Monday, June 30, 2014

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

It seems strange to identify the cause of morality with the interests of a profit-making corporation. That this should actually be the case as a result of the government's ideologically driven contraception mandate is itself certainly a sign of the times - of our morally confused and conflicted, topsy-turvy times. 

I have not had time to read in its entirety today's Supreme Court opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, nor in any case am I qualified to analyze it as a constitutional lawyer would. I write, rather, as an ordinary citizen, with a strong personal commitment to - and obvious investment in - religious freedom. At issue in this case was the applicability of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was, I believe, itself a response to Justice Scalia's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which held that accommodating religious beliefs was not obligatory in the case of "a neutral law of general applicability." In response, RFRA provided that "Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability." Faithful to RFRA, the Court today ruled that specifically such closely held corporations as Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood Specialities, party to the other case also decided today, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp vs. Burwell) may not be forced to violate their owners' religious beliefs by providing the contraception coverage mandated by ACA. 

The decision is limited to companies such as family-owned Hobby Lobby, which are "closely held," i.e., those defined by the IRS as having half their stock owned by 5 or fewer individuals. So this is not an expansive claim that large, impersonal corporations, e.g., General Motors, are also persons capable of religious beliefs.

Corporate involvement notwithstanding, this is certainly a laudable victory for religious freedom. That said, it remains, as I have repeatedly written here, a win in an unnecessary war. There was no need to tarnish the necessary and laudable provision of near universal access to health insurance with a demand that employers be forced to become instruments for the furtherance of a certain secularist ideology. 

It is also unfortunate that the terms of the debate have been framed almost exclusively in terms of religious liberty as a kind of opt-out from what would otherwise be generally applicable. That alone speaks volumes about where and how fast our society has moved. Providing protection for religious freedom in the form of exemptions from generally applicable laws may be a necessary self-defense for religious people in a rapidly secularizing society, but it effectively enshrines the secularist ideology as the normative one for society in general. (and, of course, it leaves un-debated the specific social policy question of the desirability of society's promotion of radical "reproductive rights.")

All of which once again points to the fundamentally flawed way in which we have gone about fixing access to health care. It was perhaps inevitable, given our polarized and dysfunctional politics, but it remains a problematic flaw nonetheless. I refer, of course, to the preservation of private insurance as the medium for providing citizens' access to health care, instead of the obvious and much more efficient alternative of a single-payer, government-run plan ("Medicare for all"). In that case, of course, the issue would never arise of compelling employers to pay for morally problematic procedures. 

Of course, a contentious political debate would likely have ensued in Congress and in the nation about whether to include contraception in taxpayer-funded health insurance (not unlike the earlier debates about the famous "Hyde Amendment" regarding abortion coverage). Instead of emphasizing justifiable exceptions to generally applicable laws, that would be a larger debate well worth having. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sarajevo and our Hundred Years of War

Some centennials are merely historical curiosities. Others deserve attention not just as history but as a window into an unresolved present. Such is this year's 100th anniversary of the start of World War I - the beginning not just of four tragically unnecessary years of European warfare but of a century of still unresolved world-wide conflict.

Sunday, June 28, 1914, was one of those liminal moments in human history, when a threshold was crossed from one state of civilization to another, the beginning of an ambiguous and disoriented century of war and genocide.

No one knew that at the time, of course. We can only expect what has already been experienced. And, after a century of relative peace since the defeat of Napoleon, the imminent unhinging of western civilization in an uncontrollable fratricidal conflict was hardly front and center in anyone's mind - certainly not on that fateful Sunday, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his morganatic wife, went to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo - to a province only recently incorporated into the Empire, much to the chagrin of Serbia and the Serbian terrorist network that would irrevocably change human history that day. When one of World War I's products, Yugoslavia, finally fell apart upon the end of the Cold War, the ensuing Bosnian war continued that seemingly age-old old conflict, highlighting even further the symbolic significance of Sarajevo at the center of the 20th-century's sad story of a world at war with itself.

We can ignore this anniversary, of course, coming as it does at the height of the summer vacation season. Or we can commemorate it nostalgically - a look back at the beautiful but doomed world of civility, protocol, and old-world European elegance. Or we can try to draw some lessons from the foolhardy way the European powers allowed a nasty Balkan quarrel to undo a century of virtual peace and centuries of Western civilization. After a century for most of which the world has been at war with itself as a direct result of that Sunday in Sarajevo, what other choice have we?

Friday, June 27, 2014

God's Merciful Heart

In his recent book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Walter Cardinal Kasper, considers the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which the Church celebrates today. "In many centuries," Kasper writes, "veneration of the sacred heart of Jesus functioned as a special expression of faith in God's love and mercy." In Jesus' heart, "we recognize that God himself has a heart (cor) for us, who are poor (miseri), in the broadest sense of the word, and that he is, therefore, merciful (misericors). In this way, the heart of Jesus is an emblem of God's love, which became incarnate in Jesus Christ."

Kasper further notes the "important fact that the modern veneration of the sacred heart of Jesus became pervasive in the context of the dawning enlightenment and secularization, and in connection with the strengthening sense of the absence - indeed, the death - of God. ... In the middle of this night of moribund faith in God and the world's increasing obtuseness and apathy toward God's love in Jesus Christ, we may experience in the heart of Jesus God's suffering because of the world and his never-ending love for us." Pope Pius XII's 1956 encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, Kasper notes, "emphasizes that, on the basis of the hypostatic union of the second divine person with humanity, the emotions and suffering of the human nature of Jesus are also the emotions and suffering of the divine person. The suffering of Jesus as a human being is, therefore, the suffering of God at the same time." What Kasper calls God's "compassionate suffering [Mitleiden]" is, in fact, an expression of God's omnipotence. "because of his sovereign love, God got himself involved, so to speak, in the incarnation and lowered himself to the status of a slave. He was not overpowered by suffering. In Jesus' death, God has not relinquished omnipotence, but rather has acted in an all-powerful way."

