The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, March 31, 2016

High Praise: The Trollope Jupiter on Phineas at Bay

I'm with Missy; isn't this review of Phineas at Bay by Mark Green brilliant:
Wirenius is avowedly a fan of Trollope but it is apparent from the earliest chapters that he is an able writer and so any fears on that head are allayed. He understands the demands of plot development, building tension and the importance of character which are the basic stock in trade of the writer of fiction.

If I might consider his characters first; it is important, where established characters from previous novels are resurrected that they should be recognisable from the Trollopian incarnations. Phineas Finn, as the principal character is the most important in this respect, but so too is his wife Marie – Madame Max from the Palliser series of novels. Here Wirenius succeeds for me. His Phineas would not be out of place in Trollope’s novels. He is older, certainly – the novel is set in the last decade of the 19th century – and perhaps wiser but, importantly for those who wish to see him rediscover his youthful energy and willingness to take on an unpopular cause, he is once more something of an outsider from the establishment. He is a member of the ruling Liberal party but not a member of Barrington Erle’s cabinet. His somewhat Quixotic decision to champion the cause of the Welsh miner Ifor Powlett-Jones is in keeping with this reinvigorated character.

Marie Finn is also recognisably the character Trollope created. Her wisdom and insight are intact as is her ability to see how people will react and match her actions to the needs of the case in a way that would be an example to her husband if he were not the man he is. I found their relationship described with greater frankness than the Victorian Trollope was able to commit to the page. It was a salutary reminder that this was a couple who were not only intellectually but physically drawn to one another


If I have a quibble with this book it is that, unlike Trollope, whose most villainous characters were always shown to have finer qualities that gave them a rounded humanity, we are presented with an obdurate antagonist with whom Phineas must grapple. The industrialist Sir William McScuttle is vindictive in his prosecution of Ifor Powlett-Jones and uses improper subterfuge to undermine Barrington Erle in pursuit of power and to continue a vendetta against Phineas. He is painted too black and lacks the redeeming features which Trollope gave even his meanest characters. In this, perhaps, the book reflects a modern requirement for a simplified unambiguous narrative to which Trollope was not subject or could, at least, choose to ignore.

That concern aside, I found the plots worked – inasmuch as the actions of the characters which drive the plots forward are “in character”. Jack Standish is impetuous like his father was before him. Lizzie Eustace schemes and always has a weather eye on the main chance to do what is best for Lizzie. If there is sometimes a lack of the sense of inevitability about how things will go wrong that is a hallmark of Trollope (no good ever came out of a young man signing bills!) there is never implausibility. I believed in the stories as they developed and wanted to follow the developments. As a result, even though it weighs in at 500 pages, the book is a page-turner. Indeed, I did not find it long. By Trollope’s standards, of course, it isn’t – a mere two volume novel.
Sorry to borrow so much--there's lots I didn't borrow, and the reader will, I think, find the whole review of interest--but it's music to my ears. Green has other notes of praise and blame, but the overall assessment has made my day.

I will say that I wrote Phineas at Bay without the benefit of the much more nuanced depiction of Plantagenet Palliser
afforded by the finally released edition of The Duke's Children, having before me only the severely cut version published in Trollope's own lifetime. While I think my characterization of Palliser is consistent with Trollope's, I agree that the unabridged version could have led me to go deeper into his psyche. I also acknowledge that Sir William McScuttle has little to say for himself--not nothing, mind you; he's a practitioner of realpolitik who genuinely believes he's surrounded by hypocrites, and, having clawed his own way up the social ladder, is quite afraid of plummeting back down. I admit though, that he's less fully developed than he could have been. (Though I'm quite pleased with how Rev. Emilius and Lady Eustace came out, as my villains go.)

Still, how can I not be pleased with Green's conclusion:
Is it a worthy continuation of Trollope’s political novels? Does it provide Phineas with the third outing which John McCourt believes his character calls out for? I think the answer to both questions is “yes”. Wirenius has done his research on the issues which his book touches upon and his understanding of the characters he has borrowed from Trollope (I cannot speak to the borrowings from other writers which also feature as amusing asides) is evident. He has, therefore, satisfied my test of paying sufficient respect to his original source. And he has produced a story which moves quickly, more quickly than Trollope might have had it, and entertains. His writing style is clearly modern and if at times he attributes to his hero slightly anachronistic views that are ahead of his time (and out of sync with what Trollope might have given him), then I, for one, most definitely can forgive him.
What author could not be happy to read that?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"That bloody cough--"

I'm identifying more than I'd like with Ian Howarth, the wintry, middle-aged English teacher who is the best friend of the protagonist of R.F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, perfectly played by Alan MacNaughtan. His last recorded words, near the end of the book,
are "that bloody cough," and that's kind of what I'm feeling now.

