Friday, October 04, 2013

America's Common Sense Cardinal

Friday was the Feast of St. Francis, and while Pope Francis spent the day in Assisi celebrating and commemorating it, he was simultaneously lamenting the latest immigration disaster at Lampedusa, saying,“Today is a day of tears. Such things go against the spirit of the world.”

In the spirit of St Francis, it's good every now and then to offer a word of praise for our own Capuchin Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley.  He's one of the Pope's so-called G-8 cardinals, who happen to be in Rome for meetings and consultations this week, and in my humble opinion, not only was O'Malley a wise choice for this group on the part of Francis, but the best choice out of the eight.  

In the wake of Francis' now-famous interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, a few American bishops have written columns offering commentary and perspective on it.  Some people might say that certain ones, including another particular Capuchin bishop, were offering spin.  Michael Sean Winters reported on at least one bishop who seemed to "get" what Francis was saying in the interview, and some who did not, in his NCR blog posts Cardinal Burke Still At It and Wuerl & Chaput on the Interview.

I can say with some confidence that Cardinal O'Malley is one of those bishops who "gets" Francis, and has done so right from the beginning.  Back in August he made the keynote address at the 131st Convention of the Knights of Columbus.  I find it interesting that while Bishop Tobin in our neighboring state of Rhode Island was reprimanding Pope Francis for not talking about abortion enough, Cardinal O'Malley already understood where the new pope was deciding to place new emphasis. He could see that Francis was looking at a broader context for issues respecting the dignity of human life. He knew this well in advance of the Civiltà Cattolica interview.  Interesting as well, that Lampedusa was mentioned in the keynote address, as it was by Francis today as a result of a fresh tragedy.  In his August 6th speech, O'Malley said...
Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion. I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world. Recently I read about an American relief worker in Africa, who reported on being at a camp for a food distribution line, it was very chaotic, even scary. He could see that they were running out of food and that these starving people were desperate. At the end of the line, the last person was a little nine year old girl. All that was left was one banana. They handed it to her. She peeled the banana and gave half each to her younger brother and sister. Then she licked the banana peel. The relief worker said at that moment he began to believe in God.
We must be better people; we must love all people, even those who advocate abortion. It is only if we love them that we will be able to help them discover the sacredness of the life of an unborn child. Only love and mercy will open hearts that have been hardened by the individualism of our age.
In the United States we are an immigrant Church. It is very significant that the Holy Father’s very first trip as Pope was to Lampedusa, to underscore his concern for the plight of immigrants. As the Archbishop pointed out so eloquently in his homily, this is an issue that it is great importance to us as American Catholics.
When the Holy Father went to the island of Lampedusa he threw a wreath of flowers into the sea where thousands of refugees have perished in the modern day coffin ships the bring refugees from North Africa. The Holy Father talked about the globalization of indifference – indifference to the suffering of others, to the fate of the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the mentally ill and the immigrants.
We must overcome this indifference in our own lives and help people to see that the Church’s teaching is about loving and caring for everyone. In his talk to the Brazilian bishops last week, Pope Francis said: “We need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of entering the world of wounded persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.” The Holy Father alludes to Cardinal Kasper’s work on mercy when he says that mercy without truth would be consolation without honesty and is empty chatter.
On the other hand, however, the truth without mercy would be cold, offputting and ready to wound. The truth isn’t a wet rag that you throw in someone’s face, but a warm cape that you wrap around a person, to protect and strengthen them.
Project Rachel has been just that kind of a combination of mercy and truth that the Church’s pro–life efforts need to be about.
Our efforts to heal the wounds of society will depend on our capacity to love and to be faithful to our mission. The Holy Father is showing us very clearly that our struggle is not just a political battle or a legal problem, but that we must evangelize and humanize the culture, then the world will be safe for the unborn, the elderly and the unproductive. The Gospel of Life is a Gospel of ercy. If we are going to get a hearing in today’s world, it will be because people recognize that authenticity of our lives and our dedication to building a civilization of love. We are called to live our lives as a service to others and commit our lives to give witness to the presence of God’s love and mercy in our midst.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

No Redemption for Walt?

Breaking Bad and Morality in a Post-Religious Age 



At the last moment he found a bit of peace, perhaps, but not redemption.

I've had Badfinger's Baby Blue playing in my head for the last couple of days now. It was one of the best uses of of a classic rock song to close out a TV series or a movie that I've seen in quite a while, as Breaking Bad's main character Walter White looked wistfully for one last time over the object of his “special love” and the pinnacle of his life's work, his meth lab, just before dying. Music was used quite masterfully in the series overall, from what I could tell, such as the scene when Walt was pushing his last barrel of money through the desert as if it contained the weight of his accumulated sins, to the strains of Take My True Love. I've always felt that a dissonant juxposition of music with what is happening on screen can be devastatingly effective, ever since I first saw Martin Scorcese use Donovan's Atlantis as the soundtrack for the Billy Batts incident in Goodfellas.

