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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The tonic of unpleasant truths

As the new calendar year approaches and the Christmas season continues, I want to address the general exhaustion by recommending meditation on a pair of truths that most people find too unpleasant to contemplate.

The first is that there are people who are actually attracted to Catholicism by the Church's teachings on contraception and homosex. Consider convert David Mills' latest article at Inside Catholic, "Contraception and Conversion." This is the sort of thing I'd find way cool at a New Year's Eve party; or, if hung over from the party, way cool as an accompaniment to chicken soup and ibuprofen on New Year's Day. Savor this passage:

The regularly attending, basic-believing Catholic is usually pleased as punch to meet a convert. He rarely asks why -- and, when he does, wants only the most general of answers. Becoming a Catholic for him is just an obvious thing to do, and he is glad to have you around.

The sporadically attending, selectively believing Catholic is slightly bemused, because (if I understand him right) he seems to think of the Church as a heritage and a home and doesn't see why anyone else would be interested in it. He seems to feel as he would if you showed up to the Wisniewski family reunion or dropped into the Aquilina's for Sunday dinner or starting putting ornaments on the Rothfus's Christmas tree. Yet he is usually rather pleased that we did join, being a patriot.

The "progressive" is not so patriotic, if he isn't actually a traitor. So I will often say, in as cheery, boosterish, and cheerleading a voice as I can manage, "My wife and I discovered the truth of the Church's teaching on contraception, and after a while we just had to join the one body in the world that was telling the truth about it."

That usually shuts down the conversation. I am now familiar with the sequence of facial expressions that begins with incredulity and then, after a period ranging from half a second to four or five, moves to either annoyance, disgust, or fear. People have, when they realized exactly what I'd just said, edged away while keeping their eyes on me as if I might hit them from behind. (I am not making that up.)

I know that David is not making that up, because I've seen worse things myself.

I once found myself at a New Year's Eve party attended mostly by Catholics whom I'd call "full-time religionists": people who make the business of the Church their main business, even when they aren't ordained and/or don't get paid for it. (I wasn't a full-time religionist just yet; I was merely in via; and that's a "way" that God has since knocked me off.) But of course there were clerics galore too. With one of them, a Benedictine monk and priest, I was discussing what biblical scholars call "the infancy narratives" in Matthew and Luke. He mused that, though of course he did not believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he would continue to preach that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so as not to upset the faithful. I promptly asked: "So Father, are we to have one truth for the hoi polloi and another for the intelligenstia?" He responded by tossing the contents of his cocktail in my face, muttering "you little shit" (I was much younger than he) as his face twisted with rage. Our gracious host gave me a big cloth napkin, ushered the offender into the hallway, and gave him an extra shot of bourbon.

"Progressives," in my experience, can't handle the truth. Apparently, they don't in David's experience either. But that's a feature of all ideologues.

Of general interest, then, is this bluntly brilliant analysis by Michael Ledeen of the current Middle-Eastern situation, which is going through a little nastier-than-usual spell. Ledeen is spot on: the main problem is Iran, and there is no solution as long as its mullahs can do mischief. But not many people recognize that, and fewer are willing to say so out loud. Once Iran has the bomb, we will have reached the point of no return. Is President Obama willing to do what it takes to prevent reaching that point? Even to raise the question is usually considered bad form.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brief meditation on the Holy Family

The 14th-century Dominican Johann Tauler wrote as follows on the Gospel for today's feast in the Roman calendar for the ordinary form of the Mass:

Herod, the one who pursued the child and wanted to kill him, represents the world which clearly kills off the child, the world that we must by all means flee if we want to save the child. Yet no sooner have we fled the world exteriorly… than Archelaus rises up and reigns: there is still a world within you, a world over which you will not triumph without a great deal of effort and by God’s help.

