Nullity, Humility, and the Ever-Greater Being of Love

As alluded to in the presentation of my poem “Annulment and Afterlife” last month, on the Feast of the Dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., answered in the affirmative to Angela’s petition for annulment of the marriage we entered into on July 25th, 1998, at St. Anthony’s near Catholic University of America.

This is a judgment full of both sadness and relief for me.

The Strangeness of the Father’s Care

“Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?” (Wisdom 9:13). Today’s first reading reminds us that even this finite world is full of riddles, and yet the world's patterns themselves are subject to a superordinate intentionality which is incomprehensible. We must be humble before the LORD, and hold nothing in reserve as leverage against Him. The Gospel reminds us, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We have no basis from which to judge the mysterious dispensations of God. No basis at all—not even nature. Ask Abraham on Moriah.

As Saint John of the Cross writes, “All things of earth and heaven, compared with God, are nothing.”

This is also the day on which is marked the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Happy Mary’s birthday!) The second matins reading for the feast, from Saint Andrew of Crete, strikingly makes a similar point as today’s Gospel, for the birth of Our Lady is the prelude to Christmas, when Christ reveals something beyond the comprehension of even the divinely cultivated religious consciousness of the elect people of God:

“‘The fulfillment of the law is Christ Himself,’ who does not so much lead us away from the letter as lift us up to its spirit. For the law’s consummation was this, that the very lawgiver accomplished His work and changed letter into spirit, summing everything up in Himself and, though subject to the law, living by grace. He subordinated the law, yet harmoniously united grace with it, not confusing the distinctive characteristics of the one with the other, but effecting the transition in a way most fitting for God. He changed whatever was burdensome, servile, and oppressive to what is light and liberating, so that we should be enslaved no longer under the elemental spirits of the world, as the Apostle says, nor held fast as bondservants under the letter of the law.”

That is, even if an angel of light (or a theologian!) tells you that he or she has it all figured out based on Christian revelation and natural law, remember that the Christian mystery, and life in this agonized world, and the depths of another human, will never be anything but mysterious.

Acquiescence to What Is

Angela and I both agree as to the nullity of our marriage.

It was always my desire to reconcile for the sake of the kids, and I repeatedly sought that. But the nullity of the marriage became apparent to me even before the sharing of the whole of life between us was ended more than five years ago. However, especially when you have children together, even the fact of nullity should not decide things in a troubled marriage. There must always be the preferential option for the weaker.

At a certain point, though, you simply have to respect the other person’s resolve, even if it is beyond one’s understanding. Angela has followed the proper ecclesiastical process in order to make non-reconciliation definitive. I bow to her resolve, and I do so with the relief that if there is to be no reconciliation, at least I may be officially free to find a partner in life whom I may have and hold till the end—having endured, I hope, sufficient purgation to be worth being held onto. Much I have had to confront in myself: my sins, my codependence, spiritual and emotional defects. Please God I am now worthy to marry my Beatrice, whoever that turns out to be.

The permanent separation of a man and woman who have married (for which we use the shorthand “divorce”), and who have children together, is a catastrophe all around. [This is always true, but a crucial qualifier must always be noted: if there is abuse, the victim must be supported in gaining a new life.]

Such a broken partnership is an ongoing and bleeding catastrophe for children. My children have a right not to feel it alright that everything “didn’t work out”—and what they aren’t able to feel, I will try to feel for them.

Divorce is also a serious wound in the community, ramifying in ruptured ties, failed responsibilities of care, betrayals of friendships. The point of life on earth is to learn to love one another. Even the mere awkwardness of divorce puts an obstacle in the way of intensifying communion. Who knows what to say or do when confronted with a broken family? I hate causing others discomfort, but divorce necessarily does that. If we are committed to increasing charity in this loveless world, we must take in earnest the task, the task of our crucified Lord, of absorbing ruptures in concrete ways so that the mission of ever more extensive and intensive love may be advanced.

(The particular counter-witness of our marriage’s dissolution continues to weigh heavily on me. There will always be something surreal here.)

All this said, the dissolution of a marriage is not susceptible of definitive judgment by other humans. Have mercy on those who survive such shipwreck—especially for the sake of the children, who are the main point of sexual rules and marital law. If there is no reconciliation between the partners, so much more must there be communal reconciliation to draw the wounded parties back into a life of fruitfulness in service of the Father’s plan of loving goodness. The children are not served if either or both of their parents are ostracized.

Humility and Our Responsibility for Marriage

If we care about the health of marriage, and it should matter keenly to us, we must treat human development as an urgent task (in ourselves and in others). But this effort requires one thing above all: humility. Humility before the mystery of the Father’s plan, which is always stranger than any of us can ever guess at, and humility before the mystery of the other person. The work that has to be done cannot be done by a person who thinks he or she has it all figured out. Those who think they do, should not be giving counsel to anyone. No one has integrated every desire operative within his or her heart or psyche. (Certainly, repression is not integration.) We all have so much to learn from each other. It's not just a truth of classical liberalism: gurus of any type are evil; all tyranny over souls must be overthrown.

This is one reason why propagating liberal arts education is such a priority for me: I think it essential for human development. But there are other factors bearing on the body-soul whole which have not been taken into account adequately. Above all, there's the epidemic of trauma (passed from one generation to the next, not least through homes, both broken and intact). There’s a crisis in our ability to empathize. There’s the hypnosis of consumerism and a cybernetic contraction of the human spirit.

Above all, we need to integrate the wisdom of the dark night into social pedagogy. Our religion is in crisis not least because of that privation.

If we care about marriage, we must be intentional about fighting the enemies of our capacity to grow in love and to make a lifelong commitment from the heart (which is not the same as sticking to a commitment by the book—which ends up causing destruction in other ways).

Gratitude and Prayer

To those who actually tried to bring about reconciliation in our situation: I cannot thank you enough. For those who are managing the difficult task of loving both of us and our kids, thus beginning the work of absorbing this catastrophe and integrating the Frankses back into the community: my gratitude is abiding.

What I still desire with regard to this relationship: a warmhearted approach to “co-parenting” (the awkward term that’s used to describe how divorced parents raise their kids). Please pray for this. At least my eldest child’s moving in with me gives me hope that my fatherhood isn’t over with their childhood.

Please pray for my still-unfolding vocation. I hope to create more in this world, if that be the good Father’s loving will. Please pray for Angela and her new life. Please pray, above all, for my children, that they somehow continue to trust in the reality of love and grow up whole within that faith.

If you mourn the dissolution of this marriage, you do not feel differently than I have felt.

Some of us prefer to stay married despite recognizing the nullity of the bond. What we call the indissolubility of marriage has everything to do with the rights of spouses who do not want to be put away and, above all, the rights of children. [Again one is not speaking here of tyrants and abusers, whose rights end when they spiritually enslave.]

But sometimes rights are unenforceable, especially when it comes to the most intimate and inexpressible depths of the person. One does what one can, one does what one must, and then one must acquiesce before the dignity of the other person, whose heart and psyche one cannot judge, whose depths one cannot plumb. It is a great psychosis to believe that one can compel the mystery of the other person. Only God has right to the deepest places in another.

Before the often-harsh, always-strange, mysteries of His reality, I bend my knees to the Father, from Whom all lineage in heaven and on earth is derived. He is sovereign over all, and I trust in His goodness despite the pain He allows and orchestrates.

