30th Street at night

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Here’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia late on September 11th. I had just arrived back in town from Washington, and it was a warm and fittingly summerlike night.

Drexel Square is in progress just to the left of this view if you were to stand where I was standing. That’ll be a public park soon, on what has been a surface parking lot for as long as I can remember. Good for Philadelphia. And Schyulkill Yards, the larger redevelopment vision for this part of the city, will be underway in earnest before much longer.

I’m excited for these projects, for The Laurel’s recent groundbreaking on Rittenhouse Square (replacing what has been a rocky patch of grass), and a number of other projects. Philadelphia continues to redevelop and to grow, and it’s a great thing worth taking a moment to celebrate.

Mission territory is all around us

In light of the scandal of Theodore McCarrick and the apparent pastoral failures of Pope Francis and others of this particular moment, George Weigel’s recent reflection (before the McCarrick revelations) on the Acts of the Apostles is something I turned to for perspective:

We live at a time when the surrounding culture no longer supports the transmission of the faith. On the contrary, as the contemporary experiences of Ireland, Quebec, and Belgium graphically demonstrate, the prevailing cultural climate can asphyxiate once-robust Catholic instincts—especially when Catholic leadership is weak, defensive, unenthusiastic about the Gospel, and seemingly embarrassed by Catholicism’s countercultural claims. In these post-Christian circumstances, the New Evangelization is going to have to unfold one convert at a time. …

When those conversions take place, they’ll likely do so in the most quotidian circumstances: in random encounters with open hearts in homes, recreational settings, and other everyday venues. U.S. Catholics older than 50 once thought of “mission territory” as places that got glossy full-color photo spreads in National Geographic. Acts alerts us to our true situation: Mission territory is all around us—at our kitchen table, in our offices, in our lives as consumers and citizens.

Christianity is inherently countercultural because Christians are always called to convert the culture. The great vignette of Paul on the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17 reminds us of one evangelical strategy for cultural conversion: Appeal to a culture’s noblest instincts and try to demonstrate a deeper foundation for those aspirations—the foundation that comes from friendship with Jesus Christ. It’s not the only such strategy (and it didn’t work out all that well for Paul). But it was one of John Paul II’s favorite biblical metaphors for the Church in the twenty-first century, and it’s very much worth pondering in contemporary America. …

Over two millennia, shipwreck has always been a call to a deeper fidelity and a more courageous evangelization. So in 2018, perhaps Acts is calling those with ears to hear to get beyond the food fights of the Catholic blogosphere and engage in some retail evangelization—a challenge, to be sure, but also the bracing vocation into which each of us was baptized.

It appears that the most important sort of retail evangelization that is required at this moment is for faithful pastors, priests, and bishops to put aside their clerical fears and institutional hesitations, and live and celebrate the liturgy in a faithful way. In this moment, orthodoxy and tradition have become the counter-culture.

First Bank

Anna Merriman reports that the First Bank of the United States in Old City, Philadelphia will soon be refurbished as likely reopened in the next few years. Here’s the First Bank from Google Streetview:

The bank, built by the federal government in the late 18th century, received an $8 million state grant last week, which will allow workers to refurbish the structure …

The First Bank money will go first toward bringing the South 3rd Street building’s heating and air conditioning up to date, as well as restrooms and masonry repairs, according to Philly.com.

It’s a big step for the building, which has been closed to the public for years. It was constructed following the Revolutionary War, when Alexander Hamilton proposed the idea of a national bank, allowing the government more financial control in the wake of war-related debt.

The First Bank remained until the early 1800s, when it was turned into Girard Bank, according to the National Parks Service. The interior was renovated a century later and, finally, in 1955, the building was purchased by the National Parks Service.

The Second Bank of the United States is right around the corner, now in the same Independence National Historical Park.

When I lived in Old City a few years ago I would often walk the block or so from our second floor Market Street apartment over to the First Bank and sit on its steps or (in warmer weather) splay out on the grass surrounding it to do work or take phone calls. I was sitting on those steps when we decided to commit to raising $50,000 to endow the Michael D. Walsh Student Broadcasters Trustee Scholarship at Penn State, for instance. That’s one of the things that springs to mind when I see that old facade.

I’m looking forward to seeing inside at some point.

The love that moves the sun

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered a great lecture at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington earlier this week for the Faith and Reason Institute. The lecture marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul the Great’s Fides et Ratio encyclical letter.

