September 29, 2019

Prophets of Nuance and Other Oxymorons

This morning I read a (not atypical) Bishop Flores tweet (he of Mexican heritage whose diocese is close to the border) denouncing an uncaring attitude towards immigrants (presumably illegal, a modifier now illegal itself, probably because pro-immigrant folks want the conflation).  It all seems reflexively a tribal thing: he stereotypically ignores the prudential question while I stereotypically forget to pray for illegal immigrants and consider the immediate need. 

One could say that to even think in those terms (i.e. I am white and he’s of Mexican heritage) is to view it racially, but then how can one do otherwise in this age of identity politics? Perception being reality I guess. It’s like saying, “don’t think about the pink elephant” when every day there’s a pink elephant on TV, radio, news. “Don’t think about your whiteness,” we’re told, when every day we’re told things like "whites are inherently racist”.

Immigration is an explicitly political act (given that states control borders, not individuals) so a political argument will naturally follow. The opposing side’s argument is either not presented (the Pope Francis treatment, i.e. “no comment”) or framed (so unlike Aquinas!) as malignant.

For example, there is no pity left over, for example, for the poor left in countries where only the most courageous or intelligent leave.

So part of the “indifference” Flores ascribes is, I think, due to bad faith political arguments. That doesn’t make it right but it helps explain it.

And of course the reading from Amos this Sunday surely supports the bishop's attitude. The prophet’s job is not nuance or prudential judgements - his task is to castigate and irritate. (We’re all prophets now, laugh out loud?) And the truth of the prophecy is irrespective of the source: the Civil Rights Movement was no less true that it was mainly inspired and begun in earnest by a black man (Martin Luther King). Ideally the prophet would lack self-interest, but King was both prophet and beneficiary, although tragically he didn’t live to see the benefits. And no one is in a position to know injustice more than those treated so.

The OT prophets were famously not approved of in their own time, to put it mildly, but only later added to the canon. It’s easier to rake previous generations for their sins than our own in our time.  Distance in time provides perspective and a different point of view. (Certainly not necessarily the right point of view - Margaret Sanger is looked upon as a prophetess and revered in our time only because in our corrupt age her views on contraception are mainstream.)

Aquinas wrote that “we distinguish in order to unite.” How very far from our modern sensibility! It’s so foreign as to feel like an inherent contradiction.  We think distinguishing is “non-pastoral” (as in the case of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics) or else we distinguish very crudely in order to divide or vanquish (i.e. if you’re for a wall, you’re not Christian).

September 27, 2019

Praise for Trump's Quid pro Quo

I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't give a flying fig about Trump's Ukraine deal - see Luke Thompson below.

And it's amusing that the open borders crowd don't like open borders when it comes to outsourcing investigations to Ukraine, investigations that Americans can't or won't do for themselves.

National Review's Luke Thompson nails it on The Editors podcast:
“I think anything that Hunter Biden touches that intersects with his father’s official role as vice president is presumptively corrupt and worthy of investigation and that there’s a legitimate interest in finding what the hell was going on.  Because of this, it doesn’t matter that Joe Biden is running for president. That has nothing to do whether there is a legitimate government interest in finding out what the Bidens were up to.
Here’s what we know: Biden intersected his intervention in Ukraine, including withholding aid, with Hunter’s involvement in international energy-related matters on which he had zero expertise.  We know that Joe Biden flew his son to Bejing and while Joe was meeting with Xi his son met with a state-owned enterprise and left with ludicrous amounts of money.  He was paid handsomely for doing so though he has no finance expertise and indeed no marketable skills other than a seemingly bottomless appetite for narcotics and self-destruction.  And so given what we know I believe there is a presumption of legitimacy and that information is not the same as interference. 
If Trump had said, “dig something up and leak it for me.” that would be wrong. If he had said, “Target Biden, go hack into something, give it to me.” That would be wrong. If he had said, “Make something up, give it to me.” That would be wrong. Saying, “Get to the bottom of the fact that a chronically addicted, self-destructive son of a vice president was being integrated into American foreign policy in one of the most troubled places in the world", however artlessly he did it, is not wrong.  And to associate that with election interference or a campaign contribution has as its logical conclusion an absurdity that no one would endorse - it would mean running for president creates a de facto blanket immunity for anyone.”

