February 29, 2012

Google Doodle and Signor Crescendo

Today’s Google doodle celebrates Gioachino Rossini, the great Italian composer who was born on February 29, 1792, that is exactly two hundred and twenty years ago today. By the way, a characteristic mannerism in Rossini’s orchestral scoring is a long, steady building of sound over an ostinato figure, creating “tempests in teapots by beginning in a whisper and rising to a flashing, glittering storm,” which earned him the nickname of “Signor Crescendo” (Faddis, H., 2003, “Program Notes for the Overture to La scala di seta,” quoted in the Wikipedia entry for Gioachino Rossini). So what? you might ask. Well, this reminds me of the way sometimes the media work—take the case of Rick Santorum (this time the honor of the Signor Crescendo Award goes to Richard Cohen...).

Isn't Everything Better than Hell's Fire?

Richard Dawkins
“I’d go to church just to reduce the probability of spending eternity in Hell with Richard Dawkins.”

Fr. Z is absolutely right, that’s a great, attention-grabbing title. And as it was not enough, there are many other possible applications in addition to the one mentioned in the title: just substitute Richard Dawkins with some other guy’s/gal’s name/surname … there might turn out to be a lot of interesting alternatives, say Sean Penn, George Soros, Dan Savage, Jay Carney, Dan Brown…

P.S. Hey, I was just kidding! Everybody knows that Richard Dawkins is an honorable man, and so are all the above mentioned, all honorable men! However, apart from the title, the post itself is very good and well worth reading—a kind of a twenty-first century version of Pascal’s Wager!

They (We) Will Not Comply

Okay, this is a rather concise and straightforward way to say it, but more complex and nuanced arguments are welcome!

February 27, 2012

Dust and Ash

Lent has begun. Last Wednesday—or yesterday, at the Sunday Mass, as it happened to me and many other latecomers as well—we took the blessed ashes upon our foreheads and accepted the invitation of the Church to go into the desert with the Lord. “And straightway the Spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days …” (Mark 1: 12-13). That’s why Ash Wednesday is one of the most important holy days in the Christian calendar; that’s why it’s more than just the beginning of the Lenten season: it sums up the spirit of Lent itself, and symbolizes a humbling of oneself before the Lord. It reminds us that life passes away on Earth: Dust to dust, ash to ash…

In the video below Father Robert Barron—“one of the Church’s best messengers,” as Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls him—comments on the three practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He offers practical advice to enact these three pillars in your own life. In addition, he comments on the traditional practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. I believe it may be of help to those who want to follow Jesus into the desert.

February 24, 2012

There They Go Again

Rick Santorum has been under fire in recent days. The latest controversy surrounding the current Republican front-runner involves no more and no less than a speech he gave back in 2008 and which was posted on The Drudge Report on Tuesday. Well, it was no ordinary speech, since he dared to say that… Satan had “set his sights set on the United States of America.” “The Father of Lies,” he said, “is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition.” Which, at the time, as everybody can easily understand, must have been an appalling revelation to the American people, who never ever imagined they could have found themselves in such an awkward situation, but even more so to the mainstream media folks, who are notoriously honorable men and women. And that’s why, once over the initial shock, and after a brief but thorough soul-searching exercise, those good guys and gals started speaking very badly about Rick Santorum. And now, to borrow from Ronald Reagan, there they go again.

Responding to questions last night about his 2008 speech, Santorum fairly argued that

these are questions that are not relevant to what's being discussed in America today. What we're talking about America today is trying to get America growing. That's what my speeches are about. That's what we're going to talk about in this campaign. If they want dig up old speeches, talking to a religious group, go right ahead and do so, but I'm going to stay on message. I'm going to talk about things that Americans want to talk about, which is creating jobs, getting our country safer and secure and yes, taking on the forces around this world who want to do harm to America. You bet I will take them on.
You know, I'm a person of faith. I believe in good and evil. I think if somehow or another because you're a person of faith you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president we're going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president.

Very clear and intellectually honest, but also politically appropriate. And quite “presidential.” But that is not the most important point here. The real point is that we now know—and we must thank The Drudge Report for this—that the current GOP front-runner, with his speech about good and evil at Ave Maria University in Florida in 2008, is the true spiritual heir of another much-maligned social conservative, Ronald Reagan, who delivered a similarly fiery speech in Florida in 1983: the famous “Evil Empire” statement (see the video below). That historic speech, says Paul Kengor in a must-read American Spectator piece [Thanks: Sandra Kennedy Schimmelpfennig], is remembered principally, and correctly, as a bold, long overdue utterance of unadulterated truth about the USSR, which Reagan aptly described as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” But the speech, Kengor continues, was much more: “It looked inward at the sins and evils at work in America—as did Santorum’s speech.”

