Sunday, March 19, 2017

Go to Joseph

Saint Joseph has been commemorated in the Latin Church on March 19 since the 15th century and has been venerated as the Patron of the Universal church since the 19th century.

In the progressive development of devotion to Saint Joseph in the Church's history, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic, a reformer of religious life, and a Doctor of the Church, who lived on the cusp of the modern era, was a major influence. In her Autobiography (c. 1567), she wrote:

I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.

In the 19th century, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), also recommended devotion to Saint Joseph, whom - in a famous sermon delivered during the U.S. Civil War (March 19, 1863) - he somewhat surprisingly categorized as "The Saint of Our Day."

The life of St. Joseph is both interesting and instructive.… What faith! What obedience! What disinterestedness! … He attained in society and in human relationships a degree of perfection not surpassed, if equaled, by the martyr’s death, the contemplative of the solitude, the cloistered monk, or the missionary hero. … Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced. St. Joseph stands forth as an excellent and unsurpassed model of this type of perfection.

Correspondingly, the heightened emphasis on the liturgical commemoration of Saint Joseph is itself relatively modern. The feast's "traditional" (pre-1970) Mass and Office date back only to Pope Clement XI in 1714. That Office especially highlighted the parallel between the Old Testament Joseph and the New Testament Joseph. Thus the lessons of the 1st Nocturn were taken from Genesis 39-41, the story of the Old Testament Joseph, while those of the 2nd Nocturn were from a sermon by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux explicitly comparing the two Josephs. The two were obviously very different historical figures, but each of then had his vocation revealed to him through dreams, and to each of whom was entrusted the task of managing and providing for the earthly survival, in the first case, of God's Chosen people, and, in the second, of God's Son himself - and  now, by extension, his Church.

(Photo: Statue of Saint Joseph, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN)

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Benedict Option: Then and Now

This coming Tuesday is the traditional day for remembering Saint Benedict, who died in 547. (Paul VI's calendar transferred his feast from March 21 to July 11.) Benedict is the patron of Western Monasticism and a patron saint of Europe, deservedly so. He is in the news again now, however, mainly thanks to Rod Dreher's new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The book develops a theme that Dreher has been arguing, at least ever since his encounter with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, which famously ended by recalling Saint Benedict's monastic response to the collapse of Roman civilization as a model for a renewed relationship with our contemporary culture as Western Christian civilization continues to collapse.

In honor of the imminence of Saint Benedict's traditional day and conscious of contemporary political and cultural chaos, I read Dreher's new book this week. The Benedict Option is obviously not a call to everyone to drop everything and become a Benedictine, but it does propose salutary lessons from Saint Benedict's Rule and the Benedictine way of life. Benedict's Rule, Dreher rightly recognizes, proposed a way of life "for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith." That is what makes it perennially relevant - not just for monks who live a celibate community life vowed to stabilitas loci and conversio morum. All people in whatever state of life who desire to live a morally and religiously serious life can draw from the deep well of Benedictine wisdom, suitably adapted to the distinct circumstances of the varied vocations and states of life Christians are called to live in the world.

True to the historical analogy underlying his argument, Dreher begins with a somewhat apocalyptic analysis of contemporary civilization and how it got to where it is today.  All such analyses - even the best one ever, Saint Augustine's The City of God - necessarily generalize and somewhat oversimplify. That said, Dreher does present a coherent and cogent account of our "long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning" to today's "place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection."

So - to quote Chernyshevsky and Lenin - what is to be done?

Born in 1967, Dreher was raised a Methodist. He became a Roman Catholic in 1993, but then abandoned Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006. This gives him a wealth of knowledge of different forms of Christian religious experience to draw upon, which he does in a somewhat eclectic way. He is also a political and social conservative and writes from that particular perspective. Indeed, it seems to be his discovery of the ineffectiveness and (dare one suggest?) moral bankruptcy of conservative American religion's self-induced subordination to the Republican party that constitutes much of the background for this reexamination of the mode of Christian engagement with the world. He diagnoses the politicized conservative American Christianity that has been so evident now for decades as "content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian."

Thus, he warns, for example, against an unbalanced obsession with religious liberty. "If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow."

And Dreher actually recognizes that there are real Christians who are not in sympathy with the agenda of the Religious Right. "For another," he notes, "the church is not merely politically conservative white people at prayer, Many Hispanics and other Christians of color, as well as all who, for whatever reasons, did not vote for the divisive Trump, do not thereby cease to be Christian." 