September 25, 2019

Seven Quick Takes

Read some of National Review issue on what writers love about America, and so far it’s travel-heavy, making me yearn for the open road. So much of America I’ve never seen.

One of the articles mentions how Americans are prone to faddishness in opinions and utopianisms, and how Lionel Trilling once wrote that “Nothing in America is quite so dead as an American future of a few decades back.”

Also this, by editor Rich Lowry:
"Baseball on the radio remains an iconic American sound...During night games in July and August, the murmur of the crowd — just like the sawing of cicadas, the chirping of crickets, the calling of frogs, and the clatter of innumerable other critters — speaks of the delicious languor of an American summer, of long days and hot nights, of drives to the beach, of talking on the front porch, of the yells of kids running in the yard after dinner, of carefree, seemingly endless hours.”
Feel like a part of my childhood being ripped away with Marty Brennaman’s impending retirement. Like a bandaid being pulled off I’m not sure this was the way for him to go given the wailing and gnashing of teeth from fans (he’d originally planned to bow out with no year notice).

Feels like his wife, like Yoko Ono, broke up the band. She gave him a new desire to travel and a life apart from baseball. But he’s certainly earned it.


Funny Brendan:
“How I imagined raising children: All the little offspring gathered around me on the couch as I read a book about Greek Mythology or science to them.
What it's actually like raising children: One is howling under a cardboard box because I decline to find him a YouTube video he'd watched half of with his older sister but can only describe as ‘about making a squishy wedding’, another is throwing shredded cheese all over the dining room as I try to feed him, and a third is narrating Pirates of the Caribbean 3 to me in what I have to assume is garbled form (or maybe the movie just makes no sense.)”
Reminds me of the quote “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams” from Dostoevsky.


Tomatoes still coming in by the bushel. Feels late to be still getting this many tomatoes. One way to define summer is by growing season, i.e. when first and last frosts come. For central Ohio it’s Apr 28 through Sept 28. Five months of green things growing, which means 41% of the year we have a climate capable of supporting non-hibernatory plant life.

By contrast, Hilton Head’s season is from 3/10 till 11/29, or 72% of the year. Louisville comes in at 55%. The 50-50 line comes in just a bit north of Lexington.

I shall try


Interesting take on Padre Pio:
“I have to say, I’m not up on Padre Pio studies, except that I know—and some brief research confirmed—that it’s quite a minefield. Claims of fascism, fakery, fornication: It’s all there.
Pio is perhaps the quintessential saint for the modern world, a man whose controversy would have been in the past sequestered in ecclesial meetings and documents but who in the early mass media age became nothing short of a superstar—“the most important Italian of the last century” according to one secular biographer. He was a man who, whatever you think about his stigmata and other apparent supernatural abilities, exuded that manic energy that lives in the space between holiness and madness, but unlike Catherine of Siena, or other historic saints, he did so in the age of the camera and the journalist. This makes him at once more accessible and more mysterious, more credible and more strange.
For my part, I don’t know what to make of him. The accounts of his wounds and his ecstasies are incredible—and yet if I heard them about some 11th century mystic I wouldn’t question them for a second. Padre Pio, then, brings a certain unrestrained spirituality from the Before Time into a modern world where it no longer seems to fit. This is how he challenges us.” 
Padre Pio does seem to be a sort of big outlier of modern saints. St. Therese of Calcutta, St. John XII, St. John Paul II, St. Therese of Liseux, St. John Henry Newman (soon), Maximillian Kolbe, Edith Stein, St. Damien of Molokai, and on and on of saints who, while experiencing bit of mysticism and the miraculous, but nothing the way St. Pio did.

