Recent News

Remembrance and Foreboding

It was a night of elegance – a benefit this past Thursday for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra held at New York’s Knickerbocker Club, among the most-exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in the world. Allowing the rest of us into the Club now and then for a little chamber music and dinner and champagne helps to pay the bills for a building just off 5thAvenue in Midtown – some very expensive real estate indeed.

A short concert featured Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Strings No. 2 in G Major, Op 77, and included two young musicians from the Orchestra’s Academy. One was an American violinist; the other a Hungarian cellist. The American, Lucas Stratmann, told me later he began studying the violin at age 3-1/2.

But this isn’t about music.

The food was remarkably good, especially the Sevruga caviar atop an egg flan, served in an eggshell and accompanied by a fine white Burgundy. This was followed by loin of lamb wrapped in a veal-and-watercress mousseline, served with a 2014 Pauillac. Dessert was a dark-chocolate tartufo and a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne.

But this isn’t about the food or the wine.

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Ukraine, the Political and the Personal

A woman I’ve known quite well for years, who was born abroad, is half-Ukrainian and half-Russian. We have breakfast together often, almost every morning, and regularly talk over public affairs. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has us both deeply agitated, which is only to be expected – I suppose – since we’re married, and our children have both Ukrainian and Russian blood in their veins. This isn’t just a distant geopolitical crisis for us. It’s also a family matter.

There’s been a lot of analysis of the situation that explores the large historical factors that have led to the present moment. We’ll be bringing you some reports on them in coming days and weeks. But people often exaggerate these days large impersonal social factors, as if individuals hardly matter. Our family background has forced me to think again about more personal, more human elements that are much overlooked and yet are very much in play. Would any other Russian leader, to take the central case before us, have perpetrated this atrocity besides Vladimir Vladirimovich Putin?

Our family has long been very much alive to both historic realities and human factors often out of sight. Veronica was raised mostly Ukrainian but, as a professional iconographer, she has wide contacts among iconographers, theologians, and artists in many countries, including Russia. A prominent Russian iconographer has just sent out this statement signed by hundreds of cultural and political leaders in Russia:

Russia’s war against Ukraine is a SHAME.

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Can Church Divisions Be Healed?

We worry – with good reason – about the deep divisions in public life today, because they more and more resemble a kind of Cold Civil War. When people who have to live alongside one another find that they cannot – and begin publicly “canceling” one another – the prospects aren’t good for the minimal peace and order necessary to human society.

And now we find that, besides public disorder – and intimately related to it – divisions are growing within the Church, a much more serious problem because the Church’s reason for being is to preach the Good News to the whole world, a fundamental and eternal unity beyond all differences under God.

When the body entrusted with that divine mission is itself riven by division, it’s bad enough. But the situation is doubly worrying because many steps that Church authorities have been taking – or not taking – to deal with it seem to be making matters worse.

Worries have risen, for instance, about the “decentralization” that Pope Francis has – as is his habit – loosely spoken about. We’re even hearing of giving individual bishops “true doctrinal authority.”

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Building a Table: “Stories of a Generation – with Pope Francis”

I’ve written enough promotional copy in my career to know it would be silly of me to laugh at the blurb for the new Netflix documentary Stories of a Generation, featuring Pope Francis, about folks like me: “In candid and heartwarming stories, inspiring women and men over 70 share poignant life lessons and pivotal choices from their remarkable journeys.”

Laugh, no; chuckle, maybe.

Begin with the fact that such a congeries of interviews is highly selective: both in who was interviewed and, of course, in their edited responses. Everybody is on his or her best behavior. By that I mean that some subjects, known to be cantankerous (e.g., Martin Scorsese), are here all smiles before the camera.

There is no depression and little anger: mostly sweetness and light, and phrases such as “So, if we could all just learn to love and to respect, the world would be a very different place.” Jane Goodall, the primatologist, says that, which is fine. She has no power over your life. But in one way or another it’s what Xi Jinping dictates: to the people of Hong Kong (and to China’s Christians and Muslims; well, not the Muslims – them he puts in concentration camps), and even Ms. Goodall, shown in Stories of a Generation leading an American crowd in a closed-fist chant of “Together we can! Together we will!,” is given to unpleasant stridency. Most activists are.

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Because It’s Hard

By a providential set of circumstances, I recently visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Take the kids to Disney World, if you will. But the Space Center has the right stuff.  Real stuff.

It features John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962 at Rice University, a year before he was killed, committing America to go to the moon (video here):

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

JFK was not an exemplary Catholic, man, or president. And the “best and the brightest,” the whiz kids who gathered around him and bungled Vietnam and much more, were not what they imagined themselves to be. But they probably helped with the moon speech, and Kennedy delivered it with a clarity and emotion unmatched by any president since – with the exception of Ronald Reagan.

