X

Browsing News Entries

A Blessed New Year from Word on Fire

The great question [is] . . . What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. . . . He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and…

Drinking Alone

One night in August 2005, just after I’d moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for a job as a theology professor, I needed beer. To get to the distributor, I drove over a concrete bridge, its four pylons etched with words like “Perseverance” and “Industry” and topped by monumental eagles. Once there, I wandered through the pallets of warm cases trying to find a thirty-pack of PBR until the thin, gruff man behind the counter asked what I was looking for. I told him, he pointed to the right pallet, and I met him at the register.

He asked for ID, and I showed him my Virginia license. He looked me in the eye. “I figured you had to be out of state,” he said as he handed it back. “The young people around here don’t drink Pabst.” I told him they did in Virginia. I didn’t tell him it was because hipsters fetishized white working-class culture. I mentioned instead that I’d just moved here. “Oh yeah? For good?” “Yeah.” “That’s too bad. You should go back. Welcome to one of the worst drug havens in the country.”

I told him I’d heard of the local drug problem. He then expanded upon his point, and began riffing on racist and misogynist themes. He told me there was no nightlife in town because the cops were always out waiting to nab you after you left the bar and tried to drive home. I stood impassively at the counter, hoping his rant would burn out if I didn’t feed it with dialogue. “And the people!” he continued. “Some of the most ignorant, idiotic people anywhere. They’re petty and vindictive, and they got no personality!” When I said I’d just gotten a job teaching at a local college, he told me to stay one semester, then get out. He was getting out, he said. “I might not be here next time you come in. I’m going to Arkansas.” At that, I bid him goodnight, threw my beer in the trunk, and went home.

The next time I came back, weeks or months later, he was still there.

 

Wilkes-Barre is in the middle of Northeast Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, guarded by high ridges on either side of the Susquehanna River. Its nickname is the Diamond City, a reference to the “black diamonds” of anthracite coal once mined there. I came to the Valley in fulfillment of a longstanding dream. I had grown up in the suburbs of Buffalo in the years when industry was leaving. I went to college in Washington D.C., then graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was initiated as a member of the bourgeois-intellectual class—a resident of that archipelago of prosperous cities and college towns where people drive Subarus and subscribe to the New York Times but not their local papers. I never meant to come back to the Rust Belt. But I was committed to the academic profession, and Wilkes-Barre was the one place where I could practice it, because the college there was the one place that offered me a job. Graduate school didn’t train me for life in cities where there weren’t cafes filled with people reading or typing or grousing about David Brooks. Why should it? The brain drain is meant to carry people in one direction only, away from towns like Buffalo and Wilkes-Barre to towns like Charlottesville and D.C., not the reverse.

Hearing the beer-store clerk’s plan to escape the Valley deepened my misgivings about moving there. After I brought my PBR home that night, I called my girlfriend, who had recently moved to Berkeley to pursue a PhD, and said to her, “Two years. I can stay two years at most. Hold me to that.”

In the meantime, living in the Valley was too often synonymous with drinking. The local culture around alcohol is, shall we say, well developed. Every man I know who grew up in Wilkes-Barre in the 1970s and ’80s has a wistful memory of being sent to the corner bar at an early age to pick up a six-pack for his father. Older men tell stories of their dads going off to work in the mines, metal lunch pail in hand, and returning at the end of the day with the pail full of beer. St. Patrick’s Day is a two-week binge. The parades begin as early as March 3 and erupt into frequent brawls and occasional stabbings. One year, at Scranton’s parade, some drunk picked a fight with a horse. When I ask a former student who left the Valley after graduation what she thinks the culture of the region is, her first words are “binge drinking.”

Alcohol defined the contours of my social and professional life. After my first faculty meeting, the president of the college held a reception for us on campus—full bar. I ordered an Old Grand-Dad on the rocks. The bartender threw a few cubes in the glass and then filled it to the top: a triple, at least. As the semester continued, I often met with colleagues for happy hour at bars near the college that offered dollar drafts, and on Fridays, free pizza and pasta. On Sundays I went alone to a pizza place to watch football, drink twenty-two-ounce glasses of Labatt, and exchange epithets about the games with whoever else was sitting at the bar. At the end of my first year, I learned that the college always sponsored a kegger on the night before graduation. Graduates, professors, and parents played beer pong and ate pretzels out of paper boats, downing pitcher after pitcher. At one of these events, late in the night, the mayor, an alumnus, showed up with his entourage. One of his hangers-on, a beefy middle-aged guy in a nylon warmup jacket over his dress shirt, muscled past me to the head of the beer line to grab a couple bottles for him and His Honor.

My two years there became ten, then eleven. I applied for other teaching jobs, far away, without luck. Every year, I cursed the town. I got tenure. Friends who cursed the town right along with me got married, had kids, bought homes. The graduates I toasted at the keg party left and found their fortunes in the sort of places I wished I could be, places with bookstores and public transit. Places with, I don’t know, a Whole Foods. Places where there was more to do than drink. At the same time, I felt guilty about wanting to leave. I had survived the academic job market’s brutal caprice. Many talented friends from graduate school were not so lucky. Besides, I had grown up outside of a crumbling steel town. Who was I to turn my nose up at a crumbling coal town? And what did my enlightened liberal, democratic values mean if not that the clerk across the beer-store counter was my fellow citizen and brother?

My desire both to belong in Wilkes-Barre and to escape it reflected the conflicting cultural purposes of drinking. Alcohol is a social lubricant, easing conversation and widening circles of friendship. But drinking culture also reinforces boundaries around who belongs and who doesn’t. It polices the barriers between us, including race and gender, sexual orientation and income. Most of us have a subconscious alarm that rings when we take a few steps into a bar that’s the wrong place for us, where we’ll be eyed suspiciously or harassed or worse. We know where we don’t belong. And for reasons to do with my academic aloofness and the class distance I had traversed since leaving Buffalo, I found it hard to belong in the Valley. Partly, I didn’t try hard enough. But it also wouldn’t have mattered if I had lived there the rest of my life. In this city where many people leave but few move in, I would always be a newcomer, not from there. Of course, I didn’t want to be from there. Still, it was where I lived, and I didn’t want to be a permanent alien, either. I drank to fit in, and I drank because I didn’t.

On a typical Friday afternoon during my time in Wilkes-Barre, after the curriculum-committee meeting adjourns, my friend G. and I walk across the street to a bar whose name is variously spelled Senunas’, Senunas’s, or Senuna’s. The place isn’t busy yet. We cross the ceramic-tiled floor and settle in at two stools at the corner of the bar. We’re flanked by solo drinkers, men watching other men shout at each other on ESPN. The TVs are muted and closed-captioned to clear aural space for the jukebox, not that anyone has spared a dollar to make it play.

We each place a ten-dollar bill on the bar and order a lager. We don’t say “Yuengling lager,” because in this region, where it’s brewed, that would be redundant. The bartender, M., is a student of mine. She pours our beers and slides our glasses in front of us—each of them an ounce or two short of a pint. She picks up our tens and then sets down a stack of bills and coins totaling $7.75 in front of each of us. The other men sitting at the bar—all of us white, paunchy except for G., and between thirty and sixty years old—have similar stacks in front of them.

G. and I talk institutional politics, and intermittently exchange small talk with a grey-mustached drinker sitting next to me. He says something, and we respond, but we keep him at arm’s length. We’re there to talk to each other. Halfway through our drinks, M. sets shot glasses, upside down, in front of me and G. The grey-mustached drinker has just bought us a round, and the shot glasses signal what we’re owed—and what we’ll owe. M. pulls four singles and two quarters from his stack.

Now I have to talk to him. And not just through this round. Two rounds, because now I’m on the hook for one. I can’t bail after I finish the one he buys me. At least, I think I can’t. That would violate the way of things here. Owing him ties me to him. And I don’t want that tie. I would much prefer to settle the debt immediately, or even to act as if I don’t know how this economy works, say thanks as I get up off the stool to leave, and forget I owe him anything. Instead, I grit my teeth, buy him a round, and bear it. We make small talk: sports, work, where we’re from. M. takes a few dollars and coins from my stack. I leave her the rest.

I never initiated this sort of exchange. On a different day, at a different bar, I would walk away without reciprocating. And, over time, I did that more and more. When I finally moved away to Dallas, Texas, miserable in my academic job and ready to follow the career of my Berkeley girlfriend, now my wife, I was several beers in the red.

 

The desire to belong is incongruous with the individualistic culture of America’s elite.

Throughout my years in Wilkes-Barre, I believed the area had no culture. But I was mistaken. What I didn’t realize was that drinking alcohol is culture. Much of what we know about ancient Greece, we know through designs on drinking vessels. Mesopotamian cuneiform documents the sale and storage of grain the Sumerians used to brew beer. Culture is also about unwritten rules, and there are a lot of them to do with drinking, from a Japanese office worker’s duty to keep the boss’s glass full to the Russian insistence that one take a bite of a pickle between vodka shots. All across Chicago, in straight, working-class sports bars and gay leather bars alike, the upside-down shot glass that weighed so heavily on me signals you’re owed a round on someone else’s tab. I once went to a bar in the Bronx where patrons grumbled that the new bartender didn’t get the rule, never stated explicitly, that every third drink was a buy-back.

These drinking rituals are meant to help you identify with the people around you. The anthropologist Mary Douglas called those bonds “group.” I pulled her 1970 book Natural Symbols off the shelf for the first time since grad school after I moved to Dallas, in an attempt to make sense of the rootlessness I felt in Wilkes-Barre. Douglas imagined “group” as one axis of a schematic for analyzing cultures. The other axis is “grid,” which refers to the extent to which a typical person accepts the “prevailing classification system” of rules and ranks. A high-grid, high-group society is a tightly bounded hierarchy, like an army or the Catholic Church. The world of entrepreneurs, by contrast, is low-grid, low-group; in it, each individual is meant to advance their self-interest, convention be damned. Most drinking rituals reinforce the internal identity of already-existing groups: fraternities and sororities, teammates, circles of brunch friends. When you buy someone a round, you create a temporary club of two members; when they reciprocate, they pay their dues and inch closer to you on the grid. Douglas might have said my discomfort in the interaction with the gray-mustached man at the bar resulted from conflicting visions of the human world. He was inviting me into the group. As a bourgeois academic, I wanted to maintain my individualism, but nevertheless capitulated to my latent wish to belong.

The institutional Church is a high-grid entity, but the cultural Catholicism in Northeast Pennsylvania is as low-grid as the working-class drinking culture it meshed with seamlessly. I approached this nexus with my typical ambivalence. The church I belonged to in Wilkes-Barre, an exquisite Gothic cuckoo clock, held a pre-Lenten German Night every year, with beer, sausages, and oompah bands in the basement. I never went. I did go every summer to the church bazaar, where people wait an hour in line for potato pancakes to soak up their beer and where you’ll see nuns walking around holding a bratwurst in one hand and a plastic cup of lager in the other. A friend who grew up in a conservative Evangelical community on the high plains came to the bazaar with me once. He knew church picnics, but the scene shocked him: free-flowing alcohol, games of chance, cliques of flirting teenagers. I regretted confirming every Catholic stereotype.

I’ve never had a beer at my new upper-class parish in Dallas, surrounded by office towers and condo complexes. The relative lack of binding customs in the urban brewpubs and $15 cocktail bars of this sun-blasted “global city” signals a thin, flattened-out drinking culture—of a piece with a thin, flattened-out culture here overall. In the sort of bar I go to now, straight guys don’t buy rounds for other straight guys they just met. There’s only one unwritten rule: leave each other alone. The smartphone helps enforce this taboo. It allows educated urbanites to go to bars and carry on conversations with their closest friends—only they can’t clink glasses by text message.

