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 Kavanaugh¾had 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.

A Hug for Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia 

Do not leave them by themselves.  Use the inventiveness of love, make telephone calls, video calls, send messages, listen to them and, where possible, in compliance with healthcare regulations, go to visit them too.  Send them a hug.

Pope Francis made this plea on behalf of elders who are facing the burdens of Covid-19 in particularly difficult ways.

Certainly, from a medical perspective, the burden carried by elders is painfully clear.   Over 80% of all Covid-19 deaths have been in patients over age 65.  The preexisting medical conditions that make an individual more vulnerable are more likely to be found in those who have had more years.   More acutely, the staggering thousands of deaths that have decimated the ranks of the elderly living in nursing homes and congregate living settings is devastating.

Yet, it was more than the burden to the body that lay at the heart of Pope Francis’s plea for “the inventiveness of love” (a beautiful turn of phrase!) and a hug for our elders.   These ordinary times of our elders have been heavily burdened with grief to the heart as well.

In nursing homes and congregate care facilities across the nations, there are elders who have not been able to see or touch family members for nearly five months.   The burden of loneliness and isolation is heart wrenching for any of us – but particularly so for those who may not understand why their families cannot be with them and for those in the last months of their lives.   For them, five months may seem more precious than it is for most of us.

In homes across the nations, widows and widowers grieve the loss of spouses with whom they traveled life together – but with whom they were not allowed to be together in the last moments they would ever share on this side of eternity.   Elderly parents passed away without their children and grandchildren at their sides, and so many elders find themselves without some of the siblings, friends, and neighbors who filled their lives five short months ago.   Compounding this is the reality that so many have had to grieve alone without the funeral rituals that gather us together to embrace the bereaved and console one another.

On televisions across the nations, we hear of plans to return to those things we find productive.  We want to know how and when the young will go back to work, return to school, eat out, travel, and enjoy the social and cultural events that tie us together.   All of this is important and good.  However, the needs of those who are no longer working, going to school or venturing far from home must always be kept in mind so that no one is left behind if we ever value the importance of what we do over the dignity of who we are.

On screens of all sizes across the nations, many are trying as best as possible to recreate personal and professional connections through technology.  Nearly all that we do – birthday parties, classes, happy hours, conferences, and medical appointments – seems to be prefaced by the word “virtual.”   Often this is the best we can do, and I am grateful for the technology that allows us to do so.    So many who never thought of themselves as technologically skilled – including many elders (and me) —  have made great strides in using new media.   However, this shift can also widen a divide that leaves elders behind as a world moves on-line too fast.

In houses of worships across the nations, many have gone months without gathering to worship God together.   Even as churches begin to open up, health concerns may keep elders away a bit longer.     In a time when families are far flung, it is so often in their churches that elders find a second family and the deeply profound presence of God.  Sadly, this spiritual family has also been scattered for a time.

At kitchen tables across the nations, so many of us anxiously calculate our financial futures.  For those whose retirement savings are meager and whose income is limited, this future may look particularly bleak.   For those who relied for support on children who now face economic woes of their own, the desire not to “burden” others with their needs can be particularly painful.

Into the whirl of these sorrows, Pope Francis urged the “inventiveness of love.”  So many of the large questions to be answered are beyond the individual capacity of any of us.   However, we have been given the capacity for inventive love – an inventive love we can share with our elders as they bear a heavy load in these difficult days.   We can, in so many different ways, so many ordinary ways, find the best way to send a hug.

It has been a century since a similar pandemic swept the globe and I hope it is far longer than that until the next one.  However, if a pandemic does rage again when I am old or vulnerable or both, I know that I would want a hug to lighten the load of those 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 Elders of Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

Late July brings one of my favorite celebrations in the Church year:  the July 26th Memorial of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary, the Mother of God.

I had some early biases toward this feast.   I grew up in a New York parish named for St. Anne.   My parents gave me that moniker for my middle name when I was baptized, and I took it again when I was confirmed.   My family always celebrated our patron saints’ feast days, and I was competitively (but uncharitably) pleased that I had two celebrations rather than one because I was the only one of my siblings to be baptized with a middle name.

