Friday, February 27, 2009

The Magical Child

David Cameron with his son Ivan

A complete editorial from today's Tablet: The True Measure of a Life

True measure of a life

At precisely the moment on Ash Wednesday when the House of Commons was due to turn into the weekly bear pit of Prime Minister's Questions, proceedings were adjourned for half an hour and the usual raucous exchanges were postponed. It was as if parliamentarians of all persuasions sensed that in the circumstances, the normal traffic of party politics was too frantic and too trivial to contend with. For one of the key participants, Tory leader David Cameron, was absent due to a personal bereavement of the most poignant and tragic kind. Earlier that morning his six-year-old son Ivan had died in hospital. Ivan was born with severe cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and had never been far from hospital throughout his short life. Nothing softened his father's image more than his devoted care for his son through thick and thin. He often expressed a heartfelt solidarity with thousands of ordinary parents struggling with similar challenges. Indeed, Ivan may be credited with changing the way the Conservative Party viewed the National Health Service itself, no mean achievement for one so meek and little. The proposal to abandon Prime Minister's Questions came from Gordon Brown, who paid a tribute in the House that was manifestly from the heart. He too had lost a child, in his case soon after birth. Perhaps only those who have had such an experience can come close to understanding it.

The meaning of the life of a six-year-old infant with cerebral palsy cannot be measured by intelligence tests or physical prowess. His measure is the deep love he received from those around him, stirred all the more by his helpless vulnerability, and the love he gave back. Mr Cameron called him his "magical child". There is something mysterious about such children, for they have an ability to engage with others without the developed faculties of speech and hearing. Instinctively at such times people reach for poetic - indeed for religious - language to express what they feel. How else to acknowledge the infinite value of the many children who will never see adulthood but who are cared for in loving homes despite the sometimes gruelling duties of nursing them, except by reference to the God who formed them in his image?

It also takes religious language to articulate the close association of love with suffering, so that the greater the love, the greater the pain at eventual loss. But these are not reasons to refuse to love. Undoubtedly, had sympathetic doctors been asked, they would have signed the necessary consent forms for termination of pregnancy, ending Ivan's life in the womb as the lives of countless others have been. At such moments society needs to look at itself very candidly in the mirror and ask what it thinks it is doing.

The first day of Lent is one of the darkest of the liturgical calendar, surpassed only by Good Friday. But in the northern hemisphere at least, it comes when the spring days are lengthening, when Nature revives and summer lies ahead. For those who suffer bereavement it is always a kind of Lent, signifying loss, but it can also signify hope, of winter over and Christ's passion endured and overcome. Blessed are they who mourn, he said, for they will be comforted. And the meek will inherit the earth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Heavy Dose of Ashes From Back in the Day

The Flagellants Scene from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

The Catholic Encylopedia on the Flagellants.

The Black Death (1347-1351) took away between one third and one half of the population of Europe. That same century had seen the papal schism, a brutal famine, and the Hundred Years War (which represented the first nation state war in European history).

The clergy was devastated by the plague, and the following generations were poorly educated in contrast to the golden age of theology in the 1200's. Death seemed to be at everyone's elbow. The mood was morbid and apocalyptic. There was much discussion of the putrefecation of the body, and being eaten by worms, and what the resurrection of the body was going to be like. Look up the "The Three Living and the Three Dead", the Danse Macabre, and Transi Tombs to catch the tenor of the times.

I was a pauper born, then to Primate raised
Now I am cut down and ready to be food for worms
Behold my grave.
Whoever you may be who passes by,
I ask you to remember
You will be like me after you die
All horrible, dust, worms, vile flesh"

- Tomb of Henry Chichele, d. 1443

In the play "Everyman", which symbolizes any man about to die, Everyman is abandoned by his friends (Fellowship), his family (Kindred and Cousin), and his material possesions (Goods). His only steadfast companion unto the grave is his charitable works (Good Deeds) which he has been neglecting. A key emphasis in the piety of the times was laid upon Confession and the necessity to do penance, which sets Everyman on the path to salvation.

