Monday, November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving and Tax Cuts

Speaking in New York's Madison Square Garden in October 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously reminded Americans of the dangers posed by "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering," which "had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage  to their own affairs." FDR reminded his audience "that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob." On that occasion, he expressed his hope that in his Administration those "forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match."

As Americans prepare for our annual Thanksgiving holiday, 81 years after that famous speech, we see instead the sad spectacle of a Congress, whose majority remains committed to further enriching and empowering those very "forces of selfishness and lust for power."

Tax cuts can be thought of as a form of congressionally authorized theft from the public interest and the common good in favor of private and special interests. Obviously it would be possible to craft tax policies in ways which, by serving the special interests of the middle and working classes, could thereby promote the public interest and the common good of society as a whole. The tax policies presently in the process of being enacted by the Congressional majority, however, are evidently intended to do the opposite.

Fittingly, before it was even passed (by a 227-205 vote in the House of Representatives), Bishop Frank Dewane, Bishop Oscar Cantu, and Bishop George Murry, representing the USCCB's Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee, International Justice and Peace Committee, and Catholic Education Committee, spoke in opposition to this terrible plan, noting how "this proposal appears to be the first federal income tax modification in American history that will raise income taxes on the working poor while simultaneously providing a large tax cut to the wealthy. This is simply unconscionable." 

Thanksgiving is the quintessentially American holiday, and we do well this Thanksgiving to recall what the settlers who founded this feast aspired to accomplish in this new land. As John Winthrop memorably expressed it in his 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity:

We must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other's conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.  …For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

Prosperity and the passage of time may make us feel more secure and contented than befits a truly pilgrim people  In the great ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of America, the pilgrims’ legacy recalls an important dimension of our life together. Our New England forefathers knew only too well what we as a nation forget only at our peril, that what is worth hoping for in our individual and collective lives requires a real community in which we all recognize our mutual dependence upon one another in a single society - a value ill served by privileging those who are already far too wealthy.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:14-30] reports one of the very last parables of Jesus’ public life. Obviously, we are meant to apply this (and similar parables) to ourselves, as we anticipate Christ’s final coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of each of our own lives and at the end of human history.

This familiar parable portrays two good and faithful servants, and a wicked, lazy servant, who seems to value caution above all else.

Now, obviously, in our ordinary day-to-day world, some degree of caution usually makes sense. These parables, however, are not about our ordinary day-to-day world, but about the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, the wicked, lazy servant is condemned as much for his fear of failure as for his actual failure to accomplish anything - for his cautious inactivity and passivity.

The two good and faithful servants, in contrast, are praised and rewarded. They too were prudent - in their own way (which turned out to be the right way). Presumably, they also knew that their master was demanding, but, (like the fear of the Lord, which, as the psalm says, makes people blessed), their master’s expectation that they accomplish something with what he had given them, his determination to hold them to account and to judge them accordingly, instead of immobilizing them, inspired them actually to do something bold with what he entrusted to them.

Now, since this is a parable about the kingdom of God, the master’s expectations of his servants suggest God’s expectations of us – expectations which, when the time comes to settle accounts, end up being most threatening precisely to the servant who seems so determined to keep his life unthreatening.

But to the other two, their master must seem incredibly generous. Surely, he is the most imaginative and adventurous person in the parable, the one who risks treating his servants as partners and rewards them with greater responsibility and greater closeness. So cautious, however, is that wicked, lazy servant that he fails to see what the other two see so well. He cannot see what he is being encouraged to make of his life, what he is being personally empowered to become. As Pope Francis has reminded us, it is defeatism, which stifles boldness and zeal [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

With which of the servants do we identify? What do we see when we think about God and when we consider his expectations of us? Do we feel threatened by God, who (we fear) is really just out to get us? Do we - like the wicked, lazy servant - imagine that the challenging situations in which we find ourselves in life are just traps God sets for us to catch us in failure to fulfill his will? Or do we recognize, in his will for us, an unprecedented opportunity - to live a new and abundant life of moral responsibility, and an invitation to a life of ever increasing closeness with God? 

With which of the three do we identify? Notice that we have three possibilities here, and the older I get (and maybe it is because I am getting older) I am more and more appreciative of the one in the middle, the one we are more likely to overlook, as if he were just a weaker version of the servant with the 5 talents. The reality of, of course, that, even at our best, we don’t all have 5 talents, and we are not always at our best. Over time we all tend to feel we can do less, not more. The servant with only 2 talents might easily give in to the same temptation as the servant with only 1 talent, focusing on his limitations instead of his opportunities But he doesn’t, and so ends up feeling more like the one with the 5 talents!

