Sunday Night Journal 2006 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 31, 2006

Losing the Christmas War

I don’t mean the Christmas War that pits the ACLU against Fox News in a war of frivolous lawsuits and inflammatory verbiage over carols in public schools, crèches on the town square, and office greetings. That one actually is showing some signs of an unexpected devolution into common sense. I mean the struggle of Catholics, and of other Christians with an eye on the traditional liturgical calendar, to observe Advent for the four weeks preceding December 25th and to observe Christmas for the following twelve days.

The carols I heard at Mass this morning—“What Child Is This?” and “Once in Royal David’s City”—made me realize that I had not heard, which means that I haven’t played at home, any Christmas music since Christmas Day. This in turn made me realize that I’ve almost given in to the commercial American Christmas calendar.

When our children were young my wife and I made a pretty serious effort to observe Advent. We had Advent calendars and Advent wreaths with candles, and a little family liturgy which alternated scripture readings with verses of “O Come Emmanuel.” We delayed Christmas decorations and the Christmas tree until the last few days before the 25th. We tried tactics like celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th to give the children a brief bit of early Christmas, and, on the other side, postponing some of the present-giving until Epiphany, or stringing it out over several days.

It was always a struggle, a swim against the current which begins the Christmas season no later than the day after Thanksgiving and ends it on December 26th, and the most vexing part of it was that we weren’t resisting only the prevailing non-Catholic culture, but also the practice of most Catholics. I sometimes found it difficult to conceal my irritation with Catholic co-workers who chided me for procrastination when they learned that on December 23rd I still hadn’t put up the Christmas tree, or for laziness when they learned that on January 2nd I still hadn’t taken it down.

Was it worth the struggle? I don’t know—define “worth it.” It was the right thing to do, I’m certain. The crucial thing is that it was a struggle, and now that the children are mostly grown, the motivation to keep it up is waning. Nobody paddles against the current without a goal, and our goal, preeminently, was to teach Advent to our children, to teach them to live in the ways of the faith. I suppose we (I, at any rate) have lost sight of the connection it might have to our own spiritual life. I paid little attention to Advent this year, and acted as if Christmas was over on December 26th.

I sometimes think the general over-busyness of contemporary life is really more of a threat to Christian life than the more obvious snares of lust, gluttony, and avarice which are always being advertised to us. And there were further complications this year: an illness and a death, the complications and after-effects of which are still continuing. Next year I intend to take up the struggle again. There’s no reason why my wife and I can’t light the candles on the Advent wreath and find the copies of those family prayers, and it won’t matter if we don’t sing very well. Meanwhile, the Christmas tree is still up and maybe I’ll get a bit of time to listen to some Christmas music while I sit and look at it. And then it’s onward to Lent.


Sunday Night Journal — December 24, 2006

In a few hours I will be going to the cathedral for midnight Mass, very happy that the local television station that ordinarily televises it is not doing so this year. I suppose there’s a good argument for doing it—people who can’t get out and that sort of thing. And a far greater number can watch it on television than could fit into the cathedral (at least potentiallly—how many people watching tv past midnight are interested in a televised liturgy?). But there’s also a good argument to be made that televising it means that no one will really see it. I’ve attended that televised Mass a couple of times, and blinding the lights required for the cameras almost ruined it—entirely ruined it, if you were sitting in the wrong place. I’ve also watched it on television, and what I saw on the screen was a dead and distorted version of what a liturgy in that cathedreal is really like. I’m going to stop short of saying that the televising is a devil’s bargain, but I will say that it doesn’t seem a very good one.

I’ve offered this Christmas meditation, “The Perfect Gift,” to my readers before. Since I really have no way of knowing who reads this blog, I’ll offer it again this year, along with the wish for a very merry and blessed Christmas to all.


Sunday Night Journal — December 17, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (2)

Last week I closed by quoting Mark Henrie: “…traditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.” Having thought about that a little more, I’d like to elaborate on it. I don’t want to save liberalism as a philosophy, but I do want to save liberal institutions. Back in May, I started a discussion on the Caelum et Terra blog with the title Can, and Should, Constitutional Liberalism Survive? My own “quick and brutal” answer to the question was “As to the ‘should’: yes, I would like for it to, because I think at it's best it’s worked very well. But as to the ‘can’: no.”

Never mind my “no” at the moment. I was struck, in the discussion that followed, by the indifference of the mostly traditionalist Catholics to what the collapse of constitutional liberalism might mean. Of course we were talking somewhat abstractly, and one can’t generalize from the comments of those who happened to read the blog and happened to be interested enough to comment, but the most commonly voiced opinion treated constitutional liberalism as at best a poor state of affairs to be tolerated, more or less unhappily, by Catholics. The great interest was in the deficiencies of liberalism, and in the distance between the liberal state and a hypothetical Catholic one.

Here’s where a conservative temperament shows itself. One component of this temperament is undoubtedly a keen awareness that things could be worse, that there is, at the very least, an even chance that change will be for the worse, and a corresponding impulse to consider very carefully the worth of what we have and know, before discarding it in favor of what we do not have and do not know.

As Daniel Nichols said in that discussion, “A relatively peaceful and prosperous society is nothing to be taken for granted. It is hardly the norm in human history.” The liberal democracies of the West are not waging war amongst or within themselves. Our governments do not actively oppress us (yes, I know, there are many subtle ways in which we are not free, but I’m talking about real oppression, the kind that imprisons and tortures and executes at will). We can depose our rulers peacefully, if enough of us want to—a complaint about our rulers is really a complaint about ourselves. We have a level of abundance that makes real, desperate, killing poverty—the poverty of Haiti and of parts of Mexico, say—rare. We are free to practice our religion without significant restraint—we are free as individuals, and our churches are free. We do indeed have to put up with a great deal that is contrary to our faith and harmful to us and our families, and we watch far too many of our fellow citizens lost and fainting, like sheep without a shepherd, but we are not seriously inhibited in our own practice.

One can debate whether and how the development of these institutions is intertwined with liberalism, philosophically and politically, but the fact is that they developed together, and we can’t simply extract what we like and throw the rest away, as if we were peeling an apple. The task is more like separating the wheat and the tares—it’s impossible, finally, but we can do some good by nurturing what’s good and suppressing what’s bad, perhaps enough to keep the tares from taking over altogether.

Nor can we whisk away one social order, and substitute another, as if we were changing the scenery on a stage. These changes involve collapse and construction, and the collapse is often full of violence and suffering, and the construction slow, haphazard, and unguided, not particularly likely to end with something we would like.

I would rather see liberal institutions survive, which entails somehow grounding them in an absolute moral order, than wait, in pleasurable anticipation, for their collapse. My own guess as to where the uncorrected present course will take us is to something far worse. In an early issue of Caelum et Terra there was a review, by a contributor whose name I can’t remember, of a book the name of which I can’t remember, which suggested that one possible outcome of the evolution of the liberal society might be “a tabernacle for anti-Christ.” I thought I knew exactly what he meant, and I think of the phrase frequently, especially when I read a news report of some grotesque new bit of tinkering with the stuff of human life itself. “Freedom” in this new order will be, in the private sphere, almost unlimited and unattended by responsibility; in the public sphere, severely limited and ineffectual, consisting mainly of entitlement to benefits.

We can be sure, even setting aside the possibility of its being the habitation of a real anti-Christ, that an order which has decided that human life and sexuality are but machinery to be manipulated by the clever and powerful will persecute Christians. There is a rage against what is left of Christian order, and an impulse to criminalize what seems, to the new age, the intolerable hostility and active opposition of Christianity to its sexual and technical proposals. Liberalism, in both the philosophical and political senses, taking evolution as a paradigm, never expected the atavistic obstructionism of religious believers to continue to be a problem for it as late as the 21st century. Like any faith that sees itself as an organizing principle for society, it can tolerate only so much denial of and resistance to its fundamental premises. Even allowing for the intensity generated by the specific situation of the Bush presidency, many on the cultural left seem to have a permanently high level of scorn and fury. When I hear their uncensored views I think of the Irishmen of whom Yeats wrote, who would have been violent “had they but courage equal to desire.” (You could say, justly, that this is true of many on the right as well, but most of them are not anti-Christian.)

One can make a reasonable argument that the best response to this situation is to head, literally or figuratively, for the hills, and attempt to lay the foundations for a new kind of Christian civilization apart from the decaying one around us. To those who want to try this, I say “Godspeed.” My own view is that to give up on liberal institutions is to concede the future to forces heading toward a disaster which would probably not spare those enclaves in the hills. I don’t think it’s just an intellectual calamity that Solzhenitsyn has in mind when he refers to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.”


Sunday Night Journal — December 10, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1a)

Being both occupied and preoccupied with the death of my brother-in-law, I’ve only just now been able to read some of the lengthier items that have been mentioned in comments or emailed to me in response to last week’s column. So instead of continuing with my own train of thought, I think I’ll stop tonight and respond to those.

First, my old friend Robert emails me a couple of items from the newest issue of Touchstone:

Since you may not have received it or gotten around to it, there's an entry in the Quodlibet section which I thought you might be interested in, concerning a topic by [S.M.] Hutchens titled “Holy Economics”:

“…The problem with socialism is its tendency to harm the individual in favor of the common good, and with capitalism its tendency to harm the common good for the enlargement of the individual. Both—as theoretical systems—are to be avoided.”

“The historian Phillip Schaff said of Calvinism and Arminianism that the Bible was more human than the first, more divine than the second and more Christian than either. Of capitalism and socialism as economic theory and practice it might be similarly said that holy economics is more selfless than the first, more interested in the individual than the second, and kinder than either.”

I have in fact received the magazine but have not so much as opened it, being now two full issues and part of a third behind. This is excellent. I particularly like the remark about avoiding both as theoretical systems. I’m adding my own emphasis to the word “theoretical,” as I think that’s very important: both words together point to one of the great mistakes typical of our time, the effort to impose a mechanical paradigm on social life and then to invent “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (I think that’s Eliot).

In my experience most discussions of capitalism in the abstract plunge directly into a false dichotomy which arises from the fact that it really doesn’t have a definition which is at once clear and generally accepted. Some pro-capitalists will assert that it simply means the legitimacy of private property, making any criticism of any market-based behavior a profession of Communism. Likewise, some socialists seem to define it as the right of the rich to feed their cats and dogs with the vital organs of the poor. It’s pretty difficult to argue against “capitalism” in the first case, or for it in the second.

Responding to my remark that “Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism,” Robert adds: “Maybe true, but there is a non-utopian socialism, a postmodern one if you will, of which we have everything to fear. Look to Europe where this postmodern socialism is poised to destroy it altogether.”

I can’t speak to this myself, but Robert has spent some time in Europe, and I haven’t. And I’ve heard some surprisingly loud complaints about European attitudes toward work, business, and bureaucracy from a couple of young Americans who have lived in France and Germany for a year or more and who are by no means on the political right (at least not by American standards).

Next, this lengthy item by Russell Arben Fox, which is really an informal essay that rather stretches the boundaries of the blog post. I’m not going to try to summarize it, but it’s very much worth reading. Dr. Fox is a political science teacher and scholar, and I’m pretty quickly out of my academic depth in trying to follow his points about Rousseau, Hegel, Derrida, and others. And I can’t define terms like “post-structuralist” and “anti-essentialist” (although I think I figured out the latter from context). The truth is, I’m not very interested in banging around among the works of people like Rousseau et. al. With my sixtieth year not very far over the horizon, I’m very conscious that the time remaining to me is not unlimited, and I don’t care to use very much of it studying political theory. I also have less inclination than Dr. Fox to look for kindred spirits on the left, which is partly a temperamental thing and partly a suspicion that there is not as much room there for the values he wants to preserve as he hopes.

Still, there is much here with which to agree, and much to think about. I particularly like this:

Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now).

As a Catholic, of course I think the Benedictine response perfectly reasonable and possibly advisable, though I myself am not in a position to make it. Rod Dreher in Crunchy Cons talks of it as an option, following Alisdair Macintyre (whom I have not actually read but am always reading about). Daniel Nichols and I and a number of others talked about it a lot in Caelum et Terra ten or fifteen years ago, but I notice neither Daniel nor I is talking about it much anymore. So far, aside from actual Benedictines or other religious, no substantial movement for the establishment of formally set-apart Catholic communities along the lines of the Amish has appeared, even though a great many of us think it might be a good idea. This, I think, reveals some weakness, and perhaps some child-of-the-times-ness: we aren’t, finally, ready to make the sacrifices such an effort would require.

And, lastly, Mark Henrie of ISI, where he is among other things senior editor of Modern Age, sent me a link to a terrific essay of his which appeared in The New Pantagruel, “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism.” I would have even less hope of doing it justice in a summary than I did with Dr. Fox’s post above. It’s quite long, but tNP is among the most readable web publications, and this is well, well worth the time. I’m going to include some snippets which I think particularly good, with occasional comments in italics:

The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling, the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia....The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

[And later: ] Wherever there is a sense of loss, the conservative knows that there lies an indicator of the human good.

...The sovereignty of the people as the sole legitimating principle of the liberal regime places in question the sovereignty of God. [I don’t think there could be a more succinct statement of the core problem of liberalism in general and the United States in particular.]

...Whereas the Enlightenment “builds down” from politics to morals, the conservative “builds up” from morals to politics.

...autonomous individuals bristling with rights... [that’s just a great phrase]

And, finally, I think this is the essential distinction between the liberal conservative and the conservative (or for that matter liberal) liberal:

…[T]raditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.


