Recent News

Simple – and Not So Simple – Gifts

Today is Memorial Day. It’s altogether right and fitting to remember that we’re here today because hundreds of thousands of Americans, ordinary people called to extraordinary things, willingly gave up their lives. It’s one of the deepest  human ways of seeing ourselves in light of what Edmund Burke called our “unbought grace of life.”

Probably 25,000 dead on the American side in the Revolutionary War; around 620,000 (both sides) during the Civil War, i.e., the struggle to preserve the union and put an end to slavery. More recently, 58,000 in Vietnam. Another 7000+ in Afghanistan and Iraq. And more, sadly, to come.

For all the controversies surrounding every one of these conflicts, we – who despite our troubles, by historical standards, live lives of rare tranquility and ease – need to remember them with no little gratitude.

That is how civics teachers in schools once would have presented this holiday. I wonder what they do these days, when our public institutions show every sign of being mentally, morally, and spiritually disturbed?

I’m not a Civil War buff. But friends who are have taken me through sites in Virginia, which are historically fascinating and deeply moving. According to one source, deaths in the war between the states were “approximately equal to the total of American fatalities in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined.” For us in 2023, it’s especially urgent to remember these body counts when a nation forgets sacrifice for the common good and tears itself apart, as ours seems to be doing again.

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To What Shall We Compare the Present Age?

One of the most remarkable features of the Gospels is how Jesus effortlessly tosses off unforgettable sayings, the kinds of phrases only the greatest thinkers and poets produce – and only rarely. As the American writer Randall Jarrell once put it, “ A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” Jesus was – clearly – much more than a poet. But it’s still striking that he could say more memorable things in a few minutes on ordinary days than any figure in history. Pity the myopic Biblical scholars – or the many people now influenced by them – who believe that a gaggle of fishermen, tax collectors, and itinerant preachers just made a lot of it up.

Christ’s often-simple sayings bulk so large that it’s taken millennia of theologians, philosophers, saints, mystics, martyrs, priests, bishops, and popes even to begin to grasp what He said. And yet, at the same time, His words have spoken to the hearts of average people, not only in his day, but over ages, in “diverse” cultures, despite what seemed impossible obstacles. Aquinas thought one of the greatest Christian miracles was how a few humble men from a cultural backwater were able to convert the greatest empire (Rome) then in existence. A matter of sheer historical fact – and he lived before the Faith spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the whole world.

That all this seems threatened now, and on every front, is reassuring in one way; it suggests that as dark as things seem at present, in both the Church and the world, the Gospel has shown itself to have an unsuspected power that cannot be predicted. It has always exceeded what we might “reasonably” expect. And could do so at any moment, even today.

In another way, it’s right to be worried because the present age seems not only mired in the usual human tangle of sin and ignorance. Our Western non-culture seems hell-bent on not only opposing but wiping out the very memory of the best that made us who we are.

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Living through an Apocalypse

When the history of our times comes to be written, scholars won’t be able to ignore how much recent years have been marked by widespread feelings of apocalypse. That’s, of course, assuming that there are any historians who survive. Because from threats of nuclear war to climate change, from AI (artificial intelligence) to the digital technologies damaging our very bodies and brains, from the virtual erasure of the sex “binary” (i.e., women and men) to a media hell-bent on encouraging social division, it at least feels like the radical end – of something. Maybe everything. And not just for eccentric sects gathering on hilltops, waiting for the end. There’s a sense that the next year-and-a-half or so will be decisive both in American electoral politics (and society), and in the way the Synod on Synodality will affect the self-understanding of the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

So, what do you do in apocalyptic times – real or imagined?  There’s the way of the world, and the way of wisdom.

