Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | October 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.

Newman made Catholicism plausible, a writer in the English humor magazine Punch said in 1879, an unlikely compliment when the English establishment still thought of the saint with suspicion. If “a thoughtful man” thinks anything Newman believes nonsense, he “naturally asks himself whether is the more likely, that you [Newman] should credit an absurdity, or that he should be an ass. The strongest argument in the view of an enlightened Briton for the creed of your choice is the fact that you chose it. If, instead of going over to Rome, you had turned Plymouth Brother, no doubt you would have had quite a following.”

It was a compliment, but only of sorts. It implied that no one, certainly no one “enlightened,” would believe Catholicism on its own. One would have to be seduced by an entrancing personality.

The “modern pagans that make up the greater part of the so-called Christian nations” think of Christian clergy as “at best men with a certain world view that we are more or less convinced of; for, as they say, it is our calling and we preach because we get paid for it.” They think the rest of us get other payment for our belief, like false comfort when we suffer and feeling superior to other people. The man who lives for his appetites can only assume that other people live for theirs.

The writer asks, in a book called The Practice of Faith, “How can we convince the men of today that we really believe, that the Gospel is the center of our lives, that it is not just a front, unless an honest enquirer sees that we truly give up things because of our faith — things which would be utterly nonsensical to give up if we did not actually believe? We should not imagine that we can fool anyone in this matter. We are carefully scrutinized. A full measure of asceticism will be required to win the trust of the modern man.”

The writer is Karl Rahner, not everyone’s favorite theologian, I realize, but he read the modern world well. What kind of witness will reach the man of appetites, when he can so easily interpret everything the Christian does as serving an appetite of his own?

Rahner says only a life the modern pagan can’t interpret away, a life of sacrifice. And, by extension, a life that ends in, or rather passes through, martyrdom. Like Dorothy Day’s or St. Damian’s or St. Maximilian Kolbe’s. Alas, the modern pagan can interpret even holiness away, with bargain-basement Freudianism, as the product of some weird neurosis. Trying to expiate some pathological guilt, for example.

But holiness is still the best witness we have. It’s the light we bring to the darkness. People may turn away or cover their eyes, but some people will want to see. The brighter a light we bring, the more people we will draw.

C.S. Lewis saw the same thing. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Serious, ascetical Christianity, of the sort Rahner describes, that is. As a worldly faith, it can make you very happy, or at least very content.

Modern Anglicanism does this perfectly. Lovely services, music, words, soothing homilies, sherry in the garden afterwards with people who also watch PBS and vote Democratic, and no requirements to live much differently than you do already.

Lewis was asked which world religion makes its followers happiest. “While it lasts,” Lewis answered, “the religion of worshiping oneself is the best. I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know.”

“I represent the Presbyterian mafia. We’re gonna make you an offer you can’t accept. Unless you were predestined not to refuse it. Nice little life you got there. Pity if something were to have already happened to it before the beginning of time.” That’s my friend Joe Long, whom I’ve quoted here several times because he can be very funny, even though he’s a Calvinist (i.e., a heretic).

Joe has just published a book of his “devotional doggerel” called Wisdom and Folly, mostly on passages from the Old Testament. (It’s available on Amazon.) The poem called “The Rivals,” from which the book gets its title, offers a good example.

It begins with verses from Proverbs on wisdom and folly, then opens: “Wisdom is a lady; Folly’s a coquette. / Wis­dom doesn’t waste time “playing hard to get.” / Indeed, she’ll approach you, look you in the eye. / Wisdom isn’t easy, but she isn’t shy.”

He explores the contrast and ends: “Wisdom knows her own worth, offers her insights. / Folly knows just her powers, and your appetites. / Yet before you take the easy path, be warned: / Folly’s followers learn the wrath of Wisdom scorned.”

One of his readers said she liked the use of the word barf in some of the poems. Joe replied, “What can I say? Sometimes the perfect word just…suddenly surges upward without any conscious volition, and explodes onto the page.” If you find that amusing, you’ll definitely enjoy the book. If you don’t, you should still enjoy it, and learn from it.

