Friday, January 31, 2014

Thomas Merton

The 20th century's most famous Catholic monk, Thomas Merton (Fr. Mary Louis, OCSO), was born 99 years ago today. It would be hard to exaggerate Merton's impact and influence in the second half of the 20th century, both within the distinctive subculture of Roman Catholic religious life, and in wider worlds of spirituality, ecumenism, and religiously motivated social activism. When one considers how incredibly prolific a writer he was, one can only wonder what his impact might have been had he not died suddenly in 1968 and instead lived something closer to his predictable life span!

I first encountered Merton as a confused and unsettled teenager, hanging out in the public library, alternately killing time and looking for answers to life's questions. At that stage, The Sign of Jonas was undoubtedly my favorite - if only because it appealed to my then only partially acknowledged and in any case immature interest in religious life. (Published in 1953, The Sign of Jonas was Merton's journal of his formational years in the monastery. His much more complete journals, of which The Sign of Jonas was really just one part, have since been published in some seven volumes, all well worth reading.) As for the classic that initially made Merton famous, I might have run across The Seven Storey Mountain on my own, but I was in any case guided to it by a helpful social worker, who thought I would find in it material to identify with. And I did!

It is possible that Merton may have become too popular in his time and that only now, 45 years after his untimely death, that he can be better appreciated. Last year, I undertook to re-read the seven published volumes of Merton's journals.  Not everything held equal appeal. There is much in Merton's later writings that I find somewhat troubling, especially some of his ill-considered forays into political analysis. On the other hand, his alternately affirming and critical comments on the changes in the Church in the 60s (especially the liturgical changes) offer a good window on how catastrophically disruptive that period was on so many levels. Still, it is the earlier Merton that I tend to go back to the most. His spiritual journey from atheist intellectual to cloistered but completely engaged monk continues to resonate with the troubled history of the 20th century and (more parochially) with my own much less notable spiritual search as it took place against that larger background.

A monk I sought vocational advice from in the late 70s said that Merton wasn't perhaps all that good as a  model monk but that his writings had done much to illuminate monasticism, vocation, and the spiritual life. I'll leave it to others to judge how good a monk Merton was. But there is no gainsaying his impact and influence - and, I believe, his continued relevance for anyone aspiring to any sort of religious vocational commitment.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Snow Day 2014

Thanks to the Knoxville News Sentinel photographer who took this picture of my church in Tuesday's snowstorm! Perhaps it wasn't quite a blizzard by the standard definition, but it was certainly more snow that had been expected, and it practically paralyzed the town. So I stayed home all day yesterday, the best (and certainly safest) place for me to be. Sure, there were things I had planned to do that day, but they can wait, which is actually true of many things in life. The whole experience reminded me a bit of the two severe snowstorms I experienced in Italy two years ago. Writing in Rome on February 3, 2012, I posted on this blog: I have always loved snow, which I frankly consider one of the most beautiful of God’s creations. I hate driving in snow (but then, of course, I hate driving, period!) The fact that snow impedes us from carrying out some of our ordinary activities may be a good reminder that winter was intended to slow us down and stop some of those ordinary activities. It’s not winter’s fault if our modern, industrialized economy needs to continue at the same consistently frantic pace all year round. Winter is just being winter!
Of course, for so many of us the expectation is that we will keep on going, keep on doing what we would have been doing ordinarily - and for most people, of course, that means driving, one of the major sources of snow-related danger. So I really appreciate the local officials who closed down not just schools but most government offices. Back when people lived more in harmony with the rhythm of the seasons, it was a lot easier to slow down and even to stop. Things naturally slowed down during winter - one reason it was possible to have a 12-day feast at Christmas! But that's all just part of the world we once had but have long since lost. And there is little to be done about it.

Of course, I grew up in a city, and there we did do a lot more of our normal activity even when it snowed. Certainly closing school because of snow (while it did happen occasionally) was still the exception. On the other hand, most of us walked to school. So the dangers associated with driving were minimal. In most places, where people are slaves to their cars, schools really do need to close when it snows, and it is good for everyone that they do so. (Students probably would benefit from more school rather than less, but that's another matter and calls for other solutions.)

Certainly one thing we could all benefit from would be to try to get over some of our reflexive anger at the weather's impact and our almost automatic tendency to blame public officials for not being able to undo the weather immediately in order to guarantee uninterrupted continuance of our ordinary routines and personal plans. Even in today's modern cities, nature can still trump our modern priorities. That's just something we need to learn to accept (especially as climate change probably means more big storms of all sorts down the road). Public officials need to be on the ball, especially as regards public safety. And part of public safety increasingly involves getting people to slow down and even stop.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of Our Union

The cold (3 degrees outside right now) and snow and ice have virtually paralyzed my town - an unusually apt visual metaphor, perhaps, for the actual state of our actual Union. While the snow was still falling here last night, the President gave his annual address to the Congress. He spoke well enough, as one expects him to do. He addressed the crisis of increasing inequality and declining mobility, recognizing its centrality in the social struggle of the age. He spoke eloquently about the need for immigration reform, called for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, and pointedly skewered his opponents on health care. Notably, the President emphasized doing what he could without Congress.

That, of course, highlights the fundamental problem. As Matt Miller observes in today's Washington Post, putting aside the progress this Administration has made towards universal health care coverage, in the last 20 years "the measure of a good society have gone in the wrong direction." That is the problem that bedevils that actual state of the actual Union. It is something a President can talk about (the famous "bully pulpit") and hopefully mobilize voters to care enough about. But by himself it is not something any President can appreciably alter. It's not just that fixing a broken culture requires legislation. It requires consensus - not unanimity, of course, but some degree of common consensus in society. And that - in our cynical, apolitical, self-absorbed, culturally polarized country - remains elusive at best.