Permanent truths about good and evil, man and his behavior and meaning, do exist.  Faith and reason are the means to find and know those truths.  Each needs the other in its search. John Paul stresses this in the encyclical’s opening words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

In a sense, Fides et Ratio, like nearly everything else written by Karol Wojtyla, is simply a working out of the genius in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis,“Redeemer of Man.”  The dignity and destiny of every human person as the child of a loving God were central themes of the John Paul II pontificate.  I want to talk today about why Fides et Ratio is so important to those themes.

I’ll do that in three parts.  I’ll talk first about the current state of the Church and her witness.  Then I’ll turn to the realities of our culture.  And finally I want to ask whether the Christian revelation is really true; whether it has anything useful to say to the modern heart; whether the Gospel message of hope and joy is anything more than a sentimental myth.  Sooner or later, all of us as believers struggle with doubt.  We need to decide whether our faith is reasonable; whether we’ve given ourselves to a beautiful but naïve illusion, or not. …

a few words about Christian hope, and whether the Catholic faith can be “reasonable” for women and men in the current age.

About 25 years ago, the British scholar Michael Burleigh wrote a book called Death and Deliverance.  I want you to read it.  I said a moment ago that the Jewish Holocaust was a tragedy without parallel, and that’s true.  But it did have a precedent; a kind of test run.  Starting in the late 1930s, the Third Reich carried out a forced euthanasia program that murdered roughly 300,000 persons with mental and physical disabilities.  Many of the victims were children, ages 6-15.  The excuses given were legion: saving patients from their suffering; cleansing the Aryan gene pool; reducing the financial burden of unproductive citizens on the life of the community.  Many patients were killed by injection.  Some were starved.  Others were gassed as groups in holding rooms or mobile “treatment” vans.  German films and propaganda promoted euthanasia as a gift of mercy.  Many of the institutions that housed the targeted patients were run by Protestant and Catholic organizations or religious orders.  Most buckled under government pressure.  Only a very few religious leaders – men like Munster’s Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen – spoke out publicly to condemn the program.

Blaming these murders on National Socialist race theory would be easy.  And it would be accurate – but only part of the story.  In reality, the German medical establishment began shifting to a utility-based morality as early as the 1890s.  Doctors, not the Third Reich, first pressed for euthanasia as national policy.  What occurred among medical experts, in the words of one German psychiatrist, was “a change in the concept of humanity,” with its perfectly logical consequences.  Sentimental words about human dignity, unmoored from some authority or purpose higher than ourselves, were just that – words.

I mention Burleigh’s book because several of my friends have children with disabilities.  Watching them parent is a lesson in what the author of the Song of Songs meant when he wrote, “love is strong as death.”  My educator friend, the wife and mother I spoke about earlier, has a son with Down syndrome.  She also has three grandchildren with disabilities ranging from the moderate to the severe.

Her son has an IQ of 43.  His syndrome makes it hard for him to speak.  Sometimes he needs to repeat a sentence three or four times to be understood, even by his family.  He’s more prone to illness.  Simple griefs like getting dumped by a girlfriend lead to inexpressible feelings because he doesn’t have the words to articulate his hurt.  He’s likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease at some point in his life.  Some persons with Down syndrome face it as early as their 30s.  So my friend and her husband live with the knowledge that the son they love may one day be unable to recognize them.

And yet, he has a job.  He has friends.  He’s a distance runner.  He’s a Special Olympian, an opinionated savant of restaurant fare, a master of the mysteries of the rosary, and a sports fanatic.  His life is filled with good things, not sadness.  He’s a daily education in the virtue of patience for his parents, and in what it means to be human for his siblings.  And among his greatest blessings is this:  He will never be alone.  He will always be loved.  None of his family’s behavior is rational in a worldly sense.  Not one of my friends who has a child with disabilities is “rational.”  All of them are unreasonable; all of them are irrational – unless, like Augustine, we believein order to understand.

The genius of Fides et Ratio, the beauty and the glory of the text, is its defense of the capacity of human reason to know the truth; a truth rooted in the deep harmony of creation.  The world has a logic and meaning breathed into it by its Author, who is Love himself.  And reason lit by faith can see that, and find the path to him.

There’s a plaque on the wall of my educator friend’s kitchen, and it overlooks every meal the family shares.  Most of the time, nobody notices.  Life is a busy and complex enterprise.  But when they do notice, it reads, “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  It’s the final line in the greatest of all poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy:

… my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

There are many different types of logic, and depending on the sort of logic a people embrace a whole range of choices become either rational or irrational, prudent or imprudent, foolish or wise.