However, what I liked the most about this celebration was the thought that Christ – God Himself – had grandparents.   I remember my own grandparents with much love and joy.  These elders of my family were my roots, my heritage, and a cherished center of my early life.

Most pictures I see of St. Anne (and the oft-neglected St. Joachim) show her, or them, in their role as parents to Mary.   They are often depicted teaching Mary to read, celebrating her presentation, or witnessing her wedding.  Occasionally, they are added to portraits of the Holy Family, gazing with love and awe from the corner of a painting of their daughter and her family.

Yet, I also like to think of them as the grandparents of God.  I wonder whether, in that extraordinary role, they experienced any ordinary times.

When Mary and Joseph were planning to marry, did her parents eagerly anticipate becoming grandparents, as do so many parents-of-the-bride?   When Mary told them of the Annunciation, how much did they understand?  Was their joy about their grandson mixed with fear?   Did they worry, as parents do, when their pregnant daughter traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the “hill country of Judea” or accompany Joseph to Bethlehem while carrying their grandson in her womb?

Did they visit their infant grandson at His birth or His presentation and give their daughter, a new mother, advice on caring for Him?    Did they ever watch Him play as a toddler and hear His first words or see His first steps?   Did they ever make a special food He liked as a treat or tuck Him into bed at night?   In those “hidden” years of Christ’s youth, did they watch Him grow in strength and knowledge?  Did they ever have the chance to tell Him childhood stories of His mother’s life as a young girl?  Did they speak of Him to their friends and pray for Him when they worshipped at the temple?

Were they still living when their daughter feared for her lost 12-year old and rejoiced when He was found?  Was their grandson their final thought and last joy when, after their holy lives, they closed their eyes on this world?

I will never know.   But I do know the importance of grandparents.  As parents to our parents, they shape the lives of those who most shape our own.  They are so often the link to a distant time, a foreign land, and a different life.  They are the elders who guard the heritage of a family and who, so often, hold it together in difficult times.  When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015 he said, “Grandparents are a family’s memory. They are the ones who gave us the faith, they passed the faith on to us.”

I am so grateful for the inheritance of faith and memories I received from my own grandparents.  I am also so grateful that in the extraordinary way in which Christ dwelt among us, he had the gift of grandparents – one of the greatest blessings of ordinary times.

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor 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.

Planning for Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

I am a planner.

Every year, in the heart of the summer, I buy a new calendar because I mark the beginning of my new years not in January but at the start of each new academic year – the cyclical rhythm by which I mark my time.   Planners like I am love the sense of control and certainty that comes from plotting out the course of our upcoming weeks and months.   Usually, class times, committee meetings, family gatherings, travel, school holidays, seasonal celebrations, annual traditions and other commitments make their way into my low-tech, handwritten calendar.  This creates, in a tangible way, my beloved organization and order.

Except when I can’t plan.

As it turns out, when I look at the days, months and weeks ahead, I find myself saying “I don’t know” to the most basic of questions.   What will our fall semesters look like?  When will we meet friends for dinner again inside our favorite restaurants?   When will students come to my office again?   When will the phrases “new normal” and “please mute yourselves” fade from our lexicons?  (I’m hoping soon!)  When will masks no longer hide the faces of friends and the smiles of strangers?  When will we be able to see far-flung family members who live across the country and around the world?   Who is hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and where?  (Yes, I plan that far ahead!) When will “Zoom coffee hours” be replaced with the joy of the real thing?  When can we safely revel in family reunions, crowded school events, concerts and conferences that are real, not sterilely virtual?  When can we gather to discuss the pain that grabs our headlines in person, with each other, not through a screen or a soundbite?   When will we be able to gather to memorialize those who have passed from this life and console each other in a warm embrace?  When will the joy of parish life lived as a family return in its glorious fullness?

I don’t know.

Admitting “I don’t know” is unsettling for me.  I sense this is an experience shared by many – but most deeply shared with my fellow planners.  To lose the control I thought I had has been an unwelcome part of these past months.   Yet, perhaps it was not something lost as much as a realization that the ability to plan and control is something I never really had – even when I had the luxury of thinking I did.

