Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why ‘South Park’ is More Interesting than David Brooks

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Why South Park is More Interesting than David Brooks
And Why it Matters

By Santiago Ramos

mediapic2Apr29 mediapic1Apr29 A DEBATE CAN be noteworthy not only because of the clash between both sides but because closer scrutiny reveals a startling lack of contrast between them. This lack might reveal a shared poverty of imagination.

Had Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the notorious Comedy Central cartoon, South Park, merely decided to mock the Book of Mormon in their new, eponymous Broadway musical, they would not have made the headlines. Catholics, Muslims, Evangelicals, Jews, and Mormons have all already been the target of their satire. The news about The Book of Mormon is that with it, Parker and Stone are doing the unexpected: their show only lightly mocks religion, and it makes a greater point about its fundamental goodness.

NEW YORK TIMES columnist David Brooks attempted to articulate their point in his column last week, and to offer a critique of it. Under the heading, “Creed or Chaos,” he writes:

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch. […] But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.

Brooks and Parker and Stone are in agreement about the fundamental virtue of religion: that it can inspire people to do good, to practice service, and to love one another. The difference between the two sides, as Brooks sees it, lies in the importance of having a specific, rigorous creed. Parker and Stone think, according to Brooks, that having one is not essential. Brooks is a sociologist and he knows better:

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, non-doctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

Rigorous theology, Brooks writes, provides people with a “map of reality” which consists of the accumulated wisdom of many generations, and not just the genius of one person. It is an approximation of reality—just like any map—but it is useful for living.

My first question upon reading Brooks’ column was: What is your standpoint? Not, Where do you stand? Brooks makes it quite clear what his opinion is. But, how can he have the opinion that he has? If, as he asserts in his column, religion is largely about the stories it tells, how can he be so sure that he knows the meaning and the ending of the story?

Put it differently: Brooks writes that he and the South Park creators are in agreement over what is the essential good thing about religion. That essential good thing is its promotion of love, order, service, and all those virtues that make life better in society. But my question is: How do you know? "Could the essential good be something beyond what he is imagining it to be?"

IT SHOULD NOT be a big claim to make: the good that human beings seek with religion is not easily understood and explained for us by sociologists. Not because sociologists are bad, but because it does not necessarily follow that their method for looking at the world is equipped to grasp what exactly we are attempting to grasp with religion.

Even though Brooks bends over backwards to respect, appreciate, and explain the irreducible complexities of religions and creeds, he reduces them in a different way. He is reverential about what religions are in and of themselves, but not at what they might possibly point to, or even what they are truly asking about. It’s this type of oversight that the French philosopher Maurice Blondel was criticizing when he chided those thinkers who “persuade the credulous that all the obscurity is already clarity for themselves.”

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, while perhaps not as “nice” as Brooks, are more interesting for one small but not insignificant reason: they have not only mocked all religions, but they have also mocked Richard Dawkins. The “stupidest” explanation for the origin of the universe, Trey Parker once said in a 60 Minutes interview, is to say that it exists “just ‘cuz.” The lack of wonder is what he objected to. His and Stone’s response was to mercilessly skewer Dawkins in an episode titled “Go God Go!” At least Parker and Stone express some wonder and reverence, if not for religion itself, then for the religious questions.

People don’t become religious for sociological reasons. Brooks might agree with that statement, but the problem is not notional agreement but the knee-jerk attempt to reach for the most “respectable” set of criteria with which to defend religion: the good effects that it can have on society. This criteria is “respectable” because it is in some sense “objective.” But the beauty and complexity and rigor Brooks admires doesn’t come from people looking for objective criteria and effective ways to bring about public order and virtue. It comes from people standing in awe before life and the world, and asking Why and What is it all for?

The criterion to use to answer those questions is personal. Not personal in the consumerist sense of arbitrary preference, but in the philosophical sense of, “I am searching for something that fulfills my need for meaning.” Perhaps we live in a time where we are less certain about using such a criterion; or perhaps we don’t know how. But we should be wary of thinking that we don’t need it and that we’ve already answered the question of meaning without it.

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

‘Live in my love! Live forever, Jesus says.’–Easter Vigil, Kansas City

Homily for the Easter Vigil
April 23, 2011 – Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Most Reverend Robert W. Finn
Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph

The Three Marys at the Tomb by Adolphe William BouguereauDear friends,

The work of Redemption is accomplished: Jesus Christ has passed from death to life. Jesus Christ is risen. He is truly risen even as He promised. Alleluia.

Tonight the Church throughout the world contemplates and rejoices in a new reality: death is not the end. Through Jesus Christ a new mode of existence has been inaugurated.

