"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, October 10, 2008

Two propaganda videos

Like several other friends, Prof. Scott Carson has called my attention to this video from Catholicvote.com:



I agree wholeheartedly that the video dramatizes (or perhaps melodramatizes) what ought to be the central issue for Catholics in this general election campaign. It expresses my feelings. But will it really change the heart of anybody who is not already convinced of its main premise? I hope so, but I am not sanguine. What people care about now is "the economy, stupid." Saving the unborn seems to be a much less pressing issue for most voters, even for most Catholic voters, than saving their 401-ks and health insurance. That is natural if unfortunate, and it's not the sort of problem that propaganda can solve.

Still, I'm heartened by the contrast with a bit of propaganda for the opposing side: this one, a pro-Obama video from comedienne Sarah Silverman. She's hip and hot; I'd enjoy her if I didn't hate her worldview and the resulting ugliness that's so plain in her mouth and eyes. Indeed, Silverman's lexical and spiritual profanity is what prevents me from offending my readers by embedding her video on this site. But the interesting thing is that such videos are broadly supposed to help Obama. It's taken for granted that the young, the hip, and the hot, most of whom will vote for Obama, lap this sort of thing up. That's what's really scary. The very spiritual tenor that repels me is what attracts them. It's hard to find a clearer indication of what is at stake.

The trouble with leftism is that, having forgotten the real God, it makes an idol of humanity by means of ideology. The historian of ideas Kenneth Minogue argues that "pure ideology"—whether instantiated as Marxism, feminism, or some other academically fashionable ism—is a narrative of human reality as an ongoing conflict between the bad-guy oppressors and the good-guy oppressed, with history being about the latter's struggle to overthrow the former and thus attain "liberation." Any critique of such a story is dismissed as an apologia for the oppressor. In the current election, those who buy the story have focused their quasi-religious fervor on Obama. Indeed, pure ideology in Minogue's sense is but a secularized version of the cries and hope for justice that one finds in the Hebrew prophetic tradition. But the irony is that the unborn today, like the Jews and Gypsies of 1930's Germany and the kulaks of the 1930s Soviet Union, are the eggs being broken to make the omelette. In this nominally religious country, so many have forgotten that "Whatever you do to these, the least of my brethren, you do to me." With so much money at stake now, they are unlikely to start remembering.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Lady Militant


No, I don't mean Sarah Palin, though I would enjoy applying that theme to her. I mean the Mother of God.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, instituted by Pope Pius V in thanksgiving to Mary for the victory of the Catholic fleet over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. All that victory did was save Western Christendom from conquest by the Ottoman Empire, which had extirpated the Byzantine Empire in the previous century. I have said my rosary today for victory over the culture of death in the West, which is a much bigger killer today than Muslim terrorists. Our Lady of Medjugorje is reported to say that the Rosary is the only way to defeat Satan.

Prof. Ralph McInerny says that the young should memorize GK Chesterton's poem Lepanto. For the convenience of the young of all ages, I present its full text here:

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain - hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground, -
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, "Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk may hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done,
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces - four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth."
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still - hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael's on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that bath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip's in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John's hunting, and his hounds have bayed -
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in a man's house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumed lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that swat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stairways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.

They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings' horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign -
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade. . .

(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

          - G.K. Chesterton


Monday, October 06, 2008

THE LIES WE LOVE

There are many such lies, but today I can only call attention to three. One is simply American; two are American and Catholic.