Academic and professional cultures get people like me to locate our identity within them, in part by separating us from people and place. The business scholar Gianpiero Petriglieri (Sicilian, married to an Englishwoman, teaching in France) calls his elite MBA students “a peculiar tribe. A tribe for people unfit for tribalism.” To ease their careers in multinational corporations, they’re tied to no country. They identify themselves by their skills, intellect, and work ethic, which they’re always ready to take to their next job, wherever it might be. In the cosmopolitan ideal, you belong to the world, equally at ease in Berlin or Bangkok, knowledgeable of local customs, ready to join a conversation anywhere, with anyone. It’s an ideal of connoisseurship. It’s knowing to pronounce the Czech capital Pra-ha, not Progg, when you’re chatting about Bohemian pilsners.

But it also means being equally ill-at-ease anywhere, including among citizens of your home country. The desire to belong is incongruous with the individualistic culture of America’s elite. To live out the cosmopolitan ideal means you know someone everywhere but have close ties nowhere, because you’ve moved so many times for work. It means you never realize the dream of the Cheers theme song. There’s no place you can go where everybody knows your name.

 

The flattened-out, low-group drinking culture in our large, cosmopolitan cities goes hand-in-hand with the power of capitalist exchange to smooth over the folds in our society. Hard valleys resist these trends, albeit to their economic detriment. Global capital either can’t or won’t come to Scranton and Wilkes-Barre—at least, not beyond the big-box stores, the warehouses along the highway, and the gas drills in the cities’ northern hinterlands. Local politicians nevertheless kept proposing ventures that would bring the prosperous, cosmopolitan world into the Valley. The biggest was a complete backup system for Wall Street banks and brokerages that could keep the markets running in the event of another 9/11. The project’s boosters pointed out that the region was safely beyond the fifty-mile blast radius of a nuclear explosion in Manhattan, but still close enough to conduct instantaneous transactions via fiber optic cable. Ten million New Yorkers could be reduced to shadow and cinder, but trading would continue. Finally, Northeast Pennsylvania would again have its moment.

The project was proposed in 2006. A report commissioned by the Department of Labor was optimistic that the local culture would learn to accommodate itself to the project’s needs: “Perceptions are gradually changing within the region, which is beginning to envision itself as a high technology economy and beginning to understand the benefits of regional thinking.” In other words, it will be assimilated. Needless to say, within two years, Wall Street had other priorities, and the project went nowhere.

The death of the region’s economic hopes a few decades ago portended the deaths of its working-age residents. Like the beer-store clerk told me during my first week in town, drug abuse was a problem in Northeast Pennsylvania before I arrived. But over the subsequent decade, people living there began turning with alarming frequency to the solitary and dangerous escape drugs offer. The Luzerne County Coroner told NBC News in 2017 that as things continued to look bad economically in the region, “people have gradually gone from the corner bar mentality to ‘I’m going to do some drugs’ to escape the situation that they’re in.” The rate of death by overdose nearly tripled between 2010 and 2017 in Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre. The coroner could barely keep up with his autopsy caseload. As the morgue filled up, I heard longtime white residents blame “outsiders”—by which they meant black and Hispanic people who had moved in from New York, Philadelphia, or abroad—for bringing drugs to the Valley.

Mary Douglas saw antipathy toward an out-group as a common characteristic of the low-grid, high-group societies she called “enclaves,” a category that can encompass both small, traditionalist communities and terrorist cells. In a lecture she gave a few weeks before her death in 2007, Douglas said that an enclave under threat will often put up “a strong moral wall against the outside. This is where the world starts to be painted in black and white, saints inside and sinners outside the wall. It is a strategy aimed at making exit seem frightening.” With the mines shuttered, the Church weakened by attrition and scandal, and opioid deaths surging, the Valley’s social classification system was in disarray. To preserve their group identity, those who imagined themselves as “from here” cast the outside world as impure, and they dug in.

 

I had accepted that I would always be an exile, or possibly a missionary, from the world beyond it.

As I struggled to find a place in the Valley’s local culture, I turned my apartment into an outpost of the republic of letters. Magazine subscriptions—the New Yorker, the Economist, n+1—were my citizenship papers. At least at home I could decide who, if anyone, I drank with. I could try to form my own group. The building where I lived the longest was called the Wheelmen, named after the cycling club that built the three-story, seafoam-green-shingled Queen Anne mansion in 1897. An architect bought the building in the 1990s, turned it into ten units, and got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A perfectly conical roof tops a turret on one corner of the building. A deep covered porch wraps around it. I picture the Wheelmen sipping sherry on the porch in their wool coats and knickers after a ride. Beneath an archway, a wide set of stairs spills out from the porch to the sidewalk. In the bushes, you might find a used heroin needle, or empty bottles, or human shit. Up and down the street, well-kept townhomes alternate with boarded-up duplexes and triple-blocks. Several lots in the neighborhood are vacant. In a building two doors down, a single grandmother cares for half-a-dozen kids, who play and scream all day long in a tiny yard.

A few months after my wife and I moved into the place, we awoke to the sound of glass breaking outside. I looked out the window and saw a firefighter standing on a roof of the triple-block home around the corner from ours, holding a hose and backlit by flames. The house adjacent to the triple-block had been vacant for who knows how long, and now it was on fire.

The Wheelmen’s residents descended our grand staircase and went outside to see what was happening. Among us were a doctor, a chemist, a counselor, and various other professionals, some from the region, some not. We gathered on the porch, and the longer-term residents ran down a list of nearby houses that had burned down. One or another person would shuffle out to see the ladder truck dump sheets of water onto the burning house. A fire truck pulled into our parking lot to keep watch and make sure the flames didn’t leap onto our building. We went around the corner to talk to the families who lived in the triple-block. They stared at their waterlogged homes, trying to console their kids and keep an eye on their dogs.

It was the first time I really met the other people who lived in my building. We pulled patio chairs together and talked. Someone brought out beer. Someone else, a ukulele. From where we sat, on the side of our building away from the fire, the burning house smelled like a campfire. At some point, it started raining. By dawn, the fire was just smoldering, and we went back inside, vowing to get together again more often.

The next day, city workers started clearing away the wreckage. They found two bodies. The victims were both fifty-two-year-old men, both veterans, both fathers of four. Their friends said both were hard workers. One had been a machinist; the other worked odd jobs. And both were described as homeless and having “a bad problem” with alcohol. Neighbors told the local papers that the house wasn’t really vacant. Homeless people and drug users occupied it, they said. In fact, the month before the fire, police had found the machinist in the house, intoxicated. I don’t know how the fire started. I don’t know what the men were doing on the night they died. All I know is that they drank, too, but they didn’t belong, and they couldn’t escape.

 

In the summer following the fire, my neighbors and I started sprucing up the Wheelmen’s porch so we could spend more time on it together. One woman set up a living room of cushioned, faux-wicker furniture on the corner of the porch that faced the street, like a Better Homes and Gardens spread. She put down a floral-patterned rug. In another corner, she set out a plastic dining table and covered it with a cloth. She hung plants from the arches. Someone else bought a grill and invited all the tenants to use it. I contributed a metal café table and chairs for the back end of the porch, where I would read during the day and serve drinks to friends in the evenings.

One wine-drunk night out there, a thin guy with a rough gray beard and a ballcap walked up to us off the street, squatted near our table, and told stories about when the building housed the Franklin Club, another private social venue for the managerial class that opened after the cyclists moved out. There were bowling alleys in the basement; there was great food upstairs. The guy said he had worked there decades before. When he wrapped up his story, he asked us for a drink. We demurred, and he got up, walked down the steps, and continued on his way.

By this point, six years into my stay in the Valley, I had accepted that I would always be an exile, or possibly a missionary, from the world beyond it. I wasn’t fully part of the culture of the place, but that also meant I was shielded from its miseries by my citizenship in the other culture. At some point in my early adulthood, after I left Buffalo, I had crossed a threshold that I could never cross back. Drinking PBR—or Lion’s Head, the cheap Wilkes-Barre beer I’ve seen on tap in hipster bars in Brooklyn and D.C.—doesn’t put you in solidarity with the working class. That’s an easy mistake to make in places where bourgeois culture dominates, where you don’t encounter working-class people or feel estranged from them every day. You may admire or long for their group identity—as, on some level, I do—but you made your choice. Our economic system depletes communities, and you can gain wealth and status within it if you’re willing to pull up your own roots again and again, even living suspended in the air, while others, more firmly planted, wither together.

Over the course of that summer, everything we had put out on the porch got stolen: the metal furniture, the plastic furniture, the grill, the replacement grill we chained to the railing, the chain itself. The hanging plants stayed. When my neighbors complained to the building’s maintenance guy, he blamed drug users and mentioned that the scrap yard down the street would buy anything metal, no questions asked. At a residents’ meeting in the building’s lobby following the thefts, a neighbor proposed tearing out the steps and closing off the porch.

Issue: 

Should We Cancel Homer? Ask Bob Dylan

I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.” —Bob Dylan Homer is new this morning, and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper. —Charles Péguy It was nary four short years ago that the incomparable songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. And notwithstanding the mercurial figure’s intriguing two-week silence before sheepishly accepting the honor, it was what Dylan said in his speech that truly surprised everyone. To be sure, Dylan credited early folk artists whose music was so “different than the radio songs [he’d] been listening to all along [because] they were more vibrant and truthful to life.” But while Dylan’s work was formed by an immersion in the folk vernacular, rhetoric, and “all the deserted roads that it traveled on,” there was something more that shaped him.

2021 Resolutions Will Need to Look Back, and Move Forward, with Christ

I will work out more. I will read Scripture every day. I will stop at two glasses of wine. I will yell less. I will lose ten or seventy pounds. I will be nicer to the people I love. I will stay off social media. Look familiar?  The year is coming to a close, and as we look ahead, many of us are making our annual list of resolutions. Whether our New Year’s Resolutions are kept private or shared with friends (not for notoriety but accountability, of course), we make them each year, again and again. We vow to read the Bible in a year, to swear off the sodas, to run more, to eat more vegetables, to remember to make our bed every day and give into less screen time. The…

Three Cheers for Socialism

Persons of a reflective bent all too often underestimate the enormous strength that truly abysmal ignorance can bring. Knowledge is power, of course, but—measured by a purely Darwinian calculus—too much knowledge can be a dangerous weakness. At the level of the social phenotype (so to speak), the qualities often most conducive to survival are prejudice, simplemindedness, blind loyalty, and a militant want of curiosity. These are the virtues that fortify us against doubt or fatal hesitation in moments of crisis. Subtlety and imagination, by contrast, often enfeeble the will; ambiguities dull the instincts. So while it is true that American political thought in the main encompasses a ludicrously minuscule range of live options and consists principally in slogans rather than ideas, this is not necessarily a defect. In a nation’s struggle to endure and thrive, unthinking obduracy can be a precious advantage.

Even so, I think we occasionally take it all a little too far.

Not long ago, in an op-ed column for the New York Times, I observed that it is foolish to equate (as certain American political commentators frequently do) the sort of “democratic socialism” currently becoming fashionable in some quarters of this country with the totalitarian state ideologies of the twentieth century, whose chief accomplishments were ruined societies and mountains of corpses. For one thing, “socialism” is far from a univocal term, and much further from a uniform philosophy. I, for instance, have a deep affection for the tradition of British Christian socialism, which was shaped by such figures as F. D. Maurice (1805–1872), John Ruskin (1819–1900), Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), Thomas Hughes (1822–1896), F. J. Furnivall (1825–1910), William Morris (1834–1896), and R. H. Tawney (1880–1962), though I have also been influenced by such non-British social thinkers as Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944), Dorothy Day (1897–1980), and E. F. Schumacher (1911–1977). None of these espoused any kind of statist, technocratic, secular, authoritarian version of socialist economics, and none of them was what we today think of as “liberal.” And yet their “socialist” leanings were unmistakable.

