Monday, May 30, 2011


In an essay in the current issue of America (May 23, 2011), John Kavanaugh muses on the philosophical viewpoint of Ayn Rand, author of influential novels such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.  Hers is a view that celebrates the individual and narcissistic self-seeking to the extent, Kavanaugh suggests, of making narcissism a virtue--one that he believes is at risk of becoming the dominant one in American life.

This leads me to wonder about the ways in which abortion (to take one of many examples) is defended--almost irrationally--in American society.  Is it really all about being able to have sex with whomever one wants, without any of the "consequences" for which acts of intercourse are naturally ordered?  In part it is, but I think it is only one layer of the answer.  Really, it seems that the larger picture is one in which I can do anything I want to please myself, and whoever dies with the most toys wins.  Sexual gratification is only one of the "toys."

What is the opposite of such a view?  The "enemy" according to Rand is the "collective," the society structured on mindless obedience, like an ant farm (think of the scene in The Once and Future King) or a beehive, with all workers subservient to a queen bee--like the world of Stalin's Russia.  And this is truly a horrible vision of life:  the individual has no purpose other than the progress of the State (rather like the orcs of Sauron's Mordor).  It is a nightmarish vision.  But it is not the only alternative.

When giving a talk a couple of Sundays ago on "Catholic Social Teaching" I referred to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum and the fall of communism in eastern and central Europe.  The Pope had harsh criticism for the view of the collective that communism represented.  But he had equally harsh words for capitalism (this made some in the audience uncomfortable).  Insofar as both views are ultimately materialistic, they are opposite sides of the same coin: one exalts the individual at all costs, and the other rejects the individual in the name of the State. 

But there is a third alternative.  Just as Rollo May long ago (Love and Will) suggested that love and hate are not opposites but also two sides of the same coin, with apathy as the true opposite, so also in this case there is a true alternative to narcissistic self-absorption or the mindless collective.  To quote Kavanaugh: 
As the French philosopher Jacques Maritain pointed out long ago, the only authentic alternative is a community of persons. 

In theological terms, this is the three-fold image of the Church found in Vatican II's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium):  to be citizens of the People of God, members of the Body of Christ, living stones in the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Where do the individual and society best come together in this balance?  Ideally speaking, in a family, or in a monastery...

"I" is, but "I" is not all there is. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


For all those who were disappointed by the failure of The End to take place this past weekend, and for all those somehow still thinking that the new date (21 Oct) is less likely to disappoint, perhaps a primer from Jesus' words in St Mark's Gospel (chapter 13) might be of help:

See that no one deceives you.  Many will come in my name saying, 'I am he,' and they will deceive many.  When you hear of wars and reports of wars do not be alarmed; such things must happen, but it will not yet be the end.

False messiahs and false prophets will order to mislead, if that were possible, even the elect.

But of that day or hour, no one knows...

Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.

What I say to you, I say to all:  Watch!

Taking a cue from C. S. Lewis, I interpret Jesus' discourse above very simply: 

1.  There will be an End.
2.  You cannot possibly know when.
3.  Therefore, be prepared.
4.  "Prepared" means being a person of prayer and active love of others.

Doing this, we will be ready for any "End" or "Rapture" that would come from our Lord.  And if we are "left behind" while being this kind of disciple, then is where the others are going really where we'd want to go, anyway?!

Still, there is a certain attractiveness (and perhaps also fearful resignation) in the idea of the End of Time, especially as it must have been experienced by those in the POW and concentration camps of Nazi Germany.  One such person (who survived) was the French composer Olivier Messiaen.  While in Gorlitz camp he wrote his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps,  or Quarter for the end of Time.  Attached here is the sublime final movement, entitled Louange a l'immortalite de Jesus ("Praise to the Immortality of Jesus")...

Friday, May 20, 2011


This is from the Vatican web-site, posted on 5-19-11-- with my comment below:

The Holy Father Benedict XVI has chosen the following theme for the celebration of the 45th World Day of Peace of January 1, 2012: "Educating Young People in Justice and Peace". The theme engages an urgent need in the world today: to listen to and enhance the important role of new generations in the realization of the common good, and in the affirmation of a just and peaceful social order where fundamental human rights can be fully expressed and realized.

