Monday, August 31, 2009

I’ve travelled through time... tell you about this xkcd cartoon.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Skip This If You Don’t Care What I Think About the Health Care Debate

Of course I don’t really want to spend a lot of time talking about the American health care debate, but I can’t resist putting in my two cents’ worth. I’ll try to keep it brief.

First, let’s stipulate that our present system is a mess from almost any point of view, and is in serious need of far-reaching reform. But let’s also stipulate that merely calling something a reform does not mean it will be an improvement. I hear people say “anything would be better than what we have,” which is an extremely foolish thing to say, and I hope my judgment on it will not have to be proven by experiment.

One of the wisest things anyone has said on this subject appeared some years ago as a letter to the editor in National Review. I can’t remember exactly when it was, so I couldn’t easily find it even if I had access to the back issues, but I think it was at least four or five and less than ten years ago. It was from a Dane, perhaps a physician himself though I can’t remember for sure.

It’s a frequent tactic in the U.S. debate to refer to Scandinavia for examples of government-run health care systems that work very well. And this man agreed that the Danish system does in fact work well, and that he is very happy with it.

But he went on to say that such a system would never work in the U.S. Denmark, he said, is a small, homogeneous, unified country where most people have a very strong sense of responsibility and discipline, while the United States is a large and undisciplined country and includes far too many people who would see the system only as something to be exploited. And I don’t mean only the sort of shiftless people who always exploit welfare, social security, etc. as recipients—I mean doctors, lawyers, corporations, and bureaucrats who would approach the system as vultures would approach a big dead pig, and probably be much greater abusers, in terms of sheer dollars, than the mere dishonest recipients. The safeguards required to protect us from fraud would make an already complex system even more so.

Another comment that’s remained with me for years now is one I heard in the early ‘90s, when Hillary Clinton’s plan was being debated. In a Catholic forum on one of the pre-web online services, there was a woman, a lawyer, who was vigorously promoting the plan. Much of her law practice was devoted to health-care consulting. There is something wrong with a system so complicated and regulation-ridden that such consulting is required, and something even more wrong about making it more so. Yet that was what she expected, and she quite liked the idea. Someone asked her, finally, how the new plan would affect her business, and she admitted that she would do quite well out of it. She saw nothing at all wrong with her intention to be, in essence, a parasite on the system, providing no health care to anyone, only helping them navigate a labyrinth which she helped to construct and could spend all her time studying.

And she was relatively scrupulous. We live in a country where the Secretary of the Treasury, Tax Collector in Chief for the nation, was caught evading taxes.

We live in a country in which the whole concept of “citizen” is disappearing. We have many, many people who feel no personal stake in or responsibility for the nation as a whole. We have three major ethnic groups (African, Mexican, and European) who dislike and mistrust each other. We have two large socio-political factions (broadly if inaccurately labeled “liberal” and “conservative”) who hate each other with an intensity approaching violence. We have a very powerful and very rich central government which is the object of constant manipulation by thousands of people paid very well to direct that power and wealth toward specific organizations, commercial and otherwise.

To attempt to impose a single national system on the whole country is folly. And I don’t mean just the euphemistically-named “single payer” system, but any system which is managed by the government. Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

Yes, there is a lot of misinformation and hysteria among the opponents of the plan. Yet they differ from the president himself more in their tone than in their degree of error. Mr. Obama’s declaration that what he proposes will provide better care for less money is simply a fantasy (assuming he really believes it) which few take seriously. For twenty years and more we’ve been told that Social Security and Medicare are heading for the financial rocks. Mr. Obama’s assertion that we can painlessly add universal health care to that burden has been shot down by no less an authority than the Congressional Budget Office.

What should we do instead? Well, I have no detailed plan, but I can see a more productive direction. The craziest thing about our system is the assumption that one’s employer pays for one’s health insurance. That connection desperately needs to be broken. I’ve read that it’s a consequence of wage controls implemented after World War II—employers who wished to pay their people higher wages started paying for their health insurance instead. The result is a testimony to the power of unintended consequences, and one of those things that only seems reasonable because we’re so used to it. No one expects his employer to buy his house, or his food, or his car, or to pay for the education of his children. We should be aiming for a situation where most people, people of normal means, purchase their own health insurance, just as they purchase their own house, auto, and life insurance, and those who can’t afford it are assisted.

We are indeed an undisciplined people, but we are also an enterprising one, and we are very good at finding clever solutions to practical problems. We need an approach that, while making sure that everyone has access to some reasonable and decent level of medical care, works with rather than against the temperament and gifts of the American people, does not dig our national financial hole far deeper, and does not exacerbate our internal tensions.

To that end, if you’re interested enough to read further, please take a look at this post by John Schwenkler at Upturned Earth, which provides some more specific diagnoses and solutions. I have not read the long piece to which he links and which is the basis of his post, but I plan to. I can only think about this stuff for so long at one time.