Moreover, just because a totalitarian regime happens to call itself socialist—or, for that matter, a republic, or a union of republics, or a people’s republic, or a people’s democratic republic—we are under no obligation to take it at its word. What we call “democratic socialism” in the United States is difficult to distinguish from the social-democratic traditions of post-war Western Europe, and there we find little evidence that a democracy becomes a dictatorship simply by providing such staples of basic social welfare as universal health care. At least, it is hard not to notice that the social-democratic governments of Europe have always gained power only by being voted into office, and have always relinquished it peacefully when voted out again. None of them has ever made war on free markets, even in attempting (often all too hesitantly) to impose prudent and ethically salutary regulations on business. Rather than gulags, death camps, secret police, arrests without warrant, summary executions, enormous propaganda machines, killing fields, and the like, their political achievements have been more in the line of the milk-allowances given to British children in the post-war years, various national health services, free eyeglasses and orthodonture for children, school lunches, public pensions for the elderly and the disabled, humane public housing, adequate unemployment insurance, sane labor protections, and so forth, all of which have been accomplished without irreparable harm to economies or treasuries.

I suppose a social-democratic state could begin to gravitate toward true authoritarianism, in the way that any political arrangement can lead to just about any other. The Third Reich, after all, was born out of a functioning parliamentary democracy. The 2016 U.S. election proved that, even in a long-established democratic republic, just about anyone or anything, no matter how preposterously foul, can achieve political power if enough citizens are sufficiently credulous, cowardly, and vicious. In just the past few years, we have seen bland American neoconservatism rapidly evolving into populist, racist, openly fascist, mystical nationalism. Anything is possible. But to this point, it seems fair to say, the Western European democracies—as well as the Oceanian states and Canada—have all acquitted themselves fairly well on the civil liberties and “rule of law” fronts. And surely no one would deny that, approve of them or not, eyeglasses and milk are not gulags and summary executions.

Or so you would think. Judging from some of the negative reactions to my Times column, there are a good many persons to whom this is not at all obvious. The most lunatic response I read came from some fellow whom some jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church has injudiciously consecrated as a priest. His attack on my column was published in a forum associated with the Acton Institute (a sort of toxic-waste site for the disposal of emotionally arrested and intellectually abridged reactionaries). For this fellow, there are no differences here worth noting: children’s milk subsidies, concentration camps, modern Denmark and Canada, the USSR, the New Deal, the Cultural Revolution, public subsidies for healthcare or railroads, the execution of dissidents, Victorian Christian socialism, twentieth-century Soviet communism, present-day Venezuela, present-day Britain, industry partly governed by labor, industry wholly seized by the state—somehow, in his mind, it is all one and the same thing, a single historical phenomenon inexorably leading to the same mass graves. Any day now in Sweden, it seems, free dentistry will mutate into a secret state-police apparatus and a sprawling archipelago of reeducation camps.

Just as absurd in its way, though perhaps more morally distasteful, was a column by Tom Rogan in the Washington Examiner repeating certain fashionable neoliberal lies about European, Canadian, and Oceanian health care—long delays in triage, shortages, lack of choice among physicians, and so forth. I have received medical attention in any number of countries over the years and, while no nation’s system is perfect, I can assure anyone curious on the matter that, if you are in real need of medical attention, in almost all cases you would be far better off in France, Canada, Germany, or Italy than you are here. Certainly we Americans—routinely running the gauntlet of finding an “in-network” primary-care physician, securing an “establish-care” appointment (usually months away), waiting upon referrals and insurance approvals, choosing among expensive tests, and so on—endure “triage” processes of an especially byzantine complexity. Choice of health-care provision is far freer in most other countries, in fact, simply because insurance companies cannot limit one’s decisions, while costs are either minimal or nonexistent, even though the care is as good or better. As it happens, the only economically advanced nation in the world today where someone is likely to be denied access to necessary care or affordable pharmaceuticals is the United States. Only here, for instance, can a poor person die for want of the money needed to buy insulin or undergo dialysis.

 

Our insurance premiums already cost most of us more than we would be taxed for a health system like the one in Canada or in Sweden.

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. This is at once the most comic and most tragic aspect of the excitable alarm that talk of social democracy or democratic socialism can elicit on these shores. An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). One might think that a people who once rebelled against the mightiest empire on earth on the principle of no taxation without representation would not meekly accept taxation without adequate government services. But we accept what we have become used to, I suppose. Even so, one has to ask, what state apparatus in the “free” world could be more powerful and tyrannical than the one that taxes its citizens while providing no substantial civic benefits in return, solely in order to enrich a piratically overinflated military-industrial complex and to ease the tax burdens of the immensely wealthy?

[Like what you're reading? Support our work today!]

Our cruel, inefficient, and monstrously expensive health system makes this obvious. Nations that provide either single-payer healthcare (like the UK) or a well-administered public option (like Germany) do indeed tax their populations for the purpose. But this is hardly a gross imposition on their citizens. For one thing, they distribute tax liability far more equally across income brackets than we do. For another, they strictly regulate the prices providers may charge. The result is that the cost of health care in these countries is roughly half what it is here per capita, and the actual cost for individuals (especially those who are not extravagantly rich) is only a fraction of what we are expected to pay for the same services. The relative pittance most of us would be taxed to sustain a real public option or national health service would be—so long as our legislators were willing simultaneously to regulate pharmaceutical and other medical providers humanely and sensibly—as nothing compared to what we actually pay right now for the privilege of discovering, when the next shockingly unexpected medical bill arrives, that we still have far more to pay.

Consider: our insurance premiums already cost most of us more than we would be taxed for a health system like the one in Canada or in Sweden. Even if our employers pay most of the putative bill, this results in considerably lower real wages for us than our European counterparts receive. If we are so unlucky as to have to buy our coverage directly, the cost is invariably exorbitant while the benefits are meager and grudging. And at that point our financial liabilities have only just begun. Quite often, deductibles alone far exceed any debts the average European or Canadian or Australian need ever discharge for medical care. Then there are, for no particular reason, the copays we have to add to what we have already paid our insurers. Then there are the absurd prices our bought-and-sold political class permits pharmaceutical firms to charge and insurance companies only partly to cover. The price of insulin alone, for example, here as nowhere else in the civilized world, is a crime against humanity—one, in fact, that actually kills a substantial number of American diabetics each year. If we need to use the emergency room, and especially if we must call for an ambulance, the costs are almost unimaginably multiplied. Then, of course, when truly serious illnesses arrive, insurance companies deploy battalions of adjusters to deny us the very coverage we thought we were purchasing with our atrociously excessive premiums. These vigilant souls will do all they can to abbreviate our treatments, curtail our hospital stays, deny us as many therapies as possible, refuse approval of the newest therapies or drugs, or at least delay approval until (ideally) we have died. If we fall terminally ill, we will spend our last days fighting for every penny of coverage at each discrete stage of our illness. And then, in all likelihood, our families will go deeply into debt anyway. Of course, even all of this is true only if we are among those fortunate enough to have any coverage at all.

 

Without the support of an omnicompetent, vastly prosperous, orderly, and violent state, global corporate capitalism could not thrive.

Is this freedom? From what, exactly? Certainly not from the state. The heavy hand of centralized government is no lighter—its proprietary power over its citizens is no smaller—here than anywhere else in the developed world. Quite the reverse. Certainly, where taxes are concerned, no government in the developed world is any more rapacious and no legal authority any more draconian. Here, moreover, no less than anywhere else, the state governs trade, makes war, passes laws, delivers mail, does all the most basic things the modern state does; but here also, to a greater degree than in any other advanced economy, the government raises its revenues for the express purpose of transferring as much wealth as possible from the working and middle classes to corporations and plutocrats. It really would be hard to imagine a democracy whose state wields greater power over the lives of average persons. To me, at least, it seems obvious that, where health care in particular is concerned, Americans are slaves thrice-bound: wholly at the mercy of a government that despoils them for the sake of the rich, as well as of employers from whom they will receive only such benefits as the law absolutely requires, as well as of insurance companies that can rob them of the care for which they have paid.

All this being true, the classical social democrat or democratic socialist might be forgiven for thinking that Americans are curiously deluded regarding their own supposed inalienable liberties. He or she might contend, at any rate, that a state that uses its power chiefly to dilute consumer and environmental protections in the interests of large corporations and private investors, while withholding even the most basic civil goods that taxpayers have a right to expect (such as a well-maintained infrastructure or decent public transport), is no smaller—and certainly no less invasive and dictatorial—than one that is actually obliged by the popular will and the social contract to deliver services in exchange for the taxes it collects. He or she might think that a government whose engorged military budget is squandered on wasteful (because profitable) redundancy, but whose public services are minimal at best, presides over a far more controlled economy—and a far more coercive redistribution of wealth—than does a government forced to return public funds to its citizens in the forms of substantial civic benefits. He or she might even have the temerity to see social democracy, properly practiced, not as an enlargement of the state’s prerogatives, but quite the opposite: a democratic seizure of power from both state and corporate entities, as well as a greater democratic control over public policy, taxation, production, and trade.

After all, though we often speak as if the centralized state and corporate “free” enterprise were antagonists, they are in fact mutually sustaining. Global capital depends upon the state’s power, its diplomatic access to other nations and markets, the trade treaties it negotiates, and (if needed) its judicious deployments of terror. States depend upon capital for revenues, material goods, and political patronage. Without the support of an omnicompetent, vastly prosperous, orderly, and violent state, global corporate capitalism could not thrive. Without corporations, the modern state would lack the resources necessary to perpetuate its supremacy over every sphere of life. Over against the twin colossi of state and capital, a truly functioning form of social democracy might well be viewed as an incomplete but still benign devolution of sovereignty, away from capital to labor, away from the state to the public. It might even be seen as a feeble gesture toward a society based on some kind of real subsidiarity. At least, this scarcely seems an implausible view of the matter.

 

It should be obvious that certain moral ends can be accomplished only by a society as a whole, employing instruments of governance, distribution, and support that private citizens alone cannot command.

Whether that is achievable, however—or as achievable as it should be—I am not prepared to opine. In America, even democratic socialists often have only a very hazy notion of what the full spectrum of socialist thought has been in the past, and what it might be in the future. There is always the likelihood that much of the mainstream of American democratic socialism will ultimately turn into just another form of classically liberal social philosophy. I have, in an inconstant and largely flirtatious way, been a member of the Democratic Socialists of America over the years. I admit, however, that certain recent tendencies of the DSA make me suspect that, as time passes, it will look less and less like the kind of pro-labor, anti-capitalist organization it purports to be, and more and more like simply another incarnation of sanctimonious, ethically voluntarist, pro-choice American liberalism (with all its bourgeois narcissisms, morbid psychological fragilities, and lovingly cultivated neuroses), which I like no better than sanctimonious, ethically voluntarist, libertarian American conservatism (with all its bourgeois narcissisms, morbid psychological fragilities, and lovingly cultivated resentments). Just as we Americans have succeeded in turning “Christianity” into another name for a system of values almost totally antithetical to those of the Gospel, I have every confidence that we will find a way to turn “socialism” into just another name for late-modern liberal individualism. I still support most of the genuinely communitarian aims of the democratic-socialist movement. But, in the end, it is that tradition of Christian socialism mentioned above to which I remain loyal. And I do not know if it could now flourish here.

As I have already noted, that tradition was never, especially in the Anglophone world, a centralizing philosophy. It was friendly neither to the absolute state nor to ungoverned business. Neither was it even a form of political “leftism” (however one might define that term). It emanates from a time when the political leanings we think of as right or left, conservative or progressive, had not yet coalesced into anything like the present arrangement of ideological or class allegiances. At times, its tacit social vision could be positively quaint. Thomas Hughes seemed convinced that social amelioration could be achieved only by new generations of Christian gentlemen devoted to the common good out of, in part, a sense of noblesse oblige. The single most influential figure in the British tradition of Christian socialism (though he himself never settled on a single official term for his political and economic philosophy) was John Ruskin, who was a convinced Tory monarchist. As far as he was concerned, a principled Christian “communism”—by which he meant not state ownership of property, but a prior communal claim upon the goods of the earth and upon excess resources by those in need—was the only possible civilized and truly charitable alternative to modern liberalism, whether fiscal or social. He opposed classical liberalism for the simple reason that he thought it created social injustices of a kind clearly contrary to the explicit dictates of Christian conscience.

