Exchange the Present for a Future of Love

We celebrate the martyr Saint Fidelis today. His religious name comes from Revelation 2:10: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison that you might be tested, and you shall be afflicted for ten days. Be faithful [fidelis] even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."

The faithfulness of Christian love must straddle life and death, must bring life where there was only death before. 

Saint Fidelis was a Capuchin follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, and so his identity was with the unsuccessful, those who did not occupy the high places of the world. From the perspective of the lowly and wretched of the earth, Saint Fidelis was able to be faithful to the faith, by which alone the power-games of the world are overcome. Before becoming a priest, he was a lawyer. He left the pathways of secular power to care for those on the outside of worldly success.

The matins reading for today's feast records words from the last sermon Saint Fidelis gave before being beaten to death:

"What made the holy apostles and martyrs endure fierce agony and bitter torments, except faith, and especially faith in the resurrection?

"What is it that today makes true followers of Christ cast luxuries aside, leave pleasures behind, and endure difficulties and pain? It is living faith 'that expresses itself through love.' It is this that makes us put aside the goods of the present in the hope of future goods. It is because of faith that we exchange the present for the future."

When I was secure in the world, I would have suspected this sentiment of otherworldliness. Of course, Saint Fidelis is simply correct. There is no place for love in this world. Faith must create life where there is otherwise only death.

Dialectical Sensuality v. Currencies of Control: A Note on Lady Chatterley's Lover

I've been revising some of my first poems, including my sonnet sub-sequence on Hector's last days. At the time, I was reading D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a very fine novel, but I didn't end up finishing the book until recently.

Lawrence puts big themes on the table, still relevant today: class warfare, consumerist subjectivity, hollow marriages, deep reticence about bodies and pleasure. Lawrence does not always strike the right balance (sexual reconciliation is in fact not sufficient for social reconciliation—though the former is necessary for the latter; words/intellect need not be at war with sensual vitality; children cannot be treated as an afterthought). But what he does get right, he gets profoundly right. The book was written in the wake of the Great War, when the mining communities of his home turf were being brutally squeezed. In Nietzschean tones, Lawrence recommends an art of living to resolve the social contradictions. His greatest mistake is to treat the masses as if they can't think, and that they shouldn't anyway—he thinks thought enervating. I maintain that the liberal arts are essential for the art of living. But it's no either/or. He's right about the enemy: it's avarice and envy and all the substitutes for really living (war, money, control). And when there's policing, from whatever religion (including the strange dogmatism of social progressivism), it's usually the Powers seeking to smother the little flames of personhood.

At the end of the book, Mellors is writing to Connie, while the two must remain apart for a time, and this passage tells us much about the crisis that stills envelops us, a crisis of embodiment, of marriage, of existence:

"If you could only tell them that living and spending isn't the same thing! But it's no good. If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers, as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn't need money. And that's the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live, and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend...

"But the colliers aren't pagan, far from it. They're a sad lot, a deadened lot of men: dead to their women, dead to life. The young ones scoot about on motor-bikes with girls, and jazz when they get a chance. But they're very dead. And it needs money. Money poisons you when you've got it, and starves you when you haven't.

"...But of course what I live for now is for you and me to live together. I'm frightened, really. I feel the devil in the air, and he'll try to get us. Or not the devil, Mammon: which I think, after all, is only the mass-will of people, wanting money and hating life. Anyhow I feel great grasping white hands in the air, wanting to get hold of the throat of anybody who tries to live, to live beyond money, and squeeze the life out. There's a bad time coming."

Universal Hope

[Much of this was written in response to observations made by my friend Christopher Altieri on my post "Never Despair of God's Mercy."]

When I wrote "radical," I meant that Pope Benedict's observation about Judas is such a trenchant expression of the hope for universal salvation that it is without much precedent among orthodox theologians, let alone popes—as an expression.

But part of the burden of what I was saying is that what he said in that audience talk is not an assertion of mere personal theological opinion. (I don't think that's how the charism of the papal office works.) It is the Gospel as such, and, even in the context of the post-Augustinian grappling with the implications of original sin, it belongs to a centuries-old development of doctrine. The truth of what Pope Benedict said would not have eluded most of the Church fathers (especially of the East). 

The great Augustine, who has meant so much to Benedict and to me, did the important work of differentiating original sin, and thereby the gratuity of grace. But his hypothesis that the massa damnata burns in hell has been found more and more wanting in the growing appropriation of the faith by Holy Mother Church. 

Of most note in this development is one of the most beautiful things done in the history of theology: Saint Thomas Aquinas's proposal of limbo. To die in original sin does not merit hell properly speaking. Rather, he posited a place of natural happiness, though weighed down by the supreme privation of intimate Trinitarian communion, the pathos of which pervades Virgil's journey with Dante in Purgatory.

Aquinas's proposal was one of the greatest acts of authentic liberalization in intellectual history. I love him so much for doing that.

That was an important stage in the ongoing doctrinal development, which I think fairly nicely surveyed in the International Theological Commission's The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized: That, combined with Henri Rondet's The Grace of Christ, yields a good overview, proving your point about how Pope Benedict's officially taught agnosticism on the ultimate fate of Judas Iscariot is not, substantially, radical at all. 

I myself have come to the view, I think, mostly following the greatest Doctor of Hell, C. S. Lewis, that the notion of an externally imposed (heteronomous) eternal punishment for any finite act completely bankrupt as a philosophical or theological notion, and grotesquely misrepresentative of the goodness of the Father. If any of us humans ends up in hell, it is because that is where we want to be (that is, it is an act of perverse autonomy, not heteronomy). Now, such a choice IS as such a punishment: the supreme punishment is to be left to our lovelessness, separated from the intimacy of the New Jerusalem, the intimacy that alone could quell our infinite desire. To continue to be, when what IS is love, while rejecting that love, means burning in futility.

And we are none of us unfamiliar with those flames. The real question about hell is not what might be lurking in the hidden decrees of God. God is not playing a grotesque game of musical chairs (a belief Hamlet exemplifies, perversely, when he pulls back from killing King Claudius at prayer). Our hope in God's goodness must be absolute. No, the real question is what might be lurking in my own heart. 

That is, I am not so sure that you or I or anyone deserves, as such, hellfire for our sins. I do not see how any finite act, or any sum of finite acts, can merit infinite punishment. (And, of course, there is no question of our deserving, as such, Trinitarian intimacy.) What I do know is that every time I sin, something very dark from the depths of my heart is rearing its head: that willful ego that would choose my reality over Reality. And that person is the kind of person who might find it attractive to reign in hell, rather than serve in heaven. 

Balthasar observes that Jesus opens up heaven and hell simultaneously before the human person (which had been closed before His decisive appearance). It is our Yes to Him that allows us to be led to heaven; it is our No to Him that heads to hell. That No would not be, as such, the commission of a certain crime (any one of the long series of crimes we have all committed). Rather, that No is said in each of our crimes, a choice on my part (not on God's) to have my own Kingdom. We hope in the goodness of the Father that through the Spirit of the Crucified, He will be able to defang and destroy this beast in us. And what I hope for myself, I hope for all. 

So, we agree, and I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to make this clear.

