Last Things: September 2021
It’s a mystery how life affects people. Who knows what experiences help make people one kind of person or another, and what little change might have made the villain a hero or the hero a villain.
Ekaterina Fyodorovna Kolyschkine came from a wealthy Russian family displaced and impoverished by the Bolshevik revolution. The communists arrested her and tried to starve her to death. She escaped to Canada, eventually renounced her possessions and founded houses for the poor, and became a pioneer for racial reconciliation and social justice. She may be a saint.
Another young woman from a wealthy Russian family experienced the same loss. Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum also escaped the Bolsheviks and made her way to America. Here she invented an inhuman philosophy and became an ardent evangelist for the crassest social Darwinism. She was also a hard atheist. She was, by even her admirers’ accounts, an extremely unpleasant human being. She’s not even a secular saint.
One was Catherine de Hueck Doherty. The other was Ayn Rand.
Catherine de Hueck (she married the journalist Eddie Doherty many years later) was in England in 1928, booking American lecture tours. She talked to people like Chesterton, Churchill, Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw, and Radclyffe Hall.
And Bertrand Russell, who asked her creepy questions about her sexual history. Her biographer, Lorene Hanley Duquin, writes, “Catherine did not like Bertrand Russell, whose relentless questions culminated with a direct query as to why Catherine refused to sleep with him. ‘Have you looked in the mirror lately?’ she replied.”
An article in the English newspaper the Catholic Herald from 1947 describes Wilfred Meynell as the “Grand Old Man of Catholic letters.” I know the name, because I read a lot about the century’s English Catholic writers, but I could tell you nothing about him. And I’m guessing that just by knowing the name I’m probably ahead of 46 out of 50 of my readers here.
But Meynell was once the grand old man to whose home “so many people go almost on pilgrimage.”
I’ve written a lot on the relations of divided Christians. My basic point in every article, as it was in my previous column, is that we are deeply divided and shouldn’t pretend otherwise, but we can still be close friends as well as allies.
This seems to me obvious. And the way most of us live. But the first upsets our chummier brethren and the second upsets our stricter brethren. They both seem to believe — this is the only explanation I can give — that differences must be divisive differences. The chummier want to deny the differences, the stricter want to drive them home. One wants a group hug, the other wants a bloodbath.
Neither thinks clearly about man. They see people as simple, unitary beings. In this case, that we are our beliefs. But we’re complex creatures, with parts or layers or aspects that don’t always go together perfectly. We’re not simply our beliefs. You can be better than your beliefs. Or worse.
We can hold apparently opposing commitments at the same time — partly because at some level we recognize they’re not actually opposing. Like thinking someone from another ecclesial tradition is really wrong, and should know better, but also that he’s a great guy, and in some ways we should be more like him.
Every time I write on this subject, I have to deal with the chummier and the stricter brethren. I’m not sure which I find more trying.
The African priest in residence celebrated and preached, my wife reported when she returned from Mass. I’ve only heard him preach once, and it was an exegetical homily of a quality I’ve rarely seen.
He said (her paraphrase): “Think of these four animals: the dog, the cat, the donkey, and the sheep. When you tell the first three to go home, they will go home. The sheep won’t, because they can’t, because they have such a poor spatial sense. They have to look to the shepherd to get home.” We are all, he said, sheep.
It’s a lovely illustration, but I’m not sure about the animals. The dog won’t go home until the shepherd goes home; the cat will say, “Screw you, I’m going to spend a week with the stupid people three miles down the road, pretending to be lost, so you worry yourself sick and waste hours looking for me”; and the donkey will go home because what else is he going to do?
But yes, the sheep will stay there staring at the shepherd with those dumb bewildered expressions, except for the ones who try to go home on their own and get lost and eaten by wolves. So, yeah, basically us. Except for those of us who are cats or donkeys, and the rare people who are dogs.
My wife tells me that a recent study shows that men who like cats are less likely to get a date. This relates to another news story with the headline, “Study finds atheists are more likely to own cats than Christians.”
Cause or effect? Do cats turn off women and turn men away from God? Or does having turned off women and turned away from God make you like cats?
In either case: Cats, a big sign that something is wrong.