First, as I contemplated the tanking economy today, I was reminded by the Spirit of these words from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 6: 13-15):
Small and great alike, all are greedy for gain; prophet and priest, all practice fraud. They would repair, as though it were nought, the injury to my people: "Peace, peace!" they say, though there is no peace. They are odious; they have done abominable things, yet they are not at all ashamed, they know not how to blush. Hence they shall be among those who fall; in their time of punishment they shall go down, says the LORD.
Such, I believe, is contemporary America. Small and great alike, we have lived beyond our means for many years and allocated resources unjustly. Small and great alike, we are now starting to pay the piper. But rather few of us "get it" yet. The small say it's the fault of the great, the people with the "real" money and the "real" power, not regular folk like us. It's supposed to be the fault of the people who say, from their multi-million-dollar homes, that everything will be basically alright and back to normal once we get the credit flowing again. Well, the great (or those whom the Brits call "the great and good") are full of it. But so are many of the little guys and gals. What's happening now will get worse before it gets better, and it's the fault of everybody who assumes there's nothing wrong with living beyond their means while countless others scrape by with next to nothing. And let's face it: that assumption is a lie which most Americans, from rednecks to high-rollers, love to tell themselves. They rationalize it with an optimism inherited from a simpler time, taking for granted that the toys and other indulgences one cannot pay for now can always be paid for later when things will be better. We need to be weaned from that lie, and "getting back to normal" once we get through this embarrassing part of the boom-bust cycle isn't going to cut it. "Full of fraud," the majority say "peace, peace" when there is no peace. We "know not how to blush." We do not fathom the injury done to God's own people.

Among God's people are the voiceless unborn who are slaughtered in vast numbers so that their parents' lifestyles, or life-plans, will not be ruined by their birth. Among God's people are the workers and farmers around the world who are paid pittances so that we can buy things from them which many of us could not afford to buy if made by our fellow Americans. But God's people are paradigmatically those who, whether they have money or not, are ever striving by grace to be detached from this world's allurements and focused on becoming for eternity the lovers of God and neighbor they were created to be. In the economy of salvation, there is always a saving remnant of such people. If one believes, as I do, that the Catholic Church is the Church, then one believes that such people should be centered on the Catholic Church. In some parts of the world, they are. But American Catholics as a whole are actually worse than America as a whole precisely because they aren't much better than America as a whole.

With the exception of one hour on Sundays, the lives of most American Catholics are indistinghishable from those of other Americans. On one end of the political spectrum, such Catholicism-in-name-only has for decades been facilitated by clergy—the Drinans, the Hesburghs, the Mahonys—who show by their actions that they consider it more important to uphold the Democratic Party platform than the clear, constant, and irreformable teaching of the Church. That there are so many Catholic Obamabots today is a symptom of that legacy. A good antidote to their rationalizations is Dr. Mark Lowery's pamphlet "Catholic Voting and the Seamless-Garment Theory".

But there's also a problem with many of the more "conservative" Catholics. I don't mean the homeschoolers, the Latin-Mass attendees, the NFP enthusiasts, the parents of special-needs children they could have aborted, and the unsung others who make real sacrifices to lead authentically Catholic Christian lives. Such are clearly among the people of God who are screwed by the way America in general is today. I mean the many Catholics I've encountered who are theologically orthodox, and might even be willing to die for the faith if it ever came to that, but who haven't considered sacrificing anything major in their comfortable lives, as led in either the secular world or the Church, so as to become more effective witnesses to the power of the Cross in the here-and-now. The sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal was the fault of both left and right, laity as well as clergy. Just as the false moral theology of the "liberals" helped many priests to rationalize the ephebophilia seen in so much of the abuse, so the complacency and institutional loyalty of the "conservatives" enabled the problem to be denied and covered up for as long as it was. Some of the latter like to point out that there is an equally grave problem of sexual abuse of minors in the public schools. That is true, and we hear relatively little about it because people hold the world to lower moral standards than the Church. But by and large, American Catholics don't live up to "higher standards." Some don't get why they should; others are too far gone even to acknowledge the higher standards as standards.

Hence, just as many American Catholics love the specific lie that the American lifestyle of heedless materialism is nothing to be ashamed of, even more love the general lie is that it's OK to settle for mediocrity. If one can be saved by avoiding the grossest and blackest forms of evil, squeaking into purgatory as a smug mediocrity, then there isn't much motivation to be different from most of the rest of the world. The trouble is that once one settles for mediocrity, one becomes insensibly but thoroughly complicit in the real evils that pervade one's culture and society. That is what happened to the Catholic Church in Germany before World War II. It happened inAmerica at all levels after World War II, and continued merrily on for the next forty years. As a result of the butt-kicking we got from the abuse scandal, and the backbone the American bishops seem to have started acquiring since Ratzinger became pope, there are some rumblings of change. But we have a long way to go before most of us are ready to give up the lies we love.

