Monday, July 30, 2012

Our National Motto

On this date in 1956, President Eisenhower signed the law finally giving the United States its first official motto, “In God We Trust.” Unofficially, that had been a motto at least since September 1814 when Francis Scott Key composed the poem now known as The Star Spangled Banner, the fourth stanza of which says And this be our motto: “In God is our Trust.” (When we used to sing the National Anthem in Catholic elementary school, it was sometimes suggested that we should consider that 4th verse as the most important one, because of its explicit invocation of God). If we can thank the War of 1812 for that, we can thank the Civil War for putting “In God We Trust” on our coins, where it has since appeared – at first intermittently and later universally. (In the 1977 comedy, Oh God, George Burns told John Denver, “Trust me, like it says on the money.”)

In keeping with its wartime origins, our national motto certainly sounds aspirational, expressing confidence in divine providence. It is also foundational, in that it connects us with the fundamentals of our national founding. Contemporary polemics aside (whihc hav emroe to do with now than with then), the founders were clearly creating a Christian commonwealth – if for no other reason than the obvious one that such was the only kind of society they knew. Of course, church and state were to be separated at the federal level (not necessarily at the state level), but no one seriously anticipated a radical separation of religion and society, such as some advocate so forcefully for now. They could hardly hav eimagines a "naked public square," and would most likely have feared it if they could. The founders were, of course, also highly influenced by classical (pre-Christian) Roman republican theory; but in practice the Christian commonwealth was the only kind of polity they had any actual experience of. Indeed, when the 1st U.S. Minister to Great Britain, John Adams, presented his credentials to King George III in 1785, he mentioned to the king the two countries’ “similar religion.” (Adams famously spoke of “of restoring an entire esteem, confidence, and affection, or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, tho separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”)

An explicitly anti-Christian commonwealth would, of course, soon be created by the French Revolution, but that tragic development was then still in the future. However influential it would subsequently turn out to be, that historic rupture could hardly have been anticipated. Indeed, at what might be called the “opening act” of the French Revolution, the May 4, 1789, opening of the Estates General at Versailles, all the members of that body – including such soon-to-be radically anti-Church radicals as Robespierre - respectfully walked with lighted candles in the solemn procession, at the rear of which the Archbishop of Paris carried the Most Blessed Sacrament, followed in turn by King Louis XVI wearing the blue sash of the Order of the Holy Spirit.

In his classic study of 19th-century American society, Democracy In America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) noted that, "the religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States." Echoing de Tocqueville’s famous observation, Isaac Hecker later asserted “that the longing after a more spiritual life is one of the principal characteristics of the American people. So far from being a nation absorbed in commerce and in accumulating material wealth, there is no other people who are so easily kindled to a religious enthusiasm … And few will be found who are more ready to make sacrifices for religious convictions.”

As it appears on our coinage and elsewhere, our national motto is a symbolic statement of who and what kind of people we have been. Whether de Tocqueville’s and Hecker’s words can still be said to describe our 21st century America addresses who we are now and what kind of people we may become.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is There Really a “Catholic Vote”?

Of course, there is a “Catholic Vote” - in the literal, demographic sense. Catholics vote. Their votes can then be counted and compared with those of other groups. Drawing interesting or useful conclusions from such numbers, however, may be more problematic.

Who constitutes the “Catholic vote”? Are the Catholics in question self-defined or otherwise defined? Is the identification broadly ethnic or communal or is it more narrowly a matter of religious belief and/or observance? And to what extent does a voter’s Catholicism (be it an ethnic or communal identity or a reflection of religious belief and practice) actually influence his or her choice?

The fact is that Catholic voting patterns seem generally to mirror those of the general voting population. Thus, in 2008 Barack Obama beat John McCain among Catholics 54%-47%, just a bit better than his overall margin. Likewise, in 2004 George W. Bush beat John Kerry (the first Catholic nominee since 1960) 52%-47%, again just marginally different from the general 51%-48% breakdown. If Catholic voters represent a sort of subset of the general electorate that somehow manages to mirror it almost perfectly, that’s interesting. But the most plausible interpretation may be that Catholics just aren’t all that different from the rest of the country. Nor should that be much of a surprise, given how the American Catholic population spans the social spectrum. It’s been decades since most Catholics lived in Catholic enclaves and studied, socialized, and married mainly within those enclaves. Apart (perhaps) from some particular religious beliefs and practices, they are now indistinguishable from other Americans.

That raises other questions – like whether Catholic beliefs and practices really are all that distinct and, if so, why they don’t have a more evident impact on voting patterns. Even back when Catholics certainly seemed so much more distinctive, even then it was not clear if there was a specifically religious explanation of Catholic voting patterns - as opposed to socio-economic status and historical traditions. (The old idea that people tended to vote as they fought or would have fought in the Civil War was sufficient, for example, to explain most urban Catholics’ attachment to the Democratic Party). As for the role of religious doctrine, one might recall the saying (apparently once quoted by JFK), “We get our religion from Rome, but our politics from home.”