“As I digested the speech,” he continues

I was struck at how so many of Santorum's themes and words -- which were right on the money -- echoed those expressed in Ronald Reagan's historic Evil Empire speech. Santorum ruminated on the "father of lies," spiritual warfare, truth, vanity, sensuality, temptation, pride, education, abortion. Like Reagan, he fears that the "great political conflict" at work in America "is not a political war at all, or a cultural war -- it is a spiritual war." In that war, "the father of lies has set his sights on none other than good, decent, powerful, influential United States of America."
And then, like Reagan, he finished with a message of faith-based optimism for the faithful gathered in the room: "My message to you today is that you will lose, you will lose battle after battle; you will become frustrated, but do not lose hope. God will be faithful, if you are."

What to say? Well, to put it as Rush Limbaugh does,

I'm not saying that Santorum is Reagan. I'm saying that is what is happening with Santorum, the fact that he believes what he believes, is not unique. Many presidents have believed, in fact, far more than not have believed what Santorum believes and have said so. And the media reaction to Santorum is also not unique. It's identical.

February 22, 2012

Apropos of Symbols

Apropos of symbols (see two posts ago), here is a small bas-relief depicting a bearded semi-naked man (Venice Daily Photo) :

A door jamb depicting St. Jerome (Sestiere di Dorsoduro, Venice) Click to enlarge
The presence of some interpretative keys suggests that this figure represents St. Jerome: the skull, the crucifix, the lion, and his holding in his right hand a stone. In fact St. Jerome is often portrayed as a penitent, kneeling before the Crucifix and/or a skull—both of which are conventional props in the iconography of contemplatives—and holding a stone he uses to beat his breast. The wild animal reminds of an episode of St. Jerome’s life, when a lion became his devoted companion after the saint removed a thorn from his paw. Venice, as well as all European cities, is full of these little details. Learning to recognize them would be the first step towards a better understanding of our history and cultural identity.

February 21, 2012

Those Catholics with Some Ifs and Buts

In the HHS mandate debate, we are enjoying at times the “erudition” of certain Catholics who use it as an opportunity to voice the predictable “I’m a Catholic, but…” whinge. They talk about and react to “the bishops’ extremism,” of course from a non-partisan point of view. Needless to say, they presume that “extremism”—and this is a little monument to freedom of speech and press!—is now to be defined as asserting a continuation of a church-state general understanding that has somehow existed since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Well, here is a well-constructed counter argument from a moderate point of view—or “extremist,” it’s a question of opinions, as always... ;-)

February 20, 2012

Founded on the Rock of Peter's Faith

Altar of the Chair of St. Peter - St. Peter's Basilica

Paul Ricoeur’s aphorism, “the symbol gives rise to thought” (“le symbole donne à penser”), which is the title he gave to the epilogue to his masterpiece Finitude and Culpability, should be written on the walls and pillars of the churches. Because unlike a technical “cipher,” the meaning of which remains fixed and thus transparent,

the true symbol expands enigmatically in meaning. This multiplicity allows the symbol to communicate all the ambiguity of a “living experience” or “avowal” of reality; it also charges the symbol with creative power, for as one meaning gives way to another, the mind is led to more abstract levels of thought. [Franklin M. Doeringer, “The gate in the circle: A paradigmatic symbol in early Chinese cosmology,” Philosophy East and West 32, no.3 (July, 1982), University of Hawaii Press]

We have forgotten the power of symbol; we have lost touch with it and with its “generative power,” and this, in my humble opinion, is not without connection with the crisis of Western civilization we are experiencing these years.

That’s why I really appreciated Benedict XVI’s homily at mass in the Vatican Basilica (February 19, 2012), with the newly-created cardinals, on the solemnity of the Chair of Saint Peter (H/T: Sandro Magister). It’s a great example of how symbols talk to us and how we can learn from them. The Gospel episode the Pope is referring to is that which presents Peter, under divine inspiration, expressing his own firm faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the promised Messiah. In response to this transparent profession of faith, which Peter makes in the name of the other Apostles as well, Christ reveals to him the mission he intends to entrust to him, namely that of being the “rock”, the visible foundation on which the entire spiritual edifice of the Church is built (cf. Mt 16:16-19).

Here is an excerpt from the homily :

Dear brothers and sisters, this Gospel episode that has been proclaimed to us finds a further and more eloquent explanation in one of the most famous artistic treasures of this Vatican Basilica: the altar of the Chair. After passing through the magnificent central nave, and continuing past the transepts, the pilgrim arrives in the apse and sees before him an enormous bronze throne that seems to hover in mid air, but in reality is supported by the four statues of great Fathers of the Church from East and West. And above the throne, surrounded by triumphant angels suspended in the air, the glory of the Holy Spirit shines through the oval window.

What does this sculptural composition say to us, this product of Bernini’s genius? It represents a vision of the essence of the Church and the place within the Church of the Petrine Magisterium.

The window of the apse opens the Church towards the outside, towards the whole of creation, while the image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove shows God as the source of light. But there is also another aspect to point out: the Church herself is like a window, the place where God draws near to us, where he comes towards our world. The Church does not exist for her own sake, she is not the point of arrival, but she has to point upwards, beyond herself, to the realms above. The Church is truly herself to the extent that she allows the Other, with a capital “O”, to shine through her – the One from whom she comes and to whom she leads. The Church is the place where God “reaches” us and where we “set off” towards him: she has the task of opening up, beyond itself, a world which tends to become enclosed within itself, the task of bringing to the world the light that comes from above, without which it would be uninhabitable.