The kind of society we have become is no one President's fault and is way beyond any one President's power to fix. All he can do is talk - the famous "bully pulpit" again. And, while what the President said was  good, it is nowhere near enough. The President is being faulted by pundits for his mainly modest proposals, the idea being that they represent an admission on his part that he can't get much more. True enough, but it is the country as a whole that must also be faulted for having in effect virtually given up on itself.

To his credit, the President largely avoided highlighting his (and his party's base's) extreme positions on polarizing social and cultural issues. Yet that omission also highlights an ongoing part of the problem. Extending health care coverage is an important step in healing the maldistribution of wealth and opportunity in our society. So is immigration reform. So is extending unemployment benefits.  So are higher wages. So are any number of other worthy things the President is proposing. But moral and cultural calamities like the so-called "marriage gap," for example, also need to be addressed. The decline of marriage and the collapse of the American family are both symptoms of economic inequality and declining mobility and contributors to its intensification and long-term continuation from this generation to the next.  As long as one side in our politically polarized non-debate remains wedded to economic policies that favor the few at the expense of the many and the other side remains wedded to a moral and cultural ideology that undermines family and community, our divisions cannot easily be repaired nor our decline reversed.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Waiting for the State of the Union

The President's annual address to Congress on "the state of the Union" is prescribed in the Constitution. Or, rather, the message itself is. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson abandoned his Federalist predecessors' practice of addressing Congress in person, perceiving it to be too monarchical. And for 112 years no President ever again addressed Congress in person, until the Anglophile Woodrow Wilson resumed custom in 1913. 

Obviously modeled on a European monarch's "Speech from the Throne," the occasion is the closest we come to such regal ceremonial. The President comes to the House Chamber, formally escorted as Head of State. From the House Doorkeeper's traditional cry, Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States, to the President's formulaic introduction by the Speaker, the President embodies the sovereignty of the nation, and is received accordingly. It is and rightly should be an opportunity for some serious, unifying, patriotic uplift 

Unifying regal ritual on this very formal occasion notwithstanding, the event is also a divisively partisan one - reflected not just in the somewhat unbecoming custom of a televised partisan response by the opposite party, but even more dramatically in the partisan applause patterns that periodically punctuate the speech. It is, after all, the President's presentation of his program. Once upon a time, the expectation was that the Congress would debate and act upon the President's proposals - accepting, rejecting, compromising as appropriate. Nowadays, however, the speech is really addressed to the TV audience (in other words, to the voters). In the absence of the deliberation and debate that was originally supposed to characterize the legislative branch, both sides seem instead to concentrate on scoring points prior to the next election.

My guess is that the President will focus heavily on the growing inequality and mobility gap in our society, a situation in which even a the economy is improving and growing ordinary, working people continue to fall behind. I presume he will also highlight how health insurance reform (the Affordable Care Act) is helping address an important dimension of this crisis. I'm sure he'll call for a higher minimum wage and for comprehensive immigration reform. Hopefully, he can make the necessary connections to mobilize a nation to recover the communitarian character that has been in the process of consistently being eroded since 1980. 

But, now, the President has arrived. So let's see what he has to say. And then think more about it tomorrow.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Citizenship or Serfdom?

Conservative blogger Peter Spiliakos has posted an interesting response to some recent Republican proposals regarding immigration. The title of his short post, "Making Immigration a Little More Serfy," says it all in its title. It is certainly well worth reading
The context for Spiliakos' response is a suggestion by Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder that the Federal Government allocate city-based visas for highly skilled immigrants willing to settle in Detroit. He sees this as part of pattern on the right of "suggesting rules that inhibit the ability of immigrants to participate fully in American civic life." Another example he cites is Republican Kevin McCarthy's call for "amnesty-but-not-citizenship for illegal immigrants."
Spiliakos himself favors what he calls "limited amnesty." I'm not sure how limited or limited to whom, so I cannot comment on that. (Personally, I favor as broad and open an immigration policy as possible.) But I do applaud his strong support for birthright citizenship and the principle "that those who settle here should be treated as prospective citizens rather than as human raw material for employers. ... our immigration policy should involve the most speedy and complete integration of immigrants into American civic life. No servant classes here."
I don't know all the details of Governor Snyder's proposal, but at least in principle and for a limited term of time, I think it might have merit. After all, we do grant visas for people on the assumption they are to be employed in a particular firm, for example. I see nothing wrong with granting a visa on the condition that one would live in a particular place and put one's skills to use there for a determined period of time - say 5 years - after which, of course, one would be free to move anywhere in the U.S. But on the larger issue I fully endorse Spiliakos' concern. It is rather transparently obvious that those who don't want to include a path to citizenship in immigration reform really don't want to increase the pool of voters who are not likely to be attracted to a particular party's distinctive brand of politics. On the other hand, they are quite content to have people working here without the benefits of citizenship. I agree with Spiliakos. There is no room for a class of serfs in our society.
What made America great - more than anything else -  was immigration. An American future that excludes immigrants from full integration into American life would simply not be America anymore.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Celebrating Saint Paul

Today the Church celebrates THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE (the event recounted in Acts 9:1-22 and again in Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:2-18). This is the patronal solemnity of the Paulist Fathers. It is also the 28th anniversary of my Final Profession as a member of the Paulist community. That Final Profession took place at Saint Paul's College, Washington, DC, in the last such ceremony to take place in the 1956 Chapel (now the Saint Paul's College Library).

