Mere Unbelief

•April 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

“Burning in Unbelief” by Anastasia Parvanova

Thinking about the state of the world–specifically, the West, which has now started another round of conflict in the Middle East, and the Western Church, whose primate seems intent on abandoning the Sacred Tradition of the whole Church–it occurs to me that it is dying from “mere unbelief.”  Readers will no doubt be familiar with C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” an idea he picked up from the 17th century Presbyterian minister, Richard Baxter.  This idea that there was some bare minimum of Christian belief that all Christians shared–and not merely the fullness of faith and truth, as revealed to the Church–was all that was necessary for salvation (or at least, that’s the impression I get from people who espouse it, anyway).

I confess I have never thought much of this idea in terms of Christian faith.  It seems too narrow, too constricted.  But as to what is going on today, as a baseline minimum of what it takes to depart from that fullness of faith, it captures quite well what is paralyzing the West and the Western Church today.  “Mere unbelief”–not the productive heresies of a more vigorous age in the life of the Church, but the enervation of a people worn out and self-absorbed, who can no longer be bothered to challenge the Church’s teachings in a dramatic fashion, like Arius insisting that the Son was a creature, or Luther with his howling about sola fide–who no longer possess the necessary energy to create new heresies, but, still needing to pretend that they still believe what they no longer believe, they simply go on asserting that the faith is no longer what it is, and appealing to vague slogans and cliches to justify their unbelief, without ever bothering to try and articulate a coherent alternative.  They simply defect from the Word Himself, and act as if it had no consequence at all.

This is the spiritual counterpart to what Vico called “the barbarism of sense and reflection”–just a muddy puddle of nothingness, a living body without life, a center without a core, that makes no sound but still emits a screeching clamor–a death cry which its own authors do not recognize as such–Heidegger’s “das gerede,” the “noiseless chatter” of a nihilistic society.  It is disturbing, I know.  The fact of this horror challenges the idea that the world is under the providence of God, so distressing is it.

But then again–death is always a prelude to new birth.  It may be that something in us (I mean people of Western European backgrounds; it is different with other ethnic groups), needs to be burnt away, so that this Truth may go on living in those that are left of us.  And it is always good to remember that, however unprecedented may be our sufferings now, they are not wholly new, and that they connect us with our ancestors in the faith, as well as those who suffer across the world for it today.  So if we must die today, or our civilization die tomorrow, or the institutional Church die the next day, let us die in the Faith, connected to the great cloud of witnesses who witness to Him who never dies.


Billy Graham & the End of the Evangelical Age

•February 23, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I heard the news via Twitter, I think, the other day, that Billy Graham had died.  I admit I have never been terribly interested either in the man or his crusades, but have admired him from a distance, if not terribly intensely.  However, news of his passing affected me more than I would have anticipated.  I supposed older journalists probably had pieces written in their drawers for when this day would come, but I never gave it much thought.   It is pretty obvious to most that with his death, an era is coming to an end or has already done so; it is difficult to tell, in the moment.  Only with time will that become clear.  But the reasons I care are more personal.

A few years ago, I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, and I recall being spectacularly bored by it.  She is a fine writer, but seems allergic to storytelling, mainly, or so it appeared to me, because any hint of excitement or pleasure for the reader would undermine the intellectual integrity of her work.  Better to be boring and retain your reputation for seriousness, I guess.  But part of the reason I couldn’t get into the novel was because it was a eulogy for the religious world of liberal Protestantism in the 1950s–intellectual, dedicated to the socially moderate, sensible, at home-in-the-world sort of Calvinist Protestantism that Robinson adheres to.  I don’t share that nostalgia because, frankly, I don’t think much of value is lost by its passing.