The great bronze throne encloses a wooden chair from the ninth century, which was long thought to be Saint Peter’s own chair and was placed above this monumental altar because of its great symbolic value. It expresses the permanent presence of the Apostle in the Magisterium of his successors. Saint Peter’s chair, we could say, is the throne of truth which takes its origin from Christ’s commission after the confession at Caesarea Philippi. The magisterial chair also reminds us of the words spoken to Peter by the Lord during the Last Supper: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32).

The chair of Peter evokes another memory: the famous expression from Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans, where he says of the Church of Rome that she “presides in charity” (Salutation, PG 5, 801). In truth, presiding in faith is inseparably linked to presiding in love. Faith without love would no longer be an authentic Christian faith.

But the words of Saint Ignatius have another much more concrete implication: the word “charity”, in fact, was also used by the early Church to indicate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the "Sacramentum caritatis Christi", through which Christ continues to draw us all to himself, as he did when raised up on the Cross (cf. Jn 12:32). Therefore, to “preside in charity” is to draw men and women into a eucharistic embrace – the embrace of Christ – which surpasses every barrier and every division, creating communion from all manner of differences. The Petrine ministry is therefore a primacy of love in the eucharistic sense, that is to say solicitude for the universal communion of the Church in Christ. And the Eucharist is the shape and the measure of this communion, a guarantee that it will remain faithful to the criterion of the tradition of the faith.

The great Chair is supported by the Fathers of the Church. The two Eastern masters, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Athanasius, together with the Latins, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, represent the whole of the tradition, and hence the richness of expression of the true faith of the holy and one Church.

This aspect of the altar teaches us that love rests upon faith. Love collapses if man no longer trusts in God and disobeys him. Everything in the Church rests upon faith: the sacraments, the liturgy, evangelization, charity. Likewise the law and the Church’s authority rest upon faith. The Church is not self-regulating, she does not determine her own structure but receives it from the word of God, to which she listens in faith as she seeks to understand it and to live it. Within the ecclesial community, the Fathers of the Church fulfil the function of guaranteeing fidelity to sacred Scripture. They ensure that the Church receives reliable and solid exegesis, capable of forming with the Chair of Peter a stable and consistent whole. The sacred Scriptures, authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium in the light of the Fathers, shed light upon the Church’s journey through time, providing her with a stable foundation amid the vicissitudes of history.

After considering the various elements of the altar of the Chair, let us take a look at it in its entirety. We see that it is characterized by a twofold movement: ascending and descending. This is the reciprocity between faith and love. The Chair is placed in a prominent position in this place, because this is where Saint Peter’s tomb is located, but this too tends towards the love of God.

Indeed, faith is oriented towards love. A selfish faith would be an unreal faith. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ and enters into the dynamic of love that finds its source in the Eucharist, discovers true joy and becomes capable in turn of living according to the logic this gift. True faith is illumined by love and leads towards love, leads on high, just as the altar of the Chair points upwards towards the luminous window, the glory of the Holy Spirit, which constitutes the true focus for the pilgrim’s gaze as he crosses the threshold of the Vatican Basilica.

That window is given great prominence by the triumphant angels and the great golden rays, with a sense of overflowing fulness that expresses the richness of communion with God. God is not isolation, but glorious and joyful love, spreading outwards and radiant with light. [...]

February 17, 2012

It's Santorum Time!

Rick Santorum is joined by his family at the CPAC  
Washington, D.C., February 10, 2012

Looks like things are changing fast in the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has emerged as a new star for the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Some three months ago, Santorum barely registered with voters, the Gallup poll had him under 5 percent nationally and the idea of his winning the Republican nomination seemed like a joke. Now, for the first time, it’s a real possibility: not only does he appear to be overtaking Newt Gingrich as the principal challenger to Mitt Romney, having won more contests and delegates than Gingrich, but in the Gallup national poll he has jumped to 31 percent of Republicans’ support, while Romney has dipped to 33 percent, and in a New York Times-CBS News (national) poll he earned 30 percent while Romney got less: 27 percent. Furthermore, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, in the battleground state of Ohio, which has its primary Super Tuesday, he leads Romney 36 percent to 29 percent.

As it was not enough, after demonstrating an ability to rally social conservatives, he is now trying to broaden his coalition in Michigan—that is in Mitt Romney’s boyhood backyard—by attracting blue-collar fiscal conservatives. Of course, a victory in Michigan’s February 28 primary would be a stunning upset for him, and would signal his ability to do well in Rust Belt states where the manufacturing industry has been suffering in the economic downturn.