To Angela, whom I married in such sincerity and joy of heart, I will forever be grateful for bearing the most wonderful children. Nothing nullifies such a gift. May the good Father bless her in the life she has set out on, may He hold my children when I cannot, and may He give me a home and new scope for the gifts He has bestowed on me. May He bless all of you who speak blessing upon the Frankses, and may you always have evidence of His invincible love for you.

True Love Must be a Stranger

[This was a reflection posted on Facebook on the matins readings for 18 December 2018. It’s been a hectic half year since I actively posted on this website, including sharing a blog at Patheos, and my hope in the next week is to go back and retrieve salient posts from my Facebook page to present here as a way back into it.]

Transcending time and space, love begins invisibly, moves beyond our ability to conceptualize, and tends towards infinite mystery.

That incomprehensibility is very good in itself, of course. But in the realm of finitude and fallenness, love can lose its way, disappearing, paradoxically, into the visibility of worldly plausibility structures and the projects of the self. Our histories of pain and our habits of use drain love of its glorious strangeness, its ability to surprise us.

We are left with a manipulable ghost, a vacuous idol embodying simply ourselves. But what we need is otherness. Another spirit. Another Spirit. If we are only talking to ourselves, then there's nothing to hope for. To manage to make the world in our image, is to lose everything. It is to gain the whole world—and lose our soul.

The Bible relentlessly campaigns against idolatry because the Revealer yearns for there to be love in the world.

And love requires "dying for the invisible," to riff off of the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. That may sound like a pernicious otherworldliness; it is rather the only condition for having any joy in this world. Love must be other enough to break our inane planning, or all there is, is anesthesia (consumerism, the culture industry, drugs) and the libido dominandi.

Today's matins readings triggered these reflections. In Isaiah 43 we hear:

"Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are upon beasts and cattle; they must be borne up on shoulders, carried as burdens by the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to save those who bear them, they too go into captivity."

Our "mind-forged manacles" as Blake puts it: to take our intentionality as the measure of reality is to trap ourselves in hopeless delusion, Marx's commodity fetishism as the currency of the world. Or, as Dylan puts it in "Mississippi": "City's just a jungle, more games to play/Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away."

A voice not our own must speak into the prison-house of our consciousness. Let's call that voice "love":

"Hear Me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, My burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you. It is I Who have done this; I Who will continue; and I Who will carry you to safety."

Love creates the burden that it carries. Only as self-sacrificial can love be creative; as such, love creates everything.

The second matins reading comes from the Epistle to Diognetus, and adds faith to what we have seen about the essential inter-implication of hope and love. No love, no hope. No faith, no love. When it comes to love, we have to trust in the invisible. If we do not, then it isn't love we are facing, but only ourselves.

"[God the Creator] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan, and shared it only with His Son. As long as He preserved this secrecy and kept His own wise counsel, He seemed to be neglecting us, to have no concern for us. But when through His beloved Son, He revealed and made public what He had prepared from the very beginning, He gave us all at once gifts such as we could never have dreamt of, even sight and knowledge of Himself."

God means us well, though everything we see seems to indicate the contrary. Love escapes our calculations.

What is the Father's plan of loving goodness? Simply this, to share limitless love under conditions of limitedness. So every love on earth is signed with the Cross. And every true love on earth becomes visible only by the total humility of a manger.

A predator sets the banquet of the world before himself; a lover is food that the beloved might live, and that they together might live a life, the roots of which are sunk in the soil of the Trinity and whose topmost branches dance the incomprehensible figures of the Spirit—and which never stop rising and branching and bearing fruit.

Self, Modernity, Kingdom

[Posted on Facebook yesterday.]

"You men have within you a desire to behold the supreme good. Now when you are told that the majesty of God is exalted above the heavens, that His glory is inexpressible, His beauty indescribable, and His nature transcendent, do not despair because you cannot behold the object of your desire. If by a diligent life of virtue you wash away the film of dirt that covers your heart, then the divine beauty will shine forth in you."

In today's matins, Saint Gregory of Nyssa glosses "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God" by combining it with "The Kingdom of God is within you."

Now the Kingdom is dynamite for politics, because here we speak of the justice of Jesus accomplished on the Cross, the justification, the vindication, of each of us sinners by a limitless love, opening the way to universal reconciliation. But politics is inseparable from interiority, and from the vision born of silence and stillness, the eye for the invisible, for what is noble and beautiful and true in spite of the worldly visibilities of winning.

That is, the revolution of love always begins with earnest and perpetual conversion of heart. The solitary relationship between the soul and the Threefold Love is no ladder to be kicked away after universal reconciliation and intimacy are reached. The secret of every love and all solidarity are the private intensities coursing between self and God, a relation as tempestuous as any on earth. But once each combatant is exhausted, comes the blessing.

The self is the great obstacle and the great gift. And everything true about the modern age and its subjective turn is unleashed when we have the eyes to see the transcendence in glorious array pressing in, within, what we had thought our private ownmost. In the most solitary place, one finds the universality of love.

After Roe

Boston-area friends, do you want to engage in the renewal of civic deliberation?

As I've pointed out to the state's leading papers, even should Roe be overturned, that would not restore the right to life of the innocent in law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Supreme Judicial Court's construction of John Adams's Constitution (in Moe v. Secretary of Administration and Finance) is that it provides a "greater degree of protection to a woman's right to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy by abortion than does the Federal Constitution..."

That is, even if Roe goes, we have to win a public argument in the Commonwealth to see the most powerless human life protected in law.

It is an argument I am convinced we can win, but only if we pro-lifers expose ourselves again to the full force of the first principles of social philosophy. We will see some of the tactical positionings of the last decade dissolving under the light of social and self analysis. We'll be able to have a candid conversation with those who support abortion, in which each of us stands under the measure of inconvenient truth.

This is an essential component of my vision for Mass. Citizens for Life: MCFL should serve as the catalyst for a renewed civic deliberation concerning the requirements of the common good, and for a renewed, trans-partisan commitment to securing the conditions corresponding to the equal dignity of each human life.

We began this work with the inaugural year of the Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate Program, and we continue the conversation with a summer seminar on Love, Power, Liberty.

Here's the syllabus:

Week 1 (July 7th): C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves; Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 20; I-II, qq. 25-28; II-II, qq. 23-27
Week 2 (July 14th): Josef Pieper, “Love”; Romano Guardini, Power and Responsibility
Week 3 (July 21st): Michel Foucault, “Right of Death and Power over Life”; Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response
Week 4 (July 28th): Lord Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” “The History of Freedom in Christianity”; J. S. Mill, On Liberty
Week 5 (August 4th): Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals
[No class, August 11th]
Week 6 (August 18th): Dante, Purgatorio; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Truth and Freedom”

A Fatherhood without Borders: Paternity and the Expansion of Life

[A "From the Chairman" column posted on the Mass. Citizens for Life website on June 29th: I provided the following frame on Facebook: 

Before switching to the one thing this President seems to get right (and the real possibility that Roe will be overturned in the near term), I wanted to lay down a marker as Chairman of Mass. Citizens for Life.

We are in no way a partisan organization. Our one mission is to restore the right to life of the innocent in law. I make no apologies for prioritizing defense of the most powerless human lives. None at all. The preferential option for the poor is not a sectarian principle. It's simply basic social ethics. And the poorest of the poor is the unborn child.

Pursuing that option in earnest requires commitment to certain other basic principles of social ethics, such as subsidiarity. We cannot be pro-life and fail to uphold subsidiarity vigorously.

