Previous month:
March 2005
Next month:
May 2005

April 2005

Sunday Night Journal — April 24, 2005

What Did We Do To Deserve This?

I’ve been spending far too much time looking at a computer screen and have developed some fairly severe pain in my neck and shoulders. Since I have to do it all day in my job, I’m going to have to greatly reduce the amount of time I spend on the computer at home. So this will be short. It’s a good opportunity to praise, briefly, the spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).

(photo by Karen)

I’m not much of a gardener or naturalist, and probably cannot reliably identify more than half a dozen or so of the most common flowers, but I know the spiderwort because of the way it greets us in early spring each year. It’s a wild flower that appears, entirely unbidden, around the edges of, and sometimes in, our yard, and in the half-sunny spaces between the woods and the road. There’s something about the gratuitous nature of this visitation that moves me.

The cry of “what did I do to deserve this?” reveals an interesting aspect of human psychology. We believe that happiness is our natural right, and that when something bad happens it is an affront for which we deserve an explanation. We might just as well, though, ask why good things happen. However one might plead his own case, or the case of those he loves, does anyone really believe that the human race as a whole has any very good claim to a reward? I take the spiderwort as a sign of God’s grace, and give thanks that both come undeserved.

Sunday Night Journal — April 17, 2005

The Cardinal Prophet

The buzz of the week has been the report that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the, or at least a, leading candidate for the papacy. I don’t think this is very likely, for reasons including his age and the fact that he was a member of the Hitler Youth and was drafted into the German Army as a teenager during World War II, but there do seem to be grounds for believing that he will be very influential in the conclave.

Ratzinger has been demonized for more than twenty years now because he has been responsible, in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for disciplinary actions against certain dissenting theologians. He is hardly ever mentioned in the media without being described negatively as “a hard-liner,” “ultra-conservative,” “the Vatican’s enforcer,” etc. And sometimes his reserve has been contrasted unfavorably with John Paul II’s personal warmth. But anyone without a progressivist ax to grind who has ever read him knows that he is not only an incisive and balanced thinker but very much of the same mind as our late Pope about the major questions facing the Church.

Some twenty years ago a book-length interview with the Cardinal, called The Ratzinger Report, attracted a fair amount of attention. It made me an admirer, and even, it’s fair to say, a fan of the Cardinal. Here are some samples; bear in mind that they were published in 1985:

On Vatican II:

I am convinced that the damage that we have incurred in these twenty years is due, not to the “true” Council, but to the unleashing within the Church of latent polemical and centrifugal forces; and outside the Church it is due to the confrontation with a cultural revolution in the West: the success of the upper middle class, the new “tertiary bourgeoisie,” with its liberal-radical ideology of individualistic, rationalistic, and hedonistic stamp.

On the moral crisis of the West:

In a world like the West, where money and wealth are the measure of all things, and where the model of the free market imposes its implacable laws on every aspect of life, authentic Catholic teaching now appears to many like an alien body from times long past, as a kind of meteorite which is in opposition, not only to the concrete habits of life, but also to the way of thinking underlying them. Economic liberalism creates its exact counterpart, permissivisim, on the moral plane….it becomes difficult, if not altogether impossible, to present Catholic morality as reasonable.

On sexuality:

The issue is the rupture between sexuality and marriage. Separated from motherhood, sex has remained without a locus and has lost its point of reference: it is a kind of drifting mine, a problem and at the same time an omnipresent power.

After the separation between sexuality and motherhood was effected, sexuality was also separated from procreation. The movement, however, ended up going in an opposite direction: procreation without sexuality. Out of this follow the increasingly shocking medical-technical experiments so prevalent in our day where, precisely, procreation is independent of sexuality. Biological manipulation is striving to uncouple man from nature (the very existence of which is being disputed). There is an attempt to transform man, to manipulate him as one does every other “thing”: he is nothing but a product planned according to one’s pleasure.