The Gospel tells us that our Lord brought back to life the son of the widow of Naim, the daughter of Jairus, and his friend Lazarus. In some way these acts have helped us to prepare us for the mystery of His own resurrection. These events have helped us to begin to see who Jesus is: true God; Lord over life. But what is accomplished on Easter is different. It is similar from the view of human experience; but more – infinitely more. Lazarus was raised; the young man and the little girl were brought back to life. They resumed their life on earth. They aged and died once more.

The proclamation of faith within the Church concerning Jesus is different. Jesus IS risen. Jesus lives! The only response we can make is Alleluia! Praise ye the Lord!

In the totality of the mystery of Jesus Christ we can begin to see the implications – the promise – of this holy night. God the Father sent His Son in human flesh; Son of God, Son of Mary. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (Jn 1:14) He did not merely visit us. He united Himself to us; He united us to Himself. The Council teaches, “By the Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man.” (GS 22). Jesus Christ picked us up; picked up all humanity. He carried us through the Cross to resurrection and new life. The dead are raised, not to die again, but to live, forever.

Neither is this action of Jesus Christ joining Himself to us a singular event of past history, accomplished on Christmas morning 2000 years ago. Rather the living Jesus is joining Himself to us in the life and work of the Church. What do you think is on the minds and pressing the hearts of our catechumens and candidates at this moment? They know what is going to take place in the next moments. So soon they will be joined to the Risen Christ through the life of the sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist. It is not by coincidence that these sacraments are celebrated at Easter Vigil. This is the moment of life. Here is the moment of the encounter with the living Jesus.

We blessed and consecrated the oils at Chrism Mass. We commemorated the institution of Holy Mass on Thursday, the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In a few moments we will all renew the promises of Baptism. Readily we will profess the Creed and renounce Satan and sin. May we do so with all our heart. But we know the real power flows from the promise which comes to full flower in the Risen Jesus. And His promise? Live! Live my brothers and sisters! Live in my love! Live forever, Jesus says.

The sacraments draw us because they are the irrevocable gift of Christ to His Church. They draw us to Him – and through Him to the Father. Fellowship is wonderful. I need it. Please let us all do everything we can to be Jesus Christ for others. We want to live a generous love. The Gospel demands it. But let us never forget Christ’s gifts to the Church preserved in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist; Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ shed and given for the life of the world. This is the daily Bread which makes new the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ each and every time it is offered on the altar. The Church draws her life from the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II). Jesus Christ has willed it so and He invites you and me to join ourselves, all our joys, and every sorrow to that one perfect sacrifice acceptable to the Father. This is infinitely more than a social meal. Rather, here we live with His life and our charity becomes an extension of the encounter with Christ. “He who believes in me, will do the works I do, and greater works than these.” (Jn 14:12)

Through sacramental Confession I need my sins forgiven by Christ the Priest. I desire to be reconciled in the Church. I have so often failed and offended. I need to often hear, “God, the Father of mercies … and I absolve you from your sins.” Jesus has willed it so!

When I am sick and when death approaches, I want to meet Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of Anointing. I want to be united to you, with my sins forgiven, through the sacrament instituted and intended by Christ.

In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, I will ordain deacons and priests, marking the priests indelibly with Holy Chrism as other Christs. Throughout the next year I will confirm thousands of men and women, sealing them in the sevenfold Gift of the Holy Spirit, sending them out as apostles in the world and witnesses for Christ.

In the seven sacraments of salvation preserved in the Church, Jesus the Risen One, is joining Himself to us even now. He bids us follow Him on the path of the Cross, and He promises nothing less than the gift of eternal life.

He is risen. Christ is truly risen. Alleluia!

Mary, joyful queen and mother: look how your Son lives nevermore to die. Behold your sons and daughters Jesus entrusts to your care. Keep us faithful to Him.

To all those entering the Church tonight throughout the diocese, I extend the warmth and love of the Church. Dear friends all, I wish you the peace of the Risen Christ. Blessed Easter! Holy Easter! Joyful Easter!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday - ‘Everybody was against him’

Luis_de_Morales_-_Pietà Everybody was against him.
Everybody wanted him to die.
It is strange.
People who are not usually together.
The government and the people.
That was awful luck.
When you have someone for you and someone against you, sometimes you can get out of it.
You can scramble out of it.
But he wouldn’t.
Certainly he wouldn’t.
When you have everyone against you.
But what had he done to everyone?

I’ll tell you.
He had saved the world.

- Charles Péguy, The Passion of Our Lady (excerpt - Translated by Julien Green, "himself one of our greatest Catholic writers," Deal Hudson alerted me, and by coincidence, the fellow who succeeded Yesterday's quote-maker, Francois Mauriac, in chair number 22 at the Académie française.)

