Volume > Issue > Last Things: March 2021

Last Things: March 2021

By David Mills | March 2021
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Senior Editor US of the Catholic Herald. He writes for several Catholic and other publications.

Elections — and their results, like inaugurations — encourage Catholics to think a bit harder about political life, at least those Catholics who have not turned into simple partisans for one of the established parties. A perhaps neglected aspect of this is the question not of what we should think but who we should be in order to think well and act effectively.

Politics gives us a lovely way to externalize our virtue. We live virtuously because we vote rightly. Or so we feel. The world encourages this because it wants to make us more worldly by treating politics as ultimate. It wants us to see our votes as virtuous acts in defense of light and against darkness, to see voting as if we were responding to an altar call, giving our lives to this-worldly causes.

How we vote doesn’t matter so much in this sense. The Trump supporter defends America against the baby-killing Biden. The Biden supporter defends America against the fascist Trump. The world rejoices, whichever we choose.

The Austrian theologian Friedrich von Hügel almost never wrote about politics, but here’s a helpful short passage from his Letters to a Niece. Writing in 1918, he’s just said how glad he is that the coalition government won. He then says that other movements show “clearly how little men are really dominated only, or even chiefly, by reason; in very large numbers, not by reason, but by passion — a very different thing!”

Then he writes, “My dear Gwen, I trust that even already you feel what a support against such windy impulsions, against such wild rootlessness, is the habitual living in a world steeped in history, in knowledge of the human heart — your own, first and foremost, and, above all, in a sense of the presence, the power, the provenience of God, the healing Divine Dwarfer of our poor little man-centred, indeed even self-centred, schemes.”

Wisdom from my Calvinist friend and poet (see his book of “devotional doggerel,” Wisdom and Folly) Joe Long: “It seems to be the general impression that faith stands in opposition to reason, but I generally find it more in opposition to emotions. Faith should be the strength to hold fast to your best conclusions, not against evidence, but against discouragement or distraction.”

“That s**t’s for the hippies,” said the bartender. “To cover up their stink.” A pause. “They even put it in their shoes.” She speaks as if hippies are found in significant numbers. This has not been my experience.

The woman she’s talking to said, “You ain’t never smelt it on me? I use it.” She seems miffed.

“Not like the hippies use it,” said the bartender.

They’re discussing patchouli.

I’ve come down to watch a game, but after the cook had left for the night. I ask if I can get a bowl of soup. The bartender tells me she has the two on the specials board plus a chicken kale soup. “Kale?” I ask, because I can’t have heard that right. This is not a place that serves kale. That’s one of the things I like about it.

“Yes,” she says. “Kale.” A pause as she reads the expression on my face. “It’s really good,” she says.

I order the soup, because one of the rules of bar life is that you order what the bartender tells you is good. Because she’s right, and when she isn’t, you’d best pretend she is. It comes, and is surprisingly good.

“I got it at the farmer’s market,” she says, another surprise. Maybe that’s where she meets the patchouli-soaked hippies. “They had so much kale you could get one bunch for $5 or ten bunches for $5. So I got four.”

Another bartender, a gifted cook, said she’d take some and make soup. So I find myself in a townie dive bar eating kale. Life is endlessly surprising.

Benedict XVI writes in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration that early in its life, the Christian empire tried to use the faith to unify its people. It would use its political and military power to help the Church. Christians have often been tempted to take that offer and to use political power “to secure the faith.”

It doesn’t work. “Again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power,” Benedict writes. “The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.”

Thousands of people have written what Benedict writes, because it seems so obvious as to be a truism. But I don’t remember seeing anyone explain why it happens so predictably and universally, with perhaps some very rare exceptions. Even Benedict doesn’t do that in the paragraphs after the quote.

Why do Christians always bend to the state, and the state never bends to Christians? What is the dynamic, the process, the method? How does politics make Christians more worldly, and Christians not make politics less worldly?

