Friday, April 20, 2018

James Comey's "Higher Loyalty"

It is almost the end of his book when former FBI Director James Comey  offers his concluding assessment of the President of the united States: "this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty." Comey predicts that the Trump experience will leave the presidency weaker and other institutions stronger, and that the next president will re-emphasize values. Perhaps. But political systems are seldom significantly self-correcting. Perhaps instead this president (whom Comey may have contributed to putting in office) may leave all institutions weaker and those values Comey would like to see re-emphasized will be gone instead, and our American political culture changed forever for the worse?

These are fair questions - and fairly put to someone whose actions in 2016 may have been one of the factors that helped throw the election to Donald Trump. Just as Ralph Nader may be remembered by history as much or more for helping elect George W. Bush in 2000 than for any contributions to consumer safety, James Comey may be as much or more remembered for the part he may have played in putting Donald Trump in the White House than for his subsequent firing.

Yet, for all the presumed interest in Comey's assessment of President Trump, the book is really about Comey himself, not about the President. He doesn't even get to the saga of the Clinton emails until chapter 10, almost 160 pages into the story. Presumably, we are intended to read and evaluate the Comey-Clinton and Comey-Trump episodes in the light of that larger life-story. Readers will likely decide for themselves how much they really care about that larger life-story and the arc of righteousness it is presumably intended to portray.

Which is not to suggest that the larger life story is devoid of interest by any means! For example, New Yorkers might find especially interesting his account of his time working for Rudy Giuliani in the U.S. Attorney's office and his critique of Giuliani's "imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted."

Regarding the Clinton email issue, Comey acknowledges how little there was there! He states, for example, that the case came nowhere near David Petraeus' case "in the volume and classification level of the material mishandled." But the issue with his initial (July) response to the Clinton case was not his obviously correct conclusion but his self-justifying need at the time to amplify that conclusion. All this, of course, stood in stark contrast to his strange view that "there was no good reason for the FBI to speak about the Russians and the election."

What Comey will always be remembered for, of course, was his last-minute intervention, his October Surprise. indeed, one of the lawyers on the team at the time actually asked him directly: "Should you consider that what you are about to do may help elect Donald Trump President?" To that, in his characteristically self-righteous way, he says he responded "but not for a moment can I consider it. ...If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost."

Obviously, it was the institutional interest of the FBI that he feared for. But what about the United States itself and its democratic and constitutional institutions, rule of law, international standing, etc., that might be lost? 

Undoubtedly Comey sincerely means it, when he says: "I hope very much that what we did - what I did - wasn't a deciding factor in the election." And we may never know for sure how much of a deciding factor it really was. (In such a close election, almost by definition every factor may be decisive.) Yet the question remains a legitimate one, whether and to what extent his personal preoccupation with his understanding of his role may in some way have isolated him in his decision-making - confining him in an abstractly legalistic framework isolated from real-world implications.

None of this, of course, diminishes the seriousness of his evaluation of the President's personality and behavior. Unfortunately, however, he clutters that evaluation with gratuitous observations about Trump's physical appearance, which may reflect elite assessments about the importance of appearance, etc. (It should never be forgotten that it was precisely the electorate's eager rejection of certain elitist assessments of what matters that was most certainly "a deciding factor" in the election.) Comey is on more relevant ground when he critiques, for example, Trump's apparent lack of curiosity. Such deficiencies certainly count for more than any failure to meet cultural elite expectations about physical appearance.

Comey's account clearly is more about Comey than about anyone else. It tells us hardly anything we don't already know about President Trump (or candidate Clinton). In our politically polarized culture, each reader will likely interpret those already known data according to his or her tribal loyalty. Comey's misfortune may lie in the degree to which each tribe may be predisposed to fault his account - and with it his larger life-story and its implied arc of righteousness.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Israel at 70

A lot of good things happened in 1948.  Harry Truman was re-elected President of the United States. The present Prince of Wales was born. I was born. And Israel was born - or, rather reborn, after almost 19 centuries which the Jewish people had spent in exile. That exile ended 70 years ago, on May 14, 1948, with modern Israel's establishment as a sovereign sate. In the Jewish calendar, the date was 5 Iyar 5708. According to that calendar, Yom Ha'atzmaut  (Israeli Independence Day) is being celebrated today.

The United States, under President Harry Truman's forthright and courageous leadership, immediately recognized the Jewish state. Israel's Arab neighbors, however, did not. They immediately invaded the territory of the new nation, resulting in the first Arab-Israeli war. Seventy years and several wars later, some Arab states (Egypt, Jordan) have since made peace with Israel. But Israel remains beleaguered by the implacable hostility of many of its would-be neighbors who still deny its right to exist, and the Jewish nation remains the object of vehement hatred by enemies around the world.