(Pietà – Luis de Morales, 1565. Source – Wikipedia)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday

“. . .this moment in the history of the world when a piece of bread was broken in deep silence, when a few words sufficed to seal the new alliance of the Creator with His creature.” – François Mauriac

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can you guess who wrote . . .UPDATE with the Answer

“If anyone wants to have the Church changed, he must make himself the starting-point of renewal.  For the critic himself is part of what the Church is suffering from.  For usually his own life is not much of a recommendation for Christianity.”?


Well, nobody bit in the combox, except for an appreciative response from Lisa Graas. A number of people guessed on my Facebook page, including Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com  and NCRegister who correctly guessed that the quote sounded translated; Veronica Ambuul of the Colorado Catholic Herald who made a good guess of St. John Vianney; Sherry Weddell of the invaluable Catherine of Siena Institute who made the same guess I did when I was presented the quote by our own Jude Huntz, - Pope Benedict; and, again, our own Santiago Ramos, who came up with a fairly close answer in time and space - Fr. Hans Kung.

But the correct answer is Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ from Theology for Renewal:  Bishops, Priests, Laity. (1964, Sheed and Ward)

The quote struck me for two reasons when Jude read it to me:

1. It was an instance of a famous academic theologian indicating a humility necessary to the job which is sorely missing today

2. It is a direct indictment of me, and an appropriate corrective for my lent.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Atlas Shrugged - ‘Something less than art’

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Directed by Paul Johansson
Written by John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole, based on the novel by Ayn Rand
Starring Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler and Paul Johansson

Review by Santiago Ramos

AtlasShrugged I felt peculiarly cared-for while watching this movie, because the people who made it cared about more than my money, and more than my being entertained. They cared that I consider and adopt the ideas that they were trying to propagate with the film. The movie attempts to evangelize on behalf of a certain ideology, and it does not apologize for doing so. I am not saying that that’s a good thing, but it’s something different than what I am used to in mainstream Hollywood cinema. This is a movie which points beyond itself.

Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, spans more than 1,000 pages, and this film is labeled “Part I,” covering only about a third (so I’ve been told) of the novel’s progress. Thus its plot is not complete, but its most fundamental creed is fully stated. First of all, civilization is nurtured, driven, and made possible by the workings of a creative, intelligent elite which naturally floats to the top of industry, science, finance, and the arts, provided that no encumbrances prevent their rise. Second, those of us who are not part of the elite should not allow any of those encumbrances to prevent their rise. Third, usually the government is one of those encumbrances, probably the greatest encumbrance. Fourth, those of us who are not among the creative elite should be smart enough to help rather than hinder the elite who, after all, are responsible for the quality of our lives. Ayn Rand’s ideas are probably more complicated than that. However, bluntly put, this is what we see in the movie.

The principal heroine is Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), who runs her late father’s business, Taggart Transcontinental Railway, along with her CEO brother, James (Matthew Marsden). The setting is a dystopian future about five years from now, when gas costs $40 a gallon, the country is in a state of economic depression, and “Washington” is constantly attempting to redistribute and re-regulate wealth in more and more fiendish ways. The antipathy of the times is captured by the casual nonsense phrase, “Who is John Galt?” which people use in response to real questions, like, say, “What can we do to help the world?” or “Who can we place our hope in?” I don’t know, whatever, who is John Galt?

The only way for the USA to rise again is for the creative elite to raise it up again. Logically, because gas is so expensive, the railways have become a lucrative industry. Another lucrative industry is that of metal alloys which make the tracks for the trains. Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) is a member of the creative elite, who has devised an alloy called “Rearden Metal” which is to steel what steel is to iron. In attempting to overcome some setbacks to her own company, Dagny seeks out this new metal for a new railway which she aims to build, which would run through Colorado, to show the world what Taggart Railways is capable of.

The movie becomes a story of two journeys: Dagny’s struggles against her complacent, and not ambitious, brother; Rearden’s struggles against government bureaucracies which want to fleece his business and reduce its domination of the steel industry. Rearden and Dagny team up with another railroad tycoon, Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), in order to build a railway through Colorado, using Rearden Metal, which will be faster than any train known to man. Dagny decides to name the railway after John Galt, because she is tired of hearing that phrase used ironically by “great men” who have “given up.” She is not giving up, and neither are Rearden or Wyatt, because all three know that the world, pitiful and parasitic as it is, needs them.

They succeed, but that is only part of the story. The greater part of the story deals with a real John Galt, who we are slowly given to understand, is a real person who is collecting creative elites into a sort of hidden secret society. To what end? We don’t know. But we can sort of guess that it has something to do about protecting and reinvigorating the elite.

