Friday, May 30, 2008

Urban Nature Study

My wife and I follow an educational philosophy known as Real Learning. The key insight is that we learn best through our intimacies: we enter more deeply into what we love. This insight applies in several ways. First, it means learning through great “living” books. Rather than studying the frontier with a textbook, for example, you read Laura Ingalls Wilder. Such books are worthy of intimacy. They draw the child in, to care about what he studies. Even encyclopedia reading comes alive when occasioned by a book one loves.

A second corollary of learning through our intimacies is “unschooling,” or child-directed learning. Rather than adults pushing children to study materials the adults care about, at a speed set by the adults, child-directed learning allows the child to study what he cares about, and to linger as long as he cares to, in order to learn what he can learn from a given material. This practice also assumes, of course, that children naturally want to learn. I think that’s a fair assumption. The schools have to teach us that learning is boring.

A third consequence is homeschooling, for two reasons. First, learning through one’s intimacies means learning at one’s own pace. It is fundamentally opposed to the classroom, which is, by its very nature, a cookie-cutter model of learning. Second, learning through intimacies means learning in a context of intimacy, with people one loves. It’s good to have friends one’s own age, but nothing can replace contact with one’s parents and siblings. The home is the proper milieu for sharing one’s loves.

A fourth way that many families apply learning through intimacies is in nature study. The image is of Mother sitting on her picnic basket in a rustic setting while the children explore, draw, journal, and bring things back to show her. They learn the beauty of the natural world not through a textbook, and not through being pushed, but by getting the opportunity to look and ponder. Part of the reason this is so popular among Real Learning families, I think, is because it so magnificently reveals the basic principles: nowhere else is it quite so obvious that children are made to learn, that they love to see things as they are, and ponder, and ask questions, and watch. This is learning at its best.

At first glance, it is also the greatest obstacle to Real Learning in the city. Typically, Real Learning nature study requires a copious environment, with lots of nature to watch, and it requires space and quiet to ponder. The rustic setting is no small matter.

My wife and I instinctively want to believe that nature study can work in the city. One approach we’ve taken is to talk about the nature that is the city. There is something very wrong—and, indeed, uninformed—about the assumption that nature is simply the absence of man. Watching buildings go up, people walk through a park on the way to work, the complicated ballet of city life (as Jane Jacobs said): this is not so different from watching rustic non-man nature. There’s something very profound here.

But the other night I had an experience that suggested another approach. I was out with my kids, three-and-a-half and one-and-a-half, babysitting while my wife was out. We happened upon some tiny ants—I don’t remember how we first noticed them—and spent maybe fifteen minutes (a long time by kid standards) just watching them, picking them up, letting them run across our hands. The kids were enchanted.

Not a hundred yards away we came across four mallard ducks, swimming in a man-made reflecting pool. We spent a full half-hour looking them in the eye. They thought we might have food, and were not going to give up until something better came along. So we watched their orange feet paddle in the water and walk on the sides, saw the beautiful blue feathers that hide under their wings and the fabulous spectrum of green on their heads. We saw how they swam around each other, and hopped up to the edge of the pool, and preened their feathers, and sometimes even reared up out of the water with a flap of the wings. We watched them jump for a couple of crumbs we found, jockey for position, and dismiss a piece of paper that wasn’t edible.

Five minutes down the sidewalk we came across some squirrels playing in a tree, and examined the flowers they had been chewing on on the ground. (I didn’t know that squirrels ate flowers, but this was definitely what they’d dropped.) The kids picked through the mulch around the tree, and noted the weight of different sticks.

When I finally pulled them away, and we were crossing a busy street, my three-year-old asked if we could find a tree with berries. Sorry, I chuckled, I don’t think there are any berry trees in the city. Not ten feet from the edge of the street we found a bush covered in tiny green berries; I suppose they’ll be red one day? And the kids picked at them for longer than you’d think!

While they were doing so, my three-year-old pointed to something I hadn’t even noticed, and said, “Papa, what’s that flying bug?” It wasn’t a flying bug, it was a spider, about as small as you can imagine, hanging on a thread I could neither see nor feel, but which I was able to grab hold of. We watched how the spider dropped down, catching himself on his thread, how he climbed up and down, how he waited to see what we’d do. He climbed up to my hand and, skittish, I tossed him aside. Maybe next time I’ll be less afraid of spiders!

And then in the subway we saw what we first thought was a mouse, but then concluded must be a rat, running along the platform. It made a little run at us, and the kids saw Daddy jump, then we followed it as it ran down the tunnel and out of sight. We noted the hunch-backed walk, with rear haunches far above its fore, and watched the way it zig-zagged, as well as its nonchalance as it looked for food without too great fear of us.

Pretty neat nature study. Of course, some purists might say the ducks aren’t “real” nature, since they weren’t afraid of man. I guess this deserves a longer essay, but let me just say that I think it is a very domesticated idea of nature that defines it by our absence. In the classical definition, nature is an interior principle of movement, which is to say, the duck is something, and the way we can modify it by our exterior presence is pretty insignificant compared to the nature it possesses in itself. City or no, ‘em are ducks.

Indeed, the trade-off of city “domestication” (though these were hardly domesticated creatures) is that we got up close. No way a wild duck is ever going to let you see its beauty the way these did. No way, indeed, a wild duck, or a forest rat, is going to let you see its nature, its own peculiar duckly or ratly way of behaving, like these did. Because these animals were “tame,” we could see their wildness more clearly.

