Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | November 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.

It’s long been a dream for some, creating human beings without a womb. J.B.S. Haldane, a scientist and communist, invented the term ectogenesis for it in 1923. He saw it, an article in JSTOR Daily explains, as “the perfect example of how science could bring about radical social change: by freeing women from the necessity of pregnancy, sex and reproduction would be uncoupled, which would, he believed, drastically change the imbalance of power in society.”

What Haldane thought a political imbalance is, for most people — for most normal people — the greatest thing man can do. The union of two people in creating and raising new sons and daughters is the greatest privilege of being human. We do it badly because we’re fallen creatures, but what experience compares with bearing and holding your own child? What can be more glorious, more deeply human, than that?

The article ends by quoting Haldane’s declaration that “there is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.” Never mind the gods, what about those inventions that insult humanity?

 

Many of Haldane’s progressive peers applauded. Others, like the writer Vera Brittain and J.D. Bernal, another communist scientist, objected. They worried that those in power would divide society to serve themselves, breeding from “the best stock” or creating “altered and non-altered” groups, and destroying the idea of human solidarity that the Left supposedly pursued. Aldous Huxley famously attacked the whole idea in Brave New World.

They worried rightly. Ectogenesis will inevitably be used to advance some at the expense of others. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

 

The problem with reading the saints, as I’ve been doing for a couple of projects, is that you find that all the smart, clever insights you’ve had of which you are proud and which you want to use in an article, they had a long time ago. And published.

 

A distraction in this year’s Gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?”

The translators seem to think that a single soldier is a “troop.” This is bewilderingly wrong in an official translation created by official translators. It makes you wonder what else they got wrong. Even descriptivist dictionaries still recognize the word troop as naming a group.

You can understand a translator misunderstanding a play on words or a subtle idiom in another language. Though he shouldn’t, because he’s getting paid to understand them. He should definitely get his own language right. “Soldiers,” or maybe “a troop of ten thousand,” but not “ten thousand troops.”

Oh, one other thing. The word translated as “troops” doesn’t even appear in the original. The translators thought their hearers too dim to understand that “with ten thousand” meant with ten thousand soldiers. So they added a word to make it clear. And chose the wrong word.

 

The headline declared, “Neuroscience shows that 50-year-olds can have the brains of 25-year-olds if they sit quietly and do nothing for 15 minutes.” My friend Joe Long responded, “Note to self: Avoid sitting quietly.”

 

Her friend Franklin Spier liked St. Peter more than St. Paul because Peter defended the Jewish law and traditions. “I suddenly felt so close to him, because I, too, like those who are so disparagingly called traditionalists, sometimes miss the old fast days, the old rigor which seemed to me to add so much zest to our spiritual life. Not to mention the Tenebrae services in an unknown tongue!”

That’s Dorothy Day, writing in The Catholic Worker in 1973. She saw the other side, though. “Of course I say now, ‘Thank God for the vernacular! Thank God for that morning cup of coffee, or some hot drink that helps us get out to early Mass. Thank God for the re-emphasis on Freedom.’”

 

Day also recognized how exploitable is the idea of freedom. “There surely needs to be more ‘clarification of thought’ on that word,” she added, using an old Marxist term. How could she not? She’d seen the idea misused, especially when paired with the word love. She’d misused it herself, in the youth she describes in The Long Loneliness.

She certainly saw it in the New York City of the 1960s. Six years earlier, she wrote in her diary about a book “on the new morality of the New Testament, which all young people interpret today as permitting all. Free unions multiply. Birth control, abortion, free love — all in the name of love.” She strongly opposed all three.

But the desire to love and be loved, that was a good thing, even if misused. “The hunger for human love, how beautiful in marriage and renunciation, too. But it is always to be respected, even in all these free unions, even in all these sad searchings.”

 

Working in Boston years ago and then living in New York City for a few years, I went back and forth about giving to the homeless people who asked. People I trusted gave opposite answers, from “Absolutely not, you’ll enable them,” to “Yes, it’s not your place to judge.”

