Everything is mysteriously entangled

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus writes:

By these three days all the world is called to attention. Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice – everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened, with what happens, in these days.… Every human life, conceived from eternity and destined to eternity, here finds its story truly told. In this killing that some call senseless we are brought to our senses. Here we find out who we most truly are because here is the One who is what we are called to be. The derelict cries, “Come, follow me.” Follow him there? We recoil. We close our ears. We hurry on to Easter. But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.

J.D. Flynn pointed out how strange and unlikely it is (even more so if we bracket the Christian belief in resurrection) that we remember the story of a Roman peasant. But it’s not so strange or unlikely if it’s true that everything “that is and ever was and ever will be … is mysteriously entangled…”

La Grande Arche v. Notre-Dame

Fifteen years ago, George Weigel thought about Notre-Dame:

At the far western end of the magnificent urban axis that runs from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe, crossing the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly, is the Grand Arch of La Défense—one of the “great projects” of the late French president François Mitterrand. Designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility, La Grande Arche is a colossal open cube: almost forty stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and in 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.

On a hot, sunny afternoon—which is when I first saw it some seven years ago—La Grande Arche is, quite literally, dazzling. An elevator, definitely not recommended for anyone inclined to vertigo, whisks the visitor up to a rooftop terrace, which offers an unparalleled view of Paris, past the Tuileries to the Louvre and on to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.

The arch’s three-story-high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For Mitterrand intended the Grand Arch as a human-rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook I consulted, La Grande Arche was nicknamed “Fraternity Arch”; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.

This prompted a question as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the greatest of the world’s cityscapes. Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy: the culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube, or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great gothic cathedrals of France?

Notre-Dame de Paris

President Emmanuel Macron asserts that Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and that an international campaign will be launched to do so. Despite France being a secular state that is, in so many ways, presently at odds with its Catholic heart, Notre Dame is owned by the French state and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Alexandra DeSanctis on the loss of Notre-Dame de Paris, burning during Holy Week:

Although they’re already saying it’ll be rebuilt someday — and it’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful place could be left forever in ruins — it can never be rebuilt to what it was just this morning. It’s nearly unbearable to think about how much has been lost. A cathedral that withstood the bloodshed of revolution and the ravages of two world wars, tumbling in clouds of dark smoke, seemingly impossible to stop.

This is a disaster for Paris and for France, for French history, and for French Catholics. It is a grave loss for the history of Western civilization, and for future generations who, like me, will never see the cathedral’s glorious rose windows or the grandeur of her magnificent spires.

But first and foremost, it is a tragedy for the Catholic Church, whose members are already suffering in so many places. To many Catholics, it feels as if the Church is on fire in a sense already. And now we are watching it blaze. Though Notre Dame de Paris is a testament to world history, to art, to architecture, and to centuries of civilization, above all she is — was — a place of inestimable beauty dedicated to God. The cathedral’s Gothic arches pointed heavenward not for their own sake…

And Haley Stewart approaches Notre-Dame’s burning through literature and promise:

As a Catholic, as a medievalist, as a lover of beauty and history, I am absolutely wrecked. 

I have always wanted to visit Europe to see the cathedrals. The reality that I will never see the architectural masterpiece of Notre Dame is devastating. Watching the church collapse piece by piece as smoke billows into the air feels like a punch in the gut. And at the beginning of Holy Week, no less. I am trembling with sadness over the loss as if it were my own home that I’m watching burning down.

What must it feel like to be watching the flames tear down Notre Dame on the scene? To be scrambling to contain the horrific damage? To try to save holy relics and sacred art from destruction? The fear and the chaos of safely removing the Crown of Thorns and remnants of the True Cross?

I’m reminded of a pivotal scene in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, one of my favorite books of all time. It’s set in medieval Norway and one night, a terrible lightning storm sets fire to the local church of St. Olav. The protagonist, Kristin and her family struggle to contain the flames, to save the structure. But it quickly becomes apparent that it cannot be saved. Brave souls, including Kristin’s fiance and her father, rush in to save holy objects and the priest Sira Eirik rescues the Host from the flames and relics of the church’s patron, St. Olav.

Kristin’s father, Lavrans, emerges with the Crucifix in his arms. As he watches the flames consume St. Olav’s “His arm lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ. It looked as if the Savior were bending his beautiful, sad face toward the man to console him.” …

As Pope St. John Paul II told us, “We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.” Let us hold onto that hope in our grief. While Notre-Dame de Paris may be a charred shell of stone by morning, we know that the gates of Hell will not prevail over the Church through which God pours out his grace on his people.

Rod Dreher recognizes Notre-Dame’s burning as metaphor and personal challenge:

There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.” …

What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon. …

What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.

It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.