I am not the first to look ahead and sigh, “I don’t know” when wondering about the details of what lies ahead.   I imagine that “I don’t know” was the thought that went through the mind of Mary when she tried to anticipate what her life would be like as the Mother of God.   It likely also went through the mind of Joseph when he contemplated how life would unfold in the unique role he was asked to play in the history of salvation.   “I don’t know” must have raced through in the minds of the disciples who tried to understand what their new vocation would demand of them.  “I don’t know” surely was in the hearts of the crowds who met Christ during His years among them as they contemplated how this encounter would change their lives.

Since then, “I do not know” has reverberated through the centuries as the saints I most admire saw their lives unfold in ways they did not plan, did not anticipate,  did not understand, and, perhaps at times, did not desire.  Yet, by saying yes when they did not know what lay ahead and giving their uncertain futures over to God, they lived the lives they did and left behind the example they did.  The examples they gave living through the big unknowns of their lives is a welcome inspiration for navigating the far smaller unknowns of mine.

I am thinking of these ancestors in faith during this unsettling summer of “I don’t know.”  I hope that they will share with me the serenity they knew when they looked ahead and did not know what would come. I hope they will share with me some of the patience they had when others, frustratingly and honestly, answer my planning questions with their own “I don’t know.” 

Most importantly, I hope that they will share with me the faith that they had as I try to learn that “I don’t know” is, at its heart, an invitation to trust.  It is an invitation to trust that all that lies ahead, for me and for us, is in the hands of God.  More than that, it is in the hands of a God who lovingly does know and care about all that happen in the unfolding 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.

What Am I to Say?

As for man, his days are like the grass;

he blossoms like a flower in the field.

A wind sweeps over it and it is gone;

its place knows it no more.

—Psalm 103:15–16

by Joseph E. Capizzi

My friend David Baer and I recently wrote a piece in which we suggested that our current crises present an opportunity for theologians to reconsider how they speak to a world they hope might be paying some attention. We counseled theologians to abandon the offices of pundit and scold: in our opinion, theology has more than finger-wagging and “takes” to offer. Though the temptations of scolding are difficult to resist, and punditry by definition finds a ready audience, theologians can take consolation in knowing their job well done involves turning their hearers’ eyes toward God, even if only for a moment. In this piece, I speak to my colleagues, to the theologians and academics who find themselves seduced by easy forays into topical and timely speech.

Within Catholicism, the language of the “signs of the times” has been a popular and sometimes effective means of signaling the intention of theologians to speak meaningfully to their communities. We theologians use the language of the signs of the times as a mechanism by which to try and locate—and compete about—this or that social phenomenon deserving special attention. It typically ranges across a spectrum of political and social issues (poverty and inequality, immigration, abortion, gay marriage, this or that sense of social “progress” or decline, and so on). The power of invoking the signs of the times consists in attaching gospel language to important social concerns. Its weakness, however, is built into that strength. By attaching the gospel to contemporary concerns theologians can lose sight of that horizon toward which Jesus directed his disciples. The horizon of the signs of the times is the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). “See to it that you are not alarmed,” Jesus counsels the disciples: do not be misled by false messiahs or become alarmed by events. Stand firm, he tells them, because they know the events point to his return.

Read More Here at Breaking Ground.

 

IHE Fellow Jennifer Frey Speaks on Boredom, Solitude, and Grace in Flannery O’Connor

On 3 June 2020, the Collegium Institute’s Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative gathered four distinguished scholars and authors on Zoom to discuss Flannery O’Connor and her relevance during the quarantine. Speakers Amy Alznauer, IHE Fellow Jennifer Frey, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and Christine Flanagan probed into O’Connor’s work as it relates to philosophy, ordinary experience, and creativity, which included a deeper conversation on God’s grace as brought about by solitude, violence, and boredom. Throughout the discussion, the speakers discussed that while these prevalent aspects of life are often avoided or identified as negative, in reality they are opportunities to grow in grace. 

In her initial presentation, Alznauer, author of the soon-to-be released picture book, The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life, and Artist In Residence at St. Gregory the Great in Chicago, remarked that the original form of solitude is found in childhood. O’Connor knew this from her own youth and incorporated it into her works frequently. Moments of solitude experienced by her young protagonists magnified their self-knowledge in relation to God and the pursuit of truth. Being alone, regardless of age, allows a person to know himself and contemplate, a freedom vital to the reception of grace and truth, especially amid the distractions of modernity.