Sunday Night Journal — December 3, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1)

This is part one not because I have a grand plan but because I know I will have more to say about this topic than I can say tonight. A single more lengthy and more organized essay is probably called for, but that isn’t likely to get done anytime soon, and I want to talk about this now. It has to do with an exasperating subject: the definition of socio-political labels and categories, something I’ve been pretty uninterested in for a while, but which has gotten my attention again.

Courtesy of ISI Books, I have been reading a review copy of their new Solzhenitsyn Reader, and reading it with great and growing interest. I’d never read Solzhenitsyn apart from the famous Harvard address of 1978, although, like an awful lot of people old enough to have been buying books in the ‘70s, I have that paperback of The Gulag Archipelago which was then as ubiquitous as it was unread. Right off, in the introduction, I found these observations from the editors (Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney):

To begin with, it is necessary to recognize that the defense of human liberty and dignity is not exhausted by the categories of late modernity....Solzhenitsyn’s alternative to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness” has never been a romantic communal or theocratic society, rather a free one where individual rights are limited by “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”….Solzhenitsyn is a partisan of “liberty under God” against the pernicious illusion that men can build a world that defers to no limits above the autonomous human will….Solzhenitsyn is, in truth, a liberal conservative who wants to temper the one-sided modern preoccupation with individual freedom with a salutary reminder of the moral ends that ought to inform responsible human choice.

Ah, that’s me, I thought. Then circumstances kept me away from the book for several days, and I found myself unable to remember: did they say “liberal conservative” or “conservative liberal”? The second didn’t seem right. Why not? What is the difference?

To make “liberal” the noun and “conservative” the adjective implies that “liberal” is the core principle. But liberalism as a philosophy is not something a Christian can maintain. The two broad categories into which political ideas in our time are divided, however unsatisfactorily, are, at their most internally consistent, the party of religion and the party of skepticism. Conservatism is generally committed to a core religious metaphysic, at the least to a sense that there are eternal truths to which human thought and behavior must conform, and that the good life, for nations as well as for individuals, consists in working out that relationship. Pure classical liberalism—the liberalism of John Stuart Mill—is the philosophy of the always-open question, attempting to take its view of the development of society from the physical sciences: yesterday we believed such-and-such, which we now know to have been false; today we believe its negation, and that is progress, which is good. (The obvious next item in the sequence, that tomorrow we may understand today’s certainty to have been utterly misguided, is generally not given much attention, especially in the political realm—liberalism in practice takes the always-open question as implying an always-expanding personal freedom, and the possibility that progress might involve a return to what we believed the day before yesterday is not entertained.)

So a Christian is not, by definition, a philosophical liberal, and the phrase for the Christian Solzhenitsyn, as well as for me—the Christian who wants to preserve what is good and healthy in modernity, which is of course deeply involved with liberalism—must be “liberal conservative.”

The question immediately presents itself: “isn’t this the same thing as neo-conservatism?” Well, perhaps, but I think the term neo-conservative, denoting, in the famous phrase, a liberal mugged by reality, ought to refer to one who remains at heart a philosophical liberal. The Catholic neo-conservatives—notably the Nogelhaus, as I like to call the prominent trio of Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus—would not fit this strict definition. It might be said that “neo-conservative” is now less useful as descriptive nomenclature than as the name of a party, a party to which the Nogelhaus certainly belongs.

In fact I don’t know that I have that much disagreement with the Catholic neo-conservatives (to continue to use the conventional term) in principle, based on their stated ideas alone (to the extent that I’m familiar with them, which is not all that great) and ignoring the widely held view that they’re up to something sinister which they’re hiding. Like them, I want very much to preserve liberal institutions, chiefly republican government and the republican concepts of citizenship, ordered liberty, and religious toleration as we have known them for much of the past couple of hundred years; in short, I want to conserve the genuine achievements of liberalism. (How much the existence of these institutions really owes, historically speaking, to liberalism, and how much to Christianity, is a question I’ll leave to historians, noting only that it certainly owes something, and something fairly substantial, to liberalism.)

My main argument with the Catholic neo-conservatives concerns their failure to see the real nature of corporate capitalism. They see its undeniable power as an engine of material achievement, but at best give insufficient attention to the fact that in principle it honors no principle. I don’t mean that most businessmen are personally unprincipled or dishonest—I don’t think they are—but that the system itself, as actually understood and practiced, is one straightforward thing: an engine for generating profit. It has no means within it to distinguish a licit from an illicit line of trade. Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism: it is to the corporation’s advantage, at least in the short term, that citizens should be replaced by consumers, the more malleable, suggestible, and passive the better. Moreover, corporate capitalism as we know it is, in the long run, inimical to the widespread possession of meaningful private property, as distributists have been arguing for decades. “Liberty under God” must include taming the corporate as well as the individual appetite, and as far as I know the neo-conservatives have had little or nothing to say about this.

The irony of liberalism the philosophy is that it leads to the death of liberal institutions. The conservative liberal, if there is such a thing, is ill-equipped to save them. It may distress him that the Holiday Inn, once a symbol of bland Americanism, now offers pornographic movies, but he will feel himself obliged to tolerate every new phase of the slide into squalor. It takes a liberal conservative to give liberal institutions a set of principles that can resolve the contradiction and upon which those institutions can endure.

“Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.” –Bob Dylan


Sunday Night Journal — November 26, 2006

Christ the King?

I was surprised to discover that today is the feast of Christ the King, and a little dismayed that I was surprised. There was a time when I paid more attention to the Church’s feast days. My wife and I, coming from non-Catholic families in a non-Catholic culture, have never really gotten these things entirely into our habits of mind and practice, but we made more of an effort when the children were small, especially when we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group.

These days we aren’t doing much more than the bare minimum of external observance. For a number of reasons, some worthy and others less so, we’ve stepped back from our local parish, and float between two. We go to the diocesan cathedral twenty miles away on most Sundays because the liturgy is far more conducive to worship than that of our local parish. Tonight, though, we went to the local parish for the first time in some weeks—to the evening Mass, because we had spent most of the day traveling—and the switch from the magnificent cathedral choir to the pop style at our parish was jarring. It took a few minutes for me to begin to take seriously the fact that I was in fact at Mass. But I got pretty focused at the homily, delivered by a deacon who is a very fine and solid preacher.

He had the nerve to talk about the Second Coming as a fact, to be taken as it was taken by the apostles. Spoken by a Baptist minister of the old school his evocation of the Judgment and of what’s at stake in it would have been pretty mild, but for a Catholic it was very strong stuff: the Second Coming will happen, and even if it doesn’t happen while we are in this world, we are all going to die, and we are all going to be judged. Christ is in fact the king; some will receive him willingly, some not, but all will be ruled and judged by him. He will be everyone’s king by force of cosmic law, but will he be owned as such, with grateful obeisance of the heart, or will he be resented and resisted?

I fancy that the King’s judgment will be of a piece with something that happens within us, and that we will know, immediately upon facing him, not only what he thinks of us, but what we think of him: either that this was what we have always wanted, or what we have always dreaded. In that sense the judgment may not be a surprise, but a recognition of something we’ve always known in the most secret places of our hearts.

Surprises there will, no doubt, nevertheless be. If we are not surprised by our own fates, we will probably be surprised by those of others, as Mrs. Turpin, in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” is surprised by her vision of “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs”—all entering heaven ahead of herself, whom she sees somewhat glumly bringing up the rear of the procession, resentful at her place in it. There’s some reason to suppose at the end of the story that this vision of herself may, in fact, be a cure for the pride that is the cause of her resentment. And so the vision may be a prophecy that, because it was given, will not come true.

Like Mrs. Turpin, I’ll be happy to be anywhere in that procession. But I’m a pretty stiff and undemonstrative person, and I must say I kind of like the idea that I might be clapping and shouting and leaping like a frog.


Sunday Night Journal — November 19, 2006

Hefner and Marilyn

I read not long ago that Hugh Hefner has arranged to be buried near Marilyn Monroe. “’When I found the vault next door to Marilyn was available,’” he explained to the Daily Telegraph, “’it seemed natural.’” “Natural” may not be the precisely correct word; let’s say “appropriate” instead, symbolically appropriate. Marilyn appeared on the cover of the first issue of Playboy in December of 1953. Less than ten years later she was dead of a drug overdose, which may have been accident, suicide, or even, according to some rumors, murder. By most accounts she had an unhappy life whose disappointments were of such an elemental nature that it’s hard to imagine that they seemed to her a fair trade for fame and money. Like most movie stars, she couldn’t stay married, and she apparently couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term, a result of chronic endometriosis which may have made her position as the most visible sex symbol in the world cruelly ironic. What, in the end, is the use to a woman of being celebrated for her beauty if it only works to insure her loneliness?

Hefner, on the other hand, recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a lavish and well-publicized party. There was a picture of him in the paper with a couple of the sort of girls who have always been associated with his magazine: blonde and curvy, but stiff and controlled and synthetic-looking, almost cold. It’s a cliché to compare them to Barbie dolls, but the resemblance can’t be missed.

Apart from differences in makeup and hair styles on the part of the girls, the picture could have appeared anytime in the past forty years or so. Hefner has aged but, thanks no doubt to medical skill, still looks pretty good. The girls, of course, are exactly as young as they were forty years ago, having been replaced again and again as necessary from an apparently endless supply.

One wonders how long the working life of a Playboy Bunny, or whatever the girls who are paid to hang around the Playboy enterprise are called these days, might be. Are they stupid, wasting their youth living it up and getting their pictures taken in ridiculous costumes (or out of them)? Some are, no doubt, but from the look of the girls in the paper, I’d guess that they tend to be a fairly hard-headed bunch who pretty well know what they’re doing, coolly using their sex appeal to get what they want. This bargaining, as old as the species, was discouraged and deplored by feminists of a generation ago but has now become acceptable again under the name of “empowerment.”

Mais où sont les bimbeaux d'antan? There’s a very limited period of life when young women can play this game. They have, roughly, the decade between twenty and thirty to make their play, and whether they’ve found a tenable path for the rest of their lives is a matter of little or no concern to Hefner and like-minded men. The girls can go on to become women, using Playboy as a path to something else that they really want: to marry a rich and/or famous man, perhaps; to have children; to have a career that allows them to remain fully dressed; to grow old in security. Or perhaps to fail, to become prostitutes or drug addicts—it doesn’t matter to the Playboy, for whom that ten or twelve years of high sexual bloom is the only thing of interest about a woman. No one, I imagine, pretends that the girls are after the life of unending and inconsequential sexual promiscuity with which the magazine tantalize the men who read it.

I’m using the word “girl,” by the way, very deliberately, mindful that it is not approved for females past puberty. I don’t know exactly when a girl becomes a woman in my perception. But, as with a boy becoming a man, it entails the assumption of some level of responsibility, or some combination of age and responsibility: reaching an age somewhere past thirty, becoming a mother—a responsible mother, that is—or some other solid accomplishment. In any case, Playboy Bunnies don’t qualify.

Marilyn Monroe exists for Hefner, one imagines, only as a sex symbol. Her sad childhood of illegitimacy and orphanages and abuse, her solitary pain, her pathetic death, and most of all the life that she did not live, the full life that might have taken her past her youthful sex appeal into something deeper and wiser—none of this is real to his sort of man. Her early death helped to insure her permanent place as a sexual icon. It’s not her achievement, but the waste of her that makes her an appropriate female counterpart to Hefner’s version of what a man should be: not husband, not father, not wise or good or brave, but a mere sybarite notable mainly for his shrewd skill in managing to remain one for fifty years. It’s darkly fitting that they should lie beside each other in death, not husband and wife, not even lovers, but consumer and consumed.

Note: the quotation in the first paragraph comes from this excellent commentary on Hefner’s career.


Sunday Night Journal — November 12, 2006

Funky Town

It’s hard to define the word “funky.” I think it originally meant “bad-smelling,” and sometimes it still does (“These leftover greens are getting kind of funky—I’m throwing them out”). But now it’s also a term of approbation, connoting among other things a sort of sloppy authenticity, along with color, flair, and insouciance toward the staid and dignified. It brings to mind certain associated adjectives: greasy, dirty, smoky, spicy; flavorful; the opposite of bland. A good exemplar in food is red beans and rice; in music, “I Got You” (if you don’t recognize the name, you’d recognize the sound—it’s the famous James Brown song that starts off “I feeeel good,” and if you’ve listened to the radio at all over the last forty years you should be able to hear that horn line now).

And if you want to pin the word on a city, New Orleans has first and undisputed claim. The term may be black—African-American, to use the clumsier and politer term—in origin, but now, like so many black contributions to our culture, it belongs to everybody, although it’s still particularly associated with and most used by and about black people. Likewise, the existence of an old and continuing black culture in New Orleans is a major component of its funkiness.

So is the juxtaposition of so many different and vivid things, good and bad. Songwriter Grayson Capps nails the place perfectly as “that rotten old town that everyone loves.” Don’t kid yourself: New Orleans is a mess. It was a mess before Hurricane Katrina and it’s a mess now. It has a long history of corruption and shiftlessness, from the city government to the bars of the French Quarter. But it can still get under your skin. The appeal has something to do with the color and flavor of the place, and also with starkness of its contrasts: rich and poor, sleazy and holy, clean and dirty.

