The Hobgoblin of the Mindless

•November 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with the shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day…to be great is to be misunderstood.   –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

The above quote is one of the more famous eructations by that court prophet of the  early 19th century middle classes.  Emerson had a philosophy ready made for Euro-Americans who had shed and were shedding customs, traditions, and beliefs inherited from their ancestors:  you have God within you, you don’t need to conform to anything but your self.  Do exactly you as please, say whatever comes to mind–it is all divine!  Emerson’s half baked, dumb-downed version of German Romanticism was the philosophical accoutrement of the Whig party, that Northeastern political concoction which arose in response to”The Democracy” of Andrew Jackson.  The Whig party prided itself on being an elite of “talent” rather than birth, the ancestors of our modern day, meritocratic “creative” or “knowledge” classes.  Even if he disdained logical consistency in his writings, Emerson was the personification of consistency in his career: he told the newly minted bobos of his day exactly what they wanted to hear his entire life long, and made a damn good living at it, thank you very much.

Of course, some change in one’s thoughts, opinions, beliefs, is necessary and good; but this presumes some sort of end or good outside of ourselves to we which strive, and which we did not invent, and therefore some consistency in the nature of these changes.  To presume otherwise is to make make changes willy-nilly, as one pleases, with no regard for anything else, which, when it concerns things of serious import, is insane.  C.S. Lewis, writing about those who would reject the idea of natural law, said that “an open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful.  But an open mind about the ultimate foundations of either Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy.  If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose.”  (The Abolition of Man, “The Tao”) If one is not committed to basic logic–i.e., the law of non-contradiction, that what is true today will be so tomorrow, and years from now–then there is simply nothing to talk about.  No one who disdains this can be reasoned with in any meaningful way, since they can never be held to account for their beliefs, since they can change from moment to moment.  They just go on making things up as they go along, and there is nothing you can do at that point.

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost…

…The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18).”  John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, no. 52

“Since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,” the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same… a subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently… a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved… while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases… General rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations… For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations.””   Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, nos. 300-302, 304-305

It is clear to anyone who has bothered to notice that Pope Francis doesn’t care about logical contradictions either.  For him, faith is a matter of intuition and feeling, of direct apprehension of truths.  Anything than can’t be, that requires close, careful study,  cannot be truth for him.  It must be felt, directly apprehended, or else it is merely an externally imposed “form” which can be sloughed off without consequence.  In essence, his Holiness is a “bosom burner”:  he thinks, much like the Mormons, that one can discern the Holy Spirit by following the “burning” in his bosom (i.e., his strong feelings at the moment).  As he told the Polish bishops in 2016, addressing the topic of pastoral theology, “I’m not a brilliant pastoral theologian, I just say whatever comes to mind.”  To be restrained by what you said yesterday or the day before, or ten years ago, or what a previous pope said twenty years before, is incompatible with “the Holy Spirit,” and therefore is of no concern once your mind has changed.  This is why, for a long time now, I ceased to pay any attention to the details of this or that public utterance by the Pope.  Increasingly, far more eminent persons than myself are coming to much the same conclusion about Francis.*

I say all this as prelude to my main point:  Catholics who wish to influence his Holiness should not expect pointing out contradictions in his thinking to have any effect.  If you are disturbed by his ambiguities, contradictions, and outright silly comments, you are not going to move him by appealing to logic.  Thus, there is no point in publicizing the fact that he is giving encouragement to heresy, as some have done.  All that will do is anger ordinary Catholics for whom loyalty to the Pope is a visceral, not a logical, component of their faith.  Most will instinctively defend him, whether such accusations are true or not, and not inquire further.  And he himself is almost certainly not spreading heresy purposefully. From all accounts, Jorge Bergoglio was confused about what the Church teaches well before coming Pope, as many clergy who came of age in the 1960s tend to be.  This is probably why he is so popular with the vast majority of Catholics in Western countries, who came of age at roughly the same time he did.

Instead, those who wish to sway him should appeal to his Marian piety, which is genuine.  Or tell him a heart wrenching story about those couples who have sacrificed for years to live the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, or those gay people who live out its teachings on sexuality.  Or focus on how his teaching is disloyal to the magisterium of Benedict XVI and John Paul II.  I guarantee he doesn’t think of it this way, but if you showed him how his teaching was opposed to theirs, it might change his mind.  He genuinely cares, I think, about being loyal to authority (or at least to his predecessor’s memory).  He gave a speech in 2004, in which he praised the teaching of John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor on the necessity of absolute and exception-less moral norms.  The fact that he is now teaching (or allowing to be taught) the complete opposite with regards to the divorced and remarried, is no contradiction in his mind.   This was the teaching of his boss at the time, and Francis considers himself a “good son of the Church,” by which I take him to mean that he believes whatever the current pope says is true about scripture and tradition.  They have no objective meaning for him otherwise, as far as I can tell.  (Again, he seems to know the actual beliefs of much of his flock better than the orthodox in this regard.)