Like the three servants in the parable – and like the worthy wife, extolled for her endeavors in today’s 1st reading – each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by being boldly invested in getting outside of ourselves and joining with others - in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church, whose mission it is to share our master’s joy with all the world.

 Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 19, 2017.

Monday, November 13, 2017

What We Remember and What We Forget

One of my favorite quotes from the sad circus that was the 2016 election campaign came from neither party's candidate but from Russell Moore (no relation to Alabama's Roy), an Evangelical spokesman, who is President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a lecture last October, Moore said: "The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about."

His point has been confirmed once again in the shocking remark by an Alabama official, when asked about the latest series of allegations about a certain Republican party candidate for the U.S. Senate. "Take Mary and Joseph," he said. "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus." 

Now putting aside the complete irrelevancy of referencing marriage customs from a radically different kind of society two millennia ago, not to mention the fact that marriage is not actually at issue in the case he was being asked about, and also the inconvenient fact that the biblical accounts say nothing at all about the ages of either Mary of Joseph, the most salient fact about that particular story is, of course, that Mary conceived and gave birth to Jesus as a virgin, which makes Joseph's role in the story very different from what references to ancient marriage customs might suggest.

When something so fundamental to Christian faith as the Virgin Birth can be forgotten - or, even worse, conveniently ignored to make a political point - is it any wonder when it is forgotten (or ignored) that Jesus himself as a child was a political refugee, an immigrant in a foreign land?  The biblical story really does matter, and it really does matter what parts of it we choose to remember and which we choose to forget for political convenience!

As an adult, Jesus was asked many questions, some friendly, some not. Living in a radically different society such a long time ago, he was obviously never asked to choose between guns for all and health care for all.  But, based on everything else we know, it should not be hard to intuit how he might answer - or, more to the point, how his story might challenge his followers today to answer. But that is, of course, assuming that they know the real story - starting with the Virgin Birth and Jesus and his family's forced flight from their homeland and their subsequent status as refugees and immigrants in Egypt!

What we remember from the biblical story (and what we choose to forget) form the filters through which we hear that story and are transformed by it into disciples - or not.

[Photo: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli 1488-1576) The Flight into Egypt, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg]

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray Thy kingdom come; and at Mass we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the words as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ).

Yet I think it is safe to suggest that, despite what we say in our prayers and despite the obvious importance of the topic, most Christians, most of the time, don’t expend a lot of energy thinking about Christ’s coming again. The exception, of course, is those who do, and they seem sometimes to think about it maybe much too much, as happens with individuals or groups that think the Lord’s coming can be predicted precisely, especially in relation to events occurring in the world. American religious history has been full of such expectations - and the movements they gave rise to, a chronic misuse of scripture to make sense of contemporary history, or more accurately to fit what’s happening in the world into convenient categories that serve our immediate interests.

Now, of course, there is really not a lot that is new about this. It is obvious from Saint Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard [4:13-18], that Paul’s 1st-century audience also apparently expected Christ’s coming to occur soon – and so were worried whether those who died in the interim would miss out on something. And Paul himself, while telling the Thessalonians not to worry about that particular problem, apparently also probably expected it to happen soon and may even have expected to be alive himself, as he says, to meet the Lord in the air.

Meanwhile in today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:1-13], Jesus seems to be addressing those who think that the Lord’s coming can be predicted, whom he warns you know neither the day nor the hour. Jesus says this at the end of a parable about a wedding feast – a standard symbol in both the Old and the New Testaments for the coming kingdom of God – but a wedding for which the bridegroom was long delayed.

On the other hand, to those among us who might not be sufficiently concerned about the Lord’s coming, Jesus cites the case of the five foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, when taking their lamps; and so, when the bridegroom finally did arrive, they found the door to the wedding feast locked shut, leaving them outside.

At an ordinary wedding in Jesus’ time, the bridesmaids would have waited with the bride at her house for the bridegroom to come and lead her to his home. But the coming of the kingdom doesn’t follow the ready-made script of an ordinary wedding. Hence, the delay.

As Christians over the centuries have eventually come to understand, the delay has turned out to be a lot longer than was originally expected. Like the bridesmaids in the parable, it is only natural for us to settle down for the long haul, to make ourselves comfortable in the here and now. And the here and now has become very comfortable indeed for far too many of us, dangerously comfortable for far too many of us, especially in this country. But sooner or later the call will come: “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” And when the call comes, then, like the five wise virgins, we must be ready. Each one of us individually must be ready.