A Theological Question

Does it make sense, or do any good, to offer up for other people pain which is a direct result of your own sins or mistakes? I figure it can’t hurt, but I wonder what an informed theological view of the question would be.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Crooked Still

Clare recently introduced me to this terrific folk group, and their album Shaken By A Low Sound is my current favorite music. They can be described very broadly as bluegrass, but with a twist, and their repertoire includes very un-bluegrass folk material such as Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” The singer sounds somewhat like Allison Krauss—she has a relatively soft, unstrained, breathy voice, not traditionally country at all, but very beautiful and expressive. The instrumentation includes a cello—and on this album at least, no guitar. They don’t really venture all that far from traditional folk styles, but yet their approach is strikingly distinctive. Here is a live performance of a song from Shaken By A Low Sound, “Ain’t No Grave”:

Aside from her marvelous singing, I love the singer’s unpretentious and down-to-earth stage manner. There are a number of live clips on YouTube, and it appears that dressing oddly was a constant with the cellist. Clare tells me he has now left the band, which must have been a great loss, but they are continuing. You can hear samples from the album here. They have one or two others that I haven’t heard. I find it hard to imagine anyone who likes American folk music not being really taken with this.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Note on Ted Kennedy

I’ve run across several tributes from people on the political right who knew Kennedy personally and have very good things to say about him as a man and a friend. Here are a few:

Cal Thomas

David Frum

And Kathryn Lopez of National Review Online describes seeing him often at daily Mass.

And then there was the news story back in July revealing that when President Obama visited the pope he hand-delivered a lengthy letter to from the senator to Benedict. Perhaps Kennedy was genuinely penitent about his rather well-known personal failings. And I’ve always believed that the way we treat the people close to us and the people we meet every day is a far better indicator of character and virtue than any of our big ideas, especially political ones. R.I.P.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy, R.I.P.

What do you say upon the death of someone whom you neither admired nor respected? In general simple silence is in order. And in general I don’t feel the impulse to comment on the death of a prominent person merely because he or she was prominent, only if his or her position and career seem of special significance.

That is the case with Senator Kennedy. His death is an important public event. He was not only very prominent, but very influential, and in my opinion that influence was more harmful than not. And he has been an especially irritating presence to me, as to many Catholics, because he was so very publicly Catholic. Some of those who fought him politically liked and respected him personally, and that speaks well of him, but I can only view him as a public man. I won’t speak any further ill of him, but neither will I pretend to mourn.

In time all our controversies will belong to another world, a world we will have left behind, and who can say what their  relationship, and ours, will then be to this one? And even within this world they will become historical, no longer of practical moment, long since resolved for better or worse, spoken of as Eliot spoke of the English civil war in Four Quartets:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.

Senator Kennedy is of that party now, though our war is not over, and what God’s view of his role may be is not for me to conjecture. I hope he will receive the same mercy that I hope to receive: Lord, have mercy on him and on us all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Lucky Day

We’ve arrived again at my favorite part of the lunar cycle: the waxing crescent, approaching the half. This means that for the next several days when I take the dogs for their last walk around 10 or 11pm, I’ll see the moon in the western sky, over the water. Then for some days after that I’ll have the light of the full or nearly full moon, though it won’t be over the water at the time I’m usually out.

Yesterday, despite having been a somewhat difficult one at work, seems to have been a lucky day for me after all. I arrived at the water’s edge just in time to see the moon about 15 degrees or so above the horizon, and glowing a very strange and bright pink-orange. There was a low bank of clouds on the horizon. As I watched, the moon sank into these clouds, vanishing from the bottom up. The crescent was almost vertical, so that when it was about half-gone it looked like a candle flame. The whole show lasted no more than a minute. Like I said, a lucky day.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

Superficially this novel seems a domestic drama of the sort that I would not ordinarily find very interesting. To summarize the bare facts of the narrative would make it sound as if nothing much happens: a family buys a house, and various troubled relationships in and around the family and its new home arrive at some degree of resolution. Normally that sort of novel is not my cup of tea—not at all. But a narrative summary does not begin to do justice to the richness of the novel’s vision.

I could begin to describe the difference between this and the typical naturalistic novel of manners by saying that this is a thoroughly Christian work, but even that does not do it justice. In fact such a description is an injustice, because it suggests that “Christianity” is present in the novel in the form of an idea, as a more or less abstract answer to various moral and philosophical questions posed by the narrative.

It would be better to say that everything in it is suffused with and transfigured by the presence of God, and that the plot is a working-out of God’s providence. Not all the characters are conscious of this, but all are caught up in it.

