Thursday, February 24, 2011

Carrie Nation, Kathleen Sebelius and Hating Phill Kline

carrienation A priest friend from our neighboring Sunflower State once quipped that “at one time you could legally get an abortion in Kansas, but you couldn’t get a drink.” It’s funny, albeit in a macabre way, because it’s literally true. And it helps explain the peculiar culture that has produced a vendetta ethics trial against former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline.

Kansas was one of the states that legalized some forms of abortion even before 1973’s Roe v’ Wade ruling, and yet, you could not get a drink at a public bar or restaurant until 1987. While the rest of the country suffered under prohibition from 1919 to 1933, Kansas had full prohibition from 1881 until 1948. Even when Kansas’ prohibition ended, the state continued to ban on-site liquor sales until 1987. In the 1970s, Kansas even enforced this prohibition on Amtrak trains travelling through the state and planes flying through Kansas airspace. To this date, Kansas has not ratified the 21st Amendment.

Neighboring Missouri, however, is and has been an alcohol free-for-all zone and this has led to some interesting cross-state arrangements. Kansas City, Missouri is separated from Johnson County, Kansas by State Line Rd. (I should insert here that these revelations are for the benefit of my non-Midwest readers – which is most of you.) A house on one side of State Line Road is in Kansas, while its neighbor across the street is in Missouri.

Consequently, there is a very beautiful golf course on the Kansas side of State Line Road, while its original club house (and bar) is across the street in Missouri. A little down the road is a Hy-Vee supermarket in Kansas and across the street is the Hy-Vee liquor store in Missouri.

KathleenSebelius On the flip side, there is not a single surgical abortion clinic in Kansas City, Missouri or anywhere else in Western Missouri, while Kansas is home to some of the briskest abortion businesses in the country. Kansas ranks 38th among the states in overall tourism, but is number one in abortion tourism. Fully half the abortions performed in Kansas are on women from other states and countries. The situation is not because Kansas has unusually lax abortion laws, but because abortionists have unusually strong protection from the Kansas judiciary, and until Sam Brownback was sworn in last month, from the governor’s mansion.

So how could the same culture produce Carrie Nation and Kathleen Sebelius; a joyless sobriety crusade in one era and a mean-streaked crusade to punish any and all oversight of even late-term abortion in another? Is there something tying them together?

I got a hint of a connection at then-Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius’ birthday party in 2007. It was held at the Blue Room in Kansas City, Missouri’s historic 18th & Vine jazz district (Kansans still go to Missouri to party). I wasn’t invited, of course. I was outside observing a motley crew of protesting trad Catholics praying their rosaries and black Baptist preachers decrying the abortion-genocide of African-Americans.

Why would anybody protest the governor’s birthday party? Well, it was double-billed as a Planned Parenthood fundraiser and PPFA head Cecile Richards, as well as PP Johnson County abortuary manager Peter Brownlie, were there to fete the governor who had done so much to thwart any oversight of their business.

I’d just arrived in Kansas City. Back in San Francisco, if you were to observe a gathering of abortion activists you’d see a lot of piercings and tats and persons with uncertain gender identity and expression – a lot of angry yelling, contorted faces and bizarre behavior. Oddballs.

But here, a steady stream of perfectly shining expensive cars and SUVs dropped off the Planned Parenthood supporters, as an army of white-coated attendants escorted them into the Blue Room and parked their cars. I remember my growing astonishment as the demographic of the party became clearer with each new arrival. Almost to a one, the Planned Parenthood partiers were impeccably dressed, late middle-aged women with domes of respectable gray hair. Any one of them could have been mistaken for the governor.

Here were the elite matrons of Johnson County; not oddballs at all, but the perfect pictures of respectability and propriety.

Let me beg-off bashing Kansas for a moment (It’s sport here). Truthfully, the demographic that attended Kathleen Sebelius’ Planned Parenthood birthday bash exists in well-off suburbs across the country where, for some (not all), upward mobility, social-climbing and respectability are the chief ends in life.

I know this group, because many of them were the parents of my peers in well-off suburban Marin County, California (the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge). And I know what they do to their daughters to keep up the facade of a perfect lifestyle.

