My thanks to Pieter Vree for the chance to write “Last Things” for the NOR. I started writing this kind of thing when I was at First Things writing the “While We’re At It” section. I much enjoyed doing it, but it’s not the kind of writing any magazine other than that one publishes. Until now.
The title is his, by the way.
I knew Pieter’s father, Dale, from old-fashioned letters and a few phone calls, most long. My old friend Thomas Howard, a long-time contributing editor, introduced me to the NOR when I was a young, Catholic-leaning Episcopalian. It intrigued me as no other Christian magazine had, being traditional in religion but unpredictable in politics. No one else who went after the Charles Currans and Hans Küngs of the world would also have the socialist Christopher Lasch or the psychiatrist Robert Coles as contributing editors.
Pieter I got to know a few years ago when he stayed with me and my family for the Catholic Press Association meeting in Pittsburgh. Though I’m a generation older, we shared a lot and became friends. Among other things, every fall he as a Raiders fan and I as a Giants fan trade laments and hopes that we know will be dashed.
“While We’re At It” was of course Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s legendary production. Many readers subscribed to First Things just to read it, and I suspect some read little else. The section displayed all his intelligence and personality. No one’s going to be another RJN.
For those of you who find yourselves having to succeed a genius: You need a realistic idea of what you’re taking on and what you can do. You need to do something in your own mode. I observe people and events in a way Neuhaus didn’t (he wasn’t hugely interested in people) and could build the section not around theorizing, as he did, but on observation and reporting, and (I hoped) humor, and sharing things that interested me that might interest others.
I think it worked. I hope it will work here.
Annoying headline in a news site’s email: “California bill would force priests to violate seal of the confessional.” It would not do that. No one can force a priest to violate the seal. The state can punish him severely for not doing it, but he can always say no.
When the state threatens the Church, most headline writers assume the state will succeed. Even Christian writers write headlines this way. They raise the white flag on behalf of their subjects. They write as if the Church must do what the state wants.
But she doesn’t, and, in this case, I think she won’t. A better headline would have been “California bill would punish priests for refusing to violate the seal of the confessional.”
The great English comic writer Spike Milligan isn’t much known now. If you’ve heard of The Goon Show, that was him. Think an earlier, crazier, but kinder Monty Python. He was, as the great comics tend to be, a morally serious man, and he wrote a poem about abortion.
You can find the whole poem on the web. “Unto Us” begins: “Somewhere at some time / They committed themselves to me / And so, I was!” A little later, the child says,
I was taken
Blind, naked, defenceless
By the hand of one
Whose good name
Was graven on a brass plate
in Wimpole Street,
and dropped on the
of a foot operated
The cot I might
Stood in Harrod’s
A Sunday prayer, from the writer Melinda Selmys, who has written for the NOR: “Lord, grant me the patience not to [perform an emasculating operation on] men who feel entitled to have mothers constantly miss Mass so they can be edified by the sermon without ever being inconvenienced by the noise of our children. Because, you know, women with children don’t deserve consideration. The people who have the privilege of being able to habitually pray without being distracted by kids, those are the people with a pressing need for us [mothers] to shoulder even more responsibility.”
I’d add that there’s a term for people who complain about children at Mass distracting them from the sermon: Protestants. If you’re at church for an individual experience that features a lecture, yeah, little kids will distract you. I first got this idea from a Protestant pastor with a doctorate in theology who said, without embarrassment, that one goes to church for the sermon and therefore children should be elsewhere till they’re old enough to sit still.
But if you go to worship in the Mass the Lord who said, “Let the little children come to me,” in which you join with your brothers and sisters as at a family dinner, the main act and climax of which is the personal (but communal) reception of that Lord in the Eucharist, what’s a little crying and fidgeting? It’s just part of the life of the family.
More to the point, it’s one of the main signs of life in the family. As a friend puts it, if it’s not crying, it’s dying.
From Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 The Mis-Education of the Negro: “In medical schools Negroes were likewise convinced of their inferiority in being reminded of their rôle as germ carriers.” The schools emphasized the “Caucasian diseases” African Americans suffered because they didn’t have the inherited immunity white Americans had.
Woodson continues: “Other diseases to which Negroes easily fall prey were mentioned to point out the race as an undesirable element when this condition was due to the Negroes’ economic and social status. Little emphasis was placed upon the immunity of the Negro from diseases like yellow fever and influenza which are so disastrous to whites. Yet, the whites were not considered inferior because of this differential resistance to these plagues.”
It’s a good example of how prejudices can be constructed from facts carefully selected and arranged, and then taught as science. People then don’t see that what seems to them mere common sense isn’t close to true.
Here’s George Orwell reflecting on his experience in Burma: “Till recently the European in India had an essentially superstitious attitude towards heat apoplexy, or sunstroke as it is usually called. It was supposed to be something dangerous to Europeans but not to Asiatics. When I was in Burma I was assured that the Indian sun, even at its coolest, had a peculiar deadliness which could only be warded off by wearing a helmet of cork or pith. ‘Natives,’ their skulls being thicker, had no need of these helmets.”
But why, he asks, did the English think that? “Because an endless emphasis on the differences between the ‘natives’ and yourself is one of the necessary props of imperialism. You can only rule over a subject race, especially when you are in a small minority, if you honestly believe yourself to be racially superior, and it helps towards this if you can believe that the subject race is biologically different…. The thin skull was the mark of racial superiority, and the pith topi was a sort of emblem of imperialism.”
