Sunday, January 28, 2024

Counting to Easter


With Christmas now well behind us, can Lent be far off? Thanks to the vagaries of the calendar, Lent and Easter will arrive relatively early this year (Ash Wednesday on February 14 and Easter on March 31 respectively). Early or late, however, they remain the centerpiece of the Church's yearly cycle, as the mysteries they celebrate stand at the center of the Christian life. In a sense, life is the very heart of Easter. As the great Pius Parsch [The Church's Year of Grace, Volume 2] put it, "Whereas at Christmas Christ manifested Himself primarily as light, He now [at Easter] manifests Himself in the Church and in the soul as life."

In the old calendar that the Church faithfully used for some 1500 years, today would have been Septuagesima Sunday, the first of three special Sundays - SeptuagesimaSexagesima, and Quinquagesima - that marked off these weeks as a distinctive pre-Lenten season. Those lovely Latin names meant the 70th, the 60th, and the 50th day before Easter. Some 1200+ years ago, Charlemagne (who died on this date in 814) is said to have asked why Sundays that were seven days apart were being numbered as if they were ten days apart. A very good question! But even he, King of the Franks and Western Roman Emperor that he was, couldn’t get an answer to this question! (Arithmetic aside, the supposedly 70-day Septuagesima season was traditionally seen as a symbolic season of exile - analogous to the biblical 70-year Babylonian Exile.)

Septuagesima wasn't quite Lent, of course. Notably, the traditional Lenten prohibition against the solemnization of marriage did not yet apply until Ash Wednesday, which was why my parents were married 77 years ago on February 15, on what was then the Saturday before Quinquagesima Sunday - the last Saturday  before Ash Wednesday.) And, of course, that season coincided with the festive, pre-Lenten Carnival, culminating on Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras - a season stereotypically associated with un-Lenten excess and pancakes. (Hence the photo above.)

The Septuagesima season did, however, already share some of Lent’s liturgical features – in particular, purple vestments, no Gloria, and, most notably, no Alleluia. For centuries, the Saturday before Septuagesima was the day when Alleluia was said or sung for the last time at the end of Sunday's First Vespers, after which it was not heard again until the end of the Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday morning. In the Middle Ages, the omission of the Alleluia was popularly ritualized by mock funeral rites in which the people, would "bury" the Alleluia (presumably to await its resurrection at Easter). At a time when people's ordinary lives still somewhat followed and reflected the rhythm of the liturgical seasons, these practices alerted people visually and otherwise that Lent was on its way. 


In the current calendar, however, Lent starts suddenly on Ash Wednesday, without any preparatory period. But then, of course, the contemporary Lent lacks the strict fasting that so strongly characterized the traditional Lent. So, perhaps not much preparation is needed now! 

In today’s still strangely unending liturgical warfare, there are fanatics who totally disparage the way the Church worshipped for over 1500 years, and others who seem convinced that the Church's worship reached a state of perfection with the 1568 Breviary and the 1570 Missal, to which any improvement is inconceivable and from which all alteration might as well be a sign of the apocalypse. Both positions are absurd, of course. The problem with trying to stake out a plausible position somewhere in between those extremes, however, is that it requires one to make intelligent judgments about which aspects of the post-Tridentine arrangement it may have been wise for the Church to alter and which it may have been less wise for her to change. 


Perhaps the best case to be made for eliminating pre-lent from the calendar was that Septuagesima suffered from an inherent in-betweenness - being a little like Lent but not quite Lent yet. Ambiguity is always a challenge, and the bureaucratic mentality that created the current calendar apparently had very little appreciation for ambiguity. 


On the other hand, the three now completely lost Sundays each had a magnificent Mass formulary dating back to Pope Saint Gregory the Great's time, and their Roman stational churches - St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, St. Peter's - attested to their importance, particularly in terms of the catechumenate. Perhaps, the desire to homogenize traditional liturgical variations that seems to have motivated so much of the reform may have been misplaced. Maybe more discernment might have separated valuable variations from merely antiquarian customs. Its arithmetic may have been off, but the Septuagesima season was liturgically rich, and those riches are now largely lost forever.


Of course, the liturgy is not a museum-piece. More significant than the loss of a liturgical season is the fact that it hardly matters - that people's lives no longer reflect the rhythm of the liturgy.  In an earlier age, all those visual and other variations in the liturgy aided the community in letting the liturgical seasons facilitate faith's connection with the rhythms of ordinary life. Today now that that connection has been almost completely severed, even if Septuagesima somehow were to be providentially restored, how much notice would it even get? The real challenge for today is to relearn how to make a connection between faith and ordinary life in our radically unprecedented circumstances.