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Our Darkling Plain

In his poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold famously describes the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith.” And it concludes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Many of us today believe that the ignorant armies began to clash by night only with the advent of the Internet and social media. And it’s true that these technology-enabled media allowed a vast expansion of our darkling plain. Who knew, for instance, that – even on television talk shows, where our expectations are rightly quite low – a celebrity like Whoopi Goldberg wouldn’t know that Nazism killed 6 million Jews on the basis of a racism rooted in then-current “science” of a sort?

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Marc Chagall’s Jesus

In Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion,” now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Jesus is in a tallit, the traditional prayer shawl worn by religious Jews, especially the Hassidim. He also wears the sort of headcloth a shepherd might wear. (All Jewish men traditionally cover their heads in prayer.) The barely legible inscription above Christ’s head is the Latin INRI and its Aramaic translation. A menorah is below his feet. Obviously, Chagall meant to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus.

Scholar Ziva Amishai-Maisels of Hebrew University in Jerusalem writes that Chagall’s rendering of “Nazareth” (HaNotzri) in “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” was the artist’s double-entendre, the word Nazarene having become another name for “Christian.” Thus, Amishai-Maisels writes, Chagall “emphasized Jesus’s importance to both Christians and Jews, for the Jewish Jesus with his covered head and his fringed garment is also a Christian.” (Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 15, No.2, 1991)

(It’s interesting to note that in Arabic, the letter nun has been painted by ISIS on Christian homes in Iraq and Syria. It’s the initial letter of Nazarene and used by the terrorists to indicate those to be exiled or martyred. Nun or nün is written similarly in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.)

In 1938, when Chagall painted “White Crucifixion,” European Jews were beginning to face the worst persecution in history.

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The Tragedy Around “Hamlet”

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was written when William Shakespeare was 36 years old. His first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, c. 1590, was written when the playwright was 26; his last, The Two Nobel Kinsmen, c. 1614, when he was 50.

The genius of Shakespeare’s work makes it difficult, probably impossible, to name one play as greatest. Nearly every speaker of English with at least a high-school education (and many without a diploma) knows the titles: The Taming of the Shrew; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Merchant of Venice; Henry V; Julius Caesar; Othello; King Lear; Macbeth; The Tempest. And those are just a dozen out of forty-two.

But, really, it’s Hamlet, isn’t it? It’s the most performed of all the plays – in the theater and on film. The role is a milestone in the career of every actor (and some actresses too), from Richard Burbage to Edwin Booth; from Mel Gibson to Kenneth Branagh; and from Sarah Bernhardt to Ruth Negga.

I believe many productions have miscast the lead. Burbage (of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) was the first actor to get the role, likely when he was 35. Booth (the greatest American actor of the 19th century) first played Hamlet in his twenties and was 58 when last he did. Gibson was 34 in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, and Branagh was 36 in his own version.

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Following Which Science?

This world recently lost several luminaries – Alice von Hildebrand and Joan Didion, Terry Teachout and Sidney Poitier, John Madden and Betty White. Our world is a little poorer without them, and the next world – theologians of the Strict Observance, please allow a metaphysical license here – shines a little brighter. But amid those departed – people like ourselves with great gifts and human flaws – was one who has both fascinated and puzzled me for decades.

E.O. Wilson was for many years Professor of Science at Harvard and a significant figure not only in science but in public affairs. He became embroiled in cultural debates because he popularized the notion of “socio-biology” – put simply, the quite reasonable view that the biological characteristics of many living things are adapted to the external environment, but also to interactions with other members of the same species – wherever there was some sort of biological “society.”

Wilson grew up in Alabama and early on became fascinated with ant colonies, his academic specialty years later. Sociobiology has some utility; it may even provide some insights into human societies.

But to talk about biological structures that have social consequences is a postmodern No-No. Feminists were outraged. (“Biology is not destiny.”) Gays too. (“Born that way” is allowed to point in only one direction in our deeply confused time.) Harvard colleagues, of course, protested publicly.

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Papal Indulgence and the “Style of God”

Future Church historians, looking back at our time, will encounter multiple mysteries. They won’t be puzzled by the essential mysteries of the Faith such as the Incarnation and Real Presence, which are always with us. But they will scratch their heads at the many unnecessarily confusing, ill-informed, and divisive ramblings of the current occupant of the chair of St. Peter. Which we may piously hope will only survive as historical curiosities.

The latest in this sad series is his December handwritten letter to Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, which just came to light, on top of an earlier letter praising that group, which has been condemned by previous popes and multiple American bishops for its unapologetic and unambiguous promotion of homosexuality.

Francis is notorious for psychoanalysis-at-a-distance – witness his repeated claims, based on nothing more, it seems, than some past experience in his own life, that all those “rigid” seminarians and young people in love with the Latin Mass – and “traditional” Catholicism more generally – have some hidden psychological problem and may be mired in something even worse – perhaps even the sin of a lack of charity.

Just as a simple matter of truth, it’s a bad idea to generalize about a large group of people of varying backgrounds and interests, distributed over scores of different nations and cultures around the world. It’s the kind of overgeneralization that you used to learn to avoid by the time you were a college sophomore.

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