Postscript: An interesting thing happened this morning. When they distributed the ashes at Mass they said, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return" I hadn't heard that in a long, long time. For years it had been "Repent and believe in the Gospel."

See more on that very topic from this J. Peter Nixon post on dotCommonweal.
While the Ash Wednesday injunction to “repent and believe in the Gospel” is more biblical, I must confess that I miss the older “Remember thou are dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” The shock of being confronted with the certainty of our death is a good way to begin Lent. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Endurance of the Reagan Legacy

Despite the fix we're in...

I didn't see it, but I heard today from one of the guys at work that one of the CNBC anchors went off on a rant last night about how sick and tired he was of Wall Street guys taking the hit in the press and in the court of public opinion for the financial crisis, and wanted to know why the blame wasn't being placed squarely on folks who got in over their heads with mortgages for houses they couldn't afford. Cheers over this rant apparently rang out all across the studio and the trading floor.

Another example of guys with everything placing all the ills of the country on people who have nothing.

His rant conveniently ignored the fact that for the most part, local banks are doing just fine, thanks. They knew how to manage their liquidity. It was the Wall Street banks and investment houses that melted down.

Which all goes to show how much this country really changed under Dutch. Even though his policies and ideas have been completely discredited, people still cling doggedly to them (hence, all the hysteria over socialism in the last election cycle, with the ironic part being that due to the excessive greed on Wall Street, we are now closer to socialism than ever before). This extends to the widely held opinion that Reagan was a no-nonsense tough guy who singlehandedly brought an end to the Cold War and made terrorists everywhere shake in their shoes. This is the same Reagan, mind you, who horrified his aides when he nearly gave away the whole nuclear store in his meeting with Soviet Premier Gorbachev, who responded to the Hezbollah bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut by invading Grenada and pulling out of Lebanon, and who traded arms with the Iranians for hostages and later lied about it.

In this Matt Miller interview, listen to him talk about his new book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Miller writes that while many of our current notions of economic and social well-being made sense when they first gained traction 50 years ago, they don't hold much water today... "Unless we explode the dead ideas I'm talking about in the book, we won't find our way back to a durable prosperity," warns Miller...

Three facts are now poised to shape our economic life for a generation. First, thanks to global competition and rapid technological change, America's economy is about to face its most severe test in nearly a century. Second, our political and business leaders are doing next to nothing to prepare us to cope with what lies ahead. And third, the reason for this inaction is that our entire economic and political culture remains in thrall to a set of "Dead Ideas" about how a modern economy should work. This book is about the threat that individuals, companies, and the country face from the things we think we know, and about the new (and surprising) ways of thinking destined to replace these Dead Ideas so that America will continue to prosper.

The next decade will bring a collision of forces that threaten to disrupt U.S. society, sink the middle class, and call into question the political and business arrangements on which our prosperity and stability have rested for decades. These perils have little to do with the housing-related financial crisis that gripped America in the fall of 2008; in fact, the need to steer our way through this near-term credit crunch now masks longer-term economic challenges that are far more consequential. The stakes couldn't be higher: if America doesn't decisively manage these tides of change, we'll face a backlash against our economic model—which, for all its flaws, has produced more betterment for more people than any other system in human history. If this backlash proves contagious, and other advanced nations lose faith in capitalism's ability to improve the lives of ordinary people, the rich world's efforts to protect its citizens from economic change will doom the developing world to dollar-a-day poverty.

The good news is that there are ways to avert this dark scenario and to flourish. The trouble is we're not doing what we need to because of the Tyranny of Dead Ideas. By this I mean the tacit assumptions and ingrained instincts broadly shared by business executives, professionals, policy makers, media observers, and other opinion leaders regarding the way a wealthy, advanced economy like the United States should work...


CEOs routinely bemoan skyrocketing health care costs, saying they give foreign companies a competitive edge because governments abroad pick up these bills. Yet in the next breath most executives insist that America's government should not play a bigger role in bearing this burden. Who else do they think is available?