Image: Pieter Aertsen, “The Pancake Bakery”, 1560.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Holocaust Remembrance Day


January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Army in 1945, has been observed since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although Auschwitz started out as a POW camp for Polish prisoners, it eventually became perhaps most famous for its part in the Nazis' "Final Solution."  Some 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, a place Pope Saint John Paul II would later (1979) call the "Golgotha of the modern world." The largest group of those murdered at Auschwitz was 960,000 Jews. All told, some six million Jews were murdered in the state-sponsored extermination, now known as the Holocaust, also known as Hurban ("Destruction," a word used originally to refer to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) and, more familiarly, as Shoah ("Catastrophe").

That, of course, belongs to history, albeit very recent history. The Holocaust would not have been possible were it not for the Second World War, and it was historically unique in important respects. That said, it can also be seen in relation to a longer, tragic history of anti-Semitism, particularly in Christian Europe. Thus, the 20th-century American Protestant theological Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of "the taint with which centuries of Christian oppression in the name of Christ have tainted" what he called "the symbol of Christ as the image of God in the imagination of the Jew" (Pious and Secular America, Scribner's, 1958, p. 108).

After the war, the Christian Churches gradually re-examined their past behavior. 

On October 19, 1945, the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany issued what is colloquially known as its "Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt." This brief document, addressed to the World Council of Churches in Process of Formation, acknowledged that "through us has endless suffering been brought to many peoples and countries." That statement did not specify which particular repel had suffered, but a few months later the Provisional Committee of the WCC in Process of Formation itself directly addressed anti-Semitism, acknowledging "with penitence the failure of the Churches to overcome, in the spirit of Christ, those factors in human relationships which have created and now contribute to this evil which threatens both Jewish and Christian communities," and called on Christians to testify "against the principles and practices of anti-semitism as a denial of the spirit and teaching of our Lord." Subsequent statements, both by the WCC and by German Protestant Churches, grew more detailed. In 1948, a resolution by the German Protestant Church declared, "We believe God's promise to be valid for his Chosen People even after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ."

The Roman Catholic Church came considerably later to addressing this issue. In 1964, the Second Vatican Council's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (Lumen Gentium, 16), declared: those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues

This was significantly expanded the following year in "the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" (Nostra Aetate, 4):

As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.

Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ - Abraham's sons according to faith - are included in the same Patriarch's call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people's exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself.

The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: "theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh" (Romans 9:4-5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3:9).

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

As Yves Congar's My Journal of the Council recalls, these theological and historical developments did not develop easily, in part because of opposition from certain governments. "People will not examine the CONTENT of the Declaration but, whatever that might be, will become inflamed, simply on the grounds that it is favorable to the Jews," Congar wrote, adding "Twenty years after Auschwitz, it is impossible that the Council should say nothing."

In fact, it would be another 30 years (1994!) before the Holy See - the only Christian Church which has sovereign status in international law - and the State of Israel, an independent state since 1948, would finally establish diplomatic relations. 

No one should minimize the progress that has been made toward repairing the bad history between Christians and Jews that goes back almost to apostolic times. That said, as recent events have highlighted, anti-Semitism is alive and well in the 21st-century. Since the terrorist attack on Israel in October 2023, displays and demonstrations of anti-Semitism have been surprisingly widespread, both in our cities and on university campuses.

This is the territory where that ancient evil has asserted itself anew and where it must be dealt with - lest theological statements be reduced to mere words, and observances like today's Holocaust Remembrance Day deteriorate into politically ineffective sentimentality.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Paul's Friends


Friendship, Aristotle famously said, is something without which life would be unbearable. Today, however, many Americans say they have no close friends at all. That’s a problem if in fact having friends enriches one’s life and is probably good for one’s health. Aristotle said that no one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all sorts of life’s other goods. I think that is no less true in religious life than anywhere else. So, it is fitting that today the Church commemorates two of Saint Paul's close friends - his companions and co-workers Saints Timothy and Titus.

The first reading at today’s Mass (2 Timothy 1:1-8) reflects Paul’s feelings for Timothy and his family: I remember you constantly in my prayers, night and day. I yearn to see you again, recalling your tears, so that I may be filled with joy, as I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and that I am confident lives also in you. One cannot read those words of Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy without appreciating the intense bond of friendship between the two. 


As friends, Paul and Timothy (and Titus, another friend of Paul whom we also commemorate today) shared a common mission - the mission which Paul had received directly from the Risen Lord and which Timothy had received from Paul, the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.


Timothy was of mixed Gentile and Jewish parentage. Both his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois were respected members of the Christian community in Lystra by the time Timothy became Paul’s assistant. Unlike Timothy, Titus was a Gentile and a convert, a Greek probably from Antioch. Having been converted by Paul, he served as Paul's assistant and accompanied Paul to the famous Council of Jerusalem. 


