First it was Mary, next Liz, and Rachel followed soon after. Three close college friends, who left the the world of careers and connections to devote their lives to Christ and his Church. That sacrifice is beautiful but also poignant to their friends left behind, to whom understanding often comes gradually, but it is nothing compared to the mingled joy and anguish of the father watching his daughter become a religious sister. And for Robert Miola, writing in the most recent issue of First Things, it was not one daughter, but two.
It started back in May 2001, at a graduation party in my daughter’s tiny New York apartment, just off Broadway, five flights up. Christine has won prizes in classics and Italian, a set of other honors, and she has no use for any of them. She has dropped two decades of aspiration and academic achievement, two decades of building a self in society, two decades of dreams about the future, without so much as a whistle.
. . . I keep reminding myself of Thomas Aquinas’ dictum: The end of all learning is love of God. “She is just skipping the middle steps,” I tell myself and others again and again. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?
But I am disappointed, too. She won’t be going through the long-anticipated rituals of academic accreditation, and I won’t be offering all the cheers, consolations, and advice I have stored up. And I am worried. Is this a free choice or an unhealthy compulsion, born of some deep-seated neurosis or fear or wound? Will she be safe and healthy and happy? Can we see her, and how often, and on whose say-so? She will never have a husband. She will never have children. What about all that nurturing love and motherly good sense she showed her brother Dan and younger sisters, Rachel and Rosie, babysitting, helping her parents, organizing chores, providing entertainment? And, of course, she will always be a beggar, despite her talents and the tens of thousands of dollars spent in tuition. (The IRS and the alumni surveys have yet to provide a category marked “No income now or ever.”)
Baffling–unreal–to the IRS and alumni board, and often infinitely more so to the ones who love most. But, as this father comes to realize, the radiance and joy of his missionary daughters, their love and peace, lies at the heart of reality. To read Miola’s full essay, log on or subscribe today.
Irena’s Vow is a striking contrast to the gilded nihilism and glitzy escapism that marks much of Broadway. “I hung a sign on my heart and nerves,” says Irena (Tovah Feldshuh), looking back over her young adulthood. “Do not disturb.” It is easy to see why. For the memories which she wishes to shut away are heinous, inhuman: finding a person buried alive, while she can only stand helpless; seeing a baby dashed to the ground; witnessing an entire race exterminated like an infestation of rats. Yet such memories cannot go forgotten, and this remarkable play is her telling of what it was like to be a young Polish woman at once dependent on a Nazi officer, and depended on by twelve Jews.
The terrors relayed are heinous and inhuman, but they are not the final word. Instead, the play is shaded with somber beauty and even a joyful affirmation of human goodness. Based on the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Catholic woman during the German occupation of Poland, Irena’s Vow is her telling of how she fulfilled a promise made to God after witnessing a mass execution: “If ever I had the chance to save a life, I would do it.” And so she proceeded to hide a dozen Jewish friends in the basement of the villa where she lived—in the basement, that is, of a Nazi Kommandant.
Suspense runs high, as one might expect, and violence always looms just offstage. Yet some of the most powerful moments in this play are the seemingly subdued ones. At one point, the Jews ask for games and books, hoping for simple pleasures which, any sensible person might say, are trivial when life is on the line. But, as one of the Jews reminds Irena, “It is not enough merely to live; we have to live like people. . . . We can’t just be like rats hiding in the darkness.”
Where there’s life, there’s hope, the saying goes, and this play proves that profoundly. Hope for physical survival, yes, but also hope for spiritual survival, for the triumph of what is good and true. Closely related, where there’s hope and where there’s faith, there is life. As Irena puts it in one anguished moment, “We should have faith, or something else will die within us.” And that something else—that intrinsic connection of every man to the Creator—is precisely what the Nazis want to destroy.
“She was an icon of respect for life at all stages,” said Archbishop Timothy Dolan, after seeing the play last week. “Irena was so profound in speaking about hope. Even though it seems dark, even though is seems like Good Friday, there’s always an Easter.” Written by Dan Brown and directed by Michael Parva, Irena’s Vow is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York.
From our friends at Grassroots Films comes some good news. First, their full-length documentary, The Human Experience, currently in pre-screenings, has continued to garner international accolades and compelling testimonies. Among the recent honors are the Award of Excellence from the Indie Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary from both the New York International Independent Film Festival and the Maui Film Festival. “Extraordinary” and “visually stunning” say reviewers about this soul-probing documentary, and I fully agree. (See here for First Things’ review.)
A schedule of pre-screenings across the country and abroad is posted online, with a showing just added for the NYC area on Tuesday, June 23. You may recognize the voice on the trailer: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was one of the contributors to this film.