We can sort of guess because the movie makes its beliefs known from the first minute to the last. There is no conjecturing, no development, no ambiguity, no real drama beyond the very basic, “Will they be able to construct that railroad? Yes!” This movie is an illustration of an ideology, and even though that makes it slightly more interesting than a movie which is merely trying to take my money, it is still at the end of the day, not quite propaganda, but something less than art, something less reasonable than a story which treats me as an equal and not as someone who needs tutoring.

An ideology-picture like this fails to make a good story precisely because a story is greater than any idea that drives it. In a story, the creator submits himself to the freedom and possibility of his characters within the world he has created for them. What he wants to do is explore and learn through them. The more this is true of a movie or novel or story, the more interesting it is. Atlas Shrugged: Part I, on the other hand, is interesting for an altogether different reason. It beats the trend in some ways, but it is still a cliché.

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Your Child’s Reproductive Health Care Needs

Are well attended to at Catholic Colleges and Universities around the country according to sad, but not altogether unexpected, findings from the Cardinal Newman Society. Their report, released today, details more than 150 referrals, job opportunities, internships and recommendations for students and staff in Catholic higher ed to make a visit to the nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood.

All of the mentions of Margaret Sanger’s eugenic murder machine were found right on the colleges’ web sites, leading the National Catholic Register to comment that the Newman report, “probably only represents the tip of the iceberg.”

I’m going to highlight just one of the 150+ Planned Parenthood referrals Newman reports on. It’s not the most egregious, but it denotes something important about Catholic higher ed which is indicated across the Newman report. If you are a student at Mount Saint Mary’s College and you visit the ‘Student Life – Health and Fitness’ section of the school’s web page looking under the heading of “Human Sexuality - Pregnancy” you’ll find a pdf with referrals including these:

Planned Parenthood
Santa Monica Center of Planned Parenthood (for Chalon students)
1316 3rd Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Los Angeles Center of Planned Parenthood (for Doheny students)
1014 1/2 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
-Provides pregnancy options education, as well as information on pregnancy planning and prenatal care, birth control, the prevention and treatment of HIV and other STDs.

Catholics For Choice
– CFC helps Catholic women to make thoughtful decisions through respected publications that address Catholic doctrine and the moral and ethical issues involved in reproductive health decisions.

The document where this information appears bears the logo of the school’s ‘Counseling & Psychological Services’ department.’ So somebody in that office compiled this list and provided the commentary – and nobody at the university told them to take it down.

Here’s why I think that is significant in a way that applies to all the Catholic colleges which refer to Planned Parenthood. If tomorrow, I decided to put up a blog post recommending to my young pregnant readers that they visit Planned Parenthood or form their consciences on the issue of abortion by reading Catholics For Choice, it would mean I’ve got another job lined up. That’s because I:

1. Work for a Catholic institution,

2. Know I work for a Catholic institution,

3. Know the expectations of working for a Catholic institution,

4. And know the consequence of violating such a core principle of that institution would mean I’m fired.

A lot of my friend’s on the left criticize the Cardinal Newman Society for the lacunae in their reporting on the Catholicity of Catholic Colleges and/or a perceived theological bias – What about the mission trips? What about the service learning? What about the justice education? Cardinal Newman is not telling the full story about our Catholic colleges, they say.

But let us not ask the Cardinal Newman Society. Let’s ask the employees of Catholic Colleges whether they:

1. Work for a Catholic institution,

2. Know they work for a Catholic institution,

3. Know the expectations of working for a Catholic institution

4. and know that the consequences of violating core principles of a Catholic institution would mean their discharge.

In a way, by looking at whether a college refers its students to an abortion mill, the Cardinal Newman Society has simply let the employees of Catholic colleges answer those questions for themselves. And in at least 150 instances, the reply was a resounding “NO!”

Read the whole report here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

KCK, KCMO Priests and Archbishop Naumann Headlining KEXS Spring Pledge Drive

Our good friends at KEXS Catholic Radio will be broadcasting their Spring Pledge Drive from the new Catholic Center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Each segment during the coming week will feature a priest from the Kansas City, Kansas Archdiocese or Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese and one segment will feature KCK Archbishop Joseph Naumann. Tune in to AM 1090 or click here to live stream KEXS. The drive begins on Monday April 11 and the schedule is below:

Catholic Radio Network – Priest Schedule
Monday, April 11th, 2011
7:00am -To be filled
8:00am - Msgr. Gregory – Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
9:00am – Fr. Angelo Bartulica – St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, MO
10:00am – Fr. Michael Clary – Our Lady of Presentation, Lee’s Summit, MO
12:00am – Fr. Scott Wallisch - St Joseph, Shawnee, KS
01:00pm – Fr. Steve Hansen – Immaculate Conception Parish, Lexington, MO
02:00pm – Fr. Ron Will – St. Francis Xavier Parish, St Joseph, MO
03:00pm - Fr Steve Beseau - St Lawrence Center, Lawrence, KS
04:00pm – Fr. Richard Rocha – Vocations Director, KC/SJ Diocese
05:00pm – To be filled
Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
7:00am – 9:00am - To be filled
10:00am - Claude Sasso - Vice-Chancellor KC/St Joseph Diocese
12:00pm - Msgr. Michael Mullen - St Patrick's, Kansas City, KS
01:00pm – Fr. Michael Roach – St. Therese Parish, Parkville, MO
02:00pm – Fr. Steve Cook – St. Peter’s Parish, Kansas City, MO
03:00pm – Fr. Thomas Tank – Ascension Parish, Overland Park, KS
04:00pm – Fr. Terry Bruce – St. Elizabeth’s Parish, Kansas City, MO
05:00pm – To be filled
Wednesday, April 13th, 2011
7:00am – To be filled
8:00am – Fr. Ernie Davis – St. Therese of the Little Flower (Anglican Use Community) Kansas City, MO
9:00am – Archbishop Naumann - Archdiocese of KC in KS
10:00am – Fr. Thomas Albers – St. James Parish, Liberty, MO
12:00am – Fr. Greg Hammes - Cure' of Ars, Leawood, KS
01:00pm – Fr. Jim Ludwikoski - Good Shepherd, Shawnee, KS
02:00pm – Fr. Charles Rowe – Holy  Trinity Parish, Weston, MO - Twelve Apostles, Platte City, MO
03:00pm – Canon William Avis – Oratory of Old St. Patrick’s Parish, Kansas City, MO
04:00pm –  5:00pm - To be filled
Thursday, April 14th, 2011
7:00am –  To be filled
8:00am - Fr. Dan Gardner - All Saints, Kansas City, KS
9:00am - Fr. Jerry Sencer - Holy Name, Kansas City, KS
10:00am – Fr. Joseph Totten – St. James Parish, St. Joseph, MO
12:00am – Fr. Justin Hoye – St. Mary Parish, Nevada, MO & St. Bridgette Parish, Rich Hill, MO
01:00pm – To be filled
02:00pm – Fr. Stephen Benden, CSSR – Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Kansas City, MO
03:00pm – Fr. Don Farnan – St. Thomas More Parish, Kansas City, MO
04:00pm – Fr. Mitchel Zimmerman – Vocations Director, Archdiocese of Kansas City, KS
05:00pm – Msgr.Gary Applegate - Judicial Vicar - Archdiocese of KC in KS
Friday, April 15th, 2011
7:00am- 9:00am – To be filled
10:00am – Fr. Ken Riley – St. Charles Parish, Kansas City, MO
12:00am – Fr. Greg Haskamp – Church of the Good Shepherd, Smithville, MO
01:00pm – Fr. Christian Malewski – Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Harrisonville, MO
02:00pm – Msgr. Bradley Offutt – Chancellor, KC/SJ Diocese & former Pastor – Our Lady of Lourdes Parish
03:00pm - Fr. Peter Jaramillo - St Anthony's/ Holy Name - Kansas City, KS
04:00-06:00pm - to be filled

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bishop Finn on Cardinal William Baum - Kansas Citian Celebrates 60 Years of Priesthood

From this week’s edition of The Catholic Key:

Cardinal William Baum Soon to Celebrate 60 Years as a Priest

By Most Rev. Robert W. Finn
Bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph

I recently had the good fortune to chat with Cardinal Baum, retired Archbishop of Washington D.C. and Emeritus “head” of various significant posts in the Vatican. A recent article by George Weigel, printed in the Catholic Key, (March 18, page 10) noted an extraordinary milestone in the life of this holy Churchman who was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, and was a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City, later Kansas City-St. Joseph. Cardinal Baum has now served longer than any other American cardinal in history. I was a student in Rome at the time of the May, 1976 Consistory in which William Wakefield Baum and Joseph Ratzinger became Cardinals. It doesn’t seem so long ago to me!

George Weigel’s article recounts many of the things that distinguish His Eminence, much more than mere longevity. He served as a theological expert during the Second Vatican Council. He was Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau for just three years before becoming Archbishop in the nation’s capitol. He served in Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and then as Major Penitentiary, head of the Tribunal which oversees internal forum deliberations in the Universal Church. Most of all Cardinal Baum is regarded as a dear and good man, brilliant and holy, whose humility in the service of Popes and all the Faithful is an inspiration to all of us who want to follow Jesus Christ more faithfully.

And … Kansas City is his “home.” Every time I have ever had the opportunity to visit with him, he speaks with affection about the Diocese. He loves Kansas City-St. Joseph. We are always close to his heart. In 2006 when I led a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Diocese, one of the highlights of our trip was a Mass at the Church of St. Ann. Cardinal Baum attended with us, spoke to our group, and then sat and received each person. He asked “what parish do you attend?” and then would mention something about that good place or someone that he knew from there. It was a moment that we will not forget.