Belatedly, the Holy See, under Pope Saint John Paul II (Pope 1978-2005), who strenuously promoted Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, finally recognized Israel in 1993. Although 45 years overdue, this was nonetheless an important step in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, which was such an important agenda item for the 20th-century Church.

That was still far from the case, however, at the beginning of the 20th century. On January 26, 1904, Theodor Herzl had an audience with Pope Saint Pius X (Pope 1903-1914)  to seek support for the Zionist effort to restore a Jewish state in the Jews' biblical homeland (in what was then still a part of the Ottoman Empire.)  Herzl recorded his account of the meeting in his diary. [Cf. Raphael Patai, The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, tr. Harry Zohn, 1960)].


According to his account, the Pope responded: "Noi non possiamo favorire questo movimento. Non potremo impedire gli Ebrei di andare a Gerusalemme—ma favorire non possiamo mai. ... Gli Ebrei non hanno riconosciuto nostro Signore, perciĆ² non possiamo riconoscere il popolo ebreo. [We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. .... The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people]."

Thus was a powerful opportunity missed to move forward toward reconciliation between the Church and the Jewish people. 

Twenty years before the restored State of Israel came into being, in March 1928 the Holy Office under Pius XI (Pope 1922-1939) decreed: "just as it reproves all hatred between peoples, so [the Apostolic See[ condemns hatred against the people formerly chosen by God, the hatred that today customarily goes by the name of anti-Semitism" [AAS 20, Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich, tr. Kenneth Kronenberg, p, 82]. But a sort of religiously rooted antagonism remained - for example, in the infelicitous wording of the Good Friday prayer pro perfidis judaeis. Some serious proposals were actually made at the time to reform the prayer's unnecessarily harsh-sounding language and also restore the genuflection which accompanied all the other 8 Good Friday intercessions but was - for absurdly spurious reasons - omitted from the prayer for the Jews.  But unfortunately nothing came of those efforts. Another missed opportunity!

It was only finally in the 1955 Holy Week reform of Pius XII (Pope 1939-1958) that the genuflection was restored to the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews. Then four years later, Pope Saint John XXIII (Pope 1958-1963) ordered the omission of the word perfidis.

Then came the Second Vatican Council. Already in the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council declared "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 (Romans 9:4-5). 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 (Romans 11:28-29)." [Lumen Gentium, 16]. Then, in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Council recalled “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.” Citing Saint Paul again, the Council repeated: "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 (Romans 11:28-29)." Finally, the Council asserted, "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." [Nostra Aetate, 4 ].

The Council's repeated privileging of Romans 11:28-29 implies a renewed appreciation of God's covenant with Israel. Obviously that does not answer every immediate question or provide a practical solution to every political problem involving Israel's still contentious relationship with some of its neighbors. But it ought at least to exclude any sympathy or support for those who still, 70 years on, deny Israel's legitimacy.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sunday after Sunday


Some years back, an acquaintance who apparently takes more than an average amount of interest in churchy stuff (like the liturgical year, for example) remarked that Easter time is too long, that 50 days are just too much to sustain interest. I suppose he had a point. In our fast-paced world of truncated attention spans, impoverished rituals, and diminished imaginations, who has the time, patience, or interest for seven weeks of celebration? Even the Easter lilies have given up by now. As Americans, we are all addicted to celebrating everything in advance. Halloween candy is on display in the supermarket for at least two months. By Halloween, however, the shelves are already being restocked for Christmas. And so it goes, all year long.

But the Church – in her providentially counter-cultural wisdom – does the opposite. We hold off on celebrating until the day itself (or, in the case of Easter, the night before) and then keep on celebrating for weeks – weeks that to some may seem to drag on and on, apparently with no end in sight.

Part of the problem, of course, can be just figuring out what exactly we are celebrating for seven long weeks. Even the most symbolically challenged modern observer probably gets it eventually that there is something special about the number seven. Those in the know can elaborate endlessly on the season’s symbolic significance, historical antecedents, Jewish parallels, and so much more. At the end of the day, however, the question always remains. So what?

It probably happened naturally enough - once the Jewish Passover had been reinterpreted as the Christian Easter - that the 7-week period from Passover to Pentecost reappeared as the Easter season. As the rapidly growing Church organized its initiation rituals, this acquired the eminently practical purpose of providing the newest members – those baptized at Easter – time to understand their experience and better appreciate what it meant for the rest of their lives. In effect, Easter time exists precisely to answer the question, So what now?

That is why the Church reads every day during this season from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ life, and thus the ongoing story of the Risen Christ’s continued life and work in the world, as experienced in his presence and action in his Church. Who better to answer our So what? Question than the 1st Christian generation, whose exciting experience the Acts of the Apostle recalls for us?