Additionally, Grassroots, in conjunction with CatholicVote.org, has produced another short film, following the success of their two previous ones (nearly 4 million and 2 million views, respectively). Besides appearing online, this most recent ad ran on TV during the American Idol finale. Says spokesman Brian Burch, “Our ad aims to set aside our political differences, musical tastes, or celebrity fashions, and remind our fellow Americans that every life matters—that every life is beautiful.”
“Digital literacy, that darling of techno-utopians, competes now with physical books and the solitary, contemplative print culture nourished by them,” writes artist and cultural critic Maureen Mullarkey, introducing her new exhibition at New York’s Kuoros Gallery. “Champions of screen reading predict that the paper book—an instrument of modernity—might not be around much longer. Consider, then, the contrasting possibility that in this digital age, books and book arts matter more than ever before.”
Mullarkey’s exhibition, titled Gutenberg Elegies, displays her recent collages of discarded books, diaries, ledgers, and music manuscripts, sure to delight any vetero-bibliophile. For those who love the staid dignity of a yellowed page and worn cover—and ideas that transcend a fifteen-minute news cycle—there is surely an elegiac note in her work, as well. (Forgive my blogging on this.) The exhibition runs from May 14 through June 12 at the Kuoros Gallery.
The “s” is important. Do keep reading, writes Mark Edmundson in The Chronicle Review. It’s readings that are the problem, readings that hinder reading. Often masked under the title “theory,” readings don’t just provide sophisticated language for voicing one’s ideologies, be they Marxist, Darwinist, new historicist, or whatever the rage. Like a kitchen appliance which initially allures with its glitz and potential—dices, slices, chops, purees!—such theories quickly tarnish. Master the mechanics, and it’s a relatively routine task to run any sort of book or essay through them for—pronto—an academic interpretation.
It’s the meat-grinder approach to thinking. (See here for a marvelous satire: The Pooh Perplex, with such chapters as “A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex” and “The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse: Notations on the Hums of Pooh.”)
Of course, however interesting Milnes’s bathtubcomplex may be, nobody reads or enjoys Winnie-the-Pooh (or almost any other book) for its suppressed Freudianism (or any other ism). Edmudnson writes:
This, I think, is where literature can come in—as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called “the best that has been known and thought,” a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities. Such a person sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she’s inherited from her family and culture. She sees, with Emily Dickinson, that a complex, often frayed, often humorous dialogue with God must be at the center of her life; she sees, with Charles Dickens, that humane decency is the highest of human values and understands that her happiness will come from shrewdly serving others; she likes the sound of Blake and—I don’t know—forms a better rock band than the ones we’ve been hearing for the last decade and more; he seconds Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke and becomes a conservative, in his way twice wiser than NPR-addicted, Prius-proselytizing Mom and Dad.
In short, the student reads and feels that sensation that Emerson describes so well at the beginning of “Self-Reliance”: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” The truth of what we’re best fit to do is latent in all of us, Emerson suggests, and I think this to be right. But it’s also true that we, and society, too, have plenty of tricks for keeping that most important kind of knowledge out of reach. Society seems to have a vested interest in telling us what we should do and be. But often its interpretation of us—fed through teachers and guidance officers and priests and ministers and even through our loving parents—is simply wrong. When we feel, as Longinus said we will in the presence of the sublime, that we have created what in fact we’ve only heard, then it’s time to hearken with particular attention and see how this startling utterance might be beckoning us to think, or speak, or even to live differently.
Everyone who teaches literature has probably had at least one such golden moment. I mean the moment where, reading casually or reading intently, being lazy or being responsive, one is shocked into recognition. “Yes,” one says, “that’s the way it really is.” . . .
Although Edmundson can’t quite bring himself to admit it, what “really is” can often be found in the cumulative wisdom of our culture—Arnold’s “best that has been known and thought.” In a description that could be extended to most classic literature, Alexander Pope lauds true wit as what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. I wish that line applied as truly today, both to our thinking and our expressing.
Earlier this week, the Connecticut Senate approved religious-exemption clauses for their recent gay-marriage bill, following the model set by Vermont. The Hartford Courant reports:
Opponents of gay marriage, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Family Institute of Connecticut, had sought legal protections for business owners and organizations that oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Clergy opposed to gay unions were already exempt.
A compromise amendment approved by the Senate aims to do just that.
Well, not quite. The exemption clause, the article goes on to report, applies to explicitly religious businesses and organizations, so that, for example, the Knights of Columbus would not be required to rent their halls out for same-sex wedding receptions, and Catholic Charities could restrict adoption to traditional families. However,
The amendment does not permit individuals and businesses such as florists or justices of the peace to claim the religious exemption, something the church and the Family Institute had sought.