When the discussion opened for audience questions, the topic of violence prompted another important supposition: is there a tension between enjoyment of literature and the grotesque elements that often appear in O’Connor’s stories? Hooten Wilson, Associate Professor of Literature at John Brown University and the author of Giving the Devil His Due: Flannery O‘Connor and The Brothers Karamazov, asserted that, while people tend to fixate on O’Connor’s violence, the point of the violence is not merely to horrify but to make possible a moment of grace. In both literature and reality, violence is important not for its own sake but for the sake of eventual virtue; it forces society to see its distorted ways and choose to retain or overcome them. Ultimately, the violence of purgative fire is a passage to ensuing grace.

The final question of the evening explored whether solitude, that strange state simultaneously fruitful and boring, is the result of fallen human nature or the appropriate state of a soul that can only be satisfied by God. All four speakers agreed that boredom is good. Flanagan, Professor of English at University of the Sciences and the editor of The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, found boredom to be a necessary condition of an artist; O’Connor reportedly would sit at her desk for hours while waiting for ideas. Frey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-editor of Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology, asserted that boredom is beautiful and “the mistress of receptivity,” being none other than the passive, silent state that precedes inspiration. Hooten Wilson concurred that the resting of heart and mind, which is now called boredom, is actually an openness to deep contemplation and the grace of God.

During this time of national distress, the Christian must not despair but rejoice. Opportunities to develop virtue are present today in the least-expected, even initially distasteful, places of boredom and quiet.

Guides Through Ordinary Times

By Lucia A. Silecchia

In this life, if we are fortunate, we may meet a few people who, for want of a better word, become our mentors.  Usually, but not always, they are our elders – a bit further down the path of life and possessed of wisdom to share with us as we try to navigate life.  Over time, they become guides and friends as we try to discern what God may be calling us to do.

I have been blessed to have people such as this woven into the fabric of my life.  They encouraged me, told me that the things I wanted to do were possible, and gave me sound advice in ways that inclined me to follow it.    Two of those people, so important to me, passed from this life this spring.   Because of current limits on gatherings, I did not have a chance to pay my respects to them in person.  My letters to their families share a bit of what made them special to me and express my gratitude for the ways they helped set the course of my life.

But, their passing got me thinking more seriously about what a sacred thing it is to take the time to encourage, inspire, and guide others as they make their way through this world.   Now, by both my (rapidly advancing!) age and occupation, I find myself in the position where I can give to others the kind encouragement that was — and still is — given to me.

Each of us have received a unique set of gifts and talents.  With them comes the responsibility to use them to give glory to God and to help our neighbors as best we can.  It is often so overwhelming to discern how we might use our own abilities and talents in a responsible way that we may overlook the way in which others, too, are blessed with these things.  They may need our encouragement to ensure that those gifts and talents do not remain hidden under the all-too-ubiquitous bushel baskets that so often get in the way.

So… Do you know someone with a kind heart and sharp mind who we might need as a doctor or a nurse to guide us through medical emergencies, present and future?  Do you know someone with enthusiasm and compassion who might be a teacher who can open the eyes of a needy child to the wonder of the world?  Do you know a couple capable of that sort of love that can make their marriage an inspiration to all who will know them?  Do you know someone with a selfless heart who might say an eager “yes” to adopting a child?  Do you see in a neighbor the zeal for justice that may make him or her a political leader who could build bridges in our world of division and angst?  Do you know anyone whose skill at music or art or whose love of the written word may give the world the things of beauty that we all crave?  Do you know someone quiet and thoughtful who should think deeply about things philosophical?  Do you know a child wise beyond his or her years who is ready to launch an adventure in neighborhood service that will inspire others to join in?    Do you know men and women whose faith and hope and love suit them to lead others to God through the gift of themselves through the priesthood or in religious life?