Today’s 1st reading [Acts 3:13-15, 17-19] is an excerpt from Peter’s 2nd sermon. He may have been new at his job, but he was already quite good at it. He got right to the point of what had happened and why it mattered. He outlined and summarized the central tenets of Christian faith – the significance of Jesus’ life and mission, how his death has revealed him to be God’s suffering servant, how his resurrection confirms him as the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ, promised by all the prophets, all of which challenges us to repent and be converted.

How to do this John elaborates in our 2nd reading [1 John 2:1-51], another standard Easter season staple. Jesus Christ the righteous one is our Advocate with the Father and expiation for our sins and for those of the whole world. And the way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments – being transformed, truly perfected in him by conforming ourselves to the truth of his words.

Obviously, that may be easier said than done! Like the disciples in the Gospel [Luke 24:35-48], we may all be more than a bit startled and terrified by the realty of the Risen Christ and his challenge to our lives.

And that is why we must meet - as the disciples did, as the early Christians did, as Christians of every time and place have done – every 1st day of the week, to re-encounter our Risen Lord, listening together with one another, learning together with one another, here at the altar where the still wounded but forever living Lord promises us his peace as he feeds us with his own Body and Blood.

As Pope Francis has just recently reminded us, in his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, Growth in holiness is a journey in community. Side by side with others.

It has often been remarked that the change in Jesus’ original disciples – from self-absorbed individuals, confused, scared, and hiding from the world, into a community of convinced and confident disciples, who would become a world-wide Church – was the most visible and dramatic human effect of the resurrection.

So that is why we have to come back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next, to learn how to make our own the experience of those 1st Christians. In the early 5th century, the North African bishop Saint Augustine famously told the newly baptized members of his congregation: When you were baptized, it is as though you were mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it is as though you were baked. Be what you can see and receive what you are. Be a member of the Body of Christ in order to make your Amen true. [Sermon 272].

Ultimately, that is the task of a lifetime in the Church, the slow transformation of our lives into the offering the Risen Christ makes to God on our altar today.. These seven weeks are barely long enough just to begin – just to begin to make our own the story of those 1st Christians and so discover the real difference the Risen Christ can (and does) make among us, right here and right now.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 15, 2018.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Call to Holiness in the Contemporary World

On Monday, the Holy See issued Pope Francis’ March 19 Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, “On the Call to Holiness in the Contemporary World.” This is Pope Francis’ third Apostolic Exhortation. (The previous two were Evangelii Gaudium in 2013 and Amoris Laetitia in 2016.) This Exhoration's "modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities" (2).  Since neither holiness itself nor the Holy Father's stated goal are novel, we would expect this to cover a lot of familiar ground, which it does; but it does so in the present Pope's preferred personal style, while highlighting some especially significant contemporary concerns.

He begins by situating our earthly human situation in relationship to the saints who "preserve their bonds of love and communion with us"(4). He quickly moves on from that to a recognition of signs of sanctity in the ordinary lives and activities of people, for example, "parents who raise their children with immense love" (7). In this the Pope stresses the inherently communitarian character of salvation: "we are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual" (6). "In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness" (15). The Holy Father returns to this theme later, when he warns against isolation and the consequent loss of "our sense of reality and inner clarity" and reminds us that "Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others" (140-141).

Unsurprisingly - especially in light of the recent CDF Letter Placuit Deo - the Pope revisits his preoccupation with two perennial heresies, "two false forms of holiness that can lead us astray: gnosticism and pelagiansm" (35). Regarding the former, he warns against those who have "an answer for every question," which "is a sign that they are not on the right road" (41).More pointedly, he warns that "God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone's life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there" (42). Regarding what he considers contemporary pelagianism. he references the two great medieval Doctors. Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas, to remind us both that "not everyone can do everything" and that "in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once and for all by grace" (49).

The central chapter is an extended mediation on the Beatitudes, which he treats as Jesus' own explanation of holiness. This section especially merits close reading and extended reflection. It concludes with a timely treatment of the centrality of a "lively recognition of the dignity of each human being," something which "involves a constant and healthy unease" (98-99). In this regard, he again identifies two dangers. There are those "who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord," thereby reducing Christianity to "a sort of NGO"(100).  On the other hand, there are also those "who suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend." Hence he stresses the sacredness of "the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery and every form of rejection" (101).

In this connection and with obvious implicit relevance to contemporary events, the Pope warns against those who treat the situation of migrants  as "a secondary issue compared to the 'grave' bioethical questions." He dismisses that as the approach of "a politician looking for votes" not that of "a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children" (102).

The Holy Father next looks at some "expressions of love for God and neighbor" which he considers particularly important in light of certain of contemporary culture's dangers and limitations, such as "a sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism; and all those forms of ersatz spirituality - having nothing to do with God - that dominate the current religious marketplace" (111).