I say this with no ill will toward the man himself.  He is, I think, doing only what comes naturally to him, something the more liberal members of the Cardinalate understood when they backed him for Pope at the last conclave, as many who voted for him must not have.  Those liberal Cardinals try to spin every thing he says to further their cause, quite confident he will never steer a consistent course.  That was probably their gambit, and they certainly are making the most of it.  But no one should waste their efforts trying to prove he is spreading heresy or confusion; that would require consistent, well thought out principles, which he cares for not a whit.  There is no reason not to go on respecting his office; it is of divine origin.  But neither his “ideas,” such as they are, nor those of his apologists, deserve any respect.  The idea that loyalty to the pope trumps everything, or that once a person has that authority he can say whatever he intuits to be true, consequences be damned; that this is somehow the “Holy Spirit” which is “doing new things”; that causing a “revolution in the Church,” is what the papacy’s charism is for–what else is this but the hobgoblin of the mindless?  In the end, all you can do is pray for the man, and for the Church, and keep living and proclaiming those truths of the Gospel, and await God’s providential judgement on all of this–in His good time, and at His good pleasure.  As the Pope Emeritus reminds us, God wins in the end.  Fiat mihi secudum verbum tuum.


Alypius Minor


*Rusty Reno was particularly caustic:  “I have given up trying to keep track of controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia. The details don’t matter. Pope Francis and his closest associates have no interest in the sacramental coherence of their positions on matters such as divorce and remarriage, nor do they care one wit about defending the logic of the arguments they put forward,” ( “Bourgeois Religion,” First Things, December 2017).    Robert Royal, discussing Pope Francis along with Father James Martin, says of them that “because neither is a serious theologian nor even a serious thinker, they regard anyone who raises questions about consequences as an irrational enemy (rigid, homophobic, etc.) rather than – as we’ve always had in the Church – someone trying to develop a deep and consistently rational way of understanding what Our Lord asks.”  Indeed.  (The Catholic Thing, “Pope Francis, Father James Martin, and Faith Without Reason.”)



Who God Is: Sacred Tradition & The Incarnation

•October 22, 2017 • Leave a Comment


I. Sacred Tradition and the Development of Doctrine

The Fathers at the First Vatican Council I, in giving formal definition to papal infallibility, gave it a quite conservative, even narrow cast to its understanding of the teaching authority of the Church.  Of the infallibility of the pope’s teaching authority, the Fathers wrote

For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.  (Pastor Aeternus, Chapter IV, 6

In doing so, the Council laid great stress on the fact that this infallibility (which extends to the bishops as a whole) was such that it had to be consistent with the teaching of the Apostles. This is confirmed by the Council’s dogmatic constitutions on Revelation:

5. Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.
6. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the Church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason.
7. Therefore we define that every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false…

…14. Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.
May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.  (Chapter IV, on Faith, 5-7, 14)

“If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”  (Session 3, Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Canon 4 on Faith and Reason)

Though it is often supposed to have done otherwise, the Second Vatican Council largely confirmed this view of Revelation.  Thus it wrote of the Church’s authority that

“this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”  (Dei Verbum, Chapter II, 10)

…this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded…

The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents;(46) but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith. (Lumen Gentium, On the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, 25)

Thus I would argue that the two most recent Ecumenical Councils of the Church take the position that its teaching cannot develop in a manner inconsistent with what had been received by the Apostles before their death.  In this, they followed one of the marks of genuine development of doctrine laid down by Cardinal Newman, that of non-contradiction.  There can be change in terms of expanding on what was latent and implicit in the original deposit of faith, but such changes cannot be said to be drawn from what is implicit in that deposit of faith, if they are in fact logically contradictory to that original revelation to the Apostles. Thus when we talk of the Church’s Sacred Tradition–Sacred Scripture and oral tradition taken together to form the deposit of faith, which is unchanging–we cannot say that it might potentially develop in a random manner; it is limited by what was revealed to the Apostles by Christ, and previous developments consistent with it.


II. The Law of Non-Contradiction & the Incarnation

But why is this the case?  Can’t God reveal whatever he wants to us?  Isn’t he all powerful?  Then how can he be bound by previous revelations he has made (or by subsequent clarifications and elucidations of this revelation, by men? One reason why Church teaching has to develop in a non-contradictory way is because it relates in a very direct way to the Incarnation. It has to do with who God is, and what kind of “person” we can know him to be, from Scripture and Sacred Tradition in two ways.

First, God is absolute, and unchanging (“Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever”; “I am that I am…tell I am has sent me unto you”; “though mother and father should abandon you, I will never abandon you says the Lord,” etc.).  Second, He does not contradict himself (“in him there is no darkness at all”; “I did not say to the sons of Jacob, ‘seek me in chaos'”; “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”; “even if we are faithless, He is faithful, because he cannot deny himself,” etc.).

How does this relate to the Incarnation?  God could not truly become man if he had somehow to violate his human nature (i.e., his natural reason–demanding of mankind that it believe contradictory things). This was the charge of pagan philosophers against early Christians–their emphasis on faith, miracles, violated the natural order of the universe, required that God “punch a hole” through it just to please these Christians.  In another context, this was also a charge of Jews, that Christians arbitrarily broke the Commandments.  (The problem of contradiction with regards to the development of doctrine is a not a new one, obviously.)

