis 8:20), but perhaps the most famous Old Testament sacrifice was Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac - thankfully replaced by a ram - on Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple in Jerusalem (Genesis 22:13). 

Sacrifice was at the heart of what went on in that Temple, where sacrifices were offered at set times every day (including, in Jesus’ time, two lambs offered daily for the Roman Emperor). By then, the Temple in Jerusalem had acquired a monopoly on Jewish sacrifices. That meant, however, that, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., Judaism suddenly became a religion with no place to offer sacrifice. The Judaism of most of the past 2000 years, therefore, has been that of the synagogue (not the Temple), of rabbis (rather than priests), of a rich tradition of individual and communal prayer at set times developed to take the place of the prescribed sacrifices. What intrigued us in our local Catholic-Jewish dialogue, however, was how, historically, just when sacrifice was about to disappear from Judaism, Christianity continued the concept, preserving the religious importance of sacrifice in our experience of the Eucharist. 

On this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord (commonly called Corpus Christi) today’s first reading at Mass (Exodus 24:3-8) recalls the role of sacrifice in sealing the covenant between God and his people at Mount Sinai. Although there were many types of sacrifices – grain and incense, for example – which involved no blood, often blood was central to the sacrifice. In ancient Rome, for example, worshipers of the god Mithra would lie in a trench and let the warm blood of a just slaughtered steer flow over them. Likewise, after sacrificing holocausts and peace offerings to the Lord, Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying. “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.” 

The New Testament portrays Jesus’ life and death as an offering of his entire self, making fully and permanently effective God’s personal alliance with us. So, today’s Corpus Christi Gospel (Mark 14:12-16, 22-26) remembers Jesus, on the eve of the annual Passover sacrifice, referring to the blood of the covenant – recalling Moses’ earlier sacrifice, but referring in fact to his own blood. This blood, it turns out, substitutes for the blood of goats and calves to seal what the letter to the Hebrews clearly calls a new covenant. Calling the Risen Christ high priest of the good things that have come to be, the letter to the Hebrews clearly wants us to understand Christ’s accomplishment as a sacrifice. Whereas all the sacrifices of the past served certain specific and limited purposes, that of Christ the High Priest, was a once-and-for-all offering of Christ’s own self, unblemished to God through the eternal Spirit, in order to cleanse our consciences to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:11-15).

The same letter to the Hebrews elsewhere tells us that the Risen Christ is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25). As priest, Christ continually offers worship before the Father on our behalf. As sacrifice, Christ becomes our worship, as he unites us with him in his body by means of his blood.

And so, in anticipation of shedding his blood on our behalf, Jesus shared his body and blood with his disciples in the form of bread and wine. He turned an otherwise ordinary meal into a sacrificial sign of the new relationship uniting us with him in his body, the Church, by means of his blood. This same sacrificial meal Jesus has commanded his priests to repeat in his memory in the Eucharistic meal, the sacrifice of the Mass.

And so it is that, for us Christians, sacrifice continues uniquely in Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrificial gift of himself to his Father, made permanently present for us in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ becomes the offering of his body and blood through his body, the Church. This sacrifice unites all Christians of all times and places in Christ’s one offering of himself, now present for us on our altar, uniting us not only with Christ but through him with one another, with all who eat and drink at his altar and who share this new life of gratitude and hope. 

Established by Pope Urban IV in 1264, today’s festival of Corpus Christi highlights the permanent presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice. According to legend, the Dominican Friar Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Friar Saint Bonaventure both began composing texts for the new feast. But, when Saint Bonaventure visited Saint Thomas, he read the antiphon Thomas had composed for today’s Evening Prayer. When he got home, Bonaventure threw his own manuscript into the fire. Thus, it is the familiar words of Saint Thomas that summarize what we celebrate today – and every day – in the Eucharistic sacrifice: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is consumed, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given us.”



