The Cast of Ordinary Times

By IHE Fellow Lucia A. Silecchia

A beloved cashier at my local supermarket passed away last month. The outpouring of sympathy and affection on our community listserv came quickly as the neighborhood remembered her kindness, her interest in our lives, and her impressive ability to remember our names.

As a new year unfolds, she is on my mind a great deal as I have thought about how many people like her fill my life. So often, in the cast of characters who gladden my days, I direct most of my attention to those who have the leading roles: my family, my dearest friends and my closest colleagues.

Yet, every now and then, something happens that makes me realize how rich my life is because of all those people who play what seem to be minor supporting roles—and play them so well. They are the people whose presence I often fail to notice—and whose absence would leave an indescribable void.

This cast includes the conductor on the train I take so often, who asks about my day and worries when he hasn’t seen me for a while; the desk clerk in my building who is the first to say “welcome home” when my day is done; the usher at my parish church who always asked about my parents if he didn’t see them on a Sunday morning; and the unknown toddler who to my delight and her parents’ embarrassed pride offered me a stuffed giraffe during the sign of peace at a Sunday Mass.

Also in the cast are the nurse at a hospital who, while caring for my mother, saw my own fatigue, and found me a drink and a sandwich;  the longtime cafeteria worker at Catholic University who greets me with the warmest of embraces whenever I have an emergency craving for French fries; the long ago college professor whose annual Christmas cards were a cherished link to the past; and the patient worker at the bakery who sorts through a pile of nearly identical fresh baked rolls to find me the one she deems best.

This supporting cast also includes the red capped porters at Union Station who kindly held my dad’s luggage on his final trip to Washington so that he and I could go, unencumbered, to have breakfast at McDonald’s for what we both knew would be the last time. Also numbered in the cast are the stranger on line behind me at the coffee shop on a dreary day who tells me she likes my shoes; a neighbor who always shoveled the snow from my parents’ walkway as they grew older; and a kindly nun in Rome who once gave me a ticket to spend the Easter Vigil with Saint John Paul II.

The credits should also include the stranger on a subway who saw my eyes tear up when I was listening to a sad song through my headphones and, concerned, asked if I was ok; a neighbor who handed me a bright fistful of daisies when I admired her garden;  a friend whose texts remind me that she’ll be praying for me on days that she knows will hold special challenges; and students from classes long ago who drop me a line to say they got a new job, welcomed a child, celebrated a marriage, or used something I taught them.

The cast also includes many who inspire my faith—the elderly woman who lights candles in church every morning and closes her eyes to speak to God with a steady confidence and the teenage girl who, thinking no one was watching, made a silent sign of the cross before embarking on a task that frightened her.

And, the cast includes a cashier at my local supermarket who knew my name.

I have never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I have made too many, and broken too many. But, if I were to make resolutions this year—and 2021 seems as good a year for a fresh start as ever there was—they might be these:

First, I want to notice with greater appreciation and gratitude all of those who play these important roles in my life. They are roles that seem so minor and mundane until I contemplate what life would be like without them.  It is an old cliché of the theater that “there are no small roles.” I am slowly coming to realize that this is true of life as well. There is no role played by anyone in my life that is too small to be a great, irreplaceable blessing.

Second, I want to be more aware of the fact that I am also part of the supporting cast in the lives of many others. The strangers I meet and the fleeting encounters that fill my day are also chances to give to others a great, irreplaceable blessing like the ones I receive in abundance. This year may be the year I search a bit more and pray a bit more for the script so I can play that supporting role for others as best as I can.

As a New Year dawns, I do not know how the drama of 2021 will unfold and what scenes will play out in the months ahead. But I know that this new year begins with gratitude for the entire cast of my ordinary times.

Happy New Year! Wishing you health, happiness and holiness.

 

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.

Beauty Comes to Ordinary Times

By IHE Fellow Lucia A. Silecchia

 

It happens every year.

I am an overly avid collector of Christmas tree ornaments. All year, they stay stashed away on shelves in the closet, crammed in storage boxes in the garage, and tucked away in places I forget until I rediscover them when I am seeking my summer clothes at the end of April. But, as December unfolds, they leave their boxes, bags and wrappers for their turn in the spotlight.

To be honest, the spotlight is not all that magnificent. I have a fake Christmas tree of such poor quality that it drops needles almost as much as a real tree would shed. The fake needles are also flocked with fake snow that also sheds, adding to the messy drama in my living room window. Every year I plan to replace it — and every year I never get around to it.

As I unwrap the ornaments and find places for them on my increasingly crowded tree, I see snapshots of my life. There are the amateurish ornaments my siblings and I created in school. Although they are not things of beauty, my parents cherished them — and I keep them in all their felt and glitter glory. There are ornaments that are souvenirs from events long passed that bring back annual memories. Many ornaments I have brought home from travels, and in so many different ways they reflect Christmas joy from many corners of the world.

There are some that are fragile pieces of art, depicting holiness in beautiful ways. Then, there are others that are worn out and cracked treasures from the five-and-dime that are far past their prime. Yet, they too come out every year.

There are so many that were gifts to me from loved ones — some who are still with me, and many who are not. There are those that were sent to me by charities seeking donations, from local businesses seeking publicity, and from institutions sacred and profane seeking connections. All of them find a place on the spindly branches of my tree.   There are so many that are cat-themed, and the feline vibe competes with fake icicles, glass donuts and coffee cups (my friends know me well!), cloth animals, and Disney characters.

There is an angel made of cardboard and tinsel that my parents gave me when I had my first tree in my first dormitory. From the top branch, she still presides over this spectacle every year.

I look at pictures of Christmas trees in home design magazines that encourage readers to select a color motif, to pick an ornament theme, and to carefully “curate” the décor on the tree. That clearly does not happen in my home, where ornaments are “curated” only on the basis of what I can find in any given year. When all the ornaments have landed on the tree, the result is charitably described as eclectic.

Yet, every year, when I turn on the lights and illuminate this cacophony for the very first time, and it stands in its messy glory with my grandparents’ crèche nestled beneath its branches, my heart says once again, “It is beautiful.”

Like life itself, it is messy. The tree holds that which is beautiful, fragile, expensive and reverent. And, it holds what is indescribably tacky. It holds that which is childish and that which is faded. It holds memories that bring joy and those that bring wistful yearning.  It holds those things that make me laugh, and those things that make me shake my head and wonder how I could ever have seen beauty in them. It holds those things brought home from around the world, and those things made at the kitchen table, the center of my world. Yet, as messy as this is, when it is wrapped in the light of Christmas and embraces a cherished crèche, it is beautiful.

This year — perhaps more so than ever — we bring to Christmastime the joys, sorrows, happy memories, sad memories, fragile dreams, crushed plans, new loves, old loves, lost loves, hopes, griefs, laughter and tears of our lives. We bring those things that have strengthened our souls and strained our spirits. Like the ornaments on my tree, they are not organized, themed, curated or planned. They are simply the pieces of life itself.  My prayer is that at Christmas, when all of these pieces of our lives are wrapped in the light of Christmas and embrace a cherished crèche — not of plaster, but the real thing — we can whisper, with hope, “It is beautiful.”

May you be blessed with joy, hope and peace at Christmas – when sacred beauty comes to 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.

Pope Saint John Paul II: The Saint who Recalled Our Nature

By IHE Fellow Maximilian B. Torres

On the centenary of Pope Saint John Paul II’s birth, I would like to offer a brief reflection on his magisterial gifts to the Church and to articulate why I consider him the greatest person to grace the public stage during my lifetime. With Pope Saint John Paul II raised to the glory of the altars, we could see what God had made of His instrument. The life and work of John Paul II remind us of the constitution of our nature: persons are made to be in relationship with God and others in truth.

Saint John Paul II entered papal service after the shock of Pope John Paul I’s untimely death. The new pope began by teaching and lifting our spirits during a time of uncertainty: exhorting us, as Christ did, not to be afraid. Throughout his papacy, he reoriented our sights on the Trinity, reminding us that God himself, while One, is at the same time a relationship of love between persons.