Is it Santorum turn? Yes, according to the National Review Online, which writes,

Santorum has been conducting himself rather impressively in his moments of triumph and avoiding characteristic temptations. He is doing his best to keep the press from dismissing him as merely a “social-issues candidate.” His recent remark that losing his Senate seat in 2006 taught him the importance of humility suggests an appealing self-awareness. And he has rightly identified the declining stability of middle-class families as a threat to the American experiment, even if his proposed solutions are poorly designed. But sensible policies, important as they are, are not the immediate challenge for his candidacy. Proving he can run a national campaign is.


Romney remains the undramatic figure at the center of the primaries’ drama. Lack of enthusiasm for him has set it all in motion. Romney is trying to win the nomination by pulverizing his rivals. His hope is that enthusiasm will follow when he takes on Obama in the summer and fall. But his attacks on Santorum have been lame, perhaps because they are patently insincere.

Lack of enthusiasm for him: that is one of Romney’s main problems, along with two damaging perceptions: a) that he is always either shading the truth or outright lying, as described by so many of his fellow countrymen, and b) “that he is part of the elite—the ‘one per cent’ that lives by different rules from ordinary Americans and therefore cannot understand the pains of the ordinary working man or woman,” as Peter Foster wrote on a Telegraph blog. Just the opposite of what Rick Santorum represents, one could argue.

But the former Pennsylvania senator has his own problems, the most pressing of which is that he is a Catholic who “finds it almost dishonorable to parry a question about core values,” as Matt Lewis of The Daily Caller puts it. Here’s an excerpt from an October 2011 interview:

One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, “Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.”
It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it—and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.
Again, I know most Presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These how profound impact on the health of our society

And here is how Matt Lewis comments on this:

Santorum is entitled to his beliefs. And certainly, one can admire his willingness to boldly stand up for them. But while this might be a profile in courage, it most certainly is also a profile in bad politics.
His position on contraception is, of course, a minority position — even within the conservative movement.
This doesn’t mean Santorum should have lied or hidden his personal beliefs. If asked, he might have simply said: “The use of contraception is inconsistent with my Catholic faith, but many other fine faith traditions disagree, and I respect their position” — and then moved on.
But Santorum doesn’t really believe that. He was more interested in winning the argument than winning the election.
This was not a mistake or a gaffe. Santorum was fully conscious of the dangers of discussing this issue, even noting during the interview that he’s not “running for preacher,” and confessing: “I know most Presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things …”
He was right — people really don’t want their president talking about contraceptives.[Italics mine]

Well, if you ask me what I think about this, I cannot but wholeheartedly agree with Matthew Archbold:

Lewis may be right in that it may not be smart politics but I think part of the reason Santorum is surging is that he is who he says he is. Santorum is not the talking points and teleprompter kind of candidate. He’s the anti-Obama.

But Rick Santorum’s is the anti-Obama in several other senses as well. As my friend Steven at The Metaphysical Peregrine sums it up in a sentence, “He talks about founding principles, conservative principles.”

In his speech at CPAC 2012 last Friday (see the video below), Santorum said,

“We know there’s a lot of excitement here because this election is about big, big things. We know it’s about big things; it’s about foundational principles. Every speech I’ve given from the 381 townhall meetings I did in Iowa, I talked about founding principles. This campaign is gonna be about a vision, about who we are as Americans.”

That vision? No more and no less than the one outlined by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence.

“Are we going to believe, as our Founders did, that our rights don’t come from the government, that they come from a much higher authority? There are those in the Oval Office who believe that’s not the case, that rights do, in fact, come from the government, and they have gone around convincing the American people that they can give you rights. We see what happens when government gives you rights. When government gives you rights, government can take away those rights. When government gives you rights, they can coerce you in doing things in exercising the rights that they gave you.”

And here is how he closed his speech:

“Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate the party is not excited about? We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November, to excite the conservative base, to pull with that excitement moderate voters and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall. … Please walk out of this gathering and choose the candidate that you believe is the right person to lead this country, so you can say, ‘I have done my duty. I have kept my honor.’”

Impressive. Yes, I think this is the right word.

February 16, 2012

George Weigel: An American Catholic Patriotic Association?

George Weigel
“Who speaks for the Catholic Church in America?” The answer to this question should be obvious: “The bishops’ conference.” Yet, according to the U.S. Administration that’s not exactly the way things are, because, first and foremost, primacy in the Catholic Church is not conferred by the pope, but by the White House. This is, in short, George Weigel’s J’accuse—in the National Review Online—to the U.S. Administration.
(Via wdtprs)

February 14, 2012

Another Tibetan Monk Sets Himself on Fire in China

 Tenzin Choeden
Another Tibetan monk, the 19-year-old Lobsang Gyatso, from Kirti Monastery has set himself on fire in Ngaba Town, in south-western China, say Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). He is the second teenager to set himself on fire in Ngaba in the last three days, following Tenzin Choeden, who died last Saturday. (See also here and here).

In the last year, at least 21 young Tibetans have died the same way.