Moreover, if man could not truly become God, then he could never fulfill the demands that God makes of him, could never fulfill divine law (because divine law is absolute, immutable, as God is immutable, and so his law does not admit of exceptions).  But in Christ, from Justin Martyr onward, philosophically minded apologists claimed that God had revealed that these two natures–divine and human–could be reconciled, and that this was above our natural reason but not destructive of it.  The scholastics in the middle ages  had a saying that encapsulates this compatibility between the divine and human nature:  finitum capax infiniti, “the finite is capable of the infinite.”

To deny that God could give us the grace to fulfill his own commands (that we can adhere to absolute moral norms) is to deny that God could truly become Incarnate, something that the Council of Trent stipulated:  “no one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments…for God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able to do, and aids thee that thou mayest be able” (Sixth Session, Ch. XI, On keeping the Commandments).

Thus, if Christ’s commands are only general rules to which exceptions can always be carved out, then they are indistinguishable from merely human laws, which of course admit of exceptions, because we are not by nature absolute, immutable, as God is.  Or else Christ was not God–and we no longer deserve the name of Christians.


III.  God’s Fidelity and Ours

The implication of this idea–that God changes his own commands, that he changes the promises he makes to mankind in different generations, is to make God totally opaque to our reason.  Now, we cannot grasp Him by reason alone, but through Revelation we are able to grasp his mind by analogy at least.  Or so the Church has traditionally taught.  And this is why saying He has altered his covenant with us is so devastating.

This is because, unlike humans, he always keeps his promises.  He is always faithful, even if we are not (“if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself”). But if he doesn’t, then he cannot be God; it would mean he makes promises he does not intend to keep (to Israel, to the Apostles: “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” etc.)

As a result, we are left with an arbitrary God who changes his mind, contradicts himself, who does in fact not keep his promises, and is therefore ultimately unknowable–the only guide for him would be his own, completely inscrutable will (as in Islam, “if we cause a verse to be abrogated or forgotten, we will replace it with a better on,” Qur’an 2:106 ).

Moreover, this arbitrariness–the fact that he changes “the deal” whenever and for whatever reasons he likes (it is supremely silly, but I can’t keep from thinking of Darth Vader’s line from Empire Strikes Back: “I’m altering the deal, pray I don’t alter it any further”)–means his revelations to us are indistinguishable from the caprices of men.

This is most especially true when considering the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.  As painful as it may seem to many, it is a sign of his love for us.  (A fine young pastor I know gave a homily recently who pointed that out that God does not command things “from” us but only “for” us, for our good.)  As the catechism points out, “the deepest reason is found in the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church.”  (CCC, 1647)  Marriage is the metaphor that the Prophets (Hosea, Malachi) use to describe God’s love for Israel, and that Paul uses to describe God’s love for the Church (Ephesians).  It is not too much to say that marriage, as revealed by Christ (Matt. 5:32), is the incarnation of God’s love and fidelity to us–and therefore cannot be broken.


IV.  A god Who Changes for Us? 

The core of the objection to this idea of an unchanging deposit of faith that cannot contradict itself is, as far as I can tell, an underlying sense that God does change.  This is the “open theism” of modern Protestant thought, as well as that of process theology.  Something like seems to haunt those theologians, such as Cardinal Kasper, who are influenced by the ideas of by the philosophy of Hegel.  Whatever it sources, what is more important than any academic philosophy is the widespread intuition that they build upon: that God cannot be relevant to us–cannot really be human like us–cannot really love us as we need–if he does not change to meet our experience as it changes.  Or at least, change his demands upon us.  Those commands about adultery were fine for the ancient world, but our modern world is different, and so God must speak in a different tongue, as it were, one we are familiar with.  Hence the tendency to downplay his immutable nature: if he is absolute, then it stands to reason, especially if his goal is to make us “like Him,” that he would make absolute demands of us. Hence, the need for exceptions to His commands that the Church has taught were to obeyed without exception (“he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”).

This is likely the underlying motive for the critique that criticizes “stasis,” in favor of “dynamism,” with regard to the development of doctrine: to be real to us, God must change like us, conform to our changing experiences. That is one reason why those who defend contradictions in Church teaching–the “hermeneutic of rupture,” in Benedict XVI’s terms–simply don’t care about it very much, and why accusations of inconsistency don’t persuade them.

I suppose some adopt this idea (that there are exceptions for God’s commandments) for good or bad reasons (out of a misplaced sense of sophistication perhaps, that to believe in absolutes is somehow naïve, or unsophisticated, etc.).  But there is one motivation for this which should be taken deeply seriously, because its causes are perennial:  suffering.  Our suffering, in the final analysis, whatever good God may bring out of it while we are in this life, contradicts our nature, and His plan for us.  He did not create us to suffer, to sin and to die.  And yet we do.  How can this be so?