OK, I'm being overdramatic; Howarth was dying of emphysema, brought on by a lifetime of compulsive smoking, and I have a bad cold, or, at worst, bronchitis. But still, I admire MacNaughtan's performance all the more as I grumblingly hack away these chill spring days.

The thing is, you see, in a little over two weeks, I'll be 50. And, as usual, the best-laid plans of mice and men have in fact gang agley. The place I wanted to hold a celebratory dinner has been closed, due to vermin and health issues (can I pick 'em, or what?), and I'm coughing and wheezing like a consumptive in a bad 19th Century novel. Oh, and did I mention that I had a haircut before the Easter Vigil, and the barber, looking down at the mass of hair he cut from me, shook his head with a small smile, saying, "lotta gray, there, John."


I used to, when I was in my 20s look forward to middle age. Because I'd be settled, and comfortable in my skin, and all serene.

But serenity doesn't come with age automatically after all; we have to earn it. Each day. We only have a day at a time, and that cliche became one because it simply expresses a profound truth.

And I look around me, and see all the riches in my life--la Caterina, first and foremost, family and friends, my affectionate felines, work I truly am dedicated to and enjoy, the privilege of serving in the Church.

I was right to look forward to middle age, but not because it would be easy; it isn't.

It's just incredibly worth it.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter, 2016

My first Easter since my ordination, and several challenges.

First, the Easter Vigil. Despite a shocking cough, barely held at bay by (I believe) a formula originally designed as a colic draught for horses, I sang the introit, carrying the Paschal Candle. In the dark, mind you, following the Thurifier, reading the Gospel--which I of course censed properly, with a satisfying clank of chain against thurible (between Deacon Denise LaVetty and Fr. Sam Cross, there's no way I'm ever messing that up again!).

At the end of the vigil, la Caterina proposed a quick trip to Katz's Deli, which I haven't visited in some years, and, yes, my friend who maintains that it has the finest pastrami available is right. Combined with matzah ball soup, cole slaw, and celery soda (no, really), it was an unwise feast for so late at night, but delicious.

Up far too soon, coughing like Alan Swann after a late night, but another horse-draught put me right (Siegfried Farnon's prescription, I rather think).

Easter Day services? More familiar territory, but handling "Big Bertha" at the altar (a heavy silver pitcher like a prop out of The Pallisers from which the Duke of Omnium's guests would get their wine) was tricky; coaxing the wine into the chalice from her without any spillage? Divine intervention. Huge crowds, fantastic music (the sample above is from last year; I do not appear in the video--if one exists from this year, I'll post upon finding.)

So many people--dear friends, friendly acquaintances, strangers, tourists--even an old high school friend popping up out of the blue. All wonderful, but with the church filled to bursting, we we're beginning to wonder if the 9 am service would be done in time for the 11 am service to start. (We call this a luxury problem.)

We go out on a hymn, as my field placement pastor used to say, and then the incomparable Widor Toccata as played by the inimitable Bill Trafka.

My first Triduum as clergy (!) is completed. All in a mad rush of friendship, good words well spoken, brilliant music seasoned with the scent of incense and a little deli.

What more could I ask?

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Father, Forgive": A Mediation on Luke 23:34

[Delivered today at St. Bartholomew's Church as part of the Seven Last Words Good Friday liturgy. I was honored to share the pulpit with some of my favorite clergy and lay people; you can hear all of our meditations here]

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I graduated law school, my parents took my sister and me to England, the one place I had always wanted to visit. My mother worked for a travel agency, and we were on a bus tour of England and Scotland. We stopped at Oxford for a day, and Cambridge. We saw Stonehenge, and the moors where the Hound of the Baskervilles hunted.

One day, we visited Coventry, and pulled up in front of a very modern, frankly not all that impressive cathedral. As we piled off the bus, I wondered why we were even stopping there. As we went around, I saw why.