Thomas’s faith and doubting

John Henry Newman on the weakness of Thomas’s faith as a blessing for Christians seeking Christ:

“We must not suppose that St. Thomas differed greatly from the other apostles. They all, more or less, mistrusted Christ’s promises when they saw him led away to be crucified. When he was buried, their hopes were buried with him; and when the news was brought them, that he was risen again, they all disbelieved it. On his appearing to them, he “upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart.” (Mark 16:14)… Thomas was convinced latest, because he saw Christ latest. On the other hand, it is certain that, though he disbelieved the good news of Christ’s resurrection at first, he was no cold-hearted follower of his Lord, as appears from his conduct on a previous occasion, when he expressed a desire to share danger, and to suffer with him…: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn 11:16)… It was at the instance of Thomas that they hazarded their lives with their Lord.

“St. Thomas then loved his Master, as became an apostle, and was devoted to his service; but when he saw him crucified, his faith failed for a season with that of the rest… and more than the rest. His standing out alone, not against one witness only, but against his ten fellow disciples, besides Mary Magdalene and the other women is evidence of this… He seems to have required some sensible insight into the unseen state, some infallible sign from heaven, a ladder of angels like Jacob’s (Gn 28:12), which would remove anxiety by showing him the end of the journey at the time he set out. Some such secret craving after certainty beset him. And a like desire arose within him on the news of Christ’s resurrection.

“While our Saviour allowed Thomas his wish and satisfied his senses that he was really alive, he accompanied the permission with a rebuke: “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”… All his disciples minister to him even in their weaknesses, that so he may convert them into instruction and comfort for his Church.”

Bruce Wayne, American Aeneas

Bradley J. Birzer writes what is probably the best review of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that I’ve come across. I grew up watching hokey 1990s Batman cartoons, but Nolan’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne cuts away all the cruft from the cartoon portrayals of Batman as a character and focuses on drawing out the essential character of Bruce Wayne as archetypal hero:

First, he brought the characters into the realm of realism. They reside in the actual world, not a fantasy world, and events and developments can all be explained rationally. Second, Nolan fashioned his central character not from the pastel pages of a comic book but rather from America’s western legend, the frontier mythos that captured the national consciousness so powerfully in multiple movies of the 1940s and TV shows of the 1950s. This western legend, or myth, was larger than any single person, event, or even culture. And there were no antiheroes in that cultural fare, focused on the daunting challenge of extending the essence of Western civilization to those forbidding and often dangerous lands of the Rocky Mountains and beyond. It took real heroes to do that.

Thus does Nolan’s Batman trilogy stand today as a remarkable cultural achievement. Indeed, his third film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, was not only the best of the three but is arguably one of the finest movies ever made, a true achievement of the cinematic arts, certainly worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford. It also may be the single most important defense of Western civilization ever to reach a Hollywood screen. That the severe cultural liberals of the West Coast didn’t rip it to shreds indicates they probably didn’t watch it—or perhaps didn’t understand it. …

As Nolan approached the story, he decided two critical things. The first was his insistence on realism. If something happened that could not be explained rationally, he excised even the idea of it. Everything from the Batmobile to the reaction of the police had to be utterly realistic. If the Batman headgear needed two ears, there needed to be an explanation for those two ears. If Batman jumped from building to building, there needed to be a reason why and explanation as to how. The second was his embrace of the myths of the American West. Here Nolan was tapping into something already in the Batman mythos but not explicitly understood by the larger public. Like Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Bruce Wayne/Batman stands as a crucial American symbol. If Bumppo and Finn personify the American frontier of the 19th century, so Wayne/Batman is the great mythological figure of 20th and 21st century urban America. Named after the Revolutionary War general, Mad Anthony Wayne, and coming from one of the wealthiest of American families (builders and defenders of Gotham City, a Platonic shadow of New York, populated by 30 million people), Bruce Wayne considers it his aristocratic duty to protect the poor and oppressed from the wealthy and corrupt. He is an Arthurian but also deeply American figure.

Several themes inform each movie. The first movie deals with justice and fear; the second with free will and anarchy; the third with hope and reformation. …

Nolan’s third Batman film was inspired by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, though much of the dialogue might have been written by the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, considered by many the father of modern conservatism. The movie is in essence a retelling of the events of the French Revolution in Paris. In place of Robespierre is a mercenary, chemically-enhanced villain from either Eastern Europe or the Mideast, known only as Bane. …

In Nolan’s expert hands, Batman becomes what he always meant to be, an American Odysseus, an American Aeneas, an American Arthur, an American Beowulf, and an American Thomas More. Indeed, it would be hard to find another figure in popular and literary culture that more embodies the traditional heroism of the West more than in the figure of Bruce Wayne. He most closely resembles Aeneas, carrying on the culture of charity and sacrifice into the darkest and most savage parts of his world. Like St. Michael, he guards the weak, the poor, and the innocent. Like Socrates, he will die for Athens (Gotham) as it should be rather than as it is. Like Beowulf, he asks nothing for himself, merely the opportunity to wage the never-ending war against evil.

