‘Repent and accept the Gospel’

It’s Ash Wednesday. I’m working from Georgetown this morning at the Capital One Cafe and will walk a few blocks to St. Stephen Martyr for Mass at noon.

I’m thinking back to Shrove Tuesday one year ago. And to last night, which I spent with good people at the Catholic Information Center on K Street.

I had planned to share this first thing at the start of Lent, and the second thing was a surprise to read this morning and is worth sharing, too. The first thing:

“Lent should suggest to us these basic questions: Am I advancing in my faithfulness to Christ, in my desire for holiness, in a generous apostolate in my daily life, in my ordinary work among my colleagues?” —St. Josemaria Escriva

And the second thing is this Lenten White House Message:

For Catholics and many other Christians, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season that concludes with the joyful celebration of Easter Sunday.  Today, millions of Christians will be marked on their foreheads with the sign of the cross.  The imposition of ashes is an invitation to spend time during Lent fasting, praying, and engaging in acts of charity.  This powerful and sacred tradition reminds us of our shared mortality, Christ’s saving love, and the need to repent and accept the Gospel more fully.

We join in prayer with everyone observing this holy day and wish you a prayerful Lenten journey.  May you grow closer to God in your faith during this blessed season.

Pennsylvania in February

It’s a busy week in preparation for the U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in the June Medical Services case being heard next week. In light of that, here are some photos from my 12 hours in Pennsylvania over the weekend. No snow to be seen anywhere along the drive and only the slightest frost on the windshield when I left for 7:30am Mass at Our Lady of Victory.

It’s a great place.

COVID-19

Dr. James Hamblin writes on COVID-19, the coronavirus influenza that has definitively left China and appears to be inevitable here:

The Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch is exacting in his diction, even for an epidemiologist. Twice in our conversation he started to say something, then paused and said, “Actually, let me start again.” So it’s striking when one of the points he wanted to get exactly right was this: “I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable.” …

Lipsitch predicts that, within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. But, he clarifies emphatically, this does not mean that all will have severe illnesses. “It’s likely that many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic,” he said. As with influenza, which is often life-threatening to people with chronic health conditions and of older age, most cases pass without medical care. (Overall, around 14 percent of people with influenza have no symptoms.)

Lipsitch is far from alone in his belief that this virus will continue to spread widely. The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.” …

At this point, it is not even known how many people are infected. As of Sunday, there have been 35 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. But Lipsitch’s “very, very rough” estimate when we spoke a week ago (banking on “multiple assumptions piled on top of each other,” he said) was that 100 or 200 people in the U.S. were infected. That’s all it would take to seed the disease widely.

James Delinis responds on Twitter: “This doctor writes an article that says 40-70% of the population will get Coronavirus, 2% of those people will die (136 million people), and that the virus will stick around every cold-and-flu season like its no big deal.” Let’s consider this the worst case scenario.

Jon Evans asks, “What happens is a pandemic hits?

Stars near Mercersburg

I drove from Washington, DC to State College last night, taking the more scenic route after Hagerstown that takes you…

…up Route 75 through little Pennsylvania towns like Mercersburg, Fort Loudon, past Cowans Gap Lake, and through Burnt Cabins onto Route 522 through Shade Gap, Rockhill/Orbisonia, Shirleysburg, Allenport/Mount Union/Lucy Furnace where you reach the Juniata River, and then north on Route 22 along William Penn Highway and Big Valley Pike and Stone Creek Ridge Road onto Route 26, and then up Standing Stone Road, past McAlevys Fort, past Whipple Dam State Park and finally through Pine Grove Mills before arriving in State College.

Mercersburg. Burnt Cabins. Shade Gap. Shirleysburg. Lucy Furnace. McAlevys Fort.

Aren’t these great names?

And driving along these country roads at night, you see the stars. How awesome it is to see the stars.

I stopped just past Mercersburg at one point to look up at the sky and took this photo.

After I got back on the road, I kept the window down for a little while to glance up as often as possible. The shimmering stars moving across the sky felt close, and the world felt alive in a special way, with the dome of the sky really feeling like a dome—like a heavens.