“No individual gets to pick and chose which constitutional right” they will respect, said Sen. Andrew McDonald, a Democrat from Stamford. “That’s not right.”
So we can only exercise freedom of conscience and religious conviction collectively? If something is “not right” for the individual, how long will it be right for the institution? Leave that argument aside for a moment, and turn to an equally convoluted one. (At least this one is put forward by an adolescent, not a senator.) The Portland-Herald Press reports that Maine legislators held a hearing on gay marriage this week, with thousands present and hundred testifying. One of the younger proponents, a fourteen-year-old boy, came to the podium with his mother and the mother’s partner:
“I’m stuck saying my mom’s partner, when really, I should have the right to call her my stepmom,” said the boy. “Our family deserves this right, just like any other family. Really, we shouldn’t even have to ask—we are all human beings.”
At least he didn’t ask to call her “Dad.” The Maine same-sex marriage bill could be passed by lawmakers within a few weeks, or it may be put on the ballot for popular vote.
Chesa Boudin, “radical royalty,” was raised by Bill Ayers after his own parents had been incarcerated for violent activities with the Weather Underground. He has gone on to attend Yale, to win a Rhodes scholarship, and to travel throughout South America on a journey of self-styled, self-documented self-discovery—chronicled in his newly published Gringo.
It sounds like the beginning of a “radical chic” narrative, to borrow a phrase from the NY Times review. But it seems that the coming-of-age, “smug but searching,” college-admissions-essay genre has grown dull, even to the radical chic folks of the Times. Dwight Garner’s review concludes with cruel counsel: “Chesa Boudin seems like a genial guy with a bright future stretching far ahead of him. If Gringo is any indication, that future should not include committing sentences to paper with the intention of distributing them widely.”
Perhaps I go too far in thinking, or hoping, that art leads to God. It is ultimately about seeing and showing the good, the true, and the beautiful, whether clearly or through inversion (our delight at Miranda’s “brave new world,” or our shudder at Kurtz’s “the horror, the horror!”). There are exceptions; I think immediately of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which leaves me feeling a bit guilty for having enjoyed this golden bowl of rotten fruit. Yet that experience of putrid beauty in art offers a glimpse of the libertine’s mingled pleasure and wretchedness, and is arguably more powerful for it. Showing how we think (or rather how we feel), in all its shoddy splendor, can be a path to truth and goodness.
In Paul’s words, transcendent reality—whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence—is from God and leads back to him. With that musing in mind, I was interested to read this reflection from Roger Kimball, in his TLS review of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution:
Granted, art and religion describe different realms of endeavour and experience. But there are good grounds—including good Darwinian grounds—for regarding them as mutually supportive enterprises. The interpenetration of art and religion seems especially prominent in humanity’s past (a leitmotif of David Lewis-Williams’s The Mind in the Cave, 2002). It is telling, for example, that “aesthetics” is an eighteenth-century coinage, a product of the Enlightenment when the arts, like many other human activities, emancipated themselves from their explicit service ad maiorem Dei gloriam. The careers of art and religion have long since diverged. But it is curious how the craving for transcendence continues to haunt art. “In the absence of a belief in God”, Wallace Stevens wrote, “poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” The religious impulse has turned out to be far heartier than many observers had predicted. Perhaps this has a root in mankind’s prehistory. But, as with art, to appreciate its contemporary significance we need not only to look back to what we were, but also to look forward to what we would become.
For more on The Art Instinct, look for Zbigniew Janowski’s review in the May issue of First Things (subscription required).
Here’s one good sign (or at least one it-might-have-been-worse sign), in the midst of the recent same-sex marriage bills, noted by the New York Daily News:
Echoing the names of gay marriage bills in other states, the Vermont law is entitled “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom and Recognize Equality in Civil Marriage.” Such titles in other states are Orwellian—those acts only purport to protect churches from having to marry same-sex couples, which is unconstitutional anyway. So far, same-sex marriage has had no regard for actual religious freedom.
The Green Mountain State’s new law says in its “Public Accommodations” section that religious groups “shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges to an individual if the request . . . is related to the solemnization of a marriage or celebration of a marriage.” It also bars civil lawsuits against religious groups that refuse to provide goods or services to same-sex weddings.
Now, the Vermont Clause certainly could go farther. I would like to see protections for individuals—not just organizations. Still, it’s a vast improvement over the other states that have implemented gay marriage without concern for its repercussions on the traditionally religious.