Inasmuch as the two major political parties in America are both “liberal” in the classical sense—the one devoted a bit more to something like John Stuart Mill’s economic philosophy, the other a bit more to something like his social philosophy, and neither of them to the communal ethics of Christian tradition—it is hard for most Americans to make sense of such views. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Christianity has never really taken deep root in America or had any success in forming American consciousness; in its place, we have invented a kind of Orphic mystery religion of personal liberation, fecundated and sustained by a cult of Mammon.

Even so, anyone familiar with the oldest and richest stream of real socialism in the Anglophone world understands that it was in large part a Romantic rebellion against modernity, a longing for a truly Christian understanding of community, an essentially nostalgic belief in the hierarchy of those subsidiary estates and institutions that naturally evolve out of religious, communal, and social life. At times, it proved susceptible to a mistily idealized view of the past—the Middle Ages especially—but it was essentially a Christian-humanist protest against the inhuman scale of both government and industry in the late modern age. It was not a rejection of free enterprise, but rather a critique of a system of enterprise that had destroyed the free guilds of late medieval Europe, disenfranchised individual craftsmen, produced a system of wage slavery, allowed the large-scale division of labor to disenfranchise workers, turned labor into a commodity to be traded or a natural resource to be exploited, accepted the gross superstition of the “iron law of wages,” eliminated the common lands and goods once recognized as the universal patrimony of free citizens so as to make state and capital the sole proprietors of civic wealth, radically reduced legally recognized community usufructs, removed both the means and the profits of production from the possession of laborers and yielded them over to an investment class of owners, enlarged the central state and its power of taxation, displaced the center of society from the realm of the sacred to that of commercial consumption, and created a rapacious debt-and-credit system that is little more than the chronic legal spoilation of the poor by private lenders.

This kind of socialism proposed a use of civic wealth for common human ends precisely in order to restore the Christian order of values—the Christian law of love of neighbor and faith in God’s charity—that modernity has displaced by its reliance instead on the forces of self-interest. In fact, it presumed the radical notion that charity is a more original and fertile impulse of the human soul than greed is. It was an attempt to preserve the best of the moral inheritance of Christian ethical beliefs in an age when Christian civilization had been—so the proponents of the movement believed—eclipsed by an ethos that prizes personal acquisition over communal love. It was, in short, a deeply Christian revolt against those tendencies of post-Christian modern liberal economics and social philosophy that tend toward the destruction of landscapes and cityscapes and inscapes, by reducing or subordinating everything to the impersonal mechanisms of production and consumption.

What remains of that tradition now I cannot say with any certainty. To some extent, it was always a dream of an impossible future sustained by fantasies of a nonexistent past. And some of its aspects, however well-intended—those overly rosy views of class distinction, for instance, or that gauzily gleaming pre-Raphaelite medievalism—are not worth preserving or reviving, except perhaps in radically qualified form. But I honestly cannot imagine how anyone who takes the teachings of Christ seriously, and who is willing to listen to those teachings with a good will and an open mind, can fail to see that in the late modern world something like such socialism is the only possible way of embodying Christian love in concrete political practices. I have heard American Christians claim (based on a distinction unknown in the New Testament) that Christ calls his followers only to acts of private largesse, not to support for public policies that provide for the common welfare. What they imagine Christ was doing in publicly denouncing the unjust economic and social practice of his day I cannot guess. But it should be obvious that certain moral ends can be accomplished only by a society as a whole, employing instruments of governance, distribution, and support that private citizens alone cannot command. We, as individuals, can often aid our brothers and sisters only by acting through collective social and political structures. I admit that the New Testament makes still more radical demands upon Christians (Matthew 5:42; 6:3; 6:19–20; Luke 6:24–25; 12:33; 14:33; 16:25; Acts 2:43–46; 4:32; 4:35), and I would certainly agree that it is just as bad to relinquish all one’s moral responsibilities to the state as it is to promote policies that do not oblige human government to obey the laws of divine charity. I know that Christ in the Gospels calls his followers to a different kind of “politics” altogether—for want of a better term, the politics of the Kingdom. Of this, even the wisest, most compassionate, and most provident form of democratic socialism could never be anything more than a faint premonitory shadow.

Even so, a shadow is not nothing.

Issue: 

Lame-Duck Executions

In July, the Trump administration ordered the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee. It was the first time a federal prisoner had been put to death since 2003. As of this writing, there have been nine more executions of federal prisoners in the last months of 2020, some of them within twenty-four hours of each other. Three more people are scheduled to die in the first weeks of January. If all goes as scheduled, President Trump will have presided over more executions than any president in more than a century.

In December 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr’s announcement that federal executions would resume surprised no one. Barr has been a vocal advocate of capital punishment; in his view, it is not only a deterrent but a requirement of justice for “horrific crimes.” In his announcement of the resumption of executions, Barr said, “the justice department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

For decades, federal executions had been rare. Before last summer, only three federal prisoners had been executed since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. Most executions in the United States are carried out by state governments, but 2020 was the first year in which the federal government executed more prisoners than all the states combined. It is also rare for a president to proceed with executions during a lame-duck period; the last president to do so was Grover Cleveland.

Trump thinks that imposing “law and order” makes him look strong, and he is willing to swim hard against the current of public opinion to keep up his tough reputation.

Why now, why so many, and why so fast? This radical break with custom fits a pattern of “midnight regulations” that the Trump administration is ramming through at the last minute, in what looks like an attempt to thwart the incoming Biden administration. Biden has vowed to end the federal death penalty, and, unlike many other executive orders, executions aren’t reversible.

But the zeal with which the Trump administration is pursuing these executions points to something more than just a desire to hamstring Biden. It is an intentionally conspicuous display of raw power. One of those “midnight regulations” is the reintroduction of more gruesome methods of execution—firing squads, poison gas, and electrocution. Support for the death penalty had been declining for decades; even Republicans had lost some of their enthusiasm for it. But under the Trump administration, support for the death penalty has started rising again. The states that carried out executions last year—Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas—are all red states, while many others have abolished the death penalty. In any case, Trump thinks that imposing “law and order” makes him look strong, and he is willing to swim hard against the current of public opinion to keep up his tough reputation.

Two leading bishops at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, have called on Trump to stop the executions “in recognition of God’s unmerited gift of self-giving love.” And in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis reaffirms that “the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.”

Unfortunately, President Trump has shown little interest in real justice, still less in morality. Fortunately, the next president seems to agree with the pope.

Issue: 

A Lewis Scholar and a Character: Remembering Walter Hooper (1931-2020)

All of us who know and love the writings of C.S. Lewis owe a great debt to another figure, highly regarded in the field of Lewis scholarship but less well known to the wider world of readers: Walter Hooper. Over the course of six decades, Hooper served as literary advisor to Lewis’ estate, dedicating his life to editing, preserving, and sharing the work of C.S. Lewis. As just one example, when we pick up a volume such as God in the Dock or Selected Literary Essays—containing some of Lewis’ finest essays—we are benefiting from Walter’s work in tracking down and preserving material written for various newspapers and magazines that could otherwise easily have been lost or languished out of print. He co-authored an important early biography of Lewis. And it is from Walter’s labor of love that we have Lewis’s wisdom, wit, and insight in the Collected…

A Christian in the Office of Constitutional Judge

Three years ago, I published an article in Commonweal about the German Catholic legal scholar, judge, and public intellectual Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, who passed away in 2019 (see “The Böckenförde Paradox” in our December 1, 2017 issue). The subject of my article was Böckenförde’s reflections on the secular liberal state and his celebrated assertion that the liberal state depended on conditions that it itself could not guarantee, or the “Böckenförde paradox.” At the time, Oxford University Press was publishing the first of two volumes of his translated articles, speeches, and essays on constitutional and political theory.

Now OUP has published the second volume, which deals with Böckenförde’s writings on law, religion, and democracy. Several items in the new book draw on his experience as a judge on the Constitutional Court of the Federal Republic of Germany (1983–1996), including his involvement in a landmark 1993 decision on German abortion law. One of these writings is a retrospective on what it meant to be “A Christian in the Office of Constitutional Judge” (1999), with specific reference to the abortion decision. It is reproduced here, with the permission of the collection’s editors and OUP.

Böckenförde’s meditation on Christian spirituality, as he calls it, is about how to draw necessary boundaries in one’s life as a Christian and as a citizen. The specific public domain he’s talking about deals with law and the judiciary. But his meditation’s broader principles can speak to all Catholics and even all believers in a liberal democracy. Böckenförde believed that the constructive role of natural law is on the ethical-moral side, not the side of external law, which exists for the common good of social peace. Natural law can shape how we think about and formulate positive law. But it cannot substitute for it if it imposes moral expectations that deviate too much from existing social practices. When that happens, the result is the deterioration of external law as well.

As a judge on the Constitutional Court, Böckenförde took an oath before God to rule only as the Basic Law (Grundgesetz), Germany’s constitution, required. He says he took democratic rules with religious seriousness. That meant he could not be expected to act as though he was the Church’s man on the court. (Here it’s important to remember that the German Federal Constitutional Court’s main duty is to rule on the constitutionality of legislation and executive decisions. There is a separate Supreme Court that acts as the final court of appeals of judicial decisions. Our own Supreme Court serves both purposes.)

The legislation that occasioned his reflections on being a Christian in the office of a judge was a 1992 law that legalized first-trimester abortions. The case attracted enormous attention when it went before the Constitutional Court. It was the Federal Republic’s second abortion controversy. In 1975 the court had invalidated a 1974 law that also legalized first-trimester abortions. The basis for the court’s decision was Article Two of the Basic Law: “Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity.” In response to that earlier decision, a law was passed in 1976 that continued to treat abortion in general as illegal but recognized exceptions. An abortion could be permitted if it met certain Indikations (a declaration following an official process) on the basis of medical (e.g., a threat to the life of the mother), criminal (e.g., rape), or social circumstances (e.g., teen pregnancies). The latter two categories required ethical counseling three days before the abortion.

In short: still illegal but not in practice criminal.

German unification in 1990 made it necessary to revisit the 1976 law, because the DDR— the Democratic Republic of (East) Germany—had a more permissive law that decriminalized abortion in the first trimester. In 1992 the Bundestag passed a law that decriminalized abortion in the first trimester, while preserving mandatory ethical counseling but not the Indikations process.

That was the law on whose constitutionality Böckenförde had to rule. He sided with the majority decision, which ruled against the 1992 law and upheld the 1975 decision prohibiting abortion at any time as illegal. But the decision added two significant qualifications. First, an abortion could be lawful if it answered to the Indikations provided by the 1976 legislation. Second, an otherwise illegal first-trimester abortion would still be illegal, but no criminal sanctions would be assessed if it was preceded by counseling. In short: still illegal but not in practice criminal.

The illegal-but-not-criminal formula was probably Böckenförde’s contribution. His rationale was twofold. First, he had consistently held that abortion was not only a moral wrong but also necessarily a legal wrong, by virtue of German constitutional law. He had dealt with the question of “personhood,” mentioned in Basic Law Two, by appealing to Article One: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” Human dignity is premised of human life. Because the fertilized ovum is human life, it too deserves the protection of its dignity rather than being instrumentalized as a mere thing. Any effort to find a transitional state at which human life supposedly begins to deserve protection will be arbitrary.