For there are three strong and bitter enemies that you have to overcome in you and it is with difficulty that we ever win the victory. You will be attacked by spiritual pride: you would like to be seen, taken note of, listened to… The second enemy is your own flesh, assailing you through bodily and spiritual impurity… The third enemy is the one that attacks by arousing malice in you, bitter thoughts, suspiciousness, ill will, hatred and the desire for revenge… Would you become ever more dear to God? You must completely forsake all such behaviour, for all this is the wicked Archelaus in person. Fear and be on your guard; he wants to kill the child indeed…

The worst thing about today's world is how evidently it wants to "kill the child." It does not want God to be its Father, begetting each of us in love; it does not want the Christ Child to be its brother, born shivering in a barnyard stall; it does not want the Holy Spirit to be its comforter and guide, filling it with a life to be poured out in maturity for God and neighbor. It wants to be "grown up," independent, a law unto itself, bending things ever more to its own pleasure and devising. The result is misery, even for those who have many of the world's most cherished goods. The prevalence of abortion, the greatest holocaust in history and set only to expand, is a gruesome sacrament of this evil. The killing of children in the womb signifies the spiritual disorder within; and in signifying that, reliably helps to bring it about.

As Tauler indicates, this "world" is in each of us, if only because of original sin. Even the redeemed must struggle against "the world," within and without, so as to recover their real "inner child" and thus become what God created them to be. I do so daily, often without apparent success. Life for the disciple, if one really wishes to be a disciple, is a spiritual combat. And this, I believe, is the true message of the story of the Holy Family, commemmorated so peacefully in our beloved crèches.

Things have got so bad that I shall deliver myself of another Yogi-ism: in America today, an overtly healthy, intact family is assumed to be covertly dysfunctional. Normalcy, according to the norm of bygone days, is suspect. But consider what the family is for. It is the incubator of human beings, not so much in the physical sense, in which it is dispensable, but in the spiritual sense. It is where we are equipped to become what God created us to be; parents are merely the stewards of that process. But in a world determined to kill the child, the family cannot achieve its purpose well. In a world determined to be "autonomous," the divine and natural law is steadily supplanted by human law. It is we who now decide, by mores and statutes, what marriage consists in; it is we who now decide whether we shall reproduce naturally or technologically; it is we who decide when conceived children will be allowed to see the light of day; it is we who reserve the right to break up a family, ostensibly for the good of its members. In the so-called developed world, the family is increasingly an artifact of convenience at best.

That "kills the child" because we can no longer accept the family as a gift, the way Mary and Joseph accepted Jesus as a gift, and the way all children are gifts. We have done this to ourselves.

Kyrie, eleison.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ecology and Autonomy

Yesterday, the Pope spoke of the need to recognize and defend something called the "ecology of man." Significantly, the occasion was the "traditional exchange of Christmas greetings with prelates and members of the Roman Curia." What attracted media attention was, of course, not so much explanation of our duty to be responsible stewards of the rest of the planet; apparently that's taken as platitudinous, which it isn't. The antennae went up for his remarks on gender theory.


"It is not outmoded metaphysics," Benedict XVI affirmed, "when Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected." He said it has more to do with "faith in the Creator and listening to the language of creation, the contempt of which will lead to the self destruction of humanity." The Pope warned against the manipulation that takes place in national and international forums when the term "gender" is altered. "What is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender,' is definitively resolved in the self-emancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator," he warned. "Man wants to create himself, and to decide always and exclusively on his own about what concerns him." The Pontiff said this is man living "against truth, against the creating Spirit." "The rain forests certainly deserve our protection, but man as creature indeed deserves no less," he added.

The immediate expressions of outrage at that were predictable. What's remarkable about them all the same is their unintended irony.

Most people who consider themselves environmentalists are also left-wing politically and, as such, favor "homosexual rights." Like the Pope, they want to protect the natural ecology; but unlike him, they don't seem to think that there is a human ecology, distinct but not separate from the natural, which entails a normative human sexuality. Indeed, there's a strong movement at the UN to "de-criminalize" homosexual activity, which the Obama Administration will doubtless sign onto. Now as a Catholic and a conservative, I too favor the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults, as well as of prostitution involving consenting adults, because I believe that such laws cannot be enforced fairly. To that extent, I actually disagree with the Pope. But the decriminalization of homosexual acts is only one item, and not the most important one, on the LGBT agenda. As the reaction to Proposition 8's victory in California indicates, that agenda is less interested in privacy, democracy, and due process than in establishing an ever-widening range of sexual deviancy (i.e., what the phrase "Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender" is really referring to) as equal in moral value to marriage, and in some cases even as marriage. If incoveniences such as the will of the people in a sovereign state get in the way, then recourse to other authorities (the courts, the UN, the Episcopal Church) must be had to eliminate them.