Hell is real. It is filled with myriads of the most powerful persons ever created (angels). It may or may not be the site of my or any other human's eternity. But it is a real possibility for any of us to choose. I hope that the good Father's will that none of us so choose it will prevail in every case.

As for the descriptor "lover of hell": well, it does describe people I have had conversations with. You will, I guess, have to trust that I am not being hysterical in this. I suppose if you looked at some of the more immoderate refusals of Balthasar's simple rehearsal of Gospel truth (a rehearsal, again, less radically expressed than what Pope Benedict officially taught) in Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, you might see what I'm talking about. It wasn't simple tendentiousness for Balthasar to label this affect "infernalism." What else accounts for intelligent people refusing to acknowledge Balthasar's repeated distinction between universal hope and universalism? It's not that hard to grasp. So, it seems there's an affective block in play. When we have putative evangelists thinking that preaching the supposed fewness of those who get to heaven essential to evangelization... Well, what I see is a collective psychosis within Western Catholicism, in which a demonic logic of counter-justification has infested otherwise good people. 

They, along with me, are the most in danger of hell, and I pray for their souls. 

I will close with your judicious, and beautiful, words: "Some of the brethren are of the opinion that the faith requires us to confess that hell is peopled. That has been the opinion of many great saints. Absent a bona fide conviction in the necessity of such a belief and confession as de fide, I cannot imagine anyone holding that opinion."

Never Despair of God's Mercy

[Posted yesterday on Facebook and Beyond All Telling.]

On Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict's birthday, we are filled with gratitude for the existence of such a man.

And in light of the latest manufactured kerfuffle about our current Holy Father, I want to highlight what I love most about Benedict: his profound universalistic tendency. In this, he is more radical than his theological colleague Balthasar, who has always been the whipping boy of the infernalists.

In his 18 October 2006 audience talk on Judas Iscariot and Matthias, Pope Benedict, in his official teaching capacity, appropriates Balthasar's point that humanity in successively larger circles betrays Jesus--Christian, Jew, Gentile. But it is the first betrayal that bears most guilt. And this is what those who love hell forget: it is we Christians who are most in danger of condemnation. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Pope Benedict places this unkindest cut of all, the Christian betrayal, in a larger context, the one that matters:

"What is more, it darkens the mystery around his eternal fate, knowing that Judas 'repented and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood"' (Mt 27:3-4). Even though he went to hang himself (cf. Mt 27:5), it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God."

It is hard to overstate how theologically radical that last sentence is. Nevertheless, what the Holy Father teaches here is the truth, the very crux of the Father's whole plan of salvation: God seeks the salvation of each human, and so we must hope for that--and expend everything for that end.

"The betrayal of Judas remains, in any case, a mystery. Jesus treated him as a friend (cf. Mt 26:50); however, in His invitations to follow Him along the way of the beatitudes, He does not force his will or protect it from the temptations of Satan, respecting human freedom.

"In effect, the possibilities to pervert the human heart are truly many. The only way to prevent it consists in not cultivating an individualistic, autonomous vision of things, but on the contrary, by putting oneself always on the side of Jesus, assuming His point of view. We must daily seek to build full communion with him."

That "side" of Jesus is only one: the salvation of all. He is the true partisan of humanity. All consignment of others to hell is simple egoistic autonomy (the self-assertion of ressentiment)--the opposite of theonomy.

"Let us remember that Peter also wanted to oppose Him and what awaited Him at Jerusalem, but he received a very strong reproof: 'You are not on the side of God, but of men' (Mk 8:33)!

"After his fall, Peter repented and found pardon and grace. Judas also repented, but his repentance degenerated into desperation and thus became self-destructive.

"For us it is an invitation to always remember what St. Benedict says at the end of the fundamental Chapter Five of his 'Rule': 'Never despair of God's mercy.' In fact, God 'is greater than our hearts,' as St. John says (I Jn 3:20).

"Let us remember two things. The first: Jesus respects our freedom. The second: Jesus awaits our openness to repentance and conversion; He is rich in mercy and forgiveness.

"Besides, when we think of the negative role Judas played we must consider it according to the lofty ways in which God leads events. His betrayal led to the death of Jesus, Who transformed this tremendous torment into a space of salvific love by consigning Himself to the Father (cf. Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2, 25).

"The word 'to betray' is the version of a Greek word that means 'to consign.' Sometimes the subject is even God in Person: it was He Who for love 'consigned' Jesus for all of us (Rm 8:32). In His mysterious salvific plan, God assumes Judas's inexcusable gesture as the occasion for the total gift of the Son for the redemption of the world."

Here's the final Balthasarian point of Pope Benedict: the ultimate horizon of the "handing-over" or "consignment" of Jesus is the primal and universal philanthropy of the Father. And in that supreme paradox, all the misery of our sinfulness may yet be swallowed up.

Desire in an Age of Biopower

In The Gospel of Life, Pope Saint John Paul II exemplifies a Christian critique of ideology. He does not moralize when it comes to the direct threats against the weakest human life in the modern world: he demystifies the ideological pressures impelling abortion and euthanasia, the pressures impelling each of us in our evasions of solidarity.

All of us who would be pro-life must internalize this shift from moralism to social justice, over and over. It is wrong to denounce mothers who procure abortion (as Kevin Williamson had done). Rather, we must see the web that snares us all, a consumerist inflammation of our fallen tendency towards egoistic imperialism, which funds an ideological totality of ever-increasing scope as our technological power grows.

John Paul writes in no. 18:

"Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression, and anxiety about the future. Such circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices, which in themselves are evil. But today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social, and political levels, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights."

A violence that infests each of our interiorities and intimate relations, we dare cloak with the sacred name of liberty.

At stake in such obfuscation is the very viability of political liberalism:

"In this way, and with tragic consequences, a long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of 'human rights'—rights inherent in every person and prior to any constitution or State legislation—is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death."

The truth of human "rights" is that they are absolutes inscribed by God in the personal depths of each living human body so that no totality (whether of the integralist or secularist-oligarchic variety) might swallow up the singular in a false organicity or a sleek social machine. The right to life, and the right to religious liberty, stand athwart the bright ideas of whichever of us egoists has the social power. They are correlative with Levinas's "face" that demands infinite responsibility from you and me, and, at the very least, that speaks from whatever vulnerable human flesh: "Do not kill me."

It is not "liberalism" to speak of rights, while claiming that there are humans who have no right to life. It's the other thing:

"How can these repeated affirmations of principle be reconciled with the continual increase and widespread justification of attacks on human life? How can we reconcile these declarations with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those who have just been conceived? These attacks go directly against respect for life, and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights. It is a threat capable, in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of democratic coexistence: rather than societies of 'people living together,' our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted, and oppressed."

I have always maintained that defense of the most powerless human life is the decisive touchstone of a humanistic materialism. We must not strike that vulnerable human body. How could there be Enlightenment in that? Cosmopolitanism in that? Democracy in that?

But this is also a touchstone of the earnestness of our personal commitment to human dignity: we are all caught up in processes of dehumanization. Every time we point to "those others" as the cause of death's empire, we miss the first thing: it is my egoism that gives rise to death.