It is not that Dreher abandons the agenda of the Religious Right, but rather that he recognizes how the pursuit of political power has not only failed to accomplish its stated religious goals  but in the process also has helped to undermine religion even further. And, applying the brilliantly prescient insights of Philip Rieff (whose 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic remains the classic go-to text to start studying this phenomenon), he examines and challenges contemporary American Christianity's deterioration into therapy. "The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything," he observes, "even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves."

But The Benedict Option is not just a critique of contemporary society but a road map for an alternative, which - not unlike Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, but from a more explicitly religious premise and with a more explicitly religious end in view - is rooted in non-governmental initiatives undertaken by families and intentional local communities. "The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage." But this he recognizes will require - among Christians themselves and within their churches - a real re-creation of a lost Christian culture.

Se he calls, for example, for a serious re-engagement with the liturgy - an obvious if somewhat easy call coming from someone who is Eastern Orthodox and a challenge to less liturgically oriented Christian communities. There is a lot of wisdom also in what he has to say about that challenge of technology. And he has a lot to say about Christian education - education as Christian formation. "For generations," Dreher nots, "the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth without putting up much of a fight." While I would certainly part company with him in his sympathy for home-schooling - a practice I have never understood and feel no attraction to at all - I was intrigued by his treatment of "Classical Christian Schools," which represent a voluntarist return to the traditional goal of classical education. Surely one of the greatest of our contemporary culture's self-inflicted wounds has been the virtual disappearance of classical education. Any movement that revives classical education among even a small subset of young people deserves some support. As with medieval monks incidentally salvaging classical culture while primarily focused on saving their souls, a serious recommitment to classical education would represent yet another Christian contribution to boosting human civilization.

Of course, so much of this depends upon a willingness to stake out a real area of difference, even while remaining engaged in other ways with the current culture. He cites the familiar example of Orthodox Jewish communities.  But the challenges should not be underestimated. After all, the Catholicism in which I grew up, while certainly not as sectarian as Orthodox Judaism, let alone such obvious examples of sectarian separatism as the Amish, was certainly somewhat sectarian. We lived in what is nowadays sometimes dismissively referred to as a "Catholic ghetto," about which - in contrast to its contemporary cultured despisers - there remains, I believe, still much to be said in praise of. Still, it was the very success of the "Catholic ghetto" that led to Catholics' widespread success in becoming more effectively engaged with contemporary society - and in the process not only destroyed the "Catholic ghetto," but led inexorably to the Church's somewhat weakened contemporary condition. Going back is never easy. And the material price to be paid for going back is usually more than most will ever be willing to pay!

Dreher does helpfully argue against seeking conflict for the sake of conflict. "Claiming religious persecution unnecessarily will not help the cause. Instead it will provide the secular left with grounds for claiming that all concern for religious liberty is a sham." Even so, he does perpetuate the alarmist view that sees all sorts of professions as increasingly threatening territory for Christians - what I sometimes call the supposed "bakers and florists" problem.  But in fact this is largely a political problem, created by a particular political agenda. Despite Dreher's curious claim to the contrary, from a biblical and religious point of view participating in the wedding of a divorced person with a previous spouse still living is just as problematic as a same-sex wedding. Any Christian bakers and florists who had no problems in the past serving the former category of customers should experience no more problems in the present with the latter. Doing one's job and serving the public in a non-discriminatory way is not automatically collaboration and an abandonment of one's fundamental religious beliefs, but it may represent an abandonment of a certain culture war political agenda!

Dreher himself quotes a Christian who works in a major company, "The more scared and paranoid we are, the harder it is to make connections and relationships with people who need Jesus."

All of which highlights three fundamental difficulties with the Benedictine analogy.  The first has to do with the historical and contemporary fact (of which Dreher is well aware) of the porous nature of any monastery's separation from the world. After all, whatever Saint Benedict's original intentions, his Order was responsible in large part for the preservation of civilization as well as for much of Europe's evangelization. Then and now, the actual relationship between a monastery and its secular environment  has varied with the circumstances and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Likewise, no matter how intentionally Christians set about to build a vibrant Christian subculture within their local communities, they cannot escape engagement with the wider world. Nor, in fact, are they entitled to, since the essence of the Church's mission remains to evangelize the world - however limited the possibilities for that may be in practice in any concrete political or social circumstance. The challenge has always been simultaneously to build up the life of the Church within the community while reaching out to the world beyond. Neither can be accomplished without the other. "Indeed," as Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote in 1886, "simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it."