Politicians and business leaders say we should cut taxes for most (some would say all) Americans to boost the economy. Yet America already has $40 trillion in unfunded promises shortly coming due in Social Security, Medicare, and other programs serving senior citizens — and that's before we toss in the costs of rescuing America's banking system, not to mention assorted sensible blueprints to insure the uninsured, develop clean energy, rebuild roads and bridges, extend preschool, and more. Has anyone noticed that these numbers don't come close to adding up?

Everyone agrees that education is the key to improving future living standards in a fiercely competitive global economy, and that we need to lift all children, not just the most talented, to higher standards of learning and achievement. Yet in the 2008 presidential campaign, not a single major-party candidate questioned our shockingly inequitable system of school finance, which dooms schools in poor neighborhoods in ways no other advanced nation tolerates. How are 10 million poor American children supposed to compete?

Top economists in both political parties perennially assure us that free trade is "good for the country," because the benefits to some Americans outweigh the losses suffered by others due to foreign competition. But wait: Who put economists in charge of weighing the interests of one set of Americans against another?

The answers to these questions will depend on how quickly we escape the pernicious influence of...

Six Dead Ideas:

The Kids Will Earn More Than We Do. Broadly rising incomes have been considered an American birthright. This pattern of generational advance is now at risk for as much as half the population.

Free Trade Is "Good" (No Matter How Many People Get Hurt). Though millions of people may be hurt by foreign competition, we're told, the overall gains from free trade so outweigh any downside that it is folly to question its ultimate advantages.

Your Company Should Take Care of You. Business (not government) must fund and manage much of our health and pension benefits, this idea holds, or else we risk becoming socialist.

Taxes Hurt the Economy (and They're Always Too High). The truth is that taxes are going up no matter who is in power in the next decade, and the economy will be fine. We won't turn into France or Sweden.

Schools Are a Local Matter. Americans need more skills to maintain our living standards as developing economies rise up to compete with us. America also spends more on schools than nearly every other wealthy nation — with worse results. Yet our unique model of "local control" and funding of schools remains sacrosanct.

Money Follows Merit. The most cherished illusion of today's educated class is that market capitalism is a meritocracy — that is, a system in which people basically end up, in economic terms, where they deserve to.

Getting to the effects of Reagan's ideas specifically, see Leon Wieseltier's Washington Diarist: Love Me I'm a Liberal:

It has been many decades since liberalism could fall back upon the power of platitudes; the platitudinous authority now belongs to the other side... The repudiation of George W. Bush is not in itself a renovation of liberalism, and neither is the apotheosis of Barack Obama. The public has not yet broken the grip of the conservative discourse that has dominated America for a generation.

Consider the insane headline on Newsweek's cover, "We Are All Socialists Now": an exclamation of its inner Hannity, as if the president is preparing to abolish private property or expropriate the means of production. All that is happening, comrades, is that our democratically constituted central government is acting to protect the whole of our economy by taking over, for a period, a part of our economy. But second natures, which are made more by culture than by thought, are not easily extinguished. Sean Wilentz was shrewd to contain the Clinton years in his recent study of "the age of Reagan," because Bill Clinton's inglorious role in the history of liberalism was to teach it to sleep with its enemy... On the day that Clinton pragmatically announced that "the era of big government is over," liberalism forgot itself.

Pragmatism has a dark side. The allure of pragmatism was lost on the conservatives, of course. They sought power so that they could act on what they believed. And when they got their chance, they ran the republic down in almost all its aspects. We must not draw the wrong conclusion from the rubble. The problem was what they believed, not that they believed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Soon to be SAINTS Jeanne Jugan and Damien de Veuster

These are both good calls, and long overdue.

In November of 2007, I posted about the great work being done by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and a little bit about their foundress, Blessed Jeanne Jugan. At an upcoming consistory, a date will finally be set for her canonization. Rocco Palmo has the details on Whispers in the Loggia.
Lest anyone was unaware, the Little Sisters of the Poor do so much for so many that, whatever they ask of you, you just drop everything and do it.
He's sure got that right! From the link about Jeanne Jugan above:

The French Revolution had broken out three years before the birth of a baby girl whose name is known today all over the world.