Priest uncorked a very good homily. Quoted Augustine on the three stories we have of Jesus raising a person from the dead: the first, the 12-year old girl who was still at home in her bed, the next was the widow’s son who was on his way to the cemetery in a procession, and the third was Lazarus, who was dead for some four days in the tomb. And the message Augustine got from that is how Jesus can raise us from three types of sin: the first is sin contemplated in the mind but not acted on (home), the second is sin contemplated and acted on (on the way), and the third is a habitual sin (in the tomb). All can lead to death but the third is particularly pernicious, though Jesus is master of all three.

The priest added that these acts of Jesus raising people from the dead was to show that he was God even then, while in the flesh, and that he didn’t become God at the Resurrection.

Creed revisit: “For us men and for our salvation / he came down from heaven; / he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the presiding priest, /and was made bread.”

Reviewer of Book on St. Paul

Saw book by Sarah Ruden that tries to rehabilitate Paul (I didn't realize he was in need of rehab). I’m always taken aback by how controversial St. Paul is among Christians. His letters seem uplifting and inspiring.

It amazes me that many think of him as grumpy and Puritanical, when his writings seem among the most upbeat and inspiring in the entire Bible. Many hate, of course, where he writes against fornication but how could they not then share the same distaste for Jesus, who said that anyone who looked lustfully at a woman had committed adultery with her? I suspect it’s the typical dodge of assuming most everything Jesus said in the gospels was attributed to him later in response to conditions in the churches at that time. Nice gig if you can get it. But it’s hard to wiggle out of Paul because everyone agrees at least 6-7 letters were written by him and there are pretty hard (and very early!) dates around them.One amazon reviewer pointed out that perhaps Paul was against homosexuality because it was deeply bred in Jewish tradition instead of his simply reacting to Roman/Greek abuses.

From a reviewer on Amazon:
In his book "Mythologies" (English translation 1972) the French semiologist Roland Barthes analyzes what he terms 'neither-nor criticism', a rhetorical game now even more prevalent than when he first essayed it back in the 1950s. This involves the critic's confession that he is able to discern how any subject's reality is more complex than simply being a matter of X as opposed to Y: the reality in question is neither X nor Y because it is, in the critic`s own perceptive gaze, a blazing matter of being Z. And the identification of Z is the result of the plucky critic's having so clearly established the respective errors and inherent biases of X and Y that he was led eventually to Z`s discovery. But, as Barthes simply observed, what fuels the neither-nor critic's activities and ultimately convinces him of his own results is the relative amount of FREEDOM he assumes for himself, namely, that he is immune to A PRIORI judgments, and that his own critical work is as much a liberation as it is a timeless explication of a given subject.

Reading this book by Sarah Ruden made me think of Barthes' essay. Her subject is the eternally controversial Paul and his reputation, deserved or not, in the modern world. And here is where the 'dichotomy-spotting' begins: wishing to steer a course between conservative and/or traditional views of Paul (X) and the often questionable results and opinions deriving from the historical-critical method (Y), Ms. Ruden in her quest for an 'original' understanding of Paul (Z) inadvertently relies on so many polarities and contrasts largely derivable from our own age that the 'original' voice of Paul she thought she had re-discovered ends up being the reflection of some currently entrenched prejudices.

Now I am not advocating any kind of relativism here; nor am I contending that there is nothing like a reasonable truth to be had about Paul or the meaning of his letters. I am as willing as the next person to say that Paul actually means what he says and in fact says what he means, but what Sarah Ruden promises and what Sarah Ruden delivers end up being two different things…

This is perhaps my most serious objection to the book`s project: that in order to make Paul more palatable, to rehabilitate him IN THE COURT OF OUR SENSIBILITIES, it becomes necessary to show that he was more like us than we ever imagined, that the reasons for his startling statements about the relative 'status' of women, homosexuality, slavery, even the nature of the divine agapĂȘ (love) itself must be revealed as having been based on the same forms of modernist pathos that so prejudicially orient not a few of our own attitudes and assumptions.