The occasion that prompted my recent conversation with the Cardinal was an upcoming special anniversary: May 12, 2011, will mark the 60th anniversary of the priesthood ordination of Fr. William Baum by Archbishop Edwin O’Hara, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Months ago, he and I had spoken about him coming for a special Mass on or near that day. Though the Cardinal’s voice and spirit remains young and engaging, because of His Eminence’s back ailment he will not be able to make the visit. On May 12 there will be a special anniversary Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. to mark his diamond jubilee. I hope to attend and I will certainly carry with me your well wishes and prayers.

This past week we moved into our new offices at the Catholic Center downtown. With his permission I have named the primary meeting room off the lobby “The Cardinal Baum Room.” Signage and a portrait will be placed there. I know it will be a place where many will gather over the next years. We will always do well to think of this Good Shepherd who grew up in our community and went on to give such exemplary service to the universal Church.

. . .

An Invitation: Chrism Mass, April 14, 2011, 7:00 p.m. at the Cathedral.

On the Thursday before Holy Week I will celebrate the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Many of our priests will concelebrate as I bless the Holy Oils and Consecrate the Holy Chrism to be used for Ordinations to Priesthood, Confirmations, and the Consecration of altars and churches. All are warmly welcome to attend this Mass.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Can You Identify This Mystery Saint?

As the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph moved into new digs, we were given the opportunity to scour the archives for artwork to decorate offices. Scott McKellar in the Bishop Helmsing Institute beat me to the painting below. We have no idea who it is, but I’m hoping a Key reader can identify it.

Here’s what we know. It is signed by “B. Pozzi”, however, a small plaque attached to the frame says “B. Possi”. The plaque also says it’s the Martyrdom of St. Andrew. We’re assuming that’s incorrect and that the frame may have been previously used for another painting. At any rate, the only tradition I’m aware of has St. Andrew crucified. Also, the beheaded fellow seems to be wearing a Roman soldier’s outfit, but then again, his head is bearded, which isn’t typical of a Roman soldier.

It could be that our artist wildly mis-depicted the martyrdom of St. Andrew, but unlikely. We’re hoping someone might recognize the scene and tell us what is actually depicted. Anybody?


Thursday, April 7, 2011

State Department Blasts Ambassador Kmiec – Why?

The State Department’s Office of Inspector General released an inspection report on the U.S. Embassy in Malta today faulting Ambassador Doug Kmiec for spending too much time on “non-official” writings and speeches, but an AP story on the report indulges in some curious spin. First to what the report actually said (pdf) about Kmiec (emphases added):

He is respected by Maltese officials and most mission staff, but his unconventional approach to his role as ambassador has created friction with principal officials in Washington, especially over his reluctance to accept their guidance and instructions. Based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama’s interfaith initiatives, he has devoted considerable time to writing articles for publication in the United States as well as in Malta, and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio. He has been inconsistent in observance of clearance procedures required for publication. He also looks well beyond the bilateral relationship when considering possible events for the mission to host in Malta. His approach has required Department principals, as well as some embassy staff, to spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing his writings, speeches, and other initiatives. His official schedule has been uncharacteristically light for an ambassador at a post of this size, and on average he spends several hours of each work day in the residence, much of which appears to be devoted to his nonofficial writings.

At the same time, he has not focused sufficiently on key management issues within the embassy. . .

. . .The Ambassador advised the inspection team that he intended to discontinue his outside writings and focus on matters that directly pertain to the embassy and priorities outlined in the Mission Strategic and Resource Plan (MSRP). Within weeks of the team’s departure, however, he resumed drafting public essays that addressed subjects outside his purview as Ambassador to Malta and detracted from his core responsibilities. These activities also detracted from the core responsibilities of embassy staff members who devoted time and effort to reviewing and editing the ambassador’s drafts and seeking approvals occasionally after the writings had been submitted for publication from Department officials.

The inspection team also found that a staffer had accrued 385 hours of overtime “handling tasks for the Ambassador.”

Now, the AP makes two observations about this report, both incorrect. First, the lede:

An internal investigator has rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Malta for spending too much time writing on subjects such as abortion and his Catholic beliefs to the detriment of American diplomacy.

Nowhere does the report mention Kmiec’s views on abortion or his Catholic beliefs. The AP story also ends on a false note:

In the Times of Malta, he challenged the president on the question of abortion: "How can you allow someone to terminate another person's life?"

Kmiec did not challenge the president on abortion in the Times of Malta. To the contrary, the quote is from an article titled ‘Catholic, pro-life, pro-Obama,’ wherein Kmiec rehearses his highly, umm, stylized account of his interactions with the president on the subject of abortion. It was not presented as a challenge to the president, but rather as an argument for pro-life Catholics to support a pro-choice president.