Jesus, as we just heard in the Gospel, famously sent his disciples out on mission in pairs, not just because a group effort would be more efficient but because of the greater witness value of non-competitive, collaborative life and work in partnership. In the Middle Ages, Saint Dominic, discerned the special witness value of such an apostolic manner of life for his time and place. And, in the 20th century, the Second Vatican Council likewise highlighted how such an evangelical life witnesses to God’s kingdom at work in the world through the Church.


In today’s climate of predatory individualism, a dead-end into which our consumerist culture seems increasingly capable of absorbing even religion itself as well as so much of the Church’s life, the renewed witness of shared life and mission cannot be underestimated.


Homily for the Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, Disciples and Companions of Saint Paul, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, New York, January 26, 2024.

Photo: The Beheading of Saint Paul, painting by Robert Reid, Altar of Saint Paul, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

After New Hampshire

One of the many bizarre fantasies that have characterized American politics for the past eight and a half years (ever since Donald Trump's famous ride down Trump Tower's Golden Escalator in June 2015) has been the belief that, if only the Republican primary field could be more quickly winnowed down to Trump and one other, then the majority could coalesce around that other to defeat Trump. After all this time, the first part of that fantasy finally happened in New Hampshire 2024, only to have result in the opposite of the second part. When the moment finally came, the voters (i.e., Republican primary voters) made it absolutely clear where their preference lies. 

No one should really have been surprised by this. If the moneyed, zombie Reaganite elite that used to run the party - the rich who undoubtedly believe the country is theirs to rule by right - still believed the party was theirs and that their un-rich, taken-for-granted constituents whom they have for decades brought off with culture-war sloganeering were still in their pockets, then they were likely the only ones who still believed one of their own could be imposed upon their increasingly left-behind and increasingly angry-about-it constituents. 

Unlike Ron DeSantis, who tried to win as an un-Trump Trump who could somehow outdo Trump, Nikki Haley was that elusive zombie Reaganite Republican that theoretically the party was waiting for - except that the shrinking part of the party that wanted what she was selling is getting smaller all the time! Instead, the left-behind base has finally left that part of the party behind - a sentiment so bluntly encapsulated in Don, Jr.'s remarks at Trump's victory party in New Hampshire, when he said of Haley, “She’s going to send your kids to go off and die and she couldn’t care less.”

Who knows if that would actually happen if Haley were elected. She won't be elected. So we will likely never know. But the sentiment speaks volumes, and maybe more than any other expresses the underlying resentment and rage behind the overthrow of the zombie Reaganite Republican elite. In the end, of course, Trump's faux Populism may prove less salvific than his constituents expect. It represents the sort of anger-fueled movement politics that, whether on the right or on the left, always ends badly. But that is another topic for another day! Meanwhile, whatever the future of the Republican Party, it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine it reverting to the Reaganite monstrosity that served its elite so well and the country so poorly for so long.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

True Devotion Perfects Everything

Today the Church commemorates Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Counter-Reformation Bishop, Doctor of the Church, Patron of Catholic Journalists and the Catholic Press, and one of the Patrons of the Paulist Fathers.


As a young convert, Isaac Hecker described Saint Francis de Sales’ writings as having “a vein of sweetness and angelic purity” [Diary, Aug 14, 1844]. Almost 30 years later, he happily reported back how he had visited Francis de Sales’ tomb and celebrated Mass there.

One of the principal themes of St Francis de Sales spirituality was the possibility of leading a holy life while immersed in worldly life and activities.

Born to noble parents in the Duchy of Savoy, he was educated to be a lawyer, but then chose the priesthood, and in 1602 became Bishop of Geneva. (Geneva, of course, was Protestant territory. So, Francis was based not in Geneva itself but in Catholic Annecy in eastern France.) Earlier, in his first sermon as Diocesan Provost, Francis had called on the cathedral canons to help him regain Geneva for the Catholic Church, but to do so by love rather than by gunpowder. He himself practiced what he preached by holding personal discussions with John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, whom Francis eventually converted. He was known for his kind disposition, humility, intellect, zeal, and fervor, all of which are on display in his most famous writings, his Introduction to the Devout Life and his Treatise on Divine Love. 

When I was in High School, I was advised by a priest to read Francis' Introduction to the Devout Life. I dutifully read it, although I doubt that I understood too much of it. I have, of course, reread it since and hopefully have gotten more out of it in later life. What was so special about Francis’ Introduction to the Devout Life was his emphasis on how everyone can live a holy life – not just those who withdraw from ordinary life in the world but those who live and work in the world, in whatever state of life or profession – what Vatican II in our own time would call the universal call of all to holiness. Noteworthy was his encouragement of frequent reception of Holy Communion. Francis saw the way to spiritual advancement in one’s desire to love God and do his will and live a life of active charity.