I thought about not being able to see the stars—about how many today not only grow up without a view of the stars, but basically never witness the night sky as anything other than a lit hue, polluted and opaque. It reminded me of something a friend told me recently about a distinct challenge of old age; that it is literally the loss of sight as one ages that contributes to anxiety and disorientation. The loss of clarity, of color, of depth and space lead to a confusion about life itself and sometimes hopelessness and despondency.

I wonder if that’s not just as true for those in cities and places where we’ve lost sight of the sky.

Nothing in common but one word

I’m heading to State College tonight, and I’ve been spending this afternoon in Washington reading and working a bit. Here’s a late afternoon view from M Street near the Key Bridge:

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Here’s a passage from The Road to Serfdom that someone shared earlier today, appropriate for this election season:

There can be no doubt that most of those in the democracies who demand a central direction of all economic activity still believe that socialism and individual freedom can be combined. Yet socialism was early recognized by many thinkers as the greatest threat to freedom.

It is rarely remembered now that socialism in its beginnings was frankly authoritarian. It began quite openly as a reaction against the liberalism of the French Revolution. The French writers who laid its foundations had no doubt that their ideas could be put into practice only by a strong dictatorial government. The first of modern planners, Saint-Simon, predicted that those who did not obey his proposed planning boards would be “treated as cattle”.

Nobody saw more clearly than the great political thinker de Tocqueville that democracy stands in an irreconcilable conflict with socialism: “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom,” he said. “Democracy attaches all possible value to each man,” he said in 1848, “while socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

To allay these suspicions and to harness to its cart the strongest of all political motives—the craving for freedom—socialists began increasingly to make use of the promise of a “new freedom”. Socialism was to bring “economic freedom” without which political freedom was “not worth having”.

To make this argument sound plausible, the word “freedom” was subjected to a subtle change in meaning. The word had formerly meant freedom from coercion…

We’re living through the playing out of the logic of centuries-old social/political disputes.

Our ‘confusion extends beyond sexuality’

J.D. Flynn offers some of the best fraternal correction to Fr. James Martin that I’ve read so far:

…there is a difference between choosing not to defy Catholic doctrine and choosing to teach it in its fullness. And the doctrine of the Church extends far beyond issues of sexuality. While Martin may not be teaching error on that subject, his work fails to express, or even take into account, Catholic teaching on a fundamental issue: what it means to be a person at all. The consequence of that failure is confusion.

Consider Fr. Martin’s recent remarks to college presidents at a meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. His speech does not state that homosexual activity should be condoned, or that Church teaching on the matter should change. But it does present a vision of the human person at odds with Catholic teaching, and it urges a set of pastoral practices that will lead to heartbreak and disappointment, not to the freedom of Jesus Christ. …

Every initiative that Fr. Martin recommends in his address—from “Lavender graduations” to “L.G.B.T.-affirming spiritualities, theologies, liturgies and safe spaces”—is designed to affirm the lie that sexual inclination or orientation is, in itself, identity. Fr. Martin seems to be arguing that, to be compassionate, the Church must encourage young people to see themselves as the world sees them: as the sum of their desires, rather than as children of God, beloved sons and daughters of the Father.

Contemporary confusion about sexual orientation today stems from conflating appetite with identity. We are more than the sum of our appetites. And our appetites—however strongly we feel them, however much they have shaped us, however much we have suffered for them—are not often ordered, absent grace, to our flourishing. That confusion extends beyond sexuality; it is the cause of insatiable consumerism, of technology addictions, and even of our nakedly dysfunctional political arena.

The Church believes that knowledge of our true identity as children of God can free us from the slavery of defining ourselves by our appetites, from confusion about who we are and about what will bring us happiness. That is why the Church says that Catholic colleges ought to teach that students are made in the image of God, and that by the grace of God they can live in the freedom of their creation and flourish in this life and the next. That message defies biological or psychological determinism; it defies postmodern inclinations to define reality according to experience; it defies a technocratic culture that says we are what we do.

Our “confusion extends beyond sexuality.” How urgent this message is for the recovery and reform of so much in our culture. We are confused about who we are as human persons, across the entire landscape of issues.

And there’s a subtle and important point that J.D. Flynn is drawing out here; that is, the distinction between expressing the truth in its fullness and expressing truth to a particular degree.