The outer walls of the old cathedral, a medieval masterpiece, had survived the bombing of the cathedral in November 1940, the height of the blitz. Nothing else had, mind you. The windows, gone, the roof, fallen in. Utter devastation. And not just the Cathedral.

That night, 568 people were killed; approximately 1200 people were injured, 863 of them seriously. Nearly 8,000 houses were either destroyed outright or required evacuation for repair.

The next day, Richard Howard, the Provost of the Cathedral, chalked on the wall of the ruined sanctuary the words “Father, Forgive.”

Later, when it was safe to inspect the still smoldering ruin, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, found two of the roofbeams, still linked, charred and twisted though they were, forming a cross. Forbes set the beams up behind an altar made from the rubble. Our tour guide told us that the first service said was for the souls of the German pilots, as well as for those killed in the air raid.

The altar read simply, “Father, Forgive.”

As I stood in the middle of that ruined cathedral, long after the others wandered into the shiny new one, I couldn’t take my eyes of that cross, off that inscription.

“Father, Forgive.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off it because I had only recently read that in late 1940, the threat of invasion still loomed over England. And that, if a beachhead were established by that invasion, “all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern weald is indefensible against disciplined troops.”

With their cathedral and a large parts of the City destroyed, who could blame the people of Coventry if they wanted revenge? Or even if they just wanted safety, and the defeat of the invaders. But they forgave.

And this act of forgiveness was not done after the fact, from a position of safety. In fact, the people of Coventry forgave their attackers even when the forces of evil looked to be poised to triumph over them. The prayed for their attackers to be forgiven when it looked like the damage was not just incalculable, but irreparable. They forgave when it seemed that all was lost.

A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, Provost Howard of the Cathedral spoke over the radio from the ruins. He asked those who were listening “to banish all thoughts of revenge” and called on them to “make a kinder, simpler world—a more Christ-Child like world.”

We’re a long way from that kinder, simpler world Richard Howard prayed for on that Christmas Day here, this afternoon. Even though Lent started so early, this year, it feels further away from Christmas than I would have thought possible.

No, we’re here on Good Friday 2016. Just three days after a terror attack in Brussels on Tuesday claimed at least 30 lives.

And here we are, in the shadow of the Cross.

“Father, forgive them, for they know what they do.”

How hard it is to say those words with anything like conviction. It’s like that part of the Lord’s Prayer, when we ask God to forgive us for the hurts we inflict, just like we forgive the people who have hurt us. I don’t always say that part of the prayer with the intentionality it deserves.

But Jesus did. And Jesus does.

Maybe it’s because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and is able to understand how easy it is to fool ourselves into the worst betrayals, the worst crimes. After all, Peter has denied him out of fear, Judas has sold him for profit, the Temple authorities have betrayed him to the Romans, and the Romans—well, imagine the betrayal of finding in the occupier of your nation someone who gets it, knows that you’re not guilty, and then, as a matter of politics, sends you to death anyway.

And yet, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In my Catholic boyhood, I was taught to understand that line to mean that the whole cast of characters who betrayed Jesus that night and that day would have acted better if they knew he was the Messiah. And, yes, that’s one way to read it. But it's an easy way. One that lets us off the hook. One that doesn't require us to forgive.

So here’s another. Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan has a character in it, an English chaplain, who is delighted when Joan is captured. He argues against the Church authorities’ efforts to get her to confess and recant, and wants to see her tried and executed as a heretic.

And, after he gets his wish, and she’s sentenced to death, he goes to watch.

He comes back, a broken man, and says:
You don't know: you haven’t seen: it is so easy to talk when you don’t know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then--then--
The chaplain can’t finish the sentence, the enormity of his own guilt is too much for him. He has realized what his own self-righteousness has helped bring about, and his heart is shattered at the pain he has caused.

He knows what he has done, all too late.

Like Peter, like Judas, perhaps even like Pilate. Like Paul in , when the scales fall from his eyes. Only afterwards do they understand the enormity of what they have done.

And not just because Jesus was the Messiah. Because they have, in betraying Jesus, betrayed what was best in them.