But the other advantage of this urban nature study is that it was totally unplanned. We were, in fact, on our way home from an event at the Kennedy Center, one of the great music venues in the world. We’d heard maybe twenty minutes of a free concert by one of the great African and African-American women’s musical ensembles, complete with dancing, neat drums, and bizarre harmonies.

We found the ants after we’d gone outside to look at the fountains (a kind of nature study in itself). The ducks were swimming in the beautiful pools out front. The spider and the berries were on the way back to the subway, and the rat in the subway. In between, we stopped to sit at an outside table-top chess board, then got the kids their first ice-cream-truck popsicle, a sickening red-white-and-blue bomb pop.

At the ATM near the ice-cream truck, we ran into an acquaintance from church—someone whose name we didn’t even know, and certainly wouldn’t have ever sought out in another context. And on the train home we ran into an old co-worker—someone, indeed, that I parted with on not-altogether positive terms, and so a nice occasion for gentle reconciliation—as well as some people from a far-off place who overheard that I’m applying for a job in their home city.

One of the ironies of rural living is that in the country, nature is encountered only as a destination. I don’t doubt that country kids play outside a lot—but they play outside only when they specifically decide to go outside. I dare say we, as pedestrian urbanites, probably spend almost as much time outside as country folk. But we’re outside going to church, or the grocery store, or coffee, or the library—or the Kennedy Center and the ice-cream truck. Almost everywhere we go, we go on foot. I don't think the same thing happens when you're always driving to box stores.

On the model of learning by our intimacies, I think there is much to be said for the way urban nature appears along the way, in the context of our ordinary (and extraordinary) activities, not only as a destination in itself. It is healthy, I think, to “run into” ducks, and berries, and spiders, and rats, rather than finding them only when we seek them out. In a sense, they appear as more natural when we come upon them, rather than when we go to find them, as if they were museum pieces. It is healthy to see nature as our environment, the place of our encounter with friends and strangers and culture and popsicles. There is an intimacy, an immediacy, in all this, that I think makes it at least competitive with rustic, rural nature study.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Why bad things happen to good people

I’m actually fairly careful to keep to the theme of this blog, though it may seem to cover a lot. The theme is Christian humanism: the connection between Christian faith and human intelligence, and the argument that Christians (should) appreciate natural things more, not less, than non-Christians.

This post relates to that theme, first, by responding to an objection: the world is not absurd, and belief in a good God is not contrary to our natural experience. But this post will also relativize that theme by arguing that there are higher things than worldly success.

So here’s the standard question: why do bad things happen to good people? And here’s the answer: they don’t, as long as you know what “bad” (and “good”) means.

An illustration: When I was in fifth grade, I had a temporary fascination with an abstract art project. I would write a word, usually my name, in marker, usually black. Then I would trace around it in another color, and around that, and around that. What fascinated me was the way the sharp definition of the letters gradually gave way to increasingly rounded corners and the interaction of each letter’s tracings. By the time I reached the edge of the page, I had a strange interlacing starburst, neither random (since it followed from the strict pattern of the letters) nor predicitable according to any pattern I knew. This was my first intimation of the beauty of fractal math and fluid dynamics — but that’s another story.

One day in fifth grade, we had an assignment that gave me the chance to pursue this project. Probably we were just supposed to decorate name tags for our desks; I launched off on my abstract project. I used every color in my marker set (were there ten?), so I was a bit surprised when the girl next to me asked, “is brown your favorite color?” The ring I was working on was brown, ergo . . . .

Well, of course brown was not my favorite color. (I think blue was.) But to make the pattern come out in all its beauty, I needed to use every marker in the box.

So too evil. Does God will evil? No more than I was painting my nameplate brown. This is not to say that evil escapes from God’s grasp, or that God is less than omnipotent. But there is a bigger story. Evil has a context.

This is easy to see on a superficial level. We all know stories like, “When I was in high school, all I wanted to do was play football, but then I got hurt, and I ended up beginning this career as an engineer” or whatever. The evil of injury—and injury is an evil, pure and simple!—set the stage for something greater, something in light of which that evil seemed hardly less evil than having to stand in line to get into a concert.

The problem with this standard illustration, however, is that the evil remains gratuitous. It would be silly to argue that the concert is more fun because you had to stand in line, and there’s no reason you should have to dislocate your should in order to become an engineer. There are good consequences, to be sure, but there is no inherent connection between the consequences and their evil partial cause. The evil remains an absurdity.

Which is why we have to be careful to understand what “bad things” and “good things” (and “good people”) really are. I don’t think I can solve this in a blog post. But let us say that the only true “good thing” is sanctity, and the worship of God. And here the evils along the way become less extrinsic. The grace of forgiveness, the crying out for redemption, the acknowledgement that God is all in all—these are things that shine forth in greater contrast precisely through evils.

There is really no other backdrop against which to think about sheer evil: the death of a child, the horror of Auschwitz (and a thousand other persecutions), the enslavement of sin itself. To speak of any “good” coming from these, apart from the redemption of souls, is to show oneself less than morally serious. On the other hand, precisely because these things are inexplicably horrible, they drive us to the point. This, of course, is the heart of the Christian mystery. The Cross serves no other purpose but to drive our gaze upwards, because on any level but the divine, it is insupportably wrong.

That is why faithful Jews called their experience the Holocaust: a burnt offering. The holocaust offerings of the Old Testament, like the sacrifice of Isaac and the slaughter of the Hebrew children, left one with nowhere to look but upwards. In the fullest context of redemption, evil serves instrinsically to show forth the goodness of God — not as a mere extrinsic means, like an injury setting up a career in engineering, but as the very place where God is discovered. My brown marker brought the blues and yellows to light.