In an age when taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s actions seems increasingly out of fashion and blaming others is the order of the day, the obvious question comes up: why not get some oil from the wise virgins? Why couldn’t the wise virgins share some of their oil? In an age when taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s actions seems increasingly out of fashion, the most jarring thing about this parable may be the fact that, when the kingdom comes, there will be no one else to pin the blame on, if my own inattention and irresponsibly have let the lamp of goodness go out. When the time comes, each one of us must be ready to meet the Lord, my way lit with the lamp of what good I have made of my life.

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 12, 2017.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

100 Years Since October

Writing recently on The New York Times Book Review, Martin Amis succinctly summarized the horrifying 20th-century phenomenon whose centenary we mark today: 

It was not a good idea that somehow went wrong or withered away. It was a very bad idea from the outset, and one forced into life — or the life of the undead — with barely imaginable self-righteousness, pedantry, dynamism, and horror. The chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature. Bolshevik leaders subliminally grasped the contradiction almost at once; and their rankly Procrustean answer was to leave the program untouched and change human nature. In practical terms this is what “totalitarianism” really means: On their citizens such regimes make “a total claim.”

Like World War I, which made it possible, Lenin's October Revolution occasioned a tsunami of human misery that continued to afflict the human race throughout the rest of the 20th century. Few people have left the world so damning a legacy as Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik henchmen. Few people have inflicted so much harm on so many people as Vladimir Lenin and his evil offspring - Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

Societies sometimes do learn from their mistakes. From the debacle of two world wars, the United States learned to step up to its responsibilities as the preeminent global power and to create and support institutions to maintain peace and stability in the world - international responsibilities which the party presently in power in the U.S. seems strangely eager to retreat from and institutions it seems ill inclined to support and maintain.

One can only hope that we all will have also learned some lessons from the experience of Lenin's evil ideology and the depraved political and social system he imposed on such a large part of the world. A presumption of suspicion directed at all such pseudo-humanistic, pseudo-scientific, rationalistic ideologies might be a good start.

Sunday, November 5, 2017


Today’s gospel [Matthew 23:1-12] gives us some of what we sometimes call Jesus’ “hard sayings,” in which Jesus challenges us – as opposed to affirming us (which is what our therapeutic culture wants and teaches us to expect). The context was his conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees (whose authority he tells us to respect, but whose behavior we are not to imitate).

In 1st-century Israel, the scribes (some of whom were also Pharisees) were legal experts. The Pharisees themselves were pious laypeople trying to live lives of faithful observance of both the written law and the oral traditions that surrounded and were intended to protect that written law. In Jesus’ time, they were one of several sometimes competing Jewish factions.

Later, however, after the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees would emerge as the dominant element, that would eventually evolve into what we have since come to call “rabbinic” or “orthodox” Judaism. In the memory of Jesus’ occasional conflicts with the scribes and the Pharisees, the early Christians no doubt saw their own conflict (as a breakaway Jewish group) with the new Jewish establishment that opposed the early Church.

In the process, the scribes and the Pharisees came to be seen as anti-models of what was expected of disciples. Jesus’ words were apparently addressed to all his disciples – not just to those destined for positions of authority and leadership. But, by extension, it makes sense to see the scribes and the Pharisees as anti-models for how leaders in particular are to behave.

If nothing else, these scriptures suggest that criticism – especially criticism of anyone in authority – is one of the constants of human society. We also just heard the prophet Malachi’s outburst in today’s 1st reading [Malachi 1:14b – 2:2b, 8-10] against Israel’s priests (who were a completely different group from the scribes and the Pharisees, but still an important and powerful group as long as the Temple was still standing).

We live in an age right now in which it is exceptionally challenging to be an authority of any kind. We love to build people up and then tear them down – particularly politicians and entertainers, but pretty much any public figure of any standing in almost any area of society. And, of course, presidents, politicians, and public figures of all sorts – in business, education, entertainment, religion, in all areas of society – have frequently behaved so as to deserve criticism as severe as Jesus’ attacks on the scribes and the Pharisees or Malachi’s earlier attacks on the priests.

