Monday, January 30, 2012

Generation JPII - Raising Our Parents Catholic

Michelangelo in Rome - Cornelius Sullivan

Michelangelo in Rome

  Pieta, marble, 1499, Rome.

Cornelius Sullivan-Rome

There is one place on earth where you can be within a few steps of the ultimate masterpieces in sculpture, painting, and architecture done by the same artist. You would be standing under the dome of Peters Basilica in Rome close to a marble Pieta and adjacent to the Sistine Chapel fresco paintings. Michelangelo Buonarroti achieved unequaled excellence in all three mediums.

He signed his letters “Michelangelo, Sculptor”. His way of seeing and uncovering form in a Neo Platonic way in a block of marble enabled him to paint figures that are three dimensional and to design architecture that commands space. He spent most of his life in Rome but considered himself a Florentine. After his death his Florentine followers were able to sneak his body out of Rome so that he could be buried at home. His tomb is in the neighborhood church of his youth, Santa Croce.

The young sculptor came to Rome inauspiciously with the proceeds from the sale of a marble cupid that he carved, aged by burying, and then passed off as an antique. It was bought by Cardinal Riario. The cardinal did not like being duped but nevertheless provided the young sculptor with a large weathered block of marble. The young man carved a larger than life size Bacchus. In a very short time the sculpture that Michelangelo did in Rome rivaled the great works from antiquity.

Art Historian William Wallace names four Michelangelo works as cultural icons; The Rome Pieta, the Sistine Fresco PaintingsMoses, and David. The David is in Florence, the others are in Rome. Michelangelo has architecture all around the city. The Moses sculpture is part of the tomb of Pope Julius II at the church of Saint Peter in Chains near the Coliseum. His Risen Christ marble is in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva by the Parthenon. All are accessible, only the Sistine Chapel requires an admission fee. We can look more closely at the three works at the Vatican.

Saint Peters Basilica, view from the rear.

Michelangelo’s dome is the grandchild of the Parthenon dome. The Renaissance began in 1402 with the competition for the sculpture for the bronze doors of the Baptistry in Florence. Lorenzo Ghiberti bested Fillipo Bruneleschi for the commission which he would work on for the rest of his life. Michelangelo called the doors “The Gates of Paradise”. Disappointed, Bruneleschi left the city and went to Rome. He studied the Parthenon and understood how the great dome was built. That knowledge had not been passed down, it was lost, and needed to be rediscovered by intense looking.  Back in Florence, the confidence of the Renaissance impelled the citizens to build the largest church in the world. They began to build the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, even though they did not know how to build a dome to cap it. The plan was to build the dome over a dirt support and then take the dirt out in wheelbarrows. They would find a way to do it.

Brunelecschi returned and said, never mind the dirt, “I think I know how to do it.” He did. Michelangelo said that he was privileged to grow up under the shadow of the magnificent dome. His dome for Saint Peters was based upon Bruneleschi’s dome.

As an old man he volunteered to be the architect for Saint Peters Basilica for “the glory of God”, serving without pay until his death. He saw the drum for the dome before he died but not the dome itself. He took away fussy crenellations from previous architects and clarified and kept Bramante’s Greek cross design. The central pilasters became massive supports for the great dome.
This photograph shows the dome from the back and it also shows the muscularity of Michelangelo’s architecture. I call attention to it because he was a sculptor of muscular bodies first and foremost and that informed his work in all mediums. After his death the basilica became a Latin cross design with the long nave to accommodate more pilgrims. Some lament the fact that, as you approach the church, the dome is obscured by the massive fa├žade. From any where else in the city, the dome dominates the skyline.  

Sistine Chapel Fresco Paintings

There is no need for me to describe the fresco paintings because they are so well known. I can repeat what I have often told my students. The sculptor did not want to do the commission. There was some intrigue. Bramante, the architect for the basilica at the time, had the ear of Pope Julius. He said get Michelangelo to do the ceiling of that chapel, that odd shaped impossible space, (so that my home town boy, Raphael, can have the good job painting in your palace). To get out of the bad job the sculptor claimed to not know fresco. The shrewd pope said, oh no, we know you apprenticed with Gerlandaio in Florence, climb that scaffolding.