As we do, as I do, when we burn bright with self-righteousness at the terrible things that happen in our poor world, and give ourselves permission to hate whoever we think is responsible for them, to deny their humanity. As we do, as I do, when we feel that wonderful sense of justified anger, and give into it. As we do, as I do, when we accept an unjust status quo, and convince ourselves that there is nothing to be done. That so the world is, when in fact it is so we have made the world.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Monday, March 21, 2016

"What is Truth?": A Post-Palm Sunday Digression

Hearing the Passion Drama as read at St Barts yesterday prompted a few thoughts about Pilate as he is portrayed in the Gospels. See, here's the thing that stuck with me: there are two men in that room who know exactly what's happening. One of them is Jesus, of course.

Pilate's the other.

Think about it--he's depicted as passing the buck to Herod, trying to turn the crowd in Jesus's favor, and then, most famously, washing his hands of the whole thing (OK, that's in Matthew). He has the Cross inscribed "This is the King of the Jews." (In John, he is challenged on this, and delphically replies, "What I have written I have written.")

In the framework of the Gospels, he is described as vacillating; Josephus supports this in part, but also suggests a tougher, more authoritarian personality. It's a tough character to get a line on.

Robert Graves's King Jesus, which takes as one of its premises that Jesus was the Davidic heir, suggests that Pilate was aware of this, and hoped to use him to supplant Herod; in telling the Passion story, Luke writes,"before this they had been enemies." Graves postulates that Jesus's refusal to become a client "king" in Herod's place removed the basis for their enmity.

We'll never know, of course, what Pilate felt. Or why he, who could be ruthless, yielded to the crowd. Or even if he did--some scholars suggest that the whole story is inserted to let Rome off the hook, and make clear that Christians could be good citizens of the Empire.


But what he wrote, he wrote.

And thereby hangs a library's worth of speculation, hypothesizing, and theology.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Certified Rehabilitated

The recently-retired District Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York issued an interesting opinion regarding a criminal case. It's a strikingly original and frank assessment by a federal judge of the harm incarceration inflicts even after the offender is released. The Times has a good synopsis of the situation and the judge's solution (though it loses the erudition and scholarship of his opinion):
In 2003, John Gleeson, a federal district judge in Brooklyn, presided over the trial of a woman charged for her role in faking a car accident for the insurance payments. After a jury found her guilty, Judge Gleeson sentenced the woman to 15 months in prison.

Many judges might leave it at that, but in an extraordinary 31-page opinion released on March 7, Judge Gleeson stepped back into the case. Finding that this one conviction continued to scare off employers and make it impossible for the woman, identified in court records only as Jane Doe, to get hired as a nurse, Judge Gleeson gave her what amounted to a voucher of good character — he called it a “federal certificate of rehabilitation.”

No such certificate exists under federal law, so the judge designed one himself and attached it to his opinion.

While he believed the original punishment he gave Jane Doe was fair, Judge Gleeson wrote, “I had no intention to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market.”

Jane Doe had asked the judge to expunge her conviction from the record. “I just feel intimidated when I see that question,” she told the judge, referring to the standard inquiry into a job applicant’s criminal history. “If you put ‘yes’ on there, that’s it. You are not getting that job.”

But Judge Gleeson declined her request, saying expungement was reserved for “unusual or extreme” cases. Instead, he opted for forgiveness over forgetting, as he put it. While the certificate has no legal effect, when Jane Doe shows it to a prospective employer or landlord, it should, the judge wrote, send “a powerful signal that the same system that found a person deserving of punishment has now found that individual fit to fully rejoin the community.”
Unfortunately, the Times doesn't say--and indeed it may be too early to say--if the certificate helped Ms. Doe. If it did, I congratulate Judge Gleeson for finding an outside-the-box way to redress a serious wrong done in our society--the failure to take reasonable steps to re-integrate offenders into society after their sentences have been served. New York State is one of the better states at this, but still, we as a nation have a long way to go.

I'm rooting for Ms. Doe.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Crime and Scandal in Pennsylvania

This is extraordinary:
Three former leaders of a Franciscan religious order in Pennsylvania were charged with felonies on Tuesday for allowing a friar who was a known sexual predator to repeatedly work with children, including as a high school athletic trainer who massaged students naked, and pull some out of class for what a grand jury report called “private physical therapy sessions.”

Tuesday’s complaint was the first time members of a Roman Catholic religious order have been charged with aiding an abuser. While the church has faced thousands of lawsuits over sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the past decade, criminal prosecutions of the supervisors accused of covering up for abusers have been rare.

