Friday, April 3, 2020

Beggars in the Kingdom

I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor”, wrote Pope Pius X in 1914. This was a man who donned the Papal Tiara, rode atop a Sedia, and wore full regalia at the altar. As the Vicar of Christ, he owned none of these emblems, and had no blood heirs to this inheritance.

“The poor will always be with you”, taught Jesus Christ in the lesson of the widow’s mite. In this lesson, Jesus (see Mark 14:7 or Matthew 26:11) demonstrates that we should give our best to higher purposes, even as we rightly turn our hearts to charity. Critics of church wealth forget humble Jesus’ admonishment against his disciples, who instinctively criticized the woman from Bethany who anointed Jesus with precious perfume. This instinct towards modesty in faith is natural, and is ingrained in Buddhist and Hindu teachings, and within my own family. Critics of the Tridentine Rite conjure up imagery of medieval times. They bring up the chasm between wealthy church and insular clergy; against poor, illiterate peasants separated by an altar rail; and whose attention is garnished with bells, gold chalices and royal vestments. They contrast the stone facades of Vatican City to poverty in Africa, wondering how wealth can be transferred. To these critics, church finery represent the trappings of royalty; instead of a sense of transcendence and permanence.  I deject, the Church is:

Patron of artistry and craftsmanship- gifts to the Church are made by artists sponsored by wealthy patrons, or even the joint contribution of parishioners.

Protector of heritage- monasteries maintained ancient libraries through the Dark Ages.

A commonwealth- In contrast to the jewels of private citizens, church splendor- beautiful objects- can be shared by parishioners. Furthermore, precious metals such as gold and silver historically served as an emblem of sovereign strength without the need for bloodshed. Look at Switzerland’s enviable position as an example.

One to draw attention to the altar and the priest. Pope Benedict XVI’s vestments (and Pope Francis’ simple garb) draws the attention of media and its millions of viewers. This coverage might otherwise be given to the Queen of England.

Can the Church do better to help the less fortunate? It is true that the Vatican Bank has large investments in London real estate and Beretta firearms. To help further the Church’s recent push towards environmental justice, I would suggest that the Vatican expanding its holdings to include acres of threatened, unique forest preserves in places like the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Smartphone Features I’d like to See

Lie Detector
Imagine how many lies and mistruths tell their parents over a smart. Polygraph and chest leads are optional, since this function will use GPS data and tone-of-voice analysis

Tactical Grenade
We already know that lithium batteries explode at the wrong time, in the wrong place. We’re just making it predictable.

Mood Ring
Consumer Therapy has been the American cure-all since World War Two. Get ads that relate to, and “fix”, how you are feeling.

Hormone Sensor
Picks out the meal that matches your feelings: pickle and ice cream; or bison and elk meat, this app knows it all.

Driving Mode
Because clicking seven times to get to the GPS map just isn’t safe

Hot Pack Mode
Boiling water and rubber pouches are so last century. Apply phone directly to aching body part. Notice hoe warm your phone gets in the car already.

Ship Mode
Equal representation of those who travel by a ship at sea instead of an airplane. Detects chokepoints like Gibraltar or the Strait of Hormuz that might have cell service. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Coronavirus in Virginia

Autarky is a national policy of economic independence. In an attempt to contain the coronavirus, the United States closed the borders last Friday, with many other countries following in short order. This paleo-conservative experiment was short-lived as domestic restrictions, led by states and municipalities, took place by Monday. The strictest restrictions on social and economic life, dubbed as “shelter in place” orders, were instituted in New York and California. Applying these restrictions in America, successfully used in authoritarian China and civic-minded Italy, would’ve been unthinkable several weeks ago.

With commerce reduced to the essentials, such as groceries, the economy is grinding to a standstill. Of greatest concern is unemployment, which will cause a recessionary spiral. The service sector, operating on thin margins, has been greatly impacted. Low wage workers, like waiters, drivers, and cashiers, often do not have savings to bridge a gap of unemployment. Their absence from the discretionary consumer economy will deepen a recession. In a crunch, it is easier for a small business owner to cut payroll than to cut its rent. A major stimulus bill is moving through Congress. One key feature is cash payments to individuals. This will keep people fed, and allow for utilities, and at least a portion of rent or mortgage to be paid.

