Thursday, February 17, 2011, 9:33 AM
Marriage. Marriage is not what brings us together today. No, today On the Square Russell Saltzman explains how to preach a funeral:
I persist in this notion, an intuition if you like, that the life of every Christian tells us something about how the gospel gets lived, how ordinary Christians with greater and lesser degrees of faithfulness managed to do it. There is a lesson in the lives of the saints rightly remembered that may be properly noted. I try to summarize that from within the gospel.
Monday, February 14, 2011, 10:55 AM
What could be more exciting, more thrilling than being “single, independent, financially solvent New York City women [or men] in the year 2011″? Jen Doll asked in the Village Voice. Only being one of those couples “who make the wild and dangerous commitment to each other till death do them part,” David Mills answers in his On the Square column this morning.
Monday, February 7, 2011, 11:24 AM
Today, in our second On the Square essay, Patricia Snow reflects on the work of Diego Velázquez and what the recent discovery of a lost Velázquez painting at Yale University Art Gallery might tell us about the artist:
If The Education of the Virgin is a Velázquez, it both integrates what he had already achieved—the painting is at once a religious painting, a scene from ordinary life, and a portrait—and anticipates everything important still to come, namely his long career in portraiture and his late great masterpiece, Las Meninas (1656). Indeed, if the attribution is correct, we have been given a kind of early bookend, a reference point for thinking about Velázquez’ career as a whole. It is as if the hidden end of a long see-saw had arisen out of the past. From a little girl looking out from a painting early in Velázquez career, to a very different little girl looking out from another painting in 1656, Velázquez travelled a long way, and not entirely in a felicitous direction.
Friday, February 4, 2011, 9:54 AM
I’ve heard that the Super Bowl is this weekend and I’ve heard that an estimated 150 million will tune in to watch it. As Geoffrey Vaughan points out On the Square today, that makes the Super Bowl, “more so than the commemorations of the victims of the shootings in Tucson, let alone any religious observance . . . the most shared experience Americans will have all year.” It is the mass appeal of sports, Vaughan argues, that just might save us from the “soft despotism” that Tocqueville warned we are often willing to impose on ourselves in our zeal for equality:
In the very years of forced egalitarianism—when we believe that every child must go to college, every person own his home, and every traditional institution topple—the most brutal elitism is permitted and praised if only it is committed in the context of a physical challenge. Yes, in elementary school every player gets a trophy, but soon the superiority of the best athletes is not hidden but celebrated.
And this is right, because as Tocqueville warned, the passion for equality can produce the most desperate inequality. The passion for equality and the passion of envy are remarkably similar, and in our zeal to obtain equality we’ll blindly give up other goods. In the extreme, we will give up freedom, preferring to be equally subject to one power and safe from being proved inferior to another than free to exercise our unequal abilities.
Thursday, February 3, 2011, 3:33 PM
Today in our second On the Square essay, Deirdre Lawler gives a review of the Washington Stage Guild’s production of Magic by G.K. Chesterton. After reading Lawler’s review it’s easy to see why Ingmar Bergman counted Magic among his favorites and Alfred Hitchcock hoped to adapt it into a film:
The Stage Guild’s production has played up Chesterton’s fairly minimal stage directions to emphasize the potential gravity of the show. But it has also maintained Chesterton’s signature lightheartedness, never committing entirely even to the play’s darkest moments. Certain elements in the piece, notably, the character of the conflicted Conjurer, hint at Chesterton’s personal experience of falling away from skepticism and into religion. Magic is a jaunty excuse to pose a question to the modern world: “Does it never strike you that doubt can be a madness, as well as faith?”
Friday, January 28, 2011, 12:43 PM
In our second On the Square article today, Mark Armstrong gives a review of Hollywood’s most recent foray into Catholic culture, The Rite out in theaters today:
The producers of the film have billed it as, “Inspired by true events,” which will, no doubt, leave many moviegoers bedeviled as to what in the film is real and what is made-up. Originally the story of The Rite began as a book proposal by Matt Baglio, a reporter living in Rome who wanted, as a Catholic, to understand the motives behind the Vatican’s 2007 plan to reinstruct the clergy on the rite of exorcism with the goal of installing an exorcist in every diocese worldwide. During his research Baglio befriended and shadowed an American priest, Fr. Gary Thomas, who was sent by his bishop to take exorcism classes in Rome in 2005.
