Monday, July 18, 2016

The Fallacy of Voting to Save the Supreme Court

I know of many pro-life voters who detest Donald Trump but plan to vote for him anyway, on the grounds that the Supreme Court is at stake. They argue that Hillary Clinton is guaranteed to nominate pro-abortion justices, whereas Trump... well, might do better.

But as the recent Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt decision shows, the Court already has a pro-abortion majority. (Similarly, Obergefell v. Hodges showed that it has a gay marriage majority.) A long sequence of events would have to transpire to reverse that.

First, your vote for Trump would have to help propel him to the presidency. Opinion polls vary, but no one is claiming he has more than a razor-thin lead, and when you break it out by state - which is how we elect presidents - he's trailing Clinton. Second, Trump would have to nominate a genuinely pro-life justice to fill the seat formerly held by Justice Scalia. Given Trump's waffling on the question of abortion, this is by no means guaranteed. Moreover, there is a long history of Supreme Court justices turning out to be a shade different than was advertised (recall that Kennedy was a Reagan appointee), so definitely no guarantees. Third, such a nominee would need to be confirmed by the Senate, which may well be captured by the Democrats. (In swing states, running against the party of Trump is the best thing that happened to many Democratic candidates.) Fourth, one of the five liberal justices would have to step down or die. The odds of any of them stepping down are extremely slim under a Trump presidency; they'll wait for a Democrat in the White House. So death is the only way they'll be replaced. Then repeat steps two and three. And, at last, you have a five justice pro-life majority.

I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't tell you if any of those things will happen. Some are more probable than others. But getting all six steps to occur is not likely. Let us assume 50-50 odds for each single event. The odds of getting all six is a little less than 1.6%.

A more probable outcome, should Trump be elected, is that he nominates someone whose views on matters like abortion and gay marriage are as moderate / opaque /confused as Trump's own. Such an individual might actually be approved by the Senate. And thus we would end up with five pro-abortionists, a wishy-washy, and three pro-life justices. Is that a sufficient improvement to outweigh everything you despise about Trump?

In all fairness, if Clinton were elected, in conjunction with a Democratic Senate, she could fill Scalia's old seat with a liberal. And one or more of the older pro-abortion justices could retire and safely see their seats backfilled with younger liberals. The current situation could be entrenched for decades. But the more I reflect on this scenario, the more it strikes me as emblematic of politics in general and not some special case. Every election has consequences. And because politics never stops, there is no such thing as a safe margin or done deal. Everything is always at stake. In that sense, this election is no different than any other. Rare is the truly extraordinary "crisis election" or "special circumstances." If you like Donald Trump or his policies, go ahead and vote for him. But if he would have been morally unacceptable to you in 2012 or 2000 or 1984, don't vote for him this year either.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Happy Feast of St. Thomas More!

Husband, father, scholar, statesman, martyr.


"Often it happens that just as a lot of foolishness is uttered with ornate and polished speech, so too, many coarse and rough-spoken men see deep indeed and give very substantial counsel."

- More to Henry VIII, upon becoming Speaker of the House of Commons, requesting freedom of speech for the chamber


"The clearness of my conscience has made my heart hop for joy. My case was such in this matter through the clearness of my own conscience that though I might have pain I could not have harm, for a man may in such a case lose his head and have no harm."

- More, writing from prison


"I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together."

- More, to the judges who condemned him to death, quoted in Roper's Life


Saint Thomas More, pray for us!


Quotations from A Thomas More Source Book, ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith, pp. 212-3, 241.  The sculpture of St. Thomas was done by Pablo Eduardo for the Boston College Law School.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Empire, Brexit, and the Historical Imagination


Today is Queen Victoria's birthday, a public holiday in Canada (observed on the preceding Monday) and the anchor point for the moving Empire Day holiday (which subsequently morphed into Commonwealth Day).

Debates about the British Empire - was it a monument of civilization or a system of global oppression? - have reminded me of debates about a more contemporary question: Brexit. Does Britain belong in Europe or not?

