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The Chain of Unbelief

In his sermon “The Christian Ministry”, Bl. John Henry Newman lays out for us a possible chain of unbelief.  Note that you can start this chain anywhere, but Newman starts it from the point of view of someone who doubts the Priesthood.  Doubt that Christ commissioned the Apostles, and set aside a group of men as special conveyors of divine grace; doubt that and the following logically follows.  And though not everyone may follow this chain, anyone would be logically consistent in doing so …

 

  • If Christ did not commission a group of men as special conveyors of divine grace, then the sacraments they administer may not be what these clergy claim them to be.
  • The Eucharist is therefore (potentially, at least) a “bare commemorative rite”.
  • Baptism, being one of these sacraments, is likewise (quite likely) a formality that may easily be dispensed with.  (This denigration of the sacraments is consistent with the denial of the ordained priesthood.  As Newman notes: “They who think it superstitious to believe that particular persons are channels of grace, are but consistent in denying virtue to particular ordinances.”  If specific persons can not be special channels of grace, why would specific things or actions be?  This is a reasonable inference.)
  • It is likewise “but consistent” to deny original sin.  For if baptism is a mere show, then what is the problem it addresses but a kind of superstition?
  • If sin is not the problem, then the Cross is not the answer.  The doctrine of the Atonement is thus jettisoned.
  • If Christ did not die to save us from sin and reconcile us with the Father, then Christ’s role on earth was that of mere preacher and teacher.
  • Christ therefore need not be considered Divine.
  • And if Christ is not God, then the Trinity is but a confused and arcane notion of the priesthood that we began this chain of conclusions by rejecting.
But why stop there?  If this all is the case, then …

Why should any part of Scripture afford permanent instruction? Why should the way of life be any longer narrow? Why should the burden of the Cross be necessary for every disciple of Christ? Why should the Spirit of adoption any longer be promised us? Why should separation from the world be now a duty?

… which is what we see around us: a Catholicism without Scripture as a guide, Catholics walking a Way that is wide and not narrow (Mat. 7:13-14), Catholics who do not even understand the cross (even as a form of discipline or daily suffering or endurance), Catholics who have never even heard of the “Spirit of adoption”, Catholics who would laugh at any suggestion of “separation from the world”.

Is it any wonder then, that if the parents or grandparents who live like this but who still retain the habit of churchgoing and prayer and Lenten penance manage to raise children and grandchildren who are logically consistent with what their elders believe, and who simply stop practicing all together?  If our faith is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (without the morality, the therapy or the deity), then why not stay in bed on Sundays … with the girl or boy or computer of your choice?  Really.  Why not?

Humans may be inconsistent day to day, but over the long haul, we are very consistent with behaving according to what we actually believe.  And if we’re not, our children are.

A Slice of Pie for the Pietists

In his essay “Democracy and Industrial Society”, Eric Voegelin (alluding to Ernest Renan) speaks of three foundational elements in Western society: Hellenistic Philosophy, Jewish-Christian Religion and Roman Administrative Order.  In shorthand, this means our society has the constituitive elements of

  • Reason (studium, the School)
  • Revelation (sacerdotium, the Church, priests)
  • Power (imperium, the administration of justice and the maintenance of order)
I would say that there are two more elements that make up who we are as a people …
  • The Family (ecclesia domestica, including agriculture: home life)
  • The Market (production, buying and selling, the economic sphere)
Voegelin points out that there are Disruptive forces that have opposed these elementary units of our society.  He calls these simply the “anti’s”
  • Anti-Reason is the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy, which began with the Reformation, and which Hilaire Belloc says has climaxed in a modern hatred of reason and an assertion of the Irrational.  Anyone who spends any time arguing on the internet understands that the Cult of the Irrational is a nearly demonic influence in our society, and is even dear to some of my fellow Catholics.
  • Anti-Revelation is the rather obvious rejection of the Church and all it stands for. The apparent irrelevance of the Church to modern men, as well as the Church’s modern focus on sentiment rather than reason, has contributed to this.
  • Anti-Power is the Quietist or Pietist reaction to the Wars of Religion.  
Belloc explains all three of these very concisely …

By the year 1700, it became apparent that Europe was permanently divided into two camps, Catholic and anti-Catholic.  In the only department that counts, in the mind of man, the effect of the religious wars and their ending in a drawn battle was that religion as a whole was weakened. More and more, men began to think in their hearts, “Since all this tremendous fight has had no result, the causes which led to the conflict were probably exaggerated.  It seems, then, that one cannot arrive at the truth in these matters, but we do know what worldly prosperity is and what poverty is, and what political power and political weakness are.  Religious doctrine belongs to an unseen world which we do not know as thoroughly or in the same way.”