His continual focus was on the person, the subject in relation to Christ, without whom we cannot know ourselves. In all he taught, Saint John Paul II focused on the “subject,” yet in an objective way, as a person endowed with dignity who is called to live in accordance with the truth embedded in knowable reality and in relation with the One who is Truth. In doing so — learnedly, relentlessly, inexorably — he freed us from the vicissitudes of doubt, skepticism, and despair, as well as their root intellectual missteps in subjectivism, relativism, solipsism, nominalism, and more. “My truth” may very well be the person’s most evident and pressing reality, but it is paltry thing considered in the light of the subject’s relation to God.

Pope Saint John Paul’s articulation of who we are as persons objectively orients us towards God, because we are wed to the transcendent order in which God “is.” He taught in the name of the Church that philosophical, social, cultural, legal, political, and economic spheres must attend to and respect the nature of persons as made in the image and likeness of God. In a remarkable series of encyclicals, Saint John Paul II taught that the personal subject is bound to truth. Without binding ourselves to truth, he exhorted, we can never fulfill the capacities of human nature. For example, in Centessimus annus, he addressed the subject of society who lives the truth in economic, political and cultural circumstances. In Veritatis splendor, he addressed the subject of free choice who adheres to the truth gleaned in law by conscience. In Fides et ratio he dealt with the subject of knowledge who knows the truth through reflection on natural and supernatural realities.

Pope Saint John Paul II reminded us of who we were when we floundered in devices of our own making. Beyond the restoration of morale and reinvigoration of evangelical zeal grounded in reality rather than mere exuberance, he left us a corpus worthy of prayerful reflection, study, and promulgation, for which I am eternally grateful and upon which I am professionally indebted as a professor of business. I wish to express my thanks as a gift on his 100th birthday.

Maximilian B. Torres is a professor of business ethics at The Catholic University of America.

Neighborhood Solidarity and the Preservation of the American Experiment

By Emmett McGroarty, J.D., and Brendan McGroarty, Ph.D.

 

This is a great time to be alive, because we have cause to defend the American Experiment against those who would discard it forever. Although big, national issues are important as always, that’s not where this fight will be won or lost. Rather, the outcome will depend on our day-to-day decisions.

 

This is a cultural battle, and it so because, as government became more centralized, “political” has come to mean the care of our country by someone else — something that is outside our day-to-day lives. Perhaps, like a gentleman farmer, we dabble in it for curiosity or to challenge on one or two issues. But we do not care for it as a whole, and we do not act as if it were the lifeblood of our liberty. The fashionable man even proudly proclaims that he does not pay attention to politics.

 

Nonetheless, as a practical matter the American Experiment rests on the idea that the everyman will affirm and build on it every day. This means accepting the description of the individual in the Declaration of Independence and its sourcing of our freedom, equal to all, in the Creator. That notion of freedom is akin to biblical teachings and can be said to flow partly from them. The charge to exercise dominion over the earth challenges man to recognize freedom in others, and to imitate the Creator by doing so. Thus, to freely bring order to the world, one must recognize others’ equal freedom and create associative bonds with them. When acting in this way, the person constantly creates in two respects: the products, services, discussions, and decisions made and the bonds formed among the parties. Those dynamics undergird a cohesive, well-functioning society.

 

In this regard, one of the framers’ great achievements was American federalism, which at its core preserved the space for people to shape their lives and communities. That decentralized system fosters an appreciation for reaching out to others to discuss, deliberate, and chart the course of one’s community. It constantly draws the citizen away from radical individualism and toward the appreciation of others and the common good. Through it, he experiences the peaceful use of freedom, develops empathy, and gains confidence in the overall system of government. Unfortunately, this feature of American government — the constant care of our society and, with that, of our founding — is in terrible disrepair, and the consequences are alarming.

 

During the 70s and 80s, in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., we witnessed the beauty of such constant care. To be sure, the neighborhood did not have the benefit of robust local power that Alexis de Tocqueville championed. But that’s the point. The people still had the full force of the spirit of constant care. Perhaps that was because they were steadfastly intent on forming a good environment for their children. Perhaps it was because they held such activity precious due to local history. At that point, the Nation’s Capital had only recently shed the chains of segregation. Furthermore, city residents did not have the power to elect their own mayor and city council until 1974, made possible when the Home Rule Act was passed by Congress and ratified by the residents.

 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this corner of Washington, D.C., Brookland sits adjacent to The Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Back then it was a modest, aesthetically pleasing neighborhood of family homes, a few inconspicuous apartment buildings, numerous Catholic religious institutions, and a vibrant array of Protestant churches. It had a quaint shopping area, referred to as “Twelfth Street,” replete with a bakery, deli, “five and dime,” and short-order restaurant. The adults were employed in a diverse assortment of jobs, some white-collar and some blue-collar.

 

The most striking thing about the Brookland of that era was the adults’ passion for caring for their families and their neighborhood. That meant undertaking the usual tasks of teaching the faith and minding the schoolwork. It meant addressing the business of society, and in those days that included the mundane as well as the tragic. Rev. King and Bobby Kennedy had recently been assassinated. The wounds of the Vietnam war lingered, as siblings of classmates and sons of neighbors had been engulfed in it. Turmoil spilled into the streets of Washington. A curfew was imposed. The pall of drugs descended on the city. And the federal government tried to pave a freeway through the neighborhood.

 

On issue after issue, the neighborhood residents took care of the business of building society. They organized community meetings, met with police, city officials, and their Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (the commissions were established to bring people closer to government and the government closer to the people). They respectfully discussed the issues before them and figured out their responses. Regardless of background, they stepped forward to lend their equal share of moral and strategic authority to their community. Through that process they esteemed each other, a phenomenon especially significant to the children. Their deeds strengthened community solidarity and formed individual bonds among the participants. They were making things better, creating hope for the future, and modeling the best of America. They were statesmen of the highest order.

 

Their example is of particular significance these days. Over the last century, as centralized bureaucracy has been given more power, citizens have been pushed out of the business of building society. That was as planned. In the late 1800s, structural progressives began advocating for a robust bureaucracy staffed with experts trained in the new science of administration. Such experts, it was contended, could better manage society if they had sufficient authority. To accomplish this, vast swaths of power would have to be transferred from the states to the federal government, from the legislature to the bureaucracy and, once there, insulated in varying degrees from political accountability. Writing in Philanthropy magazine in 1996, Richard Cornuelle decried this centralization as a radical change to the citizen’s role. Echoing Tocqueville, he argued that it is, “the real root cause of the evident loss of the feeling of cohesion and solidarity.”

 

Given all this, it is not surprising that America stands on the precipice. We have abandoned the day-to-day care of our culture. We have failed to protect the practice and right of free speech, which Frederick Douglass argued was “the dread of tyrants” and “the great moral renovator of society and government.” We have ignored education content and acquiesced in the disconnection of children from their culture. We fail to acknowledge the majesty in which the American Experiment holds each person. We are failing in, as Abraham Lincoln termed it, our duty to transmit to succeeding generations “a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” Our government cannot last if that continues.

 

We cannot assume that we will fix government in time to save our country. But the people of yesteryear’s Brookland show us the way forward. We have to rise above the forces that shunt us to the shadows and intimidate us into withdrawing from the business of society. Despite the disincentives of centralization, we have to turn away from radical individualization and re-engage in the care of our culture. We must do it personally and everywhere, and not just on one or two national matters. In our conversations, we must voice disapproval of political intolerance and violence, and we must champion the virtues of free, rational discourse. We must constantly attend to education content, and so much more. We must do these things continually and directly, not just during an election. Harkening Winston Churchill, we must prove ourselves once again able to defend the American Experiment, to ride out the storm of intolerance and indifference, and to outlive the menaces of political violence, if necessary for years. We must go on to the end.

 

Emmett McGroarty, J.D., is Director of the Program on the Constitution and Catholic Social Doctrine at The Institute for Human Ecology. His brother, Brendan McGroarty, has a Ph.D. in theology from Catholic University and is a hospice chaplain.

The Peace of Advent – and of Ordinary Times

By IHE Fellow Lucia A. Silecchia

 

2020 is the year of Advent!

Well, that is a presumptuous declaration to make as there has been a “year of Advent” since the first millennium. But, the truth is, so often I have let it pass unnoticed.

As a child, I saw Advent as a purple draped season that lay like an eternity between me and the magic of Christmas morning. It had some likeable traditions like Advent wreaths and Advent calendars and the grammar school Jesse trees we made each year. But, more often than not, I eagerly anticipated its conclusion at the expense of experiencing its unfolding. I would like to say that I have outgrown this. Yet, I have to admit that, for me, Advent is all too often overlooked in the hustle and bustle of my typical December.