For that we need unity around the truth. But we are far from there yet. Priests and bishops like to pretend there's unity, but it just ain't so. This is the third big lie American Catholics love, and it's perpetrated largely by the clergy. They say "unity, unity" when there is no unity. The theological and the political polarization are still great enough to constitute an internal schism, and anybody with perspective on and interest in ecclesial matters can see as much.

A symptom of that was what I heard, or more precisely didn't hear, at Mass yesterday. It was the evening Mass for the students at a Catholic college. The problem wasn't so much the music; that was was the standard Haugen-Haas stuff, which I generally dislike, but which you have to expect at such occasions. The problem wasn't the ritual of the Mass itself, which was done more rubrically than I expected; the priest did omit the lavabo at the Offertory, a common fault which has irritated me for thirty years; but I have long been accustomed to saccharine music and minor liberties taken with the rubrics. What really appalled me was the homily.

Technically, it was brilliant: well-delivered, intelligent, pertinent to the bible readings. But the priest took no note of the fact that yesterday, or what was then "today," was both Respect Life Sunday for the Church in the U.S. and the opening of the worldwide Synod on the Word of God in Rome. Both events have been well-publicized in the MSM; the Pope himself has even begun reading the entire Bible over the radio. But from this homilist you would never have got the impression that such events were worth attending to. Instead, he took the day's biblical theme of "the vineyard" as metaphor for the people of God, and said that the walls of the vineyard should not be used to "keep people out." I don't know how many of the students got the message, but I sure did. Perhaps that's because I've heard it all before, way too many times. "Respecting life" does not mean denying communion, and thus "full communion," to anybody who supports "abortion rights." Celebrating the Word of God does not mean denying full communion to people who interpret the Word of God differently from how the Church herself does. How could I not get that message from the homily, if I knew what was going on in the wider Church and could put two and two together?

Such is how unity is undermined by the very celebration of the sacrament of unity. I've seen many other examples of this. The Devil counts on most of us not recognizing the lie. But the Spirit is saying, and not just to me, that the time for lies is growing ever shorter.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Why I am a conservative


Years ago, when it still made sense for me to subscribe to print periodicals, I used to get a conservative journal called Modern Age. It was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which has now taken to publishing many of the articles from MA and its other periodicals online at a site called First Principles. Recently they've posted a series of articles, each entitled "Why I am a Conservative," from various old-reliable authors who contributed them to the Summer 2007 issue of MA. I thought about contributing myself until I realized that I'm a year too late and they probably hadn't heard of me anyhow. So I now do it here.

In high school I was a conservative for three reasons: my father was; most Catholics I knew were; and I thought liberals hated God and country. At any rate, it seemed to me that they were always readier to see the faults of the Catholic Church and of various levels of American government than those of the Church's and America's enemies. I'd sum it all up now by saying that I was a conservative out of loyalty to family, church, and country. I joined Young Americans for Freedom and got my own subscription to National Review.

As my interests shifted during the 70s from politics to philosophy and then theology, I learned much about the social teaching of the Church and became unwilling to identify myself any longer as a "movement" conservative. I even gave up my NR subscription. That unwillingness dissipated in the mid 80s because of Ronald Reagan's opposition to abortion at home and "the evil empire" abroad, so that by the late 80s I was writing book reviews for NR and running for Congress in New York on the Conservative line. After many years away from my home state, I am once again a registered Conservative in New York. But I've never been able to maintain my enthusiasm for American "movement conservatism" for very long. The brand includes quite a range of ideological flavors, none of which conform fully with the "social teaching of the Church," and some of which overlap with it hardly at all. Until this year, I was willing to call myself a conservative only because my positions on what American political lingo calls "the social issues" are, in such lingo, more "paleo-conservative" than anything else.

But now I've changed my mind. It remains the case that I can summon enthusiasm for American "conservatism" only to the extent that the enemies of my enemies are my friends. But I am a conservative in a deeper sense than that.

I got to thinking about this after a friend with whom I have had many discussions of The Big Questions recently sent me a link to this video by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. At first, the practical lesson of Haidt's presentation seemed to me unobjectionable. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand why I am and must be a conservative.