In a recent Financial Times article, Gideon Rachman examined the claims of two rival camps of historians as they argue about whether Britain has, historically, been part of Europe. Historians for Britain, the euro-skeptic party - led by David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge - contend that Britain has a long tradition of political continuity and moderate reform (unlike Europe, with its revolutions and reactions, not to mention Fascism, Nazism, and Communism), as well as physical separation from the European continent.

The pro-European party - which lacks a handy label, but did put out an article titled "Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated" - takes issue with these claims, noting that Britain has a long history of close interactions with the Continent. Not least among such linkages is Christianity, integral to Britain's identity, at least until quite recently, but also something to which Britain has no unique claim, but instead shares with the rest of Europe and regions beyond. Moreover, the critics note that Britain had a civil war, which, though several centuries ago, was no less nasty for its antiquity.  So Britain is not immune to such upheavals. And then there's the Empire. "Expropriation, slavery, massacres, oppression, anyone?” asks Neil Gregor, professor of modern history at Southampton.

Rachman concludes that "I do not entirely agree (or disagree) with any of the historians I have met... [but] I agree with Abulafia and the Historians for Britain in one important respect: their argument that the UK has been unusually good at creating successful political institutions and that this is an inheritance worth cherishing and protecting." However, Rachman adds: "But I do not think that this adds up to an argument for Britain leaving the EU."

I would like to pull the lens even further back, so to speak. Ever since Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the father of the modern historical craft, we - I say this as a member of the historical guild - have focused on history wie es eigentlich gewesen (as it actually happened). This is a perfectly reasonable and laudable standard for historians to pursue. But as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) reminds us, history also has advantages and disadvantages for life. I would not go so far as to say, as Nietzsche might, that we should falsify the historical record for the sake of the impact it has on the present. But we would be fools to overlook the role that perceptions of the past have in shaping our imaginations, which in turn shape our actions.

In this context, I would argue that emphasizing Britain's long history of evolving, moderate, and generally freedom-loving political institutions is useful, even inspiring, for Britain's present, whether that be within or outside the EU. In a similar vein, I think a case can be made that emphasizing the British Empire as a global effort at fostering trade, harmonizing law, ensuring security, and spreading the Gospel is a worthy means of inspiring the men and women of today to deeds of virtue.

You might contend that these visions of Britain's past are as much romance as fact; I would suggest they are simply the product of particular emphasis. But what about all the failures that went along with these positive elements? Ah, you are putting on your critical history hat, as Nietzsche would say. As I pointed out five years ago, we can do that tomorrow. Today we celebrate the good.

Today's image comes from the Canadian War Museum.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Many Parts, One Body - Islamic Edition

One of the more well known passages from St. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, written c. 55 AD, concerns the relationship of the believers to one another:
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”... If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
Christians may be surprised to discover a similar sentiment among the sayings (hadith) of Mohammed, given some six hundred years later:
An-Nu’man ibn Basheer reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The example of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 5665; Sahih Muslim, 2586).
I am not a scholar of Islam, much less of comparative religion. I am sure a case could be made that the parallels above are mere coincidence. Given the familiarity of the body, it is a natural analogy to use and more than one person could independently use it. Still, I think the parallel is striking and may be more than coincidence.

Pious Muslims would probably argue that the Christian understanding articulated by Paul was a prefiguring of the perfect revelation that came with Mohammed, or that Paul did articulate the Islamic notion, any divergences being subsequent corruptions of the Pauline message.

Christians might view this parallelism positively, as a further proof that Muslims too follow the faith of Abraham (as the Catholic Church holds). Other Christians might take a more negative view, arguing that this parallelism is proof of Islam's lack of originality, that it is merely a debased form a Christianity. This is basically the medieval understanding of Islam, that is is a Christian heresy. It is easy to see how this line of argumentation could turn rather ugly. But implicit in it - implicit in the word "heretic" - is a kind of compliment which ought not be overlooked. Pagans are people without any connection to the Church. But those in heresy, on the other hand, do have a relationship to the Church; they hold to some form of Christian doctrine, albeit with one or more crucial shortcomings. But the truth is not utterly alien to them. And thus a dialogue may be possible.