Nearly every abortion I’m aware of among my friends and acquaintances took place under solid pressure from parents – usually mom. These parents had no time, inclination or interest in raising their daughters to value chastity, however.

One friend had three abortions by the time she was a Freshman in college. She wrote me about it explaining that her mother dragged her to the clinic each time. I don’t know why she wrote, except to express pain. I was too young and stupid to offer any concrete help. The same mom had nothing to offer about her daughter’s sexuality.

An old girlfriend cajoled me to go to a clinic with her to rescue a friend. Her friend’s older sister had called to say her mother was dragging the younger sister down to the clinic and she didn’t want to go. The sister wouldn’t intervene because the father told her he’d kick her out of the house if she did – a nice, well-off, respectable suburban house. When we got there, mom and dad were on either arm of this hysterically crying young woman pulling her into the clinic. The dad, later that day, after coercing the abortion of his grandchild, kicked his elder daughter out of the house for alerting anyone.

Anybody who’s spent time outside an abortion clinic has witnessed that scene time and again.

Upward mobility and the creation of a respectable, suburban identity were the driving factors in these parents’ decision making, not morality. Threaten that carefully crafted identity with a pregnant daughter though, and it’s back to being trash – something that wouldn’t be tolerated. And in this is the kernel of why Kansas elites hate Phill Kline.

There are any number of anti-abortion politicians in Kansas and none of them are hated with the vehemence directed at Phill Kline. He didn’t propose pro-life legislation or prosecute a doctor without a license. There would have been no vendetta for that. I even suspect that if he’d somehow shut down Tiller’s Wichita practice, there would be less hatred toward him than for what he actually did.

What he actually did was to subpoena medical records at the Johnson County Planned Parenthood. He had reason to do so and the records suggest many violations of Kansas law.

But these were patient records, and even though the names were redacted, the barest chance that anyone, even just Phill Kline, might divine the identity of clients there sent chills down the spines of not a few well-off suburbanites desperate to defend a facade of respectability and propriety.

Carrie Nation was insane and a publicity hound. But I suspect there’s something related in the overwrought desire to forge tidiness and respectability that might lead someone to take a hatchet to a perfectly good bottle of bourbon or to destroy the life of a man who threatens to turn a mirror on you?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Journey to the End of the Night - ‘Biutiful’ reviewed

From the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos’ review of Oscar-nominated ‘Biutiful’. The picture is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and lead Javier Bardem is up for Best Actor.

Journey to the End of the Night

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella

By Santiago Ramos

In an interview appearing in Deadline Hollywood, Javier Bardem confessed that he had hesitated before accepting director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s offer to play the leading role of Uxbal in Biutiful: “I read [the script] like three times in a row before I said yes. Because I knew that what he was proposing to me was not a performance. [He] was proposing me a life journey.”

biutiful This film is more like an end of life journey. Uxbal lives in relative poverty in present-day Barcelona, where he raises two children and serves as a middleman in the criminal underground, dealing between a sweatshop of Chinese immigrants who make counterfeit Gucci handbags and DVDs, and the West African immigrants who sell them illegally on the street. His estranged wife (Marambra, played by Maricel Álvarez) has lost custody of her children; she suffers from manic depression. He himself is told early on in the film that he is dying from cancer.

No wonder Bardem hesitated. Yet his attempt to embody the torment which Iñárritu sets up as a premise to the film is mostly successful. Uxbal walks as if every step he takes were towards Golgotha, and his visage is creased and drooping downward. But he can also smile, and Bardem grasps the fact that even someone in Uxbal’s situation would bear more than one emotion in his soul over the course of a day. Bardem captures the life. But the journey is another matter.

The journey consists of every action Uxbal takes as he negotiates between trying to care for his children—and leaving them some financial support before he dies—and brokering deals between criminals. The more he suffers from his illness, the more Uxbal develops a moral conscience: It’s not enough, he seems to think, to work for my children. I should try to do something good for them, and for others.

But Uxbal’s motivations are polluted by his profession; he is a big link in a chain of criminality, and he is enchained by it. He tells Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), one of the West African vendors, not to sell anything on this street, but to sell it at that one, where there is a tacit agreement with the cops and where he won’t get caught. Ekweme doesn’t listen, and he and his friends are chased and arrested by the cops; they spend some nights in jail, along with Uxbal, who bears some of the fault for being part of the illegal commerce in the first place. But it is also unclear whether Ekweme was also selling dope.

