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Movie review: 'The Lego Batman Movie'

In 2014's "The Lego Movie," Will Arnett voiced an amusingly self-absorbed version of Gotham City's Dark Knight. With the entertaining spinoff "The Lego Batman Movie" (Warner Bros.), Arnett's character, together with his inflated ego, takes center stage.
 
Despite occupying the spotlight, however, this time out, the Caped Crusader will have to learn some important lessons in humility, teamwork and emotional openness if he's going to meet his latest challenge. That's because his longtime adversary, the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis), is leading an army of bad guys in a bid to prove that he is Batman's most important enemy.
 
Just as the isolated, relationship-shunning hero insists on working alone to fight crime, so he slaps the Joker down when the Clown Prince of Crime puts himself forward as the Cowled One's indispensable foil.
 
"You're nothing to me," Batman growls in a scene that cleverly inverts a familiar trope, substituting the Joker's longing to be told he's hated for the more usual goal of exacting a declaration of love. Soon the spurned villain is scheming to destroy Gotham and thus bring his rivalry with Batman to a decisive close.
 
To vanquish him, Batman will have to accept the help of the trio of supporters who have rallied to his side: would-be adoptive son Dick Grayson, aka Robin (voice of Michael Cera), love interest Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and father figure (as well as butler) Alfred Pennyworth (voice of Ralph Fiennes).
 
Still burdened by the loss of his parents -- their murder is only hinted at by a childhood photo taken at a moment aficionados of chiropteran lore will recognize as laden with doom -- Bruce Wayne, and therefore his alter ego, finds it difficult to make himself vulnerable again. It will take all of Robin's irrepressible good spirits and Alfred's patriarchal concern, as well as Barbara's head-turning effect on Batman, to break through his barriers.
 
Fast-paced fun is the order of the day in director Chris McKay's animated treat for viewers of almost every age. Still, scenes of danger and a bit of potty humor as well as a few joking turns of phrase designed for grownups suggest that small fry would best be left at home. The wide remaining audience will find the screen chockablock with good guys, black hats and monsters -- and the dialogue enlivened by sly wit.
 
The film contains perilous situations, including explosions, and a couple of instances each of vaguely crass language, scatological humor and mature wordplay. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 
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The Letters of Bishop Robert F. Joyce from the Second Vatican Council 1962-1965

“The Letters of Bishop Robert F. Joyce from the Second Vatican Council 1962 – 1965”.  By Father Lance W. Harlow, MA, MDiv.  Barre, VT:  L. Brown and Sons Printing, Inc.  2016.
 
For readers who are old enough to remember the time of the Second Vatican Council, this book will feel like a combination of both objective history and personal nostalgia; for those who did not live through that period, Father Harlow’s book will be an interesting and even astonishing look at a Church in transition, as they are made privy to discussions and debates concerning practices that 21st-Century Catholics now take for granted.
 
The vehicle for telling this compelling history is a particularly apt one for people living in the Diocese of Burlington. Bishop Robert F. Joyce – who was born in Proctor in 1896, educated at the University of Vermont, ordained at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington in 1923, served as bishop of Burlington from 1957 until his retirement in 1971, and died peacefully at St. Joseph’s Home in Burlington in 1990 – was both a native son and an enthusiastic supporter of the Second Vatican Council.  For four years Bishop Joyce arranged his schedule so that he could be present at every session of the Council, and he was diligent about reporting back to his people, both in print, in person and on television, exactly what was happening at this historic event. His letters, which Father Harlow has reproduced here, were informative, pastoral and, at times, even humorous.  As primary documents, they give us an invaluable snapshot of this most historic period in Church history.
 
Father Harlow’s approach in this book demonstrates that his research was exceptionally thorough. In addition to Bishop Joyce’s letters, he also includes extensive information about what was going on in Rome at the time – issues under debate, who was participating, what was being said and how decisions were reached.  He also includes pertinent excerpts from the particular documents being discussed which are, of necessity, brief.  “It is my hope,” he notes in his introductory comments, “that the reader will continue to read the entire decrees and constitutions.”
 