This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course…

Care, not suicide

I spoke this morning on Fox & Friends in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent advocacy of suicide by physician for New Yorkers:

I spoke alongside Kristen Hanson, Community Relations Advocate for the Patients’ Rights Action Fund, as well as Dennis Vacco, former New York State Attorney General. Dennis Vacco successfully argued the landmark 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case Vacco v. Quill, wherein the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide exists.

Suicide by physician was made lawful in New Jersey over the weekend, which is apparently what prompted Gov. Cuomo to suggest making it legal in the Empire State, too. We’re living through a time when we think we’re cleverer than we are. Suicide is suicide.

Papal Foundation and a major grant

Matthew O’Brien argues that former Cardinal Donald Wuerl misled the Papal Foundation’s board of directors in obtaining a major grant. He also suggests that the purpose of the extraordinary grant may have been to help then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick win leniency from the Vatican as his sex abuse investigation was taking place:

In 2017, Cardinal Donald Wuerl provided false and misleading information to the board of the Papal Foundation to secure a $25 million grant for the Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI), a scandal-plagued hospital in Rome. 

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin requested this grant from the Papal Foundation in June 2017, on behalf of Pope Francis. When the Papal Foundation board met in December 2017 to discuss the grant, Wuerl made two false assertions which were recorded in the meeting minutes. First, he claimed that the Italian religious congregation that oversaw the IDI’s descent into insolvency through fraud and embezzlement (the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception) was no longer involved with the IDI. Second, he understated the amount of debt encumbering the IDI and its affiliates since the hospital group emerged from state-administered insolvency proceedings in April 2015. He painted a picture of a hospital that was experiencing momentary cash-flow problems, but was otherwise sound.

But the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception was not separated from the IDI. It retains indirect ownership today, in partnership with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, through the non-profit Fondazione Luigi Maria Monti and a limited liability subsidiary, Luigi Maria Monti, S.r.l. Together they own and operate the IDI and its affiliates. Moreover, IDI’s debt was far greater than Wuerl suggested: Though Wuerl mentioned that the IDI group owed $26 million in payables, he did not mention that it also owed $60 million in mortgage debt. Because Wuerl resisted lay board members’ requests to obtain financial statements from the IDI hospital, the Papal Foundation board had to rely upon Wuerl’s remarks about its ownership and financial situation when evaluating the $25 million grant request.

Wuerl’s actions are especially questionable in light of what he knew at the time about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s interest in securing the grant. The Holy See, Wuerl, and McCarrick—an ex-officio member of the Papal Foundation board—knew that McCarrick was at the time under investigation in New York for sexually abusing a minor, according to two sources with personal knowledge of the situation. Wuerl was aware that McCarrick stood to win leniency in his sex abuse case if the Papal Foundation secured $25 million for the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

Wuerl’s actions roiled the Papal Foundation’s donors and lay board members. Several people involved with the Foundation spoke on background for this article and shared copies of Foundation meeting minutes and legal reviews. Shortly before Wuerl resigned from the chairmanship of the Foundation’s board at the end of 2018, he orchestrated a change in its bylaws that decreased the already limited influence of lay board members by shortening their terms of service. 

Today Wuerl remains a member of the Papal Foundation’s governing board of cardinals. As one of just two American members of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, Wuerl oversaw the recent appointment of his successor to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory. Gregory too serves alongside Wuerl on the Papal Foundation board.     

The sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church is not just about sex. Nor is it just about clericalism. It’s also about money. The controversy over the Papal Foundation’s $25 million grant reveals how sexual abuse, its cover-up, and money are intertwined.

The Papal Foundation was founded by Cardinal McCarrick. And the Papal Foundation’s typical grant amount is not $25,000,000, but rather $100,000.

U.S. Digital Service and taxes

Justin Elliott reports that Congress appears ready to prohibit the IRS from offering free online tax filing:

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are moving to permanently bar the IRS from creating a free electronic tax filing system. …

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee, led by Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.passed the Taxpayer First Act, a wide-ranging bill making several administrative changes to the IRS that is sponsored by Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Mike Kelly, R-Pa.

In one of its provisions, the bill makes it illegal for the IRS to create its own online system of tax filing. Companies like Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, and H&R Block have lobbied for years to block the IRS from creating such a system. If the tax agency created its own program, which would be similar to programs other developed countries have, it would threaten the industry’s profits. …

Experts have long argued that the IRS has failed to make filing taxes as easy and cheap as it could be. In addition to a free system of online tax preparation and filing, the agency could provide people with pre-filled tax forms containing the salary data the agency already has, as ProPublica first reported on in 2013. …

Intuit and H&R Block last year poured a combined $6.6 million into lobbying related to the IRS filing deal and other issues.

Devin Coldewey, meanwhile, reports the latest from the U.S. Digital Service, which exists to modernize existing federal services, websites, etc.:

The USDS is a small department that takes on creaking interfaces and tangled databases of services for, say, veteran benefit management or immigration documentation, buffing them to a shiny finish that may save their users months of literal paperwork.