Last year young Benedict XVI fans were treated to Joseph and Chico, an inside look at the early life of the Holy Father—through the eyes of his tabby cat. Now, we have Part II: Max and Benedict, a bird’s eye view of Ratzinger’s Vatican life—through the eyes of a blue thrush. Move over, Obama and Bo! Look for the English translation of this latest installment in papal-menagerie literature, coming up soon.
A picture, even a school yearbook picture, can be surprisingly prophetic. Fr. Neuhaus’ Lutheran seminary snapshot, for example, shows a confident young man gazing determinately out from behind a friend’s scrawled “Pope.” The scribbler, perhaps, was on to something.
Now, from the eminent Journal of Motivation and Emotioncomes a study correlating yearbook smiles and marital success. The process: Rank the intensity of the spouses’ yearbook smiles, one to ten. The conclusion: “None of the people who fell within the top 10 percent of smile strength had divorced [according to one study], while within the bottom 10 percent of smilers, almost one in four had had a marriage that ended.” A curious statistic, most likely pointing to something true about the link between cheerfulness and marital resilience. But something’s missing from the picture: With almost 50 percent of first marriages ending in divorce, as a national average, the study’s most lackadaisical participants are doing remarkably well. The moral: 62 percent of statistics aren’t to be trusted, and marriage is about more than a smiley face.
Yesterday, Ryan linked to the Department of Homeland Security’s report on the dire threat of rightwing extremists, such as those who promote traditional marriage, subsidiarity, and the protection of the unborn. Anyone who has attended the annual March for Life and seen the hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers—moms pushing baby strollers, teens carrying “Abortion Hurts Women” signs, church groups singing “Amazing Grace”—knows what a force these people can be. Powerful . . . and prayerful and peaceful. (The counter-protesters are easy to spot, because their tone is markedly different.)
Of course, you may object, the report isn’t talking about those pro-lifers [anti-abortion activists]. It’s warning about the dangerous, destructive ones. And how often have conservatives, for their part, pointed out the violence on the left? We need, after all, a balanced assessment.
That would be nice. However, according to the report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” threat isn’t measured by violent actions but by beliefs within the realm of civilized discourse. Debra Saunders explains on Real Clear Politics:
The assessment reads like a sophomore’s bad political science essay in, for example, noting that right-wing extremism “may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.” . . .
Not so. The “left-wing” assessment named entities—the Earth Liberation Front, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, The Hacktivist, the Internet Liberation Front—and explained the methods used in specific and recent cyber-attacks. It also warned how specific groups—loggers, farmers and named corporations—were or could be targeted. That is, the “left-wing” assessment included information that would be useful to officials investigating crimes.
The “right-wing” document, however, targeted, not activities, but political thought— opposition to abortion, immigration amnesty and gun laws. While the “left-wing” assessment reported on known criminal activities, the “right-wing” document started with the acknowledgment that Department of Homeland Security intelligence “has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence.” (The italics are mine.) Then: “The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment.”
One might well feel threatened. But not so much by the “rightwing extremists.”
I should add “Cont’d,” since this is hardly the first, or last, instance of state courts’ deliberating on and dictating the meaning of marriage. Last Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously overturned the state’s existing law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, claiming that such a law “violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.” As early as April 24, same-sex couples will be permitted to contract civil marriages in the state. From the Des Moines Register:
“Iowa loses,” said Republican Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan. “There have been attempts in the past few years to allow Iowans to weigh in on this issue through our constitutional amendment process and it’s been blocked by majority party leadership. That’s why Iowa loses.” . . .
Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay civil rights, said today’s decision could set the stage for other states. . . . “I think it’s significant because Iowa is considered a Midwest sate in the mainstream of American thought,” Socarides said. “Unlike states on the coasts, there’s nothing more American than Iowa. As they say during the presidential caucuses, ‘As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.’”
Over at Public Discourse, Matthew Franck offers a sane assessment of the court’s argument for public recognition, under the name of marriage, of same-sex “committed and loving relationships”:
Now, only a great fool would deny the connection of love and marriage—they go together like a horse and carriage, as Frank Sinatra famously sang. But emotion and desire, without more, are a treacherous foundation for law and public policy. As Pascal remarked, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. From society’s vantage point, that’s not good enough. Marriage and family are a moral institution—the teacher of right conduct between the sexes, the school of morality for the young, the founding scene of our moral obligations, the refuge from a wider world where respect for those obligations is a much chancier proposition. These may sound like lofty ideals often unrealized, but that both is the point and is beside the point. Society has an interest—none of its interests is higher—in encouraging the successful formation of marriages and families that point by their nature toward the achievement of these ideals. Within the metes and bounds of the law that expresses society’s conclusions about these matters, the rest is up to us. . . .