… except he is emphasizing the more typical reactions, which are the first two of the bullet points above, the anti-religious attitude, coupled with the anti-rational attitude that rejects the role of reason in seeking right order, reason’s role in approaching the transcendent and its role in ordering our lives toward it, especially as seen in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.

But the flipside of this rejection of the School and the Church (the rejection of philosophy and religion) is the rejection of the World and of Power.  Voegelin is especially critical of Pietism, which he says was especially prominent in Germany and laid the groundwork for the Nazis.

Pietism was a Protestant movement that began as a desire to re-emphasize sanctificiation – holiness – in a Christian faith that had become worldly and indistinguishable from mere secularism.  I am very much in sympathy with such an impetus, for, as you may notice, I spend much of my time complaining about inane suburban parishes and the modern fad of preaching Christ without the Cross.

But Pietism rather quickly became a Gnostic movement that rejected all contact with the messy life-of-the-world as something that was evil.  Voegelin quotes a common German saying, die Macht is bose, “power is evil”.  The Pietist attitude eventually becomes one in which an “anti-world orientation gets expressed.”  The Pietist lives “in expectation of redemption, which requires one to withdraw from the filth of the world and especially of politics.”

This may sound odd to most people who live among the secularists who make up the majority of our neighbors (and who are all quite worldly), but those of us who travel in what I call “Super Catholic” circles see a form of Pietism all around us.  It typically takes a more “Quietist” form: “Oh, well.  It’s all God’s will.  Everything happens for the best.  I’ll just sit here until God drops in my lap what I want.  And he if doesn’t drop it, oh well.  It was not meant to be.  Oh, well.” 

But it also takes the form of disdaining things like getting a job that excites you, and taking the risks of going to a college that challenges you, or (heaven forbid) dating someone who may entice you to move out of your parent’s basement and put down the video game joy stick.  These things are all scary, and when a young person sees them not only as anxiety provoking, but also as inherently evil, then the Christian faith becomes not a sacramental approach to living life, but a sanctimonious way of avoiding it.

Either way, Voegelin’s point is that the Distortions or Derailments, the “anti’s”, have this in common: they reject the transcendent as having any bearing on life: either because reason and revelation are despised, or (in the case of the Pietists) power and politics are despised: in both cases the Incarnation is cut off: the transcendent is divorced from the immanent.

Included in the Pietistic rejection of power and politics are the rejection of things like prudential decisions on how to make a living, taking responsibility for your passions and desires, reasonably exercising your authority as a spouse or parent, etc. – the kinds of real life issues that we never hear addressed in homilies that simply say, “God loves you just as you are,” or “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too,” or “Be enthused!  Isn’t it great?  Yeah, it’s really great!  Hey, Lent is half over!  That’s why I’m in pink.  Ha ha.  Hey!  It’s Easter!  We can eat chocolate again.  Ha ha.”    In all of these cases, the True Order that should be guiding our messy lives in this muddled existence is rejected or even treated with contempt.

The Church In Spite of Itself

Somehow in this corrupt and disappointing institution, there is at least one really great priest.

Obviously, there are many.  But today I met with a man who cannot be explained.  This crooked Church filled with crooked sinners (like me), a Church which can legitimately be prosecuted as a criminal organization under the RICO statues in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, has produced, in spite of everything, one really great, humble and holy priest.  I have met him, and I know him rather well.  I will not name him, because he would not want me to.  But he’s the real deal.

But … “are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Mat. 7:16)

The church in a shambles.  Cologne Cathedral, 1945.

Humanly speaking, an organization that appears as corrupt or at least as incompetent as the Catholic Church should not be able to put forth anything but thistles.

In other words, there is no human explanation for this.  Likewise, Cardinal Newman points out that there is no human explanation for the Church in history.

There have been many kingdoms before and since Christ came, which have been set up and extended by the sword. This, indeed, is the only way in which earthly power grows. … But the propagation of the Gospel was the internal development of one and the same principle in various countries at once, and therefore may be suitably called invisible, and not of this world.

He points out that not only did the Gospel spread without force of arms, on the efforts of an original rag-tag group of misfits we call apostles, but it sprang up as a group of local churches from community to community; local groups answering to a central authority that eventually stepped in and took the hollowed out shell of the Roman empire and made use of it; and you, as a Pagan, might be shocked that people you’ve known all your life are suddenly, even secretly, Christian and that an invasion and transformation of a worldly empire has taken place; and the empire replaced by something not of this world … and all of this, right under your nose.