Jeanne Jugan was born on October 25, 1792 in Cancale (Ille-et-Vilaine), a fishing port on the north coast of Brittany, France. Her father was absent at the time, for he had sailed six months earlier for the fishing season in Newfoundland...

Less than four years later, Jeanne's father was lost at sea, like so many other sailors! At home, it was hard to make both ends meet. Jeanne, her brother and two sisters learned from their mother how to live poverty honestly and courageously, with faith and love for God...

She left Cancale for the nearby town of Saint Servan. A nurse at Le Rosais Hospital, a visiting nurse, then a servant, she desired only to serve God and others, especially the poor...

One winter's evening, Jeanne opened her home and her heart to an elderly, half paralyzed blind woman who had suddenly found herself all alone. Jeanne gave up her bed for her.

This act committed her forever. Soon another old woman followed, then a third. In 1843, there were forty of them around Jeanne and her three young companions, who had chosen her as the Superior of their small association which was slowly taking the form of a religious community...

However it was not long before Jeanne was deprived of this responsibility. In the face of this injustice, she responded only with silence, gentleness and abandonment. Through her faith and love, she discovered in this decision God's plan for herself and for her religious family...

As the years passed by, Jeanne Jugan was buried more deeply in obscurity. The history of the beginning of her work was distorted. When she died on August 29, 1879, in La Tour St. Joseph, few Little Sisters knew that she was the foundress.

However, her influence on the younger Little Sisters, whose life she had shared for twenty-seven years, was decisive. During this long period, she transmitted to them the original charism and the spirit of the origins. Little by little the situation became clear.

In 1902, the truth became evident: Jeanne Jugan, Sister Mary of the Cross, who died in oblivion a quarter of a century earlier, was not the third Little Sister, as it was believed, but the first, the foundress.

Rocco also points out that at the same consistory Damien de Veuster (Father Damien the Leper of Molokai, who I posted about at length here) is also expected to have a date set for his canonization.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bassist Victor Wooden's Amazing Grace

I know next to nothing about Victor Wooden, but I thought this was some pretty nice bass picking and slapping. I'm intrigued to hear more from him.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Crucifixes and Icons at Boston College. What Nerve.

Boston College President, Father William Leahy SJ, has decided to install crucifixes and/or icons in each of BC's classrooms as part of an attempt to reconnect BC to its Catholic mission.

Generally speaking, the news has gone over well, but not with everyone.

A smattering of reactions from here and there.

Student reaction has been generally supportive, but among faculty, there is division over the appropriateness of the step. A meeting last month of arts and sciences department chairs turned into a heated argument over the classroom icons; a handful of faculty have written to the administration to protest, and some unsuccessfully circulated a petition asking to have crucifixes removed.

"I believe that the display of religious signs and symbols, such as the crucifix, in the classroom is contrary to the letter and spirt of open intellectual discourse that makes education worthwhile and distinguishes first-rate universities from mediocre and provincial ones," Maxim D. Shrayer, chairman of the department of Slavic and Eastern languages and literatures, said in an interview.

“There is no choice if you don’t think it’s appropriate. You can’t turn it around,” said biology professor Dan Kirschner, faculty adviser for BC’s chapter of Hillel, a Jewish student group. “I think it is being insensitive to the people of other faith traditions here.”

Amir Hoveyda, head of BC’s chemistry department, blasted the school in an e-mail to the Herald for “not being interested in an exchange with its faculty members.”

In an interview with the college newspaper, The Observer, which broke the story, Hoveyda described the crucifixes as “offensive” and the university’s actions as “anti-intellectual.”

“I can hardly imagine a more effective way to denigrate the faculty of an educational institution,” he is quoted as saying. “The insult is particularly scathing, since such symbols were installed without discussion . . . in a disturbingly surreptitious manner.”

Sophomore Alex LoVerde, 20, believes a crucifix “pushes the Catholic religion” and does not belong in a classroom. “I think the Jesuit tradition is more of openness and tolerance,” LoVerde said. “I think that an overt display of crucifixes is not what the Jesuits would have had in mind.”