Two comparisons occur to me, and both seem superficially unlikely, but both illuminate the way Pilgrim’s Inn transcends the limits of what appears at first to be its genre. First, some of the films of Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries, for instance, or Autumn Sonata. The work of the atheist Bergman may seem an odd comparison to that of the Christian Goudge, but it presents itself to me because I’ve often thought that by my usual tastes I shouldn’t like certain of Bergman’s films, because they are exactly the sort of nothing-much-happens study of family relationships that usually makes me impatient, and maybe downright uncomfortable. But the work of both Bergman and Goudge is distinguished from these, and made fascinating, by the way they reach down into the depths. The human relationships are not only that; they have powerful spiritual and philosophical implications. A story like Wild Strawberries, for instance, deals not only with the problem of an old man’s relationships with his son, his daughter-in-law, and his dead wife, but with the question Is there mercy?

The other comparison is to Charles Williams. At first glance the two, Goudge and Williams, could hardly seem more different. Williams is often dark in both the literal and symbolic senses in a way that Goudge is not, and he is often obscure in every sense, while Goudge is lucid. It is, for instance, not always easy, and sometimes not even possible, to see what Williams is describing—I mean at the fundamental level of forming a mental picture of a scene or an action. Goudge, in contrast, presents a skillful and detailed visual rendering of everything. This in fact becomes for me almost a fault: due to some defect in the way my mind works, I find it very difficult to form a clear visual image from a verbal description, and often it seems that the more elaborate and detailed the description, the less clear my image. I still do not have a good visual grasp of the two houses and their surrounding landscape which form such an important part of this book. Nevertheless, the descriptions have their effect in producing a sense of a rich and beautiful environment, both in its natural and man-made aspects.

The similarity to Williams lies on a deeper level. Principally it’s the sense, first, that the natural and the supernatural are not really separated from each other and are in constant interaction. And second, that the universe, in both its physical and material aspects, is what Christian thought conceives it to be. This is another way of approaching what I said earlier about the presence of God in the work. The operations of the individual soul and of the world and of God’s providence are represented as Christian in as natural a way as physical events are Newtonian in any novel; in both cases laws, spiritual in the one case and physical in the other, govern implicitly, and need not be much remarked upon. It is hard to see how anyone could enjoy this book without at least grasping the idea of the Christian God. (I am sure it is possible, and is in fact done, just as people frequently miss the essence of Flannery O’Connor’s work; I just can’t quite understand how.)

This Christianity is of a very English sort. Goudge seems to have been some sort of Anglo-Catholic. Someone in Pilgrim’s Inn refers to “Henry VII of detested memory” or something of that sort. And one of the most admirable characters in it is a clergyman, affiliation unstated but presumably Church of England. It is the sort of Anglicanism that could hold C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, despite their Catholic leanings, and which I suppose is now approaching extinction. Also approaching extinction, if one can trust what one reads from people like Theodore Dalrymple and Peter Hitchens, is the sort of England, especially the rural England, that Goudge clearly knew and loved deeply. I suppose those who hated and have sought to destroy that England would say she sentimentalized it, and that it was always the nasty and oppressive place portrayed in, for instance, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Well, I’m in no position to judge, but if England was once anything like Goudge’s picture, and if it really is gone or almost gone, it’s the world’s loss.

Returning to the Williams connection: in both authors, love is a real thing, a sort of force or substance comparable to a physical force or substance. It is not an emotion—it produces emotion, but is not identical with it. It is the essential element of the world of the spirit and has its own laws of action and reaction just as the physical world does. A love which is not returned is not, as we might think of it, a useless fit of passion something like what happens when one stubs a toe on a rock and breaks out in useless curses. When someone loves, something has happened, an event, which, like a rock thrown into a pool, will have an effect. And this is true no matter how the love is received, or even if it is kept completely secret and leads to no external action. Love is God’s word, and it does not return to him in vain.

Some would say that Pilgrim’s Inn is sentimental, that all the difficulties work out too neatly. And on the naturalistic level there is some justification for that complaint. But it misses the essence, which is the promise that this is, in the end, how the world works. Just as the strands of troubled lives are gathered together for the good, though temporarily and incompletely, in the novel, so they will be gathered for the good permanently and completely in God’s reality—will be, and are being.

Contrary to first impression, then, this is in fact less a naturalistic novel than a romance, not in the contemporary sense of being a love story—thought it includes several of those—but in the older sense of being a tale of adventure and marvels in which the hero passes through many difficulties but wins some sort of victory or at least comes to some sort of non-tragic resolution. The Odyssey is an early and excellent example. (One difference here is that there is no single hero, no real main character at all. Some characters are given more attention than others, but there is no central person or couple, but rather a central family.) Pilgrim’s Inn may indeed be the novel of manners it first appears to be, but it is not a realistic or naturalistic one. It might be called a novel of supernatural manners.

There is much, much more to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on any of its beautiful specifics, which means I haven’t really given you any very concrete sense of what it’s like. But that’s all I have time for today. I’m very much indebted to Janet Cupo for introducing me to this wonderful writer.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cat Among Books

This picture struck me not for any aesthetic merit but for the reflection provoked by the juxtaposition of the cat and these particular books. It was not arranged; Meme just happened to be sleeping there.