Here is the link to an online petition calling for a U.N.-led fact-finding mission to observe the situation in Tibet. (Via Tibet News)

February 12, 2012

The Name of Santorum

Rick Santorum can trace his roots back to Riva del Garda, Italy 

Photo courtesy: BBC
Do you like stories about famous people’s origins? Here is an interesting story about one of the four remaining Republican candidates running for the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination, the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. This is, of course, also a story about the vast opportunities that America presents to every generation of immigrants, since Rick Santorum’s grandfather, Pietro, who has been described by the Republican candidate as being inspirational for his presidential campaign, left the Northern Italy town of Riva del Garda for America in 1920 because he was worried about the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. In short, as the BBC’s Christine Finn reports, there is a family in Riva del Garda which has recently discovered they are related to Rick Santorum.

As a matter of fact Santorum, unlike in the rest of the country (Italy has the largest collection of surnames in the world, with over 350,000!), is an old surname in the Riva del Garda area, about as common as Smith is in America.

By the way, do you know what the real meaning and origin of Santorum surname is? Well, it derives from the Latin word Sanctus (Saint), whose genitive plural is Sanctorum, which stands for Sanctorum Omnium, which in turn stands for dies festus Sanctorum Omnium (the Feast of All Saints). This family name, in other words, is possibly connected to someone acting as a saint, or who has connection with religious things (a sacristan), or to someone who was born on the festival day of All Saints.

Another possible explanation is that Santorum might have been a surname given to foundlings, as Temple, for one example, was commonly given as a surname to foundlings left at the Temple of London. In Italy there is a group of names recognized by educated people as originally given to illegitimates left at the church door. Some of this names are Esposito (ex-posed), Proietti (from the Latin proicio, to throw away), Innocente or Innocenti (as in innocent of their father’s sin), De Benedictis, De Benedetti, De Sanctis, Della Croce, etc.

This kind of surnames was chosen by religious institutions or, after the establishment of Civil Records, by the civil officer.

As another example, the surname Eco, as Italian semiotician, essayist, and novelist Umberto Eco (the author of The Name of the Rose)once recalled, was taken from the first letters of the phrase, “ex coelis oblatus,” a Latin phrase meaning “a gift from the heavens”—hey, by saying this  I'm  not remotely suggesting that Rick Santorum is a gift from the heavens, I'm just bringing up some analogies... But then again, who knows?

February 10, 2012

Obama to Change Contraceptive Rule

An announcement from the White House:

The White House said Friday it would address the controversial decision that would require religious-affiliated institutions to provide health insurance that includes coverage for birth control.
At 12:15 p.m. ET, President Barack Obama will deliver a statement from the White House press briefing room.
According to a source who has been briefed on the matter, the White House will announce an "accommodation" to the contraception rule. The announcement will try to ease the concerns of those with religious views by not requiring them to pay for contraception.
This effectively means that insurance companies will pay for the contraception coverage directly.
According to The Associated Press, women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insisted must remain.
But religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it, and insurance companies will then have to step in to do so.
Following an intense White House debate that led to the original policy, officials said Obama seriously weighed the concerns over religious liberty, leading to the revamped decision.

Obama's Kulturkampf

Kulturkampf  (editorial cartoon),  Kladderadatsch,  May, 1875

Here I am on Obama’s contraception mandate again. But this time I suspect I’m going to surprise you. In fact, this is just an invitation to undertake the reading of this thought-provoking post at Fr. Z’s Blog. Well, actually it’s a Guest entry from Fabrizio, a Roman friend of F. Z, but there is also a comment by the blog’s owner and a reply by Fr. Z’s friend. But then again, it all started from this Hugh Hewitt’s statement:

Massive civil disobedience is the only response for Catholics of conscience. That and an absolute refusal to vote for the anti-Catholic president overseeing this Kulturkampf.

What? Kulturkampf? Yes, you didn’t read it wrong, but don’t worry, even though this is a term that takes us to Otto Von Bismarck and his culture wars against the Catholic Church, you have to bear in mind that Bismarck was also, in some ways, the father of the modern European welfare state and, what is more, of the notion itself of socialized medicine, which is not irrelevant to what we are talking about (and to what is at stake here). By the way, Fabrizio complains about the fact that the founder of modern Germany is considered a “conservative” in history books: the truth is that “[he] only rejected revolutionary socialism to institute it through a top-down process instead of a revolutionary upheaval of society.”

Fabrizio is a fierce opponent to everything that might resemble the idea of a state-run medical care system, and this because “it is inherent to the very idea of socialized medicine that the state gets to tell you what to do and what to pay for and how much.” Which inevitably leads to a conflict between state and religion, as the newly issued HHS contraception mandate clearly shows. The outcome of all of this will be that

Sooner or later, because of the inevitable rationing that comes with centralized healthcare, they won’t even need to mandate that you perform abortions or give away condoms. You’ll simply lose all hospitals and schools because there is no way a large independent health provider can survive in such a system. Why do you think so many Italian hospitals, founded centuries ago, with names of saints and popes, are now in the hands of the Sistema Sanitario Nazionale, directly or indirectly? Why do you think there is hardly a Catholic school that is affordable anymore and which teaches anything different from what kids would hear at the Liceo Statale A. Gramsci or what have you?