The way of the world is hysteria – and, in fact, a strange liking for the constant agitation of the news and social media. If nothing else, it masks existential boredom, the kind of boredom that many people in developed societies feel on a daily basis when basic needs and even luxuries are readily available in relatively calm and peaceful settings. This achievement – the dream of ages – has come at the cost of regarding virtually the entire created universe as mere energy and matter to be exploited and manipulated for human benefit. Under the circumstances, for many people, it’s better – and easier – to let loose moral outrage in fights over climate change or racial “privilege” or recently invented “genders,” than to face the fundamental problem: the bleakness of modern materialism.

The way of wisdom, by contrast, is what it’s always been: a realistic acceptance that we all die, that an end will come, someday, even to the earth, the sun, the very created universe.

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A Great Recent Ancestor

young man and woman were walking in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes in the summer of 1901. And contemplating suicide. It wasn’t romantic despair. They were in love and wanted to live. But as science students at the Sorbonne, they were taught that the world was without meaning, other than the arbitrary order that, scientists believed, had – randomly, somehow – come to be. Such a world seemed intolerable. They wanted something more, something that would give meaning and nobility and purpose to love and life.

The young man was Jacques Maritain, later the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. (Friday was the fiftieth anniversary of his death.) The woman was Raïssa Oumançoff, Russian and Jewish, who after their conversion (via the novelist and certifiable madman Léon Bloy) became a poet and mystical writer. The world always tries to avoid – or at least postpone answering – the question they faced head-on. Ultimately that’s impossible, as even the modern existentialists knew quite well: It’s God or nothingness.

For us a century later, entangled in age-old questions in new-age forms, the Maritains are helpful ancestors: near enough for a sense of continuity, and different enough to show how the great tradition can revive and blossom even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Many Catholics, who should know better, disparage the Neo-Thomism that Maritain and others helped to advance in the first half of the twentieth century. Usually, because they favor the subsequent personalist and communitarian nouvelle théologie and its developments in figures like Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger. But this is to create a division within the polyphony of Catholic tradition where there need not be one, especially decades later when we need what both currents can give us.

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Men with Beards: A Review of ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

Satan is real. . .and really dangerous.

C.S. Lewis put it succinctly in the preface to The Screwtape Letters:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (1973), made a documentary, released in 2017, called The Devil and Father Amorth. “Amorth” referring, of course, to Fr. Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome from 1986 until 2016. Friedkin’s documentary begins in conversation with Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of The Devil (1977), Satan(1981), Lucifer(1984), Mephistopheles (1986) and The Prince of Darkness (1988), in which Burton takes up where Lewis left off:

People ought to stay away from the subject as much as possible. The more you open yourself to thinking about this stuff and start feeling about this stuff, the more room you allow for the supernatural power of evil to come in.

Friedkin chose not to stay away. He filmed Fr. Amorth doing one of his last exorcisms: of an Italian woman, Christina, whom Amorth had already exorcized eight times.

To read the rest of the review, click here . . .

The Two Lords of the World – and Us

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis often referred to Lord of the World, a 1907 novel by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson about an apocalyptic clash between two opposing forces.

One is the Catholic Church, renewed and purified, surviving only marginally in small pockets of believers in various counties, but potently ruling over Rome and a large area around the Eternal City, where 6,000,000 Catholics have gathered – a concession by the Italian government in exchange for the Church giving up its claims in the rest of the country.

The other side is what we would now call “globalism,” which dominates the rest of the world with promises of peace and prosperity (both goods in their proper places, of course).

The book’s title cleverly raises a question: Which is the true “lord”? The God who made heaven and earth, or “the lord of this world,” a “humanist” ruler – actually a front for devilish forces – with his powerful machines and seduction of hearts and minds?

In 1992, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also cited Benson (a brilliant writer and convert whose father had been Archbishop of Canterbury!) in a speech at the Catholic University of Milan. President George H.W. Bush had just called for a New World Order, following the demise of the Soviet Union. The future pontiff cited Benson about the sharpest threat to humanity in our time: “The anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a similar new world order.”