Still, we need to go a step deeper into the metaphor. That art project did not consist merely of brown lines next to yellows. The pattern was far richer, far more complex. So too I think we fall short—and fall far short of the potentialities of Christian humanism—if we accept those stark Lutheran polarities of a black world making us cry out for mercy.

The world is not sheer evil. The evils of this life course through a far more complex, and beautiful, tapestry. The browns and blacks are not just contrasts, but part of the pattern, part of the emanation of the name of God that is creation. Evil and good have natural causes, along with the supernatural. To accept them, to step back and see the browns as part of the scheme of the greater artwork, reflecting the super-intelligibility and overflowing goodness of God in the very reality of creation, is to see God not only as not-evil, but as the eternally Wise, the giver of life, the maker of the real and the culmination of intelligence.

The only truly “good” person is the one who sees this whole, in which bad things are bad, to be sure, just as browns are brown, but as part of a grander and more brilliant scheme.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Boring Things

A week or so back a friend sent me an article by NY Times columnist Paul Krugman entitled "The Oil Nonbubble." The article combined a standard argument -- that high oil prices are a result of world demand outstripping supply (booming economies in China and India are driving up demand, war in the Middle East and restrictions on drilling are cutting back supply) -- with a villain argument.

Krugman points out that many conservative voices, particularly National Review and Steve Forbes, have claimed that speculation plays no small role in driving up prices: as prices go up, more and more investors want in, creating a supply-and-demand problem in stocks, not oil, so that the price is destined to drop when people realize that the price of stocks is not worth the price of the commodity and the bubble pops. According to Krugman, these arguments are patently false (though his argument is anything but patent). The real reason conservatives assert speculation rather than supply and demand, he says, is because they don't want to adjust to the new world of high prices (and presumably various forms of government control to keep down prices). Those who cry speculation are just liars and political hacks.

This morning I read Steve Forbes's most recent editorial, where he argues that oil prices are indeed a product of speculation. The bigger problem, he says, is inflation, caused by a weak dollar, caused by . . . very obscure mistakes at the Federal Reserve. By making dollars cheap, the Fed has given Americans a disadvantage on the world market. When we import oil, for example, we suffer from the fact that the dollar doesn't go so far as it used to in the world economy. If the dollar is worth half as much Arabic currency as it used to be, then we have to pay twice as many dollars to get the same amount of oil. (Incidentally, most of our oil comes from Mexico and Canada, not the Middle East. But the weak dollar works the same.) And because the US is by far the biggest player in the world market, a screwed up dollar screws up the world market . . . somehow.

Inflation fuels speculation. Housing prices are up because housing, which has a fairly stable value in itself, is a good investment during inflation. Oil prices are up for roughly the same reason: we know the demand is there, and thus the value is fairly stable in itself, so it's a natural place to invest during inflation, when you know prices on everything will rise. Food prices are up, too, because inflation hits basic commodities.

Interestingly, Krugman and Forbes use the same piece of non-obvious evidence to argue opposite explanations: both point out that oil inventories are roughly stable, but Krugman thinks this is proof there is no hoarding, and thus no speculation, while Forbes thinks this is proof that demand is not stripping supply. (The key to Forbes's argument, I think, is in futures prices: Krugman admits that people are investing in futures -- what oil will cost tomorrow -- but denies that it has anything to do with the price today.)

I'd like to dwell briefly on the obscurity of this, then make a bigger point.

The point Forbes makes is that inflation is based on monetary policy, and no one likes monetary policy to be the explanation for the world's woes. It's much more exciting to have villains. It's much more exciting, for example, to say that oil and food prices are the fault of environmentalists, or SUV's, or Ethanol, or people who resist government controls. This is the stuff of politics, and it's exciting. To say that things that hit us all so hard are the result of technical mistakes by obscure government agencies . . . it's boring. I know I myself responded positively to Krugman's article: I'd much rather have all this stuff be about political villains than obscure technocrats.

I note that a good friend of mine, a Congressional staffer with a fair amount of influence, who is far more thoughtful than the average Joe, keeps telling me that he just doesn't have any interest in reading political or economic theory, like Hayek or Friedman. My point isn't to beat up on my friend. My point is that he is perfectly normal. No one cares about this stuff, not even people who deal with it every day. Economics is boring. Give me politics! Give me good guys and bad guys!

Consider three great interpretations of the Great Depression. The standard, liberal one is that the Depression happened because cowboy capitalists were totally irresponsible, and the government did nothing to protect the little guy from the predations of bad-guy speculators. It's Coolidge's fault! The revisionist, conservative response is that the Depression would have been a normal bump in the market, a healthy correction from which we would have quickly rebounded, but Big-Government dirigists, starting with Wonder-Boy Hoover and then taking off with the New Deal, held the economy under water by sapping investors and sinking money into stupid liberal policies. It's Roosevelt's fault!

Milton Friedman's explanation is that the Depression is about
monetary policy. It's roughly what you'd expect shortly after we moved from a gold standard to an untethered Federal Reserve. Bureaucrats were given way too much power, and though they had no bad motives, they just made a mistake, and because they had so much power, their mistake had awful consequences. (Friedman does, I think, recognize the it's-Roosevelt's-fault argument, but he thinks the monetary thing is bigger.)

Which explanation do you prefer? Friedman's is boring boring boring. Where are the villains? Who can get excited about monetary policy? How am I supposed to run a campaign on this? (I note that people make fun of Ron Paul for his obscurantist concern about returning to the gold standard. What a wacko! Monetary policy?! Come on!)

