Before our Eyes

There is an understandable excitement that ripples through various segments of the scientific community each time a new link in the evolutionary chain is discovered. I imagine one reason is that evolution is normally such a slow motion process. We look backward over thousands, even millions of years to discover which species and events came before us; to learn about the ages of earth’s history. These revelations help to understand the world as it is today. They explain, in part, who we are and why we developed so differently from other species, as well as why some species are now extinct. But these evolutionary discoveries arise mostly from studying the very distant past. Hence the excitement when new information is detected.

To date it has gone mostly unnoticed and unremarked, but the Covid 19 pandemic has exposed a miracle in our own day. We no longer need to look backward over history. Of course, miracle might be overstating the case. The exact word has yet to be determined. But we can truly observe evolution unfolding this very minute.

In Darwin’s
Origin of the Species, he speaks of natural selection as the method through which certain species are favored for advancement over others. This, in turn, gave rise to the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which is a more apt expression of Darwin’s theory. One of the objections to the term natural selection is that it implies a conscious decision on the part of nature to privilege or prefer one species over another. However, when understood correctly, the term suggests that some species evolve and therefore survive because they are more suited to changes in environment. For example, some were able to adapt and evolve after the ancient cosmic event that brought about the demise of dinosaurs. There was no direct “choice” by nature to end the Jurassic age.

It is important to understand that survival of the fittest has nothing to do with individuals, per se. In our society we pay a great amount of attention to being physically fit (consider that some gyms are open twenty four hours). Our physical conditioning, however, is not what evolutionary “fitness” means. Rather, it refers to the ability of an entire species to survive environmental change. Nor does it require a meteoric event. Today we live in a rapidly changing world; in an environment that is heating faster than anyone could predict. Add the Covid 19 pandemic and we find ourselves witnessing some wonderful ironies.

For one, people who close their eyes to environmental change are being blinded by increasing and more severe natural disasters: floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc.

Secondly, in the United States, those who denied the pandemic and/or refused to wear masks and be vaccinated claiming freedom of choice, are being hospitalized and dying from the very thing they claimed did not exist. Could that be the ultimate freedom? It is certainly the ultimate irony.

There are a combination of factors at play: a sense of invincibility among the young, fatalistic faith among the old, stubbornness, ignorance and politics.

As I said above, survival of the fittest does not apply to individuals. Nonetheless, these particular groups are culling the herd. And as chaff separated from wheat, they are making room for a refined mental acuity among the species, possibly increasing our chances of survival now and in the future.

Indeed these are dramatic times and the scientific community should be stirring with excitement. For along with what we learn from studying the past, we are witnessing evolution in process. Maybe it is not a miracle. Maybe it is just natural selection. Whatever, it is happening before our very eyes.

And Jesus Wept

The Gospels tell of two instances when Jesus cried. In the Gospel of John, he wept at the death of his close friend Lazarus. On his way to Bethany he met Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. When he asked, “‘Where have you laid him?' They answered, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him!’” (Jn 11:34-47). In this instance, the Greek word used for weep means to cry silently—that deep sigh of the heart and heaving of the shoulders, the complete emptying of the self that knows no comfort. In the Christian faith Jesus is both God and human. His attachment to his friends was as great as any we might have. And he experienced what we all do. When the closest of friends dies, there is no quarter for consolation.

Luke’s Gospel gives us the other instance of Jesus weeping. His death was at hand and he was about to embark on a series of confrontations with the chief priests and other leaders. As Jesus approached Jerusalem he wept over the city for it did not recognize the time of its visitation (Lk 19:41-48). In this instance the Greek word for weep means to
wail aloud—the cries and pangs of frustration, even defeat. This is the agony of one who has been unable to move the self-righteous and cold-hearted toward compassion; to convince others that all are sinners; that all are God’s children; that all are worthy of love and redemption. This is the weeping that is relevant today for Jesus’s confrontations with the chief priests continue into the present.