It also requires defending the equal dignity of each human life, which is why no pro-lifer can, except at the cost of radical incoherence, give quarter to racism.

To be pro-life is to be magnanimous, to fight to vindicate the rights of others. It allows no room for meanness of spirit. However the complexities of, say, immigration are to be worked out (and we have no position on that as such), pro-life magnanimity means having a heart as large as the world, and a preference, in every case, for the dispossessed.

When a man joins with a woman and a new human life comes into existence, a new father is created. Nothing will ever change the fact, no matter how long the child lives. The man has become a father and, especially the first time it happens (if natural dynamisms have not been short-circuited), once he’s made aware of the fact, he begins to grow into the specific responsibility that is paternity, his soul gestating within the womb of the providential universe—unto a new form of care.

This year’s Mass. March for Life took place two weekends ago, on Father’s Day. This conjunction inspires meditation upon the necessity of paternal care to generate a culture of life.

I’ve come across no better expression of this nexus than what the great French poet Charles Péguy writes in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. He understands that the world goes on solely because of children, and a father strains like Atlas to sustain the world—even to make it ramify beyond inertia.

“My three virtues, says God./Master of the Three Virtues./My three virtues are no different than men and women in their homes./Children are never the ones who work./But no one ever works except for children./It’s never the child who goes to the field, who tills and who sows, and who reaps and who harvests the grapes and who trims the vine and who fells the trees and who cuts the wood./For winter./To warm the house in winter./But would the father have the heart to work if he didn’t have his children./If it weren’t for the sake of his children.”

These weeks have also seen the tragic spectacle on our southern border, with children taken away from mothers and fathers. I have some sense of what a father might feel to have his children ripped away, and I tell you that no one of moral feeling, and certainly no one with a Christian conscience, should entertain the thought without being filled with zeal for justice. Unjustified state violation of the integrity of the family is transgression of one of the most basic principles of social ethics: subsidiarity. And when subsidiarity is violated with regard to families, maternal and paternal care is destroyed and new life is endangered at the root. 

A few months ago, I noted (concerning the tragedy of Alfie Evans) that, regardless of the complexity of the medical issues involved, the principle of subsidiarity cannot be abrogated except under the most extreme of situations. The nation-state, the supreme artifice of modernity, is, I believe, a necessary thing, a good thing, but it is also a dangerous thing, given the chthonic pull of nationalism (not to be conflated with patriotism) and the totalitarian tendencies of the bureaucratic administration of life. Without subsidiarity, the state (and the atomized populace of such a state), forget the most basic human decencies and the most basic hedges on popular/bureaucratic overreach. These are perilous times for basic human rights, and a child’s right to live and flourish requires remembering that the modern nation is no sacrosanct god and there are rights no power on earth may violate (the right to life, the right to freedom of conscience, etc.) So, we must also bear in mind the artificiality of the nation-state when thinking about borders, because the free movement of people is an ab-original right, absolutely pre-dating the emergence of the nation.

Of course MCFL takes no position on the specifics of immigration reform. But it is every pro-lifer’s responsibility to maintain the inviolability of subsidiarity, and preeminently when it comes to the right of familial integrity over against state claims. Certainly, subsidiarity cannot be usurped by the state for something so far down the line of positive law (versus the human rights of natural law) as the maintenance of borders.

As Pope Leo XIII puts it in Rerum novarum: “Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, ‘at least equal rights’; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire. 

“The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself.”

Family integrity, and parental care, have everything to do with the sanctity of human life, its creation and its development. You can’t honor one without honoring the other.

It is also incumbent upon pro-lifers, given the actual political pathways open to us, to note that allowing the Republican Party to collapse into racism and xenophobia would be a disaster for the pro-life cause as a civic movement strictly speaking. Obviously, a pro-lifer cannot support a racist party, and given that the Democratic Party is zealously committed to the legal right to privately execute unborn children, we cannot allow demagogically fanned racism fester among Republicans.

A father’s heart keeps growing with the gestation and birth and raising of his children. It grows and grows within and towards the limitless horizons of the good Father’s love, Who looks upon all the dwellers of the earth with care. Life requires expansive and expanding love in the heart of fathers.

A Plea for Patriotic Cosmopolitanism: On Immigration and the Limitlessness of Christian Charity

1. No state can separate parents from children without incurring the kind of divine judgment second in severity only to that earned by sanctioning the execution of children. (An interlocutor indicated that I should add the obvious qualifier: unless the parent has committed a serious crime. Violating immigration procedure doesn't even come close to being a serious crime. If one were confused on the point, brief advertence to the exigencies of subsidiarity and the raw trauma involved when families are broken apart should be enough to put things into perspective.) 

2. Animus against immigrants is supremely unAmerican. The United States is the cosmopolitan nation, composed of all the nations of the world. 

3. Pretending as if only one of the major parties is holding immigrant lives hostage is perverse, making it impossible to gain a democratic consensus for immigration policies infused with Christian charity. (Both Democrats and Republicans play chicken with real people, and do so for electoral advantage, balkanizing through demagogic mystifications. We should refuse to be tools of our oligarchic political class, which alone benefits when we demonize fellow Americans for having different partisan allegiances. Turning us into little pharisees and demagogues, our oligarchs live their protected lives untouched by any threat of a revolution in the souls of the people. That said, it is one thing for the Democratic Party, which is officially committed to the disposal of inconvenient lives, to play this game. It is quite another for the Republican Party, supposedly pro-life, to not only play the same game, but to spread hateful lies calumniating whole populations of good but desperate people and to refuse to see the plain-as-day Christian imperative of charity that must drive us as we discuss the complexities of balancing national integrity and the universalist demands of our shared humanity, demands infinitely heightened by a God Who seeks to unite all the nations in one community of love.)

4. A revolution of soul must happen. What I argue for is a patriotic cosmopolitanism, that is, a recognition of the necessity of national integrity, but an integrity cosmopolitan in impulse and intent, hospitable to the dispossessed of the earth. I hold to the former on the grounds of political philosophy; I hold to the latter as a Christian.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

If we are in earnest about the Christian imperative to welcome the stranger and the human imperative to make a preferential option for the poor, we will abhor both major political parties when it comes to immigration.

To make partisan hay for the Democratic Party out of most Republicans’ indefensible (from the viewpoint of Christian charity) anti-immigrant policies, is to mark one out as a tool of the oligarchy—and compromises any chance actually to secure more hospitable treatment of those seeking a new life in America. Do we want to convince fellow Americans of the moral urgency of humane and Christian treatment of immigrants, or do we want to indulge the pleasures of self-righteousness and condemnation?

What are we to make of the spectacle of fulmination only now, though President Obama still holds the record for deporting more people than any other President? He talked a good immigration game while refusing to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform when the Democrats dominated the elected branches of government. (And, no, his 2014 executive actions cannot substitute for Congressional action. That’s not how our system works. His late-in-the-game orders may embody the right policy, but they lacked durability because they avoided the democratic work of going through the legislative branch—and thereby also lacked constitutionality.) Talk about the cynical manipulation of a pro-life issue: Democrats talk and talk and talk about immigration because they think the electoral politics of the thing works for them—but when they had a chance to deliver, they did not. And they never will.