Francis had a naturally gentle personality, but his road to holiness did not come automatically. As a young man he went through a six-week crisis caused by a conviction he was predestined to be damned. One day he entered a Dominican church and there found Saint Bernard’s famous prayer the Memorare, which restored his peace and confidence, after which he recited that prayer every day.

Francis also devoted himself to the reform of clergy education, desirous of forming dedicated and learned priests. He called learning “the eighth sacrament.” He became Spiritual Director of Jane Frances de Chantal, who eventually founded the Institute of the Visitation, a community of religious women dedicated to prayer and the service of the sick and poor.  He was also a friend to Saint Vincent de Paul, who went on to found the Vincentian Fathers and the Daughters of Charity. He mediated conflicts and was especially admired by Pope Paul V and by France’s King Henry IV.

In the Divine Office today, the Church reads from a passage in his Introduction to the Devout Life, where Francis says: God “bids Christians – the living trees of his Church – to bring forth fruits of devotion each one according to his kind and vocation. A different exercise of devotion is required of each – the noble, the artisan the servant, the prince, the maiden, and the wife; and furthermore, such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual. … the devotion which is true hinders nothing, but on the contrary it perfects everything.”

Homily for the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY,  January 24, 2024.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

And the Nominees Are ...


For whatever it may be worth (probably not much) the 2024 Oscar nominees have been announced. The list is below of the six categories that I care about.

Unfortunately, I have only seen four of the 10 Best Picture Nominees. In former days, when I went to the movies much more often, I might have seen most of them by now and would have certainly made a point of trying to see all of them by the date of the awards. This year, I have only seen Barbie, The Holdovers, Maestro, and Oppenheimer. All of them belong on that list in m opinion, and all of them, I believe, would have qualified if the Academy were still using the traditional five-film list, instead of the newfangled 10. All four, I believe, deserve Best Picture. I would be happy for any one of them to win. My prediction is that Oppenheimer will probably get the Oscar.

For Best Actor, of the three that I have seen, I would go with Paul Giamatti, although I think the other two (Bradley Cooper and Cilllian Murray) are comparably deserving. For Best Actress, the only one I have seen is Maestro's Carey Mulligan. So I can express neither preference not prediction.

For Best Supporting Actor, I have only seen Robert Downey, Jr., and Ryan Gosling, both of whom I rate about equally. My personal preference would probably go to Ryan Gosling; my prediction to Robert Downey, Jr. For Best Supporting Actress, having seen only two of them, I will go with Oppenheimer's Emily Blunt.

Finally, for Best Director, the only one I can comment on is Christopher Nolan, who I predict will win. I do, however, note the truly shocking absence of Barbie's Brett Gerwig, which seems hard to justify.

Best picture:

“American Fiction”                                                                                                            “Anatomy of a Fall”                                                                                                           “Barbie”                                                                                                                                 “The Holdovers”                                                                                                                        “Killers of the Flower Moon”                                                                                          “Maestro”                                                                                                         “Oppenheimer”                                                                                                                  “Past Lives”                                                                                                                     “Poor Things”                                                                                                                  “Zone of Interest”

Best actor in a leading role:

Bradley Cooper, “Maestro”                                                                                              Colman Domingo, “Rustin”                                                                                                      Paul Giamatti, “The Holdovers”                                                                                      Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”                                                                                        Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction”

Best actress in a leading role:                                                                                               Annette Bening, “Nyad”                                                                                                                 Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon”                                                                           Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall”                                                                                          Carey Mulligan, “Maestro”

Emma Stone, “Poor Things”

Best actor in a supporting role:                                                                                                  Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction”                                                                               Robert De Niro, “Killers of the Flower Moon”                                                                     Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer”

Ryan Gosling, “Barbie”                                                                                                        Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things”

Best actress in a supporting role:

Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer”                                                                                          Danielle Brooks, “The Color Purple”                                                                                   America Ferrera, “Barbie”                                                                                                    Jodie Foster, “Nyad”                                                                                                            Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”

Best director:

Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall”                                                                                    Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon"                                                            Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”                                                                                   Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things”                                                                                   Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”

Monday, January 22, 2024

New Hampshire


My first memory of the New Hampshire primary dates from 1964, back when the primary was still in March (much more sensible than its present date). That year, New Hampshire Republicans voted for former UN Ambassador and 1960 vice-presidential nominee Henry Cabot Lodge, who wasn't even formally campaigning, who in fact was then serving the Democratic Johnson Administration as the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. A high school student with great interest in (but limited grasp of) politics, I was fascinated by Lodge's win and the hope that it might somehow derail Barry Goldwater's projected progress toward his party's nomination. (Spoiler: It didn't!). Four years later, New Hampshire made news again when upstart Eugene McCarthy, challenging incumbent Lyndon Johnson, captured 42% of the vote in the Democratic primary. Math being math, that meant that McCarthy lost and LBJ won. But politics being politics, it was LBJ who was perceived as having lost and McCarthy as having won a "moral victory." Within a week, Robert F. Kennedy had "reassessed" and entered the race against LBJ. And soon enough, on March 31, LBJ withdrew.