Friday, May 31, 2024

The Verdict


The world waited (with varying degrees of interest, anticipation, and worry) as the jury of Trump's fellow New Yorkers deliberated for two days (actually 11 hours). The verdict is now in: Guilty on all 34 Counts. The trial of the century (or, at least, of this election cycle) is now over (although, of course, the verdict will almost certainly be appealed, both judicially and in the court of public opinion). To whatever extent the facts (as opposed to the law, about which there may be more debate) were ever really in dispute, the former President has now been formally convicted of unlawfully behaving in the 2016 campaign in regard to his "hush money" payments to Stormy Daniels and the accompanying "catch and kill" scheme. Whether the law is right in so regarding these offenses remains a somewhat open question, to be settled presumably by the Appellate Court.

Defendant Trump - now Convict Trump - called it "a rigged disgraceful trial" and said "the real verdict" will come on Election Day, November 5. In a formal, legal sense, of course that is nonsense. Unless set aside on appeal, the verdict of the jury is the verdict. the fact of the case have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Defendant Trump is indeed now Convict Trump. But, of course, in a political sense, he is right. The final verdict, the verdict that will matter most, will be the one which the voters hand down on Election Day.

The apocalypse has not happened. A single prosecution of one former President, who is also a current candidate, does not, ipso facto, make the U.S, a "banana republic," as some have feared and about which all of us should be worried. Meanwhile, the hysterical outbursts on the political right, while regrettable in a law-governed democratic polity, are utterly unsurprising in their disregard of any principle other than partisan victory. On the other hand, Progressives probably would be well advised to tamp down their "rule-of-law" triumphalism. In Wednesday's NY Times, in a column entitled "There’s a Reason Most People Aren’t Following the Trump Trial," Matthew Walter, editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, wrote:

"Pretending that Mr. Trump’s worthiness to serve a second term is a matter of criminal law rather than a political question is typical of our American insistence upon using certain tools (judicial originalism, democracy promotion, tax credits) for purposes to which they are fundamentally unsuited (outlawing abortion, defeating Islamic terrorism, increasing the birthrate). Most of the time we misuse these tools in the hope of addressing problems that do not admit of any easy or obvious solution." Mr. Walther continued: "The question of Mr. Trump’s fitness to serve as our commander in chief is one that voters are readily able to answer."

I don't know that I have ever read The Lamp, nor am I at all familiar with Matthew Walther's other work, so I can only infer his position on Trump's past presidency or current candidacy.  That said, the author's conclusion seems irrefutable. After all, nothing new has really been revealed about the shameless ex-president's personality or character. And, of course, in an earlier and better time, we would likely have never gotten to this point, because anyone who behaved as Trump has behaved would never have gotten near the White House. But that was then, and this is now. When all is said and done, Donald Trump's fitness for the presidency (and his party's fitness for governance) will ultimately only be finally resolved by the electoral, not the judicial, process. Until such time as convict Trump is decisively defeated, he remains a serious danger to our country.

The important point is not Trump's personal failings and bad behavior. The important point is that he is the leader of a Republican party personality cult masquerading as a political movement that represents a fundamental threat to democracy, the rule of law, and the American idea.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Civic Bargain (the Book)


Somehow I missed this very important book, when it came out last year: Brook Manville and Josiah Ober, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton University Press, 2023). As the title suggests, it is a work about establishing and maintaining a consensus-based democracy. A successful democracy of this sort is sustained by what the authors call "a grand civic bargain," which "is a negotiated agreement among citizens about the terms of their collective self-governance, enabled by practices of civic friendship and supported by civic education. It is achieved through a history of predemocratic political bargains. And it si sustianed over time by ongoing, incremental bargaining."

As the title suggests, this is not a political theory of moral absolutes - e.g., like universal human rights. "For a democracy to work, all must accept getting less than they desire. All must subordinate certain of their personal or subgroup interests to the good of the whole." The opposite of value absolutism, "bargaining will fail if the parties come to the bargaining table inflexibly committed to rejecting any agreement that does not fully instantiate their own conception of what a perfectly just (or happy, pious, or moral) outcome would be."