We’ve just come back from an overnight trip there. We went to Mass Sunday morning in one of the more beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, the Jesuit Church of the Assumption, its architecture described as “Hispano-Moresque,” a style of which I had never heard, but which I presume is something out of post-Moslem Spain. Not too far away there were probably still a few of Saturday night’s drunks bumbling around, and others just starting out, Sunday morning or not. Sin abounded, I have no doubt. And yet grace was there in plenitude.

A friend of mine who doesn’t much like New Orleans has remarked on there being something dark about it, and of course he’s right, but that’s not the whole story. The darkness is serious and pretty much out in the open, but it coexists with a lot of Christian light and a whole lot of basic human warmth.

Sometimes in this mega-techno-capitalist world, “funky” just seems like another word for “human.” That’s part of the reason why America needs this city. It’s also, come to think of it, why white America needs black America. But that’s a topic for another day.


Sunday Night Journal — November 5, 2006

Wingless Chickens: Judging the Baby Boomers

Upon sitting down to write about this topic, I realized that it’s either too big or too small for a few hundred words. You could easily write a book tracing the roots of contemporary moral confusion back for quite some distance—to the early 20th century with no difficulty at all, easily to the 19th century, and from there just as easily to the Enlightenment, perhaps all the way back, as Richard Weaver insisted, to a medieval philosophical-theological error. Anyone even glancingly familiar with Catholic interpretations of history will have met this view. For a current example, see the October issue of Crisis where Benjamin Wiker discusses Locke’s influence on the slow rot of the concept of marriage. You could meticulously document the connections and evolutions of ideas which resulted in a lot of college kids forty years ago doing and saying a lot of really stupid and destructive things.

Or you could just observe, briefly, as I did when in the comments section when this subject came up a couple of weeks ago, that the social and political upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t simply spring up overnight like mushrooms, and moreover that the baby boomers were more followers than leaders in those upheavals, at least if you use the official definition of that generation as including those born between 1946 and 1960.

Since this is not a book, I’ll content myself with noting some specific illustrations of those last two points, which really are one point: that the Great Revolution of the 1960s was simply the most visible moment of a development which had been in progress for some time. I need to note first, and then ignore, the fact that most baby boomers did not participate in the revolution. To some degree it’s still reasonable to lump them in as part of it, because they were certainly affected by it and tended to drift along in its general direction, with even those who weren’t consciously sympathetic to it sharing some of its underlying attitudes, notably a sense that life was more a matter of enjoying oneself than of doing one’s duty. Few were those who consciously and openly challenged it.

An apparently widely held view of history divides it into three phases: first, Ancient Times—everything from the Big Bang until World War II. Almost everybody was an idiot then. Here and there a few interesting things happened, such as Galileo’s tweaking of the Church, the separation of church and state, and the invention of socialism, but for the most part all was waste and void: inquisitions, crusades, slavery, the oppression of women, the repression of sexual pleasure. World War II was more or less the beginning of Modern Times, but it was really only a prelude to the 1950s.

Although this period was technically part of Modern Times, it was dominated by the same sort of people who had been doing all the inquisitions and crusades and such, and they were devoted to perpetuating or restoring those evils. A particularly oppressive aspect of the 1950s was that it had no colors: everything was black, white, or gray. Then in 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President. Colors appeared. Political and sexual liberation erupted. The baby boomers began to look around them and to discover that not everything they saw met with their approval. Driven by their unprecedented intelligence and idealism, they set out to build a world of perfect freedom, with emphasis on the principle that no sexual impulse should be denied or have permanent consequences. All the period since then has been a titanic struggle between those who cherish this liberation and those who Want to Turn Back the Clock.

This is not, actually, the way it happened. Nor is the converse accurate: that all was well until roughly 1960—men went out to work, women took care of the home and the children, most people were reasonably well-behaved sexually, the Mass was in Latin and reverent, until one day a sexual mania erupted which has yet to run its course. It’s time I explained those chickens in my title. They come from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters:

[I]t is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

This was written in 1955, and I suppose I could rest my case here. But let me mention a few more items, narrowing the concept of the revolution (and of O’Connor’s observation) to the sexual revolution—it really encompassed more than that, but that was (and is) the non-negotiable core.

One: a week or two ago I was in the library and had a yen to read a nice shallow page-turner. I picked up From Russia With Love. I think I had read one of Ian Fleming’s books many years ago but didn’t much remember it. From Russia was published in 1955 and I was surprised at just how saturated with sexual titillation it is. It never gets very explicit, but the atmosphere and attitudes are entirely libertine.

Two: the first issue of Playboy magazine appeared in 1953.

Three: the Kinsey Report, which might be called the Great Permission for the sexual revolution, appeared in 1948 (the year I was born).

Four: the contraceptive pill, which was the great enabler of the revolution, came to market in 1961 when the first boomers had just entered high school.

Five: Elvis et. al.

In fact the principles of the modern sexual revolution were explicitly articulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most often under the name of “free love,” as the pet project of a small number of intellectuals and social revolutionaries (H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, The revolution took a while to work its way into society at large, partly because of natural and sensible resistance, and partly because for real success it required contraception and abortion, both of which had technological and legal problems. It began to reach the middle class in the 1920s (when Coming of Age in Samoa was a best-seller), was pushed into the background by the Depression and the War, began to flower in the 1950s, and bloomed riotously in the mid-‘60s when a perfect combination of factors came together: cheap, effective, accessible contraceptive technology, a level of prosperity hardly imagined by most societies, a large number of young people born into comfort and entering sexual maturity, a new low point in the steady attenuation of religious belief. And so forth.

So what, in the end, was the responsibility of the baby boomers? We were not the prime movers of the Great Revolution; we only happened to catch the crest of the wave. In the end, I think it can be said that we were essentially passive and essentially negative: we did not generally strive for much at our personal expense, but rather, simply by being what we were and hanging around, institutionalized the changes, or, more precisely, allowed the more determined among us to institutionalize them. And we were negative, in the sense that T.S. Eliot said that liberalism is essentially negative, in that its fundamental impulse is toward the elimination of restraints and limits rather than toward construction. The imagined new world was not so much an actual new thing as the elimination of the old.

Let me add, if only to avoid the charge of Manicheanism, that I do think there was a positive side to at least some of the social changes of the past forty years, even outside of the end of racial segregation, which almost no one would decry. But that’s another topic. If we weren’t directly responsible for as much as harm as some say, it is also true that the claims of our great accomplishments for the good are highly exaggerated at best. Somebody named Steinhorn has published a book called The Greater Generation which makes the claim that the baby boomers are pretty much the most wonderful people ever. That’s according to advertisements and reviews; I wouldn’t want to read the book, and the words of the author and the publisher seem to constitute a level of self-conviction that makes doing so unnecessary.


Sunday Night Journal — October 29, 2006

Scary Stuff

I had intended to write about the question brought up in the comments on last week’s journal, that is, the responsibility of the baby boomer generation—my generation—for various unhealthy social tendencies. But I think I’ll postpone that till next week, because I’ve had something else on my mind for the past day or two, and it’s more topical. Tuesday is All Hallows’ Eve, which always makes me think of Charles Williams’ novel of the same name, and I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite passages.

Next Sunday, of course, the obvious topic for discussion will be the elections coming up a couple of days later. But I find myself less and less inclined to talk about politics. It’s not that I’m not interested—there are a lot of very important things going on and I have my very definite opinions on them. It’s just that for the most part anything I might say is already being said just as well by someone else. And participation in the debate has become very unpleasant due to the level of emotion involved; calm disagreement in good faith is very difficult to manage.

Back to Williams: I’m not sure where I’d rank him from the purely literary point of view, but All Hallows’ Eve and another novel, Descent Into Hell, would probably place in the top twenty or so among books that have had a great and continuing influence on me. I doubt that a period of more than a week or so ever goes by without my thinking of one or the other of them. If you haven’t read them, you should know that they’re not entirely healthy. I recommend them, but not without hesitation. Williams seems never to have gotten his involvement with occultism entirely out of his system. But it seems to have left him a powerful sense of spiritual reality as reality—not symbol or myth or abstraction. And, his imagination being baptized (to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase), he writes fiction in which that spiritual reality—Christian in conception whether or not accurate in its details or not—is very convincingly the world inhabited by his characters. That is, the real world of the fiction, which is partly the world we know and partly the spiritual world, is rendered not as something ethereal but as a place, with people in it, a place as substantial as our own, and more significant. Well, maybe not more significant, but more directly significant, less mediated and mediating.

One of the crucial events in All Hallows’ Eve is the viewing of a painting, first by a friend of the painter, then by an acquaintance of the painting’s subject, then by the subject himself. Without going into detail which would be tiresome to one who has read the book and would give away too much to one who has not, I can say that the painting reveals something of which the painter himself was unaware while he was painting, but which is very plain to the others who see it. It is the essential nature of the painting’s subject, and since that nature is evil, most who see it are disturbed. The subject is, among many other things, a sort of cult leader, and the painting reveals something not only about the real nature of the leader but about the real condition of those who follow him. Says the painter, after his friend’s remarks have confirmed what he has begun to see in the picture:

This man looks as if he were being frightfully definite and completely indefinite at the same moment—an absolute master and a lost loony at once.

The next person to view of the painting asks “Why have you painted [him] as an imbecile?” But the subject of the painting is in fact a very powerful and intelligent man who knows exactly what he is doing. What the painter has captured is the essential emptiness of evil.

This sort of insight is one of the things that art is supposed to be good for. It isn’t necessary that the artist hold correct ideas about God and man and truth and lies and good and evil, although it’s all the better if he does. But he must be able to see the difference between good and evil, or at least be unclouded enough in both his receptive and his executive faculties to see them and render them as they are. Unfortunately, many of our artists are no longer of much use here, having joined the cult themselves.

Where in our time do we find the combination of mastery and madness that Williams’s painter sees? Not, I think, in the more or less comic and fundamentally light-hearted trappings of Halloween which bother some Christians a great deal but in which I think there is little real harm. Look for it wherever there is a great deal of lying and evasion about fundamental things—where, in other words, there is a determined attack on reality. I don’t mean the everyday lies of hypocrisy and expediency, which we have always with us, but the sort of angry denial of objective good and not-good which is at heart a guilty resentment of truth.

If you want a good scare on Tuesday night, you might try reading Maureen Mullarkey’s piece in the September issue of Crisis, “Painting Money,” about the conjunction of art-world nihilism and the very wealthy and powerful people who invest in it. There’s something unholy about the deliberate derangement on display in certain quarters of the art world. “Does their wealth absolve them from all rationality except market calculus?” asks Mullarkey of the manipulators of the art market. One would almost feel comforted to find no worse an explanation than greed.


Sunday Night Journal — October 22, 2006

Handing Over the World

The older of my two daughters was married last night. She was beautiful, wearing a simple and elegant dress made by her mother. The groom was handsome. The church, an old one by the water, was, to my taste, a more than adequate foreshadowing of the ambience of heaven. The choir from the local cathedral provided the music, including a wonderful wedding anthem (“Set me as a seal upon thine heart” by William Walton). The reception was merry, with many friends and family, a bluegrass band, and plenty of shrimp and barbecue and beer and wine. The groom’s brother gave a moving toast which managed to involve both a line from Tupac Shakur (“I ain’t mad atcha”) and the phrase “holy sacrament of matrimony.” Most of all, we—my wife and I—think our daughter’s husband is a fine young man and that we have good reason to hope that they will have a solid marriage.

I’m left with an odd bittersweet feeling that I haven’t quite sorted out. But there was one very clear insight that has been growing on me over the past few weeks as this event approached: the world will go on. Without me, that is. This of course is the sort of thing we all know but don’t usually feel. I feel it now. I’m not yet elderly, but old age is nearer to me than youth. And I’ve begun to have hints of a diminishing responsibility for the world.

Which is not to say that I’ve been in command. I live a small life, working at a small job, with small influence. But it’s begun to dawn on me that from the time my first child was born I’ve felt an enormous sense of responsibility that went beyond my immediate concern for my family. I felt an obligation to care about the problems of the world at large, to do whatever I could to solve them. I never saw that there was much I could do, and probably haven’t done half what I should have, but that didn’t lessen the sense of obligation. You could call it a sort of extension of my vocation as a father: I felt a desire and a duty to shape the world in which my children would live.

But as they have become adults, finishing school, getting jobs, getting married, I find the weight lifting. The world is becoming theirs. My generation is aging. We’ve done some good and some bad, and the time is not that far off when our record will have been completed, for better or for worse. People my age will hold the reins of power for a while longer, but increasingly the everyday work of the world will be done by younger people, and in time they will assume authority. For some years now I’ve been disconcerted upon finding myself in the hands of a doctor or nurse or dentist who was born after I graduated from high school. But now the experience has become normal, and no longer shocks me as it did.

The process of handing over the world to the next generation has begun. It’s not a bad feeling, really, once you get used to it.


Sunday Night Journal — October 15, 2006

What Happens

The other day I ran across a set of parodies of the contenders for England’s Booker prize. Although I’d never heard of any of the books or their authors, and thus had only a slight grasp of what was being satirized, I still found the parodies funny. Here’s a sample:

It is January, a dark Sunday in winter, and I sit with my mother and father at the kitchen table. “Don’t stare at me like that, John,” my mother says.

“Why not?”

“Because you are 11 years old and we are all very Irish.”

My father goes upstairs to drown the cats.

Recognizing here the broad outlines of a very widely-practised sort of contemporary fiction, I’m confirmed in my view that I needn’t bother with much of it.