Alright, here's my point: boring things affect us. The world is much richer than just heroes and villains. Indeed, true heroes (like the Benedictines!) are the ones who do the boring work of cultivating natural forces. True heroism is not about coming up with a new exciting system, but of tilling fields and waiting for crops to grow. That's boring. Sorry!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Preaching Trinity Sunday

Well, it’s Trinity Sunday, our annual chance to hear how poorly catechized our priests are. This year the priest was a really good one, but the homily was just as bad. Sure we should live in unity as the Father Son and Holy Spirit live in unity. But (a) if we don’t know what the Trinity is, we have no idea what it means to be like them, (b) that’s not the point of the feast, and (c) the point of John 17 is that we are bound together because we have entered into the life of the Trinity. If we’re not interested in the Trinity in itself, than there’s no point talking about sharing in Trinitarian unity.

So here’s six points to ponder on Trinity Sunday.

(1) Trinity Sunday is the octave of Pentecost. It is the culmination of that feast, not just a random Sunday in the year.

(2) Trinity Sunday is about God. Given than the Trinity is no more or less than the Christian doctrine on God, it wouldn’t hurt to think of this as “God Sunday.” This is the one time of the year that we are specifically enjoined to think about God himself. In traditional Catholic spirituality, from the Eastern mystics of the first millennium to the Spanish Carmelite mystics of the second, the Trinity is seen as the goal of our faith. This is not something to skim over on our way to more interesting things. The Trinity is the height of contemplation, and Trinity Sunday is the Sunday specifically given to contemplation. Homilies are supposed to make doctrine practical, to be sure. But the practical application here is prayer. Christianity without contemplation—and a Christianity that can never once, even on Trinity Sunday, think about God in himself—is no Christianity at all. That’s the point of the feast.

(3) We have only the faintest idea what Trinity, three-in-one, means. That implies, first of all, that we shouldn’t use the Trinity as a jumping-off point for other metaphors. We don’t say, for example, that since the Trinity is three-in-one, our families and communities should be too! We don’t know what that means! Above all, what should be stressed on Trinity Sunday is that God is beyond our grasp. Trinity means that God is not domesticated, not within our ken. Intelligible, to be sure. But not to us. Trinity Sunday is our time to realize that God is greater than the limits of our minds.

(4) Trinity Sunday is Christological. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity arose out of controversies about the person of Jesus. Is he less than God? Sort of like God? A separate God? Just the one God sort of doing a new thing? No, Jesus is the eternal Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity. It is surely very hard and obscure to preach about how God is three in one. But this is not so hard to preach about. Jesus is God. He is the Son of God, and equal with God, and one in being with the Father . He was in the beginning with God. To talk about the Trinity is to talk about who Jesus is in his most deepest self, in his divinity. And to talk about who Jesus is is to talk about the Trinity. Jesus is God: there's a good homily.

(5) Trinity Sunday is about the Holy Spirit. Everything said about Jesus goes for the Holy Spirit too. In this sense, Trinity Sunday is about soteriology. Jesus can reconcile us to God because he is God. If he were less than God, he could not bring us into full contact with God. And if he were just the One doing something new, instead of an eternal person within the Trinity, there would be no relation to enter into: we would either have to melt into the sheer unity of God, or stay utterly removed. To say Jesus is the Son of God is to say that we can enter into divine sonship: that we can be divinized, as the Eastern Fathers say (and St. Thomas repeats). If you can't preach about this, you can't preach about Christianity, because divinization is Christianity. This is what it's all about.

How are we divinized? Jesus sends his Spirit, who dwells in our hearts. And like Jesus, that Spirit is not something less than God, nor some emanation of God, but God himself. The Trinity means that the Spirit who dwells in our hearts is God himself: and so we are elevated into the life of God. This is not abstract, and this is not obscure stuff about doctrines that don't effect us and that we can't understand. Real preaching about the Trinity is preaching about divinization, about the Spirit bringing us into conformity with Christ so that we can enter into the life of the Trinity. If, as John 17 says, we are to be one as the Father and the Son are one, it is only because we are to enter into that very Trinitarian life, through the Spirit dwelling in us.

(6) Trinity Sunday is Eucharistic. How do we enter into this life? Through the sacraments, and above all through the Eucharist. This is close to the heart of the Eucharistic prayers, at the Epiclesis. Eucharistic Prayer Two, for example, begins, "Lord, you are holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness. Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ." The Eucharist can become the Body of God's Son because the Spirit who descends upon the gifts (like dew, in the Latin) is the Spirit of God, God himself, with the full power of divinity. Unless the Spirit is God, he has no power to effect the awesome mystery of the Mass. And the Jesus whose Body and Blood we receive is no ordinary man, but God himself: not less than God, but God himself. And because the Trinity is inseparably One, by receiving one we receive them all. This is the doctrine of concomitance: sacramentally, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, symbolized by the bread and wine and actually made present by the sacramental power of the Holy Spirit. But in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we also receive all that is connected to them: the soul and Divinity of Christ, and with them the Father and the Holy Spirit who are inseparably united to him. Trinity means that what we receive gives us the Holy Spirit within us, and that union with the Son and the Spirit is union with the Eternal Father himself. This is not obscure. This is the whole point of the Mass, and the whole point of our faith.