In fact, there is a duty incumbent upon the present generation to prepare future ones, and creating for them the conditions that will allow these future generations to express freely and responsibly the urgency for a "new world." The Church welcomes young people and sees them as the sign of an ever promising springtime, and holds out Jesus to them as the model of love who "makes all things new" (Ap. 21,5).

Those responsible for public policy are called to work for the creation of institutions, laws and environments of life that are permeated by a transcendent humanism that offers new generations opportunities to fully realize themselves (e.g. decent job, education etc.) and to build a civilization of fraternal love directed toward a more profound awareness of truth, freedom, of love and of justice for all persons.

This, then, is the prophetic dimension of the theme chosen by the Holy Father in the path of the "pedagogy of peace" indicated by John Paul II in 1985 ("Peace and Youth Go Forward Together"), in 1979 («To Reach Peace, Teach Peace"), and in 2004 ("An Ever Timely Commitment: Teaching Peace").

Young persons must labour for justice and peace in a complex and globalized world. It is therefore necessary to establish a new "pedagogical alliance" among all those responsible for the education and formation of young people. The theme indicates an important area of concern in the teaching of Benedict XVI in his Messages for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, beginning with the need for the truth (2006: "In Truth, Peace"), followed with the reflections on human dignity (2007: "The Human Person, the Heart of Peace"), on the human family (2008: "The Human Family, a Community of Peace"), on poverty (2009: "Fighting Poverty to Build Peace"), on the care for creation (2010: "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation"), on religious freedom (2011: "Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace"), and now talking to the minds and beating hearts of young people: "Educating Young People in Justice and Peace".

Let me add that Our Savior's youth do a wonderful job of living the vocation of peace through service (aka, "active love"), and I pray that perhaps they can teach us adults more about being people of peace by being "hands-on" Christians as so many of them are.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Today there will be another execution in the State of Alabama. This time the man is Jason Williams, who in 1992 gunned down 4 people in a rage sparked by an unstable relationship with his estranged wife. He claims he was out of control at the time of the killing, high on drugs and alcohol. But his actions claimed four other innocent lives.

Relationships make this case the harder: one of those killed was a man who took Williams in and offered him shelter. The other three victims were members of a family, living nearby. And of course the relationship with his wife was problematic.

But there is one more relationship in this case, one that touches me in a personal way: a friend and member of Our Savior parish is a friend of his. She called me last night to pray for him, not knowing that I will in fact be at the prayer vigil in front of the Cathedral this afternoon, praying for him, his victims, their families: and for his friend at Our Savior as well. Even murderers have friends and family…

I am completely convinced that there is no necessity for our State to engage in executions of murderers in order to serve the cause of justice. I believe this, regardless of the guilt of the one convicted of the crime—which in this case, as in many others, there is really no doubt. Are there extenuating circumstances? Perhaps there are. But he in fact took 4 lives, including that of a man who was trying to be his friend. And in the name of justice, there must be some punishment. Especially if there is no reasonable hope of rehabilitation, society and the surviving members of these families deserve to be protected. Life in prison with no possibility of parole can accomplish this.

I will witness this afternoon in prayer to the hope that we can overcome our willingness, as a society, to confuse retribution with revenge. I refuse to believe that taking a life is the only way of punishing a person for taking a life. Individually and as a State, we are (and should act as though we are) better than those who have such lack of regard for the fundamental dignity of the human person. We must remember that even murderers retain this fundamental dignity, no matter how bad their crimes.

Other states and other nations get along quite well without the death penalty. One day, please God, Alabama will as well.

Monday, May 16, 2011


I just returned from a drive up to St Peter’s parish in Montgomery, to concelebrate the funeral Mass of Greg Walker. There is a tremendous amount of “back-story” that is appropriate here…
My first year of teaching at Montgomery Catholic HS (the fall of 1974) was to classes of 9th and 11th graders; Greg was Junior Class President that year. When I had some issues with them in 3rd quarter of that year, I turned to Greg to break down and sort out the issues, and he helped me come to a solution.  This is a class a bonded with, especially with the boys (a boy-dominated class it was, for sure)—and particularly as I had them for 12th grade as well (when Greg was elected SGA President). His wife, Mary Stanaland, was also in that class. When I returned to St Bede as Pastor their children were in St Bede school and Catholic HS, and Mary was teaching kindergarten. It was like old-home week, because of them and many others.