“Time to get the tough going,” says Fabrizio, because the going is getting tough.

To that Fr. Z’s reply is very interesting, because it shows another side of the coin, and perhaps also an unexpected one:

It is probable that our institutions have already given up their identity and become “businesses”. They have given themselves over to business models so completely that they are hardly Catholic anymore in any real sense.
The mission for which Catholic hospitals and colleges were founded seems to be over. Our universities and hospitals are now for the most part businesses. They are being run on a business model.
Is it time for us to get out?

The rest of the argument is worth reading and meditating. To conclude, read Fabrizio’s counter-reply in the comment section.

What to say? It’s basically a brainstorming session, so to speak. If this whole thread is not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.

P.S. I forgot. Where do I stand on this debate? Well, I’m still thinking about it… However, in my view, the two approaches do not necessarily exclude each other. On the contrary, they might have been conceived by the same person, in a sort of dialogue with himself. Or at least this is what I like to think.

February 8, 2012

Why the Obama Administration’s Contraceptive Rule Is Twice Wrong

White House spokesman Jay Carney defends
the new HHS rule:"The President concurs in the
decision" (January 31, 2012)
In his column today, David Brooks—a political and cultural commentator for the New York Times who considers himself a moderate, not a conservative, despite what the NYT thinks of him—criticizes the Obama Administration’s Contraceptive Rule (see my previous post). Yet, unlike Conservatives, what he is concerned with are not the limits on government power established by the U.S. Constitution, but rather with more practical aspects.

“Every once in a while,” he writes, “the Obama administration will promulgate a policy that is truly demoralizing.” A willingness to end the District of Columbia school voucher program was such one case. And this is the case of the above mentioned rule, too. “These decisions,” he says, “are demoralizing because they make it harder to conduct a serious antipoverty policy.” Let’s follow his reasoning. There are a million factors that contribute to poverty (economic, historical, familial, social, etc), and they interact in a zillion ways. This “complex system of negative feedback loops” requires “an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops.” In short , we need “to change the whole ecosystem:”

You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.
The key to this flood-the-zone approach is that you have to allow for maximum possible diversity. Let’s say there is a 14-year-old girl who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wants to experience the love and sense of purpose that go with motherhood, rather than stay in school in the hopes of someday earning a middle-class wage.
You have no idea what factors have caused her to make this decision, and you have no way of knowing what will dissuade her. But you want her, from morning until night, to be enveloped by a thick ecosystem of positive influences. You want lefty social justice groups, righty evangelical groups, Muslim groups, sports clubs, government social workers, Boys and Girls Clubs and a hundred other diverse institutions. If you surround her with a different culture and a web of relationships, maybe she will absorb new habits of thought, find a sense of belonging and change her path.
To build this thick ecosystem, you have to include religious institutions and you have to give them broad leeway. Religious faith is quirky, and doesn’t always conform to contemporary norms. But faith motivates people to serve. Faith turns lives around. You want to do everything possible to give these faithful servants room and support so they can improve the spiritual, economic and social ecology in poor neighborhoods.
The administration’s policies on school vouchers and religious service providers are demoralizing because they weaken this ecology by reducing its diversity. By ending vouchers, the administration reduced the social intercourse between neighborhoods. By coercing the religious charities, it is teaching the faithful to distrust government, to segregate themselves from bureaucratic overreach, to pull inward.
I wish President Obama would escape from the technocratic rationalism that sometimes infects his administration.

Well, it is also my firm belief that, as Wesley J. Smith argues, “even if this rule helped the hypothetical 14-year-old, it would be wrong,” but the reasoning seems pretty sound to me. Let’s put this way: The decision to force Catholic social service providers to support contraception and other practices that violate their creed is (at least) twice wrong.

February 6, 2012

Obama Administration's Contraceptive Rule: Much More Than a Gaffe

President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
A number of conservative commentators and pundits said that with the healthcare vote in March 2010, President Obama had crossed the Rubicon—a “Socialist Rubicon,” so to speak. He now believes—and acts—as if he is above the law; the Constitution no longer applies to him, they said. Well, now we can officially say that the Obama administration, with the new federal rule requiring religiously affiliated universities, hospitals and charities to provide free coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptives (including the morning after pill and sterilization), has crossed another Rubicon—an anti-religious one—in dealing with the Catholic Church (and other faith communities).

The rule, which was announced on January 20 by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, was defended by the White House last Tuesday. And obviously, Catholics, who regard contraception as a sin, disagree, and see the new rule as a blatant violation of religious freedom—to the point that Roman Catholic officials are mulling a possible legal or legislative challenge. After all, let’s not forget that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, and that this freedom is transgressed when a religious institution is required to do something that directly violate their religious convictions...