Although all that transpired in Rome was of interest to Bishop Joyce, there were some issues that appear to have been especially near and dear to his heart, and these he communicated with particular enthusiasm.  The first, which was apparently on the minds of Catholic Vermonters as well, was the change in liturgical language from Latin to the vernacular.  “There was quite a response to my call for suggestions,” he stated at one point, referring to a diocesan consultation conducted prior to the opening of the Council in 1962.  “The greatest number of them…asked for a greater use of the vernacular, especially in the forepart of the Mass… [and] in the administration of the Sacraments.”
 
Also important to the bishop was the move toward ecumenism.  In an article he wrote for The Vermont Catholic Tribune in November 1963, he noted, “As the Council developed…ecumenism became more and more important as a chief aim, and insistent and universal has been the response to the subject throughout the world.”  He himself had close relationships with many Vermonters who were not of the Catholic faith and, in 1965, he was asked to fill in for an ailing Cardinal Cushing at the Grand Master’s Masonic Convention in Connecticut because “he had been hailed as one of the most imaginative and forward-looking leaders in the ecumenical movement.”
 
Father Harlow’s book is primarily an historical work and thus will probably be of greatest interest to historians and students of the Second Vatican Council.  However, that should not prevent the average reader from looking back at an event, the ramifications of which will be felt for centuries to come.  As Bishop Joyce himself said in a letter home in 1964, “Not only will the world be different as a result of the Council, but all of us who are part of it will be profoundly affected by it for the rest of our lives.”
 
The book sells for $20. Order it from Father Harlow at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call the cathedral office at 802-658-4333. 

Author bio

Father Lance W. Harlow is the rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Parishes in Burlington. His other books include “True Devotion to Mary by Louis de Montfort” and “Vermont's First Catholic Bishop: The Life of Bishop Louis De Goesbriand, 1816-1899.” He has also written three children’s books: “Holy Goldfish!”, “Sofia's Tea Party” and “Sofia's Ballet Lesson.”
 
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“Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us"

Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us.”  By Elizabeth Scalia. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2016. 160 pages. Paperback: $14.95.  Kindle: $8.65. Nook:  $10.49
 
Elizabeth Scalia’s new book, “Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us,” continues a theme she began in her previous work, “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.” As she did there, Scalia demonstrates a wonderful knack of helping us look at the everydayness of our lives in order to see, perhaps for the first time, what is really there.
 
One of the things that makes her voice so authentic in all her books -- and this one is certainly no exception -- is that her approach is intensely personal. She never preaches to her readers; rather she confesses to them, admitting her own shortcomings and then using these as lessons that we can all learn from. Most of us, for instance, can examine our consciences in light of the Ten Commandments and come out relatively unscathed. But gossip? Procrastination? Griping? Now, perhaps, we are on shakier ground, but it is precisely this sort of shake-up that can wake us out of our torpor, resulting in real change and, not coincidentally, more happiness in our lives.
 
So, what are these little sins?  Scalia outlines 13 of them – “twelve would have been more biblical,” she quips, “but I couldn’t stop myself” – that we recognize right off the bat: procrastination, excessive self-interest, self-neglect, indulging ourselves too much, gossip, judgment and suspicion, gloominess and griping, spite or passive aggression, out-grown attachments, laziness, cheating, sins of omission and excessive self-blame. Not surprisingly, all of these boil down to essentially one word – self – which is often the biggest obstacle between us and a truly whole and holy relationship with God.  (I am reminded of the prayer for good humor from the English martyr, St. Thomas More: “Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called ‘I.’” Pope Francis reportedly prays this every day.)
 
In addition to her own thoughts, experiences and observations, Scalia includes at the end of each chapter a section of short excerpts entitled “What does Catholicism say…?” in which she draws from the Catechism, Scripture and the writings of the saints and other holy people, nuggets of wisdom which summarize and further illustrate her point.  This is followed by suggestions on how to break away from the “little sin” and concludes with a prayer and an invitation to speak to God in our own words about what we have just read and reflected on.
 
Throughout the book, Scalia is urging us to move beyond being merely “a good person” because “if we are going to try to become truly good persons,” she says, “we need to identify and then detach from the faults and sins that we so readily give in to…” in order to become holy people. This demands of us a rigorous honesty that is not for the faint of heart. But no matter how painful it may seem at the outset –- Scalia herself admits to procrastinating on this book because she knew it would reveal her own bad habits and sins –- it is in the end, the only thing worth doing.  “God never sells us short,” she concludes. “He never takes the cheap and easy route, either, because cheap and easy usually means a crummy gift, and we are promised an extravagance of riches, if only we are faithful and paying attention.”
 