How did this happen?  And how can a merely human institution produce saints?  The best human institutions can do wonders.  The Marines can produce a few good men.  The best colleges can produce great scholars.  But no one can produce a saint.  Even the family – the greatest of all earthly institutions – cannot produce saints, not even by trying.

How, then, do we find a few holy men and women here and there walking among us?

Seriously, the Church, especially the stump of a thing that calls itself “Church” in most of our parishes, by any human standard of judgment, should not be capable of this.

Anthony Esolen Out of the Ashes

Guess what?  There’s this really great online book club, started by my friend Brian Daigle of Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge.  It’s called The Pillar and it features online discussions of current books, classics and everything in between.

Last night The Pillar hosted a live webinar with Anthony Esolen, author of Out of the Ashes – Rebuilding American Culture, and Dr. Esolen said some remarkable things.

First, here’s a quote from Esolen’s book, culled by one of our book club members …

Say to yourselves and to your children…  We must be clear about this.  The world around us is not Christian.  It is not even sanely pagan.  It is quite mad and quite unhappy.  …We can minister to them only by being sharply distinct.  Those in the world…are longing for …the real language, which will restore to them the world’s lost beauty and goodness and point them towards what is beyond the world.

This is what the webinar did, in its own way.

The most memorable thing that Tony Esolen said in his hour-long visit with us was his answer to a question to from one of the attendees.  The questioner said (and I’m paraphrasing both the question and the answer, quoting from memory),

Q. “What would you have done differently 25 years ago when you began your career as an educator and a father, knowing, as you do now, how much the culture has decayed?”

Esolen became thoughtful, looked away from the camera, and replied from the heart.  “I would not have assumed that nature would fix things.  I assumed that my daughter, for instance, would manage to meet a good young man.  But even dating has vanished.  Boys no longer know how to approach girls.  We need dances – and not just occasionally, but all the time.  We need to teach boys how to get off their video games and approach girls – because it doesn’t happen on its own anymore.”

He continued with a memorable image.  “It’s a desert on one side, and a flood on the other.  It’s a desert of loneliness.  Not only is there no dating in that desert, there’s no friendship, no connection, no relationship with members of the opposite sex – period.  On the other side of the divide, in the flood, there’s the hook up culture, which is just as miserable and just as lonely, only in a different way.”

My friends, I can’t tell you how true this is.  It’s most serious for devout young Catholic women who are not sleeping around; but it’s bad even for secular women who are.  My most popular posts on my old blog, Waiting for Godot to Leave, were about the difficulties of dating and the complications of the Boy / Girl thing in the Devout Catholic world.

Esolen pointed out that, “The real vocations crisis is not in finding men for the priesthood – though that is a problem.  The great vocations crisis is in marriage.  It breeds all kinds of despair”.

That was the most memorable part of the webinar for me.  Here are a few more random notes I took while Esolen was speaking …

 

  • The word “productive” is a horrible word.  It’s a word borrowed from the factory.  Esolen (quoting Ruskin, I think) said, “Britain is productive.  Britain produces everything but men.”
  • If men gathered together as men, it might be possible for them, once more, to correct one another.  “Dude, get off the video games.  You’re wasting your life.  You have a family to provide for.  Start taking this seriously.”  If a wife says that to her husband, he will resist it and push back and tell her that she’s nagging.  But if his buddies say that when they’re together as a bunch of guys, he might listen.  “Male shaming” I think Esolen called it: men accusing other men of not being real men – when the need for such an accusation springs up … which, today, it frequently does.
  • Toleration is not simply “putting up with anything”.  It’s admitting a state of affairs is bad, that there’s something wrong with it, but that you’ll endure it, anyway.  “If your coworker is miserable and rude, you might be forced to tolerate this, but you don’t endorse it.”  Modern liberals, however, are not “tolerant” at all.  They seek power and the destruction of those who believe different things than they do.  (This from a man who has recently been more or less crucified by his own intolerant students and administrators at Providence College.)  And the politics behind much of this is the militant gay agenda.
  • At a recent fundraiser for St. Gregory the Great Academy in Pennsylvania, Esolen was impressed by the boys who reside there.  “They take away their phones and their computer.  The administration allows none of that – no internet, period.  Because they know that if the boys have access, they’ll be on porn and they’ll be poisoned.  Instead, the boys end up doing what boys used to do.  They go outside, they play sports, they have fun, they get in shape, and they build things.”
  • “The best young people I know were homeschooled.  They went to good Catholic colleges.  They got married.  They’re 23 with kids and they’re happy.  We need to witness to the secular world in this way.  The best example we can give to these other people is being holy and happy.  They will see us and say, ‘I want some of what they’re drinking’.”
  • The way to get back at bad bishops, especially those who impose “common core” on Catholic schools?  “Bishops are not well educated in the humanities.  Who is?  But they understand money.  Tell them, I am not supporting the schools you have forced common core on.  I’m giving my money to this classical Christian academy over here.  Tell them that.  They may not understand much, but they will understand the dollar sign.”
I was blessed to meet Anthony Esolen last month at the Prairie Troubadour Conference where we both spoke.  And last night’s webinar was almost as much fun as meeting him in person.
There’s more of this sort of thing at the Pillar Book Club, so check it out!
And even though things are very bad all around us – we now have online book clubs!  And good ones too!  So there are occasional silver linings – silver linings behind the clouds that promise the rain that will irrigate the desert in which we live.