This year, I am celebrating the feast (and my profession anniversary) at the Paulist Mother Church, the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York City. At the invitation of the Mother Church's pastor, I celebrated the 8:30 a.m. parish Mass this morning. For 155 years, we Paulists have ministered here in this parish in the heart of this city - the life and mission of both the Paulists and the parish being intimately tied together here, both blessed by the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, whose conversion we celebrate today.

For more than a century, the spiritual center of this parish has been its big beautiful church. Within Stanford White’s golden dome above the High Altar is a verse from the Divine Office for St. Paul's feast: You are a vessel of election, holy apostle Paul. The response, Preacher of Truth in the whole world, is inscribed in the mosaic on the floor at the foot of the sanctuary steps. Communicants coming to the altar rail in years gone by would have regularly seen that mosaic, designed in 1920 to highlight the symbols of St. Paul’s apostleship – the book, open to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians at the verse, To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and the sword, the symbol of St. Paul’s martyrdom. Then, at the west end of the south aisle, over the altar dedicated to St. Paul, is Robert Reid’s evocative painting of Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below are the famous words from his Second Letter to Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith! A retired senior Paulist in residence here once movingly described how in his youth, trying to discern what to do with his life, he had meditated in front of that altar and that picture.
The glorious event we commemorate today – the decisive turning-point in Paul’s life – is portrayed above the main entrance to the church in a monumental frieze (photo) by Lumen Martin Winter (who also designed the equally monumental tomb at the east end of the north aisle, in which Isaac Hecker was re-buried in 1959). That event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and an apostle on equal footing with the others, an apostle sent to make disciples of all peoples and nations without exception. That mission is the theme of the other floor mosaic, at the main entrance of the church, which recalls Paul’s preaching outreach to the Greek world in 1st-century Athens.

Not through words alone but by being the kind of building that it is, this beautiful church (informally known in his day as "Hecker's Basilica") teaches Paul's story and the story that Hecker's vision invites us all to make our own.

Friday, January 24, 2014


I braved the single-digit temperature to wait for the M5 Bus at Columbus Circle. After three M104s and two M7s passed, finally an M5 arrived and I got to thaw out en route to the Paris Theater at 58th and 5th to see Oscar-nominee Judi Dench in Philomena. The Oscar-nominated British film is loosely based on Martin Sixmith's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which tells the story of retired nurse Philomena Lee's search for the son she had given birth to as an Irish teenager and had been forced to give up for adoption. She teams up with an out-of-work journalist (Martin Sixmith, played by Steve Coogan), who is reduced (in his estimation) to chasing a "human interest story" and has found a perfect one in Philomena' search for what happened to her son.

The paring of the two is very effective. A lapsed Catholic, Martin represents the cultural elite, secular knowledge class. A still practicing Catholic, Philomena personifies working class cultural tastes. Only gradually, does it become clear that Philomena is smart and perceptive and intuitively knows people perhaps better than the sophisticated Martin. A lot of the humor in the film derives from this culture clash. At first Philomena seems to be the object of the movie's humor, but after a while one wonders whether it is really Martin who is being shown to be both ignorant and foolish.

Of course, the two depend on each other. Philomena cannot find her son on her own. She needs Martin's journalistic skill and contacts (and the budget advanced to him to get his story). Martin wants the story to get back in the game. He can't get very far without Philomena herself. In fact, it is Philomena who gets in the door to speak with her dead son's boyfriend after Martin has dramatically failed.

Philomena is neither naive nor a fool, but neither does she give in to Martin's secular, anti-religious negativity. In fact, in the penultimate scene at the convent, after Martin has confronted the elderly Sister Hildegard (a fictional event that never actually happened in the true story), Philomena's measured forgiveness contrasts with Martin's confrontational style. Revealingly, she tells him she doesn't want to be an angry person like him! 

The film highlights the already familiar story of the harsh treatment some unwed mothers received at the hands of the Irish Church as recently as 50 years ago. But that is not the only harsh reality highlighted in the film. Philomena's son had advanced high in Republican elite circles, but had to keep his sexuality secret and found himself working for an administration that seemed tepid in its response to the AIDS crisis, the disease he eventually died of.

Set against the background of the great cultural fissures of our time, the movie sensitively invites us to contemplate the basic emotions and relationships that make the human predicament simultaneously so complex and so meaningful.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Affirming Life

Last night, on the eve of the US Church's Annual Day of Prayer for the Protection of Unborn Children, I watched the Vigil Mass celebrated at the National Shrine Basilica in Washington, DC. As Chair of the USCCB's Pro-Life Activities, Boston's Sean Cardinal O'Malley celebrated the Mass and preached the homily. And what a splendid homily it was! On a topic that is all too often an opportunity for partisan invective (by both sides), Cardinal O'Malley preached the good news. 
He began with Han Christian Anderson's famous fairytale, The Emperor's New Clothes, in which the unfortunate Emperor was conned into believing he had gotten himself the most splendid new attire, when in fact he had been swindled and there was really nothing there at all. I remember well the illustrated children's book I read so many years ago, and the great scene when the Emperor is parading in his supposed new outfit, which everyone is pretending to admire, when suddenly a child speaks the truth: "he has nothing on." In that wonderful tale, the Cardinal saw an important lesson for today's pro-life movement. "The voice of the Church is like the child who declares before the world that the new clothes are a lie, a humbug, a deception. The Church with the candor of a child must call out the uncomfortable truth. Abortion is wrong. Thous shalt not kill!"
The Cardinal continued be reflecting on account in John's Gospel of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). "The feelings of the woman in the Gospel," he suggested, "must be like the young woman caught in a crisis situation of an unwanted pregnancy. She feels overwhelmed, afraid, confused." He then went on to apply the pointed lesson of the Gospel story to today's pro-life movement. "We must never allow that woman to perceive the Pro-Life movement as a bunch of angry self-righteous Pharisees with stones in their hands, looking down on her and judging her." (How fitting it seemed to me this morning when, with this still very much in my mind, I realized that today's Gospel - Mark 3:1-6 - recounts the Pharisees' murderous anger at Jesus healing the man with a withered hand!)
The Cardinal's third theme concerned poverty. At a time when some elements of the pro-life constituency seem to have allied themselves with increasing income inequality, Cardinal O'Malley delivered another pointed lesson for the pro-life movement. "The majority of women who succumb to abortion are poor. Poverty is a dehumanizing force that leads people to feel trapped and to make this horrible choice. The Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world. In a society where the rich are getting ever richer and the poor poorer, abortion looms ever larger."
One wonders if the world had heard more talk like this and seen fewer unworthy political alliances, whether the pro-life cause would perhaps find itself better positioned to speak to today's (and tomorrow's) world! 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Killing a King