Author bio
 
A Benedictine Oblate, Elizabeth Scalia (no relation, by the way, to the late Supreme Court justice) was formerly the managing editor of the Catholic Channel at Patheos.com, where she blogs under the title “the Anchoress.” A regular columnist at First Things and a featured columnist at The Catholic Answer magazine, she was also a featured speaker in Rome in 2011, when the Vatican hosted a meeting with some 150 Catholic bloggers from around the world.
 
In 2015, she was named editor-in-chief of the US/English publication of Aleteia, an international online publication dedicated to the New Evangelization.
 
She has also been a contributor to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian (UK), National Review Online, Notre Dame’s Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization and Cultures and Faith, the Journal of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
 
In addition to “Little Sins Mean a Lot,” Scalia is the award-winning author of “Strange Gods” and “Caring for the Dying with the Help of your Catholic Faith.”
 
She and her husband live in Montauk, N.Y., and have three children.
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St. Dominic of Silos

In 11th-Century Spain, if the king demanded something, he generally got it.  Not so in the case of one Benedictine monk, however. 
 
Saint Dominic of Silos stood his ground and, although he lost one monastery, he gained another,  greater one instead.
 
Born in about the year 1000 to a peasant family in Navarre, Spain, Dominic spent his early years as a shepherd, cultivating a love of solitude and prayer. In adulthood, he entered the Benedictine order, was ordained a priest and became abbot of the monastery at San Millan de la Cogolla.  When a dispute over monastery lands arose, the king of Navarre ordered the Benedictines to leave; when Dominic refused, he and two of his monks were forcibly removed and exiled.
 
They sought refuge in Castile; there they became part of the monastery of San Sebastian at Silos, which was in desperate need of reform. Under Dominic’s leadership, the house was reinvigorated both physically and spiritually and became one of the most famous monasteries in Spain.  It was reputed to be a place of healing, due primarily to the holiness associated with Dominic.
 
Dominic died in 1073 of natural causes.  His feast day is Dec. 20.
 
Sources for these articles include:
www.americancatholic.org
www.catholiconline.come
“Saint Dominic of Silos." CatholicSaints.Info. 14 June 2016.
 

St. Nicholas of Myra

One of the most popular secular figures associated with Christmas, Santa Claus, actually began as a very Christian saint – St. Nicholas.  Although we have few facts about this Fourth-Century bishop, the many stories which grew up about him, coupled with the widespread devotion people have expressed toward him in many times and cultures, give us a glimpse into the holiness of the man.  And the picture it paints is very appealing.
 
Nicholas was born into a wealthy family during the latter part of the Third Century on what is now the southern coast of Turkey; his parents, devout Christians, died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still a very young man. As a result, he suddenly found himself in possession of a fairly substantial fortune. However, rather than keep his money, he obeyed Jesus’ command to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” and distributed his earthly wealth among the poorest and neediest around him.
 
Nicholas was ordained a priest and was subsequently made bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, which was a province of Asia Minor. Sources tell us that he was imprisoned during the Christian persecution, which took place under the Roman Emperor Diocletian but lived to see the legalization of the faith under Constantine. Likely present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Nicholas died in the city of Myra on Dec. 6, 343.
 
Nicholas was known during his lifetime for his expansive generosity.  One of the most popular stories about him concerned a man who was too poor to provide dowries for his three daughters; at the time, a lack of dowry meant that a woman could not marry, and so it was likely that these girls would end up being sold, either into slavery or prostitution. When Nicholas heard of the situation, he is said to have gone to the house on three separate occasions, each time tossing a bag of gold through the window, thereby providing each daughter with the needed dowry.  According to legend, the gold landed in the stockings of the young women, which they had washed and hung over the fireplace to dry – thus beginning the tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas that persists to this day.
 
Miracles also were attributed to Nicholas after his death. One of the oldest stories tells of a young boy who was kidnapped from Myra by pirates who raided the city during the celebration of the saint’s feast day. A year later, as the child’s grieving mother prayed for his safe return, Nicholas is said to have appeared to the boy where he was being held as a slave, sweeping him up and returning him to his parents.
 