Michelangelo began painting the twelve apostles. It was not going well. The good thing was he could be out of there in six months.  But he could not do something not worthy of his great gifts. He destroyed what was done and ran off to the marble quarries in the mountains of Carrara to think. He came back and told Julius that he would paint all of Genesis on the ceiling. Many years later it ended up being more than three hundred figures, figures painted as never before. It remains a case of making something good out of a bad job. We and history are the beneficiaries. If the sculptor had his way there would have been a few more marble figures.

The Rome Pieta
Michelangelo was twenty five when he finished carving his Pieta. The Sistine frescoes were from his middle years. Four years for the ceiling, and then many popes later he did the Last Judgement.

The Pieta is something good from a good job. The contract for the young man with the French Cardinal guarantied that it would be the best marble in Rome. It still is. The photograph above shows what it may have looked like in the French chapel at the back of the old basilica. It would have been on a low base. The subject was the dead Christ. The sculptor was able to do what he wanted to do, carve a perfect nude male figure.  Elevated as it is now, above eyelevel, the subject has become more about the face of the Virgin.  Pope Benedict on the Pieta concept: "The languages into which the Gospel entered when it came to the pagan world did not have such modes of expression. But the image of the pieta, the Mother grieving for her son, became the vivid translation of this word. In her, God's maternal affliction is open to view. In her we can behold it and touch it. She is the compasio of God, displayed in a human being who has let herself be drawn wholly into God's mystery".-Mary, 1997, page 78.
Low or high the sculpture is good from any angle and people still gasp when they first see it, even from far away behind bullet proof glass.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Politics of the '60s Lives On--As the Pro-Life Movement

With its vibrancy, its youth, and its moral seriousness, the March for Life 2012 reminds us once again of the point made by that prominent participant in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, who marched arm in arm with that other abortion opponent, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States.  
So wrote the late Richard John Neuhaus in an article, "The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s," published in First Things in 2009, discussing a book by political scientist Jon Shields, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.
In his 1969 work The End of Liberalism, Theodore Lowi wrote of a politics deprived of conflict over great moral principles. As Lowi saw it, American politics was dominated by opaque interest-group bargaining, which left the public paralyzed by a “nightmare of administrative boredom.” We have already mentioned the Port Huron Statement [of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962], which began with the declaration: “Making values explicit—an initial task in establishing alternatives—is an activity that has been devalued and corrupted.” Shields puts the matter nicely: “One might suppose that present-day conservatives would have declared war on a political system that was largely engineered by 1960s liberals. Yet it is liberals who are mounting a counterattack against this liberal revolution. What is more, their arguments often have a surprisingly conservative ring to them. For example, those who hope to enlist centrist voters against divisive moralists sound much more like Richard Nixon than Tom Hayden. In a strange political turn, they have embraced what Nixon called ‘the silent majority’ as the source of their salvation from 1960s liberalism.”  
 Or this:
The pro-life movement is a movement for change, indeed for what some view as the radical change of eliminating the unlimited abortion license. “Meanwhile,” writes Shields, “the pro-choice movement is a conservative movement defending the status quo.
The way in which the pro-life movement of today embodies the best of the politics of the 1960s is evident in this clip of the March for Life 2012:

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fr. Robert Barron on St. Thomas Aquinas (feast day January 28)

January 28 is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274. Priest and doctor of the Church, patron of all universities and of students, theologian and philosopher, the Angelic Doctor was one of the greatest minds of any time or tradition.

Don't miss G.K. Chesterton's biography, St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox".

For further reading, here is a link to Father Barron's article entitled, America Needs You, Thomas Aquinasand his book,

Robert Barron. Thomas Aquinas, Spiritual Master (New York: Crossroads Publishing Company, 1996).
Posted: 1/28/2011 6:00:00 AM on and by Word On Fire |Retrieved and posted here January 27, 2012 from

Promoting social justice

Paul Adams

Trying to navigate the conceptual fog that envelops the concept of social justice, I just came across an interesting article,  "Social Justice, Institutions, and Communities," posted today on the Witherspoon Institute blog, Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good by Adam J. MacLeod.  It concludes like this:
The job of the individual in promoting social justice is to act in concert with others in his or her community to serve real needs, both within the community and in other communities. The job of the state is to support and enable free institutions—the church, the family, property ownership, charitable organizations, for-profit businesses, trade groups—to do their good work. This perhaps is not all that social justice requires, but it is a good place to start.
This is close to Michael Novak's definition of social justice in his superb study of Catholic social teaching, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  There he takes up Hayek's challenge that the concept of social justice is a mirage, incoherently combining two incompatible understandings of the term: 1) social justice as a principle of state regulation, a regulatory principle or ideal of social order; 2) social justice as a virtue.