However, 2020 is different – and I think this may be the year that Advent will finally get its due.

My December calendar this year is . . . oddly empty. Usually, this month is filled with many joyful events that I anticipate every year: Christmas parties, concerts, tree lightings, open houses, dinners with friends and family, and road trips to visit the far flung. Added to this happy mix are the many traditions associated with the life of Catholic University that I am blessed to share: gatherings with students, colleagues and alumni to celebrate, a faculty and staff-served pancake dinner for students taking final exams, concerts by our music students, and the liturgies that draw us together in celebration.

This year, though, the pages of my calendar are empty, as so much of this has been cancelled. It would be dishonest to pretend that I am not mourning the temporary absence of these cherished events.

Yet, it is in this very emptiness that Advent will thrive. Without the distractions of a premature Christmas season, I notice the quiet expectancy of Advent a bit more than I have before.

There is time to spend alone in the peaceful quiet of a dimly lit church because I am not distracted by the noise and bright lights of the shops downtown. There is more time to care for those who are mourning, because I am not as occupied with celebrating amidst those who are joyous. There is time to write letters to loved ones, because I am spending more time at home.

There is time to read the inspirational books recommended to me by wise people because I am not on a plane or train on the run. There is time to really listen to the words of the season’s beautiful hymns when I hear them play in the peace of my home rather than over the loudspeakers of crowded department stores. There is time to commit to my parish’s Advent preparation programs because I am not keeping my schedule open for the busy-ness of a typical December.

There is more time to give to God at the start of my day and at its close than the mere scraps of sleepy minutes that, too often, are all I offer Him. There is time to cherish all of the holy celebrations that fall in Advent – the memorials of Saint Francis Xavier and of Saint Ambrose, Saint Nicholas Day, the Marian celebrations of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Loreto, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Saint Lucy’s Day (a personal favorite to us Italians named Lucia), and, of course, the four Sundays of Advent themselves. All of these have an often overshadowed significance of their own in the great unfolding story of salvation.

There is more time for my heart to prepare the way of the Lord – because many other, lesser preparations do not preoccupy my heart this year. There is more time for sacred silence, eager expectancy and holy hope.

Like so many, I ache for a return to “normal.” I hope that next December will see many of my favorite traditions return. I expect that they will be even more appreciated because they have been so missed. But, for now, I am deeply grateful for an Advent that is better than normal – an Advent closer to what it is meant to be, and an Advent that I am praying will prepare all of us for the joy of Christmas and a holy return to ordinary times.

May God bless you with the holy hope of Advent!

 

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.

Together for Ordinary Times

By IHE Fellow Lucia A. Silecchia

It was a tiny, home sewn apron, made for a child of 3 or 4 that I unpacked from a box of miscellaneous memorabilia in my family home. Judging from the small size, the autumnal pattern, the familiar tiny stitches, and some vague but happy memories, I am guessing that my grandmother handmade this apron for either my sister or me so that we would be dressed appropriately for the joyous fanfare that involved making Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother’s house. As I recall, this was a multi-day event that involved a crowded small kitchen, homemade pasta, Neapolitan desserts, fruit canned back in the summer and, I suppose, a turkey less enthusiastically included to add an all-American touch to our otherwise Italian feast.

I was six years old when my grandmother died and a pared down version of these preparations then moved to my parents’ home, the new headquarters for all my holiday memories. My grandmother’s death was the first great loss of my life, and the discovery of the tiny apron she so lovingly made had me missing her all over again — just as Thanksgiving does every year. There is something about the desire to gather together in celebration that makes the missing more acutely missed.

Since I was six, the list of those I miss and yearn for has grown. This is a natural unfolding of events, but one still painful as family ties beckon so strongly during the season of holidays and holy days that is now upon us. Losses of three more grandparents, then parents and the aunts and uncles in their generation are keenly felt this season. To be sure, I am richly blessed with so many who have been added to my circle of loved ones as marriages, births and friendships have expanded the cast of characters that my heart holds dear.

And yet . . .

It takes only an old apron to remind me of what is lost. This year, there are many who are experiencing the loss of loved ones for the first time. Deaths from Covid struck many families very hard, while the other diseases and tragedies that snatch our loved ones from us did not take a break this year. Because of the strange times we have lived through, so many have been unable to bid their loved ones farewell in the comforting rituals of faith, hope and love that I took for granted at the death of my own loved ones.

For many, this will also be a Thanksgiving and Christmas season when, out of love and concern for the safety of friends and family, they will also miss the living who will not gather together as they usually do. A phone call, a Zoom chat and a virtual embrace may be the best that far-flung families can do in a time of travel restrictions and safety warnings. Time and distance so easily keep us apart when seeing, hearing, and embracing those we love is such a deep desire of the heart.

And yet . . .

Every time I go to Mass, I proclaim that I believe in “the communion of saints.” This has crossed my mind more than once in recent days as I yearn for those who no longer walk through life with me and those who must remain far away this year. I do believe in the communion of saints. I do believe that the good and holy people I have loved still love me, and pray for me as I do for them. I do believe that I can see them again, in time, and at a banquet that far exceeds even the happy memories of my grandmother’s table. I do believe that the circumstances that keep me from seeing my loved ones this year will not keep me from loving them — or them from loving me — in whatever ways we can until the time we can embrace again.

The capacity to love each other is, beyond any doubt of mine, one of the greatest gifts God placed in our hearts. It could not have been meant to be a gift temporary or fleeting.  Rather, it endures both on this side of eternity and the next — even when that is beyond my comprehension.

It takes only an old apron to remind me of all the blessings I have in the people who I have loved, do love, and will love, whether or not they are at my table this year. I hold them close in my heart, knowing that we are still together both for these special celebrations and for all our ordinary times.

May God bless you and your loved ones in the days to come.

 

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.

The Divided Will of the American People

By IHE Fellow Daniel E. Burns

By the time you read this, we may know who the next President of the United States will be. At the time I write it, we do not.

Some 150 million Americans have voted, yet we now know that the scales will be tipped by the tiniest sliver of them — possibly fewer, in at least one state, than the total population of The Catholic University of America.

A choice between two very different men, and two very different governing philosophies, is so closely balanced that its outcome will depend on a small handful of Americans who did or did not happen to make it out to the polls last Tuesday. It feels strange that we entrust so much of our collective future to the vagaries of such an unpredictable system.

Of course, this election is so unpredictable precisely because of something we already do know: Americans are just about evenly split over the two parties’ nominees. List all the dire consequences you can imagine if your own least favorite candidate should win the Presidency. Half of your fellow Americans don’t see those consequences.

We should each continue hoping, after all the counting and recounting has been fairly and accurately completed, that our own candidate ends up on top. But this period of waiting has been forced on us because, whatever result you are hoping for, almost exactly half of the voting public is hoping for the opposite. We should all try not to forget this over the next four years.

The winner himself will have every incentive to forget it, and to encourage us to do so. Once he has secured 270 electoral votes, he acquires enormous powers of pushing through his own political agenda. Why would he refrain from doing so, except insofar as he is forcefully checked by our other governmental institutions (or by concern for future elections)? And as Tocqueville observed, the idea of majority opinion exercises such an immense power over our moral imagination that no American politician can resist the temptation to claim full majority support, whether accurately or not.

We will be hearing a lot about the winner’s popular “mandate” in coming months. Let us not forget that that “mandate” is a legal fiction. The presidency will be won or lost because of a handful of voters in just a few states. What we will be measuring over the next few days (or weeks) will not be a nationwide popular mandate.

Educated observers should really try to refrain from the predictable handwringing that we will soon be seeing on the losing side, or the gloating on the winning side, about The Will Of The People as the election results will supposedly have expressed it. The will of the people has already been expressed. It is divided. The final election results will not change that.

The winning candidate will have a precious opportunity to advance his agenda despite the wishes of half the electorate. Supporters of the losing candidate will have other, smaller opportunities to advance their own agenda, because they still comprise half the electorate. This much we know already. Let us not forget it once we know more.

Daniel E. Burns is a professor of politics at the University of Dallas.