The film is purportedly based—loosely—on Fr. Gary’s experience in Rome and his training with Italian exorcist Fr. Carmine De Filippis, but the fictional character of Michael Kovak and the very real Fr. Gary seem little alike. While Kovak doubts, Fr. Gary faithfully reports that the Devil is in indeed real. And while the exorcist in the film are portrayed as “pushing the darkest edges of his spirituality in the service of God” to quote the press release, Fr. Gary describes an experience much more methodical and at times bureaucratic.
Friday, January 28, 2011, 12:17 PM
“Having an Abortion Doesn’t Lead to Depression” declares the Times.com headline. It’s a catchy title, but it oversimplifies (misrepresents, some might say) the results of the study it purportedly reports. The study was conducted by Danish researchers, and its results were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine under the more subdued title “Induced First-Trimester Abortion and Risk of Mental Disorder.”
So it’s not just any abortion that doesn’t lead to mental disorders. According to the abstract: “The finding that the incidence rate of psychiatric contact was similar before and after a first-trimester abortion does not support the hypothesis that there is an increased risk of mental disorders after a first-trimester induced abortion.”
It’s a catchy abstract, but it oversimplifies (misrepresents, some might say) the actual research. The Danish researchers recorded only the incidences of women and girls who have sought “psychiatric contact” within the twelve months after their first abortion. So, strictly speaking, the researchers are correct in their conclusion: Their research—funded by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, a big abortion supporter—does not support the hypothesis that abortion increases the risk of mental disorder.
But to reach that conclusion they had to strictly limit the subjects they researched. Women who suffer mental problems but don’t seek medical help, women whose mental disorders present later than a year after their abortions, and women who have had multiple abortions were excluded from the study.
As Georgette Forney, co-founder of Silent No More Awareness Campaign, noted, “It’s as if the people who designed this report set it up to exclude women at the greatest risk to suffer post-abortion problems.” It certainly does seem that way.
Thursday, January 27, 2011, 11:17 AM
“Those people who say it’s the journey, not the destination, do not know what they are talking about,” begins Pastor Russell Saltzman in our first On the Square column this morning in which he shares his experience of his mother’s recent and rapid decline into Dementia:
She no longer knows me. She remembers the name but can no longer recollect the connection nor place my vaguely familiar face. She makes a heartbreaking plea reaching for my hand, please, would I please tell Russell to come for her and take her from this place. She is living an eternal moment no longer bounded by tomorrow or yesterday. She knows not where she is; she knows only that she wants “him” to come for her. She repeatedly asks, will I promise to tell him.
Visions of mortality dance in my head. St. Paul said death is the final enemy. True enough as far as it goes, but he made little mention of the others, far worse, we encounter on the way. Death, that isn’t a problem. If we go to sleep one night and wake up dead, that’s hardly a problem at all. But this journey is a journey of aging, a ruthless, irrevocable thrashing of faculty, facility, a not infrequent plummeting tumble into a loss of identity and sense of self. We, each of us, are bodies of flesh moving through time “falling, flying, or tumbling in turmoil” aging implacably unto death.
Friday, January 21, 2011, 11:22 AM
Carrie Frederick Frost is on a mission to convince as many people as possible to read Sigrid Undset’s epic trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter—and does a pretty good job of it in our second On the Square essay today. While there may be thousand reasons to read this thousand page book, Frost focuses on Undset’s portrayal of motherhood in the novel:
Undset compellingly presents the material challenges of motherhood amid accurate and well-rendered historical detail: the difficulty of concealing a pregnancy as Kristin struggles with first trimester nausea while feeding leftover mash from ale-brewing to the pigs, the relief of breastfeeding her infant from engorged breasts after a twenty-mile barefoot pilgrimage to St Olav’s Cathedral, and the joy of cuddling with small children in a freshly-made, hay-stuffed bed in the manor.
