Mary, Retconned Queen of Scots

•May 17, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The Tudor period of history often attracts filmmakers and other artists, for obvious reasons.  The glamour of the court, especially of Elizabeth I, and especially its racier aspects–sexual intrigues, political plotting–are eternal fodder for them.  All historical dramatizations must take some artistic license with the past, but since the late 90s, there has been a marked emphasis on the putative sexual deviance of the early modern era.  In the 1998 film Elizabeth, the Duke of Anjou, future Henry III of France, is portrayed as a cross-dressing homosexual (he never courted Elizabeth, and never went to England); Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl portrays Ann Boleyn’s brother George as a homosexual, while the American film based upon it takes Henry VIII’s trumped charges of incest against him as fact.  And in the series The Tudors, the composer Thomas Tallis is portrayed as a homosexual, despite there being no evidence of this.  Presumably artists and filmmakers do this to spice up the stories they wish to tell, but it also likely refits historical figures to make them palatable to modern audiences.

The most recently retconned Tudor personage is the subject of the recently released film, Mary, Queen of Scots.  Perhaps no queen in the British history has been more romanticized than Mary Stuart, whom Elizabeth I executed in 1587 for treason.  Scholars have tended to view Mary Stuart in a more positive light than previously, and this is reflected in the recently released film, which stars Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan.  It is based on the book My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots, by John Guy, the eminent Tudor historian, and boasts an impressive cast.  Robbie and Ronan give stellar performances that, as far they could, carry the film, but the performances were good all around; Guy Pearce’s turn as William Cecil was understated but effective, and David Tennant makes a lively appearance as John Knox. Visually speaking, the film is luscious and pleasing, though I found the music a bit too melodramatic for my tastes.

Josie Rourke’s film begins and ends with Mary’s execution in 1587 but focuses mostly her rule of Scotland between 1561 and 1567 until she was forced to abdicate, and flee to England.   The pacing is slow, until Elizabeth, having failed to marry her to a pliant English noble, tries to foment civil war in Scotland.  It picks up from there, but I thought it could have cut much of the first thirty minutes–the build up was too slow.   The movie climaxes with a fictional confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth, and ends with a stylized version of her execution in which Mary addresses the audience, informing them that despite being beheaded, she won–by getting her son on the throne of England.

The film makes pains to display all the forces arrayed against Mary-her Protestant Scottish nobles, who are suspicious of her; the fiery Knox, who encourages rebellion against her; the diplomatic scheming of Cecil, which threatens to destroy her. But in doing so it leaves Mary without a single antagonist to struggle with, just a series of encounters with treacherous men.  The historical figure who actually was her main antagonist is made too obviously sympathetic to Mary to serve that purpose.  Elizabeth I no doubt had some sympathy for Mary as a woman, but her main reason why, for example, she was hesitant to execute Mary when it became clear she was scheming against her in the 1570s, was that Mary was an anointed sovereign, and Elizabeth very much saw herself as ruling by divine right.  She had no wish to undermine her own divinity by attacking Mary’s if it could be avoided.  She frequently expressed as much to her councilors, but none of this makes it into the movie.

Thematically, the film wants to have it both ways: Mary is simultaneously the victim of men’s treachery and the heroic independent woman triumphant, a role usually reserved for Elizabeth.  One reason for this is the film follows Guy’s book so meticulously on this point.  Guy’s biography made Mary seem more capable by making Elizabeth seem insecure and out of her depth, and the film follows suit.  The film skips over Mary’s intrigues against Elizabeth from the 1560s onward, and Guy’s book gives that period short shrift; but there may be thematic reasons for this too.  Mary intriguing against Elizabeth would undercut one of the main themes of the film-the “sisterhood” of fellow monarchs doing battle with a world of treacherous men.  Not coincidentally, the film also follows Guy in making David Riccio and Darnley lovers, a novel historical interpretation itself, but goes further.  Having caught him in flagrante dilecto with Darnley, Mary generously forgives Riccio, telling him, “be whomever you with with us.  You have not betrayed your nature.”  Indeed, this version of royalty sounds more like Meghan Markle than Mary Stuart.