The complaint, filed by the state’s attorney general, Kathleen Kane, charged three leaders of the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regulars — Giles A. Schinelli, 73, Robert J. D’Aversa, 69, and Anthony M. Criscitelli, 61 — with conspiracy to endanger children.

The three are accused of knowing about accusations of abuse against the friar, Brother Stephen Baker, but of not reporting him to the police or removing him from positions where he had access to children. In one, he was an athletic trainer for nearly a decade at a school where he regularly told students to undress for massages.

“They were more concerned with protecting the image of the order and more concerned with being in touch with lawyers than with the flock that they served,” Ms. Kane said at a news conference Tuesday.

Lawyers and victims groups said the prosecutions were a stark warning to the church that covering up abuse could lead to jail time.

“This is the missing piece,” said David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “For years, there have been pledges of reform, but we still see the same deceitful practices because those who stay silent or lie to cover up have not been held accountable.”
Regrettably, I think Clohessy is right. The Church's hierarchy is so firmly embedded in the culture of clericalism and avoidance of scandal that only the erosion of the taboos against secular law deploying criminal sanctions may have an effect.

Back when Thomas Becket was vying for clerical immunity from secular law, his adversary Gilbert Foliot sought to establish a balance between the legitimate interests of Church and State. Becket's martyrdom brought his cause success, and that tradition of immunity and the dread of the Church's losing its ability to command loyalty (as rationalized ably by John Henry Newman in his defense of suppression of inconvenient truths by the Church) maintained the ethical and theological bases for a culture of cover-up. It needed, and still needs, to be sandblasted away.

How sad that it had to come to this.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

First Principles: The Fitting Remedy for Evil Counsels is Good Counsels

I got into a discussion today about the deliberate shutting down on Friday night of the Trump rally in Chicago.

It made me think a bit.

Look, protest is a First Amendment right, and the First Amendment only prohibits governmental silencing of anybody.

So the constitutional rights of Donald Trump and his supporters were not violated. Indeed, it was Trump himself that cancelled the rally.

But we have a culture of free speech in this nation that is deeply embedded in our politics, and goes beyond the technical legal rules. And I do not support the shutting down of anybody's rally and the silencing of anybody's speech. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in Whitney v. California:
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. [n2] They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence [p376] coerced by law -- the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. To justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the evil to be prevented is a serious one. Every denunciation of existing law tends in some measure to increase the probability that there will be violation of it. [n3] Condonation of a breach enhances the probability. Expressions of approval add to the probability. Propagation of the criminal state of mind by teaching syndicalism increases it. Advocacy of law-breaking heightens it still further. But even advocacy of violation, however reprehensible morally, is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. The wide difference between advocacy and incitement, between preparation and attempt, between assembling and conspiracy, must be borne in mind.
Now, the legal ruling for which Brandeis (and Holmes, who joined this opinion) was contending does not apply to this situation, as only private actors were involved.

But there are two very good reasons not to approve of deliberate efforts to shut down the rally, as NBC reports this was just such am effort (see here). The pragmatic one is that it legitimate a reciprocal efforts, and allows the silenced party to claim free speech martyrdom.

But the principled one is just that alluded to by Justice Barndeis in his masterful concurrence in Whitney, above quoted: It's just not how a democratic republic functions, if it's to function at all. It's messy, with protests, and speech both vying to be heard, but silencing even the worst speaker is itself a danger to deliberative democracy. It erodes the culture of free debate that is, God knows, far from perfect, but the best thing we've got.

When I was a college student, I was invited to participate in a debate between a member of Pax Christi, arguing that our college should ban the CIA from recruiting on campus, and a representative of our ROTC, defending the Agency. I had more politically in common with the Pax Christi representative, and we joined in criticizing much of the misconduct then coming to light. (This was the mid-80s, so there was a fair amount). So I ended up irritating both sides pretty severely, by arguing in defense of the right for those I firmly believed to be wrong to be heard.

