If I Had a Little More Time, I Would…

1. Watch basketball all day today.

2. Write an open letter to President Obama urging him to think about this:

Over the course of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, many of our ancestors fled European lands where endless wars over national identity had made life utterly miserable.

Endless wars over national identity in the Middle-East have made life miserable for hundreds of thousands of people right now. Why don’t we urge them to come to America, and welcome all of them that want to come?

We could use our American ingenuity and enormous navy to help get them here. The Catholic Church in the United States stands ready to help re-settle them. [Archbishop Kurtz, president of the Bishops’ Conference, committed us last fall.]

Orwell 1984Maybe you’re thinking, Mr. President, that this plan sounds politically challenging.  But think of this:  The wisest economists acknowledge that the main cause of the protracted malaise of the US economy during this decade is actually pretty obvious:  We have killed a huge segment of our wage-earning, tax-paying, and home-buying population in the womb.  Can we really regard it as a co-incidence that the real estate market hit a brick wall right at the time when the Roe v. Wade babies should have been buying their first homes?

The truth is that the United States actually has a desperate need for a lot more people.  The Syrians have beautiful ancient traditions, and we would be blessed to have them here.  Let’s send our big boats over to Turkey to pick up all of them that want to come!

3. Make a video version of the following Platonic dialogue, in honor of George Orwell…

Fr. Cleophon:   The other day a poor soul came to the confessional.  He was beside himself.  He had made multiple appointments for sterilization surgery, and then canceled them.  Finally, he showed up.  As he lay on the table, right before the procedure, he was overcome with the sense that it was all wrong.  But he didn’t have the courage just to get up and walk out.

Fr. Thrasymachus:  OMG.

Fr. Cleophon:  He did it because his priest told him that it was okay.  His wife has had complications during pregnancy.

Fr. Thrasymachus:  But doesn’t that priest know that direct sterilization is inherently immoral?  It can never be justified, because it involves self-mutilation for no purpose other than to render sexual intercourse totally null and void.  Does that priest want his people to turn their marital lives into a farce of mutual masturbation?

Fr. Cleophon:  Apparently this priest neglected to check the Vatican website or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Fr. Thrasymachus:  Do the doctors of today simply assume that we human beings really act like glorified lab rats, with no hope whatsoever of leading chaste lives and making heroic sacrifices for the sake of true love?

Fr. Cleophon:  I guess they do think that.

Fr. Thrasymachus:  Brother, how do you think I should channel the intense anger this causes in me?  Makes me want to write novels like 1984 and move onto a quiet sheep farm, away from all internet access!

Fr. Cleophon:  I don’t know, man.  But how about focusing on Jesus Christ, poor, chaste, and gentle, totally obedient to the Father?  Maybe we could do our little part to help people see the joy of living a humble, ascetical life, dedicated to getting to heaven?

Quick War-Speech Dental Exam

Our jovial dentist used to glide in after the hygienist finished. With his metal pick, he would wiggle each tooth to determine the solidity of its foundation. He could tell by touch if a cavity had developed.

If I might, I would like to touch the teeth of our Islamic State strategy, as outlined by the president last night.

Tooth #1, the pre-eminent, most-important tooth: Having cause for war with the Islamic State. Do we?

Do they pose an immediate danger to our people? I don’t know, really. But it seems like they do, much more than any other terrorist organization ever has.

Flag_of_Islamic_State_of_Iraq.svgBut another legitimate question, by way of establishing casus belli might be: Is the Islamic state demonstrably guilty of crimes against humanity? If the decent people of the world tolerate these crimes, could we reasonably hope for peace in our time? Would not the innocent victims have legitimate cause to reproach us? Yes, no, and yes appear to be the answers to these questions.

The most solid grounds for war, then, are not necessarily the matter of a direct threat to U.S. citizens, even though that threat seems quite real. Rather, the unassailable cause, it seems to me, is the consensus among God-fearing people that to tolerate the crimes of these men would imply an abandonment of hope for a decent world to live in.

Now, I think this tooth would stand probing a little better if we explicitly listed the charges against al-Baghdadi and his collaborators. (I believe that the UN has done so already, at least in a preliminary fashion.) We should demand that the accused give themselves up and stand trial before a legitimate court of law, which could include Muslim judges. Then, when they fail to hand themselves over, we stipulate that our war aim is: To apprehend the criminals and their associates.