Christian Political Witness and Our Partisan Divide

 

By IHE Fellow V. Bradley Lewis

As I write this, the outcome of the presidential election is unresolved, and, most likely, when the votes have been counted, resolution will be only partial. There is likely to be not only anger and recrimination, but complicated and prolonged litigation. The divisions that preceded the election will not have been mitigated by whatever kind of completion the process achieves. Anyone hoping for the sort of decisive result that would calm the passions that roil our politics will be sorely disappointed.

The durability of our political and cultural differences is testified to by perhaps the two most consequential national challenges we have faced over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The first, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought about a unity of purpose as unexpected as the attacks themselves, coming as it did on the heels of an earlier close and divisive national election, but any hope that it would endure dissipated rather quickly. The wars that followed fed divisions that led Americans to retrospectively interpret that terrible day through the lens of partisan loyalties. The, again, sudden challenge of Covid-19, this time arriving not after, but just before what already promised to be an exceptionally acrimonious presidential election campaign, has led to something similar. The main difference is the lack of any real initial sense of national unity. One might have expected that the onset of a global pandemic might cause Americans to pull together, but that has not happened.  The public health crisis has been sucked into the partisan vortex, like almost everything else.  Whether or not one wears a mask reveals, more than anything else, what side one is on.

Tocqueville famously wrote that the freedom with which Americans debated political issues, a relatively new phenomenon in the 1830s, was made possible by their basic agreement on religion and morality. One cannot help but think that the loss of consensus about those things, partly consequent on galloping secularization, is at least somewhat responsible for the absolutization of political conflict. Politics is thus invested with the ultimacy of religion in such a way that compromise is heresy and patriotism has dissolved into mere partisanship. Under our present vexed circumstances, it may be that the most important civic task of Christian Americans is to give witness to the saving truth that there are more important things than politics.

V. Bradley Lewis is a professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

The Patriots of Ordinary Times

By IHE Fellow Lucia A. Silecchia

On Veterans Day a number of years ago, a cafe chain offered a free coffee drink to any veteran who visited on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. My Dad, a 1950’s Army veteran, went to claim this gracious token of appreciation. He came home, coffee in hand, but a bit dejected because the young man at the café knew nothing about Veterans Day — or the free coffee offer.

This was no mere failure of a retail manager to acquaint employees with a seasonal promotion — although that seemed a bit embarrassing. What was sadder to me was that this showed how painfully easy it has become to forget the place of Veteran’s Day at the heart of our national remembrances.

Originally observed as Armistice Day, November 11th initially commemorated the 1918 ceasefire that silenced the weapons of World War One, naively hoped to be “The War to End All Wars.”

It soon became painfully obvious that “The Great War” did not end all wars but was, instead, the opening scene in a painfully bloody, violent century of human history. So, in 1954, Congress renamed November 11th as Veterans Day to honor not only those who served in World War One, but all those veterans who served before and after them.

In his proclamation of the first Veterans Day in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called this a day for us all to “solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly . . . to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

Tucked away as it is between the exuberance of Halloween, the abundance of Thanksgiving, the rush of Christmas, and the anticipation of New Year’s, Veterans Day is all too often overlooked — or seen as simply a welcome day off.

Yet, I hope that it is more than that. I hope that it is kept as a sacred time for gratitude or, as President Eisenhower urged, a time for solemn remembrance of sacrifices made and reconsecration to our best ideals for which those sacrifices were made by so many who wore a uniform in the past, in the presence, and in the future.

When my Dad left the service, he was healthy and well. No dark shadows or nightmares of things seen, heard, smelled and felt in a battlefield haunted his dreams. When “Taps” was played at his grave, it was for a beloved grandfather with silver in his hair, a wallet filled with pictures of the children he lived to see grow up, and a beloved wife with whom he shared more than half a century of married life. He was a veteran much blessed — and for his health and safety and the long (but yet not long enough) life he lived, I am so deeply grateful.

But I am also so very deeply grateful this Veterans Day for those whose service came at a heavy price to them and their loved ones.

There are those whose lives were disrupted and whose dreams were deferred. There are those who lost limbs, eyes, peace of mind and more far away from the comforts of home. There are those who came home not to the welcome of a loving family, but to the abandonment of those nearest and dearest, ingratitude and misunderstanding, and a lifetime of suffering in mind and body and soul. And, there are those whose service did not end with a discharge into the arms of their loved ones but into the colder embrace of a grave dug far too soon. To these veterans, my gratitude is of the solemn kind reserved for those who gave me more than I will ever understand.

I am glad that this solemn day falls in November.

The All Saints Day celebration that starts the month reminds me that there were great saints made in the battle field. Indeed, it is surprising how in the most violent of circumstances, great virtue can be found. St. George, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Joan of Arc, St. Sebastian, St. Francis of Assisi (really!), St. Thomas a Beckett, Servant of God Emil Kapaun — soldiers all — pray for us! Pray for peace.

The All Souls Day memorial that follows is a reminder to pray for all those who have left this world and await the fullness of heaven. Maybe, throughout this month, those who died in or after wartime can also be in our prayers — whether we know them or not.

The Thanksgiving festival that wraps up the month is also a reminder of the importance of gratitude to all those who, through the centuries, served selflessly, served with honor, and served bravely. Thank you for all you gave to me because you were willing to risk your own 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.

Reflections on the Future of the Right 

By Emmett McGroarty, J.D., IHE Director of the Program on the Constitution and Catholic Social Doctrine

On October 19th — a week ago as I write this piece — the IHE had a great event entitled The 2020 Election and the Future of the Right. Ross Douthat, our Media Fellow and a New York Times columnist, moderated the discussion with panelists Samuel Goldman (The George Washington University), Dan McCarthy (Modern Age), and Ramesh Ponnuru (National Review), all of whom provided thought-provoking insight. In this column, I provide my views on the over-riding focus of the discussion — the state of the post-Trump right-of-center political movement (which I’ll abbreviate as the “Right” for purposes of this piece).

I am submitting this piece prior to the election. Regardless of the election results, I believe Trump’s presidency will profoundly affect the Right for the reasons outlined below.

Prolife. By the 1990s, the prolife grassroots movement had made it very difficult for GOP politicians to be pro-abortion. Trump has raised the bar by proactively discussing the issue in general audience fora and unabashedly advocating for life. This will be the standard for GOP presidential candidates moving forward.

The American Experiment vs. Progressivism and Socialism. In his inaugural address, President Trump declared, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” Since then, President Trump has prominently contrasted the big-government ideologies of progressivism and socialism with liberty, the free market, and government controlled by the people. With regard to tax policy and appropriations, he has railed against using the federal government as an enabler of profligate state spending. Looking forward as to both foreign and domestic affairs, the Trump shift more explicitly exposes socialism as a denigration of freedom and human dignity. As to domestic policy discussions, the shift is towards a reconsideration of the authorities of government, the distribution of power, and political accountability in the bureaucracy.

Military and Defense Policy. Trump’s policy is to have a powerful military but to be wary of interventions leading to long on-the-ground commitments in foreign lands. This draws the ire of neocons as well as those who want a smaller, less-expensive force. Nonetheless, under Trump’s leadership we are extricating ourselves from “endless wars” while still taking a firm stand against foreign aggressors. Trump’s approach, I believe, will be the dominant policy position on the Right for the foreseeable future.

African-American Outreach by the Right. For decades, conservatives in general — and the GOP specifically — have lamented that the party of Lincoln no longer has widespread support among African-Americans. Going against that grain, multiple surveys (see here and here) suggest that the president is polling significantly better among African-Americans than past GOP candidates. Is he showing the Right how to cure its deficiencies?

President Trump can rightly claim credit for the First Step Act, which among other things reformed draconian criminal sentencing rules that disproportionately harmed African-Americans. He also touts passage of the Future Act, which provided meaningful long-term and temporary funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). And, he argues that his economic policies have resulted in record employment for African-Americans.

Will part of President Trump’s legacy be a more robust substantive outreach from the right? Are the president’s legislative initiatives and his message of prosperity having a positive effect? Win or lose, if the actual election results show a significant increase in support among African-Americans, then this will also be a component of his lasting effect on the Right.

Certainly, the future of the Right needs to be evaluated with regard to a host of other issue sectors — international trade agreements, public confidence in the media, the effect of the various peace agreements brokered by the Trump administration, and relations with China, to name a few. But, more importantly, the overall Trump effect on the Right is a prominent discussion and defense of the fundamental tenets of Western civilization and the American Experiment.