A second difficulty has to do with the historical analogy itself. Saint Benedict lived in a world in which not only was the culture collapsing but so were the civil structures necessary for society to function, structures which were themselves weak or virtually non-existent. We may moan about dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, but the structure of the modern State still stands strong, and the power of the modern State is in fact so much greater than that of the State in virtually any previous period of history. I agree that now - as in earlier times - true renewal will come not from the State but from authentic families, schools, and intentional religious communities. But, whatever the relationship between today's State and families, schools, and intentional religious communities, it will be quite different from what it was in Benedict's time. The modern State will inevitably make demands upon them which they cannot easily escape and which will, for better or for worse, condition their actual autonomy to an extent that was not the case in the past. 

Finally, while I applaud Dreher's detachment from the politicized agenda of the Religious Right, I do not believe contemporary Christians can ever completely abandon their nostalgia for Christendom, for the simple reason that it actually existed for more than a millennium. Benedict and his contemporaries did not have that powerful memory. We do, and it will always haunt us with the realization that, if it was once possible for religion and society, in their institutional forms as Church and State, to nourish each other, then at least in theory it might be possible for them to do so someday again. As a result, the temptation to turn to politics to accomplish that will never be all that far away, both for Christians on the Right and Christians on the Left.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Trumpcare vs. Trump's Voters

Students of the presidency know well the perennial problem of presidents getting off to a bad start by beginning with the wrong issue. It could be argued that, in terms of actually accomplishing something that might potentially be of benefit to his voters, President Trump might have done better to start with, say, infrastructure spending. But, of course, he and the party he conquered campaigned on a promise to repeal Obamacare, something Republicans have been screaming about now for some seven-plus years - only to discover, rather late in the day, that their path to the White House depended on the votes of  "working class" and other downscale and rural voters who might actually appreciate government help with their health care more than they crave tax cuts for the already overly wealthy. 

In his sobering but entertaining account of the 2016 election, (Insane Clown Car President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus) Matt Taibbi (author of The Divide and The Great Derangement) echoed what many others have observed over the years about the Republican party's curious relationship with its electorate. 

"In the elaborate con game that is American electoral politics, the Republican voter has long been the easiest mark in the game ... the CEO class has had a brilliantly winning electoral strategy for a generation. ...They get everything from the Republicans because you don't have to make a concession to a Republican voter."  For their part, the role of conservative "intellectuals," Taibbi argued, "was to cook up a sales pitch designed to get them to vote for politicians who would instantly betray them to business interests eager to ship their jobs off to China and India. The most successful trick was linking the corporate mantra of profit without responsibility to the concept of individual liberty."

But 2016 was supposedly different: "The decision by huge masses of Republican voters to defy DC-thinkfluencer types like George Will and throw in with a carnival act like Trump is no small thing. For the first time in a generation, Republican voters are taking their destiny into their own hands." Trump, Taibbi argued, achieved the presidency as "a one-man movement unto himself who owes almost nothing to traditional republicans and can be expected to be anything but a figurehead."

If so, then what exactly is happening in Washington - especially in the current contretemps over replacing Obamacare with Trumpcare? President Trump may not be traditionally schooled in public policy or in Washington politics, but his campaign showed an excellent instinct for understanding and responding to what most bothered a lot of voters. So he may yet well prove to be no "figurehead," who would abandon his voters by uncritically signing into law Paul Ryan's agenda.

Will the anti-establishment anger of Trump's Republican voters for once be truly translated into actual policy, or will business as usual prevail again in Washington with the Republican establishment successfully acting against the interests of many of the very voters who have made their ascendancy possible? That would seem to be the overriding fundamental question defining this curious Trumpcare moment.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Trumpcare Disaster

The numbers are in. To no one's surprise, Paul Ryan's Republican plan to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare will do the opposite of what Obamacare accomplished. Where Obamacare increased the number of previously uninsured Americans who now had access to health care, whether through insurance or through an expansion of Medicaid, Trumpcare will result in some 14 million Americans losing insurance in the short run and as many as 24 million in the long run. Of course, it will also save the government money that it would  have spent on Medicaid and it will provide a tax cut for the rich - a not surprising outcome given that the Republican party's primary priority always seems to be to add to the accumulated wealth of those who are already too rich.

As part of his "populist" rhetoric, candidate Trump promised better coverage for all - the opposite of what his party has proposed. If the Republican plan passes, will President Trump honor his campaign promises and veto it? Or will we once again see the success of the standard Republican strategy of gaining power by appealing to the anxieties of a downscale constituency and then using that power to further the interests of a much more upscale constituency? One way of reading Trump's takeover of the Republican party in last year's primaries was to interpret it as a successful rebellion on the part of the Republicans' downscale constituency against that business as usual. (That is one of the major themes, for example, of Matt Taibbi's entertaining account of the 2016 election, Insane Clown Car President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus).