‘We take sin so casually’

Charles J. Chaput celebrated his final Mass as Archbishop of Philadelphia on Sunday, and in doing so he concluded 31 years of service as a Catholic bishop:

At the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Chaput told his parishioners he is grateful to them, and pointed following Jesus Christ as the pathway to truth and happiness.

“I’ll still be around, I’m not dying, I’m just retiring,” Chaput said Feb. 16, just days before the Tuesday installation of his successor, Archbishop-designate Nelson Perez.

In a homily that stayed tied to the Mass readings, characteristic of Chaput’s preaching style, the archbishop cited the second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, saying it captures his experience of ministry to the Church in Philadelphia.

“What eye has not seen and ear has not heard and what has not entered the human heart: what God has prepared for those who love him,” St. Paul wrote. “This, God has revealed to us, through the Spirit.”

Chaput thanked the congregation for “the gift of your presence in my life.”

“God bless you,” he concluded.

The archbishop described his successor Perez, until recently the Bishop of Cleveland, as “a very good man” who “will serve you well as archbishop.” …

In his homily, Chaput reflected on divine law and God’s revelation.

“One of the problems with the commandments is we think of them as laws or rules. What they really are is a pattern of life,” Chaput said. “They’re not there to test us to see if we’re good, because we know we’re not, right? The commandments are there to show us how to be good.”

“God is telling us if you want to be happy, then don’t steal. If you want to be successful, you won’t bear false witness. If you want to have successful marriages, you won’t commit adultery,” the archbishop explained.

“We have freedom to choose whether or not to be good,” he said. At the same time, he emphasized that Christians can’t keep the commandments on their own, but must depend on God’s grace. Some struggle and sin again and again, “sometimes because we depend on ourselves rather than God.”

“Think about the most difficult (sins) for you: gossip, adultery, not to kill, not to anger,” Chaput said, stressing the importance of the commandments.

“What’s at stake here is our salvation, our eternal life, or our eternal damnation,” he added. stressing the importance of the commandments.  “You and I determine our future by what we choose: life–following the commandments—or death. Good or evil.”

On Sunday’s gospel, the archbishop warned of the “danger of scandal.”

“One of the biggest sins that you and I can commit is leading someone else into sin,” he said. “It’s bad enough we lead ourselves into sin. But it’s much worse if we lead ourselves into sin, and through that lead someone else into sin.”

Chaput said he couldn’t state it any clearer than Jesus himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Archbishop Chaput asked the congregation: “When’s the last time you led somebody into sin by your sin?” …

Jesus’ use of exaggerated language, such as recommending someone cut off his hand rather than sin, makes the point of the seriousness of the matter.

“It would be better for us, really, that we don’t have a hand than that we sin,” said Chaput. “And we take sin so casually in our life.”

“One of the problems with the commandments is we think of them as laws or rules. What they really are is a pattern of life,” Chaput said. “They’re not there to test us to see if we’re good, because we know we’re not, right? The commandments are there to show us how to be good.”

Human rights and the human heart

I’ve got my first piece for Humanize from the Discovery Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism out today, where I write that human rights require knowledge of the human heart:

I believe that when it comes to issues of human life we’re generally engaging conflicts that are neither unresolvable nor destined for stalemate. We’re debating issues that matter. We can lose sight of this due to the tendency to throw our hands into the air over the seemingly complex nature of many human life issues, content to “agree to disagree” because “it’s complicated.” For those determined to advance human dignity, liberty, and equality, settling for this false peace is, in fact, a surrender to (at best) a materialist philosophy that prizes autonomy over solidarity, or (at worst) a nihilist relativism that proposes that ultimate reality and truth are unknowable and therefore worthless.

We already see the poisoned fruits of accepting that false peace in the degradation of human rights. Human rights were once a shield for the protection of those most at risk to the whims of those with greater power, but as we lose our sense of human beings as possessors of inherent dignity and worth, we also lose a firm basis for universal human rights. As if experiencing a collective dementia, we look upon the face of the human person without recognizing the priceless good we see. And in our forgetfulness we lose our ethical bearings, too often falling for utopian promises for a future that never arrives.

