Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | July-August 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 a Facebook site for owners of Australian Shepherds, like our Toby. Mostly just pictures and stories. A very happy site, except when someone posts a note about their dog dying. (Many “parents” call it “crossing the rainbow bridge.” I love dogs, but really.)

But let some innocent ask for advice and, holy cow, members get vicious. The request implies ignorance, and the ignorant must be punished and abused. It’s astonishing how cruel people can be. Even accounting for the way social media distances people from their words, many people are bafflingly and pointlessly horrible.

If only they were as kind and patient as their Aussies. They aren’t worthy of their dogs. Why aren’t they cat owners?

 

It was her “Way to Peace.” She had a high-minded-sounding reason for her eugenic desire to reshape Man by reshaping men. As far as I know, Margaret Sanger spoke sincerely. She spoke as a member of America’s elite.

In a 1932 address, Sanger urged the nation to “apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” That “dysgenic population” included “illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends.” She’d already talked about ridding the country of “morons, mental defectives, epileptics.”

Sanger wanted to pension off those who let themselves be sterilized and put the rest on farms. She would not let them remain as they were, free to bear children and live where they wanted. “With the future citizens safeguarded from hereditary taints, with five million mental and moral degenerates segregated, with ten million women and ten million children receiving adequate attention, we could then turn our attention to the basic needs for international peace.”

America did not sterilize the people Sanger wanted sterilized. It did not segregate them on farms and homesteads as she suggested. It had a vision of human dignity that would not allow that. Even today, with the killing of the unborn so generally accepted, Sanger would not get a serious hearing for her proposals.

Overt eugenics, no, not in America, not yet. But indirect eugenics, yes. Place Planned Parenthood’s facilities in poor and minority neighborhoods. Encourage and subsidize their abortions. Preach that women can gain the good life only by ridding themselves of children. That will accomplish something of what its founder wanted.

 

My experiences with “spontaneous” religion since my youth have left me dubious about it, at best. I quickly noticed how supposedly “free” prayers, “from the heart” prayers, consisted, to borrow a phrase from Orwell, “less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” Even evangelicals joke about this.

My own movement toward the Catholic Church began in a desire to find something objective, something into which I could enter. Something that required living a well-developed life and learning from a great tradition, not constant attempts at spontaneity. A Church, to be honest, that could carry me when I couldn’t do it on my own. I admired my evangelical friends who tried to live as if freshly engaged at every moment, but I doubted their ability to keep it up. Their kind of Christianity, expressed in that kind of prayer, gave them no places to rest. As years went by, many of them broke, or moved on to less demanding faiths.

The Australian Catholic theologian Matthew Tan explains the problem with the subjective idea of prayer. It works, he writes, “on the assumption that prayer is primarily a human product, a projection of the individual will towards God.” Instead, he says, borrowing from the Carmelite writer Ruth Burrows, “prayer is where God speaks to God who abides in us, a process in which we get swept up.”

He continues: “More concretely, prayer is an economy into which God in the Body of Christ — the Church — invites us. If we find ourselves with no internal resources of our own to pray, the economy of prayer operates to provide that prayer on our behalf.”

Matthew teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia and writes the Awkward Asian Theologian blog. A writer I recommend.

 

The passion for not masking has led to something I wouldn’t have expected: Christians making ridiculous claims about Providence to justify not wearing one. The first few people I saw who did this I dismissed as silly. But I’ve seen the point made enough times to suggest that in some circles it’s a widely used, and unchallenged, line.

For example, a comment on a Facebook friend’s post: “Only God can take the breath away from His creation. I wear the mask to lessen the fears of a very fearful society, not that I believe I have the power over life and death.” (In another comment, she declared masks completely useless and said she wore one just to be kind to the frightened.)

She has no power over life and death, she says. She couldn’t take a knife from the kitchen drawer and stab the annoying neighbor? She couldn’t put poison in the brownies she donated to the bake sale? She couldn’t shove down the steps the grandmother from whom she’ll inherit? Of course she has power over life and death.

And of course she exercises it in normal life. She’d put on a gown and mask to see a friend in the ICU. She’d stop a stranger from absentmindedly stepping into traffic. She cleans her hands before cooking dinner for her family, and throws out the spoiled meat rather than hiding it in a stew. She stays out of the nursing home when her nose is streaming and she’s coughing from the flu. And she expects people to do all these things for her.

