Last Things: December 2021
In a Facebook post about a trip to England, Robert P. George wrote that he’d “Zoomed into a James Madison Program event to introduce Professor Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago Department of Groceries.”
Seemed odd, but the big universities have professors with very narrow specialties, which of course prove upon examination to be surprisingly broad because they involve so many other fields. A professor of groceries would study the very important matter of the food supply chain, from the complex matter of growing food all the way to the people who literally have to put food on the table.
A professor of groceries struck me as a very Chestertonian position, focusing in a homely and domestic concern (groceries) important matters in the wider world. And possibly, like Chesterton, making the good of the homely and domestic the criterion for arranging matters in the wider world.
I was disappointed to find, upon rereading, that the man was a professor of geosciences.
If I were a secularist tasked with subverting the Catholic Church, I’d coddle her, defer to her leaders, give her all sorts of privileges and special treatment, not hold her accountable — that is, encourage her to live comfortably in the world. She’d learn to fit in, to go along, and to let down her guard. Once in a while I would launch a full-scale investigation that would embarrass and humiliate her and justify imposing political and legal restrictions on her life.
Essentially how America treated the Catholic Church in the post-war period. Many older Catholics look back to that period as an ideal. The Church in America grew! they say. A lot! We gained positions of power and influence, even a president! But then we let it all go. With Vatican II, the 1960s, dissenters, contraception, liberals, the New Mass, everything went downhill.
The one real cause they never notice is the successful and comfortable Church of the 1950s and early 1960s. The Church was too at ease in Zion, and that required cuddling up to those in power and compromising with them to keep their favor. She had a position and image to maintain, and that required covering up sexually abusing priests.
The Catholics who look back to the 1950s and early 1960s want to restore something that proved disastrous for the Church’s life and witness. They do the Church in America no favors, while her enemies, now out in the open, do her the great favor of holding her to her own standards.
The movie True Confessions tells this story, if you want it in fictional form. Two brothers in Los Angeles, one a rising young monsignor destined for high office, the other a detective, face the Church’s corruption. Robert de Niro plays the monsignor, Robert Duvall the detective. The screenwriters, John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, adapted the story from Dunne’s novel with the same title.
It opens with a priest who died in bed with a prostitute, and the monsignor getting his brother to cover up the story. All in a day’s work for both of them. For the good of the Church. And for the monsignor’s career. The story (slight spoiler coming) ends well for them, but not well in the ways the hierarchy wanted.
I’m sitting outside writing while our second child sits a few feet away with his earbuds in having a Zoom meeting on his laptop. I say cheerily to a squirrel running along the top of the fence near me, “Hi, Squirrel!” and talk to him a bit while he stands there looking at me before running on.
A few seconds later, my phone dings. My son has texted me, “I’m on mute, but could you please not talk to squirrels?” I’m feeling he’s not appreciating my similarities to St. Francis.
Along the road we travel almost every day is an area of trees and grass between the road and the railroad tracks. It’s home to several woodchucks, and I always enjoy seeing them as we drive by. A few springs ago, I saw the first couple of the year and said, with what is apparently rare excitement for an adult, “Look! The woodchucks are back!”
“You’re such a St. Francis,” my wife said. She then paused a couple seconds and added, “In a good sense.” I’m not sure how one could be a St. Francis in a bad sense.
Some people go through a sustained traumatic experience, like being hospitalized for a long time, and claim that Jesus gave them an end-of-the-world apocalyptic message they need to share with the world. They tell the rest of us to repent now, because the whole thing will soon be over.
It’s always true, as Our Lord said, that we should repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. But it’s not true, as far as we know, that human history is about to end. It may be cynical of me, but I don’t believe anyone who says Jesus told him that.
Especially as their apocalypticism is not untied from their politics. Someone whose politics already includes the feeling that the world is horrible and out to get him and people like him because he’s on God’s side is not the kind of messenger you can trust when he tells you Jesus Himself ratified his feelings. You might dislike Joe Biden, but he’s not a harbinger of the Second Coming.
One also has to discern the value of the message from the state of the messenger. Someone who’s suffered days of severe trauma and was in bed on heavy drugs is not a messenger it is safe to trust. You wouldn’t trust him with investment advice, don’t trust his eschatological predictions.
But let such a person proclaim the end of the world is nigh, and people flock to him. Some people love to think the world is about to end. But do they really repent? I have a feeling no. They don’t think they have anything to repent of, because they’re the ones the world-about-to-end hates because they’re on God’s side. Or God is on theirs.
An Internet meme reads, “and in the end Ayn Rand…collected Social Security.” (The ellipsis is in the original.) Amusing, but, it pains me to say, unfair to Rand. Yes, she was an unsatisfactory human being even by normal human standards, and yes, she promoted a despicable “philosophy,” but no, she wasn’t hypocritical for taking Social Security.
She had been forced to pay into it. She did, for decades. The deal into which she was forced was that the government would at some point start giving her money back. She had a contract with the state, and as she’d kept her end of the deal, she expected the state to keep its end. In fact, she probably felt herself doing something useful by depleting the state of what money she could.
I think this is more important than just correcting a “gotcha!” meme and being fair to someone to whom one really doesn’t want to be fair. Society depends on mutual obligations, some that many will find onerous or unfair or unjust but obey anyway. That requires that both sides fulfill their end of the obligation, which requires that both sides accept what the other owes them.
Of course, in accepting money from the Social Security Administration, Rand joined in an understanding of society she profoundly hated. She enacted, if she didn’t acknowledge, a belief in mutual obligations. There’s some pleasure in thinking of that.