Especially on this annual solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Kasper's is a message well worth meditating upon on at this time when mercy - divine and human - has again moved even more overtly to the forefront of our consciousness.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Instrumentum Laboris

Today the Holy See has published the Instrumentum Laboris for the 3rd Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will meet in Rome in October on the theme "The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization." As its title suggests, the Instrumentum Laboris is a "working document," which reflects the results of last fall and winter's world-wide consultation process. While consultation with the world's bishops and others is not unusual in these situations, the very public character of the questions asked and way in which many bishops and religious superiors solicited input from their constituencies made this an extremely extensive - and hopefully fruitful - consultation process.

The 2014 synod will be an "extraordinary: one, which means participation will be limited largely to the leaders of national episcopal conferences. According to the Instrumentum Laboris, it will "throughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received fromt eh particular Churches." The 2015 synod will be an "ordinary" one, which means participation will be broader, including elected representatives from each Bishops' Conference. Its mandate will be to "reflect further on the points discussed so as to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines." so, whatever outcomes we may expect from this synodal process, there will be no attempt at some sort of "quick fix," but rather a deliberative assessment of the empirical situation and a discernment of possible pastoral applications.

The document consists of a Preface and 159 paragraphs concluding with a prayer to the Holy Family. It is divided into three parts: a report on the faithful's "knowledge and acceptance" of the Church's teachings on marriage and family, a look at "various challenges and actual situations" for families today, and the particular topics of "openness to life" and parents' responsibilities in bringing up their children.

Unless one has been living in a very particular kind of bubble, no one will be surprised to read that the teachings of the Church nowadays often meet with widespread incomprehension and non-acceptance. Reasons for this are many and various, and again anyone familiar with the trajectory of Church history for the past 50 years will find little surprising in this section. Perhaps the most intriguing observation is the "want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute. In this regard, some responses poitn to the insufficiency fo a pastoral activity which is concerned only with dispensing the sacraments without a truly engaging Christian experience" (15).

Also unsurprising is the recognition that natural law - so central to the Church's tradition on this topics - has become "highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible." As I recall, I used a similar phrase myself in my response to the questionnaire. The document recognizes the problem, but it remains unclear whether an effective solution still exists. Given their importance of natural law in the Catholic moral tradition and its unique ability to articulate universal moral principles that ought to be accessible to all regardless of religion, I think this question deserves a very high priority.

Against modern tendencies to privatize everything but the state, the document does a good job of recalling that the family is about more than its immediate members, but is - as Pope Francis has recently reminded us (EG, 66) - "the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another."

The document also does a good job, I think, in highlighting some of the contemporary challenges - including the breakdown of communication exacerbated by contemporary electronic devices and external economic pressures. I was pleased to read this rather unambiguous statement: "In dialoguing with the Sate and related public entities, The Church is called to offer real support for decent jobs, just wages and a fiscal policy favouring the family as well as programmes of assistance to families and children" (71). Likewise in the third section - on openness to life -the documents asserts that "childcare, flexible working hours, parental leave and an easiness at integrating raising a family into a work situation appear to be essential. Christians, therefore, share a responsibility in promoting legislation and structures which foster a positive approach towards birth."

So much attention in the media has been devoted to trying to anticipate what the Synod might or might not say about couple in irregular situations. The working document definitely does not try to decide anything in advance  and does a good job of elaborating the various proposals and their potential impacts. Regarding the problem of requests for marriage by non-practicing couples, the document still sees support for the theory that this may prove to be an evangelizing moment (105), while also acknowledging the reality "that some of the clergy experience a certain frustration at often witnessing a failure in their pastoral endeavours, when only a very small number of couples continue some kind of relationship with the parish after the celebration of marriage" (106). As for the newer concern about same-sex marriages, the document seems to reflect the impasse that has been reached. Thus, it notes that "the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising" do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned" (113). On the other hand, on the question of baptizing and catechizing children of such unions and similar situations, the document seems unambiguously welcoming (120, 146, 149, 152).

The document is overly long, as such documents tend to be, but the big issues do surface from the forest of details. The coming synods will certainly have their work cut out for them!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Iraq Debate in the Shadow of Vietnam

There are actually several debates going on about Iraq right now, in addition to the most obviously immediate one about what, if anything, the United States should be doing right now in terms of direct intervention. That invites a deeper debate about what is actually going on in Iraq, and what exactly the long-term interests of the United States in regard to this sectarian conflict are. That, of course, brings us full-circle back to the debate of a decade ago about the merits of the American intervention that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime and set the stage for what has happened since. That debate has been exacerbated by the recent public posturing of some associated with the 2003 decision to go to war and their sometimes strong criticisms of present policy-makers now saddled with an array of bad options - one worse than the other - as a result of that earlier decision. 

CNN's series, The Sixties couldn't have come at a better time, since it reprises - rather fairly - the way we trapped ourselves in a losing war in Vietnam. For those of my generation especially, just hearing the President use that infamous term "advisers" today is more than enough to call up a host of unhappy memories from that terrible time!