On this date in 1793, King Louis XVI, "The Most Christian King" of France, was executed in Paris at the subsequently ironically renamed Place de la Concorde. The judicial murder of "The Most Christian King" has long been recognized as one of the truly decisive, no-turning-back moments of the French Revolution - that epic, world-historical, calamity that has ever since defined Western civilization's transition to modernity.

Among the Revolution's contemporaries, perhaps the most famous response to what the French Revolution had undone in terms of community and society and was consequently unleashing on the world was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), whose Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared already in 1790. That was well before the Revolution's infamous "Reign of Terror," but already Burke had seen enough - notably, the events of October 4-5, 1789, when the Parisian mob invaded Versailles and forced the Royal Family to return with them to Paris. Already in that and other such events that were happening on the ground and in the constitutional disruptions being legislated in the Assembly, Burke recognized the inherent danger in the substitution of ahistorical, individualistic, Enlightenment abstractions in place of the more organic development and communitarian character of actually existing social structures and institutions that have traditionally bonded people together in societies.

In the 20th century, It was Albert Camus (1913-1960) who, in his book The Rebel (L'Homme révolté, 1951), famously analyzed the Revolution's frontal attack on both history and transcendence.  Camus called scandalous the presentation of the killing of the king as some great historical achievement. (Certes, c’est un répugnant scandale d’avoir présenté, comme un grand moment de notre histoire, l’assassinat public d’un homme faible et bon.) The central symbolic significance of the event for contemporary history, according to Camus, was how it sought to secularize our history and to remove from it ("dis-incarnate") the Christian God (Il symbolise la désacralisation de cette histoire et la désincarnation du Dieu Chrétien.)

And now, more than 200 years into the post-revolutionary epoch, we continue to live this drama.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Anna's Tragic Dilemma

"I have urged them not to be ashamed of being alive, since they have no possible reason for being ashamed of having sinned." So wrote Saint Augustine (De Civitate Dei, II, 2) to console "women of of holy and devout chastity who felt felt the pangs of shame at their treatment by the enemy, although they have not lost their resolute purity."
Too bad Saint Augustine wasn't in residence at Downton to counsel Anna Bates in the painful aftermath of her horrendous rape by Lord Gillingham's vicious valet! Of course, Anna has thus far proved impervious to the counsel of the wise and compassionate Mrs. Hughes (unlike tom Branson, who seems to recognize a real friend and prudent adviser when he finds one). So what would make anyone think she'd be any more receptive to Saint Augustine's guidance in this matter?
Anna's tragic dilemma has a practical component. She fears Mr. Bates would react by killing her assailant and end up being hanged after all, having escaped that fate in the previous season. That legitimate worry would certainly warrant a prudent, well thought-out approach on Anna's part to telling her husband. But surely, especially with the helpful Mrs. Hughes at her side, Anna could conceivably have managed it. Did the script writers consider this? Or did they really just want to create more drama by disrupting the Bates' seemingly too happy marriage? The best thing Anna has going for her is her marriage. Yet she seems on the verge of blowing that up rather than allowing her husband to help her get through her grief and shame.
Anna's dilemma illustrates the unique pain and suffering of many victims of rape. But Anna's dilemma - what to do, whom to tell, how to relate to husband and colleagues -  also highlights, it seems to me, a larger issue. I refer to what seems to be a seemingly widespread human tendency, when confronted with a serious personal crisis, to isolate oneself precisely when reaching out is what may be called for, to withdraw from community when engagement would serve far better. That happens so often in so many sad situations - in families, friendships, and relationships of all sorts. If only we could learn instead to engage and rely on others rather than withdraw into and rely on ourselves!