The authors also recognize the salience of who is or is not a participant in the bargain. "When the citizen body is increased, the capacity of the community is increased: more human capital is available in the form of more information, knowledge, and experience." On the other hand, "expanding the citizen body means more and more diverse members at the bargaining table. And that means that there may be more and different issues on the table."

The authors apply their theories to four familiar historical cases: "the four greatest democratic experiments in Western history," four "long-duration cases," which they consider "especially valuable for understanding democracy as collective self-government by citizens." The four are ancient Athens ("The Bargain That Invented the Power of the Citizenry"), republican Rome ("The Compromises That Created the First Great Republic"), England and then Britain ("The Royal Bargains That Made Parliament Sovereign"), and finally the U.S. ("Painful Compromises in Search of a More Perfect Union"). The historical analyses of each of these cases is too long and detailed to be effectively recapped here. Suffice it to say that the authors demonstrate how in each case, "citizens struggled with the challenges of scale, and struck bargains to face those challenges." Also, "in each case, the historical trajectory ending in democracy featured political bargains made long in advance of the civic bargain," bargains which granted or established citizens' rights and responsibilities. In all cases, "democracy is hard to get, not easy to keep, and never finished: democratic emergence and survival is never a sure thing." 

Indeed, the two ancient cases offer valuable lessons in how and why democracy was no longer sustainable and so ended in each instance. Their account of the long history of the development of British democracy highlights the many stages along the way, the many political bargains preliminary to the final early 20th-century civic bargain that made Britain the successful democracy we are familiar with. 

In the U.S case, the authors emphasize the early colonial experience in local self-government. "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, civic rights, including the right to vote for local representatives, were more widely distributed in the English colonies in the New World than anywhere in Europe." The founders were well versed in the history of the ancient democratic experiments, which had taught them that "self-interest could be tempered by the active promotion of civic virtue. Formal institutions and civic education could help build strong norms of public-spirited commitment to seeking the common good, a passionate love of country, and a consequent willingness to sacrifice when necessary."

The political bargain between the colonists and the Mother Country having broken down, the first attempt at an American civic bargain, the Articles of Confederation, also failed. The process that led to the ratification of the new constitution became "a preeminent example of self-conscious civic education." That constitution required compromise between free states and slave states: "ratification of the bargain would fail if the Philadelphia delegates did not compromise with what some of them already recognized as an inherent evil." The new country continued to scale up in size, and organized political parties developed to structure political debates and outcomes. The Jacksonian era made the U.S. more democratic, but not more liberal. With the Civil War, the imperfect civic bargain collapsed. "The founders had depended on the bonds of civic friendship along with the common interest in security and welfare to hold together a union in which regional interests diverged and passions ran high. But fellow citizens now saw one another as deadly enemies." The post-Civil War civic bargain failed until the mid-20th-century in its initial goal to fully incorporate freed slaves, but was much more successful "in building civic friendship among ethnically diverse residents." Recent conflicts, however, have highlighted how "the basic question of 'who actually has a place at the civic table' has not been fully resolved." The present question is whether the American civic bargain can "be renegotiated int he face of a toxic mix of misinformation, ideological rigidity, and the threat and fact of resort to violence. Is civic friendship again being replaced  by the fatal enmity that led to the Civil War? What civic education might shore up the civic bargain and enable democracy to survive?" The last part of the book attempts to answer those questions.

The authors repeatedly stress the difference between "democracy as self-government by a self-defined body of citizens," which is the achievable goal, and some alternative "just regime predicated on an egalitarian principle of distribution or full array of universal human rights." The goal is citizens ruling themselves "through managing benefits and costs, dividing both the moral and material payoffs of their political cooperation and the duties, including military service and the payment of taxes" - doing so in a way regarded "for the time being, as fair enough." Such a civic bargain is "never final and must always be open to revision."