I still think I was right then, and that the same lesson pertains today. Protest by all means--but shutting it down is shutting down the debate by which We the People decide our fates. That's inherently dangerous, and wrong.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Boys Who Cried Wolf

Robert George and George Weigel have published an appeal to fellow Catholics "and to all men and women of good will", entreating them to oppose Donald Trump:
In recent decades, the Republican party has been a vehicle — imperfect, like all human institutions, but serviceable — for promoting causes at the center of Catholic social concern in the United States: (1) providing legal protection for unborn children, the physically disabled and cognitively handicapped, the frail elderly, and other victims of what Saint John Paul II branded “the culture of death”; (2) defending religious freedom in the face of unprecedented assaults by officials at every level of government who have made themselves the enemies of conscience; (3) rebuilding our marriage culture, based on a sound understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (4) re-establishing constitutional and limited government, according to the core Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity. There have been frustrations along the way, to be sure; no political party perfectly embodies Catholic social doctrine. But there have also been successes, and at the beginning of the current presidential electoral cycle, it seemed possible that further progress in defending and advancing these noble causes was possible through the instrument of the Republican party.


And there is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.

We understand that many good people, including Catholics, have been attracted to the Trump campaign because the candidate speaks to issues of legitimate and genuine concern: wage stagnation, grossly incompetent governance, profligate governmental spending, the breakdown of immigration law, inept foreign policy, stifling “political correctness” — for starters. There are indeed many reasons to be concerned about the future of our country, and to be angry at political leaders and other elites. We urge our fellow Catholics and all our fellow citizens to consider, however, that there are candidates for the Republican nomination who are far more likely than Mr. Trump to address these concerns, and who do not exhibit his vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and — we do not hesitate to use the word — demagoguery. Mr. Trump’s record and his campaign show us no promise of greatness; they promise only the further degradation of our politics and our culture. We urge our fellow Catholics and all our fellow citizens to reject his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by supporting a genuinely reformist candidate.
I have to say, this statement deserves the hostility with which it is being met.

Note the truncated list of issues George and Weigel list as "causes at the center of social concern in the United States": (1) opposition to abortion (the rest is frankly just there as filler; we don't, thank God, have a big eugenics movement in the United States, and euthanasia is pretty much restricted to allowing patients to refuse heroic measures and other treatment); (2) falsely claiming that the Obama Administration has been unconstitutionally refusing to grant exemptions to generally applicable statutes, when such exemptions were torn from constitutional law by arch-conservative Catholic Antonin Scalia, who was nonetheless lauded even as he rejected the "seamless garment" teaching of the Church on the sanctity of life by supporting the death penalty; (3) opposing gay marriage; and (4) preventing government from doing anything about the very "wage stagnation" and plight of the working class they suddenly allude to as "a legitimate and genuine concern.

Don't believe me about number 4? Here's Robert George, in a 2009 NY Times Magazine profile:
Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.


In practice, George and his allies have usually found the rules of sexuality quite absolute, while the church’s teachings about social justice come out more contingent. That may be why he is almost uniformly popular among evangelicals but controversial among many of his fellow Catholics, particularly those who prefer the church's peace-and-justice liberalism to its conservative bioethics.

On the question of capital punishment, George says he is against it but he considers it a matter of interpretation about which Catholics can disagree. The intentional killing of innocent civilians in war is as grave a moral crime as abortion, George says, but what constitutes a “just war” is a more complicated judgment call. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal arguing that the attack was not necessarily unjust and might even be a moral obligation. “On the evidence that Hillary Clinton voted for the war on and George Bush went to war on, I thought it was justified,” he told me.

The “rights” to education and health care are another matter, George told his seminar. “Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom?” George asked. “Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite,” he went on. “Is it better for education and health care to be provided by governments under socialized systems or by private providers in markets or by some combination?” Those questions, George said, “go beyond the application of moral principles. You can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions.”
As I have previously noted, Catholic Social teaching--and not just Pope Francis's teaching, but that of Popes Benedict and John Paul II, as well as their predecessors going back to Pope Leo XIII (more here) have argued the importance of the Church advocating for the working class. Robert George played a key role in muting that advocacy, and narrowing of Catholic social teaching to narrow partisan goals, which contributed to the belatedly recognized "legitimate and genuine concerns" of which they finally speak--while proposing, of course nothing. Just more bromides.

They helped build this monster, and now shrink from their own creation.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Parade of Horribles: The Altoona-Johnstown Report

The Investigative Grand Jury of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has released a report on sexual abuse and its cover up in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. It's a shocker, even to my jaundiced eyes, and well worth your attention.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report:
Hundreds of children were molested, raped and destined to lasting psychological trauma by clerics whose abuses were covered up by their bishops, other superiors and even compliant law-enforcement officials in Blair and Cambria counties, the report said.