Here the more general recent research on religious voters seems relevant. What researchers call the “God gap” suggests something very new in American history – that those who attend religious services more frequently are more likely to vote Republican while those who attend religious services less (or not at all) seem more likely to vote Democratic. Presumably, this has its roots in the familiar historical process by which the Democratic party in the 1970s moved from being moderately pro-life to being ideologically pro-choice and the Republican party followed suit by moving from being moderately pro-choice to being ideologically pro-life – processes which have also resulted in the philosophical narrowing of both parties and the gradual elimination of teach party’s more “moderate” elements.

What’s happening with many (but not all) religious voters, I think, has been an ideological reformation in order to reduce political cognitive dissonance. Most political questions, most matters of public policy, are not readily reducible to religious principles. Whether, for example, taxes should be higher or lower is not a matter to which religion or theology offers an obvious answer. There is no distinctly religious reason, therefore, why religious voters should prefer either party’s economic ideas, let alone invest them with moral significance. If, however, such voters have gotten used to identifying with a particular party’s positions on moral matters, then over time I think they begin to adopt that party’s other unrelated positions, and (since their framework has become an ideological-moral one) they start to invest such positions with quasi-religious import. In the process, of course, this further polarizes the parties and political discourse.

All of which seems to me to be more interesting and also in my opinion explains a lot more about what is actually going on than old-fashioned denominational voting block analyses.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Food for a Hungry World

Jesus’ famous feeding of 5000+ people is the one miracle told in all 4 Gospels. That certainly says something about its impact in the collective memory of the early Church. Ancient tradition associates this event with a specific site on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where 19 summers ago I got to preach at the picturesque outdoor shrine that commemorates this miracle.

That was summer, but today's Gospel [John 6:1-15] puts the event in spring (at Passover time), when grass grows abundantly in the area. And so John portrays the people sitting in groups on the grass, just as those earlier fed by Elisha in today’s 1st reading [2 Kings 4:42-44] had probably done.

But in each case the food had to be gotten from somewhere! Some, it seems, had planned ahead and brought some food along as they followed Jesus; but the rest had either not brought any food or had used it all up already and were getting hungry again. In any case, Jesus anticipated their need.

But it was the way Jesus did it that was so striking and so memorable - as striking and as memorable as what he did. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus asked Philip. It’s as if he were saying: Philip, these folks are here as our guests; we have to feed them! No doubt, the disciples thought that should be Jesus’ problem, not theirs! Poor Philip, not quite yet out of seminary, he’s already acquired the feeling-sorry-for-himself, whiny tone of a tired, over-stressed clergyman: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”

Just down the path from this site, on the same shore, is a shrine, which marks where the Risen Lord cooked breakfast for seven disciples and then commanded Peter to feed his sheep. In this instance, Jesus was giving them a foretaste of that future responsibility.

Luckily for them, of course, Jesus was there to help, to demonstrate just what it means to be his Church in a hungry world. Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining.  Note that Jesus didn’t just magically make food out of nothing. He worked with what they had already, with the limited resources the people already had, and made them into something more – something God’s People have had to learn how to do ever since.

Our weekly celebration of the Eucharist reenacts - in a ritualized way - that famous free lunch. At this meal, we are nourished and commanded in turn to feed and nourish one another – both literally and spiritually, and not just one another in a narrow sense, but the whole world, for, in God’s kingdom, there can be no providing just for oneself, no eating while others go hungry, no security at someone else’s expense. Good news kept to oneself is not the good news of Jesus.

Unfortunately, that was what happened at Tabgha. The people remembered the story of Elisha and so figured that Jesus is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world. But they got only part of the message, interpreting it in a narrow, self-absorbed way, turning good news into bad news – as has happened so often in human history.

Our world is hungry for the good news that God is sharing with us in his Son and which we are meant to share with the world. And Jesus is here to show us how – how to be his Church.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 29, 2012.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Games Begin

July 6, 2005. St. George’s House, Windsor Castle.
As I and my British “clergy course” classmates gathered around the TV, a rush of expectation filled the room as we awaited the announcement of what city would get to host the 2012 Olympics. Elation replaced expectation when the announcement was finally made. On TV the Princess Royal and the Mayor of London cheered enthusiastically. And so did our little group of largely Anglican clergy. Determined to be a good guest, I politely repressed my default view that no serious city needs the nuisance of an Olympics, and so joined in the general jubilation. Less than 24 hours later, July 7, a homegrown terrorist attack in the London underground offered a sad reality check about the kind of world in which the modern Olympics take place.
The “liturgy” of the Olympics – its grandiose opening and closing rituals, the medal ceremonies, etc. – is a contrived modern spectacle with little or no real connection with the ancient Olympics. But it is a great show nonetheless. I won’t be watching most of it, but will surely catch some of it. The true devotees will, meanwhile, watch all they can, and should have unprecedented ease of access this year thanks to the advances of modern media.
The Olympics offer something for everyone – impressive displays of athleticism, intense competition, heroic accomplishment, experiences of national rivalries and opportunities for national pride, diverse cultural activities, and stirring ceremonies. Whether they are worth the cost – and the stress - is a judgment call, of course. But, judging from the amounts countries and cities are willing to spend and the inconveniences they are willing to undergo, the majority vote seems to be in the affirmative.
The original Olympics included only a limited number of events and were as much religious and civic celebrations as athletic competitions – in keeping with the less compartmentalized character of classical culture. The contemporary Olympics cannot possibly replicate or even match that – and really don’t try. But, more than most other modern events, they do manage, however briefly, to unite us and the different dimensions of our lives in a way we really seem to enjoy and are willing to make extra effort to keep up.
So let the games begin!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What To Do About Guns?

