Sunday, August 31, 2014

Spiritual Worship

For much of the summer, we have been making our way, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, the longest and historically most influential of his letters. Having begun by denouncing the sins and vices of pagan society, Paul now [Romans 12:1-2] invites us to behave differently.  Well, I suppose that’s where we would naturally expect him to go. But we may be surprised by how he introduces the topic: I urge you, by the mercies of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

So far, Paul has been stressing mainly what God has done for us. Thanks to God’s mercy, we can now be different people from who we would otherwise have been, living differently from how we would otherwise have lived. And so our bodies – in other words, who we actually are in the lived reality of our day-to-day lives – should serve as our sacrifice to God. Often, when we hear religious words like sacrifice and worship, we imagine some special place and time apart from the ordinary activities of life – an hour spent in church on Sunday morning, for example. But Paul’s invitation to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, our spiritual worship suggests that my entire life needs to be understood in those terms - as a life lived entirely as an act of worship.

That may be an especially apt reminder this weekend when we celebrate the significance of human labor. Our work is, after all, where most of our daily life is lived, where we make moral choices and develop human social relationships that directly define the persons we become and wider world in which we live and move as parts of an inter-related and inter-dependent society.

Of course, religion was everywhere in the pagan world, which Paul knew and which the Christians Paul was writing to had themselves been a part of. Paul spoke so harshly about that society and its religious assumptions because he wanted his hearers to understand just how different was the way of life Paul was proposing to them. Just watch some episodes of the HBO-TV series Rome that first aired a decade ago to get some sense of the culture clash the coming of Christianity must have created in Rome!

In contrast to all the negative models he saw all around, Paul pointed out as the alternative something completely new and different – Jesus Christ himself, whose death on the cross revealed a life lived as the most perfect worship of God his Father.

That this alternative was really new and really different is evident in today’s Gospel [Matthew 16:21-27], in Peter’s negative reaction to Jesus’ initial prediction of his passion and death. Peter's reaction really ought not to surprise us. If the path to be followed conformed to common expectations, Paul would not have presented it as such a contrast to what he saw around him, nor would Peter have objected, nor would Jesus have rebuked Peter so sternly. In Peter’s resistance, Jesus could hear the echo of Satan’s temptation in the desert – the perennial challenge (not just to Jesus but to all of us) not to be let ourselves be changed and certainly not to change the world.

Our own society has developed in a very different direction from ancient Rome. Among other things, our modern world is less social, more self-centered, more focused on feelings.  And also  (after 2000 years) the Christian alternative Paul proposes no longer seems so new. Paul challenges us today – as he challenged his contemporaries - not to conform ourselves to this age. But, unlike his Roman converts who were discovering a new and different way of life, our challenge becomes to rediscover how to let our lives be changed by faith - not being defined and directed by the world’s agenda but instead changing that world by our faith.

So, despite Peter’s discomfort, it is no accident that the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. Jesus’ death was not, after all, just some back luck that happened to him one day. It was the direct – and predictable – consequence of a life lived in total obedience to his Father. Such is the life that Jesus commands us in turn to take up and follow him.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 31, 2014.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Martyrs Old and New

Today the Church commemorates the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Today's liturgy treats John the Baptist as a martyr - even though he obviously was killed before Saint Stephen, who has the honor of being titled the first Martyr, even though he died before Jesus himself did, and he died not because of either his explicit faith in Christ or Herod's hatred of Christ. According to the Collect, "he died a Martyr for truth and justice." How did that make him a martyr in the precise sense the Church usually intends when it uses that title? As the Venerable Bede (672-735) eventually explained it: "His persecutors demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. ... Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ." 

In the modern Church's official canonization process, the governing standard for martyrdom has been a voluntarily accepted death for the sake on account of the faith or another virtue related to God (propter fidem vel alium virtutis actum in Deum relatum). The 20th century witnessed many martyrs - more, perhaps, than in all previous centuries. Three fairly famous 20th-century martyrs - Maria Goretti, Maximilian Kolbe, and Edith Stein - crowned their lives of saintly witness of Christ with a martyr's death under somewhat unique circumstances that also seemed to stretch the traditional understanding of martyrdom. Of Maria Goretti, whom Pope Pius XII called a "martyr of chastity," Kenneth Woodward wrote that "she is also an important figure in the history of making saints. Technically she did not die for her faith. Rather she died in defense of Christian virtue - a significant though by now routine expansion of the grounds on which a candidate can be declared a martyr." (Making Saints: How the Catholic church Determines Who becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why, 1990, p.123.) Woodward also acknowledges, however, that this "door has been there for a very long time, waiting to be opened" (p. 150), and he cites Saint Thomas Aquinas (apparently Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q. 124, article 5, reply to objection 3), "Human good can become divine good if it is referred to God; therefore, any human good can be a cause if martyrdom, in so far as it is referred to God.

After the "martyr of chastity" came the "martyr of charity," Saint Maximilian Kolbe. His story is familiar enough to need no repetition here. What is intriguing about his case is that, after beatifying Kolbe in 1971, Pope Paul Vi did refer to him in an address to a visiting Polish delegation as a "martyr of charity," but he did not actually beatify him as a martyr. That change occurred 11 years later at Kolbe's canonization by Pope Saint John Paul II. On that occasion the Pope declared," in virtue of my apostolic authority I have decreed that Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who after his beatification was venerated as a confessor, shall henceforth be venerated also as a martyr." By doing so, Woodward suggests, John Paul II further opened "the possibility of bestowing the title of martyr on a wider range of candidates" (p. 147).

The Edith Stein case was perhaps the most complicated, since it concerned the Holocaust and the reasonable suggestion that, regardless of her Catholic faith, she died essentially because of her Jewishness. Despite some significant Jewish opposition, she was indeed beatified as a martyr by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1987.

The election of a Pope from latin America has revived hopes in certain quarters for the canonization of Oscar Romero, regarded by many as a martyr since his assassination in 1980. Personally, I have always found convincing the argument that his was a political assassination, motivated less by hatred of Christ, the Church, or the Catholic faith than by hatred of a political ideology correctly or incorrectly associated with Romero in the minds of his assassins. But history also shows how hard it can be to separate out religion and politics in any decisive way. (Think of Saint Thomas Becket!) So perhaps Romero's case may advance and with it further ground broken in the applicability of the concept of martyrdom.