Finally, there is the film’s portrayal of religion.  Unlike say The Tudors, which despite its flaws made great pains to explain to its audience what was at stake in the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Tudor era, Mary Queen of Scots makes no such effort.  Though Tennant’s Knox is visually compelling, save for one scene, he does little more than preach from his pulpit. The film never communicates how powerful Calvinism was in Scotland, nor why it moved the people to overthrow their queen.  As for Mary, there is a consensus among scholars that her Catholicism was not as important to her as many in the past have believed, but the film takes this too far.  The film’s Mary is not only a religiously tolerant monarch, (which was historically, mainly because in some ways she had to be, given her political position) but also a remarkably tolerant, almost modern sounding believer. In one scene, she tells her troops on the way to a battle that it doesn’t matter if one is Catholic or Protestant because all go to the same heaven.  Mary may not have been as devout as John Knox, but I doubt she was as indifferent to religious belief as the makers of the film appear to be.

In short, Mary, Queen of Scots is a somewhat enjoyable, if flawed take on a flawed but interesting figure.

Let the Dead Bury the Dead: A Review of “The Faithful Departed”

•August 7, 2018 • Leave a Comment


The Faithful Departed: the Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, by Philip Lawler (Encounter, 2008)

The English journalist Damian Thompson once suggested that the response of religious leaders to social changes (industrialization, the rise of science, etc.), as much as the changes themselves, was the cause of secularization in Western societies.  Their leaders ceased to believe, therefore failed to defend the faith; consequently, the religion declined. If I understood him correctly, he meant this process was as much an internal degradation as much as an external process which happened to religions and religious institutions.

Thompson’s idea came to mind as I read The Faithful Departed. Philip Lawler wrote his book in 2008, following the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston archdiocese in 2002.  It light of the McCarrick revelations, its relevance is greater than ever.  Lawler charted the rise of the Boston Catholic community from suspect minority to overwhelming social and political force in the early 20th century, to the decline of its influence from the 1950s onward.  It documents the loss of the once vibrant faith in Boston, culminating with the sexual abuse crisis.

The book deftly weaves episodes in the life of the national Church–the election of John F. Kennedy, Vatican II, Roe vs Wade, and the response of the American bishops to the sex abuse crisis–with the tale of the rise and fall of the Boston Church.  The result is an exemplary tale of the social success of American Catholicism and how it fed its spiritual decline.  Lawler notes the increasing professionalization of the Boston clergy throughout the 20th century (39), which went along with a rise in both the status but also the wealth of the Boston Church (47).  He notes how its archbishops slowly began to accommodate secular mores in the 1950s , which led to politicians doing the same in the 1960s, starting with the 1960 presidential election:  “by drawing a distinction between Church doctrine and private conscience, they could avoid a protracted battle with secular culture.” (59)  In effect, the Church traded status and influence for fidelity to the faith, and lost both in the end.

Internal changes are key here as well, above all Vatican II. Lawler notes, as many have, the disorienting effects of the Council on Catholic life.  Before the Council, everyone knew what “Catholics believed, and what their faith demanded of them…within a few years…all those certainties were gone.” (68)  In the pace of a monolithic, unchanging tradition, priests were free to experiment everywhere with the liturgy, with divorce, contraception, and other difficult Catholic doctrines.   The result of Lawler astutely notes, was that priests had more power with less responsibility, since they no longer felt bound by tradition. (67)  But because they no longer represented a truly universal faith, the average priest had “more power but less authority.”  (75)  They had “enormous freedom of action, but very little sense of purpose” as a result of the upheavals that followed the Council. (76)   There is little reason to respect people whom you think are merely making things up based on their on whims.

