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February 2010

I think the patient has been stabilized

Comments seem to be working now in a somewhat consistent if unsatisfactory way. In Firefox, if you come to the main blog page, you see "2 comments" or whatever at the end of a post. If you click on that, you get taken to a page with only that post, and, again, "2 comments". Click on that, and you get the comments box.

It works the same in Internet Explorer, except: I find that when I go the main page the number of comments doesn't appear. Reloading the page (F5) makes it appear. But even if the number isn't there, clicking on the word "comments" seems to work as above.

The Recent Comments feature is not going to be there for a while, and when it reappears it will probably be because I've moved the blog somewhere else. I had left the old Haloscan code in the blog template. The JS-Kit folks had said it would continue to work properly. As we know, it did not. After a frustrating go-round with JS-Kit support, I finally replaced it with the new Echo code. That involved discovering and correcting some things in their examples that were just plain wrong and would never work. But Echo has no Recent Comments feature as such. Instead, it has a big ugly navigation tool which includes a Comments list along with some stuff I don't want. The tool is customizable to some degree, and I could probably make it less obtrusive and perhaps remove the unwanted items, but I really don't much want to bother.

My goal now is to escape Echo for all future commenting while preserving the old comments. The good news is that I think this will be possible: it turns out Echo comments can be accessed from locations other than the one where they were generated.

If you see my Links list empty, it's because I had to start from scratch with a fresh copy of the template (that's also why it was green for a while today). I'll put them back soon.

Update 2/28/10: we now have a recent comments list, although it's rather unattractive, and I've put the links back, so I think I'm in a position to put the commenting problem aside for now and focus on the question of where to move the blog itself. Officially I have until late March to make the move, but it's going to take a while for me to evaluate the options and make the decision.

It's funny how the absence of a recent comments list made the blog seem somehow crippled--a sort of flying-blind feeling. Just shows how important the comments are.

Facebook group: Dove Descending

I'm not sure whether I've mentioned it except in passing in a comment, but I finally gave in to curiosity and joined Facebook a month or so ago. I did mention back in January that I'm reading Thomas Howard's book about Eliot's Four Quartets for Lent. Last night I created a Facebook group for that discussion, partly because the commenting situation here is, um, in transition. So, if you're on Facebook and are interested, please join the group (and send me a friend request, though if I've set the group up as I intended that's not necessary for joining it). You're welcome even if you don't want to read the Howard book but know or would like to know the poem, which can be found, probably in violation of copyright, here.

Two Totally Unrelated Items

(because, like I said, I’m too distracted to think about any one thing for very long, and will be until the blog transition is done)

For cat lovers, or anyone who thinks cats can be nice to look at: Anja (who is a cat lover) sent me this video by a woman who apparently specializes in cat photography. Perhaps I should mention that although most of these cats range from cute to beautiful, a few are scary-ugly.

Too bad Francesca has given up LODW for Lent. Well, maybe she’ll look in on Sunday.

Like I said, totally unrelated: Toby Danna posted (on Facebook) a link to this fascinating NYT piece by Stanley Fish. The basic argument is familiar to religious people—that secularists who insist on keeping God and indeed all consciously held first principles out of public debate are, to put it bluntly, cheating. Not deliberately, really, but failing utterly to recognize their own axiomatic first principles, and smuggling in appeals to abstract ethical principles without noticing or admitting it.

I don’t know much about Fish; I thought he was, like, king of the deconstructionists or something. As far as I know he is coming at this question from the point of view of a severe skeptic, and if that’s the case he’s doing something like Nietzsche, stripping away the sentimentality from materialists who insist on moralizing.

Not Much Happening Here For a Bit

There are several things I'd like to post about, but I'm so busy trying to figure out what to do about the Blogger and HaloScan changes that I don't have time for much else. As of now it's probable that will remain where it is, and the blog up to some date in the near future will also stay there, and the blog from that date forward will be somewhere else, probably at WordPress. I would move the entire blog, but there doesn't seem to be any way to keep the comments if I do that, and the discussions here are half the fun at least. I've succeeded in getting Echo to work in what I think is it's as-designed way on Blogspot. But it appears that the business of opening up the page for the individual post before you can get to the comments is the way it's designed. I'm awaiting Echo's definitive answer to that question. If there's no way to make it behave like HaloScan in that respect, I don't want to keep using it. And if I'm not going to use Echo, then I'll probably start Phase 2 of the blog at WordPress, because I like WordPress's commenting better than Bloggers. (TypePad was an option but they haven't bothered to reply to an email question about importing from Blogger/HaloScan, so never mind...) I would really like to get this all resolved soon. If possible, I'd like to make the switch on March 1. Until this is over I probably won't be posting much besides the SNJ.

Blog transition: your opinions?

What a pain...I'm trying to decide whether to switch to WordPress or continue with Blogger. I won't bore you with the details but there are a lot of arguments for and against each one. One big one for WordPress is that I don't care much for Blogger's native commenting system (see Pentimento and Castle By the Sea in the sidebar for blogs that use it). But I'm really unhappy with the behavior of the new Echo Recent Comments feature. Echo itself is ok, but RC is now just a big pain, and I'm not sure whether it can be fixed, and if so how much hassle it would be.

So I'm experimenting and would like to hear any comments you have. I may really have no choice but to continue with Blogger if I want to preserve continuity, as it appears that the process for importing an existing blog into WordPress only brings in posts and Blogger-based comments--I don't think it's possible to import the old HaloScan/Echo comments, not to mention the fact that images would not be brought along.

Anyway...I am going to post this to as usual, and then immediately switch to Blogspot and re-publish, to see what's different. If you're looking at this after 10 minutes or so from the time of this post, you should be able to click here to see the Blogspot-hosted result.

I don’t support the Church

Following a link in this post at Inside Catholic, I read that actress Anne Hathaway and her parents have left the Catholic Church because they object to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. She has a brother who is gay, and I know that’s a tough situation. But I was struck by the attitude revealed by her question: “Why should I support...” the Church?

I think that’s an upside-down way of looking at it. I don’t support the Church. The Church supports me.

Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday

I’m not doing anything much in the way of Mardi Gras partying this year. Not that my wife and I ever do much of that, not being real party people, but this year we aren’t even going to any parades: for one thing, she’s back in school and has to spend a lot of time studying, and for another we both have grown somewhat tired of the parades. Besides, it’s cold.

However, I have uploaded some pictures from Mardi Gras 2009 to my Picasa web album, which I haven’t really used before. I decided to put them there instead of on Facebook (yes, I finally joined Facebook a few weeks ago) so friends and family who aren’t on Facebook could see them. I posted several of them here last year, so if you were reading the blog then they’ll look familiar.

Tomorrow I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: spend Ash Wednesday in fasting (rather mild), prayer, and spiritual reading. My experience of Ash Wednesday has always been that it arrives suddenly, when I’m not ready for it, and I spend it at work, so that it becomes just another day full of distractions and annoyances, with the added bother that I feel a little sick from not eating the usual amount. So tomorrow I’m taking a vacation day and staying home. Usually the first week or so of Lent has passed before I’m really giving it much thought, and I hope this will make a difference.

When I say “silence” above, I mean, principally, no music and no Internet. So you won’t hear anything from me between midnight tonight and sometime Thursday morning—unless I happen to be awake at midnight tomorrow, which I don’t plan to be.

Ulrich Schnauss: Knuddelmaus

(Weekend music—a bit late, I know, as the weekend is already over for anybody very far east of the U.S. But then it is Mardi Gras weekend.)

Ulrich Schnauss is a German electronica producer. I’ve been listening to the album from which this track comes, Faraway Trains Passing By. I really don’t expect anyone else to react to this music as I do. Maybe it sounds merely pleasant to most people, but it touches something deep in me: it’s the soundtrack to the memory of leaving a place you didn’t realize you would never see again.

One more: “As If You’ve Never Been Away.” I guess that’s the way it will feel when we get there. The sehnsucht really kicks in with the voices going doot doot doot....