Reporting from Norfolk, Virginia, whose region reported 50 cases of coronavirus, large gatherings have been ended by state order. In the urbanized city of Norfolk, municipal services and public facilities like rec centers and libraries has been closed. Less restrictions were in place in suburban Virginia Beach.

On Tuesday’s Saint Patrick’s Day, many of the established restaurants were closed. Smaller restaurants and taverns were still engaged in a lively trade.  By Wednesday, even these establishments transitioned to take-out fare. While grocery store cashiers and delivery providers work fearlessly, the white-collar workplace, with its cubicles and close quarters, has been shut down nationwide.
At my local Navy Base, telework or administrative leave began this week. Shipboard work, like that in construction and other blue-collar fields, is continuing as usual. Open berthing and dining onboard warships poses real risks of virus transmission; one case of coronavirus was identified on the USS Boxer. Current Health Protection Condition (HPCON) guidance to the military advises non-essential group work and training be suspended. 

Public officials still encourage exercise and solitary recreation. It seemed to be the case on Friday. With an unseasonably warm Friday, young service-members gathered on the local oceanfront beach. More concerning is the Spring Break amalgamation of nationwide youth on the beaches of Florida, as reported in the Wall Street Journal and other media.

Many have wondered if laid-up cruise ships can be used for quarantining infectious patients. Remember that the coronavirus has spread rapidly through two cruise ships, likely due to shared ventilation. Two hospital ships, USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, are built to hospital standards, and do not face this limitation.  

Friday, March 20, 2020

Three Biggies: Self-Defense, War and Death Penalty

Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledged in General Principles that “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty”. Even between catechisms, there are differing opinions on these two issues.
Pope John Paul II promulgated the now-famous Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. In contrast to previous teaching on the issue, capital punishment was legitimized (however narrowly) under self-defense doctrine. This, according to scholars Feser and Bessette, contrasted to historical treatment of the issue as a matter of asset forfeiture: losing one’s most precious asset, human life, in expiation for a crime. Pope Pius XII in 1952 noted that a convicted murderer "has dispossessed himself of the right to live".

Cardinal Bernadin put forth the Seamless Garment in 1983, following Eileen Egan’s 1970’s teachings on the consistent ethic of life. This ethic opposes willful abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and, note the qualification, unjust war. This concept spread through the American seminaries, and no one was surprised when Cardinal Sean O’Malley criticized the issuance of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The former noted, in line with the John Paul II Catechism, that the threat had already been “neutralized” by Tsarnaev’s imprisonment before trial.  Indeed, Tsarnaev claimed his death sentence was an injustice- after killing 3, maiming 16, and terrorizing a nation. Pope Francis’ recent revision of the 1992 Catechism declares capital punishment “inadmissible”, commenting that previous teachings on the subject were more legalistic than pastoral in nature.

Lesson 33 of The Baltimore Catechism, the American Bishops’ official catechism until last decade, identifies three circumstances when human life may be lawfully taken:

1.       In self-defense
2.       In a just war
3.       By the lawful execution of a criminal.

In practice, public enthusiasm to carry out just rewards- to be “tough on crime” or to “Bomb Agrabah” is tempered by involved parties with respect for human life and recognition of moral culpability. These involved parties are police officers, homeowners, military officers, and trial judges, who direct and carry out the lawful taking of life. For example, no serious politician or official wants to legislate Genesis 9:6 into law. As seen in public discourse, the highest value of human life is assigned to those accused of a capital offense, where one wrongful execution is a moral outrage; and lowest for innocents in a war zone, in which a thousand foreign casualties does not churn the stomach. As an example of this ethic, then-Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign-stop execution of mentally-incompetent Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas is still discussed today. If this was not a lawful execution per-se, then was it willful murder committed by a future president? (3) Historical statistics likewise demonstrate that the perceived moral hazard of taking an innocent life is greatest with capital punishment, and lowest in war.

·         Self-Defense: 149 unarmed Americans died during an encounter with law enforcement in 2017 alone. (1). This figure does not include accidental deaths under Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws.

·         Just War: According to the National Geographic, 500,000 Iraqi civilians have died in conflict since 2003.