You are invited to tune in to the next session of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate program tomorrow at around 9:15 am. We'll be discussing The Gospel of Life, Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Yeats, Christopher Kaczor and Janet Smith's Life Issues, Medical Choices, and some Foucault and Agamben for good measure.

A Day of Anniversaries

This is a day of confluence for me. Twenty years ago, I was welcomed into the maternal embrace of the Catholic Church, receiving the sacrament of Confirmation and receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus for the first time—the food that has kept me alive. For the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, and for the fullness of the Catholic faith, I cannot be grateful enough to the good Father of us all.

I thought that year would set the basic parameters of my life, and, in religion, it has. Another putative sacrament later that year didn't seem to take, so my vocation is still fundamentally in question (at my age!) But in all the darkness of these last years of my life, there has been Jesus in the Eucharist, and there has been an unbreakable faith. Blessed be God.

A year ago, on this day, Lillian Vogl (my Catholic-birthday buddy) and I launched the blog "Beyond All Telling."

But before all of this, it was on this day in 1980 that my father died. To be fatherless in this world is a hard thing, and if no one on this earth steps into that role spiritually, it is a privation hard to even survey.

And yet the good Father of us all exists, and He is good, and there will be when all shall be well.

This poem is from my first manuscript (my father flew B-17s in WWII, and was shot down twice):

Flying Fortress

For my father

How cold it must have been those three dozen sorties;
How loud, within the belly of the dragon;
How quiet, floating down a thousand stories;
And colder, when your friend was strafed and slackened.
It ruined you. You couldn’t drink enough
To exorcise the gelid cacophony. 
You fathered freedom, though, and, in that, us,
Crushed the rage that slaughtered Jews so savagely.
Still, I can’t keep a father. They all go.
Joseph, David’s son, could you foster me?
Of my unquiet bapa, too, take custody?
And ward my children’s own unpatroned woe?
Would that the festal, gliding, glinting ranks
Drop soundless fire upon these orphaned banks.

Who Will Contend with Me?

[Posting on Facebook yesterday.]

In today's matins reading, Melito of Sardis seems to be dramatizing the Jesus described in the near-universalist peroration of Saint Paul in Romans 8:31-35: "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He Who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also withHim graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God Who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the One Who died—more than that, Who was raised—Who is at the right hand of God, Who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"

The desire and work of God is to justify each human. It is the work of Satan to be humanity's adversary, to bring charges against each of us. But if we are Christian, we follow the One Who justifies:

"The Lord, though He was God, became man. He suffered for the sake of those who suffer, He was bound for those in bonds, condemned for the guilty, buried for those who lie in the grave; but He rose from the dead, and cried aloud: 'Who will contend with Me? Let him confront Me.' I have freed the condemned, brought the dead back to life, raised men from their graves. Who has anything to say against Me? I, He said, am the Christ; I have destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ."

Jesus is ready to rumble.

He has won His plenary authority to justify through a total substitutionary solidarity--His real identification with each of us, all the way to the screaming depths of godforsakenness.

He allowed Himself to be swallowed by the world of alienation and suffering, but the Fish ended up swallowing the Leviathan. And now there is not one single human being of any time or place, not one people or culture, for whom the pearly gates of the Kingdom of God do not stand open:

"Come, then, all you nations of men, receive forgiveness for the sins that defile you. I am your forgiveness. I am the Passover that brings salvation. I am the lamb who was immolated for you. I am your ransom, your life, your resurrection, your light. I am your salvation and your king. I will bring you to the heights of heaven. With My own right hand, I will raise you up, and I will show you the eternal Father."

He is truly risen; hope stirs in the viscera of the world.

Love Alone Gives Life: Notes on MCFL's Annual Convention

The annual convention of Massachusetts Citizens for Life this past Saturday was outstanding. 

David Reardon, of the Elliott Institute, keynoted. His incisive points included the following:

1. A basic and decisive fact we gloss over is that once a woman is pregnant, everything has already changed. She has become a mother. It is because of that momentous reality that what happens afterwards (abortion, adoption, raising her child) is momentous. A little clarity and honesty about the reality of sex is necessary for intelligent discussion of abortion.
2. Reardon is very good on the power differentials actually involved in abortion. It takes a certain privileged social positioning not to acknowledge the fact that the legalization of abortion meant that many, many mothers, especially young ones, became radically exposed thereby to the pressures of irresponsible men, and of families prioritizing the preservation of social respectability. “It’s legal. It’s no big deal. If you choose not to do it, then it’s all on you.” No one with a critical social sensibility will want to evade this point.
3. Then Reardon started in on some basic evangelical dynamics, given how many women have had abortions and how deeply they are suffering from that, whether they recognize it or not. He was making an appeal to our pro-life hearts to be evermore compassionate, to build a sensitivity to pain into the way we approach the public discussion of abortion. “When one recognizes one’s sin, one is vulnerable,” so one might therefore lash out in defense of abortion. “We have all sinned, and mercy must surround all of us.” “It took the blood of Christ to remove our guilt; it takes the acceptance of others to remove our shame.”

There were many other powerful presentations, but I want to single out one other, that of Catherine Morrissey, who spoke of how she dealt with a teen pregnancy by making the painful decision to give her son up for adoption. I have listened to pro-life talks for a couple of decades. This was one of the most moving. She did what was best for her child, a thing hard but beautiful.

One point that became clear along the way from her presentation: the social shaming of fornication incentivizes abortion. It must end. Yes, fornication is in fact not perfective of the human person. Morrissey’s own testimony made clear what kind of pain can result. But we must communicate the objective defectiveness of fornication with a recognition that God has placed a very powerful impulse in us, one that generates immense ambiguities and involves immense difficulties. We must tell the objective facts objectively, not moralistically. (The key point about sexual teaching is the social-justice recognition that children are owed a specific matrix of care; that's the gravamen of sex.) And we must always communicate the few redlines of sex in a spirit of humane recognition that failures in this realm are not the end of the world (indeed in the scale of sin, as such, they are the lightest). The most salient thing our children must know from us, beyond the truths which we do in fact owe them, is that we will love them no matter what, just like our good Father above. Anything else is the antithesis of being pro-life, for love alone gives life.

On the Pro-Life Direction of Providence: The Christian Withdrawal from Killing

This is a follow-up to a comment on a previous Facebook post concerning the March for Our Lives [in the wake of the shootings in Parkland, Florida], in which the commentator asked what gun-control restrictions I had in mind. In general, I want to see a heightening of licensing requirements. (There is nothing more fundamental to liberty than one's ability to move about freely, and yet the state regulates automobiles to the hilt.) 

Under Heller, the Second Amendment has been reinterpreted to be about "the core lawful purpose of self-defense." I say reinterpreted because given any specific knowledge of the civic conversation at the time, it should be recognized that the core question at issue in the Second Amendment is broader: it is about the right to revolt, which had barely fifteen years before been acted on by town militias, of ordinary citizens, at Lexington and Concord. Both Anti-Federalists and Federalists believed in the right to revolt, of course, but the Anti-Federalists were very worried about the near-plenary authority the Constitution had vested in Congress over the army and militia. The awkward phrasing of the Second Amendment is an attempt to fudge the common belief in a right to revolt in a way that would ease specific Anti-Federalist concerns somehow.