Neither party leadership will do right by either the American people or immigrants because they belong to what Peggy Noonan has called the protected class. All the rest of us are their pawns. They live in a world untouched by economic dislocation. They can play their games while undocumented workers clean their houses, mow their golf courses, and meet their foodie appetites. So, the Democratic elite will toothlessly demagogue immigration reform in a bid to harness for themselves America’s future demographics. And the Republican elite will viciously whip up class resentment. (The former saying the right things about immigrants, the latter drawing on the reality that the burden of assimilating new populations falls disproportionately on the working poor—indeed, any serious and just attempt to reform immigration must seek to mitigate that latter fact by finding ways to shift that burden to the protected class.)

Do we want to create an American consensus on immigration reform? Then we must not pretend as if the only villains in this story are Republicans. Once we all acknowledge how horribly both parties, our oligarchic overlords, have acted on this issue, the partisan temperature lowers, opening the possibility for American citizens to step back and think about this issue from the ground up.

The Return of Know-Nothing Immigrant Scapegoating

Now we have this anti-immigrant President whose xenophobic rhetoric should make every American’s blood run cold, and which should nauseate every Christian. Trump rhetorically normalizes the grossest Know-Nothing racism (indeed, these are overwhelmingly Catholics being scapegoated). One may have a more restrictive view of immigration than I have. Fine. But you don’t help your position by defending the indefensible.

The President executed a policy separating children from their parents—indeed a truly wicked choice by him and the Attorney General. Even if one thinks closed borders are compatible with reason and charity, no conservative can think it okay for the coercive power of any government on earth to violate the integrity of any family on earth. Do we only care about government intrusion into the domestic round when white babies are involved? Subsidiarity is not something any conservative should dismiss under any circumstance.

I happened to hear that miserly soul Michael Anton yesterday attempting to refute the necessity of an increasing population for this nation’s common good—as if Thanos wore glasses, or Malthus had come to dominate the Republican Party. No movement pro-lifer could find his stupid refusal to recognize the reality of the catastrophic effects of demographic winter anything but insane.

These are not pro-life positions. They are the other thing—the culture of death full throttle.

What we need is a serious discussion of principles. Can a nation that would claim any relation at all to a Christian heritage, which happens to be the richest nation on earth, think that the necessity of regulating national borders somehow incompatible with looking at the desperate people showing up on our doorstep as humans for which we are responsible?

The Nation-State and Cosmopolis

I believe in the necessity of the nation-state. I follow political philosopher Pierre Manent in thinking the modern nation-state the only viable expression of the political in the modern world, indeed in the world after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Manent’s argument takes seriously the power of the Catholic Church as a factum in geopolitics. Can the city-state adequately preserve political life in the face of such a cosmopolitan and universalizing authority? Or, to update the vocabulary for a time when Catholic anti-liberalism is on the rise: is it possible to scale back to sub-national political communities? Dante in De monarchia and The Divine Comedy shows us that Aristotelian-sized polities could not avoid constant warfare (internal and external), incapable as they were of being a second sun to the Catholic Church’s solar preeminence. (And without a temporal counterweight, the Church fell into grossest corruption.)

But then Dante mistakenly argues for a single world emperor to counterbalance the Pope. That effectively eliminates the political: the unitary ruler has all the governmental power, and there is no scope for common self-government. (This loss of the political is not mitigated when the international imperium is vested in a bureaucratic elite, rather than in a single ruler, à la the European Union.) Boosterism for world-empire also fails to foresee the problem presented by modern technological power/biopower, which makes supremely dangerous any vesting of ultimate authority in an international ruler or elite.

That is, Dante overshoots in thinking a world-empire necessary to counterbalance the Church. That is too much power to be concentrated in the hands of one or the few. The nation-state is the mean between the extremes of fissiparous communitarianism and the nightmare of an imperial world order.

So, with Manent, I believe that politics must be sited in a place in-between the local and the global. That place is the nation-state, full of dangers of its own, but the only political form capable of channeling modern power, while balancing (and, yes, this is still a question) the universalism of the Catholic Church. As a Madisonian, I believe in the fragmentation of power, but with Madison, I believe that a continental polity is not an oxymoron.

Beyond my commitment to the nation-state as such, I am committed to this nation. I am a proud American. If one wants completely unregulated borders, that means siding with the forces of bureaucratic internationalism, with the global oligarchic elite, against patriotic devotion to some region of the earth.

And yet, I love America not least because it is the cosmopolitan nation, formed of all the nations, united by the universalist principles of natural law and equal human dignity. And I love America because I do indeed believe Christianity has a special claim on this nation, and Christianity is the cosmopolitan religion, bending all the powers of this world towards the New City, that Jerusalem from above intended by the good Lord to embrace every person on earth and in history. Charity does not stop at national borders. Universal reconciliation (making what was two, one) is the Christian mandate. To be sure, universality can only be achieved through particularity, but it must never be forgotten: universal community must be the secret impulse of our every action. The horizon of legal justice in the soul is always the common good—articulated in terms of family, voluntary associations, and nation, yes, but always also a good common to the single body of humanity.

So, let’s talk as Americans, in good faith (not as patsies of the protected class) about what it will take, prudentially, practically, to care for the stranger who has made the perilous pilgrimage to this land provisioned with nothing but a desperate hope that this our shining city on a hill will make a little place for them, as this great nation has done for every single one of us whose family origins lie in a foreign country. And those of us who are Christians, let us remind ourselves that the demands of charity are limitless.

[Addendum: I was asked why violation of immigration procedure is not a serious crime. To which I answered that regulation of borders isn't even a tertiary derivative of the natural law. Asked for further elucidation, I responded:

The first precept of law is that good is to be done and pursued, and evil avoided, ramifies into a few other fundamental natural-law inclinations: towards preservation of one's life, towards reproduction of the species, towards life in society, towards the pursuit of truth and the worship of God. To live out these inclinations we have the secondary precepts of natural law to be found in the Ten Commandments, the violation of which usually constituting a serious crime.

Life in society could lead, much further downstream, to a need for maintaining national integrity, but a lot of work has to be done before you get there. Some of that work I myself have provided above via an explication of Dante and Manent. But there is nothing natural, as such, about the nation-state. It is the supreme artifice of modernity. It is one I happen to think necessary, but the nation-state is not written in the stars.

Besides that fact, there is also the fact that national integrity does not mean one can simply seal one's borders. The right of free movement is a natural human right, rooted in the most primal facts of bodily autonomy. You know these basic facts every time you take a step uncompelled. Here the fact that the earth is meant for all (which grounds the universal destination of goods as a fundamental principle of social justice) must also be adverted to.

So, given the artificial reality of nations, there is a need to REGULATE borders, but there is no absolute right of a people to seal off a realm. (The question of granting citizenship is a distinct question.) The regulations, therefore, cannot have any absolute force. They certainly cannot justify a foreign state coming in and breaking a family apart. Not even close.]

Saying the Truth Falsely

Can truth ever be communicated through arrogance?

Saint Gregory the Great insists that it's impossible, in yesterday's second matins reading glossing the first, from the Book of Job, in which the young gun and hothead Elihu breaks in to rebuke Job.

Saint Gregory clarifies how only humble words can be existentially true to the Word Who humbles Himself. We cannot evangelize the world by speaking from a height of self-righteousness. We cannot be good teachers, and certainly not good theologians, if we take the true and use it like a club. The true is falsified by a pharisaical existential stance.