The lack of clarity engulfs every action, every decision, and for this reason it seems flawed that the film casts Uxbal as a hero from the very beginning. We are told to admire him before we are given reasons to admire him. The closest we come to outright disliking him is after the central tragedy of the film, when Uxbal tries to make an act of charity for the sweatshop of Chinese laborers making the Gucci handbags. Uxbal has already been negotiating for the Chinese with a contractor who needs construction workers and would rather not pay union wages. At least it would get the workers out in open air. And in the night, it gets very cold where they are forced to sleep—he could buy them some heaters.

To say any more would break the “No Spoilers” pact, and it is difficult to evaluate Biutiful without doing so, because its success as a tragedy rests on how Uxbal reacts to the tragedy which he has…witnessed. (Or endured? Or caused?) I can only say this: someone who has gone through what Uxbal has gone through would fret about it for longer than Uxbal does in the final acts of the film. The script forces him to move on to other things and artificially lightens the load on his conscience. In a film which until now has, if nothing else, forced the viewer to look at brutal suffering and injustice which is actually taking place just around the corner, it is an aesthetic letdown to have Uxbal visit a New Agey-spiritual guru woman and have her tell him, “It’s OK,” as she hugs him and caresses his face.

I am convinced that Uxbal vists Bea—the New Agey spiritual guru, played by Ana Wagener—only for the hugs, because he never takes anything she says seriously. Not that she says serious things. Mostly, she utters quasi-pious nostrums about acceptance of death, life after death, and the value of modern medicine. (“No Bea, no…” he disagrees with her, and then takes the hug.) Yet it doesn’t matter that what she says sounds trite. The fact that she is confronting him with these claims means that there is a question he must face.

That question goes beyond merely leaving a nest and a legacy for his kids, and beyond trying to force justice to break into the series of exploitative relationships that he is a part of. The question is whether Uxbal’s life is worth living, whether it still is, despite everything, in some way, beautiful. The film does not support its own weight: it forces a sentimental conclusion by depicting Uxbal’s memories, and the sound of a child’s whisper in the silence. There is no way one can hear a child’s whisper breaking silence without feeling something warm inside. But Uxbal’s predicament calls for more than warm feelings.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

St. Gianna as model and tool for evangelization in medicine

St. Gianna Thomas McKenna, founder and president of the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild, spoke at the luncheon sponsored by the local chapter of the Catholic Medical Association following Saturday’s White Mass. He is a leading authority on St. Gianna Molla, a 20th-century wife, mother, and physician whom Pope John Paul II canonized in 2004.

McKenna gave an overview of her remarkable life, and explained how she is a great patron for all Catholic laity, especially health care providers.

Leon Suprenant with the Catholic Key caught up with McKenna to learn more about the work of his organization.

Key: What is the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild?

McKenna: It’s an organization founded five years ago to inspire physicians and others in health care to practice their faith better and to stand up for their faith. We live in a secularized world where doctors are pressured to check their religion at the door when they put on their white coat. We help them retain their Catholic identity, helping them recall that they are Catholics first and physicians second.

Key: How do you go about implementing this vision?

McKenna: First, we encourage physicians to learn about St. Gianna. Then the physician can enshrine in his office or clinic a picture of St. Gianna that contains a relic. The enshrinement ceremony was written by Cardinal Raymond Burke. He helped me establish the Guild and remains closely involved with the organization.

The physician puts this picture in their office and invites their family, friends, and other doctors to come to this event. It’s a way of bringing up the faith in the setting of a physicians’ office where it’s not foreign or odd. Many doctors feel uncomfortable putting up a crucifix, but they’re often willing to put up a picture of a woman holding a child who was a doctor and a saint.

I tell them when you put that on your wall people are going to ask, “Who is that woman?” Since they are asking the question, you aren’t pushing anything; you are simply answering their question and have an opportunity to tell St. Gianna’s heroic story. Many, many doctors have called me back to request more literature, because the picture generates so much interest.