And in the third film, Western civilization survives, but only barely and only with incredible sacrifice at every level. “I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence,” Dickens had written.

What makes Bruce Wayne and the Batman mythology so compelling is that this is the one super hero whose greatness comes, at the most essential level, from his moral character and virtue rather than from a chemical or otherworldly enhancement. Anyone can strive for the moral excellence of Bruce Wayne.

September 11th, 17 years later

I’m in Washington today, looking at apartments for my move here in a few weeks. Joseph Mussomeli reflects on September 11th, this anniversary of American heroism and terroristic violence:

September 11 is different. Seventeen years on and the sound of those towers crashing down still echoes through our country, and the silence of those dead still haunts those of us still living. This is difficult for Americans. Our collective attention span is notoriously short, and we prefer to flit from issue to issue, from crusade to crusade. For us, seventeen years is a very long time. We have an urgent yearning to be distracted and to move on. …

We never got closure. We never got that cathartic release that comes with victory. We never even got the chance (as was the case with Vietnam) to move on to new crises and new enemies. Instead, our policies and actions over the last two decades have enabled that which we sought to vanquish to metastasize. It is a terrible realization to know that a child born in 2001 is now old enough to die on the endless battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

I sometimes still worry that all the publicity centering around 9/11 drowns out the cries of those who died that day. I don’t want that to happen. The dead deserve to be remembered, to be honored, to be missed. And not to be used. The tragedy of their dying was corrupted from the very start by our leaders who failed to understand why they died and who used their dying for their own objectives. …

Mischaracterizing the killers as “hating our freedom” did a great injustice to the dead. September 11 had nothing to do with a threat to freedom; it had everything to do with justice, albeit a distorted sense of justice. The killers were not evil in a Manichean sense: They were not the opposite of good. Rather, they were evil in the classic Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense: They were twisted in their goodness. They wanted justice and in pursuing what they thought to be justice, committed horrific crimes. They are an object lesson for all of us: Being too sure, being too certain that one is absolutely right and everyone else is completely wrong leads to much pain and great sorrows. Nearly every barbarism and almost every crime is committed by those who believe themselves to have been somehow injured.

What is it about this tragedy that makes it different? It is not merely because so many people died a horrible death, because so many die in so many horrible ways every day. Perhaps the answer is that this was a real tragedy, and real tragedy has two indispensable components. The first is avoidability. The inevitable, no matter how horrible, no matter how painful, at least offers the solace that it was beyond our control, beyond our wisdom, beyond what could be expected from us. But 9/11 was not inevitable; it was preventable. Some will be angry with this assertion. Inevitability is so comforting. Inevitability is so reassuring because, inevitably, it absolves us from responsibility. But this horror was not predestined.

The second essential ingredient: futility. That the suffering seemingly was in vain—that no lasting good has yet come from it. …

And there are hard questions we need to keep asking ourselves. We owe it to the dead. What have we learned? How have our priorities changed? Is our vision less myopic? Are our policies sounder? Are we any wiser? Are we any more secure? Can we bet on a future devoid of another September 11?

There has never been a period of history when so many people have lived so freely; never a time of such great and general prosperity. Thousands each day risk their lives fighting those whose religious nihilism threatens us. Thousands more every day work long hours to protect the innocent and to lift up the downtrodden. Yet we still find our lives wanting, our security and safety still out of reach. We live in a broken world; we live in a broken time. We come from broken places. But we should resolve that these dead did not die in vain. The deaths of these three thousand should have meaning. Good can be brought forth from evil. We believe this because it is part of our continuing duty and responsibility to those who died. And there is no better way to honor these dead than to work humbly and honestly for a more just world.

Perhaps it is enough simply to say that I still see them in my mind’s eye, falling from the windows, unable to escape any other way. I see them fall and I lose faith and hope in this world. I have lost faith in everything except faith; I have lost hope in everything except hope.

In thinking on the anniversary of another September 11th, and wondering once again whether we’ve made ourselves a worse or better people in the aftermath of those attacks, I have something of the author’s “lost hope in everything except hope.”

Dramatic Stone Harbor skies

I drove to Stone Harbor on Saturday morning for Gavin and Amanda Keirans’s wedding, which was beautiful. Overcast skies and periodically wet conditions on both Saturday and Sunday ultimately didn’t do anything to dampen the beauty or excitement of seeing Gavin and Amanda, and so many friends, together. Before I left Stone Harbor early on Sunday afternoon, I took a walk through town, picked up a coffee and breakfast sandwich at Coffee Talk, and walked to the 97th Street beach where skies threatened a deluge to come.