His second rationale for the illegal-but-not-criminal compromise is that it preserves constitutional protection of human life while recognizing that all positive law, to be successful, must be roughly commensurate with general social practice. Law that deviates too drastically from what people are ordinarily able to do will cease to be respected as law. The deterioration of respect for law is deleterious to law’s general purpose of protecting the common good of peace. (An American might think of our failed national experiment with Prohibition as an example.) Böckenförde writes elsewhere that he had discovered years earlier that enforcement of the 1976 law was inconsistent and infrequent. Hence the need to compromise.

One benefit of reading Böckenförde’s work might be a recognition of the relevance of the social foundation of law. Positive law in a secular liberal democracy exists in part to secure the common good of peace among citizens who may disagree about a vast number of matters, many of which involve unresolvable differences. The pro-life movement in the United States has not persuaded a majority that first-trimester abortions should be criminalized. That is not likely to change soon. Those of us who believe that abortion is the unwarranted destruction of human life may also believe that criminal law is an unworkable instrument to deal with that. It is unworkable in part because we can safely predict that if Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion is returned to the states (where, arguably, it should have stayed in the first place), enforcement will be arbitrary and inconsistent in those places where it again becomes illegal.

A second benefit for American Catholics may be to provide a reasoned justification for urging our bishops to reconsider their intransigent insistence that abortion is the preeminent issue facing us when we cast our vote. This insistence forces Catholic voters into a moral calculus unhinged from the real political landscape facing Americans and the world today. It is an exercise in futility that leads not to “faithful” but to politically irresponsible citizenship. —Michael Hollerich

 

I. Professional Life and Christian Spirituality

As a Christian, one seeks to live Christian spirituality. But what exactly does Christian spirituality mean? In his essay, Abbot Ansgar (801–865) gave a concise, and perhaps accurate, definition: “Spirituality is the integration of all of life into a way of life borne by and reflective of faith.” These words can be supplemented by those of Monsignore Karlheinz Ducke (1941–2011): Christian spirituality is the life-shaping power of faith that is drawn from the heart. In theological terms, Christian spirituality appears thus as the realization of God’s devotion in baptism through the response to this devotion. It finds its forms of expression and its concretization not only in prayer and divine service, but precisely also in daily life; it is a holistic way of life.

Two things follow from this. First, Christian spirituality knows no separation between the personal-private and the occupational spheres: it realizes itself in both, it relates to all of life, it is undivided. Christ’s call applies also to one’s profession, which is usually work in the worldly realm: “You shall be my witnesses, you are the salt of the earth, the leaven that permeates the world.” But how can this be put into practice? What does “doing the words of Jesus” mean for being active in one’s profession and society?

Second, this realization of Christian spirituality has a special quality if the profession is a public office, especially an office of the state. Here Christian spirituality specifically encounters pluralistic normality. The state in which we live is no longer a “Christian state,” it itself does not have or profess a religion, it does not have its center in the truth of the Christian faith. Its guiding idea is not that truth, but neutrality with respect to religion and other worldviews. It is a house, a common house, in which Christians and non-Christians live together as equal citizens and bearers of rights. The guarantee of religious freedom ensures that Christian faith can be realized by Christians in this state, but the state itself does not realize it.

How, then, does Christian spirituality manifest itself as a faith-based way of life in an office that is part of this state order and plays its part in realizing it? To put it differently: How, in such an office, can the professional life be brought before God?

 

II. Historical-Biographical Flashback

At this point a historical-biographical flashback is necessary to allow the full scope of the question and the problem to become clear. Arising from a strong interest in politics, which was born out of my conscious experience of the final years and end of the Third Reich, the question of how to be civis simul et christianus [citizen and Christian at the same time] was already preoccupying me in secondary school and then at university, and it has accompanied me throughout my life ever since. What guidance on this question was offered by Church teachings—indeed, by official church doctrine—after the war and well into the 1950s?

The relationship of Christians to politics and to the holding of political office was shaped decisively in the application and elaboration of Pope Leo XIII’s doctrine of the state. The latter has its foundation in a binding ordo of Christian natural law. It gave rise to objective claims of validity and absoluteness, which had to clash with the construct and rules of a democratic system resting on the equal political rights of all citizens and the freedom of political decision-making. To illustrate with an example: during the deliberations of the Parliamentary Council in the spring of 1949, the Catholic bishops were determined to reject the Basic Law as a whole because it did not contain the recognition of the confessional right of parents, that is, the right of parents to determine the confessional character of public schools (with respect to the Volksschule [compulsory elementary and lower secondary education]). A pastoral letter to that effect had already been prepared, but Adenauer (at the time the president of the Parliamentary Council) was able to prevent this in internal negotiations. In the eyes of the Church, democratic majority decisions could exist only below and above what was regarded as inalienable natural law within the framework of the presupposed ordo. The criterion for whether a political party was electable for Christians was its (at least) practical recognition of natural law, with the Church claiming for itself the authority to interpret this natural law and thus determine its scope. Moreover, on the basis of Leo XIII’s state doctrine, the position of the “Catholic state as thesis” held. It maintained that the state as such should be a Christian (Catholic) state. However, if the concrete circumstances did not permit the realization of this goal, because it would create discord or civil war, the state could grant religious tolerance and temporarily dispense with the complete realization of the Christian ordo. Religious tolerance arose as a concession, not from a right of the person to religious freedom.

The second is the possibility to fully recognize the religious-ideological neutral state, which guarantees religious freedom as a basic right, without having the “Catholic state” in the back of one’s mind as the real goal.

The upshot of these positions was that Christians in political offices should act as the phalanx or vanguard for the realization of (Christian) natural law. Divergent views among Christians could legitimately exist only on purely factual matters unaffected by natural law; only to this extent were compromises and coalitions with other political forces possible.

As time went on, I developed growing doubts about the sustainability of this concept for the realization of the civis simul et christianus, namely precisely with regard to the foundations and functional conditions of a democratically organized state. In the process, the concept of the commonweal, which is indigenous to both the Christian and the secular ordo, became the bridge concept for my reflections in order to reconcile them with the traditional Christian state doctrine and not simply set the latter aside. To my mind, if one understood this commonweal not as a normative-abstract ideal, but as something related to the reality of a democratic and liberal state, this raised two positions that Christians, too, should not only accept but actively and positively advocate.

The first is the possibility for Christians to place themselves fully into the democratic order, to work within its framework and under its conditions for the realization of the commonweal without a permanent reservation based on authoritative natural law. The second is the possibility to fully recognize the religious-ideological neutral state, which guarantees religious freedom as a basic right, without having the “Catholic state” in the back of one’s mind as the real goal. This amounted to turning one’s back on the position of Pius XII’s toleration address of 1953, which maintained that error as such had no “right to exist, engage in propaganda, and take action [against the truth]” not only morally, but also within the external sphere of the law, though special circumstances could justify(!) not interfering in this regard with prohibitions. By contrast, for me, especially in my capacity as a jurist, the right of the individual to religious freedom, independent of the content of faith, was obligatory. The step towards the acceptance of this right that Pope John XXIII made in his encyclical Pacem in terris (1963) was for me a stroke of liberation.

My early essays arose out of this context: “The Ethos of Modern Democracy and the Church” (1957), “German Catholicism in 1933” (1961/62), and “Religious Freedom as a Task of Christians” (1965). They were a reflection of the engagement with the prevailing Church teachings and at the same time an attempt to reorient this Church doctrine and practice through criticism from the inside, to change it from a personal struggle for Christian spirituality. The goal was to achieve credibility of the civis simul et christianus.

 

III. The Office of Constitutional Judge and Christian Spirituality

Now on to the real topic: the office of constitutional judge and Christian spirituality.

1. The starting point for me was that it is—and must be—part of Christian spirituality to take on such an office as intended in the constitution: as an office in a democratic and religiously and ideologically neutral state. It seems to me that it is a part of and an imperative especially of Christian conduct in the world to fully embrace this office, its task as well as its commitments.

This office is not one that is politically formative in an active and deliberate way, as is the case for members of parliament or the government. It is a judicial office: it is charged with preserving and guaranteeing the constitution in the way it is fixed as a legal system and articulated as to content. That means right away that it is not a sphere of activity in which one could act as an agent for the Catholic cause, as an advocate for the realization of a Christian natural law, or as a representative of the Church’s concerns. Precisely such an approach would invert the meaning and function of the office as envisaged by the constitution, for it demands strict independence also towards one’s own politically or religiously motivated views and priorities. What matters is the commitment solely to the constitution as the order created for and applicable to the political community.

This takes on special importance because of the power of interpretation that a constitutional court commands. Such a court is mandated to come up with the final, non-appealable and therefore authentic interpretation of the constitution. In the process it often confronts the task of defining in greater detail more or less open normative principles, many of which are contained in the constitution as a framework, not least in the fundamental rights. However, this kind of closer definition, which goes well beyond mere application or strict deduction, must not be used as a “loophole” for clandestinely smuggling certain positions into the constitution, positions that are not already contained in the constitution itself, its regulatory context, and its idea of order. When it does happen, the court engages in the articulation of (legal) policy, which is not its task but that of the legislature. No office in the democratic state is invested with as much trust as that of the constitutional judge; not only is it free from oversight, it is also exempt from justification and endowed with the authority of the “last word.”

How did my intention of immersing myself fully into this office and to internally accept its commitments and obligations find concrete expression?

  • The judge’s oath that I swore at my appointment was the first and only oath of office I performed with a religious affirmation. A religious oath mobilizes the internal powers of commitment of someone who swears it consciously. I wanted to mobilize those powers on behalf of the obligation to this office.
  • I told my party, the SPD [Social Democratic Party], that I would not exercise the rights of my party membership for the duration of my judicial office. This pronouncement arose from the fact that the party bylaws do not envisage putting membership on hold, which is what I considered the appropriate step.
  • Finally, I terminated my work in the Executive Committee of German Catholics because the Executive Committee undertakes activities—legitimately so—in the pre-political realm and targeted at politics. [Editor’s note: The executive committee of German Catholics is elected by an assembly of Catholics representing the different groups and branches of lay German Catholicism. Its tasks include organizing the biennial Catholic Kirchentag (Church Day), discussing pending issues with the German Conference of Bishops, and representing lay Catholicism in public. Böckenförde served as an advisor to the committee for many years.]
It would have been a transgression against the mandate of the office I had assumed—and thus a renunciation of Christian spirituality—had I tried to act on these questions as a representative of Church interests.

From the outset, the goal was to avoid any appearance that I was in any way an “advocate” in this judicial office—either of a political party or of organized Catholicism.

2. The question of how Christian spirituality could be realized in the exercise of such a judicial office did not arise sporadically, but continuously. The problems emerged with particular clarity in two areas, which I want to address in greater detail: in the area of state-church law [Staatskirchenrecht], and concerning the law on abortion.

a) The state-church law of the Basic Law rests essentially on the adoption of what is known as the Weimar Church Compromise (Articles 136–141 WRV). Time and again there have been efforts to dissolve this compromise—described in the Weimar period as a “separation of its own kind”—towards one side or the other: either in favor of a more extensive autonomy of the churches, or in favor of a strict separation of state and church and a leveling of the special status of the churches. In this area my goal was to preserve and continue this compromise rather than dissolving it in constellations favoring one side—that of the Church. I opposed such tendencies that were evident in existing case law. For me it would have been a transgression against the mandate of the office I had assumed—and thus a renunciation of Christian spirituality—had I tried to act on these questions as a representative of Church interests, according to the motto “our man on the Federal Constitutional Court.”

b) The constitutional dispute over the law on abortion brought a dramatic intensification of the problem in some respects. According to my personal conviction, which is supported by my faith, an abortion is not only a very terrible thing, it is also the killing of a (still unborn) human being, a human being who is entirely defenseless and in extreme need of protection. I share all essential positions in the encyclical Evangelium vitae—not always their justifications, but their conclusions. In Christian terms, one can hardly discern a reason that would make an abortion appear permissible and justifiable. After all, living a Christian life also entails the willingness to make major, life-constraining sacrifices. The situation is different on the legal level, also the natural-law level. Here one can certainly identify limits to a mother’s sacrifice, limits where the legal obligation to bring a pregnancy to term, enforceable with coercive or punitive actions, ends.