Key: How did you get to know St. Gianna’s family?

McKenna: I met them when I had the idea to create an organization for physicians. I wanted their support if I was going to make her our patron. So I got in touch with some pro-life friends in Italy who knew the family and asked them to arrange a meeting. I met the family, including Gianna’s husband, who has since died. I asked them what they thought of my idea, and they supported it enthusiastically and wanted to be a part of it. So they are very pleased and active in supporting the organization and glad to have their mother honored in this way.

Key: For those who may not know the story, could you explain the circumstances of Gianna Molla’s final pregnancy?

McKenna: St. Gianna had three children, and then she suffered two miscarriages. Then she became pregnant again. Two months into her pregnancy, they discovered a benign fibroid tumor in her uterus. It was not cancer. Nonetheless, the tumor posed a potential threat to her life and the life of the child, so the doctors recommended a hysterectomy.

St. Gianna asked if there were other options. The doctor said they could try to remove the tumor and see if she would carry the baby to term, but it was very risky and she could miscarry anyway. St. Gianna basically said, “If that’s an option, then that’s what I want, because the child in my womb has the same right to life as my other three children.”

So they did the operation and it was successful. Gianna took the baby to term. They had to deliver the baby by caesarean section. Her newborn daughter was healthy, but as a result of the C-section, St. Gianna developed an infection and died one week later.

Key: I’ve heard people mention of “Gianna babies.” Can you tell me a little about that?

McKenna: A couple years ago I was in Italy and asked St. Gianna’s brother about miracles attributed to St. Gianna, and he said by far the most miracles were couples who were infertile or not able to have babies, who then prayed to Gianna and were able to conceive and give birth. That phenomenon is taking place all over the world, and we’re talking about medical cases where it was thought clinically “impossible” for the couples to have children.

Key: Do you have any plans to come back to the KC area?

McKenna: Yes, we are actually planning a conference on end-of-life issues that will take place in July. Cardinal Burke will be coming to chair the conference. St. Gianna’s daughter, Gianna Emanuela, who was named after her mother, will also be here for that. In October, St. Gianna’s son will be visiting Kansas City to participate in a 4-day special exhibition on the life of St. Gianna that will be held at St. James Academy.

Key: Why is Gianna a saint for our time?

McKenna: She was a person who practiced virtue to a heroic degree in the 20th century. She drove a car, she went to medical school, and she faced many challenges we face today. She did things that you or I do; she endured trials that you or I do. When you learn about the life of St. Gianna, you find a life filled with suffering, suffering that she overcame with her Catholic faith. Her husband used to say that Gianna’s compass was her Catholic faith. She measured everything by faith and that’s what we as Catholics need to do. That’s why we say, “St. Gianna, pray for us.”

For more information on the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild, visit

Monday, February 14, 2011

‘Do whatever He tells you!,’ Bishop Vasa tells medical professionals

DSC_1290 “Do whatever He tells you,” is the only command given by Mary in the Gospels, Bishop Robert Vasa explained at a White Mass for medical professionals Feb. 12. “Yet, when we consider the situation and circumstances,” for the stewards at the Wedding Feast at Cana, “their obedience to her command could have been neither easy nor automatic.”

Bishop Vasa said that following Jesus’ command to fill six stone water jars must have seemed “Foolish, ridiculous, even stupid.” For practical, rational men who knew the usual practice of their trade, “There was no time for such nonsense,” Bishop Vasa said, “Their reputations, their jobs, their livelihood was at stake.”

And yet, without the stewards’ obedience in faith, the Miracle at Cana would not have happened. Medical professionals today are called to a similar obedience to Christ when the “usual practice of medicine conflicts with faith, or conflicts with the moral code of our Church,” Bishop Vasa said.

The White Mass was jointly for medical professionals in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas and sponsored by the Kansas City chapter of the Catholic Medical Association. Bishop Vasa, currently of the Diocese of Baker, Oregon was recently appointed Coadjutor of the Diocese of Santa Rosa in California. He has been Episcopal Advisor to the Catholic Medical Association since 2002.