According to Thucydides (c.460-c.395 B.C.), author of The History of The Peloponnesian War, all the ancient Greeks originally went about armed - something that was “as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians.” It was the Athenians who were the first to lay aside their weapons. Thucydides associated that step with the Athenians’ embrace of a more comfortable style of life – or, as we might say, civilized life. Throughout history, urban life has been associated with civilization, and one of the hallmarks of civilization has been the progressive delegitimizing of individual violence and the replacement of revenge by individual, family, or clan by justice exercised by the state, to which civilized societies have transferred the legitimate monopoly of violence. Thus, according to Saint Paul, the ruler beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  (Romans 13:4).

Of course, this process hasn’t been easy. Witness the long struggle to eliminate dueling – a custom rooted in private, individual honor, inherently at war with the greater good of the public community, the “commonwealth.” Indeed, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has demonstrated in The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010), the eventual elimination of dueling depended ultimately upon a society-wide transformation of that classically aristocratic concept of honor.  (Appiah’s attention to the moral significance of honor is a brilliant contribution to contemporary moral discourse). 

In the aftermath of last week’s Colorado tragedy, pundits of all stripes are weighing in on the perennially neuralgic subject of Americans’ access to guns. Predictably, some pundits have seized on this event as an argument for greater governmental restrictions on access to guns. Equally predictably, others have pointed out the atypical character of this kind of crime and how unlikely it is that legislation would be able to stop this sort of perpetrator. There is something to that, to be sure. But no law can prevent all crimes, and the argument that an illegal action will take place anyway is usually more of an excuse than a reason for opposing legislation. It also misses the main point, which is that, however horrific this particular crime may be, the larger social problem is actually the many “ordinary” killings that take place daily in our society – with far less planning and perhaps even without premeditation – killings which, however, happen more easily because of individuals’ easy access to guns. It is that larger daily drama of death and mayhem, which stricter gun legislation realistically aspires to address.

As with dueling in early modern Europe, however, effective change will require a genuine transformation of common cultural values. At the time the Bill of Rights was adopted, the United States was a predominantly rural society, in which citizens had to rely largely on themselves for protection against both foreign threats (Indian tribes) and domestic criminals – not to mention the need for protection from wild animals and the obvious need for weapons to hunt for food, etc. Unless they lived within a well protected city, they were in a situation not unlike that of the ancient Greeks that Thucydides described. For the most part, there was no professional police protection nor – in the case of external threats – much of an army either. In fact, it was the free citizens themselves who policed their homesteads and united as a militia in the common defense. And, like ancient Greek citizen soldiers and medieval knights, they provided their own weapons when mustered to serve the commonwealth.

What has changed, of course, is the way we live now. Most of us live in places with professional police protection, while we rely on a nationally maintained army for our external defense. As the social situation has changed, so too the motivation for the private possession of weapons can no longer be presumed to be the same as it was in 1791.

There are, of course, legitimate recreational uses for guns. Unfortunately, some advocates of a more restricted approach to gun access appear at times to evidence a cultural disdain for such legitimate recreational pastimes as hunting. As a product of a totally urban environment, I have never hunted; and hunting holds no particular attraction for me. It does not follow that I should disparage hunting or hunters, however. Actually, as a product of a totally urban environment, I am much more viscerally hostile to the automobile – the culturally destructive effects of which I have witnessed all my life long - than I am to hunting, an activity largely peripheral to my experience. The analogy is actually not inconsequential. Like guns, cars kill and injure lots of people each year. Like guns, cars also have legitimate uses. But, like guns, cars are treasured in our society way out of proportion to their legitimate uses and with obviously harmful consequences.