However unwise and ideologically constricted the process that got us into Vietnam, it is fair to say that American motives were for the most part honorable, at least the way most Americans understood "honorable" back in the Kennedy years. Those were, it should always be recalled, among the most intensely conflicted of the entire Cold War. It was eminently rational to interpret what was happening in Vietnam not as just another regional nationalist conflict but as yet another front in the world-wide conflict we called the Cold War. Whether that was a correct interpretation is another question. In any case, since we lost the war in the end, it proved to be a mistaken interpretation in terms of serving our long-term national interest. The Cold War was serious business. (The Soviet blockade of Berlin began 66 years ago today!) But because a policy was understood in Cold War terms and based on Cold War motivations did not guarantee its wisdom or ultimate success and did not prevent it from damaging rather than advancing the long-term interests of the United States. The same obviously applies to today's War on Terror.

But the point remains that, while Vietnam in the end damaged rather than advanced the long-term interests of the United States, it was a mistake many made intelligently and honorably. That was one reason it took so long for us as a society to conclude that the war was really a mistake - by which time we were disastrously over-invested in the conflict from which we then found it so tragically difficult to extricate ourselves.

So I am more than willing to concede intelligent error and honorable miscalculation to our 21st-century policy-makers - at the time much of the political class in both parties - who initially supported the Irag war. Endless recriminations about the process leading up to the decision to go to war and trying to establish one's moral high-ground based on how soon one changed one's mind just adds further fuel to the endless fire of political polarization - much as the endless Vietnam debate has for decades fanned the flames of an incorrigible culture war.

That said, it is important to admit the damage the war in Iraq has done - damage to Iraq itself, to the stability of the region, to America's Great Power credibility and international standing, and to our necessary role in establishing and maintaining a stable and balanced international order. In other words, whatever the original goals of the Iraq war and however honorable anyone's intentions may have been, it has turned out - like Vietnam - to be an unmitigated disaster. Recognizing that must become the first premise of any further discussion

To me it also appears increasingly clear that the post-World War I arrangement of regional middle eastern state borders is no longer sustainable. In a sense, what is happening there is a middle eastern version of what happened in Europe during and after World War II, when the the post-World War I re-drawing of Europe's borders was superseded by a drastic and murderous re-arrangement of populations. The victorious Allies' own role in the post-war ethnic cleansing (if one may use that ugly phrase) of eastern Europe, resulting in much more ethnically homogeneous successor states should also not be forgotten or minimized. Personally, I do not know whether the partition of Iraq into three states (or pseudo-states) is inevitable, or whether it would be more just and equitable than trying to keep the current artificial country going. How does anyone know? The fact is that the demons that were unleashed with the Iraq war a decade ago are now probably well beyond our capacity to control and even beyond our capacity to interpret with a sufficient probability of accuracy.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Midsummer Eve

The old Rituale Romanum provided a blessing for a bonfire on June 23, the eve of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the night known traditionally also as Midsummer Eve. Anthropologists argue about the underlying meaning of ancient solstice fire traditions. Personally I have always found somewhat perplexing this association of bonfires with the summer solstice - not brightening the night sky at the year's darkest point in winter, but instead illuminating the already bright, shortest night of summer. Anthony Aveni (The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays, Oxford, 2003) has offered one convincing explanation. "The wondrous paradox of fire is that on the one hand its warmth creates and fosters growth and fertility, but on the other hand it possesses a fierce destructive power capable of consuming all living things - not a thing to play with. Like the radiant sun at its turning point, fire has a tantalizing power worth harnessing and controlling. ... Because fire cleanses and purifies by burning up harmful influence, so we tap its forces precisely during the season the cosmic fire rages at its peak."

People have historically reacted to the solstice in different ways, and even in our de-natured society some people still experience the seasons as significant. An old friend of mine recently made this observation on her blog about the solstice ( "But what strikes me most as I reflect on this question is the Earth's immense capacity to receive the light and heat of the sun. One whole big planet with its arms wide open, just taking in all that warmth and light." It's a nice image, certainly a suggestive one well worth meditating upon as we work our way through the hottest months of the year - even as we will shortly begin to notice progressively less light as the days start to shorten and the nights start to lengthen once again according to their annual routine.

That other side of the solstice - decreasing daylight following soon after the year's longest day - invites us to a whole other level of symbolism, a symbolism especially associated with the Christianized version of Midsummer Day, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. The reason John the Baptist's birth is celebrated at the time of the summer solstice has less to do with summer than with the fact that it is exactly six months before Christmas (in keeping with the explicit chronology of Luke's infancy narrative).  Still, the occurrence of this feast at the time of the solstice inevitably invited a seasonal symbolism of its own, especially in light of John the Baptist's own famous words with regard to Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

According to Anthony Aveni again, "Assigning the summer solstice, exactly six months away in the seasonal calendar from the birth of the Savior, to fete St. John the Baptist, is another brilliant example of religious syncretism. ... With that delicate stroke, midsummer, a pause in the breath of the seasons when the sun makes its seasonal turnabout, became a festival of water as well as fire." To me, tomorrow's feast heralds the hope that the dryness of summer will soon enough yield to the autumn rains and the life-giving wetness of winter - nature's way of symbolizing the effect upon our spiritually dry and sterile world of the coming of Christ, whose mission it was initially John's - and is now that of the entire Church - to announce to the world.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Today's NY Times Magazine has a worrying article by Amy Davidson, "It's Official: The Boomerang Kids Won't Leave." At least, ! think it is worrying! But then that is the way I am - inclined to worry - a lot - about the dramatic changes that have happened in our society in my lifetime and the fate of the humane values such changes have undermined.