Many years ago, in an ecumenical group trying to discern what doctrinal beliefs it shared, I suggested whatever was agreed upon by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Magisterial Reformers. We wanted something more developed than the Apostles’ Creed, the usual standard for groups like ours.
Everyone agreed. It was essentially a Protestant definition, because it went no further than the Reformers went, but as good a working agreement for our purposes as we were going to get.
I then raised as a test case the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, which the Magisterial Reformers all believed. One of the Protestant members, who’d thought my suggestion excellent, came unglued. He threw out all the usual arguments against it (which implied that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were as bad as the Catholics). He accused me of trying to break up the group because he didn’t want to accept the standard he’d accepted, when he disagreed with his own fathers in the faith.
These enterprises are difficult, no matter what. But they’re made more difficult by the development of Evangelicalism into individualism. No objective standard can work, because the individual feels no need to subordinate himself to it. He claims to believe in the objective standard of “biblical teaching,” but by that he means his individual and possibly idiosyncratic version of biblical teaching. You get a few of these in a group, and their disagreements push the shared standard even lower, often to the point it’s no longer any good as a unifying standard.
My colleague was a stand-alone Evangelical — his own pope, as a friend put it after reading him without my having told him anything about him. The true faith was what he said it was, no more, no less — whatever the rest of the Christian world said.
The Southern Baptist member of the group had no problem with the standard or the implication. But then he was a confessional Christian, with a tradition he recognized as authoritative. It didn’t include the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, but it didn’t exclude it either. Secure in his own tradition, he didn’t feel the need to secure exact agreement in a practical work.
A friend who went to a local sports bar in a very affluent town to watch his favorite team — the Jets, who managed not to lose (that week) — tells me an older man came into the bar area from the dining room to complain that there were Little Leaguers there. It’s a family place, mind you, and he’s there on a Sunday afternoon.
“We ought to be warned when there are children!” he said. I hope the people around him laughed, in a way he noticed. He’s the preppy poster boy for the culture of death.
And another one. Senator Rand Paul a few years ago: “When people ask me, whose fault is it? Whose fault is it that Medicare is broken, out of money, that Social Security is broken, out of money? And I say, look, it’s not Republicans’ fault, it’s not Democrats’ fault. It’s your grandparents’ fault for having too many damn kids.”
No, it’s your parents’ fault and your fault for having too few. He’s the libertarian poster boy for the culture of death.
I’ve recently written two articles urging freedom for the Latin Mass, one for the Catholic Herald and one for the National Catholic Register, the first before and the second after Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis Custodes. The responses reminded me of a very odd thing: the degree of hatred some Catholics have for the traditionalists, and by “some Catholics” I mean not the liberals or dissenters but orthodox or obedient Catholics.
Many approved Francis’s actions. Many not only approved them but cheered them. Because some traditionalists hate the Pope and risk schism, these orthodox Catholics want something important to many of their fellow Catholics taken away. It’s throwing away someone else’s baby with the bathwater.
As I wrote in the Register, after going to a Latin Mass while we were away, a Mass with a great variety of people, the extraordinary form is “a gift to people like the man with the man-bun and the man with the ponytail, the college girls in their jeans, the man with the stubble. It is a gift to people — some of them damaged and in pain — who want or often need the quiet, the order, the dramatized mystery, the antiquity and objectivity of the old rite. Many of these people live on the edges of the Church, or even the edges of Christianity. The traditional Latin Mass is not only pastoral but evangelistic.”
A recent convert to Judaism summarizes what he calls “Jewish business principles.” The list Brandon Bowers provides also gives rules for making Catholic social teaching practical.
They are: (1) Legal doesn’t mean ethical; (2) Don’t pull in investors and partners when the odds are stacked against them; (3) Avoid fraud and misrepresentation in sales transactions; (4) What you do with profits is a moral issue, as is how you obtain them; (5) Realize the value of your employees’ labor and pay them accordingly; (6) Ultimately, G-d is the giver of wealth; and (7) Always remember the silver rule: Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.
Almost boilerplate. Glancing through Ronald Knox’s early Catholic book Meditations on the Psalms, I saw these lines: “How hard it is for our fallen nature to appreciate its own degradation, and estimate its own sins aright! We must ask to be delivered from the pride and sloth which make us unconscious of sin, the acquiescence to worldly standards which deadens us to its significance.”
True, but incomplete. We need not only to be delivered from a false vision of ourselves but given a vision of what we could be. When pastors and writers take up this subject, they tend to speak of removing blinders from our eyes or getting better lenses. We must work at seeing ourselves better. It’s a call to discipline and asceticism. I’ve written like this. But we tend not to talk so much about what we see with our better vision.
In my experience, few tell you that if you really want to know who you are, look at Jesus, His Mother, and the saints. They tell you to look at them as models and ideals, and as powerful helpers and friends, but not as contrasts. Particularly not as sources of self-knowledge. Who they are tells you with some precision something about who you are, not least how you are not like them.
You don’t even have to compare and contrast. You just have to spend time with them to begin to notice the differences.
Jesus, writes the Anglican “radical orthodoxy” leader John Milbank, “died as three times excluded: By the Jewish law of the tribal nation; by the Roman universal law of empire; by the democratic will of the mob. In the whole summed-up history of human polity — the tribe, the universal absolute state, the democratic consensus — God found no place.”
My friend John Médaille added: “Betrayed by a friend, he was excluded even from the community of friendship.” But not completely. John was there, and Mary Magdalene and others. Nor was Jesus excluded from the community of family, for His mother was there. And even in His agony, He acted to preserve those communities by combining them, or rather by drawing His friend into His family, as the guardian of His mother.
That’s good news within the dark news of the near total rejection He suffered. And a model for us in our worst times.
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