… the USDS overhauled VA.gov, which is how many veterans access things like benefits, make medical appointments, and so on. But until recently it was kind of a mess of interconnected sub-sites and instructional PDFs. USDS interviewed a couple thousand vets and remade the site with a single login, putting the most-used services right on the front page. Seems obvious, but the inertia of these systems is considerable. …

These projects are often short-term, putting modern web and backend standards to work and handing the results off to the agency or department that requested it. The USDS isn’t built for long-term support but acts as a strike team putting smart solutions in place that may seem obvious in startup culture but haven’t yet become standard operating procedure in the capitol.

The work they do is guided by impact, not politics, which is likely part of the reason they’ve managed to avoid interference by the Trump administration…

“I signed up for a three month tour, and that was three years ago,” [head of the U.S. Digital Service Matt Cutts] said. “It’s really a whole civic tech movement here, there are a ton of people sort of holding hands and working together. There’s also stuff happening at the state and local level, at the international level, from the UK to Estonia and Singapore — everyone’s starting to realize this matters.”

I remember reading about the corporate lobbying effort to kill free tax filing a year or two ago, when lobbyists for the for-profit companies were trying to rally people under something like the banner of “Keep government out of the tax filing process!” I don’t think it was quite that intellectually self-defeating, but it was nearly so.

It’s a scandal that there’s a bipartisan Congressional consensus that is allowing the IRS to tie its own hands from serving Americans with a simpler filing process.

Benedict and the God question

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” calls for a return to God and to moral life. I’m excerpting two parts, out of order. First, from Part III:

When God does die in a society, it becomes free, we were assured. In reality, the death of God in a society also means the end of freedom, because what dies is the purpose that provides orientation. And because the compass disappears that points us in the right direction by teaching us to distinguish good from evil. Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it. And that is why it is a society in which the measure of humanity is increasingly lost. At individual points it becomes suddenly apparent that what is evil and destroys man has become a matter of course. …

And second, from Part I:

Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against … changes in society. I will try to outline briefly the trajectory of this development.

Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation. In the Council’s struggle for a new understanding of Revelation, the natural law option was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded.

I still remember how the Jesuit faculty in Frankfurt trained a highly gifted young Father (Bruno Schüller) with the purpose of developing a morality based entirely on Scripture. Father Schüller’s beautiful dissertation shows a first step towards building a morality based on Scripture. Father Schüller was then sent to America for further studies and came back with the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically. He then attempted a more pragmatic moral theology, without being able to provide an answer to the crisis of morality.

In the end, it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed. While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.

The crisis of the justification and presentation of Catholic morality reached dramatic proportions in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. On January 5, 1989, the “Cologne Declaration”, signed by 15 Catholic professors of theology, was published. It focused on various crisis points in the relationship between the episcopal magisterium and the task of theology. (Reactions to) this text, which at first did not extend beyond the usual level of protests, very rapidly grew into an outcry against the Magisterium of the Church and mustered, audibly and visibly, the global protest potential against the expected doctrinal texts of John Paul II (cf. D. Mieth, Kölner Erklärung, LThK, VI3, p. 196) [LTHK is the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, a German-language “Lexicon of Theology and the Church”, whose editors included Karl Rahner and Cardinal Walter Kasper.]

Pope John Paul II, who knew very well the situation of moral theology and followed it closely, commissioned work on an encyclical that would set these things right again. It was published under the title Veritatis splendor on August 6, 1993, and it triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians. Before it, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” already had persuasively presented, in a systematic fashion, morality as proclaimed by the Church.

I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.

It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991. The encyclical was published on August 6, 1993 and did indeed include the determination that there were actions that can never become good.

The pope was fully aware of the importance of this decision at that moment and for this part of his text, he had once again consulted leading specialists who did not take part in the editing of the encyclical. He knew that he must leave no doubt about the fact that the moral calculus involved in balancing goods must respect a final limit. There are goods that are never subject to trade-offs.

There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is (about) more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life.

Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.

In moral theology, however, another question had meanwhile become pressing: The hypothesis that the Magisterium of the Church should have final competence [infallibility] only in matters concerning the faith itself gained widespread acceptance; (in this view) questions concerning morality should not fall within the scope of infallible decisions of the Magisterium of the Church. There is probably something right about this hypothesis that warrants further discussion. But there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith and which must be defended if faith is not to be reduced to a theory but rather to be recognized in its claim to concrete life.

All this makes apparent just how fundamentally the authority of the Church in matters of morality is called into question. Those who deny the Church a final teaching competence in this area force her to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.