"Boomerang Kids," refers to the approximately 20% of people in their 20s and early 30s presently living with their parents and the some 60% who receive financial support from parents. This is, of course, a new phenomenon and reflects the impact of recession and economic instability, of declining job opportunities, and out-of-control college costs and consequent student debt. In 1968, Davidson notes, the majority of those in their 20s were independent, and the majority of them were married. "But over the past 30 years, the onset of sustainable economic independence has been steadily receding." Her question is to what extent the boomerang phenomenon is "a sign, as it once was, of failure" or whether it might represent "a practical, long-term financial move."

Obviously in any given case, either could be possible. Davidson looks at several examples that suggest the latter interpretation. But, of course, there will always be people who will make the best of a bad situation and succeed. Rather the question ought to be, I think, what social, cultural, economic, and political arrangements and expectations work best for most people, for average people, who may not necessarily have the entrepreneurial wherewithal that some do. When she suggests that the boomerang phenomenon may "represent a much larger anxiety-provoking but also potentially thrilling economic evolution," the anxiety-prone, traditionalist, egalitarian in me wonders why it might be "thrilling" and immediately wants to ask "thrilling" for whom?

Davidson notes that childhood as we know it - and, by extension, young adulthood - "is a fairly recent economic innovation." The idea that what we are seeing now is in some sense the next step in this centuries-long development certainly rings true, but it leaves open the question how desirable this development may ultimately be.

Of course, it is true that the 30-year post-World War II boom - when "work life in America was especially benign and predictable," when the "gap between rich and poor shrank to its lowest level on record, and economic growth was widely shared" - that that is gone for good. Still, it is worth recalling that economic developments are not entirely inevitable and that much of this change has been the direct consequence of a chosen political policy path. As Davidson notes, the breakdown of the post-war boom was "assisted by changes in government policy - taxes were cut, welfare programs were eliminated - that further regarded the wealthy and removed support from the poor."

Anxiety about the staggering human cost to our society of the direction we have chosen to take these past several decades has recently resurfaced as at least the beginning of a serious debate about  our increasingly separate and unequal society. that condemns the overwhelming majority to a life of economic stagnation and uncertainty - with all the human, moral, and cultural costs that inevitably accompany that.

I can appreciate the thrill these changes offer for those personally gifted and socially well situated to exploit them. But personally I am much more anxious about everyone else!

Saturday, June 21, 2014


Summer - admittedly my least favorite season in terms of temperature - officially begins today (although the past week's oppressive heat might suggest that it has already been with us for some time). Of course, however "natural" the seasons might seem, the computation of the seasons is a human artifact and hence in that sense "artificial." When I was growing up, we spoke of summer as beginning when school let out (around the last week of June) and ending with labor Day and the opening of a new school year the following week. The growing tendency to see our summertime civic holidays as seasonal markers has led to making Memorial Day (now no longer a day but a weekend) into the quasi-official beginning of the summer vacation season, with Labor Day weekend at the end, and July 4 as a kind of "midsummer" holiday.

A more traditional "midsummer" celebration is, of course, June 24 - the Nativity of John the Baptist in the Church's calendar but a traditional, pre-Christian summer solstice celebration long before Christianity. Unlike our scientific way of computing the seasons as starting with a solstice or equinox, the ancient European Celtic calendar centered the seasons around those astronomical events and so formally began the seasons at the beginning of February, May, August, and November. (Hence, the traditional Candlemas/Groundhog Day, May Day, Lamas Day, and Halloween/all Saints Day as cardinal turning points of the calendar). Obviously, if one thinks of summer as extending from May Day to Lamas Day, then the solstice certainly would be "midsummer," a time laden with traditions deriving from a time when seasonal rhythms really mattered and significantly governed people's lives. (One of the last remnants of that in the official Christian calendar was, of course, the four seasonal Ember Days, deleted sadly from the calendar  in 1969.)

In more traditional agricultural societies, summer was serious work-time (the real origin of our summer school vacation). Winter was the season when nature seemed to shut down and society imitated it in taking a bit of a break. As our work lives have largely shifted from agricultural to urban and from outdoors to indoors, summer has since become the vacation season par excellence (although it is increasingly a feature of affluence also to take other vacations as well - e.g., "winter break" and "spring break"). Still, summer certainly was that prime vacation time when I was growing up as it still is for many people. (At one time that also reflected the extreme discomfort involved in indoor work in summer's heat, a problem now alleviated by air-conditioning, which makes year-round work possible regardless of climate.)

In our workaholic culture, even our downtime is now expected to be productive in some way. So often people's vacations seem so active, so busy, that one wonders whether they might need a few days to rest up afterwards before going back to ordinary work! Of course, summer can be a good opportunity to be busy doing different things. Among my most memorable and enjoyable summers were those I spent studying in Austria (1970), in Mexico (1988), in Israel (1993), and in the UK (2005). Still there is something to be said for the old-fashioned idea of slowing down and relaxing in summer. My grad school summers in the mid-1970s were like that. We went to the library virtually every day and studied, but at a much more relaxed pace, which gave us time to enjoy each other. And a happy time it was!

In human terms, the "don't worry" theme of today's gospel reading (Matthew 6: 24-34) is a wholesome reminder of the need to recover greater balance in our lives. The stuff we obsessively keep checking for on our smartphones need not be dismissed as totally unimportant. It just needs to be re-ordered within a more humane structure of better balanced priorities. My regrets and complaints about the heat notwithstanding, summer may still serve us well in this regard.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Viva el Rey!

Spain's reigning championship team lost to Chile in World Cup competition yesterday. According to contemporary values, that may have been a greater loss to some than the loss of their 76-year old king - King Juan Carlos I - who signed the instrument of abdication last night ending a reign of almost 39 years. Unlike soccer titles, however, losing an old king usually means getting a new one - in this case the 46-year old Felipe VI.