The Gospel of Life in Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia 

Respect Life Month is an annual October opportunity to recommit to respecting the unique dignity of each human being, made in the likeness of God and created with an irreplaceable part in the human family that no other will ever fill. This year’s theme, “Living the Gospel of Life,” invites a thank you note to all those who live this “Gospel of Life” in their ordinary times by welcoming the most vulnerable. So . . .

Thank you to the elderly couple with full hearts and an overflowing basement bursting with the cribs, strollers,  clothes, diapers,  formula and toys they collect for expectant mothers in need. They know what may seem small never is.

Thank you to the man who sits in a quiet bar while his friend confides that his wife is pregnant with their fifth child and he just lost his job. Hearing this despair and knowing the desperate thoughts that fill the fearful father’s mind, this loyal friend pledges his support. He means it. This friendship means the world and can save a life — or two.

Thank you to the high school teacher with the picture-perfect family life who consoles a student facing an unexpected pregnancy and fearing her bright future is lost. After the standard words of encouragement fail, this teacher takes a deep breath and confides in her student what she has always kept private: “I was once there too.”

Thank you to the woman who carries her child for months, knowing she will place her greatest treasure into the heart and home of another family. She also knows this great act of love will exhaust her body and break her heart in ways few will understand. Thank you to the parents with full hearts and empty arms who adopt children and raise them with a love that, in turn, inspires others to see the beautiful gift of adoption and continue this circle of selfless, aching love.

Thank you to friends who console a mother who miscarries her child.  They understand this grief is deep and raw because a life has ended. So, they do not blithely say “it’s better this way” or “you’ll have another” because they know far more than a dream or a hope died within.

Thank you to those who speak kindly and with respect for women who give birth to and raise children in less than perfect circumstances. The children in their lives will overhear them — and remember their words more than anyone will ever know.

Thank you to all who dedicate their lives to caring for, teaching, employing and advocating for those who live with disabilities. In the opportunities you provide, families facing an unexpected pre-natal diagnosis might just see a glimpse of a promising future for their child. They may desperately need your witness to resist the pressures they are so likely to face as they wait to welcome their child.

Thank you to the parents of boys who teach their sons to respect the dignity of women, the sacredness of sex, and the obligation to support the children they father in every way they can. Thank you to those same parents who care for the mother of their son’s children — regardless of whether she is a beloved daughter-in-law whose pregnancy answers years of family prayer or a frightened teenage girlfriend whose name they do not even know.

Thank you to the religious sisters who, in so many ways, live the radical hospitality that welcomes women in need and their children by offering the love and material support that our busy world pays lip service to say but too often neglects to do. Thank you to the priests who hear the pain-filled confessions of those who carry heavy burdens and lifetimes of regrets. Through the ministry of the Church they grant the pardon and peace that frees so many who are so broken to become some of the best protectors of life I have ever met.

Thank you to the friends of a frightened young woman, abandoned by her boyfriend, who accompany her home when she fears telling her family she is pregnant. Thank you to the friends of an overwhelmed father-to-be when they have the courage to tell him that fathers support both their children and the women carrying those children — and then help him to do this. Extra thanks if those friends also have the courage to tell him that, popular opinion notwithstanding, saying “I will support you in whatever you decide” is not support at all.

Thank you to the friendly Mass-goer who gives a wink and a smile to a crying infant rather than a cold stare and a judgmental glare. The harried parents trying to keep their children corralled in their pew will appreciate this and be grateful that those who celebrate the sanctity of life are not curmudgeons when they see the beauty of that life in the house of God.

Thank you to the knitters and quilters in retirement homes who make baby blankets for infants they will never know and donate them to pregnancy centers. They hold the loving hope that an exhausted mother may derive the strength to carry on just knowing a handmade gift was specially prepared for her unborn child.

Thank you, most of all, to parents who welcome children into the world in so many situations that are unexpected, unsupported, and unappreciated. What you do is sacred — not only on day one, but each and every day.

To all of you, and so many others, my “thank you” seems so small. May God bless you all for all the ways you live the Gospel of Life in all the days of your 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.

My Big Discovery

By IHE Fellow David Walsh

Sometimes we have to be hit over the head to notice what we should have known all along. That was the effect on me of watching Terrence Malick’s new movie, A Hidden Life. Even though I had long paid attention to the role of dissidents in confronting totalitarian regimes, somehow I had missed the extraordinary case of Franz Jägerstätter. His significance as an inspiration to the anti-war resistance in the Vietnam era had also escaped me. Not even the beatification of Jägerstätter by Benedict XVI in 2007 had registered on my radar. Somehow it had all just floated past me as so many of the great and small events of life have done. But now, thanks to the arrival of A Hidden Life, I have gained a perspective on an extraordinary witness who lived far from the fame and notoriety by which we usually judge what matters.

Indeed the whole life of Blessed Franz might easily have been bypassed by history, as it is with many uncanonized saints. Even Jägerstätter himself thought that his solitary refusal to serve in the Nazi army, the only Austrian to do so, would be lost and forgotten. He was, after all, an unknown farmer in the Alpine hamlet of St. Radegund. Who would know or care if he refused to take an oath to Hitler, contrary to the overwhelming consensus of his nation and his church, and was summarily executed for his pains? His was an incomprehensible stand in a society largely inclined to yield to what it would not or could not resist. Within his village he was the only “No” vote against the Anschluss. His subsequent refusal to serve meant certain death and nothing but misery for the wife and children he left behind. What could bring a man to step so far out of line with the whole world in which he found himself?

The movie follows the process by which this very ordinary person became capable of bearing extraordinary witness, for no one just wakes up one day and decides to become a martyr to conscience. It is the story of an inner life, that place where all of the important events emerge long before they become visible in the external world. Becoming a witness to truth is a gradual process by which inner conviction comes to outweigh the whole great world. Franz’s conscience responded to the call of God that convinced him that it was the only direction in which truth and goodness lay. No matter what the surrounding voices declared, he held fast to the reality he knew within. To become an accomplice in the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime would have been to climb on board the shining train he had seen in his dream. It would have been to ignore the voice that said “This train is going to hell.”

Surely he was not alone in seeing that one could not lose one’s soul even if it meant risking or losing one’s life. Franz’s dream had been the reality many recognized, but few had dared to admit. Even the Church had turned its back on its duty not to temporize with evil. Out of fear for their own lives the local pastor and the bishop failed to support Franz’s determined refusal to serve. He alone held onto the truth of God that outweighed all purely mundane perspectives. Only the Nazi government took any real notice, as they elevated his trial from the provincial court in Linz to the Imperial setting in Berlin. There he was held in the Tegel prison, an institution that held a far more celebrated inmate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The transfer was surely an indication of the danger that Jägerstätter represented. In A Hidden Life, the light of truth finally shines on the regime that is itself under judgment, as its officials confront the unshakeable witness of one who obeys God rather than men.

Nothing of course was changed by Franz’s heroic stand that would be remembered only by his family and the few people who knew him. Yet his gesture was not lost to history. The reason why he is remembered deserves a place in the story, although it is not part of the film that would never have been made without it. It turned out that an American sociologist, named Gordon Zahn, who had received his Ph.D. in 1952 at The Catholic University of America (no less), went to Germany to conduct research for a book on German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. Zahn came across the Jägerstätter story and decided to devote a separate book to it, under the title, In Solitary Witness (1964). It was as a result of this work that the case was taken up by Archbishop Thomas Roberts, who hailed Jägerstätter as an incomparable guide to the teaching on war in the Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes. Without Zahn’s scholarly recounting of Jägerstätter’s life and death, supplemented by the documents and materials assembled by Erna Putz, one of the most important martyrs of the twentieth century would have been lost to memory. Instead, the effort begun by Zahn bore fruit when Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by Benedict XVI in the cathedral in Linz with his wife, Franziska, children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren looking on.

But perhaps the final lesson we must draw from this extraordinary witness can be taken from the title of Malick’s movie. While watching it I had wondered about why he had called it A Hidden Life, since none of the characters made any reference to the phrase. It is only at the end that we are given its source when the director inserts a quotation from George Eliot’s Middlemarch on the screen:

“ . . . for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Within a worldly perspective, Jägerstätter had lost it all, without accomplishing anything for himself, his family, or his country. His had been a solitary witness to conscience, apparently without impact. Yet it is on such unbidden and unacknowledged generosity that the whole good of the world depends. The only thing missing from that Eliot/Malick assessment is the condition that explains the conviction itself. That is, that in history nothing is lost from history for all that we do remains under the loving gaze of God, for whom there is no such thing as a hidden life.

