Last Things: October 2021
In 1850, Sullivan’s Island had a fair number of Irish Catholics but no Catholic church. The island sits on the coast just north of Charleston, South Carolina, and is maybe most famous as the setting for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Gold Bug.” One day, the bishop of Charleston got in a boat and traveled across the bay to say Mass and hear confessions on the island. For one penitent, it had been years. The bishop urged him to receive the sacrament more frequently.
“Ah, M’Lord, I’m but a poor fisherman,” the man said. “All I have is my little rowboat, and it leaks. The water is choppy, and the weather changes fast. It’s a hard, dangerous trip to Charleston. If it’s only venial sins, it’s not worth the trouble. And if it’s a mortal sin, it’s not worth the risk.”
Christian apologists like to claim that religion has this or that bodily or social benefit. They think it’s a winning argument for Christianity. It might be, but the problem is that being godly might also be bad for you. Think of the studies, featured in secular sources, that say lots of sex is good for you, including lots of masturbation. Or one that claims women benefit psychologically from sex with multiple partners.
These studies may or may not be right. They find the things a secular society wants to find, and that makes one skeptical, but we live in a fallen world. Part of its fallenness may be that holiness costs you.
True for Catholics as members of the Body of Christ: A Jew told Chabad rabbi Tzvi Freeman that he’d found spirituality “in the writings of a mystic teacher whose lectures opened gates of wisdom for him.” Freeman replied, “You have found wisdom, but you have not found yourself. You have found a pretty girl, but you have not found your betrothed wife.” You can believe something good, but you need more. You need to be part of something.
Also true for us: God’s gift of faith comes before our belief. Freeman notes that Deuteronomy declares, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of every Jew.” The Talmud asks, “At what age do you start teaching your child? As soon as the child begins to speak, you teach him, ‘The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of every Jew.’ Then you teach, ‘Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is One.’”
True, and a warning for us: Quoting that verse, the Talmud says, “Anyone who withholds a teaching from a student is as though he robs him of the inheritance of his ancestors.”
As I was sitting outside the coffee shop, two older men at a table next to me started talking animatedly. They were the kind of successful businessmen who show it by dressing in jeans and sweatshirts. One had a noticeable Eastern urban accent I couldn’t place.
They started talking about their favorite old movies and where to find them, especially those only found on DVD. The accented one said he drove into Pittsburgh to look in the porn shops. His friend offered, in a man-groping-for-something-to-say sort of way, that he didn’t think you could find those movies there. I pondered what sort of man risks his reputation by going into porn shops just to find old DVDs.
The first replied that no, actually he’d had great success looking in porn shops, and that you’d be amazed at what you could find in porn shops. Most people don’t want to go to porn shops because they’re dirty and people think they’re bad places, but you could find some really nice watches, for ex —
“Oh, you mean pawn shops!” the second actually yelled, clearly relieved.
Almost every criticism goes both ways. Many people, including those most successful on social media, don’t understand this. An ex-Catholic who’d discovered the Episcopal Church sneered that “any Anglican attracted to authoritarian religion will feel right at home in the Catholic Church.” She called converts like that “spiritual children.”
True, for the most part. But equally true: Any Catholic attracted to antinomian religion will feel right at home in the Episcopal Church.
I’ve known Anglicans desperate for structure and rules who seemed to suffer deep internal disorder, and other Anglicans who longed for more rules because they wanted to impose them on others. I’ve known Catholics who desperately wanted “freedom” because they wanted to break the moral law, or were already breaking it.
The reasons people feel drawn to one or the other ecclesial body don’t tell us anything about the truth of either. What’s bait for the goose is bait for the gander. When the critic finds some flaw in his enemy, his enemy will almost always be able to find a similar flaw on the critic’s side. I am rubber, you are glue, as kids used to say.
An Anglican attracted to authoritarian religion will feel at home in the Church. As I said, true for the most part. That’s not obviously a bad thing. It may be a good thing.
People come to the Church not only as sinners who can’t see very well, but as people life has formed to see and feel some things and not others. They may be very confused or deeply wounded. They may see the Church first as an authority, because they need authority.
They see a truth. The Catholic Church does speak with authority. And that truth may be a way into other truths. Among them, the opposite truths, the ones they need to see to understand and live in the whole thing they’ve entered, like the limits of authority and the reality of freedom in Christ.
That said, I do worry about some of my former Anglican friends and peers who entered the Church partly because they found her standing against the world. I don’t think they always understood what that meant. They saw the Church standing for the life of the unborn and the nature of marriage, and thought that meant she was conservative in their sense of conservative.