Juan Carlos was the grandson of King Alfonso XIII, who had literally been born a king in 1886. (His father, Alfonso XII, had died a few months before, while the future king was already gestating in his mother's womb). Alfonso XIII was forced into exile in 1931, which led directly to the murderously anti-Catholic Second Republic followed in 1936 by three tragic years of bloody Civil War, followed by the long 36-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco. It was Franco who opted to restore the Bourbon monarchy. In establishing the succession, however, Franco passed over Alfonso's rightful heir, Don Juan de Bourbon, Conde de Barcelona, in favor of Don Juan's presumably more pliable son Juan Carlos, whom Franco had educated in Spain in the ways of the regime. Juan Carlos' accession upon Franco's death in 1975, however, was immediately seen as a harbinger of something new - a modern Spain, re-integrated into Europe, and moving slowly but surely toward constitutional democratic legitimacy. I remember the news coverage of the new king's accession Mass of the Holy Spirit and the presence of US Vice President Rockefeller and European leaders who were not there for Franco's funeral.

Spain has been well served by the monarchy's restoration. Much of the credit for the monarchy's success must rest with King Juan Carlos himself, with his astuteness and the gradual but determined way in which he slowly and safely led Spain from absolutism and isolation to democracy and European integration. The media's more recent focus on his personal problems and royal scandals just illustrates the post-modern tendency to forget serious history and  to focus on the ephemeral.

The media keeps referring to King Felipe's oath-taking and accession ceremonies as a "coronation" - although in fact no Spanish king has actually been crowned in centuries (not since 1479 in fact). The crown, symbol of sovereignty, was on display at Felipe's ceremony, along with the scepter, but not the crucifix that was also conspicuously on display at his father's 1975 ceremony (see photo at left). As with all symbols, that too spoke volumes. For Spain has not just become modern and democratic since Franco's death. It has also become post-modern and secular. The former transformation was widely hoped for and certainly imaginable in 1975, although the ease with which it happened under King Juan Carlos' leadership may have been something of a surprise. The latter transformation, however, would still have been unimaginable then. Only in this past quarter-century - since the end of the Cold War - has so complete an abandonment of Europe's Christian heritage become readily imaginable.

While Europe's radical dechristianization may have occurred more rapidly and thoroughly than anyone had been expecting just a few decades ago, the Spanish situation should really not seem such a surprise, given the 20th-century experience of the anti-Catholic Second Republic. It seems to be one of the lessons that should have been learned from the French Revolution that wherever the Church has exercised great political power it has put itself in peril of a comparably strong reaction. France in the 1790s and Spain in the 1930s represented particularly violent and murderous examples of such reactions. The precipitous decline of Church influence in once super-Catholic and now increasingly secular societies, such as contemporary Ireland, Poland, and Spain, while thankfully free from the violence of earlier revolutions, may yet prove to be no less thorough. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Ida is a Polish film set in Communist-ruled Poland apparently in the early 1960s. When the story starts, "Ida" is Anna, a young novice on the verge of taking her vows at a convent she has lived in since she was orphaned as a child. Prior to her professing her vows, however, she is told that she has an aunt living and directed to go to visit her. Wanda, her late mother's sister, turns out to be a Jew, which means, of course, that Anna too is a Jew. From her aunt, she learns not only her real name - Ida - but a bit of the family background. Ida and Wanda set out to find out what they can about the wartime fate of her parents and hopefully find their grave. In the process, there ensues the predictable process of mutual discovery of each other as each comes to terms with her, their family's, and their country's complicated past.

The black-and-white film, complete with omnipresent cigarette smoke, well captures the look and feel of the time - especially the run-down, dreary world of communist Poland and the run-down dreary world of those compelled to live in such a society. This is particularly highlighted by the unhappy, chain-smoking, alcoholic Wanda, who, it turns out, is a judge and was once (back in the early 50s) a fairly famous (or notorious, depending on one's politics) state prosecutor in the cause of Stalinist ideology. So, while both Wanda and Ida are forced to come to terms the tragic wartime history of their family, Wanda must also come to terms with where he communist past has led her, while Ida has to figure out what all this means for her future.

In deference, I presume, to contemporary sensibilities, Ida meets the obligatory handsome young man. Her vocational crisis (if that is what we should call it) seems at first almost as if it were postscript to the main theme. In the end, however, it pulls the story together, as Ida's last conversation with him causes her (and presumably the audience) to consider the meaning (or lack thereof) not just of an absurd communist ideology, but of ordinary, secular life. Religious life, however dreary in its own way as portrayed in the movie, makes for a serious contrast not only with communisms's sham and oppressive ideology but with the apparent purposelessness of its secular alternatives.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Trinity Sunday

You may have heard in the news how Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew have recently proposed some sort of meeting at Nicaea in 2025 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the 1st Ecumenical council of Nicaea at which the famous “318 Holy Fathers” among other things drafted what we now call the Nicene Creed.  (Actually, the Creed we recite at Mass is the product of the first two ecumenical councils – Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 – and is officially called the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed” or “Nicene Creed,” for short).

The issue at Nicaea in 325 was the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ, in response to which the Creed was composed, formally articulating the Church’s ancient faith in the Holy Trinity. The Preface of the Holy Trinity, which will be prayed at Mass today was composed sometime after that. Today’s feast of the Holy Trinity was first celebrated for certain in Belgium early in the 10th century and was finally included in the calendar for the whole Church in 1334.