My quibbles notwithstanding, this tooth has no cavity. I am do dentist, no expert, but the crimes that have been committed—murder, enslavement, rape, attempted genocide, wholesale robbery of lands and goods—these crimes can be documented; they must be prosecuted; the guilty must be punished. If the defendants do not present themselves for trial, they forfeit the due protections of law and stand in peril of their lives. The decent people of the world would all agree on all this, I think it’s fair to say. We have proposed to go to war against genuine enemies of the human race. We have just cause.

Okay, tooth #2: “Iraqi partners.” The “inclusive” new Iraqi government. An effective Iraqi military.

The questions we need to ask in order to tap this tooth: Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, at our hands, a decade ago, have the ‘Iraqi’ people acted in harmony as a nation? Has the Iraqi military shown genuine signs of decisive action, even at peril of life and limb, aimed at protecting all the people of the nation of Iraq?

That would be a negative, I think.

Can the blame for this be laid completely at the feet of Nouri al-Maliki’s choleric temperament?

Can a reasonable person expect the new, more phlegmatic Shia prime-minister, who has put together a government with Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds in the same proportion as the old one (actually, there are apparently more Shias in the government now than there were under al-Maliki), who has yet to appoint a defense minister—can a reasonable individual expect Prime Minister Abadi to unify the nation of Iraq successfully and orient the military, in time to address the crimes that have been committed, before the victims of those crimes fall into despair?

This tooth has a very large cavity.

Tooth #3
. “Partners in Syria.” In an interview in early August, President Obama himself said that the moderate opposition in Syria had never really come together. He said that the idea that arming rebels in Syria could make a difference “has always been a fantasy.”

WeAreNWe have a policy of regarding Assad as an ‘illegitimate leader.’ Nonetheless, under international law, he has the right to refuse us access to Syrian airspace. Who has consistently championed President Assad’s prerogatives? Russia. Without Russia on our side in this war, we lose the diplomatic tool of the UN Security Council. (Not to mention all the constructive help which Russia could, and probably would, give us.) Without the UN endorsing our actions, we will have serious problems retaining allies. Fighting IS without Russia will make it much harder to win. Big, big cavity.

Tooth #4. “Partners in the region.” On August 15, the United Nations Security Council adopted a strongly worded, militarily toothless resolution against Islamic State. Today, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates agreed on the ‘Jeddah Communique,’ which confirmed their commitment to the UN resolution. The Jeddah communique includes no mention of military commitment. Turkey did not sign on. Syria, of course, was not invited.

This tooth appears to have a cavity. If the only fighting we need from our ‘partners in the region’ is the implementation of financial sanctions and travel restrictions, then we’re good. Maybe.

But: If we are not going to march—which the president says we won’t; only bombs from above—if we are not going to march; if we cannot reasonably expect Iraq to march anytime soon; if there really isn’t anyone in Syria who we could expect to march against IS in any kind of commensurate force; and if no one in the Gulf Cooperation Council, nor Lebanon, nor Jordan, nor Egypt, nor Turkey intends to march—then who is going to march? Who will march to apprehend the criminals in time to save the victims from despair?

st-augustineI do not think the plan, as it stands, has the prospect of success. The more I think about it, the more feckless it appears. Which renders it unjust, since a legitimate casus belli must be implemented with a war plan that enjoys the solid probability of success.

I think the plan as outlined by the president will lead to dangerous diplomatic strains and to the deaths and injuries of many innocent people. Our airstrikes will cause greater animosity against the U.S. and more terrorism.

The huge military elephant in the room is of course Israel, way too touchy a subject to be mentioned by the president or Secretary Kerry, I guess, at this point. But who can fail to imagine a scenario in which IS attacks Israel? Then we will have a wide Middle-East war, and we will inevitably lose ‘partners.’

Operating in Syria without authorization from Assad, coupled with all our saber-rattling over Ukraine, we could wind up at war with Russia.

Grim scenarios, indeed. I would welcome anyone with better information to talk me down off this particular ledge.

Anyway, it seems to me that it would be better to open our borders to the refugees who would prefer to come here, and welcome them in the U.S. Then await a more propitious moment for making war against IS—a moment when we have a genuine international military coalition organized and we are prepared to fight a real war with our own troops involved, so as to minimize airstrikes, which always cause unintended casualties and just make things worse.

Minding the Immigrants and Refugees

Blessed are you who suffer, who hunger, who mourn. Luke 6

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_AngelicoTackling the profound mystery of these statements requires much more wisdom than I possess. But one thing leaps right off the page, even for an obtuse person like myself.

The Lord Jesus thought about the suffering people, the hungry people, the people in mourning. And He spent time with them and talked with them.

Inhuman cruelty can and does sneak up while we have our noses buried in our smartphones.