Partly because it is the first primary, partly because it highlights candidates' "retail politics" skills (which makes covering the campaign there so much fun), partly because of its highly educated, independent electorate, and partly because of the state's history of favoring moderates (sometimes surprisingly breathing new life into seemingly failing campaigns), New Hampshire has long exercised an outsized influence on the presidential nominating process. For better or for worse (probably for worse), the Democrats decided this year to treat South Carolina as their first primary and not to count New Hampshire. Hence, President Biden is not even on the ballot in the Democratic primary (against such luminaries as Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips). There is a write-in campaign for Biden in NH, and the media will surely over-interpret its outcome, but in the end it will not matter.

Neither, most likely, will the Republican contest. Former President Trump's one remaining Republican challenger is Nikki Haley, whose appeal is almost exclusively confined to "moderate" and college-educated voters, which makes New Hampshire a good state for her - and virtually the only state for her to have any actual hope.  (NH ranks eighth in four-year college attainment, and "independent" voters are permitted to participate in the primary of their choice.) It is hard to imagine Haley actually defeating Trump in NH. And it is hard to imagine a McCarthy-like "moral victory" getting her any closer to the nomination than it did for him 56 years ago. Admittedly, strange things can happen in politics. But, barring the strangest of strange things, Trump will be the nominee of his party, as Biden will be of his; and the election will be a rematch of 2020.

None of that will prevent wall-to-wall breathless coverage of the NH primary, as if it were somehow decisive. Our elections have become very much a show, and NH has a starring role in the performance, regardless of its actual significance.

When historians replace journalists in accounting for this election, the crucial question will undoubtedly become whether Trump's renomination was always inevitable or whether if at some specific point (perhaps when Democrats started indicting him?) his renomination became inevitable. What to make of the also-rans will depend in large measure upon how that prior question gets answered.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Left-Behind America Powers Forward


Probably everything that needs to be said about the Iowa Caucus results has already been said - multiple times. And there are, of course, so many things which one can say. Personally, I think one of the best summations of what Iowans were saying on Monday was Sohrab Ahmari's short Compact column Tuesday morning, "Left-Behind America Sticks with Trump." There Ahmari argued: "Small-town Americans without a college education—those left behind by the economic transformations of the past two generations and plunged into an abyss of material insecurity—are sticking with their man: Donald J. Trump. Neither the allurements of a “responsible Trump” (Ron DeSantis) and a female George W. Bush (Nikki Haley) nor the prosecutorial pressures exerted by the establishment sufficed to overcome their gut preference. Everything else is minor details."

I'm not sure about his last point. I think nostalgia is an important element - nostalgia for 2019, nostalgia for the way things were back before the pandemic, before the post-George Floyd "racial reckoning," before the Ukraine war and the Israel war, and before what appears to be an unprecedented surge in immigration at the southern border. If life felt better back then, maybe that means it really was better back then, and maybe that means it will become better again after a Trump restoration. Really? Actually, I think that nostalgic recollection amounts to a false reading of recent history, but I cannot deny that it is a widely experienced memory for far too many voters. 

That said, Ahmadi's basic argument appears to hold. (That argument does not, per se, contradict the nostalgia argument and may reinforce it, insofar as the voters he is describing are likely also to be the most nostalgic.) But the main point that needs to be absorbed from Ahmari's analysis is not just what we already knew - what The NY Times Nate Cohn calls "an extraordinary educational divide.” Nikki Haley's Wall Street Journal appeal reflects and confirms that divide, with which we should by now have long been familiar.

The main point to be absorbed, however, which is one which Trump's opponents seem so ill disposed to accept (or even try to understand) is that Trump's populism has succeeded because it functions as an affirmation of those deplorables whom elites prefer to disdain. In this, I am reminded of something British scholar Paul Collier wrote in 2018: "If the educated see themselves as different from the less educated, and with diminished responsibility towards them, those others would be foolish to continue to trust them as much as when they knew that everyone had the same salient identity" (The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, Harper, p. 55, emphasis added).