Today's chief priests are the Catholic Bishops of the United States. And as Jesus looks over this country, he once again wails in agony. Last week’s discussion about whether politicians who support abortion rights are worthy to receive communion, and the subsequent decision to draft a policy, is in stark contrast to Jesus himself. The bishops have chosen to turn a deaf ear to the life and ministry of Jesus. They have chosen, on rather tenuous ground, to judge who might be worthy to receive communion and to condemn those whom they consider sinners.

There are too many deficiencies with the bishops’ arguments to adequately confront them all here. Others, far more eloquent than I, have noted that there are life issues beyond abortion—of equal merit—that must be addressed by believers. Still others have pointed out that the Eucharist is not a prize to be attained, but a gift to institute healing. Before receiving Communion each person prays, “Lord, I am not worthy.” Here it might be worth remembering the social situation of Jesus’s time.

Those who were considered unworthy were outcast. Lepers were isolated in colonies, tax collectors shunned, prostitutes marginalized, and adulterers stoned. Not by Jesus. He intervened to prevent the stoning of an adulteress; ate with prostitutes; took shelter in the homes of tax collectors; touched and healed lepers.

There is a poetic element to all of this. In the Catholic faith, nothing is as important as the presence of Jesus. Hence the significance of the Eucharist. For a person to eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ is to invite Jesus to dwell within them. That is precisely what Jesus did during his ministry for the outcasts of his day. He dwelt among them. More than just dwelling, he spent precious time with them. And for such association he was loudly criticized. Rather than succumbing to his critics, Jesus continued ministering to those deemed unworthy by religious leaders.

It should be noted that there is not a single example in the gospels of Jesus condemning any individual. He did, of course, challenge groups of people. Sometimes in rather stark language. Such as in the twenty third chapter of Matthew’s gospel, when he called out a series of woes against the scribes and pharisees. I suggest that chapter should prove sobering and humbling reading for the discriminating bishop.

In the meantime, the bishops seem unmoved by Jesus's ministry and undaunted by his prophetic woes. They choose, instead, to seek new groups to ostracize and cast out. They have set themselves up as arbiters of whom Jesus should dwell with. But it seems to me that is Jesus's decision to make. And it also seems to me that in his ministry two thousand years ago, he already showed his hand.

How little things have changed in the last two thousand plus years. Today Jesus need not draw near to Jerusalem to be overcome with grief. Today Jesus draws near to the United States. He wails aloud in agony that the fire of his truth has not been able to melt the hearts of the bishops.

There is, of course, more going on than just judgment and condemnation. And I hope to address that in another piece. For now…

Indeed, Jesus weeps.

The Pardon Power

In the waning days of the Trump administration, while many people seek to put behind them his now failed presidency, all eyes are on the pardons expected to flow from Trump's pen. These include himself, his children and even the rioters who: attempted to lay waste to the U.S. Capitol, execute the vice-president and speaker of the House, arrest other members of Congress, and overthrow democracy, itself. It seems, therefore, that we should examine the idea of pardons and presidential power.

The words of the Constitution are clear. It states that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” However, words do not exist in a vacuum. They have both meaning and context. The Constitution defines the branches of government and delineates their powers.
But it is not a dictionary. Hence the necessity of understanding the meaning of words. Even so called “originalists” must know what words mean if one is to correctly interpret the Constitution.

Let’s look at the three possible pardons mentioned above. First, Trump cannot pardon himself. By its very definition, a pardon requires two parties—the offended and the offender. This has embedded its way into daily discourse and even the manners we teach our children. For example, when we accidentally bump into another person, we say, “Pardon me.” In other conversation, whether seriously or in jest or even in sarcasm, we frequently hear the expression, “I beg your pardon.”

In the second example, Trump is fully within his constitutional rights to pardon his children. But here there exist two caveats. You cannot pardon someone for an offense or crime that they did not commit. If Trump does pardon his children he is admitting that they committed crimes against the United States. The second caveat has never been challenged in court. And that is a blanket pardon. Since Trump’s children have not yet been charged with a crime, there is reason to doubt that he can pardon them. It has been done in the past, as in the case of Richard Nixon. But it was not challenged. Legally, it is difficult to comprehend how one can be pardoned, without knowing the offense. That should deter even the most conservative judges, in fact especially the most conservative of judges, from siding with Trump.

