Saturday, June 29, 2024

Go In Peace!


Church law requires those charged with the responsibility of leadership in religious communities at stated times to visit their members and those entrusted to their care. This is an ancient prescription in the life of the Church that dates way back to a time when personal visits were very time-consuming and otherwise difficult and challenging, but they were nonetheless seen as necessary and desirable for communication and community. Nowadays, we communicate much more frequently and in many varied ways. Even so, direct personal face-to-face interaction retains a certain privileged status. Indeed, as you are undoubtedly aware, there is a lot of concern in our society today about the breakdown and failure of interpersonal interactions, thanks to the dominance of technological alternatives. However modern we may be or want to be, nothing quite can replace personal presence in human relations.

And so it was also in today's Gospel passage [Mark 5:21-43] in which Jesus has been called upon in desperation to visit a home where a young girl is sick, at the point of death, a visit he happily makes even after the girl is reported as dead. Along the way, he has another important interpersonal encounter, also initiated by someone in severe distress. 

Ancient people typically treated blood as sacred, the repository of life. Being sacred, it was presumed to be dangerous, with all the dread and awe that typically surround the sacred in traditional societies. So, the plight of someone afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years was much more than a merely medical condition. It set I motion whole set of social and religious restrictions, that gave her illness had a public, social dimension, rendering her ritually unclean, effectively excluding her from the community. Imagine living like that for 12 years! Imagine what that would do to her sense of herself – and her relations with others! What happens to a person when the very way one is has been socially defined as dangerous?


Suddenly, into all this sadness and suffering, into this burdened woman’s world, walked Jesus, famous already for his powerful acts of healing, revealing what kind of God our God really is, a God who (as we just heard in the 1st reading) does not rejoice in the destruction of the living [Wisdom 1:13]

Somehow, something about Jesus’ personal presence empowered her to take a chance. Taking advantage of the cover provided by the crowd, she boldly touched Jesus’ cloak. And immediately her bold faith was rewarded. 

What the expensive medical establishment could not accomplish in 12 years, Jesus cured in an instant – and for free! And, in the process, Jesus set her free, not only from her illness, but from all its catastrophic social consequences and its oppressive emotional and psychological burdens.

Jesus had recognized in her a Daughter of Israel, a member of God’s People. And, because she was a member of God’s People, she deserved to be included in the community. Jesus. therefore, would not permit her healing to remain private. (Obviously in that crowded scene it certainly could have remained hidden.) 

And so she fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. She said what needed to be said; and in response Jesus promised her liberation from her suffering and told her to “Go in peace.”

In a little while, we too will be told to “Go in peace.” Jesus’ words were not meant to comfort just one woman who happened to have been afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years and just happened one day to touch his clothes!

Jesus’ words are equally addressed to all of us today - whatever hidden or not-so-hidden burdens we bear, whatever sad (or not so sad) secrets define us - to do as she did, to take the chance that she took, and so experience in our own lives (in some instances, perhaps for the very first time) the coming of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of healing and honesty, and so begin to become ourselves active agents of God’s kingdom’s reconciliation and peace.

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Austin Church, Austin, TX, June 30, 2024.

Friday, June 28, 2024

That Terrible Debate


The 45th and 46th Presidents of the United States ended up calling each other names and debating about their golf games. That was the low-point of an event which was itself a low-point of the campaign. I generally believe debates are overrated. They reward candidates for qualities which have little to do with their ability or talent for governing. Ideally, this debate was a mistake President Biden would have been better off avoiding. 

That said, President Biden not only did not avoid this debate. He actually asked for it. And he failed to present himself in such a way as to counter the right-wing echo chamber's depiction of Biden as too old to be president. I am in no way convinced that Biden is too old to be president. All things considered, he has so far been a very successful president - more so than any president since LBJ in fact. But Biden's performance appeared to confirm questions and doubts about Biden's ability to run for president, that is, to perform onstage in a vigorous and commanding manner. He sort of did that at the State of the Union. But that advantage has now been wiped out. 

On substance, Biden still sort of "won" in the sense that Trump said all sorts of things that either made no sense or were outright false. But Trump spoke vigorously and confidently. He commanded the stage. Should Trump's malevolence and falsehoods matter? Yes, they should! Do Trump's malevolence and falsehoods matter more than Biden's looking not just old but elderly? Probably not. Therein lies the problem. Biden is doing his job, doing it well, but is a very poor spokesperson on his own behalf. He comes across as weak - as I said, not just old but elderly, infirm even.

I don't agree with President Biden on everything, but overall I have no doubt that Biden's policies have made this country a better place than it was four years ago and that, if re-elected, Biden's policies will continue to improve this country. In contrast, his opponent's policies were disastrous the first time around and are likely to prove even more disastrous the second time around. But Biden proved unable to highlight those facts on the debate stage last night. That means he made Trump's re-election and its dangerous consequences so very much more likely.