Consequently - back to Ahmari - what Trump's "populist challenge calls for is more, not less democracy. There is no prosecutorial shortcut around offering a broad and inclusive vision of political-economic reform—and actually listening to what the malcontents want."

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

After Liberalism

Back in the day, the standard course on "Modern Political Theory" might stretch back as far as Machiavelli and More, Luther and Calvin. It might likewise project forward including Mill and Rawls or, more daringly, Marx. But, whoever else might be read, it would almost inevitably include the trinity of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, with Hobbes and Locke presented either superficially as alternatives or more seriously as complementary. Unlike Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke were what we have bee accustomed to call liberals - Hobbes, "the only one, perhaps, still worth reading," in the judgment of John Gray, author of The New Leviathans: Thoughts after Liberalism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023).

English Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) published Leviathan in 1651.  Its famous frontispiece (above) illustrated the benefits of the powerful sovereignty Hobbes advocated as necessary for human flourishing, as against the alternative natural state of war, in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes' sovereign power would serve to protect individuals from their fear of one another, facilitating cooperation and consequently "commodious living," without classical political philosophy's presumption either of natural human sociability or of some natural human purpose, "no finis ultimis (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good).

What Gray calls New Leviathans "are not Leviathans Hobbes would recognize." Unlike Hobbes's goal of "securing its subjects against one another and external enemies," post-liberal New Leviathans "aim to secure meaning in life for their subjects," replacing "a liberal civilization based on the practice of tolerance" with "engineers of souls," which "promise safety" but "foster insecurity" - "a return of the state of nature. in artificial forms."

The bulk of Gay's book is largely concerned with examples of those post-liberal New Leviathans. Gray argues "an era of delusion in the West" followed the collapse of communism - "the theory of globalization, a mix of dubious economic theory with millennial political fantasies." Far from an end of history, Gray sees a move "Back to an epoch that is classically historical" - a world "like that of the past, with disparate regimes interacting with one another in a condition of global anarchy."

Particularly interesting are his analyses of the Soviet Union and of post-Soviet Russia, where the Orthodox Church has now "come to occupy the ideological niche filled until recently by the Communist Party." He deems it unsurprising "that when the communist secular theocracy collapsed it was followed, under Putin, by a more authentically theocratic regime."

Closer to home, he bemoans a "hyperbolic version of liberalism" in the West, which attempts "to emancipate human beings from identities that have been inherited from the past," resulting in "an artificial state of nature among self-defined identities." Such hyper-liberal "woke" ideology functions "to deflect attention from the destructive impact on society of market capitalism," prioritizing  identity questions over economic conflicts. "Woke hyper-liberalism is Puritan moral frenzy unrestrained by divine mercy or forgiveness of sin." 

He is comparably harsh in his assessment of the modern politics of rights, which I have long perceived as modern liberalism's peculiar problematic. The goal of Hobbesian logic, "is not agreement, but modus vivendi." When society is divided by such questions as abortion, assisted stoning, sexuality, and gender, "the attempt to resolve them by inventing and enforcing rights" - as Roe v. Wade so infamously attempted to do in 1973 - "is fatal to peace."Inevitably, his analysis leads to the contemporary rise of "populism" - an ambiguous term "used by liberals to refer to political blowback against the social disruption produced by their own policies." 

In contrast to what the modern liberal West has wrought, Gray recalls how "Hobbes believed human beings need limitation as much as they need freedom," which was early modern political theory's retrieval of the Christian message that "sinful humankind must live by divine guidance."

It is easy to look at the increasingly chaotic character of modern politics - both the collapse of a short-lived international order and the collapse of domestic political consensus - and recognize some of what Hobbes was warning about. Since Hobbes - under the influence of the likes of Locke and Rousseau and the liberal and radical traditions they spawned - it has been possible to aspire to a more liberating resolution of Hobbes's war of all against all, different from either Hobbes's liberal solution of supreme sovereignty or the classical socio-political paradigm Hobbes' rejected. Instead, the evolution of Leviathan into modernity's monstrous New Leviathans challenges that aspiration.

Hence, the perennial relevance of Hobbes' Leviathan, regardless of who else appears in the modern political theory pantheon.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Iowa's Cold Caucuses

Experientially, the Iowa Caucuses seem weird, which may be in part because they may be the closest we come to direct democracy in our presidential election process - a process which concludes with the obscenely anti-democratic device of the Electoral College which twice in the last 25 years (2000 and 2016) has inflicted a president on the American people whom the majority of American voters had definitively rejected. At the Iowa Caucuses - whatever else may be said about them for or against - ordinary voters all have a comparable say, but only as long as they care enough to participate on a sub-zero cold winter night. 

