Sunday Night Journal: January 2006

January 1     January 8     January 15     January 22     January 29    

January 1                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Common Courtesy and the Christmas Wars

I hope it’s not just my subjective impression that some of the intensity faded from the struggle over public expression of Christmas this year. Over the past few years it had come to be, in some circles, a major breach of etiquette to wish someone “Merry Christmas.” I noticed it even among people who knew each other to be Christians: at moments of leave-taking when the traditional Christmas wish would once have been almost automatic, there would be a moment of awkwardness and a rather stiff “Happy Holidays.” But this year there was less of that, and a few people who had been sticklers for “Happy Holidays” have allowed themselves “Merry Christmas.”

I’m not sure what’s the best word to use to describe those who have tried aggressively to remove any mention of Christmas from the Christmas season. “Liberals” is the simplest label and not entirely inaccurate, but is too broad and includes too many people who mean no harm and sincerely believe that they are being inclusive and so forth. To say “the cultural left” is clumsy and perhaps a bit esoteric; it needs further explanation. “Anti-Christians” is probably the most accurate. Although it’s a bit strong, I think it’s a fair description of those who view any public mention of Christianity (excluding hostile mention, of course) as menacing, and who have worked aggressively to suppress it.

The anti-Christians, then, have perhaps overplayed their hand. Suddenly this year the resistance seemed to become much more vocal (sometimes, inevitably, becoming as shrill and unreasonable as their opposition). Too many people, even nominal or non-Christians, are too fond of the American Christmas celebration, and have been alienated by the campaign against it. That there has been such a campaign is obvious. The editorial section of the local paper on Christmas Day included, if I remember correctly, at least four columns by left-of-center pundits scoffing at the idea and denouncing as divisive those who have complained about it. I took this as an indication that the push-back from Christians and their allies has met with some success.

There’s no good reason for the level of acrimony surrounding this matter to be so high. I think a general attempt to practice common courtesy could reduce it greatly. There have always been non-Christians who quietly avoided the word “Christmas,” either because of religious scruples or commercial prudence. I remember as a child in the 1950s puzzling over why some advertisements and greeting cards used the phrase “Season’s Greetings.” I suppose it’s possible that the people involved were secretly boiling with fury that the holiday existed at all, but I doubt it. It puzzles me that anyone would react with hostility to a benevolent wish expressed in terms of a religion that is not his. If a Hindu wishes for me the happiness and blessings of his religion, I will not be such a churl as to snap at him, but will accept his greeting in the spirit in which he extended it.

Of course I understand that in some instances—the situation of Christians and Jews, for instance—there may be serious historical grievances which complicate the matter. Still, is it not far wiser to assume good will in these little encounters that do so much to form the social fabric?

And while we’re at it: common sense comes in handy, too. Both sides of this debate are guilty of using exaggerated and irrational slippery-slope arguments; unfortunately, many of them are lawyers and Supreme Court justices. A crèche in the park today does not mean the burning of heretics tomorrow. Neither does the substitution of “holiday” for “Christmas” under certain circumstances mean that a new Diocletian has appeared. The divisions in our society are bad enough without the exacerbations of paranoia and hyper-sensitivity.


January 8                                [page top]         [permanent link]

On the Last Day of Christmas

The actual last day of Christmas was, of course, a couple of days ago in the Western calendar, on December 6 (or December 5th—there seem to be different approaches to the counting). But the Feast of the Epiphany has been moved to the nearest Sunday, or however the rule is written. I don’t like the change—it seems too much a capitulation to the secular—but this year it does at least provide a harmony between the official calendar and the day when we take our tree down.

It’s at such points in the Church year that I regret the absence of a Catholic culture. After years of struggle against the secular-Protestant Christmas which mainly occurs during Advent, my wife and I are no longer fighting it all that hard. Our children are mostly grown, so we no longer have the motivating force of wanting to teach them the way it should be done. But one way in which we keep the flame alive is by waiting until a few days before Christmas to put up our tree, and until Epiphany (or thereabouts, depending on what else is going on) to take it down. Few Christmas seasons pass without some acquaintance twitting me about what appears to them as laziness or procrastination. I don’t mind this from non-Catholics, but to hear it from Catholics, which is not unusual, is pretty annoying.