The Heller majority focused on establishing the "individual right to bear arms" against the fairly recent legal innovation claiming that the Second Amendment had only established a collective right to bear arms. That latter view is indeed absurd. But fixating on addressing that fantasy of Constitutional interpretation meant that what Blackstone called "the natural right of resistance and self-preservation" at stake in the right to have arms was, largely, truncated to the question of self-preservation. (To be sure, the Founders would not have second-guessed the right of the people to have weapons for hunting and self-defense.)

That said, I am personally thankful that the majority under Heller made this truncation. In theory I believe in the right to revolt. But under no circumstances do I ever envision shooting an American soldier--not least because my father was one. And as David French argues forcefully and well, but I believe in a way that is its own reductio ad absurdum, foregrounding the right to revolt means, in principle, enabling access to weapons powerful enough to prove effective as a deterrent against a government that would wield the might of the American military against the people.

My support of the right to revolt in principle combined with a profound reticence to countenance any activation of it in practice dovetails with my point about the general Christian tendency to withdraw from killing. Pacifism is not the teaching of the Church, and I am not a pacifist. If we care about the victims of history, we must stand ready to apply force against predators. But every Christian should feel within him or herself a tectonic pull towards pacifism. Likewise, I recognize that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, but I have also come, in Catholic docility, more and more into harmony with the tendency (since Pope Saint John Paul II's analytical siting of capital punishment within the culture of death in Evangelium vitae) to leave the option behind. The last case of justified killing, self-defense, is the easiest: surely every Christian recognizes from the Sermon on the Mount the radical possibility of sacrificing oneself in favor of an aggressor. The one instance in which there is no question that the possibility of killing is on the table is when those directly in my care are threatened. It is one thing for me to turn the other cheek, quite another for me to turn a vulnerable person's cheek. We must not fail in our basic responsibilities towards our children, towards those who have less power. (Of course, there can be no question in natural law, and certainly not in Christianity, of killing someone merely to defend property. That would be a demonic inversion of values.)

I used to complain about the translation of the Fifth Commandment as "Thou shalt not kill." As a moral theologian, I would note that "kill" is too generic; it has not been specified by a moral object. It should be "Thou shalt not murder." And, technically, that is true.

And yet. And yet. Human killing is something we should always be in the practice of withdrawing from. That withdrawal belongs at the heart of the New Law of grace. Grace perfects nature, yes, but it is a perversity to use that architectonic fact to insist grimly on a right to kill, to carve out an interior space, that tends to grow, in which I am at pains to assert my rights against a world of threats. That is not Christian liberty.

Grace perfects nature often by setting it within a context so vast, it will look to unevangelized eyes as if everything is upside down and backwards, even unto the Cross: loving and forgiving your enemy, though he be killing you.

The immensity of the Gospel cannot be legislated. (One cannot, for example, legislate away the natural-law right to self-preservation.) But Christians are to be a leaven in the world. Christians are to be fire from heaven. The structure of nature, designed by God, is not a static thing. It moves. And the directionality of that movement is towards universal reconciliation. Every Christian is called to be a minister of that pro-life directionality.

This direction is rooted in the natural law, but aims towards something limitless. As I wrote in my last post on this topic, it is the case that being pro-life means, first of all, feeling the urgency of the restoration of the right to life of each innocent human being in law. If one does not recognize that principle, the most rudimentary of the principles of liberal republicanism (the equality of each human life), it makes no sense to pursue, as we ought to pursue, the pro-life logic into the muddier waters of how exactly to regulate guns under the Second Amendment. But it is also the case that the pro-life impulse is there to move the whole dead and killing weight of history, of resentments, of fear, of scarcity, of entitlement.

To be pro-life is a radical thing: it begins with the fundamental responsibility towards the most vulnerable life, and it strains towards a heaven of peaceable infinity.

Beyond Our Unloveliness

[Posted on Facebook for the feast of Saint John of God, 8 March.]

From the matins reading from Saint John of God, exemplar of charity, who reminds us that living out the love of God is no recipe for ease:

"I work here [at the hospital and shelter founded by him] on borrowed money, a prisoner for the sake of Jesus Christ. And often my debts are so pressing that I dare not go out of the house for fear of being seized by my creditors."

To be caught up into the dimension of divine mercy and gratuity, to be a fool for God, means being homeless here. It means real financial distress, and social exclusion. If you've experienced it, you know there's a kind of trauma there.

But the lack of comfort goes far deeper:

"Whenever I see so many poor brothers and neighbors of mine suffering beyond their strength and overwhelmed with so many physical or mental ills which I cannot alleviate, then I become exceedingly sorrowful..."

The suffering of the wretched of the earth becomes our own. And how that throbs.

But it goes deeper still: think of how small our hearts are, especially if we're comfortable. From out of the parental neuroses and egoistic ugliness that rears its head and casually swipes at the young, and multifarious wounds inflicted upon the weaker all along the line as we grow up, we become unlovely in turn. It is so sad. There is so much meanness, so much contraction of soul. We can't say the true thing, or fight for justice, with gentleness or self-awareness or proportion. Unloveliness meets unloveliness. To look on that spectacle is to walk upon the weirs above despair. Is there a free human being anywhere? How many Christians are there, really? And what the Father wants is not a few...but all! It seems absurd, and most unlikely.

"...but I trust in Christ, Who knows my heart. And so I say: 'Woe to the man who trusts in men rather than in Christ.' Whether you like it or not, you will grow apart from men, but Christ is faithful and always with you, for Christ provides all things. Let us always give thanks to Him. Amen."

A Note on Pro-Life Principle and Civil Conversation in Light of the "March for Our Lives"

My friend Christopher Altieri has written a characteristically thoughtful piece on Saturday's demonstrations. It is fundamentally a plea for the patient and humbling and forbearing work of democratic deliberation.

Yes, to be "pro-life" means feeling within oneself the general Christian tendency to withdraw from killing. The regulation of gun ownership ought to reflect that. Absolutely. But the demonization of those who disagree with certain policy options is never right or good. It is the case that being pro-life means feeling the urgency of the restoration of the right to life of each innocent human being in law. If one does not recognize that principle, the most rudimentary of the principles of liberal republicanism (the equality of each human life), it makes no sense to pursue, as we ought to pursue, the pro-life logic into the muddier waters of how exactly to regulate guns under the Second Amendment. Prudence can only ever start from principle. If those who seek tighter regulation, as I certainly do, do not get the logic straight (including the distinction between principle and prudential option), given that this is a democracy in which the way to change things is precisely through the force of argument (and, indeed, not through brute force), then all the demonstrations in the world will be ineffective in achieving the important goal of stricter gun control.

And the pragmatics of success aside, everyone of us should seek to win our cause in a way most congruent with fostering social harmony no matter the outcome of the contest over the question (think of this as analogous to ius in bello). We must find a way to live together in any case. And the Christian always strains towards something more: universal reconciliation. Always. No exceptions.

Normalizing Suicide as the Death of Solidarity

The following was presented to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Health back in September. I never got around to posting it here, and given the stupendous news yesterday that physician-assisted suicide has died in committee for the year, it seemed a good occasion to do so.