On one side of the cat, a novel by my favorite mystery writer (and one of my favorite writers, period), Ross Macdonald: an image of the problem of death. On the other side, a recent issue of Magnificat: an image of the answer to the problem of death. And in the middle, serenely indifferent to both, the animal.

And outside the picture, but responsible for creating it, and conscious of everything in it, mind working unceasingly on the questions they raise, the man.

Underneath the Magnificat, by the way, is a novel that very much belongs on that side of the picture, Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn, of which I plan to say more soon.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Comprehensively Misinterpreting Jane

I was going through and mostly discarding old magazines a week or so ago and discovered that I had completely missed the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. It contains an excellent piece by Eleanor Bourg Donlon about Becoming Jane, the fictionalized biographic film about Jane Austen that we were discussing here a week or two ago (actually, looking back at that discussion, I see most of it was about the other movies mentioned in that post). As I suspected, devoted Austen fans, those who understand her best, are even more negative toward the movie than I was:

Becoming Jane could be taken as an innocent fiction, but why was such a film made in the first place? The answer is that it is the latest in a long line of comprehensive misinterpretations of Austen classics established upon the premise that unless Jane Austen experienced adolescent passion and rebelled against traditional authorities, she was not a “real” woman.

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Zombie Update - New Research Findings

Outbreaks of zombieism modelled as an infectious disease, with rather dire outcomes a real possibility. (Warning: there’s a rather gruesome photo with that story.) The gratitude of an anxious world goes to Dr. Robert Smith? of the University of Ottawa for bringing attention to this menace. (The question mark is part of his name.) The question now, of course, is whether the proper authorities will act. You can read the entire paper here. (Hat tip to Jesse Canterbury.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Glimpse

It seems almost as if there were some equality among things, some balance in all possible contingencies which we are not permitted to know lest we should learn indifference to good and evil, but which is sometimes shown to us for an instant as a last aid in our last agony.


This is an intuition I’ve had a number of times, without having to wait for my last agony. It’s an idea I’ve been uneasy about entertaining. It’s an implication that can be drawn from many Christian sources, beginning with Genesis 50:20: “ meant it for evil, but God meant it for good...” I don’t dare say it to someone who is suffering deeply, because of its suggestion that this had to happen, or that it’s really ok that it happened, and because it can seem so cheap when offered by the one who is not suffering. But I silently hope it will come to them.

Taken wrongly when offered to another, it could seem callous; taken wrongly in one’s own heart it could lead, as Chesterton says, to a loss of the sense that good and evil really matter—if God is going to bring it all right anyway, why should we trouble ourselves? But that’s the trap of the superficially logical. “It must be that offenses come, but woe to him by whom they come.”

It may be the same thing Julian of Norwich heard, and Eliot quoted in Four Quartets, and on which I lean very heavily: “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Saturday, August 15, 2009

As I was saying about Woodstock...

It just wasn’t that big a deal in itself. The real story is the power of the myth. And as for a connection between Woodstock and Obama being elected: well, there really isn’t one. The civil rights movement and late ‘60s pop festivals had nothing much to do with each other, except perhaps that both were part of a broad social upheaval. Sure, there are plenty of ex-hippies who would like to think that their self-indulgence gains moral stature from the fact that they were also pro-civil-rights, but, apart from the very few who were active in it, that hardly entitles them to claim any sort of active responsibility for the movement. Most were too young, anyway, and very far from the action. (Thanks to Will for pointing me to this story.)

Friday, August 14, 2009


Exasperated 180-pound man to defiant 12-pound dog straining at leash, with all four legs locked in resistance:

“Look, you are not the alpha male here. I am.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five Movies


U.S. Catholics, at least, will recall a lot of fuss about this film when it came out in 2007. It was adopted and pushed by pro-life groups who may have done it some harm: they pushed it so hard, buying up whole showings of it etc., that they gave people the impression that it was just a message film. And of course some mainstream reviewers disliked it because of that pro-life slant, and probably many of them reacted to the pro-life push; outside of neo-Nazis and the like, there is no political group more hated by the liberal media.

Anyway, I certainly ended up with the impression that it was a well-intentioned message movie and probably not very good. My wife saw it and said it was pretty good, though she didn’t seem overly enthusiastic. But either she wanted to see it again or she wanted me to see it, because she put it on our Netflix list.

My verdict: it’s not a great movie, but it’s worth seeing. Yes, it’s sentimental, but it’s not shallow, which is the same way I would describe It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s not in that class, but as with Wonderful Life, you could say it’s a heartwarming feel-good movie that yet is willing to look into the abyss.

Here are two reviews from Catholic critics: Barb Nicolosi, who didn’t like it, and Steven Greydanus, who did. I think Nicolosi is overly harsh, by the way.