Another story has Nicholas restoring to life three children who were murdered by a wicked innkeeper.  Still another, which reportedly took place during the saint’s lifetime, says that while on a voyage to the Holy Land, the ship on which he was traveling was caught in a terrible storm. The terrified sailors were sure that the ship would be lost and that they would drown, but Nicholas calmly prayed for their safety. Within minutes, the waves were stilled and the storm abated, sparing everyone on board.
 
While many of these tales are unsubstantiated, their persistence over the centuries nevertheless point to a man who was both generous and holy, a model for those who would also live a compassionate life. There are many who claim him as their patron, among them children, sailors, brides and the country of Greece. 
 
His feast day, which falls near the beginning of Advent, is Dec. 6.
 
Sources for this article include:
www.americancatholic.org
www.catholiconline.come
Ott, Michael. "St. Nicholas of Myra." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
“Saint Nicholas of Myra." CatholicSaints.Info. 11 June 2016.
 www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/
 

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Patron saint of widows and seafarers

If you ever had an opportunity to attend Catholic school in the United States, you have Elizabeth Ann Seton to thank for it. The first American-born saint, Mother Seton, as she became known, would end up traveling an often painful road, which led from a privileged upbringing in New York to her eventual vocation as a Sister of Charity in Baltimore, Md.
 
Born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York in 1774, she was raised as a staunch Episcopalian by her father, Dr. Richard Bayley. Although the family moved in the highest social circles, Bayley made sure that his daughter learned early the value of love and service to others.
 
At the age of 19, Elizabeth married a wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton, with whom she was deeply in love. Together they had five children, and she felt, at the time, as if she had everything she could want.
 
Ten years into their marriage, however, life began to take a different turn. Seton’s business failed, and he contracted tuberculosis. In an attempt to recover his health, the family moved to Italy, where he had business friends. The move, however, saved neither him nor his finances; he died in 1803, leaving his wife an impoverished widow with five children to raise on her own.
 
While in Italy, however, she came in close contact with Catholicism for the first time through the Filichi family, who took her and her children in. Through their influence, she became deeply devoted to both the Real Presence and the Blessed Mother.  When she converted to Catholicism in 1805, the news was not warmly received by many of her strict Episcopalian family and friends. 
 
Although she considered entering a convent in Canada, then-Archbishop John Carroll (whose cousin Charles had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence) convinced her instead to come to the Diocese of Baltimore. There, she founded a school in 1808 to help support herself and her children; though it was a secular institution, it was run along the lines of a religious community.  In fact, when news of her Catholicism spread, many of the girls enrolled there were withdrawn by their parents.
 
As other young women began to join Elizabeth, the archbishop asked her to establish a free Catholic girl’s school in Baltimore, and the parochial school system in America was inaugurated. In 1809, Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Charity to run the schools, and from that point on, she was known as Mother Seton. Archbishop Carroll officially approved the order in 1812.
 
Both her order and the parochial school system grew. Although she contracted tuberculosis, Mother Seton continued to work with both until her death in 1821.
 
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s feast day is Jan. 4; she is the patron saint of widows and seafarers (two of her sons went to sea), and against loss of parents.
 
Sources for this article include:
 
www.americancatholic.org
  
www.catholiconline.com
 
“Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton“. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 September 2016.
 
Schreck, Alan.  “Catholic Church History from A to Z”.  Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Servant Publications, 2002.
 
 
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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 19, 2016

Zechariah 12: 10-11, 13:1; Psalm 63;

Galatians 3: 26-29; Luke 9: 18-24

"O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water." (Ps 63:2)

"Then [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'" (Lk 9:23)

It is rather ironic–or maybe not ironic at all and simply God's plan–that these readings would be assigned to this particular Sunday in June. This weekend in the Diocese of Burlington Bishop Coyne will ordain Mr. Joseph Sanderson to the transitional diaconate and Deacons Matthew Rensch and Curtis Miller to the priesthood. Following their ordinations, Deacon Sanderson and Fathers Rensch and Miller will either assist at or celebrate Masses of Thanksgiving at which these readings will be used. How these readings speak to those of us in Holy Orders! Both quotes above are great beginning points for those to be ordained priests and a reminder for someone like me who is already a priest.

