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October 2013

The Plight of Anglo-Catholics

I'm not sure how many readers of this blog are interested, but here is an interesting piece on the situation of Anglo-Catholics since the establishment of the Ordinariate. One word summary: untenable. The author is addressing the Church of England, but what he says is broadly applicable to American Episcopalians of Catholic inclination as well. 

I thought the Anglo-Catholic position was untenable thirty or more years ago, when I was wrestling with the idea of turning to Rome. You can't reasonably or in any substantial way consider yourself to be Catholic without being part of a body which as a whole believes itself to be Catholic, because it is a pretty clear and fundamental aspect of historical Christianity, both Western and Eastern, that the Church is a visible body. The Roman Catholic Church and various Orthodox communions may disagree about what constitutes that body and who is or is not part of it, but they agree that it is something more than mere like-mindedness cutting across boundaries which are held to be insignificant in comparison.

I'm not sure that Anglo-Catholicism ever was tenable, because I think Anglicanism was always fundamentally Protestant. But if it was tenable, it was to the degree that corporate reunion with Rome was something for which it could reasonably hope. That time is past. The absolute best that a Catholic party in either the Church of England or the Episcopal Church can hope for is to be tolerated, and not required to formally affirm teachings which it cannot accept.

So it seems to me that a self-styled Catholic who chooses to remain in one of those churches, not for some overriding and extenuating personal reason, but for theological reasons, declares himself thereby to be Protestant, albeit with Catholic sympathies. Or else is in the position of trying to assert that his faction within a larger and non-Catholic body is actually the Catholic Church.


A Very Fine Poem

Update: My apologies: I thought this poem was available to non-subscribers, but apparently it's not. I'll leave the post here because you can still enjoy the anecdote. It's even possible that you may run across a copy of the magazine somewhere. Thanks to Louise for pointing this out to me.


I don't find most of the poetry published in The New Criterion (or anywhere else, for that matter) very memorable. Well-crafted, always, and sometimes enjoyable, but rarely anything I would wish to read ten years from now. But there's one in the May issue which I've read several times with no lessening of the pleasure of the first reading. It's based on an incident in the life of Samuel Johnson:

After breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house. When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said, 'Poor dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned back to look down the hill, and said he was determined "to take a roll down". When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, "he had not had a roll for a long time"; and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them--keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife--and laying himself parallel to the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over, till he came to the bottom.'

The poem is by Joseph Harrison, and it's called "Dr. Johnson Rolls Down A Hill". Read it when you're not in a hurry.

I read the anecdote upon which the poem is based many years ago in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (which by the way is a treasure). There it's attributed to Personal and Literary Memorials, published by Henry Digby Beste in 1829. But the speaker is not identified. Thanks to the web and Google, I find a very similar recounting in Leslie Stephens's 1900 biography. It's so similar to Beste's that I suppose Beste to have been Stephen's source. Beste, interestingly, was a Catholic convert, an early instance of what would become the Oxford Movement.

More Wet Guitar

Weekend Music

Musicians and sound engineers use "wet" and "dry" to mean more and less reverb. What came to be called the "surf" guitar style always featured very heavy reverb. I'm pretty sure the sound predates the association with surf, which seems to have been pretty much originated by Dick Dale in the early 1960s. But Duane Eddy used it in 1958.


The Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" came out in 1960.


Jorgen Ingmann's "Apache" was released in 1961.


I recall hanging around in a pinball arcade at the Birmingham State Fair, not to play the games but so I could hear the jukebox, and in particular wanting to hear this song. I think I may even have gotten up my nerve to put my own nickel in the jukebox for that purpose. At any rate I distinctly remember hearing it there. I was either twelve or thirteen, depending on what time of year it was.

The Ramrods' instrumental version of "Ghost Riders In the Sky" is also from 1961.


Another memory: standing around on the gravel playground at my elementary/junior-high school,  hearing this song in my head and thinking about the title, which moved and fascinated me. As this was the first recording of the song I heard, I had no idea of the lyrics, or even that there were lyrics, but I mused on the marvelous image of the title, and wondered what it might mean. I suppose it was an early experience of the power of poetry.