But when she talks about wearing masks, suddenly she’s powerless to change anything. Suddenly, whatever will be, will be. If anyone with whom she comes in contact lives or dies, that’s entirely God’s doing. Nothing to do with her.

She forgets all the biblical lessons about our responsibility for others. Because liberals or the media or freedom or America or something. But if the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children (cf. Num. 14:18), this woman’s potentially virus-laded droplets are visited upon her neighbors.

This ridiculousness still surprises me. But it’s a good example of the way people twist the faith to support a cause. And the way not unintelligent people will say really stupid things, and Christians spout heresy, when their politics requires it.

 

Chesterton Explains It, Part I. St. John Henry Newman famously said, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

It’s a lovely line. But general. G.K. Chesterton illuminates it: “If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post, you must have a new white post.”

 

Chesterton Explains It, Part II. Walter J. Ong, S.J., in his preface to his fellow Jesuit Hugo Rahner’s Man at Play: “God’s activity toward and in all creation is like that germinal, undifferentiated activity of the child, which is both work and play, both serious application and spontaneous activity for its own sake.” Children lose these as they age, but God never does. “God’s work is always play in the sense that it is always joyous, spontaneous, and completely free.”

That’s the theologian’s explanation, and useful it is too. Chesterton brought it to life. He wrote in Orthodoxy: “The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

“But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

 

Chesterton Explains It, Part III. In Salt of the Earth, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains that unbelief “is a heavy burden and in my opinion even more so than faith is. Faith makes man light. This can be seen in the Church Fathers, especially in monastic theology. To believe means we become like angels, they say. We can fly, because we no longer weigh so heavy in our own estimation.”

Chesterton, again from Orthodoxy: “A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly…. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man ‘falls’ into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue.

“It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article [an editorial] than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

 

A thing that happens in marriages, which also illustrates the difficulty in knowing why people do what they do. I took my wife to a doctor’s appointment and dropped her at the door before parking. I then went to the first of the two offices she could possibly have gone to and asked the receptionist if my wife had been there. She frowned, clearly not recognizing the name, but then asked, “Was she wearing a blue dress?”

I froze. She began to give me that suspicious, annoyed look. I didn’t remember — not because I hadn’t looked but because I suddenly realized I didn’t know if my wife was wearing a black or a very dark navy-blue dress. I’d registered the dress but not the exact shade. And that mattered. To me. Because I describe things for a living, and getting the details precisely right matters to me, or so I tell myself. I wasn’t really at fault for not knowing the answer to her question, while others, less obsessed with precision, would be.

The receptionist couldn’t know that. She was clearly about to say, censoriously, “Don’t you notice what your wife is wearing?” Based on a quick calculation of the odds — how many people she could possibly have seen in the past few minutes, how many women, and how many women wearing a possibly black or very dark blue dress — I quickly said Yes! She nodded, and then smiled at me, before telling me to go to the other office.

 

A Christian woman I knew was a bumper-sticker type but didn’t have any religious bumper stickers on her car. I asked why not. She said, “Because of the way I drive.”

 

In my youth, a man I somewhat knew had a real, life-changing conversion to Christianity. He’d been a great storyteller and life of the party, the kind of man who became the center of attention just by walking into the room. And after his conversion, he took controlling his language very seriously. He started referring to the Helluva Good Cheese brand as “heloova.”

That seemed to teenage, secularish me both comical and admirable.

 

My friend Geoffrey Kirk died in June. He had been a minister of the Church of England, and we met and sometimes worked together as members of the resistance movement within the Anglican churches. He later became Catholic.

When he was a young minister, he once told me, his bishop called him in one day, imperatively and with no reason given. The bishop was in his cups when Geoffrey arrived. The secretary ushered him into the bishop’s presence, and the bishop, slouched in his chair and slurring his words, said (I quote from memory), “Father Jones, you’ve made a disgusting spectacle of yourself.”

“M’Lord,” Geoffrey said, but the bishop plowed on, listing the minister’s sins, which were pretty degraded, while Geoffrey kept trying to stop him but getting no further than “M’Lord!” The bishop got to the end of his list, Geoffrey now knowing one of his colleague’s darkest secrets, and said with annoyance, “What?!”

