Welcome to the launch of a new endeavor. At the start of each week, I’ll be offering brief reflections on some of the Providence-relevant things I’ve been reading, talking about, or ruminating on. While I hope you’ll find it useful, it’s also a good way for me to begin ridding myself of some ever-accumulating post-it notes. Committing my scratchings to print will both focus my reading and studies and help clear space on my desk. It’s a twofer. Threefer if I succeed in occasionally being edifying. The title is probably a failed and painful dad joke (though, I suppose that is pretty much the definition of a dad joke). “Bortchen [BȎR-chen]” as I understand it, is a yiddish’ism meaning “to grumble.” Similar, I think, to kvetching, it’s a wonderful pastime best enjoyed on, well, the front porch. Alas, I haven’t a front porch. Ours is on the side of the house, which makes it more difficult to tell the neighbor kids to get off my lawn. Worse, I don’t even own a rocking chair. But maybe you’ll appreciate the curmudgeonly sentiment all the same. Lastly, not everything here will be bortchening. There are, always, a lot of good things to think on. So, plagues and praises will both find occasion here.
Enjoy! I hope.
Like it or not, the big news this week was certainly the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of these United States. Much has rightly been made of the symbolic significance that a scant week prior to the inaugural, the very space in which Biden was sworn in was surging under the breach of an attempted putsch that very much did want that swearing in. Columbia is a tough old broad. She carries on. Biden, whose resilience is less confident, nevertheless did particular two things on his inaugural day that I thought wonderful. First, in his address to the nation he made his first act as president to be to pray and ask everyone to join him. Secondly, he visited Arlington National Cemetery and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown in general memory of, and thanksgiving to, those service men and women who died while standing on Freedom’s Wall. Both should be received by all decent people as deeply gratifying. Were it were so received by everyone! Some, as I’ll expound below, found the prayer unnecessarily divisive. More hysterically, perhaps, others seemed bizarrely unable to call the prayer what it was. One reporter continually relabeled Biden’s request for a “silent prayer” as, instead, a “moment of silence.” She later got closer to the mark, but still missed the target, when she called it a “prayer of silence” – which seems quite a different thing. What is that about?
One thing President Biden didn’t do that surprised me was not revoking the Mexico City policy, which currently prevents US aid money from funding groups that perform or promote abortion around the globe. Some observers had expected that a revocation of the policy would be among Biden’s bevy of Day 1 executive orders. I found that prospect particularly grotesque: that Biden would wake up on inauguration not president, would go to bed president, and that he would have celebrated the transition in the interim by advancing the ability to kill millions of foreign children. That he didn’t, apparently, think the revocation crucial enough for Day 1, however, is likely to be small comfort. On Thursday, Dr. Fauci told the World Health Organization that Biden will indeed rescind the policy in the coming days. There’s nothing particularly surprising here, however disappointing it is. Going back to when Ronald Reagan first instituted the Mexico City policy, every time the presidency has flipped from one party to the other the policy has been either reinstated or revoked. Still, its not politically essential that Biden revokes it as, apparently, upwards of 83% of Americans oppose or strongly oppose using tax dollars to support abortion in other countries. More surprisingly, perhaps, even among Democrats alone that number drops to only 70%. The revocation doesn’t satisfy his base. If he makes it, Biden would appear to be pandering to only a few.
Staying on subject, I was recently asked whether Biden is allowed to take Holy Communion within the Catholic Church, given his views on abortion and other matters are in violation of Church teaching. Washington’s new Cardinal Wilton Gregory–and America’s firs African-American one–has stated that he will not refuse Biden communion, noting that the Biden received communion during his eight years as vice president and that he would not veer from that precedence. However, there was one headline-raising incident during the Democratic primaries in which candidate Biden was refused communion in a South Carolina parish. Father Robert Morey, the pastor at Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, explained that he denied Biden communion because “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.” He continued, “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. As a priest, it is my responsibility to minister to those souls entrusted to my care, and I must do so even in the most difficult situations. I will keep Mr. Biden in my prayers.”
Elsewhere, Father Thomas Petri, a Dominican priest and professor of moral theology, explains: “Catholics can present themselves to receive Holy Communion at Mass when they are not conscious of a grave and mortal sin they’ve committed.” This isn’t, as some cavil, a case of “holier-than-thou” hypocrisy. On the contrary, Catholics–as all Christians should–understand that every human being is unworthy of God’s grace. Biden’s case is worsened, however, by his persistent and public obstinance in continuing to contravene the Church’s moral teaching and his insistence that there’s nothing wrong with his opposing views. As Petri asserts, Canon Law requires those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” They do, of course, have another sacrament readily available: confession. This is to be followed up by a changed life.
As I think these matters through, there comes to my mind a distinction sometimes made in military ethics. When thinking about the enemy, we recognize that not all the adversaries arrayed before us are hardened ideologues. Many are likely to be nothing more than poor chumps just like us, essentially decent men who are more or less forced to make war against their better will and desire. Such enemies are sometimes referred to as “innocent aggressors.” They are aggressors–and need to be dealt with accordingly–but they are not to be despised nor dispatched with any joy. To this idea I add two other categories. There can be what we might call “ignorant aggressors” who are misguided by false doctrines. These honestly believe in the justice of their cause and, even if wrong, genuinely have the common good in view. Still others are what we might call “diabolical aggressors.” These know that what they do is unjustified and yet they zealously pursue it nevertheless, hellbent by the lust to dominate others or to accumulate goods and powers to themselves. While I cannot fathom how someone could believe that unfettered abortion even late-in-term could possibly constitute a good, I do not presume to judge Biden’s soul. I can only wish that God might have mercy on his soul for his championing of something so gratuitous, just as I hope God has mercy on mine for my own stupid, silly, or nasty inequities.