St. Vincent de Paul says, “It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such services as quickly as possible. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.”

I settled on yes. As did C.S. Lewis, according to a story I’ve read. Walking to lunch at a pub, he gave money to a beggar. The friend with him protested, saying that the beggar would only piss it away (spend it on drink, but the American meaning works too). “But that’s what I was going to do,” Lewis replied.

 

“If one becomes enslaved by alcohol and is poor, one is called a drunkard. If one becomes enslaved by alcohol and is rich, one becomes an alcoholic. The drunks go to jails; the alcoholics go to psychiatrists. There are very few alcoholics on the Bowery; there are few drunkards on Park Avenue.”

From that great socialist thinker Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Wait, no, not a socialist. From his book Life Is Worth Living. Probably not so true anymore, but still a good example of the way class and other assumptions express themselves in our language, pretty much inevitably to the disadvantage of the poor.

 

As Sheen suggests, we see the world through far more filters than we realize. Melinda Selmys, who’s written for this magazine, explains how she used to think of abusers. Basically, she pictured white rednecks.

“My images came from the surrounding culture,” she writes. “They wore a specific type of clothing (usually lower-class). Their interests were (a) abusing women, (b) abusing children, (c) abusing neighbors and (d) owning trucks and guns. Possibly also doing and dealing drugs.”

She got that wrong. “Somebody doesn’t have to be a one-dimensional villain to be abusive. Abusers come from all classes, all professions, from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems. Many are educated men who are loved and respected by their peers. Some are liberals and even claim to be feminists.”

 

As I noted in my September column, being a centrist means no one trusts you and both sides use you. I don’t mean the typical centrist, who sits down in the middle because he wants to sit in the safest place and avoid offending anyone. Useless, these people.

I mean the person who finds himself in the center solely because he tries to look at the facts and take both sides seriously. The person who can’t join one side or the other because the sides have formed around the harder, simpler versions of their positions. They trust him because he tries to tell the truth, and they distrust him because he’s not one of them.

Judging from my social-media pages, they tend to distrust the centrist more than trust him, because they value membership more than judiciousness. Say one small thing to defend the president, even if you’re criticizing him, and enraged readers will accuse you of “both-siderism.” They insist you hate him as passionately as they do, and if you don’t, they dismiss your attempt at fairness as dishonesty and cowardice.

In political matters, as this kind of centrist, you may find yourself with a more favorable view of the market and less trust in government than your liberal friends, and less trust in the market and a more favorable view of government than your conservative friends. You wind up with a view of the mixed economy that neither likes. That seems to me what Catholic social doctrine teaches, so you’re okay, but not necessarily popular.

 

C.S. Lewis addressed the centrist’s problem at the end of his chapter on “Social Morality” in Mere Christianity. “Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or — a Judge.”

 

Lewis also said in Mere Christianity that “some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to.” They may be right about creating the new society. “But if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality.”

My friend thought Lewis was implicitly accepting poverty as a good thing. I responded that he’s arguing specifically against neglecting care for the poor while the new world is allegedly being created. Growing up in a lefty college town, I knew Marxists and other radicals who said we should put all our effort into creating the new world, even though that meant sacrificing the poor of the present. Some even said that we should not help the poor at all because improving their lives reduced their revolutionary possibilities.

I suspect Lewis heard this in Oxford as I heard it in Amherst. And I suspect he noticed, as I did, how convenient a belief this was for the people pronouncing it.

 

On a trip to New York City, I found that Peter Maurin was buried only half an hour’s walk from the home of the friend with whom I was staying. Dorothy Day’s friend and mentor is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in the middle of Queens. He lies among politicians (Cuomo, Ferraro, et al.), mob figures (Gambino, Genovese, Gotti, Luciana, et al.), artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and folk figure Charles Atlas.

Maurin doesn’t make the top 50 corpses list on the cemetery’s website. The mobsters do. My Calvinist and now oft-quoted friend Joe Long notes, “Well, he shouldn’t. His success isn’t even buried with him, unlike the rest of ‘em. He’s hardly a corpse at all, if you think about it.”