All of which brings us to James Foley, the Catholic journalist who was murdered last week by Muslim terrorists on behalf of the so-called "Islamic State" (known variously as ISIS or ISIL or just IS). Some (including it is claimed even the Pope in a private conversation) have informally referred to his as a martyr. Based on what we already know about his life and his spirituality, certainly a plausible argument could be made in his case for heroic sanctity. Martyrdom is another story. But it will be interesting to see how this discussion develops and where it leads.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the Feast of Saint Augustine

Adest dies célebris, quo solútus nexu carnis sanctus praesul Augustínus, assumptus est cum Angelis, ubi gaudet cum Prophétis, laetátur cum Apóstolis; quorum plenus spíritu, quae prædixérunt mýstica, fecit nobis pervia; post quos secunda dispensandi verbi Dei primus refulsit gratia.(“The celebrated day has come, on which the holy bishop Augustine, released from the bond of the flesh, was taken up with the Angels; where he rejoices with the Prophets, is made glad with the Apostles; full of their spirit, he made clear to us what they mystically foretold; after them he shone forth as first in the grace that came after, to dispense the word of God.” Magnificat Antiphon at First Vespers, from the Augustinian Order’s proper Office for the feast of St Augustine.)

I have long been especially fond of the modern Roman Missal's Preface I of the Saints - in particular because of the sentence in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts, words taken directly from the writing (De gratia et libero arbitrio, VI, 15) of the most influential of the Western Church Fathers, Saint Augustine (354-430), whose festival the Church joyfully celebrates today. Rightly recognized as Doctor gratia, "the Doctor of Grace," for his anti-Pelagian theology concerning the absolute gratuity of divine grace, Augustine nonetheless energetically insisted on the reality of that grace, of the transformation grace effects in its recipients. And that, it seems to me, opens up all sorts of possibilities for human action to facilitate something authentically new in the world.

There is, of course, so much to admire and assimilate in the teaching of Saint Augustine. Consider, for example, his expansive treatment of friendship - an important theme in ancient thought, which seems to have become somewhat less prominent in contemporary reflections about human relationships. 

Necessities in this world amount to these two things: well-being and a friend. these are the things which we should value highly and not despise. well-being and a friend are goods of nature. God made man to be and to live; that's well-being; but so that he shouldn't be alone, a system of friendship was worked out. So friendship begins with married partner and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But if we consider that we all have one father and one mother, who will be a stranger? Ever human being is neighbor to every other human being. Ask nature; is he unknown? He's human. Is she an enemy? She's human? Is he a foe? He's human. Is she a friend? Let her stay a friend. Is he an enemy? Let him become a friend. (Sermon 299D, 1, tr. Edmund Hill, Saint Augustine, Essential Sermons, ed. Boniface Ramsey, 2007).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Calvary: The Movie

The excellent Irish film Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson (who played "Mad Eye" Alastor Moody in the Harry Potter movies) as Father James, a conscientious priest in a rural, Irish, seaside village. The film begins in the confessional where Father James is with death. The threat comes from someone he's fairly sure he knows, a parishioner who wants to strike out against the Church by  killing someone he considers a good priest. "I'm going to kill you because you've done nothing wrong,." his assailant tells him. The film then follows Father James in his black cassock as he struggles to carry out his parochial ministry day-by-day through his final week - from the confessional to his "calvary." 

 In the course of that week, we learn that he had been married and widowed before becoming a priest and has an unhappy adult daughter living in London, who comes to visit him. We also infer that he had once had a drinking problem. On top of all those personal tensions and his apparent loneliness (alleviated somewhat by his dog), he now has to struggle with the extreme tension frought on by the threat and the proximity of death.

Meanwhile, neither his curate nor his bishop appear particularly helpful. That might not matter so much if his ministry were not so frustrating. But, apart from the foreign widow of an accident victim he anoints in the hospital, virtually everyone he interacts with in the village displays some degree of indifference or contempt toward the Church. For the most part, they are not very nice people, and even his daughter at one point sympathizes with what he has to put up with from them. (Of course, she is ignorant of his internal suffering as his weekend rendezvous with his killer comes ever closer.) The bleakness of his situation is effectively evident in the beautiful but hauntingly bleak landscape of that particular corner of Ireland, but even more so in the daily frustration of his indifferent and hostile flock. The various vignettes of his interactions capture quite well the dilemma of being a public person of the Church in a world from which the Church (and the faith it professes) seem to be in rapid retreat. 

Things come to a head one evening when his church burns down (the fire having presumably been set by his killer). The indifference of his flock to the destruction of their church seems a not very subtle expression of their indifference to the Church and the faith they are in the process of abandoning. Then someone slits his dog's throat. He starts to lose it, gets drunk, shoots up the local pub, and then starts to leave town. But an encounter at the airport with the foreign widow and the sight of her husband's coffin call him back home to face his killer. In a final phone conversation with his daughter, he focuses on forgiveness..

In the final scene, his daughter visits his killer in prison. We don't hear what is said, but presumably this is meant to suggest forgiveness. It is the one glimmer of hope in an otherwise beleaguered, post Chrstian landscape.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Apocalypse Eve

With just one more episode left of The Leftovers, Sunday night's pre-finale stepped back from the psychotic darkness increasingly evident in recent episodes (especially the previous one), stepping back in time to the eve of the "Departure," giving us a glimpse of what life was like in Mapleton before everything changed. Watching it, I couldn't help but think of what a show about ordinary people in Manhattan on September 10, 2001, and the early morning of September 11 would look like. Having been there then myself, of course I know the answer, but that is the point. Seeing a character's past with eyes that have seen what happens next makes all the difference. That's the effect The Leftovers seems to be aspiring to in this episode set on October 13 (and the morning of October 14) three years earlier.

Maybe it was in part just relief from the psychotic behavior on display the previous week, but it was really a relief to experience this episode, where everything seems more colorful, more harmonious, more normal, more - dare one say it? - happy. Of course, we know what lies in store. so there is a looming sense of sadness and dread. But it is nice to see what the folks in Mapleton used to be like. We have already seen some scenes from the actual moment of the departure (and those scenes - the disappearing baby in the car, Mary Jameson's accident - are alluded to again), but this is the first episode really to take us back to what it was like before. It's nice to see "the Garveys at their Best" (as the episode is called). It's nice finally to get filled in on some background information that begins to clarify why different people reacted in such surprisingly different ways to what happened on that infamous October 14.

My only disappointment with this otherwise wonderful episode begins as soon as the (at that point still just a candidate) forever, foul-mouthed Mayor Lucy opens her mouth (while conducting a job interview, no less!) after which the routine repetition of obscenities on the part of almost everyone also resumes. For the writers to have resisted that temptation might have made a nice contrast with the post-Departure vocabulary of Mapleton's citizens! I suppose it might be asking too much to expect HBO to do Downton Abbey. but could it try at least to have people talk like normal people with some modicum of civility - as ordinary people do in fact typically talk?