The portrayal of motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter, however, is not confined to mundane matters. Kristin’s is the reflective mind of a devoutly Christian mother, who regularly contemplates the spiritual significance of her maternity. Gazing at her firstborn son, Naakve, who was conceived before she and Erlend were married, Kristin contemplates: “Conceived in sin. Carried under her hard, evil heart. Pulled out of her sin-tainted body, so pure, so healthy, so inexpressibly lovely and fresh and innocent. This undeserved beneficence broke her heart in two; crushed with remorse, she lay there with tears welling up out of her soul like blood from a mortal wound.” Kristin is struck by the contrast between the sweet purity of her child and the darkness of her own adult heart; this contrast allows her to recognize and appreciate the “undeserved beneficence” that is one’s child.
Thursday, January 20, 2011, 9:53 AM
Our attentive blog readers have already heard the news that R.R. Reno has been appointed the new editor of First Things starting April 1 (I assure you this is not a prank). This morning On the Square, Reno tells of his own experience as a First Things reader and what the journal has been for him: a trustworthy guide.
My education hadn’t prepared me to answer the questions now before me. How, I wondered, was I to navigate intellectually? Morally? Spiritually? Where could I find trustworthy guides?
I found them in First Things. Literature, history, philosophy, political theory, art, theology, cultural criticism, and political commentary—First Things didn’t tie everything up in a neat bow or answer all my questions. Instead, by reading the magazine I found trustworthy guides, as well as companions.
There has been plenty of urgency in First Things. The magazine contributed to the great struggle against the culture of death, as well as pushing back against the aggressive efforts of secularists to bar religious motives and reasons from public life. Liberal Protestantism was taken to the woodshed on a regular basis. The bellicose thrusts and counter-thrusts of the journal energized and encouraged me, helping me find my voice in ongoing theological, moral, and political debates.
However, First Things was more than a movement magazine for me, much more. At least as many articles took the long view, recognizing that those called to serve God have always been strangers in a strange land, pilgrims making their way through the kingdoms of men.
Monday, January 17, 2011, 1:27 PM
Wondering why Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Aurelius Prudentius Clemens seem to be the talk of the town lately? It’s because the February issue of First Things is arriving in mailboxes across America and all your friends have already read George Weigel’s chronicling of The End of the Bernardin Era and Robert Louis Wilken’s Culture and the Light of Faith in which he explores Christianity’s tendency to embrace and preserve what is best in the thought, art, literature, and science that preceded it. The issue is filled with many other excellent articles, reviews, reports, and poetry so be sure to take a look.
Thursday, January 13, 2011, 11:33 AM
In one of his Holy Sonnets, John Donne prays this paradox: “For I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.” Today On the Square R.R. Reno explains just why it makes sense, why authority helps us be free:
We often discount the way in which authority and hierarchy contribute to our freedom to pursue the particular goods that we care about (and that give society texture and interest). In a democracy I have a duty during election season to cast an informed vote. But if I accept the legitimate authority of Congress, then after I vote I can largely concentrate on raising my family or doing my job well. I need not pore over the details of the Federal budget.
As a creature I have the potential to run quickly, and perhaps with training I can. But that’s not true when it comes to what I desire most of all: to rest in God. We’re finite human beings, and therefore we lack an intrinsic aptitude for the infinite.
But God doesn’t suffer from this or any other lack, and insofar as he exercises his authority and issues commandments, he gives us a way to go beyond ourselves. We can follow instructions that we do not write, obey commands that we do not give. Therefore, although we are creatures, and remain always limited by our finite human nature, because this nature includes the capacity to obey authority, God can engage our finitude rather than ignore or overwhelm it, directing us toward what the Catholic tradition calls a “supernatural end.”
Thursday, December 30, 2010, 9:54 AM
Happy eve of New Year’s Eve! For the occasion, R.R. Reno explains in his On the Square column why he’s never liked New Year’s Eve celebrations and why you shouldn’t either:
New Year’s Eve is an essentially pagan holiday of renewal, one that celebrates our collective ability to leap from one year to the next without falling into the abyss of death.