Both guns and cars represent individual liberty for many. Like guns and cars, liberty too is legitimate – up to a point. But cut off from its moral moorings in human community, liberty becomes but ideology - and a morally problematic one at that. As expressions of an ideology of individual liberty that has lost its moral moorings in membership in society, guns (like cars) can become dangerous fetishes. And, as with dueling in pre-modern Europe, a serious solution will require more than mere legislation. As with honor in the case of dueling, what is required is a genuine renewal of our conception of liberty, resituating it where it belongs in the moral framework of men and women who are first and foremost social and political beings.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Cheer for John McCain

We hear lots of laments about the general coarsening of our culture and of political speech in particular. Few ever actually do anything about it, of course. All the more noteworthy, therefore, was the very public response of Senator John McCain and others to Michelle Bachmann’s bizarre attack on Muslim-American State Department official Human Abedin, the long-time aide to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who is also the wife of former NY Congressman Anthony Weiner. Bachmann, along with four other Republican congressmen have apparently based their comments on an organization called The Center for Security Policy, which purports to oppose supposed Muslim Brotherhood influence in the U.S. government

McCain’s criticism did not mention Bachmann by name, but he didn’t have to. Speaking in the Senate last week, McCain, who in the past had traveled abroad with then-Senator Clinton and Human Abedin, said that the “allegations about Human and the report from which they are drawn are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant.” Such attacks, McCain insisted, “have no logic, no basis, and no merit. And they need to stop now.” Besides defending the reputation of a fellow citizen and public official, McCain also addressed the larger picture of why this is so important. He said: “When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches speeches and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Hooray for John McCain! His remarks remind us of his readiness to rebut lies about Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign - in sadly conspicuous contrast to the current Republican candidate’s cozy relationship with the likes of “birther’ Donald Trump and “I wish this President would learn how to be an American” John Sununu.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham also condemned the attacks as “ridiculous, really off-base, inappropriate,” and Republican Senator Scott Brown said of Bachmann’s accusations, “This kind of rhetoric has no place in our public discourse.”

Of course, in a society which is increasingly abandoning any common understanding of facts and truth in favor of pseudo-“facts” and ideologically filtered “truths,” whose only function is to distort reality for short-term partisan gain, why would anyone be surprised by this sort of rhetoric?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Remembering My Sister Christine

I have been thinking about my sister Christine today. In the pre-Paul VI calendar, today was the feast of Saint Christina (1150-1224), a medieval miracle-worker known as Christina Mirabilis (Christina the Astonishing). No longer honored in the universal Roman calendar, she of course keeps her place on this date in the Roman Martyrology. So today still is – or would be if she were still with us – my sister Christine’s onomastico, i.e., her “name day.”

At her funeral Mass that October Saturday some 5 years ago, I began my homily by quoting a condolence email from a high school classmate, recalling how he remembered her as a baby. “I remember your lovely mother carrying Christine, and Christine as a precious infant.”

I too still remember what joy her birth brought to our family in that summer of 1963! My sister Christine had what must have felt like a difficult and frustrating life – punctuated, however, by genuine joy and by real love and affection, both given and received. She had a kind and gentle heart, and so made many friends. We all want many things in life – sometimes perhaps too many things and not necessarily always the best or most important things. But surely we all want to love and to be loved. Christine may not have gotten a lot of those other things that she may have once hoped for in life – and that I and others would have wanted her to have. But she did love and was loved. 

Somehow, I think we all need to learn to do a better job of acknowledging the dignity and respect rightly owed to each other and to every single child of God – regardless of worldly success.

In one of his letters, Saint Braulio of Zaragoza (590–651) wrote that God’s “power is so great that it is easier for him to raise the dead than it is for us to arouse those who are sleeping.” Ultimately, living the Christian life, the life of a disciple, has to be rooted in the experience of hope in spite of sadness, and the realization that God’s power for our good is so much greater that any or all of the obstacles that we may put in his way.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman

Movies are among my few recreations. I’m not particularly into action movies, but I do admit to a certain fondness for traditional Superhero movies – that is, movies about traditional superheroes (really traditional superheroes like Superman). Having appreciated Andrew Garfield’s superb performance in The Social Network, and having enjoyed the earlier Spiderman movie, I figured it was worth giving the newest incarnation of the Spiderman genre, The Amazing Spiderman a try. I was not disappointed.
Of course, like all films aimed at contemporary audiences, it had as little too much action and too many special effects for my more old-fashioned story-line tastes. But the film rose above the endless action sequences and de rigeur massively destructive urban violence to tell a great Spiderman story, that actually almost made much of the special-effects stuff somewhat redundant. It was aided in this by some superb casting – most notably Martin Sheen and Sally Field as uncle Ben and Aunt May, and, of course, Andrew Garfield himself as Peter Parker/Spiderman. Garfield effectively captures the peculiar pathos of adolescence in painful institution which is the American high school – his pre-spider experience of being bullied and his initial awkwardness in connecting with his eventual girlfriend – as well as his emotionally fraught relationship memory of the father who abandoned him and with his resultingly complex relationship loving aunt and uncle.

Suddenly endowed with surprising and unique abilities and transformed by real-life tragedy into a good-guy vigilante, Peter always remains an awkward adolescent at heart – a characteristic constantly on display in his inability to communicate his core struggle, an inability overcome very gradually and only with his girlfriend. The other characters all retain their humanity and complexity – even Parker’s father’s former partner, who could easily have been reduced to a stereotypical mad/bad scientist, something which never really  happens.

Finally, there is the happy, post-modern ending. A classic, solitary hero would be expected to keep his promise and go on alone. Peter is a post-modern contemporary, who feels in his heart that it just isn’t worth it to do that – and acts accordingly!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

He Taught Them Many Things

19 summers ago, I had the great privilege of spending a month studying in Israel. One day, while waiting for a bus on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, I was watching a shepherd moving his sheep, calling them each by name as he did so. It was one of those wonderful “Oh, that’s what Jesus was talking about!” moments, that are one of the many benefits of being a pilgrim in the Holy land.

Sheep-herding was an important activity in ancient Israel. Good shepherding inevitably served as an image for good governing (in the case of the King) and of good leadership in general. Hence, Jeremiah’s invective against those who mislead and scatter those they are responsible to guide and govern [Jeremiah 23:1-6]. Hence also Jesus’ own reaction [Mark 6:30-34], when he saw the vast crowd, who were like sheep without a shepherd, an Old Testament phrase used by the prophet Micaiah in the 1st Book of Kings [1 Kings 22:17]. Interestingly, Jesus’ response to the people’s plight was to teach them many things.

Traditionally in the Church, we speak of Christ as priest and king – and teacher. Correspondingly, we speak of the mission of the apostles  (and of the bishops, their successors as shepherds in the Church) to sanctify, to govern, and to teach. Jesus responded to the people’s predicament by teaching – lovingly teaching them the truth about God, about themselves, and about their lives in the world. And he has commissioned his Church to do the same – to respond to people’s predicament in every time and place by lovingly teaching the world the truth about God, about human life, and about human activity in the world.

The Church, of course, carries out this teaching mission in many ways. In our present-day, especially in our increasingly politically polarized society, as the Church continues Christ’s teaching mission to the truth about God, about human life, and about human activity in the world, people on opposing sides on various issues often try to identify the Church with particular policies - whether to identify the Church with a favored particular policy or political party, or else to attack it as for supposedly colluding with a policy or political party that they oppose. The Church, however, is not a think-tank producing its own specific public policy proposals. Nor is it a political party aspiring to win elections and control the government.

Rather, the Church’s a mission is to teach truth in accordance with the lessons of human experience and human reasoning and in fidelity to what an authentic Christian faith believes to have been revealed by God. These constants the Church continues to teach in a world that is constantly changing – changing politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The challenge to faith is not human activity as such, but the tendency to compartmentalize human activity, to separate our political, economic, social, and cultural activities in the world from what we know to be true about God and about human beings, all of which are ultimately meant to be linked.

One of the sad characteristics of our time is how easily fragmented our lives can become – separating our activities form one another and from the truth about God and human nature. In the process, we have become increasingly fragmented as a society, even as the world itself comes closer and closer together.

That’s one reason why it is good to remember that Christianity itself got its start in what was, in terms of its own time, an increasingly and confusingly globalized society, with both the benefits and burdens associated with that. Thus, the Roman Empire had united all the lands adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, creating one multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-religious unit. Unity, however, was something else again. And it was the Christians largely who created among themselves what amounted to a miniature welfare state – something neither the Empire nor the traditional pagan cults could or would do.

Then, as now, it was awareness of what God has done for us in Christ that created a new sense of human solidarity. As we just heard Saint Paul remind the Ephesians: In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, that he might create in himself one new person [Ephesians 2:13-18].

Jesus founded his Church to continue his mission, appointing apostles (and their successors) to witness to the truth about God, about human life, and about human activity in the world. It is that truth which in turn transforms our ordinary (and extraordinary) activities in the world, making it possible to unite men and women, through Christ, in solidarity with one another, and with our common God and Father.

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 22, 2012.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The "You didn't build that" Debate

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith famously lamented that the "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition ... is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages."

We see examples of this all the time. And we're seeing it now in what Jonathan Chait (New York Magazine), commenting on the rights's reaction to President Obama's "You didn't build that" speech, has called "the extraordinary hypersensitivity surrounding the egos of the rich in our current political culture." Chait correctly analogizes this to the familiar "touchiness surrounding race and gender" often found on the politically-correct left. Thus, Chait argues that, like the left, "conservatives have developed a whole terminology - i.e., 'class warfare' - to treat any discussion of subjects they prefer to avoid as a kind of hate speech."

Chait believes that  everybody really recognizes "that government contributes some measure toward the success of business owners," but that the President's opponents "feel angry that he would verbalize it." In other words, they are responding just as leftists do when something said seems "insensitive" according to current elite liberal fashions. There is certainly a large measure of truth to Chait's analysis. But it is also true, switching to the actual substance of the issue, that there is now loose in American society a hyper-individualist streak that really does devalue almost all government action and really is uncomfortable with the concept of community.