Oh, give me a break! With moonbats like this around, no wonder we have SSPX wingnuts around... Is there anyone sane out there?

Says Father John Paris SJ:

"Christian iconography and symbols permeate this place and always have," said the Rev. John Paris, a Jesuit priest who teaches bioethics at BC. Paris said he finds "offensive" the notion that a crucifix impedes the ability of students or faculty to think critically in a classroom and called the criticism "the narrow and bizarre musings of a few disgruntled folks."

"This is a small problem for those with small minds," Paris added. "This is not a serious controversy.

Watch the video from this link.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Paula Fredriksen Lectures: "Sin: The Early History of an Idea”

The Church Triumphant Over Synagogue, Strasbourg Cathedral (c. 1230)

As the controversy continues to roil over the Vatican-SSPX train wreck, a public relations & communications fiasco if you want to put the most benign and best possible face on it **, we've been humiliated (once again) by the fact that the whole world has been exposed to a persistent and malignant tumor that remains on the fringes of Catholicism - Jew hatred.

** Side note: Here's me trying to be as charitable as I can in explaining the whole thing. Benedict has a grand vision of uniting Catholicism, The Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Traditional Anglican Communion into one grand Church characterized by "Tradition" that will revitalize Christendom in Europe. The Russian Orthodox say to him, "Get your own house in order with your own schisms first." As for the SSPX schism, he doesn't want these bishops to age and consecrate a whole new generation of bishops, which will make the breach permanent. It would be better to absorb the group and try to control what is being said from out of it than to have a permanent parallel church as a rival.

Everyone recalls that when Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ came out a few years ago, there was a nasty spat beforehand between Gibson and a combined group of Christian and Jewish scholars operating under the auspices of the USCCB's Advisory Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations and the ADL. They had offered to evaluate the script's biblical accuracy in conformity with the Catholic Bishops' Guidelines on Passion Plays. Their ensuing advice didn't go down too well with Gibson.

As I related in the post In Vino Veritas (after Gibson was arrested for DUI and went off on an anti-semtitic rant), BU Professor Paula Fredriksen came out of the Passion flap feeling very much burned, chastened, and stunned by the reaction she'd received for her efforts:

Finally, Gibson and his minions, I must note with gratitude, have certainly educated me. The hateful emails that I and my colleagues have received, the websites that this movie has spawned, and the angry displays of muscular piety prompted by this phase in the American culture wars have left me humbled and remorseful. With what conviction can I remain amazed by the literalism, the anger, and the defining power of hate in Islamic fundamentalism? With much less excuse, we have plenty of our own home-grown varieties right here.

I can't help but feel the same way about some of the things I've seen written in the Catholic blogosphere surrounding SSPX controversies over the past several years as well. In light of this latest blow-up, and the fact that the Pope has approached this group with an extraordinary amount of solicitude, a group that has a notorious holocaust denier within its leadership, a lot of people might be inclined to look at the incident with Gibson in a more serious light than they had previously.

As for Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, I think she's an important scholar to study. Her work serves as a good counterweight to the outmoded supersessionist view that Christianity is both the fulfilment of Judaism and its destruction, an anti-Old Testament view that verges close to marcionite heresy, if you ask me.

I often hear that Vatican II was merely a pastoral council that didn't change any doctrine. That isn't really true. An ecumenical council teaches infallibly, and the teaching of the Church in relation to the Jewish people changed. I agree with the SSPX in at least that much. The teaching changed.

So, speaking of schisms and all.... You don't have to agree with everything she says of course, but it may be more accurate to think of Christianity as a form of Judaism, not a replacement of it. In the grand eschatalogical scheme, we will be united.

Re-evaluating the “Old Perspective on Paul.” St. Paul in his Jewish Context. Understanding Christianity as an Extreme Form of Judaism

Click on the image...