She isn’t. Catholic social teaching doesn’t map well on any of the usual political positions. It also leaves a lot to wisdom and prudence, and her authorities sometimes understand these differently. And those authorities, sinful limited men, will sometimes endorse policies and causes they shouldn’t. Add to that the hatred of the Holy Father into which too many old friends have fallen.
I worry that some of them value their culture-war commitments more than their membership in the Catholic Church. Because that membership is, to some extent, itself a culture-war commitment. Some I know flirt not just with hard traditionalism but with actual schism, others with Orthodoxy.
A friend who shared one of my Our Sunday Visitor columns told me that a friend of his responded, “OSV is a hive of modernism and lukewarmness.” I’d explained that the Catholic teaching on voting gave fewer definite rules and gave the voter more freedom than many people wanted. I told my editor he had to join the SSPX or at least get more excited about things. He told me the newspaper has been called “pure evil” for publishing my article, and I “a pro-abort.”
It seems weird that people get so invested in what a newspaper publishes. Just turn the page or click on another tab.
They have a good reason, though. Publications like OSV, and like this one, are prime real estate everyone wants to own. It’s like holding the fort that overlooks the harbor. If the ideological can’t own it, they’ll insult it. It won’t be different, it won’t be wrong, it will be wicked. He who is not with us is against us. It’s the way war propaganda works, and for the ideological, everything’s an act of war.
Writers get the same thing. If you have any name at all, people — the ideological — want to own you. They want you on their side. And if you’re not, you must be on the other side, and therefore wicked.
Her father was an addict who fell back into addiction through opioids prescribed for his job-caused physical pain, writes Bethany Shondark Mandel. He later committed suicide. When people say “addicts deserve to die,” even if they’re just jerks on the web, “it stings. A lot…. Keep in mind you have no idea the back story of the person you’re saying it to.”
Even good, religiously serious people say things like this. They just pick on a group it’s safe to pick on in our Social Darwinist age. Like addicts, and the chronically poor, and the overweight, and, and, and. They may be good people, but they speak like jerks.
Then Mandel adds a twist: “You can probably go back in my twitter history and find nasty things I’ve said about addiction and addicts. I’m not perfect.” She speaks from very painful, personal experience. Someone that close to an addict might say nasty things about addicts.
In other words, we don’t know even the jerks’ back stories. The practical reasons for “judge not” reach very far. Annoyingly far, when judging is so much fun. And the judgers so annoying.
A Facebook friend posted a message in visual-meme form (a short statement in big letters on a colored background). “In the old days,” it said, “Americans believed that God had a very special concern for the well-being of the USA.”
I suspect that’s true. If they did, they were foolish and presumptuous, which is worse than foolish, and (in their thinking) not Christian. Nothing good can come from a belief that God is especially concerned for the good of your nation over others. It doesn’t encourage national virtue, but the opposite.
People in the mass won’t think, “God cares for us especially. We must try to be worthy of His care.” They think, “We’re God’s favorites. Whatever we do will be okay.”
A lesson for Christian leaders, pastoral and intellectual: “I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this…wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”
The speaker: American socialist leader Eugene Debs, speaking in 1906. (I removed the word “capitalist” before “wilderness.”)
A friend told me he gets teary-eyed when reading the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle to his children. I read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings several times to each of our children, and I could never read the last few paragraphs of the first and the last chapter of the second without breaking down.
They’re heartbreakingly beautiful. The first for its vision of Heaven, of completion and perfection and reconciliation. The second for its mixture of loss and joy, as Sam loses (forever, as far as he and we know) his closest friend yet returns to his family to lead the life he always wanted to lead. Sam’s “Well, I’m back” expresses a mixture of homeliness and alienation my children couldn’t yet understand.
When the children were little, I kept stopping as I read to regain control. When each child got old enough, I handed them the book and said, “Hey, you read the last chapter!” as if it were a treat. I don’t think I fooled them.
In case any of you find yourselves attracted to the writings of the Catholic writer E. Michael Jones. Once a marginal but still respected figure in Catholic circles, he’s been published by Ignatius and St. Augustine’s Press (which also published Lezek Kolakowski and other worthies), and still edits a magazine called Culture Wars. He recorded an interview with something called “Aryan Insights.” You would think even an anti-Semite would run full-speed away from something with “Aryan” in its name, but no.
