‘Life begins with breath’

Clarke Forsythe writes on Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s attempt to hand-wave away the issue of abortion by, of all things, invoking the Bible:

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg appeals to Scripture to defend his opposition to restrictions on abortion. “There’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath,” he told a radio audience Sept. 5, adding that no matter what anyone thinks about “the kind of cosmic question of where life begins,” it ought to be up to “the woman making the decision.” …

Mr. Buttigieg’s religious musings obscure that America’s legal tradition—going back to the English common law—has long protected unborn children to the greatest extent possible given existing medical understanding. As Justice James Wilson noted in the 1790s, “With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger.”

Rulings from as long ago as the 17th century show that English common law prohibited abortion at the earliest point that medicine could detect that a developing human was alive (the stethoscope wasn’t invented until 1816). English and American law subsequently prohibited abortion at earlier points during pregnancy, as medical understanding and technology allowed.

We know scientifically when human life begins—when the process of human development starts. What we need is the ethical and legal and judicial courage to protect human life comprehensively based on what we know to be true—and based on what is consistent with our own social/moral tradition as Clarke outlines it.

Epiphany’s Tabernacle

I took this photo after Mass this morning at Epiphany in Georgetown. Ever since first coming here, I’ve been taken by the simplicity of this church and love it as a sign and symbol of the simplicity that characterizes holiness—the lack of ego, the lack of pretension, the humility. And one of the other things I love about Epiphany is the way the Tabernacle is illuminated by natural light through a small glass window.

It wasn’t dark in the church when I took this, but I brought the light down specifically to emphasize how beautiful the natural light illuminating the Tabernacle is—especially on early mornings or dark days. There’s poetry in that: the place where Christ dwells in the light.

Tolkien on love in marriage

Sam Guzman writes on J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of his wife, and on his letter to his son on true and lasting happiness in marriage:

J.R.R. Tolkien was happily married for 55 years. In contrast, the modern divorce rate is shockingly high, and some are giving up on monogamous marriage altogether, claiming it simply isn’t possible or healthy. What did Tolkien have that many marriages do not? How did he make it work? The answer is simple: He understood that real love involves self-denial.

The modern notion of love is pure sentiment, and it is focused primarily on self. If someone excites you, if they get your pulse racing, if they affirm you and your desires, then you can say you are in love with them according to modern definitions.

While deeply attached to his wife, Tolkien rejected this shallow idea of love. He embraced instead the Catholic understanding of real love as focused on the other—something that requires a sacrifice of natural instincts and a determined act of the will.

To illustrate Tolkien’s profound view of married love, I want to share an excerpt from a letter to his son, Michael Tolkien. It is a different side of Tolkien that many are unfamiliar with. To those with an overly sentimental view of love, his words may be shocking, even offensive. Yet, he articulates truths that, if understood and embraced, bring true and lasting happiness to marriage. Here is a truncated version of his letter:

Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic,’ according to faith and not the flesh. The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called “self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriages entails that: great mortification.

For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him—as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state as it provides easements.

No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up in ‘the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it.

When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgementconcerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…

(Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52)

I was speaking with a man I trust recently about love. I asked him how a man can properly love his wife. He pointed to a crucifix, and said, “Be prepared to do that, every day.”

Pennsylvania hyperloop

Jana Benscoter reports that Pennsylvania officials are starting to think through what a Pennsylvania hyperloop might look like:

Will a hyperloop work in Pennsylvania?

That’s the question officials from legislative and executive branches, statewide agencies, organizations and departments, as well as a handful of private business leaders are trying to answer.

Fifty people, invited to a workshop at Dixon University in Harrisburg on Wednesday, met to talk about the possibility of building a hyperloop system in the commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has until April 2020 to complete a $2 million state-legislative commissioned study on its viability. …

According to the turnpike’s research, a hyperloop combines a magnetic levitation train and a low pressure transit tube to propel “pods or capsules” at high rates of speed. It can travel up to 700 mph.

There are currently no hyperloop systems constructed worldwide, but the first to-scale hyperloop is expected to break ground in 2020-21 in either India or United Arab Emirates. The challenge here is how well it will work on Pennsylvania’s terrain, said Barry Altman, the state’s hyperloop project manager, during a phone interview before Wednesday’s workshop.

“We recognize that on the front end, geography is a key issue,” Altman said. “Pennsylvania is not ideal for hyperloop, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built.” He acknowledged those factors could make building one in the state more expensive and longer to complete than in other states. No cost estimates have been discussed publicly at this point.