Once upon a time, and for all I know even down to this very day, there was an approach to literary criticism which classified narrative works into a set of paradigmatic or mythic types: the Heroic, the Picaresque, and so forth. I don’t recall that there was a Stoic Resentful category, but modern fiction needs one. Most works in this category are variations of one basic narrative line which could be titled How They Ruined My Life (substituting His or Her as required). The protagonist is a miserable soul, fundamentally pure, sensitive, and good, but crushed and thwarted by a brutal and uncaring world. They are first of all the protagonist’s family, and then larger forces: capitalism, religion (or, more specifically, Christians, especially in American fiction), authority in general, ignorant people, insensitive people, people with bad taste, Republicans. I gather that in British fiction many of the authors are emigrants from one-time imperial colonies, so colonialism is a prominent object of their blame.

The protagonist’s chief role in this narrative is to suffer, more or less passively, but gracelessly, always drawing from and replenishing deep wells of resentment. Something of the attitude seems borrowed from Hemingway, or perhaps I should say inherited from his influence. Despite his famous remark about “grace under pressure,” I think his stoicism sometimes has one eye on the mirror, and the current practitioners of the Stoic Resentful narrative give the impression of practicing their poses. I have been dealt a terrible blow—please note the understated way in which I draw your attention to my courage in bearing it.

I know I’m painting with far too broad a brush here. I’m sure there is good fiction out there. But I haven’t read all of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Dickens or James (just to pick the first novelists who come to mind), and I don’t have time or inclination to read numerous variants of How They Ruined My Life in order to find those good novels. Whenever I do venture into contemporary fiction, as when I subscribed to Granta some years ago, I find enough confirmation of my prejudice to send me away again.

The question of why so many artists in the richest civilization the world has ever known are so morose and embittered is always interesting. Whatever the answer is, though, and whatever justification they may or may not have for their state of mind, I think it will in time be admitted that their work is deficient and unsatisfying as fiction because there is so little movement and resolution in it.

I remember from my truncated literary education some remarks by Matthew Arnold on this, something to the effect that a situation of static unhappiness is not a fit subject for drama (I think it was drama—the observation would apply equally to any form that requires a story). I think this is correct. The movement may be subtle, but movement there must be, and it must move toward an end. Our minds are made for stories: we want and expect a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we want the end to be a resolution of some sort. Not necessarily a happy ending, but a satisfactory answer to the questions posed by the action with which the story began, questions of intent and action and consequence that come down to: what will happen? how does it end? If the answer is “nothing much,” we aren’t pleased. We’ve wasted our time.

Are our minds made this way because the world is made this way, and our lives are themselves stories? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?

She ate the fruit. What will happen now?


Sunday Night Journal — October 8, 2006

Torture: Safe, Legal, and Rare?

I dare say not one American in a hundred really understands the legal and diplomatic niceties surrounding the interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists. That in itself ought to be cause for grave concern, because if any people on earth ought to know the mischief that can be done by lawyers crafting and interpreting complex laws, we should.

Setting the lawyering aside, looking at it through the eyes of ordinary common sense, it seems to me that we are going where we shouldn’t. To search for loopholes in a moral principle is most likely to have violated it already in one’s heart. And even if you find the loophole you ought not step through it. But I’m afraid that the Bush administration’s sidling up to torture is just such an effort. This seems like a textbook illustration of the aphorism that hard cases make bad law.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are extreme circumstances where it might be morally justifiable to inflict pain on someone to thwart a grave crime. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but, as I say, for the sake of discussion, suppose the most persuasive sort of case: a genuine ticking-bomb situation, where the timer on a nuclear device hidden somewhere in the heart of Rome is counting down, and the police have captured someone who is known to be involved in the plot. Let’s make it even more airtight—let’s say the person is bragging of his involvement, convinced that no one can now prevent the detonation. Would the police be justified in inflicting pain on him in an effort to make him reveal the location of the bomb?

Suppose the answer is yes. Would it be advisable to pass laws allowing torture in such a case? How could you specify with precision, in advance and in the abstract, the seriousness of the calamity to be averted and the level of certainty about the person’s involvement that would have to be met? How could you be sure you had stated these in such a way as to make it extremely unlikely that an innocent person would be tortured, or that it would not be used under circumstances less grave than intended? Wouldn’t you expect that the very existence of such a law would almost guarantee that it would be abused?

That’s the nature of the rules we make for ourselves. Wherever the line is drawn, we can assume that people will cross it. To pass laws allowing torture in some circumstances, however limited they may be, is to declare it fundamentally licit, and its use a matter of judgment on the part of those most likely to be tempted to employ it.

That’s part of the reason why Bill Clinton’s famous sound-bite compromise on the abortion problem—that it should be “safe, legal, and rare”—is empty, even if those who advocate it are sincere. If it should be safe and legal, there must not be anything essentially wrong with it, so why should it be rare? Since it provides an apparent solution to a serious problem, it will be used fairly frequently.

A better approach, it seems to me, is to think of scenarios such as the ticking-bomb one as similar to the case where a starving man steals food. Because no reasonable person (in our culture, at least) would blame him, we would expect a sensible administration of justice to let him off with little or no penalty. But we don’t set about trying to modify the laws against theft to try to accommodate such cases. That’s partly because the excusable circumstances are too subtle: how hungry does the man have to be? How hard must he have tried to get food by normal means? Etc.

Suppose, in the scenario above, that the police are operating on the assumption that torture is both wrong and illegal. Under those conditions—the impending nuclear destruction of Rome—they might, in desperation, start, say, breaking the man’s fingers. Suppose then that he reveals the location of the bomb, and the city is saved. The right thing for the police to do, then, is to confess and throw themselves on the mercy of the law. Or perhaps, as in the closing scene of Casablanca, the authorities to whom the police are responsible might simply look the other way. If this is hypocrisy, it is not as grave a sin as calling evil good, which would be the effect of legalizing it.

What makes the administration’s approach even more pernicious is that there does not seem to be any claim that “stressful interrogation” is confined only to the rare ticking-bomb sort of situation. It would be (and is being) used on persons who are only suspected of involvement with groups that might be plotting attacks. It’s probably safe to assume that this will result in the mistreatment, possibly the grave mistreatment, of people who are either innocent or, if not entirely innocent, not in possession of the knowledge the interrogators want. What could be worse than to be tortured for information one does not possess?

And about the word “torture”: Mr. Bush says “we do not torture.” It appears that he can say this because he is defining torture to mean only gruesome and damaging violence, excluding the relatively mild techniques that we are widely said to have used. But I don’t see how it can reasonably be claimed that waterboarding is not a form of torture, notwithstanding the fact that it doesn’t produce permanent physical injury. And threatening to kill a man’s children is psychological torture which we did not hesitate to condemn when it was used by the Iranians who seized the American embassy in 1979.

Commenter Francesca on the Caelum et Terra blog cites an observation by Elisabeth Anscombe: “If you want to turn young people into relativists, you think up some impossible situation, some 'what would you do if....' and since they can't think of a moral way out, they give up the moral principle altogether.” Exactly, although it doesn’t have to be a strictly impossible situation, just a terribly difficult one.

Along the same lines, I’ve remembered for thirty years something an Episcopal priest told me he’d heard from one of his seminary professors: that Americans even more than most people have serious difficulty coping with the concept of original sin, that they want to conclude that “if it’s a sin you ought to stop doing it, and if you can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin.” Maybe some such psychological tension is a factor in the American need to resolve moral quandaries with a network of regulations. Better to keep it simple: torture is wrong, and we shouldn’t do it.

A note: although I’m a Catholic and consider myself bound to the moral teachings of the Church, I haven’t mentioned the Church teaching on this subject here because I want to put the argument in terms that are not specifically Catholic. But here is what the Catechism says:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

(The text is here—scroll down to Section 2279.)

I note that there is no mention of anything comparable to the ticking-bomb scenario—torture used to prevent a grave and imminent crime—unless it’s to be subsumed under extracting confessions. Whether this language was intended to leave such a possibility open or is an accidental omission, I’ll leave to the teaching authority of the Church. It doesn’t affect my conclusion as to how we ought to act, and how we ought to write our laws.


Sunday Night Journal — October 1, 2006

Gospel of Terror

You thought I was going to talk about Islamic terrorism, didn’t you? Sorry—I’m thinking rather of the Gospel of Mark, the verses from chapter 9 which all Catholics heard read at Mass today. They include the warning that it would be better to have a millstone fixed round one’s neck and be cast into the sea than “to cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” as the more recent translations say. This is followed by some of the most dire and most disturbing warnings uttered by Our Lord: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” (The priest who read it today described this as “the Long John Silver Gospel”—hook, peg-leg, eyepatch).

Nothing but the lassitude of habit can account for ability of anyone who believes these words to hear them without fear. It is possible, though, since the sin warned against is not named very precisely, to believe that they don’t at the moment apply to oneself. Less easily evaded, perhaps, is the warning in the Epistle of James (chapter 5), also in today’s readings: “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries…You have lived on the earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.”

I live in a small town which became fashionable some years ago. Well-to-do and downright rich people have moved in, driven property values through the roof, and in general tried to turn it into a quaint little museum. It’s irksome to feel that they look down on those of us of modest means. (My wife grew up here, and it more than irks her.) It’s tempting to me to rail against “the rich.” But I usually bite my tongue, remembering that in relation to most of the world I am the rich. This is true for all but the poorest Americans.

We can and do argue, at length and inconclusively, about why and how such a gross disparity in wealth came to be, and who is culpable for it. Assigning blame is always pleasant and comforting. And the whole passage from James above includes a stern rebuke for those who defraud workers, which is probably not something that most of us do on a regular basis. Here’s the whole passage, in the King James version, which I prefer, although the later translations make that fifth verse more intelligible (and more scary):

1 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. 4 Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. 6 Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

But it seems to me that it’s not only oppression that’s condemned here—there is also a warning against wealth itself, against “liv[ing] in pleasure on the earth.” Those of us who live in the industrialized world don’t have to be rich by the standards of our own society to immerse ourselves in pleasure and comfort. We dare not assume that these warnings don’t apply to us as well as to those still wealthier, to whom we would prefer that God direct his attention.


Sunday Night Journal — September 24, 2006

Though the Heavens Fall

How many status points do I get for attending the Alabama premiere of a movie? Not that many, I suppose. But that’s what I was doing Sunday evening, at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham. The name of the film is Heavens Fall, and the reason there was an Alabama premiere (which comes after showings at a couple of festivals) is that it’s about events that took place in Alabama in the 1930s: the Scottsboro case, in which a group of black men were accused and convicted, then retried and re-convicted, of raping two white women. The charges were almost certainly false, and the reason I attended was that Judge James E. Horton, who overturned the second verdict against the defendants, was my grandfather.

The greatest praise I can give the film is to say that it’s a work of integrity. It portrays the segregationist South and its people, black and white, without either sentimentalizing or demonizing them. And it doesn’t sensationalize the story it tells. That may be working against it in the attempt of the producers to find theatrical distribution for it, but they kept it true to the events and, more importantly, to the moral complexities of real life. So there is no superfluous but steamy love affair, little violence, not a single explosion, and no final fight to the death between defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz and prosecutor Thomas Knight, Jr.

The acting is excellent. And—a relatively small thing, maybe, but one to which Southerners are sensitive—the accents are almost all at least acceptable and mostly very good. I would have believed a few of the actors—in particular, Lee Lee Sobieski and Azura Skye, who play the two women—are actually Southerners. Timothy Hutton does a fine job as Liebowitz, a stranger in a strange land, and Bill Sage is equally good as Knight. The paraphernalia and general atmosphere of the film—location, period artifacts, and so forth—are accurate (as far as I can judge) and effective. Natives will be able to quibble with a few things here and there (for instance, filming took place mostly in south Alabama, where Spanish moss is plentiful, but it’s fairly rare in the Tennessee River valley where the trial occurred). None of those matter much, though.

Of greatest interest to me is the film’s thematic approach. Maybe this is just a reflection of my own interests and attitudes, but what emerges most powerfully is not the treatment of racial injustice—which, let’s face it, has been pretty well covered in popular art—but the necessity of the rule of law for the maintenance of our civilization.

My grandfather was essentially a man of the 19th century. Born in 1879, he had the gentleman’s education of an earlier day, with foundations in Latin and Greek. When he turned twenty-one in 1900, the automobile was still a rarity, but he lived to see men on the moon, and died in 1973. I wonder if there will ever again be a generation that sees such vast and swift change. I was twenty-four when he died, far too preoccupied with being a damn fool to have any idea of what I had missed by not having made more of an effort to draw him out (he was pretty taciturn) and get to know him better during the preceding ten years or so, when he had lived with us.

The phrase “living memory” wouldn’t have meant much to me at the time of his death, but now it seems both poignant and astonishing to say that something has passed out of it, that there is no one now living who has a personal memory of this or that thing. When that happens, it’s significant: it’s the end of eyewitness testimony; from then on we will have only artifacts, books and images (which I often think are actually less truthful than words, but that’s another story). Such is now the case with the world—pre-automobile, pre-cinema, pre-radio and television—into which my grandfather was born; such will soon be the case with the great world war which shaped my father’s generation; such will one day be the case with the tumult of the 1960s which shaped me.