Novak sees the first sense of the term as problematic.  Characterizing no existing society, it seems like an ideal against which actual institutions are judged.  Behind this lies a view of the authority of the state and its responsibility and capacity that has origins in Aristotle and Aquinas, but which modern developments--precisely the profound social changes and dislocations that popes Leo XIII and Pius XI addressed through their 1891 and 1931 encyclicals--have made untenable.  They and subsequent popes, most fully John Paul in Centesimus Annus (1991) tried to navigate a path through the conceptual fog of 'social justice', in the process denouncing socialism precisely for its suppression or domination of the social space between state and individual.  The social teaching of these encyclicals also rejected a market-oriented dichotomy between state and individual that discounted the "mediating structures" which Berger and Neuhaus emphasized in their monograph, "To Empower People" (1976; reissued with a collection of essays, edited by Berger, Neuhaus, & Novak in 1996).  In seeking to renew civil society (reform institutions and correct morals, as Pius XI put it), they sought a way beyond the individualist-collectivist, state-individual paradigm that still bedevils much discussion of social policy, as well as recent political controversies about conscience and religious freedom (see Vischer, 2009).

In much discussion of Catholic social teaching, though, as well as secular and social work discussions of social justice, the state's responsibility for the common good is taken to require direct state control of the economy (a statist tendency common to nearly all communist, socialist, and social-democratic perspectives as well as fascism) and extensive state provision or funding of social welfare.  It is true that Leo XIII and Pius XI both condemn economic liberalism as individualistic and materialistic, acknowledging the state's responsibility for the common good and for workers and the poor in particular.  But both explicitly condemn statism and emphasize the importance of institutions and associations of civil society, not least free trade unions.

The experience of the last century, with its hypertrophy of the state, the rise and collapse of utopian ideologies that looked to direction of society and economy by bureaucratic elites and experts, urges caution.  We cannot but question an interpretation of the concept of social justice that points to ever-expanding state control and diminution of civil society.  Seeing the solution to social problems in terms of expanding state control over economy and civil society attributes to the modern state both a capacity to ensure the common good and the moral integrity and disinterestedness that has to ignore a mass of counter-evidence.  Developing Hayek's challenge before taking it up, Novak notes: modern societies are so complex that no one authority can can possibly control their manifold outcomes, whether regarding supply and demand, or prices, or the distribution of income.  The failures of socialism (so visible after 1989) make all this plain.  To attribute all social outcomes to someone's personal intention or capacity to control is, therefore, far too simple.  Consequently, say Hayek and other objectors, to claim to be speaking for social justice can only be to advance one's own abstract preferences.  Those who claim to speak for social justice prejudice arguments concerning means and ends by defining their opponents as "unjust."  In brief, use of the term social justice is moral imperialism by the imposition of abstraction.
The term social justice, used like this as it usually is in social work (which defines it as a "core social work value") is a conversation-stopper.  In Catholic social discourse, the Church's "preferential option for the poor" is often taken to imply a preference for government programs, an expansion of the state rather than a renewal of civil society.

Is there a way to recover a use of the term that addresses both the need for social reorganization (with special reference to the needs of the poor and oppressed) and at the same time--acknowledging that justice is one of the four cardinal virtues--situates the concept of social justice within the philosophical and theological frame of virtue ethics?  That is, can Hayek's challenge about the incompatible social and personal aspects of social justice, be met?  Or must one aspect of social justice, the virtue (or value) aspect, be abandoned in favor of a conversation-stopping rhetorical move to promote a political program while condemning anyone who disagrees as unjust.  Such a move is unhelpful, not least because it prevents examination of alternative means, for example to reduce poverty and inequality.

