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Last Things

By David Mills | December 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.

Facebook’s inscrutable algorithm offered me an ad for a “creation science” conference run by fundamentalists. I can’t think of what I’d posted or liked that would lead to my getting it.

The ad includes the claim that “there is solid scientific evidence…that shows the fossil record was laid down more or less simultaneously, globally, just a few thousand years ago during Noah’s Flood.” Apparently, before the flood, people lived with dinosaurs, but Noah forgot to let any into the ark, so they all drowned. All that rain produced a cataclysm that pushed their skeletons into layers of mud that hardened into rock that we silly secular moderns think tens of millions of years old.

Let me register my doubt about the science.

Creationists used to claim that God created the world with the fossils already underground. When I was a teenager exploring Christianity, intelligent Christians told me that God did this to test people, by forcing them to choose to believe the evidence or the Word of God.

I thought then: What does this say about their understanding of God? First, that God lies. Second, that God doesn’t want some people to know Him. The creationists demanded that the inquirer deny the evidence of normal human reason to believe their interpretation of their holy book. Basically, they proclaimed the “good news” of a deceitful, uncaring God, who insists you pass a test with a single trick question.

Back then, they asked people drawn to the faith to believe something irrational. Now, with a little more sophistication, they ask people to believe something ridiculous.

 

I know almost nothing about “creation science,” including its young earth wing. I assume that the fossil record so destroys their claims that they have to rationalize it away, and their claim about dinosaur fossils is the only way they have to do it.

It’s more sophisticated, as I say. The new way to avoid the evidence wisely shifts the argument away from divine deceit to the scientific record, which few people have the knowledge to evaluate. Few of those who trust the scientific consensus can tell you why the earth is so old and dinosaurs lived so long ago. It’s not a live question for most people. Into that normal and proper ignorance — most of us have other things we’re responsible to know — the new creationist slips his claim.

The Catholic can accept the consensus because he knows that the Church’s teaching builds on reality. What apparent contradictions there may be, the Church will eventually work out. The poor fundamentalist has to deny reality because he’s stuck with an implausible view of what Scripture teaches.

 

From my Calvinist friend Joe Long, often quoted here and author of an entertaining book of “devotional doggerel” called Wisdom and Folly: “Do you find the Biblical command to love your enemies difficult? I used to, also. Then I called one of my enemies and cut a deal. He’s going to love my enemies for me, and I will love his for him. That way all of our enemies get loved, while we both stay totally in our comfort zones! Who says bipartisanship can’t work?”

 

This month’s curiosity from Church history. A Fr. Hardouin claimed in 1709 that a group of forgers in the 13th or 14th century penned all the works of the ancient world, except for the Scriptures and six classical writers. He never explained who they were or why they did it. He called them “the impious crew.” They created not only the works themselves but the background: enemies like Arius, decretals, diplomas, charters, monastic records, inscriptions, liturgies, and even variant readings.

Hardouin accepted only the Greeks Homer and Herodotus and the Romans Plautus, Pliny, Virgil (his Eclogues and Georgics), and Horace (his Satires and Epistles).

The Anglican historian Owen Chadwick, in his book From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of Doctrinal Development, gives the example of Hardouin’s reading of the Aeneid. He thought it obvious that “a Christian pseudo-Virgilius” wrote the Aeneid “as an allegory of the coming of Christianity to Rome after the burning of Jerusalem.” His evidence for his theory was textual (grammatical mistakes and apparent inclusion of words from the writer’s time) and imaginative (the way the stories could be seen as references to current events).

You can see how the claims might make sense to some. Hardouin even accounted for the enormous amount of work the forgers put into their fakery. They did so much “because they knew that, the more [books] there were, the more difficult the conspiracy would be to detect.”

He explained that no one had ever noticed the forgeries because only recently had the works been properly edited. He also pointed to all the works, and there were a lot, that had been proven to be forgeries and inventions.

Barking mad, but he had disciples. “Madness,” Chadwick notes, “is sometimes an obsession with a genuine and sane preoccupation.”