Lost from view [in the court ruling] is the true ground of our common public morality: reasoned judgment about the natures of things and the good of human persons, families, and communities. About such matters, religion can be instructive (to say the least), while a mere desire to “affirm” our “relationships” cannot be. And so, in both its reductive approach to religion and its empty invocations of feelings, the Iowa Supreme Court has done an injustice to religion, to the possibility of lawful public morality, and—yes—to our relationships themselves.
And, a variation on the theme: After being passed 26-4 last month by the Vermont Senate, a bill permitting same-sex marriage was approved last Friday, 95-52, by the Vermont Congress. Yesterday, Governor Douglas vetoed the bill, and as it stands the House falls just short of the 100 votes necessary to override his veto. The House and Senate are expected to vote again today. In the meantime, calls are pouring in from across Vermont and the rest of the country (with a similar reaction in Iowa). The response to the response? This remark is telling:
Rep. Floyd Nease, D-Johnson, told the Democratic Caucus early Thursday afternoon to oppose any amendment today that would send the same-sex marriage question to voters in the form of a non-binding town meeting referendum.
“If you like the robocalls that are coming in from Virginia, if you like the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of e-mails people from Florida, Arizona, Utah and actually even Guam have sent us . . . if you like that, you’ll love the next 12 months of that,” Nease said. “That’s what a referendum would create.”
Democracy has its costs, and it seems not everyone wants to pay them.
From John Donne, the great seventeenth-century lyric poet and Catholic-turned-Anglican churchman, we have this lovely poem on the mystery of the Incarnation. It comes near the beginning of his sonnet sequence La Corona, which takes key moments the story of Redemption—mysteries of the Rosary—and weaves them together into a “crown of prayer and praise.”
Dense with paradox, Donne’s Annunciation sonnet untangles theological truth while apparently tangling its language. Notice for instance, the artful play of “all that” and “That All” in the opening lines. In the first, all refers to us, and that to God (linking to the previous sonnet, “that will” of the “changing unchanged Ancient of days”). In the second line, That All signifies the ubiquitous, perfect God. Donne’s words gracefully and unexpectedly unite human and divine, and fittingly so, for the union of man and God is the essence of the Incarnate Word. Each phrase is similarly rich in this lyrical stanza—Donne’s little room—but I’ll leave the rest for the reader to enjoy:
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
Leon Kass, the National Endowment for Humanities announced today, will be receiving the U.S. government’s most prestigious honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities. This May, Kass will be delivering NEH’s thirty-eighth annual Jefferson Lecture, entitled: “‘Looking for an Honest Man’: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist.”
Kass, a an occasional First Things contributor, is professor at the University of Chicago, fellow in social thought at the American Enterprise Institute, and former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics. As Carole M. Watson, NEH acting chairman, said, “Leon Kass is an outstanding scholar, a gifted teacher, and one of our nation’s leading humanists. He has brought the wisdom of the humanities to bear on many topics, from bioethics to courtship, and his dedication to undergraduate teaching in the humanities has benefited a generation of students.”
The lecture will be held in Washington D.C.’s Warner Theater on May 21, 2009, at 7 pm. Tickets are free of charge and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Submit your request by May 1 via the online form at www.neh.gov.
When eerily convenient Prop-8 directories and Google maps were released earlier this winter, accounts of threats and thuggery began accumulating. But how much of this was real intimidation from the left, and how much was the pretense of doom from the right?
Writing in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard, painter and journalist Maureen Mullarkey relates the aftermath of her donation to the Yes for Marriage campaign—reporters appearing in her driveway for late-night interviews, a barrage of invective and profanity in her mailbox, slanderous and enraged articles. And it kept coming. Mullarkey writes:
It is one thing to read hate-filled mail on a computer screen. It is something else to have it in hand. At the end of the week, when it started coming to my house, I filed a police report.
Until now, donating to a cause did not open private citizens to a battery of invective and jackboot tactics. While celebrities sport their moral vanity with white ribbons, thousands of ordinary Americans who donated to Prop 8 are being targeted in a vile campaign of intimidation for having supported a measure that, in essence, ratified the crucial relation between marriage and childbearing. Some in California have lost their jobs over it; others worry about an unhinged stranger showing up at the door.
Who was it who predicted that if fascism ever came to the United States, it would come in the guise of liberal egalitarianism?
It’s a strange thing when threats and thuggery masquerade under the name of tolerance and democratic freedom.
The debates surrounding Proposition 8—California’s constitutional amendment declaring marriage to be between one man and one woman—will reach a head this morning as the state’s Supreme Court convenes to discuss the proposition’s constitutionality. In short, the proposition approved this fall by 52 percent of CA voters, in a normal democratic process, is in danger of being overturned by a court decision on the argument that it violates the court’s previous 4-3 decision to permit gay marriage. This earlier ruling (the argument goes), sanctioned marriage as a universal human right which no majority can thwart and no amendment can overturn.