From a note from someone I know with a very ill wife, writing on the stress of never knowing when she’ll get really, finally sick: “The stress is an intrinsic part of living with the disease. I’d read about it, but of course never understood. It’s made me think about all the people who live like this for a long time, not just those with sick loved ones, but precarious jobs, dangerous neighborhoods, barely controlled mental illness, mentally ill children, people who hate them, and so on. It’s more the human condition than I realized.”
“Stability is likely the hardest vow for the postmodern person to commit to,” Notre Dame’s Tim O’Malley observed. “For this reason, it’s the most important for the renewal of culture and society alike.”
Among the questions Tim’s insight raises is the value of some economic activity, like the Amazon move to New York City. Its opponents point out that it would destroy neighborhoods, partly by pricing out many of the residents. It would destabilize communities and families, with a knock-on effect that could last for generations.
The effect on the neighborhood isn’t dispositive, as the lawyers say. Every gain includes losses. But too many people, including Catholics, inevitably present “jobs” and “economic activity” as the sole criteria. They should include in their thinking the destructive effect on established communities and families.
The people who cheer capitalism’s “creative destruction” are never among those being creatively destroyed.
When a newspaper like Our Sunday Visitor starts editorializing against the Vatican, as it recently did, things have shifted. In the exuberant JPII days, it was easy to say to Orthodox and Protestants, “We’ve got a pope and a Magisterium, and you don’t, so we win.” We have a doctrinal tradition that has addressed questions that leave other traditions throwing up their hands.
More Catholics now see the problematic side of the arrangement. The pope and the Magisterium may guard the truth, but they don’t necessarily produce holiness or wisdom or care for people. They can guard the truth while making it an unobserved formality, like the fence around the memorial statue in the middle of the park, the meaning of which maybe one in a thousand people who walk by it know.
Looking at the popes and bishops, you feel that giving fallen men such authority and power is like giving a chimpanzee surgical scrubs and a scalpel and sending him into the OR. The Church knows her leaders will fail, often spectacularly. People tend to forget that when they think they’re winning. We’re not winning anymore.
From The Debate between the Princely and Noble Youth Pippin and Alcuin the Scholar, as translated by Gillian Spraggs:
P. What is life?
A. A delight to the blessed, a grief to the unhappy, an experience of waiting for death.
P. What is death?
A. An inevitable happening, an unpredictable journey, the tears of the living, the coming into force of a testament, the robber of human beings.
P. What is a human being?
A. A slave to death, a traveller passing through, a stranger in the place.
P. To what is a human being similar?
A. To a fruit tree. [Mt. 7:16-20]
P. What is his or her situation?
A. Like that of a candle in the wind.
To a friend with carping critics of no accomplishments of their own, I commended G.K. Chesterton’s short poem about St. Francis. Chesterton is responding to the liberal Anglican bishop E.W. Barnes, who dismissed the saint because he had fleas. Its title is “A Broad Minded Bishop Rebukes the Verminous St. Francis.”
If Brother Francis pardoned Brother Flea,
There still seems need of such strange charity,
Seeing he is, for all his gay goodwill,
Bitten by funny little creatures still.
Barnes was a classic Protestant modernist, of a sort whose supposed enlightenment looks quaint now. You would feel about his theology, if you had to read it, the way you’d feel about a man who wears spats. He spoke of the reserved sacrament, newly returned to the Church of England after the Reformation had banished it, as “a recrudescence of fetish worship.” Of the sacrament itself, he insisted that “dead matter cannot be endowed with spiritual qualities.” Dead matter included for him Jesus’ body.
It is said that he arrived at a meeting of bishops in the late 1920s and couldn’t find a seat. His fellow bishop Hensley Henson, himself a former liberal, called out, “Sit on the fire and anticipate the judgment of the Universal Church.” The universal church has done worse to poor Barnes than judge him. It’s forgotten him. Because liberalism of his sort is just, really, you know, boring.
People surprise you. A now elderly friend, a substantial scholar in her field of 18th-century English literature and sometimes a sharp polemicist on religious matters, writes a dozen or so men on death row. She’s done this for decades.
She’s the kind of person you would visualize as a small, bird-like woman in tweed sitting with old books open before her at a big table in a scholarly library, tracing the origins of an allusion in Dryden to an earlier religious writer no one but she has ever read. She tells me she signs her letters to her friends on death row, “A truckload of hugs, Momma Bear,” and that she uses “A truckload of hugs, Granny Bear” for those under 50.
In becoming a Catholic, the soon-to-be-sainted John Henry Newman moved out of darkness into light, or at least out of the shadows into the sun. But in becoming a Catholic, he also moved out of the frying pan into the fire.
Newman on death. Though this comes from his sermon notes for the First Sunday of Advent, it applies as well in Lent: “We are going on right to death; a truism, yet not felt.” No, not felt by many of us, alas, except for some lovely moments of clarity, such as you may get on Ash Wednesday.
“We are on a stream, rushing towards the ocean,” he continues. “Every morning we rise nearer to death. Every meal we take; every time we see our friends, etc., nearer the time when we shall lose them. We rise, we work, we eat; all such acts are as milestones. As the clock ticks, we are under sentence of death. The sands of the glass run out; we are executed; we die.”
He concludes: “Seek the Lord therefore; this is the conclusion I come to; this world is nothingness. Seek Him where He can be found, i.e. in the Catholic Church. He is here in the same sense in which we are.”
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