Of course, the caucus system is far from flawless. It is presumably less representative than a primary. To which may be added the commonly expressed criticism that Iowa is itself a somewhat unrepresentative state. On the other hand, the political process as a whole is unrepresentative, empowering unpopulated spaces to the detriment of populated places and reducing the choice of president to small margins of votes in a few "battleground states" and completely ignoring the preferences of the overwhelming multitude of voters. All that having been said, while I have never spent more than a week in Iowa and have never participated in an Iowa Caucus,  I would surely have liked to - perhaps even on what may prove to be one of the coldest nights of the year!

The caucus is sometimes described as "a gathering of neighbors." People actually have to show up and interact with one another! Imagine that pre-modern behavior! Like all forms of direct democracy, the caucus calls for a degree of personal participation and commitment, considerably in excess of what our post-modern politics typically requires, as a well as a disposition toward politics as deliberation and debate as opposed to politics as consumer entertainment. (Obviously the caucus system dates back to a time - not that long ago - when social interaction and conversation were so much more common, not having yet been destroyed by the ubiquitous cell phone.)
On the other hand, all that having been said, this year's Iowa Caucus has a frozen feel to it, by which I am not referencing the extreme weather, but rather our extreme politics, which in places like Iowa (and the rest of the country) have been completely transformed and reshaped by the MAGA movement and are now frozen in Donald Trump's favor.
In fact, the only variable in tonight's caucuses will be weather-induced, whether and how much turnout is reduced and which campaigns that helps or hurts. All evidence suggests the enthusiasm (what in 20th-century political science used to be labeled "intensity") for Nikki Haley is low, which may perhaps hurt her turnout. And both Trump and Governor DeSantis have ground-level political operations which, if they perform as planned and turnout the vote, may serve them well in spite of the weather. Unless something incredibly unexpected happens, Trump appears set to win Iowa by the largest margin ever. The only question then will be who comes in second and how far behind. 
But will that matter? The media would like to cover this year's Iowa Caucuses as if this were a traditional party primary in a traditional presidential campaign. The one thing we can say for certain, however, is that this is not a traditional campaign because our normal politics have been replaced by something very different. The more time and energy wasted on trying to fit whatever happens in this contest into the once predictable categories of of traditional politics and traditional campaigns, the less we understand what is really happening in our society and the direction in w which we are actually going.

Monday, January 8, 2024

2024: The Threatening Storm (continued)


In his monumental study of fourth-century Constantinian Christianity, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Johns Hopkins Y. Pr., 2000), H.A. Drake observed that all movements need organization and so can come to be dominated by their more militant members. Always acknowledging the limitations of any analogy, this principle may speak today to our two contemporary political parties, in which the militant "populist" MAGA "base" has pulled what remains of the Republican Party in its extreme Trumpist direction, while the militant extreme left-wing has likewise (although with more limited success) attempted to pull the rest of the Democratic Party leftward.

Historically, Drake argues, this helps explain 4th-century Christianity' increased militancy and embrace of coercion after Constantine, who had generally pursued a more moderate, inclusive, pluralistic religious vision for this empire. Of course, there were (are) elements in Christian faith which might have led (might yet lead) in a more irenic direction. Drake contends "that the more secure a community is, the more willing it is to tolerate diversity and varying belief. Constantine's success in asserting the irenic side of Christian teaching, then rested at least in part on the relative security he established in the aftermath of Diocletian's intensely disruptive persecution." What changed after Constantine? Drake suggests that "the successes Christianity enjoyed in the aftermath of Constantine's conversion" led to "a significantly higher standard for model Christian performance than the emperor had wanted." Secondly, Julian the Apostate "managed during his brief reign [361-363] to resurrect Christian doubts about the stability of their new situation and to accelerate the polarization of Christians and pagans into two clearly identified, separate, and mutually hostile camps."

Now, with all the obvious historical and cultural caveats, I suggest something similar has been at work with U.S. religion in particular and the wider U.S. culture in general. A quarter century ago, the U.S. was still seen as the exceptional nation, where the so-called "secularization thesis" did not yet appear to apply. Whereas the rest of the developed world was fast becoming post-christian, religion in general and Christianity in particular (at least in its Evangelical manifestations) appeared to be thriving in the U.S. 

I suspect, however, that the apparent acquisition of political power by Evangelicals and their conservative Catholic allies may have led to unrealistic expectations of ever-increasing political power, which led to greater intensity and militancy. But those expectations were increasingly disappointed, which in turn further reinforced the intensity and militancy. At the same time, both Evangelicalism (because of its inherited apocalyptic tendencies) and conservative Catholicism (because of its historic sense of alienation from the mainstream American culture) were disposed to see themselves as perpetually threatened by the same secular society that they sought to dominate. There have been numerous tipping points, going back to the 1960s school prayer decisions and the 1973 abortion decision. The normalization of LGBT rights early in this century seems to have been another such tipping point. So was the pandemic, which for many may have been the proverbial "last straw."