Thomas McKenna of the St. Gianna Molla Physician’s Guild brought relics of St. Gianna, a CMA patroness, to the White Mass. McKenna is pictured above with (l-r) Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn, Bishop Vasa and Kansas City, Kansas Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. The relics on the table are (l-r) gloves used by St. Gianna, some of the S. Gianna’s hair in a reliquary and a fetal stethoscope used by the saint in her medical practice.

At the end of Mass, Bishop Finn announced that the two Kansas City dioceses would jointly sponsor a conference on Catholic teaching on end-of-life care on July 25. Cardinal Raymond Burke and St. Gianna’s daughter, Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla, will be among the participants. Details on the conference and an interview with Thomas McKenna will follow. For now, the full text of Bishop Vasa’s homily follows:

Homily for White Mass
Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle
Kansas City, Kansas
Most Rev. Robert Vasa

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Pope Benedict, in announcing this year’s World Day of the Sick, wrote:

Every year, on the day of the memorial of the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes, which is celebrated on 11 February, the Church proposes the World Day of the Sick. This event, as the venerable John Paul II wanted, becomes a most suitable occasion to reflect upon the mystery of suffering and above all to make our communities and civil society more sensitive to our sick brothers and sisters. If every man is our brother, much more must the sick, the suffering and those in need of care be, at the center of our attention, so that none of them feels forgotten or emarginated.

Indeed, he writes quoting his Encyclical Spe Salvi:

The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘com-passion’ is a cruel and inhuman society. (Encyclical letter Spe salvi, n. 38)

The Holy Father intentionally hyphenates the word com-passion to emphasize its true meaning of entering into and sharing the suffering of another.

It is a privilege for me to have this opportunity to be with you as you celebrate this White Mass and commemorate Our Lady of Lourdes as well as the World Day of the Sick. What better group to associate with on this day than those involved in the provision of appropriate com-passionate care as understood by the Church. On this day we look to Mary to find her message for us.

In our Gospel today we recount the only time in the Gospel records when Mary issues a command. In most of her other words she is responding to God’s activity in her life. On this occasion she goes to the stewards of hospitality and simply instructs them: Do whatever He tells you!

We may imagine that this admonition was easily received by the stewards and that following her command involved no great challenge or dilemma for these stewards. Yet, when we consider the situation and circumstances, their obedience to her command could have been neither easy nor automatic.

Consider that these stewards were responsible for the welfare of the guests. They were probably caterers whose livelihood depended upon satisfied customers. When they discovered that the wine was running low they would have been inclined to do that which any prudent business person would have done. They would have been on their way to the nearest market to obtain that which was further necessary for the celebration. They are told by Mary to wait, to be patient and to see what Jesus would tell them to do. Further, as Mary commanded, they were to do what He said.

Imagine their anticipation for the great order which would come. They were ready for anything and then the word came. Fill these large stone jars with water. Foolish, ridiculous, even stupid. There was no time for such nonsense. Their reputations, their jobs, their livelihood was at stake. What would it have taken for those stewards, who knew well how things in the world operated, to abandon their own reasonableness and actually fill those six large jars with water? At very least they could have split the duties. Perhaps they would have thought: Let two of us fill jars, you other three go get more wine. The Gospels do not indicate any such behavior. At Mary’s word, Do whatever He commands you, they had faith enough to take a marvelous leap of faith and, instead of going out to buy more wine, they fill six large stone jars with water. Without their faith, no miracle would happen.

They passed the first test and came back to Jesus, still waiting for some marvelous ostentatious sign. What they heard must have sounded more ridiculous than what they heard the first time. Jesus said: Now take some of that water and give it to the head of hospitality, to your boss and tell him this is for the guests. Now, this is really going too far. The guests may be inebriated and the head waiter may have tipped a few himself but trying to convince him that this water would be as good as wine is suicidal. Again, recalling Mary’s confident words, Do whatever He tells you, they took courage and did that which required faith. They drew out some of the water, which they did not know had been turned into wine, and took it to their boss. Imagine the courage it took to hand him that flagon of water and to say, “Here, give them this!”