In this episode, we learn among other things that Laurie is a therapist - well paid enough, presumably, for the family to live in a much more beautiful home than one might otherwise expect an ordinary cop's family to live in. More interestingly, one of her patients is none other than Patti - the future GR leader, who expresses anxiety that something is about to happen. And Gladys, the GR martyr, turns out to be a dog breeder. 

We know already that the Garveys and the Dursts did not know each other before, but the Garveys do seem to know almost everyone else. Garvey, Sr., is still the successful and much admired police chief, so much so that Rev. Matt has nominated him for Mapleton's "Man of the Year." So a central event in the episode is a party at the Garveys' house for Garvey, Sr., at which much of their circle of friends is present. The joy of the guests is meant to serve as a stark contrast to their lives ever since the following day.

But there are already dark clouds. Jill and Tom seem normal and happy, but Tom is preoccupied with contacting his natural father, which provokes Kevin's first display of disproportionate rage (at Tom's father). We already know something about the Durst family's problems. So we are not surprised by signs of Laura's unhappiness or that her husband seems to be a bit of a jerk. But it is Kevin who is already definitely in distress - as he clarifies in a talk with his father.  Despite the fact that he seems to have it all, he for some reason wants something more - leading to his adultery with a stranger he meets, thanks to her car's encounter with a deer. (The deer's inexplicable invasions of people's homes and other buildings is presumably a foreshadowing of the imminent tragedy.)

When we finally get to the moment of "Departure," we are ready. We have been waiting for it. Laurie (who, we have been led to suspect, may be ill) is actually secretly pregnant and is having a sonogram, during which we get to see her baby and hear its heartbeat. It is during this precious moment that in some motel somewhere in town Kevin is committing his adultery. (We don't know for sure if this is a one-time thing, or if he's done this sort of thing before with other women.) In the course of the sonogram, we suddenly hear a scream from some other room. And right away we know what has happened! At school, Tom and Jill see one of Jill's schoolmates disappear. Laura, already seeking some temporary escape from her husband and children, suddenly turns around to see her entire family gone for ever. So now will never have a chance to erase her remorse for that final anger. Kevin's impulsive sex is suddenly interrupted by his partner's disappearance during the very act. And the episode ends as Laurie looks in horror at her sonogram, where (presumably) her baby has completely disappeared.

In a more conventional world than that of contemporary artistic fashion, this would, of course, have been the actual first episode. Then we would all better understand what has actually happened to these people - internally as well as externally - and so would be better prepared for the various bizarre ways in which they behave afterwards. In some ways, it makes them at the same time both more and less sympathetic. We identify with the normality that has been snatched from them. But we also wish that they had made better use of those final 24 hours of normalcy to start fixing things they will never get another chance to fix!

Does that mean Laurie should have listened to Patti and taken her seriously before, rather than after?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"By Grace, a Religious"

In 1858, the Redemptorist Victor Augustin Isidore Deschamps (1810-1883), the future Cardinal-Primate of Belgium,  wrote “By God’s grace, [I am] a Christian; by God’s grace, a priest; by a greater grace, a religious. Is that not enough? … May we render a good account of these dignities.” (Cf. Joseph McSorley, Isaac Hecker and His Friends, rev. ed. 1972, p. 82).

I began my life as a religious on this date in 1981 when I entered the Paulist Novitiate, then at Mount Paul, Oak Ridge, NJ – some 1100 acres of rocks and trees (wonderful woods for deer-hunters) surrounding a small lake and a plain, school-like structure originally built to house about 30 novices. We were a class of just eight. Together with three priests – the Novice Master, his Assistant, and a retired Paulist missionary – we were a cozy community of 11, living in the chilly charm of northern New Jersey, not far from the Delaware Water Gap.(Out of my class of eight, three of us are priests, but I am the only one still an active Paulist.)

In November, the Church will begin a special “Year of Consecrated Life,” an opportunity for the Church as a whole and for religious communities in particular to reflect on the distinctive role of religious men and women in the Church. In an interview published earlier this year in La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis remarked, “evangelical radicalness is not only for religious: it is demanded of all. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women able to wake the world up.” 

Reflecting of the life and mission of religious communities in the Church in the light of Pope Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the Roman Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has challenged religious men and women to “become splendid witnesses, effective proclaimers, companions and neighbors for the women and men with whom they share a common history and who want to find their Father’s house in the Church” (A Letter to Consecrated Men and Women, February 2, 2014).

Late in his life, reflecting back on the new community he had founded, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, observed: “A new religious order is the expression or evidence of an uncommon or special grace given to a certain number of souls in order to sanctify themselves by the practice of certain virtues to meet the special needs of their epoch and in this way to renew the life of the members of the Church and extend her fold. It is this or it is nothing at all; has no reason for its existence.”           

Saturday, August 23, 2014

An Interesting Lawsuit

Earlier this week the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City filed a lawsuit against the group that has rented the city's Civic Center City Theater to perform a "Black Mass" on September 21. The object of the suit was to retrieve the consecrated Host, which the event's organizers purported to have for use in their sacrilegious event. "Our contention is that they are in possession of stolen property," argued the Archbishop. "They cannot complete their satanic ritual without a consecrated host, and they have no means of acquiring one except through theft."

This legal tactic seems to have worked. The Host was soon turned over to a representative of the Archdiocese, along with a signed statement that the group no longer possesses a Host and will not use one in its ritual. "We stared down the devil and he blinked," commented an archdiocesan attorney. "We had no doubt the Court would respect our argument - rooted in both Canon and civil law - which maintains that all Consecrated Hosts belong to the Church. ... Any time anyone tries to desecrate this blessed property, we will be there to stop them."

Thanks be to God, that this one sacred Host has been saved from profanation in Oklahoma! But the implications of this suit certainly extend beyond this one case - as the lawyer's final sentence quoted above intriguingly suggests.

The satanic group in question claims to have gotten the Host from a priest, who actually consecrated it for that purpose! A more likely occurrence, however, in more ordinary circumstances is the misuse (whether sacrilegiously intended or not) of a host that someone has received in the ordinary course of the distribution of Holy Communion. A perennial concern for priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion has to be to make sure that everyone who receives a sacred Host at Communion time actually consumes it - then and there. It has not been unheard of for someone, who obviously should not be going up for Communion, to receive a Host and to walk off with it, apparently not knowing what to do with it. And there have also been other stories of people taking a Host home with them without proper authorization. (I have always assumed that this is the principal reason why, when distributing Holy Communion at papal Mass in Saint Peter's, where the congregation consists of all kinds of curious tourists as well as devout pilgrims, we were given strict instructions to administer the sacrament only on the tongue and not in the hand.)