As a spiritually formed Jesuit, the Pope obviously understands that holiness is also a constant combat, and he focuses our attention particularly on the Devil. "We are not dealing merely with a battle against the world and a worldly mentality that would deceive us and leave us dull and mediocre, lacking in enthusiasm and joy. Nor can this battle be reduced to the struggle against our human weaknesses and proclivities (be they laziness, lust, envy, jealousy or any others). It is also a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil" (159)
For Francis, "the conviction that this malign power is present in our midst" is what "enables us to understand how evil can at times have so much destructive force" (160)

Fittingly, Francis concludes with a reflection on discernment, without which, he warns, "we can easily become prey to every passing trend." (167) and he asks "all Christians not to omit, in dialogue with the Lord, a sincere daily 'examination of conscience'."  (169)

While wordy, Gaudete et Exsultate is not as wordy as so many other modern Church documents. Its subject and the Pope's style of expression make it relatively accessible to most. Those same qualities ought also to make it easy to summarize for those who inevitably will not actually read it. 

Unsurprisingly, some journalistic accounts have immediately sought to highlight how this or that passage tilts the score one way or the other in the contemporary tribal divisions within the Church, divisions which sometimes seem to replicate the divisions of our poisonously politically polarized society. To read it exclusively in that way, however, misses a major opportunity to transcend some of those divisions.

Like Saint Francis de Sales famous masterpiece, The Introduction to the Devout Life, Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation is addressed to all, irrespective of particular vocation or status within the Church, modeling how an authentic spirituality not only can be but actually must be rooted in and reflected in our ordinary life experiences and the opportunities and challenges we encounter. The ordinary hearer of this message may not known anything about gnosticism or pelagiansim per se, but can easily recognize and react against their baneful effects as the Pope presents them. "Holiness," Pope Francis insists, "is the most attractive face of the Church" [9], and that is surely something that is widely recognized and intuitively grasped.






Monday, April 9, 2018

Chappaquiddick (the Movie)

The youngest of the Kennedy brothers, Edward ("Ted") Kennedy (1932-2009) was elected to the Senate in 1962 and served as Senator until his death, accumulating a long and distinguished legacy, in some ways more admirable and more consequential than that of either of his more glamorous brothers. One permanent dark spot on that legacy, however, was the tragic event ever since then known by the name of the island where it took place, Chappaquiddick, now the subject of a movie. Kennedy's behavior at Chappaquiddick does not in itself diminish his accomplishments as a senator, but neither can those accomplishments ever erase the ignominy that justly attaches to that tragic event and to his behavior that week.

Those of us above a certain age can well remember how it all played out - the initial tragedy and the successful spinning of it - that salvaged Kennedy's public career (if not his presidential prospects). A friend of mine at the time speculated that Chappaquiddick and the moon landing were not completely coincidental - that the latter event's evocation of the murdered President (who had first made a landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s a national goal) had cast a particular pall over Ted's thinking and emotions that week and somehow may have contributed to the sad sequence of events, which the movie portrays so effectively.  (Another friend at the time used the accident to argue against seat belts and automatic locks in cars!)

Obviously this is a story about entitlement - how rich, privileged people get special treatment in our society and avoid the full consequences of their misbehavior. It is obviously about how Ted Kennedy took such privilege completely for granted and expected the problem he had created to be fixed for him by others - and how his family (centered on his reprehensible but still powerful father) and the family's cohort of Camelot veterans (notably in the film, Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara) colluded to do the fixing. That is an interesting story, but also an obvious one. And it will not likely shock or even surprise those who have no actual memory of Camelot fantasies!

The more interesting story is the struggle that goes on inside Ted himself, externalized somewhat in the conflict between him and his cousin Joe Gargan. The movie begins, hauntingly, with photos of the older Kennedy brothers - Joe, Jr., Jack, and Bobby. That (and the ever-present moon-landing motif) are powerful reminders of the complex web of expectations Ted labored under, as not only the youngest but the presumed least of the brothers. Toward the end, Ted himself expresses his ambivalence quite clearly in a final confrontation with the initial source of so much of his and the family's problem, his father's ambition.

In the end, Ted himself saves his career by going on TV to tell his version of the story and to appeal to the sentiments and nostalgia of his constituents and the American people at large. I can remember watching that speech. It was very moving. Some of those I watched it with were brought to tears. And, while Kennedy never became President, he did have a long and effective career after all.

It is, of course, one of the ironies of history that in the end Ted would probably be more effective and consequential politically than any of his brothers. At the time, however, that all lay way in the future and probably would have seemed an unlikely outcome. In the end, my guess is that it took the traumatic defeat of his presidential ambitions in 1980 to liberate him finally from the Kennedy curse of White House ambition. Indeed, it was his not ever becoming president that seemed to redeem him and enabled him to play the role he later did play in the Senate. most especially as an advocate for universal health care. There really are much more important things than becoming president!