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Getting Serious about the Synod

In the heyday of Liberation Theology, the movement’s theorists often argued that it wasn’t enough for the Church to care for those wounded by political and economic injustice – roughly what Pope Francis has called a “field hospital.” Liberation demanded inquiries into why bodies are floating downstream and forays upstream to find, and deal with, causes. Liberation Theologians weren’t very good at this. (Most Church figures aren’t, because their training is not in political philosophy, economics, or security matters.) They often applied what were already clearly simplistic, discredited Marxist categories to situations in Latin America, and elsewhere in the developing world, where Marx’s “scientific” socialism didn’t really fit.

Pope Francis pets a tiger during an audience with circus members in Paul VI hall at the Vatican June 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-CIRCUS June 16, 2016.

All this came back to mind as I was thinking about the Instrumentum Laboris, the “Working Plan,” for the October Synod on Synodality, which is being written over the next several days in Rome. (I’ll be in Rome later this week and hope to report on the process and the results, which will be presented at a press conference on Thursday). It reminds me of Liberation Theology because the overall approach to the Synod, so far, seems to be trying to address current challenges to “walking together,” without much inquiring into how and why it is that, at this juncture, we face such radical questions. Whatever its shortcomings, Liberation Theology would never have settled for such superficial  treatment.

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Now I Lay Me Down

recently had what’s called a revision total knee replacement (arthroplasty). In 2012, I’d had a partial knee replacement on the medial (inside) part of my right knee, which, frankly, had not felt especially “fixed” from the start. Anyway, it recently failed (i.e., it broke apart).

The problem is a combination of injury and arthritis: a passion for intense sport-based exercise and the ravages of aging. The surgery lasted three hours, and the surgeon was very proud of his work. I’ll likely die before this new knee fails, since the assumed lifespan of the implanted metal and plastic parts should last to or beyond my 110th birthday. And, frankly, were it to “fail” before then, I’m not at all certain I’d want to go through the surgical and rehabilitation process again – or that the medical professionals would recommend I do so.

But that’s not what I want to write about, although that experience and recent cancer treatments have forced me to become more focused on two things: preparing for death and becoming a saint.

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Mystery Week

So, the Creator of the Universe has ridden into the Holy City on the foal of an ass to shouts of Hosanna – which is interpreted, praise and adoration to the one who saves. Right. But it’s fairly certain that, aside from some confused expectations about the “restoration” of Israel – largely of a vague political nature about throwing off the broad and deep state (Rome) occupying the Holy Land at the time – the people shouting and laying down their cloaks and palm branches didn’t much know what they were doing.

It’s a safe bet because after 2000 years of Christian prayer, evangelizing, preaching, martyrdoms, confessors, saints, sages, exorcists, theologians, philosophers, painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, composers, and polemicists, we don’t entirely understand either. Why did the Savior have to come into the world and do and suffer all that he’s about to do and suffer to accomplish the real restoration of Israel and the whole world? In a word, to make all things new? We know what he did. We don’t know precisely why it had to be the way we recall this week.

It’s all, to use the term in its technical theological sense, a mystery, which is to say a truth that we can contemplate because it’s been revealed to us. We may say, for instance, that only God Himself can atone for the offense to His infinite Goodness in Original Sin. But how he achieves that is not a question to which even the most brilliant human brain can work out an answer. It’s simply beyond us. And that’s a good thing because we have to come to see that only something, or rather Someone, beyond us could save us. We don’t save ourselves.

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On Hearing Shakespeare

discovered Shakespeare about the time I discovered movies. There was a TV show, “Saturday Showboat,” that presented what then were already “old movies,” and one morning it was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Max Reinhardt’s 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s great comedy. Reinhardt had directed it the year before on stage at the Hollywood Bowl.

I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time and, having rewatched the film several more times over the last six-plus decades, I can no longer recall how much of Shakespeare’s glorious language I actually understood in the 1950s.

But I do recall that at some point on that day I first watched the movie, my parents were chuckling about something silly a neighbor had done (backed his car into the garage without first opening the garage door, I think), and I’d said, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Mom and Dad looked at me: questioning, amused.

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