·         Forfeiture: Since the 1970’s, 1 possible execution of an innocent person in America. This case was Cameron Willingham, found guilty of arson and executed in 2004. Governor Rick Perry of Texas was informed that trial evidence used outdated fire science, but he chose not to issue clemency to Mr. Willingham. (2)

In matters of human dignity, all these innocent lives should be weighed equally. In practice, they are most certainly not. Our nation spends millions on a single capital appeals, and not enough to provide clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan. There is no absolute truth or fallacy when commeasuring these issues: self-defense, just war and capital punishment. Personally, I feel that the ultimate punishment should be reserved for exceptional cases like Tsarnaev's. The key takeaway is to stay informed.

                 (2) Identified by Edward Feser and Jospeh Bessette in By Man His Blood Be Shed
                Agrabah is a fictional Middle-Eastern city created by the Walt Disney Company.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Fruits of Vatican II

A Roman Catholic priest in a small Greek parish stood at the altar. His colorful vestment read “Jubilee 2000”.  What a figurative flash to the past! Folk mass, felt banners and banal vestments represented the short-lived embracing of faddish cultural trends. This was part of an unwritten zeitgeist summed up as the “Spirit of Vatican II”, or “change for change’s sake”, which claimed dozens of priceless high altars in its wake. 

During this era, say from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, vocations to the priesthood or sisterhood plummeted. From a practical perspective, young people taking vocations become tied to the institution they served. They need a sense of stability, whether the vocation is in the Church or the Military. I saw this in friends who resigned from NROTC during the transformational tenure of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Seminary attendance had stabilized under Pope Benedict XVI, who pontificated on subjects as mundane as clapping at mass, calling the specter “religious titillation”. Young revolutionaries today work outside the Church, and the seminaries attract a more philosophically and spiritually mature candidate.

The Vatican has long been a powerbroker among the royalty of Europe, and a temporary retreat in the late 19th century was an aberration to norms. The First Vatican Council (1870-1871) can be seen as an ecclesiastical retreat from the world at a time when Italy and Germany had just been unified. This council reinforced the authority of the Pope Pius IX, urging the faithful to look to him as an empirical bedrock of stability in a changing Europe. Piety and transcendentalism, Archangels and Demons, dominated Catholic spiritual life.  This era gave birth to parish churches with astonishing high altars and stained-glass windows; many of which in America can be seen around large-city downtowns today.

 The Church did not wait until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s to reengage the world. Instead, it was drawn back into contemporary affairs not long after it had retreated:
Pope Leo XIII expressing concern about the dignity of the working man and his family in the age of industrialization;

Pope Pius X ensuring charitable assistance to American immigrants arriving from Southern Europe;

Pope Benedict XV and Emperor Charles of Austria working to limit the devastation of the   First World War;

Pope Pius XII asserting Vatican authority over Mussolini’s fascist rule in Italy, on issues such as protection of Jews.

“Opening up the church” is a common catchphrase about Vatican II. Indeed, Italian clerics dominated the Papacy and other key Vatican offices. In the United States, Irish-Americans dominated the priesthood. To the chagrin of Southern European newcomers, these Irish clerics retained the mark of WASP oppression, preferring the Low Mass, and remaining reserved from parishioner’s daily lives.  Some describe the intellectual environment of the priesthood and Catholic scholarship as rigid and stultifying.

If anything, Vatican II gave a long-awaited green light empowering the faithful to use their talents to further their understanding. This in turn has refreshed philosophical debate within members of the Church, especially concerning the interface with political governance. As far as lay leadership is concerned, cracks in a hierarchical veneer emerged by the 1930’s. After receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Father Charles Coughlin took to the radio with messages in favor of Christian social democracy, and against “the international money-changers in the temple”. Bishop Fulton Sheen also took to the radio, but worked from official Church teachings. Dorothy Day, a laywoman, started the Catholic Worker Movement. She printed a newspaper, advocated for labor rights, and provided relief for the poor. The internet today provides a platform for Catholic-focused websites such as EWTN, Church Militant, and One Peter Five.

The New Saint Basil’s Hymnal, printed in 1958 and still used in traditional parishes, excised “good old hymns” of the Victorian Era on the grounds that they contained lackluster theology and doctrine. In the same decade, Pope Pius XII removed redundancies from the Tridentine Missal. Recognizing that centuries of add-ons had complicated religious observance, the Church simplified rules on fasting and prayer routines in the 1950’s. 