And so, to return to the first point, Trinity Sunday is the culmination of the Pentecost octave. On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate a historical event, the opening of the apostolic age. We celebrate the manifestation of the Spirit through charismatic gifts. But on the octave, we celebrate the deeper meaning of this manifestation. We celebrate that what we receive is not just the gift to speak in foreign tongues, or to heal, or to preach, or to be caught up in some ecstasy. We receive the very life of God himself. This is the heart of Christianity. It's a shame no one's told our priests.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Benedictine Strategy

Papal names are a mystery. There is, it seems, some discussion of names among the cardinals even before they choose a pope. And so there must be: the new pope must immediately choose a name that will identify him to posterity. Hard to imagine. Benedict XVI, our present pope, has been a bit obscure about his own choice. He usually speaks of Benedict XV (1914-22), the most obscure pope of the twentieth century. It has been suggested that this comparison is meant to reference the predecessors: Pope St. Pius X (1902-14) was enormously popular with the faithful and quickly canonized; Benedict XV remains veiled in obscurity. So too, perhaps, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? That is the main explanation Benedict himself gives.

But there is no doubt he is also referring to St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), whose Rule for Monks codified Eastern monasticism for the West and gained him the titles Patron of Western Monasticism and Patron of Europe. Before he was pope, Benedict XVI often spoke of the great abbot as one of his models for Christian renewal. Indeed, as we shall see below, St. Benedict might be the key to Benedict XVI’s evocation of the obscure Benedict XV.

The standard explanation of Ratzinger’s love of St. Benedict talks about small intense communities. The stereotype (which Pope Benedict has directly rejected) notes that John Paul II spoke of a “new springtime” and claims that this meant a rapid expansion of numbers and Christians overtaking society. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, by contrast, is said to have preferred diminished numbers, a sort of separating of the wheat and the chaff, so that what Catholics remained would be really solid in their faith, and all the dross would be cast aside. (This view is often favored, I might cynically add, by those who think they alone are the true Christians. Theirs is often a Christianity without mercy, conversion, or redemption, a gnosticism in which the traditionalist elect consider themselves already perfect. But don’t let me tip my hand too much!)

In any case, the stereotype doesn’t fit the data. Benedict XVI has himself embraced the language of a “new springtime,” perhaps to undermine this opposition, and has been quite shy about affirming his vision of a smaller, more radical church, when asked. He has taken remarkably little disciplinary action, and has chosen to portray Christianity in terms of charity and hope, a message at least as welcoming as his predecessor’s. Indeed, as I have argued previously, the toughness of Cardinal Ratzinger may belong more to John Paul than to the man who is now pope.

So let’s rethink the Benedictine strategy. By way of contrast, consider the strategy of the Jesuits. The greatest Jesuit apostle is supposed to be the companion of St. Ignatius (1491-1556) St. Francis Xavier (1506-52). Xavier travelled unaccompanied throughout Asia, preaching to the natives: in India, China, Japan. The great image of St. Francis—and I do not doubt that it is true—is of him on the beach baptizing thousands at a time. It is an inspiring image.

Until you consider the fruit. The missions to these countries are, without question, the least successful in Christian history. India has a very tiny church, in China and Japan it is all but non-existent. There are, of course, external factors. Never before — or at least never since the beginning — has the Church faced such a highly developed culture. (Though of course that could be as much a blessing as a curse.) There were persecutions. But where haven’t there been?

The Jesuits pursued a similar strategy to the American Indians. America’s first saints, the North American martyrs (d. 1642-49), who were French Jesuit missionaries to the Iroquois, and Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-80), who was an Iroquois convert, are certainly inspiring. But what was the fruit? Are there any American-Indian Catholics now?

The Jesuits went to Latin America too, though this is confused by the confluence of Dominicans and Franciscans. It is confused, too, by the confusing state of Catholicism in South America. Certainly Catholicism won the day. But there is some debate about the depth of conversion. There is certainly a notable lack of integration: the natives were never allowed to become priests. I don’t know the history well enough to comment intelligently, but the case can certainly be made that mistakes made then are bearing fruit in today’s South American apostasy. In any case, South America is no straightforward success for the Jesuits.

Finally, the Jesuits went out to Europe. Here too they are considered heroes. But what fruit did they bear? In their early years, they are credited with half of Europe remaining Catholic. But the Protestant reformation — that is, the failure of the Jesuits in Northern Europe — was an unprecedented cataclysm for the Church in Europe. St. Edmond Campion (1540-81) may have been heroic in England, but that country drifted farther and father from the faith. Heroic, yes. Saintly, yes. But an effective strategy? No.

And indeed, during the four hundred years while the Jesuits dominated the Church, roughly 1550-1950, Europe itself collapsed into infidelity. Many of the greatest apostates of the modern age — from Descartes through Diderot, Molière, Voltaire, and de Sade, right up to Derrida and Sartre — were Jesuit educated. The tenure of the Jesuits was an unmitigated and unprecedented disaster for the Church in Europe. Many were heroic, many were saintly, but their pastoral strategy was the greatest failure in Christian history.

Compare the Benedictines. The Benedictines were the primary evangelizers of Europe. How? Not by standing on the beach preaching, not by sending out heroic individuals, but by creating little enclaves of fidelity, hospitality, and excellence. To be sure, St. Boniface (675-754), the English evangelizer of Germany, preached in public places and knocked down pagan altars. But he also established monasteries, bringing in holy people to live holy, unthreatening lives and to welcome whomever might be interested in the religion they practiced.

Under the Benedictines, Christianity took root in Europe, and grew deeper and deeper until the rise of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. There were most certainly challenges: a pagan culture; the terrible violence of the Dark Ages, dominated by Goths, Vikings, and Huns; and later, heresies. It’s not fair to say that the Jesuits just had a harder task; it’s not fair to blame the different results entirely on external factors.