This is a mystery we cannot solve, until God reveals in the final judgments, as trite as it is to state this truth.  But even if one accepts this, there is still the problem of how to bear such a reality.  For those who suffer, it all seems so arbitrary, purposeless; this can breed in the one who suffers a desire for an equally powerful, equally arbitrary response to this suffering, to compensate for it.  Our nature has been violated by this arbitrary, nonsensical suffering—why should not God, who has allowed it, violate his own laws (of reason, of nature) in order to relieve it? Why not, if the world is causing us to suffer, punch a whole through the world, break through it to us, His children, and bring an end to our pain?

To the one who suffers, this seems fair:  it balances out the undeserved suffering. Thus, it is okay if God makes a promise to his people in one generation, and then, many centuries later, or only a few decades later, breaks the same promise.  It is therefore bearable that he lets us suffer arbitrarily, just as long as he arbitrarily relieves us and satisfies our desire for restitution. In this we reason like Caliban in Robert Browning’s poem, “Caliban Upon Setebos,” who fancied he was like God, “making and marring clay at will.” This, as I take it, is why the idea that God’s laws have exceptions in difficult circumstances–as in communion for the divorced and remarried–is so powerful.  It is plausible, because God has promised to satisfy our desires (“take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”).  After all, if he cannot (or will not) relieve us in our distress, what good is this promise? How can we delight in him if he will not grant us this desire now, when we are in such agony?


V.  The Commandments of Mercy

But this is not true.  It is not true, for it is not who God is; he is not arbitrary, even if mankind is.  He does not make himself known to us only or supremely by acts of his infinite power, regardless of their rationality.  (“For God was not in the fire, or the earthquake, but in the still small voice.”) He is also the unchanging Logos (“in the beginning was the Word”) which must, as it seems to us in our suffering, make him cruel, distant.  This is the cry of every man and woman who has lived; this is the cry of Job.  But the fact is that those who suffer, for understandable reasons, close in on themselves; we make this suffering the measure of the whole world, something God points out to Job in his final speech to him.  In the Book of Job, God merely re-states his infinite knowledge and power as reasons to obey him; but in Jesus Christ, he revealed something more, that God does understand us, is with us in our worst suffering, but is himself not limited by it.  And because he suffers with us, we can, to a degree, understand God.  And he can thus raise us up to his immutable love (“this day you shall be with me in paradise”).

It is not true that God contradicts himself, because that is not who He is.  It is not true, because that is not what He does.  He has not promised us he will satisfy the desires of our hearts by breaking the laws of nature, of human reason, that He himself has laid down for us.  He has not promised us a happy marriage, or a satisfying sex life, or wealth, or fame, or anything else that is of this world.  He has promised us that He will give us the grace to fulfill His commands, the grace to bear with our suffering, and that He will never change nor abandon us.  And He has not promised to save us by violating the nature he created for us, but rather, by raising up our nature to be like His own:  through our perseverance in seeking to obey His commands–yes, without exception–he remakes us into His image, which our sin covered over.  (“If ye love me, keep my commandments.”) This, and not seeking exemptions from His laws of love, is His mercy to us:  that He does not change, does not “alter the deal,” that He might remake us so as to be with Him for all eternity, in perfect and unchanging happiness.



Alypius Minor

The Church is the Danger

•July 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

St Ignatius & Paul III

In early 18th century Britain, a rash of pamphlets and sermons came forth from press and pulpit, all decrying the state of the Church of England at that time.  “The Church in Danger” was the rallying cry of High Church clergymen and other Tories, concerned that Whig politicians had undermined belief in the inviolability of the Church.  They opposed all moves toward toleration of dissent, and tried to resurrect doctrines of divine right toward the monarchy (unsuccessfully).  In every age, this is the cry of concerned Christians everywhere:  the Church is in danger, it is beset on all sides by enemies, within, without, down in her very bosom.  What can we do against such enemies, other than pray?

On this Feast of St. Ignatius–a saint who lived in a time when the Church was, par excellence, in danger, and responded accordingly–these thoughts have been occasioned by reading a sermon by a priest at a Latin Mass parish.  In it, the good priest bewailed the influence of Protestantism, of Renaissance humanism, of the Enlightenment, and other assorted ills, which he believes at the root of the present crisis.  No doubt, they are.  But he is quite wrong about the Church.  Those quasi-Protestant-humanist-individualists are no threat to anyone’s salvation; their beliefs, their deluded attempts to alter her sacred teaching and mission, are pathetic, as are they.  Let me repeat:  they are no threat to the Church.

No, the Church is not in danger of “Protestantism” from within or “secularism” from without; it is the Church itself that is the threat to us mere mortals.  It is the Church which is dangerous.  It is dangerous–to us–to those who believe.  Because to cleave to God even only once, in earnest, in hope of salvation, is like walking a tightrope between skyscrapers:  should you lose your balance ever so slightly, you will fall, and meet certain death.  To aspire to that eternal summit, is to risk falling from it. Once the stakes have been raised that high, been made eternal in their significance, nothing else can take their place.  Nothing else can satisfy.  That is the risk of being a Catholic and a Christian. The metaphysical emptiness and despair of post-Christian civilization is a testament to this: wherever it has been once embraced authentically, and then abandoned, there is simply death and nothingness.  Christ’s body, where it is not, leaves behind a hole that can never be filled.  Thus the stakes for anyone who accepts the Cross and hopes for the Resurrection, are without limit:  it is not that the Church is in danger, but like Walter White, it is the danger.