Problematic as all such episodes are, obviously the worst one is when a Host is taken for the purpose of deliberate desecration. In its internal law, of course, canon 1367 penalizes anyone who intentionally takes a Host to throw it away or use it for sacrilegious purposes. But that is only the Church's internal law - not evidently enforceable externally. But the legal, "property rights" argument offered in the Oklahoma City case offers promising possibilities for protecting the Host through the mechanism of civil law against anyone attempting to take a Host to keep or use for any purpose other than the one purpose for which it is intended. It will be interesting to see if and when and in what context this argument is utilized again.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ave Regina Caelorum

"And thus, after having taken mature and deliberate counsel, and being persuaded that great advantage would accrue to the Church if, as a most radiant light upon a candlestick, this soundly proved truth might more clearly shine upon all, We, by our Apostolic power, decree and institute the Feast of Mary the Queen, which is to be celebrated every year throughout the world on the thirty-first day of May." (Pius XII, encyclical letter Ad Coeli Reginam, October 11, 1954)

Thus Pope Pius XII established - in connection with the Church's first "Marian year," 60 years ago - today's festival of the Queenship of Mary (subsequently reassigned in the 1969 calendar from May 31 to August 22, to the Octave Day of the Assumption).

The texts assigned as today's readings for the Liturgy of the Word (Isaiah 9:1-6, the 1st reading at the Christmas Midnight Mass, and Luke 1:26-38, the Annunciation story) give today's celebration a decidedly Christmas feel - fittingly enough, for everything we say or celebrate about Mary relates to her special office as Mother of the Incarnate Word. But, within that larger framework which governs all Marian devotion, the calendar particularly connects this celebration with the Assumption. 

The traditional cycle of the mysteries of the Rosary likewise links Mary's Queenship with her Assumption.  In that spirit, I recall today Pope Saint John XXIII's summation of the mystery of Mary's Queenship in his meditation on the 5th Glorious Mystery, which he attached to his 1961 Apostolic Letter on the Rosary.

The meaning of the whole rosary is summed up in this scene of joy and glory, with which it ends.
The great mission which began with the angel's announcement to Mary has passed like a stream of fire and light through the mysteries in turn: God's eternal plan for our salvation has been presented to us in one scene after another, accompanying us along our way, and now it brings us back to God in the splendour of heaven.
The glory of Mary, Mother of Jesus and our Mother too, is irradiated int he inaccessible light of the august Trinity and reflected in dazzling splendour in Holy Church, triumphant in heaven, suffering patiently in purgatory in the confident expectation of heaven, and militant on earth.
O Mary, you are praying for us, you are always praying for us. We know it, we feel it. Oh what joy and truth, what sublime glory, in this heavenly and human interchange of sentiments, words and actions, which the rosary always brings us: the tempering of our human afflictions, the foretaste of the peace that is not of this world, the hope of eternal life!

[Text: Pope John XXIII, Journal of a Soul, tr. Dorothy White, 1965]

[Photo: Mural Painting of the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, painted by William Laurel Harris (1870-1924), which portrays Christ's crowning Mary in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit, with angels and saints looking on in veneration.]

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Boyhood: the Movie

Ever since critics started talking about it, I have been eager to see Boyhood. It can take a while sometimes for such films to get here, but it finally did this week. so I spent yesterday afternoon watching Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) grow up. It's a rather long film. Does growing up have to take so long? But, length aside, it remains engaging throughout.

What is so distinctive about it, of course, is how the movie was filmed - director Richard Linklater's 12-year project - not using different actors to play the boy at different ages but filming it (indeed, actually writing it) a few scenes at a time over 12 years and so actually letting Mason grow up on screen. The result is quite impressive, as Mason changes physically and develops emotionally and intellectually into a young adult right before the audience's eyes. The other characters, of course, also change and mature (or not) in their own ways. At one has to remind oneself throughout the this is a fictional story, not some "reality" show following a real family through its decade and more of travail.

The film begins in 2002 when Mason is a boy of 6 and ends with an 18-year old young adult going off to college. In the interim, Mason's dysfunctional family moves several times, breaking contacts and relationships in a way which would certainly have been very hurtful in any real life - and may account for Mason's maturing focus primarily on living in the immediate moment.

Almost as interesting as Mason is his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who combines  a determination to make something of herself and care for her family with consistently poor taste in men. She and Mason's father, Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) are already separated when the film starts. Over time she remarries twice. Each new husband seems likeable at first meeting, but turns out to be an alcohol-fuelled problem from which the she and the family need to escape (quite literally in one case). Despite her success in becoming a college professor, her personal failures continue to weigh on her. Hence her poignant final scene with Mason when she breaks down in tears, wondering what she has left of her life now that her children have grown up and gone - perhaps a not that uncommon emotion when facing the proverbial "empty nest."

Mason Senior is a sometime musician, sometime whatever work he can get, kind of guy - not the most responsible parent or role model, but well-meaning and engaged. In a sense, he also grows into manhood along with his son, as he eventually settled into a more mature relationship which will give him a chance to start over again (and presumably do better) with a  new son. Whatever their faults, both parents genuinely love their children.

As Tolstoy said, unhappy families are all each unhappy in their own way. The film is strongest when it gets beyond the specific dysfunctions of a particular family in a particular time and place and penetrates the unique experience (shared by half the human race) of being a boy and growing by fits and starts into a  man, a complex process every boy has to go through simultaneously on his own and with his generational cohort. (That said, the dysfunctions of Mason's family do in fact also capture the sadly deteriorating state of marriage and family life in contemporary US society. The almost matter-of-fact way in which the various traumas the family experiences are treated testifies dramatically to how routine certain situations have become, situations that decades ago would have been thought exceptional and seriously problematic.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Second Century of War Begins

When Pope Saint Pius X died, one hundred years ago today, Europe was already at war. The "Great War," as it came to be called (World War I, as it is known to us now), had just begun a few weeks earlier. It pitted the two ambitious rising powers, Germany and Russia against each other. Russia had as allies France (always looking for revenge against Germany), Belgium (whose neutrality Germany had violated in order to invade France), and Britain, the pre-eminent world power which had traditionally tried to maintain some sort of balance among the European powers. The kingdom of Italy was at that point still neutral, which was fortunate facilitating the attendance of cardinals from both sides of belligerents at the conclave that would quickly elect Pope Benedict XV. Of course, the politics of war were very much in evidence at that conclave. When German Felix Cardinal con Hartmann, Archbishop of Cologne, greeted Belgian Desire Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, he is supposed to have said, "I hope that we shall not speak of war." To that, Mercier is supposed to have replied, "And I hope that we shall not speak of peace."

Pope Saint Pius X's centenary comes one day after the 2000th anniversary of the death of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar. Augustus was the one who, having defeated all his rivals and consolidated Rome's power over the entire Mediterranean world, made possible the famous pax romana, which is celebrated in the Roman Martyrology's famous entry for Christmas, which dates the birth of Christ in the 42nd year of the empire of Octavian Augustus, when the whole earth was at peace.