So it was not surprising how many people I saw at this funeral that I have known for 35 years and more: parents as well as former students, and now their spouses and children and their children’s spouses. The line for receiving Holy Communion was beautiful to me, and painful as well, knowing how many people’s lives Greg impacted, and how much he will be missed.

In his homily, Fr Pat Driscoll emphasized over and over again the centrality of community in Catholic life. And that is what was represented in St Peter’s today: long-term community, the community of faithfulness to others and to the Lord that gave a real glimpse into the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God. And for me it represented also the continuity of all those years of inter-action, regard, and of living through all the “prayers, works, joys and sorrows of the day”: and of the years. As people say, “We have history.”

Greg longed to remain connected, and the numbers that showed up today (and last night for the wake which I could not attend) attest to the fact of his success. And it leads to important questions for us: “With whom are we connected?” “Why?” “What is the ‘glue’ that bonds us to anyone else?” “Who is the Lord, and what is the Faith, in our lives?”

Today, Greg’s answers to these questions were manifest. How about ours?

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Years ago, longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote an important book entitled The True Believer, described as an analysis of the mind-set of the fanatic. His insights are still (and especially) relevant today in the face of the global conflict of ideology between radical Islamists and pretty well everyone else in the world. A sobering statistic: if indeed 90% of all Muslims worldwide are humble, peaceful, faith-filled and devout, still—10% of a billion is a lot of Islamists.

The conviction of a fanatic is that his view is so right that all other views, to whatever degree they diverge from his, are therefore not only wrong but deserving of being stamped out as dangerous, or heretical, or evil. By definition, then, the view of the fanatic alone is true. There is no possibility that a fanatic can be 80% correct and therefore have tolerance for those who are also correct to some degree: the true believer is always 100% correct, and so his opponents (or those whom he perceives as opponents) are 100% wrong. It is a clear view, simple to understand, and uncomplicated by the subtleties and ambiguities that if faced could imply the need for some vague sort of compromise with wrong—this the true believer can never tolerate.

All this is a long way of saying that one anti-terrorist raid is a far cry from the elimination of terror, and (to steal the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book) there is no future without forgiveness (and reconciliation, and healing).

We see Islamists as fanatics; do we realize we are seen the same way by them? They were dancing in celebration when 9/11 happened, and it offended us to the bone; what do they see when we celebrate the killing of their leader? They reckon us to be economic imperialists who also are purveyors of pornography (aka, Western ‘culture’). On what basis do we refute those charges as false?

I have no magic wand for ending the enmity. But I am convinced that violence and counter-violence will never end it.  But I do want to end this blog-post with a quote from the Catholic Liturgy, the Opening Prayer from the "Mass for Peace and Justice":

God of perfect peace, violence and cruelty can have no place with you.  May those who are at peace with one another hold fast to the good will that unites them; may those who are enemies forget their hatred and be healed.

Let the Church say AMEN!

And please enjoy the movement below from the Gloria of Antonio Vivaldi--the movement "Et in terra pax" (and peace on earth).  For those who listen carefully, you will hear the tension of notes that clash briefly and then resolve--Vivaldi's way of showing, musically, that the peace of Christ is "not as the world gives peace"...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I believe the world is a different place without Osama bin Laden among us. 

I believe his killing has not accomplished the much larger and far more important goal, the defusing of terrorist ideology directed against the United States and Israel.

You may cut off the head of the Hydra, but it grows multiple new ones in its place. Frodo destroyed the One Ring and Sauron, yet Saruman was still capable of much “mischief.”

I find it impossible to rejoice that he has been killed, even though I am relieved that he is gone. I rather lament that he existed at all (at least, as he became).  See the Vatican link here to understand what I'm struggling with...