Quoting Elihu, Saint Gregory explains him: "'Listen, Job, to what I say and ponder all my words.' The teaching of the arrogant has this characteristic: they do not know how to introduce their teaching humbly, and they cannot convey correctly to others the things they understand correctly themselves. With their words they betray what they teach; they give the impression that they live on lofty heights from which they look down disdainfully on those whom they are teaching; they regard the latter as inferiors, to whom they do not deign to listen as they talk; indeed, they scarcely deign to talk to them at all--they simply lay down the law."

Pope Francis? No, just another faithful pope reminding his flock how self-contradictory it is to try to communicate the self-abasing God from a stance of superiority.

There is a pride in the world that must be humbled, the pride that refuses to submit to the One Who has submitted Himself to our godforsakenness out of love for us. But a Christian replays this pride when convinced he or she owns the infinite truth gratuitously infused in baptism, rather than being owned by that truth such that the baptized are obligated to respect the appearance of truth wherever it appears, even should an atheist speak it. To thunder proudly against the pride of the world, is to double the world's sin with sacrilege. Authentic Christian teaching requires utter humility--not humility as a pose, but bone-deep poverty of spirit, an absolute conviction that I am master of no truth and that truth must always master me.

I must always be about meditating upon the truth, catching up to it, being secondary to it, always letting the truth give rise to thought. This generates peace and peaceableness, and makes true doctrine possible:

"...true doctrine all the more effectively shuns the voice of arrogance through reflection, in which it pursues the arrogant teacher himself with the arrows of its words. It ensures that the pride which it attacks in the hearts of those listening to the sacred words will not in fact be preached by arrogant conduct. For true doctrine tries both to teach by words and to demonstrate by living example--humility, which is the mother and mistress of virtues. Its goal is to express humility among the disciples of truth more by deeds than by words."

For the teaching of the Word is always only through incarnation. To speak in a way that abstracts from the flesh of everyday life is to speak mere words, merely our little words and privatized versions of the truth.

True teaching communicates self-emptying love, radical in its abject unrequital--bending, kneeling, begging hearers to hear what is freely offered to all.

My Case for Catholicism

[Originally posted on Facebook, June 3rd, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.]

If I have a case to make for becoming, and remaining, Catholic, it has everything to do with the Eucharistic Jesus. The ecclesiastical bureaucracy too often scandalizes with its talk of mercy while throwing people away and betraying reconciliation; bourgeoisified Christianity likewise fosters the anti-Christ of counter-charity and scapegoating; the richness of Catholic culture and theology suffers trivialization and oblivion.

But Jesus never scapegoats; He is the scapegoat. He never betrays; He is the Betrayed. He never stops loving; He is unrequited Love.

In the desert of our lovelessness, His absolutely open Heart provides manna. Jesus pours Himself out without reserve in the Eucharist. In the darkest night, He never leaves us alone. He is right there, in every tabernacle in the world, at every Mass celebrated upon the altar of our long history.

To be Catholic is to see the Corpus on the Cross, and to enjoy the most tangible intimacy with our dear Lord and Savior.

To be Catholic is to suffer. But you will never suffer alone, for sweet Jesus speaks on our tongues, like bread, like wine. And the Word says one thing: I would give My life for yours every day, until the end of the world.

Happy Solemnity of Corpus Christi!

The Greatness of the Small: On the Feast of the Visitation

[After a long hiatus, here's a "From the Chairman" blog for Mass. Citizens for Life.]

Giotto, "The Visitation," 1306, Scrovegni Chapel.

Giotto, "The Visitation," 1306, Scrovegni Chapel.


Catholics celebrated the Feast of the Visitation yesterday, the newly pregnant Mary arising in haste to make for the hill country around Jerusalem in order to take care of her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-56).

What we have before us is one of the grandest pro-life tableaux: two pregnant women with their unborn children at the center of God the Father’s decisive breaking into history to realize His good purposes for the world. The radiation of the gallant love of the Father through the Holy Spirit warms this scene of song and dance. Embryonic Jesus, through His mother, causes John to leap in the womb; Elizabeth is inspired to utter beatitudes; Mary sings. The public reality is moved by the hidden and small. 

What Mary sings is the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.” 

Those first words in the Greek (megalynei hē psychē) might seem familiar, putting one in mind of Aristotle’s crowning virtue: megalopsychia, or magnanimity—greatness of mind, heart, spirit. Those who are magnanimous do bold things for the common good, but are also patient when slighted. If someone cuts you off in traffic, to be magnanimous is to be unperturbed because nuisances do not disturb the truly great: nobility, not meanness. 

The radical reorientation that Mary performs in her song reveals that magnanimity is rooted in humility, in smallness before the priority, the initiative, the grandeur of God. Because of her humility, her being grateful to be a bondswoman of God, praising God in gratitude for His goodness, I say because of her very smallness, Mary can be filled with the greatness of God: “All generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.”

We pro-lifers can draw from the same reality. We would do great things for God; we would change hearts, change a culture, make a nation more hospitable to each human life. But we can only do this great and glorious thing by being as small as the hidden children we serve and the mothers in crisis who are crushed in spirit, desperately awaiting the visitation of a hidden but good God. When we decrease, divine goodness increases in the world, and greatness comes upon us.

Revolution of Love: On the Feast of the Visitation

Happy Feast of the Visitation to you all!

It's an obviously great pro-life celebration: two pregnant women with their unborn children at the heart of salvation history (Luke 1:39-56). The radiation of the gallant love of the Father warms the scene. All love and life blossoms from this festival of song and dance. Mary sings the Magnificat; she sings of the revolution of love, with all the pathos of the Kingdom of romance and solidarity, all the adventure of hospitality and new life.

The first matins reading for the feast (from the Song of Songs) is irresistible to me, one of the most beautiful in all of Scripture:

My lover speaks; he says to me, 

'Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!
For see, the winter is past, 
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth, 
the time of pruning the vines has come, 
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs, 
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!

'O my dove in the clefts of the rock, 
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you, 
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.'

Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
he would be roundly mocked.

With Kings and Counselors

We embark on the Book of Job in matins, and this great testament of suffering gives us great poetry. 

Troubles plague us until we die, and there is mercy in that limit. Cursing the day of his birth, wishing he had died on that day, recognizing how vain it is to live a life if it all comes to such grief, Job points to the mercy of that limit:

"For then I should have lain down and been tranquil;
     had I slept, I should then have been at rest
With kings and counselors of the earth
     who built where now there are ruins
Or with princes who had gold
     and filled their houses with silver.
There the wicked cease from troubling,
     there the weary are at rest.
There the captives are at ease together,
     and hear not the voice of the slave driver.
Small and great are there the same,
     and the servant is free from his master."

For to be pressed hard by God is hard, dying but never dead, though it be in service of the glory of the Lord:

"Why is light given to the toilers,
     and life to the bitter in spirit?
They wait for death and it comes not;
     they search for it rather than for hidden treasures,
Rejoice in it exultingly,
     and are glad when they reach the grave:
Men whose path is hidden from them,
     and whom God has hemmed in!"

We have just finished Ecclesiastes, and these two books communicate the deepest wisdom of worldly philosophy, a wisdom that is in no way effaced by the Paschal Mystery, but is in fact radicalized by it. Somehow, though, in the hell of godforsakenness absorbed into the Cross, in that other One Who traverses the flames with us, we can, perhaps, say Yes to the samsara of this wheel of pain, the eternal recurrence of the same wearisome torments.