That kind of determination signifies a radical philosophical anthropology, not merely a desire to be free of oppression and hate. The idea is that the freedom of the human person is not so much freedom within the limitations of human nature as freedom to define what human nature is to encompass. Thus if I experience, as a given prior to choice, a desire for genital intercourse with members of the same sex, then respecting my freedom means affirming me when I define my personal identity in those terms. If I experience myself as being of one gender-identity when my overt bodily features would suggest that I'm of the opposite gender-identity, then respecting my freedom means affirming me in my choice to alter my body, surgically and chemically, so as to bring my physical reality more into line with what I take to be my spiritual reality. If all that is so, then the Pope's call for respecting a sexual "ecology of man" on pain of collective self-destruction is a rejection of human freedom at a very basic level, akin to medieval Christendom's physical punishment of those who publicly professed heresy. The Church has outgrown the latter; so why not the former?

The reason is that the latter was a historical distortion of the divine and natural law, whereas the former is a rejection of the very idea of the divine and natural law. Once we claim the right to treat heterosexuality as only an empirical norm, rejecting any suggestion that it is also the moral norm, then we have re-committed the sin of our first parents: aspiring to be as gods, "knowing good and evil" apart from what God has told us. By transgressing the limits God has set for us, we have claimed a moral autonomy that leads only to our spiritual self-destruction. "Original" sin is that state of spiritual destruction which we inherit from our first parents. Carried as far as we've carried that today—e.g., with atomic weaponry, human cloning, and now the idea that marriage need not be between men and women—it could lead to our physical self-destruction too.

Of course the "progressive" response to all this is to insist that religion needs more updating, more "enlightenment," not that humanity needs more humility and self-abnegation before God. But once again, that betrays the assumption that religion as well as morality is a purely human cultural product. The idea that an all-powerful, perfectly holy God might actually have told us that sodomy is an abomination must be "outmoded metaphysics," so that sticking to such an idea is naïve, or a mere defense mechanism, or downright evil. I've heard it all before, and I've heard it many times. But I don't buy it. Like many other human tendencies, homosexuality is objectively disordered at the psychic level—which ought to be evident just by knowing what human genitalia are for. It is incompatible with the ecology of man.

I find it funny that left-wing environmentalists and Gaia-worshippers don't get that. But this Christmas season, when we contemplate God's assuming human nature in the form of an infant, it is perhaps one of the most serious truths we can contemplate.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cardinal Dulles and the hermeneutic of continuity

I was both saddened and encouraged to learn last week of the death of Avery Dulles, SJ, prince of the Church and de facto dean of America's Catholic theologians for quite some time. Requiescat in pace. He was the sort of man both the Church and our country needed, and left behind a substantial body of useful work. Now we no longer have his gentle, sage, and moderate voice, which he lost even before the end, which is sad. But we will have his intercession before the Throne—which I'm sure will have greater effect than his opponents realize.

Perhaps his most signal contribution to the contentious world of post-Vatican-II Catholic theology was his suave advocacy of what the present pope has termed "the hermeneutic of continuity," about which I've written more than once before. To a considerable extent, the Church in the developed world has become ideologically polarized:

Thus, while trads resent Rome for spoiling the oldie-goldie days of full pews and sound teaching, the progs resent Rome for failing to commit the Church to the liberal-Protestant agenda that their mythos still peddles as the wave of the future. Both sets of malcontents believe that the Second Vatican Council constituted a decisive break with the Church of the past; the main difference is that the trads, decrying the break, want the Council to become a dead letter while the progs, celebrating it as "the spirit of Vatican II," are impatient for the Church to complete what they take to be the Council's revolutionary work.

Such polarization is, in other words, facilitated by the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It has been the work of such churchmen as Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and Avery Dulles to offer a hermeneutic of continuity that is intellectually more challenging than ideology but, ultimately, the only one capable of upholding the catholicity of the Church over time as well as space.

A good example of how that works on concrete issues is this book edited by Scott Hahn. One of Dulles' last books, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, an indispensable summary of the topic for non-specialists, is another example. Of course the objections raised to that book are motivated mostly by the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It is claimed that the Church's course of doctrinal development, by dropping or even reversing certain teachings, belies the Magisterium's claims to being infallible under certain conditions. Dulles did much in his earlier work to rebut that charge, but much remains to be done.