Yesterday’s Snow

Now, I fully understand that falling snow is a totally unremarkable sight for many or most of the people who will read this. It’s only significant because it happens here so rarely. We might get a bit of snow like yesterday’s every five years or so. In the twenty-one years I’ve been living in this area, only once has it snowed enough to cover the ground fully and remain there for a few hours. The last time was around 1995—I can’t remember the year for sure. I actually drove the 30 miles (48km) from my house to Spring Hill College, with at least one or two of my children. I can’t remember now whether I had to go for some work-related reason and used that as an excuse to have child or children see the college grounds covered in snow, or if I went only for that reason. It was truly lovely, and I wish I had some pictures of it.

From my office window, though zoomed in a good bit.

That’s the Jesuit cemetery among those trees. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing of Joyce’s great short story, “The Dead.” (...he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.).

This is a view, also zoomed in, from a window on the west side of the building where my office is:

And this has nothing to do with the snow, which had stopped some hours earlier. As I drove across the Mobile Bay causeway on my way home, I was struck by the desolation of sky and dead sea grasses and water. It was just getting dark; within a couple of minutes after I took this picture it was too dark for my camera, or I would have taken more, from better vantage points.

Just after I took this picture, I observed what I am reasonably sure was, at that moment, the coldest person on the planet. As I got back into my car I noticed on the other side of the road (behind me from the viewpoint of this picture), a young man on a motorcycle. He had stopped for some reason, probably attempting to restore sensation to his hands. I have ridden a motorcycle in cold weather, and you cannot dress warmly enough for it, at least not in anything you’re likely to be able to buy in south Alabama. The temperature was around 35F/2C, not all that cold, but add to that a 50 or 60 miles-per-hour (80-95kmh) wind from the speed of the bike, and the 20mph/30kmh or so wind out of the north, and the fact that you are wearing only a half-length coat of middling weight, a stocking cap, and a pair of gloves, and that you must maintain a position in which your arms and legs are outstretched so as to maximize the effect of the wind, and, especially, that you must maintain a tight grip on two plastic-covered metal bars. He may not have been the coldest person on the planet as determined by instruments, but short of someone plunged into an icy sea I’m quite sure he was among the most miserable. There was nothing I could do for him, so I didn’t feel bad about feeling really good when I got back into my car.

Light Snow Possible—Region Gripped by Panic

Weather forecasts say we may get a few inches of snow early Friday morning. And maybe it will actually happen, although these predictions usually come to little or nothing. The last time we had enough snow to cover the ground was around 1995, and of course it melted within a few hours. As of this afternoon we had seen a very small amount of sleet, and on my way home an hour or so ago it was raining. The current temperature is 41F/5C.

Yet the decision has already been made to close the public schools tomorrow, and other entities are following. Not my employer, though. Our president is from Cleveland and spent the last ten or fifteen years in Chicago, so he was, I hear, totally bewildered when someone asked if we would be closed tomorrow—closed by the mere possibility of light snow. We’re told to assume the college will be open until and unless we’re told otherwise.

And yet the closings are not entirely irrational if you think of them as being intended just to keep people from driving, because most people are going to drive like complete idiots in the snow.

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, on Thursday nights I normally have an hour of eucharistic adoration at a church up the road a few miles. When I got home tonight my wife had left me the following note, which pretty well sums up the effects of a prediction of snow around here:

Catholic and Conservative (3)

Sunday Night Journal — February 7, 2010

In the first post of this series I argued that conservatism is not a religion, and therefore not, at least conceptually, a rival to the faith, and that a Catholic who describes himself as conservative does not thereby make himself less of a Catholic. In the second I argued against the idea that there is a single Catholic approach to politics and social issues. Now I want to discuss what conservatism is, and why I am willing to describe myself as a conservative (though, as I said in a comment on one of the other posts, I wear the label pretty lightly). And my intention is for this to be the last installment.

Unavoidably, because conservatism does not have a very precise definition, I will have to engage in something close to the True Scotsman gambit:

(a) All Scotsmen like haggis.

(b) Tom is a Scotsman, but he doesn’t like haggis.

(c) All true Scotsmen like haggis.

I think this is normally called a fallacy; I’m calling it a gambit, because I’m not saying “true conservative” but “my sort of conservative.” Anyone familiar with the internal debates of conservatism knows that in fact there is a never-ending discussion about who is and is not a conservative, with frequent instances of  “if you think that, you aren’t a true conservative.” That gets pretty tiresome. There is something broadly identifiable as conservatism, but, unlike Scotland, it does not have clearly defined borders. So when I speak of conservatism, I have in mind primarily principled and thoughtful conservatives, not mere right-wingers whose conservatism is mostly capitalism and nationalism. I should note, while I’m at it, that I’m using the terms “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably.

I can’t find the remark now, but long ago I read an observation by Fr. Henri de Lubac, S.J., that went something like this: “Insofar as the terms liberal and conservative refer to anything more than personality types, they are political terms that have no place in the life of the Church.” I like those words—or perhaps I should say that idea, since I’m not sure how accurately I’m recalling the quotation. And I think anyone who wants to be a faithful Catholic should do his best to be, simply, Catholic, and to avoid looking at the life of the Church through the distorting lens of a liberal-conservative opposition. I do not describe myself as a conservative Catholic, and if someone insists on using that terminology I can just as accurately describe myself as a liberal Catholic.

Yet as appealing as it is to want to go beyond those terms, they persist, not only in politics but even in the Church, precisely because they are based on personality types which are perennial. They may harden into ideologies, but they are rooted in personal attitudes and temperaments. In almost any human enterprise, including the Church in its humanity, there are people who press urgently for change because they see the problems of the present condition, and people who think the present condition worth preserving in spite of its problems (or else think the solution recommended by the progressive will actually be a change for the worse).

Whether one finds oneself in an objectively conservative or progressive position—resisting change or calling for it—depends greatly on the circumstances. If you’re in a car going 60 miles an hour, it is, strictly speaking, the conservative position to continue going 60 miles an hour. And if you’re rolling down an open highway where the speed limit is 60, it’s the correct position. On the other hand, if an 18-wheeler going 75 miles an hour is coming up behind you, you should consider adopting more progressive views.

Similarly, what we call conservatism is fundamentally a concrete response to a specific moment in history, and it’s fundamentally the response of a certain temperament and attitude: a sort of resignation to the fact that human life is always going to be something of a mess, that things could always be worse, and that it is very easy to do more harm than good by making large and sudden changes in the name of reform. Some maddeningly literal-minded (and occasionally malicious) people insist that the word “conservative” be defined as “always and everywhere opposed to any change whatsoever.” They seem to think they’ve scored a grand rhetorical coup when they catch a conservative saying, for instance, that a Supreme Court decision should be reversed. “You want to change something! You’re not a conservative!” This is sophomoric, and really not worth arguing against. No serious conservative denies the need for a constant reform of human institutions, and the reality of continuing change in human affairs whether we want it or not.

That brings me somewhere close to my final point, which is a response to the challenge Daniel issued in that Caelum et Terra exchange, quoting my own words from a 1991 Caelum et Terra book review:

“When someone tells me he is a conservative, I want to know what it is he wishes to conserve. And I ask the question with a certain intention to harass, for I have always had trouble understanding how the beliefs which most Americans understand to be implied by the word “conservative” could reasonably merit that term.

“….what does it mean to believe oneself a conservative in a society which grows daily more attached…to practices and principles utterly irreconcilable with those one wishes to conserve?….how many of society’s assumptions may one reject before one becomes, intellectually at least, a revolutionary?”

(The complete review is here.)

I do in fact have answers to those questions, though I didn’t care to present them then and there. When someone asks me in this context what it is that I wish to conserve, the answer is: the cultural and political traditions of America and Europe. And one is a conservative and not a revolutionary in relation to one’s society as long as one believes that there is within it still some essential foundation worth preserving. And I do believe that.

For several decades now I’ve pondered, as I was doing in that book review, the question of whether our society is really worth preserving, or whether it’s so corrupt that it can’t and shouldn’t stand. I’ve very often been tempted to answer, respectively, no and yes to those questions. But in the end I come back to the many good things that still persist in our tradition, especially in the U.S., where religion apparently flourishes more vigorously than in most of Europe. For all the very grave faults of this Euro-American culture, it still represents much which I would not wish to see lost. I’ll go further and say much that the human race cannot afford to lose. In the practical realm, a reasonably stable, reasonably free, and perhaps too prosperous society is not something to be cast away lightly. The culture of the West is still far from dead, though it may be dying. And it’s one of the essential insights of conservatism that it is much, much easier to destroy than to build. If you help your enemies destroy the last of what others have built and you have inherited, you will most likely find yourself living not with what you wanted, but what those enemies wanted.

And I think the Western tradition has a real, conscious, dedicated enemy in what I might call secular progressivism. Assuming that both conservatives and progressives have similar views of how things ought to be, the quarrel between them ought to be, and often is, only one of means, not ends, and a question of emphasis. But the quarrel between conservatism and secular progressivism is now also one of ends. What I mean by secular progressivism is not the push for a certain sort of government-heavy solution to specific practical problems like health care. I mean the deep cultural revolution of which the beginning is conveniently marked by the French Revolution, the revolution of materialism which seeks to deny God, deny the existence of the soul, and make the whole being of man subservient to, on the one hand, his own appetites, and, on the other, the state, which promises to help him satisfy his appetites at the cost of his soul.

To say that I want to preserve the Western tradition is not the same as saying that I want to preserve the Catholic faith. (I don’t want so much to preserve the Catholic faith as to spread it, but that’s another, though related, topic.) The tradition could not exist without the faith, but the faith is not the only thing which gives the tradition its particular character. I also want to preserve the elements of truth and genuine progress which have appeared since the Enlightenment, and so I am willing to be part of an alliance that includes people with views pretty substantially different from my own. They are among the not necessarily Catholic, not necessarily Christian, “men of good will” to whom the Second Vatican Council wished to appeal.

American conservatism is a big and chaotic movement, and far from pure or united in its defense of what Russell Kirk referred to as the permanent things. But the battle to preserve those things from the materialist revolution is, in my view, the great and crucial fact of our times, and the conservative movement, for all its flaws and inconsistencies, is, in general, on the right side of that battle. I don’t apologize for allying myself with it.

One last thing needs mentioning: I want to preserve the U.S.A. because I love it. Sometimes I hate it, too, and in my youth I hated it more than I loved it. And often I despair of it. But I still love it, not only as I wish it were but as it is.

Now, with all that said, I want to emphasize that “liberal,” “progressive,” and “conservative” are provisional and relative terms that do not in themselves contain solid principles. To that end:

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

—G. K. Chesterton, in The Illustrated London News, 1924

CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Bob Franke: “For Real”

For a while there I was attempting to post a bit of music every weekend, or at least most weekends. I’d like to resume that, although I’m sure I won’t be consistent. But anyway, here’s one.

I think it was back in the ‘80s sometime when my friend Robert sent me a tape that included this song and some others by Bob Franke. I wasn’t all that taken with his music in general, and never investigated him any further, but the line “There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life” really stayed with me, and I’d venture a guess that over the intervening years no more than a few weeks have ever passed without my thinking of it. And listening to it now I see that the lyrics are even better than I remembered. I really should buy one of his cds.

The video is just a bit amusing, because at least as seen here Franke’s dress and general vibe are more reminiscent of a businessman than of a folk singer; he looks more like someone you’d discuss insurance with than someone you’d listen to in a bar. But that just goes to show that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge by appearances.

The lyrics are very important; you can read them here.

Love lasts forever.

Low Clouds Over the Bay

Sometimes at night, when there has been or is about to be rain, but it’s not raining at the moment, the clouds make a very dark, very low ceiling over the water. You can see it—I mean, you don’t just see darkness and the absence of stars, you see an actual surface, because there is so much light coming up from the town. And there are lights all around the horizon, and looking across the bay especially, to the lights of Mobile, the effect is spooky and lurid, as if darkness is literally settling down, and the light around its edges has something unhealthy about it—a sort of greenish glow struggling to get out from under the clouds. It makes me think of the battles at the end of The Lord of the Rings, when the Black Gate has opened and Sauron has covered the sky with smoke and clouds, producing a day without dawn. But these clouds will probably be gone in the morning.