Testimony in Opposition to H.1194/S.1225 (Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide)

Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, my name is David Franks, and I am chairman of the board of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. I am trained as a philosopher and theologian, and it is as an expert in social ethics that I speak to you today.

Normalizing suicide means the death of solidarity.

Our choices are not made in isolation. To be worthy of a republic, each of us citizens is obliged to recognize both the conditions and the ramifications of our choices, and to think deeply what freedom really means.

There are all kinds of good reasons to want to die. Above all, there is the simple exigence of escaping screaming psychological or physical pain.

And yet, until the day before yesterday, we have, rightly, removed suicide from the menu of choices that we allow our loved ones to contemplate in dealing with crises. Despite the reality of even intractable psychological pain, we have insisted that every person remain at his or her post in life.

The real problem is that this cannot be done alone.

Normalizing suicide is a radical way of denying the claims of human solidarity. It means pretending that the spiritual asphyxiation of the desperate, there, right next to us, though somewhat out of sight, is none of our business.

Not compassion, but savagery, makes peace with suicide.

Physician-assisted suicide is suicide.

And the specific kind of suicide that it is makes it even more damaging to the body politic. It forces our laws (and that means our communal self-understanding) into renouncing, yet further, the most basic demands of human solidarity.

As a social reality, physician-assisted suicide does not mean putting some person out of his or her misery. It is, by its logic, putting someone out of OUR misery. It is eugenic libertarianism red in tooth and claw.

Being human in history is not something else than helping each other stand at our posts even when it is excruciating. Being human means taking care, or it means nothing at all.

The school of care is suffering. We must learn never to cease caring. We must seek to absorb the suffering of others by our unremitting presence to them, in their agony, and affirm the absorption of our suffering by others.

Solidarity isn’t doing very well these days. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would radicalize that trend, the trend to leave behind the poor and the addicted and the refugee and the medically dependent and the elderly and the hopeless and the forgotten—all of us who might be losers in the power games of the world.

Our Commonwealth is famously progressive. Please allow me to bring to mind some basic principles of progressive social theory.

If someone on the margins of life dies, it seems unseemly for any self-respecting progressive not to ask, “What social class interest has just been advanced?”

If a woman feels as if she doesn’t want to be a burden anymore, what misogynistic conditioning might be involved? (Think Marcuse and introjected heteronomy.)

If the poor and those suffering from mental illness, including depression, and those who are medically dependent, are given this “choice” as a legitimate medical option, how is it that social masters aren’t benefiting?

Our choices have social ramifications. Are we required or not, as citizens, to consider what effect our “choices” have on the social order?

If the legalization of our choice turns doctors into killers, is that something we are required to consider?

If the legalization of our choice commits the social body to the normalization of suicide, thereby exposing all the vulnerable, is that something we are required to consider?

If the state, and indeed insurance companies, are handed this new instrument of biopower, power that has always been abused, is that something we are required to consider?

Is such a question intrinsic to our humanity or not? Are our choices bound by solidarity, or not?

Friendship as the Othering of Self

[Originally posted on Facebook, 9 March.]

Does a person need friends to be happy?

In the last session of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate program, we spent much of our time exploring Aristotle's chapters on friendship from the Nicomachean Ethics. I had not planned it thus, but the topic of friendship (especially as ramified into civic friendship) took hold of me as essential to our meditation on the deep conditions for a pro-life subjectivity, as well as for a rejuvenation of our Republic.

One of the many striking things about Aristotle's treatment of friendship is his way (as with his ethics as a whole) of setting it within a political context, but also within an ontological context—remembering that Aristotle's notion of happiness commits us to being more (being good), through virtuous activity. Being, being-with, being-more: friendship is essential to human development and political health.

In a particularly fascinating passage from Book IX.9, Aristotle explains the necessity of friendship for happiness with reference to what Kant would call the transcendental unity of apperception, or which we might call spirit's reflexivity. Spirit (the power to know and love, the rational power) is for communion, therefore wants communion, needs communion. Being in us wants to be more, and a friend is another self, so friendship is ingredient in the fecundity of being.

"But if life itself is good and pleasant (which it seems to be, from the very fact that all men desire it, and particularly those who are good and supremely happy; for to such men life is most desirable, and their existence is the most supremely happy) and if he who sees perceives that he sees, and he who hears, that he hears, and he who walks, that he walks, and in the case of all other activities similarly there is something which perceives that we are active, so that if we perceive, we perceive that we perceive, and if we think, that we think; and if to perceive that we perceive or think is to perceive that we exist (for existence was defined as perceiving or thinking); and if perceiving that one lives is in itself one of the things that are pleasant (for life is by nature good, and to perceive what is good present in oneself is pleasant); and if life is desirable, and particularly so for good men, because to them existence is good and pleasant for they are pleased at the consciousness of the presence in them of what is in itself good); and if as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also (for his friend is another self): if all this be true, as his own being is desirable for each man, so, or almost so, is that of his friend. Now his being was seen to be desirable because he perceived his own goodness, and such perception is pleasant in itself. He needs, therefore, to be conscious of the existence of his friend as well, and this will be realized in their living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place."

The friendly sharing of life is an exigence of the human spirit: the rational animal is the political animal. Or, the human person cannot find him or herself except in the sincere gift of self. The sentiment of existence urges towards a shared sentiment, and we know that that sentiment must come to feel as proper to itself the agonies and the joys of every other.

Our Liberty is in the Imperative to Take Care

To be free means to take care of others.

Saint Thomas Aquinas points this out in explaining how there can be a natural law, where "law" is a thing of reason (and hence free) and "nature" is a matter (at least in every other animal) of instinct (hence not free).

The solution is that a human person by his or her nature, besides being moved by instincts, is capable of questioning reality and thus of becoming more and more, by entering more deeply into the articulations of being. And becoming intimate with more of reality is expansion of soul, expansion of mind and heart: this gentles the idiosyncratic blood, and enables us to feel otherness within ourselves—so we may will the good for more than ourselves. So we may love.

As Aquinas puts it, "Wherefore, since all things subject to divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, it is evident that all things partake in some way in the eternal law, namely, insofar as all things have inclinations to their own acts and ends from the eternal law's imprint on them. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in a more excellent way, since it also shares in God's providence, by being provident both for itself and for others." (Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 91, a. 2)

It is because our nature is free that we can receive the law (which always aims at the common good). The law is this; our freedom is this: TAKE CARE. Be a shepherd of being. Find the light in things, even when it's deeply hidden, so that love may breathe again.

There's this powerful statement from the poet René Char, a leader of the French Resistance in WWII (Fragment 111 of Hypnos): "Light has been banished from our eyes. It's buried somewhere in our bones. It's our turn now to hunt for it and put back its crown."

The liberty of the human person is to find the truth within the tears of things and thus instaurate the kingdom of responsive love.

To be provident, to take care, requires some mastery of time and space, bending materiality according to the purposes of love. And that includes taking account of the time of day.

If you are pro-life and live in Massachusetts, but haven't made it to one of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's annual conventions, now is a good time to come. It's this Saturday in Brockton:

The focus will be on the changes in the who and why of abortion. The demographics have shifted over time. As the political time of day has changed with the crisis in our elite class (and we must grapple with that), so also if we are to be provident when it comes to the lives of the most powerless human beings, we must know the facts as they are—so we may respond, be responsible, as we ought to be. In that imperative, is our freedom.