There are really three miracles here. Faith enough to fill jars with water is one. Faith enough to take that water to a head steward is the second. The third is that which we recall as the Miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana the miracle of water turned into wine. Yet, all three are necessary. All three are related to an action of Mary. She tells her Son, “They have no more wine” and she tells the stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”

We are men and women of rationality and science. I tell you, I doubt I would have had faith enough to fill jars with water and to act on Jesus’ word. Yet, in the practice of medicine as Catholics that is precisely what Jesus sometimes asks us to do. We are repeatedly challenged to decide if we are people of science or people of faith. In truth, we must always be both. In those instances where faith and science agree there is no moral or ethical conflict. In those instances where science or the usual practice of medicine conflicts with faith, or conflicts with the moral code of our Church, we must be men and women of faith. And that’s not easy. In the judgment of some this will be foolish, ridiculous, even stupid, but we need to hear Mary’s words as readily and as faithfully as did those stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Perhaps the commands of Jesus in this instance were intentionally farfetched in order to teach us a profound lesson of trust. Yet, the miracle accounts often required a stretching of rational limits. To the man with a crippled hand He says, “Stretch out your hand.” The rational response would have been, “I can’t its crippled.” The only reasonable response on the part of Lazarus to Jesus’ command that he come out of the tomb would have been, “I can’t, I’m dead!” Jesus was laughed at and ridiculed by a well reasoned crowd when he came to the home of Jairus and told the crowd that the little girl was not dead but sleeping. A woman in a crowd knew beyond reason but with great faith that if she could just touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak she would be healed and she was. Each of these encounters with the healing Jesus involved a serious suspension of reason, a willingness to keep science in its proper place.

As Physicians who embrace the Catholic faith you must know that you cannot minimize or neglect reason or science in your pursuit of good for your patients. For you, however, as believers in Jesus, that reason will and must always be tempered by, and subject to, faith. As you face difficult situations and circumstances, you too need to hear the words of our all compassionate Mother, “Do whatever He tells you.” In those instances where faith and reason seem to be in conflict then, provided you truly know your faith, you will become convinced that it is reason and not faith which is involved in error. In our subjectivist, relativistic age which often masquerades as an age of pure reason it is tempting to put a lot more faith in science and reason than it is to put faith in God. Yet, both are acts of faith and both are directed toward a perceived god. For much of our society that god is science or government or technology. For us there is a greater God and a greater good. The wine stewards were wise enough to put their trust in the one whom Mary trusted. The Church now stands in the place of Christ and Mary still says to us, as she said to those stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”

I think that one of the things we tend to lose sight of today in modern medicine is that our God is still a personal God. We hear the words of Jesus through the Church but we forget that it is still this Incarnate Jesus who speaks though the Church. Mary stands for us as that reminding mediator who tells us that her Son is still real and still personally involved in our lives and in the life of the world. He is not an abstract rule or law or moral code. He is a Person who still abides with us and with whom we are still called to have a personal relationship. Mary reminds us that her Son, even through the Church, is still worth listening to and obeying. For this reason her words reverberate throughout the centuries as an even more ardent plea, “Do whatever He tells you!” She was present to the stewards and their awareness of her presence gave them courage to follow her command and to obey Jesus. May her presence in our lives likewise be an ever present impetus for us to be courageous in following her command and obeying the voice of her Son in the world today.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The King and I

Santiago Ramos’ take on The King’s Speech from the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key:

MediaPicFeb11 The King’s Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Seidler
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter

Review by Santiago Ramos

The King’s Speech is a feel-good movie, but it gives you more than one reason to feel good. The first reason is the typical triumph-over-adversity story which moviegoers in 2011 perceive not so much as a story but as a sign. The Pavlovian response is: “Ah yes. The hero is beset by a problem within himself; he overcomes it with hard work and the wisdom of a mentor. I feel good.” Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, Duke of York, who will become King George VI and has a severe speech impediment that keeps him from making speeches. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a fuzzy and wise Australian speech therapist, finds a way to cure him. Logue treats the prince’s diaphragm but also his crippled self-esteem. More than one part of Edward must be rehabilitated before he is ready to become king—Lionel mocks the future King’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), when she insists that the treatment focus exclusively on the “mechanical” aspect of the problem.