And finally, there is, for my tastes, a far too lenient (and downright anachronistic) use of expressions and ideas such as 'liberal', 'emancipation', 'oppression', 'individuality', 'self-expression', etc. in this book. This usage is problematic for many critical reasons, but it is further complicating, not because the ancients lacked any of the sensibilities that make such concepts possible and so compelling for us, but rather because our own psychologizing take on things, our own debilitating capacity for introspection and interiorization makes the ancients seem like they were inhabitants of another planet, like us in so many respects but thinking, feeling and experiencing God in ways that seem like a proverbial world apart.

Now Ms. Ruden occasionally keys in on these inherent and undeniable differences, those moments when Paul communicates to us the disconcerting proximity of God's glory--gospel 'flashpoints' I would call them--the kind that stem not from antiquated patterns of ignorance let alone our condescending attitudes toward them, but from a direct and overwhelming sense of God's presence and power: they are the expression of those timeless certainties that make for the blessed uncertainty of the faithful; in short, they are what make Paul true rather than just learnedly relevant.

September 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Songs

It was mid-80s and I was dancing at the new college bar and the song playing was Frankie Goes to the Hollywood’s Relax. And I remember I hearing it correctly? Can this possibly mean what I think it means?

It’s interesting that at a conservative college back then there was a culture that enabled clean-cut kids in their teens to osmosis lyrics that, to put it mildly, failed to edify.

I was curious as to the genesis of the song, of how it traveled from the dregs of excess libido to the ears of millions of American kids, bypassing the antibodies of the (admittedly weakened) culture?

And it’s a familiar story - the quickest way to success is to get banned. It was done so by the BBC and it grew famous and climbed the charts. But it also had help from a famous producer.

The songwriter claimed the words came to him while he was walking around Liverpool minus any “oh, I’ll sing these words and this record’ll be banned” considerations. They performed it on a UK television show, and the producer took it on and changed it radically (ultimately leaving only the lead vocalist in the final version).

The ad campaign courted scandal for promotional purposes by emphasizing gay sexual imagery. And the singer-songwriter himself apparently lived it, being diagnosed with HIV within a few years of the record’s release.

Another song from the past was written in 1964 (recorded five years later) called In the Year 2525.

It’s not too bad for prophecy. In the future you:
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today
(Is that pill social media?)

You won't need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube
Couple more stanzas:
Your arms hangin' limp at your sides
Your legs got nothin' to do
Some machine's doin' that for you
I'm kinda wonderin' if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing
The writer, Rick Evans, lived off royalties:
“Rick, still in his twenties, found himself set for the rest of his life, which meant, to him, that he’d never have to work at a job that didn’t interest him (“I couldn’t sell shit to a dung beetle,” he'd say). It helped that Rick “happened to enjoy relatively simple things: music, the sky, and ‘spacing.’”
He exchanged letters often with a friend who wrote:
Rick’s observations about society were often scathing, but also filled with a sort of mystified affection. Things that interested others baffled him. The country club? Football? Why?
Rick grew up loving all things science, especially astronomy and the prospect of space travel. ..More than anything, Rick enjoyed his own mind, his own far-reaching imagination. He was more comfortable with solitude — months of it — than anyone I’ve known. Why would he prioritize socializing with people who talked about “window treatments” when he could be in the “zone,” a state of mind not so conducive to camaraderie?
He wrote: “Music is an audio display of our love affair with organization presented in a way that responds to our complex emotional dictates...The players who are ‘getting it right’ with rock are every bit, if not more, in tune with the business of expressing honest human emotion; maybe even more so than with the players of the more refined types of music such as classical, because they are playing their music, not interpreting someone else’s.”
He mused that we only can attempt to reproduce the sound that Chopin, say, intended. There’s no way to know, really. “One thing for sure, though,” he wrote. “Our very best attempts at rock are exactly that. There’s none better than that which is labeled the best at this very instant.”

September 13, 2019

Sufferin' the Suffrage

A rather bold woman on twitter tweeted:
“I think women’s suffrage was a mistake. As unpopular as it is to say it, women think and therefore vote differently than men. I don’t think the fruits have been good. Furthermore, it’s an unproven assumption that lacking franchise somehow assaults human dignity for either sex...Only a minority of women have an above-average ability to compartmentalize emotions to a high extent when making policy decisions."
Hey nice to hear men are good for something besides opening twist-off cans! (My own specialty.)