David Walsh is professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America and author most recently of The Priority of the Person (Notre Dame Press, 2020).

The Fate of the Administrative State

By Emmett McGroarty

Prior to the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, public discussion was already entertaining the fate of the administrative state. President Trump’s two appointees—Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh—had expressed skepticism of key, long-standing features of administrative government. Some recent Court decisions had reined in the administrative state; was there more to come? Underlying those discussions, though, are broader issues about the relationship between the citizen and government.

The structure of the modern administrative state has been heavily influenced by progressive theory. In the late 1800s, progressives argued that the world was becoming increasingly complex and that, consequently, the structure of government needed to be reformed. As Woodrow Wilson argued in The Science of Administration (Political Science Quarterly, July 1887), the idea of the state was undergoing “noteworthy change” and there were “every day new things which the state ought to do.” Emboldened by advances in science and technology and the rising social sciences and impressed with sophisticated European bureaucracies, progressives advocated for a new discipline of government administration.

In the progressive mindset, the problems in society ought not be a matter of the discussion, deliberation, and decision-making of politics. Experts in the science of administration could better solve those problems if they had sufficient authority and resources. After being given general goals, experts in the new science of administration would administer government and make crucial decisions.

But the traditional Constitutional structure posed a threat to progressive theory. The Constitution’s acclaimed system of checks and balances would have to be altered. Broad swaths of power had to be transferred to the bureaucrats, who then had to be insulated from interference from other branches and even from the president. As Wilson argued, the bureaucrat “had a will of his own” and would be guided by the science of administration. Likewise, the division of power between federal and state government—state sovereignty—challenged federal bureaucratic hegemony.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, progressive structural philosophy influenced statutes, court decisions, and the implementation of laws.  Congress granted burgeoning power to the executive. It limited or diluted the president’s authority over some agencies. For their part, the courts developed rules of deference to bureaucratic interpretations of certain statutes and regulations and allowed the federal government tremendous leeway to dominate state government.

The early progressives were not oblivious to concern that such changes would undermine the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. To counter that, Woodrow Wilson argued in The Study of Administration (1887):

There is no danger in power, if only it be not irresponsible. But if it be centered in heads of service and in the heads of branches of the service, it is easily watched and brought to book. If to keep his office a man must achieve open and honest success . . . and feels himself entrusted with large freedom of discretion, the greater his power the less likely is he to abuse it . . .  [whereas the] less his power, the more safely obscure and unnoticed does he feel his position to be, and the more readily does he relapse into remissness.

At the heart of it, the debate over structural progressivism is one about the nature of the human person. Does the Constitution reflect human nature and do particular progressive reforms and practices enhance that quality or detract from it? Is human nature such that strong political accountability should flow to the individual through their elected leaders and through government that is closest to the individual as possible? Or should government be centralized away from the people and political accountability substituted with other forms of safeguard? Is government more efficacious with decreased political accountability? If so, are there negative consequences such as increased alienation among the citizenry?

At a minimum, the seating of Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court will encourage greater discussion of these questions, more intensive study of the administrative state, and more challenges to many of the progressive practices and reforms.

Emmett McGroarty, J.D., is the Director of the Program on Subsidiarity and the Constitution at the Institute for Human Ecology.

Seasons of Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia 

The quirky old building that I call home has a temperamental heating and cooling system that cannot both heat and cool at the same time. Thus, every September, when the first crisp fall days roll in, some want to switch it over to heat.  Others, like me, want to believe that summer will make a triumphant — albeit temporary — return.  So, we want to hold out on the switch to heat for as long as we can.

Ultimately, though, the day comes when fall’s arrival becomes too obvious to ignore and the heat comes on. This dance will come again in six months when we debate when and whether a cold winter has loosened its grip and given way to the warmth of spring.

In one sense, this semi-annual debate is nothing more significant than a quest for comfort in the ‘tween seasons. In another sense, though, it seems to mirror the tensions and difficulties that come not only when the seasons, predictably, change on the calendar but also when the seasons change, both predictably and unpredictably, in our lives.

Life is full of such seasonal changes — even for those who do not see their lives as particularly dramatic. Seasons change when the predictability of staying at home gives way to the adventure, or misadventure that is kindergarten. Seasons change when the security of student life is traded for the stress and excitement of the working world. Seasons change when jobs change through the excitement of promotions and new opportunities — or with the abrupt hardship of unemployment.

Seasons change when commitments are made to marriage or religious life or parenting.  Seasons change when the parents who cared for their children become those cared for by their children. Seasons change when a phone call from a physician brings the good news longed for or the bad news feared. Seasons change when a mistake made has unpredicted and profound consequences.  Seasons change when a grudge is released and an enemy is forgiven with a grace that frees the forgiver as much as the forgiven. Seasons change when a fear is overcome, or when a new fear burdens the heart.

Seasons change when a loved one moves away or when a new friendship is formed.     Seasons change when a family home is packed up and sold — and when a new home becomes the backdrop for a lifetime of memories. Seasons change when a parish or a school close and when a new parish home is found.

Seasons change every time a new member of a family is born, and every time a family member breaths his or her last breath. Seasons change in those moments of profound spiritual comfort and also when those moments give way to seasons of the soul’s dark nights

Seasons change when a virus unknown to the world a short while back wreaks havoc on a fragile world and its most vulnerable people. Seasons change whenever a long held view is found to be wrong, or when the conscience gently — or not — calls into question a past or present prejudice, imprudence or unkindness.

All of these changes of season are hard — even when they are the ones that are also joyful and longed for. Right now, I am eager for a crisp fall and the start of a new season.  Indeed, new beginnings seem especially welcome this year. In this spirit, I met a friend this weekend for the first hot cocoa of the season — my annual low-budget welcome to fall. Yet, I am also sorry to see the end of long warm days and the full sunshine that is slipping away as darkness comes earlier each night.

Maybe the tug at the heart that comes with life’s changes of season merely reflects human nature’s affinity for the familiar over the unknown. But maybe it is a little bit more. Maybe the changes in seasons remind us how uncertain life is. They remind us how much we do not know the ways in which the future will unfold as much as we yearn to believe that we do. They remind us how leaving behind the familiar demands a leap of faith — or, at least, a tiny step of faith.

Maybe, as with so many other things, these changes of season are a time to, once again, renew our trust in the God who knows that there is “an appointed time for everything” (Ecc. 3:1) that happens in our lives. This is true of the large dramatic changes in seasons — but also in the small, subtle and gradual ones as well. I know that I want what I want when I want. But, maybe there is a wisdom in watching the seasons change with a bit more patience, and trust. May God bless all the changes that come to the seasons of your 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.

Rejoicing in Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia 

“I got the job,” she told me. It was news not shared with the exuberance I expected of someone who had worked hard and hoped hard for her new opportunity. Instead, the sharing of this happy news was almost whispered in a guilty, confessional tone usually reserved for sharing less-than-joyful news.

Soon, the reason seemed clear to me. She felt some misgivings about sharing her happiness in a time of great uncertainty, suffering, unrest and pain in the world. In a time when so many cling to employment by a thread, if at all, the joy over a new exciting opportunity seemed to her to be something best shared sheepishly.

I have seen this in others, too, whose kind souls are grieved by the suffering of others.  They do not easily exult in the joys that came into their own lives. I am grateful for the way they have eyes open to the pain of others and hearts that make the burdens of others their own. They have been and are great examples to me.

And yet — please let me rejoice with you.

We are mourning the death of so many. Yet, let me rejoice when a new baby comes into your family.

We are mourning relationships broken and strained by stress and isolation. Yet, let me rejoice at your engagement or golden wedding anniversary.

We are mourning the illnesses and fragility of so many. Yet, let me rejoice when your surgery is a success, or your last round of chemo is finished, or you get the negative test results you longed for.

We are mourning rituals missed and celebrations deferred. Yet, let me rejoice when your granddaughter receives her long-delayed First Communion and your sister’s intimate wedding with a party of ten is a poignant celebration of love beyond her wildest hopes.