Among the lessons learned from studying the four cases are the necessity of leadership and "the requirement of periodically rethinking what democracy requires of individuals and groups, and what it offers to them." There is also the warning concerning "unproductive absolutism" concerning the ends to be sought, frequently experienced today, and "hyperpolarized partisanship aimed at winning, when winning is defined as destroying our enemies on the other side." The important point is that, despite contrary claims, we never really all want the same things. Democracy is about "finding workable compromises so that as citizens we can move forward together." Hence, the authors' repeated emphasis on civic education which "forges vital bonds of knowledge, values, and behaviors on which shared membership in the ongoing project of self-government stands or falls."

Unlike, for example, Robert Kagan's ideology of  rights individualism, or Progressive wokeism, Catholic integralism, or any other extremely polarizing absolutism, these authors' proposals probably require more effort on the part of all, since they acknowledge as acceptable the fact that we do not all agree on the same values or want the same ultimate outcomes and so need to negotiate a genuinely political way to live and make a future together. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Liberalism vs. Antiliberalism


Brookings Fellow and Washington Post editor-at-large Robert Kagan, has written a short but important and timely book, Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing American Apart - Again (Knopf, 2024). Kagan does not accept the classic Luis Hartz thesis about the exclusive ubiquity of American liberalism. On the contrary, he considers liberalism (by which he means a Lockean preoccupation with individual rights) and illiberalism as having coexisted an opposed each other throughout American history. Largely an historical study, Rebellion is nevertheless focused very much on the present. Kagan considers the 2024 election "a referendum on whether the liberal democracy born out of the Revolution should continue." While he recognizes that Trump himself is probably unique, "Trump's movement is not unique." That movement is part of the ongoing competition between Lockean liberalism and what he calls illiberalism, that has dominated American history from the beginning.

Contrary to what Kagan considers "one of liberalism's great weaknesses" (namely, "the belief inits own inevitability"), he believes liberalism has been a uniquely American creation, that "grew out of a confluence of unique ideas about the nature of government, a unique interaction of political and international events, and a unique place, North America." Kagan acknowledges, even celebrates what many may regard as liberalism's greatest moral failing. His liberalism "has no teleology, no final resting place toward which it aims." Rather, it is a theory of "universal natural rights," which inhere in the individual. He recognizes the American Revolution's debt to Locke, but not to the traditional Whiggish notion of th British constitution. Nor does he acknowledge more communitarian value systems, such as civic republicanism and religion, which many would argue have played a comparably positive role in American history and even now can serve as correctives to liberalism's obsessive preoccupation with individual rights.

A majority of pre-revolutionary American colonists, Kagan acknowledges, "did not believe in universal rights," and anti-liberal traditions would therefore persist as rivals to liberalism. "Yet the revolutionary and founding generations, with their unusually intense obsession with their individual rights, ensured that the question of individual rights and how best to protect them would be the central issue of American politics for the rest of the life of the republic." I doubt anyone would disagree with that, although many might look for communitarian antidotes to the rights individualism Kagan extols.

Kagan's historical narrative does an excellent job of telling the American story in a way which honors liberal rights individualism, while never underestimating the challenges to it from illiberal currents, primarily in connection with slavery and consequently race. He is especially insightful in how "suspicion of strong government that shaped the contours of the new republic became entangled with the slaveholders' demands to limit the federal government's ability to intrude in their affairs." His account of the divisions that led to the Civil War and the political conflicts of subsequent periods in American history is an excellent summation of how we got to where we are now at our present, highly fraught political moment.