My grandfather’s conception of the law now seems something from another time. He believed in the ideal of justice which is blind to everything except the law and the evidence, knowing nothing of the status, wealth, or place of the persons involved. I’m certain that he did not see himself as any sort of crusader or even as making a statement about racial injustice. It was a question of justice, period, unqualified. He was performing what he saw as very literally his sacred duty, referred to in the title, a Latin motto he had learned as a child: fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.

Do people involved with the law think that way anymore? It would seem not. There seems to be on the one hand a tendency to treat the law as something like a set of bureaucratic regulations: fundamentally arbitrary rules for an elaborate game, the object of which is to navigate and circumvent the rules for one’s own gain. And on the other hand there is a concept of justice impatient of law, in which law is a sort of working hypothesis to be set aside with little ceremony when it appears to be in the way of someone’s larger idea of justice. Perhaps my grandfather took too much for granted; perhaps he assumed too much agreement about the meaning of justice; perhaps we have reason today to be a little more worried about unjust law as opposed to unjust application of law; but I think he would have had little patience for any notion or hope of obtaining or preserving justice without law.

I’m grateful to the producers of this film, and particularly to writer and director Terry Green, not only for the recognition given to my grandfather but for their giving a renewed voice to the concept of justice in which he believed.

Here is the excellent web site for Heavens Fall, which gives a real sense of what the film is like.

And here is a very fine account of the Scottsboro case .


Sunday Night Journal &mdash September 17, 2006

Snapping the Thread

Living in a not particularly cosmopolitan area of the U.S., I haven’t come into contact with many Muslims. As far as I can remember the first one was a young man I met at some sort of social gathering quite a few years ago—sometime around 1980, I think. I can’t place the situation, but I remember listening to him debate the question of God with a skeptic. The Muslim impressed me. I don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember thinking that he did a good job of presenting the case for belief in God as both a rational proposition, a way of making sense of the world, and as the solution to the problem of what the human person most deeply wants—in that respect, he was almost Augustinian (“our hearts are restless…”). I was a newly reverted Christian at the time, and I found it interesting that on the fundamental questions I was in more agreement with him than with the American skeptic.

The question that presents itself rather pressingly to me tonight, as I read the latest about what have now been several days of Islamic tantrums, threats, and violence in response to a massive misreading of a gentle theological discourse by the Pope is whether that young man was something of a fluke. As of this moment the most recent instance of Islamic rage to come to my attention is an account of protestors outside Westminster Cathedral engaged in, among other multicultural pleasantries, calling down Allah’s curse upon the Pope. And, aspiring, it would seem, to the pinnacles of stereotype-confirmation, the Iranian press has discerned a Zionist plot behind the controversy. The contrast between the courtesy and intelligence of the Pope’s words and the deranged fury of the response couldn’t be more striking—and, I fear, more significant.

Is this the real face of Islam? Or, more relevantly, is it the face we are most likely to see, and with which we are most likely to have to deal, in our time? I’m afraid the answer to that may be yes. I don’t really know very much about Islam, but my impression is that it is, to use Mark Shea’s term, a brittle faith. I suspect that it’s one of the great over-simplifications that are often so tempting to mankind. It reminds me a good deal of a certain strain of fundamentalist Protestantism, the strain that came up with the formula “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” A religion which believes its sacred text to be entirely unmediated by man doesn’t have a great deal of flexibility with which to respond to intellectual challenges. My guess about the future of Islam is that it will exhibit the Protestant tendency either to ossify or to dissolve, only more so. Perhaps that’s going on now, and it is the ossifying party that is now raging in the streets all over the world because a mild-mannered Christian leader recounted an unflattering remark about Islam, made by a Byzantine emperor who was very much under the threat of that violence.

How many are really raging? Too many, I’m sure. But considering the role the media played in starting this fire, we really ought to wonder about their role in sustaining it, and how much of the story even in, say, Karachi, is being told inaccurately. The first smoke appeared one day last week, in headlines like this one: “Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam.” Now, that headline is the work of a nitwit, possibly a malicious nitwit (read the accompanying story if you think I’m being too harsh). We can be sure that very, very few of the outraged Muslims have read the address over which they’re outraged. That’s not too surprising. But it also appears that few journalists have—or, as Harry Truman said of Nixon and the Constitution, if they have read it, they didn’t understand it. That, unfortunately, is not very surprising, either, but it ought to be.

From what I’ve read, the most egregious of the non-understanders is, sadly but predictably, the New York Times. Anyone in a mood to savor the sheer porcine intellectual inertia of the Times may enjoy this piece; those indisposed will find it painful.

With reputable journalists peddling the falsehood that the Pope “slammed Islam,” and so encouraging the excitable, there’s at least room to hope that there are more Muslims like the one I met long ago than there are rabid fanatics setting fires and shooting nuns. Now is not the time for Catholics, who are, I think, obligated to look for what is good in every faith (without, of course, ignoring the bad and false), to lose their heads and surrender to an answering delerium of fury.

As I read the news reports I can’t help thinking of the famous passage from Newman’s Idea of a University:

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

It’s easy to see the relevance of those words to the fanatics who haven’t read, and probably couldn’t or wouldn’t understand if they did read, the Pope’s talk on faith and reason. But they are just as relevant to the New York Times. Willful obtuseness can walk around Manhattan in a three-piece suit as well as Tehran in a robe, and probably deserves more blame for snapping the silken thread.


Sunday Night Journal — September 10, 2006

Eventually, Like Napoleon: My 9/11 Column

When I heard the news of John Kennedy’s assassination I was sitting in tenth-grade biology class. When I heard the news of the 9/11 attacks I was on my way to work, crossing Mobile Bay on I-10. These are the only two major news stories of my life for which I can supply an answer to the question “Where were you when you heard…?”

On 9/11 I was listening to NPR, something I did more often then than now, because I didn’t then have a cd player in my car. It was probably the eight o’clock news that I heard, the first plane having hit the World Trade Center about fifteen minutes earlier (I’m in the Central time zone). At that point hardly anyone understood what was happening. If my memory is not playing tricks on me, the word then was that “a small plane” had hit one of the towers, and the working assumption seemed to be that it was some strange accident. But I immediately thought terrorists. Looking back, it surprises me a little that I went straight to that conclusion, as I don’t recall ever having given a great deal of thought to it, much less lived in expectation of it. But the idea that this was an accident seemed far-fetched.

Soon enough, of course, the truth was known. Later in the morning I heard the co-worker with whom I shared office space weeping quietly at her desk—the towers had fallen, and the brother of a friend had been last heard from in a phone call from a floor above the initial impact point in one of them. Guesses based on the number of people who worked in the World Trade Center projected 10,000 or more deaths. It must have been a bit of a damper on an otherwise joyful day for Osama bin Laden that so many managed to escape.

Three hundred miles away on that Tuesday morning, my father lay dying of cancer. For several months, since sometime in the spring, I had been making the trip to see him every week or two. I’m not sure whether he was conscious enough to know about the WTC attacks. On Thursday the 13th he died, and I made the drive again.

Newscasts were still, of course, focused almost exclusively on the disaster. At my parents’ house, the TV stayed on with the sound turned off, and so the mourning and the reminiscing had as a macabre backdrop the sight of the towers burning and falling over and over again (the media had not yet decided to stop showing them).

In short, it was death at home, and death in New York City, and bloodthirsty fanatics rejoicing on the other side of the world: a dark time altogether, and a slightly disorienting one. I’m not young, but they say that the death of a parent is an inherently dislocating experience, and of course I felt that far more keenly than any emotion produced by the massacre in New York.

I did find, in the weeks that followed, that I had an intense anger for the hijackers and for those who had directed and assisted them. I remember feeling frustrated that they were dead, because it meant that we could not punish them. I think if it had been possible I would have been willing to see their bodies dug up and desecrated. But I never felt any anger for Muslims at large, or for the people of the Middle East at large. This may have been an atypical or at least a minority reaction.

I thought, in the weeks following, that there were, broadly speaking, two responses open to our government. The first, and the one I would have chosen, would have been withdrawal and fortification: scour the country for Muslims in violation of immigration law and deport them; start keeping an eye on those whose status was legal; begin to do whatever might be necessary to get control of our borders and seaports, political correctness and the desire for cheap labor be damned; get very, very serious about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, which would mean requiring serious sacrifices from the American people; begin the process of extricating ourselves from the Middle East as much as possible, leaving perhaps only a warning that an attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on us, and otherwise leaving the various ugly regimes of the region to pursue their violence against each other and their own people, and too bad about the latter.

The other option was to try to fix the Middle East. To say it that way is to make it appear ridiculous, and maybe it was. Such an effort would have to involve knocking down one or more of those oppressive regimes and hoping that liberty and prosperity would follow, eventually drying up the springs of violent jihadism.

It became clear fairly soon that the Bush administration was choosing the second option. At least some in or near the administration had long wanted to try to reform the region by force, but without 9/11 I doubt any president would ever have risked it. It was a bold idea, and morally questionable, but I don’t think it was necessarily an immoral one, depending on whether or not it could be accomplished without killing more people than it saved. But it hasn’t worked, and I don’t think it’s going to work. It appeared to be working in Afghanistan, but whether that success can last is looking questionable. And the invasion of Iraq was, to borrow a famous phrase, a bridge too far.

I’ve heard it said that 9/11 represents the loss of American innocence. That would make it at least the fourth or fifth such loss in my lifetime: the JFK assassination, the RFK and MLK assassinations (which perhaps should be counted as one with the JFK), Vietnam, and Watergate. And I think I remember hearing it said of the Challenger disaster and the Clinton scandals. I suppose if there had been an American among the moneychangers whom Jesus drove from the temple, he would have stood around outside bemoaning the loss of his innocence. You can find a “loss of innocence” every decade or two throughout American history; please, let’s hear no more about it.

And yet I’ve used the term myself, though qualified: I referred to “sinister innocence,” and in retrospect I think it’s not as accurate a term as I wanted. What I was thinking of is perhaps better, if less pithily, described as a shallowness which, combined with an overly flattering view of ourselves and our intentions, fails to see things as they really are. It underestimates the power and subtlety of evil, and overestimates its own ability to put things right. Persisted in, it can become a very dangerous pride.

We don’t have to attribute sinister motives (Haliburton, big oil, Zionist aggression, neo-con conspiracy, the latter coexisting incoherently with fundamentalist conspiracy) to the Bush administration to be alarmed by much that it has said and done. More or less good intentions untempered by humility and prudence can do almost as much damage, maybe more. The first and perhaps most alarming moment for me was small and now almost forgotten. That was the naming of the military response to 9/11 “Operation Infinite Justice.” The fundamentally blasphemous name was soon withdrawn, but the mere fact that anyone would seriously propose it indicated arrogance bordering on derangement. And then there was “they hate us because we are free.” And the rejection of any inconvenience to Americans as a way of reducing oil consumption or controlling our borders.

I’ve never spoken out against the Iraq war, even though I’ve had many reservations about it, because I wanted it to work. I hoped that the administration was right, that a quick military victory would be followed by the emergence of stable self-government. It hasn’t worked. We have unleashed forces that neither can nor wish to conceive of any approach to political power other than the violent imposition of their own will, or of any approach to religion other than the violent imposition of God’s will. Fanaticism, the exercise of ancient hatreds, and the fear of such exercise are proving more powerful for many than the desire for peace, freedom, and stability. The Iraqi people are now suffering, mostly at the hands of each other and of agents of various interested neighbors, as many casualties every month as we suffered on 9/11.

The difficult-to-avoid conclusion is that the country is incapable of supporting peaceful representative government. “Sinister innocence” comes to mind again as a good description of the administration’s failure to understand these forces or, if they were understood, to prepare adequately for them. But maybe that’s too grandiose. Maybe the simpler and more elemental term “pride” is sufficient.

Eventually, like Napoleon, he attacked Russia.

—T-Bone Burnett, “House of Mirrors”


Sunday Night Journal — September 3, 2006


Betjeman, Slowly Strolling Back

All right, let’s concede that Eliot captured most definitively the anxiety and disorientation of the early 20th century for intellectuals and artists. Let’s grant further that the latter groups were more conscious than most people of dramatic changes in progress, and more interested in and capable of articulating that consciousness. But the impact of the changes was not felt among those classes alone. And no one, I submit, articulated more clearly the bewilderment of the inarticulate than did John Betjeman in “Death of King George V”:

Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;
Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare….

Betjeman is unjustly neglected. Brooke Allen, writing last year in The New Criterion, sums it up: “The feat he performed as a poet is rather extraordinary; he brought serious poetry back to the general reader.” But she also says that “…the pure accessibility of his work has guaranteed its exclusion from ‘serious’ studies of twentieth-century studies.” According to Allen, two recent prestigious survey works, including The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, do not mention him at all. This is preposterous. Resisting the perennial impulse to indulge in ranking, I’ll just say that he is a poet as much worth reading as any of his time and place.

I learned last week, thanks to a nice appreciation of him by John Derbyshire at National Review Online, that this year is the centenary of Betjeman’s birth. I have not noticed any groundswell of demand that the neglect of his work be remedied. But it was not always so, and may change. He was not ignored by the editors of a couple of anthologies from the ‘50s and ‘60s—Louis Untermeyer’s Modern British Poetry among them—which may have been the reason why I bought Betjeman’s Collected Poems a few years ago. I’m trying and failing to remember now what prompted the purchase, but it may very well have been the selection of Betjeman’s work in these anthologies (I like these old collections because they usually have a decent representation of minor and/or unfashionable poets.) At any rate I must be, if Derbyshire is right, among a small number of Americans who have read the entire collection and, what’s more, return to it frequently.