We are mourning the inhumanity we see out in our streets and behind our closed doors. Yet, let me rejoice when your neighbor leaves your porch full of groceries and the teenager around the corner mows your lawn unasked and unpaid.

We are mourning the sudden hunger that strikes so quickly when a paycheck is missed. Yet, let me rejoice when your parish or your school or your neighborhood rallies behind those in need with a generosity that strikes back even more quickly.

We are mourning the selfishness and carelessness of those who will recklessly risk the well-being of others in a time of cautious hope. Yet, let me rejoice when you are proud of the way your children put the interests of others before themselves and sacrifice big plans without complaint.

The ordinary times of our lives are filled with both shadows and sun, with seasons of mourning and seasons of rejoicing. So often, though, these seasons are melded together in a way that asks the human heart to both mourn and to rejoice at the same time. One of my favorite scripture passages begins with the command “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). I have read this at both the weddings and funerals of my nearest and dearest. Yet, another one of my favorites is the consoling counsel, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4). Embracing both of these at the same time is hard – and not something that can be navigated alone.

As autumn comes, it brings with it the last quarter of 2020. For those who mourn, this is a year that cannot end soon enough. If you are mourning, let others share your sorrow and your fears and bring to you any comfort that they can. But if you are rejoicing, let others share your joy too — in the sensitive, compassionate way that these times demand.

To the friends and family — and strangers, too — who share with me your joys and sorrows: thank you. You remind me that on our darkest days, there is still joy in the world and on our brightest days, there is still pain in the world. You remind me that my prayers always need to embrace both gratitude and petition. You remind me that both good times and bad are inextricably intertwined and woven into the fabric of our 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.

The Common Good in the Time of COVID-19

By Monica Burke, IHE Graduate Student Fellow

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, so too we continue the debate over how to reconcile public and private needs. How can we pursue the common good during a pandemic? How can we weigh man’s physical and emotional health against his social and economic well-being, not to mention his spiritual life?

While speculative science is no replacement for concrete political prudence in these matters, philosophy supplies us with a foundation to answer these questions. Let us consider the relationship between the individual and the common good as explained by Aristotle and Aquinas. In Nicomachean Ethics 1.2, Aristotle tells us:

Even though the good be the same for one man and for the whole state, it seems much better and more perfect to procure and preserve the good of the whole state. It is admirable, indeed, to preserve the good of an individual, but it is better still and more divine to do this for a nation and for cities.

At first glance, this passage reads like a blank check for the state to do as it pleases. However, that’s not what Aristotle means by the priority of the common good. The good of the whole does not override the good of its parts, just as a foot or a hand does not properly exist if the whole body is destroyed. The parts of the political community — citizens, households, etc. — can only properly function in the context of the whole.

The key here is to understand in what sense the common good is “common,” as Aquinas explains in his commentary on the aforementioned passage of Aristotle:

Certainly it is a part of that love which should exist among men that a man preserve the good even of a single human being. But it is much better and more divine that this be done for a whole people and for states.

The common good does not override the private good. The same love that prompts us to do right by a single human being can be extended to a whole community. Such love is not diminished by extension — in fact, it increases! This is because the common good is held in common not merely by predication but as a common end.

Yves Simon, a twentieth-century French Thomist, had this insight in mind when he argued that common action is the basis of political life. To pursue a common end, there must be common action unto that end. To unite all of the various parts of society to common action, communities need authority.

Authority’s role is to determine that in which the common good consists and what the state must do to pursue the common good. Our current political situation is no exception: our rulers have a responsibility to formulate general rules so we can act as one people in pursuit of the common good. Think of government regulations on gatherings, university rules on social distancing, and our churches’ guidelines for participation in the Mass. Yet, even with such rules in place, the picture is incomplete. To realize the common good, we need conscientious citizens as well.

Yves Simon argues that particular subjects like you and I also need to will the common good, not only by obeying authority, but by attending to our own particular goods. Society can only flourish if we care for the needs of our families, friends, and neighbors. This care includes their physical needs, like wearing a mask to protect an at-risk relative. However, it also includes “other-centered needs” like friendship and religion. We need to consider how to incorporate socialization and worship safely into “the new normal.” If society is to function, we must continue to attend to the goods entrusted to our care — even when facing difficult choices about how best to pursue them.

There is no easy answer as to how to achieve the common good in the time of COVID-19. This is a challenge of special concern to our political leaders, whose job it is to promote unified action through general rules aimed at the good of all. However, the common good encompasses more than what we traditionally think of as “politics.” It can only come about if we persevere in serving the individuals, families, and organizations that make up society. Such a feat is only possible through prayerful discernment and prudential deliberation. This is no small task, but it is one that all of us, not just politicians, are called to carry out.

The Bounty of Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia 

My grandfather was a gardener.

Over a hundred years ago, he was a young farm boy in the sunny hills of southern Italy.   A long journey later, he found himself shining shoes on the street corners of New York – the city that would become his hometown and mine.

But, once a farmer, always a farmer.  When he grew up and settled in Queens, he recreated a farm as best he could in the yard surrounding his home.  I remember well how, in a small piece of land under the watchful supervision of his dog and my cat, he eked out a rich bounty of tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, rhubarb, squash, sweet peas, green beans, grapes, quince, figs, persimmons, mint, basil, hot peppers, sweet peppers, strawberries .. and ever more tomatoes!

One of the highlights of my childhood was the day my parents bought a swing set for my siblings and me.   But, as it emerged from the Sears Roebuck shipping box in all its red and white gleaming glory, it must have broken Grandpa’s heart a bit.  He knew that, until we all outgrew swings, a prime piece of his garden became our turf.   If ever there was tangible evidence of his deep love for us, it was his willing surrender of at least four rows of tomato plants for the joy of his grandchildren.

I have been thinking of his simple, ordinary garden often these weeks.  It seems as though more and more people tell me that they have tried their hand at gardening this summer.  They are now seeing the bounty of their backyard harvests.   In the trials of these past months, the simple appeal of a garden seems to be in full bloom.   To plan a seed and tend it, to watch it grow and bear fruit (or vegetable or flower), and to cherish the bounty of that small harvest is the most simple of human acts – one undertaken year in and year out since human life began.

Yet, in this ordinary activity is much profound and hopeful truth.   Gardening starts when someone looks at a humble seed and sees in it possibilities that are unseen but hoped for.   It continues when that seed is planted and hidden away for a time when there is no outward sign of anything good to come.  It advances when the first sign of a stem or a leaf or a blade timidly comes forth from the dirt with the promise of new life.   It involves some disappointment when seeds planted do not emerge or when they shrivel and die soon after they peek out from the soil.   It requires a tenacious battle against weeds that somehow, inexplicably, always seem hardier and healthier.  It takes the gentle care of watering and tending young plants as they tentatively mature.   It generates frustration when birds and insects help themselves to the ripe new bounty and exasperation when wind or weather prematurely ends the growing season.

But, after a summer that has been both too long and too short, the intrepid gardeners I know now speak of their ripe tomatoes with deep satisfaction and their herbs with unexpected enthusiasm.  They already plan more ambitious gardens for 2021.  With both generosity and pride they offer to share the harvest from their backyard gardens – or from the planters that blossom on their windowsills and porches.

There is much beautiful hope in the ordinary planting of a garden.

So many of the parables of Christ were parables of plants and gardens.   I have always been told that this was because Christ dwelt among us in an agrarian time and place when the stories of the soil would best resonate with his listeners.

Yet, I think they also touch our hearts today when so many in both city and county turn to the simple, hopeful joy of planting a garden in a summer of uncertainty.  The deep trust, the unspoken optimism, and the joyful hope of waiting for a harvest all marked the summers of my grandfather’s life.    I hope that this will also inspire the search for trust, optimism and joyful hope in all of the non-agrarian corners of our lives in these often troubled days.  With gratitude for their example (and for bringing back some happy memories) I hope that all who are rediscovering the joy of a summer garden will be blessed with a rich bounty to fill their 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.

Building an Inclusive Post-Pandemic American Workforce

In their recent The American Conservative piece, entitled “Building an Inclusive Post-Pandemic American Workforce,” Steve Wagner and Michelle Steeb make the argument that civil society, as well as federal and state government, should make concerted efforts to bring into the economic fold the 18 million Americans who are neither working nor seeking work but who are struggling with disabilities such as physical handicaps, mental illness, substance abuse disorders, health complaints, criminal histories, and vocational deficits. They are, as the authors note, “human beings endowed with unique and significant potential; they deserve our attention for several reasons.” The article is well worth reading.