With Billy Graham, it is much different.  To me, he may be the last representative of the English speaking, Free Church tradition as it descended from the 18th century–from German Pietism, the Wesleys and Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakenings in America, all those circuit riding Methodist preachers and Baptists revivalists from the 19th century–that Evangelical empire that reshaped the face of the country following the passing of the Revolutionary generation, and which did so much to perpetuate the free-spiritedness (for good and ill) that has made America unique, culturally and religiously speaking.  Perhaps their heirs will persist, but it will never again command the allegiance it once did.  And this, in contrast to the world that Robinson laments, seems a loss to me.

Independence of mind is not an absolute virtue, and in the spiritual life, it can be deadly.  Obedience is the greater part of holiness.  But it is something that one needs, to enter into that higher phase of spiritual growth.   We start with evil dependence, grow into independence from it, then onto the higher dependence upon Jesus Christ.  It seems to me that this was the great contribution of Evangelicalism at its height:  its rejection of any central church authority necessarily made it less theologically toxic than say the more traditional Protestant bodies, and focused more narrowly on the lives of individual baptized, and therefore, on personal holiness.  At least to a Catholic, this seems more spiritually fruitful, and is perhaps why so many converts (joyful, faithful, and holy) I have known have come from one of those traditions.

When I was deciding where I should find my spiritual home, after abandoning atheism, I never seriously considered any of the bodies associated with this tradition.  This was partly, I realize now, a cultural and social decision, rather than a theological one.  I knew that the theology of most Evangelical churches was pretty thin, but that wasn’t the primary reason.  Part of it was Evangelicals were seen as anti-intellectual, and I was in graduate school, so it didn’t fit with my aspirations at the time.  Moreover, where I grew up, in the South, it was the predominant religious affiliation, and this would have made it suspect in my mind.  I partly found my way into the Catholic Church because it seemed foreign, strange; I think I blamed my society in some way for allowing me to fall into atheism in the first place, and so I was looking for something as alien to it as possible.  Something in Evangelicalism had not allowed me to embrace it, and that was enough for me.  I had always felt there was something artificial, something inauthentic about it.

I realize better now, having been a Catholic for almost fifteen years, that the opposite was the case:  truth invites counterfeits, as I have learned only too well in the Catholic Church.  And it is likely that counterfeiters are better at advertising themselves than are the real thing.  No, the problem with the Evangelical movement is its incompleteness, its lack of truth, lack of connection to the mystical body of Christ.  But there was less in the way of embracing what it did not lack, at least for individual believers, than in other Protestant traditions, I think.  And what it produced, it produced in abundance.  Billy Graham was living proof of that.  I lament that those good, decent souls remain outside the Church, and deny themselves the grace of the sacraments.  I pray for their entrance into it, and for Billy Graham, and though I think its demise was inevitable, the society that produced such fruits is deserving of being remembered, even if they were the product of severed communion.

Billy Graham, 1919-2018:  Memory Eternal



The Friendship of God

•February 17, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Jesus Meal_Tissot

“Our Lord, the Word of God, first drew men to God as servants, but later he freed those made subject to him. He himself testified to this: I do not call you servants any longer, for a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead I call you friends, since I have made known to you everything that I have learned from my Father. Friendship with God brings the gift of immortality to those who accept it…

The reason why God requires service from man is this: because he is good and merciful he desires to confer benefits on those who persevere in his service. In proportion to God’s need of nothing is man’s need for communion with God.

This is the glory of man: to persevere and remain in the service of God.”


From the Treatise “Against Heresies” by St. Irenaeus of Lyons

Office of Readings

Saturday After Ash Wednesday



St. Josephine Bakhita

•February 8, 2018 • Leave a Comment


Today is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947), a woman born to slavery in the Sudan.  From the Vatican website:

Witness of love

Her humility, her simplicity and her constant smile won the hearts of all the citizens. Her sisters in the community esteemed her for her inalterable sweet nature, her exquisite goodness and her deep desire to make the Lord known.

“Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”

As she grew older she experienced long, painful years of sickness. Mother Bakhita continued to witness to faith, goodness and Christian hope. To those who visited her and asked how she was, she would respond with a smile: “As the Master desires.”