The journey to the priesthood begins when the candidate realizes his "flesh pines and...soul thirsts" for God. While all people experience this call, the one to enter Holy Orders realizes in the depths of his heart and soul that God has called him to enter an ordained relationship with him. "This sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1581), "so that he may serve as Christ's instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church . . . "

The priest feels drawn into a life in which he gives himself totally, body, mind, heart, and soul, to Christ and his Church. Through the priesthood, he satisfies the thirst of his soul as recounted in Psalm 63. This relationship with Christ then overflows into service to God's people. It is a total giving of one's self, and thus it is a joyful life marked by simplicity, obedience, and celibacy. The heart, mind, body, and soul are given to God.

Jesus makes it clear that anyone who wishes to follow him must "deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow [him]." On Good Friday, the priest holds the wooden cross for all to venerate. He knows from his own prayer that it is only through the cross of Jesus that salvation and redemption will come to God's people. The individual crosses of the people must come to the cross of Christ, which is a window to resurrection and hope. The priest has given his life for that cross, and now leads others through it. A priest's life is not a career. He does not seek advancement or career opportunities. His life is set before him. He sets out to minister in the places the Church needs and directs him, as that is how he knows and hears God's will. The priest knows it is not about him, but about Christ and his Church.

The celebrations of the sacraments are the center of the priest's life. His life comes together fully in those moments. He has felt God's call into a deep, unique relationship with him that is marked by prayer. He celebrates the sacraments in humility as he himself is in need of the forgiveness and healing of those same sacraments he provides for God's people. He does so in the person of Christ, for it is Christ who baptizes, forgives sins, and anoints through the priest. It is Christ's body and blood that is made evident upon the altar in the Eucharist.

The priest has felt the need of Christ in his own life. He has given his life for that relationship. He now brings that relationship to each person he meets in celebrating the sacraments, healing God's people. Indeed, he is an icon of Christ, for it is through him that the faithful see Christ, the one to whom the priest is configured through Holy Orders.

Msgr. Bernard Bourgeois is the principal of Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington. Msgr. Bourgeois may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. (See official on page 3.)

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Transforming faith into action

Jesus uses the wonderful parable about the rich man and Lazarus to prod us into awareness of those around us who are in desperate need; He is specific about the evil of ignoring the poor person who is hungry. In the parable, Jesus tells us that Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s door, and the rich man had to know he was there but did nothing to help.
 
Jesus is speaking about more than hunger. There are many effects of poverty — poor health, hunger, thirst, inadequate clothing, inadequate shelter, despair, discouragement, depressed spirits, social isolation, marginalization and even oppression. Despite an enlightened social services network in Vermont, all of these effects of poverty are experienced by people in our own communities, throughout Vermont and the nation.
 
Even worse, the level of poverty in developing countries is unimaginable. And one of the worst effects of poverty is that no one seems to care that there is no end, no hope in sight; yet there is plentitude in the world.
 
Just as our prayer expresses what we believe, our actions tangibly demonstrate what we believe. Our faith should move us to be evermore charitable.
 
Blessed Oscar A. Romero, a late archbishop of San Salvador, reflecting on the depth of poverty and injustice in his native land commented: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but at least it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
 
In addressing the problems of poverty in Vermont, the United States and the world, the Church long has been in a leadership position. Programs operated at the parish, diocesan and national levels are significant sources of help to the impoverished. In Vermont, The Bishop’s Fund and The Bishop deGoesbriand Appeal
for Human Advancement support many such activities.
 
Catholic Relief Services has a presence in more than 100 countries and annually delivers emergency
relief supplies to about 100 million people suffering the effects of natural disasters. It works with local
people on tangible development and redevelopment projects, enabling transformative improvement in people’s lives.
 
Although charitable giving is part of charity, there is more to it. We must not think that the solution is simply to throw money at a problem. The core of charity is love. How do we love someone? We spend some time with that person. Ordinary acts of kindness and genuine concern, being involved in the lives and the wellbeing of others and providing encouragement all are simple illustrations of that kind of charity. It is particularly charitable when such acts are done for those marginalized by society and when we are conscious of them as Christ in disguise.
 
Many Vermont Catholics actively engage in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy through formal channels. Others perform them quietly. I applaud the many who are doing those works of mercy.
 
Jesus reminds us, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Would He be happy with what we are doing? Or would He suggest how we might do a little more in caring for His people who are suffering?
 
As we become more involved in some concrete aspect of caring for God’s people, we transform our faith into action and delight the Lord.
 
 

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:9)
 
As Catholics, how we live our faith can have a great impact on the violence and injustice that surround us.
 