Haidt noted that both Left and Right tend to go in for uncritical group-think and an over-righteous sense of the superiority of "us" over "them." Such is indeed a universal human trait which manifests itself in ethnic, religious, and cultural attitudes as well as in political polarities. Plausibly enough, Haidt argued that in order to transcend uncritical group-think, in which the "other" is typically misunderstood and disparaged, "liberals" and "conservatives" need to see each other as placing different emphases on values sought in common by innate, human moral psychology. He sketched five such values: "care" or mutual concern, "fairness," the "ingroup," "authority," and "purity." I would gloss those as five polarities: care vs. harm, fairness vs. unfairness, ingroup vs. outgroup, hierarchy vs. equality, purity vs. dirtiness or corruption. Haidt is quite right that "conservatives" generally find the last three more important than "liberals" do. Liberals tend to emphasize the first two, or what they conceive of as the first two, at the expense of the last three. Haidt closed with the suggestion that liberals and conservatives, so understood, are each as necessary to a healthy polity as Ying and Yang are to a healthy cosmos. I found myself being seduced by Haidt's presentation. Then I began to reflect a bit more.

I reflected on how Haidt had defined the liberal/conservative polarity before explaining it as above. Liberals, in his view, are people who are generally open to new experiences and ideas, whereas conservatives are those who prefer the tried, the comfortable, the familiar. Given such a definition, the subsequent explanation makes a certain sort of sense. After all, what generally determines the tried, comfortable, and familiar for most people are carriers of the last three of the five value polarities. Family, religion, ethnic group, friends, the state—all those factors which serve to distinguish an "us" from a "them," and lending great importance to such a distinction—just are those factors which determine what the conservative temperament is wont to conserve. When liberals advocate compassion and fairness over the "in" group, hierarchy, and ideas about purity, they seem inevitably to advocate the new and the other as opposed to the familiar, the comfortable, the "us." And so it would seem that such advocacy will be the natural preserve of those more open to the new than enamored of the old. Haidt's definition is quite plausible.

But that, in my experience, is not how things work. For one thing, I have found throughout my life that liberals are actually more authoritarian than conservatives about everything except sex. For them, environmental degradation is a sin. Political incorrectness is a sin. Violence against those who have been born for more than a few hours is a sin. Religious fundamentalism, at least on the part of Christians, is a sin. Even smoking is a sin. And the coercive power of the state should be brought to bear against such sins. But even though consenting adults should be prosecuted for smoking in a public building, heaven forfend that they be prosecuted for having sex in a public bathroom. We disrespect young women by telling them, and young men, to avoid sex until marriage; we respect them by handing them condoms, winking, and giving them anti-depressants for surviving the hookup culture. Promoting peace and justice entails allowing women to kill their children in the womb while having their husbands or boyfriends tossed into jail and banned from the home for threatening violence. What all these attitudes have in common is the conviction that sexual autonomy and the exercise thereof are unqualified goods, no matter how bad other things may be, including some of the things that the exercise of sexual autonomy may lead to, such as pregnancy. And so maximum sexual freedom should be allowed between consenting adults, no matter how harshly we may and should punish consenting adults for certain other activities which are, after all, sins.

That tells me that liberals are not open not so much to "new ideas" as such, but to certain ideas that have been articulated more recently than those which conservatives often favor. But those ideas have, themselves, been around for a long time now. Think Kinsey; think Rousseau. In academia today, secular hard-leftism constitutes an orthodoxy of its own, and has for several generations now. I conclude that liberals favor not so much novelty in itself as a counter-tradition to that great tradition of the West which stems from both Athens and Jerusalem. Of necessity, the counter-tradition is parasitic on the Great Tradition of which it is a counter-tradition. It takes values that are assuredly present in the GT but pits them against other, still more fundamental values. In short, what now goes by the name of "liberalism" in America is a heresy within that tradition which many educated conservatives consciously seek to conserve. The heresy is best summed up by Saul Alinsky's dedication of his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer.