Of course—but of course ignored—no Prop-8 supporter is denying anyone the right to enter into a legal marriage. Rather, supporters are safeguarding the long-standing legal and cultural understanding of this institution, recently called into question. Every right needs definitions (Can I marry my mother? Can I marry my pet? Can I marry myself?), and defining a basic right is a far cry from denying it.
But to hear media accounts of legal rights, a particular definition of marriage is assumed, and assumed to be fixed, while that definition is precisely what is in question. Today, the proposition is being challenged on the basis that it was improperly posed and passed as an amendment, while in fact—by supposedly restricting minority rights—it falls into the more radical category of constitutional revisions, which may not be introduced by ballot initiative. (See previous discussion here.) Additionally, some opponents circuitously claim that Prop 8, by reversing last summer’s court decision, limits judicial authority and hence violates constitutional separation of powers. It’s a strange notion of democracy.
Oral hearings on the validity of Proposition 8 as a constitutional amendment will be held this morning, with a written decision issued by the seven judges within ninety days.
Watch the live Supreme Court hearings today (9 am PST, 12 pm EST), shown online here.
“Friar Escape,” the New York Postheadlines read, but anyone familiar with the life and vows of a Franciscan friar—symbolized by the thrice-knotted rope girding a brown robe—reminds each Franciscan friar that his life is not an escape from sacrifice but an active embrace of it.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience (“no money, no honey, and you don’t go out much,” I heard it described once) aren’t the sort of glamours typically advertised on the grimy subway walls. But the 1,000 BeaFranciscan.org ads, scattered throughout train cars speeding through the boroughs of New York City, glanced at or not by harried commuters, has stirred up an unexpected response for these Franciscan friars.
“In the past,” the Post writes, “Holy Name Province recruited through Catholic newspapers and parish bulletins. But the 108-year-old community’s thinning ranks brought about the innovative marketing strategy.” The message is simple, but for the earnest inquirers, it demanded an answer:
It might not be tens of thousands of years old like its nominative English counterpart, but the accusative/objective pronoun me is hardly a neologism, much less a confining Victorian corruption. So wrote Benjamin A. Plotinsky earlier this week, over at City Journal. You might be rolling your eyes: Isn’t that obvious? Apparently not, judging from the linguistic defenses recently made on behalf of our commander in chief:
Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, writing in the [New York Times'] op-ed section today, point out that Obama often makes a common grammatical error, using the word “I” when he should properly use “me”—as in the phrase “a very personal decision for Michelle and I.” But it turns out, the authors continue, that the president isn’t really guilty of grammar crimes. “For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either ‘I’ or ‘me’ as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after ‘and,’” they write. “It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about ‘I’ and ‘me.’”
Plotinsky doesn’t mince words: “O’Conner and Kellerman are utterly wrong.” He goes on to give an assessment of me‘s grammatical history, but what I found more interesting was his assessment of the politics in play:
Unfortunately, the New York Times‘s motive for printing the op-ed is also clear. How disappointing to hear that Barack Obama—just like his predecessor, whose linguistic slipups the media pounced on—doesn’t speak English perfectly! How delightful to find two experts willing to argue that Obama’s mistakes are actually remnants of a purer, more natural form of the language! And how sad, for those of us who love both America’s press and its language, that English itself has become the latest sacrifice to the cult of Obama.
“Obama and ‘Me’” is the title of Plotinsky’s essay. A suitable subtitle?—”Being Objective.”
I was shocked to see the note on NRO commemorating the one-year anniversary of the death of William F. Buckley Jr. It seems like just a few months ago that we were mourning our loss—just a short span of time, but one which has brought the deaths of so many fine thinkers, writers, and leaders. Here is what one of those men wrote about his friend in “William F. Buckley Jr. and the Possibilities of Life” (The Public Square, May 2008):
Bill Buckley was a man of almost inexhaustible curiosity, courtesy, generosity, and delight in the oddness of the human Âcircumstance. He exulted in displaying his many talents, which was not pride so much as an invitation to others to share his amazement at the possibilities in being fully alive. He was also, in and through everything, a man of quietly solid Christian faith. I am among innumerable others whose lives are fuller by virtue of the gift of his friendship. . . .
In the early 1990s, Bill and I launched a regular gathering that was simply called “That Group.” (Let the conspiratorially minded take notes.) It was composed of twenty or thirty editors, writers, and other people of public influence, and we met twice a year, once in Washington, D.C., and once in New York. In later years, the Washington meeting was discontinued, mainly because like-minded people there have enough occasions to get together to plot the betterment of the world. At our last lunch at the house in Connecticut, Bill proposed ideas for the next meeting in New York. But I do not really think that he expected to be there. I think we both knew that we were possibly, probably, meeting for the last time. . . .
