Last Things: July-August 2021
Johann Christoph Arnold, leader of the Bruderhof community, was invited to meet the new pope, Benedict XVI. A traditional Mennonite community, the Bruderhof don’t use hierarchical titles, much less the ones Catholics use in speaking to the pope. (Robert P. George tells the story, which he heard from Arnold.)
Arnold told the Pope that he didn’t know how to speak to him, especially given the history of Catholics persecuting the Mennonites. Benedict replied, “You will call me Brother Ratzinger; I will call you Brother Arnold.”
A lovely story, and a tribute to the Pope Emeritus. Also an example of the way Catholics can adopt the language of their separated Christian brothers to emphasize brotherhood and not separation. Benedict didn’t need to demand the Catholic titles from a man who couldn’t say “your holiness.”
Speaking that way is not automatic, because we naturally speak the language of our own tribe or family, including the words that recognize status. Doing it requires an intention to do as much, verbally, as we can to welcome the separated brother — to speak his language, or at least a neutral language, rather than our own.
Dear seminary liturgics professors: Please teach your students that the word is pronounced “gree-vus,” not “gree-vee-us.” You will eliminate one source of distraction at Mass.
In my April column I mentioned Focus on the Family’s unexpectedly unpartisan profile of Democrats for Life. I admire DFL’s work, and support it. It’s one way of pushing against the tragic identification of the pro-life movement with the Republican Party, which has meant coming to support all its policies, including the most extreme ones. Still, the DFL’s not unproblematic for Catholics.
Some of us would much prefer it represent the old Democratic Party, the New Deal or Great Society party focused on economics, not the new party focused on sexual identities and intent on forcing everyone else to agree. DFL had been old Democrat, working to remind the party of its history of defending the marginalized and vulnerable, and pointing out that the vulnerable it defends should include the unborn.
The new DFL director, Terrisa Bukovinac, agrees with the new party. She approves of its being “pro-immigration, pro-LGBT, pro-trans (specifically) [and] pro-racial justice.” To the first, the old Democrat would say yes, with qualifications, and would say an unqualified yes to the fourth. But the middle two, no, if they mean political and legal changes.
Bukovinac thinks the problem for pro-life Democrats is that the abortion industry has hijacked those issues to make itself look better. “They know that left-leaning values are powerful values to many people in this nation and so they piggyback off of those issues,” she explains.
“They platform off of immigration, police brutality, LGBT issues, transgender issues, health care and feminism, all of the things that left-leaning people genuinely and deeply care about. And then they just put their label on it and expect the rest of us to just get along with the abortion issue.”
“Don’t you fear dying?” a young woman asked me. I told her I feared not dying. She didn’t understand.
For her, death means the end of a life that now stretches in front of her. Though a Christian, she feels no need not to enjoy the life on earth God has given her.
For me, death means the end of decline and a moving on after a life in which I’ve done much of what I’ve wanted to do and felt called to do. I don’t like the idea of aging into being an invalid. Dying, especially for a Christian, doesn’t frighten you so much when you can see the alternative of a very slow death.
The young woman and I live at different points in the arcs of our lives. Life shows each of us that “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.” It is true for both of us, but for me more imminently, that the Lord takes away. I hope He takes away quickly. But if not, then I’ll learn to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
“I drink beer whenever I can lay my hands on any. I love beer, and by that very act, the world,” writes Thomas Merton in Contemplation in a World of Action. As the Eastern liturgy says: Wisdom! Let us attend.
A Facebook friend wrote, in good will, but with a little pretension, “Here’s a reality check; In God’s church there isn’t any denominations. Nope!!! Not a single one…think about it.” People who end their lectures with “think about it” don’t seem to realize how insulting they sound.
I have thought about this, a lot. He’s right in a way he doesn’t intend (in God’s church there aren’t any denominations) but wrong in the way he does (there aren’t any denominations). It’s a similar claim to the common Protestant one that real Christianity consists only of “the Gospel alone” without everyone’s additions. People add things — bishops, the Mass, teetotalism, the plain life, repeated (or ana) baptisms — because they like them, not because anyone needs them.
