Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

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

Most Americans assume some people in power must be the good guys, people who can do something to fix things. Nearly everyone who cares about our political life seems to believe this. It explains the hope they put in politics, and why even people who say politics achieves little get so caught up in the news from Washington and even more in elections.

Most Americans with mainstream political commitments believe that one of the two major parties or some recognizable people within one of them must be the good guys, must be “our guys.” You see the first in partisan Republicans and Democrats. You see the second in Republicans who attack “RINOs,” and Democrats who attack those who aren’t “progressive.” Few people will tolerate being politically isolated and alone.

Everyone wants to have a hero in power. Everyone sees that hero as the way to a better world. Not unreasonably, given the way our system works. We need heroes, or nothing good happens. If our politics isn’t messianic, it’s Messianic Lite.

The pressing question — perhaps we might say the Augustinian question — is: What if there isn’t? It may be that doing what he has to do to rise in our system corrupts a man, and that life at the top requires corrupting compromises. It may be that a good man won’t rise, except by accident, which doesn’t happen often enough to make a difference.

 

A friend, apparently being pestered by someone much less talented, shared a note from another friend: “He’s nobody. He’s not going to be anybody. You want to be a somebody. So go be a somebody.”

I’d tweak the comment. Nobody’s a nobody, and everybody should be a somebody somewhere, but many are not the somebody they think they are.

Which illusion, now that I think of it, might be a definition of the Fall.

 

The aged traditionalist woman next to me at Mass, holding her Rosary and making all sorts of exotic liturgical gestures, leaned toward me at the sign of peace. “I got a cold,” she said. “Let’s just leave it at that! The peace of the Lord be wit’ ya!” She laughed, throwing her head back. I was charmed.

Her head covering was a knit cap, folded over at the bottom and pulled down over her ears. Two thick gold hoop earrings peeked out. Only when she turned to me at the sign of peace did I see the Steelers logo on the front of her cap.

Just before the closing hymn, she pulled on her coat. It was one of those big, shiny NFL coats, with a large Steelers logo across the back. She may have been a traditionalist, but she was getting out as soon as the last hymn ended.

 

In a Dilbert cartoon, poor Dilbert complains to his boss that if he follows the rules, he won’t finish his project and he’ll get fired, but if he breaks them and finishes the project, he’ll still get fired. His boss says, “I like the option where the project is a success but you’re a failure.”

Dilbert’s dilemma is especially a problem when a boss has underlings or employees he can’t get rid of, yet can’t completely control. He will have to deal with them for decades, and some will annoy him by doing what they think best. Worse, sometimes they will be right. And other people will see them being right and the boss wrong.

Like a bishop with his priests. A bishop may think of himself as a father to his priests, but they’re grown-up sons who left home years ago, not 12-year-old boys. They don’t automatically defer to dad.

If having to deal with dozens or hundreds of grown men with ideas of their own bothers him, and let’s say it probably does, the only thing he can do is weaken them. But here’s his problem: He’s not only stuck with them; he needs them to get the work done. So he gives them tasks impossible to fulfill without cost.

Take the closing and combining of parishes. Many dioceses must do this. The question is: Who takes the hit for it, the bishop or his priests? The bishop makes clear to the pastor which parishes he wants to close, but he has the pastor make the official decision. When angry people object, the bishop throws up his hands and explains that their own pastor asked for the parish to be closed. Many people believe the bishop and will never trust the pastor again.

 

The manipulation doesn’t stop with making sure the underling takes the blame. The diocese expects the pastor to keep all the people he had, even though many from the newly closed parish will just stay home. He just can’t do it. The bishop will forgive that. But he will expect the combined parish to bring in as much money as before, and he does not adjust the assessment to account for the trauma to the community and the loss of members.

This kind of thing must be a source of stress and a cause of burnout among priests. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article on clergy burnout mention the stress of dealing with bishops. Lots of articles tell the laity to be kinder to their priests. None I’ve seen call on bishops to be kinder as well.

 

The satirical Christian website Babylon Bee makes you laugh. Its news site, Disrn, not so much. (It really is named Disrn. Cool, huh?) At the end of December, Disrn ran a story with the headline, “Pope says Christians should never seek to convert unbelievers, anyone who proselytizes ‘is not a disciple of Jesus.’”

Which wasn’t what he said. But it drew clicks and undoubtedly pleased the site’s conservative Protestant readers. I wrote the owner to protest.

Francis didn’t say we don’t try to bring people to Christ. Proselytizing has a specific meaning in Catholic thinking. It means manipulating someone into agreeing — by a sales pitch, emotional appeal, and so on, if not by deception or bribery. It means trying to induce him into a formal agreement, joining up, without bringing him to meet Jesus and enter the Church because he wants to be with our Lord and His people.

What Francis is saying is what St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him said: Witness unto others as you would have them witness unto you. It begins with respect for the person, in his dignity and freedom.