If, on this date in 2020, someone had said that the U.S. government is coming after religion and will force churches to close and prohibit assembling for Sunday worship, probably most would have responded that that would never happen in the U.S., and that the First Amendment would protect the churches if it were attempted. Yet, within three months, that was exactly what happened, and it was widely (but by no means exclusively) interpreted through a hermetic of persecution. It is an imperfect but not implausible analogy to what happened to the Church after the experience of Julian's apostasy. One (maybe inevitable) result has been the conquest of so much of organized American religion by its most militantly culture warrior constituencies. 

Looking beyond the churches to society as a whole, the analogy may be perhaps even less perfect but it still also appears applicable. The American equivalent of early Christianity's Constantinian moment of triumph was the end of the Cold War, which represented not only a victory but a sudden, unexpected, and easy victory. Legitimized by American dominance, the ideology of the American Dream intensified and sought with increasing militancy to succeed everywhere. In the 1990s, this meant imposing market capitalism on the former Soviet bloc. In the 20002, it meant spreading democracy by force in the Middle East. Both efforts having failed, American society has since sought to remake its own democracy in increasingly extreme (and anti-democratic) ways - both on the "woke" left and on the "populist" MAGA right.

These analogies are suggestive, not exhaustive. And they amplify and complement my earlier (cf. January 2) more institutionally oriented observations about the political, social, and economic factors which have contributed to what some have labelled our country's current "cold civil war." 

So, if this is where we are as a nation at the beginning of 2024, where do we expect this current context to take us this year?

To be continued.


Saturday, January 6, 2024

Three Kings Day

Whatever the peculiarities of the U.S. Catholic calendar, at least New York City's "Alternate Side of the Street Parking" calendar correctly recognizes today as "Three King's Day," one common name for Epiphania Domini ("The Epiphany of the Lord").

Here in the United States, Epiphany now seems little more than a barely noticed, very vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season. It is older than Christmas Day itself, and (noticed or not) it still ranks among the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. In many more traditionally Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Latin America), it has long been the principal Christmas gift-giving day. In the Eastern Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day, and Epiphany is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we will briefly postpone the principal commemoration of Christ’s baptism, focusing on Epiphany almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

Almost 20 years ago, in 2005, when I was a parish priest, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. Cologne’s great Gothic Cathedral, which was the architectural model for New York's famous Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, was originally built to house the relics of the magi, which were supposedly brought to Cologne by Emperor Frederick Barbarosa in 1164. Thus, the theme for the 2005 World Youth Day was We have come to worship Him [Matthew 2:2], and one of our World Youth Day activities was to walk across the Hohenzollern bridge as pilgrims to visit the cathedral and venerate the magi. 

The magi, according to Pope Benedict XVI [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, tr. Philip J. Whitmore, 2012], "were not just astronomers. They were 'wise.' They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence 'philosophy' in the original sense of the word."

Unlike Luke's more popular Christmas account, Matthew's story of the magi illustrates the paradoxes highlighted by Christ's coming into the world. To quote Benedict XVI again: "What from the lofty perspective of faith is a star of hope, from he perspective of daily life is merely a disturbance, a cause for concern and fear. It is true: God disturbs our comfortable day-to-day existence. Jesus' kingship goes hand in hand with his Passion."

By way of warning, the story of the magi  illustrates how easily we all may miss the point. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. They were troubled, instead of being overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities. What disposes some people even today to misplace their priorities such that they too react to the good news of the Gospel as if it were bad news? The tragedy inherent in such misplaced priorities is highlighted in the story Herod. According to Saint Quodvultdeus [Sermo 2 de Symbolo], Herod resolved to kill the newborn Christ in order to save his own throne, "though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come."

And then there were those putatively wise religious experts whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted scripture. But, for all their knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack the knowledge they needed the most. Thus, none of them did the obvious thing, go to Bethlehem. Only the pagan magi did! Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime! Perhaps, that is the judgment to which the routinization of religion has made so many of us most liable!

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy when these words were read or sung in the Gospel on Epiphany, everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s dramatic way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi, experiencing what they experienced, prioritizing what they prioritized.

In the United States, January 6 every fourth year is also the statutory date for Congress to count the electoral votes for president and vice president. Since 2021, this date has become a sinister one in our national memory - like FDR's "a date which will live in infamy." It has become a vivid reminder of the lengths to which misplaced priorities and the pointless pursuit of unprincipled power may lead, once politics has been divorced from any transcendent purpose. Once again, we have been warned!

Photo: The Three Kings on their way to worship the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.