Fortunately, I have smart friends. When I asked about this, Kevin Hughes responded, “Is it due, at least partly, to the dilemma of stewardship? Meaning, when Christians are in charge, they feel an obligation to shape and direct legislation according to their moral vision of the good and the true. As well they should.”

But, continued Kevin, who teaches theology at Villanova, “figuring out how to do that without invoking the coercive power of law to ‘enforce’ the faith isn’t always easy to do. So how do you direct a polity rightly and fairly toward the good as you see it, but a good capacious enough to incorporate a breadth and diversity of perspectives that aren’t in contradiction to the Gospel but not necessarily in line with it…? It’s not simple.”

Rodney Howsare, who teaches theology at DeSales University, added, “It seems that St. Thomas is pretty modest in what he expects of society’s laws: they prevent grave evils that are a threat to the common welfare. He doesn’t see them as instilling virtue as much as preventing serious, public vice. But, of course, he also believes in a strong, public Church that could do more than that because of, well, grace and all that. It seems that a society without a strong, public, influential Church is in serious trouble from a Thomistic perspective.”

Rodney also argued that “when the Church and temporal power get conflated, they end up expecting of each the wrong thing. Ratzinger seems to have in mind here appeals by the Church to state power to help it advance its causes (something like Vichy France). But he can make the critique the other way too: e.g., when the state tries to advance various goods while simultaneously privatizing and weakening the Church (as if it can attain these goods without the work of grace).”

He pretends he’s warning off anti-Semites. “Jews are now powerful because they had pogroms,” Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a member of the Polish parliament, declared a few months ago. “As a result of pogroms, the strongest and the most gifted survived. This is a warning to anti-Semites: That is why Jews are powerful, because they had pogroms. There are even theories that rabbis deliberately provoke pogroms precisely so that Jews survive and then there is natural selection.”

According to his Wikipedia entry, Korwin-Mikke was once a supporter of Solidarity and was arrested twice by the communists for his dissent. His life goes downhill from there. He’s a monarchist who hates democracy, and he’s a great admirer of Milton Friedman. He even appears in Friedman’s autobiography, but he doesn’t seem to realize that Friedmanian libertarianism would dissolve a monarchy faster than anything. He’s also a “social conservative” who has eight children — with four mothers — and thinks women are “smaller, weaker, and less intelligent” than men.

Korwin-Mikke wrote what was once the most popular political blog in Poland. His party has only 11 of the parliament’s 600-some members, but he reminds us that such people hold power in our world.

I write just after Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s an enduring failure of some otherwise well-meaning Christians to believe that anti-Semitism isn’t a problem, outside the obvious extremist cranks. It is far more common than that, though usually in a low-grade, dismissive, “othering” kind of way. Many people, who probably don’t know any Jewish people, feel they’re “funny” — odd, different, not like us — and, if pressed, explain their feeling with the available anti-Semitic ideas.

A Facebook post by a conservative Catholic asked, “In your opinion, did God give Jewish people the most intellect per capita?” He got some reasonable answers, but also several like these:

  • No. I’ve often wondered why He chose the Jews to be the chosen people above all others, cuz the Jews were “a stiff-necked people,” meaning they wanted their own way.
  •  No, because they are still waiting for the Messiah!!
  •  There [sic] not that clever if they can be occupied over and over again lol.
  •  Got no problem with this statement but one should be reminded that a Catholic is a fulfilled Jew therefore Catholics would be by far the most intellectual.
  •  No. There were far greater people. A lot of what Jews practice they got from the Babylonians when they were being held in Babylon during their captivity. None of their theology derives from the Babylonians. Just certain things like the Babylonian calendar.
  •  No, because on the whole they cannot do simple reasoning. They know a lot of facts, but they cannot use logic and reason. They rationalize and intellectualize. Not the same.

My friend Ann Rodgers, a noted religion journalist, told me about hearing a good friend describe trying to get a bargain as “Jew it out of them.” Ann asked her friend if she knew the history of that expression. She didn’t. Ann explained the myth of the “greedy Jew” that encourages people to ignore or justify violence against Jews.