Novak answers the challenge with the following definition:

Social justice is a specific modern form of the ancient virtue of justice (pp.77-78).
 He continues:
Men and women exercise this specific social habit when they (a) join with others (b) to change the institutions of society.  The practice of social justice means activism; it means organizing; it means trying to make the system better (p. 78).
This approach is congruent with the way the NASW Code of Ethics translates the core value of social justice into an ethical principle calling  for activism:

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice.
Here, however, the Code is addressing the responsibility of social workers as professionals to act in certain ways with and on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  Novak is talking of a key virtue of individuals in a free society, a moral virtue that social policy and professional practice may encourage, suppress, or undermine.  Continuing his definition in a way compatible with empowerment, asset-based, family- and community-strengthening approaches to social work and social policy, but (except as a last resort) not to top-down interventions that seek to rescue individuals from their families, communities, churches, or other non-state associations.
[The practice of social justice] does not necessarily mean enlarging the state; on the contrary, it means enlarging civil society (p. 78). 
In this definition, personal virtue and political aim are not separated, as if they related respectively to micro and macro levels of practice.  As a virtue, social justice remains a conscious habit, a dispositional tendency of individuals' behavior and character.  But like other virtues, it applies to all levels of practice and to all individuals, whether professionals, clients, or citizens.  It sees the common good as a shared responsibility of society, not solely the business of the state.  Social justice rests on the habit of association so important to a free society and so threatening to totalitarian states, but it is not reducible to it.
The habit of social justice has as its aim the improvement of some feature of the common good--possibly of the social system in whole or in part (the welfare system, say), but possibly as well of some nonofficial feature (putting up a statue in a public park, organizing a dramatic society in a college, etc.).  To tutor a disadvantaged person in the inner city could be a work of social justice; to organize to protect workers' rights; to organize a referendum to prevent the building of a nightclub on a residential street might be another. To build a factory in a poor area; to organize a pro life or prochoice group--all these and other analogous activities are prima facie instances of the exercise of social justice (p. 79).
The example of a prochoice group reminds one of what Novak immediately acknowledges, that "[n]ot all those who claim to be acting for social justice may actually be furthering the work of justice."
In order to be just, an act must be correct in every aspect--manner, timing, motive, accuracy of perception, and all the other qualities of action; otherwise it is defective.  Thus, to show someone that what he or she claims to be a virtue falls short of either some or all of the demands of virtue is to affirm the ideal of social justice as a standard of moral judgment" (p.79).
To claim to give priority to the interests of the poor as a matter of social justice--as liberation theology did--does not exempt one from criticism on the grounds that one has a false analysis of reality or of the dynamics of social change, lacks practical judgment (prudence, phronesis) in assessing the likely outcomes of one's activity.  The virtues are interdependent and "talk to each other" as Deirdre McCloskey puts it.  "One need not accept uncritically [liberation theology's - or any other] claim to be practicing social justice" (Novak, p. 79).

Social justice in this definition does not stop conversation or assume a particular political program.  It is a moral virtue but not a regulatory principle of the state or its bureaucratic-professional agents.  It is nevertheless clearly visible in its absence, say in a low-income disorganized neighborhood; or a southern Italian community where no-one trusts anyone beyond the family or takes any civic responsibility or initiative; or a communist or fascist state where non-state associations are tightly controlled or suppressed by the state.  The key strategy of East European democratic reformers like the Civic Forum in Czechoslavakia, was precisely the reawakening of civil society.  The movement, which led to the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, was for the freedom and social space to exercise the virtue of social justice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The most serious threat to religious liberty

The January 20 final rule from Kathleen Sebelius and DHHS is the most stunning attack on the First Amendment, religious liberty, and conscience rights in America in our time.  

There is something perversely Orwellian about the whole thing--forcing people to purchase directly services they abhor in violation of their conscience; defining contraception, including abortifacients, as preventive health care--is pregnancy now a disease?--requiring people to collude in the killing of babies in their mother's womb--calling a woman's right what is literally and on a vast scale the slaughter of innocents while making no exemption for those millions who, as a matter of deep religious conviction, see it as murder.