My "Development and Negation" (see sidebar link) series was a start. I'm trying to turn that into a pamphlet. I invite suggestions; I'm thinking "Catholic Truth Society."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Back to the grindstone

Thanks to all who've expressed concern about me. I've been spending the last few months looking for full-time work and doing occasional day labor. For reasons well known to those who know me well, I do not have the luxury of time; if I did, I'd be off to DC or Rome to earn a papal licentiate in theology, which would take about a year-and-a-half. So I suspended blogging for the duration, on the assumption that I would not have too much difficulty landing the sort of job I held for the last several years. For reasons understandable to anybody who follows the news, that assumption has proven incorrect; despite a number of interviews and promising leads, nothing has so far materialized. Yet I've decided to resume blogging anyway, on the principle that the Lord expects my abilities to be used in his service.

Spiritually, the break has been fruitful. I have not succumbed to depression, my congenital danger; indeed, I've come to realize that it had become too close and old a friend. I'm done with that because I believe God dismissed her. Instead, I have received a greater outpouring of love and support, from true old friends as well as new acquaintances, than I ever thought possible. I cannot and do not want to sing for my own pity party, because people do care and help. The Spirit is at work. Amid and often through my daily struggles, the Lord has been making clear to me that it's time to trust him completely and just do the things he created me to do. That's why I'm back. The rest will take care of itself. "Seek ye first..."

There's been much to ponder in what's termed "current events." Often, the mega-event unfolding through them does so without being noticed as such. I get the sense in prayer that what's happening in the world today is a clearing of the field for a truly decisive struggle between good and evil. The clearing process is most evident in the worldwide economic recession, which is a deserved crisis of trust, and in bioethics.

I do not believe that the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency will arrest the process; indeed, his ascendancy is part of it. Like the complicity of the German people in the Holocaust, his stand on abortion is atrocious because it does not, will not, recognize the atrocity. To hear him tell it, the moral question is beyond his pay grade. The atrocity will be held in check, if at all, only because the Democrats have failed to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But whether Obama gets FOCA through Congress or not, this country stands under judgment. His election showed that the majority of the American people, including the majority of Catholics, cared more about their money and about getting past Bush than about the ongoing holocaust that their false conception of liberty has licensed.

The economic crisis is simply the unravelling of illusions that were sustained by the same sort of greed. As usual when a financial panic has set in, the new fear is as irrational as the old greed; so now we have a downward spiral rather than an inflating bubble. Eons ago, paper money was backed by gold that the government was presumed to have; now it is backed only by trust that people, and above all the government, will pay their debts with the same selfsame paper, or even with just computer bytes representing that paper. When that trust is diminished by real events such as the foreclosure fiasco, money is not lent, capital does not move, jobs are lost instead of created. I believe that the trust will not be fully regained. And I believe so not because I am ignorant of business cycles, in which booms alternate with busts; I believe so because I believe that God will no longer permit business as usual.

Humanity is killing its children and poisoning the planet at an unprecedented rate. The West, with its moral and spiritual decadence, faces a fanatical enemy dedicated to destroying it---not just in two active theaters of war, but in as many ways and places as they can. Above all, however, we are proceeding with the "abolition of man" himself. 

Britain and other countries now see nothing wrong with creating human beings for the express purpose of harvesting their cells for the benefit of others. Legally, such human beings can be altered and killed at will. The rot hasn't set in quite as far here; but it's only a matter of time, especially with the Democrats in charge. And it's only the latest symptom of the underlying disease.

First it was eugenics, which got a bad name because the Nazis practiced it; now it's back, in the form of "pre-natal screening," which will be ubiquitous within the lifetime of baby-boomers. And the ball's been rollin' for a while. Widespread contraception created the general impression that sex and procreation need have nothing to do with each other. That has been gradually destroying not only sexual morality in general but marriage in particular, which is why homosexual liaisons can be regarded as marriage, which they aren't. Then, artificial reproduction not only reinforced that separation but made it possible to treat children as commodities. With IVF, embryonic stem-cell research, and now pre-natal screening, that's exactly what we have. When sexuality becomes a commodity for the mainstream culture, our children are not far behind. And when that happens, it's a sign that we have surrendered completely to our own appetites.