Kagan also admits that "the founding generation believed religion was an important adjunct for the maintenance of a healthy, virtuous society." He recognizes that "a surge of religious revivalism" stirred up a host of reform movements, above all, abolitionism. But he insists such religious movements were "inspired by secular liberal principles." One wonders whether it is rather the reverse, that the religiously motivated reform movements, having succeeded, have since been transformed into secular liberal principles. That said, he recognizes the illiberalism inherent in the strong anti-Catholic strain in American culture and politics throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, and ranks "virulent anti-Catholicism" as "a close second" to slavery and racism as a challenge to the liberal ideal. And in the anti-immigrant politics of the early 20th century, he recognizes "a loss of confidence about the American powers of assimilation and absorption" that "was part of a larger loss of faith in liberalism itself." In fact, he considers the 1920s to be "a high-water mark of antiliberalism, the highest until now." He considers the 1920 election "more like the 2016 election of Trump than any other American election."

In his discussion of the New Deal, he admits that "the Catholic critique of liberal individualism temporarily meshed with popular views," and that the New Deal's "collective, government-centered" approach "was more in keeping with Catholic teachings than the 'rugged individualism' of unfettered capitalism." On the other hand, while he appreciates the fact that "the rights protection machine that the founders set in motion is destructive of many traditions, and that includes religious institutions," he seems serenely untroubled by that. Yet surely the socially catastrophic consequences of the melting of all that is solid (to employ Marx's image) cannot so cavalierly be dismissed because they are the concerns of illiberal ideologies! Kagan's seemingly single-minded focus on rights individualism as the single apparently ultimate value only highlights the inherent moral limits of rights individualism and the need to complement Lockean liberalism with traditional American antidotes, such as the tradition of civic republicanism.

That said, Kagan's analysis of our present highly polarized politics and the appeal of Donald Trump highlights the challenge our democracy faces for its very survival in the U.S. at this juncture. Some of his potential post-election scenarios may appear perhaps overly apocalyptic. But perhaps they are not! In any case, he displays a sharp understanding of the working of our political parties and of how Republicans accordingly "have a stake in the party's viability; all ultimately depend for their own viability on being roughly aligned with the party's positions; and so all had to make their peace with Trump, too."

Kagan's book is a well argued wake-up call in the cause of the preservation of a severely threatened liberalism. One only wishes he offered a morally broader and more communitarian foundation for society than Lockean liberal rights individualism. That is precisely what Manville and Ober offer in The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton, 2023), about which I hope to write more later this week.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Memorial Day


It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:46).

Last week, while we were on retreat in New Jersey, my community took an evening (as is customary on such occasions) to remember and mourn, to celebrate and give thanks, for those who have gone before us. As people of faith, it is our joy to commend them to the mercy of God. As brothers-in-community who remember and miss them, it is our duty recall their lives with profound gratitude.

That, of course, is what we as a nation ostensibly do each year on Memorial Day, a day devoted to memory and gratitude for all who honorably served our country in life – especially those whose lives were tragically cut short by the perils unleashed by war. We have done this as a nation since the aftermath of the Civil War, a fratricidal conflict of apocalyptic proportions, which in many ways foreshadowed the catastrophic character of modern warfare which we would experience especially tragically in the 20th century and which parts of our world are experiencing even now in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere.

I said “ostensibly,” because like so many civic observances, the “Memorial” in Memorial Day has atrophied along with so much of our national and communal life. (The loss of Memorial Day as an occasion for civic education and its turning into a day "for family picnics or to buy a new mattress on sale" is alluded to in an important recent book, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, which I will be writing more about later this week.)

Not only have the dead been forgotten by many, but many of us have lost touch even with the living, as our once characteristically American associational impulses have withered, and contemporary Americans seem more and more to have turned in upon themselves.