Sunday, January 19, 2014


One of the constants in Catholic life remains funeral-home sponsored parish calendars, which year-in, year-out faithfully bring the Church's annual cycle of liturgical feasts and seasons into the domestic church of the family home. When I was a child in the 1950s and Mass attendance was so much higher, such calendars were eagerly sought after, so much so that parishes sometimes sought to restrict them to one per family.
At that time, I already had the fascination with calendars that has stuck with me all my life. One of my earliest "causes" that I embraced was the adoption of the proposed "World Calendar" (an idea that since seems to have deservedly disappeared and which no longer commands any enthusiasm on my part). Reading our parish calendar as a child, I remember being struck by the periodic appearance of something mysteriously entitled "Saturday Office of the BVM." Perplexed by this strange nomenclature, I concocted my own personal explanation, which was that Our Lady had an office in heaven to which she went to on Saturdays. I further imagined that that was where and when she would process our petitions. So Saturday seemed an extremely propitious day to pray for Mary's intercession.(We learned in 5th grade about the existence of the Divine Office. So this was obviously somewhat earlier.) I've often recalled this not just as an example of childish fantasy but also as an illustration of what I take to be the universal human inclination to try to make sense out of things that don't seem at first to make sense!
With the conclusion of the Christmas season, the Church’s calendar has re-entered a yearly cycle of 33 or 34 weeks which we unimaginatively have come to call “Ordinary Time” . “Ordinary Time” is the English term for Tempus per annum (“Season throughout the year”) and is divided into two parts, each of varying length (depending on whether Easter is earlier or later that year). In the traditional Missal, the shorter, first part was called “Time after Epiphany,” and the longer, second part “Time after Pentecost,” and the Sundays were numbered accordingly as Sundays after Epiphany or after Pentecost. In the new Missal, however, the weeks are simply numbered in order from the 1st week in Ordinary Time to the 34th.
One of the very few attractions of "ordinary time" is that on Saturdays, unless a higher-ranking festival occurs, what is now called the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday may be celebrated. A special collection of thematic Votive Masses now exists from which one may choose an appropriate Mass, each with its own proper prayers and its own proper Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer. And so, whenever possible, I usually choose one of these special Masses to celebrate on Saturday mornings. I no longer imagine March's cluttered desk in heaven, but I still keep the custom of Saturday as a special day to invoke Our Lady's intercession
This year, with only a few exceptions, the intention for the Saturday morning Mass each week at my parish will be for the canonization cause of the founder of the Paulilst Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker. In the northeast corner of the church is a special little shrine dedicated to prayer for Hecker’s cause. In a place of honor there is a copy of an ancient image enshrined in the Borghese Chapel in Rome’s Basilica of Saint Mary Major, known as Salus Populi Romani – Our Lady “Protector of the Roman People.” After his expulsion from the Redemptorists in August 1857, Father Hecker went to look for housing in the Roman neighborhood of the Spanish Steps, the center at that time of Rome’s English-speaking community. On his way, he stopped at Saint Mary Major and prayed for Mary’s guidance and protection at the Salus Populi Romani shrine. Hecker credited the support he received from Cardinal Barnabo and the eventually positive outcome of his time in Rome to the Our Lady’s intercession on his behalf. Salus Populi Romani is the same image which Pope Francis went to venerate at Saint Mary Major on the day after his election as Pope and on some subsequent occasions since then. Not just on Saturdays, but especially then, I too try to imitate Father Hecker and Pope Francis and also pray before the image of Salus Populi Romani.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Unending Mandate Debate