In an ideal world, Biden would be satisfied with what he has accomplished and would feel empowered to step aside for the next generation (which he once claimed four years ago to want to be a bridge to). Whether that can still happen remains to be seen. A complicating factor is the widespread doubt about whether Vice President Harris could be an effective candidate in his place. I never favored Biden's choice of Harris back in 2020. I think he could have chosen better then, and that the Democrats could choose better now. Theoretically, the Democrats could still choose better, if given the chance to do so. In practice, I suspect that even Harris could likely make the anti-Trump case better than Biden at this point, but I worry whether she can make it well enough to defeat Trump.

All of which brings us back to the basic problem of American politics - that our political parties have been hollowed out, and that the Democrats in 2024 may not have what it takes to hold a real convention that chooses a candidate - in other words, do what political parties did for most of U.S. history until the disastrous transformation of American politics after 1968. It would, however, be a great experience in (small-d) democratic politics if they could actually conduct such a convention this summer and then mount a convincing campaign against Trump this fall. Defaulting to VP Harris is, of course, the more likely scenario, but it is unfortunately not one the inspires sufficient confidence.

The sad fact is that Joe Biden is a good human being, a conscientious religious person, a genuine patriot, and a great president.  His opponent is none of those things.

But the bottom line at this point is that too much is at stake in this election for the country simply to "sleepwalk" into a second Trump term. 

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Together in the Same Boat with Jesus


Church law requires those charged with the responsibility of leadership in religious communities at stated times to visit their members and those entrusted to their care. This is an ancient prescription in the life of the Church that dates way back to a time when personal visits were very time-consuming and otherwise difficult and challenging, but they were nonetheless seen as necessary and desirable for communication and community. Nowadays, we communicate much more frequently and in many varied ways. Even so, direct personal face-to-face interaction retains a certain privileged status. Indeed, as you are undoubtedly aware, there is a lot of concern in our society today about the breakdown and failure of interpersonal interactions, thanks to the dominance of technological alternatives. However modern we may be or want to be, nothing quite can replace personal presence in human relations.

And so it was also in today's Gospel passage [Mark 4:35-41] about the disciples in the boat on the Sea of Galilee caught in a violent, frightening storm. Not surprisingly, the disciples were filled with fear and terror amid the raging tempest, and they equally unsurprisingly turned to Jesus for help in their panic, – much as many people turn to him in prayer even now, if only as a last resort because nothing else seems to work.

Jesus, of course, was there. He was present. His presence, however, was obscured by the fact that he was asleep. Hence the disciples’ frantic efforts to awake him, which they eventually succeed in doing, with the intended result.

This image of the disciples in the boat caught in a life-threatening storm is a traditional image used to depict the Church, which has been sailing through the centuries through some seriously stormy times. We might include in that familiar image our own era, with its conflicts and divisions that seem to be tearing our society apart, conflicts and divisions form which the Church itself is not immune.

This Gospel story reminds us that Christ continues present in his Church now as then, whether the threatening storms be external challenges, inner turmoil, or our inevitable uncertainty about the future. The same story challenges us, however, that his presence is not some theoretical abstraction. Rather, we must really recognize his presence among us and take his presence seriously enough to call on him. 

Storms are inevitable. The boat – our Church, our society, our local community – will always have to struggle, a struggle we can’t escape. So inevitably, we may feel fear and anxiety, even doubt, as we face difficulties. The Gospel challenges us to face those difficulties together, as a community conscious of Christ’s continuing presence among us, a presence that reveals itself in many ways, not least in the faith, hope, and love we share with one another, together int he same boat with Jesus.

Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, Horseshoe Bay, TX, June 23, 2024.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Our Hollowed-Out Political Parties


In The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics (Princeton University Press, 2024), Political Scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld have combined conventional wisdom and superb scholarship (complete with 99 pages of densely packed endnotes) to produce the latest in a long list of analyses of American political parties.

Why do political parties matter? "When vigorous and civically minded parties link the governed with their government while schooling citizens in the unending give-and-take of political engagement, they gave legitimacy to democratic rule. They bring blocs of voters together under a common banner, negotiating priorities among competing interests to construct agendas that resonate in the electorate. They render politics into ordered conflict, playing by the electoral rules of the game and gatekeeping against forces that might undermine such shared commitments." Hollowness, on the other hand, is reflected in parties "unrooted in communities and unfelt in ordinary people's day-to-day lives," leaving "paradoxically underserved" a political party's "core tasks," i.e., "to corral allies and build electoral coalitions sufficient to take control of government and implement an agenda."