Derbyshire says Betjeman is too English for Americans to read without difficulty. Well, yes and no. It’s true that a great many of his proper nouns mean nothing to me, and there are probably a lot of other associations and implications that pass right by without my being aware of having missed something. A selection of Betjeman annotated for Americans might be reasonably successful. On the other hand, though, his Englishness is part of his appeal to some of us: it’s a nostalgic, middle-class, wistful Englishness, a Village Green Preservation Society Englishness (Betjeman was in fact extremely active in preservation work). Come to think of it, if you like the Kinks of the mid-‘60s, you may be a candidate for enjoying Betjeman.

What is the nature of the accessibility which Brooke Allen postulates as the reason he is not taken seriously? His simplicity comes first, of course. Since the Modernist revolution critics and poets alike have come to think of poetry as something that really ought to be pretty difficult to understand. The poet who wishes to write more straightforwardly can get away with it when he’s unquestionably great, as in some of Frost’s work, but work that is anything less is likely to be undervalued if it can be readily understood by the non-specialist (conversely, a fair amount of obscure poetry has a platitude at its core). Directness and clarity are not prized and are suspected to be elements of banality. Moreover, he uses traditional poetic techniques—rhyme and regular meters—and these, in conjunction with his frequently light and conversational tone, give an unfriendly critic grounds for dismissing much his work as “mere versifying.”

And he seems to be entirely unaffected by the cult of the Romantic soul, the Prophet-Genius-Rebel. He gives no evidence of considering himself as one set apart, pursuing a loftier calling than that heard by most of the dull crowd. He is simply a man using verse to create a portrait of the world in which he lives, and of what it’s like to be there. He didn’t write for intellectuals, and neither he nor the people he writes about dwell very much on the particular concerns of most modern intellectuals.

More specifically, one never hears in him the characteristic note—almost a requisite note, it sometimes seems—of much contemporary literature: resentment or even hatred of his own society. He’s not uncritical of his society, but he accepts it as his and clearly loves it, nursing no sense that he regards it as fundamentally abominable and the cause of most of his problems.

It seems possible, too, that his Christianity wins him no friends. Since a type of despair is in the literary world generally seen as the proper response to life, belief is suspect, and although it may be countenanced in work that otherwise appeals to modernist sensibilities, the combination of plain speech and plain faith invites special disdain.

Plain faith is in the end the main reason why Betjeman is more than a maker of light verse. It is not explicitly present in all his work, of course, but if you read him in quantity it provides a deeper context for everything else. He was a high-church Anglican, undoubtedly heterodox from the Catholic point of view, and probably anti-Catholic in that supercilious Anglican way, but that’s irrelevant to the poetry, which is not concerned with doctrine except in the most general sense. Christianity as found here is not (what so many of us make it, swimming against the cultural tide as we must) something to be incessantly analyzed and defended, but an encompassing sense of the way things are, something firmly fixed in the consciousness of the poet and most of his subjects. This is not to say that there is a facile or superficial devotion in his poems: faith appears as the struggle that it is, but also as something solid and sound, neither mere convention nor desperate gesture.

I’ve written this in a few odd moments and have the sense that I’m not making my case very well, so let me just urge that anyone who finds my description remotely interesting locate and read some of Betjeman’s work. It may be that he will have the last laugh suggested in one of his poems, “On a Painting by Julius Olsson R.A.”:

“It isn’t art. It’s only just a knack”—
It fell from grace. Now, in a change of taste,
See Julius Olsson slowly strolling back.

You can find a selection of his poems here, although not, to my taste, anything like the best of his work. “Myfanwy” is in fact a specimen of the sort of Betjeman poem I can easily live without: a silly borderline-kinky bit of sighing over a certain type of athletic girl who appears often in his work. The others are better, but there are still better ones in the Collected Poems. Derbyshire’s piece also has links to a few poems scattered here and there around the Internet.




Sunday Night Journal — August 27, 2006

A Fit Instrument?

Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.

–John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (1963)

At least as far back as Pacem in Terris, and as recently as certain remarks made by Pope Benedict, the argument has been made that the huge and undiscriminating destructive capacity of modern weaponry has made it impossible for any war at all to be licit. Some say this is a necessary development of just war teaching, some say it’s a departure from it, at least as the teaching has been stated at times in the past. I’m no theologian and can’t discuss the pros and cons of those views. But anyone can describe the lay of the land as we presently see it.

The argument for extending the just war teaching to forbid any war that might actually occur in our time is that it has become impossible to meet the proportionality requirement of that teaching, the requirement that the good to be achieved be proportionate to the harm to be done, and in particular that non-combatant casualties must be incidental and unintentional and not excessive. “Excessive” may be, obviously, difficult to determine, but no one can reasonably maintain that civilian casualties greater by a factor of five or ten than military ones is not excessive.

Ignoring the quibbling side roads into which these definitions can lead, is it not obvious to any Christian that the vast carnage involved in modern warfare is an abomination before God? And, indeed, setting aside the reference to God, any reasonable person would surely agree that it is an abomination. I’m not addressing the assertion that precision weaponry has made these objections obsolete, partly because it appears that they don’t necessarily make all that much difference—“collateral damage is somewhat reduced”.

The belief that it’s wrong to kill the innocent is hardly a specifically Christian one. Even those who claim justification for doing it generally feel obliged to defend their view on the grounds that the other side did it first, as when Osama bin Laden calculates the number of American non-combatants who can justly be killed as recompense for injuries done to Muslims.

An argument for pacifism-in-practice arises from the contemplation of such vast horror and injustice: if war cannot be conducted without producing it, war cannot be conducted at all. Even though there remains an abstract right of self-defense, it cannot be exercised if doing so would involve committing grave sin.

At least from the Catholic point of view, the logic of this is irrefutable. It’s an elementary principle of Catholic morality that one may not do evil in order that good may come. (Catholic moral theologians sometimes seem to stretch this rather far in analyzing hard cases which a common-sense view would simply describe as a choice between two evils, but the distinction between allowing and actively willing is an important one.)

But just as the logic is irrefutable, so is it morally certain that no state will pay much attention to a teaching that says it cannot defend itself. Not only would it require national suicide for the state, and quite possibly the surrender of its own non-combatants to murder and other brutalities, but it would implicitly cede governance of the world to the most ruthlessly violent.

Supposing there were such a thing as a state that regarded the moral guidance of the Catholic magisterium as authoritative: that state would accept the principle that war could not be waged for anything except the gravest reasons of self-defense, but it would insist on retaining that latter option. It would take very seriously the obligation to protect its own citizens, and as a means of obtaining moral permission to do so, it would probably take refuge in the part of the practical pacifist argument that regards disproportionate non-combatant casualties as intrinsic to war, perhaps saying something like “We don’t accept the assertion that we are unable to defend ourselves except by practicing indiscriminate slaughter. We think we can. And if we find it necessary to defend ourselves, we will do our very best to avoid civilian casualties, but defend ourselves we will.”

Now of course even that position, taken seriously, would render many or most wars illicit. But I wonder if it would really reduce their actual occurrence, because states do go to war most often in the belief that they are mortally threatened. In short, an opening does remain in the practical-pacifist logic—the assertion that such-and-such a course of action must always produce such-and-such a concrete result—and human nature assures that a great deal of traffic will probably move through it.

Moral reasoning and admonishment alone can only do so much. What, then, can the Church—what can Christians—do? Given that the carnage is unacceptable, what actions can we take that would limit it? I know there are a lot of people thinking about this, and they’ve proposed a lot of solutions. Some of them seem quixotic to me, as I’m somewhat fatalistically cynical about mankind, but maybe they will bear fruit.

Here’s a thought—a discomfiting, in fact dreadful thought—and only a thought, which I haven’t considered at length or at all thoroughly, so don’t expect me to be able to defend it. Perhaps in the end literal self-sacrifice might be required of some. To issue from a position of security a moral precept, however compelling and authoritative, that might require martyrdom of the recipient inevitably smacks of “binding heavy burdens and laying them on other men’s shoulders.” The example of Our Lord points the way: he never asked of his disciples any suffering which he himself was not willing to undergo.

Imagine the heavenly counterpart of the hellish suicide bomber. Imagine a cadre of witnesses ready to accept martyrdom by entering war zones (or potential war zones), having no physical power to protect the innocent but standing alongside them and saying “If you kill them, you must kill me, too.” Harmless as doves, some of them would die, and the spiritual effect of such sacrifice would surely be great. But, wise as serpents, they would serve, in a world where vivid images and stories have an immeasurable impact on the way people think and behave, as a means of inducing revulsion for slaughter. In the recent (and not really concluded) war between Israel and Hezbollah, for instance, could such a witness have made a difference?

I think there have been attempts to do this kind of thing, but from what I’ve read they didn’t seem entirely serious—more like media events than a firm intention to interpose oneself. To be effective, such nonviolent tactics would have to be very serious indeed. And a plea, in the name of God and humanity, for the two parties to find some other way of settling a dispute must be addressed to both parties. The great weakness of Western peace movements is that they apply their efforts almost exclusively to their own side, which is generally the one where just war principles are already at least somewhat respected and which is very unlikely to punish them in any serious way. And so their gestures often seem just that: at worst just a self-affirmation of the protestor’s moral superiority, at best a rebuke to only one of two warring parties, and not likely to be very effective. A one-sided protest may even encourage an aggressor.

But a peace movement whose members were willing to put their own lives on the line, as ordinary soldiers do every day (which is probably one reason why most people have more respect for soldiers than for war protesters), could not fail to win the respect of all.

No, to answer the obvious question, I’m not ready to volunteer for such a war. Maybe later, when I have fewer responsibilities. Besides, I can think of a lot of reasons why it might not help very much—it might not be of much use in a Cold War sort of situation, for instance. Maybe it’s a foolish idea. But it does seem Christian.

Sunday Night Journal — August 20, 2006

Provoking the Provocateurs

“The artist is a provocateur.” Surely this all-too-common claim has done a great deal of harm to the arts. It appeared in our local paper a week or so ago in connection with the lionization of a flamboyant artist at the opening of an exhibit of his work here. Not everyone was impressed, and the arts reporter apparently overheard some disparaging and ungracious remarks.

To give the man credit, he followed the “provocateur” remark immediately with the qualification that the artist is a purveyor of sometimes discomfiting truth. That’s much better. But provocation is only a potential side-effect of telling the truth, and ought not be treated as the point of the game. Truth may indeed be a challenge, but it may also be a comfort. The notion that to provoke is somehow intrinsic to the nature of art is easily disproven by appeal to all the works that are inarguably great art but which give delight and foster serenity: the painting of Fra Angelico, for instance, or Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” which would irritate only a touchy atheist. (Well, there’s also the occasional reader who doesn’t care for Hopkins’ highly compressed and mannered style, but that’s a different matter.)

More importantly, the emphasis on provocation invites and encourages the sort of meretricious sensationalism that’s easily found in the art world, especially in the visual arts, and which is far more likely to communicate a combination of hostility and self-righteousness than any meaningful challenge.

The classical formulation that art is to “delight and instruct,” which strikes the modern ear as hopelessly antiquated, is much more useful. “To instruct” may seem condescending and potentially moralistic, but in fact the “provocation” to which contemporary artists lay claim is just a variation on that theme: what is the point of it if not to somehow change and correct a bad idea or attitude attributed to the viewer by the artist? I should say, rather, the ostensible point—it’s pretty obvious that the real point in many cases is precisely not to challenge those expected to encounter the work, but rather to invite them to join the artist in his hostility to some third party.

To instruct is more humble than to provoke, because it implies that truth exists independent of either party. The instructor must be as humble before it as the instructed. But the impulse to provoke is responsible only to its own instincts and whims. Instruction may very well tell us something we need to know but do not wish to hear. In that case it is indeed provocative, as in the work of Flannery O’Connor. Her Christian provocation is the real thing, not a sly appeal to self-satisfaction; it’s as discomfiting to the believer as to the skeptic.

You’d think the shock-the-bourgeoisie stuff would have run its course after these hundred or so years. I think the bourgeoisie are now in fact more capable of shocking the artsy crowd than vice-versa. And as a member of the bourgeoisie myself I must say that it’s kind of fun, and I can see why they don’t want to give it up. It may well be that the person who disparaged our local artist at the opening was actually a sort of performance artist.

Sunday Night Journal &mdash August 13, 2006

Poetry and Politics: Guernica with Graffiti

Patti Smith (famous in the late ‘70s as a sort of beat-punk poet singing rock-and-roll) has made available a song, “Qana,” about the civilians killed by Israeli air strikes in the Lebanese city of Qana. (You can download the song here.) It’s a powerful piece, a Guernica in words and music, with a striking and vividly apropos Catholic touch at the end—Qana is held by some to be the biblical Cana. But the emotional effect is undermined for me by Smith’s odd singling-out of a villain: Condoleeza Rice. Even if you hold the U.S. partly responsible for those deaths, to skip over the parties actually waging the war and lash out at an American statesman comes across as a leap from poetry into ideology. Suddenly you can’t simply participate in lamentation for the dead and anger for the sheer evil embodied in the violence—either you agree with Smith’s views about the global political picture, or you’re out of the song and into an argument. It becomes Guernica with a couple of Republican (Spanish) slogans added like graffiti.