I called to mind the lines in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “Yet we have gone on living, living and partly living.” The life of my friend Bill Buckley was the opposite of living, living and partly living. As much as this life allows, he lived fully, exuberantly, relishing the possibilities of gifts gratefully received and gifts generously shared. He was ready for the more of which this life is part. He heard his Master calling and he readily went. May choirs of angels, to harpsichord accompaniment, welcome him on the far side of the Jordan.
“Samuel Menashe,” writes Sean Curnyn, “is an American poet who writes American poetry. He lives in New York City, by all accounts a simple existence (almost absurdly apt for the neglected poet) in the same old tiny walk-up apartment he has occupied for many decades.” Yet, as Curnyn writes in his recent review of Menashe’s latest collection, the eighty-three-year-old poet and frequent First Thingscontributor is truly a master of compressed lyric poetry. Here’s a taste:
Salt and Pepper
Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
“That is,” says Curnyn, “an astounding and poignant—yet restrained—evocation of age and of the aging man himself. It lifts up the gifts that aging brings along with it, and subtly pleads the case for treasuring the aged (I am a sage) while not denying but instead subversively confronting the decay of the body: Sprinkled, shaking. And it does this and more while at the same time gently and humorously interweaving all of those images of seasoning and spice, and all in an absolute total of just twenty-four words.”
Menashe’s poems are wonderfully human. Yet they also reach, with a touch that is at once light and profound, to God. In Curnyn’s words: “You might say that some of the poems resemble abbreviated psalms written by a so much more sly and discreet psalmist. Yet, that humble praise for the Creator and thankfulness for the gift of life which permeates the poetry does not preclude intense and painful meditations on loss and on mourning, and an underlying deep and even melancholy yearning. Neither does it preclude humor and indeed mischievousness.”
How does he succeed? Curnyn lets the poet have the final word:
Owe, do not own
What you can borrow
Live on each loan
Why not be in debt
To one who can give
You whatever you need
It is good to abet
Another’s good deed
This doesn’t come as any particular surprise, I suppose. Doug Kmiec writes in Time magazine about the pope’s recent meeting with Nancy Pelosi, and he clearly prefers the politics of the latter. Perhaps the problem is that he reads—and misreads—too much politically into the Vatican’s report of the meeting, which was not a political rewriting of legislation procedures but, in the Vatican’s words, a call to “all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists, and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.”
Kmiec interprets this statement as a condemnation of “originalist” judges and a plea for what First Things once condemned as the judicial usurpation of politics:
As a lifelong Catholic, Pelosi could not feign surprise at being called upon by the Church to use her gift for persuasion to restrict abortion legislatively, or at least not to be its advocate. But until now, the Church had not formally instructed judges in a similar fashion. As written, the Pope’s statement has the potential, at least theoretically, to empty the U.S. Supreme Court of all five of its Catholic jurists and perhaps all other Catholics who sit on the bench in the lower federal and state courts. . . .
To get a sense of just how sharp a break with the past this is, all one has to do is take a look at what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, himself a Roman Catholic, wrote in 2002 in an essay in First Things. “[Abortion involves] . . . private individuals whom the state has decided not to restrain. One may argue (as many do) that the society has a moral obligation to restrain. That moral obligation may weigh heavily upon the voter, and upon the legislator who enacts the laws; but a judge, I think, bears no moral guilt for the laws society has failed to enact,” he wrote. “Thus, my difficulty with Roe v. Wade is a legal rather than a moral one. . . . If a state were to permit abortion on demand, I would—and could in good conscience—vote against an attempt to invalidate that law for the same reason that I vote against the invalidation of laws that forbid abortion on demand: because the Constitution gives the federal government (and hence me) no power over the matter.”
There’s a thought-provoking discussion of this article here, with many good points made about the proper context (and even precise wording) of the Vatican’s report.
Yes, it would have helped had the Vatican written its statement a bit more judiciously. But Kmiec’s reading is a cleverly simplistic stretch. To put it briefly, he first assumes that jurists means judges and not the broader category of lawyers—those with thorough knowledge of law. Additionally, “Kmiec wrongly interprets the papal statement as putting jurists and legislators in the same category so that their responsibilities about protecting human life must be exercised in the same way”; actively opposing abortion, in other words, does not entail judicial activism. Finally, by implying that the pope supports such activism—strongly opposed by our pro-life justices today—Kmiec casts him as a politically ignorant extremist blindly ostracizing his pro-life justices.