A little something to keep in mind next time you hear the talking heads pontificate about Islam.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Remembering Dennis Quinn and the Integrated Humanities Program

Today is the fifth anniversary of the funeral of Dennis Quinn, one of the founders of the legendary Integrated Humanities Program, a short-lived experiment in education which had wide-ranging ripples, influencing the University of Dallas in various ways and richly blessing the Church.  The funeral homily, by James Conley (then auxiliary bishop of Denver, now the bishop of Lincoln), is not only a spiritual exhortation but also a fitting tribute to the man and a moving evocation of the program's vision.  Thanks to A Draught of Vintage for providing the text.


My name is Bishop James Conley, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver and a former student of Professor Dennis Quinn and the Integrated Humanities Program here at the University of Kansas. On behalf of Father Abbot Philip Anderson, the Abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek, the Prior, Father Francis Bethel, also former students of Dr. Quinn and the IHP, Father Steve Beseau, the current Director of the St. Lawrence Catholic Student Center, Msgr. Vince Krische, the long time former Director of the St. Lawrence Center and close friend of the IHP, I would like to extend our prayers and condolences to the Quinn family, especially to son Tim, daughters Monica and Alison, and to all the family on the death of your father, and grandfather, and our teacher and friend, Dennis B. Quinn.

In this penitential season of Lent, a season of prayer and penance, our thoughts and reflections are directed toward the Paschal Mystery of Christ, namely the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we will celebrate as the culmination of our Lenten Season in Holy Week, particularly during the Sacred Triduum.

The Paschal Mystery of Christ is the mystery of God’s love for us, the love which redeemed us from our sins, the love that was nailed to the cross, the love that rose from the dead on the third day.

And we are all called by God to live this mysterious love in our lives; to imitate this love, to manifest this love, to radiate this love, in our thoughts, words and actions every single day. This necessarily means that we must die to ourselves daily. That we must die to the selfishness, to the pride, to the ingratitude, to the vanity, to the self-indulgence, to the sin which is “too much with us late and soon,” a part of our human nature. This is what Lent is all about.

Through our rededication to prayer in Lent, through our fasting, mortification and sacrifices, through our almsgiving and renewed generosity toward others, we shake off the “old self” and put on the new man once again, we put on Christ in a new way.

The readings chosen for today’s Mass of Christian Burial remind us of this. They remind us that we are but mere pilgrims in this world. That we are making our way through this world as fellow pilgrims who seek a kingdom that is real, but that is ever elusive and about which we only get glimpses along our way. Glimpses which inspire hope and remind us of our destiny. In spite of adversity and set backs we forge ahead as happy pilgrims, as our first reading from the Book of Wisdom just reminded us: “For if before men, indeed they be punished, yet their hope is full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed.” And, “Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love.”

And when that hope reveals itself as we pass from this life to the next it will happen, as St. Paul tells us, “in an instant, in a blink of an eye” and “that which is corruptible will clothe itself with incorruptibility and that which is mortal will clothe itself with immortality.”

And then we shall say: “Where, O Death is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” Or with the words of his beloved poet, John Donne: “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, for, those whom thou thinkest, thou dost overthrow, die not poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me!”

Dr. Quinn knew all of these truths and he taught them to his students. He taught us to see the world with the eyes of wonder. Nascantur in Admiratione: let them be born in wonder, the motto of IHP, that we might more easily see those glimpses, those manifestations of that kingdom, that invisible world, as Blessed John Henry Newman so often spoke about, so that this “invisible world becomes more real than the visible world which is constantly passing away before our eyes.”