C.C. Pecknold puts this in context, specifically why it matters whether the Catholic Church is mater et magistra—both mother and moral teacher:

Moral theologians had been on a long, exploratory mission to unsettle the place of natural and divine law, and to “update” morality in ways which were more accommodating to the revolution. Benedict admits these theologians were sophisticated in their endeavors, but the aim was simple: the innovators taught that every moral act was justified if the agent has the best intentions. It was an early version of the “love is love” argument. In Benedict’s view, the central pushback came with Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which decisively refuted this sophisticated form of situation ethics sometimes called “proportionalism.” St. John Paul II intervened by authoritatively teaching moral realism, “that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil.” …

Benedict asks our question directly: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” His answer is not political but theological: “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

Since we are no longer accustomed to speaking well about God in society, this answer is bound to meet with some indifference. But I suspect that after all the studies are done, after the review boards are formed, cases heard, after new protocols and safeguards are in place, Benedict’s answer will be the one which endures. What will be remembered as the seed of renewal, as the root of restoration, is precisely Benedict’s counsel that we turn our faces back to Christ who is the perfect image of the Father’s love.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects further on Benedict XVI’s intervention. And Rod Dreher points out Benedict XVI’s tacit endorsement of Dreher’s Benedict Option:

Faith is a journey and a way of life. In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way.

Leadership and followership

Leadership is important, but followership is more important. Laurence A. Pagnoni writes on followership:

It’s a pity that being a follower gets such a bad rap because everyone involved with fundraising out to have the opportunity–even the responsibility–to act as both decisive leader and conscientious follower. The writings of the eminent Harvard leadership professor Barbara Kellerman have helped me to develop my own intuitions concerning the dynamic and mutual influence between leaders and followers. She defines followers in two ways: First, they are subordinates who have less power, influence, and authority than their superior. This is the more conventional view; the low men on the totem pole view, as it were.

Kellerman then breaks with prevailing wisdom by asserting that followers are definable not solely by their relatively low position in the hierarchical pecking order, but also by their behavior. In other words, whether they agree to go along with what someone else wants and intends, followers have the power and the ability to exert influence within an organization. …

Effective followers can keenly monitor outcomes, question assumptions, formulate detailed proposals, keep colleagues honest and informed (including supervisors), initiate recommendations, and nurture and support coworkers and supervisors alike.

The most highly functional organizations–the ones that not only survive but flourish–tend to be led by individuals who are able to listen meaningfully to their constituents and thereby nurture their leadership traits. …

A lack of good followership is symptomatic of poor leadership…

Esse Quam Videri. To attract others to you isn’t an aesthetic issue so much as an esse issue. To attract, you’ve got to be attractive.

Visiting the Senate

Catherine Glenn Foster testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this morning on S. 160, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” It was a beautiful day for important testimony, some of which I’m sharing here:

Human life in the womb is recognized and protected in federal law and by the laws of most states against crimes of violence. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act makes it a federal crime to kill or cause bodily injury to an unborn human in utero. 18 U.S.C. § 1841(a)(1). Thirty-eight states currently treat the killing of an preborn human as homicide, with at least twenty-eight of those states criminalizing the act from conception. Nearly all fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia, have wrongful death statues, allowing recovery for the death of an unborn human or the subsequent death of an infant born alive who was injured while in utero. Outside of the context of elective abortion, the medical profession recognizes that a physician treating a pregnant mother has two patients, the maternal patient and the fetal patient, and owes duties of care to each.

The regulation of abortion after twenty weeks simply recognizes that there is substantial medical evidence that the preborn child feels pain by that point. However, the question of when a fetus can experience pain has been the subject of some debate over the last two decades. There is research to show that the sensory connections for feeling pain are present by 20 weeks gestation. In fact, there is a steadily increasing body of medical evidence and literature supporting the conclusion that a fetus may feel pain from around 11 to 13 weeks, or even as early as 5.5 weeks. Indeed, there is some evidence that fetal suffering may actually be more intense due to the uneven maturation of fetal neurophysiology. A British survey of neuroscientists showed that 80% of the neuroscientists participating in the survey felt that pain relief should be given to a fetus for abortions after 11 weeks gestation.

Moreover, medical information on fetal neurological development and a child’s consequent ability to feel pain in the womb is a concern of women considering abortion, and therefore providing this information is relevant for a woman to make a fully-informed choice on whether or not to obtain an abortion. In light of this, six states have laws requiring abortion facilities to give women information on fetal pain. Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Oklahoma require physicians to inform women of the possibility of fetal pain at 20 weeks gestation. Additionally, Georgia requires abortion facilities to inform women orally prior to an abortion that fetal pain information is available on a state-sponsored website.

Insofar as the existence of pain in the preborn infant at or before 20 weeks is firmly established in the congressional findings of S. 160, and reflects a reasonable reliance by Congress on current medical science, protecting infants in the womb from intense pain felt during an abortion is an appropriate and constitutional state interest in restricting abortion beyond this time frame. Gonzales, 550 U.S. at 163 (“The Court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.”).