To understand the difference, it’s important, I think, to understand the parallels between the Benedictine monastery and the feudal culture of the time. From our perspective we might think that what distinguishes the Benedictine monastery is its seclusion. The Benedictine strategy, we might think, is to wall off the outside world, to head for the hills and seclude ourselves from the pagan culture.

But this is precisely what the Benedictines did not do. The Benedictine monastery was based on control of land, to be sure — but so was the culture of the time. Like every other feudal lord, they had their own place, their own serfs, and their own land that they farmed. That is not what distinguished the Benedictines from the culture around them.

What distinguished them was, first, religion: they prayed. They brought the culture of their time into contact with the eternal. From this flowed other key differences. The Benedictines loved one another, living peacefully instead of warring with their neighbors. They welcomed strangers, making hospitality their chief form of evangelization. And they embraced the intellectual life, keeping alive the Roman classics and the great achievements of culture and philosophy in an age that did not care. All these things made them a city on a hill, a light to the nations.

They did not so much challenge the culture around them so much as transform it from within. They did not separate themselves, but entered in — like leaven. The building of monasteries in pagan lands is a perfect symbol of this. They showed that the life their neighbors lived could be lived in greater dignity by being seasoned with divine love.

This also explains the successors of the Benedictines, the mendicant Franciscans and Dominicans. The early mendicants considered themselves monks and contemplatives, but the culture of their time was no longer so closely rooted to a place, so the mendicants went to the cities, and travelled throughout Europe — in imitation of the secular culture. But within that culture they gave witness to the beauty of religion, which led them to their own forms of hospitality, for poor and rich alike, of intense fraternal charity, and of intellectual and cultural excellence. They were leaven: profoundly different from the world around them, yet deeply embedded in that world, transforming it from within.

The failure of the Jesuits, I propose, was in failing to integrate. The Jesuits were the first movement to be exclusively priests, rather than predominantly lay brothers. They were the first to have no sisters. They were the first to go as active individuals, rather than living in contemplative communities. They were the first to put their priority in commanding the culture. The Benedictines commanded the culture simply by being the best. They led, as it were, by default: not because they took anything over, but because they were excellent. The Jesuits set themselves up to control and to demand followers. By being predominantly active rather than contemplative, they put the cart before the horse, trying to preach and lead before they showed how to follow and live. They set themselves up as heroes rather than models.

This, I propose, is the key to the Benedictine strategy. Today, the Benedictine strategy does not mean heading for the hills and abandoning the culture. Rather, it means embedding ourselves within the culture, being contemplatives in the middle of the world, doing what the world does in a more excellent, more beautiful way. The world around us is no more pagan than the Germany of St. Boniface. Different, to be sure, since it is post-Christian rather than pre-. But let us not underestimate the challenges of a pre-Christian culture. It was enough to defeat the Jesuits at every turn.

And that, I propose, is why Pope Benedict began with encyclicals on charity and hope. Our goal is not to take control of the world, but to season it with Christian hope and love, to live in the middle of the world as ones who hope for a lasting city. We are not to shout at the world and demand our rights, but to show the world the only true goodness.

Perhaps that is also why Benedict XVI compares himself to the silent, obscure Pope Benedict XV. This quiet man, welcoming the wounded, speaking gently of peace and truth, embedding himself in prayer—here is a model of the Benedictine strategy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Abolish the Property Tax!

Too often gentrification is confused with economic development. There's nothing wrong with economic development, with wealthier people moving in and new businesses starting and buildings being cleaned up.

I would like to urge in particular that there's nothing wrong with neighborhoods changing. Indeed, an urban neighborhood is an organism; if it does not change and grow, it dies. Neighborhoods are not museums. Change and development are not the problem.

The problem is what Jane Jacobs calls cataclysmic change. Put it this way: the problem with gentrification is not new things moving in, but old things, and old neighbors, being pushed out. Cataclysmic change is bad for the same reason making a neighborhood a museum is bad: because the urban neighborhood is an organism, and life means development with continuity.

Concretely, the problem is that a neighborhood full of new people is a neighborhood without culture, without institutions, and without community. For a neighborhood to succeed, new things need to be integrated into the old, so that the newcomers, while bringing change to the neighborhood, also benefit from the neighborhood's accumulated wisdom. New neighbors need to become part of the community, because a community is essentially a set of coordinated parts. It takes time for people to learn what to expect from others, so that they know whom to ask for what kind of help, whom to trust, whom to watch out for. A neighborhood needs particularity: its own feasts and fasts, festivals and memorials, institutions and traditions. Without these, there is no neighborhood.

This is morally important as a duty to the old neighbors, because neighborhoods are people's homes. If cataclysmic change destroys someone's home, it does an injustice. But it is also practically important for the new neighbors, because neighborhoods are neither safe nor interesting without these webs of relationships. And webs take time. Neighborhoods have to change gradually.

There are two causes of cataclysmic change. One is straight-out bigotry combined with government power. In my neighborhoods, for example, the newcomers, who are richer, whiter, and more powerful, don't like neighborhood traditions such as fireworks and having a beer on the front porch, so they mobilize government to make these things illegal. They don't like certain businesses that serve the poor, ranging from some kinds of restaurants to payday loan services to wig shops, so they mobilize government to evict (or "redevelop") these businesses. Note that this can only be done with government power. More on that another time. For now, suffice it to note that the tools of gentrification are a strong police force and government zoning: big government.

But the other, indirect force for gentrification is the property tax. Property tax is interesting because the income tax, and even more, consumption taxes, are based on your own valuation: the money you actually receive or spend. But the property tax is based on how other people value you: what your property is worth on the market, and thus to competitors. If your income is worth more on the market, you can choose to get that income (or choose not, and therefore not pay the higher tax). Not so with property taxes. And the assessment of others is double, because first the market affects it, then a government official makes his own determination of how the market applies to your house.