Rarely, of course, has the whole earth ever really been at peace! Thomas Hobbes's famous image of "the state of nature" as a state of "war of all against all" may never have existed historically. What it is in fact is a symbol of what  is usually the case is in the absence of an effective power to maintain peace.  In civil societies, the State's sovereign power supplements the communal bonds that make society. In international relations, however, such bonds are lacking or at most very fragile, and there is usually little effective community and no sovereign power to supplement it. International peace presupposes either that everyone has been conquered by a single empire powerful enough to maintain peace within its confines (Augustus' Caesar's Rome) or else that a precarious balance of power can be maintained among competing international actors, which in turn usually requires some sort of Great Power policeman. Such was Britain's role in Europe in the century prior to World War I. Such was the role of the United States after World War II and again in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

Such arrangements, however, do not last forever. Rome's power declined and with it the unity, stability, and peace of the ancient Mediterranean world. Britain could not permanently check the rising power of Germany and Russia that turned a conflict between Austria and Serbia into a world war. And the United States today seems increasingly lill inclined to exercise the leadership role it not that long ago assumed as its inevitable role in the world.

International organizations obviously cannot effectively substitute for Great Power leadership. In the absence of Great Power leadership, whatever temporary stability and peace there is eventually tends to unravel. Thus, the worldwide century of war which began in the summer of 1914 seems likely to continue into another, second century.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Legacy of Frequent Communion

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope Saint Pius X, the pastoral pope who initiated the reform of the Roman liturgy beginning in 1903 with his attempt to restore Gregorian chant and culminating in 1911 with his thorough reform of the ancient Roman Breviary. But by far the most influential of his liturgical reforms in the lives of ordinary people was his promotion of frequent Communion and the admission of children as young as 7 to their First Communion.

By the mid-20th century when I came along, First Communion for children was already the norm. (I made my First Holy Communion on June 4, 1955 - at age 7 - preceded by my 1st confession the previous day.) All reforms have unintended consequences. Thus Pius X's reform of First Communion left Confirmation all by itself, if anything even more out of sequence, a problem which continues to bedevil contemporary Catholic life. (I was confirmed two years after my First Communion, on September 22, 1957, at age 9. Nowadays, the situation is often much worse, with Confirmation not taking place until sometime in High School - or, increasingly, never.)

As children in Catholic school, we were socialized in the new culture of frequent Communion. New Year's was an exception, of course, because we stayed up late the night before and so ate after midnight; and in the 1950s still no one went to Communion at funerals. But. apart form such exceptions, I and my generational cohort typically went to Communion every Sunday. This was not yet the case with most adults, however. Apart from the ultra-devout who went daily, there were the men of the Holy Name Society who went to Communion (and presumably confession the day before) on the second Sunday of the month and the analogous women's sodalities that had their specific "Communion Sunday." And there were also those who were committed to the 9 First Fridays and the 5 First Saturdays, devotions which had as a major goal getting people to Communion at least monthly. Most other adults, however, went only occasionally - e.g., Christmas, Easter, the annual Parish Mission. With the mitigation of the Eucharistic Fast in the late 1950s, however, this whole state of affairs gradually began to change. In time, Communion came to be distributed even at funerals! (The Kennedy family famously went to Communion on national TV at JFK's funeral Mass in 1963.)

In the end, Saint Pius X's hope became reality, so much so that today hardly anyone doesn't go to Communion at Mass. (Of course, a much smaller percentage of Catholics are attending Mass today than did so then!) On balance, I believe the practice of frequent Communion has been a great benefit to the Church and has nourished the spiritual lives of countless individuals growing in personal holiness. Nor should it ever be forgotten that Communion at Mass also corresponds to the plain sense of the liturgy. The prayers of the Mass always assumed Communion, even if for centuries hardly anyone actually communicated except the one who actually recited the prayers - the priest celebrant himself. In the 20th century, when laypeople started reading the Mass in translation in their missals, it became hard not to notice the obvious sense expressed in the liturgical prayers.

But again there have been all sorts of unintended consequences - not least a certain routinization of Communion. It has become one more thing that (almost) everybody does at Mass, so much so that in many places children and non-Catholics join the Communion line also and ask for a "Blessing." This curious custom clearly suggests that participation in the Communion procession is now quite highly valued, something people don't want to be "excluded" from. And it seems to me to be no accident, therefore, that the larger debate about divorce and remarriage (a complicated issue beyond the scope of this discussion here) is often reduced to the question of access to Communion.

So there is some legitimate anxiety about whether we have routinized Communion too much. In some ways this is a very new problem. There has probably never been any period in the Church's history when almost everyone went to Communion - except perhaps at the very beginning, but those would have been very small and very spiritually intense groups that assembled in a home or wherever for Mass. 

A good case could be made, I think, for restoring the 3-hour fast before Communion - not too much for it to be too burdensome, but enough to highlight the seriousness of what one is doing. Of course, moving from laxity to greater strictness - unlike the reverse "reform" - is always difficult. How well such a change might be explained - let alone how well it might be received - might argue against it as a practical matter. Sill, it would seem worth considering.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Joseph McSorley and his Friends

Wednesday will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope Saint Pius X, the pastoral pope who reformed the Roman Breviary and initiated a general reform of the liturgy and a restoration of gregorian chant, who encouraged frequent communion and allowed children to receive their First Holy communion at an earlier age, and who also pronounced the famous condemnation of Modernism (Pascendi dominici gregis, 1907).

I just recently finished reading William L. Portier's Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States (CUA Press, 2013), a look at the Modernist crisis and its aftermath through the lens of two pairs of fairly prominent American priests - the Josephite John Slattery (1851-1926) and Bishop Dennis O'Connell (1849-1927), and Paulists William Sullivan (1872-1935) and Joseph McSorley (1874-1963). After already noteworthy public careers as Catholic priests, both Slattery and Sullivan abandoned both the priesthood and the Catholic faith during the tumultuous first decade of the 20th century, while O'Connell and McSorley remained faithful to both the priesthood and the Church - McSorley remaining active into the early 1960s. Since two of them were Paulists and all had been influenced, indirectly at least, by Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (photo), I naturally found their stories particularly compelling. 

"Modernism" is an elusive concept. As Portier emphasizes, it is "an outsider term," not a self-identification. Nonetheless, it refers to a real phenomenon in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Catholicism in both Europe and the United States. Portier approvingly quotes Edward Schillebeeckx, who in 1964 called Modernism a failed effort to overcome neo-scholasticism's emphasis on unmediated objectivity or "conceptualism." He agrees with Schillebeeckx that what "Modernism was unable to solve - that is, the problem of the relationship between experience and concept - has continued to be a theological issue until today." 