What was once a nation of joiners has become a nation of loners. What was once “a nation with the soul of a church” has become a nation of souls lost in the market. We seem rather lost this Memorial Day, a nation now more divided than at any time since the Civil War.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, highlighting the practice of visiting veterans' graves on this day. When I was a pastor in Tennessee, we used to celebrate Mass outdoors at the parish cemetery on Memorial Day, decorating the graves of all those buried there with our grateful prayers. It is a good and worthwhile thing to visit a cemetery on Memorial Day. Even more, this is a day to renew our civic sense of mutual commitment to one another - the living - who are our fellow citizens in this treasured but troubled land of ours.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Trinity Sunday

We began this Mass in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All of us who have been baptized were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, our parents and godparents – or we ourselves - made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our sins have been forgiven in Confession, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who are married have exchanged wedding rings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we have all repeatedly been blessed (and blessed ourselves) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In short, our entire lives, both as individuals and as a Church community, have been defined, formed, shaped by this awesome Trinitarian mystery of who God is, that defines God’s ongoing relationship with us and ours with God.

The doctrine of the Trinity is our uniquely Christian insight into who God is, our specifically Christian way of speaking about God, expressing what God has revealed about himself to us in Jesus his son through the activity of the Holy Spirit.  As human beings, created in God’s image and likeness, we all have a built-in, natural, longing for God. That God exists is something we can experience naturally.  We can reason our way, so to speak, to the existence of God as our Creator. But that is all we can reason our way to. The rest is revelation. Who God is - who God is in himself - is something we could never completely come to know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us by God himself, by God revealing himself to us in words and actions human history. And God has done so, revealing who he is in himself – one God in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three divine persons acting together externally in a way that reflect God’s inner trinitarian life, the Father acting through the Son in the Holy Spirit. In that inner trinitarian life, the three Persons are perpetually present to each other and inconceivable without each other. Externally, God has revealed in the incarnate Son, who has a visible face and has acted in human history, while the faceless Holy Spirit is known by the effects which we experience. 

So, on the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the ultimately incomprehensible inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God, each distinctly God, but existing eternally in relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, the Holy Spirit to both. The very names Father, Son, Holy Spirit are relational names. By analogy, the titles “husband” and “wife” are names that are only understandable in terms of the relationships they signify.

At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself, how he acts toward us. Who God is in himself is how God acts. How God acts in human history reveals who God ultimately is. Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as Moses testified in today’s first reading - as one who repeatedly reveals himself in how he acts toward us.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who for our salvation came down from heaven, and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, making her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Led by the Holy Spirit – as Saint Paul told the Christians in Rome and through them tells us - we become true sons and daughters of God the Father and joint heirs with Christ.

The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Thus, at Mass the Church petitions the Father to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine that they may become the body and blood of Christ and that, filled with the same Holy Spirit, we who receive Christ’s body and blood may then be transformed into one body in Christ, participants in the mission of his Church.

That mission is nothing less than to make disciples of all nations - in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, May 26, 2024.














Friday, May 24, 2024

The Last Time We Restricted Immigration


Sunday, May 26, will be the 100th anniversary of the Johnson–Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas on the number of immigrants, especially limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It also authorized the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol and allowed entry to the U.S. only to those who first obtained a visa from an American consulate abroad. This infamous law banned immigration from Asia and capped the total annual immigration quota for the rest of the world at 165,000—an 80% reduction of the yearly average before 1914. Each European national group was limited by an annual quota, eventually based on each national group's share in the 1920 census. Revised somewhat by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, it was finally completely replaced by the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Prior to the 1920s, immigration from Europe had been relatively unrestricted. The Naturalization Act of 1790 had declared only people of European descent eligible for naturalization as U.S. citizens. (After the Civil War, eligibility was eventually extended to people of African descent in the Naturalization Act of 1870.) 

Meanwhile, my paternal grandparents were among the millions of Italians and other southern and eastern Europeans who came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A bill to limit southern and eastern European immigration (e.g., Italians and Jews) had passed both houses of Congress in 1896, but it was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland. World War I led to some greater restrictions on immigration. In the increasingly isolationist and xenophobic  post-war period, the movement to restrict immigration increased in intensity.