The dramatic irony in the film is that Albert will become king and he doesn’t know it. Only we know it, and maybe Lionel has secretly wanted him to become king all along. Albert’s brother, David, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), is a vapid playboy who is next in line to the throne, but he will abdicate once it becomes clear that, as king, he would never be able to marry his twice-divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson. The abdication crisis occurs right as Europe winds up for another multinational war. Not only must Albert overcome his lack of self-esteem and become king, but he must overcome his stuttering and go on BBC Radio to explain to his subjects why and when the United Kingdom will go to war against Hitler. This radio address is the second reason for feeling good.

The King makes a long walk toward the recording booth, accompanied by Lionel, with a confident swagger and a sense of mission. All around him are Lords and former and future Prime Ministers, including Winston Churchill, wily and witty, chomping on a cigar, looking like he could beat up Hitler and out-debate William F. Buckley both at the same time. But even Churchill doesn’t shine as much as King George, who is a wounded hero, but a hero whose wound has only made him stronger, strong enough to assume his role in history. Inside the recording booth, the King suffers again from a momentary lack of confidence; but outside the booth, everyone is crossing their fingers, wanting to believe that this king will make a great speech, and that the peoples of the United Kingdom will understand the importance of the moment they are about to enter in history—and why Hitler must be defeated.

The speech is tense but beautiful. It is played to the sound of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. The good feeling it inspires has little to do with the triumph-over-adversity story. It is the feeling of gravity and seriousness.

Many reviewers have pointed out the numerous historical errors in this film. Edward VIII was much more sympathetic to fascism and close to Hitler than the film makes him out to be. Winston Churchill never supported Albert during the abdication crisis, but rather held out for King Edward VIII to remain on the throne. King George initially supported Neville Chamberlain’s policies before he backed Churchill’s war effort.

But not least among the inaccuracies is one which no reviewer I’ve read has pointed out as significant—that the big speech which Albert makes after his treatment with Lionel has begun to succeed was not for the BBC on the eve of war, but actually a much more mundane affair before the Federal Parliament of Australia in Canberra, in 1927. It’s for this type of thing that “artistic license” was devised.

Keeping these errors in mind, we can still heed the good feelings. They are nobler than those inspired by the typical triumph-over-adversity tale. We are not rooting so much for Albert to overcome his fears, but for Albert to become King George. And there is also something distinctly democratic, maybe even American, about the way in which Albert becomes King. Lionel, a commoner and Australian, wants more than merely to cure Albert. He wants him to become a great leader. When, in one scene, he mockingly sits on the throne in Westminster Abbey and infuriates Albert, he doesn’t do it as an act of irreverence, but only to jog Albert into heeding his call to leadership. We want him to become excellent and to mature and to face reality like a hero.

You can call that sentimental, and maybe it partially is. It is also nostalgia of the “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” sort. Yet within it lies a craving for gravity that will not abandon even the most media-addled mind. We empathize with Lionel and we look around for a King George. But for the moment, it’s back to Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly, and E! and figuring out who the good guys and bad guys are in Egypt.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

‘Bishop, They are Breaking the Law’

Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn said he often hears this phrase from “good people” with regard to “undocumented brothers and sisters” living in the US. "How can you support them when they are breaking the law?”

In his homily at the opening Mass last night for an immigration conference sponsored by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, Bishop Finn began to answer that question. “You and I love and respect the law. We do not easily absolve ourselves from its expectations,” he said. “As responsible citizens we must also ask at all times, ‘Is the law just?’”

The conference, being held at Rockhurst University, will look much further into the question. Bishop George Murry, S.J. of Youngstown, Ohio, is keynote for the event and we will post his remarks on Monday. For now, Bishop Finn’s homily in full:

Dear friends in Christ,

In our first reading tonight, from the Letter to the Hebrews, we are reminded, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have entertained angels.” (Hb 13:2) This evening it is a joy for me to welcome His Excellency Bishop George Murry of Youngstown Diocese in Ohio. I hope that the warmth of our hospitality will balance the snowy and cold weather here in Kansas City.