So here we are again, two weeks after Christmas, our house one of the last in the neighborhood still showing Christmas lights. In the eyes of others these probably combine with our nondescript house and our yard in need of a good deal of work to give an impression of sloth. Well, so be it.

A few Christmases ago I mentioned to one of my then-teenaged daughters that I get more pleasure out of giving presents to my children than getting them myself. At first she didn’t believe me. In fact I’m not sure she ever did. I managed to stop myself from giving her the patronizing response that she wouldn’t understand until she had children of her own, but she probably won’t. The love of a normal parent for his or her children is for most of us the closest we will ever come to a truly unselfish love, in this life at any rate. And in it we get a hint of the love God bears to us. And we also get a hint of why God doesn’t always answer our prayers. We don’t give our children everything they want, and would be guilty of neglect if we did.

I always hate to take the tree down. Right now the living room seems empty and bare, and I think I would like for it to be Christmas all year ‘round. But of course I wouldn’t. I would soon tire of it; I would cease to notice or appreciate it, and it would be assumed into the normal drab background of everyday life. God knows this, and if this is a case where I can understand his will, it’s a good thing to think about while I get used to the passing of another Christmas.




January 15                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Report from the Hurricane Coast

I made an overnight visit to New Orleans this weekend, and it left me wondering whether the city can ever recover fully. What struck me most forcefully there was not the physical damage done by hurricane Katrina, for which I was more or less prepared, but the fact that, as I was told, the current population of the city, four months later, is somewhere in the range of twenty-to-twenty-five percent of its pre-hurricane level. And there seems to be some willingness to accept the possibility that the city may be permanently much smaller than it was before, both in population and in area occupied, with some of the lowest-lying areas being permanently abandoned.

That would leave a sort of museum city with tourism at the center of its economy. And maybe that’s workable, but it won’t be a living city in its own right. Maybe, further, that won’t be a bad solution for a city that has been in decline for a long time. I don’t claim to know New Orleans very well, but I do know that, like many of our older cities, it has been struggling economically, and suffering the same loss of the middle class.

We didn’t do any sightseeing on this visit, and most of our time was spent in the areas that were least affected by the storm, areas that were not flooded at all. We thought it unseemly to go gawking at the damage, but simply driving into the city from the east on I-10 is enough to give one a pretty strong hint of what has happened. This is where Lake Ponchartrain came in, and for miles everything we could see was damaged and abandoned. And I think the abandonment is really the most unnerving thing. What we saw from the interstate was the typical suburb-scape—shopping centers, apartment buildings, fast-food restaurants, vast parking lots. But it was almost all uninhabited, like a scene from one of those last-man-on-earth movies. Here and there we could see a crew of men and machinery, but the only place that seemed to have anything close to a normal level of people and activity was a Home Depot.

According to the proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed, most of the really badly flooded areas are still in terrible shape. Those Ninth Ward houses of which we saw so much on TV are still full of a muck which is said to have an appalling and persistent odor. The cleanup continues, slowly, and a good deal of it is being done by college students from all over the country who come for a week or so, their expenses paid by churches in their home towns, and go into the houses with shovels and rubber boots. We were told that these students are presently doing as much as FEMA to help with the cleanup. I think that is not a widely known fact. If you have the opportunity to donate to a church that’s involved with this effort, you can be confident that your money is being put to good use.

On the way back we took a detour south from I-10 to the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area of Mississippi. As you know if you followed the news of Katrina at all, this stretch of the coast took the most brutal impact of the storm. We had some idea of following Highway 90 along the coast, not realizing that it ends abruptly at what used to be the bridge across Bay St. Louis. Turning left/north where the bridge should have been, we went along the water’s edge on a damaged but passable road for a couple of miles. What had been a neighborhood of  homes among what had undoubtedly been a lovely stand of live oaks was a wasteland. We could see foundations, a few pilings—even the houses built with floods in mind had been destroyed—and an occasional trailer, one with a Mardi Gras flag flying bravely. The most doleful sight to me was not the traces and debris of houses, but the trees. Even in January, a live oak is normally full and green, but these were stripped not only of leaves but of their smaller branches: a broken, skeletal forest. With money, houses can be built fairly quickly, but many of these trees must be a hundred years old, and if they live it will be decades before they are the huge kindly canopies they were on August 28th, 2005.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the place itself has been destroyed, at least for a generation or two. That is, if you knew these places as they were, if you had grown up in them and loved them still, they are lost to you, just as you might say a beloved relative in the last stages of Alzheimer’s is lost to you, though still physically present.

I don’t have much stomach for trying to discern God’s plan in a disaster like this. It presents a stark choice: you can choose to believe that it is all somehow caught up in his providence, or that it is not. The latter is all too plausible when you stand in the middle of the damage, but I choose the former.

You can get some idea of what it’s like from these photos; the last three are from the area I’ve described. And here is a closeup, at twilight:

The haunted, frightened trees...

January 22                                [page top]         [permanent link]

This Culture is Ugly: Dark Thoughts on Roe Day

Many years ago I heard attributed to an Episcopal seminary professor the observation that Americans have a difficult time dealing with the Christian concept of sin, because we want to believe that “if it’s a sin you ought to stop doing it, and if you can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin.” I think of this often, and it’s come to mind several times over the past few days, during which three things have come together to leave me with a sense of gloom.

The first involves the visits to colleges which my wife and high-school-senior daughter have been making. I find that I can’t be enthusiastic about any of them, no matter what they offer in the way of academics, in part because they have all succumbed to the sexual revolution and have become, as one college administrator, more honest than discreet, put it, summer camps with no grownups. No grownups, and lots and lots of alcohol and other intoxicants.

Aside from a few conservative Christian schools (none of which offer the subject my daughter wants to study), colleges have long since dropped anything but a token effort to prevent or in many cases even to discourage sexual activity in their dormitories. One student guide, showing us around a dorm, replied to a parent’s question about male visitation to the girls’ floor (that’s floor, not building) with the rather too coy policy: “if there’s not a problem, there’s not a policy,” by which she meant that only if a girl’s roommate objects to her boyfriend’s presence is he required to leave. Of course it is possible for a student to remain chaste in this environment, but now that effort, which people have always found difficult, is effectively discouraged.

On the way to one of these visits I read a long piece by Caitlin Flanagan in the January Atlantic (thanks to Dawn Eden for the link, and please note that the article is full of very crude sexual references, including a fairly nauseating quotation from a rap song). Putatively a book review, the piece is in fact a discussion of the sickening phenomenon of teenage girls performing casually impersonal sexual services for boys—behaving, in short, as the pornographic popular culture in which they are immersed tells them they should behave. Flanagan, one of our most insightful writers on matters of love and marriage, offers this stark summary: “Society has let its girls down in every possible way.”

I agree entirely with this, but unless I’m misreading her Flanagan doesn’t see clearly how we got to our present condition. She seems to put forward as an image of how things ought to be the book Forever by Judy Blume, in which a young girl intent on making love with her boyfriend is outfitted (by her cooperative parents, I gather) with contraceptive gear and certificates of health covering both parties, has a perfectly fulfilling sexual experience, then apparently (I haven’t read the book) prepares to move on to the next “relationship.” This strikes me as pretty clearly a middle-aged woman’s fantasy of what she would have liked her first sexual experiences to be, and Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t seem to see that the effect of this super-controlled Planned Parenthood approach to sex is to make the woman more available to the male while asking less of him—almost nothing, in fact, beyond not raping her and attempting to see to her pleasure during the act itself.

That was the second thing, and the third thing is today, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

All three of these social developments involve or are driven by the attempt to sterilize sex, not only in the obvious physical sense but in its psychological dimension as well (to say nothing of its spiritual dimension, the existence of which is widely denied). It is thought that if new life is prevented, or destroyed if it occurs, the pleasure of the act can be grasped without any assumption of responsibility, not just for a new life but for the other person. There is to be no baby, but also no bond, no spiritual conception of the new thing which is the family, based upon the couple pledged to each other until death, the one flesh of which Our Lord speaks. I think that if we understand the truth about sex we must see the modern attempt at liberation to be in fact an attempt to destroy sex in the most fundamental sense, because reproduction is so much of its essence. What is wanted is, in a sense, sexless sex.

The motives involved here are nothing new; mankind has always struggled with them. The illicit use of sex has always come easily to us, especially so to all too many men, and too many women have always had to learn how to kill in themselves what appears to be an innate feminine propensity to form an emotional bond where there has been physical intimacy. What may be new is the attempt to end the struggle by denying the significance of sex. The traditional rules concerning sexual behavior are impossibly difficult, we think, and we can’t be expected to follow them. So the problem becomes one of convincing ourselves that we aren’t doing anything wrong—if we can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin. But the truth of human nature asserts itself, and not the least apparent sign of its insistence is the shrill fury with which the proponents of lifeless sex greet any challenge to their doctrine.