When we survey the field, we observe this annihilation across the spectrum of human life: at the earliest and most physically vulnerable period when we most require hospitality and love, in the form of abortion; at the latest and most culturally vulnerable period when we most require solidarity and companionship, in the form of euthanasia and suicide; throughout adult life when we require encounter and friendship, through a “throwaway” culture of indifference; and across the spectrum of bioethical issues from eugenics to human trafficking, from attacks on patient and physician conscience rights to misanthropic environmentalism, from ethically indifferent forms of genetic engineering to stem cell research to cloning, and on it goes.

What are we to make of the claims of human rights, amidst all the raw human willfulness and power imbalances that so greatly warp our ability to recognize one another as equals?

Humanize

I joined the Discovery Institute last month as a Research Fellow with their Center on Human Exceptionalism, which exists to affirm and uphold the intrinsic nature of human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley J. Smith, Chair and Senior Fellow of the Center, has just launched Humanize, a blog for news, analysis, and opinion. Wesley writes:

America is living with the ghosts of the 1960s, the ambition of that time as much as its hubris. In equal measure, those qualities shape our ethically and morally haphazard approach to human dignity and human rights, and particularly bioethical issues that have the potential to harm or damage our liberty and equality with one another as human beings.

Humanize will offer news, opinion, and analysis to spark and participate in conversations about all of these issues and more, in the spirit of a time when we believed that we could achieve success in every field with ambition tempered by honor—in short, in a way that both advances science and society and promotes human dignity, liberty, and equality.

As long as we remain fractured across philosophical and intellectual fault lines, issues of human life generally and bioethical issues specifically can only grow more vexing. We’re establishing Humanize with the hope that we can be a home for spirited and robust conversations that address the many ethical or moral issues that currently denigrate human life, as we promote a human-centered wholeness that is the only true hope for a better future.

Humanize is as much about recognizing new frontiers in science, medicine, and biotechnology, as it is about recognizing that there are perennial frontiers in the human heart that must always be addressed in our conscience as much as our law and policy. …

The work we thought we were finishing with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has turned out simply to be a starting point for new frontiers in a timeless conversation on the exceptional importance of being human.

I’ll be contributing to Humanize as often as I’m able.

David Rubenstein and patriotic philanthropy

Mikaela Lefrak’s portrait of billionaire David Rubenstein is a fitting read for George Washington’s birthday. I’m a sucker for what Rubenstein calls “patriotic philanthropy”:

Rubenstein has shaped the cultural landscape of the nation’s capital perhaps more than any other private citizen in the past century. The Bethesda resident has done it while generally avoiding negative press, putting him in stark contrast with other Washington billionaires – your Jeff Bezoses, your Donald Trumps.

“You know, I get a lot of pleasure out of doing these things,” Rubenstein told me at the top of the Washington Monument. “And if I didn’t do them and I died with more money, would I be a happier person? I don’t think so.”

He calls this type of giving “patriotic philanthropy.”

But in this age of bitter partisanship and vast income inequality, what drives someone to stay out of politics and instead give their money to monuments, museums and historic sites? It’s not even clear that these public institutions are as universally valued today as they once were. And many a presidential candidate would argue that the very concept of being a billionaire is morally suspect. …

So what motivates David Rubenstein to follow this path?

Deciding to give away money is easy. Figuring out how to do it can be much more complex.

First, you need a strategy. Take Andrew Carnegie: The 19th century tycoon spent the last two decades of his life as a full-time philanthropist, building more than 3,000 public libraries across the country and setting up education and cultural institutions. Many of them still thrive today, from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University) to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Other billionaires set up private foundations and hire other people to give their money away for them. The Ford Foundation was built on the wealth of the founders of Ford Motor Company in 1936. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world, with more than $50 billion in assets.

There’s also a more business-minded approach. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan created a limited liability company that allows them to both make grants and venture investments.

As for David Rubenstein, there’s no foundation, no LLC. Just a check book and a passion for American history.

Rubenstein’s old school approach to public life as a billionaire, seeking to make an impact in a way that is at once deeply political, in the sense that he’s bolstering our national institutions, and yet beyond partisanship, in the sense that he appears to relate to other people first as people, is refreshing.