If you do agree, of course, the specific political statements combined with the horrific and piteous imagery will get your outrage going and perhaps motivate you to some sort of action. And maybe Smith is more interested in accomplishing that than in making a work of art. If so, she moves thereby pretty far beyond the vague and ever-shifting boundary between art and propaganda, and really has no grounds for complaint if those who disagree with her politics dismiss the song. Whether in the long run the song would, if shorn of its specific political statement, do more or less for the cause of piece is anybody’s guess, but I feel certain that it would be more effective and live longer as a work of art.

I say all this as someone who rather admires Patti Smith and has no desire to belittle her or her work. Although I’ve never heard the albums from the ‘70s that made her famous (a gap which I’ll fill someday), I ran across her late ‘80s album, Dream of Life, more or less by accident some years ago, and heard in it a voice I liked and respected; likewise for her 1996 Gone Again.

Punk rock, with which Smith’s best-known work is associated, never meant much to me. At the time it appeared I was already a parent and trying hard to be an adult, and punk seemed by and for adolescents. But Dream of Life is the work of a woman who’s more interested in raising her children than making rebellious gestures: a grown-up living in, well, if not my world exactly, at least one that has a lot in common with mine. It’s not her political views but the common and universal cares of human life that I share with her.

Why, in general, should anyone give any particular weight to the political views of an artist, especially to his views on specific topics of the day? We find Johnson’s Tory principles of interest mainly insofar as they touch on questions that still occupy us, his views on American independence of interest mainly as they reflect his personality and principles, and his views on inheritance laws hardly at all. But there’s an impulse, at least on the part of those to whom the arts are very important, to attribute some sort of authority on political and social questions to artists. This I think is a leap from the sense, only partially justified at best, that the artist possesses deeper insight than the average person. The more I know of people in general and of artists in particular the less truth I see in this.

It is not intelligence or depth of feeling or accuracy of intuition that distinguishes the artist from others, it is a specific skill—a verbal, musical, or physical skill which is above all a matter of aptitude and development, not of sensibility or intelligence. Where politics is concerned, the artist may actually be less worth attending to than the average person, because he’s likely to see life too much in dramatic and aesthetic terms and to be a pushover for whichever political party most successfully appeals to his emotions and his taste.

There has been since sometime in the 19th century a toxic cloud of cant surrounding art which can be dispelled by recourse to the ancient and simple definition: art is skill in making. A poet is not, as poet, a prophet or a statesman, and neither is a songwriter, much less a painter or a singer or a guitar player. And it’s no service to either the artist, his art, or his audience to treat him as such.


Sunday Night Journal &mdash August 6, 2006

Masters of War

The week was saturated with news of the war in Lebanon, featuring the civilian body count and terrible photographs, and with furious argumentation, on the Internet and elsewhere, as to which side is more right or more wrong. The division emerges clearly once again between those who see Israel and the United States as the root of the trouble in the Middle East, and those who see Islamic fanaticism and oppressive Muslim and/or Arab governments as the problem.

My natural sympathies lie with Israel. It seems to me that open war aimed at the destruction of Israel was Hezbollah’s intention, and that Israel concluded that sooner would be less terrible than later. But it’s at best an open question whether the level of civilian death and hardship involved in the effort to destroy Hezbollah’s war-making ability can be justified morally.

The questions are agonizing, the debate full of anger and incomprehension. Several weeks of reading everything I could find and make time for on the subject have left me certain only that war is a terrible thing. It has always been terrible, but the enormous and indiscriminate power of high explosives have made it far more so. The ruler of a nation under attack will probably have to choose between allowing these weapons to be used on his people or using them on someone else’s, even if his is one of the nations that at least makes an effort to avoid civilian deaths.

On the way home from work Friday afternoon I was listening to Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home,” in which a man on the way home from his wife’s funeral looks back on their life together, regretting small failures of love. Still turning over in my mind the arguments for and against each side in this war, and more abstract arguments about the legitimacy of the use of force, and seeing all this in light of the simple human story in the song, I found myself unexpectedly overtaken by rage at the folly and evil that produce war. Isn’t it enough that we have to face natural death, and that we struggle day by day to lead decent lives? Must we also and always be vulnerable to the violence that not only devours good young men by the thousands but leaves women and children crushed, torn, and burned in the ruins of their homes?

Upon the release of his song “Masters of War,” Bob Dylan expressed misgivings about having wished death upon the masters of war. The song gives a naïve and superficial view of the causes of war (arms merchants), but although its outrage may not be very well-aimed, it’s appropriate.

We choose whom to believe about the facts of this war, and we remain, if we’re sensible, mindful that no nation’s hands are ever perfectly clean. And in the end, none of us who can only learn about it from a great distance can really know the moral status of the participants. But God knows. And I tremble for anyone who would set such violence in motion for reasons that will not bear his scrutiny.


Sunday Night Journal &mdash July 30, 2006

What Are They Among So Many?

There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?

—John 6:9

War between Israel and Hezbollah, with a particularly heart-rending incident yesterday, as Hezbollah continues its evil but shrewd practice of placing its weapons among civilians; the savage internal terrorism in Iraq and the deaths of four more Marines there; the strong possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran: it’s a terrible-looking world this weekend.

But you don’t have to go to the Middle East to find trouble. Today we attended a memorial Mass for a young man who died of a drug overdose. And just as we were leaving for Mass someone who works with my wife called to say that she won’t be in tomorrow because she’s recovering from injuries inflicted by the man she lives with. (And if the thought is forming at the back of your mind that she somehow brought this on herself by living in what the Church demurely refers to as “an irregular situation,” you should temper your judgment with the knowledge that this woman took in and raised to adulthood four teenagers who were not her sons because, as she put it, “people kept throwing away perfectly good boys.”)

I could go on. You could add your own reports. Sometimes human evil, which is so much harder for me to take than the natural evils of storms, plagues, and the like, seems an ever-rising tide. Whatever we can do in our own sphere seems very small and weak in comparison.

So the miracle of the loaves and fishes is encouraging. That bit of food looked useless in the face of the multitude to be fed. Surely it’s significant, though, that the miracle began with a small amount, rather than with none. Presumably Jesus could have produced food from nothing, or from stones. And he didn’t simply produce enough to feed everyone, but rather replenished the small source even as it was being distributed. Again, as in other accounts of Jesus’ miracles, something is required of the recipients: a word, an action, a bit of food. And given that, he does everything.

One of my daughters graduated from nursing school on Friday. It was a joyful occasion: she has worked extremely hard, going to school and holding down a job at the same time, and she’s done well in school, and we’re very proud and pleased. She’ll start her first nursing job in a few weeks. It was moving to see her and her fifty or so jubilant fellow graduates receive the credentials that will allow them to set out on a career which has as its whole purpose the provision of healing and comfort. That’s not a great number of people setting out to push back against the effects of evil, the never-ending depredations of disease and injury and death, but those loaves and fishes didn’t seem to amount to much, either. May the Lord be with them and multiply what they provide.


Sunday Night Journal—July 23, 2006

Resentment Studies

When I was in my mid-20s (quite some time ago) I started down the path that would have led to a PhD in English literature and then, after what would probably have been a lengthy job search, to an academic position. Circumstances at the time caused me to change my mind, and I went into a completely different line of work. I can’t say I’ve regretted the switch, but I do sometimes take a wistful look back at that fork in the road and wonder how things might have turned out if I had taken the other one.

I know what I thought I was aiming for. There’s a portrait of it in Jeffrey Hart’s affectionate memoir of Mark van Doren in the May issue of The New Criterion, and it initiated in me a bout of nostalgia for the world I had expected to enter. You’d really need to read the whole piece to get a good sense of what the intellectual atmosphere was like, and what Van Doren himself was like, but here’s an important passage:

No one then doubted that there were such things as great writers, nor that they could be named. Part of the classroom drama thus consisted of [Van Doren] measuring himself against such writers, and inviting the students to join him, everyone trying to rise somewhere near those peaks of intelligence.

This was the tone and atmosphere of literary study in the academy for a large part of the twentieth century—from, say 1920 or so until sometime in the ‘70s. It seemed to me in my youth, and still seems, a noble thing. From my present vantage point as a Catholic I see some deficiencies: it was an officially secular atmosphere, and it showed a tendency to turn literature, according to Matthew Arnold’s prescription, into a replacement for the religion which was now considered intellectually untenable. Men like Van Doren looked to literature for answers, or at least the nearest thing to answers which they believed might be available. They may have expected too much of it but they contemplated it from a posture of humility. They were there to learn from the classics and to help their students do so, and if the students did not wish to learn it was never supposed that it was because the classics were not worth learning.

From what I hear, this world has been lost not just to me but to all, swept away by the hostility of the cultural revolutionaries who came to dominate the academy, or at least the humanities, after the 1960s. Not long ago I ran into a young woman who was the close friend of one of our daughters when they were in their teens. I was pleased to hear that she was working on a doctorate in English. But my heart sank when I asked her what her area of interest was: “gender studies.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the situation of women as it’s reflected in literature through the centuries, or picking out the relationship between the sexes as an aspect of a great work worth studying. But one would have to be very naïve to believe that the term “gender studies” means anything so straightforward and unobjectionable. Just as in the struggle for racial justice “states’ rights” and “civil rights” carried quite a bit of very specific significance beyond their literal meanings, so “gender studies” and related terms mean something considerably more specific than “the study of gender.”

Gender studies is only one of the attitudes and prejudices that turn the study of literature upside down, making it a tool with which people holding an obscure but deep resentment for the world that made them can batter away at Western (read Christian) culture. Where someone like Jeffrey Hart under the tutelage of someone like Mark Van Doren felt himself judged by the classics, the prevailing (or at least common) attitude now seems to be that it is we who sit in judgment on the classics: they are to be put on trial, interrogated but not allowed to speak, found guilty, and their alleged crimes used as a stick with which to beat the Euro-American past and, more importantly, those who see themselves as being in continuity with it.

These pathologies get a lot of publicity, but I wonder how dominant they really are. I’m sure the old mode of encountering the great books is still alive in at least a few corners here and there. Great scholars and critics have always known themselves to be less than the books they studied. Mark van Doren had this kind of humility. Our practitioners of what might be called in general resentment studies try to make themselves greater, and in so doing have made themselves considerably smaller than even their predecessor critics.


Sunday Night Journal—July 16, 2006

The Laughter of Contempt

I’m writing this on Monday night, having thought better of publishing what I wrote last night, a somewhat dark meditation on the subject of accidents and the problem of evil. Maybe some other time.

Instead, I’ll say something brief on a question I’ve been thinking about for a while: the meanness of much contemporary humor. To start with, I had to satisfy myself that it isn’t just my own quirk that detects this excess of meanness, and I’ve run across several instances lately of people pondering the same or a similar question. There was, for instance, this post by Anthony Esolen on Mere Comments, which makes an excellent case for the connection between humor that does not despise its object—“the laughter of fellow-feeling,” he calls it, in a nice phrase—and Christian culture.

Humor at another’s expense always involves a certain amount of malice, I suppose, but there are degrees, and there is the question of the fundamental attitude of the mocker toward the mocked. It seems to me, for instance, that there is a significant difference between the humor of, say, the Marx Brothers, which I love, and that of a contemporary effort such as the cartoon Family Guy, which is indeed sometimes funny but spoiled by a coldness, a sense that at bottom the writers of Family Guy genuinely despise the middle-class American families they caricature, and not for any particular harm they do or malice they bear, but simply because they aren’t cool. They aren’t the right sort of people; they are the sort of people who inspire disgust in hip show-business people.

In contrast, when Groucho Marx makes fun of the vain rich lady played so well by Margaret Dumont, it isn’t an attack on a set of social markers. It’s predominantly a mockery of her vanity, her fatuousness, her pretensions, and the gullibility into which these other faults lead her, faults which are encouraged by her social station but hardly unique to it. And perhaps it’s only their skill at work, but we always sense that the various parasites and hucksters played by Groucho and the others are exaggerations of their own foibles. The target of the mockery is the array of absurdities into which greed, pride, and miscellaneous other sins lead people, especially those who are eager to follow.

Moreover, there’s the spirit of sheer anarchic delight, the spirit of play, that bursts out of the Marx Brothers in, for instance, the passport scene in Monkey Business. I can’t think of any comedy of recent years that has anything of that spirit—the ironic smirk has long since replaced both Harpo’s grin and Groucho’s over-the-top leer.

There’s not a clear line here. Some of the best satire is the most savage (Swift, Waugh). But I think there is a useful distinction to be made between mocking the proud, the unscrupulous, or the foolish, and sneering at someone because you think he’s beneath you. A witty snob is still a snob. The laughter of contempt is dry and hollow.


Sunday Night Journal—July 9, 2006

The Round-Earth Conspiracy

I had an unexpectedly hectic weekend that left little time for reflection, but I did manage to write the following letter to the local archdiocesan weekly in response to a rather peculiar letter that recently appeared there:

To the Editor:

I have not read The DaVinci Code or seen the movie, but I've followed the controversy with great interest. And I'm struck by a pattern which I've seen again and again on the part of the book's defenders. They begin by insisting that "it's only fiction," and that the book's critics are being stupid and unreasonable in objecting to its portrayal of the Catholic Church as a murderous conspiracy.

But in the next breath they talk about it as if it were true: they like it because of what it teaches them about history--because it reveals the real Jesus (meaning one who was not the Son of God), because it exposes the Church's suppression of the sacred feminine, and so on.