The danger, of course, is when we criticize our leaders as a way of excusing ourselves. Thus we criticize politicians as if we weren’t the ones who had elected them in the first place! In a world where everyone is a critic, Church too can be a fractious arena of rancorous factional bickering. Perhaps it was ever thus, and modern means of communication, especially social media, have merely made it that much more obvious – especially nowadays when more and more people seem to adapt their religious beliefs to their partisan political loyalties. The early Church certainly saw its share of factional in-fighting. Maybe they highlighted these sayings of Jesus in the gospel precisely in the hope that its hearers would take Jesus’ words more to heart in their own cases.

Still, being accountable goes with the territory – as it should. Back in the 4th century, St. Augustine famously said: “With you I am a Christian; for you I am a bishop.” All of us are accountable – individually and collectively – for how we live our lives and what kind of disciples we are. Those of us in positions of leadership are also accountable in a special way to and for those we have been appointed to lead. Paul certainly understood that; hence his self-analysis, in today’s 2nd reading [1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13], of his own leadership.

But Jesus’ challenge to his disciples reminds us that it is ultimately not about us. It’s about God, our one Father in heaven and our one teacher and one master, Jesus Christ, who has made it possible for the word of God to be, as St. Paul said, at work in us now – even in spite of ourselves.

Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 5, 2017.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Invisible Funeral

More years ago than I care to count, I wrote a paper called "The Difficult Funeral," focusing on various inadequacies I sensed in the post-conciliar funeral rite. Then at least most people still had funerals! In my early parish assignments as deacon and then as priest, I did lots of funerals - the full three-part ritual of wake, funeral Mass, and burial. Especially in my first assignment as a priest, most of the funerals I did were in a foreign language, which added its own dimension of difficulty. They also often involved interment in expensive, above ground mausoleums - so much so that I once suggested that my idea of a good day was "a funeral in English with burial in the ground."

That said, at least they were still funerals, although the spirit of the funeral experience was already becoming radically altered from its original and presumably primary purpose. In part, this was thanks to the new rite (and the American adoption of white vestments as the common funeral color). In part, it was due to the increasingly therapeutic turn in our culture in the last part of the 20th century.

Even more problematic than the white vestments - with their hint of premature canonization - was the growing custom of eulogies, increasingly less and less reflective of the Church's faith that was ostensibly being proclaimed in the rest of the service.

But, as I said, at least there was a funeral. More and more often now however, the three-station funeral is becoming a thing of the past At the time I wrote my paper, one of the priests involved in Formation suggested that the difficulty lay in the compression of the three-station funeral into one event for most mourners (who would generally not be able or willing to attend all three rituals). Since then, however, even the central station - the funeral Mass itself - is often omitted. Or it is delayed and accordingly reconfigured as an after-the-fact "Memorial Mass" or "Celebration of Life." The increasing popularity of cremation is obviously also one of the culprits here. A decade or so ago, a funeral director showed me a closet full of unclaimed cremated ashes, of "loved ones" who had in effect been disposed of with minimal (or no) ceremony.

So perhaps our society has replaced the difficult funeral with the invisible funeral - something to reflect upon at least on this All Souls Day.

In our Catholic tradition, the month of November is dedicated in a special way to remembering and praying for those who have died. Our faith challenges us both to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Also, praying for both the living and the dead is considered one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven corporal works of mercy. Hence, the importance of a proper funeral, which is an especially privileged moment when the entire Church publicly intercedes on behalf on the recently deceased, a very visible expression of our membership and participation in the Communion of Saints. 

47 summers ago, when I was studying German in Austria, I often attended Mass in the village church in Siezenheim, outside Salzburg. The little church was surrounded by a traditional Friedhof (cemetery), where villagers would visit their family graves after Sunday Mass. While they did that, I would stop at the grave of Archduke Ludwig Viktor (1842-1919), with its impressive gravestone professing his loyalty to his late brother, the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef. Like the Hapsburg Empire, it seems that our traditional funeral ritual and the worldview and sentiments that gave that ritual meaning have increasingly receded into a vanished world.

Even so,  it remains a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins (2 Maccabees 12:46).

Photo: Calvary Cemetery, Knoxville, TN.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mark Felt (The Movie)

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is a new film (starring Liam Neeson), based on the 2006 autobiography of FBI agent Mark Felt (written with John O'Connor). It depicts how Felt became "Deep Throat," the famous anonymous source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, helping in the investigation of the June 1972 Watergate incident, which led them eventually to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Mark Felt (1913–2008) was an FBI special agent who served as the Bureau's Associate Director from the May 1972 death of J. Edgar Hoover until his own retirement in June 1973. During that time Felt fed the reporters information about the Watergate scandal. Althoyugh some (including apparently in the Nixon Administration) suspected Felt might be Deep Throat, his identity remained secret until revealed by him In 2005.