Another thing I've noticed about liberals is that they go in for group-think and disparaging "the other" every bit as much as conservatives do. The difference lies simply in who gets defined as the Other. For liberals, the Other is not the distant enemy threatening our civilization, but the one nearby who stands in the way of their counter-tradition. For the feminist movement today, e.g., the evil Other is not the Muslim paterfamilias who keeps his wife barefoot, pregnant, and wrapped in her hijab—and might well find it necessary to honor-kill a straying daughter—but the American business executive who earns a few dollars more than his female peer and stares at the nice legs she exposes under her power suit. For the Ivy-League liberal male, it more natural to think of Todd Palin as the Other than of Osama bin Laden, who is seen more as an understandable reactive "symptom" of American imperialism. I could multiply examples, but you could do the same for yourself.

Given how group-thinky liberals are, how enamored of academic credentials and the nanny state, how hung up they are on "purity" ideas such as anti-smoking and environmentalism, I believe Dr. Haidt is wrong to suggest that liberals value the last three of the five "values" less than conservatives. Liberals only say they do, and Haidt just takes them at their world. But they're just kidding themselves. What's really going on is that, wanting to undermine the Great Tradition in the name of sexual autonomy and the pomo relativism which rationalizes it, they end up substituting ersatz forms of solidarity, authority, and purity for true and good forms. It's very unattractive, at least to me.

And that's the main reason why I'm a conservative. I believe the Great Tradition is healthy and the leftist counter-tradition is unhealthy. But what are the healthy forms of solidarity, hierarchy, and purity?

Of course would take a book, and a lot more than a book, to answer that adequately. So here I'll just answer as a Catholic: all those which are necessary for the spiritual health and integrity of the Church and the family. For the two mirror each other; indeed, the latter is the cell of which the former is the body.

As members of the Church, we are engrafted into the Mystical Body of Christ, which exists to extricate us from the fallenness of the world and turn us into gods. Whatever forms of solidarity aid that project are good; the divinely constituted "hierarchy" or "sacred order" of the Church is good; whatever the Church condemns with her full authority as sin is impure, and whatever she approves with her full authority is pure. The same goes for the family as "the domestic church." The authority of the pope and the bishops over the Church, which concretizes for us the authority of Christ the Head, is also analogous to the authority of the husband and father in the family. Such human authorities are limited, however, by the divine and natural law which we know by means of them. The authority of the state, given it by God, should also be given through the governed so as to limit the temptation of the powerful to tyranny and theft. But the chief duties of the state are to protect the innocent at home and to protect the polity from its enemies abroad. Disagreements about how much more scope for action the state should possess should be resolved by discussing, and observing, the potential and actual effects thereof on the family.

Notice that I have not spoken the language of individual "rights." There are such rights; they are important; and they should be enumerated. But the first task is to get clear about the nature of the human person. Only then can we be clear about the place of the individual in the family, in civil society, and ultimately in the cosmos. Only after that can we speak about what inherent individual rights are and what prescriptive individual rights ought to be. I think the signers of the Declaration of Independence were pretty reasonable about all that, even if not entirely correct to a man. Hence, I don't think that people who today are called "liberals" come at political questions from the right direction. I suppose that's why I feel impelled to be a conservative, despite my misgivings about much of contemporary American conservatism.

Friday, October 03, 2008

B16 today on Humanae Vitae

The spouses, in fact, having received the gift of love, are called to become in turn gift to one another without reservations. Only thus the acts proper and exclusive to the spouses are really acts of love that, while uniting them in one flesh, build a genuine personal communion. Hence, the logic of the totality of the gift configures conjugal love intrinsically and, thanks to the sacramental effusion of the Holy Spirit, becomes the means to realize in one's life a genuine conjugal charity.The possibility to create a new human life is included in the integral donation of the spouses. If, in fact, every form of love tends to spread the fullness of which it lives, conjugal love has its own form of communicating itself: the generation of children. Thus not only is it similar to, but it participates in the love of God, who wills to communicate himself by calling human persons to life. To exclude this communicative dimension through an action directed to prevent procreation means to deny the profound truth of spousal love, with which the divine gift is communicated: "If one does not wish to expose to the free will of men the mission to generate life, insurmountable limits must necessarily be recognized to the possibility of man's dominion over his own body and its functions; limits that no man, both private as well as invested with authority, can licitly infringe" ("Humanae Vitae," 17). This is the essential nucleus of the teaching that my venerated predecessor Paul VI addressed to spouses, and that the Servant of God John Paul II, in turn, reaffirmed on many occasions, illuminating its anthropological and moral foundation.