In his forward to Dr. Quinn’s Magnus Opus, Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder, the Jesuit, Father James Schall wrote these words: “To wonder about wonder is the vocation of Dennis Quinn.” This was his passion. Through the Integrated Humanities Program which he initiated and directed and fought to keep in existence, with the help of his two beloved colleagues, John Senior and Frank Nellick to be sure, but let it be known, the IHP would never have come into existence and would never have lasted as long as it did were it not for Professor Quinn who battled with the powers that be, to keep it going. Dr. Quinn taught us to have this same sense of wonder and love of learning, this same passion for truth, goodness and beauty, and this changed our lives forever! We were never the same! We were truly born again, as it were, in wonder. We saw the world in a different way.

Professor Quinn called this kind of learning “education by the muses” or the “poetic mode” of education. He introduced us to reality through delight. This opened a whole new world to us. A world that was filled with mystery and beauty, but also a world that was very real and tangible. This was not mere fantasy or dreamy idealism, as he once wrote in an essay: “Mistake me not: wonder is no sugary sentimentality but, rather a mighty passion, a species of fear, an awful confrontation of the mystery of things.”

This kind of education, education by the muses or poetic education was a participatory kind of learning whether it was through the poetry we memorized and then recited, the songs we would sing before class, the stargazing at night west of Lawrence, the Yankee trade fairs, the magic of the spring waltzes, the banquets and parties at the Castle Tea Room, the trips to Italy and Greece and Ireland — we participated in the thing itself, we experienced the reality of what we were learning. Again, to refer to Newman, we moved from the mere notional assent to the truth, where we understand things in a notional way primarily through the intellect, we moved to a real assent, to real understanding which engages our whole being. “The muses present life fresh, as if seen and experienced for the first time.”

Dr. Quinn put it this way in that same essay: “Education by the Muses is participatory. To sing a love song is not identical to being in love, but it is to participate somehow in that experience. When a child sees the twinkle of the star he knows it directly; when he chants the rhyme he knows the twinkling indirectly by participating in it. Poetry and music and even astronomy at this level are not to be studied but to be done!”

For many of us this kind of education disposed us to the gift of faith for the first time in our lives, and many of us converted to the Catholic Church. And this got Dr. Quinn and his colleagues into a lot of trouble with the university! They were accused of being conspirators in corrupting the minds of unsuspecting youth much like Socrates was. But this is what happens when you open yourself to the mysteries; grace may take hold of you and never let you go.

Yesterday, Monica was telling me a story about her dad that took place at a Belloc Society meeting at the Castle Tea Room. He was relating the fact that he had very serious back surgery in high school and nearly died from the procedure, a kind of meningitis type illness. He had to wear a brace for years. He mused that night at the Castle Tea that if he had died then, he would never have met Eva, his beloved and devoted wife. You children would never have been born and the IHP would never have existed. None of us would probably be Catholics. Clear Creek would never have come into existence. I would not be a bishop, and on and on and on. And he said this in a very humble and grateful way. He, too, stood in awe in what had happened in and through the IHP – what he would often call “an experiment in tradition.”

And this humility and this gratitude for what God had done in his life was always very present to him even to the end.

I remember our last IHP reunion very well in 2006. It took place east of the city Lawrence in the country and it was blazing hot Kansas summer day. Dr. Quinn had his traditional black leather Irish cap on and his trademark dapper tweed coat. Scott Bloch was serving as the emcee and he asked if Dr. Quinn would like to say a few words. Professor Quinn never missed an opportunity to speak! I remember this very well because he took the microphone without hesitation. We all know he always liked to take the center stage and was never at a loss for words! But this time he struggled mightily to form a sentence. We were all very quiet and nervous for him because we knew that his dementia was beginning to take its toll. But all of a sudden he spoke two very clear and coherent sentences: “Thank you all for coming. I am so grateful to have had such good students to teach.”

Even in those last years at the nursing home in Eudora, where his dear Alison took such good care of him, visiting him nearly every day, as did many others, he was always so grateful to the staff for every thing they did for him.

Gratitude and thanksgiving to God: in the end, this must be our prayer to God for his goodness and his grace to us through the life of Dennis Quinn.