If the Obama administration carries through on this threat and if and to the extent that Catholic schools, hospitals, charities, universities and colleges, including agencies that serve the poorest and most vulnerable, remain faithful to the Church and their own consciences, there will be a huge decline in services and programs as these institutions close down.  (We have already seen Catholic Charities forced out of all adoption services in some states where they were required to place children with homosexual couples, so reducing services to all children.  This ruling is incomparably more coercive and on a much vaster scale.)  And why?  It is not as if contraceptives were not already widely available on the market for those who want to purchase them.

On the face of it, picking a fight like this makes no sense for an administration that claims to care about access to health care, education, and services to the poor.  Already they have alienated many Catholics who found it in their consciences to support Obama in 2008.  In order not to alienate secular-liberal feminists who give them enormous sums of money but have nowhere else to go politically?  Or is the point to get the Supreme Court to do the dirty work of standing up to the anti-Catholic, secularist, and/or feminist opponents of religious freedom for the administration--which then can mobilize its supporters with the haunting specter of another appointment to the Court of a justice not given to trampling the First Amendment or inventing constitutional rights out of thin air?

Obama's strategy all along has been to isolate faithful Catholics and split off the Catholics in Name Only, the CINOs who populate the Democratic Party leadership (and sadly, much of its base), the tendency represented by the National 'Catholic' Reporter.  The strategy worked well and the administration found some prominent Catholic supporters, like Doug Kmiec and even the Catholic Health Association, to provide cover  for a national health care program that would fund abortions.  But this time Obama, Sebelius, and Pelosi may have gone too far, losing support among its own erstwhile supporters.

If it is a miscalculation, part of the reason must be the failure of imagination of secular and religious liberals alike--the supporters of Planned Parenthood, abortion, and contraception.  They simply cannot understand how anyone could think differently from them on the issues of life and death, sex and marriage.  Hence the immediate resort to words like extremist, weird, fundamentalist, fanatical, etc., to characterize the mainstream, vanilla, faithful adherents of the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition that has no hold on them and which they can no longer even understand.

Here is a recent statement of the US bishops in the context of the National March for Life:

Bishops Decry HHS Rule, Urge Catholics To Stand Up For Religious Liberty And Conscience Rights In Homilies At Vigil For Life

January 23, 2012
WASHINGTON—Both the president of the U.S. bishops and the bishops’ Pro-Life chairman called on the thousands of Catholics gathered for the National Prayer Vigil for Life to speak out for the protection of conscience rights and religious liberty.

“From a human point of view, we may be tempted to surrender, when our government places conception, pregnancy and birth under the ‘center for disease control,’ when chemically blocking conception or aborting the baby in the womb is considered a ‘right’ to be subsidized by others who abhor it,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at the vigil’s closing Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on January 23.
His words referred to the January 20 announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that nearly all employers will be forced to cover drugs and procedures that violate their conscience in their health insurance plans.

“When the ability of feeding, housing, and healing the struggling of the world is curtailed and impeded if one does not also help women abort their babies, one can hardly be faulted for being tempted to the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’ and just consider all as lost,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said.
Addressing the opening Mass the previous evening, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, excoriated the HHS rule.

“Never before in our US History has the Federal Government forced citizens to directly purchase what violates our beliefs. At issue here as our President of the Conference stated it this past Friday, is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for conscience and religious liberty,” said Cardinal DiNardo.
He cited the January 19 address of Pope Benedict XVI to U.S. bishops visiting Rome, in which the pope said, “it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be appreciated at every level of ecclesial life.”

Cardinal DiNardo said that the pope had “nailed” the issue in light of the HHS announcement and tied the issue directly to the March for Life. “His calls for courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public life and debate have targeted the issues we face in our pro-life efforts, to defend those who defend human life and to defend their religious liberty!”
The full text of both homilies is available online:

And here are some links on this issue:

USCCB statetment on HHS Rule:

Video of Cardinal-Designate Dolan, President of the USCCB, speaking about HHS rule:

Catholic Charities USA's statement on HHS rule:

Michael Sean Winter's Distinctly Catholic blog commenting on HHS Rule:

USCCB fact sheet on HHS rule: Click here 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Caravaggio Is the Antidote to Conceptual Art - Cornelius Sullivan

Caravaggio and the aesthetics of meaning

Canestra di frutta, Still Life, 1599, Ambrosian Library, Milan.