Read it all.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Angels and apatheia


In the "new" Roman calendar, today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels; yesterday was the feast of the archangels mentioned in the Bible: Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Fr. Mark, author of the blog, Vultus Christi, has a marvelous meditation on the angels: "My Friend." Reading it reduced me to tears; for it reminded me of the message I tried to convey to my older daughter when she was little and I said with her the "prayer to my guardian angel" while tucking her into bed each night. What obscured the message for her, I'm sure, was not the prayer, the practice of saying it at bedtime, or even the inevitable sort of disillusionment that overtakes any child after a certain age when they lose their joyful innocence; the obstacle was my shortcomings as a parent. Failures of love on the part of those who have been meant to love us are, I believe, the single biggest obstacle preventing people from hearing the Gospel of God's love. That holds especially for those aspects of the deposit of faith that our secular, materialistic society relegates to superstitition.

As somebody with an academic background, I've observed over the years that the lack of a lively sense of heaven's love and companionship, especially as expressed by the Church Triumphant in our daily lives, causes many nominally Christian grownups to find the heresy of Stoicism attractive. (I call Stoicism, an ancient philosophy without any origin in Christianity, a "heresy" because it takes a very important spiritual truth and emphasizes it without balancing it with other truths.)

Take this article by Brad Miner in The Catholic Thing. Miner is a conservative of the good-old NR days. What those guys (OK, there were a few gals, such as Florence King) all had in common was not religious belief—though most were Christians of a sort, and many of them Catholic—but an animus for preserving "Western civilization." Almost to a man, they were much more interested in religion as a contributor to that project than in such details of divine revelation as the celestial hierarchy or the nature of "deification." One can see this in the following passage from Miner's article, which depicts John McCain as a Stoic hero:
And what of honor? This is a quality difficult to measure in any man — especially from a distance. Indeed, I can think of few men in public life other than John McCain about whom one may say with confidence that he is honorable, principled. McCain has been tested and has triumphed, not just successfully elected. He was not first, and is not principally, a politician. As New York Times columnist David Brooks described McCain on the eve of the New Hampshire primary: “If you cover him for a day, you’d better bring 2,500 questions because in the hours he spends with journalists, you will run through all of them. Last Saturday, we talked about Pervez Musharraf’s asceticism and Ted Williams’s hitting philosophy, the Korean War and Hispanic voting patterns.”

The great Stoic, Epictetus, described the ideal man as able to keep his virtue under any circumstances: "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy."

I’m sure it’s pure speculation on my part, but on Wednesday November 5th the loser in this race, disappointed though he will surely be, will be miserable if he is Obama but happy if he is McCain.
Ah, McCain, the Stoic man of honor. Perhaps he is; that's not clear to me. It seems that Miner is spinning a "narrative," a mythos, more than peering into a soul. What is clear, though, is that Miner believes we ought to prefer McCain for that reason. That's certainly better than what he presents as the alternative, if indeed Obama is that alternative. But there's nothing in such a portrait of McCain that a Chinese atheist couldn't value too.

Yesterday I was reading an interview that Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek conducted with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Student of philosophy that he is, and was, Zakaria asked Wen about the exemplary 2nd-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a dedicated Stoic:

Let me ask you, premier, finally a couple of questions that are personal. You've said that you've read the works of Marcus Aurelius a hundred times. Marcus Aurelius is a famous stoic philosopher. My reading of him says that one should not be involved in the self, and in any kind of pursuits that are self-interested but should be more for the community as a whole. When I go to China these days, I am struck by how much individualism there is, how much consumerism there is. Are you trying to send a signal to the Chinese people to think less about themselves and more about the community?

Wen Jiabao: It is true I did read the meditations written by Marcus Aurelius Antonio on many occasions, and I was very deeply impressed by the words that he wrote in the book -- to be fact - where are those people that were great for a time? They are all gone, leaving only a story, or some even just half a story. So I draw the conclusion that only people are in the position to create history and write history.