State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, a Luzerne County Republican, attended the meeting. He spearheaded and co-sponsored House Bill 1057, legislation that directed the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to conduct the study. AECOM, a Los-Angeles, California-based engineering firm, is analyzing what it would take to build a hyperloop tube that would run from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Philadelphia…

I’ve written about what hyperloop would do for the Philadelphia/New York relationship, but a Philadelphia/Pittsburgh hyperloop would make a lot of sense for knitting the Commonwealth together.

The judicial usurpation of politics

First Things November 1996 symposium, The Judicial Usurpation of Politics, might as well have been written today:

Articles on “judicial arrogance” and the “judicial usurpation of power” are not new. The following symposium addresses those questions, often in fresh ways, but also moves beyond them. The symposium is, in part, an extension of the argument set forth in our May 1996 editorial, “The Ninth Circuit’s Fatal Overreach.” The Federal District Court’s decision favoring doctor-assisted suicide, we said, could be fatal not only to many people who are old, sick, or disabled, but also to popular support for our present system of government.

This symposium addresses many similarly troubling judicial actions that add up to an entrenched pattern of government by judges that is nothing less than the usurpation of politics. The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.

Americans are not accustomed to speaking of a regime. Regimes are what other nations have. The American tradition abhors the notion of the rulers and the ruled. We do not live under a government, never mind under a regime; we are the government. The traditions of democratic self-governance are powerful in our civics textbooks and in popular consciousness. This symposium asks whether we may be deceiving ourselves and, if we are, what are the implications of that self-deception. By the word “regime” we mean the actual, existing system of government. The question that is the title of this symposium is in no way hyperbolic. The subject before us is the end of democracy.

Since the defeat of communism, some have spoken of the end of history. By that they mean, inter alia, that the great controversies about the best form of governance are over: there is no alternative to democracy. Perhaps that, too, is wishful thinking and self-deception. Perhaps the United States, for so long the primary bearer of the democratic idea, has itself betrayed that idea and become something else. If so, the chief evidence of that betrayal is the judicial usurpation of politics.

Politics, Aristotle teaches, is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? Democratic politics means that “the people” deliberate and decide that question. In the American constitutional order the people do that through debate, elections, and representative political institutions. But is that true today? Has it been true for, say, the last fifty years? Is it not in fact the judiciary that deliberates and answers the really important questions entailed in the question, How ought we to order our life together? Again and again, questions that are properly political are legalized, and even speciously constitutionalized. This symposium is an urgent call for the repoliticizing of the American regime. Some of the authors fear the call may come too late.

The emergence of democratic theory and practice has a long and complicated history, and one can cite many crucial turning points. One such is the 1604 declaration of Parliament to James I: “The voice of the people, in the things of their knowledge, is as the voice of God.” We hold that only the voice of God is to be treated as the voice of God, but with respect to political sovereignty that declaration is a keystone of democratic government. Washington, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and the other founders were adamant about the competence—meaning both the authority and capacity—of the people to govern themselves. They had no illusions that the people would always decide rightly, but they would not invest the power to decide in a ruling elite. The democracy they devised was a republican system of limited government, with checks and balances, including judicial review, and representative means for the expression of the voice of the people. But always the principle was clear: legitimate government is government by the consent of the governed. The founders called this order an experiment, and it is in the nature of experiments that they can fail.

The questions addressed have venerable precedent. The American experiment intended to remedy the abuses of an earlier regime. The Declaration of Independence was not addressed to “light and transient causes” or occasional “evils [that] are sufferable.” Rather, it says: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The following essays are certain about the “long train of abuses and usurpations,” and about the prospect—some might say the present reality—of despotism. Like our authors, we are much less certain about what can or should be done about it.

The proposition examined in the following articles is this: The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed. With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of “things of their knowledge.” Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government. The Supreme Court itself—notably in the Casey decision of 1992-has raised the alarm about the legitimacy of law in the present regime. Its proposed solution is that citizens should defer to the decisions of the Court. Our authors do not consent to that solution. The twelfth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), expressed his anxiety: “While unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive or legislative branches of the Government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of restraint.” The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy.

I spoke with Charlie Camosy recently, and he commented on the strangeness that is Congress’s obsession with, on the one hand, party-obsessed pitched battles, and on the other, deference to executive power in most of the ways that are of truly grave importance. In short, the legislative branch hasn’t sought to check the executive branch for a very long time. And no one is checking the judicial branch.

A central reason for the political anxiety of American life since the end of the Cold War might be that “checks and balances” seem to no longer be in effect.

