Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | October 2019
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 his “Catholic Sense” column appears in The Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.

Describing an article on human-animal hybrids, a scholarly news service explains that “new progress in stem-cell research raises some thorny ethical questions.” These articles always raise thorny/difficult/controversial ethical questions. Always.

And you know what? Eventually, society answers them. No matter how thorny/difficult/controversial they are. And it never says no. If a thing can be done, it will be done. As soon as someone calls an ethical question “thorny,” you know the eventual answer will be “Yes!”

A few thorns never stopped human pride and the pursuit of profit.

 

“It’s like when you hear that someone (almost always a politician) ‘wrestled with his conscience,’” commented my theologian friend Kevin Miller. “Inevitably, his conscience lost the match.” Another friend quoted the singer Bruce Cockburn: “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”

 

Ronald Radosh grew up in New York City a “red-diaper baby” — a child of Communist Party members — and went to left-wing Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village. Among his friends there was Mary of the folk troupe Peter, Paul, and Mary, which I think is kind of cool, but then I had a crush on her when I was 14. Ronald started way on the Left but did not stay there. He’s best known for proving that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, long-time left-wing martyrs and supposed victims of McCarthyism, were in fact guilty of spying for the Soviet Union. His book is called The Rosenberg File.

The students at Elisabeth Irwin got a highly colored view of the world. As it turns out, communists feel as dreamy and romantic about their myths as anyone else. One of the myths, of course, is the superior insight of the working class. In his political autobiography, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, Radosh writes of a “brief but embarrassing moment” on a field trip to the coal-mining towns of northeastern Pennsylvania.

“We were taken to a local working-class Catholic church, where we met a priest who tended to the spiritual needs of his local congregation,” Radosh writes. “The problem was that he insisted on telling us about the Miracle of the Lady of Fatima, who appeared to local Polish [sic] peasants to warn them about the coming threat of communism. I can still remember the snickers emanating from our ranks and the chagrin of our teachers who, having extolled the merits of working-class consciousness, now had to remain silent.”

 

The writer’s mind never sleeps: A friend posted on Facebook a picture of St. Monica with the lines, “A son of so many tears cannot be lost. — St. Ambrose to St. Monica about St. Augustine.” And I thought: Given the time he would have said that, it should read, “St. Ambrose to St. Monica about Mr. Augustine.”

 

That mind really doesn’t sleep. I texted a sick friend to call me for help at “literally any time” and hit send. Then I thought, he knows me, so he’ll know I meant “literally” literally, but most people who use the word that way don’t mean it literally, so maybe he won’t, the bad usage being so common, so maybe I should write again to say “I meant ‘literally’ literally,” or maybe “I literally meant ‘literally’ literally,” just to be sure he knows.

Sloppy users of English cause lots of problems.

 

He was in his 20s, the writer says, calling himself “a young intellectual savage,” when he saw that though he loved history, “the history I knew was practically no history at all.” He describes what he knew from his schooling, at Columbia University.

The history he’d been taught “consisted of two disjointed parts — the history of Greece and Rome, with side-trips to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: and a history of the last four hundred years of Europe and America. Of what lay in between, what joined the parts and gave them continuity, and the pulse of life and breath of spirit, my ignorance was darker than any Dark Age.”

Catholic history in particular. “For under the sunlit skies of my boyhood, the Dark Ages were seldom mentioned,” he wrote. “The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable — a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and re-copied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.”

The writer? Ex-communist Whitaker Chambers, writing in Commonweal in 1952.

 

Chambers’s article is titled “The Sanity of St. Benedict.” Introducing the article from the archives, Commonweal editor Matthew Boudway describes Chambers as “a kind of twentieth-century Henry Adams, seeking refuge in the Middle Ages from what he regarded as the moral and political decadence of his own time.”

A tortured man, Chambers eventually found peace and solace with the Quakers. He wanted forgiveness. His feelings of guilt come off almost every page of his autobiography, Witness. He would have found forgiveness in the Church, but I think the rich heritage that attracts so many others felt like noise to him. He may never have known about the simple, quiet, contemplative strains of Catholicism.

Chambers beat Rod Dreher to Benedict by about 60 years. You can find his article at www.common
wealmagazine.org/sanity-st-benedict.

 

As a young medical student, Robert Coles wanders into the Catholic Worker house for the first time, that same year. He sees Dorothy Day sitting with a very drunk woman determined to have a conversation. “When would it end — the alcoholic ranting and the silent nodding, occasionally interrupted by a brief question, which only served, maddeningly, to wind up the already overtalkative one rather than wind her down?” he asks.