In part, this is a quite comprehensive history of how American political parties have developed and functioned. This history "reveals no golden age but rather disparate fragments of a more vital organized politics to take to heart." The Framers famously opposed parties and imagined the president as a kind of an above-politics "Patriot King." In what is called the First Party System, coalitions formed of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans competed "without a clear sense of political limits." Nonetheless, the first "peaceful transition of party regimes" after the election of 1800 "marked milestone in democratic political development." 

The Second Party System, which replaced the elite politics of the founding era, corresponded to the rise of participatory politics in the 1820s. The "most lasting organizational contribution of the Second Party System" was the replacement of legislative caucuses by delegate conventions "as the core mechanism of party decision-making and candidate selection." The image of the Democratic Party ("the Democracy") as the common man's party comes from the Jacksonian era. The Democrats' "Whig opponents more naturally countenanced a range of statuses and ranks populating a mutualistic political community." On the other hand, the Democrats "rejection of political hierarchy," combined with their rejection of any multiracial democracy, required "an equally committed exclusion of racial minorities forth community altogether." Long-term the Second Party System was a casualty of the conflict caused by slavery. Still, the "early mass parties, for all their flaws, bequeathed a genuinely popular and participatory politics. The torchlight parade would soon fade away. Its unmet promise still haunts American politics."

The authors analyze the development of the anti-slavery Republican Party as "indisputably great in the Tocquevillian sense," in that it "contested for and seized the reigns of power and redeemed the promise of the American republic." Democrats, in contrast, "opposed every Republican move toward civil and political rights, from he Emancipation proclamation down through the Fifteenth Amendment." Famously, the Democrats' coalition included most Catholic immigrants, "especially Irish Catholics suspicious of Republican moralism and fearful of labor market competition from African Americans." Post Civil-War Democrats "opposed prohibition of alcohol and the amendments to northern state constitutions targeting Catholic schools." The so-called "System of 1896" was more sectional than class-based. Due to the "Solid South," Progressives in the two parties never united.

The familiar story of the post-Civil War party system continues through the New Deal and the realignment and resorting of parties after the collapse of the New Deal coalition. "Party sorting after the 1970s took place on less civically rooted ground, carried out by outside actors and groups rather than by the parties themselves. The result would be a party system at once ideologically defined, president-centered, and hollow."

An almost universally blamed culprit for the hollowing out of political parties was the McGovern-Fraser reforms that followed the disastrous Democratic convention of 1968. That critique is familiar to everyone who has paid attention to the pathos of political parties. A particular contribution of this analysis is the attention the authors pay to the new political world created by what they call "the Long New Right." Ultimately, moreover, the reforms, the authors argue, proved "inadequate to the larger task of generating a party project that might counter powerful headwinds from the Right." They highlight "the take-no-prisoners exploitation of grievance and status resentments," evident in Republican politics as far back as 1968 (with earlier antecedents as, for example, 1950s McCarthyism).

After the George Wallace phenomenon off the 1960s, Pat Buchanan "melded the right-wing Catholic and the neo-Confederate traditions in the Long New Right." By 1995, Nixon-era theorist Kevin Phillips, by now "utterly disillusioned," identified the Republican Party as "failing an old but critical test of U.S. politics: the need for a would-be majority to keep firm control of its fringe groups and radicals."

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the authors identify a "politics of listlessness." This refers to the fact that "in the face of profound electoral headwinds, the candidate-driven and consultant-shaped party repeatedly failed to subordinate particular interests for common purpose or to build public goods that would benefit the party as a whole. Democrats' commitment to inclusiveness proved its own sort of pathology, more often a thin claim to take all comers than a thick vision of universalism."

Finally, came Trump, "who pushed the GOP toward the personalism that marks right-populism the world over." Trump bared "the plebiscitarian tendencies that denied party leaders' legitimate relent he nomination process." He "instinctively identified and exploited the gap between Republican elites and the Republican voters such elites could not comprehend."

In their conclusion, the authors see the key to long-term party renewal in "a sustained commitment by party actors, on a continual rather than a quadrennial basis, to robust investment in grassroots outreach." As a practical example, they examine Nevada Democratic politics (particularly as influenced by Senator harry Reid). In addition, they "endorse closed primaries, caucus-convention systems with opportunities for deliberation, institutions like superdelegates that privilege party officials and committed activists, and rejuvenation of the national conventions as deciders of platforms and priorities."