Portier's book also challenges the so-called "phantom heresy" school of American Catholic historiography. He wants his readers to re-enter a very different era and recover the distinctly American and creative theological atmosphere of the "Americanist" period prior to Pascendi. It is Portier's contention that one consequence of a failure to do this has been that "after the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theology in the United States became an overly dependent colony of Europe." 

Those are all interesting and important issues. But what engaged me personally about this book was its treatment of the four priests and what their stories have to say to us today. The hero of Portier's account is Paulist Father Joseph McSorley, who not only outlived the others but remained active long after the period associated with the modernist crisis. McSorley remained an active and faithful priest, devoted to his ministry, whether it was ministering to a generation of Italian immigrants at Saint Paul the Apostle parish in New York, serving as spiritual director for Dorothy Day, writing on Church history, serving the Paulists as Superior General from 1924 to 1929, or - most especially - continuing and promoting the spiritual legacy of Isaac Hecker. As Portier summarizes McSorley:

"Though shaken by successive trials, McSorley's religious center in the Hecker tradition was never moved. ... McSorley chose to stand in history, especially the history of the traditions of prayer he inherited from Hecker. ... He was an historian who prayed. Many, like the young Dorothy Day, who read his books, attended his retreats, or sought his direction learned to pray from McSorley. ... McSorley had recourse to the church's mysterious power to make saints. ... To read Mcsorley's works on prayer is to recognize in the Hecker tradition, with its reliance on [Jean Pierre de] Caussade and Louis Lallement, an American variant on the turn to the mystical and the recovery of [Francois] Fenelon's contemplative ideal during the modernist crisis. ... Driving McSorley's work as an historian was his desire to bring the entire Hecker tradition, including its spiritual dimension, into the twentieth century in purified and usable form."

I first encountered McSorley's wisdom when I was applying for admission to the Paulists in 1982. It was then the custom to give applicants a copy of McSorley's wonderful little book Isaac Hecker and His Friends (original version 1952), which is still perhaps the best introduction to Hecker's spirituality and religious significance. It tells not only Hecker's story but that of the early Paulist community. It is not a complete biography by any means. For a fuller biographical treatment of the many details of Hecker's long and interesting life, one does well to consult other sources that offer a more complete chronology. For example, David O'Brien's Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (1982), the only complete 20th-century biography, recounts the story of Hecker's life in far greater detail. But, however useful for their biographical information, those other publications also have their limitations. In my opinion, among published sources, McSorley's little book continues to do the best job of introducing Hecker's holiness to an American audience. Accordingly, I like to return to it periodically. Perceptively, Portier praises the book as "primarily a book for the Paulists and secondarily for the American church. ... It reconnects the founding of the Paulists with Hecker's hopes for America's conversion."

Prior to his formal opening of Hecker's canonization cause, New York's Edward Cardinal Egan wrote about Hecker in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York. Summing up Hecker's greatness and relevance, Egan called Hecker "a man of the Church." He most certainly was that in the sense that he devoted his adult life entirely to building up the Catholic community in the United States and striving to share with his fellow-countrymen the inestimable gift of faith, which he himself had received at the end of his spiritual search.

In yet another important sense too is Hecker "a man of the Church." Writing about Paulist Father Walter Elliott, who was perhaps Hecker's closest disciple, Father McSorley (in Isaac Hecker and His Friends) quoted from the Paulist Superior General's words at Elliott's funeral - a sentiment expressed in reference to Elliott which just as surely applies to Hecker himself: "We [the Paulists] understand that the spiritual ideals he embodied are not the private possession of our community; they are part of the common Catholic heritage. ... For his spirit belongs to the Catholic Church ..."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A "Feel Good" Feast

For the feast of the Assumption on August 15, the old Rituale Romanum contained a rite for the Blessing of Herbs. This was an originally Germanic custom which the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship's 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy called "a clear example of the genuine evangelization of pre-Christian rites and beliefs" - turning to the true God, who created the earth and its vegetation "in order to obtain what was formerly obtained by magic rites; to stem the damages deriving from poisonous herbs, and benefit from the efficacy of curative herbs" (181). The association of herbs with Mary, the Directory suggests reflects the biblical images (e.g., vine, lavender, cypress, lily) applied to her and the reference in Isaiah 11:1 to the "shoot springing from the side of Jesse."

Such associations remind us of the agricultural context in which the calendar came to be. The pre-1969 liturgical calendar constantly recalled our rootedness in the natural world even as it strove to elevate us beyond the natural to the supernatural. The post-1969 liturgical calendar, in keeping with its more rationalistic mentality and the bureaucratic way it was created casually cast aside all those evocations of our rootedness in the natural world, ritually reflecting in a curious kind of way the environmental degradation of the modern era.

I never actually experienced an Assumption-day Blessing of Herbs. But my fondest memory of an Assumption feast was nonetheless also a Germanic one. I spent the summer of 1970 studying German in Austria, in a schloss just outside Salzburg. August 15 in Austria in 1970 was not just some culturally disconnected holy day but still a popular and civic holiday. Stores were closed, and church bells pealed their invitation with gusto. Moreover, the auditory delight of the day involved more than beautiful bell-ringing. It seemed as if every church in the city was singing Mozart's Coronation Mass that morning. To an American, it was amusing to watch crowds of people walking from church to church - catching the Kyrie in one, the Gloria in another, the Credo in another, etc. If, as someone once remarked, with Mozart one could literally fulfill the precept to hear Mass, the bells added an additional degree of auditory delight I have seldom if ever experienced elsewhere since!

Like Easter, Assumption is a pre-eminently "feel-good" feast. To cite the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy again, the Assumption "signifies and synthesizes many of the truths of the faith. Our Lady assumed into Heaven
- is 'the highest fruit of the redemption,' and a supreme testimony to the breadth and efficacy of Christ's salvific work ...
- is a pledge of the future participation of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ in the paschal glory of the Risen Christ ...
- is for all mankind 'the consoling assurance of the coming of our final hope' ...
- is the eschatological icon in which the Church joyfully contemplates 'that whihc she herself desires and hopes wholly to be' ...
- is the guarantee of the Lord's fidelity to his promise ..." (180).

As is so often said on this feast: where she is now, there we someday hope to be! 

Until then, blessed be her glorious Assumption!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Take a Vacation!

School starts today! I am always happy to see summer end. And, when it comes to schools, I have long been a believer in year-round schooling - for reasons both educational and social. I'll leave it to the experts to describe how much learning is lost while schools are closed during the summer. Suffice it to say I think the traditional school vacation is too long, too much of an interruption in the educational process and generally too disruptive. A more balanced calendar would, I believe, benefit both students and society as a whole.