Was it a gaffe? Yes, in a way. As Peggy Noonan put it, his decision on Catholic charities makes Romney’s big gaffe—his interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, in which he said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor”—look trivial:

Every criticism has been true. It was politically inept, playing into stereotypes about Republicans and about his own candidacy. It was Martian-like in its seeming remove from the concerns of everyday citizens. We're in a recession here! It was at odds both with longtime American tradition and with rising conservative concern over the growth and changing nature of what used to be called the underclass.
So: inept.
But the big political news of the week isn't Mr. Romney's gaffe, or even his victory in Florida. The big story took place in Washington. That's where a bomb went off that not many in the political class heard, or understood.
In other words, the Catholic Church was told this week that its institutions can't be Catholic anymore.
I invite you to imagine the moment we are living in without the church's charities, hospitals and schools. And if you know anything about those organizations, you know it is a fantasy that they can afford millions in fines.
There was no reason to make this ruling—none. Except ideology.

Except ideology, that’s it. That’s the way things are. “That’s why we call him the socialist president,” said a Catholic blogger. From this point of view, the “incident” was not tactical but strategic, and it was much more than a gaffe.

On the eve of Tuesday’s Florida Republican primary, GOP Senator Marco Rubio, who is Catholic, introduced legislation that would prevent the government from requiring contraceptive coverage if it violated the religious beliefs of the sponsoring individuals or entities. But Catholics are not alone in this. Let’s take just a couple of examples: a) the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America “joined their voices with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and all those who adamantly protest the recent decision by the United States Department of Health and Human Services;” b) more than 40 non-Catholic religious organizations including Protestant-affiliated colleges, National Association of Evangelicals, Focus on the Family, Assemblies of God, Northwest Nazarene University, and Eastern Mennonite University, sent a letter (.pdf) to the White House demanding religious protection against the newly issued HHS contraceptive mandate.

And this is probably just the beginning.

February 3, 2012

On Silence and Prayer

St. Benedict delivering his Rule to St. Maurus and other monks
 Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes

My previous post lead me to this one. This is just so that you can have a better sense of what The Rule of St. Benedict is all about. Enjoy and meditate:

Let us act in accordance with that saying of the Prophet; “I have said: I will keep my ways, that I offend not with my tongue. I have been watchful over my mouth: I held my peace and humbled myself, and was silent from speaking even good things.” If therefore, according to this saying of the Prophet we are at times to abstain, for silence sake, even from good talk, how much more ought we to refrain from evil words, on account of the penalty of sin. Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let leave to speak be seldom given, even to perfect disciples, although their words be of good and holy matters, tending unto edification; because it is written: “In much speaking, thou shalt not escape sin.” And in another place: “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” For it befitteth a master to speak and teach; and it beseemeth a disciple to hold his peace and listen.
If, therefore, anything must be asked of the Prior, let it be done with all fitting humility and the subjection of reverence. But as for buffoonery, idle words, or such as move to laughter, we utterly condemn and exclude them in all places, nor do we allow a disciple to open his mouth to five them utterance.

~ The Rule of St. Benedict, CHAPTER VI (Of Silence).

If, when we wish to make some suggestion to the powerful, we presume not to speak to them except with humility and reverence; with how much greater reason ought we to present our supplications in all humility and purity of devotion, to the Lord God of all things? And let us bear in mind, that we shall be heard, not for our many words, but for our purity of heart, and our penitential tears. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless perchance it be prolonged by the inspiration of Diving Grace. Yet, let all prayer made in common be short, and when the sign has been given by the Prior, let all rise together.

~ The Rule of St. Benedict, CHAPTER XX (Of reverence at prayer).

February 2, 2012

The Benedictine Way

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict - Museo S.Marco, Firenze
Their contribution to the history of Western civilization and spirituality is immense. But the success of such a titanic work wouldn’t be made possible without … a small book of precepts for monastic living, written for the monastery at Monte Cassino, in Italy, by St. Benedict of Norcia, The Rule of St. Benedict: “An epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgement of all the doctrines of the Gospel, all the institutions of the Fathers, and all the counsels of perfection” (Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet). The book exhibits the deepest knowledge of human nature and, at the same time, a miraculous sense of balance and wholeness. The first two sentences of the Prologue are simply sublime:

Hearken, my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thy heart willingly to hear, and effectually to accomplish, the admonition of thy living Father, that by the labour of obedience thou mayest return to Him, from Whom thou didst depart by the sloth of disobedience. To thee therefore is my speech now directed, who, renouncing thy own will, dost take upon thee the strong and bright armour of obedience, to fight under the Lord Christ our true King.

A masterpiece of spiritual wisdom, as well as of the art of government, the reading of which never fails to move me.

Basing his life on the principles and precepts stated in the Rule, the Benedictine monk takes three vows: Stability, Obedience and Conversion of Life. The three vows are braided together “like three strands of a strong rope,” writes Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a Benedictine monk himself, who has had the excellent idea of writing some posts on “The Benedictine Way.” So far there have been four of them (very clear and concise!), the first two are about Stability, the other two are about Obedience.