“I’m not Father Jones.” The bishop looked at him more closely and focused his eyes. “Oh,” he said. “Carry on.” And waved his hand to dismiss Geoffrey from his presence.

 

Write about white privilege, as I have, and you find how quickly other white people jump to deny it flat out, or deny it by complicating it out of existence, or deny it by changing the subject to what you are supposedly doing by writing about it (like “virtue signaling”).

White privilege is a reality. Here’s the first of a string of tweets from Anthony Bradley. He’s a professor at King’s College, a very evangelical and politically very conservative college in lower Manhattan. He’s no religious or political liberal. But he is black.

He’s commenting on a short video of a little black boy shooting hoops in the street who sees a police car coming and hides until it passes. “It is so sad. One way to think about #whiteprivilege: things you have the privilege of not having to think about or have to teach your kids about. The privilege of not having to think about how race plays a role in your life or your kids’ lives. It’s what you’re free [to] avoid.”

He explains what this means in practice in follow-up tweets. Like: “Most clearly seen in the travel sector: I can’t just go anywhere I want to in America. I first have to ask, ‘are there black people there?’ On a road trip, I’m not eating in if I don’t see any. My white friends have the privilege of mostly never having to worry about this.”

In my writing on the subject, I’ve quoted Chuck Colson’s ghostwriter, an Acton Institute-type economist, a Pittsburgh seminarian, a Southern Baptist sociologist, a Catholic homeschooling mother, and a Republican senator from South Carolina. All serious Christians, all relatively conservative, all with stories of how the world treats them differently than it does their white peers, but according to some of my readers, not to be believed.

If you say that, you’re a knave. If you’re a Christian, your knavery consists in part in refusing to listen to your brothers and sisters in Christ to whom you should listen. And would, with your finger streaking to the “share” button, if they denied the reality of white privilege.

 

In a Touchstone fundraising email, the distinguished scholar Robert V. Young writes of “the fundamental teachings of Christianity, comprising the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Son of God for the salvation of the world.” These teachings unite believers who disagree about “the implications of the Incarnation for ecclesiology and sacramental theology.” He mentions C.S. Lewis’s idea of “mere Christianity.”

Though a Catholic, Robert here endorses Protestantism. Ecclesiology and sacramental theology aren’t “implications” of the Incarnation, as if they’re built on top of the foundation, and built according to different beliefs, which don’t matter that much. They form part of the foundation. What Robert calls implications are better called extensions.

For the Catholic, to believe in the Incarnate Lord who died and rose again is to believe in the Catholic Church and the Mass. As St. Joan of Arc said, in a quote the Catechism includes, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

I understand why Robert wrote that, having been part of Touchstone’s many years’ long discussions of what being an ecumenical enterprise means. We all know how easily divided Christians can divide further. The differences produce a strong centrifugal force, if the bonds of courtesy and concern and the shared love of God don’t hold Christians together. Even friends who take up the subject sometimes find themselves sundered beyond repair.

Lewis’s idea of “mere Christianity” and similar proposals seem to offer a way out. They don’t. Because Catholics (and Orthodox) don’t believe in mere Christianity.

 

Part of the problem is that the realities at issue aren’t ecclesiology and sacramental theology but the Church and the sacraments. We don’t disagree about ideas about realities, but about the realities themselves. You can argue about sacramental theology with some distance. You can’t really argue about Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, when the Savior before whom you kneel is for the other person a piece of bread he can take home and use in a sandwich.

 

Another part of the problem is the metaphor that speaks of the faith in architectural terms. Maybe that’s the effect of Lewis’s famous image of the house with many rooms, in his introduction to Mere Christianity. Many Catholics like it for its generosity, but don’t see what the image really says. I wrote about it in this magazine in “The Whole House,” published in the October 2014 issue.

Once think of the Church as a building and you can think of it as a structure divided into foundation and building. That’s as misleading an image as Lewis’s. The Church is an organism — a body, as the New Testament puts it. The Body of Christ. A body is a single, unitary, organic thing. And indivisible.