The Boston Church filled this lost sense of purpose with secular politics and social work.  The Church in Boston as in the rest of America came to mimic the professional classes which dominate American life.  Accommodations with secular life touched everything in Boston from abortion, to school busing schemes and debates over marriage. (77-121)  The bishops especially became invested in the appearance of unity, at the expense of everything else, which meant denying problems and sweeping them under the rug. (116, 119, 125)  This includes, as he notes several times, the increasing influence of homosexuality in the priesthood, which bishops carefully ignored. (113)  The irony is that in the end they lost their political influence as well:  whereas in the early 20th century a word from the archbishop could sink legislation,  same-sex marriage became law with minimal opposition from the bishops. (203-219)  Not that it would have mattered. No one was listening any more.

And for good reason.  The Church’s decline climaxed in the sex abuse scandal, in which successive American bishops protected abusive priests and hushed up scandals with financial settlements.  The details of the Boston crisis, the abusive priests and the obtuse reaction of Cardinal Law to it, is simply appalling.  It makes for quite depressing, and depressingly familiar reading.  Law epitomized the reaction of the American bishops as a whole, who still do not fully grasp the gravity of what is taking place.  Law, for example, wrote to several priests he removed from ministry after their abuse came to light, saying that “yours has been an effective ministry, sadly marred by illness.” (151)   Lawler notes how some tried to warn Cardinal Law, such as Margaret Gallant, a valiantly faithful Catholic woman, but repeatedly ignored and rebuffed.  Gallant abandoned the Catholic faith in 2002. (160)  The Dallas Charter, adopted by the bishops in response, covered for the bishops by putting the onus for its “zero tolerance” policy on their priests.   Under its guidelines, priests are often removed from ministry for any accusation, no matter the facts of the case. (169)  To this day, the bishops are immune from this process.

The alignment he notes between the diocesan bureaucracies, treatment centers (where offenders were sent for a brief time and then returned to active ministry) and  seminaries run by “lavender mafia” is particularly important. (228)  The symbiosis between the three has, as far as I can tell, remained unchanged.  Lawler raises the specter of sexual blackmail as the reason for the bishops’ silence on sexual malfeasance in the Church, and his account, combined with the revelations about McCarrick, is quite persuasive. (239)  Lawler suggests that no procedural or bureaucratic norms will end this crisis, as long as men who govern the Church refuse to take responsibility for their actions.  Personnel is policy, and those who have caused this crisis cannot be trusted to end it.  The only way it will end is if ordinary Catholics stand up for the integrity and mission of the Church.  As he puts it, “loving the Church means denouncing corruption” in this case. (256)

Lawler’s book is as depressing as it is necessary.  No serious Catholic can ignore the massive, ongoing scandal which is engulfing the Church even as we speak, and his book helps understand some of its causes.  More than this, he points out that the Church, both in Boston and in its earliest days, has been in this position before.  With its prestige and status gone, all that remains is the wealth accrued in the course of the 20th century, which will soon dissipate in Boston as elsewhere, as people exit the faith.  This gives us the opportunity, Lawler says, of recognizing “when we are relying on human strengths and earthly resources, and ignoring the power of the Holy Spirit.” (255)  Only by abandoning the quest for respectability and acceptance from the world, and embracing the Church’s call in its fullness–with its beliefs about sexuality, its stringent asceticism, its focus on the eternal rather than the temporal–can the Church bring this evil to an end, and proclaim once again the Gospel of God to mankind as Christ commanded it.



Book Review: “The Church Impotent”

•May 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Christus Victor–Christ as a soldier, from the Bishop’s Palace at Ravenna, 6th century AD

Many years ago, when I was beginning the process of RCIA (this is the program that those who wished to be baptized as adults in the modern Catholic Church normally go through), I recall remarking to the lady who was directing the program that I looked forward to going to the mass because I desired to take part in a solemn worship service.  I recall her not saying anything in reply, something I now find significant: either she knew what awaited me in the Church (whose liturgies, mostly, are not so solemn anymore), or she simply didn’t approve of the answer.  I think it was the former, but can’t be sure at this point.

This memory came to me as I read a book I have heard much about, but never read until recently:  The Church Impotent: the Feminization of Christianity by Leon Podles.  The book is both a reflection upon and speculation on the origins of the “gender gap” in modern Western Christianity–the disparity in levels of religious worship and belief between women (who make up the majority of Western Christians in the pews, and have for many centuries) and men (who practice much less).