I very much value morality, and I do believe that entrepreneurs, economists and statesmen alike should pay much more attention to morality and ethics.

What struck me about Wen's answer was not its apparent banality—only people make and write history, "morality" is very important—but his choice of author. Why Marcus Aurelius?

Well, what's distinctive about Stoic morality is its advocacy of apatheia, detachment, from the feelings that come and go with fortune. One should not be elated by good fortune or depressed by bad fortune. Virtue consists in cultivating those habits of thought, feeling, and action which enable one to conform oneself consistently to the Logos, to contribute to and reflect the rational order of the cosmos. The good man is one who lives according to the requirements of "reason" so understood; sentiments and emotions are valuable only to the extent they conform with that. Such a philosophy can motivate great sacrifice and accomplishment, which Marcus indeed exhibited as emperor. He was no lover of luxury and amusements like his brother, with whom he co-ruled for a time, and his son Commodus, who succeeded him. Such detachment and discipline, I believe, have often been exhibited by the Beijing leadership since Deng Tsiao-ping. Disbelieving in any "afterlife," and only fitfully tolerant of Christianity or other religions that can't be subordinated to the state cult, China's leaders are totally dedicated to restoring their country's greatness, which they regard almost as part of the natural order of things. They do not let themselves be dissipated by debaucheries or trivialities. The tie-in with Confucianism, though perhaps not explicit, is also plain.

Christian apatheia is different. It is not a Stoic conformity to an impersonal Reason manifest in space-time, but a refusal to be identified with anything that is of this world alone. That refusal stems from trust of a sort which cannot be shattered by disillusionment because there is nothing sentimental about its ignorance of the details of providence. It comes through in an Orthodox prayer quoted by Fr. Stephen Freeman:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

The attitude in that prayer is certainly one of apatheia. But the detachment is made possible not by resignation to an order of things which cares not for one's fate, but by hope that "all things work together for the good of those who love God" because they are loved by God. This is more important than many people, including many who are "on our side," seem to realize.

In a way, I could sum up my entire spiritual journey as one of struggling to get beyond Stoic apatheia, for which I am not great-souled enough, to reach Christian apatheia, for which one doesn't need any greatness of soul other than that of Christ himself. As a student I learned to perceive the greatness of Stoic apatheia. It was, and is, the product of a resolution to live uprightly not out of any belief that life has some overarching or transcendent "meaning," and still less that there's anything beyond this world, but simply because the Logos was, objectively, the measure of all things. There is a nobility to that stance which most people can no more perceive now than in late antiquity. I am fortunante enough to perceive and appreciate it, but I am not noble enough to live it out. If I did not have the gift of faith which comes from above, I would experience life as Peggy Lee did: "If that's all there is, then let's break out the booze and have a ball." When we poor-souled, as opposed to the great-souled, find that a ball is no longer possible—or at least not possible without paying too great a price—life comes to seem primarily a burden to be endured for the sake of others whom one cares about, if one still cares and hasn't found reason enough not to care anymore. Life is certainly not experienced as a blessing for which to give thanks and rejoice. Even with the gift of faith, I often do not experience the worthwhileness of life. I accept on faith that life is worthwhile because I cannot help believing that the ultimate Source of life is personal, and infinitely wiser and better than I. And so I thank him each day for a blessing that my limitations prevent me from experiencing as a blessing. Often, I must make myself do that. But whether I make myself give thanks or not, the above-quoted prayer make sense to me only in light of gratitude. For me, fortitude comes from gratitude, which comes from faith. But the gratitude is not a feeling, and the faith is not an opinion. They are dispositions of the will and the intellect that are enabled solely by grace.

Alas, I'm not even noble enough to cultivate that attitude without seeking the companionship, and begging the help, of the angels and the saints. Each day I invoke my guardian angel, whoever their name is; St. Michael, my patron saint and marshal of the heavenly hosts; St. Patrick, my confirmation saint whose prayers, I hope, will enable me to write my magnum opus; and of course the most powerful of all mere creatures, the Blessed Virgin, whose humility is what enabled God to enter his world as a man and defeat the pride of the Devil. I recommend something similar to all those other Christians who will never pass the Stoic test of spiritual aristocracy.