Representative Albert Johnson (R-WA), a eugenics advocate, and Senator David Reed (R-PA) were the two main architects of the 1924 act, which found support among  nativist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and labor groups life the American Federation of Labor which wanted to reduce cheap immigrant labor that could compete with workers already here. Opposition was minimal. Only a handful of Senators and Representatives voted against it - most notably the Jewish freshman NY Representative Emmanuel Celler. He and Senator Philip Hart (D-MI) would have the honor of correcting that historic injustice by their successful co-sponsoring of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

My maternal grandparents first came to America in 1920, in the aftermath of the Great War, when anti-immigrant feeling was already on the rise. They settled in Manhattan's "Little Italy," and there my mother was born in 1922. For whatever reason, my grandparents and their younger children then returned to Italy, and my mother had happy memories of her early childhood years back in Catania. My grandmother, however, wanted to reunite the family and sought to return to America, which they were able to do because my mother was a natural-born American citizen. She was, in effect, what is nowadays called an "anchor baby," her American citizenship officially recognized by my grandmother's Kingdom-of-Italy Passport (photo), on which my mother was included.

The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was a great injustice. It represented the temporary triumph of one of the more lamentable aspects of our American political tradition, which has, perhaps understandably at times, tried to make the U.S. into an ethno-national state (which in fact most nation-states naturally are, but which the U.S has never actually been). The contrary tradition, which sees American identity as primarily civic rather than ethnic, has long recognized that immigration's inevitably disrupting effects have been overwhelmingly outweighed by the benefits brought about by immigration - benefits both for the immigrants themselves and for the dynamism of American society.

The best that might be said for the immigration policy that was adopted 100 years ago is that, by temporarily reducing immigration, it created a kind of breathing space for assimilation and mutual acceptance to occur more easily. That may have accelerated the Americanization process for my parents's and grandparents' generations, fostering a degree of civic unity which would prove especially beneficial as American society struggled to cope with the strains of the Great Depression and the overwhelming challenge of fighting and winning the Second World War. The unique formative experiences of my "Boomer Generation" built upon that civic unity experienced by the victorious "Greatest Generation." 

The U.S. is certainly a more just society now than it was 100 years ago, and the repeal of the discriminatory quota system was one momentous measure of that evolving change. That said, the lesson of the past should serve as a vivid reminder that the inevitably disruptive aspects of absorbing a multitude of immigrants must be acknowledged and addressed - preferably by more just and inclusive policies than those adopted a century ago. The lesson of the past, which may be being replayed in the present, is that it is not an adequate response or politically satisfactory strategy simply to ignore the disruptive dimensions of large-scale immigration and pretend it isn't so.

The massive immigration of the 19th century was not always well received or popular, but there were few if any legal barriers to immigration then. American society was still open in ways it no longer is. (There was still a "frontier" until late in the century.) Catholic and jewish immigrants may not have been highly desired by those already here, but their labor was needed for America's expansion and economic development.  The situation is somewhat different now, and the U.S. feels a greater need to police its borders and regulate immigration. And yet the county is still very dependent upon immigrant labor. In fact, it could be argued that the present system which encourages massive illegal immigration meets those economic needs, but in a particularly perverse way by depriving workers who are undocumented of any protection against the employers who exploit their situation to get cheaper labor. Since cheaper labor also benefits consumers, it can be argued that consumers (that is, most U.S. residents) are also accomplices of a sort in the present unjust system.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Mother of the Church

Later this year will mark the 60th anniversary of Pope Saint Paul VI's brave action in adding Mother of the Church to the long list of the Blessed Virgin Mary's devotional titles. I call it "brave" deliberately, because - like so much else in the Church's life in those years - it got caught up in the factional politics of those turbulent times. The times are still turbulent (albeit in both similar and different ways) and the Church is still torn by factionalism, but Mary's title as Mother of the Church is well established devotionally, and this day, the Monday after Pentecost, has now been celebrated liturgically under that title since 2018.