This summary skims the surface of a densely argued case for party renewal, the need for which is increasingly evident in the unravelling of our contemporary politics.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

1968 Again

Everyone remembers Charles Dickens' famous description of the extreme contradictions at the heart of a revolutionary time: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

By common agreement, 1968 was such a year. For me, all of 20 years old at the time, liberated from the Bronx to live in Manhattan and a student at City College, it was, all things considered, a good year - in many ways for me, "the best of times." For America at large, however, it has to be remembered as one for the most cataclysmic years in American history and, without overstatement, in many ways "the worst of times." How like - or unlike - the present (to follow through with the Dickens' analogy) may well be debated. But certainly there is a lot about our apocalyptic-seeming present that invites comparison with that tumultuous time. So, I have been rereading one of the best books about 1968, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (NY: Viking, 1969) by British journalists Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page.

To anyone who was alive and politically conscious back then, the story is a familiar one. Perhaps because these authors were British, they brought to its telling a particular sense of perspective that makes their account come alive even today, when the reader obviously  brings to the story not only one's multitude of personal and political memories from then but also an awareness of everything that has happened since.

Their story, the fury-filled tale of 1968, revolved around the two crises that defined that year, that in important respects have continued to define American society and politics ever since - Vietnam and race. Although it was Vietnam that produced the insurgent candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and brought an early end to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (who only four years earlier had been elected in the greatest of landslides), and it was Vietnam which led inexorably to the riots at the Chicago convention and still haunts U.S. foreign policy daces later, race remained always our unhappy inheritance which divides us still as assuredly as it divided the country then. (I remember at the time writing an essay in my "Political Science 1" class highlighting race - rather than Vietnam - as the great issue unsettling American politics.)

Some of the authors' observations seem in retrospect even more prescient and worth recalling. Thus, they noted that the presidential primary system "for all its absurdities, does offer an opportunity for an insurgent candidate, with comparatively little money, to get into contention." While the authors rightly recognized 1968 as a triumph of regular over new politics, it did foreshadow (and help make inevitable) the triumph of our outsider-politics primary system over the regular politics reflected in the traditional party conventions. We also get yet another lesson in the terminal impotency of third-party type movements, the electoral mischief facilitated by the defects of the U.S. constitution, and how the personal and/or ideological intransigence of a certain segment of Democrats helped guarantee Nixon's elections - as it has continued to help Republicans repeatedly since then. Indeed, the authors bring to their coverage of the 1968 election a superb grasp of some of the enduring features of how American politics works. Thus, regarding campaigns, "the main thrust of the enterprise must be to rally support, working within a framework of definitions made earlier - more or less hazily. Resolution of questions must take second place to the consolidation of coalitions."

They also noted how "it was the men who were eliminated, not the men who were nominated, who told the American people frankly where they stood on the war, race, poverty, and crime." In a way barely perceptible amid the apparently revolutionary chaos of the time, the Nixon interlude that followed from 1968 served as precisely that - an interlude, while the racial resentments and related, realigning forces then transforming the Republican party gained strength triumphing finally in the era of Trump.

Considering the great insurgent candidates of 1968, one is struck by the authors' insight how RFK's support came from both those who supported LBJ's war policy and those who opposed it and how "the middle-class liberals who were turning away from Kennedy were turning away from the man who above all others could moderate the hostility between black and white which threatened the Democratic Party at is base in 1968." The authors did not doubt that Kennedy "looked more capable than anyone else of beginning the great task of reconciliation between black and white." Their coverage of Kennedy's unique connection with Mexican-Americans was also particularly insightful. To side with the grape pickers, they wrote, "does not require a radical or complex political philosophy. It requires compassion, some measure of courage, and a relish for direct action and plain loyalties." Their treatment of the Kennedy candidacy also occasioned a welcome refresher course in Weber's theories about charismatic (as opposed to traditional and bureaucratic) authority, which have acquired a renewed salience a century after Weber.

But it is perhaps the authors' perceptive analysis of the (now so little remembered) George Wallace candidacy that may be most prescient about where politics would be going in the decades after 1968. They note the importance of the massive population shifts which meant that by 1968 more than half the African-American population lived outside the South and Wallace's appreciation of how Northerners would react to the presence of large numbers of African-Americans "in their midst by adopting traditional Southern racial attitudes." George Wallace "had found a set of rhetorical keys which would open many political boxes in 1968" - and ever since. For the 1968 story of the final unraveling of the South's stranglehold over the Democratic party also presaged the coming stranglehold of the South over the Republican party.

As we anticipate another Chicago convention, their coverage of that great disaster of 1968 alone makes the book worth reading, along with their insight about the expressive politics that permeated the atmosphere that year: "when the might of a society cannot be challenged, strike at its myths."

Another thing we can even one safely anticipate is another close election - a consequence in part of the polarizing politics of subtraction. Close elections were less the norm then, but that reality was already evident in 1968.  Nixon "had calculated that he could be elected without significant help from the poor, the foreign, the black, the angry or the troubled, and he had been right. But it has been a desperately close thing."

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.”