The letter from Anthony Stojak in your June 30 issue seems to exhibit this pattern, although I admit I'm not entirely sure I understand Mr. Stojak, and I hope I'm not doing him an injustice.

He begins by saying that the book is fiction and that it did nothing to shake his faith in Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity. But a couple of paragraphs later he is denouncing the Church for slandering Mary Magdalene, notwithstanding that it considers her a great saint, and seeing some sort of unspecified malign intent in the Church's treatment of the non-canonical gospels, ending with the suggestively unanswered question "What were they trying to hide?" He then goes on to suggest that Opus Dei conspired with the Vatican to "lower the ratings" (I'm not sure what that means) of the movie.

So which is it? Are the book and the movie harmless fun, or do they advance plausible accusations of a sinister cover-up perpetrated for nearly two thousand years by the Church? And if you think the Church is hiding something important, why would you trust it to tell you the truth about something as esoteric as the doctrine of the Trinity and as important as your salvation?

If someone made a movie which involved the "fact" that the world is flat and that a sinister conspiracy of round-earthers is responsible for suppressing the truth, it could be a lot of fun. But I would be concerned if I heard people leaving the theater asking each other "What are those round-earthers trying to hide, anyway?"


Sunday Night Journal—July 2, 2006

If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment

That’s a line from an old country hymn, alluding to an incident in Matthew 9, which was part of today’s Gospel reading, and which of course I heard in the New American translation, but include here in the King James, partly because I love this old-fashioned use of the word “virtue”:

And much people followed him, and thronged him.

And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, and had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, when she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.

For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.

And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?

And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?

And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.

But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.

And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.

Presumably others in the crowd also touched Jesus. That seems to be the disciples’ assumption. Presumably these others also had ills, physical or spiritual, which could have been healed just as the woman’s hemorrhage was. But they weren’t. And why did the woman need to touch him at all? Why wasn’t her faith alone sufficient?

There are two errors which come naturally to the human race regarding our relation to the spiritual, and both are rejected here: the magical-mechanical and the gnostic-psychological. In the first, we suppose that procuring favor from the spirit or spirits that rule the cosmos is a matter of performing certain actions and/or saying certain words. If we make the right sacrifice in the right way, or inscribe the right symbols and pictures in the right medium, or speak the right spell, the powers will do as we ask. The merits of the petitioner are almost, perhaps altogether, irrelevant. Although skill and strength and knowledge may be required, it is not so much a question of goodness as of ritual correctness and purity. At its purest, this approach is simple superstition: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you think as long as you do what’s prescribed, as when I try to cause rain by leaving my umbrella in the car. (I’ll leave aside the question of actual efficacious commerce with evil spirits, who are probably more obliging than God in responding to human requests—in their own way, of course.)

In the second error, the gnostic-psychological, the petitioner or devotee’s state of mind is paramount. Actions may be important for attaining the correct state of mind, but in themselves they are of lesser or perhaps no importance. I suppose a very pure form of Buddhism would be the ultimate form of this: the state of mind itself is what is sought, and its attainment allows one to abandon the physical altogether and forever.

Christians are by nature as susceptible to both errors as anyone else. Catholic and Orthodox theology reject them explicitly, and Bible-based Protestantism certainly ought, on thebasis of this Gospel passage, to see the problem. I suppose most Catholics have seen sacraments or sacramentals approached in a superstitious way. Protestantism, mostly rejecting the mixture of material and spiritual in the concept of sacramentality, can easily take the gnostic direction, most obviously in the tendency to eliminate all physical gestures and materials in worship, but also in a tendency I’ve seen among some fundamentalists to think of faith as a condition of mental certainty, in which they try to make something happen by attaining a perfectly pure conviction that it will happen. The mental traps into which this can lead one are obvious (or ought to be).

This Gospel story implies that neither the physical nor the mental act alone is sufficient. If others touched the Lord, no “virtue [went] out of him,” and presumably nothing happened to or for them. But neither was the woman healed, though she obviously had both the wish and the faith that she could be, until she actually touched the hem of his garment.

The story obviously reinforces the point often made in Catholic theology about the inseparability of body and spirit in the human world, and the need for both to play a part in worship and prayer. There is for us no commerce between souls except through some physical medium, and physical contact is significant only to the soul, whatever its physical effect might be. But I think it's also meant to teach us something a little more subtle, too: that interaction between man and God is an interaction between persons.


Sunday Night Journal&mdash June 25, 2006

No Complaint, No Problem

One of my daughters just graduated from high school, and a few months ago we were visiting colleges. One large state school had invited her to enter a program advertised as providing, within the context of the big school, a sort of intensified liberal arts program like the one offered by St. John's College. All the students in this program, male and female, live in the same building, and we were given a tour of it.

The boys were separated from the girls only by a hallway. I asked about visitation. I was pretty sure I knew what the real practice would be, but I wanted to see what kind of answer the student who was conducting the tour would give me. She paused for a moment and said, "If there's no complaint, there's no problem."

Right, I thought. I know how that will work out. There would be no surer way to make yourself unpopular than to be the tattletale in that scenario.

Our daughter isn't going to that school, but I had a sad confirmation of my prediction a few days ago. I talked to someone whose daughter has just ended her first year at college (not the one described above, but a similar large state institution) in a state of serious depression which had sapped her motivation so badly that she did poorly in her second term and almost lost her scholarship.

I don't know the girl, but she's apparently brilliant, a National Merit Scholarship winner with math-science aptitudes and interests who wants to be an engineer. And I don't know the whole story. But I do know that she went to college excited about learning, and that she found herself living in an environment which, except for the fact that no money changed hands, might as well have been a brothel.

What is euphemistically called "partying" went on constantly in the whole dorm. But worse, her roommate's boyfriend was in the room at all hours, a sort of unregistered third resident of her room, with all that implies. And she felt that if she complained it would only cause trouble for her. "They'll think I'm a prude." Her mother asked if she couldn't ask the resident assistant (i.e. the person paid to keep order) privately to intervene. "No, she'll just laugh at me. Her boyfriend stays in her room, too."

It's not a new thing that the young person trying to avoid vice should be taunted and rejected by those who have embraced it. I recall my one year in a college dorm forty years ago, and the earnest evangelical young man who was laughed at because he wouldn't go in a room where Playboy centerfolds were on display.

What's different now is that the institution, and for that matter the society which sponsors it, offers such a person little or no moral support. It's like living in a society in which the police are in league with the criminals. At best this girl could have gotten a different room and roommate, but with the real likelihood that she would have ended up with the same difficulty, except that now she would bear a burden of ill will. If she had spoken out, she would have been considered the problem—that is the real implication of "no complaint, no problem."

So in the end there was no problem, so far as the institution was concerned: just a disoriented girl with an obsolete idea of what constitutes minimal decency. What a pretty world we've made, where vice is filled with self-esteem and virtue is expected to hang her head and keep to the shadows.


Sunday Night Journal &mdash June 18, 2006

Blood and Sapphire

It will come as no surprise to any non-Catholic reading this that we Catholics believe some pretty strange things. Catholics, on the other hand, are in some danger of losing sight, by force of habit, of this strangeness. I thought of it as I listened to today's readings for the feast of Corpus Christi.

First there was the Old Testament reading, Exodus 24:3-8, which describes the sacrifices performed by the Israelites at the behest of Moses after his return from his encounter with God on Sinai. What a scene that must have been—slaughter and butchering, burning flesh, blood collected in vessels and thrown about on the altar and upon the people. And sacrifices like these continued for centuries, especially in the great Temple of Jerusalem, constituting the core of the faith in which Jesus was raised and in the context of which he announced that he himself was to be the ultimate sacrifice, and that once his action was complete there would be no further need to slay any living thing as a sacrifice.

Leap forward a few thousand years, and see what happens in almost every Catholic church almost every day. There is an altar patterned after those in the Temple. Somewhere around it hangs a more or less realistic representation of a man cruelly put to death. Followers of this same Jesus believe that their priest, standing over this altar, re-creates the one sacrifice by speaking certain words over wine and unleavened bread. And when he has done this they become in some invisible supernatural way the literal presence of the man Jesus, who by the way was also God.

One who does not believe this can surely be forgiven for muttering "yeah, right" when told that this bread and wine are actually the flesh and blood of God. And if he thinks much about it at all he may even be repulsed by the fact that the priest and people will now eat this purported flesh and blood. He may think that they are doing something either insane, if their faith is not true, or repulsive, if it is. The whole thing, going all the way back to Moses and his basins of blood, looks like nonsense piled upon delusion.

But if he looks much further into Catholic doctrine he'll find it full of sound good sense, teaching reason, humility, honesty, peace, love, and forgiveness. Of course if he's a man very much of our times he'll also find a lot of things there—mostly those pertaining to sex—with which he will disagree and maybe even consider harmful, depending on how "liberated" he is. But if he reads the theologians and the popes, especially our two most recent popes, he'll at least have to admit that the teachings are logical and coherent. And in the case of the popes he'll hear a very down-to-earth reason, very much alert to and conversant with the world. In fact, if our man is very much a child of his time, he will begin to complain that it's all too logical. (Or at least this sort of reaction used to be possible—nowadays I'm afraid there are many in whom the natural light is so clouded that they can't even see the virtue of, for instance, the Christian concept of marriage.)

How can this be? It's as if one discovered streams of pure fresh water flowing out of an oil well. Sometimes it seems like the emergence from this faith of primitive sacrifice of so clear and reasonable a mind as that of St. Thomas is a miracle in itself. We can find part of the answer by reading the two verses from Exodus that follow the Sunday readings:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

You may recall that the initial encounter on Sinai involved darkness, fire, thunder, earthquake, and a sound like trumpets. Moses had to brave these alone in order to see the Lord. Yet now all is tranquility and clarity, and the seventy don't seem to be afraid.

Catholic teaching may seem as clear and bright as that sapphire pavement, but it has to be preceded by an acceptance of darkness and mystery. If we are going to understand anything at all, we must first accept that we cannot understand everything.


Sunday Night Journal — June 11, 2006

One Cheer for Roy Moore

Roy Moore, running for the Republican nomination for the Alabama governership, was easily defeated last week by incumbent Governor Bob Riley. All the polls had predicted this, so if those were correct then the majority of the state’s citizens were pleased by the defeat. Although he continues to refer to himself as a judge, Moore was deposed from the Alabama Supreme Court after he defied a court order to remove from the Supreme Court building a monument quoting and honoring the Ten Commandments and delineating the connection between the laws of man and the laws of God. (See the monument here).Alabama is a conservative and religious state, and so the widespread rejection of Moore’s stand may seem a little surprising. “Conservative” probably trumps “religious” in the citizenry as a whole, though, and if there’s one thing you could probably always count on a large majority of them to disapprove it’s a deliberate defiance of the law. When Moore, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, refused to obey a court order, he was finished. The attorney general at the time, Bill Pryor, himself a firm conservative and a Catholic, was in sympathy with Moore’s views but did not hesitate to set in motion the legal machinery for Moore’s dismissal.I did not want to see Moore become governor of my state. His use of the Commandments smacked of demagoguery, and his insistence on displaying them hardly amounted to a qualification for rule. He strikes me personally as something of an egotist and grandstander, and there’s an off-putting self-righteousness in his face and manner. And like many Alabamians I’ve had more than enough of politicians who give the rest of the country reasons to maintain their prejudice that we’re all morons and/or fanatics. Of course the prejudice is, like most, not without foundation, but I’m not at all sure we’re worse than other states—we’re just more colorfully moronic and fanatical than most of them. But for all his faults Moore was fundamentally in the right, and like many grandstanders he has hurt his cause. No doubt his reading of history tilted inaccurately in an evangelical Protestant direction, but he was clearly right that American Constitutionalism arose in a culture which took for granted the existence of the absolute moral norms of the Ten Commandments. For insisting in an unseemly way on this connection between the laws of man and the laws of God, Moore lost his office and seems to have little prospect of reviving his political career. Moore created a controversy which was at bottom an attempt to force into public consciousness and public debate the question which almost all our politicians and opinion-makers wish to avoid: what, in the end, is the foundation of social order? Either there are absolute rights and wrongs, or there are not. If there are, what are they? If there are not, on what authority does any society declare one thing lawful and another not so? And on what authority does it enforce those declarations?

The conventional answer to these questions is incoherent: there are no absolute moral laws, but there are things one mustn’t do. Up until 1960 or 1970, there was a rough consensus about these, and the lack of a solid foundation for the consensus could be ignored. The abortion question among others shattered that consensus. This was a disagreement which could not be exorcised with the chant of “You’re entitled to your opinion.” There is too much at stake; both sides know it is not a merely private concern. The attempt to sever once and for all the concept of marriage from the concept of family by allowing something called marriage between persons of the same sex is similarly intractable: there is no way to resolve the dispute without one side or the other losing in a definitive way, and finding itself trapped in a society which is hostile to it.

Moore’s essential insight, however badly or contentiously he may have framed and pursued it, was that the refusal to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Constitution is, in the end, an attack on the Constitution itself. In order to avoid acknowledging this dependency, doctrinaire secularism must attack not the specific teachings of the Ten Commandments but their authority, which means in practice, and for now, the denial of the very concept of a transcendent authority.

No society can exist indefinitely without some sort of consensus on fundamental questions, because these determine the way people behave toward each other. In the absence of a moral law to which appeal can be made, the ultimate arbiter is the force of the state. And the state which is at bottom lawless and entirely the tool of a dominant faction will in time prove a much more severe master than any Alabama fundamentalist.