Cornelius Sullivan-Rome

Why do Caravaggio paintings have such a profound influence on us? His greatness comes from two interdependent things. First, his paint is gorgeous, and secondly, he is a master storyteller using posed figures and objects bathed in his made up light. He helps us to believe what is hard to believe. Francine Prose calls him, "Painter of Miracles".

I recall a lecture by the art historian John Spike, who lives in Florence and teaches in Rome, where he said that Art History is the study of "style" and the study of Christian Art History involves the study of "meaning".

The depth and sense of truth in a Caravaggio fictional visual narrative separate him from his many followers and so many conventional painters. The meaning in one of his paintings comes from his showing us the way that things are in nature and his revelations of the way that humans act.

Don’t believe any art historian that tries to tell you that the Still Life above is photo realistic or that it is about life and death with some leaves vital and others sagging in death. It is about the way things are where the painter shows us how a vine knots, what it feels like. He tells us about gravity. He describes value and color that define geometric form and melds that color with local color. And like all the great painters he gives us a sense that this illusion is made out of paint. Caravaggio is like an early Modern artist because we marvel at what he has created with paint. Form and content are transparent and content remains representational but we are aware of the paint. There is never any thought that this is a photograph, the paint on canvas is part of the subject of the work. I like to contemplate that yellow white opaque background. It is an invention of art like a Van Gogh sky made from swirling globs of paint. The globs are not disguised as anything other than paint and yet we accept that they are also sky. That is the magic.

Even in complex compositions with figures and a story Caravaggio’s paint is tangible.
Abraham and Isaac, Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

In telling how humans act, Caravaggio tells us more than other artists do. Remember all the depictions you have seen of Abraham and Isaac. Wooden gestures, maybe poses derived from Classical sculpture, are clear, readable, and balanced. On the other hand, imagine Caravaggio saying to the model, "No, put your thumb on his face and press, use some force to hold him down." And "Little Isaac, don’t look so relaxed, he’s going to cut your throat, look at the knife." And, "Abraham, look puzzled, OK, don’t move." He gives us all that information in paint and the story becomes real.

Something special happens to viewers in front of a Caravaggio painting. Prose describes a tour guide explaining to studentsThe Calling of Saint Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. "There is nothing she is telling them that they absolutely need to hear, and the power of the paintings is drowning out her voice." And, "… it is possible to understand this painting without knowing much about art history, or Caravaggio, or even, perhaps, about the New Testament."

As a former guide I know that experience and so I learned to talk and explain before hand. Recently, in Galleria Borghese I saw a ten year old boy and a seven year old girl stuck in front of David and Goliath. Their parents wanted to move on but the kids kept saying "Just another minute, please."
David and Goliath, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Again remember the paintings or sculptures that you have seen of this story. Often Goliath’s head is a massive inert object while David poses triumphantly. Caravaggio creates a boy who looks at a loss to understand what has happened. He is not without sympathy. Goliath is also puzzled and his suffering and death are there to see. Goliath is a self portrait of the artist not so long before he died.
In July I wrote an article called "Rome’s Extravagant Celebration of Caravaggio" initiated because of the number of events, guided tours, books, articles, and exhibits about Caravaggio that I saw in the streets of Rome. Only now have I discovered Michael Kimmelman’s article in the New York Times of March 10, 2010 with a similar theme. He notes that Caravaggio has eclipsed Michelangelo Bounarroti as the most written about artist based on the charts of a Toronto based art historian.

Kimmelman correctly attributes Caravaggio’s popularity to the fact that he "… exemplifies the modern antihero, a hyperrealist whose art is instantly accessible" and that he is one who has "wrestled art back to the ground, distilled scenes into a theatrical instant at which time suddenly stopped". I am not sure that the establishment art critic fully grasps the counter culturalism of Caravaggio. He says, "Out to ‘destroy painting,’ as Nicolas Poussin, the most high-minded of all French artists, saw it, Caravaggio connected with ordinary people, the ones who themselves arrived barefoot and filthy as pilgrims in Rome".