“Finally, silence fell upon the room. Dorothy Day asked the woman if she would mind an interruption. She got up and came over to me. She said, ‘Are you waiting to talk with one of us?’ One of us: with those three words, she had cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride.”

It is hard not to feel that you’re the proper subject of attention, if you have any celebrity at all. Day, who could reasonably expect it, didn’t.

 

When someone says he went to Catholic schools all his life, he’s about to say something goofy. “The Jesus I know would not turn to a citation in a manual” to address contemporary concerns, writes an indignant woman in a Syracuse, New York, newspaper. “If we could rely on common sense instead of outdated catechism, we could all move forward together.”

She explains that Jesus would gladly welcome female priests. She thinks anyone who wants to lead should lead, and Jesus would agree with her because…who knows? Apparently she just knows. Further, she doesn’t want her daughters to be part of an institution that won’t ordain women.

That is her criterion for the true religion. This strikes me as a word from inside, and words from inside have only limited use. It’s her own canon, to which the Church must conform. Obviously, we know enough to judge some things. When the evangelist for the First Church of Baal downtown mentions sacrificing babies, you know he’s selling a false religion.

That’s a matter of the moral law, of the things we can’t not know. But the ordering of the sexes within the Church? The deeper meaning of the physical differences between man and woman? Those seem to be mysteries, or at least possible mysteries, the meaning of which we don’t know without help. No moral law we know is broken by saying only a man can celebrate the Mass, no more than a moral law is broken because only a woman can bear a child.

 

You look for a religion because it speaks a word from outside — something you need to hear, which you know you won’t hear on your own. It will inevitably tell you things you don’t want to hear. As G.K. Chesterton said in his wise little book The Catholic Church and Conversion, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

That made no sense to me when I first read it. I thought you found a religion by running through a checklist and choosing the one that got the most things right. Chesterton had the answer to that. Twenty years earlier, when still an Anglican (though he seems to have hardly ever gone to church), he’d addressed this in his book Orthodoxy.

Christianity “has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive.”

You can’t predict which things you won’t want to hear, because Christianity speaks from a wider and deeper understanding of things than you have. It’s like the traffic reporter up in the helicopter telling you to take a bizarre route through side streets when you want to take the main route, because he sees the snarled traffic a few blocks ahead, and you don’t.

 

Speaking of Chesterton, a friend writes of seeing someone claim that G.K. wouldn’t want to be canonized because he wouldn’t want to be in the Novus Ordo (Ordinary Form) calendar. Yeah…no.

So generously and democratically minded a man would not have set himself against the average Catholic’s form of Catholicism. He may well have been far happier singing modern praise songs than those of us reading the NOR. (I try to sing along because the songs mean something to the people with me, but some songs I just can’t manage. Like “On Eagles Wings.” I stand quietly and look at the crucifix up front.)

Then there’s the way Chesterton understood the Church. He saw the Church he’d entered as a body and a life. He not only accepted but rejoiced in the fact that it changed and evolved as it marched through history, which included recognizing that sometimes it went bad or went mediocre, and that it would never be quite the thing anyone wanted.

If Chesterton had a choice about being canonized, he would probably say no. Not because he didn’t want to be part of the modern calendar. He would say no for the reason most saints would say no: Because they know themselves and would say, “You’ve got the wrong guy.”

 

My friend Joe Long (who is, sadly, a Calvinist), whom I’ve quoted here before, writes in a discussion of moral insights: “The Wisest Man Ever to Live (according to biblical testimony) did not leave us a ‘Twelve Rules for Life.’ Nothing against twelve rules, or twenty, or any other systemization…but Solomon didn’t offer one. The Wisest Man Ever left a collection of scattershot, occasionally contradictory maxims — each one an insight, but not organized into careful categories for our convenience. Our convenience, the simplification of everything, was no concern of his. He exhorts us to pursue wisdom, then doesn’t spoon-feed it.”

 

When I was an Episcopalian, the more traditional of us used the Church Fathers as a reason not to be evangelical, liberal, or Roman Catholic. (We always put “Roman” before Catholic because we were Catholics too. Or so we thought.)