Final test

During her agony, she re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more then once she begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains… they are heavy!”

It was Mary Most Holy who freed her from all pain. Her last words were: “Our Lady! Our Lady!”, and her final smile testified to her encounter with the Mother of the Lord.

Mother Bakhita breathed her last on February 8, 1947 at the Canossian Convent, Schio, surrounded by the Sisters. A crowd quickly gathered at the Convent to have a last look at their «Mother Moretta» and to ask for her protection from heaven. The fame of her sanctity has spread to all the continents and many are those who receive graces through her intercession.

Blessed St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!

Abba Anthony

•January 17, 2018 • Leave a Comment


When Anthony was about eighteen or twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with an only sister. He cared for her as she was very young, and also looked after their home.

Not six months after his parents’ death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Saviour, and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the apostles the money for distribution to the needy. He reflected too on the great hope stored up in heaven for such as these. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.

It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land, so that it would cause no distraction to his sister and himself. He sold all his other possessions as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister he retained a few things.

The next time he went to church he heard the Lord say in the Gospel: Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Without a moment’s hesitation he went out and gave the poor all that he had left. He placed his sister in the care of some well-known and trustworthy virgins and arranged for her to be brought up in the convent. Then he gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home. He kept a careful watch over himself and practised great austerity. He did manual work because he had heard the words: If anyone will not work, do not let him eat. He spent some of his earnings on bread and the rest he gave to the poor.
Having learned that we should always be praying, even when we are by ourselves, he prayed without ceasing. Indeed, he was so attentive when Scripture was read that nothing escaped him and because he retained all he heard, his memory served him in place of books.

Seeing the kind of life he lived, the villagers and all the good men he knew called him the friend of God, and they loved him as both son and brother.


From the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius

Office of Readings

Feast of St. Anthony of Egypt, Patriarch of All Monks

Re-Reads: “God Owes Us Nothing”

•January 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

From left to right: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Pierre Nicole (1625-1695), Jacqueline Pascal (1625-1661), Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694)- a Jansenist Cloud of Witnesses

This is the first in an occasional but ongoing series of posts about books I have read, giving them a second look.  The first post will review the book by the late Lezsek Kolakowski, God Owes Us Nothing (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

The singer-song writer Randy Newman wrote a ditty some years ago called “The World Isn’t Fair,” in which he chastised Karl Marx for trying to rectify the world’s iniquities.  The song is terrible, but the last lines are striking:

Oh Karl the world isn’t fair
It isn’t and never will be
They tried out your plan
It brought misery instead
If you’d seen how they worked it
You’d be glad you were dead
Just like I’m glad I’m living in the land of the free
Where the rich just get richer
And the poor you don’t ever have to see
It would depress us, Karl
Because we care
That the world still isn’t fair

The song acknowledges Marx’s criticisms, but points to what it takes to be a painful truth:  there is no justice in this world.  And, for Newman, who is like Marx an atheist, it means for some there is no justice at all.

I thought of this song when looking over the notes in my copy of God Owes Us Nothing, one of the last works by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski.  The book is about Pascal’s Jansenism and its legacy, but is much more than that.  It is also a reflection on the quintessential early modern philosophical conundrum, that of theodicy:  how to reconcile God’s goodness and justice with the existence of evil in the world.  The book was, as far as I know, Kolakowski’s only foray into theology, and though it has several major flaws, it is still a very interesting book, if only for some of the issues it raises.