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

Protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Habib Bourguib Av. in Tunis, in Sana'a, Yemen, and in Douma, Syria. - Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Michael J. Totten in the January/February issue of World Affairs:

The phrase “Arab Spring” is a misnomer. The political upheavals sweeping Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are concurrent yet different phenomena, and it’s premature to assume that any of them, let alone all of them, will bring their respective countries out of the long Arab winter of authoritarian rule. In the medium term, the number of genuinely liberal democracies to emerge in the Arab world is likely to be one or zero.
I’ve been to all three countries that overthrew tyrants last year—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and I rented an apartment in Lebanon while the government of Syria, which may well become fourth on the list, waged a murder and intimidation campaign against Lebanese journalists and elected officials. The only things these countries have in common with each other is that they’re in turmoil and that they are Arab.

Take Tunisia and Egypt:

Large parts of Tunisia appear so “Westernized,” at least on the surface, that visitors might think they’re in Greece or even in France if they didn’t know better. Egypt is an ancient and crushingly poor nation ruled, as it has been more often than not, by a military dictatorship.[…]
Most Tunisian women in the cities eschew the headscarf and dress like Europeans. Alcohol is widely available and consumed more by locals than tourists. The economy is almost as advanced as those of southern Europe, and large parts of the cities actually look like southern Europe. The Mediterranean is a recognizable place despite the civilizational boundary that separates its northern and southern shores. Tunis, on the coast, has more in common with Provence than with its own Saharan interior. And its vineyards produce wine that is almost as fine.
Imperial France left a powerful imprint on Tunisia’s cultural DNA, as did Rome long ago. “The explanation for Tunisia’s success,” Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic in 2001, “begins with the fact that modern Tunisia corresponds roughly to the borders of ancient Carthage and of the Roman province that replaced it in 146 B.C., after a third and final war between the two powers. ‘Africa,’ originally a Roman term, meant Tunisia long before it meant anything else.” This little wedge of a country in central North Africa has been at least partially oriented northward for most of its history ever since.
Egypt is, in so many ways, the anti-Tunisia. Almost every woman who goes out in public wears a headscarf. I see more men in just one single day with bruised foreheads—acquired by hitting their heads on the floor during prayer—than I have seen in all other Muslim-majority countries combined in almost a decade. The country is, as far as I can tell, the most Islamicized place in the world after Saudi Arabia. It used to be oriented more toward the Mediterranean, as Tunisia still is, but that was more than a half century ago.
Cairo was once a must-see city like Paris and Rome and Vienna, but today it’s a crowded, polluted, and grinding third-world megacity animated by reactionary and authoritarian politics. Its liberal epoch is over.

Libya and Syria, in turn, have their own peculiarities. But what do these four countries have in common? In the Middle East almost all secular governments have failed spectacularly in the modern era. As a result, Radical Islam looks good on paper to millions... The full article is worth a read.

February 1, 2012

America vs. Europe

Republican candidates for the presidential nomination don’t love Europe. Especially Mitt Romney and his chief rival, Newt Gingrich. The two in fact have spent the past few months arguing that the current US president wants to turn the U.S. into a “European welfare state.” At a weekend appearance in New Hampshire, site of a crucial primary vote, Romney said, “I don’t believe in Europe. I believe in America.” His message, as he never tires of delivering it, is very clear: “I don’t think Europe is working in Europe. I know it won’t work here.”

As for Gingrich, one of his three key tenets is American exceptionalism. In his view, America—rooted in Democratic Capitalism—defines itself by equality of opportunity, while Europe—rooted in Social Democracy—defines itself by equality of results. And the 2012 election likely will determine whether America remains exceptional or, finally, is, culturally, reconquered by Europe.

Rick Santorum, in turn, is more articulate, or better still, less “philosophical” and more concrete: he argues that the cost of Europe’s massive welfare states made it too expensive for young people to have families. That’s why many European countries, he says, with plummeting birth rates, have resorted to “baby bonuses” to try to reverse the tide, but the demographic picture remains bleak, while the costs of entitlement programs have exploded. “Who are benefits promised to, overwhelmingly? Well, they’re promised to older people. And if you have a society like Europe that is upside down where there are a lot more older people than younger people, you have economic calamity,” he says.

But how did Europe-bashing become such an issue in the U.S? asks this BBC article. The answer, according to the author of the piece, is very simple: “Accusing Mr Obama of wanting to follow the same path of ever-growing welfare budgets and high taxes that supposedly led the EU nations to this pass will strike a chord with many voters.” But clearly this only postpones or defers the question rather than addressing it. If Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, etc. are convinced that bashing Europe would strike a chord with so many voters, and if we assume that they are neither naïve nor gullible, we have to ask ourselves why and how this has come to be. Doesn’t all this mean that many Americans still believe in American exceptionalism and that “America” is something worth fighting for and preserving? And if this is so, why is it so? As a fan of the American “exception,” I could provide some simple answers to the above questions, but I think it would be a lot better if we focused on a different aspect of the issue: Is the European model exportable to America? And, conversely, is the American model exportable to Europe? Perhaps, put in these terms, the issue would be a bit less black and white. And for both of these questions the answer would be, “probably NO.” Unfortunately for us, fortunately for them, or the exact contrary, but that’s the way things are. History is not an independent variable. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” Nobody should forget that.