Dunkirk: A Review

•July 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment


The last time I wrote about Christopher Nolan, I praised the denouement of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  In the intervening years, he has gone on to produce what many call his magnum opus, Interstellar.  But he has now ventured onto my turf in the area of history, with the newly released Dunkirk.  Having just seen it this past weekend, I thought I would give my two cents on the film.

The history that the film dramatizes is simple enough to understand:  following their invasion of Poland in 1940, Britain and France declared war on the Germans.  The British sent a large army–some 400,000 troops–to help defend the French against the Nazi attack.  But the Germans did an end run around France’s western defenses, invading through Belgium and the Netherlands instead, and wound up trapping French and British troops as they retreated to the coast at the city of Dunkirk in the Netherlands.  The Germans surrounded the Allied armies, but, for reasons that are still debated, decided to halt outside Dunkirk, and let the Luftwaffe take out the more than 400,000 troops stranded on the beach.  This gave the Allies time to organize defenses and began evacuating troops.  In the end, more than 330,000 British and French troops were evacuated with the help of civilian boats ferrying soldiers to destroyers from the beach.  (Many of the French troops were either killed or captured, however.)

Nolan’s film sets up a tripartite narrative:  it begins with a young soldier in Dunkirk looking for a place to pee, and follows him throughout the film, trying to get to a ship and out of harm’s way.  It also follows a civilian with a boat which is requisitioned to go to Dunkirk and pick up soldiers, as well as a fighter pilot engaged in combat.  Each of these strands is fitted to a different timeline:  the young soldier’s story takes place over one week (the operation itself lasted from May 26-June 4 1940), the boat over one day (the last day in which soldiers got out), and for the pilot, one hour, all converging on the final point when the survivors arrive back in Britain.

Some have complained that this device made it hard to keep track of the story, as the film moves back and forth between these three timelines, but I did not find it hard to follow. Each narrative thread had a protagonist with an identifiable goal they were trying to achieve: the young soldier’s goal was to get off the beach and back home; the goal of the boat owner was to rescue as many men as his boat could carry; and the fighter pilot’s goal was to shoot down as many enemy planes as he could before his fuel ran out.  This device was probably necessary, since everyone knows (or should know) how the events themselves turned out.  Nolan, with help from Hans Zimmer’s score, used these individual narratives to create dramatic tension which would otherwise not have been possible.  (As an aside, I highly recommend seeing the film in an IMAX theater, as I did.   Normally I would not do so, but I felt this enhanced the experience of watching the film in this case.)

The film is in some ways classic Nolan:  amazing visual scenes (especially of capsizing ships and aerial combat), a gift for building tension via dramatic set pieces, and a focus on the psychological aspects of character (well, one at least: a shell shocked soldier played by the wonderful Cillian Murphy).  As in most of his other films, his characters are not necessarily the most easy to connect with; the young soldier, played by Harry Styles, barely has any lines at all, as does Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot, and other than for the boat owner played by Mark Rylance, we are never really given much of an insight into why each character is trying to achieve their goals.  And yet in another sense, the movie is unlike Nolan’s other movies:  I am thinking of The PrestigeInception, and The Dark Knight, in particular.  There is no attempt at philosophizing, no pretentious speeches, and the very laconic nature of the characters in Dunkirk, as well as their relative lack of development, embody the spirit that is encapsulated by those iconic British posters from that era: “Keep Calm, and Carry On.”  This works well, as the film’s protagonists are really stand-ins for the British people as a whole, and their determination to fight.  The film is primarily about that, and not overcoming the Nazis (indeed, the Nazis are never mentioned in the film, and I believe the word German is spoken only once).  Fittingly, it ends with the young soldier reciting from Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on June 4 (the “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech).

Now, it is true that one can fetishize the WWII generations too much; I’ve never cared greatly for the whole idea of “The Greatest Generation” in American history, and indeed I find the whole idea of separating people by generations artificial and unnecessarily divisive.  But it is unwise to deny that the ideal that the episode in Dunkirk inspires–the idea of the stoic Britons doing their duty with a stiff upper lip, and getting on with their job in spite of danger, death, etc.–is a real and powerful one.  It is probable that Nolan imbibed some of this from his parents; if so, his film does great credit to such an ideal. Some reviewers have complained about the story’s focus on the British, to the exclusion of the French, or its lack of minority characters (there are some black African French troops show at the beginning, for what it’s worth) but I don’t think most people will take these criticisms seriously.  Nor should they.  The film is not Nolan’s best, but is a fine one, and does justice to the people that were involved in Operation Dynamo and those to whom it symbolized what was best about their country.


Historical vs. Historically Revealed Religion

•July 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment
Bonifatius_Donareiche - edit

St. Boniface Chopping Down Thor’s Oak, by Bernhard Rode (1781)

I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to believe in eternity, but exist in time.  (No, I don’t have a girlfriend.) I am especially thinking of the ongoing controversy over whether or not communion should be offered to divorced and remarried couples within the Catholic Church.  And this leads me to this blog, which is about a distinction between different types of religion (in a sociological sense; theologically, I am a convinced Catholic).  And that distinction is between what I call “historical” and “historically revealed” religion.