Caravaggio was the artist in time, and place, and spirit that reflected the new classless faith lived by Saint Phillip Neri in the streets of Rome. This new spirit confirmed that the Church is indeed for sinners. And Caravaggio, never afflicted with any self righteousness, was able to understand that faith.

As one who knows art, Kimmelman, in his videos about art, describes the necessary elitism of the art world and has said that there are no fixed standards in art. "Only experts are allowed to tell you what is art or not." And "We want to be told what we are supposed to think." And he says that "All art is conceptual." He says that White on White, the all white Minimalist painting by Robert Ryman from the sixties, is about a "conversation within art" that "pushes the conversation forward". This conversation is a private conversation reserved for the cognoscenti whereas the almost universal appreciation of a Caravaggio painting is for everyone.

Modernist abstraction, a reflection of subjective reality (everyone is an artist), where everything looks equal (don’t worry we’ll tell you what’s good), was bound to lead inevitably to the dead end that is Conceptual Art, art that is only an idea. The cellar of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is full of large abstract paintings that no one wants to look at. Maybe the conversation about art continues down there. To admit that they are worthless would topple the large financial structure that authenticates them.

Modern Art is based on the idea that all aesthetics are subjective. This comes from the Critique of Judgment of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant arrives at this disembodiment because he starts on shaky ground with the dualism of Descartes, where body and spirit are separated. The attack on the body and on matter comes from the will to power. Conceptual Art has succeeded in eliminating matter from art. Caravaggio is the antidote to Conceptual Art.

Caravaggio painted a unity of body with soul. Since the study of Christian Art is about the study of meaning, there is no such thing as Christian abstract art. Art Historian Rudolf Wittkower in Art and Architecture of Italy uses a nuanced Italian adjective to describe Caravaggio’s paintings, "tenebroso". It means dark, but it also means mysterious. Caravaggio created an aesthetics of meaning, explaining the inexplicable and giving form to the mysterious.

Posted here with permission.  Originally posted at

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Unbearable Wrongness of Roe

The Unbearable Wrongness of Roe
January 23, 2012

39 years ago, the Supreme Court delivered a radical, legally untenable, immoral decision. It has forfeited its entitlement to have its decisions respected, and followed, by the other branches of government, by the states, and by the people.

Today, thousands of people at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., are commemorating the thirty-ninth anniversary of a legal and moral monstrosity, Roe v. Wade, and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton. The two cases, in combination, created an essentially unqualified constitutional right of pregnant women to abortion—the right to kill their children, gestating in their wombs, up to the point of birth. After nearly four decades, Roe’s human death toll stands at nearly sixty million human lives, a total exceeding the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Pol Pot’s killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined. Over the past forty years, one-sixth of the American population has been killed by abortion. One in four African-Americans is killed before birth. Abortion is the leading cause of (unnatural) death in America.
It is almost too much to contemplate: the prospect that we are living in the midst of, and accepting (to various degrees) one of the greatest human holocausts in history. And so we don’t contemplate it. Instead, we look for ways to deny this grim reality, minimize it, or explain away our complacency—or complicity.

The Adjustment Bureau: Bad Theology AND Bad History

Retrieved January 22, 2012 from

Fr. Barron's commentary offers a lucid discussion of how bad--and widespread--the theology of the movie, The Adjustment Bureau is.  In a pervasive tendency from the nominalism of William of Ockham through the Enlightenment to modernist , especially protestant, theology, God's will is in competition with the free will of human beings.  Barron shows, using the analogy of the piano teacher who takes her student from the discipline of scales and prescribed practice to the level of freedom where the student is able to express herself through her playing and even compose her own music, that this is a false understanding of God's will and its relation to ours.  God is not in competition with us.

What struck me, having just watched the movie, is how the bad theology is accompanied by a distorted history of similar provenance.  One of the 'angels' or 'case officers' whose job it is to keep humans on track with the Plan, explains that the Chairman (God) tried free will at various periods in history, saw what a mess humans made of things, and decided to intervene again to put things back on track.  He then periodizes history according to the modernist, Enlightenment, Protestant-atheist convention which sees nothing but darkness between the end of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment.  It is always ceases to amaze me (a line I recall from Kinky Friedman concerts back in the day) how this narrative persists in face of all scholarship to the contrary not only in Hollywood and in popular prejudice, but even in supposedly serious and well regarded works like Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve (see Fr. Barron's excellent commentaries here and here).