During the proceedings before the Federal Constitutional Court, the public discussion became at times highly political and emotional; for a while it was focused on me, because it was assumed that I would play a key role in the vote: four judges were supposedly against the law, three considered it constitutional, which is why the decision depended on my vote (a 4:4 split decision means that no unconstitutionality can be determined). A well-known journalist spoke of the “three souls” in my breast: that of the Catholic, of the jurist, and of the Social Democrat. Which would carry the day? The feminist Alice Schwarzer, who was at the forefront of the campaign to decriminalize abortion, showered malicious gleefulness on the Social Democrats: they would have only themselves to blame if the law failed, for how could they have sent a practicing Catholic to the constitutional court? On the other side, so I was told, novenas were held in religious houses to keep Judge Böckenförde from “giving in.”

What to do? Take advantage of the office of judge to help one option prevail against the “culture of death,” deploy the court’s powers of assertion—by virtue of its authoritative powers of interpretation—for a core position of Christian truth? Seize the opportunity to act as a “vanguard”? The only thing that was relevant to me in the entire process was the “soul of the judge,” which was, revealingly enough, not introduced into the public discussion. Anything else, including the option for the Catholic in me, would have amounted in my mind to a violation of my official duty and of the oath of office I had sworn with religious affirmation. The question could and had to be decided solely according to the guarantee in the constitution, on the basis of its content and scope, independent of the extent to which it is aligned with Christian ecclesiastical positions or falls short of them.

To what extent does the legal duty to protect unborn human life depend primarily on the actual efficacy of the law or on an internally coherent normative concept?

I emphatically defended and supported the fundamental approach of the decision: that unborn human life, by virtue of its participation in human dignity, has a right to life from the beginning of pregnancy, and that every abortion during the entire duration of the pregnancy is fundamentally wrong. This is so because—and the senate informed itself thoroughly on this point—it is one of the definite insights of modern medical anthropology (and not simply part of a faith-based position) that the development of human life experiences no further rupture or qualitative leap once the sperm and egg have fused. It follows from this that the embryo develops as a human being rather than into a human being. Added to this are specific considerations of constitutional law: Which basic rights and rights of the woman (mother) must be considered? How far does the guarantee especially of the constitution extend vis-à-vis the legislature? To what extent does the legislature have an evaluative prerogative which the constitutional court must respect? To what extent does the legal duty to protect unborn human life depend primarily on the actual efficacy of the law or on an internally coherent normative concept?

I am aware that the outcome of the decision must be seen as highly unsatisfactory from a Christian point of view, and that there are good reasons for seeing the new law passed three years after the court’s decision as an “unjust law” in the sense of Catholic moral theory. This law could not even make up its mind to explicitly qualify an abortion carried out during the first twelve weeks following counseling as wrong—even if it went unpunished—as the court had stipulated.

 

IV. What Remains?

In conclusion and looking back, however, the question that remains is this: Where does all of this leave us? Does this kind of behavior, which seems right and necessary to me, not lead to the disappearance of Christian spirituality? Does it not lead to a complete assimilation to the “world” and its ways? Could not anyone else do the same, and is there anything specifically Christian still visible here? Does Christian spirituality not turn into an atrophied entity, in which only fidelity to the office and personal credibility are left?

Yet the question can also be asked the other way around: Does Christian spirituality, precisely in fidelity to office and personal credibility, not demonstrate its openness to the world and its service to the world, unselfishly, in the embrace of all rather than any specific group or one’s own? Moreover, what options are there? One option could be missionary work. But is that possible by infiltrating or instrumentalizing the institution? After all, missionary activity is neither credible nor Christian if a Christian—to that end—acts in a partisan fashion in institutions like a court, seeking his own advantage at the expense of what has been laid down as obligatory for all. Another option would be withdrawal from engagement into inner emigration. Although the Christian does not assimilate to the world by doing so, he remains entirely within himself and seeks to remain “pure.” But can anything emanate from Christian spirituality with this kind of self-referentiality? It then leaves the world to itself and does not contribute to sustaining it.

To be sure, Christian spirituality must also be able to become a sign of dissent within and towards a secular world, which is compliant with respect to the culture of death or entirely under its spell. The crucial thing is how this can be done. It seems to me, at any rate, that it can be done only by preserving sincerity and the credibility of one’s actions, not by setting them aside. Should there be situations of conflict that call for a sign of dissent because loyalty would lead to the renunciation of Christian spirituality, the option that remains is public resignation from the relevant offices—that, too, is a visible sign. What is not an option is their (disloyal) instrumentalization. The example of King Baudoin of Belgium, who had himself declared incapable of exercising his office for one day so he would not have to sign the Belgian abortion law, but who did not abdicate the throne, strikes me as only half-successful.

Was the manner in which I sought to exercise the office of judge entrusted to me—taken typologically and with reference to this office—the right way to realize Christian spirituality within pluralistic normality? I am open to argument, but I believe the answer is yes. At any rate, there is something that has not happened to date and which I would rather see as an affirmation of my position: I have not been awarded a Catholic medal for my work as a judge.

This article is adapted with permission from Religion, Law, and Democracy, published by Oxford University Press (2020). It was translated by Thomas Dunlap. © E. W. Böckenförde, M. Künkler, and T. Stein 2020. © This Translation, Thomas Dunlap 2020.

Issue: 

‘Worship of a False God’

Fr. Bryan Massingale is a professor of theology at Fordham University, and the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Assistant editor Regina Munch recently spoke with Fr. Massingale about the racist policies and structures in the country and the Church for the Commonweal Podcast. Drawing on his training in theology and his personal experiences of racism, Fr. Massingale highlights the necessity of moving from anger to action in order to dismantle racism wherever it's experienced. You can listen to the full episode here. A transcript of the interview follows.

Regina Munch: Fr. Bryan, we’re talking now as activists and protesters nationwide are demanding justice for George Floyd and seeking an end to systemic white supremacy. You wrote an article for National Catholic Reporter in which you say that Amy Cooper holds the key to understanding racism in the United States. What did you mean by this?

Fr. Bryan Massingale: Great question. Thank you. Let me tell you a bit about how that essay came to be. It was Pentecost weekend, and even though people call me a progressive Catholic, I’m still old school enough in my spirituality to believe in novenas. I was in the midst of the nine days of praying before Pentecost. That Monday before Pentecost was when the incident happened in Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, basically called the police on an African-American man, Christian Cooper—no relation—who asked her to comply with the posted park regulations and leash her dog. She did indeed do so, saying that there was an African-American man who was threatening her. That same day was when the murder of George Floyd took place in Minneapolis, and the nation’s attention fixated on that horrific outrage. And so that week as I was praying, I found I just could not pray. I just couldn’t, and as I was trying, tears were falling. I knew people wanted me to say something. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what to say.

And then it occurred to me: Amy Cooper held the key to help us understand what happened in Central Park. It tells us a great deal about what we mean by white privilege, white supremacy, and why these more blatant outrages occur. We see a white woman who exemplified all of the unspoken assumptions of whiteness. She assumed that she would be presumed innocent. She assumed that the black man would be presumed guilty. She assumed that the police would back her up. She assumed that as a white woman, her lies would hold more credibility than his truth. She assumed that she would have the presumption of innocence. She assumed that he, the black man, would have a presumption of guilt. She assumed that the police would back her up. She assumed that his race would be a burden, and that she had the upper hand in the situation. She assumed that she could exploit deeply ingrained white fears of black men, and she assumed that she could use these deeply ingrained white fears to keep a black man in his place.

It occurred to me that she knew exactly what she was doing, but also that we all know what she was doing. Every one of us could look at that situation and understand exactly what was going on, and that’s the problem. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all know how race functions in America; it functions in a way that benefits white people and burdens people of color, and especially black people. That systemic advantage, that awareness that most white Americans have even if they don’t want to admit it, means that they would never want to be black in America. We need to be honest about the centuries-old accumulations of the benefits of whiteness that make it easier to be white than it is to be a person of color. Until we have the courage to face that reality and to name it explicitly, then we’re always going to have these explosions and eruptions of protest, but we will never have the courage and the honesty to get to the core of the issue and to deal with the systemic ways in which inequality works in America.

RM: You’ve compared the way that racism functions to a liturgy. How does that work?

BM: I got that insight from a sociologist named Joe Feagin, and he says that just as in a liturgy you have an officiant or presider, you have acolytes, and you have a congregation, so too does racism. You have officiants, the people who are the obvious perpetrators of racial injustice. They’re the people who are telling awful jokes, the people who pass policies that would disadvantage persons of color—for example, policies that create an unequal distribution of educational resources. Then you have the acolytes, who are, in a sense, the enablers. The enablers are those who carry out those policies, who give approval to the heinous actions that are going on. But then you have the congregation. The congregation are the bystanders—the people who see what’s going on, know what’s going on, but who take no action to intervene.

When I talk about the bystanders, I ask people to think about going to their family meal at Christmas or Thanksgiving. You have the family member who tells a racist joke or who says a racist thing. What bystanders or the congregation will often do during that situation is to say things like, “Well, your grandfather comes from a different generation,” or, “That’s just the way your aunt was raised,” or, “It’s a terrible thing that he said, but deep down he’s a really good person.”

Bystanders teach onlookers a very important message: doing racist things is okay because white people will let you get away with it. We create safe spaces for racism to fester and to brew, and it’s out of that toxic atmosphere in our country that more heinous actions take place—the murder of George Floyd or the brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery simply because he was jogging in a neighborhood. We create the atmosphere that says when white people do terrible things, other white people have your back. Other white people won’t call you out.

Feagan talks about how white people act one way in public, but when they’re backstage, as it were, in the company of whites, there’s a whole different set of behaviors that come into play. Even if you don’t do anything negative, if you are not actively anti-racist, if you’re not actively challenging people when they say and do terrible things, then you’re creating the permissive atmosphere that allows these blatant things to happen.

RM: Let’s talk about racism within the Catholic Church. In 2018 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published the pastoral document Open Wide Our Hearts, which was meant to address racism in the United States after the events of Charlottesville and a rise in white nationalism. You’ve called the document a missed opportunity. What did it say and what didn’t it say?

BM: I’m going to be very honest because I think that we’ve reached a time in America where if we don’t say uncomfortable truths, then we will never make any progress when we deal with racism. Yes, in my public talks before, I’ve said that the document was a missed opportunity. But I now have to say that the document then and now is so inadequate as to be virtually useless.

That’s a very strong statement, so let me document that. The 2018 statement came, as you said, in response to the events of Charlottesville, when we saw white nationalism resurgent in this country in a way that we’ve not experienced in decades, since the darkest days of the civil-rights movement. We have open white supremacists marching in the streets of an American city with torches saying, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” The document unfortunately fell far short in that it never named white nationalism as a social crisis in America. The phrase “white privilege” does not appear in the document. The phrase “black lives matter” doesn’t appear in the document, despite the fact that this has been a major social movement in the United States since the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

There is a normative whiteness present in the church, but I would also say that it’s a form of idolatry. It’s the worship of a false god.

The other thing that the document does is that when it speaks of racism, it speaks of it in the passive voice. African Americans were excluded from opportunities, but it never says who did the excluding or why. In other words, the document was written by white people for the comfort of white people. And in doing so, it illustrates a basic tenet of Catholic engagement with racism: when the Catholic Church historically has engaged this issue, it’s always done so in a way that’s calculated to not disturb white people or not to make white people uncomfortable. Even when the document talks about police violence, it does so in a very, to me, bizarre way. It says that we must admit that people of color their encounters with police officers to be fearful. But then it goes on to say it condemns violent language directed at police. They never condemn police abuse of power or police misconduct—despite the fact that at that time, the Department of Justice had investigated over twenty-four police departments in the United States and entered into consent decrees with them over blatant police abuse of power. But that’s never reflected in the document.