For so many, myself included, it takes the invitation of another who says simply, “Have you thought about …” or “You would be good at …” or “Are you interested in …” to start thinking about something that might be possible.   This may be especially true of those who are shy, or who have no one in their family in a particular vocation, or who have failed at an early attempt and are on the verge of giving up.   But, perhaps, a simple invitation, followed up by steady encouragement, practical advice, and genuine concern can make all of the difference in the world.  It is not false hopes, insincere compliments, or blithe platitudes that matter.  Rather, it is the caring confidence of another who sees in us that which we may not see in ourselves that can make all the difference in the world.

I wonder if the first disciples, when called from their boats and businesses, would have known what they were capable of if Christ had not invited them, personally, with a simple “follow me.”  I doubt that any of them would have thought themselves suited by temperament, education or social standing to be the ones entrusted with the care of the Church.  Yet, Christ’s invitation and His three years of loving guidance changed them – and changed the world.

In the ordinary times of our lives, we may come to know those who have been given great gifts that they may not recognize that they have, that they may be afraid to use, or that they may be discouraged from developing.   As I think about those who have helped me along life’s way, my gratitude to them is mixed with a renewed sense of obligation to others.     All good gifts come from God.  It is also a great gift to help each other unwrap those treasures when we encourage and guide each other through ordinary times.

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

Washington Insider – Pro-life Issues

By William L. Saunders

Thousands upon thousands gathered for the annual March for Life on January 24. The crowd was so large that it took hours to pass by the designated starting point. It was packed with young people from various colleges and parishes throughout the United States, carrying pro-life banners and signs of all types.

The actual marching — down Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court — was preceded by a rally near the Washington Monument. Speakers reminded attendees and those watching online that the theme this year celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. March for Life President Jeanne Mancini emphasized that the suffragists by and large opposed abortion, which they saw as a means of oppressing women. Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told the crowd that, at a recent pro life rally in New York City, protestors representing the Black Lives Matter movement, on hearing that abortion takes more black lives than the police do, threw down their signs and joined the rally.

For the first time since the March began in 1974, the president of the United States spoke in person to the crowd. (President Barack Obama was the first president to speak to the annual convention of Planned Parenthood.) Coming amidst the effort to impeach and remove President Donald Trump, the March and rally attracted attention from the media, which usually ignores it.

Read more here.

Originally published on 29 April 2020 at The National Catholic Bioethics Center

On Reading Literature in Difficult Times

By IHE Fellow Jennifer A. Frey

In mid-March, I arrived home from a spring break spent giving lectures at various universities around the country to find out that not only would I not be returning to my own campus anytime soon, but also that five of my children would not be returning to their respective schools. On top of that, our longtime caregiver could no longer come to the house to watch our toddler. I was disoriented and anxious. One afternoon, in despair, I called my department chair and tearfully asked him: How am I supposed to do this? He said some well-intended words of encouragement, but we both knew there was no answer to my question. None of us had models to imitate or imaginative resources of past experience to draw upon.

The first major sacrifice was my research, which screeched to a halt along with my public speaking. However, I was committed to maintaining my podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, which is devoted to the exploration of the philosophical and theological dimensions of literature. I’m glad that I kept this commitment — difficult as it was while homeschooling and teaching online — because I now have more listeners than ever. Why have so many turned to literature, philosophy, and theology during this crisis? Boredom is only part of the story — I suspect the rest has to do with the human need to make sense of our own suffering.

The global pandemic has thrown the fragility of our lives into very stark relief. It has forced many of us into a posture of self-examination and reflection about the ways we have ordered our own lives and society, but also about God, death, and the point of our own existence. Philosophy is often said to be born of wonder, but it is surely born of suffering too. Certainly Albert Camus, author of The Plague, saw this clearly.

The aim of the Sacred and Profane Love podcast has always been to remind its listeners that great art is a cognitive enterprise, that it reveals truths to us that we are inclined to forget or neglect, and that literature plays an important role in human flourishing. We live in an age inclined to oppose reason and imagination, but the two are meant to work together cooperatively. I try to recover these connections in each episode of the podcast, not with dry lectures or didacticism, but by exploring a great book in honest, unscripted conversations with my guests, who are typically philosophers, theologians, or literary critics who have a deep appreciation for the books under discussion.