“Positivist reason” is crucial as far as it goes, but it “diminishes man [and] threatens his humanity” when it’s treated as the sole culture, Pope Benedict XVI said, as it was in Europe. He likened its effect to living in an artificial environment, in a completely man-created world, like a concrete bunker with no windows. We must open the windows, but how? he asks.

Benedict was talking in 2011 to the Bundestag, a very secular body (and full of positivists), and apparently trying to find a common source of the openness to the world for which he called. He made an interesting move. He pointed to the ecological movement as it had developed since the 1970s.

It “has not exactly flung open the windows,” and some of it is “irrational,” but it is “a cry for fresh air.” We know “that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.”

Then he makes a second interesting move, transitioning from the insight most people in front of him would share to the same insight expressed in a form many would reject. “I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past.”

That is: “There is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it, and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

This is taken from “Affirming the Right to Combat Injustice” in the very helpful collection (it’s Benedict, so how could it not be very helpful?) Faith and Politics, published by Ignatius Press.

At our local place, the bartender turned the TV from the hockey game to the MTV music awards. I would have protested, but I wouldn’t otherwise see this side of American culture.

Lady Gaga came on to accept an award. She actually talked to the audience. Everyone else had given the usual “I’d like to thank X and Y” speech. She talked about failing at acting and music and how she always wanted to sing but never expected to get an award for it, and she encouraged people to keep trying. She sounded sincere.

She spoke as an authority, almost a pastor, and apparently she is that kind of authority for her fans. She encourages them and speaks as someone who had been one of them. I’m not used to seeing stars of any sort concerned for their fans as people and not just as fans. That’s to be admired.

At the end, she said, “Stay safe. Speak your minds.” I know what she means in both cases, but still, these are somewhat contradictory instructions. Unless, as alas is probably the case, speaking your mind means saying the same thing as all your peers. Then it’s actually a way of staying safe.

Friends tell me she struggles with chronic pain and other health problems, and that she’s flirted with returning to the Catholic Church of her youth. They say she really does care about her fans. I wouldn’t know one of her songs if it came on the jukebox, but this performance I admired.

The Internet meme showed a young man working in a factory, with the caption, “If you see a laborer, don’t tell your kids ‘to stay in school.’ You’re not encouraging them. You’re teaching them to look down on blue collar workers.”

And that’s the lesson middle-class culture tends to teach already. For example, in high school, when some kids get sent to shop class and the “smart kids” — the academically oriented kids who aren’t always smart — get all the goodies (public praise, student positions, honors, and scholarships) hammers that home.

Our youngest son is working at the Amazon warehouse while he pursues a degree at the community college in something called mechatronics. He wants to work with things he can literally put his fingers on. He’s very smart and thoughtful but the least academic among us. He’s also probably the best adjusted person in the family. The two things are not unrelated.

I don’t think I would have understood this with our first child. I expected to raise another writer or an academic or something similar. Fortunately, she was another me, so I didn’t have to deal with it. In theory I believed what this meme says, but my idea for my children and their future was that of the academic world in which I grew up, which was rigidly stratified between the thinkers and the doers. Even the Marxists were snobs.

Years of life teach you that a kid who wants to make things is a great kid to have.

A friend had a similar experience: Her son had become a machinist after a “disastrous” attempt to become an engineer. He loved it, she said, but other people “offered condolences on hearing that he became a machinist,” assuming she was “disappointed that he was supporting himself in a well-paying job that he loved at 23.”

My friend Fr. Dave Poecking thinks this an example of a general cultural problem. We don’t agree about, and most of us don’t know, “what the good (i.e., goal, purpose, telos, value, perfection) of human life is.” The Protestant Christian consensus about this that had once guided Americans started to disappear about 60 years ago. It’s almost gone now.