The escalation of violence and shooting of unarmed African Americans by police and subsequent retaliation against police have shocked the conscience of the nation.
 
These were not acts of foreign terrorists. In July, two victims were African American men who were killed during an interaction with local police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five were Dallas police officers fatally shot by a lone gunman expressing anger toward police officers.
 
These incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota are not isolated incidents. They are part of an ongoing nationwide epidemic in which police have shot unarmed African Americans. More recently the tragedy was repeated in Tulsa, Okla.; Charlotte, N.C; and San Diego, Calif.
 
Today, with the ability to capture everything on video via cell phones and police body cams, the public is able to examine these incidents closely, which has led to public protests throughout our country.
 
Police stopped the Minnesota victim because a taillight that was out on his vehicle. In Louisiana, the victim was selling CD’s on the sidewalk. For reasons that are not clear, the interactions escalated to the point of an officer shooting the victim.
 
The central question is: Are police dealing with the African American segment of the population in a manner inconsistent with the treatment accorded the white population?
 
To be true to our vocation as Christians, we need to hunger and thirst for righteousness in our society. We must also be peacemakers and always seek the truth by critically evaluating the facts both nationally and in our own community.
 
While we have not encountered the same type of racial incidents here in Vermont, we have seen an increase in violent crime and three fatal confrontations involving law enforcement since December. A well-publicized report commissioned by the Vermont State Police and conducted by the Institute for Race and Justice and the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research revealed that troopers were more likely to stop African American drivers than white drivers. African American drivers who were stopped were more likely to receive a ticket or to be arrested for relatively similar offenses.
 
Records from the Department of Corrections, Census Bureau and the Department of Justice also show that people of color are incarcerated at a higher rate than the white population. A report from the research and advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, reveals that one in 14 black men in Vermont are incarcerated. In fact, Vermont is one of just five states incarcerating its black population at about 10 times the rate of white residents.
 
Before concluding that racism fully explains the above statistics, we would have to know more about all confounding factors such as the objective behaviors that resulted in a traffic stop and make a thorough analysis of all information pertaining to each encounter. Sentencing decisions are complex and include many variables. However, it appears bias may be a factor.
 
At the same time, society needs to understand that police, in Vermont and elsewhere, have an extremely critical and difficult role. It is essential for the public to be protected from criminal activity, whether violence against persons or property, or crimes such as harassment, or hazards like drunk driving. Every veteran police officer can share accounts of unimaginable tragedies encountered on the job.
 
Yet police officers are human and make mistakes. If these mistakes are motivated or enabled by racial bias, they need to be extinguished.
 
This too is a matter of justice.
 
Race is such a polarizing force in American culture that most of us have at least some tint of racial bias in our thinking. Individual Catholics must first confront their own biases. We must realize that all human beings are God’s beloved children, made in His image and likeness. We need to share that vision in the broader community.
 
With the Year of Mercy nearing an end, now is the perfect time to reinvigorate the spirit of mercy by working to eliminate racism from our culture. Fair, unbiased policing and sentencing and justice in the social and economic arenas are all essential to overcoming injustice. But also getting to know and engage with our neighbors is essential if the racial divide is to be broken down.
 
Those able to break down those barriers and so foster peace -- Jesus proclaims them blessed.
 
 

God and Brexit

Ever since the United Kingdom decided in June to leave the European Union, contending (and sometimes overlapping) explanations have been offered for a vote that stunned the world’s opinion-makers: a perceived loss of national sovereignty to a transnational organization; concerns over current EU immigration policy and the effect of open EU borders on jobs and the rule of law; aggravations with petty bureaucratic regulation by EU mandarins in Brussels. Together, these amount to what’s often called the EU’s “democracy deficit,” which seems to me real enough.

I’d like to suggest another, perhaps deeper, answer to the question of the EU’s current distress, though: to put it bluntly, the “democracy deficit” is a reflection of Europe’s “God-deficit.” Let me connect the dots.

The founding fathers of today’s European Union – which began with the European Coal and Steel Community before morphing into the European Common Market and then the EU – were, in the main, Catholics: Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Robert Schumann. Appalled by the self-destruction that Europe had wrought in two world wars, they sought an answer to aggressive nationalism in economic partnerships that would bind the West Franks (the French) to the East Franks (the Germans) so that war between them would be inconceivable. It was a practical idea, it worked, and it was understood to be the first step toward forms of political partnership and integration.