Historically revealed religions are ones that claim to have received, in time, a definitive revelation from an eternal, unchanging God.  This means the three monotheistic religions, in other words. And by definitive, I mean that such revelation is both historically specific (the Law was only given to the Jews; Jesus was the only Son of God; the Qur’an, the final revelation of Allah, was only revealed in Arabic), and that it does not and cannot be fundamentally altered.  Hence, the supremacy of the Torah in Judaism, Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega” in Christianity, and Muhammad as the “seal of the Prophets” in Islam.

What I am calling a “historical” religion is something different.  Religion prior to Christianity was customary; it was not a matter of precisely defined dogmas.  But it was nonetheless thought to embody unchanging beliefs handed down from the golden age, even if modern history believes it to have altered over time. But its adherents did not believe this. They merely thought customs reshuffled the deck, so to speak, of a perennial wisdom.  By contrast, “historical” religion is how modern scholars, and modern people generally, view belief in and worship of the divine:  something that changes over time, but is never definitive.  This modern conception is like ancient Greco-Roman religion in not being “definitive” in the sense of being precisely defined as the monotheistic religions are, but like them in being historical in nature.

This belief in what I am calling “historical religion” has been influenced by historical theories that emphasized linear development (such as those of Condorcet, Hegel, Marx) but also evolutionary theory after Darwin.  In fact, one could say that modern religious scholarship has been dedicated to proving that claims to definitive revelation are false and their ideas are merely historical, since its inception.  This was the purpose, as I see it, of the great philological tradition that emerged in Germany in the 19th century.

I believe it is this conception which ultimately lies behind the move to open communion to divorced and remarried couples, at least as articulated by Cardinal Kasper.  If the Christian doctrine which emerged from antiquity was not a definitive revelation, but merely a historically conditioned development from Judaism mixed up with Greek philosophy, then its injunctions against divorce, homosexual behavior, and much else, can be abandoned in favor a new “development,” ostensibly guided by the Holy Spirit. (For the influence of this line of thinking on Cardinal Kasper, see this very long and dense essay on his thought.)

In saying all this, one of things that should be clear is that when I say a divinely revealed religion is “definitive” I mean something akin to John Henry Newman’s marks of development, in particular the principle of non-contradiction and the preservation of type.  Divinely revealed religions can and do change, but for those changes to be legitimate they must A) not contradict the original revelation and B) preserve the original “type,” meaning those genuine developments must logically correspond with that revelation, even if they admit of considerable variation.

What this means in practice, since it is an eternal, unchanging Deity that elects, as it were, some aspect of historical, human existence to be the vehicle of what is revealed, that certain cultural elements have to be considered permanent.  Hence, the Law came from the Jews, and much of Christian theology is inextricably bound up with the Greek language of metaphysics.  This creates problems, since many people find it hard to relate to something that is both culturally alien and vastly removed in time from their present experience.  Hence the calls for the “de-Hellenization” of Christianity by (mostly) liberal Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The problem of course, is that once you do this, you fundamentally alter the nature of the religion in question.  Once admit something that contradicts the primary “deposit of the faith” and you no longer have an historically revealed religion, but a merely historical one–one which changes with the times, but does not really develop in accordance with the larger principle of the original revelation.

This difference between these types of religion is profound.  On the one hand, you have a religion which is binding, and makes binding commitments upon its believers.  On the other, you have a religion in which every doctrine, every practice, is not only mutable, but for which it is possible (and likely probable) that it will at some point lapse into changes of belief and/or practice which are contradictory and incoherent.  Thus, what has been taken to be one of the marks of divine revelation (its unchanging nature and its its consistency) would be lost.

Most people arguing for a change in the Church’s teaching on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics say that they are not changing the doctrine but merely the practice.  Or else they simply contend that there is no fundamental difference between the absolute prohibition the Church has for centuries proclaimed and a general prohibition that admits of exceptions.  But either way, it amounts to the same thing: whether its doctrine or practice, it undermines the definitive nature of revelation. Naturally, those who are advocating for this change don’t propose to apply the same standards to the Church’s teaching about care of the poor, for example.  But a selective, surgical skepticism is difficult to maintain when it comes to things like sacred Tradition. (This article, concerning Vatican II, is helpful in explaining why.) Use the argument once, it becomes impossible to restrict its impact to one’s original designs, such is its force. This seems to me to why the stakes are so high in this debate: the very nature of the Christian faith is at issue, and whether or not anything can truly held to be revealed by God for us or not.

The Damnatio Memoriae of Progressivism

•June 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

            In the ancient world, when one political regime placed another, the new rulers often attempted to blot out the memory of the former by having their names and images removed from official buildings, monuments and documents.  The Roman Emperors of the late fourth and fifth century did this, for example, when Christianity became its official religion, and it wanted to blot out the name of a former official who was pagan. Charles Hedrick detailed this episode in History and Silence, a wonderful work of history which sought to approach the paradox of this erasure of memory, which modern scholars have dubbed the damnatio memoriae, since the very erasure itself calls attention to what has been erased.