President Trump has two fundamental problems when it comes to fixing health care. The first is this obvious problem of his political party's distinctly non-populist agenda, which contradicts what candidate Trump promised his voters mere months ago. The second is that, within the limitations of an insurance-based paradigm, there is perhaps no better alternative to Obamacare. Of course, Obamacare could be improved upon by scrapping the private insurance paradigm and going with a government-run, single-payer system (e.g., Medicare for all). But, if that obviously superior alternative was off the table eight years ago, it obviously has no chance today. So Obamacare probably remains the comparatively best possible approach within the limitations created by dependence upon some system of private insurance. President Trump might have done better to exploit his popularity and political capital and to oppose his party on this by taking the initiative with an alternative that made some modest modifications in how Obamacare operates, which he could then successfully relabel as a totally improved Trumpcare. As it is, the Trumpace that his downscale voters will probably get will likely leave them worse off, with no one but themselves to blame. But, since in America we never blame ourselves, the President risks being the one blamed!

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Any modern pilgrim, who has just had the experience of reaching the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor after a high-speed taxi ride up the narrow mountain road might well be tempted to echo Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

Peter presumably had walked up the mountain, but the experience to which he was reacting was anything but pedestrian. For what Peter, James, and John were being treated to was nothing less than an experience of the glory of God, an awesome peak into another world, so to speak, a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature as Son of God and his fulfillment of the Old Testament (represented on the mountain by Moses and Elijah).

No wonder Peter wanted to stay there as long as possible – even to make three tents there, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – as if this were it, and he had finally reached where he wanted to be. He didn’t understand that this was just the beginning – an invitation to join Jesus on his journey.

An ancient tradition dates the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, which is one reason why, every year, the Transfiguration Gospel is read early in Lent. In the actual gospel narrative, however, the time-reference points back to Peter’s profession of faith and Jesus’ first prediction of his impending passion, six days previously.  The unusually explicit time-reference makes it clear that the two events (in both of which Peter plays a prominent part) are connected. In both events, there is the revelation of who Jesus ultimately is and reference forward to his impending death and resurrection. And in both Peter is the spokesman for the others, the one most intimately associated with Jesus and at the same time the one who seems somehow to miss much of the point Jesus was actually making.

Paralleling Peter is the figure of Abraham, who makes his first appearance on the world stage in today’s 1st reading. Until Abraham, human history had been one sinful calamity, one tragic debacle after another – culminating in the decisive breakdown of human society and community at the Tower of Babel.

Then suddenly God intervened in human history in a new way – singling out one specific individual, and through him one particular family and eventually one specially chosen nation – to be his partner, his human partner, in repairing the massive damage we have done to God’s good creation. Under the provisions of the extraordinary covenant God made with Abraham, God and Abraham – and Abraham’s descendants – will collaborate together and so become a blessing for the whole world.

Abraham is considered the common spiritual ancestor of Judaism and both of its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. In all three religions, Abraham is revered for his faith. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, Muslims, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. [Lumen Gentium 16]

Abraham’s faith summoned him - at an age when most of us are already retired – to go forth to a new land. But Abraham’s assigned destination was vague. We call Abraham our father in faith; but, if Abraham is a model of faith for us, his story also reveals how much real faith really requires. Abraham’s faith was his response to the ambiguous and complicated events in his life in a way that fully reflected his deep recognition of God’s presence and action in those ambiguous and complicated events. His faith meant total trust in and reliance on God through whatever changes might be required and whatever challenges might have to be met.

Change is always challenging, which is why wise people avoid change as much as possible. I often like to quote the 2nd Viscount Falkland’s (1610-1643) famous observation: "where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." Human history has more than confirmed the wisdom of that statement. Still, sometimes change is necessary, and therein lies the challenge – first to know when, and then to know how. It may mean abandoning the familiar for the frightening. It may mean something totally new. Or it may not. Sometimes, the most challenging change may be to undo bad decisions and recent choices in order to return to a lost or forgotten or abandoned older and wiser path.

We all talk at times about making necessary changes in our lives. Sometimes we may even mean it.  But we are just as likely to conclude that we have too much at stake to change course. Lent is our annual opportunity to let Abraham demonstrate the power of faith to overcome our cynicism, despair, defeatism, and spiritual inertia.

That this is possible is, of course, all because of Abraham’s greatest descendant, Jesus, who fulfilled in life and death his nation’s destiny and so made Abraham’s blessing fully available to the entire world.

Even so, our temptation will always be to do the opposite and to think, like Peter, that we are there already - without having to make the journey. But the same God who first called and challenged – and blessed – Abraham also continues to invite us, through Jesus, instructing us as he instructed Peter: "This is my beloved Son … listen to him."

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 12, 2017.