The burden of book is to show that Pascal and the Jansenists (and by extension the Protestant Reformers) believed what the church had always believed about predestination was abandoned by the Church in condemning it. (37)  He wants to show that Pascal and the Jansenists were wrong, and that what was needed was a theology that could adapt itself to a new civilization. (57)  He takes the debate over freedom of will to be an either or affair, and says both Aquinas and Trent are ambiguous on the matter. (40-42)  Problems abound:  he ignores the doctrine of sanctification altogether.  He never considers that God’s bestowal of grace might actual regenerate our nature and make us capable of cooperation, but seems to assume it must be total inert passivity before God or complete freedom from his grace (i.e., God first gives us grace to perform good works, then we contribute, then he completes our salvation).  He seems to take Augustine, the Jansenists, Luther, Calvin and Calvin’s followers to all be saying precisely the same thing about grace, which is highly debatable, to say the least. (36-37) His conclusion seems to be that this rigorous idea of how one achieves salvation was the preserve of martyrs, and since by the 17th century Western civilization no longer consisted of such, it needed to change to survive.  (44-45, 105)  The Jesuits created a comforting way to salvation for the emergent middle classes of early modern Europe, and the Church, by condemning Jansenism, implicitly rejected Augustine and embraced the Jesuits/modernity.  (109)  Moreover, he condemns Pascal and the Jansenists for being excessively morbid and harsh, suggesting that the primary reason for the harshness of their faith was psychological: since they were miserable people, they wanted everyone else to be miserable too.  (197)

About that psychology:  his reading of it is entirely unfair to Pascal though not to his thought, since it is rather morbid.   It apparently never occurred to Kolakowski that Pascal’s unhappiness might have been caused by his brain, not his ideas: in the Pensees at least he sounds like a depressive, and had he lived in this age might be a lot more “happy” on some fairly mild forms of anti-depressants.   There is not always a close correlation between the ideas one holds and one’s personality profile.  Kolakowski’s intriguing discussion about God having no obligations to anyone lacks nuance, and his treatment of Jansenist/Augustine/Protestant thinking resembles Pope Francis’s critique of “rigidity.”  It is not hard to see parallels here between the need to make the faith “easier” for an “ordinary decent Christian” as he puts it (105, 197,and the push to make communion open to those in adulterous unions by the Pope and his supporters.  The basic message is the same: times have changed, and the Church needs to change in order to survive.  Looking back on reviews of the book, I think the reviewer Kirkus Reviews pretty much spot on about it being “brilliantly cynical” but shows how far one can take a gnostic reading of church history combined with a Manichean idea of grace.  Finally, I suspect Kolakowski was engaging in a work of projection using thinkers whose ideas he didn’t really understand all that well in order to tar those he did.  At certain points he made clear he was really thinking of his former fellow Marxists when he critiqued Pascal for his dour fatalism. (35) His depiction of Augustine sounds more like Marx to my eyes, with its esoteric emphases and “right side of history” triumphalism.

But what mostly stands out in retrospect is Kolakowski’s tin-eared view of history.  This side of 9-11, it is clear that the Church is very much still living in the age of martyrs–just not in the West.  And we are still living in the end times, even if our civilization is different:  Kolakowski claimed that in the “new world” of seventeenth century modernity it was “a hopeless task” to convince people to “stifle their curiosity and their mundane interests” in order to live up to the demands of the gospels. (105) This sort of un-argued assertion makes me think he was not well acquainted with the Roman Empire which the Church converted in Late Antiquity.  And his suggestion that a serious preoccupation with one’s eternal destiny was the preserve of “medieval peasants and artisans” which could never appeal to the 17th century aristocracy is so crude that, again, it recalls the more monomaniacal class analyses of Marx. (45)

In short, Kolakowski seems to think that modern Christians don’t believe in life after death all that much and therefore it makes Christianity’s demands seem unjust as regards this life; ergo, the Church needs to adjust its demands, rather than trying to convince them that life after death and eternal judgment are realities more important than life on earth.  What he failed to see is that, once you eliminate the hope of heaven, you eliminate any prospect of justice in this world too, as Randy Newman understood.  Odd that a hack song writer could realize what a great philosopher could not–that the motto of the Hapsburg emperor really was true, if not in the sense he intended:  non sufficit orbis, “the world is not enough.”