One of the most important aspects of Fredriksen's work, in my opinion, is that she increases our knowledge of Second Temple Judaism (and therefore, the historical Jesus and his disciples), by pointing out that ritual impurity had no moral aspect to it. Ritual impurity (as opposed to moral impurity), was not considered the same thing as sin. It makes you see the Gospels a bit differently when you become aware of that.

Here is a series of lectures she conducted at Princeton in October 2007, "Sin: The Early History of an Idea”

Professor at Boston University, Wellesley College grad, mother of a teenager and Red Sox fan, I find her engaging to listen to. She has a new book out, 'Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism.

Here are the video lectures in Realplayer format. Go here and look in October 2007 to find them in Windows Media format.

"God, Blood, and the Temple"

"Flesh and the Devil"

"A Rivalry of Genius"

From one of her books:

We know much more about ancient Jewish laws regulating purity than we do pagan ones, because the Jewish laws are still published: Their establishment, together with the correct protocol for offerings, constitutes much of the matter between God and Moses in the opening books of the Bible. The biblical narrative specifies purity as a condition for a person's approaching the Divine Presence - in the language of the story, appearing before the tent of meeting; in Jesus' period, going to the Temple. Impurity in this context is an actual, objective, usually temporary state. It might be incurred through certain natural (and often involuntary) bodily processes, such as ejaculation, menstruation, childbirth or miscarriage, or various genital discharges. Certain defiling substances or objects-human corpses especially; also scale disease (the biblical "leprosy," which could afflict clothing, houses, and furniture as well as persons); the bodies of some animals-could convey their impurity through contact or even proximity.

Scripture assumes that everybody at some point would be in such a condition some of the time-it was virtually unavoidable-and most people were in such a condition most of the time. But Scripture also prescribed the means to remove impurity. A system of "wash-and-wait"- immersion and observing a liminal time period (until sunset; seven days; forty days: it varied, depending on the case)-cleansed most impurities…

The evangelists' position as regards the Temple, then, is closer to ours, despite the nineteen centuries that intervene between us, than to that of those generations who immediately precede them. They, like us, know something that none of the historical figures about whom they wrote could have known: that is, that Jerusalem's Temple was no more…

Whatever the traditions they inherited about Jesus and Jerusalem, they received them in a period with a much-altered religious reality: the cult mandated by God to the Jewish people, whose details stretched through four of the first five books of Scripture, whose performance had been the particular responsibility of the Jerusalem priesthood, and whose manner of execution had fueled the wars of interpretation and the vigorous sectarianism of the late Second Temple period, had ceased to exist. Inherited sayings and stories about Jesus and the Temple, or about Jesus and the laws of purity concerning the Temple, or about Jesus and those groups whose piety focused especially on the Temple, accordingly acquired a dimension added by the evangelists' own, post-70 perspective: Jesus spoke about and interacted with an institution and its religious authorities that had vanished. How could he not have known what would so shortly happen? What could God have meant by permitting such a massive destruction? The evangelists' efforts to respond to these questions intimately affected their retelling of tradition.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Resist the Temptation Towards Cynicism

Seek no refuge from commitment

Diogenes (the Cynic), by John William Waterhouse (1882)

This is sort of a double-tag. Fr. Ron Rolheiser, in Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children, quoted a passage from God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, by Jim Wallis.

Prophetic faith does not see the primary battle as the struggle between belief and secularism. It understands that the real battle, the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. The prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope — that these realities can and will be changed. The choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice, one that has enormous political consequences.

First, let’s be fair to the cynics. Cynicism is the place of retreat for the smart, critical, and formerly idealistic people who are now trying to protect themselves. They are not naïve. They know what is going on, and at one point, they might even have tried for a time to change it. But they didn’t succeed; things got worse, and they got weary. Their activism, and the commitments and hopes that implied, made them feel vulnerable. So they retreated to cynicism as the refuge from commitment.

Perhaps the only people who view the world realistically are the cynics and the saints. Everybody else may be living in some kind of denial about what is really going on and how things really are.

And the only difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power, and possibility of hope. And that, indeed, is a spiritual and religious issue. More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even religious choice.