Becoming Jane & The Jane Austen Book Club

I was not especially enthusiastic about either of these, but I mention them because serious Jane Austen fans might find them interesting. But then they probably didn’t need me to tell them about them. The first is a heavily fictionalized biography of Austen herself. It’s not bad, but I doubt it has that much to do with Jane Austen, either. Anne Hathaway is a good actress but she’s the wrong person to play Jane Austen. I question whether any American actress under 40 can play any role without at least occasionally falling into Huffy American Girl mannerisms. I’ve talked to at least one serious JA fan who couldn’t stand it.

The other one is about a group of women who form a Jane Austen reading group and read all her novels, which are juxtaposed with their personal (i.e. romantic) lives. I don’t think it’s anything special, but I was not bored, as I had feared I might be. Many or most women would probably find it very enjoyable, and it manages not to completely twist Austen into contemporary positions that would have appalled and repulsed her. In fact Austen rescues one of the women from a tempting disaster.

A Simple Plan

One winter day in rural Minnesota, three men chase a dog into the woods and find a wrecked airplane, its dead pilot, and a large amount of money. They decide to keep the money. Things go downhill. This is as compelling a portrait of the power of evil as I’ve ever seen. You should see it, but I should warn you that it’s painful to watch, not because of the violence, of which there is some, but because of the tension. It’s brilliant, but it’s not a movie to relax with.

The Road Home

Apparently one can assume that Zhang Yimou’s name on a film means that it is, if nothing else, visually beautiful. This is a very simple story, told with heartbreaking beauty (visually and dramatically). Really, I’m getting slightly teary-eyed just thinking about it. A young man is called home to his rural Chinese village upon the sudden death of his father. He tells the story of his parents’ courtship in a series of flashbacks. That’s it. I could probably watch it a dozen times.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Mike Seeger, R.I.P.

I got in the car yesterday and turned on the radio, which was tuned to the local public radio station, and heard someone talking about Mike Seeger. Gradually it dawned on me that the speaker was using the past tense, and that I was listening to an obituary. When I got home I looked around on the web and saw no mention of Seeger’s death until I went to his Wikipedia entry: he died of cancer this past Friday night.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the media at large don’t find him worthy of notice. But I do. Mike Seeger was, I think, the most substantial musician of the Seeger family. Pete has been important more as an organizer and discoverer and promotoer. (Mike was also less tiresomely propagandistic.) I’ve never really heard that much of his work, and yet it has had an influence on me. When I was a teenager and discovering real folk music, moving from groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Highwaymen to the artists who lay behind them, I was given, by my Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Libby who had an interest in this music very atypical for the time and place, a four-disc folk music anthology issued by the Vanguard label. At the time Vanguard was the home of some of the top folk and quasi-folk artists, and there was a lot of wonderful music in that box. Much of it became part of my soul, including two tracks by Mike Seeger, “Little Moses” and “Young McAfee on the Gallows.” I didn’t like them at first. They were too rough and stark. They didn’t sound like what I thought of as folk music but more like what sophisticated people called hillbilly music, which I thought I didn’t like. But of course hillbilly music was folk music. Those two tracks grew on me, and I came to love them.

For some reason I’ve never gotten around to hearing more of Seeger’s music. Among those reasons, I suppose, are that it’s never been widely available, but perhaps more important was the fact that I tended to bypass people like him, who came to this music from outside its native time, place, and culture, and to go for the originals.

But I think that may be unfair to Mike Seeger, because I don’t think he was merely an imitator. He let himself be shaped by the music, and in turn shaped it, so that his work became not just an imitation but a continuation. That is a sort of hypothesis, based on my memory of what those two tracks actually sounded like—I’ve not listened to that anthology for some years—and of what others have said about his work. I believe I will test the hypothesis and buy something by him.

At any rate, I thank and honor this man who made the living preservation of this music his life’s work.

Here is one of the few obituaries I’ve seen; it gives a good overview of his life and of what he meant to American folk music. I’d like to see that film about the New Lost City Ramblers.

Here he is singing that standby of pop-folk, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”; notice how subtly different the phrasing is from the more slicked-up sort of thing most of us have heard.


On Caritas in Veritate

I’ve been fiddling with this post for ten days or so now. One reason for the delay is that the topic is really too big for a blog post. Re-reading the encyclical, marking passages, and making notes, I realized that I needed to scale back my intended commentary quite a bit. The thing is just too big and complex, and covers too much ground, for me to go into much detail about it in less than, say, 15 or 20% of its 30,000 words. So I’m going to try to make just a few broad points.

And for another thing, the fact is that social and political and economic affairs are not high on the list of things I’m interested in these days, and frankly I had to more or less force myself to carry out my stated intention of commenting on Caritas in Veritate.

So I don’t want anyone to take this as any sort of summary or in the least bit a substitute for reading the encyclical itself, or even to think that I’ve covered its major points, because I haven’t. You can only get it all that by reading it, which I recommend that you do. This is only an account of what I find most interesting and significant in it.