According to a famous legend, Saint Patrick is said to have used a shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity when evangelizing Ireland in the 5th century. The fact that he resorted to using a shamrock illustrates the difficulty we have when talking about the Trinity. But I think the principal problem perhaps is not so much that the Trinity is a supernatural mystery, which we can never completely understand, but rather that it seems such an abstraction, more like a philosophical idea than an expression of religious experience.

And yet, as Christians, our religious lives are thoroughly permeated by our faith in the Trinity. We begin Mass and most of our prayers with the Sign of the Cross – In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Collect at Mass is addressed to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. When we recite the psalms in the Divine Office, we conclude each psalm with the Doxology – Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit – and we do the same in our private prayers with each decade of the rosary. That doxology is amplified at Mass in the great hymn of praise to the Trinity that we sing on Sundays and feast just before the Collect – the Gloria.

If we seem sometimes to take the idea of the Trinity for granted, it may be because it seems to surround us all the time.

On the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself. Who God is in himself is how God acts toward us. In terms of our religious experience, it is how God acts that reveals who God is.

Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as he did to Moses in today’s 1st reading, as one whose nature is revealed in how he acts toward us: a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity. It was to such a God that Moses prayed – as we all pray – do come along in our company … and receive us as your own.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who, as the visible image of the invisible God, came down from heaven, so that the world might be saved through him. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Father and the Son, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church.

So it is no merely theoretical abstraction that God's grace is given to us from the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. As the famous 4th-century Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, wrote in one of his letters: When we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit himself. 

Hence, the Church faithfully follows St. Paul in praying: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 15, 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reading: the Struggle

Reading: the Struggle is the interesting title of a recent piece by Tim Parks on the New York Review of Books Blog. The "struggle" he refers to "is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial piece of fiction." I think we all know and have experienced what he is referring to in our contemporary era of constant email and text messaging, all the websites that are constantly updating us, etc - all made so easily (and temptingly) available to us literally everywhere, all the time now on our smartphones and other such devices.

Parks harks back to a time - not at all that long ago chronologically but already another world culturally - when reading was an activity that could be used to fill in long periods of otherwise unoccupied time. But now, he notes, "every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for." His premise is that interactive communications will always take precedence. "the mind, or at least my mind," he argues, "is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others."

But this is not just another lament about the way things are today as opposed to the way they were yesterday. He is actually concerned about what the shape of future fiction will look like. (He does not directly address non-fiction writing, but it too is affected by the same trends. Recently, I read a wonderful new biography of John Quincy Adams, but I would periodically get frustrated with the length of the chapters!)

His prediction of how future fiction will adapt to our technology-induced, increasingly ADD culture is simple: "The novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering frequent pauses where we can take time out."

Without frequent time-outs, we would have no alternative but to check our messages while reading - something my guess is that most of us have probably already done more times than we care to admit!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pew Research on Political Polarization

A new Pew Research study has addressed the increasing political polarization in the American public and its effects on politics and everyday life. While the precise percentages may be big news, I think the general contours of what is reported have been increasingly evident for some time.

The largest political survey in the Pew Research Center's history, this study polled more than 10,000 people in the first three months of this year. Its most dramatic finding, I suppose, is that the portion of the population expressing consistently conservative or liberal opinions has actually doubled since 1994. It was 10% of the population in 1994, and is 21 % now. Moreover,ideology and party are now more closely aligned than in the past, with the result that ideological overlap between the political parties has been radically reduced. Thus, the "typical" Republican is now to the right of 94% of Democrats (as opposed to 70% in 1994), while the "typical" Democrat is now more liberal than 92% of Republicans (as opposed to 64% just 20 years ago). A corollary is that only 39% of Americans currently have an approximately equal number of conservative and liberal positions, down from 49% in 1994. The study notes that these centrists are not necessarily "moderate." They may have strong opinions - whether conservative or liberal - on particular issues, but are not ideologically consistent the way partisan Republicans and Democrats now are.

Even more ominously, partisan animosity has risen significantly over the past 20 years. The percentage of Republicans with very negative opinions of Democrats has grown from 17% to 43%, while Democrats with comparably negative opinions of Republicans have gone from 16% to 38%. Many now believe that the opposite party's policies "are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being."

The report confirms what has been alleged anecdotally for some time now, that extreme partisans increasingly have close friends with similar views. Specifically 63% of ideological conservatives and 49% of ideological liberals say that most of their friends share their political views.The report refers to "ideological silos" - a truly evocative term. Apparently, we are witnessing the consequence - one of the consequences - of the breakdown of the old common culture represented, for example, by the evening news on the three networks and its replacement by niche-market cable channels and talk radio. Increasingly people can and do insulate themselves from ever having to hear anything they might disagree with!

It has often been alleged that conservatives tend to prefer to live in rural areas and liberals in urban areas. The report further confirms this. Some 75% of ideological conservatives would prefer to live where "the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away," while 77% of ideological liberals wold prefer smaller houses in closer communities.

Finally, while there are still more people in the political center, it is - unsurprisingly - the case that it is the more intensely ideological who participate more in politics (including political donations).

Is it any wonder we are in the state we are in this country?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Happy Holler

Some mornings I'm just in too much of a rush to read the local paper. Today, however, I took my time with breakfast and was rewarded with the news that our local "Happy Holler Commercial District" has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places! The nomination was pre-approved by the Tennessee Historical Commission and then submitted to the U.S. National Park Service , which accepted it on April 23.