Wagner is the former Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and former Acting Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at the US Department of Health and Human Services in the President Trump Administration. Steeb is the former CEO of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a Sacramento-based program that supports homeless women and children, and the author of Answers Behind the Red Door, a battle plan to help the homeless.

Read their article at The American Conservative.

Returning to the Constitution

This past June, in Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Supreme Court held that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. The decision is sure to invite further cases challenging the constitutionality of various independent federal agencies. In fact, in its opinion the Court discussed two other recently created independent agencies that rest on shaky constitutional grounds.

The salient facts in Seila are straightforward. Congress established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (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.

CFPB opened a civil investigation of the petitioner and, pursuant to that, demanded certain records. The petitioner objected, asserting that the CFPB structure violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine—the Constitution’s apportionment of specific powers among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. More precisely, unlike most other independent agencies, which are headed by multimember boards or commissions, the CFPB is led by a single director. The president may fire the Director only on the limited grounds of “inefficiency, neglect or duty, or malfeasance in office.”

Under the Constitution, all executive power is vested in the President. The Framers expected that the President would rely on subordinate officers and therefore invested the presidency with the power to supervise them, including the authority to fire them. The Court had previously recognized only two exceptions to this rule. In one line of cases, the Court had held that Congress could provide tenure protections to certain inferior officers with narrowly defined duties (e.g., civil service jobs) and no policymaking or administrative authority. In another line of cases, the seminal case of which is Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), the Court found that Congress could create independent, expert agencies led by a group of principal officers removable by the President only for good cause.

In Humphrey’s Executor, the Court had considered structure of another independent agency, the Federal Trade Commission. The Court rationalized that, although the agency was part of the executive branch, it was actually exercising power in discharge of “quasi-legislative or quasi- judicial powers” and that its duties were “neither political nor executive” but instead necessitated “the trained judgment of a body of experts.”

The Court in Seila, in an opinion authored the Chief Justice, held that CFPB’s structure did indeed run afoul of the separation of powers doctrine. The Court noted that, “aside from the sole exception of the Presidency, [the Constitution] scrupulously avoids concentrating power in the hands of any single individual.” The Framers “made the President the most democratic and politically accountable official in Government,” a feature that the Court noted was enhanced by the “solitary nature of the Executive Branch.” The Court found that the “CFPB’s single-Director structure contravenes this carefully calibrated [Constitutional structure] by vesting significant governmental power in the hands of a single individual accountable to no one.” It further observed that, “with no colleagues to persuade, and no boss or electorate looking over her shoulder, the Director may dictate and enforce policy for a vital segment of the economy affecting millions of Americans.”

But rather than overturn the rule in Humphrey’s Executor, the Court merely declined to extend that line of precedent to the facts in Seila. On that part of the opinion, the Chief Justice was joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas issued a separate opinion in which he dissented in part (with respect to another part of the case—the Court’s finding that the constitutional infirmities of the CFPB statute did not invalidate the whole statute) and concurred in part. Justice Thomas opined that “the Court takes a step in the right direction by limiting Humphrey’s Executor to ‘multimember expert agencies that do not wield substantial executive power.’”

Quoting one of his prior opinions, Justice Thomas called for the Court to be courageous and vigorous in defense of the Constitution: “We have a ‘responsibility to ‘examin[e] without fear, and revis[e] without reluctance,’ any ‘hasty and crude decisions’ rather than leaving ‘the character of [the] law impaired, and the beauty and harmony of the [American constitutional] system destroyed by the perpetuity of error.” With regard to the rationalization of quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative functions, Justice Thomas reasoned:

“No such powers or agencies exist. Congress lacks the authority to delegate its legislative power, and it cannot authorize the use of judicial power by officers acting outside of the bounds of Article III. Nor can Congress create agencies that straddle multiple branches of Government.”

The independent agencies are thus unconstitutional and leaving them in place “subverts political accountability and threatens individual liberty.” Justice Thomas noted that, with its decision in Seila, along with other recent decisions, the Court “has repudiated almost every aspect of Humphrey’s Executor.” He declared that, “in a future case, I would repudiate what is left of [that] erroneous precedent.”

For well over 50 years, the Court succumbed to progressive arguments to corrupt the constitutional structure in order to transfer power from the states to the federal government and from Congress to the bureaucracy and to then limit the President’s authority over the bureaucracy. From the progressive viewpoint, the Constitution, as written, does not leave room for experts to wield the necessary power to manage society. In furtherance of that, from 1887 through 2010, Congress created at least twenty-five major independent agencies (with well over half having been created after 1966). Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion lays down the marker for a full return to the Constitution.

Emmett McGroarty, J.D., is the Director of the Program on Subsidiarity and the Constitution at the Institute for Human Ecology.

Catholic Social Teaching in Our Time: A Leaven of Hope for a World Befuddled by Pandemic and Politics

By Msgr. Anthony R. Frontiero, S.T.D.

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World offers a poignant reflection on the plight of people in a contemporary context and on how the Church “weighs in,” if you will, on the realities facing us as individuals and as a human family. The document gives a historical overview of the triumphs of human advances and technology. It rightly celebrates the wonders of the human genius as well as the progress we have realized and of which we are capable. It also, however, recognizes the tragedies and sorrows that plague us (and perhaps that have always plagued us), and asks some questions that need to be answered if we ever hope to live fully and with hope. The wisdom of this document is as precious today as it was when it was published:

“Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?

The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, now and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.” (GS, no. 10)

When the Church “weighs in” on human and social problems, she does so with the mandate of Christ himself. Indeed, the body of Christ, which is the Church, has something to say, something to teach, and something to witness. At its core, the message is this: God creates, and for this reason, we are made in his image and likeness, we are fallen but redeemed, and we are not alone.

Sadly, the basic truths about who we are and to Whom we belong have become blurred. The potential for this blurring, or even the deliberate attempt to smash these truths completely on the part of individuals and entire cultural, political, and social systems has been and is currently a particular challenge for us. As history attests, we are susceptible to such challenges both in times of prosperity and pain and suffering, such as we are in the midst of natural disasters, pandemics, and moral chaos.

More than a decade before the election of Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II commissioned the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In the lead up to its publication, John Paul was at pains to have Catholics and, indeed, all people of good will, embrace the truth about themselves in God, mainly so that we could resist what seemed like an all-encompassing “culture of death,” or what Pope Francis has more recently called a “throw away culture.”

In two parts, the Compendium pulls together the major themes of Catholic Social Teaching, beginning with God’s Plan of Love for Humanity (the Church’s mission and social doctrine; the human person and human rights; and the principles of the Church’s social doctrine). Part Two treats The Family as the First and Vital Cell of Society (human work, economic life, the political community, the international community, safeguarding the environment, the promotion of peace, social doctrine and the commitment of the lay faithful, and building a civilization of love).

Recently, Ignatius Press has published selected writings of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). In Faith and Politics (2017), Ratzinger surveys the Gospels on the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate and poses the question: “Is truth a political category? Or has Jesus’ kingdom nothing to do with politics? . . . Can, indeed, politics accept truth as a structural category, or must truth be thought to be unattainable, or be relegated to the subjective sphere, and its place be taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power?”

Ratzinger asks some very important questions about truth and its place in political decision-making and discourse. “What happens when truth counts for nothing?” “What kind of justice is possible?” The question Pilate poses to Jesus, “What is truth?” is a critical one. Bearing witness to the truth means giving priority to God, and to His will over and against the interests of the world and its powers. (Faith and Politics, pp. 45-61)

Five years ago, Pope Francis published the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (2015), and renewed the appeal of the Church to the human family to embrace an integral ecology in the face of global climate change. In a world befuddled by pandemic and politics, The Holy Father’s wisdom is even more important today: “We are not faced,” Francis teaches, “with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (No. 139). Hence, we need an ‘integral ecology’ that sees all these concerns as part of one interconnected whole (No. 138). Indeed, a renewed, honest, and integral understanding of the truth and of what is good and beautiful, is a pre-condition for the healing, well-being, social harmony, and peace in our time. I submit that Catholic social teaching can help us to get there.

Monsignor Anthony R. Frontiero, S.T.D., is the Vice Rector and Director of Human Formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and a Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology.

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