The biggest factor driving cataclysmic gentrification is rising property taxes: when development comes to your neighborhood, it makes your taxes go up, even though your income stays the same. The dynamic works the same in urban neighborhoods and in the country. According to the Wikipedia article on the property tax, farms are routinely shut down when a development comes next door, because the farm generates the same income but is subjected to higher taxes. And we watch every day in our neighborhood how rising property values push the poor -- read, the people who have always lived here, the culture and institutions of this place -- somewhere else.

But this dynamic has an indirect effect, as well. It incentivizes government-sponsored gentrification. A municipal income tax is a financial incentive for the government to bring jobs to the city. But a municipal property tax is a financial incentive for the government to bring in rich people who make their money elsewhere. It encourages cities to choose business over residents and tourism over locals. (Note that the reverse is not true: the income tax encourages cities to lure residents, but part of the lure for residents is jobs nearby, so there's no incentive to push business out.) The property tax is a perverse incentive.

What's the solution? Just replace it. Cities need revenue, but they should collect that revenue based on the actual earnings or spending of actual citizens, not based on how other people who make their money elsewhere value your home. Income or consumption tax? That's another essay, but I guess the question is whether a city thrives more by bringing in spenders (who pay the consumption tax) or people (the income tax), and then whether raising a certain tax effects the city more directly (by driving out people who pay the tax) or indirectly (by encouraging the government to bring those people in). I guess on this calculation I'd choose a sales tax, but that's another essay.

Of course gentrification of a sort will still happen. When property values in a neighborhood go up, some old residents will choose to take the money and run. But it will be their choice. Rising property values will be an economic incentive to locals instead of a threat to their way of life. That is an incentive we can live with.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Abortion and Communion

In the wake of Pope Benedict's visit to the United States, there has been another flap about giving communtion to politicians who support abortion rights. John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, and Rudy Giuliani -- all vocal supporters of abortion rights -- received communion at the Papal Masses in Washington and New York, apparently from the hand of the Papal Nuncio (ambassador to the US), Pietro Sambi. It seems that some of them even announced beforehand that they were going to do it.

For the record, I stand with the rigorists on this. Those who make a career of directly contradicting the Church's most basic teachings in the public sphere are objectively in grave sin, and should not be given communion. I can understand the argument for why this might be hard to implement -- can every extraordinary minister be expected to know all the details of every politician? -- but in this case it was some of the most public advocates of abortion in our country, receiving from the man whose entire job is to be a liaison between the Vatican and the US government. There is no excuse, in my opinion, for Archbishop Sambi's decision. (And I do not understand the argument made by some that Archbishop Wuerl, of Washington, and Cardinal Egan, of New York, are the real ones to blame. Sambi is the papal nuncio!)

But I write this post not to give my opinion, but to examine the opinion of the Holy Father. This is a good opportunity, I think, to make a critical distinction in thinking through who Pope Benedict XVI is and how he thinks about papal policy.

We have been reminded in the recent weeks of a letter the future pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, sent to then-Archbishop of Washington Theodore Cardinal McCarrick in 2004. The full text is available on Sandro Magister's webpage, where it was originally leaked (intentionally?) in 2004. Cardinal McCarrick was leading a commission of American bishops in deciding what to do about giving communion to the pro-abort, nominally Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry. The letter is very clear:
in the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or
euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to 'take part in a
propoganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it' . . . . This
cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of
others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. . .
. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and
euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father
on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he
would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive
Holy Communion. . . . Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a
person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a
Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive
abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him
about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for
Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and
warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. When 'these
precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not
possible,' and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still
presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, 'the minister of Holy Communion
must refuse to distribute it'."

The letter was originally private, and Cardinal McCarrick directly misrepresented it, claiming that Ratzinger had told him it was fine to give communion to pro-abort politicians. McCarrick is a disgrace.

But the question now is, what does this letter tell us about Pope Benedict? It has been quoted of late as evidence of the Pope's opinion on this matter. I disagree.

It has often been noted that Ratzinger's successor as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, William Cardinal Levada, is not especially impressive. (CDF is the most important office of the Vatican, in charge of making clear what is and what is not in line with Catholic doctrine.) And it is generally agreed that Ratzinger picked Levada to be more of a secretary than a "prefect": to be a mouthpiece for the Pope, and to let the Pope make the real decisions, rather than doing much of his own volition. I think that analysis makes good sense.

Where I disagree, however, is in the suggestion that this constitutes a change. Strictly speaking, CDF, like every other office of the Vatican, is nothing but a mouthpiece for the Pope. Cardinal Ratzinger had absolutely no authority except as John Paul II's mouthpiece.

Now obviously one can give one's mouthpiece more or less leeway. Take as an example CDF's two fantastic responses to liberation theology, from 1984 and 1986. These documents, which amount to a repudiation of the liberation-theology movement, are beautiful works of theology, expressing an alternative vision of what liberation theology can and should be. It is generally agreed that they bear a strong imprint of Cardinal Ratzinger.

But their fundamental orientation, and 100% of their authority, come not from the Cardinal Prefect but from the Holy Father himself. We'll probably never know how much John Paul and Ratzinger collaborated in writing these documents, or who else was involved. But we do know that by their very nature, their authority came from John Paul.

In the case of the letter to Cardinal McCarrick, this is all the more the case. The letter is strictly disciplinary, not theological -- and thus I think we should take it as more directly the voice of John Paul. The CDF is, in a sense, no different from the White House spokesperson: he might be given leeway to explain things in his own words, but the spokesperson is never at liberty to announce policies that do not come directly from the President. The words in that letter, in other words, might have been written by Cardinal Ratzinger, but they are the words of John Paul II. I think it safe to assume -- and perilous to doubt -- that the letter was the direct product of a personal conversation between the Prefect and the Pope. (They dined together once a week.)

What does Pope Benedict think about giving communion to pro-abort politicians? Well, the logic of the letter still stands. Now, as then, the Church teaches that abortion is a grave moral evil; that a politician who promotes abortion rights participates directly in this evil; and thus that such a politician is objectively not in communion with the Church and therefore should not receive communion.

But there is room for interpretation on how such things are implemented. There is room for interpretation, for example, on the question of who makes the judgment. (Archbishop Wuerl wrote an interesting article arguing that as bishop of Washington, these are not his decisions, but the decisions of the bishops of politicians' home dioceses.) There is room for interpretation on how "public" a figure has to be: should every priest know Nancy Pelosi's record? What about Steny Hoyer's? How about a liberal city council member? All may be directly participating in the same evil, but where do we draw the pastoral line on deciding who counts as a "public" figure? And related, whom do we expect to know these faces? Should every priest in Washington be studying the pictures of every member of Congress? Should every extraordinary minister? If somebody sort of looks like Nancy Pelosi, should you withold communion just in case?

Let's be clear: I agree that John Kerry should have been denied communion, and I think someone like Archbishop Sambi ought to know who Nancy Pelosi is and not give her communion. And I think, based on that letter to Cardinal McCarrick, that John Paul probably would have agreed. But the question here is what Pope Benedict thinks. And what I wish to assert is that the letter "he" -- as prefect of a Vatican congregation -- sent to Cardinal McCarrick is not evidence of his personal thinking.

As a friend said when Benedict was elected, "he may still turn out to be a softy."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Holiness in the World

Last night, after the kids went to bed, I was babysitting while my wife was out with a friend. I've been reading a Catholic historical novel, The Man on a Donkey, about the English "Reformation," and the armed response in the North, "the pilgrimage of grace". The narrative is a little clunky -- the characters are more historical types than real personalities -- but it does effectively portray the horror of what Henry VIII did to the Church in England.

Last night, in fact, I was quite moved, more inflamed than usual for the truth of the faith, the freedom of the Church, and the conversion of souls, and of society. The Pilgrimage of Grace is quite a challenge: how does one respond to the forcible repression of the true faith? Henry VIII really paints it in stark colors, where heresy is enforced purely to indulge the passions of a secular ruler. It's easy to believe in passive resistance -- and indeed, I mostly believe that in matters of faith, martyrdom is more powerful than arms -- but here, a whole nation was being forced to renounce its faith. It's not easy to condemn the Pilgrimage.

I set down the book to pray, and to pray for my friends and family who still bear the bitter fruits of King Harry. For indeed, Protestantism succeeded almost entirely by the force of Henry's arms. I guess it can sound petty to be anti-Protestant -- but Protestantism has effected my family so deeply, and it really stunts the faith. So many things they are opposed to, so many beautiful expressions of faith that they scorn, and so much grace that they are indoctrinated against. It breaks my heart -- I hope I am not a Pharisee.

But I believe, too, that individuals are not entirely at fault: they believe what has been handed down to them (as indeed should we all), and their inheritance has been shaped by Henry's oppression. It breaks my heart that their faith is stunted because of social forces, because of the social repercussions of heresy.

Inflamed, I set aside Man on a Donkey and picked up St. John of the Cross, for I know that the only solution is holiness. How can I be lukewarm when the faith is so overwhelmingly beautiful, when the Gospel must be proclaimed? And St. John drew me upwards -- but also outwards, for I saw the beauty of holiness, and its necessary connection to true doctrine.

Everytime I read John of the Cross I think of a Protestant student who once came to us, speaking of the frustration of her spiritual life. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, entering the dark night, a place of tremendous spiritual growth. But as John so powerfully points out, too many people believe, and are told, that the darkness is a falling away, instead of a falling into. Bad doctrine makes people turn away from spiritual growth just when they are being called deeper. And in my experience, Protestants have no way of dealing with the mystical depths of the Dark Night. Again, my heart was broken . . . .

Then my nineteen-month-old daughter woke up, and I spent the rest of the night trying to get her back to sleep, and when that failed, trying to keep her laughing so she wouldn't miss Mommy. We played with a flashlight, we put blankets over our heads, we made faces, we played peek-a-boo.

And I saw, more clearly than usual, that it is all one. Where is holiness? In my vocation! How can I be a co-redeemer with Christ? By caring for my little girl!

I've been reading about mortification, both in the Imitation -- my favorite spiritual book of late -- and in John of the Cross. True mortification, true contemptus mundi, is not about rejecting our family for "spiritual" things. It is not hating the world straight out, or killing all our desires straight out. It is, rather, a purification. Last night, mortification meant putting down my spiritual reading to giggle with my daughter.

Mortification is greater love, not lesser -- it is putting to death the lesser loves when and only when they conflict with the greater. For when they do not conflict, they are expressions. The Lord calls me to holiness through my vocation, through the little joys and sorrows and above all loves of my life. He calls me to redeem the world not by turning away from it, but by giving my heart to him within it. This is what it means to be in the world, not of it: not that we don't care about the world, but that we care about the world with divine love, a love that draws us, and everything around us, upward into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

That, may I say, is the point of this blog.