Changes Coming Here

A few days ago I logged in to my account at HaloScan, the company that provides the comment service I use here, and was greeted with the announcement that it is shutting down the HaloScan service and replacing it with a new one. February 10 (next Wednesday) is the day HaloScan dies, so I have to make the switch soon. I’m going to try to do it this weekend. I don’t know what to expect. I haven’t had a chance even to read over the information about the new service, so I don’t know if it will be an improvement or otherwise.

Then yesterday I got an email from Blogger saying that they are going to discontinue FTP publishing. This is a very big deal for this blog, bigger than the commenting change (assuming the new comment service works reasonably well). It means that sometime between now and roughly mid-March the blog is going to move. It will definitely move physically, most likely to a Blogspot server. And it may have a new address. One way or another there will still be a, and you’ll be able to get to the blog from there. But it probably won’t be “/blog.” And I’m pretty sure that the URLs of all the blog posts will change, breaking bookmarks and links from other sites.

If you aren’t interested in any further technical explanation, you can stop reading now.


Ok, since you’re interested, here’s the story: back in 2004 I decided to put some of my writings on the web, not in a blog, but at a conventional site. So I registered the domain name and bought a low-priced hosting plan from, and learned enough HTML and CSS to put up simple pages. The Sunday Night Journal was published this way for the first couple of years.

Sometime in 2006—around June, I think—I decided that it would be a lot easier to maintain the SNJ as a blog. And I also wanted to be able to post casual things. But I wanted the blog to be part of my existing site. I found that although most Blogger blogs are hosted at Blogger’s domain, (hence most Blogger blogs are “”), they gave one the option of using their software but publishing the blog elsewhere, via FTP (a program that copies files from one place to another on the network). So I created a Blogger blog and published it to

I discovered immediately that I had a problem with comments. Blogger provides its own commenting facility, but it publishes comments only to the Blogspot servers. This meant that a Blogger comment on my site would not actually appear on the site until I re-published the blog. Obviously this wasn’t going to be acceptable—there would be intervals of hours between remarks in a conversation, which of course meant there would be no conversations.

So I used HaloScan, which gives one the option of associating comments with any of the popular blogging services. The comments reside on their servers, not at, which only contains links to them. When you read or post a comment here, you’re talking to

Now Google (owner of Blogger) has decided that support for FTP publishing is costing them too much (and I can see why it would be a headache) for the small number of blogs being maintained that way. I haven’t yet read their detailed description of the options available to me now. I can switch the blog to, but then it’s no longer part of the main site. I can move the domain name to Blogger, so that the blog would be at But what about my other stuff? A lot of it is really not suitable for blog posts; for one thing, the chronological organization is not meaningful. I could switch to WordPress, which supports non-blog pages. I’m not sure if they support user domains or not.

Anyway...this is a huge hassle, and I only have a month or so to decide what I’m going to do and start doing it. At some point my stuff is likely to be offline for a day or so. I’ll let you know when the change is closer.

In case you’re wondering what all that “Who dat?” stuff is about

Maybe you’ve read about the NFL threatening to sue some people in New Orleans who sell football-related stuff (t-shirts, hats, etc.) bearing the words “Who dat?” (Europeans—and Filipinos, and Australians,—: “Who dat?” = “Who is that?” in some Louisiana and/or African-American dialects.) Great outrage ensued, because the term belongs to Saints fans, not to the NFL. Happily, the NFL has now backed off.

Not having paid much attention to professional football over the years, I knew the phrase was somehow associated with the New Orleans Saints, but didn’t know its origin or meaning. Translation into more formal English: “Who is that saying they’re going to beat them [those] Saints?”

It seems Louisiana R&B legend Aaron Neville and some Saints players got together:

Speaking of Aaron Neville, here’s another side of him:

Conservative and Catholic (2)

Sunday Night Journal — January 31, 2010

The contention that to be a conservative is to be less than fully Catholic has a further implication with which I disagree: that there is another set of socio-economic and political opinions which is fully Catholic, and to which therefore a faithful Catholic ought to subscribe.

I don’t think this is true at any very detailed and specific level. Obviously there are Catholic social principles which have the teaching authority of the Church behind them. And obviously Catholics are obliged to honor and to the best of their ability implement these principles. But there is room for a great many approaches to the implementation, and consequently for a great deal of legitimate disagreement. There is no simple and clear solution to most social problems which represents the only truly Catholic way.

For instance, in the comments on the Caelum et Terra discussion I mentioned last week, Daniel describes hearing Fr. Benedict Groeschel, whom I admire immensely, speak of illegal immigration and deliver

…a fiery denunciation against any hostility to our brothers and sisters who come here seeking work, and quoted the Old Testament on how defrauding the laborer of his wage is a sin which cries to heaven for vengeance. This last in reference to the fact that illegal immigrants pay Social Security payroll taxes, which they will never receive back in retirement.

As a description of the spirit in which this problem ought to be addressed, this is excellent, and one could hardly disagree with it. But it’s pretty useless as a solution to the problem, as it doesn’t even address the numerous conflicting claims of rights and justice involved in the situation. Just to mention one of those, there is the question of the effect of illegal immigrants on the jobs and wages available to citizens. I have seen with my own eyes African-American workers replaced with Mexican ones who are undoubtedly working for lower wages. Which has the stronger claim to justice at the expense of the other? Fr. Groeschel’s “fiery denunciation” can’t tell us. The immigration question represents an odd alliance of capitalists, who want cheap labor and don’t care where it comes from, and leftists who apparently don’t believe that the United States has any right to control its borders, or to treat its citizens differently from non-citizens. The American citizens who might have done many of these jobs don’t seem to matter much to either group. I think it was the younger president Bush who often referred to “jobs Americans won’t do,” neglecting to add the crucial qualifier “for the wages offered.”

Which suggests another example, the question of the just wage or living wage. It’s a clear Catholic teaching that workers should be paid a living wage. But there are many details of the implementation of that principle which have to be worked out in practice, with great attention to the possibility of unintended consequences.. Should, for instance, an employer pay a married man with children more than an unmarried person? If the answer is yes, should it be enforced by law? To do so would create a huge incentive for employers not to hire that married man. And what of the fact that the whole pattern of breadwinner-husband stay-at-home-wife has mostly dissolved here and in Europe? In principle all such vagaries and unintended consequences could be forestalled by more and more laws, but that effort tends toward the placement of most economic activity under state control, and that hasn’t worked out very well where it’s been tried.

Illustrations could be multiplied. My point is not to address either of these problems, immigration or wages, but to insist that the path from principle to policy is often not at all clear.

That a Catholic approach to politics is not fully encompassed in either conventional conservatism or conventional liberalism is obviously true. That a Catholic is compromised by aligning himself with one or the other is not therefore true. Each represents a way of approaching practical solutions, each emphasizes a different set of problems and preferred ways of solving them. However much we may complain about the inadequacies and distortions and inconsistencies present in the broad description of political forces in this country as a contest between “conservative” and “liberal”—I think “progressive” is a better term—the description persists because it is applicable enough to be useful; the forces denoted by the two terms do exist.

For my part—as I said last week—I find that on the whole my views coincide much more with conservatism than progressivism, and so am willing to call myself a conservative. That identification isn’t terribly important to me; it is only important at the moment because I resent the charge that it makes me less than fully Catholic. Others may hold themselves aloof from both sides, and I have no argument with that. And I don’t mind people considering themselves to be right and me wrong when we disagree; that’s life. Nor do I have any argument in principle with those who want to build a political movement which is explicitly Catholic and which would agree with conservatives about some things and progressives about others (though I suspect that any such movement would, in our climate, be treated as “conservative,” which would be very frustrating to its adherents).

But to declare oneself the enemy and superior of those who do associate themselves with one side or the other is only to create another side, a faction. I consider factionalism to be one of the great problems facing the Church, at least in this country. It usually involves the separating or distancing of oneself  from others by going beyond the unity in essentials prescribed by St. Augustine and insisting on unity in matters where legitimate disagreement—Augustine’s liberty—exists.

And yes, I see the danger of starting a faction obsessed with deploring factionalism. My intention is simply to avoid participating in it as much as possible, and so, having made this point once, I don’t plan to harp on it.