One term for this is 'moral relativism'. Hving reduced morality to prejudice, policy, and will-to-power, we are left with nothing by which to evaluate our appetites. In that case, we are ruled simply by the appetites of the most powerful among us, and have no appeal against them other than our own. It's the law of the jungle all over again. C.S. Lewis termed that terminus "the abolition of man"---the title of one of the most prophetic books of modern times.

But I do not believe that God will let things reach that terminus. Humanity is not a mere evolutionary experiment doomed to self-destruct. Each of us, rather, is conceived by God in love, even when our human parents did not conceive us in love; each of us is destined to eternal life, bodily as well as spiritual, in fellowship with the Triune Love. That is why one of those Persons was sent to die and rise for us: to reach into the very depths of our wretched sinfulness, and of the suffering brought on by sin, so as to lift us into a share in the divine nature itself.  A God who wants that for us, and can do his own will, won't let us completely ruin the earth, and re-bestialize ourselves in the process, before the Great Restoration.

In the meantime, please pray that I soon get the job God wants me to have.

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

My favorite post-election commercial

HT to Mark Shea.

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


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.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Surviving abortion, surviving Obama

The Obama campaign is doing its best to destroy the credibility of abortion survivor Gianna Jessen. She is what certain Catholic mystics like to call a "victim soul." But she's not just a victim: like all "victim souls," she's a weapon of the Spirit. That's why the Spirit's opponents are going after her.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tipping into insanity

In prayer of late, I can't escape the feeling that the world is at a tipping point. It is time to offer ourselves for whatever role God has in mind for us on the other side of that point.


1. The only creatures on Wall Street who seem able to make a deposit on a BMW this week are the pigeons. Congress blames the near-collapse of our financial system on the greed and heedlessness of basically everybody other than itself, just as most of its constituents blame it on the greed and heedlessness of...well, of everybody other than themselves. Meanwhile, the members of Congress chiefly responsible for investigating the crisis, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass), have been among their respective bodies' chief recipients of Fannie and Freddie largesse. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), is now under investigation for violating the very tax laws that his committee is responsible for writing and reviewing.

Beyond conflicts of interest, which the MSM consider petty for Democratic officeholders, the current wrangling is about a bill proposing that the long-suffering taxpayers of America pony up hundreds of billions of dollars for the salvation of Wall Street. Mind you, such a bill is on the table not because anybody thinks Wall Street actually deserves a bailout, but because we would like the consequences of the financial industry's collapse even less. The alternative to mercy for the few just does appear to be hell for the many. But the wrangling, which is entirely bipartisan, is about how many sugar pills are needed to blunt public bitterness about helping guys who had pocketed billions while the value of their companies' assets was tanking. (Maybe we should forget bailing out the Street directly, and just give all homeowners, including those currently in default, subsidized mortgages instead. People who pay their mortgages make money for the mortgage-issuers. Just not as much money as they had grown accustomed to.) If the bill's core provisions pass, appointed Federal officials will have virtually unlimited power over the nation's economy. And they probably won't be able to use that power with any confidence, because nobody can figure out how to price the junk securities that would have to be taken off the holders' books and sold off. I mean, $700 billion here, $700 billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

"He has scattered the proud in their conceit" indeed. But basically, we did all this to ourselves.

2. We are losing the war in Afghanistan. I'm sure it tickles Satan that we are losing despite a combat kill-ratio of at least 50-1 in our favor (and I'm talking dead militants, not civilian deaths that are tragedies it would be macabre to count in anybody's favor.) We are losing because the enemy has sanctuary in Pakistan but we are limited to fighting almost entirely within Afghanistan. This is the war that Barack Obama says ought to be our main focus. Given the impending "security agreement" with the Iraqis, the Afghan/Pakistan war front will indeed be the next president's main focus whether he wants it to be or not. But I wonder how he'd manage it. I wonder how anybody anywhere would manage it. We could win if we were free to eliminate the al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the lawless FATA regions of Pakistan, but the Pakistanis fire on us if we so much as fly a chopper a few hundred yards over the border. Instead, the Pakistani Army has made costly and inconclusive efforts of its own to keep the enemy at bay. It is clear both that Pakistan can't win this thing on its own and that its government would not survive accepting from us the direct combat help they really need. So the problem just gets worse, and worse, and worse as the body count mounts on both sides. It's useless and tragic. Just the way the Enemy likes things to be.

