Appreciation Dinner

I visited St. Anthony of Padua Catholic parish in Ambler, Pennsylvania tonight for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia‘s Annual Appreciation Dinner for Christian volunteers.

As a board member wrapping up my sixth year, it’s particularly gratifying to be a part of events like this and see the oldest and the youngest generations coming together for fellowship and celebration for the mothers, fathers, and children who have been served over the past year and helped in difficult times.

This was a somewhat bittersweet year in light of Edel Finnegan’s impending departure as executive director after more than a dozen years. She and Fr. Chris Walsh and others spoke eloquently on the issues facing us, and the ways in which we can all witness to a culture of life that respects the dignity of all persons.

Power alone fades

In light of Pope Francis’s and Archbishop Paglia’s dissolution of John Paul the Great’s Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family, Ross Douthat writes:

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal. …

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty. Under Francis the church’s teaching on communion for remarried divorcees varies from country to country and diocese to diocese, and even papal admirers can’t seem to agree on what the official Vatican position entails. The church’s teaching on suicide now varies in different parts of Canada, and since the Vatican seems to accept that variation a Belgian religious order has pushed things even further, insisting that it intends to actually carry out assisted suicide at its hospitals. (This Rome seems to regard as a bridge too far — but the Belgians are not submitting quietly.) …

It is hard to know what will come of this era’s Catholic crisis. Can the church really become Anglican, with sharply different Christian theologies coexisting permanently under a latitudinarian umbrella? Is the period of dueling inquisitions and digital militias a prelude to the sweeping liberal victory that many Catholics felt that John Paul and Benedict cruelly forestalled? Will the pendulum swing back, as Francis’s nervous allies fear, leaving his legacy to be buried by young traditionalists and a reactionary pontiff in the style of HBO’s “Young Pope”?

Faith gives some observers certain answers, but natural reason counsels doubt. Regardless, firings and cancellations and self-protective censorship will not make the conflict any less painful in the end. There is no way forward save through controversy. Postpone the inquisitions; schedule arguments instead.

I’m incredibly conflicted about Pope Francis’s actions relating to the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. I think there’s incredible promise in Amoris Laetitia, particularly on the vision of Christian accompaniment in our time, that deserves to be developed and bear fruit. But the decision to dissolve John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes and create new ones bearing John Paul’s name (but with a mission to treat Francis’s vision as the touchstone) strikes me as graceless.

Worse, raw power politics has now come tumbling out onto the public stage as a result of these actions for all to see. And as Douthat points out, it seems increasingly impossible for academics, theologians, and philosophers to have meaningful conversations surrounding the central Christian beliefs raised over the past few years without being fired, dismissed, marginalized, or called names. Pope Francis himself has engaged in name-calling and stereotyping from time to time, which seems to me to the detriment of his own authority.

Archbishop Paglia has presented the reconstitution of John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes as an “enlargement” of their purpose and his manner suggests that these changes are in harmony with Christian teaching. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, founding president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, said plainly last year that “only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church.” Simply put, Archbishop Paglia’s words cannot be taken at face value, because the concrete result of +Paglia’s actions in this instance is explicitly the diminishment of John Paul’s teaching witness. As valuable as Amoris may be, a single teaching encyclical cannot seriously be understood to “fulfill” the entirely of John Paul’s witness. And in light of John Paul’s canonization, these are even stranger actions.

Fundamental Christian theology is at stake on the nature of Jesus Christ and his teachings, particularly relating to sex, family, marriage, and communion. As Douthat writes, now is the time for authentic dialogue and argument about these things. Along that path, alighted by charity and truth, we have a chance of walking with Christ. It seems to me that Archbishop Paglia’s actions invite rupture in Christian theology, and that Pope Francis’s refusal to treat his cardinal brothers’ questions about Amoris as worth debate does serious injury to the power of the pontifical voice.

If Amoris is meant to result in “irreversible” changes to Christian theology and pastoral practice, it can only do so through theological engagement; power alone fades.

A far better way for Amoris to be meaningfully promulgated would have been the creation of a new and parallel Pontifical Institute, with first-rate theologians, philosophers, scientists, etc. who would bring forth Amoris’s fruits. Dissolving John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes and dismissing their faculty is the sort of action that invites exactly the sort of conflict and cultural/theological war that Pope Francis seems in so many other ways to transcend for the better. At best, this was a strategic error on the part of well-intentioned reformers. At worst, it was a provocation of the sort that necessarily invites conflict.

At present, things that are sins in Philadelphia are encouraged in Milan. If this is not rupture, what is?

Village life

I came across this photo on Twitter, and I’m not sure what place this photo depicts. But I’m sharing it because it comes close to depicting probably my ideal vision of “village life” in Europe or European-style American communities.

A sort of oasis of community, tucked between mountains and nestled amongst the hills, with rising steeples and signs of industrial life and aesthetically meaningfully architecture, all within a physical space that can be experienced in its entirety on foot while peeking in shop windows, saying hello to neighbors and making new friends, and ultimately coming to your own little home amidst it all.