"Can my employer make me pay the cost of practicing his religion? In the coming months, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide two cases involving just this issue." So writes Brigham Young University Law School Professor Frederick Mark Gedicks in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. Recognizing that how one frames the terms of the debate determines the outcome as often as not, both sides in the dispute over the HHS Contraception Mandate have sought to frame the issue in terms of religious freedom - something most people can understand and which most Americans (not to mention the Constitution) have a commitment to. 
Religious freedom, of course, can conflict with other societal values (e.g., the 19th-century battle about polygamy in Utah). Hence, the ubiquity and persistence of these disputes in our history and jurisprudence. As more and more areas of social life come within the purview of governmental regulations of one sort or other, these conflicts will if anything likely increase.
At present there are two concurrent controversies. The first has to do with non-profit religious organizations (e.g., the Little Sisters of the Poor), which are not churches per se and so do not meet the narrow definition of religious exemption adopted by the Administration. No one can predict, of course, how any case will be adjudicated, but a common sense understanding of the 1st Amendment and the unanimous Hosanna Tabor Supreme Court decision of two years ago both seem to counter the claim that government should be the entity to define who is a minister or what is a religion. The 1st Amendment protects religion from the State. So to allow the State to define who is entitled to the protections of the 1st Amendment would be a curious conflict of interest that would strike at the very purpose of the Amendment itself.
The second has to do with the right of private, for-profit companies to claim religious exemption from the mandate because of the religious beliefs of the company's owners. Admittedly, the legal question here seems much murkier. However, given the fact that the Supreme Court not that long ago allowed corporations to claim freedom of speech in the Citizens United case, it would seem at least as logical to allow corporations to claim freedom of religion! On the other hand, Supreme Court jurisprudence doesn't always follow along such logical lines. So what the outcome will be is anyone's guess
That said, there is still the matter of how the issue is framed - in this case, whose religious freedom is being infringed upon. Professor Gedicks would have us believe that “The threat to religious liberty, then, comes from the prospect that the court might permit a for-profit business to impose the costs of its owners’ anti-contraception beliefs on employees who do not share them by forcing employees to pay hundreds of dollars or more out-of-pocket each year for contraception and related services that should be covered under the law.”
Talk about turning the 1st Amendment upside down!
Since when is the desire for free contraception a religious liberty claim? It is established law, beginning with Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and subsequent expansions, that the State may not prohibit access to contraception. That is not the same thing as a right to receive contraception for free. That would be like saying that freedom of the press requires the State (or someone else) to buy me a printing press so I can start a newspaper! The State can, of course, as a matter of public policy legislate its choice to subsidize such activities. In effect that is what the HHS Mandate does. It wants to privilege contraception by subsidizing people's access to it. However, instead of doing that by direct government subsidy, the law directs private entities to do so. In other words, the legal issue is not whether one may have access to contraception but whether a third party (in this case the employer) should be compelled to pay for it. If doing so violates the religious beliefs of the employer, then it is the employer's religious liberty that is being infringed upon. No religious or other constitutionally established liberty of the employee is being infringed. The employee remains free to use contraception, but is not entitled to force the employer to pay for it.
Of course, the key word in Professor Gedicks' argument is should - as in "contraception and related services that should be covered under the law.” There is nothing self-evident about the claim that society should provide free contraception. At least as good a policy case could be made for free dental care. It is a public policy decision to privilege contraception over dental care. That decision - and the fanatical contraceptive ideology that underlies it - should not be allowed to trump the religious freedom of any American by forcing him or her to pay for it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Yesterday, I watched a PBS program reprising the year 1964. Last November's JFK anniversary may have whetted the media's appetite for such recollections. It is a fact that 50th anniversaries are big occasions. One reason, I suspect, is that those who participated in the original events (and many of those who remember them well) won't be around for ever.
I obviously don't know how much longer I will be around, but 50 years on I certainly do remember - and remember well - that decisive year 1964 and the series of society-transforming events that occurred then. The PBS program correctly characterized 1964 as the year that the underlying divisions in American life split open, a watershed year when American society's latent fault lines - political, racial, generational, gender - became visible. 
In the case of race, that claim may be a bit excessive. The same could, conceivably, be said for 1963. The racial tensions and conflicts that surfaced so dramatically in 1963 continued, to be sure, in 1964. The big change was Lyndon Johnson's throwing his full weight into the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act and succeeded, thanks to his personal skills and command of the legislative process in ending the Senate's filibuster (at a time when cloture still required 67 votes) and getting the bill passed. If the 1963 March on Washington was the highpoint of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the decisive legislation that transformed the public parameters of race relations in the U.S. Politically, it ushered in the realignment of our two political parties as the old Confederacy began to abandon its traditional home in the Democratic party, a process eased by the fact that, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee that year, voted against the Civil Rights Act (unlike most of his Republican colleagues, including the Senate Republican leader).
The latent political fault line was less that between Republicans and Democrats as between Conservatives and everyone else. A minority movement, American conservatives consciously sought in 1964 to transform the political landscape, to prevent society's further slippage in directions they didn't identify with. Goldwater lost the election, of course, but the process of transforming the Republican Party into a right-wing party really gained its momentum that year. (And, as the PBS program pointed out, 1964 was also the year that Ronald Reagan emerged as a conservative spokesman.)
The generational split was largely still over the horizon in 1964. But the Beatles' first American tour in February and Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in the fall symbolically lit the fuse that would set off the generational divisions that dominated the rest of the 1960s. We Baby Boomers, brought up to prosperity and affluence unlike our Depression-era parents, were just beginning to sense our own social significance. (The program also mentions Bob Dylan and his signature song about the times a-changing; but, whereas I remember the Beatles well and the Berkeley student riots, I was largely oblivious to Dylan for another year or more.)
Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique hit the best-seller list in mid-March 1964. The dramatic transformation of relations between the sexes and the growth in social conflict along gender lines were still in the future. But the program correctly recognized gender as the final fault line revealed in 1964, even if it was as yet nowhere nearly so evident as the long-standing racial split and the developing political and generational ones. 
I've always thought that dating the beginning of the post-Camelot, contentious sixties back to Kennedy's assassination was but a convenient convention. Last night's month-by-month trip back through 1964, however, has reminded me how truly transformative that year was and how different everything would be after from what it had been before.
Recalling his experience of that year, one of those interviewed called it "the propulsion of the past into the present" and said there was no better time to be involved in the nation's affairs. Thinking back to how I remember that year - the War on Poverty, the Beatles, the Surgeon General's Report on Smoking, the Great Society, the Civil Right Act, the Harlem Riots, the Gulf of Tonkin, the LBJ landslide - he may well be right.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Holiday Afterword

With yesterday's feast of the Lord's Baptism, another Christmas season has come to its end as all good things in this world must do sooner or later. In the next few days, the church's Christmas Tree will be sent to recycling and the creche will be stored away for another year. (In many more traditionally Catholic countries, the creche stays up until Candlemas Day. Thus, in Rome two years ago, I was able to visit many a pesebre in church after church up until the beginning of February.)
In my teens, I knew someone whose family left their Christmas Tree up - presumably in a minimally heated part of the house - until mid-March. I can appreciate the impulse to keep Christmas going the entire winter, but that seems somewhat impractical for most people. And perhaps it maybe misses part of the point of having a holiday like Christmas. It seems to me to be in the very nature of festivity that it is limited to a set time, different from the rest of the time, different from "ordinary" time. For holidays to be truly special, they must be exceptional. Christmas comes but once a year, so the saying goes. And that's precisely why it is so special, so precious, such a treasure to be looked forward to with new enthusiasm each year and kept in remembrance afterwards.
Christmas is our annual break from those ordinary routines that define our ordinary time. But those routines are the who, what, when, where, and how of human living. And, properly understood and faithfully celebrated, Christmas can continue to inform those regular routines of our ordinary time. Obviously, one can't give gifts every day or host holiday celebrations on a daily basis. But Christmas properly understood and faithfully celebrated is a means by which joy and hope, generosity and authentic outreach, may be effectively internalized - thus re-defining, so to speak, even our "ordinary" time. That, after all, was the lesson one special Christmas taught Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge. His holiday afterword transformed his entire life and also remade the world around him
And isn't that the ultimate point of the incarnation?

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Last Sunday, the Church celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord, one of the oldest and greatest festivals in the Christian calendar. Of course, the way we celebrate Epiphany nowadays, one could easily miss its importance. Epiphany is sometimes called “Little Christmas,” which y makes it like a very junior member of the Christmas family even though Epiphany is actually older than Christmas. It is also commonly called “Three Kings Day,” correctly highlighting the story of the Magi but ignoring what happened after. In fact, in the Eastern Churches the story of the Magi is read on Christmas Day, and Epiphany highlights the Baptism of the Jesus by John. we in the West divide our emphases differently, remembering the Magi on Epiphany and Jesus’ Baptism on the following Sunday.