The new President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, is not one to inspire confidence. He is president only because people really wanted his far more talented, dynamic, and courageous wife to be, but she was assassinated last year by the terrorists. This past weekend, Zardari barely escaped assassination himself when the Islamabad Marriott, along with about 60 lives, was destroyed by a suicide truck-bomb; he and most of the government leadership avoided incineration only because they decided at the last minute to dine at the Prime Minister's house instead. Such is the precarious situation of the only Muslim country in the world with a nuclear-weapons arsenal. That's right: a nuclear-weapons arsenal. Swell.

I hope that Presidents Bush and Zardari, who met last night in the White House, are able to come up with a workable strategy. But action that might make a substantive difference will probably have to await the inauguration of Bush's successor. By that time, things will be worse. I'd rather have an old warhorse like McCain than a lightweight like Obama dealing with such problems by then. But I don't even know that I have that comfort to look forward to.

We didn't really do all this to ourselves. Islamic extremism and 9/11 are not our fault, despite what some in the West prefer to believe. But a lot of people, including some who are not our enemies, think we've invited all this by how we've behaved before and since 9/11. And whether or not that's true, the fact that a lot of people round the world believe it's true means it might as well be true. Whether or not we broke it, nobody else is going to fix it for us. The Russians almost seem to enjoy the pickles we're in.

3. I said that Pakistan is the only Muslim country in the world with a nuclear-weapons arsenal. If current Iranian boasts, the IAEA report, and Israeli intelligence estimates are any guide (the CIA doesn't count any more), that may cease to be true sometime next year. The Thug-in-Chief is enriching uranium, testing ballistic missiles, and building swift-boats for the Strait of Hormuz at breakneck speed, even as Iran's oil production declines due to lack of infrastructure investment. He was in New York just yesterday to rub our noses in our problems, announcing before the UN General ASSembly that the end of both "the American empire" and "the Zionist entity" is at hand. (At least this time he didn't go uptown to my alma mater and inform the students that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Maybe he finally realized that he hadn't yet killed them all.) We had better take this creature very seriously indeed. I can almost hear those 3,000-plus centrifuges humming.

I once imagined that the Thug-in-Chief was just a garden-variety psycho, a convenient front-man and potential fall-guy for the real power, Ayatollah Khamenei. But each is just as vicious and focused as the other. They are not psychos. They are hate-filled religious fanatics who believe that the Mahdi is coming soon, and that it's their job as his servants to hasten the chaos and destruction which will make his return timely. They are serious about destroying Israel and driving the U.S. out of the Middle East. Their reverses in Iraq have only made them angrier, more determined than ever to hold The Bomb over our heads. Negotiations serve only to buy them time for their schemes, and sanctions don't hurt them enough to matter. I expect that the next Israeli government, currently in the process of formation, will be the one to proceed with destroying Iran's nuclear facilities—with quiet blessings and covert forms of backup from the West. It will be necessary; it is already necessary. But once it happens, more hell will break loose, even as it's been gathering force in Pakistan. Lovely.

4. The above are only the most obvious things to Americans who follow real events as opposed to celebrity gossip and media-driven gotcha politics. There's much more scary stuff going on in the world, and I'm sure I haven't heard the half of it. But the one thing I can't leave out is genetic engineering.

Scientists appear to be on the verge of creating the first artificial life-form. I do not believe that God will permit humanity to alter nature in that way to any great extent.That's because I believe God's plans for us are good but not yet ripe. He won't allow us to destroy the balance of nature, and thus ourselves in due course, before his plans are ripe.

I can't help feeling that we are approaching some sort of apocalypse. I do not say it will be the Second Coming; nobody has any idea when that will happen. But I sense that divine intervention, unmistakable to any with eyes to see, will be needed and granted. Prepare by learning complete trust in and love for God. You won't be able to control even your little patch when the world, which prefers other gods even when it gives lip service to God, tips more and more into insanity.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I wish I could do it now

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has just called Sarah Palin "disabled." You can read why here. This is on top of his current spate of ethically questionable financial arrangements, which Nancy Pelosi doesn't think merit any disciplinary action. The outrage is justified. But it won't last because, in this presidential campaign, one achieves outrage fatigue very quickly.