No one wants to be a target of a hard sales pitch. My Protestant friends tell me annoyed stories of being pounced on by Catholic apologists who see them as possible converts without having any interest in them as friends. No one wants to be proselytized, and few genuinely come to the Lord that way.

Francis makes this clear at the end of his address to high-school students, which the article doesn’t quote: “Pope Benedict had said it, it grows by attraction, by testimony,” and “If someone says to me: ‘But why?’ Read, read, read the Gospel, this is my faith. But without pressure.” In fact, Francis makes clear what he means by the sentences the writer did quote but quoted out of context. Because he was writing a hit piece. The owner didn’t write me back.

 

The other day I posted a Facebook note about my friend Victor Austin, a high-church Episcopal minister who will remain one because he believes in Anglicanism. I shared an article he wrote for the Episcopal weekly The Living Church explaining why. With which I would have agreed in my Episcopal days.

A Catholic friend asked, with surprise, why he didn’t join the Ordinariate. Catholics often speak as if joining the Ordinariate were the obvious thing for a conservative Anglican to do, because they (the Catholics) don’t see how radical are the differences.

Victor believes in Anglicanism, I responded, and doesn’t believe in Catholicism. He rejects what Anglicans sometimes call “the Catholic distinctives” or “the Catholic additions.” He’s a wise, thoughtful, and charitable man, and an admirable pastor and theologian, but he’s not a Catholic. He’s right to remain an Anglican.

 

Almost every cradle Catholic I have talked to about this thinks of Anglicanism as “Catholicism Lite” or “Halfway Catholicism.” The move from Anglican to Catholic should be easy, they think, just a matter of believing a few more things. But Anglicanism and Catholicism offer different forms of Christianity, and the differences go deep.

Some of the high-church Anglican instincts and desires point to the Church. They’re on the Catholic end of Protestantism. But not all, and some of those that do come with hard stops. High-church Anglicans sense that Mary is more important than their fellow Protestants believe, but they don’t accept the whole of Marian doctrine and piety. They don’t see how essential it is to the faith.

They will tell you that Anglicans can believe in the Assumption as an option but not a dogma, and they might add a snarky remark about the Catholic need to turn everything into a dogma. Of the Queenship of Heaven, you will hear not a word. That’s just too weird for them. They may well give you the old Protestant line about Catholics giving to Mary what belongs to Jesus. They may say the Angelus, but they won’t say the Rosary.

The high-church Anglican thinks and believes as a Protestant. Anglicanism has its own shape, form, wholeness, and integrity. It works as a faith. It isn’t an undeveloped form of Catholicism.

Two roads diverged in a woods, and we, we took different ones to travel by. Catholics have to find other ways to draw Anglicans into the fullness of the Catholic Church.

 

“What happened?” my wife asked, looking at the television. We’d stopped at a pub for dinner after shopping, and the AFC divisional playoff game was on. The Chiefs’ punt returner fumbled the ball and the Texans recovered it, I explained. “Oh dear,” she said with great sympathy. “That’s not good.”

It wasn’t good for the Chiefs, I explained. It was good for the Texans. She nodded.

A few minutes later, a Texans receiver dropped a pass. “Oh dear,” she said again, and again with great sympathy. She looked at me with a furrowed brow.

I’ve always admired her deep sympathy for the world’s losers. But I do wish she’d understand how games work.

 

Our next-door neighbor the four years we lived in New York City designed shoes, and even with my untutored and uninterested eye, I could see the quality and the stylishness. Apparently a hard business, but one in which Amy succeeded.

I once took her to a lecture at the National Arts Club, of which I was then a member, by a very, very high-end designer, who had a shop on Park Avenue. Amy knew her from the small world of high-end shoe designers. We ran into her beforehand, and she talked to Amy as an all-star major leaguer might talk to a kid from a single-A league, were he a jerk.

We sat down for the talk and bonded over our horror at the way she and her acolytes talked about and laughed at the poor. Who were mostly, they indicated but never said, black and Hispanic.

These wealthy, stylish, top-of-the-world, undoubtedly Clinton supporters retailed every cliché you’d expect from the stereotypical redneck. More nicely than they, of course, but not much more nicely, and often in an annoyingly giggly “I know I’m saying something naughty” way. The poor steal, they stink, they don’t know how to act in civilized company, and their bathroom habits, heavens! etc.

I wish I’d thought to take notes because they spoke without a filter, because the Arts Club is a safe space for them. It’s a place where the elite (except for some of the poorer members, as I was) speak to the elite, entre nous.

 

That, judging from my occasional encounters with the members of the higher upper classes, is the way many of them think. They sign statements against racism, especially if the racists are rural white people in the flyover states. They give money to candidates who promise to expand the welfare state. But they themselves feel just as much contempt for racial minorities and the poor as any “deplorable.” More, I suspect.