"Happy Holler," the intersection where North Central Street dips as it crosses East Anderson Avenue, a block north of beautiful Holy Ghost Church, has given its name to the surrounding commercial district on North Central Street, several blocks north of where Central intersects Broadway. It is a section I drive through almost daily during my short commute between our Old North Knoxville residence and Immaculate Conception Church and more rarely walk through on those occasions when I walk around  the neighborhood as far as the Three Rivers Market or Holy Ghost Church. Driving, of course, is no way to get to know a neighborhood - and is in fact the historic undoing of most authentic neighborhoods. The way to get to know and appreciate a neighborhood is necessarily on foot - in this case walking south/southwest along the residential streets of Old North Knoxville towards the more commercial Central Street. What is appealing about the area is how it is a throwback to an earlier era, when small commercial areas coexisted within residential neighborhoods, all within walking distance. Indeed, according to a historic preservation planner at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Happy Holler is "the most intact, early 20th century shopping and service district, except downtown."

In our depressingly suburbanized era, any remnants, however modest, of an earlier, more humane scale of living deserve to be cherished, and the National Register of Historic Places seems to be one avenue for doing that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


This afternoon, I saw Belle, a British film inspired apparently by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, that had been commissioned by their uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, at that time Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. The historic Dido Belle was the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, an officer in the Royal Navy officer, who was brought to England by her father and there left in Lord and Lady Mansfield’s care at their country estate of Kenwood House. The film depicts her upbringing as an aristocratic member of the family, virtually a sister to her legitimately-born cousin, and her eventual relationship with an aspiring law student, John Davinier, the son of a mere vicar, with strong views on the infamous “Zong” case, which was before Lord Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson) at the time. The film poignantly portrays the cruel economics of aristocratic marriage.  Belle’s legitimately born cousin has no inheritance and must somehow find herself a suitable match, while Belle has a handsome inheritance which actually secures her an offer of marriage from a the younger brother of the man who did not pursue a proposal with Belle’s cousin once he learned she had no money. (Since Belle’s prospects are, of course, complicated by her illegitimacy and being of mixed-race, hanging over her is always the danger of ending up a spinster, like her aunt, Lady Mary, played by Penelope Wilton.) Belle forms a friendship with Davinier and assists him in his polemics on the Zong case. Lord Mansfield’s ruling at the end of the film reflects the impact of his relationship with Belle in his interpretation of the law. His famous ruling has historically been seen as an important step toward Britain’s abolition of slavery.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


There is a particularly beautiful contemporary Easter hymn that we used to sing a lot at Saint Paul the Apostle in New York and that was prominently featured at the Installation Mass for the new President of the Paulist Fathers that we celebrated there two weeks ago. Its title In the Breaking of the Bread comes from the story of the Risen Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, which was the Gospel reading this year on the 3rd Sunday of Easter. The first two verses retell that story and what followed. The third verse brings us up to after the Ascension, to the story we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles about Pentecost:

But then we became afraid without him,
In the darkened room we stayed without him,
Waiting for the One he said that he would send.
Then the Spirit of the Lord came down upon us,
Filling us, changing us, giving us the strength to say,
We saw him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened,
And we knew he was alive!

A full seven weeks have now passed since Easter, since we first celebrated the Lord’s resurrection. The original Easter season that hymn sings about was a time of transition, in which the focus gradually shifted from what Jesus had done to what the disciples were going to do. It takes time to get people properly prepared for a major undertaking. So the Risen Lord took time to prepare his disciples for the task ahead, eventually empowering them with the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus’ life and work and take Jesus' story out into the world. That transition culminated on Pentecost, the story of which we just heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

And so the hymn continues:

We ran out into the street to tell them,
Everyone that we could meet, to tell them,
“God has raised him up and we have seen the Lord!”
We took bread as he had done and then we
Blessed it, broke it, offered it. In the breaking of the bread,
We saw him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened,
And we knew he was alive!

As I wrote in today’s Bulletin, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time – the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of the resurrection takes effect in ordinary life. Just as the new life promised by spring continues into summer, the new life promised by the Risen Christ continues in our world in his Church. At Pentecost we experience annually what we experience weekly - every week - with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread, which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, to renew the face of the earth as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the ordinary bread of our daily lives in the world.

In that sense, Easter doesn’t end at Pentecost, anymore than Mass ends with the Dismissal. We do indeed depart, but we do so changed and energized – sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.

And so the hymn concludes:

In the breaking of the bread,
He is here with us again.
And we know he is alive!

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 8, 2014.

The hymn quoted is In the Breaking of the Bread by Michael Ward (WLP).  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

D Day + 70

One of my most cherished family heirlooms hangs on the wall of my sitting room in the Paulist Residence in Knoxville. It is a map made by my father and embellished with various military insignia, tracing his service in his artillery unit on the ground in Europe from D+2 (June 8, 1944), when he first landed in France, two days after D Day, until V-E Day 11 months later. His service included Paris in the immediate aftermath of its liberation in August 1944 and the infamous Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

The successful Allied invasion and conquest of German-occupied Western Europe was a long, hard effort that began 70 years ago tomorrow with the memorable D-Day landing in Normandy. As the World War II generation - now famously known as "the Greatest Generation" - passes from this world, the world owes it to them (and to itself) to remember, reflect, and resolve.