I thought about this recently because of the proposed removal of monuments to figures who are considered politically controversial has become a hot topic as of late, in particular the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans.  I have relatives in the New Orleans area, and have visited the city many times.  It is a place I very much love.  And yet I confess I had forgotten that there was a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, until news of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s intention to remove it came to my attention.  I have always enjoyed visiting the Confederate War Museum in New Orleans, and I have some admiration for “Southern” culture, including some sympathy for the Southern position on states’ rights.  But chattel slavery was such an obvious evil that I have never susceptible to the dubious allure of “The Lost Cause” or similar temptations.  My relatives from the New Orleans area, who are the descendants of slave owners, feel much the same way.  For myself, I do not have any great feeling one way or the other about the removal of such a monument.

Having said this, the reasons for removing such monuments seems highly problematic to me.  The attempt to blot out the memory of slavery and racism is motivated, no doubt, by a desire to proclaim that history has moved on and triumphed over this evil, by denying it any hint of public sanction.  Less noble motivations are doubtless involved; removing such monuments is an easy way for politicians and activists to burnish their progressive bona fides without having to make any real sacrifices of any kind.  Whether Lee’s statue remains or no, blacks in the Desire projects and other dangerous areas of the city will continue to suffer the effects of violent crime, and such problems have proved intractable for many urban areas across the country. It is far easier to remove symbols that may be offensive than to try and deal with problems such as these.

But more objectionable than this is what this sort of view of history seems to dominate the minds of progressives.  David Blight has noted that during the late nineteenth century, communities South and North, abetted by racist historians, sought to obliterate the memory of slaves and freed blacks in the role of reconstructing the nation after the horrors of civil war.  This meant s from monuments, celebrations of the Civil War and other occasions of communal memory.  To erase that memory for him was to erase the humanity of those blacks who had suffered so much and yet contributed much to the rebuilding of the nation.  Is it necessary, then, for justice to be served, to obliterate the memory of the slaveholders in return?  Robert E. Lee is a difficult case, because he was so unique:  Lee really was a “great man,” a term I put into quotation marks for a reason, since it is a term both overused and abused.  But he also owned slaves—how can one celebrate his memory since he perpetuated such an evil? Doesn’t that mean celebrating slavery as well?

The fact of the matter is that the actions of the mayor and of the despicable campus activists who agitate for the removal of all sorts of things from public life which they deem offensive are much more about the present than the past.  They are about asserting power over those in the present who identify with Robert E. Lee or Columbus or whomever, as part of their heritage.  (Since the election of Donald Trump, I imagine such erasure of public monuments also confirm them in their conviction that they are on the right side of history.) I doubt most of them care little, if anything at all, for the past.  They use it as a prop for their future oriented morality play, in which anything deemed insufficiently progressive must be re-written or wholly blotted out.  If they really cared about the history of slavery, and the historical complexity they so often trot out to justify things like the crimes of various Communist regimes from around the world, they would find a use for a monument to Robert E. Lee.  Instead of removing it, they could put up next to it a statue of Toussaint L’Overture, the great liberator of Haiti. If Lee is a great man, then L’Overture was an even greater one:  he defeated the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon alike, and set up a republic in what was if memory serves the only successful slave revolt in all human history.  Renowned for his integrity and charity toward former white slave owners, he was only defeated by Napoleon’s treachery.

Now, L’Overture was not an American citizen, it is true, but the creole culture in which he lived has much in common with the culture of southern Louisiana, and so I think a monument to him would not be out of order.  But mostly, the comparison between the two men would help teach the lesson that history is complicated, and does not deal neatly in partisan themes.  This is because L’Overture was a also slave owner like Lee. The comparison between the two could lead, I would think, to more healthy reflections on the nature of slavery and race relations than simply removing statues to satisfy partisan political appetites.  But then that would presume that the real purpose of those who wish to erase the monuments of Lee, Columbus, and others, are really about gaining knowledge of the past, instead of trying to censor it.

A Short Diatribe Against Catholic “Time Travel”

•June 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The Time Machine (1960):  the past is a foreign country.  They evangelize better there!

I recently heard a talk by a priest of Opus Dei, the organization founded by St. Jose Maria Escriva, and whose members sometimes get a undue amount of criticism for their modus operandi, at least in my opinion.  The priest, whom I shall not name, was in my town to speak to the local young adult community.  The talk was at a local shrine devoted to the Divine Mercy, and was billed as a holy hour of adoration. In fact, the talk consumed most of the hour.  In it, the priest talked at length about the “New Evangelization,” and the need for Catholics to evangelize.  He recounted his experience as a chaplain at a Newman Center (a campus center for Catholics at a very prestigious university), as well as his experience of World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver, when St. John Paul II visited the U.S.  He framed his talk by stressing the need for the Church to “turn back the clock”–not to the 1940s and 50s, but to the early Church, to the Apostolic era.  He also emphasized the primacy of the laity, saying that in the early Church this was how it was mostly spread.  He seemed to argue that the Council of Trent had erased the laity from the Church, and seemed to suggest that Vatican II had released the laity this Tridentine bondage.  It is the role of the laity, especially young people, he said, to carry out the task of the “New Evangelization,” because our society has become a modernized version of the pagan, Roman empire.