I admit that I didn’t have the highest expectation for the book; Mr. Podles is not, as far as I am aware, an academic historian or sociologist of any kind, and the only other work of his I am aware of was on the sexual abuse crisis (if memory serves, Podles himself was abused by a priest).  What is more, I knew he was a traditionalist Catholic, and perhaps I feared that it was some sort of angry screed against women.  But that is far from the case:  as far as I can tell, it is a well researched and clearly reasoned argument for the nature and causes of the “man crisis” in the Catholic Church and even Western Christianity.  (It is NOT a book that will please anyone enamored of feminism or the social construction of gender.  If the assumption that biology determines our gender is offensive to you, you will hate this book.)

What is that argument?  That men and women are different, and that since around 1200 or so, the Western Church has become one which caters to needs of the latter at the expense of the former.  He claims that this was not the case in the early Church; the early Church tended to think of the Christian life in masculine terms (a war against demonic powers; Christ’s death and resurrection makes all human beings “sons of God” in the bible, he notes, not “sons and daughters”).  Drawing on developmental psychology, he roots his idea of masculinity in biology:  all humans start out biologically as women, and only later develop the organs to become male later on.  Similarly, men need to separate themselves from the feminine influence of their mothers at a certain age to establish their identity. Men therefore, are characterized by separation, women by communion, relationship, union with others. (He rejects the Aristotlean idea that men are active and women passive, an idea I have always found rather dubious and not consonant with my own experience.)

After setting out his theory of masculinity, he then attributes the feminization of the Church to several key changes in Western religion:  the growth of “bridal mysticism” in the works of saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the rise of scholasticism, and the expansion of female monasticism.  Taken together, these had the effect of making the model of a Christian life a much more feminine one that it had been in the ancient Church.  The difference, according to Podles, lies in that where the Church Fathers had referred the Church as a corporate body as the “Bride of Christ,” these medieval mystics transferred this idea to the individual believer, thus alienating men who have a hard time seeing God in what are essentially romantic terms.  Scholasticism, he asserts, separated intellectual life from religious life, and so cut off the arena of the intellect (one that was almost wholly masculine, and predicated upon the struggle of the disputatio) from the Church in the long run.  Christians bodies (not merely Catholic ones) made attempts in the subsequent centuries to reverse this trend of feminization, but all ultimately failed.  (He makes the intriguing suggestion that the Reformation can be seen as a sort of masculine revolt against the highly emotional, and very feminine piety of the late medieval Church, a suggestion I find highly plausible.)

Cut off from the Church, Podles argues that men wind up turning their masculine characteristics into various “cults” (my term, not his) designed to satisfy those instincts in often violent and dangerous ways that can become nihilistic.  Likewise, the piety of the Church becomes too individualistic, too erotic, and too universalistic (everybody gets a prize!).  Podles identifies three areas where the Church could do better in integrating a healthy masculine identity back into the Church:  initiation, struggle, and fraternal love.

In general, I think Podles is on the right track, especially in his chronology.  But I have doubts about some of the particulars of his argument.  The Crusades and the ideal of chivalry they inspired were partially a means of giving a place to the masculine pursuits of war within the Christian world, by yoking them to the protection of pilgrims, widows, etc.  That’s why the military orders were founded.  The goal of the more secular ideal of chivalry–courtly love, with its exaltation of the noble lady–was similar in this regard, in that it was meant to take the rough edge off of male treatment of women (think of the Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer, which begins with the rape of a young maiden by a knight).  Podles hardly mentions any of this, however.  He is surely right to note the novelty of Bridal Mysticism (Kenneth Clarke seemed to think the exuberant cult of the Virgin after 1100 must have had eastern origins), but I am not convinced it was sufficient to cause the changes he is describing.  I am also skeptical of the link he draws between scholasticism and the growing feminization of spirituality; it is one of the least argued and poorly sourced of his arguments, nor does he make clear what logical connection if any exists between them.  And the growth in female monasticism could just as easily be the effect of such feminization, as a cause of it.  As for his assessment of masculinity becoming an ersatz religion when divorced from Christianity, he is on firmer ground.