I’ve been to some New Year’s Eve parties, even stayed up to bring in the New Year on a few occasions. The atmosphere has always struck me as tinged with desperation. Sand is flowing out of the hourglass. In those final hours, we’re suddenly more aware that the past and present—all that we know—are slipping away. Then, at the stroke of midnight and to the relief of all, the Fates grasp the timepiece and suddenly turn it upside down to begin again.
Not only desperation but also anxiety pervades efforts to ring in the New Year. Days shorten through the fall as the year winds down toward its end. Pages are torn from the calendar until we reach that thin final page. It’s as if life hangs on by the same thin margin, and a gaping void of nothingness waits for us as we draw back the curtain of time.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 11:59 AM
“That’s not music, it’s just noise” is the easy argument to make against rap music. But this morning in our second On the Square essay, Christopher Walker examines the genre more closely and comes to the conclusion that while it may not be music it’s not just noise. It’s noxious noise that can be detrimental to living a Christian life:
In the long run, streaming such music through our ears and into our minds must eventually impact how we think and act. However, I am aware that many young people listen to such music and do not end up walking out of their house to commit rape or murder. So, is the popular opinion in my classroom correct, that this music is appropriate to listen to as long as we are careful not to let it impact our actions?
If our standard of virtue is built on the likelihood of becoming violent, drug addicted gangsters then this music is probably harmless to many young people. Most of my students will not take this path of immorality regardless of their musical tastes. But if our desire is to live according to biblical principles, this music fails to meet the standard.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010, 2:02 PM
In our second On the Square essay today—and just in time for last minute Christmas shoppers—Christopher Benson offers his take on some of the most Notable Books of 2010
’Tis the season when major transatlantic publications, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, Economist, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement, feature their holiday guides and notable books of the year. Seldom pleased with the selections, I’ve put together my own list of best reads. Every book critic is idiosyncratic and I’m no exception. If my list were the curriculum of a liberal arts college, you’d notice that it’s heavy on the humanities and light on the social sciences and natural sciences. Vocational reading—law, business, medicine—is utterly ignored. Given a choice between primary and secondary sources, I favor primary. I’ll take the great books, in new translations or editions, over the fashionable books (e.g., Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). I focus on books whose themes are perennial and whose questions are big—esotericists should look elsewhere. Expect a strong dose of religion, theology, and spirituality because these subjects rarely get attention by the secular media. Expect an overrepresentation of Protestant authors, owing to the process of “traditioning” (to use a favorite word of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann). And finally, expect an ethnocentric bias toward “the West,” which is not a prejudice against “the rest” so much as a pursuit to understand my own “situatedness” (to use a favorite word of postmodernists).
Monday, December 20, 2010, 2:44 PM
Last month, to the surprise of all, a bill to legalize euthanasia in South Australia was voted down by the upper house of the SA parliament. In the weeks leading up to the vote, proponents of the bill argued that it would secure the rights of the terminally ill to end their lives at a time and in the circumstances of their choosing, while opponents pointed out the slippery slope from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister of South Australia, which appears as our second On the Square essay for today, bioethicist Nicholas Tonti-Filippini offered the perspective of one who suffers from chronic pain caused by terminal illness and argues that euthanasia does not offer a release from pain, but increases it:
Facing illness and disability takes courage and we do not need those euthanasia advocates to tell us that we are so lacking dignity and have such a poor quality of life that our lives are not worth living.
. . .
Such legislation depends on each of us, who have a serious illness and are suffering, not losing hope. If euthanasia is lawful then the question about whether our lives are overly burdensome will be in not only our minds, but the minds of those health professionals and those family members on whose support and encouragement we depend. The mere existence of the option will affect attitudes toward our care and hence our own willingness to continue.
That desire to live is often tenuous in the face of suffering and in the face of the burden our illnesses impose on others, our families, and the wider community. You would gain nothing worthwhile for us by supporting the legalization of deliberately ending the life of those who request death. Such requests warrant a response in solidarity from our community, a response that seeks to give us more support and better care, rather than termination of both life and care.