Truth: Datum, Non Factum (Given, Not Made)

[Originally posted on Facebook, 11 March.]

Wonderful discussion today on Pope Benedict's Caritas in veritate (which can be viewed in other posts). It is a breathtaking contribution to Catholic social doctrine. One of the most striking aspects of the document is the characteristically Ratzingerian move of highlighting the Augustinian emphasis on our fallen tendency to curve in on ourselves.

This hardening of the human horizon against the transcendent context of divine goodness (a way of describing secularization) causes the powers of the human soul, in their erotic striving for the true, the good, and the beautiful, to miscarry and collapse upon the self (concupiscence as moral entropy) in an autoerotic flight from otherness. This secularizing operation derails integral human development, which can only be consummated within ipsum esse subsistens. Instead, closure against the infinite horizon of God causes the powers of the human soul and of the world to stagnate, becoming poisonous, miasmic, rather than dynamic, transcendent. When the dimension of gratuity is eclipsed, there is only the concupiscence of exploitative desire. Knowing what's in ourselves, we assume that it's the same with everybody else's heart: we become fearful, and brutal in our fear: "a perpetual and restless desire of power after power" and "a war of all against all" (as Hobbes puts it).

Pope Benedict writes in no. 34 of Caritas in veritate: "Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life, and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself, and it is a consequence—to express it in faith terms—of original sin."

Truth or power: if we deny the givenness of natures (if we forget that everything is grace, a gift; if we forget to wonder at each thing, to attend to the almost-sensuous contours of each thing's intelligibility), then things (including human bodies) become manipulables and commodities. Without eyes for the luminosity of truth in each thing, there is only might making right—and the weak suffering what they must.

If the powerful are not checked by the measure of the truth of things (of natures), a zero-sum economics of scarcity will be death-dealing for the non-elite.

I'm trying to work through a provocative work by René Char, a French poet who was a leader in the Maquis, called Hypnos. In Fragment 8, he writes: "The moment the instinct for survival gives way to the instinct for possession, reasonable human beings lose all sense of their probable lifespan and day-to-day equilibrium. They grow hostile to small chills in the atmosphere and submit without further ado to whatever evil and deceit might require of them. Under a maleficent hailstorm their miserable existence simply crumbles away."

Fearful avarice (which must manage everything) destroys solidarity. It keeps us from doing what is most natural: being friendly to any fellow human, taking care, being responsible. To love the other, I must receive the other, wonder at and wait upon the other. If I am frantically building my world, there is no place for the other AS other.

Again, Pope Benedict (from no. 53): "One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved, or from difficulties in being able to love. Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God's love, by man's basic and tragic tendency to close in on himself, thinking himself to be self-sufficient or merely an insignificant and ephemeral fact, a 'stranger' in a random universe. Man is alienated when he is alone, when he is detached from reality, when he refuses to think and to put faith in a foundation. All of humanity is alienated when too much trust is placed in merely human projects, ideologies, and false utopias. ...The development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side."

Solidarity (which works the healing of alienation) requires marveling at the givenness and graciousness of truth, which as such, in every case, breathes forth love—redolent of intimacy, of tomorrow, of God.

A Catholic Approach to Modernity

Cyril O'Regan is brilliant, and his essay "The 'Gift' of Modernity" is worth reading: I am very much with him in evaluating modernity as a "gift," taken in the Derridean manner, linking the word (via German) to the Greek pharmakon—which means both cure and poison. That is exactly the status of modernity. The council fathers take this stance in Gaudium et spes. It's the catholic stance: not nostalgic, not boosterish, but discerning—and always acknowledging the true, the good, the beautiful wherever it is.

Those who take this catholic stance towards modernity O'Regan calls "shadow-seers," as opposed to the "cheerers" (e.g., Habermas) and the "weepers" (e.g., Heidegger and Alasdair MacIntyre).

O'Regan's list of theologians providing support for the "shadow-seeing" approach to modernity is almost perfect: Popes Francis and Benedict, Metz, de Lubac, Balthasar. As O'Regan notes, though, these tend somewhat towards the "weeping" side. If he had included Pope Saint John Paul II, he would have had someone in between this group and Charles Taylor.

On Francis and Benedict:

"Francis is hardly a net declaimer of modernity and shows no signs of being willing to roll back basic human rights or downplay in any way modern concerns for human dignity and justice. But as is well-known, he decries unrestricted capitalism, the catastrophic damage done to nature in and through modern economic machine and the destruction of society consequent on the acquisitive mentality spawned in and by modernity. Francis justifies weeping, but also wishes to limit it. Critique is accompanied by recommendation. What he recommends, however, is the basic kerygma of the Gospel rather than the Church or the developed theological edifices generated within the history of Christianity. While hardly despising theological construction, we find no nostalgia for premodern world of Thomistic synthesis. For Francis, the Gospel is both persuasive and light enough to carry Christians through and beyond a secular modernity. Now Benedict says many of the things that we identify Francis with, and said them before him. Yet, it is fair to say the following three things: (a) Benedict is more concerned with the identity of the Church, its authority, and its teaching; (b) While Benedict is willing to ascribe value to modernity, his critique is broader in that it includes a critique of secular culture as an ideological system that functions hegemonically and his critique cuts deeper in that he brings out the antipathy that secular modernity has for religion; its neutrality is armed; and (c) although Benedict does not think that premodern Christianity can be retrieved wholescale, he does think not only that significant elements can survive, but ought to survive under pain of nominalism."

My love for Pope Benedict runs very deep, but I do think that his negative attitude towards the Enlightenment smacks too much of the early Frankfurt School. That said, as with those latter theorists, there is so much critical-theoretical heft in Pope Benedict's work—one cannot do without it. Pope Francis tightens the screws on capitalism that Benedict had already applied in his magnificent Caritas in veritate, written in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But it belongs to the main thrust of Catholic social doctrine to try to humanize the capitalist system. What Francis does most uniquely is attempt to exorcise Catholic jingoism, an essential operation for the integrity of the true religion.

Then O'Regan highlights Johann Baptist Metz. Metz is not as widely known as he ought to be, one of my great favorites. His placing the memory of suffering and of the victims at the center of theology is necessary for resisting the bourgeoisification of Christianity. And it is necessary for cultivating a pro-life subjectivity. O'Regan's summary of his thought is outstanding:

"Metz, who is influenced by Critical Theory as much as Karl Rahner, has, over a life-time of engaged theological production, critiqued secular modernity for the way in which it fosters amnesia of how history has turned out for considerable groups of people, moral apathy regarding the claims this suffering has on us, and the ideology of endless progress that sidelines critical scrutiny of the zero-sum game of the power dynamics of history with its winners and losers. Metz provides a reflective version and justification of the shadow-seer rather than the weeper. We can see this by attending to two absences in his thought: (a) He does not absolutely decry modern reason, but condemns what he regards as its shadow-side; (b) His works illustrate no penchant for returning to a premodern legislative and clerical Church, and a theology-heavy Christian conceptuality. Crucial for the opposing of amnesia, apathy, and dispelling the vacancy of modern ideal of progress is the recall of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is restorative of the devastated subject of history; such a restoration becomes the central task of the Church founded by the essential Christian message that is at a slant to modernity and apocalyptically interruptive with respect to it."

