Catholicism embodied: “The Pivotal Players”

Looking for some uplift after this tawdry election cycle? Some inspiration for tackling what lies ahead? A good way to enrich Advent? Examples of sanctity to help you be the missionary disciple you were baptized to be? Then let me recommend Bishop Robert Barron’s new DVD series, Catholicism: The Pivotal Players.

Pivotal Players is a follow-up to Bishop Barron’s immensely successful, ten-part mega-series, Catholicism, the most compelling presentation of the symphony of Catholic truth ever created for modern media. Key figures in Catholic history appeared throughout the original series to illustrate this truth of the faith or that facet of the Catholic experience. Now, with Pivotal Players, six of the most striking personalities in Catholic history take center stage, the adventure of their lives serving to deepen our understanding of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

The six are Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo Buonarroti: the reformer, the mystic, the theologian, the convert, the evangelist, and the artist. Two are doctors of the Church – and a third may be one day. Several of them inspired successors of St. Peter; another told a pope off in no uncertain terms. Two were Englishmen and converts from Anglicanism: one, will-o-the-wisp slight and the other gargantuan; one the quintessential Oxford don, the other, the quintessential Anglo-eccentric genius. One grew up a wannabe knight errant before his abrupt turn into radical evangelicalism. Still another was arguably the greatest genius in human history, his extraordinary talents ranging across sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry and other fields. Four were Italians (if you’ll permit the anachronism for an Umbrian, a Sienese, a sort-of Neapolitan, and a devout Florentine). Each of them was the human analogue to what astrophysicists call a “singularity,” someone to whom the old rules of spiritual gravitation didn’t apply.

And they shared something else in common besides the passionate intensity of their Catholic faith: each lived at a time of crisis for the Church, and each helped the Church address that crisis creatively while remaining true to itself.

Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena lived at times when institutional Catholicism had become complacent, losing its evangelical edge. By creating something utterly new in Catholic life – the mendicant religious order dedicated to evangelization – Francis inspired in the Church a new Gospel radicalism centered on the joyful experience of salvation. By persuading (perhaps better, shaming) Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from his political exile in Avignon, Catherine of Siena made it possible for the papacy to be again the center of unity for the entire Catholic world, as Christ intended it to be.

Thomas Aquinas, for his part, grafted the “new learning” of Aristotle into Catholic theology in a creative synthesis that gave the Church conceptual tools that remain powerful today. In doing so, he helped create what we know in the West as higher education, even as he showed the Church how to incorporate the best of the  “modernity” of his time into its intellectual and spiritual life without losing touch with the truths it had long possessed as a bequest from the Lord.

Michelangelo lived during that moment of sometimes-brash human assertiveness we call the Renaissance; his theologically-driven art (which Bishop Barron explains in perhaps the most scintillating part of Pivotal Players) enriched the classically-inspired humanism of his day by marrying it to the biblical account of the human person.

Newman and Chesterton, closer to our moment, were key figures in crafting a Catholic response to the scientific revolution and the other dramatic changes that were reshaping how we think about things – and imagine our place in the scheme of things – during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That each of them did so in wonderfully winsome prose helped demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Catholic mind and spirit in an increasingly skeptical age, even as they bequeathed to the 21st-century Church models of apologetics that remain cogent at a time like ours, when skepticism has often hardened into cynicism, or just plain boredom.

There are important things to be learned from each of these God-touched human personalities for the challenges Catholicism faces in the post-modern world of the twenty-first century. Kudos to Bishop Barron for bringing those things to our attention in a gripping way.

Order Catholicism: The Pivotal Prayers here.

COMING UP: The end of an era, the interment of an event

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Alfred Emmanuel Smith (1873-1944) served as Governor of New York for four terms and earned the gratitude of all civilized people by opposing Prohibition when that disastrous experiment in social engineering was, weirdly, at the center of our national politics. In 1928, Al Smith was the Democratic candidate for the presidency and took a bludgeoning from Herbert Hoover, virulent anti-Catholicism helping to defeat the “Happy Warrior.” Shortly after his death, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation was created to support children in need. And this year, as in the past, the two major-party candidates for President were on the dais at the Al Smith Memorial Dinner, the Foundation’s principal fund-raiser, where they were to show, in the words of the invitation, “light humor and political savvy.”

No one doubts that raising funds for New York’s poorest children is a worthy cause, although the amount raised annually at the dinner is smaller than many would expect. Still, the question posed by the Al Smith Dinner, at least in recent decades, bears serious reflection: What is this white-tie extravaganza at the Waldorf Astoria saying about the Catholic Church in the United States, and particularly in America’s greatest city?

It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Al Smith Dinner has been, and still is, a public ritual of tribal Catholicism: We’re here; we’ve made it; see, we can deliver the two most important people in the country, a few weeks before the election. That statement of Catholic pride (which not infrequently risks lurching into hubris) may have had its place at a previous moment in U.S. Catholic history. But today it strikes me as moth-eaten, even somewhat sad.

It’s also rather out-of-touch with the grand strategy of 21st-century Catholicism, which is the New Evangelization – the intentional offer of friendship with Jesus Christ and incorporation into the company of his friends, the Church. By contrast, the Al Smith Dinner seems based on the premise that the old ethnic transmission-belt by which the faith was passed on to new American generations for centuries still works. But it doesn’t.

Then there’s the problem, every four years, of how to square the dinner’s proud, tribal Catholicism with the fact that one (or in 2016, both) of the principal guests advocate public policies that starkly contradict the Church’s settled moral teaching, based as it is on both reason and Revelation.

Hillary Clinton is the most perfervid, indeed fevered, supporter of the abortion license ever nominated for the presidency by a major political party: which means that she and the Church are at loggerheads on the most fundamental principle of Catholic social doctrine, the inalienable dignity of every human person at all stages of life and in all conditions of life. Her understandings of the nature of marriage and the dimensions of religious freedom are also in sharp contrast to those taught by the Catholic Church.

As for Donald Trump, his concept of the dignity of the human person seems to end at his own mouth, beyond which he spews venom at war-heroes, Mexican-Americans, women who have displeased him, immigrants, political foes, and a variety of others he deems losers. His “I, alone” authoritarianism is just as serious a contradiction of Catholic social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity as Mrs. Clinton’s Leviathan-state progressivism. And Trump’s record on right-to-life issues over the years has been, at best, extremely sketchy, and not infrequently off-side.

Yet there they were on October 20, sharing the dais at the Al Smith Dinner, as if their profound differences with the Catholic Church in matters of moral sensibility and moral judgment were small beer.

This is demeaning. And it’s a self-inflicted wound. In a city as awash in money as New York, there are any number of ways to raise needed funds for at-risk kids other than this charade of bonhomie, in which the candidates pretend to be witty by reading jokes written by others. Once, the Al Smith Dinner contributed to breaking down anti-Catholic prejudices. Now, its tribalism and its seeming indifference to grave moral issues are an impediment to the New Evangelization.

The Al Smith Dinner has become the Al Smith Embarrassment. It’s time to give thanks for what it once did – and then give it a decent burial.

Featured Image: Cardinal Timothy Dolan sits between, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attend the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria on October 20, 2016 in New York City.The white-tie dinner, which benefits Catholic charities and celebrates former Governor of New York  Al Smith, has been attended by presidential candidates since 1960 and gives the candidates an opportunity to poke fun at themselves and each other.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)