The wager underlying this project, as these men conceived it, was that there was enough of Christian or biblical culture left in Europe to sustain democratic pluralism in a “union” of sovereign states that would respect national and regional distinctiveness. And that Christian or biblical “remainder” involved the Catholic social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity:” The idea that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible local level (as in classic American federalism, where local governments do some things, state governments do other things and the national government does things that local and state governments can’t do). 

“Subsidiarity” is a check against the tendency of all modern states to concentrate power at the center: which explains why the principle was first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, as the shadow of totalitarianism lengthened across Europe. Respect for the social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity” also implies respect for cultural difference. And that, in turn, assumes that human beings get to universal commitments – like respect for basic human rights – through particular experiences, not through generalized abstractions. Or as Polish editor Jerzy Turowicz said to me 25 years ago, John Paul II was a “European” because he was a Cracovian, the heir of a particular experience of pluralism and tolerance, not despite the fact that he came from a unique cultural milieu. 

When biblical religion collapsed, as it manifestly has in most of Old Europe and too much of New Europe after 1989, commitments to subsidiarity and its respect for difference imploded as well. The vacuum was then filled by a monochromatic, anti-pluralist notion of “democracy.” Embodied in EU law and enforced by unaccountable bureaucrats and EU courts, the results of this decayed democratic idea went far beyond idiotic regulations on the shape of tomatoes and bananas to include a concerted attempt to impose a single political culture in Europe, best described as the culture of personal autonomy – the Culture of the Self. That pseudo-culture is the hollowed-out shell of the Christian personalism that once inspired de Gasperi, Adenauer, Schumann, and the mid-20th-century Christian
Democratic parties of Europe. And its political by-product is the EU’s “democracy deficit.” 

Forty years ago, German constitutional scholar Ernst-Friedrich Boeckenfoerde argued that the modern, liberal-democratic state faced a dilemma: It rested on the foundation of moral-cultural premises – social capital – it could not itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, formed by a certain kind of culture to live certain virtues, to keep liberal democracy from decaying into new forms of authoritarianism – more pungently described in 2005 by a distinguished European intellectual, Joseph Ratzinger, as a “dictatorship of relativism.” The Boeckenfoerde Dilemma is on full display in the European Union, which is in deep trouble because of a democracy deficit that is, at bottom, a subsidiarity-deficit caused by a God-deficit. 

Americans would be very foolish to think ourselves immune to a similar crisis of political culture.

     
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Theology isn't math

During the heyday of the Solidarity movement, a famous Polish slogan had it that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 Must Always = 4.” It was a quirky but pointed way of challenging the communist culture of the lie, which befogged public life and warped relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues and neighbors. For Poland to be something other than the claustrophobic Soviet puppet-state it had been since 1945 – for Poland to be itself, true to its character and history – Poland had to live in the truth: It had to be a country in which 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
That Solidarity slogan harkened back to George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s dystopian novel, a totalitarian state maintains social control by obfuscating reality, using what the British author called “Newspeak” and “doublethink” to compel its subjects to acknowledge as true what they know is false. Thus one of the more odious of the characters in the novel, a regime stooge whose job is to break the will of “thought criminals,” explains that if Big Brother and the omnipotent Party say so, two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”
           
Which brings us to a tweet earlier this month from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a prominent figure on the current Roman scene.
            
I don’t use Twitter, so its syntactical wonderland is a bit foreign to me. And having had previous experience of Father Spadaro’s capacity for provocation-via-Twitter, I’m prepared to think that, in this case, he may have been trying to say something other than what he seemed to be saying. But as his tweet rang ominous bells for anyone familiar with Orwell or Solidarity, it’s worth reflecting upon.
           
Here’s what Father Spadaro tweeted (in linear, rather than Twitter, format): “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”
           
Now that was not, so to speak, a tweet in a vacuum. It was a message projected into an already-overheated Catholic conversation about the proper interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In that context, the charitable reading of the tweet is that Father Spadaro was reminding us of the obvious – that pastoral care is an art, and that the priest dealing with complicated and messy human situations is not like a first-grade teacher drilling six-year olds in addition.
 
