Saint John Paul the Great’s centenary

George Weigel, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, spoke tonight at the Mayflower. He delivered the annual William E. Simon Lecture, and this year’s theme was “Saint John Paul II: A Centenary Reflection on a Life of Consequence”. EPPC streamed the lecture and I’m embedding it here.

The post-lecture reception was a great one, partly because COVID-19 fears meant that the lecture was about half empty. (Last year it was packed/overflowing.) And that meant a calmer and more relaxed time to be with good people.

Stars near Mercersburg

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

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

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

Aren’t these great names?

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

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

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

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

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

‘We take sin so casually’

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God bless you,” he concluded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Rubenstein and patriotic philanthropy

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

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

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

He calls this type of giving “patriotic philanthropy.”

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

So what motivates David Rubenstein to follow this path?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty, not simply function, in architecture

Carroll William Westfall, Columbia University professor of architecture, writes why classical architecture is better than modernist architecture:

The defenders of modernist architecture lost no time in assaulting the recent Trump administration proposal that government buildings be classical. Architecture critics and the heads of architecture schools are among those who seek to preserve the putative right of architects to express their interpretation of the modern era with the latest fashions on public land and at public expense.

They argue that government interference would curtail their right to practice their art. If people do not like what they see, well, too bad for them. This argument ignores the fact that a building is a public object that occupies a site that is necessarily part of the realm where people lead their lives.

Things placed in the public realm are obliged to serve the public, common good even if privately owned, and it is the duty of government to ensure this is done. Presently, land is to be used for its “highest and best use,” which is defined by the greatest economic return or, in the case of cultural institutions, for the education of the taste of the people. The result has been a half-century of commercial construction and one-off cultural centers that display the avant-garde styles that the 1962 guidelines encouraged for public buildings as well. …

The classical in service to the public, common good of our nation, however, has been manifested in buildings from those of Thomas Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is also apparent in the choics of President George Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant when building the national capital, and in the architects of the first half of the previous century who added the Federal Triangle, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Union Station, and the National Mall. Need I add the countless state capitols, city halls, courthouses, and other public buildings serving and representing our ideals all across the nation? …

The 1962 guidelines mandated, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa,” but praise for what the profession has produced is scarce. Consider the colony of federal agency buildings across the National Mall. Their saving grace is that their height and siting is acceptable, but those qualities were determined by century-old safeguards.

“Traditions are solutions to problems we have forgotten,” I read someplace recently. One of the things for which tradition has long been a solution is the challenge of creating beauty in our public life. If we understand beauty as intelligible, that is, if we understand that we can recognize a person or a thing as beautiful for whatever reason, then we understand that beauty points beyond itself, beyond its physical or material aspects, to a spiritual core.

What classical architecture predates and also outlasts is the notion that “form follows function” in what we built and how we live. We need more than a built environment of mere functioning. We need beauty.

‘Kansas City has a lot going for it’

In light of Kansas City, Missouri’s Super Bowl victory, friend, colleague, and St. Louis-native Noah Brandt ribs Kansas City as Missouri’s second-greatest city:

St. Louis is Missouri’s flagship city. When outsiders from across the country hear Missouri, they think of a Gateway Arch, blue Bud Light, and two red birds on a bat. While Kansas City has its virtues, Jack Stack Barbecue first among them, it is still firmly in the No. 2 spot compared to its more mature sister to the east. On every front, St. Louis continues to reign supreme as the leading city in our great state.

St. Louis has a larger economy and is the home of more large and important corporations. The Cardinals and Blues have more championships between them than all of the professional sports teams in Kansas City combined. The fine arts scene in St. Louis is out of this world, with the symphony and the Muny setting national standards. Highly ranked universities. Killer beer scene.

You get the picture. St. Louis rules.

All of this is really not meant to demean Kansas City. Kansas City has a lot going for it, and the city is a shining jewel in Missouri’s crown, just not the crown jewel right in the middle. Kansas City is firmly in second place (maybe third if you count the glorious Broadway in the Ozarks utopia that is Branson). But seriously, the friendly rivalry between St. Louis and Kansas City benefits everyone and encourages both sides to strive to do better. Iron sharpens iron.

Great inter-state rivalries like this, like Philadelphia/Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, really are the best.

‘Victims of a moral panic’

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking with Strangers, has a chapter on the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. Malcolm Gladwell is speaking in Happy Valley tonight and Ben Novak writes on the whole thing in StateCollege.com:

In “Talking with Strangers,” Gladwell stirred up a hornets’ nest with his chapter on the Sandusky scandal entitled “The Boy in the Shower.” The thesis of this new book is that humans innately tend to form positive impressions of others, even in the face of contrary indications. Using the Sandusky scandal as a case study, he takes on many of the misunderstandings and false “facts,” upon which the media narrative of that scandal has been based.

Since the book’s publication, however, he has stirred the hornets even more in several podcast interviews. In a podcast interview with Bill Simmons, Gladwell asserts, “The leadership at Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless,” In addition, Gladwell insists, “Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong.”

Statements such as these are sure to send sparks flying and evoke a lot of questions—perhaps even some soul searching. But in another interview, this time with John Zeigler, Gladwell went even further, claiming, for example:

“There is no way Joe Paterno even belongs in this conversation. Everyone should agree he was treated shamefully and that his good name needs to be restored.”

“We were way, way, way, way too quick to come to judgement about the Penn State leadership and on Joe Paterno, and way too quick to think that Mike McQueary’s account is cut and dry when, in fact, it’s not.”

“Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz were the victims of a moral panic. It was crazy.”

When the NCAA restored Penn State’s victories and avoided its sanctions five years ago, it acknowledged precisely the “moral panic” it both fell victim to and perpetuated.

Alexandria for an afternoon

I had thought earlier in the week of a hike today, but the weather is cold and windy enough that I changed plans. I headed to Old Town, Alexandria for Mass at the Basilica of Saint Mary and then headed to Village Brauhaus to spend time with a friend and catch up.

It’s a great thing to be able to do and see so much in and around Washington with relatively little trouble.

January scenes in Washington

It’s back to being January-like in terms of temperature—much more unpleasant to be walking around Washington. But all things considered I’m glad to walk and to be able to take in simple scenes like the two below this week, first on Dumbarton Street and the second facing Connecticut Avenue.

Looking forward to a quiet MLK Day weekend and the March for Life next week.