Considering the country’s current climate, the third example may be the most critical. Can Trump pardon those who participated in the capitol riots? Some have not yet been charged and they would fall under the second caveat regarding Trump’s children. Those who have been charged would seem to fall under Trump’s pardon purview as president. However, as you might guess, it is not that simple.

In criminal law the attorney-client privilege is bedrock. Still, it is automatically rendered non-existent if the attorney and client conspire to commit a crime. On January 6, 2021 Donald J. Trump incited an insurrection against the United States. As such, he is complicit in the crime of treason. By extension of the first argument that he cannot pardon himself, and in the same way that the attorney-client privilege evaporates when conspiring to commit a crime, Trump cannot pardon the people with whom he conspired to overthrow the United States of America.

The act of conspiring need not be explicit. Trump did not say, “Go take over the Capitol Building, hang Mike Pence, kill Nancy Pelosi and arrest members of Congress.” He did tell the mob to march to the Capitol Building and “fight like hell or you won’t have a country left.” That is an incitement to riot. It is the language of revolution, a call to insurrection. It is treason, plain and simple.

Regardless of whom Trump tries to pardon in the next few days, the Justice Department must proceed with charging and bringing to trial anyone who committed crimes. That includes the January 6 insurrectionists, Trump’s children and even Trump himself. If necessary, the courts will defend the constitution. The presidential pardon power has limits.

The Perfect Candidate

To some extent all elections are about popularity. Most people do not vote for someone they do not like. Except, that is, when the electorate believes that they are voting for the lesser of two evils. So how do we determine the perfect candidate? As with almost everything else, it is easier to say what the perfect candidate is not, than to say what he or she is. Let’s start there.

Acknowledging that this is a very broad stroke, and admitting that there are exceptions, I would suggest that a former athlete, whether coach or player, is unqualified—regardless their popularity. In part, this is because the ultimate purpose of all sports is to win. The inspiring adage from Grantland Rice, “It is not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” has no relevance in modern American athletics—at least from high school on up to, and including, the pros. Coaches who consistently lose, get fired. Athletes who do not excel are benched or traded. Winning is everything.

But politics is not about winning. Yes, the campaign is. But once elected, the politician needs to be able to compromise and work toward a common goal. Unlike elections, passing legislation is not about victors and losers.

A second disqualifier is ignorance of government. How can someone be a politician without knowing anything about civics or governance? By a strange coincidence, the newly elected senator from Alabama, Tommy Tuberville, is not only a former football coach. He is also breathtakingly ignorant about the very office he was elected to. During his campaign he displayed surprise when informed of the senate’s role of “advice and consent.” And with stunning stupidity he declared that the three branches of government are “the House, the Senate and the Executive.” Thanks a lot, Alabama.

A third consideration is that the ideal candidate should not want to shred the Constitution or destroy democracy, itself. At this writing there are some 140 Republicans in the House and 11 senators who, on January 6, intend to challenge the certified, electoral tallies in six different states. The legal provision allowing such challenges is supposed to be based on irregularities or fraud in a particular state.

Since the election, the Trump campaign has filed nearly 60 legal challenges before a combination of state and federal judges, the federal ones being appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents, some even by Trump himself. The unanimous conclusion is that there is no evidence of voter fraud that could overturn the electoral outcome. That means that what these elected officials will attempt on January 6, is the destruction of democracy.

If that were not enough, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert has proven himself unqualified, indeed unfit, for elected office. He has called for violence if the challenge is not successful. It is essential that we recognize Gohmert as intellectually off-the-rails. More importantly, we must call him what he is—a modern day Benedict Arnold. He is demanding for the violent overthrow of the United States Government. In any civics class (which he apparently never attended) there is a name for that. It is treason—pure and simple.