Be interesting to study the women’s vote from the time of the suffrage until the present and see how what the score was. Certainly their first pet project, Prohibition, wasn't a good start.

Of course the difficulty in rating would-be presidencies is that it requires a counterfactual, which is Latin for "nobody knows".  But since I'm a blogger, and thus unpaid to have opinions, I will fear to tread there.

Women liked Herbert Hoover in ’28 over Alfred E. Smith (Hoover being the enthusiastic Prohibition candidate). Roosevelt in ’32, ’36 and beyond. Ike in ’52 and ’56. Nixon in ’60. LBJ in ’64 and Humphrey in ’68. Carter in ’76, Reagan in ’80 & ’84, George HW Bush by 1% over Dukakis in ’88, Clinton in ’92/’96, Gore in ’00, Kerry in ’04, Obama in ’08/’12, and Hillary in ’16.

Basically I think the elections can be put into two categories: one, defensible (or indefensible) given the lay of the land at the time, and two, whether it was a good decision in retrospect (which requires God-like powers of counterfactual presidencies).

I’d say Kerry in ’04 was defensible but not a good decision. Defensible because Bush deserved to be fired based his failed Iraq bet. Reagan and HW Bush were obviously good choices. Humphrey in ’68 defensible, and Ike and Nixon reasonable or defensible.

So of the 22 elections, about half are defensible, and 6 or 7 out of 20 were correct in hindsight. (Two elections, ’60 and ’68, I'm unable to say with certainty if the right choice was made even given hindsight.).

I’m not sure 22 elections is a big enough sample size but certainly the trend of late is bad.

September 11, 2019

Cardinal Robert Sarah

I’ve grown increasingly intrigued by Cardinal Sarah. Partially on the strength of the Martel scuttlebutt (in In the Closet of the Vatican), about how he’s a true believer, a mystic monk, and frighteningly silent, or words to that effect.

Perhaps part of it is the contrast he presents from Francis.  When the latter was elected I figured after decades of good papal leadership it was time for a reversal. The natural tides insist on a return to the norm sooner or later. But I expected more of a doctrinaire liberal (i.e. emphasizing climate change, immigration, against death penalty, etc..), rather than someone as outwardly aggressive, passively aggressive, and impolitic. And of course there’s the flirtations with outright heresy.

But Sarah’s book on silence is really affecting and is so married to the moment that it feels prophetic and God-timed. I couldn't get into his first book, “God or Nothing” but didn't giver it a fair reading because I only read a fraction.

Here is his diagnosis of the why behind this age of the new atheism:
God’s silence questions mankind on its ability to enter into the mystery of life and hope at the very heart of suffering and hardships. The more we refuse to understand this silence, the more we move away from him. I am convinced that the problem of contemporary atheism lies first of all in a wrong interpretation of God’s silence about catastrophes and human sufferings. If man sees in the divine silence only a form of God’s abandonment, indifference, or powerlessness, it will be difficult to enter into his ineffable and inaccessible mystery. The more man rejects the silence of God, the more he will rebel against him.
The silence of God is elusive and inaccessible. But the person who prays knows that God hears him in the same way that he understood the last words of Christ on the Cross. Mankind speaks, and God responds by his silence.
To believe in a silent God who “suffers” is to make the mystery of God’s silence more mysterious and more luminous, too; it is to dispel a false clarity so as to replace it with a “shining darkness”. Because I do not forget the words of the Psalm:“ ‘Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is bright as the day” (Ps 139:11-12).
With friendship and tact, the important thing is to ask these people to accept the mystery of the divine silence by making an act of surrender and of faith in the salvific dimension of suffering. If man remains fixed on materialistic and rationalist certainties, he always bets on this hypothetical abandonment of God. Love, by its essence, implies a leap into the unknown. 

September 03, 2019

David Gelernter, Rebel

Very interesting to see Yale professor and intellectual David Gelernter give up on Darwinism (which, oddly, he called a “beautiful theory”, perhaps due to the simplicity of it - at least compared to Intelligent Design).