So, I think that the document really is woefully inadequate to the challenge of the time. And I think there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that they never use the Catholic Church’s leading scholars on racism and racial injustice in composing the letter. I think the other major factor is, again, the Catholic Church wants to deal with these issues in ways that won’t disturb the comfort of whites.

I think this is a very critical point. Whenever I give workshops on racism, sooner or later someone will ask a question that goes something like this: “Father, how can we talk about this in my parish, in my classroom, at my university, and not make white people uncomfortable?” I challenge them to think about that question. Why is it that the only group in America that is never allowed to feel uncomfortable about race is white people? Doesn’t that discount the real discomfort, the real fear, the real terror that people of color have to live with and endure because of racism? And if white comfort sets the limits of conversation, then that means we will never face the difficult truth: the only reason for the persistence of racism is because white people benefit from it.

I challenge them to think of this: if it were up to people of color, racism would have been over and done, resolved a long time ago. The only reason that racism continues to persist is because white people benefit from it. If we’re always going to have conversations that are predicated upon preserving white comfort, then we will never get beyond the terrible impasse that we’re in, and we will always doom ourselves to superficial words and to ineffective half-measures. That difficult truth is something that the Catholic Church in America has never summoned the courage or the will to directly address.

RM: Part of the reason for such accommodation for white people’s comfort, you’ve said, is that the church sees itself as white, for white people. Can you say more about that?

BM: In my book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church there’s one sentence that goes something like this: what makes the Church white and racist is the pervasive belief that European aesthetics, European music, European theology, and European persons, and only these, are standard, normative, universal, and truly Catholic. In other words, when we talk about what makes something Catholic, the default is always to the products that reflect a white cultural aesthetic. Everything else is seen as Catholic by exception, or Catholic by toleration.

We see it in a number of ways, so let me just sketch out a few. One instance I could point to is when I went to celebrate a Mass at a suburban parish in Milwaukee. A priest friend of mine had suddenly taken sick and he asked me to say Mass for him. I showed up at church and I asked the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He looked at me and he wanted to know why I wanted to know. So I explained the situation, thinking that the Roman collar that I was wearing would make it kind of obvious why I would like to know where the sacristy was. And he said, “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” I explained the situation again. Then he said, “Well, next time, I hope he sends us a real priest.”

Now, we can get very upset with him and his individual insensitivity, his bigotry. But he’s reflecting something that’s very ingrained in the Church, and that is that we expect the person who’s going to be the priest to be white.

Another example came during Pope Benedict’s pastoral visit in 2008, when he celebrated Mass at the stadium in Washington D.C. The theme of the liturgy was to celebrate the cultural diversity that’s present here in the United States. The readings were done in a number of languages. The first reading was the classic account of Pentecost where the Spirit descended and enabled the peoples of the world to hear the Gospel proclaimed in the world’s languages. The prayers of the faithful were offered in a variety of languages. The gifts were presented to the accompaniment of vigorous Gospel and Spanish singing. After which the commentator on EWTN opined—and I remember these words because they’re emblazoned in my mind—“We’ve just been subjected to an overpreening display of multicultural chatter, and now the Holy Father will begin the sacred part of the Mass.”

I note the disjunction between “multicultural chatter” and “sacred.” “Sacred” had nothing to do with “multicultural”. Being “sacred” means speaking in a white idiom, praying in a white idiom, using European hymns. It’s this normative whiteness that’s ubiquitous in the Catholic Church—which is its greatest hindrance to dealing effectively with issues of race.

People always ask me, well, how many African-American priests are there? Currently there are less than a hundred of us on active duty in the United States, out of tens of thousands. And it’s always been that way. African-American priests in the United States constitute less than one half of 1 percent of the total Catholic clergy. That’s not by accident. It’s a reflection, a manifestation of this normative whiteness that, to be blunt, is a form of idolatry—that God can be imaged and God can only manifest God’s self through Europeans and European cultural products. Yeah, there is a normative whiteness present in the Church, but I would also say that it’s a form of idolatry. It’s the worship of a false god.

RM: You’ve talked about courage as a sort of neglected virtue. Why do Christians need courage? What happens when we don’t have it?

BM: Courage, I discovered, is perhaps the least studied of the virtues. For example, we learn in the Catechism that the cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude (or what we call courage), and justice; the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. We say a lot about every virtue except courage.

But Thomas Aquinas taught us that courage is the precondition of all virtue. Without courage, we’re not able to be prudent. We’re not able to be just, because courage is that virtue that allows us to surmount the fear that comes with the following of the Gospel. If we’re going to do anything that is difficult, there is going to be hesitation; there are going obstacles and opposition, and the fear that those obstacles engender in us. Courage is that virtue that enables us to not be afraid. We still feel afraid, but it’s a virtue that enables us to not let fear keep us from doing the right, actualizing the good.

Another way of putting it is that moral courage is what translates conviction into action. To put this into the conversation we’re having today: there are a lot of good white people who know what the right thing to do is. But they don’t do it because they’re afraid of the disapproval of their friends or family, or they’re afraid of the consequences of speaking up and speaking out, being in solidarity and being an ally. Courage is what enables conviction to be translated into action. It isn’t that people don’t have the conviction, but they don’t have the courage to act on those convictions. So this is the reason why we need courage, especially in the pursuit of racial justice.

What St. Thomas of Aquinas says is beautiful: anger is the passion that moves the will to justice

There’s always going to be a cost to speaking out. Whenever I do an interview like this, my email will fill up with people telling me everything that was wrong about what I said. I can guarantee you that—it just happens. Whenever you speak for the cause of justice, whenever we follow Jesus, to be honest, there are going to be consequences. It’s not that we don’t know what the right thing is. We are people of conviction, but if we don’t have courage, you won’t translate that conviction into action.

RM: What does anger have to do with courage? How does anger play a role in, as you said, moving from conviction to action?

BM: That’s a great question, because anger has gotten a pretty nasty reputation in Catholic catechesis. I think most of us of a certain age learned that anger was one of the seven deadly sins, that we were supposed to avoid it.

But again, let’s go back to Thomas Aquinas. (I keep talking about Thomas Aquinas because, as a Catholic, you don’t get into trouble when you quote St. Thomas. You’re on safe ground!) Let’s go back into our tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas says that we can incur the sin of anger in three ways. The first is by excess. That’s when anger becomes wrathful, when it becomes rage, when it becomes out of control. He says the second way we can sin anger is by inappropriate object, or a misdirected anger. A trivial example would be that, say, I’m angry at my spouse or significant other and I take it out of my students at school or my employees at work. That’s a misdirected anger. But then he says the third way we sin against anger is by deficiency. And he’s very clear here: we sin by deficiency when we’re not angry when we ought to be, as in, he says, in the presence of injustice. What he says is beautiful: anger is the passion that moves the will to justice.

This is a great insight because it means that all too often injustice festers in our world because people aren’t angry enough to do something about it. To use an example: when I see a woman being abused by a man, I should be angry, because when I angry, then I’m going to do something about it. I’m angry, so I’m going to call the police. I’m angry, so I’m going to intervene. I’m angry, so I’m going to tell someone to stop it.

What allows racism to exist in our society, quite frankly, is that we don’t have a critical mass of people who are angry. To put it more directly, we don’t have a critical mass of white Americans who are angry about the situation. Anger is a passion that moves the will to justice. Thomas understood that unless we are angry in the presence, at the reality, of injustice, then the status quo will all too often continue.

There’s a lot of concern, especially among some circles, about the violence that is a part of some of the protests. I want to be very careful here, because I think that we have a tendency to overstate the reality and the presence of violence. Burning buildings and broken windows make for more compelling video and images than people who are peacefully protesting. And so I don’t want us to get the understanding that violence is what characterizes all of the protests that we were seeing. Yes, violence can be an instance of misdirected anger. It can be this kind of out-of-control rage that Thomas speaks about.

But that’s too easy. People always say that there are better, more effective, more ethical ways of people making their point. I hear that, but I want to press them on that. If there are better, more effective, more ethical ways of people making their point, I wish they would tell me what they are. Because people of color, black Americans, have marched. We have demonstrated. We have organized. We have protested. We have voted. We have studied. We have taught. We have begged. We have pleaded. We have cried out. We have wept—for years, for decades, even centuries. And still we are being killed while jogging. Or poor Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old kid killed for just sitting in a park. If there are better and more effective ways to do this, then don’t just homilize about that. Tell me what they are.

That’s a way of avoiding a very difficult truth. The reason why these measures haven’t proved effective up till now is because white Americans, or not enough white Americans, don’t want substantial change. When people despair of a political solution to their legitimate grievances, then we cannot be surprised when at times violence appears as an attractive option.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that most white Americans are neither unrepentant racists, nor are they forthright racial-justice advocates. The majority of white Americans, he says, are suspended between two extremes: they are uneasy with injustice, but they are also unwilling to pay a price to eradicate it.

So for those who would condemn the violence—and I think we all agree that nonviolence is the preferred way of making our grievances known—I challenge them to say, we’ve done that and we’re still here. It’s time now to not simply decry the violence, but to start looking at the legitimate grievances, and to summon the will in this country to do it.

RM: Fr. Bryan, thank you very much for talking with us.

BM: You’re more than welcome.

Issue: 

What Comes After

In 1941 W. H. Auden began writing the text for what would eventually become For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. He intended that his friend Benjamin Britten would set it to music. Britten, however, eventually lost interest in the project. Auden’s poem had expanded beyond the bounds of a performable work. The length was ungainly for an oratorio, and it included large chunks of virtually unsingable prose. Indeed, For the Time Being is now counted among Auden’s long poems, and it was not included in his collected works among his libretti and dramatic writings.

Far from a historical retelling of the events of the Christmas story, Auden’s poem features a kaleidoscope of blatant anachronisms, both slight and outrageous. Herod is a Stoic; Simeon, an existentialist; Caesar, a deflating bureaucrat. Even the Four Faculties of Thought, Intuition, Sensation, and Feeling shamble onto the stage to say their parts. Nevertheless, Auden does not completely pull up the historical anchor. The setting is still the first-century Judea of the Roman Empire. Mary and Joseph are still Mary and Joseph. The Wise Men are still on their journey from the East. The star is still a star—albeit a talking, or rather singing, star. The celebrated penultimate section of For the Time Being begins as follows:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—

Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought

Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now

Be very far off.

Up to this point the poem has been tracing a long arc from transcendent to immanent, and here skids back into the mundane with a resigned thump. The narrative structure of the poem comprises a constellation of biblical characters orbiting around the silent center of the poem—the infant Christ. Each of them is confronted with the question: What to do with this singular event?

The shepherds, who represent “the humble and poor of this world,” find themselves pulled out of their anonymity and given purpose, individuality, and significance as they are oriented toward the Christ child. The learned Wise Men, by contrast, are called to purge themselves of worldly knowledge in their journey toward the manger. Joseph, in turn, is exhorted to accept the stigma that will attach to him as a result of apparently being cuckolded. As the narrator says, “To choose what is difficult all one’s days / As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.”

Far from a historical retelling of the events of the Christmas story, Auden’s poem features a kaleidoscope of blatant anachronisms.

Simeon’s oration, in prose, sounds like that of an existentialist theologian. If a critical wag could say of Dante’s Beatrice that she was Aquinas in drag, then Simeon the first-century Jew looks suspiciously like Paul Tillich. Simeon utters sentence after sentence like this one: “Before the Unconditional could manifest Itself under the conditions of existence, it was necessary that man should first have reached the ultimate frontier of consciousness, the secular limit of memory beyond which there remained but one thing for him to know, his Original Sin, but of this it is impossible for him to become conscious because it is itself what conditions his will to knowledge.” Simeon is looking for the consolation of Israel, and finds it in the Christ child, affirming—or seeking to affirm—his own idiosyncratically modern Nunc dimittis: “Because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender.... Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.”