But not everyone - even on the right - is that far gone. So Chait gets it only partly correct. For surely part of the problem is on the other side. Part of the problem has surely been the left's increasing conflation of society with government (the end result of which is inevitably the emasculation of society in favor of the liberal Leviathan state).

So, for example, Charles Krauthammer (The Washington Post) readily concedes the formative influence of civil society on the individual, while categorically rejecting an equivalent role for government. Given the President's use of infrastructure spending as a prime example, Krauthammer readily recognizes the government's historical and proper role in regard to infrastructure, but argues that the real argument is "about what you do beyond infrastructure. It's about transfer payments and redistributionist taxation, about geometrically expanding entitlements, about tax breaks and subsidies to induce actions pleasing to central planners. It's about free contraceptives for privileged students and ... endless government handouts that, ironically, are crowding out necessary spending, yes, on infrastructure."

OK, but again the argument is overstated. Krauthammer conveniently employs negative language to describe a variety of policies. But surely it is possible to favor transfer payments and entitlements and simultaneously care about the deficit and recognize the limits and dangers of central planning. It is certainly possible to favor health insurance coverage for all Americans without also advocating free contraceptives. In short, surely is is possible to advocate - like Alexander Hamilton, for example - an energetic national government strong enoough to address our national problems without embracing policies aimed at the emasculation of family, religion, and other foudnaitons of civil society.

Where Krauthammer is correct, however, is in recognizing that this is the overal direction liberal statism is taking society. So he has fun lambasting the now notorious "Julia" Obama campaign ad. That may be a bit of a cheap shot, but surely "Julia" is indeed dangerously revealing of a certain mindset, which posits only isolated individuals, unencumbered by traditonal social bonds so as to be that much more totally dependent on the state.

Again, there is nothing new at all about these insights. The frontispiece of the 1651 edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan  - one of the principal foundaitonal documents of modern liberalism - already said it all. The image is that of the sovereign as an awesome figure towering over a peaceful, propserous community. But the sovereign himself is formed by miniature figures of his subjects, each of whom retains his distinct indiviudality, each of whom stands in direct relaitonship with the sovereign, unmediated by any other social institutions of communal bonds.

The fact is that we do need an intelligent debate in our society about the optimal role of government. It is also a fact, however, that we are largely incapable of having such a debate. That is partly the case, of course, because of our dumbed-down style of politcs. But it is also because both sides share some of the same individualistic presuppositions. President Obama (and the liberal intellectual elites he identifies with) seem to see government as the protector of individuals from social institutions and communitarian bonds (family, religion, etc.) which are assumed to limit indiivudal liberty. His Republican rival (and the economic elites he represents) resist the statist implications of liberalism's individualism because of their devotion to market economics. But it was the radically individualistic and anti-communitarian character of the market and early modern political and economic theory designed to support a free-market society that created the context which set the stage for liberal statism. 

We really can't debate the optimal role of government apart from a logically prior debate about how we reconcile the simultaneously communitarian and indiviudalistic aspects of human nature.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Voto Esame

The results were supposed to be available by the end of May, but it took me until the first week of July to muster sufficient courage to write a letter (in my marginal Italian) to the Segretario dello Studium nella Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi asking him the results of the final examination I took on March 16 at the conclusion of my course on the theology, history, and current process of canonization. He sent me an email this morning to inform me that I did indeed pass. In fact, I received a perfect score (“Il voto massimo 10/10”). After all that anxiety, that’s quite a relief!
It was a good course, and I did learn quite a lot. I realized after the first few lectures that I would be able to follow about 90% of what was being said – and the same for reading the textbook. But the challenge involved in studying for having to take a written exam began to unnerve me at the end! Some of my classmates opted for the April sitting of the exam in order t have a whole extra month to study! Obviously, I couldn’t hang out in Rome an extra month (Much as I might have liked to finish Lent – and the Lenten stations – in Rome). So I sat for the March exam, with some trepidation. As I remarked at the time, the only thing more undignified than having to study for a written exam at my age was actually having to take one – more than 25 years after the last written course exam I had ever had to endure! Having been a student on an off for enough years and having also taught at a university for another four years, I am convinced that exams test memorization and organization-of-information skills more than real knowledge.
Be that as it may, I can now not only claim to know my stuff, but I will soon also have a certified Roman document to attest to that. A nice conclusion to an overall wonderful experience of Church!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

At the Motherhouse

Summer is for many - even us clergy - a time for vacationing. And so, in June, I spent a week with my family in California, officially honoring my mother’s 90th birthday and celebrating my niece’s High School graduation. And, this month, I took a second week of vacation in New York. 

My immediate family may all live in California now, but I was born and raised in New York, and the city remains “home” in that sense. Of course, when I come to New York, it’s not to my childhood neighborhood in the Bronx or to my parents’ later home in Mount Vernon (which I never actually lived in, but visited a lot). My mother sold that house in 2004, when she relocated near my sister in California. Thus the only “home” I have in New York now is the Paulist house on West 59th Street.

