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Last Things

By David Mills | June 2020
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and writes the “Catholic Sense” column for diocesan newspapers.

It’s St. Catherine of Siena’s feast day as I write. She was famously critical of worldly clergy. In The Dialogue, she describes them as caring about “having grand horses, many gold and silver vessels, and well-adorned homes. They have and keep what they ought not, all with huge vanity. Their heart babbles out its disordered vanity, and their whole desire is feasting, making a god of their bellies.”

Inevitably, she says, they soon fall into sexual immorality. As a famous movie director said, the heart wants what it wants. We don’t easily say no to it. He who lets his heart have the horses and homes it wants, though he intends to remain chaste, eventually lets his heart have the body it wants.

Not surprisingly, the saint continues, these priests fail as pastors: “They leave behind my little sheep, whom I had entrusted to them, like sheep without a shepherd. Spiritually they do administer the sacraments of holy Church (the power of which sacraments can neither be taken away nor lessened by any sin of theirs) but they do not feed them with sincere prayers, with hungry longing for their salvation, with holy and honorable living, nor do they feed their poor subjects with temporal assistance.”

She writes pages and pages of this. She uses the word “filth” a lot. I wonder how often she’s read in seminaries.

Also from St. Catherine: The hierarchy “will never correct persons of any importance, even though they may be guilty of greater sin than more lowly people, for fear that these might retaliate by standing in their way or deprive them of their rank and their way of living. They will, however, correct the little people, because they are sure these cannot harm them or deprive them of their rank. Such injustice comes from their wretched selfish love for themselves.”

I saw this a lot in my experiences inside the religious world, as an Episcopalian as well as a Catholic, and it was one of the most disheartening things I saw. If you want a bishop’s attention, you would do well to have a lot of money, or the ability to get it for him. If, say, your priest makes a mess of the liturgy and preaches heresy from the pulpit, the bishop might listen to the rich man’s complaints, but the poor man from the small parish has no more hope of getting the bishop’s help than I do of playing center in the NBA.

I met a friend at the pub we favor, and started working after he left. A man about my age came over. “Are you religious?” he asked. I wanted to say no, but since most people mean “Do you go to church a lot?” I said, “Fairly.” He said, “No, I said are you a religious?” and explained he’d seen me there before with a priest friend. I said no. Then he asked, “Are you Irish?” No, I said.

When I told the priest this, he wrote back, “So was he raising the stakes or trying to make you feel better for having to answer negatively? That is, is being Irish a step up or down from being a religious?”

Facebook sophisticates love the “Look at these stupid rubes” stories. Which almost always means these “stupid conservative rural white American Christian” stories. Several Facebook friends exploded in laughter at an NBC News story of a school board in Alaska that banned books like Catch-22, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and, of all things, The Great Gatsby.

You roll your eyes. Gatsby? The novel that’s enthralled generations of teachers and bored generations of students, who can’t figure out why it’s supposed to be such a great book?

As it turns out, they only removed the books from the list of books teachers could teach. Any student can borrow the books from the school libraries. One school board member explained that they didn’t want teachers having to address the difficult subjects the books raise.

Not unreasonably. Most Americans have been too much affected by what I think of as the public school mythology. We think of wise, caring teachers gently leading their students to discover the truth, wrestling with hard questions, and coming to the right answers.

Which happens, but not nearly as often as the mythology requires. How many teachers teach such questions well? How many impose their own views? Relatively few, and a lot, are my answers.

The stories appeal for the same reason public libraries love “Banned Books Week.” It gives people of a certain sort a mirror in which (they think) they can see how good they are. They don’t ban books. Only reactionaries scared of knowledge (meaning political conservatives) and fanatics trying to impose their will on others (meaning believing Christians) ban books. And America has so many of them that libraries must fight back with Banned Books Week, to keep the fascists from throwing half the collection onto the bonfire.

Preposterous all round. I wrote about this at The Stream a few years ago. Our local library displayed banned books with little notes from the books themselves, saying, “I was banned here for this.” Very twee. The one I investigated, a graphic novel called Bone, turned out not to be a banned book at all. “I was challenged in Rosemount, Minnesota, for ‘age appropriateness,’ despite being named ‘the best all-ages graphic novel ever published’ by Time.”

One parent in one suburb once objected to the book’s inclusion in an elementary school library. Not, you would think, a significant assault on free speech. Especially as the school refused to remove it. But the story gets worse. The library establishment rated the book “suitable for fourth grade and up.”

As I wrote then, “What do you have in elementary schools? Holy cow, you have kids who haven’t reached fourth grade! You have kindergartners! Some of those kids can read, and they’re going to read a graphic novel with cute characters like Bone. First graders, ditto. Second graders, third graders, ditto.”

So the library establishment itself implicitly argued for keeping the book out of the library, or at least restricting it to kids who’d reached fourth grade. They said it wasn’t “age appropriate” for students in the lower grades. The parent had an official library establishment reason to complain.