The film portrays his resentment at not being named Hoover's successor and his general concern about the Nixon Administration's efforts to exercise greater control over the FBI for its own political purposes and self-protection. This combination of thwarted ambition and resentment of the attempted politicization of the Bureau seem to be the motivation for his astonishing behavior. The film also highlights the tensions within his family - with his wife, Audrey, and his daughter, Joan. It would have been better if the film had gone more deeply into these tensions - both for greater clarity and better to illuminate Felt's feelings and behavior.

Two of history's unanswered questions are how the Nixon Administration might have responded differently to Watergate if Hoover had still been in power and what would have happened if Nixon had appointed Felt to head the FBI and he would have ended up heading the Watergate investigation instead of someone more directly answerable to Nixon. If nothing else, these questions highlight the power of imponderables in history and also how un-inevitable the fortuitous ending of the Watergate scandal really was.

Coming out now, in the midst of the Mueller investigations, the movie inevitably invites comparisons to the present and the temptation to draw lessons for the present.  Of course, history does not really repeat itself, and the parallels between Watergate and what we are witnessing now may be somewhat forced. An even more important difference is the very different character to today's Republican party from the Republican party that participated in a bi-partisan investigation of Watergate, a difference which makes any parallels between the two investigations less applicable. All that, of course, makes the independence of the FBI that much more relevant and important a value now as it was when it was threatened then.

Monday, October 30, 2017

John Kenny, CSP (1931-2017)

In the winter of 1982, just under six months into my Novitiate year with the Paulist Fathers at Oak Ridge, NJ, I was sent for my Lenten novitiate assignment to Saint John’s University Parish, Morgantown, West Virginia, where since 1956 the Paulist Fathers had served the campus ministry at West Virginia University (WVU). There were then three Paulists on the parish staff. The pastor was Chicago native, Fr. John Kenny, ordained in 1958, who died yesterday at Vero Beach, FL, and whom I remember therefore as my "first pastor" in my first Paulist pastoral experience. Until a week ago, John was still very active as a priest well into his 80s, capping a long life of distinguished service in pastoral leadership in several significant settings, which, in addition to Morgantown, included Grand Rapids, MI, Boulder, CO,  and Clemson, SC.
Morgantown was my only (and obviously very brief) experience of serving under John's excellent leadership, but I remember it well and remain to this day grateful for the great example he gave in his service to the Church and for his kindness and concern for  me during the short time we were together. In retrospect, its seems clear to me that my novice director and his assistant took the selection of each novice’s particular assignment quite seriously, sending each of us somewhere suitable to our individual needs at the time to learn, to be challenged, and also to do reasonably well. For me, Morgantown was such a place, and John was a first-rate mentor, who lived and modeled what he believed and taught. I loved my Lent there and retain a lifelong affection and respect for all three Paulist priests I was assigned to live with. 
Among other things, John and I team-taught the children’s confirmation-preparation class, a challenging audience even back then! In terms of where I was personally and in relation to community life at that time, he also evidenced a practical no-nonsense style that helped me work through and get over some of my immediate worries and concerns that a novice like me was overly prone to worry about.
John was a good and effective priest, deeply devoted to his ministry and to the religious community of which he as a member, a man who read widely and cared deeply. His priesthood was a gift to the Church and to the Paulist Fathers and to the multitudes of people he served in so many . He will be missed and his memory treasured by many.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

Saturday, October 28, 2017


Since earliest times, the two Apostles Simon ("the Zealot") and Jude (the patron of hopeless cases, lost causes, and desperate situations) have been commemorated together on the same day in the Latin Church. In the Byzantine Liturgy, Simon is commemorated on May 10 and Jude on June 19. So there is obviously nothing date-specific about their joint celebration.Still, it is a very special day for me, the anniversary of my ordination as a priest at Saint Peter's Church, Toronto, on this date in 1995, and I have always treasured the connection with Saint Jude. What other date could possible have been more fitting!

Obviously I would happily have been ordained on any day! And there is certainly much to be said in favor of the older, historic Roman tradition of celebrating ordinations on penitential days, such as the four Ember Saturdays. Still, it was nice to have begun my priestly life and ministry on a feast of apostles. 