So what? One might ask!  In the United States today, Christmas, after going on almost non-stop since Halloween, has finally fizzled out, making all this Epiphany and Baptism business seem like at most some vestigial post-Christmas afterthought. But, if we shift gears and allow ourselves to think the way the Church thinks about these things, then we see that today’s remembrance of Jesus’ baptism is actually the event that Advent and Christmas have been leading up to. Today we fast-forward from Bethlehem to an adult Jesus, about to begin his public life, the work he came into the world to do, the long-term point of the Christmas story.

Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned in three of the four gospels and alluded to in the fourth. And, as we just heard, it was referred to by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles on the occasion of the baptism of the first pagan converts, Cornelius, the Roman soldier, and his household. So it was obviously well remembered and had obviously left an impression. Peter treats Jesus’ baptism as the starting-point of the Jesus story – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, after which Jesus went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

John’s baptism had been a ritual of repentance, dramatizing one’s need for conversion and one’s willingness to start anew, as their ancestors had when they had first passed through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. By being baptized by John, Jesus blended into the mass of anonymous sinners that we are. By being baptized as one of us, Jesus joined us - which was, of course, the point of his becoming human and being born in the first place.

Jesus joined us in the water, but when he came up from the water, we are told, behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Not just Jesus alone but the whole Trinity joined in to reveal who Jesus is. Jesus began his work in the world by being officially identified by his Father as his Son, anointed, as Saint Peter put in today’s 2nd reading, with the Holy Spirit and power, thus setting the stage for the rest of the story of Jesus life and mission in our world.

And not just Jesus’ story, but ours too! Not Jesus’s life and mission, but ours too! Thanks to Jesus, we too – like Cornelius – have become acceptable to God, for Jesus has shared the Holy Spirit with us. Through his gift of the Holy Spirit, we have been empowered to profess our faith in Jesus as God’s Son and to join ourselves with him so as to share in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ baptism anticipates the baptism that elevates each of us to a new relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit and empowers us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world through our membership in his Church.

Jesus, the beloved Son, has made us beloved sons and daughters of his Father. But being beloved is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Having let us in on his story, on who he is and the total trajectory of his life, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to identify with that trajectory and to recognize the intended trajectory of our own lives and to respond accordingly.

Homily for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 12, 2014.

Friday, January 10, 2014


How the media loves political/celebrity scandals! And once again the political class seems destined to oblige! Mis-identifying a Croat as a Serb would seem bad enough (in the centennial year of Sarajevo no less!) But if NJ Governor Christie's political staffers or political appointees actually did deliberately cause that serious traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge in order to punish Fort Lee's mayor for not endorsing the Republican Governor for re-election, that's serious (suffix "-gate"worthy) stuff. Or maybe it was to punish some State Senator? Who knows now how many minor NJ politicians may earn their 15 minutes of national fame from this bizarre episode?
More importantly, what possesses appointed political hacks to attempt such stunts? The Watergate burglars back in June 1972 may have thought they could get away with it. But what planet does one have to be on to think that one can get way with such things today - especially after leaving an email trail for everyone to follow? It certainly says something about the tone-deaf, closed-in-on-itself "bubble" in which so much of the political class operates that one could seriously concoct such a scheme and somehow expect to get away with it!
Above and beyond the sheer stupidity of it all, there is the audacious disregard for the public good displayed by such supposed public servants. It was after all the general public who were the actual victims of this action. Of course, our post modern culture disdains moral absolutes. So the imperative that public servants should serve the common good is perhaps less self-evident than it used to be!
The Governor rightly resents being so ill-served by his people. Perhaps, however, he would do well to wonder what might lead staffers to think such actions appropriate in the first place. Such scandals do have a way of revealing more than initially meets the eye. Again Watergate is the perfectly illustrative example. 
In the end, the "third-rate" Watergate burglary became the defining event of the Nixon presidency because at some fundamental level it seemed true to type, that is it seemed to exemplify what that administration was really like, what it was all about at its core. Only time will tell whether this sad scandal says something significantly telling about the Governor or his Administration or his party. But it has already said a lot about the wider moral universe in which our political elites increasingly operate.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Atheist "Sunday Assemblies"

On NPR's Morning Edition the other day, I listened to a fascinating report on the growth of Atheist "Sunday Assemblies." A "Sunday Assembly" is a church-like experience for those who don't believe in God. The movement was started in the U.K. by two British comedians,
Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, and now has some 30 chapters around the world. "There are loads of people out there who want to live better, help often and wonder more," according to co-founder Sanderson Jones. "It's all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs," adds the other co-founder Pippa Evans.

It's a light-hearted approach to non-religious religion that is actually somewhat serious in attempting to provide people whom Phil Zuckerman, who teaches secularism at a southern California college, calls "optimistic atheists." By that Zuckerman means those who have some positive association with religion and church that they would like to retain even in their unbelief. "They miss the community, they miss the music, they miss the multigenerational coming together with people that you might not otherwise be hanging out with," Zuckerman says.

If nothing else, this seems to highlight the reality that religious impulses remain deeply embedded in people and are hard to shake off. The "spiritual but not religious" syndrome has always suffered from two fundamental lacks - the lack, obviously, of God, but also the lack of authentic human community. Atheist "Sunday Assemblies" apparently aim to fill that second void. Their existence testifies not only to religion's continued relevance in relation to fundamental human needs - in this case responding to the sadness of living and being alone in the world - but also to post-modern secular society's failure to fulfill those fundamental communitarian needs.