Like our neighbors who have to live without the basic benefits of citizenship—benefits we take for granted. Like looking to police officers for help. Like having our children apply for scholarships to go to college. Like having some recourse if we are exploited in the workplace, or abused, or fired unjustly, or cheated in a business transaction. Like having the possibility of defending our rights and claims in a court of law.

Right here in the beautiful counties of our parish cluster, we have plenty of neighbors who do not enjoy these basic prerogatives. We know from interacting with them that they themselves are no lawbreakers. What kind of country has this become, when the arrival of thousands of innocent children at our border becomes a reason not to treat Latin Americans more fairly? The children came armed with their perfect innocence and desperation, and our reaction is: Well, now we know we need to build higher walls and deport more people?

obama-prayingOr, while we fiddle with getting our Netflix subscriptions, another inhuman cruelty sneaks up: a jihad that enforces its will with a reign of terror that would have made the Nazi high command blush. Somehow a million+ refugees from Islamic State, with no roof over their heads, no schools, no businesses, no churches—snuck up on us somehow.

Those who suffer and mourn, who hunger and thirst. The Lord Jesus paid attention to them. If the books of the four holy gospels smell of one thing, they smell of the poor and the desperate. Christ had them on His mind. He has them on His mind. If they are not on our minds, then we are not sharing in the mind of Christ.

A decade ago we launched a war against Saddam Hussein. We fought the war in an earnest manner, I guess, basically. But we fought it for a false reason.

Now the groaning of all the Syrian and Iraqi refugees gives us a compelling and just reason to launch a war. But, to my mind, we seem a million miles away from being prepared to fight it in an earnest manner, a just manner. The legitimate reason for taking up arms is totally out-of-focus—namely, addressing the wrongs done to the countless innocents. And we appear to be incapable of learning this simple lesson of history: We cannot engineer our will from the air. That does not work; it just makes things worse and more complicated, and innocent people die. “Boots on the ground” is a stupid euphemism for actually fighting a war.

Are we justified in attacking the Islamic State? Is the Pope Catholic? Are we justified in imagining totally unrealistic scenarios in which we don’t have to fight the war, but just have to drop bombs from a convenient distance? No way.

May God help the leaders of the world to do what is right and just, in an honest way. Our job is to keep the suffering in mind, and pray like mad.

St. Ignatius Feastday and the Holy Land

At one point in his life, St. Ignatius Loyola wanted above all to live in the Middle East, in the land of Christ. Ignatius resolved to go to Palestine and never return home.

As things turned out, he had to return to Europe. The Franciscan superior ordered him to leave Palestine, because the situation had become perilous, due to a war.

Sound familiar?

It appears that the fighters who have taken over a lot of Syria and Iraq, who call themselves ‘Islamic State,’ have systematically sought to rid the land of Christians–and Shia Muslims, for that matter. The Islamic State fighters have committed obscene atrocities with spurious religious justifications, justifications which mainstream Muslim leaders have strenuously denounced.

ignatiuswritingFor a millennium and a half, the original Christian people, the Christians of the Levant, have lived at peace with Muslim neighbors. We recall how, eleven months ago, the church leaders of the Middle East, along with the Pope, begged the western military powers not to attack Syria and foment the civil war there. We recall how, over a decade ago, the same leaders, and Pope St. John Paul II, begged us not to invade Iraq.

Perhaps we can understand a little better now why the Christians of the Middle East made these pleas for peace. It was not simply a matter of naïve pacificism.

Our war in Iraq certainly looks like the fiasco of the 21st century at this point, but that’s not for me to say. What I do know is that we need to pray very hard for our suffering brothers and sisters who live in the land where the Lord called the patriarchs and prophets to Himself, and where He, in Person, walked the earth.

Our Syrian Father

St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine holding aloft the Chair of Peter in Roma
St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine holding aloft the Chair of Peter in Roma

St. Paul became a Christian in Syria. St. Peter exercised his authority in Syria before he traveled to Rome. The word “Christian” entered the vocabulary of the human race in Syria.

St. Luke? Syrian.

Know anybody named Damien, Dorothy, Felix, Iggy, Rufus, or Sergio? Then you know someone named after a Syrian saint.

SyriaAnd, 1,606 years ago tomorrow, another Syrian saint entered his eternal reward. The Holy Doctor whose relics and statue adorn St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and whose relics also receive devout visits at Christ our Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

St. John Chrysostom.

Here’s what he said on Easter Sunday morning, around the year AD 400:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

Continue reading “Our Syrian Father”

Moral Argument?

Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant!” (Martin Luther King, Jr., April 30, 1967)

Will a Russia-brokered peace with Mr. Assad ensue now? May it please God that it does. But the devil always lurks in the details. We may very well find ourselves back at Square One–i.e., our sabers rattling. May it please God that we do not. But because we very well might, I feel obliged to point this out:

President Obama suggests that we re-watch youtubes of children choking to death on sarin gas. Is it me, or is this a sick suggestion? For the love of God, that’s the last thing in the world I want to watch.

But to the main point:

The President: “Okay. Yes, you, dear America, are war-weary. Yes, you shrink from armed conflict. I understand. But look: We have a moral obligation here. This evil dictator gassed his own people like Hitler gassed the Jews. We have a moral obligation to drop bombs on his country.”

huckjimPoor, bedraggled citizens of the US: “Okay, sir. We see your point. We understand that you have the moral high ground. But we are simply too lazy and self-centered to agree with you. You have the moral argument, but we are going to nullify it with the I-am-more-interested-in-The-Voice-and-Duck-Dynasty-so-please-stop bothering-me argument.”

…Bedraggled Americans, praise you! You stand in the position of Huckleberry Finn. He had let himself be brainwashed into thinking that he had a moral obligation to send Jim back to slavery. But he didn’t do it, because he enjoyed smoking a pipe with ol’ Jim.

The fact of the matter is that, 99 times out of 100, the moral high ground involves not dropping bombs that will inevitably kill innocent people. Make that 999 times out of 1000. 9,999 times out of 10,000. Basically 100% of the time, actually.

The President is trying to take us through the moral looking glass, into the Realm of Delusions, where it is immoral not to drop bombs that will inevitably kill more of the innocent people that we say we want to protect.

Thank God we are too lazy and distracted to go through the looking glass with him.

Hard Fall, Hard Praying

The Lord has called us to be His disciples, to put out into the deep waters of this world, and fish for men.

Terrifying and bewildering as it may be for us to be summoned for duty by the good God Himself, we cannot say, ‘depart from me, Lord.’ Or, rather, we can say it—but He won’t do it.

So we must engage everything that comes our way as Christians, as servants of Christ. He guides our ship; He’s the captain. He will not take us out any further from shore than we can handle—even if, to us, it may seem like He has guided us out into the remote and uncharted expanses of the ocean.

mccarrickThis Sunday is our Lady’s birthday, which is when the wild ride of the fall flurry of activity usually begins. From all appearances, our nation, the United States, is in for a difficult, a taxing—potentially a very painful fall.

The fax machines and the internet connections at the US Bishops’ Conference have been running hot. We priests have orders to preach on immigration reform this Sunday. We are for immigration reform. The bishop who ordained me, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, published an inspiring short essay on Sunday in the Washington Post, outlining our Catholic vision for immigration reform. (More to come on that, in this Sunday’s sermon.)

But on Sunday we will also read the parable about the king preparing for war, and how he must prudently study the situation before marching to arms.

The Pope and the American Bishops have asked all of us faithful Catholics to pray for peace in Syria. We are against a US military strike. We pray that it will not occur. I will lead a rosary for peace on Saturday. Maybe all of us could recite the rosary at 5:30 pm, no matter where we are-—and we will all be united spiritually—and with our Holy Father, too, who will pray in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday evening for peace in Syria.

Like I said, I think this weekend is just the beginning of the hard praying we will need to do this fall–for our nation, for our leaders. From where I am sitting, I see a perfect storm brewing over Washington.

(May it please God that my spiritual meteorology is wrong here. May it please Him that the fall of 2013 doesn’t wind up feeling like the fall of 2001 and the fall of 1963, all rolled into one. But I am afraid that this fall will wind up feeling like that.)

Let’s pray: May the Holy Spirit of wisdom and truth enlighten and guide all those who hold reins of power.

…The good news is: The Beast is back in town! (Kinda.)

Michael Morse Orioles 2

Michael Morse Orioles

Please, Let’s Not Shoot


I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, says the Lord. (Luke 4:43)

Again and again, mankind will be faced with this same choice: to say yes to the God who works only through the power of truth and love, or to build on something tangible and concrete—on violence. –Pope Benedict XVI.

We make our gravest mistakes when we consider our options with false presuppositions. Probably the most famous case in literature is Huckleberry Finn. He learned that his friend Jim was still legally bound in slavery. So Huck thought he had a moral obligation to send Jim back to his owner. Huck didn’t do it—but he thought he was sinning when he didn’t. His presupposition was false, so when he considered his options, right and wrong were literally reversed in his mind.