Herod acts as a foil to Simeon, delivering a monologue directly reminiscent not of the historical power-besotted Jewish ruler, but of—Marcus Aurelius. Herod in the hands of Auden is nothing if not rational, a well-groomed and self-aware intellectual. He is shrewd, pragmatic, world-weary, and very funny. Herod is the most solidly approachable and likeable character in the poem. In contrast, Simeon with his clotted abstractions looks a bit out of touch. Nevertheless, it is significant that Herod thinks his way straight to violence and damnation. As he ruminates on the failure of the masses to act “in conformity with Nature and Necessity,” he sees the birth of Christ not as a threat to his kingship or as the irruption of the divine into the immanent world, but as another troublesome and politically unstable superstition among the plebs. “Why can’t they see,” he asks, “that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse.” And so he concludes, “I refuse to be taken in”—and orders the massacre of the innocents.

Auden’s Herod belongs in the company of two other great literary creations: Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov and Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit. All three characters understand all too well the consequences of the Incarnation, but reject its terms. Herod’s refusal to be taken in mirrors Ivan’s return of his ticket. Redemption and forgiveness, for Ivan, are too high a price to pay for the suffering of the innocent. Ivan returns his ticket because of innocent suffering, but Herod’s refusal results in it. Likewise, the Misfit despairs for lack of firsthand knowledge of Jesus’s mighty deeds, but he knows that rejection of Christ resolves not into freedom but into violence. He therefore says of Christ, “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.” Herod’s refusal splits the difference between the Misfit and Ivan. In the name of humanistic compassion, Ivan rejects redemptive suffering enabled and ennobled by the Christ event; the Misfit rejects Christ but understands that the only other option is nihilism. Herod rejects the terms altogether.

In short, every character in this long and complex poem senses that the birth of the child demands a response; senses that, again in the words of the Misfit, Christ has “thrown everything off balance.” They are all caught up in the aspect of time that Tillich, developing a biblical contrast, calls kairos as opposed to kronos, categories with which Auden was consciously working. In other words, their confrontation with the Christ child is not part of the flow of ordinary chronological time, but by appointment; it is a summons, a moment of decision. In order to bring the reader to the Nativity, to gather us, too, around the child and summon us to respond, to affirm, and to submit, Auden scrambles the historical signals. Writing to his father, Auden explained that he was not trying to give “a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo,” but was rather “trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted.”

Nevertheless, Auden was eager not to fall into the liberal Protestant error of discarding the historical husk in order to get at the kernel of meaning. Pure history, he said, results in “an archaeological curiosity,” but leaving history behind for the sake of contemporaneity results in “an entertaining myth.” Art that depicts biblical events, he says, must “do justice both to the historicity of the event and to its contemporary relevance.”

Auden’s dependence on Tillich notwithstanding, Charles Taylor’s treatment of time in A Secular Age might be more helpful than Tillich for drawing out what Auden is doing at the end of the For the Time Being. Taylor was no doubt developing Tillich’s categories to some degree; he doesn’t cite him, but he does use kairos-kronos terminology. Taylor contrasts chronological time not with kairotic time but with what he calls gathered time. In the premodern understanding of gathered time the liturgical recurrence of sacred events is consummated in their eternal simultaneity. Time in this sense is measured in its proximity to the eternal rather than to the historical event. “Good Friday 1998,” Taylor writes in A Secular Age, “is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” It is in this sense that the liturgical celebration of the Nativity draws us into gathered time. Auden’s For the Time Being, while not liturgy per se, nevertheless participates in it through the linguistic act of poetic recreation, seeking to draw the reader into the reality through the summons implied by the text.

 

Auden will not, however, let us remain at the Nativity. Having “seen the actual Vision,” we have to readjust our gaze to the ordinary world. The passage with which I began narrates a classic case of post-Christmas blues, a world exhausted of feasting, sated and spent. It is here in these moments that the human condition most savagely reasserts itself. What Auden means by the phrase “the Time Being”—it appears three times in this section, a mere page and a half of poetry—is the sense of appointment, summons, significance in the moments, days, weeks following those summonses. That significance is easy to identify when we are gathered around the Christ child at Christmas. But what about what comes after? “Dissolved,” as Augustine puts it, “into the variety and vicissitude of times,” we cannot remain gathered in the eternal for long. We find that soon enough we are again caught up in the swift current of chronological time. And the dishes need to be done.

Taylor identifies our “present condition” as one in which “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” Just so, Auden says that after Christmas we revert, almost automatically, to “the moderate Aristotelian city,” where “Euclid’s geometry / And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience.” For us the shift back to the immanent from the transcendent is inevitable. After the summonses have arrived and the appointment has been fulfilled—and even when we have responded in the affirmative—what next? What do we do for the time being? Here’s how Auden puts it:

The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly

Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be

Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment

We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;

Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,

We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit

Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose

Would be some great suffering.

The novelist Walker Percy, who was nine years younger than Auden, returned to this theme again and again in his writing. In his essay “The Delta Factor,” he asks, “Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?” In The Moviegoer Binx Bolling observes, “What people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” Why is it, in essence, that suffering seems to give us a sense of purpose? Part of his explanation for this dislocated habit of thought is that, though humans are embodied souls simultaneously transcendent and immanent, both inside and outside of time, the modern world has a much more polarized anthropology. We moderns must, in Percy’s words, be either “pure organisms” or “pure spirit,” thrashing back and forth from one to the other: immanent to transcendent and back again. As Tom More, the protagonist of Percy’s Love in the Ruins, puts it, “Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” In the modern world we never quite feel like ourselves.

The sense of malaise that Walker Percy and Auden describe, quintessentially modern as it is, is explicable in terms of a much older vice: acedia.

The sense of malaise that Percy and Auden describe, quintessentially modern as it is, is explicable in terms of a much older vice: the classic affliction of acedia. First named as such by the Desert Fathers, particularly Evagrius of Pontus, acedia is a spiritual lassitude that cuts at the heart of Christian devotion. Desire for prayer grows weak, and one shows “a lack of concern for one’s salvation.” It is a subtle, “complex thought,” according to Evagrius, because it strikes at the juncture between the transcendent and immanent in us and in our reckoning of the world. So while acedia may seem at first glance to be a recondite affliction suffered by monastics, nothing less than the economy of salvation is at stake. Writers as diverse as Percy, Josef Pieper, Kathleen Norris, Gabriel Bunge, and R. J. Snell have all identified acedia as the definitive vice of the modern self. Without using the word acedia, here is how Auden describes the experience of it:

The happy morning is over,

The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:

When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing

Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure

A silence that is neither for nor against her faith.

Indeed, when we survey For the Time Being from the vantage point of its end, with its feet firmly planted in mundane, immanent, modern soil, the characters, who are all both ancient and modern, become more intelligible. The Chorus at the end of “The Temptation of St. Joseph,” which occurs about midway through the poem, exhorts Mary and Joseph to find redemption in the sacramental wedding of the transcendent and the quotidian:

Blessed Woman,

Excellent Man,

Redeem for the dull the

Average Way,

That common ungifted

Natures may

Believe that their normal

Vision can

Walk to perfection.

And of course, they did redeem the Average Way: in their rearing of the Christ child—the living sacrament, who joined within himself flesh and divinity, transcendent and immanent.

Simeon and Herod, too, become test cases for belief under modern conditions. If acedia is, in a sense, a failure to attend to the transcendent within the immanent—to rise to “the Vision,” in Auden’s language, when given the summons—then the two characters represent the two poles of modern response to the divine appointment.

Simeon, for his part, makes every affirmation necessary to qualify as theologically orthodox. But his final affirmation is still rather muted, as if despite all that has gone before, his response is still coated in malaise. We must pray, he says, “at every moment” that “we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.” Simeon’s resolution to the struggle of modern anxiety has not yet come to pass. We must resolve it continually in an act of surrender, which is made possible only because of “His visitation.”

But it is an affirmation, nevertheless. And the fact that he is able to throw off the pressing weight of immanence is significant. It points forward to Auden’s own understanding of fidelity to Christ. Simeon in his prayer for deliverance from anxiety has overcome acedia—has through grace become lighter than the gravitational pull of immanence. Contemplation, says Evagrius, is the state of joyful prayer that follows victory over acedia.

Simeon’s victory also contrasts with Herod’s response, which, as we’ve seen, is the knowing rejection of the transcendent, and is thus the failure to overcome acedia, which results in despair. Following his refusal to be taken in, Herod sheds his Stoic cloak of disinterestedness and asks abruptly, “Why should He dislike me so?” He then becomes sullen and defensive, listing all the ways he has behaved dutifully, even taking offense at Christ’s summons: “I’ve worked like a slave.... I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.” One can almost see these objections falling flat in Herod’s own mind. He knows his confrontation with Christ has forced a decision that violates his habit of well-heeled indifference, which is precisely why he finds it so distasteful. What looked like Stoic apatheia turns out to have been a barrier against the demands that revelation makes of us. The summons to the transcendent—to conversion, in fact—rejected, he slides in the last line from acedia to despair.

The cures for acedia that the Desert Fathers recommend are maddeningly unspectacular: steadfastness, stability, joy, patience. For instance, the sayings of the Desert Fathers tell us that Abba Anthony, “beset by accidie,” asked God, “How can I be saved?” Shortly thereafter, “Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray.” An angel then tells Anthony, “Do this and you will be saved.” The sayings tell us in their typically laconic way, “He did this, and he was saved.” Auden’s resolution to modern acedia follows suit:

In the meantime

There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,

Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem

From insignificance

We must account for ourselves as we are, and where we are. Though he confronts us with the (silent) infant Christ in this poem, Auden will not have us look back in longing to the transcendent joy of Christmas. The “unpleasant whiff” of Lent and Good Friday signals our unwillingness to look forward and confront the world given to us. We must accept the diminished existence of winter after Christmas.

Auden knew that his own particular temptation was the Arcadian posture: the turning of one’s back on the present in yearning for an idealized past. In the final, short section of the poem, however, discourse on the present gives way to the future, as the Chorus instructs those of us who share Auden’s disposition with three imperative verbs—follow, seek, love. It is in carrying out these actions under the corresponding conditions of Unlikeness, Anxiety, and Flesh that we will gain fruitful reentry into the world for the time being—not the world as it was or as we would like it to be, but as it is. This is the world God is redeeming. Auden closes his poem with these words:

He is the Way.

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

 

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

 

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

In these three short stanzas, particularly the middle lines of each, the three worlds through which Auden has been filtering the Nativity story—late antique, modern, and biblical—suddenly become unblurred and resolve into one focused image. The Land of Unlikeness is a phrase from Plato famously used by Augustine in Book Seven of the Confessions as he recognizes the distance between the minute finitude of his own soul and the unconditioned Being of God. “The World of the Flesh” refers not simply to our “physical nature,” but—as Auden writes in an essay titled “Balaam and His Ass”—to “the whole physical-historical nature of fallen man” as described in the Gospels and Paul. This is where we find ourselves, sandwiched between the Land of Unlikeness and the World of Flesh, fuddling our way through the modern Kingdom of Anxiety. And this, Auden tells us, is where we ought to seek Christ.

In For the Time Being Auden has presented a highly saturated, multi-perspectival image of Christmas and then set us down just beyond its edge. He urges us neither to abandon the image, which would be to despair, nor to seek to reenter it, which would be a denial of our contingency and a kind of escapism. Rather, we are to allow the image to address us, to let the past spill into the present, and to abide in that tensile space “for the time being.” “There is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation,” Walker Percy said. “In the re-presenting of alienation the category is reversed.” Through the alchemy of poetry, W. H. Auden has created, out of the moment of alienation, the redemption of the time being, and made of it again a summons. 

Issue: