Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

(Column 30: March 30, 2020)

By Lucia A. Silecchia

On the last Friday of March, Pope Francis led the world in an “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer” and an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing to a city and a world now ravaged by both a deadly pandemic and the social destruction in its wake.

Typically, an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing is a joyful part of Easter and Christmas. The blessings are bestowed not only on the city and the world – but on jovial, exuberant crowds packed in the embrace of St. Peter’s Square.

This time was different. There was no crowd and no jubilation. The millions worldwide who watched the Pope’s prayer and blessing remotely saw a nearly solitary figure in a vast, quiet square speaking to a mournful city and a broken world.

Yet, in his prayer for such extraordinary times, Pope Francis spoke eloquently of the ordinary. In a reflection that caught my ear he said, “[O]ur lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines …, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others. …”

This caught my attention because, in these past days, I have also seen how our lives are “woven together and sustained by ordinary people” in just the way Pope Francis said.

I see it in doctors and nurses at the many hospitals in my own city, who work stressful, exhausting and dangerous days. They are risking their own strength to serve others – away from their own loved ones and fearful that their work may endanger themselves and those they love.

I see it in workers at my own supermarkets. Often for minimum wage and little gratitude, they stock shelves, unload trucks, and wearily assist customers even when we complain that we cannot have everything we want when we want it.

I see it in those who clean the building where I live and the places where I shop and the streets where I walk. They do not have the luxury of working from the safe confines of home. Their jobs now call them away from home to do seemingly mundane and underappreciated things that can, literally, save lives in these fraught times.

I see it in caregivers who spend long days ministering to loved ones without the comfort of routine or company in a time of particular fear for those most vulnerable. I also see it in caregivers who spend long days anxious because they cannot be with their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes where our “new normal” prohibits visitors.

I see it in bus drivers and train conductors whose routes have been reduced but who still venture out to provide the essential lifeline that some still need. I see it in police and fire personnel

whose workload will increase as emergencies rise – and the crisis that brings out the best in so many will also bring out the worst in a few.

I see it in volunteers who, in the span of a few days and a few emails, launched a volunteer network to ensure that elders in my building have someone to do laundry, run errands, get medicines and fetch groceries. I see it in volunteers who check in on those who live alone, bring supplies to health care workers, give blood, and donate food.

I see it in priests who, while separated from their congregations, make extraordinary efforts to remain pastors to their flocks. They livestream Masses, reach out through social media, tape video messages, call on vulnerable parishioners, and make themselves available in so many ways to those whose needs of soul and spirit do not vanish because church doors are closed.

I see it in parents who patiently try their best to homeschool their children, while keeping them safe and unafraid in confusing times. They are learning the vagaries of junior high math and second grade art while, at the same time, trying to master the new educational technology foisted on them.

I see it in the ways strangers smile and friends reach out with the concern that comes when we realize that we are not invincible and that, yes, we all share a frightening, common vulnerability that is part of being human in an imperfect world.

Unexpectedly, I also saw it this week in a sketch that some children left on a sidewalk near my home. In bright chalk, they drew the flowers, butterflies, and odd animals that are the hallmarks of childish art. But one – perhaps an older child with newfound wisdom – wrote with chalk in a stylish flourish “We’ll get through this together.” Amen to that.

When we get through this together, there will be great loss. Some will no longer be together with their loved ones. In his prayer, Pope Francis said, “[i]n the face of so much suffering, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus, ‘That they may all be one.’” Whether in this life or the next, I hope that the desire to “be one” endures. I am grateful for the extraordinary work of ordinary people who strive to keep us together as one in these turbulent days. And… I cannot wait to embrace my loved ones extra close when we are together again in more ordinary times.

May God bless you and yours with good health and comfort in the days ahead.


Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu

Creation, Fall, and Coronavirus

by IHE Fellow Chad Pecknold

Can we think now about anything other than pandemic graphs, empty shelves, school closures, postponed events, and our global state of emergency? While some remain at various stages of denial, and others have high fevers of existential panic, most of us are at home trying to figure out how we can homeschool our kids, do our jobs, avoid contagion, and endure an uncertain sentence of an unexpected internment.

In many conversations we hear that we are in “uncharted water.” This is true in the sense that most of us have never experienced this sort of disorienting disruption to everyday life. We can read the histories of the 1918 or 1957 pandemics, but they don’t touch our experience. We’ve been knocked off the tracks of our daily habits, and we’re all unsettled. Everything that seemed solid suddenly seems shaky. The only thing certain now is that we must talk about the Coronavirus.

Read more here.

Originally published at First Things. 

Should We Fast for the Poor During the Coronavirus Crisis?

by IHE Fellow Jay Richards

Millions of us are suddenly aware of people who are struggling due to the coronavirus-inspired economic shutdown. Especially hard hit: small family businesses, service workers and hourly workers, and people who were already on the edge.

And that’s just in the U.S. Imagine being in a country that is already poor! What can the rest of us do to help?

Read more here.

Originally published at The Stream. 

The view from Bergamo, Italy, where at least 11 priests have died from the coronavirus

by John Burger

After churches were closed two weeks ago, some priests celebrated Mass outdoors, until the bishops put a stop to that too.

The city of Bergamo in northern Italy has lost at least 11 priests to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, perhaps the highest concentration of clerics who have died during this pandemic. That fact saddens but does not surprise native son Mario Enzler.

Enzler is a former Swiss Guard who grew up in Bergamo and is staying in daily contact with his octogenarian parents there. His mother knew five of the priests who died and is saddened that due to public restrictions, they will not have funerals.

Read more here.

Originally published at Aleteia. 

Disruption Comes to Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

These past days have been unlike any I have known before as every email I read and headline I see announces a new covid-19 related disruption of everyday routines, events, and conveniences.

For now, I am not on the “front lines” of this. I am not a health care worker, not considered medically vulnerable, and not responsible for the care of anyone who is. As far as I can tell, my loved ones and I are healthy. So, although I can – and do! – whine about the disruptions that are coming to my own life, I can more wisely fill that time with gratitude for the many blessings I have and so often do not notice.

I have been urged, as has everyone, to “socially isolate” and avoid large crowds of people. I am grateful that this is hard to do because there are so many people with whom I want to be. Perhaps these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of all for whom social isolation is the norm in lives that are lonely.

I am now teaching my classes online for a while. I am grateful that I have the ability to continue working at a job I love in a way that has changed in form but not in substance. Perhaps these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of all those who will lose their income or security or even their businesses in the days to come.

I have stocked up on what I think I will need if I can’t get out and about as I regularly do. I am grateful that I am able to shop and gather what I need. Perhaps, these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of those who live in a constant state of insecurity or fear of running out of the most basic things they need to care for their families.

I am reading headlines about the difficult decisions that are being made by medical professionals, government leaders, pastors, school administrators and others with responsibility for the common good. As they are criticized for both overreacting and underreacting, I am grateful that these decisions do not rest on my own shoulders. Perhaps these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of those who do have to make these decisions – knowing that so often decisions seem simple when I am not the one who has to make them.

I see the statistics about those who are ill or who have died of covid-19. I am grateful for the great yet fragile gift of my own health. Perhaps these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of  those to whom this virus has brought death, not mere disruption – as well as for all those who die unnoticed, unmourned and unknown from so many causes each and every day with no attention at all.

I expect that I may be spending more time at home than I usually do. I am grateful to have a home with utilities, clean running water and every means I need to stay in touch with friends, families and colleagues. Perhaps these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of those who have no dignified place to call home and who will be spending these days as they spend all others – in circumstances that I cannot imagine.

Activities and events that I had been looking forward to have recently been cancelled or postponed. I am grateful that my life is punctuated with special celebrations and ways to mark both happy and sad occasions with others. Perhaps, these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of those who live without special occasions to anticipate and  also for those who have recently been prevented from being with their families for the sacred times of weddings and funerals and the first or last moments of their loved ones’ lives.

Announcements were made that my diocese has suspended public celebration of Mass until further notice. This was a disruption I had never anticipated – perhaps because I am not sufficiently grateful for the fact that my parishes have always been second families. In the large cities I have always called home, I can go to Mass any day I want. Perhaps, these days are an invitation to pray for and take better care of those whose who, due to infirmity, distance, familial pressure, political persecution  or violent oppression do not have the freedom to worship that is, for me, an underappreciated expectation in my ordinary way of life.

I hope that the days to come will bring a quick end to the destructive path of covid-19 with a return to health and well-being, in all senses of those terms. I also pray that this dark shadow that falls over our Lent will, as Easter approaches, give way to a new spring of joyful hope. But I also hope that, for me, this will leave in its wake a deeper sense of gratitude for those many blessings that stay hidden until disruption comes to ordinary times.

May God bless you and yours with good health in the days ahead.


Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Heart speaks to heart: St. John Henry Newman’s educational ideals

By Fr. John McNerney

In the early 19th century, Dublin was regarded as the second city of the British Empire, but the Great Hunger of the Irish famine (1845–1849) ravaged the whole country, with more than one million dead and two million emigrating. It was into this cataclysmic setting that John Henry Newman was invited to be the rector of a new Catholic university, from which he gave lectures that grew into the book, The Idea of a University (published in 1852).

It is interesting that one of the first students who attended Newman’s newly founded university (1854) in Dublin was the grandson of Ireland’s liberator, Daniel O’Connell. It is also said that Newman once told the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins (who lectured at the university) that if he were not a rector of the university, he would have been a rebel. Nonetheless, to this day the outstanding legacy of John Henry’s perspective on education remains within the Irish heart and mentality. This is the view that education is the true key to unlocking the wealth of human persons, constituting a people and nation.

Education is not a theory

Newman’s views on education are not just a theory about learning, but concern students being active “participants” and not just mere “spectators” in the journey toward universal knowledge. Newman says that education is about the enhancement of the students’ minds and hearts, them to develop “clear-mindedness” and “like-mindedness” as human persons. When he wrote his autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of My Life) in response to Anglican priest Charles Kingsley’s attack on his character, Newman spells out what was behind his whole life — his desire to live in the truth. Indeed, this fundamental yearning can be understood as what is essentially involved in his educational mission. He said, “My accuser [Charles Kingsley] asks, ‘What, then, does Dr. Newman mean?’… I reflected, and I saw a way out of my perplexity. Yes, I said to myself, his very question is about my meaning.”

John Henry’s view is that if we truly want to confront the question about meaning, we must face it as living, searching human beings and not just act like dressed-up scarecrows, clothed in our own words about words, or making use solely of mere logical argument. Newman holds that the meaning of a person is not contained just in their words, but is expressed in how they live their life. Indeed, in many of his talks about education, Newman repeatedly brings out the “personalist” nature of the journey of discovery toward what he calls “universal knowledge.” So, he believes that an educational system “without the personal influence of teachers upon students is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron organization and nothing else” (from The Rise and Progress of Universities).

It was his conviction that truth is primarily communicated in face-to-face witness; without such a personal relationship, we have no existential knowledge. Newman ends The Idea of a University saying to students that he is “but fit to bear witness,” to offer suggestions and express his sentiments, in order to throw light upon questions. It is unsurprising that Newman chose the motto Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”) when he was made cardinal, because it summed up his whole approach to life and education.

Spiritual foundations

A key to understanding St. John Henry Newman’s conception of education is his integrating spiritual vision. He wrote how “in a word, religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge.” The word “religious” does not have denominational connotations here, because Newman proposes that as human beings in the journey of discovery of knowledge, we go beyond the merely “conditioned” to the “unconditional.” This movement is, he suggests, found uniquely in our nature as human persons. So, taking onboard that which is “beyond us,” understanding that there are horizons of meaning beyond ourselves and acting accordingly, is essential if we want to have a truly liberal education.

The neglect of spiritual foundations affects not only human persons and their existence but also “universal knowledge” itself. If we are not open to other viewpoints that are beyond or transcendent to us, there is the risk, Newman says, of becoming “bigots and quacks, scorning all principles and reported facts.” In this way, one ends up easily with the big head syndrome, that is, what Newman calls the “man of one idea, which properly means, a man of one science and of the view, partly true … partly false, which is all that can proceed out of anything partial.” Indeed, it is interesting how the economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek once similarly warned how “the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance, if not a positive danger.”

Education’s ideals

In The Idea of a University, Newman asks the question: “What is the use” of the liberal education he has so far outlined? He contends, “Knowledge to have its end in itself”; therefore, education strictly speaking has no use. To burden education with “virtue or religion” is totally mistaken. He says that the business of education is “not to steer the soul against temptation” and argues that “knowledge is one thing, virtue is another.” He explains that a liberal education “is simply the cultivation of the intellect … and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.” It is about the enhancement of our human minds. Of course, his point is that such an education is justified not because of the skills it could equip us with in order to succeed in practical life, but because “it forms the whole person … [therefore the] human being is an end-in-him-or herself.”

St. John Henry Newman admits that when it comes to education, he has high ideals. In order to achieve what he proposes, he says we “require intellectual eyes” just as we need “bodily eyes for sight.” He explains how even the “best telescope does not dispense with eyes,” so we must really do our part in reaching the goal. It is only in this way that “a University [or a place of education] … [can be] an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill,” a sort of factory. The Prince of Wales, who attended Newman’s canonization last October, said in an editorial in L’Osservatore Romano that although his thoughts on education are well-known, Newman’s work on behalf of the poor and children is often forgotten. The prince commented on Newman’s “commitment to ensuring that people of all backgrounds shared the opportunities learning can bring.” John Henry, in fact, spent most of his life in Birmingham, England, ministering “by constantly doing … duty in the poor-house and prisons of Birmingham,” as he himself described it in Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It was certainly true that his heart spoke to the hearts of others.

(Rev. John McNerney, PhD, is the Michael Novak Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Catholic University of America in Washington.)

October 2019 Executive Order: <br> Better Guidance Or More Confusion?

By Emmett J. McGroarty

On October 9, 2019, President Trump signed Executive Order 13891, entitled “Promoting the Rule of Law Through Improved Agency Guidance Documents.” Its purpose is to rein in a significant part of the vast administrative state. A guidance document refers to memoranda issued by a federal agency that informs third parties—federal grantees, states, private parties—how the issuing agency intends to handle an issue under its jurisdiction.

As the name implies, guidance documents are not meant to be legally binding. If an agency wants to issue a legally binding rule, it must be based on a grant of authority from Congress and follow the procedures of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). One concern with guidance documents, though, is that they will address, and have addressed, matters that should be put through the APA process and issued as a regulation. A second concern is that, whether intended or not, they give the federal agency a big stick: private parties and states will adhere to the guidance in fear that they will otherwise be subject to legal action by the agency. A third concern is that, unlike regulations that are put in a publicly available code on the internet, there is no systematic way for the public to research guidance documents, giving such documents an arbitrary, find-me-if-you-can character.

EO 13891 requires each agency to “establish or maintain on its website a single, searchable, indexed database that contains or links to all guidance documents in effect from such agency or component.” It also:

· Requires each agency to review its guidance documents and rescind those guidance documents that it determines should no longer be in effect.

· Requires each agency to retain in effect only those guidance documents that it puts on its relevant database.

· Prohibits an agency from citing, using, or relying on guidance documents that are rescinded.

· Requires each agency to promulgate regulations for the future issuance of guidance documents.

· Imposed a February 28, 2020 deadline for the agencies to establish their respective online databases of guidance documents.

Wayne Crews at the Competitive Enterprise Institute is keeping track of the agencies’ progress in implementing the executive order. He reports that, so far, the agencies have retained an astounding 22,936 guidance documents. Notably, that number will increase because many agencies have not yet posted their guidance documents and agencies have another 120 days to amend their websites.

EO 13891 is not a panacea, nor has the administration claimed it to be. Nevertheless, it is a step toward reining in the vast administrative state, and that’s a critical issue. Public trust in government has been ticking downward since the Pew Charitable Trust started measuring it in 1958. That’s not a straight line down, and at seventeen percent in March 2019, it rates higher than the all-time low of ten percent in 2011. Nevertheless, trust has been drifting steadily downward since its early ratings above seventy percent.

Ultimately, judicial and congressional action will be needed to rein in the administrative state. But the executive branch can set the tone for that through the issuance of executive orders and insisting on accountability through the Office of Management and Budget. It is critical, though, that this be done. If not, Americans will grow ever more frustrated with their government and will lose all claim to being a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Thanks, Dad, for Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

Not long ago, I was sorting through some of my dad’s old papers and I came across a candy wrapper and a Father’s Day card tucked into an envelope that bore a March 2001 postmark from Rome. As soon as I saw it, it brought back happy memories of a sabbatical I spent living and working in Rome for several spring months.

One of the highlights of my stay was the chance to celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph Italian style. I have long thought that this strong, silent hero of the New Testament gets far less attention than he deserves. So, I was more than happy to take advantage of the chance to celebrate him.

First, of course, I honored him by indulging in (more than one) of the zeppole di San Giuseppe – a pastry made in his honor. I do not know the history of this sweet tradition, but that did not prevent me from following it with enthusiastic respect.

Second, I celebrated at a lively street festival. Although I lived in the shadows of Saint Peter’s Basilica, my local parish was dedicated to Saint Joseph. Thus, our festival was particularly exuberant. Talented chalk artists sketched beautiful portraits of Saint Joseph in the middle of the closed street and crowded sidewalk. A traditional procession of a floral wrapped statue wended its way through the crowd, and the sound of hymns – and other joyful noises — filled the evening air. In the windows of bakeries and bars were signs advertising – what else? – zeppole. Falling, as it does, in the heart of Lent, the Feast of Saint Joseph was the justification for a very welcome high-spirited celebration.

Third, however, and most personal to me, was the fact that Saint Joseph’s Day is also the day when Italians celebrate Father’s Day. That explained why I sent my Dad a Father’s Day card in March – along with some Italian chocolate I knew he would like. The fact that he had saved the card and the evidence of the long-gone chocolate warmed my heart and made me glad I had braved a crowded Roman post office to send it to him.

I like the link between rejoicing in Saint Joseph’s Day and celebrating Father’s Day. Sometimes I think that, like Saint Joseph, good fathers also get far less attention than they deserve. Fathers who are careless, absent, or worse, get attention while those who live their vocation well are often, like Saint Joseph, not noticed quite as much.

So, perhaps, when March 19th comes around, the Feast of Saint Joseph may be an occasion to be prayerfully grateful for loving dads if we are, or once were, blessed to have them journey with us through life.

Saint Joseph was asked to undertake a challenge he did not fully comprehend. Thanks to all those dads who face difficult challenges they do not understand and bear their struggles with strength, trust, and patient endurance.

Saint Joseph housed his family in a stable when that was the best he could find. Thanks to all those struggling dads who ache to give their families more in material comfort while they give them the shelter of great love.

Saint Joseph practiced his faith through his life of prayer and by following religious traditions with fidelity. Thanks to all those dads who, through their example, give their children the precious bequest of faith.

Saint Joseph spoke not a single word recorded in Scripture. Thanks to all those dads who work in quiet ways, not calling attention to themselves but putting the good of their families ahead of their own needs and wants.

Saint Joseph was a carpenter and made his living with the manual labor that was his art and his trade. Thanks to all those dads who work long hard hours in labor, art or trade to support their families, contribute to their communities, and glorify God through their work.

Saint Joseph searched for Jesus when, as a boy, Jesus stayed behind in a temple in Jerusalem after a family pilgrimage. Thanks to all those dads who seek for their own children when they are lost in so many different and heartbreaking ways.

Saint Joseph cared for his beloved during the months of her unexpected pregnancy. Thanks to all those dads who care for the mothers of their children as they carry their infants within them, especially when the circumstances are most difficult.

Saint Joseph loved and honored Mary. Thanks to all those dads who give their children a priceless gift when they love and honor their mother.

My own dad has finished his journey through this life. So, on March 19th, I cannot send him a card or candy as I once did. But now, like then, I can still offer him my thanks on Saint Joseph’s Day. And, in a particular way, I am thankful that my dad saved an old card and a candy wrapper. It reminded me to be grateful for the quiet way he walked with me through ordinary times.


Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Will America Ever Be a Socialist Nation?

by IHE Fellow Dr. Frederic Sautet

It was 1906 when German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart published Why is There No Socialism in the United States? Considering that European intellectuals had already been debating the merits of socialism for several decades by then, it was an intriguing question.

Both Europe and the United States confronted similar challenges in coping with the social and economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. All over Europe, Marxist ideas such as the proletariat revolution leading to the nationalization of entire industries, were seriously entertained. The Fabian Society, a socialist group founded in Britain in 1884, held great sway over workers and politicians.

By contrast, in the United States, though certainly there were some worker strikes during the Robber Barons era, no general socialist movement ever took hold. Owenite utopian communities did not last. In spite of its rapid industrialization, the United States never experienced the same sorts of demands for social services from the state that had such purchase in Europe. Even progressive reformers such as Herbert Croly cared more about taxing income and allowing women to vote than about a socialist revolution.

Why should this be? Alexis de Tocqueville once described America as “exceptional.” It was unlike any other nation because of its unique origins and geography, its lack of a feudal past, and its commercial habits of mind, and even some Marxists came to think this might be true: America was different. America, in some sense, was too busy building: new cities and new industries, yes, but also new fraternal associations, and mutual aid societies. Late 19th-century city life was very communal, as Jane Jacobs argues in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. America was an example of subsidiarity and solidarity in action.

The United States also had strong jurisdictional competition under the federal system, with vast expanses of land available where one could build one’s own life. And there was a political tradition rooted in individual liberty, religion, and associations. America in its essence could not be socialist, it was a commercial Republic, and its citizens looked to each other rather than the state to solve most problems.

Are we now witnessing the end of America as an exception to the rule of other nations? The popularity of some presidential candidates certainly suggests it. Let me offer a quick dual response to this question.

In so far as the mediating institutions Tocqueville admired have weakened (as they have since the New Deal and with the growth of federal transfers and public spending since WWII), and with them the practice of subsidiarity and solidarity, the ground for socialism is becoming more and more fertile. Many intellectuals, such as Allan Bloom, Robert Nisbet, and Michael Novak, have sounded this warning for decades.

I would argue, however, that the American political and economic tradition that rests on a mix of benevolent communitarianism, a healthy respect for the individual, and the spirit of enterprise is not dead — not yet. I witness these ideals still alive and thriving every day in my students and the businesses they interact with in the community. My students see the human person, not the state, as the solution to social and economic problems. And with the collapse of socialist countries such as Venezuela, they are aware that replacing God, the family, and business with government brings the greatest dangers.

If America is to maintain what made her “exceptional,” it is our responsibility to make sure the coming generation recognizes itself in a modern Tocquevillian view of the world: one in which individuals and communities solve social and economic problems through free enterprise and Christian love rather than the state.

A Bonus Day of Ordinary Time

By Lucia A. Silecchia

Happy Leap Day!

The elusive February 29th rolls around again this year, as it does in all years that are divisible by four – unless, oddly, they are years that are divisible by 100 but not by 400.

This quirky adjustment to the calendar has its origins in the astronomical reality that while ordinary years operate on the assumption that the earth takes 365 days to revolve around the sun, the reality is, inconveniently, not so neat. A solar year, in fact, takes about 365 days and six hours to complete.

In 1582, with the assistance of astronomers and mathematicians, Pope Gregory XIII tackled this problem by instituting the “Gregorian Calendar” still used today. He added a leap year every four years that would allow the calendar to “catch up” with astronomy. Adding an extra day quadrennially would compensate for the additional quarter day needed each year for the earth to rotate around the sun. This special day would right the wrong before it had much chance to wreak havoc with the ways we mark the seasons of the year and the orderly passage of time. While in any given year this six-hour discrepancy may not amount to a significant deviation, over time this could become significant. In a single life span of eighty years, this would shift the days of the year by twenty days – with a significant impact on the correlation of seasons and holidays to the months of the year

Because of its rarity, February 29th attracts attention, folklore and myths. “Leaplings” who celebrate their birthdays on February 29th have a special celebration this year. Happy birthday to you! The fact that February 29th falls on a Saturday will undoubtedly inspire leap-related festivities. Newspaper articles offer suggestions on how to make the most of the leap year, while some businesses have been advertising special promotions and events to mark this quadrennial event. There seems to be something in human nature that wants to celebrate days that are special, unique or different from other days.

This reality seems a bit more acute to me this year because “Leap Day” falls in the same week as Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Because of this, the thought has crossed my mind that, in a very real way, Lent may be for our souls what Leap Day is for our calendars.

Leap Day is a special time to reset the clock of the world when, over time, it grows out of order and departs from what is ideal, perfect and good. Likewise, our journeys through life since last Lent may also have departed from what is ideal, perfect, and good. Maybe these departures have been small and easy to overlook – just like the six-hour annual discrepancy in counting our days. Yet, over time they can have a significant impact on our relationships with God and with each other. So, every year we are blessed with the season of Lent. It is the gift not merely of a single day to rest our calendars but of forty days to begin anew and to reset our hearts once again.

Every year, Lent is the opportunity to journey again toward Christ with a special season in which to do it. Lent – a word that literally means “spring” – is an annual chance to prepare for a new springtime for the soul when it has grown winter weary. It is a springtime that comes after a season to notice the things that may slowly be separating us from each other and from God. It is a chance to make those things right again through prayer, fasting, almsgiving – and through the ways that only our own hearts know.

A single special Leap Day helps right the misadventures in the way we mark our time. More importantly, the forty special days of Lent can help right the misadventures in the way we live our lives, imperfectly, in ordinary times.

Wishing you a happy Leap Day … and a blessed Lent.


Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Newspaper Covers M.A. in Human Rights Program

By J-P Mauro

In the fall of 2019, The Catholic University of America is rolling out a new graduate program in which students can earn a Master’s degree in Human Rights. The course load is unique in that it is the first such program to approach the subject from a Catholic perspective. CUA is now accepting applications for enrollment for the Fall 2020 semester.

Although the degree is offered through CUA’s Institute for Human Ecology (IHE), it is a mult-disciplinary program that takes students through classes in philosophy, law, canon law, and theology and religious studies. While these classes are offered through the many specialized schools of the university, the degrees are issued through the school of Arts and Sciences.

Read more here.

Originally published on 30 January 2020 at Aleteia.

Thinking and Acting Institutionally in 2020

By Daniel E. Burns

Levin argues that “at the heart of our broader social crisis” is “the weakness of our institutions—from the family on up through the national government, with much in between.” He points out that, by most easily measurable criteria, our country faced much greater challenges in the thirties or late sixties: what is new today is not the strength of our common challenges but only our collective weakness in confronting them, which in turn can be traced to the weakness of our formative institutions. “Breaking away from institutional commitments can seem like liberation, but it more often feels like isolation—cold and lonely and pointless, devoid of love and loyalty,” like too much of American life today.

Read more here.

Originally published on 27 January 2020 at Public Discourse

IHE Executive Director Joe Capizzi on Just War Theory

The Fifth Commandment tells us, “thou shalt not kill.” Yet, killing is integral to warfare. How, then, can war be justified? Philosophers have grappled with that question for centuries. Saint Augustine, a Fourth Century Catholic thinker, developed a theory of “just war” that remains influential in the postmodern era. In this edition of Catholic Military Life, the only official podcast of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, Catholic University of America Theology Professor Dr. Joseph Cipazzo, Ph.D., explores Saint Augustine’s “just war” theory, and how it applies to current-day conflicts.

Listen here

Originally published on 28 January 2020 at Catholic Military Life

527,040 Minutes of Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

This year, I managed to stay awake until the clock struck midnight to usher in a brand new year and decade. The attention that the turning of this page received in both the secular and religious senses reflects the importance we place on the passage of time. We mark major epochs in important ways as our midnight festivities call to mind the sacredness of the gift of time.

Yet, while large blocks of time receive celebratory attention when they come and go, lowly minutes are often overlooked as they slip by. Our lives, though, are lived by the minute – not just in the hour, week, month or year. So, perhaps while we welcome the start of 2020, it may be worth celebrating not just the significance of a brand new year but the gift of the 527,040 minutes from which it will be knitted. (1,440 bonus minutes for the leap year day!)

Why celebrate the mere minute? During the course of the year will lie many minutes, still hidden from our view, in which important things will happen that are unplanned and unscheduled precisely because they happen so quickly and may seem insignificant at the time.

There will be the minute when we send a quick text to a friend – and it will brighten his day when he needs it the most. There will be the minute when we decide to let a harried mother ahead of us in line – and it may be the only kindness she will see all day. There will be the minute before dinner when we bow our heads to pray silently in a restaurant – and it may be just enough to awaken gratitude in someone else. There will be the minute when we put down our phones to let a child flaunt her loose tooth or glittery art project – and show her how important she is to us.

There will be the minute when we are tempted to say something unkind in anger – and summon the grace to stay silent. And, there will be the minute when are tempted to let a wrong go conveniently uncorrected – and summon the grace not to stay silent.

There will be the minute when our eyes meet those of a troubled old man on the street – and our “hello” may be the only greeting he hears all week. There will be the minute when we say no to an old temptation – or the sadder minute when we give in to a new one. There will be the minute when we decide to give a student, a child, a co-worker or a relative the benefit of the doubt – and the minute that one of them gives that benefit back to us.

There will be the minute when we impulsively say “yes” to a new project or challenge — and the course of our life may be changed forever. There will be the minute we casually greet a stranger – and he or she turns out to be a friend for the rest of our lives.

There will be the minute when the mere expression on our face can make a difference in the way a person struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, an unexpected job loss, or a fearful heart can face the future. There will be the minute when — perhaps out of habit — we say a heartfelt prayer for a stranger when we stop to let an ambulance rush him to the hospital or a hearse slowly carry her to her place of rest. That prayer may help his body and her soul more than we will ever know.

There will be the minute when life seems overwhelmingly difficult, and, in despair, the name of God is all that we are able to say. Then, there will be the minute when life seems overwhelmingly beautiful and, with gratitude, the name of God is all we will want to say.

There will be the sacred minutes when new lives enter this world and the sacred minutes when those in this world leave it behind for eternity, when minutes will matter no more.

Until then, though, the minutes of the year to come are worth cherishing for all of the promise that they hold. At the threshold of this new year, we might think we have already planned out the months, the weeks, the days and the hours as events, obligations and celebrations have been inked on our calendars.

But we have not – and cannot yet – account for the humble minutes of the year. It is those minutes that will hold the things we will look back on most vividly when this year draws to a close. Only then will we know what those minutes held and all that unfolded in them. Right now, this minute holds a prayer for God’s loving help, guidance, and strength for the next 527,040 minutes of ordinary times.

Happy New Year!

 

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Christ Comes to Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

The most ordinary of pictures hung in the foyer of my parents’ home. It was, to be sure, a picture of extraordinary people – a muted, faded depiction of Mary holding a newly born Christ in her arms.

It was a picture with no quantifiable value. As newlyweds, my parents had visited the National Gallery of Art, liked this picture, and bought copies to bring home.

As is true of so many things that seem ordinary, I walked past that picture dozens of times a day and scarcely noticed it.  In a small home with a center foyer, it was nearly impossible to go anywhere without walking past that picture. Yet, it did not demand attention. Whether I noticed it or not, that picture of Mary and Christ was, quite literally, at the heart of our home.

Several years ago, however, I saw that picture in a new light. I was in my parents’ home playing with a toddler who, at the time, was the baby of our family. I was bouncing him in my arms when the picture caught his eye. It was at his eye level and he paused to look at it. He pointed to the image of the infant Christ, smiled, and proudly announced his own name. He was so used to being the youngest and smallest in any family photo he saw that, I guess, he simply assumed that any baby in any picture had to be him.

I was amused by his confident confusion. At the time, I certainly did not see much similarity between the lively boy sans halo squirming in my arms eager to play and the calm, serene child in the picture whose tranquil face gazed back at us from the embrace of His mother’s arms.

In the years since, I have looked at that picture again many times. Indeed, I have a copy in my own home now. I have also come to think that, perhaps, the beloved baby of my own family was wiser than I thought. As Christmas comes, I believe this more than ever.

He noticed the picture of Mary and Christ with fresh, appreciative eyes in a way that I did not. So often, the account of Christmas is so well known, so widely depicted, and so often read that it can be easy to forget how truly awesome that first Christmas was – and how awesome it remains. As an adult with things to do and places to go, I can so easily walk past a beautiful picture depicting Christmas day and not even notice it. Sometimes it takes a child’s wonder to make new something that should never grow old or routine.

Much more than that, though, was the simple beauty in the way a young child looked at a picture of the infant Christ and so naturally and confidently saw the humanity of God. He looked at the picture and saw a child like himself. In that, he saw the inexplicable, incomprehensible beauty of Christmas.

He saw that the Creator of the Universe became a child like him.

He saw that the Savior of the world became a child like him.

He saw that the Redeemer prophesized about and longed for through the hopeful echoes of the centuries became a child like him.

He saw that the King of Kings became a child like him.

He saw that the God of all eternity entered time and became a child like him.

He reminded me once again that the great beauty of Christmas is so simple and yet so indescribably profound. As announced by angels to shepherds on a starry long-ago night and announced to me every day in a faded, oft-overlooked picture, God loves us so much that He became a child. He deigned to dwell in our ordinary times.

Merry Christmas!

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Past columns in the series may be found here. 

Fasting for Body and Soul

By Professor Jay Richards, Ph.D.

Christians used to fast—a lot. But I never made it a regular discipline until a few years ago. Part of the problem was that I (erroneously) thought that going more than a few hours without food was bad for my health.

Besides, if fasting were so important, why did the Church in her (current) wisdom require so little of it? Our little Lenten abstinences and that hour before communion hardly qualify. These are mere vestiges of a practice that’s mostly died out.

Indeed, I first caught a glimpse of the effects of fasting by accident. I had to go without food for a day and half before a medical procedure and did not suffer the symptoms I had feared. So, out of curiosity, I researched the subject, and found that thousands (and soon to be millions) of people were fasting, not so much for its spiritual but for its physical benefits. This wasn’t just self-help flim flam. There was a growing body of scientific evidence to back this up.

The more I read, and the more I experimented with it, the more convinced I became that we abandoned fasting to our own physical and spiritual detriment. (One of the ironic symptoms of this is that we’ve lost much of the meaning of our feasts.)

But there was a gap in the growing literature on fasting. There are dozens of books that extol the physical benefits of either fasting, high-fat/low-carb diets, or some blend of both. In a parallel universe, there are plenty of evangelical books that extol the spiritual benefits of fasting—a deeper prayer life, victory over sin, renewal of church community, and the like.

Then, over yonder, there are some Catholic books that argue we should fast as a sacrifice. Some authors do so half-heartedly, for fear that someone will think they’re calling for the bad-old-days before Vatican II, when Catholics were legalistic and supposedly lacked a personal relationship with Jesus.

For instance, in his book The Spirituality of Fasting, Msgr. Charles Murphy “sharply delineates” what he calls “dieting and supervised fasts” from “the religious practice of fasting.” He’s right that we should fast for wholesome spiritual reasons. It doesn’t follow, though, that we must ignore the other reasons, and set them at odds with the spirit.

There was, in short, a void where books linking body and soul should exist. After encouragement from others, I decided I try to help fill the void.

In Eat, Fast, Feast, I seek to make the case for a fasting lifestyle. I tout the physical, cognitive, and spiritual benefits of fasting (and feasting). I challenge the notion that anyone who fasts for proper spiritual reasons should not seek mental and physical benefits. After all, if we are unities of body and soul, of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, should we not assume that if fasting is good for us, then it’s good for us overall—body, mind, and soul?

Human Rights Program Director Reflects on the 71st Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By William Saunders, JD

This is a year of many anniversaries related to human rights, such as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 20th anniversary of the crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party against the Falun Gong, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But there is another anniversary, too often forgotten, that, in many ways, serves as a basis for our evaluation of, and judgments on, current events in light of our shared commitment to human rights.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly announced and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration, adopted unanimously, states certain rights that must be respected, among them the right to life, the right to religious freedom, and the right to marry and found a family.   It is a remarkable achievement, reflecting a consensus among the diverse collection of nations that make up the UN, nations that hardly ever agree on anything.  But they agreed this time.  Why?  Because, following the utter devastation of World War II, which was unlike anything that had preceded it, they believed that a commitment to human rights was the only thing that could prevent the world from falling into a third world war, one that might mean the very end of humanity itself.

The Declaration is not perfect, and some criticize it on various grounds, such as that it is an incoherent “shopping list”.  Those alive today face the perennial question: is the glass half full or half empty?  The Popes, particularly John Paul II, have not stinted from seeing the glass as half full.  True, it fails to enunciate a coherent underlying theory that would unify the rights recognized; however, it, at least, recognizes the existence of these rights and it insists they must be respected.  So the glass is half-full. To vary the metaphor, we can build on that.

And how are we to go about building a sturdy doctrine of human rights?  Just as John Paul II did – by proposing, to all people of good will, an understanding of human rights built upon the teaching of the Church in its social doctrine.  That deeper understanding will unify the “list,” as well as guide us when we need to consider whether to add to the list.  And this deeper understanding is what we aim to provide in our master of arts degree in human rights.  The Declaration is a fundamental tool in this dialogue among people of good will, and we celebrate its anniversary.

Trading Ordinary Times for Advent

By Lucia A. Silecchia

Recently, I was standing in a checkout line behind two women deep in conversation. I could not help overhearing that one was recently widowed and struggling to adjust to this new season of life.  Most of their conversation, however, was drowned out by the lilting strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” playing over the loudspeakers while Halloween candy was still in the aisles.

I could – but won’t! – gripe about the seasonal creep that may soon have us singing “Jingle Bells” on the 4th of July. Instead, that moment of odd juxtaposition reminded me that, for many, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas holds a measure of sorrow.

Like the stranger shopping with me, many are dreading their first Christmas without a loved one.  Others are facing their second, or ninth, or twenty-seventh Christmas without a loved one when the blessed numbness of the first year has passed and the reality of loss has truly sunk in. There are some who expect with dread that this may be the last Christmas they will share with a suffering family member or friend. There are some passing the first season when an adult child will not be able to come home. This may be the first Christmas away from the family home because downsizing or simple economics mean the home was sold and the large table that had long been the setting for family feasts is no more. It may be the season when a deployment keeps a member of the military away from home – knowing he or she will miss a child’s first Christmas or a grandparent’s last.

This may be the first Christmas season that the elders of a family, with both relief and regret, surrender hosting duties to a younger generation – or the first time that the family chef can no longer make a cherished traditional dish. This may be the season when images of joyful families hurt the hearts of those whose families have borne the pain of divorce and estrangement. The centrality of children in this season centered on the birth of a child can take a toll on those who ache to have a child and do not or cannot.

Some face the season in poverty, knowing they cannot give their loved ones grand tokens of their affection and fearing that they will disappoint those nearest and dearest. Others have seen some manifestation of a dark side to human nature in this past year – and whatever they have seen has made it far too difficult to hope or rejoice. Others have no time or energy to celebrate because they silently work multiple jobs or scramble to care for those unable to care for themselves. Still others know they will not celebrate Christmas in their own homes because they will be keeping vigil with loved ones in hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes.

Some parents will face a pang of loss this season if their children announce they have grown skeptical of Santa. Other parents will face a far greater, more poignant pain if their children confide they have grown skeptical of God.

For some, the cares of life may have robbed them of a bit of their own faith in a season when it is yearned for the most.

As we leave Ordinary Time for a spell and begin Advent, we enter the season that seems particularly meant for those who carry great burdens. All appearances to the contrary, Advent is not the season of the jolly songs and frantic festivities of Christmas. It comes in the darkest days of the year when the nights are the longest and light most scarce. It is a season that recalls the ancient world’s aching wait for Christ, yearning for the tidings of great joy that had not yet come. It is not a season of red and green and gold and silver, but of purple – because the joy promised is hoped for, but not yet here.

If you are facing Christmas this year with sorrow in your heart, I hope that you will find comfort in believing that, truly, Advent is the season for you. It is the season for all those who hope for what they do not have, and who yearn to see light after a season of darkness.

If you are seeking a new tradition this year, particularly if this year has treated you well, I have a gentle suggestion. On the first Sunday of Advent, remember all those you know whose hearts might be aching a bit. Devote some time to them that day as we enter this season of yearning, waiting, and hoping in the darkness. A visit, an email, a text, a letter, a phone call or the promise of prayer might be exactly what they need to know that they do not wait alone for the light to dawn.

The first Sunday of Advent seems the perfect time to assure those who suffer that Advent is, in the words of ancient carols, a time to “rest beside the weary road” until, once again, “a weary world rejoices.” It is a season to help each other move toward Christmas peace by sharing the burdens of ordinary times.

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Past columns in the series may be found here. 

On the Supreme Court’s Horizon: Presidential Power

By Emmett McGroarty

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case with significant implications regarding the powers of the presidency. The case, Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, concerns the power of the president to remove the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The salient facts are straightforward. Through the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Congress established CFPB and vested it with immense powers, including the enforcement of nineteen federal consumer protection statutes. It housed CFPB within the Federal Reserve System as an “independent bureau” and placed it under the leadership of a single director appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The petitioner is a law firm that provides a variety of legal services to consumers and is the target of a CFPB civil investigation. CFPB demanded certain records from petitioner, and petitioner objected asserting that the CFPB structure violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. The question being presented to the Court is whether Congress can create an independent agency that is headed by a single person—as opposed to a board or commission—who is removable only for cause.

Petitioner’s case rests on Article II of the Constitution providing, at Section 1, that “[t]he executive Power shall be vested in a President of the Unites States of America” and, at Section 3, that the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  In this regard, the Supreme Court recently noted:

The Constitution that makes the President accountable to the people for executing the laws also gives him the power to do so. That power includes, as a general matter, the authority to remove those who assist him in carrying out his duties. Without such power, the President could not be held fully accountable for discharging his own responsibilities . . . .

Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477, 513-14 (2010).

Seila did not arise in isolation. It is the byproduct of the progressive ideology that took root in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, social scientists optimistically proclaimed that the “science of administration” could solve society’s great ills if they were given sufficient authority and resources.

From the progressive viewpoint, the problem is that the Constitution does not leave room for such experts to wield the necessary power. It created cumbersome checks and balances that make each branch deferential to the defined powers of the other branches, and it enshrined the protection of individual rights as a paramount concern. Both of these facets impaired the efficiency of the expert. Work-arounds to the Constitution were needed.

One such work-around was the creation of the independent agency. Under that scheme, experts would be insulated from accountability and would have the leeway to make the ostensibly

correct decisions. Congress would delegate to the executive broad powers that would often include swaths of legislative, judicial, and executive power. Most important, the expert would be insulated from the office of the president; in particular, the president would not have direct supervision over the agency and would be unable to fire agency heads except for cause. From 1887 through 2010, Congress created at least twenty-five major independent agencies (with well over half having been created after 1966).

In Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), the Supreme Court upheld the creation of independent agencies. The Court reasoned that Congress had intended the Federal Trade Commission to be “wholly disconnected from the executive department” and to be in part quasi-legislative and in part quasi-judicial. The Court further reasoned that, given that the FTC’s duties were not “purely” executive, Congress could properly insulate its leadership from the presidency. Legal theorists rationalized that the end-runs of the Constitution’s checks and balances were mitigated by statutory or de facto constructs that protected liberty.

CFPB’s authorizing legislation adds a further wrinkle. Unlike other independent agencies, it is headed by a single director—not a board or commission—making the director even more powerful vis-a-vis the President and the departure from the Constitution even more radical than the Court’s decision in Humphrey’s Executor.

Seila Law promises to be an intriguing decision. Will the Court invalidate CFPB’s authorizing legislation on the grounds that it impermissibly puts an independent agency under the control of a single person? If so, will it declare the whole statue unconstitutional, or simply sever the offending provision? Will it issue a more robust decision that limits or overturns the rule in Humphrey’s Executor on the grounds that even that violates the Constitutional design of a unitary Executive?  The decision could profoundly other agencies as well as the relationship between the people and their government.

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