Incidentally, Joseph Pearce links us via the blog at St. Austin Review to an interesting account (from Perth, Western Australia) of JRR Tolkien and his teenage love in terms remarkably similar to the story of The Adjustment Bureau--with a priest playing the role of the 'angel' with a plan.  Love is to be sacrificed to career, a plan that the young people contest and change.  Tolkien married the teenage love of his life, Edith Bratt, had a great career anyway and the couple had a son, Christopher, who went on to become my Old English tutor at Oxford.  You can see a bibliography reflecting Christopher Tolkien's own distinguished career here.

The culture of death and rights of those with mental illness

9:23:15 PM
Massachusetts judge ordered forced abortion and sterilization of mentally ill woman

It is difficult to imagine a case better scripted for a discussion of informed consent than Mary Moe’s Massachusetts abortion.
When Mary Moe, a pseudonym for a 32-year-old woman with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, visited a hospital emergency room in October, it was discovered that she was pregnant. This meant that she could not take her psychiatric medication as it would harm the foetus. So the state Department of Mental Health applied to have the woman’s parents named as guardians so they could give consent for an abortion.

However, Mary did not want to have an abortion. Although she was not completely coherent, she insisted that she was “very Catholic” and would never do such a thing. She knew what abortions were, as her first pregnancy had been aborted. (She subsequently gave birth to a son, whom her parents are caring for.)

The case went before Judge Christina Harms, a Harvard Law School graduate and a former lawyer in the State’s welfare services. Judge Harms ordered Mary Moe to have an abortion. If she were intransigent, she could be “coaxed, bribed, or even enticed’’ into the hospital. Furthermore, the judge wanted to put an end to these distressing pregnancies. She ordered Mary More to be sterilized “to avoid this painful situation from recurring in the future.’’ Harms reasoned that Mary Moe was not competent to make a decision about an abortion, because of her “substantial delusional beliefs.” But if she were competent, she would choose to abort the child.

In the event, Judge Harms was overruled. “The personal decision whether to bear or beget a child is a right so fundamental that it must be extended to all persons, including those who are incompetent,’’ said the state appeals court. As for the sterilization, said one of the appeals judges, “The judge appears to have simply produced the requirement out of thin air.”

The publicity given to this unusual case has led mental health advocates to wonder how often women are forcibly aborted and sterilised. “I didn’t realize that forced sterilizations were going on anywhere,” said Howard Trachtman of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe. “If a precedent were set for that, then you could see a whole slew of people filing for it, or trying to get judges to order it.” “Simply having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or any other mental illness is not a basis for sterilization in and of itself. It’s just sheer prejudice,” Elyn Saks, of the University of Southern California, told the Boston Herald. ~ Boston Globe, Jan 18
Dorothyann Sarsok's avatar
Dorothyann Sarsok· 19 hours ago
I am the oldest daughter of 5 children born to a mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. So this issue is a very personal one for me ... and as such ... here is what I have to say on the matter. In spite of the suffering, and yes abuse and neglect, which I and my 4 other siblings suffered at the hands of a schizophrenic mother, I for one, am still thankful for my LIFE, which with the grace of God, I have grown to be a wife, mother and grandmother, who is very active in the pro-life movement. The abuse we suffered was not because we were born of a mentally handicapped woman, but because of others who did not assist our mother in caring for us .. and that's the way I see it. I am GLAD TO BE ALIVE!
1 reply · active 15 hours ago
marilyn matthews's avatar
marilyn matthews· 15 hours ago
thank you dorothyann for speaking out ...your mother didn't ask to be a paranoid schizophrenic and I know you know that..unfortunately not everybody else knows that or maybe just don't CARE..and the lack of help for your mom is global...its just so much easier to write off everyone who doesn't "fit the NORM" in this selfish world ...thank GOD for people like you that know that a mother will NEVER be perfect...

Retrieved January 22, 2012 from