Having been in residence there for three years in the early 1990s and then again as associate pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Church from 2000 to 2010, it is only natural for me to feel “at home” whenever I visit there. But, even apart from my service in the parish, the Paulist house on West 59th Street is special as what every religious community has – and needs – a “motherhouse.”

Paulists often refer to St. Paul the Apostle Church as the Paulist “Mother Church” – fittingly enough for the community’s founding and the parish’s coincide, and the histories of both have long been intertwined. St. Paul the Apostle parish was not only the Paulists’ 1st foundation but for a long time the only one. Its crypt in the church’s south tower is where most of the early Paulists are buried. Hecker himself was buried in that crypt until he was moved up into the church on January 24, 1959, where his monumental tomb highlights the church’s permanently special significance for the Society he founded. And, for most Paulists (although I am one of the few exceptions), it is the special church where they were ordained to the sacred order of priesthood.

Attached to the church is the residence. As a building, the present residence (built only in the 1930s) is neither a particularly historic structure nor is it all that artistically or architecturally distinguished, although it does have its laudable charms – notably the spacious common rooms and its beautiful neo-gothic chapel (regrettably renovated some 20 or so years ago, but still attractive). What it certainly has lots of, however, is history – community history and the personal histories of so many Paulists who have lived or passed through there (and whose pictures are permanently memorialized on its 2nd-floor walls).

The Paulist residence on West 59th Street has been the site of many a Paulist gathering and continues in that role as Paulists congregate in its common rooms when in the city for ordinations and community meetings large and small. Not every Paulist has had the wonderful experience I had of serving in this parish for 10 years and living in this house for 13 years, but every Paulist is at home here in a way which is unique.

It really is what religious life language likes to call such a place – what every religious community has and needs – a true Motherhouse.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Holy Ground

Yesterday I drove the 25 or so miles up the Henry Hudson and Sprain Brook Parkways to Hawthorne, NY, to visit the graves of my father and my sister in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, the sprawling archdiocesan-owned cemetery in Westchester County, which is the final resting place of a good number of my relatives, as well as all sorts of other notables – most famously, perhaps, Yankee slugger Babe Ruth. At one point, a few years back, it was even hoped that Gate of Heaven might become a final resting place for the Paulists about to be removed from our former novitiate property in Oak Ridge, NJ. That would have been some modest consolation to compensate for the sadness of leaving Oak Ridge. But, alas, it was not to be! So, I will not be buried there but on the other side of the Hudson instead!

Cemeteries are important places in most human societies – above all certainly in any society that is at all seriously Christian. In many respects the early Christians conformed to and retained the funerary practices of their pagan neighbors, but the important fact that the early Christians conspicuously and decisively rejected the pagan practice of cremation in favor of the biblically based practice of burial in the ground made the acquisition and maintenance of cemeteries an important preoccupation of the Church from the earliest times.  And so it has remained. Gate of Heaven is one of several cemeteries under archdiocesan auspices in New York. And, back in Knoxville, my parish is the proud custodian of the oldest (and only) Catholic cemetery in the area.

The practice of setting cemeteries apart by ritual blessing is also ancient, dating at least as far back as St. Gregory of Tours (538/9-593/4). Apart from the Roman Catacombs and other places particularly associated with the burial of martyrs, maybe the best cemeteries in which to sense that special sacredness is the old-fashioned churchyard, where the graves surround the church building itself. I still fondly remember the village church in Siezenheim, Austria, a little town a short bus ride from Salzburg and a good walk from Schloss Klessheim (the estate where I lived and studied during my German-language summer program in 1970). The church was your typical modest-seeming, cupola-topped village church, with a beautiful baroque interior. To enter, one had to walk through the churchyard, where villagers regularly left flowers and lit lamps at the graves of relatives. The most monumental grave in the cemetery was that of Archduke Ludwig Viktor (1842-1919), youngest brother of the Hapsburg Emperors Kaiser Fanz Josef I of Austria and Maximilian I of Mexico. Because of his public homosexuality, Ludwig Viktor was more or less banned from Vienna by Franz Josef and eventually ended up living at Schloss Klessheim (previously the Prince-
Bishop of Salzburg’s summer palace). Ludwig Viktor had what we might call an archducal box seat in the upper reaches of the village church, but his mortal remains now await the final trumpet along with those of humbler villagers in the church’s graveyard. And, like the tomb of his eminent brother in Vienna, Ludwig Viktor’s grave is still well tended.

Gate of Heaven has no royalty in its graves (that I know of), but it is an especially attractive cemetery – a genuine campo santo (“holy ground”). Now that I am no longer in the area, my visits are necessarily much more rare than they might otherwise have been. Still it was good to get there today, for cemeteries are meant to be visited by the living, as much as they are resting places for the dead. Cemeteries are important because the people buried there are important – earthly remnants of lives lived by real persons who were loved and who have since stood before the awesome judgment seat of God, to which we will all sooner or later be called ourselves.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Beyond Circumcision

Much of the media noise about the outrageous anti-circumcision decision, recently handed down by a Cologne court, has focused on its impact on German Jews and Muslims – naturally enough since those are the groups most immediately and directly affected.