But then the question inevitably arises, what is the relationship of truth to pastoral care? And why suggest, even in Twitter-world, that there are multiple “truths” – a convention of the post-modern academic playpen that leads by a short road to the chaos of “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing properly describable as the truth?
As for theology, the word means speaking-of-God, which in Christian terms speaking of the One who is Truth – the Truth who makes us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are strictly syllogistic; St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doctors of the Church, were not logicians. But if theology decays into illogical forms of Newspeak, it is false to itself.
           
It was providential that Christianity had its first “inculturation” in a milieu – Greco-Roman antiquity – where the principle of non-contradiction was well-established and something couldn’t “be” and “not be” simultaneously. That cultural environment was where Christianity found the conceptual tools to turn confession and proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – into catechesis and creed. Suppose the first “inculturation” had been in a setting where it made perfect sense to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord” at the same time – like the culture of India two millennia ago? It made a great deal of difference that the first formative centuries of Christianity took place in a culture where 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
Applying the truths of the faith to the complexities of life is not a matter of logic alone. But if attempts to do so are illogical, in that they stretch truth to the breaking point, they’re unlikely to be pastorally effective. Because the soul needs truth to be free.       
 
 

A reflection on “A Man for All Seasons”

On Dec. 12, 1966, the film “A Man for All Seasons” was released. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten “The Sand Pebbles,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Alfie” and T”he Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for Best Picture.
           
Intriguingly, though, “A Man for All Seasons” is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.
           
Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:
           
“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff….
           
“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
           
Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
           
And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.
           
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Albert Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
           
In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.   
 

A cinematic lesson in hope

At a moment like this when there doesn’t seem to be a lot going right — ascendant authoritarianisms throughout the world; lethal violence by ideological fanatics; feckless responses to both from the democracies — it’s good to be reminded that things can be different, and in fact were different, not so very long ago. 

Recapturing those days and summoning memories of a time when the good folks won, cleanly and against all the odds, is the singular accomplishment of a splendid new documentary, “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism,” which should be on everyone’s summer must-watch list.

It took me 19 years of research and three books (“The Final Revolution,” “Witness to Hope,” and “The End and the Beginning”) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in 93 minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the 20 century: the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place: something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new bishop of Rome.       

Central and eastern Europe weren’t liberated by conceding that the communists had a point, even if they were rather brutal and inefficient in making that point socially, economically, and politically. Nor were the countries of the Warsaw Pact liberated by churchmen and western diplomats cosseting the dictators that ran those party-states. What we used to call the “captive nations” were liberated because “good” and “evil” were “called by their right names,” as the Solidarity martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popieliuszko, used to put it.

Central and eastern Europe didn’t break free of the shackles of totalitarianism without trying, failing, and then trying again: it took a critical mass of people, determined to “live in the truth” no matter how difficult, to implode the communist culture of the lie and give a new birth of freedom to the lands Stalin claimed as his prize for helping beat Hitler.

And the countries of central and eastern Europe didn’t regain their liberties by adopting the usual 20th-century method of social change, mass violence. Understanding that people who begin by storming Bastilles usually end up building their own (as one Polish dissident said), the new freedom fighters inspired by John Paul II deployed weapons that communist brutality could not match: truth, national memory, tenacious organizing, and personal resilience. 

For those whose memories of St. John Paul reach back only as far as his last years, “Liberating a Continent” is also a powerful reminder of what a handsome, charismatic, and utterly compelling man John Paul II was at the height of his physical powers. He radiated confidence, moral strength, and the courage of a happy warrior. And because of that, those whose lives he touched felt empowered in return. 

The displacement of history by “social studies” in U.S. elementary and secondary schools has been a disaster for historical understanding. And while the new “social history,” which wants to do history from the bottom up, has taught us many things, there are still occasions when great men do bend history’s curve in a different direction; “Liberating a Continent” is also a useful reminder that John Paul II didn’t make “1989” happen by himself. But without him, a continent wouldn’t have been liberated when it was and how it was. So I’d suggest adding this terrific film to the curriculum of every Catholic (and indeed every Christian) high school in North America, to remind students what happened in their parents’ lifetimes and to inspire them to moral greatness themselves.

“Liberating a Continent” will be aired on various public television stations in the months ahead; that schedule will be regularly updated at www.jp2film.com. But while you’re checking for local airings at that site, go to the “purchase” tab, order a copy online, and settle down for an hour and a half of superb entertainment that will lift your spirits in a darkling season.  

Article written by George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 

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