I wrote about this in The Catholic Herald. Catholics and Orthodox, and some other Christians, can’t accept this. Things my friend would consider irrelevant denominational distinctives are for us something at the center. If we’re wrong, as this fellow thinks, we’re really wrong, but wrong enough to disprove his claim.
As I wrote, “The Gospel includes all the gifts God has given us. The presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, given to us bodily in the Mass and adored in the Tabernacle, is a huge gift, a world-forming and world-changing gift — and a normative and necessary part of living the Gospel in the world.”
Christians are divided, and we wish we weren’t, but we do disagree on some substantial matters, and yet we respect the seriousness and godliness of those with whom we disagree. I’ve never understood, since my first days looking at Christianity, why some Christians feel the need to deny that reality.
My first encounter with evangelical anti-Catholicism shocked me for that reason. A youth leader was saying what that fellow said. Every Christian’s a brother, the differences don’t matter, we’re all one, etc. And then, out of the blue, he started attacking the Catholic Church, about which I knew almost nothing. It was clear that he believed the differences matter, a lot, when he’d just explained to me that they don’t matter.
Anti-Semitic conspiratorialists don’t mind Jews so much as blame “the Jews,” a retired UC Berkeley professor of public policy suggests, and that’s a useful distinction. Writing in the Jewish magazine Tablet, Eugene Bardach calls this “welcome news.” It suggests that the big problem isn’t hatred of Jews, “but conspiracy-driven hatred in general, for which the Jews just happen to make a good target.”
But not good news. People who hate their made-up idea of “the Jews” harm real Jews. And while even an anti-Semitic crank might — might — come to see his Jewish neighbors as regular people, he’ll never change his mind about a conspiracy, because he has a secret key to history. People don’t give up their secret keys. It’s too much fun to know the real story, especially when it gives them the sad human pleasure of picking out villains and hating them.
Bardach suggests making people better instead of fighting the idea of “the Jews.” To fight conspiracy-dependent anti-Semitism, promote “liberal practices and thought” and “enlightenment rationalism.”
In theory, yes. In practice, not so much. Liberal and enlightenment thought don’t only hold to a high view of tolerance, they hold to what they believe are universal values. And those universal values — including tolerance — will eventually conflict with particular people, and their beliefs, who won’t be universalized. Observant Jews, for example, and serious Christians.
As we are seeing today, in the state’s attempt to impose “toleration” of a new understanding of sex and gender. To insist that a man isn’t a woman is believed to be as intolerant as the belief that black, brown, and Asian people are inferior to white people, and thus not to be tolerated.
Despite the long, horrible history of Christian anti-Semitism, Christians should be the Jews’ biggest friends and defenders, especially when enlightenment rationalism turns against them. We worship the same God, and we should love and protect those who also love Him, and, more urgently, we’re in this together.
Here’s the most useful word you will learn this month, maybe this year, if you are like me and most of my writer friends. Allotrion means, according to the old New York Times Book Review in which I found it, “an idle pursuit that distracts from serious responsibilities.”
But it means more than that, if I understand the context in which I found it used. “The study on coca,” Freud wrote in his diary, “was an allotrion which I was eager to conclude.” His early work on cocaine had not gone well, but it was serious work, not an idle pursuit.
I’d say allotrion means a pointless and enjoyable pursuit that looks serious or which you can convince yourself is serious. That’s what makes the word so useful. It describes a subtle and seductive temptation.
If I told you that I’d just come inside from throwing rocks at animals, most of you would disapprove, strongly.
If I said I’d thrown rocks at pests to drive them out of the yard, more of you would approve.
If I said I’d thrown rocks at tick-dropping vermin, most of you would approve.
If I said I’d thrown rocks at deer, many of you would not approve, especially those of you who live in cities. Because Bambi.
If I said I’d thrown rocks at Lyme-ridden, tick-dropping deer, more of you would approve.
If I said one of my closest friends was severely ill with Lyme, and I didn’t want family and friends to suffer the same way, pretty much everyone would approve of my throwing rocks to drive the deer out of the yard.
Yet each statement is the same statement, just describing the targets of my rock-throwing differently. The judgment depends on the knowledge you have. I’ll forbear drawing a lesson.
“Heart surgeons must be stopped!” responded my friend Douglas Anderson. “They knife thousands of people a year, and in many recorded cases have been known to cut people’s rib cages completely open! Make hospitals safe again!”