At a recent conference on the subject in Berlin, Pinchas Goldschmidt labeled the ruling a "frontal attack on Jewish life in Europe." And so indeed it inevitably is. He went on, however, to make the larger point that this is "part of a trend of mounting intolerance against religious practices in Europe."

This secularist hostility has found legal expression in the ideology of individual rights, for centuries now the long-standing rival of more traditional notions of human beings as social, communal creatures, who need - and can truly thrive only - in social and communal relationships. An ideology of individual rights that rejects such a social and communitarian understanding of human existence posits purely isolated autonomous individuals. These individuals may, of course, elect to enter into relationships of various sorts by their own free choice; but they remain ultimately individuals – their individual autonomy, their freedom from social and communal bonds being “protected” by the all-powerful liberal State. For the inevitable corollary of a world which can comprehend only individuals is the devaluing of all traditional social institutions and communal bonds (beginning with the family), thus stripping public life of the vast network of “mediating” structures which have traditionally occupied much of our social space – the space between the individual and the State.

That is why the unfortunate controversy created recently in the U.S. by the Administration’s contraception mandate matters so much. If this particular exercise in left-wing social engineering succeeds, then religiously motivated organizations of all sorts - religiously sponsored schools, adoption agencies, nursing homes, hospitals, psychological counseling centers, immigrant services, etc., - may eventually find themselves with no morally acceptable alternative but to shut down. That would definitely deprive many of our most vulnerable fellow citizens of material services that benefit them – and by extension benefit the entire society. In doing so it would, of course, also make the State that much more powerful - but society that much weaker.

So these issues go beyond such immediate topical flashpoints as contraception or circumcision. And their long-term effect extends beyond the particular religious groups immediately impacted. The point is not that the State should be weak, but that it should not be absolute, and that other entities - natural communities (e.g., the family) and social relationships and communitarian networks (e.g., religious communities) - should flourish.

One small step towards sanity in this matter would be to practice a consistent commitment in public policy to what we (and many other nations) all signed on to, way back in 1948 - in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Take Nothing for the Journey

He instructed them to take nothing for the journey … no food, no sack, no money in their belts [Mark 6:8].

Moving is inevitably a stressful, unpleasant experience under the best of circumstances. But, at least once in my priestly career, this Gospel has come up just as I was packing up to move from one assignment to another, and I remember feeling even more stress as I preached about this Gospel while preparing to move all my possessions with me to my new post. Every time I’ve moved I’ve gotten rid of lots of things, but I still end up with a lot – books especially – and certainly a lot more than Jesus apparently intended his apostles to take. Even in “ordinary” years when I am not moving anywhere, this Gospel always comes as a kind of proverbial “shot across the bow” about things.

Of course, even Jesus let his apostles have some things. He allowed them a walking stick and sandals. I suppose those were considered essentials when going on a journey. On the other hand, the command to take nothing else seems to stress the special nature of the journey – its urgency and importance, allowing no time for distractions and requiring complete commitment, as well as a whole lot of trust in who was sending them. Jesus seemed to be leading the 12 into a kind of guided insecurity, sending them out as missionaries, without most of the props they would have been familiar with and normally might have depended on.

Now, no one ever wants to start out on a trip with insufficient supplies. Whenever I go anywhere – even the rather short, easy flight from Knoxville to New York - I always worry about leaving something behind that I’m going to need. And often that exactly what happens! But, in the meantime, my worrying has caused me to carry a whole lot of extra stuff as well! And, of course, as anyone who has ever travelled anywhere knows all too well, the amount of baggage we bring actually tends to increase along the way. Not only do I usually start with too much; I frequently finish with even more.

But this was no ordinary move, let alone some sort of vacation trip, that the apostles were being sent on. What it was actually was a kind of practice run for the apostles’ future job as full-time missionaries. Unlike my vacation this week or any other shorter or longer trip any of us may have taken, the mission of the Church, which was what the apostles were being prepped for, is never finished (at least not in this life). Hence the command to travel light, lest the constantly accumulating baggage weigh down the kingdom of God and get in the kingdom’s way as it moves out into our world.

The point, of course, is not the things themselves. If we get focused exclusively on how many things we need to shed, then the things are still driving the discussion as surely as if we were carrying them all around with us. The primary point, therefore, is to unburden ourselves of anything – external things and internal attitudes – to whatever extent that they diminish our freedom to become the people God is calling us to be – not the person I want to be, or the person the surrounding secular culture may be enticing me to be, but the person God is calling me to be.

As Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia eloquently expressed it, in his July 4 homily at the conclusion of the Fortnight for Freedom: “We’re free only to the extent that we unburden ourselves of our own willfulness and practice the art of living according to God’s plan. When we do this, when we choose to live according to God’s intention for us, we are then – and only then – truly free.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, July 15, 2012.