The first time I heard about Breaking Bad was on a highway in northern Indiana in the Spring of 2011. I was in a rental car, driving my oldest daughter from Chicago to South Bend. She was a senior in high school at the time, and we were on our way to visit St. Mary's College for an accepted students day. Just a few miles out of South Bend, she was telling me about this new TV show that she’d recently become hooked on. Alternately horrified, fascinated, and intrigued by the fact that my daughter was telling me about watching a show that gave a sympathetic treatment to a meth-amphetamine cook, I must have stepped more heavily on the gas than I realized. I was clocked by the Indiana State Police at 85 mph and was given a speeding ticket.

Not that my wild ride was anything like the existential mid-life crisis that Walter White, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, had in Breaking Bad. Even after I first heard about it, I had no real interest in watching a show about the meth trade, whether it was sympathetic to the characters or otherwise. It wasn't until this year that I heard enough buzz about the excellent writing and acting associated with the program, to finally give it a look-see. I didn't start watching it, in fact, until after Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank finally discovered that Walt was in fact the mysterious Heisenberg, the meth-making genius that he'd been hunting for. Therefore, I missed the vast amount of high drama in the show. Nevertheless, just watching those last few episodes was enough to get me completely hooked, and to leave an emotional impact on me when it ended.

My wife was as dubious as I was when I first heard about it, and she remained so. Myself, I wouldn’t tolerate for one moment the hell on earth that is meth addiction, or the hideous crime of it’s production and distribution. For me, however, the series was about much more than that, chiefly, how easy it is for human beings to make minor moral compromises that can snowball into major ones, leaving lasting damage in their wake. It brings to mind St Paul saying, ’I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” A show with such an edgy premise and theme was only as successful as it was because it was characterized by expert writing, but more importantly, because of its superb casting. They couldn't have done the casting more perfectly.

From the beginning of the show to its end, there has been a lot of consternation about the moral ambiguities presented within it, and what it says about us as a society, as we become more and more disengaged from traditional Judeo-Christian values. Ross Douthat, for one, fretted about those who identified with, and were rooting for the main protagonist, no matter what kind of atrocities he committed, in a group he refers to as  “Team Walt.” While realizing that they are not reading the writer’s intentions for the show quite properly, he’s concerned about the Darwinian ethics they’ve embraced.
The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own… embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”
To be clear, I don’t think the show itself is actually on Walt’s side. I think Team Walt badly misreads the story’s moral arc and vision.
But the pervasiveness of that misreading tells us something significant...
I’ve surely considered the same thing myself, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the whole story.

Granted, I came in late, so I didn’t see all of the terrible things that Walter White did. Maybe I’d feel a lot differently about his character if I did. The question remains, however, as to why so many people had sympathy for Walter White… Why were so many rooting for things to turn out all right for him and his family in the end? Why were so many hoping for his redemption?

I think a lot of it simply came down to the skill of Bryan Cranston, the actor who played him. I haven’t seen an actor in quite some time who has been able to deliver sheer pathos the way that he did. Every pained, angst-ridden expression spoke more than a thousand words, and the raging conflicts within him just exploded out of every glance and gesture. I think there is an instinctive reaction on a large part of the audience; a reaction that just wants to assuage that kind of pain.

While I don’t necessarily know what goes through the mind of younger viewers, I wonder if the prolonged economic situation we are living through strikes a chord with the middle-aged who are living under a cloud, living those “lives of quiet desperation,” feeling their health decline, feeling at mid-life that they’ve lived little more than a beige, mediocre life. Walter White steps out of this and his life spins out of control, but he barely looks back. Maybe there are many who wonder if such a thing could live within themselves.
Many were waiting for redemption in the final episode, but apparently Cranston and the writer, Vince Gilligan, decided that it was not to be. In his final visit with his wife, there was this exchange…
Skyler: "If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family..."
Walt: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive."
Speaking of Vince Gilligan, what is his take on what kind of a moral message, if any, are we to take out of the show? David Segal of the NYT reports on it in The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad’, and it confirms much of what I observed myself. Most of the characters in the show made some kind of serious moral compromise at some point, and they all paid for it in spades.
Gilligan and his writers have posed some large questions about good and evil, questions with implications for every kind of malefactor you can imagine, from Ponzi schemers to terrorists. Questions like: Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?
Gilligan has the nerve to provide his own hopeful answer. “Breaking Bad” takes place in a universe where nobody gets away with anything and karma is the great uncredited player in the cast…
Cranston has found many nuanced ways to enact Walt’s many miseries, the most wrenching of which was the loss of his wife’s love. There is a long history in art of foisting suffering on characters who sin, but it seems to have fallen out of favor. As awful as Tony Soprano was, it’s left purposefully unclear at the end of “The Sopranos” whether he paid the ultimate price. Or consider the “simple chaos” take on the universe as represented in movies by Woody Allen, a director whom Gilligan admires. “And Woody Allen may be right,” Gilligan says. “I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”
“If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences,” Gilligan said during lunch one day in his trailer. “If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end.”
“I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something,” he said between chews. “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen,” he went on. “My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’