To get the negatives out of the way first: CiV has been criticized from both sides of the American political-religious spectrum for being poorly written. The critics have a point. George Weigel had at least a half-point in saying that it seems the work of two different hands. As I noted a few days ago, there are passages of lucid and piercing insight of the sort familiar to anyone who has read much at all of Benedict’s writings, including (or especially) his pre-papal ones. And there are passages that are…not lucid and piercing. In general, it seems that the more the encyclical approaches advice about specific situations, the more clumsy it seems, the more it seems to take on a sort of ponderous bureaucratic tone, a tone of some authority but insufficient and of the wrong kind, the authority of a committee rather than a magisterium

By way of illustration, I’ll insert something I said in a comment a few days ago:

“ tourism often follows a consumerist and hedonistic pattern, as a form of escapism planned in a manner typical of the countries of origin, and therefore not conducive to authentic encounter between persons and cultures. We need, therefore, to develop a different type of tourism that has the ability to promote genuine mutual understanding, without taking away from the element of rest and healthy recreation. Tourism of this type needs to increase, partly through closer coordination with the experience gained from international cooperation and enterprise for development.”

This lends credence to the suggestion that the pope simply included too much. The quoted passage is certainly good counsel, and it isn’t as far out of the way as it may seem in isolation, because the topic is the positive and negative aspects of globalization, but this sort of thing does make the document longer and duller than it might have been, and reports to that effect may be discouraging people from reading it, even (or especially?) those who make the attempt.

There is so much here that the world so badly needs to hear, that it’s a shame to have its impact blunted. The sentences I quoted are preceded by a denunciation of “sex tourism,” in which people from the wealthier nations go to places like Thailand and pay for sometimes thoroughly perverted sexual practices. But that, too, is denounced in the same colorless and detached way.

But on to the good stuff: one of the marginal notes I made on my first reading was a Christian theory of progress. And I think that’s a good thumbnail description of the encyclical. There are a good many superficial and even mindless notions of progress around: notions that any and all technological progress is always good, notions that any and all elimination of traditional moral limits is always good, and the like.

In response to these, the pope is not reactionary or merely negative. He doesn’t deny that real progress is possible, and has been achieved. He does not denounce the modern world in toto. But he calls attention, urgent attention, to the areas in which progress has been incomplete or false. And his call is not so much for mankind to embrace the Church directly as for it to listen to its own best instincts. As far as I remember he doesn’t use the phrase “natural law,” but that’s what he’s talking about. He appeals to the world to assent to what is written in every heart, though often denied: that we did not create ourselves or the world, that we are more than our bodies and our appetites, that we owe to each other what we ourselves expect, that justice is a moral imperative binding on everyone, that the human race is fundamentally one before it is an assemblage of nations and cultures,.

So un-reactionary is the encyclical, in fact, that one striking feature is its complete acceptance of certain fundamentals of the modern world, things having to do with material progress and the expansion of liberty: technology, science, the enterprise economy[1], democracy. It considers these to be basically good things, and is concerned that they be guided and corrected and that their fruits be widely distributed. It insists on a conception of progress articulated by Paul VI and repeated several times here: “the development of each man and of the whole man”—this is the Christian theory of progress I mentioned.

The acceptance is far from uncritical, of course; in fact, to put it that way is an understatement. The pope is deeply concerned about the dangers of inadequate or misguided development which is often the result of a misapplication of some advance. He is concerned, for instance, about ideologies which would consider the workings of the market and of technology to be properly beyond the reach of ethics, and any product produced by them acceptable, as long as it is produced freely. He is concerned about the imposition on some societies of a sort of unofficial practical atheism, which practically forbids the application of ethical principles to social and technical questions if they can be shown to have any foundation in religion. He is of course concerned about what we generally call the “life issues,” and links them directly to questions of material welfare. (Somewhat to my surprise, he says relatively little about the link between poverty and the collapse of marriage.)

In short, he is insistent that any development which purports to be for the benefit of mankind must be grounded in the truth about mankind, including acknowledgment of the fact—the pope does not hold this to be a matter for debate—that man is more than a material being. This is charity in truth. The progressive impulse, no matter whether its details are of a “left” or a “right” slant, leads inevitably to some form of abuse, and to a deformed sort of development, if it is ungrounded in and unbounded by truth.

Not everyone agrees that commercial and industrial development as we know them are in fact good things. Those who find themselves fundamentally at odds with the modern world (and with whom I have some sympathy) will not find much here to support their view. There is in fact a direct rebuke to those who deplore all or most development. Agrarians and distributists will not find much direct support for their ideas—but yet there is plenty of room for them. For this document challenges everyone, of any political persuasion, to consider new ways of approaching problems in the light of those two words that appear in the title and over and over again in the text.