I don’t know how God would judge the two cases, but it seems to me that a boy and girl of forty or fifty years ago, crazed with the wine of love and desire, slipping away to car or woods or barn for furtive and risky lovemaking, are more admirable, or at least more likable, because more human, than what we are told is the contemporary ideal: the properly certified and equipped pair engaging more or less openly in what is described, in a phrase which has always obscurely repelled me, as “having sex,” expecting nothing more than a brief physical pleasure and a casual friendliness. Not surprisingly, most women are not happy with this situation and spend a great deal of energy in search of what is vaguely called “commitment,” which is a euphemism or substitute for marriage (and which, also not surprisingly, sounds to the footloose male like a whiny attempt to renege on an implicit agreement).

I don’t know why this little piece of trivia sticks in my mind, but one of the early albums by the Mothers of Invention had a chaotic-looking cover, in one corner of which was a crudely-drawn picture of a tree with the caption “This tree is ugly and it wants to die.” A variation on the phrase recurs to me sometimes when I consider the pathologies of our culture. Sex can be tamed; that’s what marriage is for. But to attempt to render it trivial is to attempt to flee from the burden of being human. This culture is ugly and it wants to die.



January 29                                [page top]         [permanent link]

The Social Justice Challenge

One of the unhappy effects of the attack from within the  Church itself on Catholic doctrine is a tendency for the orthodox to be almost as much occupied with preserving the faith as with practicing it. I think it is becoming possible for us to move past this, now that the flood of heterodoxy seems to have reached its crest and begun to recede. Its most visible spokesmen have been reduced to anger and irrelevance, of which the news that Fr. Richard McBrien is serving as a consultant to the movie version of The DaVinci Code seems a good indicator.

Those of us who take the central teachings of the Church as they have been understood for centuries, and look for no doctrinal revolution, should be able now to turn our attention outward, toward evangelization primarily, but also (and maybe inseparably) toward social justice.

I use this term with some hesitation. For many or most religious traditionalists, and for the often-overlapping group of political conservatives, the term “social justice” has long been tainted. The former have fought the attempt to put it in place of salvation as the object of religion, and the latter have seen it—correctly for the most part—as a synonym for socialism. But it’s a good succinct term for something which must always be a concern for Christians. The obligation upon each of us to practice charity and justice in all our personal dealings is perfectly clear. No one can read the Gospel and believe that he can be saved without these.

But popes going back at least to Leo XIII have insisted that Catholics have an obligation to work for the correction of injustices and evils outside our personal sphere. To say so does not mean that specific measures are prescribed, and we need to broaden our concept of social justice beyond its socialist connotations. I would like to think that current economic tendencies might create an opening for more people to consider the distributist idea more seriously, though this may be wishful thinking.

We also need to extend the idea of  social justice further into non-economic considerations. Many of what we normally speak of as “social issues” can be seen as questions of justice; abortion is the obvious one, but there are, for instance, several kinds of injustice involved in pornography. It’s odd that “social issues” and “social justice” should have such distinct and separate connotations, the one having to do with questions of public morality and the place of religion, the other mostly concerned with the distribution of wealth and privilege. The distinction is useful up to a point, but the two are branches of one tree, and the time is opportune for us to treat them that way.

I read Pope Benedict’s first encyclical as pointing us in this direction, as implying that with our own house in some decent degree of order we must simultaneously renew our acquaintance with one of the elemental and most cherished truths given to the Church—the principle that God is love—and take more seriously the obligations to the world which that truth imposes upon us.

It’s time also to recognize the contributions of many of those “social justice people” whom we have tended to dismiss, and to get ourselves out of the reactive syndrome of disregarding the problems they point out because we suspect that they are doing so to advance a cause with which we disagree. We don’t have to accept their doctrine, either religious or political: I concluded some time ago that anyone still sympathetic to Communism can be credited at best with either good intentions or good political sense, but not both. But we can agree with them that the problems—third world poverty, for instance—are real and serious, and that much of their work deserves support. I can think of several people active in direct aid to the poor who have political and religious beliefs which I consider very mistaken, but who are in a much better position than I to answer the questions at the end of Matthew 25.