As we now slowly ease out of lockdown and try to puzzle through what sort of world we want to rebuild together, I believe that we need the renewed moral imagination that comes from encounters with great literature as much as we need skilled expertise. We need imaginative resources and models to imitate, conceptual clarity, and revelation. In short, we need literature, philosophy, and theology. And if you seek those resources in the midst of your daily life, I hope you’ll join the growing audience of Sacred and Profane Love.

Thanks, Class of 2020, for Our Ordinary Times

18 May 2020

By IHE Fellow Lucia A. Silecchia

As a teacher, I have mixed feelings about graduations.

I love the joy, pageantry and traditions that make these celebrations true highlights of academic life and happy milestones for graduates and their families.   Yet, for me, commencements are also tinged with sadness.   While they launch new beginnings for graduates, they are also bitter-sweet farewells to students I have come to cherish.

This year, like teachers everywhere, I will not say good-bye to the Class of 2020 in the same way I bid farewell to their predecessors.  I’ll miss that, and it would not surprise me if many who are blessed to spend their lives as teachers feel the same way.  So, to the Class of 2020…

I will miss seeing the pride in your parents’ faces – and seeing in them the echoes of my own parents’ joy when my siblings and I received our degrees long ago.

I will miss your embarrassed “Oh no!” when your Dad asks me “How did she do in your class?”   I might even miss that dread I feel when your Mom tells me, “I’ve heard all about you!” because I am not sure if that is necessarily a good thing.

I will miss watching each of you receive your diplomas – and, as your names are called, remembering your sorrows and triumphs along the way.

I will miss the annual confusion about which side of your hats the tassels should fall – a confusion that becomes comically obvious when you are instructed to shift your tassels from one side to the other when your degree is conferred.

I will miss seeing the tears in the eyes of your grandparents – and remembering, with gratitude, the way education was so cherished by my own immigrant grandparents.

I will miss leafing through the formal listing of your names in the program and learning that some of you have beautiful middle names I never knew – as well as many advanced degrees you were too modest to tell me about.

I will miss meeting your families and congratulating your parents, your spouses and your children. I know, as you know, that your hard won achievements are theirs as well.

I will miss being with my colleagues on the staff and faculty as we share our pride in you and our common joy that, in our many different ways, we each contributed a little something to get you to the finish line.

I will miss praying with you at your graduation Mass on the eve of your Commencement and asking God to bless the paths that you will travel.

But most of all, Class of 2020, I will miss you.

You were once strangers to me and to each other.  Through many different paths, we came together for a time and shared a unique season of our lives.   I am grateful I had those years with you, even though this time has ended in a way none of us would have predicted when first we met.

Some of you have known great joy during these years we have shared as you welcomed children, became aunts or uncles, achieved academic success, and wear new rings on your fingers.  Some of you have known great sorrow and miss loved ones who started this journey with you but are not at your side now to share your joy.  Some of you may have exciting prospects that lie right ahead of you.  For some, this pandemic may have stolen more from you than your graduation celebration.   For most of you, and for me, the time we spent together included both joys and sorrows — just like life itself.  For the way we were able to spend these years together, and the way you so often inspired me with your everyday kindness to each other, to our community, and to me, I am deeply grateful.

So, Class of 2020, when we can gather someday to celebrate you, I hope that you will come.   I hope that when good news comes your way, you will let me rejoice with you – and if sad news comes your way, you will let me mourn with you.    I hope that you will come back to visit your school soon and often.  I hope that when alumni events beckon, your class will be among the first to return.   I hope that when you use something you learned in my classes, you will let me know – and when there is something you wish you had learned in my classes, I hope that you will let me know that too.   I hope that when I check my phone or my emails in the years to come, there will be voices from the Class of 2020.

Although I may not yet have said a formal “good-bye” to you, I hope that in the years to come, you will give me many chances to say “hello.”

And, maybe, I really do want to say “good-bye.”

Our most common word of farewell is, actually, an ancient abbreviation of the phrase, “God go with you.”   So, to all those whose diplomas bear the date “2020,” I pray that God does go with you as you embark into a fragile world.  Please bring that world your courage, your hope and your love – and thanks for sharing with me some of your ordinary times.

Congratulations!  May God go with you, Class of 2020.


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.

No, We Can’t Just Get Along

This piece was originally published in The American Interest on 15 May 2020.