And that’s where the door is very much open for, say, distributism, which in my opinion has much to commend it as a means of implementing the balance of liberty and restraint which the encyclical carefully maintains. The pope is clearly impatient with the static conception of balancing big corporations against big government that occupies so much of our political debate (in this country, at least). Cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises would seem to be among the things he is thinking of when he speaks of new models of business that are not driven purely for the short-term profit of investors otherwise unconnected with the enterprise.

Much of the initial reaction to the encyclical, at least in this country, took the form of a predictable struggle by the political right and the political left to seize it as a weapon with which to beat each other. Within hours of its release, liberals and conservatives were mining it for quotes which would justify their political goals.

This is not only false to the details of the encyclical, which include much to discomfit both parties, but, in my opinion, to its fundamental stance, which is less to assert specific policies than to insist, over and over and over again, that everything pertaining to development must pass the tests of charity and truth. And this is nothing less than the fundamental address of the Church to the World which has been consistent from the very beginning: that the World has and should have a liberty which is proper to it, but that its liberty is bounded by the laws of God.

Instead of the Catholic right and left looking for approval of their favored ideas (and disapproval of the other side’s), each should embrace the imperative that everything, both existing and proposed, be judged according to its impact on the common good. And the common good must be defined as broadly as possible: again, “the development of each man and of the whole man.” Development  that leaves out some people is inadequate; development that leaves out the spiritual or disregards the ethical is inadequate and often pernicious.

Rather than combing the encyclical for weapons to be wielded against political enemies, each side should permit itself to be challenged and purified by its demands. On a matter such as, for instance, reform of the U.S. health care system, there is no single obviously correct Catholic answer. But there is an obviously correct way of asking the question: how can we make health care available to everyone who needs it?

I don’t mean to say that there are no fairly specific recommendations here, and some fairly obvious conclusions to be drawn from some of the principles. Some are commonplace, almost platitudinous, some controversial. But these to me are less important than the fundamental attitude for which the encyclical calls, an attitude that is not content with a mechanical approach to problems, or with a superficial view of progress that leaves out the things that make progress worthwhile. If this basic approach could be widely shared, I have no doubt that a wealth of creative and effective approaches to our problems would follow. This is the job of the laity: to take the principles laid down by the Magisterium and figure out ways of implementing them.

I’ll balance my earlier inclusion of a dull passage from the encyclical with a finer one. It’s the closing paragraph of the first chapter, and unlike the passage about tourism it does sound like Benedict, and seems to delineate his view of the fundamental relationship between theology and social questions (the emphasis in the last sentence is mine):

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.” She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation. Without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and sceptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values—sometimes even the meanings—with which to judge and direct it. Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church's social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life patterns of the society of peoples and nations.

I’ve left off the footnotes. This 50-page document has 159 of them.

I’ve made no attempt to survey systematically or thoroughly the various reactions and commentaries to the encyclical. But here are links to some that I think are useful and/or encouraging. The first two, by Tobias Danna and Joe Hargrave, are from young Catholics who are approaching these questions with a refreshing lack of regard for our standard partisan battle lines, and with precisely the sense of commitment to the essential effort and attitude commended by Benedict that I see as being the essence of the encyclical. I don’t necessarily agree with every detail of what they say; for instance, I wouldn’t characterize, as Toby does, the American bishops overall as “right wing.” But they are pointing us in the way we need to go.

Joe Hargrave: A New Conservatism (at Inside Catholic).

Tobias Danna: Catholic and American, but Catholic Completely in Charitable Contradiction (at his blog, which regrettably he is discontinuing).

And here’s one, in a more practical and specific vein, from John Médaille at Front Porch Republic: Benedict on Business: What’s Love Got to Do With it? What I like especially about John’s piece is that he confronts at the practical level the prevailing assumption that we must choose between MegaCorp and MegaGov (or, if not choose, expect nothing more than to balance them against each other) with the former falsely held to represent enterprise and liberty and the latter falsely held to represent community and solidarity.

[1] I’ve been trying to think of a term other than “capitalism,” “the market,” “the free market,” etc. to describe the economies of the industrialized nations. The usual terms are not only often vaguely defined at best (there are few if any completely free markets) but loaded with assocations that are positive for some and negative for others. This seems to me preferable.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Bulletin: The Office Is Hilarious

Will has been recommending this to me for a while, and I finally watched the first two episodes (streamed from Netflix). I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard. I had to pause it several times until I finished laughing, so I wouldn’t miss anything. My only reservation is that the crazy and egotistical boss, who isn’t really malicious but is a running human-relations disaster, is sometimes almost too painful to watch.

I suppose most people have seen it, but if you haven’t, and you have seen the movie Office Space, you’ll like this—the situation and general style are pretty similar.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Last Words of Elizabeth Goudge’s Father

Dear one, it is loving that matters.