The AP gives the impression that Kmiec is being rebuked for a forthright presentation of his ‘pro-life’ views, when he was doing nothing of the sort. I don’t think the president is at all upset with the way Ambassador Kmiec has presented his views on abortion; it’s why Kmiec got the appointment in the first place.

Which leads me to question the who and why behind this State Department report. It could be an honest professional in the department honestly reporting on Kmiec’s clear unprofessionalism. But look at the two quotes from the report that I emphasized above. Who are those “principal officials,” and why the snark about promoting “President Obama’s interfaith initiatives”? Could it be that President Obama’s primary challenger doesn’t much like that Kmiec is still on the campaign trail while he’s in her employ?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

One Pill Makes You Smaller - ‘Limitless’ Reviewed

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos reviews ‘Limitless’:

One Pill Makes You Smaller

By Santiago Ramos

Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Leslie Dixon (screenplay), Alan Glynn (novel)
Starring Bradley Cooper, Anna Friel and Abbie Cornish

MediaPicApr8 One way to measure success in a work of science fiction or fantasy, the critic James Wood has written, is its success in “combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.” In other words, we can’t separate the fantastic from the realistic because each is a necessary part to a beautiful whole. Each part justifies its existence because it forms an essential part to a whole that’s worth reading. Or, in our case, worth watching.

How does this harmony between the fantastic and the real occur? I can name several films where the fantastic/sci fi element creates or enhances a particular human problem so that resolving it, or living with it, or finding the meaning of it becomes the viewer’s foremost preoccupation. The fantastic element points beyond itself. For example, the regime of genetic engineering in Gattaca makes us ponder the social ethics of a future where everyone manipulates their offspring’s genome, but it also makes us think about human striving and destiny, about work and grace (the hero of that movie became an astronaut even though he didn’t have the genes for it). The abbreviated lives of the human clones in Never Let Me Go were there to focus our scrutiny on the vicissitudes of our own lives. District 9 is about District 6. The film critic Andrew Sarris wrote that only a sci-fi show like Twilight Zone would be allowed to actually detonate a hydrogen bomb on primetime television during the 1950s—the fantastic setting displaced the public’s fear, and it also allowed it a square look at our nuclear predicament. (The episode he was referring to is “Time Enough at Last.”)

The main limitation in Neil Burger’s Limitless is that it does not consistently exploit its fantastic premise for all of its metaphorical depth. Too often it merely dwells on the fantasy and the fighting, and not even in an entertaining way. Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a lowly writer who cannot get himself together, or even get a haircut, and is nowhere near finishing the novel for which he has already received an advance from his publisher. His girlfriend Lindy (Abby Cornish) dumps him at the beginning of the film, precisely because she has been waiting too long for her boyfriend to begin to live deliberately. Morra has had trouble with life for a while, actually—he briefly married another woman named Melissa Gant (Anna Friel) nine years before. It is in meeting his former brother in law from that marriage that his life begins to change.

Melissa’s brother is named Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), and he offers his suffering former in-law a small clear pill worth $800 that will do something to help his helpless life. Morra admits to himself that he is indeed helpless, and takes the pill. Immediately he recognizes a change in perception and in clarity of thought; he would later learn that the effect of the pill is to allow your mind to use up all of the brain, not just 20% of it (this is in fact scientifically unsound) thus giving you an edge in resolving any problem you have to face. Such as, for example, cleaning your life up and finishing that novel.

Morra does that and more—he goes from writing a brilliant novel to shaking the world of finance. He takes one pill a day (he scores a big stash of them thanks to some unsavory circumstances following Vernon’s death) and makes exponential gains in the stock market within a fortnight and catches the eye of big-deal investor Carl van Loon (played by Robert DeNiro, the strongest performance in the film). Van Loon hires Morra to help him broker a huge merger. Morra gets richer and richer. His only problem is that his supply of pills—the drug is called NZT—is running low. And some adverse side effects are starting to burrow into his joyful domination of the world.

It’s at this point that the plot becomes saturated in action scenes, and the movie shifts from being a cautionary tale, to a Public Service Announcement (Drugs are bad, look at what they’ve done to this guy), to a story that is merely about a magic pill. There is nothing wrong with a story about a magic pill; my only sorrow is that this movie could have been a story about a magic pill and about the havoc wreaked by omnipotent ambition and greed that such a pill allows to exist. The story of the Ring of Gyges is more interesting because it is about more than a magic ring: it is about what we would do if we could get away with everything. Limitless has a similar premise, and yet it fails to squeeze all the juice it could get from it: it is more about the chase and the fighting and the intrigue and the explosions.