Finally, I wish to highlight O'Regan's judicious presentation of the thought of de Lubac and Balthasar:

"Famous as nouvelle théologie theologians, in each case over the course of over fifty years of writing, de Lubac and Balthasar drew attention both to the modernity that had unwrung the integral world of the medieval period and the hapless nature of Christianity’s response and in particular that of the Catholic Church. Neither was a net weeper regarding modernity: both welcomed the greater dialogical spirit of modernity and both embraced large swathes of modern culture. But from their point of view there was much in modernity that was askew, and much that was implicitly and explicitly hostile to Christianity, and that nothing was to be gained by ignoring it. For both of them the world was both world and “world.” This meant in both cases a kind of Augustinian comportment towards the world: the world was good enough such that it should come as no surprise that one could learn and benefit from it; at the same time the world was sufficiently distorted, sufficiently “world” in the Johannine sense one should not entirely cast aside suspicion or be unaware of the prospects of being co-opted by the secular. Both de Lubac and Balthasar lent their voice to this necessary balance in the post-Conciliar age. In addition, both have a thicker view of the Church that is to be saved from modernity than that of Metz, and are far more prescriptive and normative regarding the identity of Church. This means that the survival of the Church is much more in doubt since purely accommodating forms of Church would not count. To speak to survival of the Church is to speak to the survival of a Church that has a hierarchical structure, possesses a Creed, is confident in its declaration of precept, and is concerned with justice but not afraid to speak of the afterlife. This Church also is also ecumenical and multiply inflected in terms of spirituality, since tradition represents many, even if related, takes on the fundamental mystery of the incarnation. Nothing like a return of the Neo-Patristic synthesis is imagined in the future, since its value in the past, while considerable, is also relative."

The key is indeed the difference between the (good) saeculum and its deformation by an incurvatio in se ipsum (secularization), world and "world." To demonize modernity would be an act of ideological totalization, an ironic kind of secularization. Catholicity must resist all forms of totality, without becoming idealistic and disincarnate. In de Lubac and Balthasar, we have resistance to both gnostic ecclesiologies, as well as to Catholic jingoism. It is catholic Catholics who must cultivate the good world and the goodness in this age.

Irish Lights

[Originally posted on Facebook, 17 March.]

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

In the matins reading for the feast, Saint Patrick teaches us why we are subjected to trials. He does so from the fullness of the bitter suffering he has endured in his life (kidnapped from his British homeland, sold into slavery in Ireland). We suffer so that we may learn to trust in God alone, and so witness to the truth of faith:

"I give unceasing thanks to my God, Who kept me faithful in the day of my testing. Today I can offer Him sacrifice with confidence, giving myself as a living victim to Christ, my Lord, Who kept me safe through all my trials. I can say now: Who am I, Lord, and what is my calling, that You worked through me with such divine power? You did all this so that today among the Gentiles I might constantly rejoice and glorify Your name wherever I may be, both in prosperity and in adversity. You did it so that, whatever happened to me, I might accept good and evil equally, always giving thanks to God. God showed me how to have faith in Him forever, as one Who is never to be doubted. He answered my prayer in such a way that in the last days, ignorant though I am, I might be bold enough to take up so holy and so wonderful a task, and imitate in some degree those whom the Lord had so long ago foretold as heralds of His Gospel, bearing witness to all nations."

No prophet, no evangelist arises without suffering mightily.

That fire of faith lit by Saint Patrick bloomed in the world, in Christianitas as well as humanitas. William Butler Yeats, one of the great poets, was one of the most extravagant of these blooms, though he was no Catholic—for truth burns where it will.

Here's a very fine lyric to celebrate this feast:

"After Long Silence" by William Butler Yeats

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

Love in the flesh almost always dies, but because of the faith, we know that nothing is ever really lost: every good has come from God. Saint Patrick, pray for us!

The Eros of Holy Friendship

[Posted on Facebook yesterday, on the feast of Saints Basil and Gregory.]

I am very fond of the matins reading from Saint Gregory Nazianzen for this feast of the Cappadocians. He presents an intensity of friendship that our loveless age with its queer puritanism of right and left cannot seem to fathom. It is symptomatic that NBC's response to the predations of Matt Lauer involves micromanaging hugs!

Eros, the impassioned journey from self to other (the perfective transcendence of embodied spirit not simply reducible to sexuality) has been exiled from the American soul, and all sides have colluded in this fundamental act of secularization, of contraction into self. Without eros, the wellspring of friendship as well as of romance, there can be no social body. There can be no republican solidarity without existential love.

Every January 2nd, the breviary catches us up into Saint Gregory's account of his profound friendship with Saint Basil. It stands at the beginning of the calendar year, and points us to love, the beginning and the beyond of everything.

"When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

"...We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that 'everything is contained in everything,' yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.

"Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God's law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

"...Our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians."

It's all here: human love rooted in a shared eros for wisdom and for virtue and for becoming Christian.

True love. There is no life without it. Every true love we are blessed with causes us to be more alive, more trustful of the Father’s goodness, a trust born of gratitude. Love makes us open, expansive. When we trust in another person and in the God the Giver of love, we are free to run the risk of bounding into the future, on unknown ways and into unknown lands. We know that there is a good God working His way, somehow, in this mess of history, this mess of everyday life, a God Who grants us love when we were not expecting anything new.

And given someone to love and who loves in return, we know we have a companion who will supply for our faults, who will think better of us than we think of ourselves, who will see us as the Father sees us. Spurring each other on to excellence, friends are on the royal road to the New City of holiness and universal intimacy.

Dying for the Invisible: The Elevation of Domestic Economy into the Economy of the Kingdom

[This was posted on Facebook on the Feast of the Holy Family, December 31st, and at Beyond All Telling the next day.]

“By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’ He reasoned that God could raise even from the dead; indeed, Abraham received Isaac from the dead, in parable” (Hebrews 11:17-19). That last clause is uncanny.

What does it mean that Abraham did in fact receive Isaac from the dead, in parable?

Two Abrahamic readings are an option for the Feast of the Holy Family. Paired with the Gospel of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, a question is raised: why this sequence of readings on a day celebrating the household of Nazareth?

Obviously, the promises to Abraham are in the process of final consummation when baby Jesus is presented by Mary and Joseph in the Temple. But as a whole, on this feast day, by this sequence of readings, the Church is placing the household, family life, under the sign of radical faith, the faith of the dark night.

For the purpose of all the promises of the good Father is the coming of the Kingdom of His Son. And all that is in the world must be ordered, without remainder, into the pattern of the Kingdom. The corruptions of the good must be thwarted and remedied, yes. But it is also true that the good things themselves must each be ordered, without remainder, according to the Kingdom demand for universal intimacy.

For those of us who care for the integrity of family life in the world, this is something we must hear over and over again. “Family values” must not be perverted into an ideology, a club with which we attempt to beat a supposedly godless world “out there” into submission. “Family values” are ALWAYS to be measured against the demands of the Kingdom, the first law of which is a love that has no limit: “Love one another, as I have loved you”—the fundamental law of human perfection and therefore of the world’s transformation (as we read in Gaudium et spes 38).