 And here's the best-known tune by the King of the Surf Guitar, Dick Dale:


If you think that sounds Middle Eastern, you're right. It is in fact a Middle Eastern folk song, and the title means "Egyptian." And "Dick Dale" is Richard Anthony Mansour, born in Boston of a Lebanese father and Polish mother, and he grew up on Lebanese music. He didn't move to California until he was a senior in high school. But he did learn to surf. His Wikipedia biography is interesting.

And here's a very good one I hadn't heard before.


Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds, a solitary challenge in the face of the world. No. Christian morality is simply a response. It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, "unjust" mercy.... The surprising, unforeseeable, "unjust" mercy...of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a never falling down but an always getting up again.

--Pope Francis (before he was pope)

Breaking Bad

So I finally watched the series that has been creating such a stir for several years now. It's very good. It's extremely good, in fact, in every technical sense: well-written, well-plotted, well-acted, well-photographed. And it's extremely gripping. I know at least three people who have watched a few of the roughly 60 one-hour episodes and stopped there, but I don't see how they did it. If it were a book, you'd call it a page-turner. 

As most everybody probably knows, it's the story of a fifty-year-old high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who leads a frustrating life, barely getting by financially, a bit hen-pecked, knowing that if he hadn't felt obliged to bail out early from the company he'd helped to found many years earlier he'd be a billionaire. Into this dreary situation comes a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Wishing to provide for his family after his death, he decides to go into the business of making methamphetamine, with a former student and current meth-maker and dealer, Jesse Pinkman, providing the sales outlet. His intention is to make a quick bundle and get out before he dies. 

Well, of course it gets considerably more complicated. 

The series is sometimes compared the The Wire, of which I am a great fan. One could argue that Breaking Bad is superior in an architectural way: it's one long story that spans six seasons, with some sixty episodes which maintain a  consistent level of quality and continuity, whereas each of The Wire's five seasons was a somewhat distinct story, although they involved many of the same characters. But I like The Wire better, mainly because it has more characters for whom I had more affection. There aren't many people in Breaking Bad that I liked very much, certainly not Walt, as one quickly begins to refer to him. And most of it is in some way painful to watch. There are many psychologically excruciating scenes involving Walt's attempt to keep his family in the dark about what he's doing, and to shield them from its effects, and many more which I can't mention without giving away too much. Suffice to say that very bad things happen to a lot of people, and although that was also true of The Wire, there is less humor and less light in Breaking Bad. And there's a fair amount of serious violence that some people--for instance me--may have trouble getting out of their heads afterward.

I don't want to give much away, but here's a link to the opening scene. It may give you some idea of the way the narrative pulls you in. Or maybe you'll just shrug. And if you've seen it and want to discuss it, spoilers allowed, in the comments, I'd certainly like to hear what you have to say.

On Mary

She is the garden enclosed and the solitary place, the nave all quiet and the lamp of recollection, the triumphal apse and the translucent altar.

She is the living tabernacle and the eternal altar of repose.

--Fr. Maurice Zundel

And that would certainly be an intolerable situation

"...most faculty wanted to keep full coverage [for abortion in the school's insurance plan], and felt that a total ban would signal that the university 'values diversity less than our Catholic affiliation.'"

Good thing I long ago got over being impressed by doctoral degrees. I must say that this deserves some kind of special mention for the great stretch of logic required to claim the academy's most highly prized virtue-word for the speaker's view.

Full story (Los Angeles Times)

The Lapsed Are Listening?

I remain skeptical of the idea that the pope's outreach to non-believers is being received as anything but a concession. Here's a writer at the New York Times who is effusive in his enthusiasm that the Church might be coming to him:

The only problem with Francis is his age. If he were 50, he might have a quarter-century to move his church up several centuries in enlightened thinking. His time is short. But what a miraculous sprint, producing this minor miracle: the lapsed are listening.

You can read the whole thing here, although you don't really need to--I mean, you've pretty much got the gist of it here. Of course one can agree with the writer that much of what Francis has been saying is good in itself. But I'll agree that he's really listening when he gives some indication that he's reconsidering his own position; there is not a trace of that in the article.

And here's another one, also in the NYT, from a Notre Dame philosophy professor (I usually feel like I should put "philosophy" in quotes):

But Pope Francis speaks of the “uncertainty” always involved in the process of spiritual discernment and emphasizes that “the great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties.” Here the pope shows signs of having learned what most of his recent predecessors have not: that even what we take to be divinely revealed truth is a historical construct, requiring periodic refinement and revision. The question is whether he is willing to recognize the inadequacies of the hierarchy’s dogmatic stances on sexual ethics and develop a more adequate position.

Whole thing here, but again not necessarily worth the bother, as you've heard it all before.

I didn't read very many of the comments on these pieces, but most of the ones I did read support my skepticism.

Related: John Allen has a thought similar to one that has occurred to me more than once over the past couple of months:

Over his first eight months, Francis basically has killed the fatted calf for the prodigal sons and daughters of the post-modern world, reaching out to gays, women, nonbelievers, and virtually every other constituency inside and outside the church that has felt alienated.

There are an awful lot of such prodigals, of course, which helps explain the pope's massive appeal.

Yet there are also a few Catholics today who feel a bit like the story's older son, wondering if what they've always understood as their loyalty to the church, and to the papacy, is being under-valued.

Whole thing.

I've always thought the older brother is at least as important a part of the parable as the father and the prodigal. As a one-time prodigal, now at home for more than thirty years, I'm as much in the role of the older as the younger brother. And I have asked myself if some of the reservations, including my own, about some of the pope's outreach are a manifestation of that. But in my own case there's only a bit of it. My concern is not that the father is welcoming the prodigal, but that he sometimes seems contemptuous of the other. And that the prodigal, far from being repentant, think's there's good reason to expect that the welcome feast will be held at a strip club.

The Tyranny of Liberalism: A Symposium

I think I'll let this be my last post on this book for now. It deserves a lengthy and well-considered review, but for various reasons I don't feel up to that. So I'll just point you to a series of essays at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which comprise a pretty good discussion of the book. 

Part One, by Paul Gottfried, makes an important point:

In my opinion, Jim underestimates the power of transformed Christian narratives and replacement theologies in trying to explain contemporary social and political behavior. Multiculturalism, together with its disparagement of a specifically white Western civilization, is not so much about pleasure-seeking and material gratification as it is about recognizing and expiating sin. Although my own examination of modern political life started out by looking at the ideologies of public administration and changing power-relations, I was led eventually into noticing the religious dimension of my area of study. Secularized Christianity does not remove the presence of Christian concepts of guilt, sin, and atonement but has the result of turning them into ludicrous PC caricatures. Without necessarily rejecting Jim’s picture of the degeneration of liberalism, I am more struck by the kind of degenerate Christianity that has accompanied this process.

Part Two, a fairly critical appraisal by William English, raising some reasonable objections. I think most people reading The Tyranny of Liberalism will share some of his reservations, and in particular the fundamental one raised by the title: is it really reasonable to accuse liberalism of tyranny? Isn't that a bit, or more than a bit, over the top? Even if we set aside that particular word, are those of us who see a coercive element in liberalism (an element which is clearly growing with respect to religious freedom,) over-reacting, being a little hysterical or paranoid? 

...despite the long exegesis Kalb develops of liberalism’s vices, which includes numerous comparisons to Soviet tyranny, the limited examples he draws on lead one to think that if a handful of still debated policies were reversed, he wouldn’t have much to complain about. Absent affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, and bureaucratic overregulation liberalism might not look so bad. Their inevitability in a liberal regime needs to be better established, although Kalb is certainly right that these issues won’t be resolved to his satisfaction anytime soon. Nonetheless, before lobbing the polemic accusations of liberal tyranny, Kalb might consider the old moral of the “Boy who Cried Wolf.” Hyperbole has long been a strategy of many of the leftists Kalb despises, who equate any inequality with racial apartheid and every military action with genocide. Likewise, it is perhaps a stretch to see in every gauche display of political correctness a systematic march towards tyranny.

That last sentence is true, certainly. But English doesn't really do justice to Kalb's argument. His point is not that government gets obnoxious and in the way in a few specific situations, but that it has become a sort of net which gently but comprehensively and powerfully restricts numerous normal and healthy social impulses, and that this is because it dishonestly insists that its own notion of ultimate values prevail while claiming to be neutral. (He does not dwell on "bureaucratic overregulation" in the sense that one would hear those words in the usual right-wing context, which is usually about business specifically.) 

If one considers, for instance, the very tight restriction on religion in public schools, there are ample grounds for calling the situation tyrannical even if one does not want to label the entire system as a tyranny, in total. Religion, especially Christianity, is considered by secular elites to be a sort of toxin of which even trace amounts are too many in any government-supported institution (except where it is isolated for study in a laboratory). Yet where locally-supported public schools are concerned, it is a pretty long stretch from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" to the prohibition of any religious exercise in the schools. Yes, I know most public schools were once effectively Protestant, and this was bad for Catholics. But is it really such an abuse if a mainly Protestant community wants its religion reinforced by the schools it provides? The fact that only religion is treated this way, and that any number of values-laden projects such as "diversity" and ecological awareness are acceptable (at least in principle) for propagation in the schools, is an indication of the dishonest coercion to which Kalb refers.

These are not just matters of subjective preference and trivial impact. Our culture has now reached a point where if you want to raise children without having them exposed to hard-core pornography, you are all but powerless. It can be done only through an unfeasible and generally unhealthy degree of isolation. The law will not help you at all. 

Part Three is strong praise from James Matthew Wilson, who writes for Front Porch Republic. It might actually be the best place to start for a good overview of the book, especially its diagnostic sections.

Part Four is Kalb's reply to English. In the course of responding, he gives a good brief summary of his prescription, his "what is to be done?" segment of the book, which I haven't mentioned so far:

[English] is shocked by the minimalism of my practical political suggestions. He should not be. There is no technocratic cure for technocracy. If “social policy” is the problem the solution cannot be point-by-point realization of a preferred design for society through intelligent application of available resources.

What is needed is a better—less liberal, less technocratic, more natural, more traditional, more transcendentally-oriented—outlook and way of life. In the book I sketch out how something better could come about, what we could do to promote it, and why Christianity (and more specifically Christendom) is the way to go.

Such discussions relate mainly to pre-political aspects of life. The specifically political contribution to the process is necessarily limited. On that front what is needed are changes that make it possible for non-liberal ways and standards to survive, develop, and take hold. If we are stuck going the wrong direction and heading toward a cliff, the immediate practical necessity is to unlock the steering so we can start turning around.

Once that is done we need, of course, to decide where specifically we should head. So we must discuss how a tradition becomes adequate to human life and sufficiently authoritative to order society.

I expect most people reading this will be immediately wary of the suggestion that "Christianity (and more specifically Christendom) is the way to go"--not necessarily because it raises the fear of "theocracy" (much-abused word these days) but because of the oft-expressed warning against using Christianity as a means toward an earthly end. If I'm not mistaken, Screwtape has some recommendations on that score. But this is a book about earthly things, and the necessity of referring to ultimate principles in their pursuit, and Kalb would be falling into the same fault as liberalism if he didn't point toward where those principles might reside.

 There's one particular item in Kalb's indictment of the post-1960s liberal society that I find very challenging, and continue to wrestle with. He blames "comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation" for its effect as a solvent of family and community, requiring that everyone be treated, in a memorable phrase I encountered thirty years ago, only and always as "neuter personnel and consumers."

Yes, but: that legislation was mainly intended to dismantle racial segregation and in general make the oppression of black people by white people more difficult. Was it worth it, if the principles brought into law at that point are now being used to suppress religious freedom? Could we have achieved something comparable in any other way? I don't know. It's a question that will continue to trouble me. 

Bergoglio's List

An Italian journalist has published a book asserting that Pope Francis, then simply Fr. Bergoglio, assisted "by conservative estimates...more than 100 people" in escaping arrest and probable death at the hands of Argentina's ruling military during the 1970s. More information here.

I'd seen scattered references to the future pope's involvement in these rescues, but it seemed like only hearsay. This looks more extensive.

One can see why a priest who had been in that position would be more sympathetic to liberation theology, and less concerned about its doctrinal problems, than someone looking at it strictly from the theological point of view.

