Re-Reads: “God Owes Us Nothing”

•January 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment
Jansenism

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

 

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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.

The Antiquated Church of “Year 0”

•December 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

revolutionary

I am in need of great amounts of penance, because I am so sinful.  I say this by way of explanation for the fact that I watched a Youtube video of a speech by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, to the USCCB, given at the Catholic University of America recently.  (Trust me, I got my money’s worth penance-wise.)  Why, besides working out my salvation with fear and trembling, would I do such a thing?  Well, for starters, Cardinal Parolin is one of Pope Francis’ right hand men, and someone who is being spoken of to become the next pope.   I thought it prudent to find out what the man’s mind is like, since he is so close to the current pope.

What did I find out? About Parolin, I’m not sure.  He reportedly has excellent diplomatic skills, which is one reason why Francis favors him.  He is, if what I have read of him is true, someone who is part of the “old guard” in the Vatican, a member of the curial bureaucracy which Francis was supposedly elected to reform but has done little toward that end, preferring to muddy doctrinal waters instead.  In other words, he’s an ecclesial bureaucrat, someone who is moderate, not terribly imaginative and good at handling the day to day drudgery of the Vatican, a Wolsey to Francis’ Henry VIII.  His speech bore this out:  most of it consisted of his citations of other thinkers.  If he has any thoughts of his own, he didn’t reveal them–whether through diplomatic nicety (he was there to celebrate the US episcopal conference, after all, and the speech must have flattered them in that regard, as well shall see) or through sheer lack of imagination I cannot tell.  The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.

But I did learn something about how he and presumably the Pope views the Church.  The theme of the talk was the “prophetic” nature of Vatican II.  I won’t bore you with the details, but sufficed to say the rhetoric of the speech came down squarely on the side of what Benedict XVI called “the hermeneutic of rupture.”  To be sure, it quoted from John Paul II and from Benedict XVI, but only as a means of validating the idea that the council was the fons et origo of the Church now, almost a new public revelation replacing the old.  Early in his speech, Parolin cited, approvingly, a quotation from the theologian Joseph Doré that after the Second Vatican Council “absolutely nothing will be as it was before.”  Parolin seconded this idea, adding that everything that comes after it must be considered as being “Post-conciliar.”  Parolin went on to mention a whole host of items–the role of the laity, vernacular liturgy, “synodality” in the life of the Church, the “People of God,” and the “sensus fidelium” all without every really defining them in any detail.  But that was the point, I take it: we don’t need to know what they are specifically, because the way they will be present in the life of the Church will be completely new.  Everything else is mere details.  If there is no such as word as “concilialatry,” it needs to be invented, for it sounded almost as if, for Parolin at least, the Second Vatican Council is some kind of idol to be worshiped.  One thing that particularly stood out to me in this regard was his insistence that there must be episcopal conferences “in every country” and these were now to be a permanent part of the Church’s life.  He never gives any reason for this, but seemed to associate it with the “revolution” that was putatively set in motion by the council.

If you are wondering why such bureaucratic organizations, which have no roots in the Apostolic tradition, and are no older than the 20th century (the USCCB was founded during WWI), are now sacrosanct, you are not alone.  My point is that this assertion, and much of what the Church had done since the 60s, is almost never justified by anything more than this rhetoric of novelty and the mere assertion that such things are now irreversible.  This is not peculiar to the current pontiff, either; it goes back at least to the time of the Council.  As Cardinal Parolin pointed out in his speech, it was John XXIII who hoped the Council would be a “second Pentecost” for the Church.  This kind of talk has been common among churchmen of every stripe, save for the Traditionalists, for the past fifty years.  One serious problem with this rhetoric is that many seem to take literally what was almost certainly meant metaphorically by John XXIII and others–the idea that Vatican II was a literal second Pentecost is impossible and absurd, but clergy and theologians who repeat such slogans today assume that the Church really was re-founded in 1962, similar to the way that revolutionary political regimes re-write a nation’s calendar from “year 0” to mark a break with the old regime.  This was probably aided by political atmosphere of the 1960s:  much of it was revolutionary and utopian, with many hoping to remake Western society on more egalitarian terms, whether they were Marxist, liberal, or what have you.  It was also populist in the sense that the youth movements of the 60s opposed themselves to what they saw as a corrupt, sclerotic and illegitimate “establishment.”  This explains why the whole talk of the “People of God” so passionately appeals to prelates as different as St. John Paul II and Pope Francis:  their appeals to the “people” against corrupt establishments meant rather different things to both of them, I imagine, but they must sound the same to many in that generation.  This also explains why Pope Francis speaks so harshly of priests he sees as excessively traditional, rule bound or “rigid”:  he sees them largely in a political light, as siding with the corrupt “establishment” (i.e., the institutional Church) rather than the “people of God” (the “real” Church, as it were).  As Austen Ivereigh, one of his biggest English speaking defenders has observed, Francis is very much a “political pope” (his phrase), in that regard; he learned his theology amid the turmoil of Argentine political life.