What kind of love is that? Loving unto utter humiliation, even unto death. To love passionately, recklessly. To love in a way so preemptive, unilateral, and asymmetrical, it becomes impossible for us to do Satan’s work of arguing a case against the other. The Spirit of the crucified Jesus is the Spirit that justifies.

So, it is a grotesque blasphemy to pervert “family values” into an instrument of judgmentalism and partisan combat. It is counter-evangelical, advancing only the kingdom of Satan.

It’s not “those others” who need saving by Jesus. It is every single one of us, at every single instant. As we need the conserving power of God to sustain our existence, no less constantly and totally does our moral existence require the impulsion of grace’s directionality. Otherwise, the flight of human freedom collapses by the gravity of concupiscence. (This necessity of actual grace is twofold: because of the privation of the preternatural gift of integrity, and because no motion, even rational and free motion, can be perfective without the movement of the First Mover.)

The surest sign that “the world” has found an even more insidious way to have the upper hand in our hearts is for us Christians to think our being Christian means we are superior. In fact, the more Christian we are, the more we identify with all the others. If Jesus is the man for all the others, then that solidary love is the criterion of Christianity as such.

Thus, Christianity is utterly radical. It must not be domesticated. Let’s return to the uncanny verse about Abraham’s indeed having received Isaac from the dead, in parable. The author of the letter to the Hebrews is extending the Pauline logic: “But as for me, may I never boast, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything. What counts is a new creation” (Galatians 6:14-15).

When Abraham was confronted by the decisive covenant test of his life (the command to sacrifice his son), his faith in the goodness, and in the power, of God the Father did not waver. And in that act of faith, he died to the world, and the world died to him. For Abraham, faith destroyed the hold of the world’s calculations over him, killed the last temptation to a mortal grasping for a secure handhold in life. He let go, and fell into the abyss of the Father.

Every single one of us starts out valuing reality according to the world’s values. We think money, planning, our contracted notion of “natural law” are the real deal, the prime analogate. But the truth of the world is not in the world, this necropolitan parody of the really real.

When we are broken by the dark night, when we are slaughtered in our surrendering of all we have valued most precious and dear, we open our eyes, blinking, to find that the center of gravity is not where we thought it was. All the beauty and good of this world is real, but only real from an anchorage in the invisible. As a parable of infinite beauty and good, the world has its proper truth, an ex-centric integrity. To let God take everything away in the extremity of faith, is to receive Isaac back. The beloved we have surrendered, returns. (And this is what Kierkegaard keeps pointing to.)

To express it in the terms of the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: Abraham died for the invisible, making him the true metaphysical lover.

That’s what the mystery of the Presentation is about: not circumcision as an end in itself, but total submission to the exigencies of the new creation.

And that’s what the Feast of the Holy Family is about: the submission of the deepest rhythms of human existence to the absolute demands of a love without end.

No More Masters: Repetitions of Tyranny in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony

[Originally posted on Facebook on 11 November 2017.]

In a kind of commemoration of the centenary of the utter human catastrophe that was the Bolshevik Revolution, and given that I’ll be presenting Dmitri Shostakovich’s music as part of tomorrow’s session of the Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate Program, a review of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905,” seemed worthwhile. I happily heard the BSO perform the symphony last month.

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are engaged in the signal service of traversing the Shostakovich symphonies. This season they will also play the Fourteenth (in February) and the Fourth (in March). Those are major symphonies of the greatest symphonist of the last century, Mahler alone excepted. You should certainly not miss the Fourth: the most powerful experience I have had at Symphony Hall was hearing the Fourth with my sister five years ago, the BSO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski.

The Eleventh explicitly commemorates the decisive event of the Revolution of 1905, Bloody Sunday, which severed the bond between Tsar and people (making 1917 possible), when the Cossack horse guards of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg opened fire on a massive, but peaceable, procession of workers, killing hundreds. Shostakovich’s father was in that massive crowd, and Dmitri would be born the following year.

But Shostakovich composed the symphony when the USSR’s crushing of another subjugated people was a raw reality. The Soviet tanks that destroyed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 are no less his theme, as he makes clear in Testimony:

“I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. Of course the same event can’t repeat itself exactly, there must be differences, but many things are repeated nevertheless. People think and act similarly in many things… I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘1905.’”

Shostakovich was an immense paradox: both a craven survivor and a breathtakingly fearless hero of artistic integrity, unflinching in his compositional witness to suffering. He is, of course, a Straussian dream, convicting the predations of the Nazis or of the ancien régime, say, as well as that of his Soviet masters at the same time—the latter a narrative hidden within the former. He thus teaches us how to demystify inhumane power as such. This method is much like the Book of Revelation: rooted in a specific historical context, but capable of elucidating other specific historical contexts by elucidating the underlying structures and dynamisms of history.

The symphony is played without breaks between the four movements: “Palace Square,” “The Ninth of January,” “In Memoriam,” and “The Tocsin.”

The open fifths of the first movement evoke the stasis of secular totalities, whether that of the ancien régime, or of fascist and Marxist states. It is a cosmic space of slow and cold sublimity, the khôra in which a Republic may one day arise.

In Harlow Robinson’s excellent program notes, he presents this important key for unlocking the logic of the movements: “Musicologist Levon Akopyan sees the Eleventh Symphony’s structure as a tribute to the massive propaganda ‘mystery plays’ enacted in public spaces in the 1920s. ‘Their dramatic structure was as follows: first a picture of the unenlightened past, then—awakening of protest, maturation of revolutionary consciousness, decisive battle, mourning over the fallen heroes, and finally, the triumphant dawn of the new era.”

I think this gets the basic movement right, the only questionable mapping of one on the other coming with the second movement: in a fairly straightforward, programmatic (indeed “cinematic”) sense, “The Ninth of January” presents the massacre of Bloody Sunday. How can the second movement represent the praxis of “maturation of revolutionary consciousness” and of “decisive battle” if it is in fact representing the forces of reaction?

Well, if one should read 1956 in the palimpsest of 1905, then we come to recognize that revolution and reaction are not opposites: the forces of revolution of 1905 and of 1917 become the forces of reaction in 1956. From revolution/reaction, we always have the dead (“In Memoriam”). What Shostakovich does not present is “the triumphant dawn of the new era.” The Eleventh does not close in the apotheosis of the secular state. The struck bells are still “tocsins,” alarms, all the way to the end, warning the human spirit, within an emphatic G-minor tonality.

The symphony goes from ice to iron.

Power always creates a parasitical elite class. Over and over and over again. What opposes it is usually its dialectical opposite, just as obtuse, just as ravenous, though not yet as guilty.

But guilty it becomes, if untempered by the humility of sincere service of the transcendent.

The only way to break the cycle runs through the self-transcendence of the human spirit, through knowing more and loving more, through a liberally educated mind and a bleeding heart, that is profoundly tolerant of other political viewpoints, that refuses to concentrate power.

What I hear in Shostakovich’s utterly honest record of the victims is a plea: no more masters. A blind cry for a liberal republicanism.

Things are static; they must move; but they must move humanely, by wisdom and love, by self-government through virtue and study and aesthetic cultivation, under the sweet government of the good God.