The Christian leaders of the Middle East and our Holy Father honestly ask us, the United States: How can you possibly imagine that shooting into Syria will do any good? The Church, speaking with breathtaking universality, is asking us this question. We need to consider the question in order to shake off a false supposition that our government seems to have–seems to have had for fifty years.

Lyndon_JohnsonYes, if we could bring the innocent dead in Syria back to life, we would. Yes, if we could impose world peace from the bridge of a battleship, we would. But neither of these options fall within the repertoire of the U.S. military.

On Sunday, Pope Francis pointed out that God and history will judge and condemn anyone who uses chemical weapons and kills the innocent. The Obama administration’s case for a military strike has a number of gaping holes in it, but the first is this: Yes, using chemical weapons violates international law. But so would our unilaterally striking in order to “enforce” the chemical-weapons ban. The chemical-weapons accord does not empower us to make a punitive strike. If we believe we have an obligation to strike, then we must confer with all the parties to the treaty—in other words, with the United Nations.

Now, President Lyndon Johnson famously said, “The U.N. couldn’t pour water out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel.” Actually, President Johnson referred to a liquid other than water. “The U.N. couldn’t pour [something I won’t mention in church] out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel.”

President Johnson said that when he thought he had an obligation to strike the Viet Cong. Maybe the U.N. does have trouble pouring water out of a boot. But the Pope knows what he’s talking about. I was watching a few minutes of news, and one of the pundits had the decency to mention that Pope Francis opposes a U.S. military strike. But then everyone on the set laughed it off with a “Well, of course he does.” As if the Pope lives in an ivory tower of religion, but we know the realities of a rough-and-tumble world. So let’s get real and start shooting.

But who, really, lives in a fantasy world of false presuppositions? Isn’t it a fantasy to imagine that shooting a bunch of Tomahawk missiles will lead to peace? Isn’t it a fantasy for us to think that we can launch one round of missiles, which will hit only what we want them to hit, and will hit everything we want them to hit, and then ‘our duty’ will be neatly done and over with? That is a fantasy. When Lyndon Johnson fantasized about surgically striking the Viet Cong into non-existence, it was a fantasy. When we fantasized about surgically striking the Iraqi Republican Guard into non-existence, it was a fantasy. Peace did not ensue. War ensued.

The Pope has asked every Catholic on earth to pray on Saturday evening, the vigil of our Lady’s birthday—he has asked us to pray that we don’t shoot. He has asked everyone to pray that there not be more shooting, but less.

I will lead a rosary for peace at the foot of the altar at the conclusion of the 4:30 Mass at Francis of Assisi Church, Rocky Mount, on Saturday. May God help us and preserve us from decisions made with false presuppositions. God will judge the wrong-doers. The U.S. is one of many countries in this fallen world. May we be a country with truth and love for our decision-making criteria. If we love the poor, innocent Syrians who lost their lives on August 21—and we do—if we love them, then let’s love the poor, innocent Syrians who would inevitably get killed if we fire off a bunch of Tomahawks, and not do it.

Drunken Grandiosity

head-platterSt. John the Baptist, pray for us that we will always act in a lawful manner, as you courageously counseled Herod to do.

Act lawfully. That is, guided by standards.

Established standards, based on the Ten Commandments.

Law binds people precisely so that we do not step blindly into impossible moral situations.

Herod was drunk on wine. He was drunk on lascivious pleasure. But even worse: he was drunk on his own power. He threw open a door that he lived to regret having opened. “Ask whatever you want of me, even to half my kingdom!” I am Mr. Big! I am Mr. Grand!

Ok, Mr. Big. Ok, Mr. Grand: Kill the holy man. Make good on your grandiose promise. Kill the holy man.

His Beatitude Fouad Twal
His Beatitude Fouad Twal

Talk about a situation of perverse logic. ‘Now, I have to kill the holy man, because otherwise I will look like a bloviating nobody. My word won’t mean anything if I don’t kill him. So I have no choice.’

Drunk on wine. Drunk on lascivious pleasure. But worse: Drunk on grandiosity.

‘There was a red line! This can’t stand! Indispensible nation! Military options! There was a red line!’

Sounds a lot like a similar situation of perverse logic to me. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem frankly asks us, “Who appointed the U.S. the policeman of the Middle East? Has Syria attacked the U.S.?”

May cool heads prevail. May everyone act lawfully.

Herod could have said: I made a foolish promise. I can’t kill the holy man. Herod didn’t actually have any credibility to lose. He could have started building up a little, by admitting his mistake. He could have started to act as an honest man by saying: ‘I made a foolish promise. Better to admit that, and move on with law-abiding humility than to fulfill my promise and make the whole situation immeasurably worse.’