To Become Neighbor to the Stranger

Christianity means radical hospitality, for we follow a God Who divests Himself of everything in order to welcome each of us into the Kingdom. I won't draw out the current political implications in detail here, but welcoming the stranger is one of the absolute imperatives laid upon each Christian. Yes, there are political mediations to work through, but the impulse and imperative is so essential to Christianity, it won't ever be a matter of making excuses why we can't welcome the stranger: the pressure, within each Christian heart, will always be towards how we can welcome more.

These reflections are sparked by today's beautiful matins reading from Saint Philip Neri:

"The Lord is near; do not be anxious about anything.

"This is a great truth, that He ascended above all heavens, yet is near to those on earth. Who is this stranger and neighbor if not the One Who became our neighbor out of compassion?

"The man lying on the road, left half-dead by robbers, the man treated with contempt by the priest and the levite who passed by, the man approached by the passing Samaritan to take care of him and help him, that man is the whole human race. When the immortal One, the Holy One, was far removed from us because we were mortal and sinners, He came down to us, so that He, the stranger, might become our neighbor."

The religion of the universal Redeemer is cosmopolitan, and presses always, even in the littlest matters, towards realization of the City of universal reconciliation.

Saint Philip Neri, pray for us!

Some Thoughts on the Holy Spirit from Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

One of the saints celebrated today is Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, a Florentine born in 1566, who joined the Carmelites. I don't really know much about her, but the matins reading excerpted from her writings is lovely and profound.

The Holy Spirit as the motion of God: "You do not, O Holy Spirit, stand still in the unmoved Father or in the Word, and yet You are always in the Father and in the Word and in Yourself and in all blessed spirits and creatures."

This Spiritual motion communicates the cosmic friendship and universal reconciliation worked by the kenotic and passionate philanthropia of Jesus, pouring out from His pierced Heart: "You are the friend of the created because of the blood shed by the only-begotten Word, Who in the greatness of His love made Himself the friend of the created."

The motion of this divine Love finds its sabbath in a heart that reciprocates simply in being made capable of receiving that love through mortification of self by union with the bleeding-out of the Word of God: "You find rest in creatures who are prepared to receive You, so that in the transmission of Your gifts they take on, through purity, their own particular likeness to You. You find rest in those creatures who absorb the effects of the blood of the Word and make themselves a worthy dwelling place for You."

And then the invocation: "Come, Holy Spirit. Let the precious pearl of the Father and the Word's delight come. Spirit of Truth, You are the reward of the saints, the comforter of souls, light in the darkness, riches to the poor, treasure to lovers, food for the hungry, comfort to those who are wandering; to sum up, You are the One in Whom all treasures are contained."

Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray for us!

A Note on Possible Meanings of "Liberalism"

Besides the "first rule of evangelization" gloss on not being a jackass, there was another conversation stemming from my first Holy Spirit Patheos piece, this one enabling a clarification of my thoughts on "liberalism."

This was my response to a person who did not like the sound of "liberal republican political order": 'You are not the first one to push the matter of "liberalism" with me, but you are the most congenial to do so. You give me reason to step back and to try to understand what a given person might hear when the word "liberal" is used. Yes, I grew up conservative, and that word signaled political idiocy--in a place very far in the rearview mirror. It has been a long time since I have used the word to describe the position of the Left. The word I use, is the word they tend to use themselves: "progressive." I think that far more accurate, and it honors their self-ascription. Win-win.

'For me, "liberal" now conjures one thing above all: the free soul cultivated by the liberal arts and attention to reality, the free development of the human person towards limitless love. I have no idea why conservatives surrendered a word of such nobility. (Well, on second thought, I fear it has to do with certain illiberal tendencies in certain conservatives. I think it very dangerous for a Catholic flatly to reject liberalism, that is, to be anti-liberal, when we have a very sorry history, within the last century, of living out anti-liberalism by dancing with fascists. And before that, we have the anti-liberal inhumanity epitomized by the Mortara abduction. Dealing with the admittedly toxic fallout from the French Revolution, we Catholics have not covered ourselves in glory.)

'Yes, there are still a few in a certain subset of the political-science community who hear "liberal" and think Rawls. Fine. That's not what I mean. I take Sandel to have been utterly successful in his demolishing of Rawls's libertarian anthropology.

'Which brings me to your view. Of course in some sense a conservative (or a thinking human) must be a communitarian. But there are all kinds of communitarianisms. In the heart of each fallen man lurks a tyrant. That is a basic fact that anyone who cares about the health of homes and post-organic intentional communities needs to grapple with.

'I would like a liberal communitarianism. Let's call it civic republicanism: built on a recognition that man has a rational nature, perfectible through virtue and persistent contemplation and worship--a nature irreducibly given, embodied, social/political, and personal (and therefore an end in him or herself)--and that this nature has been compromised by the Fall, such that the powers of our soul seek power in the world to lord it over those around us, convinced as we are that what we think we know is simply correct and what we desire is owed to us; that given our finite personalities (as well as the effects of the Fall), the urgent project of pursuing a common good (which essentially involves securing the conditions for the free development of each person) is necessarily agonistic; that, therefore, political regimes should be governments of law, not of men, and that power should always and everywhere be fragmented (so that limited government, representative institutions, and civil liberties are essential to human flourishing).

'Authority is a necessary correlate of our being social animals, but the balancing of forces is a necessary entailment of concupiscence.

'I am a personalist, through and through, but one committed to public action, a la Arendt. Individualism, that tyrannical impulse within each of us, is the great enemy. But anti-liberal social or political arrangements that allow some petty (yes, usually male, usually white) tyrant loose to run the show again: no, thanks. Does that mean I want some progressive multi-culti type revoking my freedom of conscience? Of course not. May all tyranny perish. Who wants rule by the technocratic progressive oligarchy, except members of the protected class? But I don't want to trade this horror show for another one, in which people who hate the American founding and think that throne-and-altar arrangements cool gain little fiefdoms of their own. I want the rejuvenation of the American republic, with high culture and liberal arts for all and political participation by all and, of course, recognition of the right to life of each member of the human species, plus recognition of our responsibility to care for the free development of these fellow persons.

'I really like the language of the "beloved community." King got it from Josiah Royce, as you probably know. The Johannine language does raise the question, though, of what the relation of the Church is to the larger social body. I would think, at least, it would mean that Christians should be most conspicuous, by our every mundane action, for our commitment to universal reconciliation.

'Anyway, thank you for reading and interacting with my work. I do think we are probably on the same page, and your gentle way of pressing me has helped me think these things through. That's a great gift. Thank you.'

The First Rule of Evangelization

As I wrote a few days ago in a Patheos column, the first rule of evangelization: don't be a jackass [].

An excellent apologist helpfully pressed me on the point. I'm going to post a revision of my reply here, but what occasions this is the grotesque spectacle of Catholics running down the Pope on hearsay, these critics making clear that whatever sins they grapple with, they can't be as bad as homosexual activity. Jackassery.

We do in fact have some hard truths to say to the world, but we cannot say them with credibility until we become more saintly, more obviously committed to universal reconciliation, more obviously embodying the preemptive, unilateral, and asymmetrical love of the Spirit-filled follower of the Crucified. It is jackassery to give the impression that homosexual activity is some extreme moral horror, when we do not welcome refugees, when we calumniate and detract in our gossip, when we live in bourgeois bubbles insouciant to the precarious conditions of those hard-pressed in life, when we rashly judge others from the standpoint of a justified pharisee—all sins weightier than sexual sin; it is jackassery when we refuse to countenance reasons behind differing political positions, behaving savagely in online conversations in the name of Christianity; it is jackassery to advocate publicly for the integrity of marriage, when we say not a word about domestic abuse, when we don't do a thing to press for reconciliation in marriages falling apart right before our eyes, when we allow those washed out of marriages to wither away in social isolation; it is at least jackassery (if not straight up psychosis) to think that evangelization essentially involves telling the world that most people go to hell.