I want to be charitable, and not judge too harshly, but I disagree quite strongly with virtually everything I heard in this speech.  Never mind the fact that his tedious, repetitive sermon deprived us of any significant amount of time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament; it contained numerous clichés and emphases concerning the Church which have been prominent since the Second Vatican Council which I find insupportable.   The dubious if not outright false comparison between modern America and the ancient Roman empire; the suggestion that it was the Church’s corruption that incited the Reformation; the evocation of the clergy/laity divide, which I find pointless; the denigration of the Church’s recent past (i.e., from Trent up to the 20th century) in order to flatter the people presently in the pews; and the overuse of the slogan “New Evangelization,” all grated on my sensibilities as I listened.  I was quite glad when he had finished.

There are too many things here for me to criticize, but I only want to point out the problem with one very big assumption in father’s speech.  The idea that one can just leap back in time and become like the Apostles is an essentially Protestant one.  (A similar idea is present in the theology of the Church of Latter Day Saints, from what I understand.) The idea the Church has become so corrupt it must forsake the intervening centuries and go back to the beginning, is beguiling in its seeming reverence for the past, but is in fact a repudiation of it.  This is because it ignores the mediated aspect of time for us:  we cannot have direct access to the past, but must accept the mediation of the (always inadequate) remains of that past, of the evidence which abides.  Which is another way of saying:  you can only have a connection to the deep past by staying connected to the recent past.  Any sort of violent break with it will eradicate this linkage.

In fact this urge for “Catholic time travel ” is not so much about the past as the present. The idea is that the Church is so corrupt that we have to start over from “Year 0,” as it were, to put things right.  Never mind that such “time travel” is impossible, but it would not be a good thing if it were. Our historical situation is different and presents unique challenges even the Apostles did not have to face.  Wishing to reenact what they did is a comforting idea, I suppose, because it means our problems have known solutions, that they are already “out there” somewhere.  In fact, history is full both of continuity and discontinuity; there are some things we share in common with late Antiquity, but too many significant differences exist for it to be a complete model for our times.  Of course, the Holy Spirit is with us, as it was with them, if we remain faithful to Christ.  I do not mean to suggest otherwise.  Nor do I mean to say that the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church are not the foundation of our faith, in human terms.  But we derive our connection to them the same way we derive our connection to Christ: through the human mediation of others.  This is why we cannot act as if 2000 years of Church history, of doctrinal and cultural development have not taken place, and simply act as the Apostles did.

This is why we cannot and must not try to “turn the clock back.”  The  Apostles are present with us, just as Christ is, at every mass; they worship along with us, as do the angels in heaven.  They have never left us; we do not need to go time traveling to find them.  But their eternal presence must be mediated to us by the Church in time, as it is now, warts and all.  Acting as if the Church had fallen into fundamental error prior to the Reformation or at Trent, and only rediscovered its true vocation at Vatican II, is tantamount to saying it is not really the Church, that it is somehow been “lost” or become invisible.  This was the argument of Luther, at least in Bondage of the Will, that the Church had become so corrupt it was now limited to a band of invisible believers known only by God.  The twist here is the idea that we can somehow make it visible again, make it attractive again,  by our efforts at evangelization.  I suspect part of the reasoning here is something like this:  the Church was a visible presence because of its fervor, its enthusiasm, in its early form.  Therefore, we must go back to recapture that same passion for today.

There is probably another subliminal but dubious assumption here as well, namely that increasing signs of “passion” are going to convert the “neo-pagans” in our midst.  Hence the emphasis in the modern Church on youth–World Youth Days, Life Teen, Koinonia Retreats, and so on.  To this way of thinking, the Church’s life is like the natural life of a human person: in the beginning we are passionate, and then slowly it burns out. Thus we need to rekindle it by going back to the beginning.  Now, I would not denigrate the role of the passions in a person’s life, nor would I like to say that big emotional gatherings can’t or don’t play a role in reigniting some people’s faith in the modern world. They can be a beginning for some.  But half a century on from Vatican II, I think it’s safe to say that this approach, as a general cure all for the Church’s declining observance, attendance and membership in America and Western Europe, has failed miserably.  It was all the more surprising to hear a priest of Opus Dei wax nostalgic for World Youth Day, as St. Josemaria made a point of emphasizing the faith in the daily, humdrum activities of our lives, and not merely in large, gratuitous displays of emotion.

Those in the Church need to recognize that there will always be challenges that are unprecedented for us; we are going through some right now.  We can always trust God’s providence, but we will not always (and perhaps rarely ever do) have a precise understanding of how it will manifest his will for us.  This can be disconcerting, but it is no reason to disparage the Church’s recent past in order to exalt its distant past, much less to pretend we can or even need to evangelize exactly as the Apostles did.  Only by embracing the whole history of the Church and taking our own place within it can we redeem the present by evangelizing as we should, in the light of the eternal love to which that history points us.

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