I ran for Congress against this guy in 1988. He was endorsed by both the Democratic and the Republican parties. Although he wouldn't debate me, I did better than his two previous opponents, getting more than 2% of the vote with just a little effort. Of course I was a sacrificial lamb, but I had made a point a few people listened to.

I wish more had. I wish I could make the point now. I bet more would listen.

The religious basis of religious tolerance

From the current issue of First Things:

In our day, ideological minorities seeking refuge in the protections of the Constitution frequently do so in a manner that pits the Constitution against the American people. That is understandable, but it is a potentially fatal mistake. Keep in mind the preamble and irreplaceable premise of the Constitution: “We the people . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” That is to say, the Constitution and all its protections depend upon the sentiment of “we the people.” Majority rule is far from being the only principle of democratic governance and it is not a sufficient principle, but it is a necessary principle. In the Constitution, the majority imposes upon itself a self-denying ordinance; it promises not to do what it otherwise could do, namely, ride roughshod over the dissenting minorities.

Why, we might ask, does the majority continue to impose such a limitation upon itself? A number of answers suggest themselves. One reason is that most Americans recognize, however inarticulately, a sovereignty higher than the sovereignty of “we the people.” They believe there is absolute truth but they are not sure that they understand it absolutely; they are, therefore, disinclined to force it upon those who disagree.

It is not chiefly a secular but a religious restraint that prevents biblical believers from coercing others in matters of conscience. We do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God because we believe that it is the will of God that we should not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God. Christians and Jews did not always believe that but, with very few exceptions, we in this country have come to believe it. It is among the truths that we hold. And by which we are held.

Read it all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Catholic voting in 2008: the best analysis so far

Cosmos, Liturgy, Sex has an excellent analysis of the issues facing Catholics in this year's presidential election. Appropriately, it relies on the bishops' well-balanced instruction Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

There's been a great deal of heated rhetoric on this topic from both left and right. I've tried to do my bit to moderate things, but CLS's approach is the best I've seen so for.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prophecy from Thomas Merton

VI: In the Ruins of New York

Oh how quiet it is after the black night
When flames out of the clouds burned down your cariated teeth,
And when those lightnings,
Lancing the black boils of Harlem and the Bronx,
Spilled the remaining prisoners,
(The ten and twenties of the living)
Into the trees of Jersey,
To the green farms, to find their liberty.

How are they down, how have they fallen down
Those great strong towers of ice and steel.
And melted by what terror and what miracle?
What fires and lights tore down,
With the white anger of their sudden accusation,
Those towers of silver and of steel?

....The ashes of the leveled towers still curl with tufts of smoke
Veiling your obsequies in their incinerating haze
They write, in embers, this your epitaph:

”This was a city
That dressed herself in paper money.
She lived four hundred years
With nickels running in her veins.
She loved the waters of the seven purple seas,
And burned on her own green harbor
Higher and whiter than ever any Tyre.
She was as callous as a taxi;
Her high-heeled eyes were sometimes blue as gin,
And she nailed them, all the days of her life,
Through the hearts of her six million poor.
Now she has died in the terrors of a sudden contemplation
Drowned in the waters of her own, her poisoned well.”

Can we console you, stars,
For the so long survival of such wickedness?
Tomorrow and the day after
Grasses and flowers will grow
Upon the bosom of Manhattan.
And soon the branches of the hickory and sycamore
Will wave where all those dirty windows were--
Ivy and the wild-grape vine
Will tear those weak walls down,
Burying the brownstone fronts in freshness and fragrant flowers;
And the wild-rose and the crab-apple tree
Will bloom in all those silent mid-town dells.
There shall be doves’ nests, and hives of bees
In the cliffs of the ancient apartments,
And birds shall sing in the sunny hawthorns
Where was once Park Avenue.
And where Grand Central was, shall be a little hill
Clustered with sweet, dark pine."

From: Figures of New York
By Thomas Merton, OCSO
(New Directions: Norfolk, Connecticut, 1947)

(Emphasis added; HT to Spirit Daily.)