Back in 1964, Yves Congar worried that "there is a connection at least temperamentally between the OVER-exaltation of Mary, and that of the Pope" (My Journal of the Council, November 12, 1964). Whether that is completely the case the way Congar imagined can be debated. As a factual matter, Mary has been exalted in the Church for centuries. Popes have been most especially over-exalted in the modern period - in part as a consequence of modern media of communication and travel which have made Popes and their pronouncements so much more accessible, in part because modern nationalism's threat to local Churches has required of the Church a strong universal center as a counterweight, and in part because of the contemporary cult of celebrity which attaches to successful leaders, religious no less than secular. Thus, the Church's government is more centralized than ever before. The Papacy, despite having long ago lost the Papal States it clung to so ferociously for so long, is more powerful spiritually than ever before. And the Pope is more of a world-wide celebrity than ever before. This celebrity mode has been especially evident in the recent papacies of Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis. That said, it still seems something of a stretch to suggest that Pope Francis' inauguration of today's liturgical celebration of Mary as Mother of the Church was, as Congar might have interpreted it, a "political" over-exaltation of either Mary or the Pope.

Mary is especially united with the Church in the mystery of Pentecost, which undoubtedly accounts for the celebration of Mary as Mother of the Church on Pentecost Monday.  "When the liturgy turns its gaze either to the primitive Church or to the Church of our own days it always finds Mary. In the primitive Church she is seen praying with the Apostles [cf. Acts 1:14]; in our own day she is actively present, and the Church desires to live the mystery of Christ with her." (Pope S. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, 11). 

In their 1973 Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith, the U.S. Bishops devoted an entire chapter to Mary's role as Mother of the Church. "Her union with the risen Lord has added to Mary's motherhood of the Church a new effectiveness, as she shares in the everlasting intercession of our great High Priest "(116),

And, for all his earlier preoccupation with Mary's possible over-exaltation, Yves Congar himself elsewhere acknowledged "the deep bond that exists between the Virgin and the Spirit, and consequently of a certain common function despite the absolute disparity of the conditions." Specifically, he recognized "a deep relationship between Mary, the Mother of God, and the Holy Spirit... [which] derives from the mystery of salvation, the Christian mystery as such" (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, tr. David Smith, 2016 ed., Volume 1, pp, 163-164). Congar concluded his reflection on the special relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit by citing Paul VI's use of Saint Idelphonsus of Toledo's seventh-century, doctrinally powerful prayer of supplication: "I beg you, holy Virgin, that I may have Jesus from the Holy Spirit, by whom you brought Jesus forth. May my soul receive Jesus through the Holy Spirit by whom your flesh conceived Jesus ...  May I love Jesus in the Holy Spirit in whom you adore Jesus as Lord and gaze upon him as your Son" (Marialis Cultus, 26).

Mary's particular title Mother of the Church is not explicitly mentioned in the Bull of Indiction for the forthcoming Jubilee Year, recently promulgated by Pope Francis on the traditional date, Ascension Thursday. Yet, focused in a special way on the virtue of hope, that Bull, Spes Non Confundit, contains a section on how "Hope finds its supreme witness in the Mother of God." There, the Pope highlights how "popular piety continues to invoke the Blessed Virgin as Stella Maris, a title that bespeaks the sure hope that, amid the tempests of this life, the Mother of God comes to our aid, sustains us and encourages us to persevere in hope and trust," and the Pope encourages "all pilgrims to Rome to spend time in prayer in the Marian shrines of the City, in order to venerate the Blessed Mother and to implore her protection." In this regard, the Pope's personal special fondness for the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore among Rome's four patriarchal basilicas (and Jubilee pilgrimage sites) is well known.

Photo: Altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary adorned with May Crown, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY. The altar was designed by the famous Gilded Age architect Stanford White.