“My friend was shocked,” Ann said. “Not only had that never occurred to her, but she had grown up with the expression and had never even thought about the fact that it referred to Jews, period. She expressed deep regret that she had ever used it and promised never to do so again. Sometimes we just have to speak up.”

That feeling of distance — the feeling that Jews are odd, different, not like us — too easily becomes a feeling of alienation. Too often in my experience, when challenged, the person doesn’t move away from it as Ann’s friend did, but gropes for justification. The justifications are, sadly, ready to hand in the capacious range of anti-Semitic mythology.

Imagine a society, or even a small subculture, in which anti-Semitism offers advantages, even if only in uniting one’s own people by pointing to someone they’re not. In that society, the feeling of alienation combined with the mythology can turn lethal.

Look up the Strasbourg Massacre of 1349, one of hundreds of examples. Christians caught up in a political struggle with each other burned alive hundreds of Jews in a house they had built for the purpose and expelled the rest after stealing their property. They didn’t do that intellectually unprepared. A long history of anti-Semitic myths prepared their minds to do something obviously wicked when it benefitted them.

One of the most useful insights I know, especially now, when what seems to be a steadily rising percentage of people can’t simply disagree but have to judge each other for being wrong. Chesterton wrote, “The bigot is not he who knows he is right; every sane man knows he is right. The bigot is he whose emotions and imagination are too cold and weak to feel how it is that other men go wrong.”

You’d think that when so many people have at least a basic idea of psychology and sociology, of how much the world forms us in ways we can’t see, much less escape, they would be naturally more forgiving. They would see how other men go wrong. But no, that doesn’t seem to happen much. Many use ideas from psychology and sociology to condemn, not to understand.

Just before the quote, Chesterton writes, “No one worth calling a man allows his moods to change his convictions; but it is by moods that we understand other men’s convictions.” True. But that requires people who can see in their own moods how others feel, and that, apparently, is less common than we’d like.

The lines appear in Chesterton’s essay “The Anarchist” in his early book Alarms and Discursions. I looked it up to get the exact wording and found I’d long misquoted it. Even in print, so confident was I in my memory. My version ends: “The bigot is the man who can’t understand how the other man came to be wrong.”

I know how this sounds, Chesterton being the great creator of aphorisms, but I like my version better. Mine’s more personal, quicker to the point, and more direct. His includes unnecessary details, a deadly passive voice “are,” and a needless “it is that.”

Indeed, I think I remembered it as I did on the analogy of some of his most famous lines, direct sayings that get quickly to the point, like “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

I actually enjoy washing dishes. Not as much as most other things, but a little. But I hate washing pans with, say, fried egg caked on the bottom. Not burned on, that’s okay, that I’ll scrub off. But the soft rubbery stuff, yuck. I really hate seeing the food get all caught up in the scrubber. These pans need more time to soak, I’ll tell myself, say, until someone else cleans them.

My wife doesn’t like washing dishes, but she doesn’t mind cleaning the pans with stuff caked on the bottom. She doesn’t understand my aversion.

Who knows where it comes from? It’s pre-rational, but it’s fixed. How much, I wonder, of our other responses, reactions, attractions, and the like come from equally mysterious and apparently irrational places? The things that seem natural to us, obvious, self-evident, just the way things are when they’re done right?

Look at how we think theologically. How much of our taste for order or for flexibility in theology is given us? How much of our desire to argue or to listen? Our ability to settle questions because people need to have an answer or to hold questions open because people need to have the assuredly right answer? Our preference for distinction or synthesis, for polemics or affirmation? How much of the way we think is the equivalent of my enjoying washing dishes or my really disliking scraping rubbery egg off the bottom of the pan?

I’m fascinated by how much of our personalities and perhaps even our characters are given us, and what that means for the way we live together. We do not make ourselves nearly as much as we think we do. And as preachers think we do.

This question of what we’re given needs a lot more consideration than it gets. We’re not so often obviously right as we think we are. We’re just who we are, and others are who they are.


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