Thursday, December 16, 2010, 10:11 AM
Chesterton wisely advised would-be reformers to know what a fence is for before tearing it down. You never know what it might be keeping out. This morning On the Square, R.R. Reno considers the worth of the American Empire and comes to the conclusion—contra Julian Assange—that it should not be torn down:
Nonetheless, I’m against Assange and other would-be radicals who see empire and think evil, for they are also in the grip of a false view. American global predominance is evil compared to what? As compared to increased global conflict? As compared to a corrupt and inept United Nations? As compared to the cold, amoral, calculating self-interest of an ascendant China? Assange talks a great deal about the virtue of transparency. But this entirely abstract and formal idea has no capacity to restrain the perennial human impulse toward violence, chaos, and destruction.
In other words, I’m in favor of defending the American empire, such as it is, because I’m an Establishmentarian. While not inclined to romanticize current arrangements, which are undoubtedly unjust and cruel and riddled with human sinfulness, I very much oppose revolutionary attitudes that make the terrible error, all too common among progressives, of imagining that nothing could be worse than the status quo.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010, 11:22 AM
In our second On the Square essay today, Patricia Snow reflects on the story of the thirty-three miners rescued from the San José copper mine in Chile this past October and sees a parable of Christian life:
But for Christians, and especially for Catholic Christians, who share the faith of the miners themselves, this was a profoundly Christian event, understandable both in its details and its overall scope only in Christian terms. It was a teaching moment, rich in theological references. It was a kind of parable, worth considering as an Advent reflection, with its strong movement from darkness to light.
. . .
In this postlapsarian state, man cannot save himself. He is alive, but only provisionally. He can stay busy; he can endure; at best he may manage to avoid evil and practice virtue. But lasting life, as well as the faith and hope that such a life is possible, can only come from above. The ladder from below, like the ladder the men found in a ventilation shaft or the Tower of Babel in Scripture, is too short. It doesn’t reach to heaven. The initiative has to come from above. Only God can cross the distance between Himself and fallen man. So the probes begin.
“Where are you?” God famously calls to Adam in the cool of the day in the garden. “Where are you?” the probes ask of the men cowering and famished in the dark.
Friday, December 10, 2010, 11:17 AM
In our second On the Square article today, Melissa Musick Nussbaum and L. Martin Nussbaum recall the publication of Thomas Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoon “The American River Ganges” and see a likeness between the nativist anti-Catholic sentiments expressed in editorial cartoons, articles, and novels of the 19th century and the political cartoons reemerging today:
Nast needs few words; his sketch is a nightmare in pen and ink. There is only this caption, “The American River Ganges,” suggesting not only the foreign, but a land so distant from most Americans as to be wholly other, completely alien. In his book, American Catholic: the Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church, historian Charles R. Morris calls “The American River Ganges,” “Perhaps the most brilliantly poisonous of Thomas Nast’s popular anti-Catholic cartoons.”
One hundred and twenty years later, the cartoons of reptile-human hybrids, bishops on the hunt for America’s children, have reappeared. Nast’s trope of the alien, not quite human, Catholic has come out of hibernation to be printed in newspapers and magazines all over the United States and the world.
Friday, December 10, 2010, 9:55 AM
A few weeks ago, Losana Boyd, our director of marketing and a poet herself, wrote a positive review of Kathleen Graber’s new book of poetry The Eternal City for On the Square. The review drew sharp disagreement from some of our readers who felt Graber’s verse read less like poetry than an “audio essays on NPR, randomly broken up into separate lines so that the banality will seem slightly more profound”. This morning On the Square, poetry editor Paul Lake has weighed in on the issue and discusses the brokeness of modern poetry in general:
In the past, poets had a much wider array of devices to shape their poems and delight attentive readers: argument, narrative, allegory, extended metaphor, metaphysical conceit, to name a few. They also had a wide range of genres to choose from: epic, drama, pastoral, satire, dramatic monologue, epistle, lyric—along with a wide range of poetic forms, meters, and stanzas to shape their music. Today, the poetic mainstream is dominated by a more or less shapeless free verse, often written like Graber’s in long, rectangular verse paragraphs.