Driving back on the Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway was not enjoyable, but the dramatic view over Logan Circle from the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network office was a rewarding sight.

College, debt, and impotence

Tunku Varadarajan’s recent interview with George Gilder addresses American higher education. Gilder aligns himself with the Bernie Sanders crowd on the issue of loans, but in a way that I can probably get behind, namely tying across the board debt forgiveness with a some sort of punitive tax on colleges:

America’s university system, says Mr. Gilder, is “incredibly corrupt and ideological.” How did it come to be like that? Surely, I observe, it wasn’t that way when he graduated from Harvard in 1962. “It was beginning to get that way,” he says, as he revs his engines for a fresh sortie. “The rise of affluence through the 1960s created this kind of amazing irresponsibility that resulted in a whole generation losing track of reality.”

The pithy aperçu is Mr. Gilder’s forte. He tells me here that “human beings have a propensity to believe in leftism”—in the idea that government can “answer all of their problems, guarantee their future, and relieve them of the challenges of life.” The idea of a “completely providential government” arose in America, and a “whole generation of young people were given college loans in a fabulous national mistake, in which the Republicans participated.” These loans were used by the university system to “increase perks and tenured luxuries and ideological distractions”—all of which led to the “diversity campaigns and CO2 panics” that currently dominate university faculties.

The only way to undo this “vast blunder,” says Mr. Gilder, is to forgive student loans across the board and “extract the money from all the college endowments and funds that were used to just create useless departments and political campaigns.” More than $1.5 trillion in student-loan money is outstanding, according to the Federal Reserve. That money, Mr. Gilder says, “wasn’t deployed to improve education. Not a scintilla of evidence has been adduced that learning has been improved. It was used entirely to lavish on bureaucracies that, in turn, paid tribute to government and leftist nihilism.”

The impact of these loans, and of the academic ecosystem they engendered, has been catastrophic, in Mr. Gilder’s view. “The result was to destroy the entrepreneurial optimism of a whole generation of young people, to drive them toward socialism, which they now tend to favor, and to even dissuade them from marriage.” The last is a consequence of debt, “which cripples them for the future.” Any benefit that education might confer on the young is, in Mr. Gilder’s dark view, nullified by the economic burden inflicted on them, which “leaves these kids impotent in the world.”

If it’s true that Gen Z tends to be as deeply committed to financial security as it’s purported to be, this sort of maneuver might become politically practicable in the next decade.

Building incrementally

Andrew Price writes on what incrementalism actually means for developing healthy and organic communities. He presents four types of incremental development: incremental intensification, incremental implementation, incremental repurposing, and incremental architecture:

Incremental intensification often goes hand in hand with granularity. It keeps land ownership diversified, and it enforces good urban bones, since a separate building every so many feet means a destination such as a housefront or a shopfront every so many feet. It lowers the risk that an area will be negatively transformed, as it takes the form of many small bets (a few apartment buildings will pop up first, and if the demand is not there, no more apartment buildings will appear) rather than fewer large bets (the entire block is being replaced with 200 units). …

Incremental implementation means looking for low cost ways to rapidly prototype and iteratively improve. Henry Ford has a famous quote: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses.” As with all products, the best way to design a product is to see what sells and watch people use it. By testing out the placement of the bike lanes and trees with chalk and cones first, we were able to try out multiple configurations and we even have the option of rolling back before we spent too much money. …

Incremental repurposing … It is often cheaper, faster, and less resource-intensive to adapt and reuse what already exists than to build new each time. … Our older urban areas and main streets are filled with buildings that have seen many generations of owners and uses. Zoning codes that allow uses to be mixed together, and allow older buildings to be incrementally updated (rather than denying any modifications because the older use no longer conforms to newer zoning or building codes), encourage buildings to be reused rather than demolished and rebuilt. …

Incremental architecture is the least common form of incrementalism, but it does happen. You often see this with large public buildings: the shopping mall adds on an expansion. The school constructs an extension so they can fit in more classrooms and a new gym. A house adds on a garage. …

Incrementalism does not mean doing things slowly: incremental development can be rapid and up to the task of reacting to pressing needs and dramatic societal changes. Incrementalism looks like experimenting, rapid prototyping, iteratively improving, and reducing the risks of bad decisions.

The graphics that Price includes are probably the best part; they convey these ideas so straightforwardly. I think once you get to a point where you start talking about the need for “comprehensive” solutions, it can generally be assumed that things have broken down. Incremental progress often obviates the need for comprehensive solutions, except in situations where orders of magnitude leaps have to be made.