Cue homily on worldly and eternal success, and what the baptismal rite calls “the glamor of evil” compared with what the psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness.” Lesson from the website: If you want tourists, choose the glamor of evil.

 

Jesus reaches up to grab Mary’s chin, while she plays with His toes. It’s a late-13th-century ivory carving an artist friend posted on Facebook. John Herreid adds his own caption: “Back in those horrible, gloomy Middle Ages, this is the somber way they depicted the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. ‘Gotcher toes!’ ‘Gotcher chin!’”

Would a sculptor who made this statue today get away with it? Even those of us who are not solemn Catholic puritans would feel, I think, that this was a little less respectful than religious art should be. We might enjoy it when it comes to us as a work of the Middle Ages, but were we to see it without that imprimatur, we might not. We might suspect the artist of intending to de-sanctify the Blessed Mother. If it’s old, it’s charming; if it’s new, it’s irreverent or at best kitsch, which is a form of irreverence.

Apart from people with an admirably deep and personal Marian piety, I suspect most modern Catholics feel about Mary more as a queen than a mother. We have the instinctive responses that go with the first image more than those that go with the second. Deference, submission, keeping our distance, not comfort and familiarity. But that’s a guess.

 

One of those “You like socialism? The Nazis were socialists. Hahahaha!” lines popped up on my Facebook page. Let’s ignore the historical problems with the claim. Let’s say the Nazis were socialists.

They were still Nazis. That makes a difference.

 

The Pope’s trip to Africa aroused more people than usual to complain that he attacked them, even priests. (Snowflakey of them.) I didn’t see that myself. When a priest says, “I’m not like that,” the simple answer is, “Then he wasn’t talking about you.”

I know the kind of priests Francis talked about. Had I wound up a priest in my youth, I would have been one of them.

Older, conservative priests have worried in private about the rigidity of some seminarians and new priests they know. They worry not just that the priests will hurt and offend their people but that they might themselves break. Priestly ministry can be very hard because you have to deal with people, and not only with people but with religious people. You have to be able to bend if you’re not going to break, or break others.

 

Two amusing stories from the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In one of her diary entries, the future saint, whose spelling was wonky, spelled the Te Deum “the Tedium.”

In 1804, then still a Protestant, Seton writes of going to the Uffizi in Florence. She remarks on all the works she liked, and she finishes, “The Statues in Bronze were beautiful, but being only an American [I] could not look very straight at them.” A footnote explains: “American art did not yet depict the nude human body.”

 

And one grim story: The parents of saints are not always what you expect. Someone wrote after the death of St. Elizabeth’s father that many years after he died, she “told her daughter Catherine that she had never heard him pronounce the word God but once and that was on his deathbed just before expiring he threw up his arms O my God!”

 

Explaining to a writer that his article probably wouldn’t do so well because he didn’t hit anyone, I realized that Jesus’ “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” implies an insight into human nature that should comfort the writer. Pretty much every book on writing tells you that you can reach the reader if only you write well enough.

But you can’t reach the reader who won’t be reached. Even Jesus couldn’t do that.

 

I write some days before Bl. John Henry Newman’s canonization. You will have read many deep quotes from his theological and devotional writings. Let me point you to one neglected but very relevant writing of his on social and political matters, which will make you laugh. His “The Tamworth Reading Room,” a series of seven letters written while he was still an Anglican and published under a pseudonym in The Times, takes apart the belief that learning makes men better.

The Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel had declared on opening the reading room that “in becoming wiser a man will become better,” and that the educated man will “rise at once in the scale of intellectual and moral existence.” Newman explains that by wiser Peel means “more conversant with the facts and theories of physical science.” Our peers even today mostly agree with Peel. You want better people? Spend money on education.

Newman’s not having it. He concludes the second letter: To think that “the mind is changed by a discovery, or saved by a diversion, and can thus be amused into immortality, — that grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by an examination of shells or grasses, or inhaling of gases, or chipping of rocks, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretences which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory. If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in Libraries and Reading-rooms.”

 

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