 

Arguing for their candidate, some Catholic Trump supporters urged people to “vote the platform.” I likened that to recommending a restaurant that served terrible food by telling people, “Go for the menu.”

“Easy point,” one of them replied, which was true enough. I’m writing before the election and mention this because it interests me as an example of a common rhetorical trick. People often say something like that when you’ve scored a point against their side. They try to deny the point by implying that in making it you did something wrong. “Low-hanging fruit” is another example. A second version claims that you’re unkind or divisive, not by the way you said what you said, but simply by saying it. “You’re majoring on the minors” is a third version.

That a point is easily made doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be made. Some people won’t see through bad ideas without help. The emperor was naked, but someone had to say it. The boy who said, “Hey, the old guy isn’t wearing any clothes,” made an easy point, but the crowd was acting as if the guy were resplendently dressed, and if they were to go on believing that, things would eventually end badly for everyone.

 

In response to that conversation, a friend sent me a useful passage from A Man For All Seasons: St. Thomas More’s daughter Meg says to her father when he’s scored a point through wit, “That’s very neat.”

More: “Do you mean to say it isn’t true?”

Meg: “No.”

More: “Then it’s a poor argument to call it ‘neat.’”

 

Speaking as a writer, I will admit that the writer might pick the low-hanging fruit because why climb into the tree when you don’t have to? It’s more work, and you could get hurt falling out of the tree. Picking the low-hanging fruit is not the most difficult or most meritorious work, I’ll grant that. But someone has to pick it, and when you spend your days dealing with the high-hanging fruit, you might enjoy the break.

 

A scene from the other night at our local place. I was sitting off to the side, working on my laptop, when a woman at the table nearest me asked what I was doing. It was a friendly question, though she asked it in a sour way, the way someone trying to fight back against life might ask it.

“Just writing my kids,” I said, because that was one of the things I was doing, something light and normal that people usually accept, and because I didn’t feel like having to explain what “writing an essay on Newman” meant. People are happy thinking you’re a smart guy, but they’re not so keen on your making it obvious.

Then I realized, and I could kick myself for this, hard, that I’d introduced middle-class happiness into an unhappy life. You have to remember that what in your circles is a light statement of a reality you take for granted will be to others a kind of blow, an implicit boast that your life is better than theirs. She didn’t quite wince. She said, “Writing your kids,” as if it were a strange thing to say, or maybe a thing she wished she could say.

She began to talk a little to me but mostly to the other woman at the table about her own kids. She wasn’t estranged from them, as far as I could tell, but she couldn’t imagine being close enough to email them.

 

I went to hear Jerry Jeff Walker many, many years ago (he died recently), and though I loved the concert, I couldn’t remember anything but the chorus to “London Homesick Blues,” and since then I’ve sometimes found myself, for reasons unknown, belting out, “I want to go home to the armadillo,” which is as untrue a statement as a statement can be, because no, and worse, I’ve just discovered the next line isn’t “Good country music from Amarillo and Aberdeen,” but “Abilene,” and I’m saddened to find that Walker wasn’t thinking of country music pubs in Scotland.

 

It baffles me that self-consciously orthodox Catholics so blithely accuse Pope Francis of heresy, but more and more of them do that. Catholic claims about the papacy, however qualified, are a high-wire act.

You’re betting a lot that an office held by a fallen human being will not go substantially wrong. You’re betting that sometimes God will close a door before the pope gets there or open another he’ll naturally step through. From a worldly point of view, this seems unwise. You’re making a bet you’ll someday lose, because the pope is a man, after all.

But having made that bet, you’re stuck with it. You’re bound to interpret what the pope says in accordance with the Church’s teaching. An outsider could quite legitimately say that Catholics cheat, because they’ve decided to make the evidence serve the conclusion they’ve already come to. The Catholic would argue that that decision follows from a rational decision about the nature of the Church and the papacy.