(from a biography found at


Monday, August 03, 2009

Pre-emptive Strike Against Woodstock Nostalgia

I discovered yesterday that writing a fairly short piece about Caritas in Veritate was more difficult than I thought, and though I spent a while on it I haven’t finished it. In the meantime, I want to get this off my chest.

The 40th anniversary of Woodstock arrives in a couple of weeks, and I’m already seeing signs that, as on every ten-year anniversary since the original event, a vast number of false and silly things are about to be said. Aging left-wing baby-boomers will once again tell us how wonderful they were when they were young, and how the world really hasn’t lived up to their expectations, pundits will talk about how it transformed society, and younger people will believe the myth of a shining moment when the chains of the dead past were cast off for a while, giving us a glimpse of the happy world we could have if we all weren’t so repressed.

That’s mostly hype. Let me tell you what Woodstock really meant. If you want to make it the marker for a significant social transition—a questionable practice, but if you want to—call it the flowering of pure consumerist culture, the symbolic victory of self-indulgent materialism over all traditional commitments.

The crucial thing to remember as you read the sentimental rhapsodies is that it was a business venture. Here’s what I said to Rod Dreher about it several years ago, when he did an email interview with me for his book Crunchy Cons. Dreher asked me to “Explain why industrial capitalism and conventional left-wing bohemianism are two sides of the same coin, both worth rejecting.” To which I replied:

Here’s one good illustration: Woodstock (the original 1969 event). Left-wing bohemianism still looks back on that with a sort of Bastille Day reverence. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about it that was objectionable to industrial capitalism. A really hard-headed businessman would recognize that, even if he had personal reservations about some of the behavior of the customers. It was the very acme of consumerism. You had several hundred thousand people willingly reducing themselves to a condition of infantile dependence and passivity in the expectation that competent adults would take care of their physical needs. It was that, not so much the drugs and sex, that was disgusting and even frightening about it. I think of the Eloi and Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine—the Eloi are these pretty, sweet, stupid creatures who frolic on the surface, while the Morlocks live underground and do all the work necessary to feed and clothe the Eloi. The catch is, the Eloi are also the Morlocks’ food supply.

In short, capitalism (in practice) and conventional left-wing bohemianism agree that the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The bohemian wants his desires satisfied; the capitalist wants to make money by satisfying these desires; it’s a perfect match. And in practice these are not mutually exclusive categories—any individual may switch at a moment’s notice from the one role to the other as needed.

A couple of points I’d like to add to that:

1) To a great but almost entirely unrecognized degree, the present mythic status of Woodstock is a media creation, and has been from the beginning. I was in college at the time, and my roommate actually went to Woodstock. He didn’t consider it that big a deal, apart perhaps from the sheer size of it: just a huge party, with a lot of drugs and a lot of physical discomfort with heat, mud, etc., and some good music, though at a distance where he couldn’t hear it very well. (I remember him saying that Sly and the Family Stone were the biggest hit, which makes sense, as theirs was basically party music.) It wasn’t until some of the sympathetic media, swooning and fawning, told people that it was a culture-defining moment that it became one. And I don’t think that idea was truly cemented in the popular mind until the movie came out months later.

2) It exemplified the tendencies that would soon eclipse the things that were actually good about the counter-culture: the serious spiritual searching, the serious effort to reform an over-technologized, over-systematized, unnatural way of life. Not that many individuals didn’t continue to pursue those things, but what might be called the mainstream of the counter-culture was not seriously interested in them, because it was far (far, far) more interested in getting stoned.  And very soon the rebellion was not much more than a fashion, an item to be packaged and resold like any other consumer good.

Yes, it was peaceful, and that was a good thing. But harbinger of a cultural renewal? Not at all. It mostly just accelerated the decline that was already in progress. One reason it continues to be reverenced, I think, is that it helps to bolster the attitude of permanent resistance to adulthood which pop culture now treats as some sort of fundamental virtue.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Note to the Surviving Beatles

If you remaster, repackage, and/or reissue your music one more time, I’m going to start calling you over-rated.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

My Friend Elizabeth Goudge

This was nice to read:

...he was not old. Only sixtyish.

—Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn

I was persuaded to read this book by Janet Cupo, who went so far as to supply me with a copy. I knew nothing about the author beyond a vague idea that I’d heard the name. But I’m already willing to recommend it on the basis of only the first hundred or so pages. On the surface it’s not my kind of book—it’s a woman’s book in many ways, dwelling in subtle detail on family relationships, for instance, and spending a lot of time describing houses and rooms, without any very dramatic action. But it’s extremely well written, and the people and places are very vivid, and most of all it shows a very deep spiritual insight.

The truth is I’m enjoying it more than Crime and Punishment, which was the last novel I read. I found Raskolnikov and his perpetual hostility and anxiety mostly tiresome, and was more than ready to see him off to Siberia. There were some moving scenes in Crime and Punishment, one or two of them unforgettable, but somehow Goudge is able to create more narrative tension out of psychological events than Dostoevsky does out of two ax murders.

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