By Jakub Grygiel 

To partner with a predator is to surrender. Yet this is precisely the behavior some EU elites are encouraging.

The EU’s 27 ambassadors to China published an op-ed in the government-run China Daily to mark the 45th anniversary of EU-China diplomatic relations. And instead of being quickly forgotten, the op-ed turned into a diplomatic disaster, mostly for the European Union. It turns out that the text was censored by the Communist editors responding to orders from their own ministry of foreign affairs, erasing a tiny mention of the Chinese origins of COVID-19.

This is not surprising coming from a totalitarian state: Communism is one big lie and it fears even a suggestion of truth. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, after all, not that different from its historic predecessors in Moscow and other world capitals.

The surprising part is that the EU ambassador agreed to the censored version. He accepted a lie for the promise of harmony.

But the focus on the censored text missed an even more problematic aspect of this disastrous op-ed: the EU posture toward China. It showed that some in the EU foreign policy apparatus continue to nourish the hope of a grand cooperation with Beijing on a variety of transnational issues. This is despite the EU’s own statements coming out of Brussels, and the growing realization among many of its member states, that it is time to compete rather than accommodate China,

The justification for acquiescing to the CCP-mandated lie was that, as the EU delegation helpfully clarified after the fact, the op-ed “passed key messages on a number of our priority areas to a potential audience of more than 1 billion readers. Messages on climate change and sustainability, human rights, the importance of multilateralism, the Coronavirus Global Response Summit, macro-economic assistance and debt relief for highly indebted countries.” This rationale—and the core argument of the op-ed—are even worse than the acceptance of the Communist censorship. They point to deeper problems in how the EU apparatus, or at least part of it, sees Communist China and its behavior: China continues to be treated as the key partner for the EU because the world needs their cooperation for “climate action, peace and security, sustainable development and upholding the multilateral global order.

EU priorities are a mix of post-modern pablum (e.g. “sustainability,” “multilateralism”) and traditional principles emptied of meaning. “Human rights,” for instance, are listed as a topic for cooperation and dialogue, but without any clear statement of China’s egregious and systematic violations of basic freedoms. The CCP-led government has been putting Uighurs in concentration camps, arresting political opponents, and even silencing scientists who gave early warnings of the Wuhan virus. These are not small exceptions to otherwise stellar behavior; they are tools of control without which the CCP cannot function. We should harangue and punish them for their totalitarian conduct, not reward them by elevating them to a partner. In fact, the way the EU diplomats phrased this op-ed suggests that Beijing’s suppression of Christians, “re-education camps” for Muslims, or continued forced abortions are perhaps some of the “priority areas” to discuss, but not any more so than continued partnership to solve other pressing “global challenges.”

The inability of the EU diplomatic machinery to see China as a great power competitor is all the more damaging because it undermines the security of EU-member states—and by doing so, it weakens the very purpose of the European Union. China has been plundering Europe’s most advanced industrial capacities (for example, through a hostile takeover of the premier German industrial robotics firm Kuka in 2016). The economic detritus caused by the current China-originated pandemic will only increase the likelihood of further Chinese acquisitions in key industrial sectors. This is not the time for a “partnership” with China but for a coordinated policy to repel further Chinese predation.

To partner with a predator is to surrender. And if this is what the EU diplomatic corps is suggesting, EU member states—at least those willing to resist their colonization by China—will see even less use than usual in having a common European foreign policy. In fact, it is encouraging that in some European capitals this EU diplomatic debacle—both the acceptance of CCP censorship and the bowing to Chinese demands for continued “partnership”—has been criticized. The candidate for CDU leadership in Germany, Norbert Rottgen, bluntly condemned it in a tweet. But other countries, particularly those in the so called “16+1” group in Central and Eastern Europe, appear quiet, eager to continue to receive Chinese investment, predatory as it may be. (Incidentally, here is a rare occasion where the pro-China EU elites are in full accord with some national leaders, such as Polish President Duda, who otherwise is considered one of the “black sheep” of the region for his conservative worldview).

The EU Commission was on the right path when in a 2019 document it defined China “an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” And the arrogant behavior of several Chinese diplomats in various European capitals over the past two months, inveighing about every criticism of China and its bungled dealing of the virus in Wuhan, seems to have strengthened the fear among some European leaders of Chinese economic dominance and political influence.