Whatever its exact origins, this idea that Vatican II is “ever ancient, ever new” will likely not outlast the generation that spawned it.  Parolin is in his 70s, and I don’t imagine there are many priests in the pipeline who share these sorts of enthusiasms.  Certainly, most of the laity I know do not.  It is too dated, too directly tied to a passing era to be any sort of unifying sentiment, which is what I think Parolin and most of the bishops who still cling to it believe.  The decrees of Vatican II will take their place in the Tradition of the Church, no doubt, but this facile belief that it was some sort “revolutionary” event will pass from view at some point, however dominant it may be for the time being.  Indeed, its time has already passed, even if its votaries have not.

 

 

Alypius

 

 

Hodie Christus Natus Est

•December 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Nativity_-_WGA23026

Hodie Christus natus est. Hodie salvator apparuit. Hodie in terra canunt angeli, laetantur archangeli. Hodie exsultant justi, dicentes: Gloria in excelsis Deo, Alleluia.

Christ has been born today; the Saviour has appeared today; the angels sing today in the earth; today the fair ones are happy saying: Glory be to God in the heights, Hallelujah.

(Antiphon to Magnificat – Vespers of the Christmas day)

Christ is born!  Hallelujah! Peace and joy to all this day!

Advent Journal: Day 22–Christmas Eve

•December 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

annunciation and nativity

I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”

2 Samuel 7:16

Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke 1:28-30

 Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.
  He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.
Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.
From a Sermon of St. Augustine of Hippo
And justice looked down from heaven:  that is what has happened, is happening this night.  As on the Easter Vigil we celebrate the passing over of Christ the Lord from life to death, and then back again, so this night do we keep vigil, celebrating the passage of the Son of God from the eternal realm to the temporal one.  A world in which there was no justice, a world in which the powerful consumed the weak, a world in which there was no way to blot out the effects of sin.   This world had, still has, an evil king, which seeks to ruin its peoples, who rules through the effects of sin, which men introduced.  Tonight comes the true king, the true heir to the kingdom of this world, our true Lord, our true Sovereign; to us who believe, we know none but he.  This night God enters the world in human vesture, and we are not the same as we were before.  This, the true God, was also the true Man, Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior, our Redeemer, our King.  The time is now that we have, all the time we shall ever have, to call upon the Lord who is near to us, as near as the nearest tabernacle, nearer to us than we are to our selves.  Look, and see:  our redemption is at hand.  Look, and see that He who has made us has not left us alone, is not a watch maker or an absentee landlord, has not abandoned us to our fate.  No, he is the God who loves us, and he has come, he is here; He lives, and dwells among us. No longer need we dwell in agony because of our misery, because our sinful nature will not allow us to be whole.  For, behold the angel Gabriel has announced it, the Virgin Mary has assented to it, and now, the Son is born unto us, unto his people.   Let us worship him as did the Shepherds and the Magi, let us live our lives for him as the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph did:  for Christ our God and King has come to dwell in our hearts, and to rule us in peace and justice forever, never to leave us again.

Advent Journal: Day 21

•December 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

birth of john the baptist

Thus says the Lord GOD:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

Malachi 3:1-2

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
“No. He will be called John.”
But they answered her,
“There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,”
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
“What, then, will this child be?
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”

Luke 1:57-66

It is amazing that we think of Christ being born in Bethlehem, as an anonymous child of no social birth or standing.  Yet, angels announced his coming, a star prepared the way for the shepherds and the Magi.  But John the Baptist, who would announce his coming, was the son of a priest of the Temple; he was already marked out as different for that reason, though not by a supernatural occurrence.  That was for the angel Gabriel to announce, as the birth of Christ.  But the point is, God announces his coming.  There are no “anonymous Christians,” and we will know when he comes to us.  He will make it clear.  We have his promise on that.  If it seems so doubtful to some that he exists that he no longer announces things in this way, it is because they expect Him to do so in the same way, for what was a unique event.  And no doubt, when He comes for the last judgment, it will also be that unique.  But even though he uses more “ordinary” means to speak to us until he comes again, it is no less clear: the witness of Scripture, Tradition, and the Authority of the Church.  Above all, he does not have to announce it; he is here.  He is here wherever a tabernacle in a Church is present, in the Holy Eucharist.  Advent is the time we remember that it was announced before hand that he would come, and that He did, and has never left us, and that when He comes again it shall be forever to dwell with those who have kept his Word, waiting expectantly for Him.

Advent Journal: Day 20

•December 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

zaharia_si_elisabeta_ioan

Hannah brought Samuel with her,
along with a three-year-old bull,
an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine,
and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull,
Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said:
“Pardon, my lord!
As you live, my lord,
I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD;
as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.”

1 Samuel 1:24-28

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.”

Luke 1:46-56

The coming of the Saviour was promised to Abraham and to his descendants for ever. These are the children of promise, to whom it is said: If you belong to Christ, then you are descendants of Abraham, heirs in accordance with the promise.
  But it is right that before the birth of the Lord or of John, their mothers should utter prophecies; for just as sin began with a woman, so too does redemption. Through the deceit of one woman, grace perished; the prophecies of two women announce its return to life.
From a Commentary on Luke, by St. Bede the Venerable
 Dear Lord Jesus Christ, give us the faith of St. Elizabeth, and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that we might, despite our evil inclinations, welcome the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and be found worthy to stand before the Lord in his eternal light by submitting ourselves to his most gracious will for our lives.  Through the prayers of the All Holy Virgin Mary, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
 
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