But there the book stood, with its smug, twee little note, on the banned books display of our public library. They invented the offense. What did the display prove? That librarians don’t check their sources.

Bad people ban books. They don’t. But of course they do. The Brooklyn Public Library, the library of that epicenter of hip, urban American liberalism, locks the second Tintin book in a back room. The librarians think Tintin in the Congo too racist to leave out where people could read it. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library system doesn’t even have a copy.

Were our local librarian to find that book in the stacks, or the original version of Little Black Sambo, or a book denying the Holocaust, she’d pull it off the shelves as fast as any Midwestern book-banner. And feel as righteous in doing so as any conservative Christian who voted to take Catcher in the Rye off the high school syllabus.

And that’s not to mention their deciding what books to buy, which means what books not to buy. Not censorship, but still a form of policing the boundaries of what people get to read.

The whole Carnegie library system here in Pittsburgh, which includes every public library and millions of books, does not have a single copy of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, on the connection of race and intelligence. The prestige of the authors and the publisher does not matter. It’s a very un-PC book, and the library doesn’t carry it.

We can’t get away from the need to make choices and to make them with some idea of the good and the bad. Both those who mock the rubes and our librarians with their Banned Books Week displays, they cheat. They pretend to neutrality when they work from very definite commitments.

Few seem to see their own commitments. To question their commitments would be to risk losing the self-image that comes with them. Maybe the rubes aren’t really rubes, just people with a different idea of the good.

That’s the big problem with mainstream American liberalism. What we might call vulgar liberalism, the kind you get from Facebook sophisticates and librarians in affluent communities, and the majority of opinion writers, even at the best newspapers and magazines.

This kind of liberal assumes that what he thinks about the world is the neutral, objective, evident-to-all-men-of-good-will simple statement of reality. Other people impose their values. He speaks the value-free truth. He doesn’t need to defend or even explain it because it’s obvious.

And he uses the rhetoric of liberalism to do it. He insists the library carry an anti-Christian book, to present both sides of an issue, to respect religious diversity, and to serve all its patrons. Fair enough. But when someone asks for an overtly Christian book on the same subject, he will explain that the library can’t get the book…because it has to present both sides, respect diversity, and serve all its patrons. He chides his critics for not respecting diversity and wanting special treatment for their own beliefs.

The world does not like seriously religious people. It really doesn’t like religious people who both stand out because they live by different rules and don’t have any cultural or political power. Like conservative rural white American Christians. And like the Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The way the Netflix series Unorthodox portrays the Hasidic community, “the viewer becomes a voyeur to foreign Disney-witches in odd costumes,” writes Frieda Vizel, who grew up in such a community before leaving it. Writing at the Jewish website Forward, she explains that she doesn’t recognize the Jews the show depicts, who are “cold, humorless, and obsessed with following the rules.”

The Christian recognizes a serious piety lived out in a community. A difficult and dangerous thing to do, of course, but what the love of God requires. The world sees weird people doing weird stuff and being different in a way that people who love “diversity” don’t like.

The show “others” the Ultra-Orthodox, Vizel says. “They are cartoonishly evil. Their kind moments seem out of character and are unconvincing. They are not like any humans I have met ever, Hasidic or otherwise.”

Remember that she left this community. Unorthodox upsets her, she explains, “because it reminds me too much of the way the world as it was presented to me when I was Hasidic — black and white, good and bad, only with the roles of good guy and bad guy reversed.”

The movie appeals to the secularist bias against religion. “It doesn’t challenge the viewer. It doesn’t make viewers think…. It just sinks us a bit deeper into our biases.”

A Hasidic rabbi (this is a famous story) tells his congregation that to create equality among his people, he asked the rich to give their money to the poor. “And I can tell you that I’m halfway there!” he says. The congregation, of course, cheers, but the people express their doubts. “Yes!” the rabbi says. “The poor have agreed to receive the money.”

The red booklet’s cover said SONGS to Fan the Flames of Discontent. A Facebook friend sent round the picture of the Wobblies’ songbook. The International Workers of the World sang together while rallying each other to overthrow the system. And good for them.

When have you ever gone to a meeting that included singing, other than the national anthem or some silly team or school song that no one knew? A world in which people who’d banded together, as in a union or a club, had songs of their own and sang them was a better world. No one does that anymore. The Scouts do it, and kids at school and summer camps, but only because they’re kids. Do adults sing together anywhere?

In only one place. At worship. Christianity and Judaism hold to something man once knew. Something humanizing. Not just the value of singing songs expressing commitments and beliefs, but singing them together. Celebrating the Resurrection or calling for the Revolution — those are things we ought to proclaim in song and as one.

The most famous Wobbly, Joe Hill, executed for a murder he apparently didn’t commit, wrote a lot of songs. “The Preacher and the Slave” is the source for the phrase “pie in the sky when you die.”