That said, however, I do nonetheless really believe in the importance of taking vacations. There are, of course, all kinds of vacations - including so-called "working vacations," some of which hardly deserve to be called a vacation. Certainly sabbaticals and the like, which are intended to be learning experiences with some specifically productive purpose can also be restorative physically and emotionally. In my own life, my two summers abroad for language study in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, my summer program in Israel 20+ years ago, and my several months studying the canonization process in Rome, while certainly not vacations, were enormously enjoyable and incredibly restorative, as well as important study opportunities. 

Even so, I want to put in a good word for the plan old-fashioned restful vacation - something our workaholic culture increasingly denigrates. (Witness the silly media whining whenever a President takes a vacation - a "working vacation" if ever there was one!) In this past Sunday's NY Times "Sunday Review" section, Daniel J. Levitin - Director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload - advises against the guilt and worry increasingly associated with taking time off. He warns, "beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. the summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. along with family time, mealtimes and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains."

I knew things were getting bad, but not until i read this article did I realize that "on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of 174 newspapers' worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986." In one sense, certainly that is amazing. But it is also a little frightening!  No wonder we most of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time - even when we aren't actually physically straining ourselves!

Based on the way our brains appear to work, Levitin recommends taking breaks as being "biologically restorative." He recommends naps. "in several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue." and, of course, he recommends real vacations. "If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations - true vacations without work - and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world's big problems. and to be happier and well rested while we're doing it."

A hearty Amen to that!

Monday, August 11, 2014

What Next in Iraq?

Whatever the outcome of the current attempts to form a functioning government in Baghdad, the larger and more pressing questions concern Iraq's ability (or anyone's ability) to stop the military progress of the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS), which obviously aspires to conquer as much territory as possible and poses a particularly acute humanitarian threat especially to Christian (and other) non-Muslim minorities in the region.. For better or for worse, this largely comes down to a question of what the United States is (1) able and (2) willing to do. That's the way it is when you are the world's one effective superpower!

Yesterday's NY Times Sunday Review featured an interesting column ("The Right War") by the persistently thoughtful Ross Douthat. As his title suggests, Douthat challenges what has become the dominant paradigm until now and argues that "this time, the case for war is much stronger, and the decision to intervene is almost certainly the right call."

As examples of what I am calling the presently dominant paradigm, Douthat cites three previous times when the Obama Administration had to make a decision about whether or not to intervene in a conflict in the Muslim world - Libya in 2011, Syria since 2011, and Iraq two months ago. As everyone knows, the UIS did intervene in Libya, but not in Syria nor (until this past week) in Iraq. "All three situations were hard calls, and the fact that intervention in Libya and inaction in Syria produced similar outcomes - rippling chaos and jihadi gains - has allowed both hawks and doves to claim vindication." That intervention and inaction could produce such similar outcomes ought indeed to five both sides in the intervention vs. inaction debate reason to pause. In fact, however, Douthat argues that "in all three debates, the noninterventionist position ultimately had the better of the argument." 

That said, however, he argues that the opposite is now the case in Iraq. whereas in those earlier cases the "humanitarian" case and the "strategic" realities were opposed, he sees the two as now "much more closely aligned" in the current crisis in Iraq. In other words, the US has both "a stronger moral obligation to act" and a clear enough military objective, a more tested ally in the Kurds and a plausible long-term strategy that could follow from intervening now."

The part of Douthat's argument that I personally find most intriguing is his view that "an independent, secure, well-armed Kurdistan could replace and unstable, perpetually fragmenting Iraq as the intended locus of American influence in the region."

While I find douthat's argument about the Kurds somewhat compelling, I am not sure that the Administration feels comparably compelled, and I am fairly certain the American public opinion is nowhere near there yet. And I suspect that public opinion in this matter weighs heavily with this Administration.

Of course, in a democracy public opinion ought to have weight. but as we all know, presidential leadership is also about forming and leading public opinion - especially in foreign affairs. That. after all is one of the things many praise FDR for - his determined effort to educate and guide the American public to form and lead public opinion in a more pro-interventionist direction. On so many levels, however, Obama is obviously no FDR. On the other had, even FDR was unsuccessful in his effort. After all, it took the Japanese sneak attach on Pearl Harbor to wake America up to the reality of the Axis threat!

Speaking of FDR, right now I have been Nigel Hamilton's just newly published book, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942. Hamilton's is obviously a great admirer of FDR's governing style and how he effectively - and successfully - took command of the Allied war effort. It is a fascinating book in many respects. But again, with all due respect, Obama is not FDR (and 2014 is not 1941). If Hamilton's book is primarily a study of FDR's ascendancy to successful war-time leadership, it is also secondarily a study of British Prime Minister Churchill's limitations as leader and, even more fundamentally, the British Empire's process of decline from a position of leadership.

The story of the decline of the British Empire is a complicated one, but one component of it was the British elite's gradual loss of confidence in their imperial mission and the ordinary British public's loss of confidence in their political elite. This, Hamilton seems to be suggesting, had a lot to do with the abysmal performance of the British in the early period of the Pacific war.

Without overstretching the analogy, I have often wondered whether something similar has been happening to the US. Isolationism has always been a danger at the door in our international relations.  American failure in Vietnam enabled isolationism to make inroads on the left - inroads further exacerbated by the failure of the second Iraq War. Moral loss of nerve and diminished capacity to make an effective difference seem to go hand in had when a Great Power declines. Each reinforces the other in an increasingly unbreakable vicious circle

I don't know whether Douthat is right about intervention with the Kurds as an effective ally. I honestly have no idea what the President should do or how to persuade the American public to go along. But I doworry that American society in general and much of the political class seem to have reached a dramatic loss of faith in America's role in the world - not unlike what happened to Britain and its empire in the 20th century. For Churchill and the British in general, having to accept a severely diminished role was made more palatable by being replaced as principal world power by the United States.  Who is there to make America's abdication palatable?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A "Libertarian Moment"?

Today's NY Times Magazine has an interesting article, whose title asks "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" In any hierarchy of morally harmful ideologies, I think that Libertarianism surely ranks among the worst. Yet anyone at all alert to today's currents can sense that certain libertarian or at least libertarian-like sentiments are on the upswing in our society - especially among younger people. So I was quite curious to read what the article's author (Robert Draper, a contributing writer for the magazine) has to say about this problematic development. Draper focus particular attention on the young - "the age group most responsible for delivering Obama his two terms," a group, Draper suggests, that "may well become a  political wild card over time, in large part because of its libertarian leanings."