 

When the Well Runs Dry

What is it about homilies on the Woman at the Well that annoys me so much?

The worst I ever heard was by a priest with horn-rimmed glasses, a creepy demeanor and an utter inability to relate to people, who said that Jesus “grew” in his encounter with the Woman at the Well.  He “grew” in learning the limitations of His own judgmentalism, prejudice and sexism.  This is why the reading is included in Lent, because Jesus needed Lent in order to overcome his own narrowness.  You see?

But a homily as bad as that is easy to spot.  The more dangerous homilies are those that do damage not by what they do say, but by what they do not say.

The homily I heard last Sunday, while on tour with my actress Maria, at a random parish we’d never been to before, was a good example.  Of the church itself, Maria said, “This church is so modern it must have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

“More like Frank Lloyd Wrong,” I countered.

But the art and architecture were not as bad as the music, and the music was not as bad as the constant chatter and party atmosphere before Mass, and the constant chatter and party atmosphere before Mass were not as bad as the homily.

And the heart of the homily was this: enthusiasm!  We need to leave our water jars behind and go spread the news about Jesus, as the Woman at the Well did.  We won’t be able to help it!  When we encounter Jesus we will be so excited that we’ll just have to spread the word!  We won’t be able to hold it in!  Apparently, we’ll just leave our water jar behind go and start to constantly chatter – like the people were doing before Mass started.

Pardon me, but this is so much BS.  And then it occurred to me: most people put their faith in BS.  But if Jesus Christ is anything, He is, at the very least, the antidote to BS – the BS we feed others, the BS they feed us, and the BS we feed ourselves.

But this is not the Jesus we encounter in homilies at Catholic parishes, in almost all cases.  He ain’t at that particular well, generally speaking.  Because at your local parish, you will be told to be enthused!  But the question remains: be enthused about what?  Or about whom?  In the Church of the Oprah, the Church of the Hallmark Channel, the Church of the Always Shape-Shifting Amoeba, we are constantly told to have faith, but we are never told what we are supposed to have faith in.  In our modern religion, there is no longer an Object to our Faith.

Terms have become indeterminate (and, for many bishops and theologians, deliberately so), and faith entirely subjective.

Newman spoke of this nearly 200 years ago, in explaining the tendency of Christians to assess the validity of their “walk with Christ” merely by how they felt about Him, and to be complacent and fruitless simply because they had a kind of vague religious sentiment – which, they were convinced, was the end of it.  Christ died, people believe, not to redeem us or reform us, and certainly not to call us to a greater and more awesome degree of maturity or completion as human beings, but to make us feel good about ourselves.  Which leads to the most shameful form of idolatry: idolatry of self.

They who make self instead of their Maker the great object of their contemplation will naturally exalt themselves, Newman wrote.

Which is what happens at almost every Mass I go to – the inane and insipid exaltation of self.  Our Lord remains in the Eucharist – but in the homilies, the art and architecture, the attitudes, the atmosphere, and above all else, in the deliberately dreadful music, we are self-absorbed.  And content with being self-absorbed!  That’s the part that amazes me.  (Perhaps the people who are not content with being self-absorbed are no longer coming to Mass.)

The Woman at the Well did not just encounter a vague feeling that made her excited.  She encountered God made man: a person who saw through her BS, saw past her half-lie about her so-called fifth “husband”, and pierced her soul the way we sinners would later pierce His side.  We are not told if she went on shacking up with the current dude or with the next one who came along, but if she did, then her “witness” to her neighbors is a witness against herself, regardless of how excited she was in the moment.

But this is never mentioned from the pulpit.  Repentance is hard and the cross is ugly.  Enthusiasm is fun, because enthusiasm can mean whatever each individual wants it to mean.

We can be fed by the sacraments at Mass – but in all other ways we are being starved.

Starved and deprived of water.

For the well – at least the well of self-indulgence – is running dry.