You could appeal to “the undivided Church” or “the Church of the Fathers” or “the Church of the Councils” or just “the Fathers” to reject almost anything you didn’t like, from sola scriptura (against the evangelicals) to women’s ordination (against the liberals) to the papacy (against the Roman Catholics). Conveniently, there were a lot of Fathers, and they wrote a lot, and they didn’t always agree, and in the holes between them you could almost always find reasons to deny anything you didn’t like.

Or so we thought. Sola scriptura was out, of course. That was just too goofy a claim to take seriously. But women’s ordination was a little trickier because some things could be taken to point to it. And the papacy was even trickier than that, because some of the Fathers, including very early ones, treated the pope as the go-to guy.

So we prudently appealed to the “consensus of the Fathers” and limited “the Fathers” whose authority we claimed to accept to those of the first four councils and five centuries. We set that limit as the limit of true or primitive Christianity, before the Church started adding what the more tactful referred to as “the Roman additions,” the snarkier called “the Roman embellishments,” and the harsher labeled “the Roman corruptions.”

How did we know that? Because that included the things we agreed with and left out the things we didn’t, so it must be the true Christianity. We would sneer at the fundamentalists who thought real Christianity ended with the Apostles and began again with Martin Luther, but we did the same thing. We just pushed the end of true Christianity a little further back and we thought real Christianity began again with Thomas Cranmer (we kept silent about the priapic Henry VIII). Though we called ourselves Catholics, we were just as Protestant as Pastor Willy Bob with his big floppy King James Bible.

 

It’s a hip restaurant, Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, Maryland, with a book section full of lefty analyses and trendy self-help, couches as well as regular tables, fashionable food, a beer list full of local craft beers marked as local, cool chatty waiters, and the like. In other words, a very calculated capitalist enterprise, very carefully designed for liberal Bernie-or-Beto white millennials and Gen Xers with money. (And fathers visiting their children who don’t know the area and want good beer.)

And what does it have? A Howard Zinn room. The left-wing socialist historian Howard Zinn. Because nothing says “This isn’t your daddy’s capitalism” like a Howard Zinn room.

 

We judge much too quickly and too easily. A court recently dismissed the first of the libel suits filed by the poor young man from the Catholic high school in Covington who found himself trapped in a protest and widely hated for doing something he hadn’t done. Many who saw the now-famous picture of the boy looking at the Native American elder declared that they know that expression and know what it means. It means what they predictably want it to mean. His expression was a racist smirk.

Just from the picture. I don’t know the kid from Adam. He could be smirking, of course. He could despise Native Americans and be letting his feelings show. But he could be nervous, or confused, or concentrating, or scared, or trying to figure out something, or amused, or bemused, or something else. No one knows what his expression means just by looking at it.

Show the picture just of his face to 100 people who don’t know it and you’d probably get 10 to 20 words for what the boy’s doing, mostly positive. Include the old man and tell a different story, say that the man was telling the boy a story about his people, and probably all the words you’d get would be positive.

But the ideologues, they know. From a picture.

 

In the past few months, Muslims in northern Nigeria have murdered hundreds of Christians, and we hear almost nothing about it. The latest political outrage gets far more space on Christians’ Facebook pages than the suffering of their brothers and sisters in Africa.

The killers in Nigeria are mainly Fulani tribesmen, though the better-known terrorist group Boko Haram still attacks Christians there. I wouldn’t know from my regular news sources. I only know because a Nigerian priest who’s a Facebook friend posts the stories.

Here’s a story from the Christian Post. It begins: “Nigerian Christian leaders have warned that if the current rate of massacres continue, with hundreds of believers being killed each month, Africa’s most-populous nation is on the brink of decimating its Christian population by 2043. The warnings echoed as 86 more people were killed by the largely Muslim Fulani herdsmen in attacks on Christian farmers.”

A Nigerian newspaper reported the comments of Bosun Emmanuel, secretary of the National Christian Elders Forum, speaking at a conference of the Catholic Men’s Guild in Lagos. He accused the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari of “openly pursuing an anti-Christian agenda that has resulted in countless murders of Christians all over the nation and destruction of vulnerable Christian communities.”

Emmanuel explained: “Realistically speaking, Christianity is on the brink of extinction in Nigeria. The ascendancy of Sharia ideology in Nigeria rings the death toll for the Nigerian Church.”

The Catholic relief agency Aid to the Church in Need supports Christians in the Muslim-dominated areas of Nigeria. Go to www.churchinneed.org and search “Nigeria.”

 

©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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