Meanwhile, three cheers for those bold celebrants who withhold the supper from those who ought not eat of it. But, for all those charged with the difficult duty of leading and disciplining their flocks, prayers as they navigate difficult pastoral waters.
Returning to the bit about Biden’s request for prayer during his inaugural address. Apparently it was much too much for some. It being followed up by prayers from ministers, other invocations of religiously-charged language, and even a rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Garth Brooks was enough to make some among us feel excluded. One particularly traumatized soul–though I suspect he’ll take umbrage at my believing he has one–fretted that the religious content of the inaugural ceremony left him feeling “disappointed,” “alienated,” and “left out of [a] moment of national healing.” He believed that the ceremony conspired–if inadvertently–to suggest that “Americans without a faith are not true Americans.” Against all this, he pines for the sweet inclusivity of secular language. I’m afraid I don’t believe in it. However we use language, we use it in a way that articulates our own particular–or collective–comprehensive doctrines, our beliefs about who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s gone wrong, and who can fix it. We can’t help it, even when we do not consciously deploy religious terminology, our own faith–even if it’s godless–falls trippingly from our tongues. In any case, the supposedly inclusive neutrality of secular discourse–language bereft of reference to God, Holy writ, or eschatological justice–would seem neither neutral nor inclusive to religious believes, whose numbers must continue to baffle and disappoint would-be secularists.
As Alan Dowd reminds readers in his excellent essay this week on the belated inclusion of President Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer on Washington’s WW2 memorial, the bulwarks that American’s founders erected around religion were intended to safeguard religion from government – not the other way around. This should still provide solace to the fragile amongst us. It ensures there will never be religious tests to prove qualification for any office or public trust in the United States nor, for that matter, to participate in public or civic life.
But, really, why does any of this need to be explained? When did we become so thin-skinned? I confess that I have little good to say in response to such timid little pantywaists who cannot handle being in the presence of someone endorsing aloud something they don’t believe in. How do we square this desire to be spared feeling we’re the odd-man out with the desire to live in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society? Nothing in the inaugural ceremony ought to have lead to anyone feeling they were being told they don’t belong. We have to stop looking for offense where no offense is intended.
I said that not everything was here was going to be bortchening. I close with a happy memory of last weekend’s hike with my son, enjoyed in the presence of other dads and their sons. With the aim of walking the entirety of Maryland’s 42 mile portion of the Appalachian Trail, we disembarked at 830PM on Friday night, completing an initial 10 mile stretch in the beam of our headlamps–and occasionally pouring rain. Saturday was a 20 mile day. Sunday concluded with the final 12 mile stretch into Harper’s Ferry. The intervening nights found our crew tenting, bivvying, or hammocking in the below-freezing woods. As far as challenges go, it was just inside of difficult. No one day was particularly strenuous, but the accumulation added up sufficiently enough that determination was necessary, discomfort had to be endured, and focused will maintained. There were easy opportunities to quit that had to resisted. Even though there are few things as wonderful to a young boy as not changing your underwear for three days and going to bed in muddy clothes, it nevertheless occurred to everyone present that they were doing something hard–and they didn’t have to.
Why I think it is so wonderful that they did has a lot to do with the desperate need for America to continue to produce people of strong character. Character, we’ll recall from Aristotle, is developed through habituation. If you do a virtuous thing over and over again, eventually it becomes a part of your character–it becomes who you are by default. In today’s America, for many of us, challenge is something that needs to be sought out. We need to look for opportunities to push ourselves, to see what we can achieve, and to sometimes fail to achieve them. In the Western moral patrimony–in both its Greco-Roman and Hebraic roots–this has always been one sure way to pursue eudaimonia–the well-lived life, human flourishing. Looking to its peripatetic origins, the Crash Course Philosophers put it this way:
A life of eudaimonia is a life of striving. It’s a life of pushing yourself to your limits, and finding success. A eudaimonistic life will be full of the happiness that comes from achieving something really difficult, rather than just having it handed to you.
In its more Hebraic framing, eudaimonia is the notion that in the Beatitudes is often translated as “Blessed.” It could also be rendered “happy.” This is not a happiness available through any number of limitless avenues. Beatitude requires a particular ecology in which to thrive. This is not an ecology determined by circumstances or the conditions of life, but rather by intended ends, moral ambition, and proper loves. Choosing to live life striving after beatitude will mean we sometimes falter in our ambition. It means that the moral muscles and resilience we are trying to build will sometimes fail. It means we will never stop striving. But I also think it is the only way to develop a taste for heaven. The Beatitudes conclude with “happy are the peacemakers, for they will be known as sons of God.” As I’ve written before, to be a “son” in Semitic thought meant that one bore the characteristics of the thing signified. Happy, then, are those peacemakers for they bear the characteristics of the Divine. Surely only those who share an affinity with God will desire to spend eternity in His presence. As the rest of the Beatitudes reveal, of course, the road to becoming a child of God is easy. As a dad, however, there are few things more pleasing than to see my children strive after such hard things worth having, to watch them sink into bed at the end of a well-fought day, and to know, all the while, that they are developing robust souls confident enough in the source of their worth to take punches–both spoken and thrown. Helping them to know who they are, Who made them, and that all will be well is the only sure-fire way to help prepare them to live a life in which they can trust that while they may not always be pleased by much of what’s happening around them, they have every chance to be happy.