Perhaps the best evidence for what I am arguing is in looking at what Morra actually does with his pill. Here he is, a writer with the capacity—thanks to NZT—to do anything. What does he actually do? He goes into finance. Then, towards the end of the movie, he goes into politics. Money and power. (Is art merely the dimmest section of the power spectrum?) Morra says something about “making an impact on the world,” but what he really insists upon—as he says twice in the movie—is “building a nest egg” (!). The magic pill could give him omnipotence, but it could not make the scope of his ambition more interesting or imaginative or even horrible.

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Next Theologian to be Censured by the Church will be . . .

. . .announced at 6 pm, June 24 at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel. That is when the Catholic Press Association will hold its Annual Awards Banquet at which the First Place Book Award for Theology will announced. Winning the CPA book award in Theology has coincided so often with subsequent investigation by the U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee or the Vatican, that another editor friend of mine once quipped, “CPA in the Spring, CDF in the Fall.”

When @NCRonline tweeted last week:

U.S. bishops blast book by feminist theologian; Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for Living God "undermines Gospel" http://ow.ly/4pQW2

Before I even clicked through to the story, and knowing nothing about Elizabeth Johnson, I suspected two things about her. First, her book probably won a CPA Theology award, and most likely, she is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Sure enough, both are true.

Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God won First Place in Theology at the 2008 CPA convention, and last week, the U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee offered a 21 page critique of the Theology therein and found itself “obligated to state publicly that the doctrine of God presented in Quest for the Living God does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.”

The U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee made quicker work of CPA’s 2009 First Place winner in Theology, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman & Michael G. Lawler. The CPA award committee said of the book:

For more than twenty-five years Roman Catholic moral theologians have struggled to speak and write candidly and clearly on controverted aspects of sexual ethics. The reasons are well known and frequently rehearsed. In this book by Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, serious Catholics have an honest and forthright presentation of the complex and challenging background to many of the most perplexing questions of sexual morality in our time. Framing their study around a clear and consistent Lonerganian hermeneutic, the authors guide us with breathtaking frankness through marital morality, cohabitation, and homosexuality. This work is a tour de force.

The bishops did not see it that way. Concluding their 24 page report on the book, the bishops write:

The Committee on Doctrine wishes to make it clear that neither the methodology of The Sexual Person nor the conclusions that depart from authoritative Church teaching constitute authentic expressions of Catholic theology. Moreover, such conclusions, clearly in contradiction to the authentic teaching of the Church, cannot provide a true norm for moral action and in fact are harmful to one's moral and spiritual life.

Another CPA First Place Theology winner was Jesus Symbol of God by Roger Haight, SJ. The book was so rife with error in regard to the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection and his position as savior, that a 2004 Vatican notification on the book, personally approved by Pope John Paul II, prohibited the Jesuit (and CTSA past-president) from teaching Catholic theology.

There are more, but lets move to another CPA award category that has become just as predictable and dubious. On June 24, National Catholic Reporter will win the CPA award for Best National Catholic Newspaper. If they don’t, it’ll be the first time somebody else has won in 12 years.

In choosing National Catholic Reporter, year in and year out, the CPA demonstrates the same ideological bias present in its selection of book awards – and they don’t remotely try to hide that bias. In its citation for the Reporter’s 2008 First Place, the award committee wrote (emphases added):

The Reporter offers, by far, the most insight into Catholic issues of any entry in this category. It is serious in tone and committed to the faith, yet its articles go beyond the reinforcement of dogma to explore in a sophisticated way how the church is being challenged in the 21st century and how it’s reacting. Readers of the Reporter come away with an in-depth understanding of how faith, culture and politics intersect – and with a sense that the editors appreciate their readers’ intelligence enough to offer a balanced view.

Not to take anything away from the fine things that do appear in the Reporter, but the CPA award committee seems to explicitly grant favor to the publication because of its dissent from Church teaching. One can’t help think, given the track record, that favoring dissent is a criterion in the selection of book awards as well.

In contrast, the citation accompanying National Catholic Register’s Third Place finish in 2008, seems to indicate the publication was disfavored for its lack of dissent:

The Register is largely unquestioning in its loyalty to church teachings and policies, but it carries out its apparent mission of supporting the church in a big way.

In 2009 and 2010, the Reporter won First Place for the 10th and 11th consecutive years. There were no second or third place winners. It makes you wonder why editors and bishop-publishers who strive for “loyalty to church teachings” return every year to seek approbation from an organization that clearly doesn’t value that commitment.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Bishop Finn

Today, April 2, is Bishop Finn’s Birthday. I’d have missed it, except that a most conscientious member of our Diocese posted B’Day wishes on the Bishop’s Fan Page. Why don’t you go there too and do the same?