Of course, if Kmiec et al. were really serious about opposing judicial activism and restoring the proper balance of political power, they might be singing to a different tune.
Earlier this week at NRO, George Weigel offered some commonsense commentary on Nancy Pelosi’s Wednesday meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Commonsense commentary about what should be commonsense morality:
[Pelosi's] office’s statement on today’s meeting makes it clear something else was afoot: that Pelosi, who shamelessly trumpets her “ardent” Catholicism while leading congressional Democrats in a continuing assault on what the Catholic Church regards as the inalienable human rights of the unborn, was trying to recruit Benedict XVI (“Joseph Ratzinger, D., Bavaria”?) to Team Nancy.
His Holiness wasn’t buying it.
He told Pelosi, politely but unmistakably, that her relentlessly pro-abortion politics put her in serious difficulties as a Catholic, which was his obligation as a pastor. He also underscored—for Pelosi, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara Mikulski, Rose DeLauro, Kathleen Sebelius, and everyone else—that the Church’s opposition to the taking of innocent human life, at any stage of the human journey, is not some weird Catholic hocus-pocus; it’s a first principle of justice than can be known by reason. It is a “requirement of the natural moral law”—that is, the moral truths we can know by thinking about what is right and what is wrong—to defend the inviolability of innocent human life. You don’t have to believe in papal primacy to know that; you don’t have do believe in seven sacraments, or the episcopal structure of the Church, or the divinity of Christ, to know that. You don’t even have to believe in God to know that. You only have to be a morally serious human being, willing to work through a moral argument—which, of course, means being the kind of person who understands that moral truth cannot be reduced to questions of feminist political correctness or partisan political advantage.
. . . Whatever the source of her confusion, Pelosi has now been informed, and by a world-class intellectual who happens to be the universal pastor of the Catholic Church, that she is, in fact, confused, and that both her spiritual life and her public service are in jeopardy because of that.
Michael Dubruiel, husband of Catholic blogger Amy Welborn and himself a noted speaker and writer, passed away unexpectedly earlier this month. My heart goes out to Amy and her young family—and yet it is Amy who is offering consolation to all those who share her grief, and to all those who know what it is to lose a member of the family of the Lord. For in the Lord’s sacrifice, “death is swallowed up in victory,” and all that is lost is found anew.
Amy describes driving her children to the hospital for the wake and having her daughter read aloud from the Gospel of Mark. They reach chapter 5, where Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac and the villagers come out to see what wonder has occurred. Amy reflects:
They turn to Jesus, and what is their response? Thank you? Do for us what you did for him? Heal us? Help us? Drive out our demons, less in number and quieter, but demons still? Make us whole, as he is?
The reason that has resonated with me so much over the years is that I think it characterizes so much about the spiritual journey. Mine at least. Grace surrounds us. The witness of good, holy people surround us—joyful. The fruit of love is as clear as day, the spoiled fruit of selfishness and indulgence is also as clear as day. The power of Jesus is right here. He waits, in love.
And we say, more often than not, fearful of the changes, fearful of what will be lost, “Leave us.” . . .
There are stages, there are layers, there are bridges. There is a void, my best friend in the world is just—gone. But in this moment I am confronted with the question, most brutally asked, of whether I really do believe all that I say I believe. Into this time of strange, awful loss, Jesus stepped in. He wasted no time. He came immediately. His presence was real and vivid and in him the present and future, bound in love, moved close. The gratitude I felt for life now and forever and what had prepared us for this surged, I was tempted to push it away for the sake of propriety, for what is expected, for what was supposed to be normal—I was tempted to say, “Leave me” instead of accepting the Hand extended to me and to immediately allow him to define my life.
But I did not give into that temptation, and a few hours later I was able to do what I dreaded, what I thought was undoable, to be in a mystery that was both presence and absence and to not be afraid. To not be afraid for him, and for the first time ever in my entire life—to not be afraid for myself, either.
I am reminded of Fr. Neuhaus’ story from As I Lay Dying, in which Father describes one of his early encounters with death. The man’s name was Albert, and, as the two of them prayed the Our Father together on a hot summer evening, he suddenly widened his eyes, looked intently at the pastor by his side, and said, “Don’t be afraid.” And that was it.
It is a wondrous thing when those who are suffering teach us how to rejoice, when those who are dying teach us how to live.
Kevin John Hart—one of Australia’s best poets and occasional First Thingscontributor—has completed his twelfth volume of poetry, Young Rain, to be published this spring. Look for mention of the collection in an upcoming issue of FT, and in the meantime you might enjoy listening to Hart read a handful of his graceful but poignant poems, new and old: