52 Poems, Week 19: As One Listens to the Rain (Octavio Paz)
52 Poems, Week 20: Ballad of Fine Days (Phyllis McGinley)

Sunday Night Journal, May 13, 2018

"The Murray project is dead." 

I saw that statement somewhere on Facebook some time ago, and I can't remember who said it, or I would give him or her credit. It struck me, though, and, obviously, stayed with me. The reference is to John Courtney Murray, S.J., whom I have never read, but I know that he is someone "who was especially known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism, particularly focusing on the relationship between religious freedom and the institutions of a democratically structured modern state" (Wikipedia). He seems to have been a sort of intellectual father to the movement within American Catholicism represented by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, First Things magazine, et.al.--the Catholic neo-conservatives, in other words. 

I'm still thinking about Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, and that remark about the Murray project keeps coming back to me. Murray apparently believed, in a nutshell, not just that the Church and the liberal state could and should co-exist, but that they were in some fundamental way compatible and in agreement on questions such as religious pluralism. Like I said, I haven't read Murray, so I'm subject to correction on that. But I think it's a fair assessment of the Nogelhaus project (Novak, Weigel, Neuhaus). 

Maybe it would be more precise to say that Murray and his heirs believe(d) that Vatican II and liberalism were in agreement about liberalism (that would make sense, considering that Murray helped construct the Vatican II documents on religious pluralism). Anyway, whatever the intellectual lineage and precise nature of these ideas may be, I think there's reason now to question whether orthodox Christianity of any kind will be able to coexist peaceably with the liberal state for much longer. There were always reasons in principle why this might be a problem, and there has been a great deal of more or less abstract discussion of the question. But things have changed in the past ten-to-fifteen years, and it's now becoming a practical matter, with the question presenting itself as something like "To what degree will or can the liberal state tolerate Christianity?" meaning of course any form of Christianity that continues to hold the fundamental doctrinal and moral principles which have been central to it for most of its history.

The main thing that's changed, of course, is the liberal view of acceptable attitudes toward homosexuality, and sexuality in general. The ruling class in this country has pretty well reached a consensus that the belief that homosexual acts are immoral is not just comparable to but the exact equivalent of racism, and should be dealt with accordingly. This means that those who hold it should, at minimum, be pushed to the margins of society, and that actions based on that belief should be punishable by law; hence all the lawsuits involving bakers not wanting to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, etc. In addition, that class, as it has come to be constituted over the past twenty years or so, has in general a disdain, to say the least, for orthodox Christianity and orthodox Christians, and is little inclined to listen to arguments in their defense. How this will work out over the next few decades is, obviously, uncertain, but the outlook is not very good at the moment. If you think, for instance, that there is little or no chance that Christian colleges and universities will be faced with loss of accreditation if they teach that homosexual activity is in the same general class of immoral acts as adultery, you aren't paying attention.

I wouldn't normally apply the term "Vatican II Catholic" to myself, because it generally refers to a set of progressive views which are pretty compatible with liberal Protestantism of the Episcopalian type. I am to say the least not on board with that. But if you take away all those connotations, it does apply to me reasonably well, in that I have thought that Vatican II was basically a good thing, that its celebrated opening to the modern world was a good thing, and that the manifest problems which followed it were a result of distortions, willful and otherwise, of its teachings, distortions put into the service of a program of revolution which would fundamentally alter the faith. As a great admirer of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, I held to the very widespread view that they were engaged in a sort of rescue of the Council, getting rid of those distortions and repudiating the revolution while salvaging what was good in it.

In that sense they could be seen as the ecclesiastical counterpart of the Murray project: they wanted to reconcile the Church to the modern world, which is as much as to say to liberalism, as far as was compatible with maintaining the faith. And lately a troubling thought has been nagging at me: is the Vatican II project, understood as the John Paul II and Benedict XVI project, like the Murray project, over--finished, dead for all practical purposes?

And further: if the papacy of Pope Francis is in fact, as many say, in perfect continuity with the project as just described, only attempting to go further toward a reconciliation with liberalism, is it the last losing battle in a losing war? Is it possible that no matter how a pope tries to make nice with the modern world, in the end the conflict cannot be resolved? That the whole attempt was a mistake--or, if not mistaken, merely futile? And that the Church of the 22nd century (if the world lasts) will look more like that of Pius X than that of Paul VI? Are the traditionalists right in saying that much of Vatican II--not just flagrant abuses, but much of what seems to be the core of it--was a wrong turn that must be corrected?

I'm not saying that I believe the answers are definitely "yes," but I've really begun to wonder.


Speaking of Pope Francis: I decided a year or two ago not to speak of Pope Francis, not publicly. Moreover, I've made an effort not to pay much attention to the controversies he's provoked. As I've said here more than once, whatever you think of Francis, you can't deny that he has re-ignited the Church's internal war between progressives and...let's just call them anti-progressives. When I came into the Church in the early '80s the extreme progressive interpretation of the Council was still dominant, and I rejoiced that it seemed to have been definitively put in its place by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I had thought that we had put all that behind us and were now reasonably well-united, and could look outward again.

I was, obviously, quite wrong, and have been heartsick that the war has flared up again. I am reluctant to think badly of Francis, but it's impossible to deny that the war is with us and that at best he doesn't seem to mind. I will say this one thing about him now: I don't have confidence in his judgment as ruler of the Church. Make of this what you will--and I don't know quite what to make of it myself--but from the moment he stepped out on that balcony as the newly-elected pope, I felt uneasy about him. I had no reason for it; I'd never heard of him. I've tried to quash that feeling, but it has never left me, and now and then something happens to revive it.  So I've decided that the best thing for me to do, for my own spiritual health, is to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the fight. 

But though I haven't spoken publicly about things like the Amoris Laetitia controversy, I haven't been able to ignore them completely. Sometimes I think Francis's critics are wrong and unreasonable; sometimes I think his supporters are gaslighting us, working to change important teachings while denying that they are doing any such thing. Mostly I try not to dwell on it all, which mostly is not very hard to do: I have all I can do to try to live a faithful life in my own little milieu. To attend closely to the controversies is to take sides in it, and to take part in a factional war within the Church is precisely what I do not want to do.

Accordingly, I did not plan to read Ross Douthat's new book about Francis, To Change the Church. However, I have read Craig Burrell's review of the book, and I recommend it strongly. I think you would have to look for a long time to find a more sensible, fair, judicious, perceptive assessment of the situation. Perhaps I'll even read the book, in case it's as good as this review.


I don't expect to find interesting popular music recommendations at The American Conservative, but this column about the progressive rock band Marillion got my attention. I've heard of them for years, but never gone out of my way to listen to them. For one thing, prog-rock is not my most favored genre, although I do like some of it. For another, I couldn't help suspecting, for reasons beginning with the name, that they might be both a bit pretentious and a bit twee--I consider a band name borrowed from Tolkien (The Silmarillion) to be a bad sign. (Mediocre metal and prog bands tend to go for it.) But this piece, especially its discussion of the album Brave, makes them sound very much worth investigating. What really convinced me was the fact that Steven Wilson thinks it's a great album and put a lot of work into a recent re-mix of it. Wilson is the main brain behind Porcupine Tree, a more-or-less prog band which is very highly regarded. The PT album Stupid Dream, the only one I've heard more than once, is highly regarded by me: interesting both musically and lyrically.

I sent the AmCon piece to a friend who is a very enthusiastic Marillion fan who says that Wilson's remix "took a great album and made it a masterpiece." So Brave is now pretty close to the top of my listening list. I'll report next week. 


Find the cat.



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Your ruminations about Catholicism/liberalism are much on Douthat's mind in his book as well. He argues that part of what Francis' papacy has showed is that the "conservative" (as opposed to traditionalist) consensus about Vatican II is, it seems, not as stable or convincing as conservatives had hoped, and is maybe, deep down, not totally coherent. He is not a "traddie", but he does do them the honour of noting that their views, whatever other problems they may have, have at least been consistent and readily comprehensible.

I'm going to take a listen to this prog-rock band. I've never heard of them until today.

I cannot find the cat.

I'll let her know. She will be overjoyed. She's pure white, and all her life she's been trying to hide in grass and shrubbery and dim places where she stands out like a light bulb. But now she's found an environment in which she can camouflage herself successfully. She's just to the left of the monkey grass at the base of the big sycamore tree. Her head is in the light and her tail in shadow. If you didn't enlarge the picture try that. She is pretty invisible in the smaller view.

Craig, it does seem possible that the traditionalists may have the last word. It's only fairly recently that I've come across that "conservative" vs. "traditionalist" distinction--I mean in the sense of treating them as very different things, not different points on a continuum.

I just read Douthat's 2015 Erasmus lecture (A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism), which seems to touch on some of what's in his latest book. Lots of interesting stuff in it, but this especially stood out for me:

In the pews, too, Western Catholicism remains a faith deeply divided. Conservatives complain, with some justification, that media polls showing high levels of dissent from church teaching often lump churchgoing Catholics together with the Christmas-and-Easter variety and the all-but-fully-lapsed. But in the United States, even frequent Mass-goers are split on the questions that conservatives consider part of the clear and unchangeable teaching of the Church.

Everyone is aware that only a minority of practicing Catholics accept Humanae Vitae’s teaching on artificial contraception. But it isn’t just birth control where dissent from the Church’s view of marriage is pervasive. To take the pressing issue of the moment, according to Pew Research Center, a mere 42 percent of American Catholics who attend Mass weekly think that the divorced and remarried should not be allowed to receive Communion. Only forty-eight percent think cohabiting Catholics should not be allowed to receive. That last number shouldn’t be surprising, since only 46 percent of weekly Mass attenders believe living together outside of wedlock is a sin at all.

So at the elite and grassroots levels alike, there remains a very large constituency for a different direction, a more liberal turn within the Church. And of course this constituency—as conservatives have always known—has the advantage of having many, many lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics on its side, particularly non-Catholics in the commanding heights of Western culture, where it is widely assumed that the Church will eventually, inevitably, imitate Episcopalianism, and where the champagne bottles sit iced and ready to celebrate that turn whenever it seems to be arriving.

The modern world is a mighty foe.

It really, really is. To quote myself:

"But I've come to the conclusion that even if the liturgy were always reverent and beautiful, and all the clergy and faithful were shining lights of truth and charity, the basic situation of the Church in the formerly Christian world would not be much different."


I have yet to see any proof that the "liberalizing" (not a good word, but you know what I mean) tendency under Francis is actually making a difference. As I also said:


Thank you for that link, Marianne. I just read the whole thing and am pretty close to 100% in agreement with it. I guess I'm going to end up reading Douthat's book.

I have Murray's book, We Hold These Truths, and I plan to read it this year. When I first saw a book by Murray advertised in a magazine somewhere, I wasn't sure that I would agree with his ideas, but was curious, so I picked this up when I found it at sale. I guess it might like reading an advertisement for the first voyage of the Titanic.


I'm not sure I have the mental energy for books like Dineen's and Douthat's anymore.


Understandable, but wouldn't Murray's be almost as bad?

"advertisement for the first voyage of the Titanic." Heh. I saw something or other by George Weigel the other day that made it sound like he hasn't given up.

Well, I have to try. I can quit after 50 pages if I can't stand it.


Good to make that deal with yourself before you start. It takes a massive effort or intense distaste for me not to finish a book. I'm working on that skill, though.

So far I haven't been able to quit.


Liberalism is inherently irreligious. I don't understand how Catholics can think there's any compatibility at all.

I've come to the point where I see Vatican 2 as a complete disaster

I think more people agree with you now than thirty years ago.

Well, I didn't agree with me 30 years ago!

That's the fallacy of drawing conclusions about the future based on the fact "today's young people believe..." or "want...". People use that to argue for some change usually assume that those young people will keep on thinking as they do. But today's young people are tomorrow's middle-aged people, and day-after-tomorrow's old people, and it's not exactly unheard of for people to change their views with time and experience.

So very true

The joy of language!

Paul Roche,a famous English poet, said that the fundamental characteristic of poetry is repetition. He also said that poetry is characterized by MUSIC--Mystery (or magic; it says more than it seems), understanding (insight), symbol, image, concept (it's not just pretty or about feelings, but has a higher intelligibility.).

My objection to these very qualitative and somewhat subjective definitions (I'm not just being argumentative :-)) is that (1) they imply that the word "poetry" only means "good poetry" and (2) they don't provide any distinction between poetry and prose, which is nevertheless an important distinction. They apply just as much to very well-written prose as to very well-written verse.

The only definition of that sort that I like at all is from Coleridge, if I remember correctly, which I may not. It's something to the effect that in poetry the language commands a degree of attention for its own sake that is not the case with prose. That pretty much explicitly repudiates any connection between "poetry" and form. It's the explicitness that makes it better to me. It allows the kinds of definitions you've quoted, but also allows them to be applied to prose. I'm sure we can all think of prose passages that are more "poetic" in a qualitative way than mediocre or bad poems. It still leaves us with "verse" as a more or less objective description of something. Though it leaves "prose" pretty subjective.

None of these distinctions are value judgments. There is excellent verse--as the article articulates. The definitions are trying to articulate a difference in purpose. There are, of course, other distinctions that can be made--such as between poetry and prose. They aren't complete definitions.

They sound pretty value-y to me. I haven't read that article, but I will do so sometime today. I don't think there is necessarily a difference in purpose between "poetry" and "verse", but maybe the article will change my mind.

Ok, I read the article. And by the way you jumped posts back there a bit--this discussion was happening on the Phyllis McGinley post. So in case anybody's reading this and wondering "what article?", here it is:


So, having read it, I disagree almost entirely with it. I don't think the distinction he makes between poetry and verse is valid. He's mainly talking about quality, separating better poetry from lesser and labeling the lesser as "verse." I see the difference, of course, I just disagree that "verse" applies to one and "poetry" to the other.

As things stand in the development of the language I just don't think there's much of a distinction between them. As far as I'm concerned "The Second Coming" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" are both poetry and both verse. If there's a distinction it's at the extremes: say if you put the instructions for assembling a gas grill into rhymed couplets, you might call that verse but not poetry. And you might call certain very fine passages of prose poetry but not verse. Maybe we will eventually use "verse" for verse, "prose" for prose, and "poetry" for imaginative-creative literature in either form.

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