 

Having made that decision, you’re required to apply it to your reading of the pope, even if he’s one you don’t like. It’s truer to say that calling the pope a heretic is itself heretical. To call him a heretic is to believe yourself the pope over the Pope.

To take the example that made me think about this, several people shared one of Pope Francis’s tweets, with a quote from his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti: “We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved. Poverty, decadence and suffering in one part of the earth are a breeding ground for problems that will end up affecting the entire planet.”

Typical of the responses was one that said flatly, “This is heresy.” To say that, the writer not only has to toss out Catholic teaching on the papacy but everything tradition says about Catholics’ relation to the Holy Father. Not so long ago, people like the writer would have thundered against Hans Küng and his peers for their criticisms of the papacy. Now they are Küng.

 

Although inevitably great devotees of Newman’s, they ignore what he said about the papacy. He described the Catholic attitude toward the pope in a sermon called “The Pope and the Revolution,” preached in 1866 and collected in Sermons Preached on Various Occasions. “In his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side,” Newman declared. “Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.”

People may obey a despotic king while privately rejecting him. “We must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord,” Newman writes. “We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human.” He must account to God for what he says and does, not to us.

Newman insisted that we have as our duty “to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.”

 

Pope Francis’s statement isn’t heretical. The word saved can be misunderstood — but only by someone who didn’t read the second sentence. In a globalized world, local problems spread. Like viruses originating in China’s peculiar wet markets, civil strife in oil-rich countries, or downturns in the German economy. The immigration that so vexes some results from poverty, instability, and violence in the immigrants’ home countries.

In this quote, the Pope is rooting an appeal to solidarity in self-interest. Not the most hopeful of arguments, but one that some people might understand. Help the poor in other countries, because if you don’t, bad things there will eventually get to you.

 

From time to time, Christians have complained to me that Jews are suspicious of Christians, or clannish, or unfriendly, or keep their distance. These Christians are sometimes, though not always, anti-Semitic. They know the story of the Holocaust, at least, if not the rest of the long history of Christian societies’ brutally oppressing the Jews.

Yet they can’t see that were this history their people’s history, and in many cases their family’s history, with many or most of their ancestors murdered, they too would be suspicious, clannish, unfriendly, and keep their distance. Not simply because they feel the effects of the trauma, which lasts generations, but out of prudence. People did it once, they might well do it again.

I remind them of this and some see the point, but others respond with some version of “That was then, this is now.” Or they get defensive, saying some version of “Well, I didn’t do that.” And some let out their inner anti-Semite by blaming the Jews or ascribing their reticence to a characteristic Jewish defect.

I used to wind up gabbling as my mind shut down in the face of such disregard and indifference. Eventually, I started telling them to read stories about life in Europe’s Jewish ghettos and in the death camps, and to make the conscious imaginative effort to put themselves in the place of the people in the stories. As they would want others to put themselves in their place.

It’s simply the Golden Rule applied to other people’s stories. Insert yourselves into other people’s stories as you would have them insert themselves into yours.

 

A friend said she’d also seen this, and the Christians’ responses baffled her. Most of the particular examples don’t baffle me, because they tend to be people trained in “othering” and not trained in sympathy. Their styles of Christianity favor binary distinctions simply applied, like believer and nonbeliever, conservative and liberal (in religion and politics both), and Christian and Jew.

It’s hard when you think that way to remember that not all binaries are good/bad, that some are just one thing/a different thing. They may be generously minded people, but they haven’t been pushed to think generously about people on the other side of the binary.

The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote that we hesitate when we meet another person, because he’s a person and not a thing. In that moment of hesitation “lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity.” Not everyone hesitates long enough really to look at the other person, especially if that person lives on the other side of a binary division and can be labeled and ignored. Like a child learning to cross a street by himself, we need to learn to stop, look, and listen.

 

My friend and fellow contributing editor of this magazine, Anne Barbeau Gardiner, died at the end of October. She was an extraordinary woman. My tribute to her will appear in the January-February issue. Please pray for her soul, though there’s a good chance (as far as a sinful mortal can judge) that she’s a saint.

 

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