I have had the privilege of working with Bishop Murry over the last years, particularly during our time together on the Bishops’ Committee on Priority and Plans. Bishop Murry chaired that group and oversaw a significant work in the reorganization of the Conference. At the time I chaired the Bishops’ Task Force on the Life and Dignity of the Human Person. We were writing a strategic plan to more effectively draw together various agencies of the Bishops’ Conference around common goals. One fruit of that work was the interaction of the Pro-Life Secretariat, the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and the Bishops Committee on Immigration, during the Health care debates. As is sometimes the case, our efforts were not as successful as we hoped, but we nonetheless achieved a meaningful solidarity in speaking with one voice.

I also wish to welcome our friends and co-workers from the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and of course, all of our guests.

The Scripture’s call to hospitality has a particularly poignant application for our reflection in this teaching conference on the Church’s principles concerning the care of migrant people. You recall the Old Testament account of Abraham welcoming the three mysterious visitors, Angels of the Lord, the foreshadowing of the Trinitarian Godhead. His hospitality, to which the Letter to the Hebrews refers, was rewarded with an heir. The venerable Patriarch and his aged wife Sarah were given the gift of a son, Isaac, child of the Promise, and a type and image of the Eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

Abraham passed God’s test. He welcomed the strangers, realizing as did the Bedouins of the day, that to neglect to do so was to abandon fellow wayfarers to be consumed by the desert. More than providing minimal shelter, Abraham and Sarah receive the visitors warmly as friends. Though they were different and unknown, the guests were received as valued persons.

In the New Testament Jesus Christ again and again affirms this connectedness between us as brothers and sisters. “What you do for the least of my brothers and sisters,” He insists, “you do to Me.” (Mt 25:30) Set in the imagery of the Final Judgment, this is God’s test for us. In the account of Saul’s conversion, the risen Jesus speaks from heaven, “Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4) Jesus identifies Himself as one with the disciples under attack. The clear teaching is that every person has a God-given dignity, and inestimable and irrevocable value as a son or daughter of the Eternal Father – as one identified with Christ Himself – regardless of race or language or nationality or status. All are ennobled as part of Christ; as“Alter Christus,” “other Christs;” or as one modern day saint insists “Ipse Christus,” “Christ Himself.” What we do; what we fail to do – This is for Christ.

This deep truth of our faith must color and guide our acts in solidarity with one another. This belief tells us how to look at each other. The work of justice is broad and directed toward the good order of society. Let us affirm the prerogative and responsibility of nations to set laws to maintain their sovereignty, and to define the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. At the same time this mystery of the innate goodness of each person – requires us to put hatred and suspicion aside as we encounter the migrant.

Again, in the Letter to the Hebrews the author bids us to look deeper than we might be inclined. “Be mindful of prisoners,” he writes, “as if sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourself, for…” he reminds us, “you also are in the body.”

Dear friends, so many times I have been told by good people concerning undocumented brothers and sisters, “Bishop, they are breaking the law. How can you support them when they are breaking the law?” You and I love and respect the law. We do not easily absolve ourselves from its expectations. As responsible citizens we must also ask at all times, Is the law just? Can we do better to protect good order of society and at the same time support the basic needs and human aspirations of people not unlike ourselves?

I love the unborn and I have many times spoken and acted, peacefully and prayerfully, in the defense of their most fundamental right to life. They are not affirmed as human persons in our country’s law. We will never rest until that injustice is reversed. We ought not to be satisfied with the present circumstance of the undocumented migrant until our leaders work harder to reform immigration in our country. The law of human dignity, and the integrity and protection of families, must be able to live side by side with meaningful border controls and a responsible and obtainable path to citizenship. Immigration reform is a volatile issue in our country and, true enough, elected officials are caught in the divide. But we must be willing to work hard in support of meaningful reform. It will require the good will of both political parties, and it will require an expanded vision.

The principle of reciprocity teaches us what we already have come to know as a country of immigrants: that we are stronger because of diversity. New cultures, rich in faith and family, truly bring a gift to our communities. They give as much as, and often more than, they receive. They share the image of God. They remind us who we are; they reveal to us the universality of God’s family.

These hours today and tomorrow, dear friends, are an opportunity for purposeful dialogue on the Church’s authentic social doctrine and the principles that animate justice and charity.

May the Holy Spirit help us to reach greater unanimity from many languages, cultures, and points of view. Mary, Mother of us all, and Queen of all Nations, assist us in finding a safe path to peace.