A friend of Caryll Houselander’s got caught up, to an unhealthy or unedifying extent, in reading about current politics. He felt angry or depressed or both. He has “wrestled with controversial matters with great courage,” she tells him, but now he needs to stop, at least for a bit. Houselander, the English writer and mystic, tells him (she’s writing in 1943) that we should know as much as we can, but should not hurt ourselves by “reading books likely to raise storms in [our] particular mind.”
We can only read so many books, and reading one book means not reading another. “It is wise to choose ones most likely to increase your consciousness of the presence of God, and ones most likely to enter into your mind and to enrich it forever.” He should read books that teach him to rest in God.
Houselander explains how this works with a lovely metaphor: “When I say ‘rest in Him,’ I don’t mean any sort of complacency or any sort of cessation of activity or activity of mind, but a rest like the rest in the wings of a bird spread upon and abandoned to the current of a great wind, swifter and stronger than its own flight.”
The exchange can be found in The Letters of Caryll Houselander.
One more insight from Houselander. She writes a very, very discouraged friend: “I am so much a sinner that I understand well how the slightest disappointment from outside oneself, added to the chronic close-on-despair inside, can crush one altogether…. One doesn’t want a preacher, or even a shining example, but someone who will share the burden, even if they know they can’t carry their own.”
Mothers don’t cease being mothers. They feel for any vulnerable young creature in their care. I was leaving the house to take our new dog Toby to the doggie daycare, where our third child works, for his “interview.” (Basically checking that he’s had his shots and that he gets along with other dogs.) We’d had him about a month since we got him from the Humane Society. He was four and we didn’t know much about his background.
My wife was almost wringing her hands as I was leaving. “Isn’t this too soon?” she asked. He is a smallish, very cute dog, which may explain the mother-of-a-toddler instincts. “I don’t think he’s ready.” Pause, with more near-wringing. “We should wait.”
Fathers, I suppose, don’t cease being fathers. It was time for Toby to face the world. He passed his interview.
You can’t just glide. Partly prompted by a friend’s reception into the Church, I reread Lumen Gentium. You may be a full member of the Church and join in everything, it says, but “he is not saved…who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity.”
That person “remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’ All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”
“Persevere in charity.” Not, as I suspect some of us assume, “persevere in faithfulness” or “persevere in obedience” or even “persevere in orthodoxy.” It’s not a matter of just keeping at it, but of something more active and demanding.
“Talk ten times more about what you love than about what you hate. Maybe twenty times,” Anthony Esolen said to me about this. “Stay away from people who sow discord. Prefer to attribute to ignorance or inattentiveness or foolishness what you might otherwise attribute to malice. Remember that that’s your brother or sister over there.”
I mentioned the Bruderhof. One of the Bruderhof’s American communities publishes the very good journal Plough. It appears four times a year and features serious writing on living what used to be called “an alternative lifestyle,” that is, as a Christian more than the typical American. It publishes a lot of Catholics, like Brandon McGinley, Elizabeth Bruenig, Robert P. George, Ross Douthat, and Elizabeth Lev. It’s more crunchy-granola than many readers will like, but challenging and helpful.
The subject line from a recent Foreign Policy email blast: “Editors’ Picks: The ‘once-in-a-generation intellect’ guiding President Biden.”
When I was younger, the liberal illusion of John F. Kennedy’s “best and brightest” — that the world could be thoroughly analyzed and effectively directed by select, very smart people — was hit hard from the Left and the Right. The B&B’s mistake in Vietnam was obvious and internationally traumatic.
Then under the second Bush, another section of the B&Bs made a huge mistake in Iraq. Now, though maybe not at first, when Hussein was caught and the people voted and the world cheered, the mistake was obvious and internationally traumatic.
You’d think that either Vietnam or Iraq would have killed the idea for good. They didn’t. Probably no B&B failure ever could. People who don’t see that the world can fail, and have no hope to sustain them if it fails, must believe it can be fixed. What bearable alternative do they have? And if it must be fixed, who better to fix it than the best and brightest?
People who cannot put their faith in God put their faith in gods. Who prove, always, to be gods that failed.
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