Today, he explained, most Americans want the good things they can get right away. “We default to a communal preoccupation with the most immediate appetitive (food, entertainment, sex), instrumental (money, mechanisms of financial & job security), and egotistical (prestige, the appearance of public virtue) goods. The pursuit of white-collar jobs has some value to each of these three categories.”

I wrote a summary for Our Sunday Visitor of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 note about voting, in which he said Catholics can vote for a pro-choice candidate for “proportionate” reasons. I was struck by, indeed a little shocked at, how many conservative Catholics blithely blew off the cardinal (and future pope) with claims that Catholics can never vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil like abortion. That, they said — as if the cardinal had never written what he did, and in a magisterial document — was Catholic teaching.

We do not have a formula for voting. We can’t just say, “He supports abortion; therefore, we can’t vote for him.” A lot of conservatives insist we do and can. That’s not what the Church teaches.

Part of the problem, I’m afraid, is that many conservative Catholics have committed themselves to the Republican Party and won’t give up a great argument for voting Republican. When most Americans feel they have to vote for one of the two major parties, you’ll want to rule out the other one if you can. “God says you can’t” is a great election tool.

Another part of the problem is that many can’t think politically. Political thinking requires being clear about the difference between principles and application. They don’t see the difference between the rules for making a decision and the kinds of discernment, judgments, analyses, assessments, best guesses, etc. you must weigh to make a decision. They read the second (I can’t vote for him) back into the first (I could never vote for him).

But the choice isn’t that easy. Real political thinking rarely produces an answer as if it were a formula. It requires thought, and includes the possibility of getting it wrong.

Many readers assumed that I was sneakily arguing that Catholics should vote for Joe Biden. A few of the crazier ones accused me of being “a pro-abort.” The reason being, as far as I could discern, was that I was undermining their argument for voting against Biden, and only someone who supports him would do that. That I might simply be telling them what the Church teaches didn’t occur to them.

SMH, as people say.

Speaking of voting: I commend Alasdair MacIntyre’s short but slightly famous article, “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November.” (You can find it in several places on the web.) He wrote it in 2004, but he has definitely not changed his mind since. Our two-party system has decayed so much that every Christian should take his challenge seriously.

“The only vote worth casting in November,” he insists, “is a vote that no one will be able to cast, a vote against a system that presents one with a choice between Bush’s conservatism and Kerry’s liberalism, those two partners in ideological debate, both of whom need the other as a target.” Both agree, he says, in answering the wrong questions, and their answers therefore aren’t of much use.

“What do we owe our children?” is one of the right questions. MacIntyre answers that “we owe them the best chance that we can give them of protection and fostering from the moment of conception onwards. And we can only achieve that if we give them the best chance that we can both of a flourishing family life, in which the work of their parents is fairly and adequately rewarded, and of an education which will enable them to flourish. These two sentences, if fully spelled out, amount to a politics.

“These two cases are inseparable, [and] each requires the other as its complement.” And together, he says, they rule out voting for either major American political party.

I agree with his reasoning and his answer to his question, though I don’t agree with his conclusion. He begins his article, “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.” In theory. But when you believe one is more dangerously intolerable than the other, you may need to vote for the safer one.

Speaking of political alternatives: It was one of the odder ideological experiences of my life. A bookstore on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University in the early 1980s carried Enver Hoxha’s books. Indeed, they were displayed along the top of the half-height bookshelf, roughly at eye level, and often presented covers-out.

A psychopathic tyrant, and arguably the worst dictator in the world, Hoxha took Albania back hundreds of years in service to his communist vision. He caused the people of his country incalculable misery. While himself living well, as tyrants do.

That his books were on sale at this bookstore was a cause for amazement even among the Marxists I knew. Here was a monster who caused every one of them to say “We don’t mean that!” and his books were on display at eye level.

I remain baffled. I tried to read one, and it was as impenetrable as official Marxist jargon can be, because any connection between the words and reality had long since been severed.

I don’t remember if anyone ever asked why his books were on sale, but a clerk did tell me that he’d never seen anyone buy one.


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