I think it was my old friend Daniel Nichols who described Ratzinger as a prophet—accurately, it would appear, on the basis of the above: the description of our situation is if anything more accurate than in 1985. I haven’t read the two collections of interviews with him which have been published since The Ratzinger Report, but if he still thinks, as he apparently does, the way he did in 1985, I would certainly welcome him as pope. We could do worse than a prophet, although we would probably all be shaken up more than we might like.

Sunday Night Journal — April 10, 2005

Journalists Baffled by Commutative Property

For about thirty seconds last week I had the idea of keeping a count of all the news stories about John Paul II which included some variant of the motif that he was “liberal” (a good thing) on many broad political issues but “conservative” (a bad thing) on questions of sexual and medical ethics. Thirty seconds was about the length of time it took me to realize that this was a project that would have me either throwing newspapers or remote controls across the room, depending on the medium in which I encountered the story.

It sometimes seemed that most of the journalists of the world had more or less simultaneously uttered a great cry of “We don’t get it!” They seemed genuinely baffled, as if they were trying to come to grips with stories of Hitler being kind to children: how could anyone oppose both war and abortion? It’s so very very strange, they seem to be thinking, brows furrowed thoughtfully. But to anyone who understands the teachings of the Catholic Church—and for that matter anyone who has mastered a simple concept like the prohibition against taking innocent life—the more baffling thing is the obtuseness of the journalists.

It’s as if they are schoolchildren listening to the teacher explain that 2 + 2 = 4. They seem to understand, but then the teacher writes 4 = 2 + 2, bewilderment sweeps the room, and the cry of “We don’t get it!” goes up. The possibility that the ethical judgments which seem to them so inconsistent are straightforward inferences from a single set of principles never seems to occur to them at all.

Almost as frustrating to the Catholic observer is hearing such fundamental moral doctrines as the prohibition of abortion referred to as “policies” of this pope. Utterly ignorant (it appears) of the institution, its history, and its teachings, they seem to have the idea that a pope can (and does) simply compose Church doctrine the way a pundit composes an op-ed column—or the way some Supreme Court justices apparently compose their decisions—and that therefore all that is needed for doctrine to change in the ways they, the journalists, would prefer, is for a new pope with progressive ideas to be elected. Just as Congress might decide one day to nationalize the health care system, so a pope could simply declare that abortion is just fine, or that the doctrine of the Trinity is no longer credible, and millions of Catholics would, overnight, cease to believe A and begin to believe not-A.

Looked at that way, I suppose it’s no wonder that some anti-Catholics deride us for being mindless puppets of the Vatican. Without the foundational idea that our fundamental beliefs describe facts about the nature of reality, and that the rulers of the Church are as bound by these facts as I am, it would appear that we have simply ceded our natural liberty and personal responsibility to someone else, and for some irrational and superstitious reason.

It’s probably not unfair to suspect that the whole idea of principles is now alien to many or most of our fellow countrymen—“principles,” that is, in the sense of plain, fundamental, immutable, and inviolable axioms. These have been replaced by attitudes: you shouldn’t hurt people; you don’t have any right to tell other people what to do or to judge what they do; my autonomy is inviolable; my opinion is as good as anybody’s; it all depends on the circumstances, and so forth.

When someone whose sense of right and wrong is governed by such attitudes encounters a person like the pope, he is likely to be very puzzled (we don’t get it!), and also to be either infuriated or attracted. I thought I saw some signs among a few TV journalists that the latter might be happening. I single them out, in opposition to print journalists, because some of them, especially the younger ones, seem, in their superficiality, a bit less ideologically committed and thus more open. The New York Times, in contrast, seems to be growing ever more rigid in its anti-Catholicism and has, from what I’ve seen reported in other media, distinguished itself for condescending nastiness, using its first commentary on the pope’s death as an occasion to get in a few extra jabs at those of us who thought there was something wrong with starving Terri Schiavo to death (the article seems not to be online anymore but you can find the relevant paragraph here )

In spite of my natural pessimism I have been made hopeful over the past couple of weeks by the power of the Church’s witness to touch those who have not hardened themselves against it. And I understand, again, part of the reason why John Paul II was always hopeful about youth. The baby boomers who are in charge of the mainstream media clearly don’t get it. I hope it wasn’t my imagination that made me think the younger generation may be another story.

Sunday Night Journal — April 3, 2005

A Captain for the Storm

Although I’m a lot older than the millions of people under thirty or so who remember no other pope than John Paul II, I did not become a Catholic until a couple of years into his papacy. So I’m like these young people in that my entire life as a Catholic has been spent with him as head of the Church. And since I had paid little or no attention to his predecessors, he has always been for me simply the Pope. I did not entirely feel the significance of that fact until last night when I saw a clip of him speaking to a crowd when he was still in the fullness of his strength. I had not until that moment felt any particular sadness at his passing: it had been expected, it was inevitable, his decline had been painful to watch, and he had done as much valuable work as any human being can be expected to do. But when I heard and saw him as he was ten or fifteen years ago, it finally hit me that on some instinctual level I believe that “no John Paul” means “no pope.” It was a bit like the death, almost four years ago, of my father: a world without him would be a different world.

The beginning of any good thing (and for that matter many not so good things) has about it, especially in retrospect, a fresh and springlike quality. At the time of John Paul’s election I was, after a period of wandering, entering into a mature and serious Christianity, and as I wrestled with doctrinal and denominational questions he played a significant role in my decision to enter the Church. He, along with writers like Lewis and Chesterton, had a combination of intellect and Gospel wisdom which always seemed to strike exactly the right note on any topic he addressed. And his name remains associated in my mind with a sense of something wonderful about to unfold.

But that springtime is long since past. Winter began to overtake the pope some time ago, and I have grown jaded and often complacent, or worse, in my relationship with the Church. I have also come, I realize now, to take for granted that the ministry of a great pope would always be active in the world. Busy with work and family for many years, I have only half-read some of his most important encylicals, such as Evangelium Vitae. Now in the space of a week we have seen the spectacle of officers of the state enforcing a decree of euthanasia on a helpless person, and the passing of the man who brought to bear against such things a combination of weapons such as no one else has had: intelligence, profound spirituality, and a worldwide audience. And it is entirely possible that no one will have them again anytime soon.

There are many who admire John Paul but quietly murmur that his papacy has been a disappointment. Although his personal witness has been almost flawless, certain pathologies remain entrenched in the Church, and the disaster of the sexual scandal cover-ups was in part perpetrated by bishops he appointed. I do not feel qualified to take a position on whether the pope is at fault in any of this, or on how much scope of action he actually had in dealing with deeply-rooted problems in the Church. But I have had for many years now a sense that the momentum is toward reform and renewal, however much the inertia of the ship resists turning. But now I realize that I have been operating on the unexamined and completely irrational illusion that John Paul would always be at the helm.

Suddenly the Church seems at risk. If the cardinals give us a weak man for our next pope—or, God forbid, a quisling—the momentum could disappear, or even shift the other way again. Witness the case of Fr. Roger Haight, a theologian who has written a book (Jesus, Symbol of God) which, if the reports are accurate (and I stress that I have not read the book), denies the Divinity and Resurrection of Christ. The book had received an award from the Catholic Press Association, and the Catholic Theological Society of America rose to Haight’s defense when the CDF forbade him to teach. A weak pope now could give the confusion and error of such teachings a new lease on life.

One of the difficulties of being a faithful Catholic in the face of an increasingly hostile secular culture is that someone in the Church always seems ready to pull the rug out from under you. During the Terry Schiavo case the news media never seemed to be lacking for some sleek theologian to explain why cutting off her food and water was a perfectly legitimate act.

I pray that the cardinals will act wisely. The clouds that were gathering when John Paul was elected—the clouds that bring a full-scale assault, in the name of compassion and progress, on the whole idea of the sanctity of human life—have become a storm. In some ways the situation is worse than in the ‘70s when abortion was legalized, in that the pro-abortion forces had to pretend that an eight-week-old fetus was not a human life. That pretense is falling away, and more people are willing to accept a purely utilitarian view of whether or not to take innocent life. As always, we need a rock. Or, to switch to another traditional metaphor, we need a captain who knows his ship and knows the weather and knows how to command.