In the words of the esteemed Pius Parsch:

"The apostles were made the foundation of the Church; in the liturgy they still continue that function. They are and will remain foundation-stones upon which the living stones of countless generations will be laid to form one mighty and glorious edifice. Such is the significance of feasts honoring the apostles. These days must be viewed sacramentally, i.e., as celebrations spread throughout the year which in themselves give grace and are effective in building up the Mystical Body of Christ."

The day after my ordination, I popped into the church to greet  people after the 9:00 a.m. Mass. At the end-of-Mass announcements, I heard Fr. Ernie say to the people about me, Incoraggialo (“Encourage him”). That they did! We all need encouragement, and to encourage others in turn. One of the things I have always found so attractive about the Acts of the Apostles is the picture it portrays of early Church life, how it highlights the mutual support and encouragement that the apostles and other 1st-generation Christians gave and received. As the saying goes, "it takes a village" to accomplish anything of value. Certainly, "it takes a village" to build up the Body of Christ in this world. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Trump Train on the Express Track

I am old enough to remember when there were so-called "Moderate Republicans," long an endangered species, now virtually extinct. As such "moderates" have become fewer, while their party has lurched father and farther to the right, what counts as "moderation" has been defined down. So Tennessee's Senator Bob Corker, despite being a fiscal conservative, is widely thought of as "moderate." What that really means is that Corker, who is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and was evidently considered for the post of Secretary of State in the Trump Administration), has been a reasonably thoughtful foreign policy expert, with a respectable degree of commitment to the second half of the 20th-century's bipartisan internationalist establishment's foreign policy consensus. That consensus, of course, is in the process of being shredded by the present administration, something Corker (among others) has been sounding national alarms bells about. 

On the other hand, no one would imagine Arizona Senator Jeff Flake as a "moderate" or consider him anything but a mainstream Republican conservative. Like Corker, Flake , for example, faithfully voted to take away health insurance from millions of Americans. Culturally, however, he is more traditionally conservative than "populist." He represents an alternative stylistic stance from the Trump-Bannon "base" of the Republican Party, a stance reflected in his Senate-floor criticism of "reckless,outrageous, and undignified behavior." And what the Trump-Bannon "base" seems most energized about is this cultural conflict, a "culture war," which has largely displaced the older version of the "culture war," which was not so long ago still more focused on religious and moral conflicts. 

In point of fact, what Corker and Flake have most in common is that both were increasingly unlikely (Flake especially so, by his own admission) to survive a Republican party challenge from the "Populist" Trump-Bannon "base," and so have chosen to take themselves out of the running altogether. Corker's criticisms of Trump and Flake's Senate-floor speech may at some level offer some sort of comfort to Republican "establishment" types who may agree with them. But what Corker's - and now Flake's - departure from the Senate most immediately represent is yet another important victory for the "Populist" Trump-Bannon "base." Whatever is left of the Republican "establishment," it is even less than it was before today. As the first anniversary approaches of Donald Trump's surprising electoral victory, the Republican party has become his Populist party.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Repaying Caesar

46 years ago, in October 1971, the Shah of Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire with a visit to the tomb of King Cyrus near Persepolis - the same Cyrus to whom the prophet refers, in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 45:1, 4-6], as the Lord’s anointed, whose right hand the Lord grasps. In the ancient world, one way a god conferred royal authority on a king was by grasping his hand. Thus, Cyrus was seen as receiving royal legitimacy from the God of Israel, just like David, the preeminent model of an anointed king in Israel’s history. What’s so striking about this, of course is that Cyrus was a Persian – a pagan – and yet reigned apparently as God’s anointed. Some 5½ centuries later, pagan rule was again a reality in Israel. Hence the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

My high school math teacher used to cite this story [Matthew 22:15-21] to illustrate an attempt at what he called a “perfect dichotomy,” where there are two (and only two) mutually exclusive solutions. The motivation behind the question is evident. The Gospel tells us they were trying to entrap Jesus in speech – trying to make him come down on one side or the other and get himself in trouble, whichever way he answered.

Like our political candidates today, who are experts in how not to answer the question they are being asked and instead answer the one they want to answer – what is sometimes called “pivoting” - Jesus cleverly circumvented the either/or of this supposedly perfect dichotomy.

Indeed, as a witty way out of a trap, Jesus’ response was superb. But what does it tell us today? If we consider the question itself as an honest dilemma deserving an honest answer, then what do we make of Jesus’ clever retort, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?