At least from this angle, it looks like the polar opposite of the atomized sort of communities we’ve built through suburbanization.

Church of the Nativity

National Geographic shared this incredible post the other day, and I saved it and am sharing it:

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Photograph by @simonnorfolkstudioon assignment for an upcoming story for @natgeo … Mosaics at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem: The Doubting of Thomas.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. The Church of the Nativity was originally commissioned in 327 by Roman emperor Constantine and his mother Helena over the cave that is still traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. The present church was built by the Emperor Justinian after the destruction of the Samaritan Revolt of 529 CE. In 614, the church had a narrow escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognised the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church.

The site is currently under restoration within an international project managed by the Palestinians through the Project Client “The Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church”. Work on the mosaics is part of an estimated $19 million makeover -the building hadn’t undergone major repairs since 1479. Of the 2,000 meters of original mosaics, only 150 meters squared remains. Mosaics created 155-1169CE

The artist, Basilius, signed his name in Latin and Syriac — using tesserae. Basilius did the technical work, Aram was was the artist.

Follow @simonnorfolkstudio for updates, outtakes, unpublished and archive material.

I grew up attending weekly mass at Nativity parish in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

Constitution Day

When I woke up yesterday morning this was sitting in my inbox from Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

Constitution Day is this Sunday, September 17. That’s right: 230 years ago, our Founders signed the United States Constitution. …

There is no better guide to constitutional principles than We Still Hold These Truths by Hillsdale College dean Matthew Spalding. Don’t take my word for it: the Weekly Standard calls it “the single best introduction to the political thought of the American Founding.”

Happy Constitution Day. In light of the Constitution’s 230th anniversary I’ll share this photo I took at Washington Square in Philadelphia a few years ago:


And this photo of John Marshall I took at the Philadelphia Art Museum a few years ago, that has a beautifully compelling and compact inscription on its podium:

John Marshall
Chief Justice of the United States

As soldier he fought that the nation might come into being.
As expounder of the Constitution he gave it length of days.


Far more than simply voting, Americans can ask themselves how they can build lives and live in community with their neighbors in a way that gives our constitutional way of life further “length of days.”

The American dream isn’t finally about financial/material success or the pursuit of more. In fact, it’s the unique American dream of conserving the bounty of liberty that was build up over centuries and millennia from our English ancestors, and the Romans and Greeks before them, and their ancient ancestors and neighbors and on.

We have this great republic and the dream is that our children might, if we can keep it.

Mount Nittany’s hiking stations

When I was on Mount Nittany over Arts Fest weekend in July, I pulled out my iPhone to check Google Maps at one point when we had been walking for a while. We had left the Mike Lynch Overlook- Station 3, and were heading toward the site of the Deeded Square Inches between Stations 5 and 6. But there were a lot of us in tow, and some were leery about the distance, and about getting back down the Mountain to eat at Cafe Lemont before breakfast time was over.

I noticed at the time that only three of the 11 hiking stations were listed on Google Maps, and that the site of the Square Inches was missing, too. Worse, my cousin arrived late to the Mountain with her friends, because Google Maps listed “Mount Nittany” a few miles to the east of where the trailhead and parking are located. So I spent some time last week adding the missing stations, the Square Inches, and the trailhead location to Google Maps. They’re now listed:

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I also updated the GPS coordinates for “Mount Nittany” on Google Maps, which apparently pulls from Wikipedia. We’ll see if it’s updated; until it is, I suspect many would-be hikers are deterred after driving for miles without figuring out how to get themselves to the trailhead.

Mount Nittany Conservancy makes these trail maps and guides available on their site, but I suspect a lot of people go straight to Google Maps or an equivalent.

Walden Pond of our own natures

William Deresiewicz writes on solitude and its constellation of goods:

And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life—of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world—that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.

Isolation, intimacy, and proximity remain as important now as in the past, but how actively are we constructing (and I mean physically constructing) our lives and our homes and our communities to make the “Walden Pond of our own natures” a reality? Deresiewicz asks: “What does the contemporary self want?”

Nicholas Carr’s 2009 Atlantic piece speaks to this:

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

Are we going to be a people who approach the world with a sort of ruggedness and skepticism informed by an understanding of past and present of a decent depth, or will we be more like sponges, absorbing (but not necessarily processing or placing into a context) minute-to-minute information without fitting into a comprehensive vision of the world or narrative that is necessary for information to have meaning that can provide depth to life? Leon Kass answers:

No friend of humanity should trade the accumulated wisdom about human nature and human flourishing for some half-cocked promise to produce a superior human being or human society, never mind a post-human future, before he has taken the trouble to look deeply, with all the help he can get, into the matter of our humanity—what it is, why it matters, and how we can be all that we can be. …

For deep thought, we need solitude. It’s vital, because in silence we come to know ourselves.