 “Vatican II opened the church, and the people left”: Yes, the Catholic Church has attrition issues. But think of the many Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, who are peripherally attached to the Church. The decline of Mainline Protestantism serves as a cautionary story. For the Greatest Generation, attending mass on Sundays was a social obligation. When asked, many couldn’t elucidate on tenets of the faith, or on personal spiritual beliefs. Later generations did not feel a need to attend mass or even affiliate with the church. For an increasingly sophisticated and middle-class audience of Cultural Catholics, self-discovery is real learning, and pastors should guide with a fusion of approachablility and moral certitude is required: a “no judgement zone” policy has decimated the stature of once-solid institutions like the Episcopal Church; and too much “judgment day” talk- think the Mormon faith- deters wandering souls.

Importantly, Vatican II encouraged dialogue between neighbors, statesmen, and global citizens of different faiths. This is essential in an increasingly connected world, but was discouraged in a different time, lest the faithful be drawn to heresy. Father John Main, a Benedictine Monk, developed Christian meditations from his travels to Southeast Asia. Politically, social tensions have emerged in the Muslim world, especially in places like Indonesia, where limited ecological resources pit neighbor against neighbor. Today, snippets of Catholic teaching float around the halls of Congress, and into the courtroom; under the mantle of Natural Law. Catholicism, like Judaism, is not merely a religion, but also the basis of philosophical and moral codes. 

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Happy Leap Day!

"For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don't know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February,
Twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence – I shouldn't be surprised if it were owing to the
Agency of an ill-natured fairy – You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year,
On the twenty-ninth of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you'll easily discover,
That though you've lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
You're only five and a little bit over!
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
Ho! ho! ho! ho!" Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Living in the Selfie Society

Within just a few years, the smartphone and its incipient selfie stick have created a billion amateur photographers vying for the perfect shot. They will travel the world for the perfect picture to post on the Internet, on Instagram or Facebook. They seek special moments once found only in wild dreams.
They consist of generations (Millennials and Gen Z) who chooses to spend money on travel and technology, instead of squirreling away savings for down-payment on a house, a car, or retirement. They fly low-cost airlines and stay in Air BnBs. Instead of retail therapy, try travel therapy: Washington Dulles Airport advertises flights to London as a cure for the “Quarter Life Crisis”.

The opportunity for a commoner to travel far from home is a recent phenomenon. Even in the 1980’s, The Preppy Handbook quipped about “The Tour”, typically a young American’s first transoceanic sojourn, with de rigeur visits to London, Paris and Rome. These were carried out by privileged college students of means, while their middle-class co-eds were busy working for tuition money. Childhood stays in Europe and the Far East were reserved for children of diplomats and military “brats”, a dated term in the post 9-11, continuous-contingency world. Just a decade ago, my community paper, DC’s Northwest Current, would publish columns on residents who went to “interesting” destinations, often on government business. How have times changed.

In Amsterdam, locals lament touristic behaviors such as drunk and disorderly conduct, and interference at the farmer’s market. The small Dutch city hosted 20 million visitors last year. In the search for “authenticity”, to include Air BnB homeshares, it appears that inconvenience is imposed on locals and their residential neighborhoods. Washington, DC’s Metrorail lampooned “Escalefters”, people, usually tourists, who stand on the left side of the escalator, impeding the flow of rush-hour commuters. Despite the neighborly complaints, one must acknowledge that cities were built to handle the masses.

The ecological call to “tread lightly” in sensitive destinations is too often forgotten in the pursuit of personal glory. One article in the New York Times recalls the incredible amount of gear left on the climb to Mount Everest, and of the lines and congestion which detract from what ought to be a spiritual moment. More recklessly, vainglorious adventurers attempt the climb with insufficient preparation, and Sherpa guides feel pressure to head out in sub-optimal conditions.
One way to view the travel-selfie phenomenon is the concept of self-assertion in an economically uncertain era. The 1930’s had movies on the “silver screen” to provide an outlet of escapism. Today, “getting away” for a moment (from student debt or stultifying employment) requires little more than an airplane ticket.