Unlike ancient and traditional societies, which start from the community as their point of reference, modern western liberal democratic thinking tends to take the individual as its starting point. The issue then becomes the basis and the extent of one’s obligations to society. (The challenge of justifying paying taxes to support the common good, for example, or compulsory military service, to take another obvious example, the idea that such activities are somehow infringements upon one’s individual rights, reflects this strange, modern, individualistic way of thinking.) Such a way of thinking would, of course, have been completely alien to Jesus and his contemporaries. Reconciling individual freedom with social and political obligations was not the issue in this encounter, nor would it have made much sense as a way of framing the issue to most people in most societies. Rather, the underlying issue raised by the question - and explicitly referred to in Jesus’ answer - was the relationship between two comprehensive (and potentially competing) loyalties – loyalties to two comprehensive (and potentially competing) communities.

Whatever ambivalence the Pharisees may have felt about the Roman Empire, the early Christians by and large appreciated the benefits of Roman rule. More than once, the New Testament instructed them to obey the law, pay their taxes, and honor the Emperor, insisting that one’s religious obligations to God, while absolute in themselves, do not cancel out one’s membership in civil society and one’s consequent obligations to its defender, the State.
Within the Church, Christians were, of course, expected to resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, not taking their disputes to secular courts, for example. But that didn’t mean that the State should not use its courts, its police, its army - as needed to provide peace, security, and some measure of justice for society as a whole.

Of course, everything got much more complicated when all of a sudden (and rather unexpectedly) the Emperor became a Christian and Christians began to exercise serious political power at all levels of society.  Whether as public officials or as ordinary citizens, who vote, pay taxes, and affect public policy in any number of ways, we enjoy the peace, security, and justice that civil society makes possible, from which derive corresponding obligations. It’s interesting in this regard that the Catechism [2239] says that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude.” Civilization doesn’t come free. Nor does our faith allow us any excuse to act as if it did.

As for “what belongs to God,” the long list of the Church’s martyrs testifies to God’s uncompromisingly absolute claim on our consciences – in the face of any and all competing secular claims. There exists a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. No society, whether ancient or modern, whether dictatorial or democratic, whether rigidly united or wildly pluralistic, no society can make something right which is intrinsically wrong.

Within what legitimately “belongs to Caesar,” however, within civil society’s legitimate sphere of action and responsibility, it is more often than not a matter of trying to approximate what will work best in specific circumstances. The ordinary dynamics of politics and economics have not been repealed by the Gospel, which does not tell us which policies will produce a more prosperous and equitable economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. The Gospel gives us a distinctive perspective, from which certain specific principles do follow. When it comes to practical questions of policy, however, we often have to figure these things out, as best we can as citizens or as statesmen, using the best knowledge we have, processed through discussion and debate – not just anger and outrage, which we tend nowadays to substitute both for knowledge and for discussion and debate. Instead, we need knowledge from history, from observation, from professional experts in the field, and from our own experience – always aware that, because our human wisdom is limited, we may make mistakes, and also that, when it comes to making such practical policy judgments, reasonable, morally sincere people, applying the same set of principles, may come to different but comparably compelling conclusions.

Jesus first asked his questioners to show him the coin. Then, taking into account all that the coin signified, Jesus challenged his hearers – challenges us - to live as loyal and committed citizens in the world and simultaneously as faithful citizens in the kingdom of God, our dual citizenship shaped by the interconnected demands of a faith that is inevitably public and never something purely private, that is always less about ourselves and more about our connections with others both in the kingdom of God and in our interconnected and overlapping earthly communities.

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 22, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Here Come the Tax-Cuts!

On TV tonight, David Brooks labelled "an outbreak of normalcy" the proposed legislation in the Senate salvaging the Affordable Care Act's “cost-sharing reductions” (CSRs), which are federal subsidies to insurers to offset insurance costs for lower-income Americans. What was once the normal business of Congress - legislating according to procedures and making bipartisan compromises - is now so abnormal as to be a story in itself. The bill seems to have a reasonable chance of making it through the Senate, although the House, of course, is an alternative universe. Time will tell.

The Senate meanwhile has passed a budget resolution, which paves the way for proposed tax cuts to be considered under "reconciliation," thus obviating the threat of a filibuster. The only "normalcy" breaking out there is the majority party's perennial obsession with tax cuts for the wealthy.

Such tax cuts can be best described as a kind of theft from the public in order to enrich already overly wealthy private individuals and their corporate allies. Unsurprisingly, that is what the majority is maneuvering to do and so salvage its standing with its ultra-rich donor class.