The remember part is obvious - and easy, although maybe more of a challenge today in a world in which an appreciation and knowledge of history and its lessons is increasingly absent. Commemorative celebrations in Normandy and elsewhere remind rightly remind us of the heroic sacrifices made in that epic conflict of civilization and of the admirable leadership provided by an even older generation long since gone - leaders like General Eisenhower whose administrative and diplomatic skills facilitated such a complex international undertaking, along with such figures of such rarely paralleled eminence as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

The reflection part should also be obvious, although our ability to reflect is increasingly diminished by our impoverished sense of history and increasing ignorance of what World War II was even about. World War I, the centennial of which we will mark this summer, was a largely unnecessary war, which tragically continued for four long years because hardly anyone seemed capable of saying "stop" to its absurdity. When it finally did end, it resulted in a wholesale disruption of the European political order and thus created the world which made World War II possible, probable, and perhaps inevitable. World War II, in turn, represented a monumental assault of the very fabric of Western civilization. It too created a new world order in its wake - better by far than the legacy of World War I but also problematic in new ways (among them most prominently the Cold War). Intelligent and honest reflection on the many mistakes that paved the way to World War II as well as on some of its unintended and surprising consequences remains critical to understanding our currently disordered world.

And in this presently disordered world, it is the resolve part that must concern us most. What kind of resolve would be required of present and future leaders to respond to world disorder with the fortitude and foresight of the generation of leaders that led the Allies to victory in World War II? Equally to the point, what kind of resolve and what radical conversion of contemporary values would be required to become again the kind of society that could prosecute and win a war like World War II?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Between Ascension and the End

One of the things I like a lot about the Easter season is the story we hear day after day in the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the Church's spectacular growth and expansion from Jerusalem to Judea to Samara and on out into the Gentile pagan world, taking us eventually to the very heart of that world, Rome. But, at the same time, Acts is also a very human story - and to me a very touching story - of the presence and action of the Risen Lord in the day-to-day lives of his people. It's a story of  how to live, here and now, in this interval between Ascension and the end. And as such it's a story of the kinds of human relationships and friendships that make life work for people in this world in this interval between Ascension and the end.

Being a somewhat sentimental sort myself, I've always found good-byes very difficult - whether I am the one departing the scene or, more likely, it's someone I cherish who is moving on with his or her life. So I have always been very taken with this scene when Paul says farewell to the members of the Church at Ephesus [Acts 20:17-27]. We hear only the first part of it today. The story continues tomorrow [Acts 20:28-38] with Paul kneeling in prayer and everybody weeping loudly - after which they all then dutifully get up and escort Paul to his ship.

Paul's story was one of heroic exertion and seemingly endless travel, but it was also one of community-building and of deep personal friendships, of needing other people and being needed by them in turn. Of course, we all need people in instrumental ways. As a pastor, I'd be a total failure if I didn't have others around whom I can rely on to do the kinds of things that need to be done that I don't have the skills to do. But Paul's friendships went way beyond the purely instrumental, as the emotion expressed in this story makes obvious.

We know that the Risen Lord has promised to remain with his Church forever, and we are inspired and motivated by that promise. But, in this interval between Ascension and the end, he has left us one another. In this interval between Ascension and the end, we have each other to know and to love and to be known and loved by.

Homily at Mass during the Paulist Ordinary General Assembly, Saint Paul's College, Washington, D.C, June 3, 2014.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Some of us here are certainly old enough to remember the wonderful former custom of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. Even more dramatically, in certain places in earlier centuries, either the candle itself or a statue of the Risen Christ would be hoisted up to the church’s ceiling until it disappeared though an opening of the roof, often to be replaced by a shower of roses as a sign of Christ’s parting promise to give the Holy Spirit to the Church. The point of such rituals, of course, was not to highlight Christ’s absence. As the Church prays in the Preface of today’s Mass: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the Risen Lord’s periodic appearances to his disciples in the period after his resurrection. The Risen Jesus no longer walks earth the way he did before he died and rose. Rather, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading, he appeared a number of times to his disciples during a period of 40 days, speaking about the kingdom of God.

So if he doesn’t walk the earth as he did before, where exactly is he? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we say every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father. As the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The footprint may be a bit fanciful, but it does make the point that it was Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now with God. As Saint Augustine famously said: “although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend … on account of our oneness with him” [Sermon 263].

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. Meanwhile - in this interval between Ascension and the end – though he is absent, he has nonetheless promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age [Matthew 28:20]. Of course – in this interval between Ascension and the end, a time of economic, social, and political problems, both domestic and foreign, and of crises in the Church, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries – we too may be tempted to doubt, just like the apostles in the Gospel. So, for us, celebrating the Ascension really becomes about Jesus’ parting promise, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age, and his important instruction to his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father.

As you know, I have been in Washington, DC, this past week serving as a delegate to our Paulist General Assembly. (In fact, I’ll be flying back there this afternoon for the second week of our Assembly.) As we as a religious community in the Church evaluate our present and try to prepare for our future, we are very conscious of our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, who wrote, late in his life, of his “faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things.” He claimed to have lived his entire life under the Holy Spirit’s “influence and promptings.” He acknowledged that the Holy Spirit’s action is not necessarily always “clearly seen or known,” but he was confident that his “every step” had been directed by the Holy Spirit. “The whole aim of the science of Christian perfection,” Hecker wrote, is to instruct us “how to remove the hindrances in the way of the action of the Holy Spirit.”

Yesterday morning at the Cathedral we celebrated the ordination fo four new priests for the Diocese of Knoxville. Then, last evening, we celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation for about  dozen young people. These are very special moment sin people's lives, moments when the presence and action of the Holy Spirit are very specifically invoked and highlighted. But our ascended Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit to continue his life and work in our world is not confined to just such special times and occasions. As individual disciples and as a parish community, we too are being invited – in this interval time between Ascension and the end – to recognize and respond to the Holy Spirit’s action in each of our lives and in our life together as God’s People in the world.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Immaculate Conception Church Knoxville, TN, June 1, 2014