Sarah Smith and living a worthy live

R.J. Snell explores the question, “What makes for a worthy life?”:

As Michael Hanby once argued, one is bound to find a hopelessness and jumbled fragmentation beneath “the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens . . . to despair of social and political involvement.” The political and historical hopelessness that Goldberg notes is closely related to the decadent indulgence that Hess observes and enjoys. However much one may pine for unity, commonality, and the common good, these objectives are far beyond the imagination, will, and character of a people that has been formed by the ideals that Hess reports: “Contemplation and prayer? Oh, forget that. Go for the squid-ink risotto instead.”

Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success. In one widely-noted essay, William Deresiewicz comments that his Ivy League students were driven, accomplished, talented, and disciplined; but “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. . . . The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

The spread of this sense of ambition without purpose in part accounts for the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson. Many students have told me they read and appreciate his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because they have no other sources of rules for living well. (“Don’t you have a grandmother?” is my usual confused response.) Similarly, the attraction of movements like TheSchool of Life or TED―especially among the well-credentialed but confused―comes from their promise of wisdom for living rather than of mere techniques of success. Even then, the impression they give is that a good life is a commodity available for purchase rather than a long and difficult drama that requires reflection, self-mastery, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of suffering. A brief glance at the School of Life store, with its kitschy games, cute notebooks, and “Optimist/Pessimist” drinking glasses tempts one to quote Don Colachowith grudging admiration: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”

That is, the formation that our present time and place impart, the relentless catechesis of contemporary culture, punishes our young. And the punishment is often especially harsh on the most “successful”―those who have best absorbed contemporary culture’s “schooling,” from which they learned how to succeed but not how to lead a worthwhile life.

Can a person be successful if one goes unnoticed? We can look to C.S. Lewis’s Sarah Smith as a way to answer definitively, “Yes.” It’s possible, and maybe even preferable, to cultivate virtue and live a good life in a quiet way, and to seek out precisely those sorts of people for friendship—because when you encounter them, you encounter a way of living that’s genuinely “out of this world.” C.S. Lewis, through the character of Sarah Smith, shows us the fruits of that sort of life:

First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.

But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?”

“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”

“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”

“They are her sons and daughters.”

“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”

“Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”

“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”

“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”

“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”

“They are her beasts.”

“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”

“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

I looked at my Teacher in amazement.

“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough int the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

Roe and abortion in American life

Catherine Glenn Foster, President & CEO of Americans United for Life, appeared at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia tonight.

I left Washington mid-afternoon and caught a train from Union Station to Philadelphia to be there for the hour-long conversation—ostensibly about Roe v. Wade, but in fact about whether abortion represents a public good, and whether the Supreme Court should be made to preserve abortion as America’s most controversial public policy.

It’s worth watching as an introduction to two diametrically opposed factions in American life: one faction that ignores the scientific and embryological facts concerning what abortion itself is and does and is concerned with its utility as an alleged means of empowerment, and the second faction which views abortion as fundamentally incompatible with the constitutional human right to life as much as it is incompatible with justice and equality.

I was disappointed by how much politics and elections drove the conversation among the former faction, and was encouraged that Catherine Glenn Foster was able to move the conversation toward the more important teleological questions behind abortion-as-public-policy.

‘Barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day’

Fall is here, and summer is over—so here’s John Keats’ “To Autumn:”

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Twelve hours in State College

A lot of driving this weekend, from Washington to State College, from State College to Philadelphia, and tomorrow from Philadelphia to Washington—but grateful for the chance to visit Happy Valley when Penn State’s classes are in session and as as summer comes to a close.

I got in late last night, headed to 7:30am Mass at Our Lady of Victory on Westerly Parkway, then headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s third quarter board meeting (which is why I visited town), and then met up with a friend before heading to Philadelphia.

Trying out the iPhone 11 Pro’s new cameras with these photos. Nighttime photos are markedly better. I took the nighttime photos here at around 11pm last night.

Clarendon Day 10K

I ran the Clarendon Day 10K this morning, which started in Clarendon and headed downhill on Wilson Boulevard (past my old office at Court House), took place mainly on the temporarily closed Richmond Highway before ending in Roslyn.

When I was looking up races a few weeks ago for the fall, Clarendon Day stood out because I realized I hadn’t run a 10K since the Independence Day “Revolutionary Run” 10K in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania seven years ago. I signed up and picked up my race bib from Pacers in Clarendon yesterday (where there was a great guy playing the saxophone), and this morning ran the 10K. It was a beautiful morning, and a simple course, and I was fortunate to set a personal best, beating my 10K best of 2011 (7:21 pace, 45:45 finish) with a 6:56 pace, 43:06 finish. Regular running (de facto training) and regular gym time have an impact—who would have thought?

Afterwards I walked home over the Key Bridge, picked up my rental car, and headed to State College. Tomorrow is the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s next board meeting, and after that I’ll head to Philadelphia for a friend’s wedding.