The conspiracy amounted to “soul murder,” the report said, with abuse happening everywhere from camps and homes to the historic cathedral itself. That description echoes that of similar grand jury probes into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2005 and 2011 that found cardinals and other clerics shifted numerous known abusers from one unsuspecting parish to another.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane called it a “day of reckoning” for abusers and their enablers but lamented that no one could be criminally charged.

That was because the abuse happened too long ago to be prosecuted under the statute of limitations in effect at that time, or because the perpetrators had died or the victims were too traumatized to testify. But Ms. Kane said the investigation is ongoing and that anyone with information should call 1-888-538-8541.

“These findings are both staggering and sobering,” said the grand jury report. “Over many years hundreds of children have fallen victim to child predators wrapped in the authority and integrity of an honorable faith. As wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves — these men stole the innocence of children by sexually preying upon the most innocent and vulnerable .... ”

Much of the abuse happened between the 1940s and 1980s, according to the report, but many of the victims came forward in more recent decades to report the priest to the diocese.

The two previous bishops leading the diocese — James Hogan, who served from 1966 to 1986 and died in 2005, and Joseph Adamec, who served from 1987 to 2011 and is now retired — “took actions that further endangered children as they placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of innocent children,” the report said. “Priests were returned to ministry with full knowledge they were child predators.”
And so another skein of cover-up and clericalism is slowly, painfully unwound.

In 2012, I traced the phenomenon of this cover up back to its roots in the conflict between Thomas Becket and Henry II, and the rationales provided for suppressing the truth to preserve the institutional power of the Church articulated by John Henry Newman in his The Via Media. The argument I made in Command and Coercion has since been echoed as to Becket, and no refutation of my claims has been made that I can find.

At the end of the final published version, I wrote then that it was time for the ghost of Thomas Becket to be laid.

The exorcism is yet to come.

Lord have mercy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Faction Paradox

OK, so I don't, as a general matter, blog politics. That said, the recent events in the Republican Party have roused the Poli-Sci adjunct prof in me after a multi-year slumber. With the Republican Establishment (What's left of it, anyway), combining to torpedo the campaign of the party's own front-runner (No, really), the stage looks like it's set for a grim caricature of the disastrous (for the GOP) 1912 election, in which the charismatic insurgent who tapped into the working class's discontent was deprived of the nomination by the Old Guard uniting around a weaker but palatable (to them) candidate.

Now, before I go on, let's be clear: Donald Trump is no Theodore Roosevelt. After Lincoln, TR was, to my mind, the greatest Republican in the history of the Nation. And the Progressive Party platform represents an important road not taken in American political history, and a document the promises of which were only partly realized by the New Deal and the Great Society. TR's "Bull Moose" Party offered a distinctly Republican take on populism and reform worthy of honor, and of being read today.

I cannot say anything remotely like that about the appalling Trump. And that's putting it with, to steal a line from C.P. Snow, the "maximum of charity, which is probably, as usual, uncalled for." Still--leaving aside the obvious differences in the candidates (and, to be fair, I have long winced at TR's convention speech, where he declared "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!")--well, this looks a bit like a replay, this time as farce.

In 1912, the Stalwarts (as they called themselves) united around the less charismatic but hardly laughable William Howard Taft. Although Roosevelt had won the primary states, Taft had the delegates and the party machinery.

But Roosevelt had the enthusiasm.

And--here is the point--Roosevelt left the Party, because he felt that he had been treated unfairly, the rules manipulated, the processes tampered with, and the voice of the people ignored.

And he took his voters with him.

Conservative Rod Dreher suggests that Trump garners much of his enthusiastic support from working class white men who feel they are falling precipitously behind. They see Trump, Dreher suggests, as the one candidate who is speaking to their frustration and fears.

Now, the Stalwarts in 1912 waited until the convention to make their play. Here, the Establishment is trying to sabotage Trump before the convention. Now, doesn't this give Trump grounds to rescind his loyalty pledge to the eventual nominee? I mean, not like I expected him to keep it, but this gives him a credible reason for violating it.

And, well, whether he runs as a third party candidate or not, how do you bring his voters back into the fold, if they believe their champion (I know, the mind reels), was shivved by the very Establishment selecting the not-Trump candidate?

Myself, I can't help but view this dilemma as karmic retribution for five decades of the Southern Strategy. Faust's bargain has come due. Trump is the bill collector.