Amy was politically very conservative — she and her husband flew an American flag outside their home, which was not a lower Manhattan thing to do — but she despised class bigotry and racism. And was a lovely person. She died last year. Please say a prayer for Amy Buckner Reichbind.

 

Popular conservative priest Dwight Longenecker tweeted: “When are we going to get it into our heads that being rich does not make you a bad person and merely being poor does not make you a good person? Both rich and poor people can be greedy and both can be generous.”

I’m not sure how many people really think this. Probably not many. In any case, the statement moralizes and personalizes something that’s objectively a problem of power and position. A “good” rich person is still a rich person. And with riches come particular temptations, temptations many — like the high-end shoe designer — don’t even try to resist. As Jesus warns us with the story of the rich young ruler and that “camel’s eye” remark.

Deacon and movie reviewer Steven Greydanus tweeted back: “And yet. Jesus didn’t say ‘Blessed are you poor…but blessed also are you who are rich’ or ‘How hard it is for a poor man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Mary didn’t say ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and has welcomed the rich with open arms.’ That means something.”

 

G.K. Chesterton addressed this as well. “For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable,” he wrote in Orthodoxy.

After describing the way the rich become rich, he continued, “There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.”

 

“The fact that a boy whose dad died recently shot and killed classmates on his bday is ‘a mystery’ to people just shows how awful this country is at understanding trauma, loss and grief,” said my friend Leticia Ochoa Adams. She was talking about yet another episode of a child killing other children.

She continues: “I see people all the time say kids are resilient, not understanding that that resilience comes at a cost.” Children learn how to cope in ways adults do not see. Their fight-or-flight instinct stays much too high for much too long. “Children who have faced a huge loss tend to want to please the adults around them by being ‘good’ and not adding to anyone’s burden so they carry more than they should and they carry it alone.”

Parents, of course, feel relieved and let their kids alone. But kids can’t heal from such trauma by themselves. “No way,” Leticia says. “Take them to therapy. That is the only way.” She knows. Her son Anthony died from suicide three years ago.

“We fail our kids a lot,” she says. She’d just read someone declaring that adults fail their children by not making them more resilient. That, she says, from her own painful experience, “is all wrong. We are failing them in making them pretend everything is fine when it isn’t. And then giving them access to firearms. Because why not?! Everything is fine.”

 

In a small-world sort of way, I got to introduce Victor Austin and Leticia to each other, at this past fall’s excellent “I Have Called You Friends” conference at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture. As writers, they work the same side of the street.

In his book Losing Susan, Victor has written a moving story about life with his severely ill wife, who died six years ago. He not only tells the story beautifully but reflects on the questions we ask when we experience such suffering. He answers the questions with insight, though the answers aren’t all comfortable ones.

I gave his book to Leticia when I introduced them. She writes a lot, movingly and insightfully, on grief, suffering, healing, etc. You can find her writing at Our Sunday Visitor (osvnews.com/byline/leticia-adams) and her website leticiaoadams.com. She doesn’t write for her weblog Through Broken Roses (patheos.com/blogs/throughbrokenroses) anymore, but it offers several years of good things.

 

He put together what he called an “emergency packet” because he never knew when he’d be arrested and sent to jail, for telling the truth. It included “cigarettes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, some books, a T-shirt, paper, a laxative and a few other small things — I can’t remember everything,” Václav Havel told an interviewer. He took it with him whenever he left home.

The interview with this leading Czech dissident appears in his Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990. In other articles, Havel describes how the communist regime oppressed and dehumanized people like him with cheap, obvious, petty persecutions. Being trailed everywhere by policemen, who would sometimes walk beside him; having his license taken away for imaginary traffic violations; someone smashing his windshield and then being cited for that; being arbitrarily prevented from leaving home for days on end, even when he and his wife had run out of food.

It’s infuriating to read. It must have been hell to live. He lived the pure version of the tyrant’s main technique: continual petty but painful hurts, none all that bad by themselves, but overwhelmingly hard coming day after day after day.

My friend Peter Wolfgang runs the Family Institute of Connecticut. He’s one of the rare Catholics leading a mostly Evangelical ministry. When he goes to testify at the state capitol, people from pro-abortion groups often try their own version of this technique. They push their way into his conversations with colleagues, stand much too close, talk when he’s trying to speak, lie about him to the press.

Not what Havel suffered, not anywhere close, but the same kind of thing. Because it’s what tyrants do.

 

The late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the “liquid modernity” guy, said: “The good society is the one that knows it is not good enough.” The Church should be a good society that knows it’s not good enough, but knows that with grace it can always be better.

 

Thinking about high-church Anglicanism reminds me of Chesterton’s comment about the Puritans of his youth objecting to a statue of the Virgin and Child in their parish. They decided to keep the mother and remove the child. “One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon,” he wrote in The Everlasting Man.

“But the practical difficulty is also a parable,” he explained. “You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother.”

Then the lovely ending: “We must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.”

 

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