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December 2015

52 Movies?

I should have brought this up a couple of weeks ago. The next-to-last day of the year is pretty late. 

Someone suggested 52 movies as a group project for next year. I'm willing, because I think it would be a good bit easier than 52 authors (52 books would have been more manageable). With movies, I could always come up with something if the person who had that week wasn't able to deliver. I could commit to doing one week out of every month, which would be a bigger proportion than with the books, but still leave 40 open for others. 

Let me remind you that Janet is also doing a 52 Saints at her blog and I know many or most of us plan to contribute that. She's going to be doing those on Sundays, so if we do the movies, I would publish them on Wednesday or Thursday.

So if you want to do this, speak up. No need to pin down specific weeks at this point. We can just start by seeing if there's enough interest to proceed.

52 Authors: Week 52 - Jean Daniélou

Jean Daniélou was a French Jesuit. He was one of the famous group of French Jesuits who passed through the Jesuit house at Fourvière (in Lyon) in the 1920s and 1930s. The greatest member of the group was, without doubt, Henri de Lubac (who has received a very fine tribute from Robert Gotcher in our 52 Author’s series). Many others were also memorable, including Gaston Fessard, a great Hegel scholar, and Yves de Montcheuil, who became a chaplain to the French Resistance and was murdered by the National Socialists in 1944. Henri de Lubac gathered the writings of some of his confrères in one of those many de Lubacy Ignatius Press books, called Three Jesuits Speak, a sort of tribute volume, but worth reading.

Jean Daniélou was not in the same league as de Lubac, but he wrote one great book which will continue to nourish Catholic’s understanding of Scripture and the Liturgy for many generations to come.

De Lubac’s squad of Fourvière Jesuits are famous for three things. One is that they all admired the writings of the French philosopher Maurice Blondel. Blondel himself had written a Pascalian tome of philosophy called Action, which argued that human beings put infinitely more energy into their actions than they can ever use in finite circumstances. Human beings have a choice, a basic ‘option,’ Blondel called it, between admiting that the infinite in them comes from God, and actively cooperating with the divine input, or refusing outside help, and remaining independent forever, eternally, living off the fruits of selfish egoism. The young Jesuits of the 1920s and 1930s loved Action, because it was all about acting. It seemed more energetic than the circular logic of the neo-scholasticism of the time. Their elders detested it, because it was all about acting, and not about logical truths which stayed the same for ever. Dominicans in particular disliked it, especially the evil and destructive Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP.

The second thread to the story is that the infamous Garrigou-Lagrange detested the lot of them so much that he had them silenced. To explain how that came about we must mention a third element in the legend of the Jesuits of Fourvière. They loved the Patristics, the early Church Fathers. They started a series of Patristic texts, called Sources Chrétiennes, still being published by Cerf today. These books have the Greek or Latin text on one side, and the vernacular (French) on the other. Danélou was the editor, and as de Lubac later kindly but ruefully observed, he had a series to sell. The series had set off in 1942, and in 1946 Daniélou published an article to advertize it. Daniélou’s article was called “Les orientations présentes de la pensée religieuse,” and it was published in the spring of 1946. This piece, full of Blondelisms about dynamic action and energy, and wholly innocuous in its theological content, became known as the ‘Red Rag to the Roman Bull.’

Later that same year, the Roman bull, in the form of Garrigou-Lagrange charged. He published “La nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?”, where is the ‘New Theology’ going. It was, by the way, Garrigou-Lagrange who christened the new movements as ‘New Theology.’ He argued that this talk about the Patristics and their dynamic energy was leading the Church back to Modernism, that is, back to subjectivism and historicism. He didn’t like all this chatter about the Patristics because he thought himself a Thomist. No, the logic of that cannot be explained. ‘Because Thomas’ doesn’t work, since Thomas himself loved the Early Church Fathers.

Unfortunately for several generations of Catholics, this evil, unimaginative and rather unintelligent man was second in command at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had the whole squad silenced, removed from their teaching positions, and shifted around from pillar to post. For nearly fifteen years before the second Vatican Council, the greatest minds in the French religious orders – for example, Daniélou and De Lubac amongst the Jesuits, Marie-Dominique Chenu amongst the Dominicans – were forbidden to teach the upcoming generation of seminarians. Those are just the great names: there were many other lesser men of their ilk who could not enable faith to seek understanding. The generation of priests who greeted the documents of the Second Vatican Council had not had decent teachers for nearly two decades. The result was exactly the thing which Garrigou-Lagrange had feared, and which he had himself engineered by repressing the orthodox apologetics of the Fourvière Jesuits: a return of modernist subjectivism, fideism and historicism in the Catholic Church.

One thing which suffered greatly after the Vatican Council was the liturgy. A poorly educated clergy was easily infected by a profound amnesia rning the immense poetry of the liturgy. The texts of the Vatican Council had encouraged the Church to put the Bible at the center of Catholic life: but no one had been taught how to read the Bible, especially not the Old Testament. No one knew what to do with the riches which were suddenly poured at the feet of Catholic parishioners, and like lottery winners, they squandered their gains.

One book which should have taught them about that immense poetry was Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy. This book shows how the actions Old Testament prefigure the New Testament, and how these types, and the power they contain, are carried forth today in the dynamic actions of the Liturgy, its sacraments. Its full of quotations from the early Church Fathers, showing how the early Church knotted together the Old and the New Covenants, and how it read every gesture of the liturgy as energetic signs of Biblical events. Daniélou writes that, “the sacraments were seen as great events in sacred history, the mirabilia which fill the sphere between the glorious Ascension and the glorious Parousia, their course constituting that shining train of divine works whose splendour the very angels cannot endure, which fills them with wonder” (p. 199).

The book treats the symbolism of the liturgy as it should be treated, as a revealed system of aesthetic echoes and resonances which carry the drama of the Bible into the life of the Church. Daniélou reminds the reader that “The first type of Baptism to be found in the most ancient Catechesis is that of the primitive waters of Genesis. At first glance this comparison may seem startling and artificial, but we must always be careful to look behind the ‘illustrative’ resemblances which are concerned with images for the theological analogies which constitute typology properly speaking” (pp. 71-72). This great book can be read with pleasure by any one with an aesthetic sense. You do not have to be a liturgy buff or especially pious.

Daniélou was one of those who were left to fight the tidal wave of misinterpretation of the Vatican II documents. The one time ‘modernist’ New Theologian now gained a reputation amongst his fellow Jesuits for being a reactionary. He lived very modestly, sleeping in a simple cell on a very bare board of a bed. Most of his money was given way, to homeless people, beggars and prostitutes. He paid for his valor against post-Vatican II Modernism with his reputation. Long before, he had offered God a shameful death in return for the conversion of his brother, a specialist in the Hindu religion. He got it. Visiting the flat of a prostitute whose protector was in prison, the aged Jesuit dropped dead, the money he had brought with him to give her in his hand. His brother Jesuits apparently knew the truth but made no effort to defend his reputation. Until very recently, Daniélou’s name could only be mentioned with giggles, as the New Theologian who died in the arms of a tart. The motto of the Dominican Order is ‘Veritas,’ and with his habitual concern for the charism of his Order, Fergus Kerr repeats the ‘death in a prostitute’s flat’ story in his recent book on modern Catholic Theologians.

This past spring (April 2015), the slurs began to be corrected. For the first time in forty-five years, Jesuits publicly told the truth about the kind of man Daniélou was, and about how he died. The true story is repeated here (and other versions are available elsewhere on the web) as told by Joanna Bogle.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

Santa Cruz

This has nothing at all to do with the season, but I was retrieving these photos from my phone and thought I'd post a couple of them. Last weekend I was visiting in the Silicon Valley area and we went to Santa Cruz one day. It's the sort of place that you immediately wish you could move to. The first picture is looking southward toward the high rocky point which is seen from much closer in the second picture. On the other side of that point there were real surfers, surfing. People surf in the Gulf of Mexico here but it's pretty mild, almost funny, stuff, unless there's a hurricane coming. These were way out from shore--somewhere between a quarter and a half mile, I'd guess. And the waves were several feet taller than they were. It looks scary, but it also looks like a whole lot of fun. 



That little black smudge on the point is a person, which gives you an idea of how high the rocks are. Sometimes the waves would send spray almost to the top.

52 Authors: Week 51 - David Hume

It is very surprising that Christians who are conservatives do not generally espouse a great admiration for David Hume (1711-1776). It’s true he was a critic of the religious apologetics of his time. But in its context, the natural theology of Hume’s time was rationalist. And if there is one thing which conservativism is against, it is surely rationalism. So it’s a mystery why Christians mostly do not unite in admiration of Hume’s onslaught on the rationalism of his time. There are great exceptions: the great Presbyterian theologian T.F. Torrance observed that Hume’s criticisms of the arguments to God’s existence of his contemporaries are useless. But most Catholics fall in with Elizabeth Anscombe’s misjudgement that Hume was simply a bad man. If he was a bad man, and unlike Anscombe I don’t profess to know, he has done a great deal of good for this Catholic. Hume has done more for my faith than many of the theologians who have starred in the 52 Authors series. Even though our starring theologians have all been ‘greats,’ I have to confess that Hume has done more for me, in freeing me from my own spiritual sluggishness. What follows is a lightly disguised excerpt from the chapter on Hume in the book on ‘Illuminating Faith’ which I co-authored last year. I wrote this chapter.


Back to the Middle Ages proponents of ‘faith’ and of ‘reason’ jousted in fair weather.. What happened between 1690 and 1740 was epic: a whole society experienced contradiction between faith and reason. Dismissal of faith and adherence to rationalism became commonplace. The turn to rationalism was engineered not by atheists or Deists but by Anglican ministers and pillars of the established Church of England. Bible Miracles were taken as evidence that the Bible is God’s revelation; Locke argued that we may infer from his miracles that Jesus was sent to us from God.

In the 1618-1648 ‘Wars of Religion,” European Catholics and Protestants butchered one another, and savaged the credibility of faith. The English Civil War made soldiers of fanatical charismatics, who believed themselves agents of the Holy Spirit. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 deflated enthusiasm. The great Dr. Johnson professed himself ‘no friend to enthusiasm.’ Was that because, at the time, enthusiasm was a greater enemy to Christian faith than scepticism?

The 1662 Press Act opened English printing presses to publishing satirical tracts, including religion in the mockery. Writers used irony to mock religion, just as in the former USSR and its colonies, ironic jokes circulated. Irony is invisible, or at least deniable. What did Jonathan Swift mean when, in “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity” he argued that abolishing the Established Church would sink the Bank of England? Swift’s tract mocked the rationalist Unitarian, John Toland, but it also seems to make light of Anglicanism. Swift was a Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In Swift’s fantasy novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the hero lives amongst purely rational horses, the Houyhnhnm, whose serfs are degraded human beings, Yahoos. ‘Houyhnhnm’ is onamatopoiec, representing an equinine neigh: it means, in their language, “the perfection of nature.” Did their author regard the Houyhnhnm as ideal creatures or monsters? Swift’s irony makes his writing two-sided and opaque.

What about Hume himself? Most people think that David Hume was on the side of the devil when he claimed in sweetly ironic tones that it takes faith to believe in miracles. They were not amused then and they still think he must have been a bad man to say those things.

The turn to rationalism started when the Polish Anabaptists Lelio Socinus and his nephew Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) assumed leadership of the Polish Brethren. The Brethren were a non-magisterial Protestant sect, who later became known as Socinians. Lelio and Faustus rejected faith in the divinity of Christ and in the Trinity on the grounds that these traditional articles of faith cannot clearly be reasoned out of Scripture. By 1601 Faustus’ ideas were enshrined in the Racovian Catechism, which states that reason ‘is …of great service, since without it we would neither perceive with certainty the authority of the sacred writings, understand their contents, …nor apply them to any practical purpose. When ... I stated that the Holy Scripture were sufficient for our salvation … I certainly assumed its presence’ [i.e., the presence of reason]. The Socinians were Protestants who took the sola Scriptura principle to a logical conclusion. They replaced faith with ‘what can be reasoned out of Scripture.’

By the way, one of my co-authors on Illuminating Faith is a Protestant, and I originally wrote that this practice is a distortion of Protestantism: Luther surely didn’t expect people to be writing to their bishop and demanding to be shown exactly where the doctrine of the Trinity can be demonstrated from Scripture? I’m ecumenical that way! But my co-author insisted that from its very origins Protestantism requires that doctrines can be demonstrated from Scripture. So I withdrew my claim that Socinianism and Deism are distortions of the Protestant sola scriptura principle.

What had hitherto been termed, variously, the rule of faith, the light of faith, and the articles of faith now for the first time was equated with ‘what a rational individual can find in the Bible, read literally.’ Socinianism was identified with ‘Unitarianism,’ that is, anti-Trinitarian theism. What it comes down to is rationalist Bible-literalism. Anglican apologists attempted to combat Unitarianism with the weapons of reason and the Bible.

So Socinianism influenced the Established Church of England. Disputing Catholic claims that one needs the faith of the Church to recognize Scripture as divine Revelation the Anglican Archbishop, William Laud (1573-1645) argued that faith is assenting to what reason can see in or deduce from the Bible. But what can be deduced from Scripture? Is the Trinity in Scripture? The divinity of Christ? The fall of Adam? Original sin? Anglicans had landed themselves with the job of demonstrating the Trinity out of Scripture read without the guidance the Holy Spirit, and without the perspectives of ecclesial faith.

In fact, though religions are not based on what their sacred texts say, but on what believers think these texts say. Unless one already believes in the Trinity by other means, say, because it is the historical faith of the church expressed in the creeds, one will not find the Scriptures to speak of Father, Son and Spirit as the three persons of one God. Anglican apologists committed themselves to a circular argument. The Bible miracles, especially the miracles Jesus performs, were thought to give the Bible rational credentials, as God’s revelation. The miracles were supposed to give Jesus a good credit rating with other people, so that we lent credence to all his claims. That is what Locke tells us.

Who was he? John Locke (1632-1704) was the most equinine philosopher of the epoch.

Locke demonstrated that faith contains nothing unreasonable by defining faith as dutifully obedient to reason. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding he defines “faith” as “nothing but a firm assent of the mind; which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason”. Locke says that Reason is “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz. by sensation or reflection.” Reason works on ideas, which emerge from sensations. It deduces propositions from ideas which originate in sensations. Faith, by contrast, does not derive from deductions from ideas which are themselves virtual versions of sensations. Rather, says Locke, “Faith ... is the assent to any proposition ...upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation.” Rather than buying the item ‘cash down’, on the basis of ideas emerging from sensations, one buys the truths of faith on credit from God. But why is it reasonable to buy truths on credit from God? What makes it rational to believe the Bible is God’s Word? Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) claims that the ‘proposer’ is Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, and the evidence Jesus offers, making it rational for us to credit that he is God’s emissary, is his miracles and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Jesus’ miracles are his good credit rating, making rationally credible his claim to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus showed himself to be the Messiah by his miracles and by claiming the prophesied Kingdom of God had come. Locke does not think Jesus said he was the Messiah, but he thinks the Gospel writers say so. Locke’s ‘article of faith’ is that Jesus was the Messiah. It is reasonable to have faith that the Bible is God’s Revelation because, in it, Jesus the Messiah performs miracles, acts which are evidence that he was on a mission from God.

The problem with Locke’s view is that, if we think it implausible that God’s revelation would contain any unreasonable propositions, we would have to think the doctrine that God is three persons in one substance is reasonable before we could find it in Scripture.

For Locke, Jesus is the Messiah, but is he the second person of the Trinity? If, on Locke’s account, we make an inference from Jesus to God, then Jesus is not God. The Reasonableness of Christianity does not mention the Trinity. When called on this, Locke both denied that he was a Unitarian, and sarcastically demanded to see a different Bible which refers unequovically to the Trinity: ‘My Lord, my Bible is faulty again; for I do not remember that I ever read in it either of these propositions in these precise words, ‘that there are three persons in one nature, or, there are two natures in one person’. When your Lordship shall show me a Bible wherein they are set down, I shall then think them a good instance of propositions offered me out of Scripture …. they may be drawn from the Scripture: but I deny that these very propositions are in express words in my Bible.’ Scripture exegesis becomes the test which faith must pass, and we know in advance that Scripture will not offend our reasoning minds by deciding to read it as a string of literal propositions. Faith does not, according to Locke, assent to any proposition it does not understand.

Locke’s writings proved an inspiration to such Deists as John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1653-1733). A year after Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, Toland published Christianity not Mysterious (1696). Rejecting the presence of miracle or mystery in the Scriptures, Toland claims that, “Reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude, and ... nothing reveal’d more exempted from its Disquisitions, than the ordinary Phenomena of Nature. Wherefore, there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly call’d a Mystery.”

Few of Jesus’ miracles make prosaic sense, so countless Deist tracts mock the sheer irrationality of Jesus’ miracles, such as cursing the fig tree for not blossoming when figs were not in season. Why take anything on credit, when we can get cash down in nature for a religion of reason? Tindal noted, with sardonic irony, that if Scripture is as reasonable as the Anglican apologists claim, *The truly illuminated books are the darkest of all.”

As moderate Anglicans saw it, reason first demonstrates, from Design, that God exists, and then reason is led to accept the Bible as this designer God’s revelation on the evidence of Jesus’ miracles. There are two stories, reason as foundational, and revelation stacked upon it. Joseph Butler declared, “Reason can, and it ought to judge, not only of the meaning, but also of the morality and the evidence of revelation.”

This is the context in which David Hume criticised religious rationalism! Hume set light to the bonfire of vanities of Bible-rationalism by asking on what evidence people believe in the Gospel miracles. Hume’s ‘Essay on Miracles’ opens by noticing the difference between the Anglican theologian Dr. Tillotson’s attitude to the ‘real presence’ and to eye-witness testimony. Dr. Tillotson rejects the absurd Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the consecrated Eucharist, as contrary to the evidence of the senses: no Scriptural reference can demonstrate what runs counter to the senses of every rational man. But Dr Tillotson owns eye-witness testimony as backing Bible miracles. Hume nails Tillotson to his refutation of the ‘Papist’ doctrine of transubstantion: if sensation and experience rule out the real presence, then how much more should they exclude belief in the testimony of the Gospel writers to miracles? Our concurrence in an event occurred on the say-so of others, that is, on the basis of testimony, will always be “weaker” than our concurrence in the veracity of what we experience for ourselves. The testimonies of “probable” evidence in comparison with the direct proof of our own experience. And miracles run counter to our own experience: no testimony can outweigh our direct experience that the course of nature runs smooth and straight. For miracles to authorize Scripture, the occurrence of miracles would have to be credible.

Hume notes other irrationalities in the proposal of Jesus’ miracles as authorizing the reasonableness of assent to Scripture as God’s Word. Why is this host of miracles isolated and elevated above the miracles of the Muslims and Hindus, as the sole showing of divine revelation? Why, within Christianity, are the Bible miracles isolated and elevated above the host of miracles claimed by Papists for their saints?

Hume conclude that it is a sheer miracle that anyone believes the Bible miracles: “the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity; and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” With these words, Hume, speaking as a kind of Catholic atheist, restated the traditional doctrine that faith is a supernatural virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit.


The Houyhnhnm philosophers had hung too much weight on inference. In The Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion Hume asks how one can know that a domesticated Designer stands at the end of a chain of causal inference from design in the cosmos to its producer. Mediaeval Christians who argued to the existence of God avowedly knew by faith for whom they were looking; as Hume notes, his contemporaries supposed themselves simply to know, by analogy, that the Designer of the Universe would, like the designer of a house, reside at the end of the chain of causal inference. Hume’s Cleanthes professes himself “scandalised ... with this resemblance, which is asserted between the Deity and human creatures; and must conceive it to imply such a degradation of the supreme Being as no sound theist could endure.”1 Hume’s argument shows that the two stories, of faith and reason, do not work unless they mutually reinforce each other. This is precisely what we read in John Paul II’s great encyclical Fides et Ratio.

On the English Empiricist account, sensations are also the beginning of a long line of causal inferences. For Hume, “without the authority either of the memory or of the senses our whole reasoning would be chimerical and without foundation.” Every testimony to which we give credence can be traced back to a sense impression: our belief that Julius Caesar “was kill’d in the senate house on the ides of March” traces back to our sense impressions of the history books in which we have read the eye-witness testimonies to this event.2 We cannot know for sure what causes these impressions: it could be the direct action of God (as the Occasionalists say) or physical objects, or something else. Like Locke, Hume subscribes to the representative theory of perception. He states: “....’twill readily be allow’d, that ... nothing is ever really present to the mind, besides its own perceptions”.3 Hume does not think of impressions or ideas as mediating realities to us, but, as it were, of substituting for realities in our consciousness. Unlike Locke, Hume grasps the consequences of this. Since we do not know what is the real cause of our impressions or what lies beyond them, believing in the veracity of some impressions and not others, or the reality of some external objects and not others, cannot be a matter of rationality. The first act judgement makes is to believe. Ideas are simply weak impressions, while beliefs are very strong impressions. Hume did not only eviscerate Bible-rationalism. This Yahoo struck at the foundations of rationalism, by arguing that, “all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinc’d of any principle, ‘tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me.”4 It follows then that belief is the source of all of our ratiocination. All reasoning rests on belief.

1 Dialogue, p. 49.

2 Human Nature, p. 83.

3 Human Nature, 197

4 Human Nature, 103.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

Aversion to theological precision, cont.

I started writing this as a comment on the post about the above allegation about Pope Francis. It kept getting longer so I decided to turn it into a separate post. 

 I'm not expressing venom or hatred toward the Pope. I state that without qualification, regardless of whether it may appear that way, because I know that's not what I feel. Nor is Carl Olson, who made the "aversion to precision" remark in the page to which I linked, a hater: see this account of his efforts to talk to a CNN reporter about the pope, to whom he is obviously sympathetic. ("No, I'm certain he's not a socialist. His criticisms of capitalism and liberal economics, again, are very much in keeping with what can be found in Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Leo XIII".)

My conclusion that a certain amount of what Francis says can be treated lightly is more a defense of him than an attack on him. I would much prefer to think that he is sometimes a loose and imprecise talker than that he is deliberately trying to suggest that he objects to certain important Catholic doctrines and practices.

I'm not a Vatican watcher and did not follow the Synod in detail, or have any desire to do so. However, there seems to be pretty wide agreement that a struggle took place between those who want to remove the prohibition against communion by divorced and remarried people and those who do not, and that the latter won. And partisans of both sides seem to think Francis wanted communion after divorce and remarriage to be allowed.

Well, the appeal of that is obvious and great. I dare say there is no one reading this who has not either been married and divorced or been close to someone who has, and does not feel and acknowledge the pain involved, and wish to alleviate it. But the logical implications of the change also seem pretty obvious and great to me. It would raise huge questions that go to the heart of the Church's nature and mission.

So the general view--and I'm only repeating what actual Vatican watchers on both sides have been saying--is that Pope Francis lost a battle. See this in the National Catholic Reporter for a view from the "progressive" side: "...if Pope Francis didn’t at least get communion for divorced and remarried Catholics the Synod could not be considered a success." In that context, several very negative remarks in his closing address seem like digs aimed at his opposition. The address is fine otherwise, but "dead stones to be hurled at others," to pick the strongest example, is quite nasty if its object is those who resisted a very questionable change in the Church's practice. Could he not even credit them with a sincere desire to do God's will in a difficult matter? Wasn't he talking warmly about collegiality a little while ago? (Anyone who has experienced institutional attempts by the powerful to manipulate the rank-and-file into a bogus appearance of consensus may suspect that they're seeing something similar here.)

Which would indicate a lower opinion of the pope: to believe that he very thoughtfully and carefully said exactly what he believes about those who resisted him--that they are contemptible--or to believe that he is prone to extravagant and imprudent speech which doesn't necessarily represent his more fully considered thoughts? I know there are some cranky people out there who have gone a bit nuts about Francis. The worst are the American political conservatives (not necessarily Catholic) who want to write him off because his political views don't suit them. But there are also a lot of people like me who want to think the best of the pope but have been troubled almost from the beginning by a persistent uneasiness about him. I don't like it, but it's there.

Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. But that makes me think of another common feature of modern institutions: the meeting (often called a "listening session"!) where everyone is admonished to speak freely, but where everyone also knows what the powers want to hear, and that to say otherwise would be a mistake. 

52 Authors: Week 50 - George Orwell

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

—Orwell, “1984”

This quote was very startling when I first read 1984 only a few years ago. I'm not very qualified to write about George Orwell, not least because I have never read Animal Farm. I often feel as though I have read it, because it has come up in conversation and articles quite a bit over the years. I'll have to add it to my growing list of Things To Read In The Next Twenty Years. At any rate, I saw 1984 on a friend's shelf a few years ago and asked if I could borrow it. It was a great story. I like reading about dystopias, for some reason, maybe because they usually seem worse than the time in which we live, so it helps me to be grateful for what we do have. Also, there are aspects which highlight various problems we now have. It's been a long time since I read Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, but even as a sixteen year old, back in the eighties, I remember that some aspects of those stories highlighted things already underway. There were the illiterate society infatuated with mass media in Fahrenheit 451 and the shallow and hedonistic lifestyle of BNW which have remained enduring impressions for me.

I'm sure we've had the discussion here which said that Brave New World is perhaps a better description of the trends we've seen than 1984. Certainly the current attitude towards sex is more like that of BNW than 1984, where sex is prohibited outside of marriage and this aspect of 1984 was extremely hard to imagine when I read it.

Another criticism is something I could not put my finger on at the time of reading, but my friend, Rob Stove, once sent me this quote from a letter Evelyn Waugh wrote to Orwell in 1949:

I think it possible that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show. But what makes your version spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church. I wrote of you once that you seemed unaware of its existence now when it is everywhere manifest. Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social & historical institution. I believe it is inextinguishable, though of course it can be extinguished in a certain place for a certain time. Even that is rarer than you might think. The descendants of Xavier's converts in Japan kept their faith going for three hundred years and were found saying ‘Ave Marias’ & ‘Pater Nosters’ when the country was opened in the last century. The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces. And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

I read this and thought “Yes! That's it exactly.”

But in spite of these defects, as I see it, 1984 was still a great story and is a cautionary tale, I think. Surely the best things about it were the main themes and all the wonderful, clever neologisms, so many of which are sometimes used for the purposes of criticising negative aspects of our own time.

Here is a rather handy Newspeak dictionary. I'm not sure I would recommend it for those who have not yet read the book, but it's great to refresh one's memory. I have often thought of Facebook (which I still enjoy) as being my “Prolefeed.” Now that I think about it, FB can be quite a good venue for the Two Minute Hate. Other wonderful expressions I've enjoyed using or seeing in articles are newspeak, thoughtcrime, facecrime, doubleplus ungood, and memory hole. I should probably bring “bellyfeel” (for “full emotional understanding” and “blind, enthusiastic acceptance of a concept.”) into my vocabulary.

Themes include perpetual war, control of history by lies, extreme control of language and thought by the imposition of newspeak, total lack of privacy, extreme nationalism, and effective eradication of the individual. Like most – or all – dystopias, the family is under severe attack. In this novel, the family is under attack in that children are encouraged to report their parents for any “crimes” they commit and sex is only permitted for the procreation of children for the State.

The fact that torture, conducted in Room 101, is performed at the Ministry of Love (MiniLuv) is an excellent example of something Orwellian:

an adjective describing the situation, idea, or societal condition that  George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past.



If You Read Nothing Else By Orwell, Please Read This

The Orwell work I really can't live without is his wonderful essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

It begins:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. (my emphasis)

I think the opening paragraph just about says it all. He is confining himself to the use of English in non-fiction, of course. The homeschooling mother who runs our children's debating club recently said that language is a precious gift and we must use it rather than letting it use us. That struck me forcibly and renewed my commitment to do all I can to keep my own writing to the highest level I can and to do all I can to improve it. I can choose to use the language well and shape it for my own purposes, which ideally, will be in line with God's purposes.

This essay is one of the few things I really want all my children to read and absorb (apart from the small piece of anti-Catholicism in the section on “Meaningless Words.”)

His rules for clear writing are as follows:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This bit on the not un- formation has almost cured me of the habit: “...and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence ...One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” 

More gems:

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind (my emphasis). One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs. 

This essay is the greatest reason for my admiration of Orwell's work. I hope my little article does some justice to his talent and industry. As a little sober reminder of the fragility of our earthly life, George Orwell died in 1949 at the same age as me, 46. God be praised for the gifts He gives to us!

—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.

"a deep aversion to theological precision"

That's Carl Olson speaking about Pope Francis at Catholic World Report. Someone posted this on Facebook a week or so ago, and I've been hanging on to the link, intending to say something here about it. Well, I'm about to leave town for five days and won't have time to do much in the way of posting till the middle of next week, so I'm just going to post it as a possible topic for conversation. I'm largely in sympathy with the piece. 

I think I share with many a reluctance to think badly of the pope, and to look for the best in what he says, but a simultaneous sense of disquiet about many of the things he's said and done. My personal resolution of this, for the time being, is to take some of what he says in the same loose spirit in which he seems to utter it. Theological precision is not the only virtue a pope should have, and is really relatively low on the list of virtues needed by the average Christian. But it's a pretty important one for the man who is the final (earthly) authority on doctrine.

p.s. My traveling means I won't be able to post the next 52 Authors until, most likely, Wednesday evening of next week.


The title is in italics because it's the name of a TV show: yet another superior BBC crime drama. The twist, or gimmick you might say, in this one, is that the detective--the "River" of the title--has some pretty serious mental problems: he sees and has conversations with people who aren't really there. The story revolves around his efforts to solve the murder of his partner (working, not romantic). As is typically the case with these British efforts, the writing, acting, and general production are really fine, with a very convincing cast of characters. River is played by a Scandinavian actor, Stellan Skarsgård (I think that funny "a" is Swedish, right?), who apparently has a good reputation, although this was the first I'd heard of him. Also apparently in possession of a prior and favorable reputation is the writer/director, Abi Morgan, who wrote the Margaret Thatcher biographical picture, The Iron Lady, which I haven't seen (though I would expect any portrayal of Thatcher to be negative and not necessarily fair).

It occurs to me as I write this that there are only one or two characters who didn't engage my sympathy to at least some degree, no matter how flawed they are--and one of those is a 19th century serial killer who is a very unwelcome visitor to River. As crime stories go it's not particularly lurid, and although it can fairly be described as "dark" it is not excessively so. I found the ending very powerful, as did my wife, and we aren't necessarily affected by the same things. We started watching it only because we were looking for something that wasn't more than an hour long and it appeared in a list of recommendations on Netflix based on other things we'd watched. We had no idea what to expect and were soon very much engrossed. 


It may only be available on Netflix in the U.S. It's tagged as a "Netflix original", which I guess is not exactly right. 

52 Authors: Week 49 - Thomas Merton

Week 49-Merton-Robert Gotcher_html_10d39667

This is the condition of my copy of No Man is an Island.

If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn (New Seeds of Contemplation, 105).

I wanted to write about Merton at this time because December 10th is the anniversary of his death in 1968 in Bankok and the anniversary of his entry into the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, in 1941. This year is also the one hundredth anniversary of his birth in France during World War I “under the sign of the Water Bearer,” as he says in The Seven Storey Mountain (p. 3).

I am indebted to Merton for guiding me during the infancy of my new-found enthusiasm for the Catholic faith my senior year in college. The three big influences in that formative time were St. Bonaventure, Bl. John Henry Newman, and Merton. I am especially attracted to his writings on prayer, contemplation, and spirituality and to his early journals. I’m not so much interested in his poetry, his social commentary, or his exploration of eastern religions. With Bishop Barron I can say, “For many people of my generation, Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition” (Barron)

Merton was a spiritual writer, a monastic reformer, a social critic, a poet and novelist. He was a prolific writer, not only writing dozens of books, but volumes and volumes of letters and private and public journals, all of which have now been published. Merton was also a controversial figure for reasons that I will address further on. His best writing was in the form of journals and letters. He specialized in short, pithy reflections of one or two paragraphs, or even a page or two that are loosely ordered into topical chapters. His journals read like a blog, especially ones that are “topical,” like Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. His attempts at a full-length technical treatise on one subject, such as Ascent to Truth, or his history of the Cistercian Order (The Waters of Siloe) are less satisfying. Ascent was insightful, but it seems a bit strained and drawn out. He is better as a journalist in the root sense of the word. The avant-garde poetry stuff does nothing for me, but that’s my problem, not his.

One is impressed with the “enormous range of his reading and intellectual interests” (Barron). A quick scan of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander produces the following partial list of those he refers to or cites: Kabir, Traherne, Barth, St. John Perse, Mark Van Doren, Carrero Andrada, Ernesto Cardinal, Alfonso Reyes, Diodochus of Photike, Marcel, Ghandi, Chuang Tzu, Von Hūgel, Marx, Newman, Fénelon, A.K. Coomaraswamy, Gilson, Dalai Lama, Jean Giono, Mounier, St. John Chrysostom, Meister, Eckhart, Camus, Bonhoeffer, Brecht, Berdyaev, Einstein, A. Mirgeler, Auden, Aqinas, Lewis Mumford, Milosz, Satre, Malraux, Orwell, Julian Green, Louis Massignon, Vinoba Bhave, St. John of the Cross, Bernanos, Origen, Dawson, Confucius, Pieper, Ibn al’ Arabi, Tavard, Lanza del Vasto, Cassiodorus, John Wu, Heidegger, Rumi, Jacques Ellul, Maritain, Rose MacCauley, D.T. Suzuki, St. Hilary of Arles, Thoreau, Jung, Daniel Berrigan, Bl. John XXIII, Nicholas of Cusa, Hannah Arendt, Heisenberg, Guardini, J.A.T. Robinson, St. Anselm, Zoē Oldenbourg, A.M. Allchin, Paul Evdokimov,

He is deeply grounded in the Church Fathers and Doctors, especially Berrnard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross. His is a monastic, symbolic theology, rather than dialectic, which has much in common with that of, say, de Lubac and the other ressourcement writers. His writing was always grounded in orthodox Trinitarian theology, Chalcedon Christology, and solid Pneumatology:

Finally, mystical contemplation comes to us, like every other grace, through Christ. Contemplation is the fullness of the Christ-life in the soul, and it consists above all in the supernatural penetration of the mysteries of Christ. This work is performed in us by the Holy Ghost substantially Present in our soul by grace, along with the other two Divine Persons. The highest peak of contemplation is a mystical union with God in which the soul and its faculties are said to be “transformed” in God, and enter into a full conscious participation in the hidden life of the Trinity of Persons in Unity of Nature” (Ascent to Truth, 13).

His writing was often peppered with a “playful and ironic sense of humor” (Barron).

The Red Cross came for blood, and Brother C--—, one of the novices, was very happy because he was the one to give the first pint. I was happy because he was happy. I don’t know what pint I gave, but I felt lighter after it. On the way in they told me, for the first time, that I had high blood pressure and called the doctor (one of the monks) to check it. I forget the adverb he used for how high it was and was not. Anyway, not that high. And my pulse was fast, but not that fast. You know how high that is, and how fast that is (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 223).

Sometimes, however, he can slip into a more ascerbic, almost self-righteous tone.

Merton’s writings can be divided into two phases. The first phase was one in which he was primarily exploring the depth of the Catholic spiritual tradition. He embraced the contemptus mundi of the monastic tradition. He had a strong sense that he had made a radical change (or God had made a radical change in him) that set him apart and led him to reject much of what he saw in the world:

Most of the world is either asleep or dead. The religious people are, for the most part, asleep. The irreligious are dead. Those who are asleep are divided into two classes, like the Virgins in the parable, waiting for the Bridegroom’s coming. The wise have oil in their lamps. That is to say they are detached from themselves and from the cares of the world, and they are full of charity. They are indeed waiting for the Bridegroom, and they desire nothing else, but His coming, even though they may fall asleep while waiting for Him to appear. But the others are not only asleep: they are full of other dreams and other desires. Their lamps are empty because they have burned themselves out in the wisdom of the flesh and in their own vanity. When He comes, it is too late for them to buy oil. They light their lamps only after He has gone. So they fall alseep again, with useless lamps, and when they wake up they trim them to investigate, once again, the matters of a dying World.” (No Man is an Island, 44)

The second phase was marked by a positive, but highly critical turn to the world and a turn to the Eastern Religions for dialogue. The turning point seems to have been an experience he had in 1958 during a visit to Louisville.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time” (Conjectures, 140).

This is a beautiful passage with deep spiritual insight. I can believe that it was liberating for him. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether the experience didn’t take him in the direction of a somewhat uncritical openness to the world, including a hermit life that borrowed more from the bohemians than from the desert fathers, that somewhat lost its moorings in the Catholic spiritual tradition. Nonetheless, I never saw any evidence that he lost his grounding in Dogmatic Catholicism, even if he would wax eloquently about Buddhism and use that vocabulary.

I favor the writing in the first period because his interests at that time more closely corresponded to mine. I’m not so interested in dialogue with Buddhism, since I find ample material for spiritual growth within the Catholic tradition, the depth which I have only begun to plumb. I find his social commentary to often be somewhat simplistic, such as when he tries to describe the difference between conservatives and progressives in American Politics:

The conservative position retains a certain element of traditional contemptum mundi. We keep up our cohesion and morale by fulminating against certain typical issues~—especially lax sexual morals, birth control, divorce, pornography, which are not only obvious but also typological—that embody in themselves all that we mean by “the world” and “sin.” (Here we tend to forget that they typify the “flesh” rather than “the World.” The world, in the triad world-flesh-devil, represents greed for wealth and prestige, and this is seldom attacked. As a matter of fact, it is precisely here that, having “satisfied” the Christian conscience by anathemas directed at the flesh, we can come to terms with the world which, let us admit it, offers us a prestige which we believe to be essential for the dissemination of the Gospel. The message of the priest who drives an Oldsmobile is surely more credible than that of one who rides in the bus!)

The liberal attitude, on the other hand, makes a different choice of symbols. Less exercised on the problems of the flesh, it concerns itself more with symbolic social issues, and having taken an edifying stand (somewhat late) in questions of civil rights (in the United States) or labor (Europe) it explicitly declares that the Church has much to learn from “the World” in these matters, and that the insights of the most modern and advanced social thought are more relevant to Christianity than the platitudes of a theology that has still not caught up with the twentieth century.

For the liberal, the message of the Church will become credible to the modern world if the priest is seen on the assembly line—or if he is arrested in a sit-in. There is no question that this position is somewhat more relevant to the times and implies a more real sense of man’s need than the position of those who reduce contemptus mundi to anti-Communism and the readiness to shower Russia with H-bombs in the name of Christ. But does the ancient, ascetic idea of renunciation of the world have no meaning at all in the present context? (Conjectures, 35-6)

I get and agree with the point, but I think he oversimplifies, for instance, the distinction between the flesh, the world, and the devil, which are often found intertwined with each other. I also don’t think people are as cut and dried in one camp or the other as he and many pundits seem to think. I know I’m not.

His social doctrine, however, is not Pelagian. He is quite aware that no social progress can happen unless persons are interiorly transformed by grace:

If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have order without saints (Ascent to Truth, 8).

This is an early text, but he said much the same kind of thing in even his latest writings.

He frequently described life in the monastery, which at that time had a very archaic form, with lots of Latin and strange clothing and odd practices, such as “the discipline.” For a romantic like me these little snippets were like little bits of praline which I relished when I read them, making me long for that kind of life. This way life would be soon swept away, and to no little extent because of the influence of Merton. When I visited Gethsemane in the early 1980s I was deeply disappointed.

His spiritual reflections can be quite poetic:

God’s will is a profound and holy mystery, and the fact that we live our everyday lives engulfed in this mystery should not lead us to underestimate its holiness. We dwell in the will of God as in a sanctuary. His will is the cloud of darkness that surrounds His immediate presence. It is the mystery in which His divine life and our created life be- come “one spirit,” since, as St. Paul says, “Those who are joined to the Lord are one spirit” (I Corinthians 6:17). (No Man is an Island, 52)

He is clear that the authentic Christian life is not a matter of conformity to abstract principles, but to a Person:

If, in trying to do the will of God, we always seek the highest abstract standard of perfection, we show that there is still much we need to learn about the will of God. For God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best….The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life He listened and obeyed. The Pharisees had kept the law to the letter and had spent their lives in the pursuit of a most scrupulous perfection. But they were so intent upon perfection as an abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way they had no choice but to reject it. (No Man is an Island, 67)

Merton’s life is surrounded with controversy. People were so uneasy that the USCCB had to withdraw an essay about him in the United States Catechism for Adults that they produced in 2005. Two factors contribute to the unease some people have with him, his moral failings and his dialogue with the East.

First, late in his life he had a seemingly platonic love affair with a student nurse he met in Louisville. For many this was a clear sign that Merton’s grounding in the Catholic spiritual tradition may have been more intellectual than personal. Others, such as Bp. Barron and Ralph McInerny, were more willing to see the episode as a successfully negotiated temptation in a very confusing time in the Church. McInerny said:

Frankly I was shocked when I read of this faltering, but on reflection I have come to think that it is an essential element in Merton’s influence. We lay people are wont to place impossible demands on the clergy and religious, as if they were already in patria rather than in via with the rest of us. There is something pharisaical in our surprise that even those who have given their lives in the quest of perfection often fall short. (McInerny)

I’m not quite as sanguine as Bp. Barron and Dr. McInerny, but I have not found that the incident has interfered with my benefiting from Merton’s very profound spiritual teachings.

The other area of controversy is his dialogue with Eastern religions. Some seemed to think that he had begun to drift into syncretism or would have become a Buddhist had he not died while on a trip to the Far East. I didn’t see any evidence of this in even his later writings. His thought does not seem to have become as problematic as, say, that of Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk who started an ashram in India. It does not bother me, for instance, for a person to use vocabulary from Hinduism or Buddhism to help explain their own Catholic spiritual life, so long as it is done intelligently and cognizant of the real differences between the traditions. On the other hand, perhaps his dialogue was not as careful as it might have been. A friend of mine, who is an expert on Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, tells me that the Zen that Merton was in dialogue with, that of D.T. Suzuki, was an outlier. His particular emphasis on the non-rational and on emptiness is not necessarily a part of mainstream Zen.

The ultimate question for many, though, was whether he remained orthodox to the end. A good example of the critic can be found in Anthony Clark’s essay, “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?

One of his most famous texts is a prayer that has sustained many. It bears a resemblance Lead Kindly Light of Bl. John Henry Newman:

My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude, 79)

—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary.  He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.