Conspicuous Automotive Consumption, Then and Now

Everybody makes fun of the ostentatious tacky tail-finned cars of the 1950s. And with good reason.

1958 Imperial Ad-02

1958 Chrysler Imperial

But this is just as bad, though in a different way. It's certainly every bit as ostentatious.


2013 Cadillac Escalade "Truck"

The whole "Sport" "Utility" Vehicle thing has been annoying for a long time, though at this point I suppose everyone has learned to ignore the absurdity of vehicles originally designed for sport and utility becoming the preferred mode of suburban transportation. But luxury SUVs from Cadillac, Mercedes, take it a bit further. The Escalade is one of the most ostentatious, and the addition of a stubby little truck bed just leaves me shaking my head and wondering why.

Notice the shift in tone of the ads: in the first one it's just "Don't you want to look rich?" In the second, it's "Don't you want to look rich?" plus a bit of "Don't you want to look unconventional?"

I've read that the SUV fashion was partly driven by EPA fuel economy standards, which caused ordinary passenger cars to get smaller, but did not apply to trucks, which the SUVs technically are. If that's true, then the push for fuel economy is responsible for the revival of the gas guzzler. Unintended consequences strike again.

Sure To Be My Favorite Obamacare Remark

From an Obama voter who just found out how much her health insurance premium is going up:

“Of course, I want people to have health care,” Vinson said. “I just didn’t realize I would be the one who was going to pay for it personally.”

More from Neoneocon.

Update: On second thought, I have to quote a bit more from Neo for people who might not bother to click over and read the whole post; this bit certainly describes a lot of people:

Perhaps their thinking stops at the “Of course, I want people to have health care” point. That makes them good people in their own eyes: nice people, compassionate people, unlike those who disagree with them and are imagined to be mean people who do not“want people to have health care.” The idea that conservatives actually might also “want people to have health care” and yet be more realistic than liberals about the costs and benefits of such an undertaking, and might have different ideas about the best way to effect the greatest amount of health care for the greatest number of people, seems to be a foreign notion to many who think as Vinson does.

Sinead O'Connor Has a Few Words for Miley Cyrus

 In spite of her manifest dottiness, including the famous tearing-up-a-picture-of-the-pope incident, I have a soft spot in my heart for Sinead O'Connor. That's based mainly on a few interviews I've read with her, and a few songs; I've never actually heard much of her music. But somehow I have the impression of someone who is a genuinely seeking the truth, misguided though she may often be. That's why I read her open letter to Miley Cyrus. I have made a conscious effort to avoid seeing the recent Miley Cyrus video performances which have attracted so much attention. But there have been enough descriptions and still photos popping up on the online news sites that I think I get the picture, a very sad and sleazy one. So I'm pretty sure the advice in this letter, which is obviously sound in general, is something Miley Cyrus, along with millions of other young women, needs to hear (it's also full of vulgar language, so be ready for that).

[People in the music business] will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted.. and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.....

Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them pray [sic] for animals and less than animals (a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and the associated media).

"You ought to be protected as a precious young lady." What a beautiful sentiment. When a Christian says something like that, it's scoffed at, and I suppose there will be a lot of people scoffing at what Sinead O'Connor says--she's over the hill, she's old and bitter, etc. But I suspect that even the scoffers recognize the truth in it. Try though the entertainment industry and various sexual ideologues may, the idea that there is something especially sweet and vulnerable and deserving of protection about young female sexuality simply won't be crushed.

Miley Cyrus has apparently responded with mockery, and Google results for the two names refer to a "feud" between the two.

Last Word (maybe) on the Pope's Interview

I said this several days ago in a comment on the Caelum et Terra blog, and after a day or two decided that it's pretty much my considered opinion:

But really, I think we’re all, whatever our opinion of the remarks, making too much of them. They’re only remarks. As my wife said, he’s “sort of loosey-goosey when he talks”–he’s conversational, not a careful measurer of words, and more passionate than precise. As my wife also said, he has the style of a really good parish priest. Taken in that spirit, the interview is delightful and inspiring.

And that also applies to this new interview, which also contains some very good stuff and some eyebrow-raisers. Let's hope he has in mind some kind of distinction between evangelizing and proselytizing.