And it is through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered for the peaceful and eternal repose of this faithful servant and extraordinary teacher that we can best express our gratitude. The gospel from St. John reminds us: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” Professor Quinn believed these words of Jesus and lived them in his life.

Dr. Quinn is no longer a pilgrim. His romantic quest for wonder has been completed. What were once mere glimpses and occasional insights are now seen clearly. He is face to face with the mysteries he taught.

And for those of us who are still on our pilgrim way we thank God for this great man and we pray for his soul. And we long for the day when we too might be reunited with those who have gone before us.

And, alas, for those who may still wonder what the IHP was all about, I leave you with the words of the man himself:

“Perhaps the mythology about the IHP is true after all. Perhaps we are conspirators. And our conspiracy may extend beyond the international to the celestial sphere; we are conspiring with the stars; we are conspiring with those spirits who inhabit the air not only in their books but in the living truths they caught less as doctrine and dogma than as a gleam of light. One could have far worse company. O co-conspirators of all the ages: Odysseus, great-improviser! Socrates, fellow corrupter of youth! Caesar and Aeneas, you Latin-lovers! Moses and St. Paul, God-struck! Roland, you chevalier! Chaucer, debonaire, and all our fellow pilgrims! Knight of woeful countenance! O sweet Prince! May all of you be with us yet!”
Requiescat in pace!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This year, to supply you with Irish music on the one day of the year when it is on demand, I will show you a few videos that illustrate the influence America has played on traditional Irish music today.

Most of the earliest commercial recordings were actually made in America by Irish immigrants. Perhaps the most famous of these musicians was Michael Coleman, a fiddler born in Killavil, Co. Sligo who came to New York City in 1914. He soon found work as a professional player in vaudeville shows, and picked up many tunes that he recorded in a traditional style but to our ears today sound unmistakably like rag-time. Many of Coleman's records were sent back to Ireland, where young musicians were so enthralled that they copied his music note for note. Even today, musicians throughout the Irish diaspora will play sets that were first popularized  by Coleman.

One of those sets is of two reels: Bonnie Kate & Jenny's Chickens:



But, he could also play more graceful waltzes popular with the American crowds he played for:




Coleman's influence on the world of Irish music was so strong, not just because of his records, but also because of the fiddlers he taught. One of the most prominent of those students was Andy McGann, who recorded a number of albums in the 1970's, and who has a remarkably similar style as Coleman:



And that New York-Sligo fiddle style is still alive today, particularly in the playing of Brian Conway, who is shown here doing his own rendition of Bonnie Kate & Jenny's Chickens (with a third reel added to the set):



Another well-known musician who emigrated to New York around the same time was the Leitrim-born flute player John McKenna, who also recorded in the 1920's and 1930's. Here he is playing a polka with a distinct American flavor, "Tripping to the Well."




Finally, this old-time, rag-time-influenced style of Irish music has been making a comeback in recent years, after being going underground for a while in the folk revival of the 1970's. One of the positive aspects of this comeback (in my opinion) is that musicians are starting to dust off a lot of the old polkas and barndances that were nearly forgotten in the 1970's when a lot of bands pumped out only reels and jigs. A little rhythmic variety never hurt anybody!

Here is one new band, Morga, who can put on a great show (as I saw in Chicago last summer), playing a polka from the Roaring Twenties called "Fitzmaurice's Flight":



Tuesday, March 15, 2016

J.S. Bach's St. John Passion

In honor of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the early exponents of historically informed performance who passed away on March 5, I am posting the following video of his performance of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion from 1985. Bach's St. John Passion is not as well known as his St. Matthew Passion. Nevertheless, the opening chorus is as powerful and moving as any other piece he wrote. The heavy emphasis on the lordship and glorification of Jesus Christ is a fitting meditation on his person and mission, especially since the Gospel readings at Mass for this time in the liturgical year (after Laetare Sunday and Passion Sunday) were traditionally drawn heavily from the Gospel of St. John. It may be a bit of a surprise, but some of the ideas to be found in the Lutheran Bach's work mesh very well with Catholic theology.