 

Wisdom from an enjoyable old book, A. Cohen’s Ancient Jewish Proverbs: “You have added water, add flour also.” The editor explains: “Used of a person who is constantly asking questions, but never ventures to add anything more substantial to the conversation or discussion.”

He mentions another useful expression: “A basket full of books.” Cohen explains: “Said of a man of much learning, but ill-arranged and devoid of method.”

He adds: “There is a medieval expression, ‘An ass carrying books,’ which is applied to an ignorant man who has a library.”

 

Hilaire Belloc has a partly deserved reputation for crankiness. One of the public intellectuals of his day, a friend of men like George Bernard Shaw, and a friend and ally of Chesterton’s, he also thought deeply about the Christian life. He was more sensitive to the painful parts than was Chesterton.

“Why these things happen I know not — nor does any man,” he wrote a suffering friend. (The letter, written in 1931, can be found in Letters from Hilaire Belloc.) “The matter of a life and its pattern are not to be understood by us. What we do understand during the little passage through the daylight is good and evil — and holiness when we see it, courage, affection and duty. All such things. But suffering and its trial and incidence and quality we cannot understand; but all religion, I mean all the Faith, is based upon a recognition of it.”

He tells the story of walking through an African desert, all glare and heat, and walking through some rocks. He came upon a green valley with a river and meadows. “It was a new world,” he wrote.

“These things happen: these visions of betterness suddenly at the end of Isolation! They are rare, unexpected, sufficient and always to be remembered. I cannot believe they should be sought, and am sure they should not be induced; still less imagined: they are granted; they are a promise of what will come at the end of a long road.”

 

Belloc knew whereof he spoke. Nine years later, at age 70, having lost his last two writing jobs, he wrote another friend: “I will take this occasion of the sudden and total disappearance of my income to say again to you what I have said before: When the heart sinks don’t try to raise it. Don’t ‘look on the bright side of things,’ as do those detestable suburbans and sloppy cheermongers.”

The answer lies, as it always does, in going through the problem, not around it. “Look straight at reality — at truth — at things as they are, appraising their full disadvantage but also their advantage…. And I do tell you that seeing things in the round, as they are, however hard, is worth all the consolations in the world. It is the Sacrament of Truth. Old St. Paul — (whom I quote against the grain for his is not my cup of tea) — said ‘The Truth shall make you free.’”

 

In protesting my item on the shaming of prostitutes in the April Last Things, Michael Caggiano, an NOR reader from Belmar, New Jersey, writes that he agrees that “we must show our compassion to those who have fallen, often through no fault of their own, into a toxic cycle of sex-trafficking, pimping, and abuse.”

But, he continues, “Mr. Mills neglects to mention that the ‘Twitter warrior’ he makes an example of is shaming those who peddle their own pornography on places like Twitter. It has become fashionable for young, middle- and even upper-middle-class women to sell their own nudes and homemade pornography for ‘side cash’ or, in some cases, as their livelihoods. The people who need to be shamed are those who do these heinous things for money or fame. Yes, we must emphasize mercy for those who are abused and trafficked, but we must also shame those who produce this content willingly.”

I didn’t “neglect to mention” that the man was shaming freelance self-pornographers because he wasn’t. He was doing what I said, shaming “sex-workers” (his term) in general and for no good reason.

Mr. Caggiano’s response actually helps make my point, building on the insights of the blogger Steel Magnificat, whom I quoted, by emphasizing “willingly.” Presumably some do it freely. But others must do it in desperation and need, or at the insistence of a boyfriend or even a pimp they can’t safely resist, or because they suffered sexual or other abuse that left them without a secure sense of self and of their boundaries. That they do so online doesn’t mean they do so willingly in any real sense. We don’t know who, if anyone, is “willing.”

“Judge not,” or in newer terms, “Do not shame,” still applies.

 

I have started writing a weekly column for the Chapter House section of the British periodical Catholic Herald. One of my articles takes up white privilege and another a recent Catholic Answers debate on whether a Catholic can be a socialist. My fellow American contributors are Larry Chapp, a theologian who runs a Catholic Worker farm in central Pennsylvania, and the writer Leticia Ochoa Adams, whom I quoted in the March Last Things. You can find the section at catholicherald.co.uk/chapter-house.

©2020 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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