The EU diplomats who wrote this China Daily op-ed appear hell bent on seeking a partnership with an expansionistic China, going against the very policies that are taking shape in EU member states. This divergence of views—between some European states aware of the ongoing competition with China and parts of the EU stuck in a continued search for harmony with Communist Beijing—diminishes the relevance of the EU in the age of great power competition.

Jakub Grygiel is an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His most recent book is Return of the Barbarians (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Amid a Pandemic, the American Spirit Prevails

By Emmett McGroarty, IHE Director of Research and Planning

With the tragedies and horrors of the pandemic, we see signs of inspiration. We see inspiration in the tireless response of medical personnel. We see it in all those who reach out to help others, both neighbors and strangers. We see it in schoolteachers and administrators, from first grade through graduate school, who strive to continue teaching and keep their communities together. We see it in the government workers and politicians who are trying their best to pull the country through the crisis. We see it in the truckers and other workers in the supply chain who are working under difficult circumstances to ensure that people have necessities. We also see signs of inspiration in the public’s willingness to examine and question the contours of government decisions.

Although not as obvious, the last of these is crucial to civil society, and increasingly so. It is crucial because, for well over 100 years, progressive ideology has steadily re-shaped American government and, in so doing, marginalized the influence and participation of the people. In The Science of Administration, his 1887 essay in Political Science Quarterly, Woodrow Wilson laid out the argument for this change: the administration of government should be centralized and placed in the hands of bureaucrats to develop expertise in their areas, study the data and science, and craft reasonable plans for moving forward.

To do this, though, the bureaucrat would have to gain a measure of independence from political control. As Wilson argued: “Administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.” The rationale is that the bureaucrat — having figured out what to do — should not be slowed down or otherwise thwarted by the Constitution’s separation of powers, system of dual sovereigns, and ultimately by accountability to the people. In Wilson’s judgment, “[t]he people, who are sovereign . . . are selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.”

Over the years, as this ideology has taken hold, the bureaucracy has grown immensely in both state and federal government. Some of this growth concerns new fields of activity, like NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration. Some of it is due to clear oversteps of federal activity, like its increasing role in education. Regardless, this bureaucratic expansion calls for several considerations:

  • Expertise of a purely bureaucratic and truly scientific nature, is invaluable. Nevertheless, bureaucratic legitimacy is impaired where the Constitutional structure is compromised — especially the separation of powers and the denigration of the unitary executive (insulating certain agencies and offices from presidential control). When this happens, accountability to citizens diminishes, and they rightly become alienated.
  • Lacking accountability to the people, bureaucrats are not positioned to weigh competing interests and policies. With COVID-19, for example, they lack both the standing in the eyes of the people and the necessary knowledge to weigh the harms and benefits of a complete lockdown versus less severe measures.
  • Likewise, political leadership is critical to ensuring that government, in its zeal, does not trample over individual rights.
  • Political leadership is always necessary to evaluate the validity of the bureaucrats’ methodologies and conclusions, the parameters of their knowledge, and the certainty of their opinions (for example, through consultation with other experts).

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that government’s centralization of local matters “is fit only to enervate the people who submit to it.” Moreover, when that centralization is put in the same hands as the centralized government responsible for national matters (e.g., foreign affairs), it creates an “immense force” that “habituates men to make complete and continual abstraction from their wills.” Amidst the tragedy and horror of COVID-19, the spirit of the American people remains, perhaps invigorated, to seek the truth of what is known and unknown and to rightfully, and peacefully, demand that their voices be heard in steering the ships of state.

Saint Thomas Aquinas and Adam Smith in a Time of Pandemic

By Elise Amez-Droz, a staff writer at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

A recent panel discussion shows how using both economics and theology can help us better advance the common good.

Do economics and theology need each other? This was the question posed to experts with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology in a recent panel discussion.

These days, the two fields are rarely considered at the same time, but the intertwining of the two disciplines has a rich intellectual history that is now finding new light. For instance, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), himself a Catholic, has cited Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as a framework for economic policymaking that promotes the common good.

Read more here.

Originally published on 5 May 2020 at The Bridge

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