Thursday, December 9, 2010, 9:56 AM
This morning On the Square, R.R. Reno takes a closer look at Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, Peter Sewald’s book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI. Rather than focusing on the pope’s already much discussed comments on condoms, Reno examines a prevailing theme throughout the book; from his own priestly vocation to his ministry, Pope Benedict “wants to italicize and underline and put into bold one word: continuity.”
In other words, yes, of course the Church had in some respects gone off course (as she always does). And, yes, there were problems (as there always are), some very significant, which is why John XXIII called the Council in the first place. But a “hermeneutics of continuity” assumes that the fathers at Vatican II drew on the inner strengths of the Church in order address her weaknesses. It was a renewal from within.
This emphasis on continuity lay behind Benedict’s decision to regularize the use of the Tridentine Mass (so named because it was mandated by the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century) as an extraordinary form. “My main reasons for making the [Tridentine] form more available,” Benedict explains, “was to preserve the internal continuity of Church history. We cannot say: Before, everything was wrong, but now everything is right. The issue was internal reconciliation with our own past, the intrinsic continuity of faith and prayer in the Church.”
Tuesday, December 7, 2010, 11:30 AM
In today’s second On the Square piece, Owen Strachan recounts the high human cost of football from NFL defensive backs to high school quarterbacks and asks whether America’s new national pastime is worth the price:
Football injures many more than it kills. The number of reported concussions suffered in football each year is estimated at 100,000, a number that experts suspect is considerably lower than the number of actual concussions. This is to say nothing of injuries to other parts of the body which have left many relatively young former players with ailments common among people two to three decades older. The glory of the game is great, but so is the toll.
Many of us believe that a just life in this world may mean that we pay a price for worthy causes. But is this cause worthy? While acknowledging that we cannot safety-proof the lives of our children and that no one can resist the pull of Providence, we must question a sport which on a regular basis calls its players to pay the ultimate cost for their participation. Young boys walk onto a field full of dreams and drop dead an hour later, shedding this life like they once shed tacklers.
Thursday, December 2, 2010, 9:55 AM
This morning “On the Square,” R.R. Reno makes an impassioned plea for the necessity of art. In the face of “diseases to cure,” and “environmental disasters to prevent,” it can be tempting to think of art as a luxury we can’t afford. Quite the contrary, Reno argues in Art and Human Flourishing, we cannot afford to live without art:
Art can train our imaginations to be more retentive and receptive to reality, and respectful of it as well. Imagination, properly developed, stretches our sense of the real—or more accurately it allows the depth and breadth of what is real to stretch us. The effect is a more capacious, more absorptive sense of life, one capable of renewing the solidity of our memories of the past and giving reality to our dreams for the future.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010, 9:46 AM
But where will the Spartans live?
Friday, August 6, 2010, 5:13 PM
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It’s a little late in the day to remember this, but today is the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The Catholic Herald has commemorated the day with the remarkable story of eight Jesuit priests who survived the atomic blast although they were less than a mile from the detonation point. Over at Public Discourse, Chris Tollefsen has a reflection on “what it means to take the lives of innocent civilians intentionally” and the consequences for America today:
How are the lives of innocent Japanese and German women, children, sick, elderly, and non-military personnel to be weighed against the lives of Allied fighters in such a way as to make clear that saving a certain number of Allied lives was “better” all things considered than killing a much larger number of enemy civilians? The impossibility of such a calculation, and the dignity of each human being, as a free and rational creature, seem together to be at the root of the traditional injunction never intentionally to kill the innocent. Meanwhile, the abandonment of this injunction seems to be at the root of the philosophical and cultural move in the direction which Anscombe called consequentialism.
The Allied bombings were, therefore, by the standards of traditional, non-consequentialist morality, utterly wrong and intrinsically unjustifiable. And this great moral evil has itself had consequences, some of which it is salutary to note now, more than half a century later.
You can read the rest of Tollefsen’s piece here.
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