Besides the specific public policy damage that tax cuts would have on important public expenditures on which citizens depend, there is also the deeper, symbolic harm which would be further inflicted upon our divided society - further confirming that the few rich and the rest of the nation have really nothing in common, no shared common values or sense of social purpose, that our common citizenship has been yet further evacuated of any semblance of its historic meaning. 

I suspect that is a "normalcy" we would do better without!

Monday, October 16, 2017


This past week, I read journalist Katy Tur's new book about the 2016 campaign, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History (Harper Collins, 2017). A correspondent for NBC News, Tur was the network's reporter who covered Donald Trump's campaign virtually from beginning to end, and was also sometimes the frighteningly specific target singled out by name when Trump criticized the press at his rallies. 

For those who can't get enough about what happened and why, this is yet another book worth reading. It is not an overly long book, but it does require a certain degree of patience - partly because of the way it is written (going back and forth between the campaign and Election Day) and partly because of the author's persistent preoccupation with sharing so much of her own personal life with her readers. 

On the one hand, her account exudes a certain elitist, globalist lifestyle - for example, in her preoccupation with finding time for yoga and exercise and wishing for something other than bread, dairy, and sugar to eat at the airport, not to mention her sense of loss at missing waking up in London and getting "a flat white at the hipster coffee shop around the corner." On the other hand, her account proves her to be an excellent reporter, who saw exactly what was happening (for example, "drawing unheard-of crowds a year before the election") and really seemed to understand it.

Thus she recognizes the way many Trump voters see their lives: "Your twenty-something can't find work. Your town is boarded up. Patriotism gets called racism. Your food is full of chemicals. Your body is full of pills, You call tech support and reach someone in India. Bills are spiking but your paycheck is not. And you can't send your kid to school with peanut butter. On top of it all, no one seems to care. You feel like you're screaming at the top of your lungs in a room full of people wearing earplugs."

In some ways, those sentences alone almost tell the story not just of this book but of this incredible campaign.

At the same time, she also calls attention to the difference between the people who showed up at Trump rallies and those at a Trump watch party at Ma-a-Lago: "These are the people slashing budgets and enhancing their own bottom line while the bottom line falls out of everyone else's lives."

As for the candidate himself, she also captures the forever self-hyping character of the candidate, long familiar to New Yorkers, and she quotes the famous New York reporter Jimmy Breslin on how Trump "uses the reporters to create a razzle dazzle." One result is that "People seem drawn to Trump's rallies in the same way that they are drawn to a professional wrestling match, and as with a professional wrestling match, they seem divided between people who believe all they see and hear, and those who know it's partially a performance. the scariest thing about being at a Trump rally is that you don't know who believes it and who doesn't."

She reminds us too of his outright, direct invitation to Russia to interfere in the election and of his strange attraction to Vladimir Putin.

She shows how surprised even Trumpers were on election night - how, for example, earlier that day, Kellyanne Conway was already starting the post-election recriminations, complaining how "she didn't have the full support of the Republican Party."

But. most usefully, she captures the relationship between Trump and those who tried to tell the story. She notes, "We can tell the truth all day, but it's pointless if no one believes us." And she has interesting things to say about the different impacts of network and all-day cable news. 

Distrust and dislike of the media are not new, and she sources some of its origin in the fact that journalism "tells us things about the world that we'd rather not know; it reveals aspects of people that aren't always flattering. But rather than deal with journalism, we despise journalism."

Covering the campaign, Tur experienced first-hand an extreme version of that despising of journalism - and journalists. Most of what her book tells us about what happened is, after all, not really new at this point. But it is powerful to read her personal accounts of what this campaign was actually like on the inside, and how appallingly it empowered people to behave. "Trump is crude, and in his halo of crudeness other people get to be crude as well."  I wonder whether this may be one of the most lasting legacies of that incredible campaign!

Tur's account illustrates how a lot of Trump-supporters were otherwise ordinary citizens - "your coworkers and your neighbors," who would not typically engage in disreputable behavior. "But inside a Trump rally ... they can drop their everyday niceties. They can yell and scream and say the things they'd never say out loud on the outside." 

But I wonder whether now and in the future more and more people will behave that way "on the outside" as well, as the passions unleashed by this campaign, unbounded by traditional restraints of shared citizenship in a common society with at least certain common values, and no longer restrained by religion or old-fashioned manners.