There will always be good and bad candidates for public office and they will come from many quarters. In our two-party system it is necessary that those parties be committed to the principles of democracy and that the elected officials fulfill their sworn obligation to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

As I said in the beginning, it is easier to say what the perfect candidate is not, than it is to say what he or she is. We continue to look for people of competent intellect, those with good communication skills, a commitment to democracy, a vision for the future of our country, a recognition of the equality and value of all persons. But in our search for the perfect candidate, at least for now, it is not a Republican.

A Need for Sackcloth

Sackcloth, especially when accompanied by sitting in ashes, has a rich history in the Scriptures and the life of the early church. In today’s world it is considered as beyond medieval in terms of its relevance, and barbaric in terms of a punishment. In fact, though, it was less punishment than it was repentance.

Sackcloth and ashes were used as very public displays of one’s sins and a sign of contrition—a promise not to sin again once the time of repentance was finished. Perhaps we should consider bringing back the practice. And do so on a very public scale.

The Covid 19 pandemic has unmasked a number of deep-seated issues festering within us all. On the surface some seem selfish and even infantile. Such as the suggestion that wearing a mask impinges on our freedom.

Others appeal more fundamentally to the Constitution, with the suggestion that restricting religious services somehow violates the First Amendment. That position is sometimes coupled with the absurdity that God will protect worshippers from falling ill to the power of the virus. In reality, a number of ministers who claimed that protection and continued to lead worship services have themselves died from Covid 19. Not intending to sound insensitive, there might be some poetic justice in that.

One would hope that a rational Supreme Court would see through the fallacy of that First Amendment argument to the more fundamental principle of life. But that hope was dashed by Justices who are less rational than we thought. What is most disconcerting, from a Christian point of view, is the twisted logic that religious freedom supersedes the government’s power to protect its citizens during a pandemic. Take Washington, D.C.

I have long been an admirer of Archbishop Wilton Gregory. When Pope Francis appointed him to head the Archdiocese I thought it was an excellent choice, as was the decision to elevate Gregory to the College of Cardinals. This is a man whom I have always considered to be a faithful advocate of the Gospel, both in word and deed.

However, he recently joined the chorus of misguided religious leaders by filing a lawsuit against the District of Columbia’s restrictions on houses of worship. He even argued his case in an op-ed piece printed in the Washington Post. Others have already demonstrated the weaknesses of the Cardinal’s position, particularly his comparison of religious services to retail establishments and liquor stores. Shoppers do not gather together for an hour shouting and singing God’s praises as they select their bread and wine.

Indeed Cardinal Gregory is correct to emphasize the importance of worship to believers, as well as the significance of the Christmas season. Yet Easter, being the core of the Christian Kerygma, is far more important. Yet the church survived the restrictions in place last spring. Still, there is a deeper concern at issue here. And it is to be found in the Gospel itself.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) we are presented with the measurement of one’s worthiness to enter into the Kingdom. It has nothing to do with church attendance or, for that matter, with prayer. The sole criteria is how we treat one another, specifically those in need. Don’t get me wrong. Worship is important. But when it jeopardizes the health of the community—especially during a pandemic—it takes a back seat to restrictions. Does anyone really believe that God cares more about us worshipping him than he does about us protecting each other? The passage cited above would suggest exactly the opposite: “What you did to the least of these you did to me.” Cardinal Gregory would never suggest, in word, that we expose each other to Covid 19. But his lawsuit does exactly that—in deed.

There is an obvious contingency at work here. It is known as a super spreader event. Gathering people together during a pandemic, inside a closed building, to sing and pray aloud, exposes not only the worshippers, but the broader community to Covid 19. Couple that with what Jesus says, and we can conclude that the contingency is clearly sinful.

Perhaps the Cardinal would consider another way to proclaim the Good News. More powerful than lawsuits or op-ed articles in the local paper, would be acknowledging super spreader events and the sinfulness of encouraging them. A week or ten days of wearing sackcloth and ashes in the nation’s capitol might awaken in all Catholics a commitment to the Good News. Who knows? It might even even have an effect on Congress.