Of course, some of newly popular policy positions that contribute to the supposed upsurge in libertarianism are, considered in themselves, really quite tangential to libertarian ideology, in that one could just as easily come at some of those positions from a different perspective. Obviously, isolationism is on the rise, as Americans have become even more than customarily dubious about foreign interventions. And some of the "libertarian" ideas widely supported in our society nowadays also could be interpreted in terms of growing social liberalism - conceptually different from libertarianism even if many of the outcomes are similar. That a majority of Americans now favor marriage equality, for example, and that decriminalizing marijuana and reducing sentences for minor drug offenders has become a more mainstream view (as Draper shows) are policy shifts of major import, but such developments remain susceptible of more than one ideological interpretation - including liberal and communitarian ones.

Still, something that is increasingly evident especially among younger Americans is an increasing suspicion of and disdain for government. Libertarianism as an ideology is premised on such suspicion of and disdain for community - the supposedly 'Thatcherite" view that "there is no such thing as society." Even liberals seem increasingly disillusioned with government's effectiveness, on the one hand, and have largely embraced a neo-libertarian approach to personal and family life, on the other.  This problematic development risks sapping the moral concept of community that has long been American political liberalism's greatest strength and so opening the way for increased inroads by libertarianism.

Draper quotes libertarian "applause lines," like "any tax rate above zero percent is immoral" and "there are no good cops out there." Such extremes are obviously unsustainable, short of a Hobbesian "war of all against all." On the other hand, it is easy to see how a libertarian attack on social security as a form of "generational theft," for example, could conceivably attain traction  with some younger voters.

There are still many obstacles to the full mainstreaming of libertarian values. But our society's significant failures - especially as regards an attractive future for younger generations of Americans - have not gone unnoticed. The damage already done by foreign policy failures in re-legitimizing isolationism could be replicated in other areas as well - with catastrophic consequences for whatever may be left of the fraying communal bonds of American society.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Escalation in Iraq

After an apparent lull, the Islamic State seems to be on the march again, conquering more of Iraq's territory. That means that the expulsion and persecution of Christian communities in northern Iraq is increasing (along with the persecution of Iraq's Yazidi community - an Iraqi minority I had never heard of, but who apparently are Kurdish-speaking adherents of an ancient, long-standing, pre-Islamic syncretistic religion retaining elements of Zoroastrianism). Yesterday, President Obama authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State, but that will likely have only a modest effect; and any serious on-the-ground intervention remains as unlikely as ever.

In Middle Eastern terms, perhaps an apt analogy might be what happened to the Armenian Christian community in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Writing today in ncronline, Drew Christiansen invokes the even more familiar World War II analogy: "Not since the Nazis' war on the Jews has there been such complete depredation of a people. They walk into exile alongside other minorities with no vehicles, no baggage, no jewelry, no money, no papers." How apt any such analogies are may be debated. Where such analogies are applicable is in the evident fact that once more there seems to be little that the rest of the world will or can do. Certainly the American and European lack of appetite for serious military intervention in Iraq is by now evident to all.

There are obviously good reasons for that lack of appetite. Recent experience is not encouraging, when it comes to anticipating the long-term consequences of such interventions. And American public opinion remains, I suspect, unwilling setiously to contemplate that prospect. That said,what can be done?  In the absence of effective military intervention, it is hard to see any hope at all for Iraq's persecuted Christians. The farther the Islamic State expands, the more territory it conquers, the farther the Iraqi Christians (and other persecuted minorities) will have to try to flee from their ancestral homes, with all the dangers that such displacement entails. The best that might be hoped for under such circumstances would be that someone (the Kurds?) can forcibly stop the Islamic State's expansion at some point and that sufficient humanitarian aid will be provided by others to assist the displaced Christians to survive this immediate crisis and eventually resettle somewhere where they will be welcome.

Who in the neighborhood has the military strength actually to stop - and hopefully at some point to turn back - the Islamic State? Suffice it to say that military action by someone is the only possible solution. In this at least, Christiansen's World War II analogy applies. As I have often observed, usually the only solution to war crimes is war. What stopped the Nazis' crimes against the Jews and other conquered peoples was the complete defeat of Germany by the Allies, and it is impossible to imagine anything short of that having had any comparable effect. Clearly the only thing likely stop the Islamic State would be a military defeat. so it all always comes back to the same question. Who can do it?

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Cure of Ars and the New Evangelization

At Mass today, I began by saying Saint John Vianney lived from 1886 to 1759. The congregation kindly pretended not to notice my mistake! (His correct dates, of course, are 1786-1889). 

In preparation for today's feast, I re-read what I wrote on this site four years ago - I have little to add to what I wrote then. I am, however, maybe even more struck by the warning Saint John Vianney got from his bishop when he was first sent to Ars as pastor in 1817: "There is little love of God in that parish." What a discouraging assignment that bishop made Ars out to be! And what an indictment!

But an indictment of whom exactly? Of the parishioners, presumably! But surely also of the circumstances, of the times they had just been living through - the French Revolution and its aftermath! The Revolution and all that followed it are all complicated historical phenomena, of course, involving multiple causes and consequences. But one crucial component of the movement of the time was an intense hatred for the Church, the likes of which Europe had not seen since the worst of the Roman Emperors! All that took its toll, intensely amplifying the recognizably routine coolness and indifference of so many toward religion even in supposedly more religious times.

But surely it was also an indictment (perhaps unconsciously so on the bishop's part) of the clergy's and of the clergy's failures - especially in the decisive period before the Revolution. Of course, there had been good and holy priests before the Revolution too - even in the rationalistic 18th century! But certainly Saint John Vianney stood out as an alternative to a good deal of what had passed for pastoral care prior to the Revolution. By the end of his life, he had acquired quite a reputation, as penitents flocked to Ars from all over France to confess to him. But at least as important, I think, was the extent to which the love of God had grown right there in that remote parish. That it wasn't easy for him we know. The fact that four times during his tenure there he was tempted to escape tells us a lot about the challenges he faced!

Saint John Vianney is already the patron saint of priests and parish clergy. And that's certainly enough for any one saint! Still, I think he would also make an excellent patron for the New Evangelization. What makes the "New Evangelization" new, after all, is the challenge to re-evangelize a society which was once publicly committed to Christian faith. Even were it possible simply to go back in time to, say, 50 or 60 years ago, however, that would not be sufficient to meet the challenge. Of course, one cannot go back in any case. That type of traditionalism is just a fantasy. For better or for worse, the social, cultural, and political changes of recent decades are here to stay, at least insofar as their consequences are concerned - just as the consequences of the French Revolution continued to transform French society long after Robespierre and even under the restored Bourbons! The New Evangelization certainly requires some serious analysis of and confrontation with the secularizing forces that have been empowered by the changes of the recent decades.  But any New Evangelization also requires a comparably serious analysis of and confrontation with what was lacking before - what was lacking and so failed to prepare for the assaults that were so imminent.