Why the True Religion Needs Critical Theory

Christians have much to learn from the Frankfurt School of critical social theory. Pope Benedict makes this clear in his encyclical Spe salvi [Saved in Hope]:

"A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a 'longing for the totally Other' that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any 'image' of a loving God. But as this dialectic is always 'negative,' he highlighted and asserted that justice—true justice—would require a world 'where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.' This would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead."

The Frankfurt School relentlessly demystified the bloody pretensions of hegemonic materialist and technocratic progressivism. So consistent in their negation of every position in favor of those who are the crushed humus beneath the pyramids of power, the critical theorists open a way for the true transcendence of total kenotic love to interrupt the false totalities of irreligion and crypto-secular religion:

"Christians likewise can and must constantly learn from the strict rejection of images that is contained in God's first commandment. The truth of negative theology was highlighted by the Fourth Lateran Council, which explicitly stated that however great the similarity that may be established between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity between them is always greater."

Citing a dogma central to his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar's systematics, Pope Benedict reminds us that the only non-idolatrous theism is one of the ever-greater God, Who has opted for a totality without closure in the analogy of being, in which there is no upper limit for the energies of existence.

So. No to the idolatries within religion. But no also to the other secularism: the one that dooms us to a totality of power. There is a measureless measure. There is true judgment. Not in us. Rather: above us; below us; all through us. The Word made flesh, the tortured God, the Faithful and True, embraces within His stretched sinews everything there is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

"In any case, for the believer the rejection of images cannot be carried so far that one ends up, as Horkheimer and Adorno would like, by saying 'no' to both theses—theism and atheism."

In a thoroughly Balthasarian passage, the Pope points out the true negative theology—the absolute identification of God with the anguished human:

"God has given Himself an 'image': in Christ Who was made man. In Him Who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals His true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon Himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an 'undoing' of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright."

It is the faith OF Jesus, God the Son, above all in His abandonment by His Father, that is the hinge of history, the peripateia for all that is breaking. The fruiting of negative dialectics is the Word, true to the end, beyond which opens up the infinity of a Trinitarian life always greater than the hells of our lovelessness. The judgment of God is the vindication of every victim of sin, accomplished by the fidelity, the being-true-to-the-end, of Jesus.

"For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing."

What Pope Benedict teaches here is a profound affirmation of the theologian Johann Baptist Metz, who learned so much from the Frankfurt School: the essential argument for faith in eternal life is the absolute necessity that every suffering human be vindicated. To be true to the memory of victims requires our hope-filled faith in the Faithful One, the One Who believes the unsurveyable plan of loving goodness of His Father, though all is dark, with the stench of history's abbatoir heavy in the air. The victims must be vindicated; therefore, there must be resurrection unto eternal life.

No Kingdom without a critical social theory that destroys all the idols of religion and of irreligion, so that in the stillness of the clearing, the true religion of totally self-emptying love may interrupt with utter faithfulness and true judgment the anguish of every social totality.

These are some of the themes we will discuss in tomorrow's final session of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate Program. Tune in on FB Live around 9:15 am!

Postscript to My “Black Panther” Review: On Race, Class, and the Marked Body

[This was written in response to a helpfully provocative comment on my Facebook page about my review.]

I can appreciate many of your points. There's a lot of the inner Marxist in me also, for I burn with a desire to see the poor unearthed from under the mountain of counter-opportunity, the responsibility for which lies squarely with the protected and comfortable classes.

Surely the most damning of all the ideologizations composing the Left is the one that saw them trade a vital sensitivity to the fundamental quality of class for the First-World problematics of intersectionality. For anyone who has any appreciation for the real contributions of Marxist social theory, it is a breathtaking intellectual collapse. Breathtaking. 

And, yes, there is only one thing that sets the toxicity of racism apart from, say, the toxicity of pro-choice ideology: as you rightly and righteously indicate, it's the sheer stupidity of taking "race" as almost a metaphysical determinant. (The ironies redouble when many who treat it so at the same time don't understand how ineffaceable chromosomal sex is.) I am a child of an American and a Taiwanese. What race am I? How much of the blood of "another" race takes away your club card? Do the profound differences of culture within a race matter? Does it make any sense to speak of a white race? And so on. So, concedo.

And, yes, it is an obscenity, a perverse grotesquerie, for anyone with any kind of comfortable life to tell "trailer trash" that they are infected with white privilege. Talking that way is a sure sign of class privilege, the privilege that counts most.

All granted. And yet, there is a black community, that, as a whole, is hurting, that does endure indignities up and down the line, especially with regard to policing. Now, there's a lot of "white" blood mixed into that community, especially given the mass rape of slaves. All the complications of the intellectual thinness of "race" as a concept are there to be seen. And yet. If you look "black," a whole social order (surely a class order serving to maintain the privilege of the protected and the comfortable) routinely fails to acknowledge your human dignity. We cannot ignore that. Are "white trash" Trump voters also dehumanized by the denizens of the city and suburbs of the comfortable? Yes. But not to see how deep the American race wound goes, is not to see. 

As for the movie Black Panther: I don't recall any point at which the desperate poor white was tagged with "white privilege." Perhaps that was an ambiguity in my presentation. I am very grateful to you for giving me the chance to qualify what I wrote in terms of the more fundamental dynamics of class.

But the incoherences of race notwithstanding, the persons embodied with more melanin are in a far more precarious position in American society, especially if that brown body occupies a lower socioeconomic class (as they disproportionately do). And in our nation, that has everything to do with our original sin of slavery. This lover of America will never forget the suffering of those victims.

African/American Aspiration: On “Black Panther” and the Political Philosophy of the MCU

For the first time ever, I watched a movie on preview-screening night. Indeed, only once or twice before have I seen a movie on its opening weekend at all. I prefer to wait until the crowds thin out.

But I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, and Avengers: Infinity War had promised to provide the supreme cinematic spectacle. So, my oldest kids and I have just come back from that. [It was excellent, with a serious moral and socio-political outlook—anti-utilitarian and anti-Malthusian. Tonally, it is a tragicomic marvel.]

On the eve of the full premiere of the latest Avengers, this is the last opportune moment to provide a review of Black Panther, which I should have done weeks ago. It is now the third-highest-grossing movie in domestic box office, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar (in unadjusted dollars). Why has Black Panther done so well?

First, it belongs to the first-rank of the Marvel movies, along with the first and third Thor movies, the first (and now the third) Avengers, the first Guardians of the Galaxy (here I should also mention the last ten minutes of the GotG sequel, the most affecting moments in the 19 movies so far), and the second and third Captain America movies (The Winter Soldier and Civil War). Those last are my favorites, the most dramatically artful, which explains why Infinity War is so good, as the Russo brothers also directed those two.

Among these movies, Black Panther provides the most food for thought, especially with regard to living our common life, so its success makes me hopeful for the possibility of a revival of democratic deliberation. But this would require receiving movies more actively. The passive consumption of movies, even so thoughtful a one as Black Panther, negates the possibility of such drama fostering moral and social good. We should talk about the movies we watch, thinking the issues through, because no one and nothing else can do our thinking for us. And there is no moral or social progress without thoughtfulness.