Alypius Minor


Notes on The Mortara Case and the Liberal State

•January 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

There has been a dust up in the Catholic internet over an article published in the journal First Things, a review of the memoirs of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who was baptized by his Catholic wet nurse when he was 6 years old, and when this fact was found out, taken from his parents by the Papal States in 1858, to be raised by Pope Pius IX.  The case caused outrage in the press, especially in America, and in other Protestant countries.   One of the things the article reveals is that Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese are making films about this incident, which means it is going to get a lot more publicity in the coming years.  Just a few quick thoughts on this matter.

1) First of all there is something lurking in the background of this row: conservative Catholics, and socially conservative Protestants, Jews, etc., are terrified of what the secular might do to their families over gay marriage and the transgender rights campaign, if they get their wish.  They are not wrong to be frightened, in my opinion.

2) Spielberg’s film will almost certainly be an anti-Catholic hatchet job, and fodder for those who see World War T and other policies as fitting retribution for the crimes committed by Catholics or conservative Christians in the past against minority groups, whether real or imagined.  These two things account for the largely hysterical reaction from some quarters of the conservative Catholic internet.

3) The practice of baptizing non-Catholics was a common in the Papal States at the time, something the Jewish inhabitants of that country knew very well.  In other Christian countries, it was not unheard of to have baptized children whose parents had died or who were deemed unfit by the state, or to have their children be taken away to be raised in the true faith (whether it be Protestant or Catholic). See Orestes Brownson’s review of the Mortara case for examples of this.  At least some of the uproar at the time was due to Protestant concerns about a child being indoctrinated into a false religion, rather than concern for parents’ rights.

4) The assertion that what Pius IX did violated the natural rights of the parents doesn’t hold water.  No government of any kind thinks such rights are absolute (save maybe the old Roman republic?), and all have notions that there are greater goods than the desire of parents to raise their children themselves.  The problem, of course, is that there is wide disagreement on what such goods might be, beyond physical health and well being.

5) The idea that such parental rights are absolute is contradicted by Christian history.  The Church has always defended the rights of children who wished to be baptized against their parents wishes, and there is a long history of the Church canonizing children who disobeyed their parents to follow God (Perpetuua and Felicitas, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis).  The whole effort to ban clerical marriage by the Latin church in the middle ages was as much about trying to curb in the influence of noble families in the Church as it was chastity, and its injunctions against consanguinity (degrees of blood relationship in marriage–i.e., cousins’ marriage) had the effect of reducing the size and scope of family life in Western Europe, in effect creating the modern nuclear family as we know it.  The Church only became a bastion of “family values” after it had reshaped it towards its ends, and the Industrial Revolution and Romanticism turned it into the emotional center of peoples’ lives in Christian countries.  It is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon.

6) Moreover, such an idea is in serious tension with the Gospel itself:  Jesus makes quite clear that family is not the highest form of loyalty in several places in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 10:37-39, 12:46-50, 19:29-30; Mark 3:31-35, 10:29-31; Luke 2:49-50, 8:19-21, 9:57-62, 14:25-27).  Liberal theologians may try and twist this tension to serve perverse ends, but they did not make it up out of whole clothe.  It is baked into the Christian cake from the beginning, so to speak.

7) One may object to what Pius IX did on moral grounds; one could say Pius IX was trying to achieve a good by doing evil, something that Catholic teaching explicitly forbids.  But then, as I indicated above, having the state or the church remove the child from the authority of the parents is not intrinsically evil.  And if baptism really is necessary for salvation, and one’s eternal salvation is the most important thing in life, more important than family, and Christians truly believe this, wherever Christians have power in a given society, such difficult cases will be unavoidable, ultimately.  One can condemn the acts of Pius IX because the specific acts of the case make it immoral, but not the general principle, I think, without seriously undermining belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation.

8) Finally, this is all related to the sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit agreement made by believers in modern society:  the agreement not to do such things in the name of a higher good, at least through the means of the modern state.  There is widespread feeling, usually one of fear, that this consensus is breaking down.  This has been the sort of modus vivendi that has made the modern, liberal democratic state tenable.  As it indeed, it appears to be.

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