Jews suffered less from the plague in the Middle Ages than did Gentiles. Christians seized on this as an excuse to steal their property and brutally attack them: The Jews must have poisoned the water or the air to kill all the Christians. The tiny Jewish minority survived a plague to suffer and die in a persecution.
Jews have explained this with “the Jewish cultural exceptionalism hypothesis,” write two historians in the Jewish Review of Books. The Jewish medievalist Norman Cantor, for example, credited practices like the “personal cleanliness, good housekeeping, and highly selective diets” Jewish law required. Others added their care for their sick. Wrong — cleanliness didn’t keep the fleas away — but understandable. Christians also like to claim godliness is good for you.
Paul Finkelman, the president of Gratz College, and Kathryn A. Glatter, a doctor, propose a different reason: Jews carried a particular disease to which their bodies reacted in a way that protected them against the plague. The Christians of the day couldn’t have understood this, but they should have understood “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill.”
It’s a sad historical irony: A condition that caused suffering saved some Jews from suffering, and that brought suffering to many Jews.
A rhetorical pattern common among Christians on the web, because the basic rule of web writing is that every bad thing must be someone’s fault, and you must make sure they know that: 1. There is a big, widely shared problem. 2. The source of that problem is another, individual problem. (Implicit: From which I do not suffer.) 3. Therefore, the way to eliminate the big problem is to eliminate the other problem. (Implicit: Which is easy to do.) 4. So just fix it, and you’ll be fine. (Implicit: If you’re not, it’s your own damn fault.) And sometimes, but not always, 5. Therefore, I don’t need to do anything for others I don’t want to do.
An example of 1-4 from a comment on a friend’s Facebook post about COVID: “It seems to hit obese people very badly. So: lesson learned. Start becoming leaner! There are so many helps out there these days that there really isn’t an excuse to remain so.” Obesity doesn’t work like that. But the commenter had a chance to blame people for a problem, and took it.
Recently, a friend and I went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus bookshop in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It’s a place of very old-timey Catholic piety. Loads of rosaries and holy cards and statues, with crucifixes and pietàs and sacred paintings all over, and books with unironic stories of miracles and “offer it up” piety. And run by women who believe it all. You feel like you’ve dropped into the 1950s.
The next day, my wife and I went to the wedding of our friends’ eldest daughter. It was a very formal Mass, using the ordinary form with a lot of Latin and chant, and quite lovely. The Mass and the homily made clear the radical commitment of marriage.
And I thought: Both of these move me, and convict me, and encourage me, and attract me to the Catholic faith. They express normative Catholicism. But what would make the average secular American have any interest in it? It just looks odd, like wearing clothes your ancestors wore a couple hundred years ago. Something you enjoy for weird reasons of your own, and on the edge of acceptable eccentricity, and nothing anyone else is going to do. It will look odd to them, unless they too believe it.
A word many of you will want to know: latibulate. It means to hide yourself in a corner, especially when you want to avoid people. When I mentioned this, Joe Long produced a poem:
Should I choose to latibulate,
Please leave me to my chosen fate;
Neither comfort nor remonstrate;
Just social distance, that’d be great.
It’s not that I’m disconsolate,
Nor burdened by a heavy weight —
I only wish to cogitate,
And my temper, recalibrate,
And thus once more forbear to sate
My strong urge to defenestrate.
I suspect this magazine has many compulsive latibulators among its readers.
It was like something from Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest or a François Mauriac novel. Our pastor missed the confessions scheduled before Mass, because a supply priest had not shown up for the earlier Mass at another church in our parish, and he’d had to take it. He said he would stay to hear confessions after Mass.
I was second in line, up the center aisle, nearest the door for anonymous confessions. The door for face-to-face confessions was next to the outside aisle. The line was longer than usual, a benefit of the priest changing the schedule. The woman in front of me was standing right next to the door, when the custom is to stand next to the back row, several feet away.
Unusually, another woman dodged into the face-to-face door from the outside aisle as soon as someone came out of the anonymous door. I have gone to confession there many, many times over the past 20 years, and never, ever, never has there been a second line down the outside aisle. People line up in the center aisle and then choose the door they want.