The Radio Albion website summarizes the interview. For example: “Whichever unfortunate White nation had the Jews living among them was plagued by their revolutionary activity leading to over a hundred separate expulsions of them from Europe.”
And: “The Jew has always used others to do his dirty work for him…. He [Jones] exposes the Jews behind the gay marriage movement and points out that America is now little more than a gay disco that is being exported all over the world. Instead of seeing who is doing this to us and rising up against them, we are all being distracted by our aroused passions instead. The Jew arouses those passions and then manipulates us into directing them against the target that they choose.”
Jones offers a simple theory that explains everything, which cast of mind I think accounted for the popularity of his earlier books. He lets his readers feel as though they’ve penetrated to the truth of a complex and confusing world in which bad things just keep happening. He thinks he has the key to the universe, and to adapt the old expression, if you have a key, everything looks like the lock it opens.
In this interview and his writing for some years now, that key insists that in not accepting Jesus, “the Jews” rejected Logos, the reason behind the universe, and once you reject that, all you can do is destroy things. This is mixed up with a belief in malign “elites,” who turn out to be (surprise!) mostly Jews and people who follow (or obey) them. It’s made more impressive by being delivered in very long books with lots of claims and lots of footnotes.
That’s why the younger Catholics flirting with integralism worry me. There’s no room in their ideal integrated society for Jews and reasons to resent them for not being assimilated. It’s a short step from resenting the outsider to oppressing him.
Democrats for Life think that Never-Trumpers are “a huge voting block that the Democratic Party is missing out on.” The party got them last time, when they voted for Biden because they couldn’t vote for Trump, but they won’t do that again. The party must do something to attract them, DFL insists. It “needs these swing voters” to win elections.
It doesn’t. I wish it did, but it doesn’t. American politics would be healthier if the pro-life movement, and the witness to human dignity it almost uniquely bears, were electorally in play. The nation would benefit if the Democratic Party had to accommodate us pro-lifers and the Republican Party had to take us seriously.
The Democratic Party can win without the Never-Trumpers who voted Democrat. They didn’t elect Joe Biden. How many of them can there be? A few hundred thousand? And how many are actively pro-life? Far, far fewer. The defense of the unborn is not the issue that motivates the Never-Trumpers.
The pro-life Democrats are stuck. As Democrats, they can’t vote Republican, especially when that party’s candidates are as they have been and are certain to be. As pro-lifers, they can’t easily vote for a party so thoroughly pro-choice as their own, especially when that party won’t offer them even the smallest concession.
The Democrats see their pro-lifers as people who have nowhere else to go. (As the Republicans see theirs.) And they don’t need the votes of conservatives who can’t vote Republican. The Democratic leadership will never feel politically vulnerable enough to change the party’s complete commitment to the most extreme idea of “abortion rights.”
DFL and other pro-life groups point to the number of Catholic Democrats who take generally pro-life positions when polled. We just need to rally these people, they say. Fewer can be rallied than DFL thinks.
For some, like their members, being pro-life is central to their political identity. For many others, sincerely pro-life, it isn’t. They care more about other issues. Political success — the ability to move the Democratic Party to defend life — would require a lot more of them to join the first group, and that’s not going to happen.
My thanks to my friend Nick Frankovich for the story about the old man on Sullivan’s Island. Nick, a managing editor at National Review, writes well on everything, especially baseball. I commend his essays on the Human Life Review’s website, www.humanlifereview.com.
This is the 25th “Last Things” column I’ve written for the NOR. I’m grateful to the editor and my friend Pieter Vree for giving me the space to write it. Other than the “While We’re At It” section of First Things, which I wrote for a while, it’s the only place I know in Catholic publishing where one can write this kind of thing.
St. John Henry Newman wished we would look at the visible world “as a mere screen between us and God.” Jesus watches us, helps us, but we forget about Him when we meet “the seductions or terrors of the world.”
Newman describes a life I recognize, alas: “We feel variously according to the place, time, and people we are with. We are serious on Sunday, and we sin deliberately on Monday. We rise in the morning with remorse at our offences and resolutions of amendment, yet before night we have transgressed again. The mere change of society puts us into a new frame of mind; nor do we sufficiently understand this great weakness of ours, or seek for strength where alone it can be found, in the Unchangeable God.”
It’s like we think we’re performing the play with the curtains down, because the lights blind us to the theatre beyond the stage. We forget the audience as we get caught up in the performance, while also slacking off and goofing around. We do what we feel like, because who’s to know? Then the lights go off, and we see the audience, who may or may not be applauding.
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