He makes the persuasive point that Darwin did not know biochemistry, could not have predicted how mathematically impossible it is to create a new protein.

But the problem is that I.D. is likewise unsatisfying and has “a long way to go” in Gelernter’s words:
An intelligent designer who interferes repeatedly, on the other hand, poses an even harder problem of explaining why he chose to act when he did. Such a cause would necessarily have some sense of the big picture of life on earth. What was his strategy? How did he manage to back himself into so many corners, wasting energy on so many doomed organisms? Granted, they might each have contributed genes to our common stockpile—but could hardly have done so in the most efficient way. What was his purpose? And why did he do such an awfully slipshod job? Why are we so disease prone, heartbreak prone, and so on? An intelligent designer makes perfect sense in the abstract. The real challenge is how to fit this designer into life as we know it. Intelligent design might well be the ultimate answer. But as a theory, it would seem to have a long way to go.
Reminds me of the first reading from Sunday's mass, from the book of Sirach:
Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers...Do not meddle with matters that are beyond you; what you have been taught already exceeds the scope of the human mind. 

The McCarrick Story

I’m reading a book about prison ministry and the author (Valerie Schultz) mentions that middle-aged white men without tattoos are almost always in for sex crimes. Which made me think of Theodore McCarrick (although he's obviously elderly now).

So I googled a magazine article circa 2004 about then the well-respected Cardinal McCarrick. Reading with benefit of hindsight it’s kind of a “what went wrong?” angle, although of course you can’t glean much from a magazine article except that it was written before his sins were widely known and so there’s less guardedness.

He grew up fatherless and brotherless, an only child whose father died when he was age 3 so one wonders what impact the tragedy had.  There’s the weak father trope that is sometimes used to explain homosexuality. He was thrown out of high school for truancy, which he never explained other than he didn’t want to go to classes. He had a wanderlust early, marking on a map all the exotic places he wanted to go, and he always had a thirst for vacations. He grew up poor, and would buy toys instead of candy because they “would last while candy would not”, and always boasted of his frugality. As an adult he read middlebrow thrillers by Tom Clancy and mysteries by Mary Higgins Clark, and listened to middlebrow pop music. Given the dovetail of his native sensibilities, it’s not entirely surprising that he saw his priestly vocation as one to move up the ranks. to see as a worldly one.

His weekly columns to his diocese tend to be shallow and free of theology or Scripture. Perhaps he felt the mission was to tell his flock, “hey, I’m just like you...I like travel and meeting interesting people...I’m not thinking about God all the time.” Perhaps it’s not good that he called prayer his “escape” (like his John Denver music?) rather than a challenge, encounter, or discernment. There’s perhaps an element of the therapeutic.

His love for vacations (one I obviously share), one time squared off against his ambition to advance in the Church: he chose to go to an important Church conference where he met Pope John Pau II, then a cardinal, and mentioned to him that he had skipped his vacation to be there. (The Pope later asked him, “did you ever get to take that vacation?”)

McCarrick and Bergoglio are bedfellows in one sense: ambition. Both were (in the case of Bergoglio) or would’ve been (for McCarrick) unhappy as mere priests. The final line in the article is instructive: “.... Catholic writer Gibson says, ‘McCarrick as a parish priest would have been like trying to keep a tiger in a birdcage.’”

I’m sure it’s inevitable that ambition and high office are inseparable. One wishes it were otherwise, but that seems to be a big part of the problem of church hierarchy. Likely it was ever so, going back to the apostles argued power politics, i.e. who was the greatest among them. One of the many things I liked about Pope Benedict was you could tell his true passion was writing and thinking about God. One doesn’t get that sense with many other high-level prelates.

So it’s interesting how the child McCarrick was so reminiscent of the adult: resistance to the ordinary rules of society (like attending high school or respecting sexual boundaries), love for travel, and extreme interest in money and the objects it could buy.

The silver lining for McCarrick, such as it is, is that God chastises those he loves, and exalts the humble. McCarrick, one would think, has been humbled by such a public exposure of his sins.