I think his book might have benefited from a more thorough economic analysis, as opposed to the theological and cultural framework he brings to bear on the question.  One of the great changes in medieval society in the 12th century was the revival of civic life–of the creation of whole classes (merchants, bankers, lawyers) who made their living outside of farming, fighting or other masculine pursuits.  (The money these classes brought into the European economy probably wound up funding scholastics as well.)  Their influence on Christian life must have been considerable, and something opposed to the violence of the feudal classes (violence is bad for business).  It is no accident that the first manuals for how to act as a “gentleman” appear in the 12th century, and it is in the cities where much of the “courtly love” ethic will find its most fervent expression.  This must have caused tension with men who thought all this was unmanly, but those new men were more educated, and likely to have more influence on opinion and belief.  Just think of Martin Luther, who came from a mining family, but chose to be a priest and professor; Lyndal Roper has made clear what a masculine atmosphere this was, and his rebellion against the Church can be seen as his asserting his masculinity in a much more feminized environment of the Church.

Moreover, during the Industrial Revolution, the working classes largely abandoned religion (he mentions this but does not emphasize it enough in my opinion), perhaps because working class men were turned off by the more feminized atmosphere of bourgeois religion (working class cultures tend to be heavily masculine, for obvious reasons).  Notably, there was a perceived “crisis” of masculinity in late 19th century America, when new “white collar” classes emerged, and men felt they were no longer masculine enough working in doors at a desk all day.  It may be that one reason why Eastern versions of Christianity have more success in retaining men because they descend from cultures that were and generally still are less economically sophisticated than Western societies (it may also be the case that these cultures were also simply more patriarchal than Western society, but it doesn’t have to be either or).

I believe Podles is correct to focus on the areas of initiation, struggle and fraternal love as places where the Church could integrate men more fully into the life of the Church.  I am not sure how these can be integrated back into the life of most Catholic parishes, at least in America.  The most obvious way to involve male initiation into the Church would be to restrict service at the altar to boys, something would not likely be possible in many places outside of Latin mass communities.  As for struggle, that might be even more difficult. The main example he gives of this in the book is the Penitentes, the all male religious organizations that sprang up in New Mexico in the 18th and 19th centuries in the absence of priests.  They indeed gave a prominent role to men, but then that was in response to a lack of priests; furthermore, they eventually developed such extreme ascetic practices (flagellation, carrying heavy crosses in processions) that the bishops of New Mexico censured and eventually broke them of their peculiarly masculine aspects.  A tendency to violence is a major theme here–so much of modern society is oriented toward eliminating it before it even begins, and so much male bonding takes places during activities that border on it.  Which makes establishing such “fraternal love” as he speaks of very difficult.

In a longer perspective, it is tempting to see the feminization of the Church as arising from the combination of economic changes with the medieval Church and society’s efforts to curb the violence of men–particularly against women.  Depending on how you look at it, you can easily see this project as having been a success.  On the other hand, you could just as plausibly see the reduction of personal violence by men as a negative result of their domestication by the forces of proto-capitalist and later capitalist societies, to which the Church then adapted its theology and practice.  If so, we would seem to be at the end of a long, long historical process–or at least that is where one hopes we are now. There might be cause for hope in such reflections regarding the grave gender imbalance the Church faces.  The Church began (or contributed to) this process by allying with a minority in the medieval period (merchants, etc.) to curb the excesses of the dominant class (male aristocrats).  Perhaps it can do so again, although identifying that minority in this age might be much more of a challenge than it was in the 12th century.

Beyond this, Podles is surely right to remind us that there are clear masculine elements in the Christian faith, going back to sacred Scripture and Tradition, to which we can return–we are, as he rightly points out, all of us sons of God, even women, because we have been baptized into the Son of God himself.  And we are all called to the paradigmatically masculine spiritual warfare which the Son of God waged on our behalf while He walked the earth.

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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