The song begins: “Long-haired preachers come out every night, / try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right. / But when asked how ‘bout something to eat, / they will answer in voices so sweet.” The chorus gives the preachers’ answer: “You will eat, bye and bye, / in that glorious land above the sky. / Work and pray, live on hay, / you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

The song ends with the workers winning. The chorus gives their lesson to “the grafters.” It’s a good, practical one. “You will eat, bye and bye, / when you’ve learned how to cook and how to fry. / Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good. / Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.”

I first heard that phrase not from a secularist but from a Baptist deacon trying to make people understand that Christians should care about other people’s well-being. Christianity doesn’t teach indifference to human suffering. The promise of Heaven doesn’t mean this world doesn’t matter. That saintly man was more than a little vexed.

I remember this because he had reason to say it. In one of my first encounters with some of his fellow evangelicals, a woman denied that she had any responsibility for anyone else because God would reward them in Heaven. I think, though I couldn’t swear to this, that she said the poor were blessed because suffering can bring men closer to God. She also told me that — despite what the Bible says — she didn’t need to give money to the poor because she paid her taxes. I tried to point out that the Jews paid taxes, and Jesus still told them to help the poor. She ignored me.

Hence the deacon, a conservative man, quoting the old Trotskyite Joe Hill.

The Church Militant website claims that the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X harbors sexual predators among its clergy and laity, and that its hierarchy knows about at least some of them. Church Militant presents a plausible case.

Some groups are more prone to this than others. Reactionary groups are one type of enterprise that seems to be especially prone to it. The “We’re the true believers the world hates” mentality creates a culture very attractive to predators, and one those in charge instinctively protect.

They’re not the only type of group attractive to predators or tempted to cover up their own, but I think this kind of group is more prone to the first than most others, and therefore have more temptation to the second. If you build walls against the world and identify yourself by those walls, you will get people who want to operate in the darkness behind the walls. Predators know the best places to operate.

You could be right to retreat and to build those walls. But if you are, you should recognize the particular dangers that come with living in a walled city. You need to create more windows and put in more street lights.

A technique for resistance that may someday become useful, if secularizing forces remake the law to remove religion from the public square: Create symbols of commitment, so that other Christians, and the secularists themselves, will know Christians remain in opposition — and do it amusingly, lightly, with a slight air of contempt for the danger.

At the very end of the German occupation of Paris, writes the historian Agnès Poirier in her book Left Bank, “Parisians had decorated their city in their own particular way, as if a silent rallying cry had spread through the city.”

At a major intersection, “someone had hung clothes to dry: a navy blue overall, a bright white tablecloth, and a bloodred scarf…. Nearby, a florist had only blue delphiniums, white lilies, and red roses to sell. Women had dressed in the same way, wearing only the three national colors, and in workmen’s upper pockets, three pencils, blue, white, and red, were often seen sticking out.”

Christians must resist in more direct ways as well, otherwise the symbols will have no more meaning than religious tchotchkes or doodads. No one cares that you have a crucifix on your wall unless they know you will give your life the way Jesus did.

The euphemistically named “bath tissue” says “septic safe” on the wrapping. It tells those not connected to their town’s sewer system that it won’t clog their septic tanks. Apparently, some toilet paper does.

Basic homeowning. A septic tank’s just like the stove or the hot-water heater or the roof. You have to take care of it, of course, but that’s what homeowners do. And then I thought more carefully about the word. We say “septic tank” the way we say “kitchen sink.” Just a name. But septic means infected with dangerous bacteria. People die of sepsis.

To have a septic tank means you have something that takes away all that stuff that can make you sick, and maybe even kill you. Especially in public buildings, where the person before you may be dangerously sick. And how amazing is that? To be so protected? But when we thank God for His gifts, do we ever think to mention the sewage system? When we thank Him for good health, do we think to thank Him for the amazing device that keeps us out of the…stuff?

And, for that matter, as we all know now, how amazing is it to have toilet paper? Convenient rolls of the stuff, hitherto very cheap? Our ancestors used leaves and corncobs.

At the baptism of two friends’ new son, I was unexpectedly moved by the baptism itself, especially the moment when the priest held up the baby, who a few seconds earlier was one thing and was now decisively, eternally, another.

What an astonishing gift, and what an astonishing thing that we can do it. And that’s what God through His Church keeps doing. We get gifts not from doves descending from Heaven, or angels suddenly lighting up the room, but from the voices and hands of other human beings.

At Mass, the priest may be a shlub, a loser, an airhead, a drama queen, a hugely annoying human being, even a genuinely bad man, and still, Jesus Himself comes through the consecration the priest performs. As if He were bidden like a servant. If I were writing the script, the arrival of the Lord of the universe would not be so mundane, and the chief actor would not be a guy like any other guy. But Jesus comes, in a way, like clockwork. Astonishing.


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