Another woman was standing in the outside aisle, obviously in line. The woman in front of me said to her, peevishly, “I’m next.” The woman in the outside aisle said, pugnaciously, “We always go back and forth,” waving her arms between our line and hers. She was inventing a custom that got her about five people ahead.
The woman in front of me repeated, almost hissing, “I’m next. I was here first. I’ve been waiting.” The woman on the outside aisle said, glaring, “I know. What do you think I’m doing?” She stood with her shoulders pulled back and her head thrust forward, and a scowl that would curdle milk.
A third woman said, loudly, and pointing at the woman in front of me, “Can you believe her? She’s acting like that! In church!” She laughed, also loudly, shaking her head widely from side to side to dramatize her astonishment.
The woman in front of me went in and came out a couple of minutes later. I did not move, but the woman on the outside aisle, glaring at me, almost dove for the door, yanked it open, and, while still glaring at me, shot inside.
A friend wrote worrying that she was failing her children as a mother. One child wouldn’t get over an illness, and the other had intractable diaper rash, which may not sound like much of a problem unless you’ve had a child with intractable diaper rash.
I wrote her: Speaking as a father remembering bygone days, everything in the culture conspires to tell you you’re failing. The world doesn’t work very well — diaper rash? who the hell invented that? — but that’s no excuse. The culture says: Whatever the problem is, it’s your fault. It’s advertisers selling products, it’s experts selling their books, it’s other parents selling their superiority, it’s your own insecurities selling themselves.
You win by fighting, not by beating every challenge right away, and you fight partly by drawing in allies. Some of them know stuff you don’t, and all of them know the problems aren’t your fault, because they’ve been there.
The culture adds a twist. The writer Rachel Lu, a mother of four, commented, “If you don’t fix the problem, you’re negligent. If you fix all the problems (or just too many), you’re helicoptering, and the kids will never learn resilience. It’s definitely a rigged game.”
As someone raised in let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom liberalism, the support among friends for Pope Francis’s Traditionis Custodes surprised me. A few had the tedious reaction of those for whom any concession to the past is a threat to their vision of Brave New Catholicism. Which is Brave New White-haired Catholicism, but okay.
Many believe the Latin Massers are a grave threat to the unity of the Church. The claim usually depends on a simple, sweeping declaration of what traditionalism “is,” and what it is, is bad. Distinctions and gradations are not allowed. It’s bad, and bad in every way.
Francis and his supporters pointed to the angry traditionalists as a reason for suppressing the Latin Mass. But eccentric groups always include angry people. They may be angry because the mainstream marginalized them, or they may have joined the eccentrics as an excuse to be angry. The reasons for their marginalization will mix faults on all sides. That’s the way the world works, and you don’t fix it by marginalizing or excluding the eccentric. Especially when you otherwise stress the importance of listening to and accompanying others.
Everyone has eccentrics they want to include. Conservative Catholics have their eccentrics (the traddies), and liberal Catholics have theirs (the dissenters). Some of those dissenters are just as angry as the angriest traddies. Fair is fair. You want to make sure the Church extends her invitation as far as possible to your eccentrics, you ought to make sure she extends the invitation as far as possible to someone else’s.
Especially surprising was the number who explained the need to suppress the old Mass by complaining that traddies judged them as being poor, inferior, or fake Catholics. All I can think is: How old are you? Are you in middle school? And you care what they think about you because…why?
Reader Mirta Rubalcava sends this story. Fr. Nnamdiogo Jude Ebem, a Claretian from Nigeria, served her parish when they didn’t have a pastor. “One day, as we were waiting for a funeral home to arrive with a body, I told Father, ‘It’s a small funeral.’ There were not many people inside for Mass. He looked at me and said, ‘There are no small funerals.’”
She continues: “I knew instantly what he meant, and I was embarrassed. What was small was my observation. I was slighting what we were there for — however many were present — a Catholic’s central act of worship in thanksgiving and gratitude to God for His Son’s sacrifice that saved mankind. BIG. It is the Church’s loving prayer and send off to our eternal home. BIG.”
Father, only 47, died in his sleep of a heart attack at the end of April. Six Claretian priests celebrated his funeral Mass in an empty church, while his friends and family had to watch online. “The mass was beautiful,” she wrote. “And BIG.”
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