My guess is that "Sunday Assemblies" - like Ethical Culture for an earlier generation - will appeal to a fairly narrow niche market. Most non-religious people will probably happily settle for Sunday Brunch, sports, or some other leisure activity in place of church.  "Sunday Assemblies" - again like Ethical Culture - just seem too much like what they aim to replace to appeal to those who have lost (or never had) religion. That they tap into a real human need just suggests that post-modern secular society will likely continue to fail at fulfilling that need.

For the original NPR news story, go to:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The War on Poverty +50

50 years ago today, in his first State of the Union Address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty." In poverty, Johnson recognized "a domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people." Unlike World War II, which was the model war for LBJ's generation, our more recent wars have been much more inconclusive. Such was certainly the case with the War on Poverty. In any case, here we are, 50 years later, and the big topic is - increasing inequality.

The statistics are familiar, depressingly so. In the past, the inequality and lack of mobility often associated with many "third world" countries were blamed (by both Marxists and free-marketers) on their lack of economic development, i.e., the pre-capitalist character of their economies. What, however, is one to make of inequality and lack of mobility in a country where capitalism reigns triumphant? For those on the "right," the answer seems to be even more capitalism, while those on the "left" seem finally to be rediscovering the issue.

Certainly it is refreshing to see the Left rediscover the issue of inequality. Once upon a time, social and economic justice was primarily what the Left purported to be about. In recent decades, however, liberal enthusiasm has increasingly focused on identity and lifestyle issues - issues somewhat more salient to privileged cultural elites than the concerns of those with whom such elites have less and less contact and with whom they share less and less of a common culture.

To be sure, the Rights's priority of tax cuts and other privileges for the rich, along with our diminished public commitment to education, the decline of private-sector unions, and (most telling of all) globalization and the consequent lack of opportunities to support oneself and a family through blue-collar jobs, all these are certainly serious contributors to our contemporary crisis. But so is the collapse of family and community life - thanks in large part, of course, to capitalism's "creative destruction," but thanks also to the social and cultural transformation associated with our contemporary progressive revolution in morals. The result is a society in which less than half of working class adults in their 30s and 40s are married. This growing social and cultural disconnection and dysfunction has especially impacted working class males. 

Thus, Notre Dame's Michael Jindra, writing for the Institute for Family Studies, argues: "early reliance on stimulating entertainment, lower educational attainment, disconnection from families and role models, and the attractions of different, 'edgy' subcultures - contribute to a widening gulf between those more connected to family, work, and society, and those without these commitments" ("Why Working-Class Men Are Falling Behind," IFS, January 2, 2014).

As right and left elites increasingly have less in common with the rest of society, right elites focus on libertarian policies that increase the wealth of those at the top, while left elites pursue a comparable libertarianism in the cultural and moral sphere. Both result in the weakening of the very social structures and institutions and relationships which support authentic communities.

Meanwhile the disparity increases between those at the very top of the American economic pyramid and everyone else - truly today's "domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people."

Monday, January 6, 2014

Downton Abbey - Season 4

Downton Abbey's much anticipated fourth season started its US run last night. For many of us, this was the highlight (so far) of the new year - a nice Twelfth Night present and fair compensation for the imminent end of the holiday season. PBS outdid itself last night, offering a double-episode season opener, preceded by an hour-long special on Highclere Castle, the country seat of the current Earl and Countess of Canarvon, now one of the most recognized aristocratic houses in the world thanks to its role as the film site for Downton Abbey.

The two-episode season opener can be summed up in two memorable quotes. Early on, Mr. Carson, the butler, says to Mrs. Highes: “We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.” Death dominates the house as the entire family - especially, of course, Lady Mary and her mother-in-law Isobel - still mourns the tragic death of Matthew six months earlier. As most of the world probably knows, Matthew - a distant "middle class" relative - had unexpectedly become the Earl of Grantham's heir in 1912 and had finally married the Earl's eldest daughter Mary after the war. In the final episode of season three, Earl Robert had finally acknowledged his debt to Matthew for having put Downton on a sounder financial footing. Alas, at the end of that same season finale, Matthew was killed in a car crash, just hours after the birth of his son, George, the new heir.

As usual, the new episodes contain numerous sub-plots which may become major as the season unfolds - Edith's continued relationship with Michael Gregson, Lady Rose's problematic high-spiritedness, O'Brien's abandonment of Downton and the resulting re-hiring of Edna as the Countess's new lady's maid, Thomas Barrow's perpetual scheming, etc. But the main theme is Mary's emergence from her deep mourning to take her rightful place in the management of Downton. Hence the important second quote - this one from the Dowager Countess herself, advising her granddaughter to "choose life." With some nudging from Carson and her brother-in-law Tom (who also knows something about prematurely losing a beloved spouse), Mary returns to the land of the living and seems set to resume her husband's role as her father's main challenger. (Her mother-in-law Isobel goes through a similar process, returning - through Mrs. Hughes' help - to her commitment to a life of active good works.)

Poor Lord Robert! He seems perennially to be cast as the maker of mistakes, the one with poor judgment, a well-meaning nobleman out of his depth in the actual running of the estate in the modern world! In Season 3, his mother-in-law had advised him to adapt. He does, but he always seems to be dragged into doing so by others. Perhaps that is how it usually happens!

As the documentary on Highclere Castle illustrates, great houses and the aristocratic traditions and values they embody still exist, but as pale ghosts of their former selves. Downtown Abbey gives us a very personalized insight into what it was like to go through that particular 20th-century trauma. It illustrates the positive benefits modernity has brought - primarily to individuals, liberated from the constraints of tradition to find their own way and define their own lives. But it also highlights the social costs that have accompanied the loss of those constraints..