I will frame this as a response to the always-interesting philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s review of the movie. In “Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of Black Panther” (it is typically arch of Žižek to fly the banner of Strauss here), he begins by noting that people all across the political spectrum like the movie. This, for him, is evidence of the corruption of the work, let’s say it’s status as a culture-industry commodity: “When all sides recognize themselves in the same product, we can be sure that the product in question is ideology at its purest—a kind of empty vessel containing antagonistic elements.”

This is incorrect. Ideology is the obscuring of reality to serve the interests of power. It seems to me a social-realist delusion to want to eliminate hermeneutical ambiguity and amplitude from a work of art. A Lacanian, even a Leninist Lacanian, should know better. (Or not: how much ambiguity do the master narratives of psychotherapy allow?)

Now, one could possibly attribute the wide and contradictory range of favorable political response to intellectual vacuity, but a political film cannot be gainsaid by citing its opening a door to the reconciliation of antagonisms. Rather, it’s a prima facie indication of a film’s political authenticity. If one will represent the political truly, non-ideologically, two things must always be safeguarded: the insuperability of political conflict and an urgent orientation towards universal reconciliation.

What must be in question, rather, is our, the viewers’, ideological commitments. Are we open enough to reality to let whatever is honestly presented of reality in a film to come at us? So, there are two things with regard to the reception of a movie: we must actively think, and we must do so intentionally trying to allow the movie to dislocate our own ideological commitments.

Žižek takes offense that this movie coopts the “Black Panther” brand from the black power organization founded in the late sixties. There can be no question that the movie is doing this, most clearly evidenced in situating crucial scenes in Oakland, California. I think this a good thing.

The point of the film is not to promote black quiescence or salve the guilt of white insouciance. Rather, it would kindle aspiration in the souls of black folk, as well as in each American soul as such. And it is this remarkable balance that most particularly makes me respect this film. Without pretending a homogenous American soul, it cultivates universal aspiration. There is a preferential concern for the black community, as there ought to be, but it makes this concern American as such.

The movie rejects the nihilism of civil and race war as a solution to the real problems of black social existence. Not having any Leninist hankerings, and not sympathetic to contemporary militia delusions of the right to revolt, I think this exactly the opposite of ideology.

Erik Killmonger is the best MCU villain (with the half-exception of Loki). The danger of superhero movies is to feed into a viewer’s egoistic fantasy of being the hero against indistinct enemies who have uncomplicated malice as their motive. The promise of superhero movies is to make us want to be more, to be great for the sake of the defense of the weaker. Essential to making the promise blossom is to have enemies who are complex, who have accessible motives, motives that we can judge to be wrong while being worth thinking through.

Killmonger is very well motivated—in his childhood trauma, in his sense of responsibility for his race. But, in the end, his solution is the solution of a traumatized person trapped in his trauma, the solution of a victim who remains a victim: to negate. It is telling that Žižek characterizes Killmonger’s goal in the following way: “Erik advocates a militant global solidarity.” That’s an ideological misrepresentation of what Killmonger explicitly details: he wants to employ the War Dogs and advanced technology of Wakanda to foment a global race war and secure black supremacy. That’s the opposite of solidarity. It’s simply the internalization and inversion of the master’s narrative. And it is, ironically, a typically narcissistic, indeed imperialist, pseudo-American project.

But Killmonger is Žižek’s hero, and here Žižek’s mysticism of the act, of the silver bullet, does not serve him well. It favors nihilism. Killmonger orders the destruction of the source of charismatic leadership, the plant that enables the Black Panther to protect his people (“Burn it all!”), then leads that people into civil war: his pain has led him to nihilism. He’s not building for a future. Everything culminates and ends with him. He is Hegel’s Absolute in full cunning.

Žižek isn’t moved by the alternative pursued by the true hero: “Meanwhile T’Challa is slowly moving away from the traditional isolationism of ‘Wakanda first!’ to a gradual and peaceful globalism that would act within the coordinates of the existing world order and its institutions, spreading education and technological help—and simultaneously maintain the unique Wakandan culture and way of life.”

(Of course, this is why those who would somehow see the movie as justification for Trump’s odious immigration policies are precisely refuted by the movie. That said, T’Challa IS a patriot. And that’s just right: a patriot who wants to serve the global common good as well. And here it’s worth observing the value of our hero's being a king—and I am the opposite of a monarchist. If we identify with this hero, we have to identify with his responsibility for his people. We have to feel the common good as the impulse at the heart of heroism.)

This is the right vision to have: a patriotic and universalist humanism that makes a preferential option for the weakest. It’s what the Black Panther Party could have been before indulging its militia pretensions. (This is, by the way, what the pro-life movement is meant to be in its truth.)

Žižek thinks that our hero is playing footsie with malign forces of globalization. He makes much that CIA Agent Ross is a good guy in the movie (he doesn’t seem to relish the fun of Bilbo and Gollum doing an interrogation scene together!): “That T’Challa opens up to ‘good’ globalization but is also supported by its repressive embodiment, the CIA, demonstrates that there is no real tension between the two...”

Here I will grant that Žižek has something, but it’s confused. The fact is that we are not led to trust the CIA or America’s spy power or bureacracies in the MCU. The narrative arc in The Winter Soldier and Civil War settles that.

The tragedy of Captain America: Civil War is that there is no good solution. [I am not the only one for whom Captain America is the favorite MCU character. He embodies the best of the American soul: a common man’s desire to do right, and revulsion at basic injustice (truth, justice, and the American way, and all that), who takes the dignity of each individual in full earnestness—against all utilitarianism: a Kantian warrior.] On the one hand, it is essential to order power (including the superpowers of heroes) under processes of democratic deliberation. There must be accountability. On the other hand, based on the events of The Winter Soldier, Captain America correctly understands that no elite organization can be trusted—not the spy agencies or bureaucrats of the United States, and not the United Nations. (Indeed, one could see an enactment of American liberalism—epitomized in the Madisonian machinery of the Constitution— in leaving the Avengers free to counterbalance crony capitalist and elitist mega-organizations.)

T’Challa is introduced in Civil War, and he is on the side of bringing the Avengers to heel under UN power. And this is indeed a mistake. Why would any African leader trust international organizations to this extent? But the MCU movies have given us the tools to demystify the organizations of the global elite. T’Challa still has to learn more about the global power dynamics he is leading his people into. (Though perhaps Thanos renders all of this jejune...)

In misunderstanding the final, tragic, tableau featuring Killmonger and T’Challa, Žižek gathers his misconceptions together: “…[Killmonger] prefers to die free than to be healed and survive in the false abundance of Wakanda.” Killmonger faces imprisonment for fomenting civil war, though also within the ambit of a real, and gratuitous, offer of reconciliation. In refusing a future, he evokes his ancestors in the floating concentration camps of the Middle Passage: “Bury me in the ocean where my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” Of course, most of them couldn’t jump—chained, anti-suicide measures in place to protect the “investment.” (And the ones who were successful in escaping from the sheer terror were not making a grand ideological statement: they were trying to return home, somehow, even if death had to be traversed.) What most of the great American race of black folk did was endure, under unimaginable horror, within a night of immeasurable intensity and extent. And in their rising, and in our earnest common pursuit of the preferential option for the victims (joined to a passion for universal reconciliation), we might all rise: Africa, America, the world.