A verse of Scripture that seems more and more important to me is Colossians 3:2: "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." I have not always been very good at doing this.
I am now dubious about much that I have written on this blog. Take, for instance, my many blog posts on the subject of tradition-- human, secular traditions.
All my life I have been tradition-mad, and this had a powerful influence on the trajectory of my beliefs; first of all towards conservatism, and then towards Catholicism.
This was good. But I am coming to think I should have thrown away the ladder once I had reached my destination.
Where did this love of tradition come from? Well, it could have come from many things, but I tend to believe it was the Holy Spirit calling me towards the Truth, or using my own inclinations to guide me to the Truth.
I have written in my series of posts on tradition that much of my love of tradition is based upon the sense of the timeless, or the time-outside-time, that we so often feel when we look at a Halloween bonfire or a Thanksgiving parade, or some other image of a secular tradition.
Well, it seems to me pretty clear that this love of the 'time-outside--time' which I find in tradition is really a yearning for Eternity. That was the message. Once I'd got it, I shouldn't have continued to fixate on human traditions.
Now, I don't want to be too humourless or blinkered about this. There is nothing wrong with taking an ordinary, moderate, incidental pleasure in human traditions (or in other aspects of the world that appeal to us). But the extent to which I fixated on them was, I believe, unhealthy and wrong and a distraction from the thing that matters. It was an excessive attachment to worldly things.
(I'm not talking about sacred traditions here. They are something entirely different.)
Then again, there is my many blog posts about globalization and cultural nationalism.
I declared war on globalization and the cultural homogenization I perceived in the world. But, seen from the view of Eternity-- which is really the only view worth taking-- what difference does this make?
Our purpose in this world is to get to Heaven and to take as many people with us as we can. Our political, cultural and social goals should flow from that. "Martha, Martha, you are worried about so many things, but so few are needed-- indeed, only one." (Luke 10:41-42.)
Again, I'm not suggesting we should all become utterly otherworldly, or cease to take pleasure in our national heritages, or cease to preserve them-- or to preserve other secular institutions that we cherish. But the salient point is how much of an effort, how much focus this demands. If it takes up an extraordinary amount of our time and effort, I think it has become an idol-- and, indeed, I think cultural nationalism (and even more political nationalism) has very often become an idol. I admit that it has been an idol to me.
What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians seems pertinent: "This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away."
The fashion of this world passeth away. Cultural globalization is just another moment in that process. We have enough on our plates, defending life and the family (which we know God wants us to defend), without putting too much effort into defending cultural forms that we have no particular warrant to believe God wants us to defend.
These dread words from the Book of Jeremiah frighten me: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Hearken not to the words of the prophets that prophesy to you, and deceive you: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord."
In fact, I am becoming more and more cautious about worldly causes becoming idols that distract us from the Gospel.
I recently left Facebook, but before I left it, I became more and more bothered by the phenomenon of many of my Catholic Facebook friends-- orthodox, non-dissident Catholics-- becoming sucked into the slipstream of some political ideology. These were ideologies of both right and left, but it was more noticeable in the case of the political left.
I had Catholic Facebook friends who seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of energy attacking Donald Trump, the Republican party, gun ownership, racism, sexism, and 'Islamaphobic' media coverage, but who never seemed to use Facebook to evangelize or defend the Faith-- outside of the occasional picture of Mother Theresa with a non-controversial caption attached.
They were more than willing to criticize conservatives or right-wing Christians, but they rarely (if ever) seemed to speak out against abortion, or euthanasia, or the persecution of Christians around the globe. These causes were not important enough for them to stick their heads above the parapet.
(My right-wing Catholic friends were often overly insistent on causes like gun ownership or free market capitalism-- but they were rarely shy about defending their Faith, or controversial aspects thereof. On the other hand, I tended to 'unfollow' them pretty quickly. In many ways, I was temperamentally more sympathetic to my 'liberal' Catholic friends.)
I'm not attacking any of these people. I have no doubt they are better people than me, and better Catholics than me. But the distortion of priorities that I saw in their Facebook feeds was like a mirror wherein I saw my own failings.
There is an awful lot on this blog which is extraneous to the Gospel. But, for a Catholic, I don't think anything should be extraneous to the Gospel. "Now I live, not I, but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:20). That should be our aspiration.
But it's not just the proclamation and excessive attachment to worldly causes that I've come to see as wrong. It's just as important (I think) that we proclaim the Faith in the right way, and for the right motivations, and in the right terms.
"Through him, and with him, and in him" is what the priest says in the moments before Communion. I've been pondering those words a lot recently.
Take the example of the term 'pro-life', especially as it is used by Catholics who belong to the 'seamless garment' school of thought.
"Pro-life" was a word coined to argue against abortion-- and, perhaps, euthanasia. These are practices that all Catholics must oppose and abhor. But Catholics and Christians of the 'seamless garment' school use the term 'pro-life' to argue in favour of all sorts of measures which are not required by faith, which are in fact prudential matters upon which Catholics may legitimately disagree-- the complete abolition of the death penalty, pacifism, socialised healthcare, open borders, and so on.
Not only did I witness this expansion of the term 'pro-life' on my Facebook feed, but it has unfortunately been taken up in this sense by many Catholics I greatly admire-- such as the blogger and writer Mark Shea.
I have deep, deep respect for Mark Shea. His writings were very influential on me when I was moving to the Faith, and his book Mary: Mother of the Son is one of my favourite books, and is indeed the book that unlocked Mary's role in salvation to me. But he seems to have become hypnotised by left-wing causes, like many of my Catholic Facebook friends. In such cases, passions are raised so high that Catholics almost seem to be locked into a left wing/right wing faction fight where the real enemy is some pet hate figure on the right or left, rather than Satan and his fallen angels-- where the cosmic battle becomes less important than a transient squabble that only historians will care about in a hundred years.
In a blog post in which he was responding to some very intemperate language from Mark Shea, who was accusing him of not being 'pro-life' enough in refusing to support the complete abolition of the death penalty, Edward Feser responded: "Shouting the phrase “pro-life” – a slogan that has its origins in U.S. political discourse, not in Catholic moral theology – no more settles anything than shouting the slogan “pro-choice” does."
That sentence struck me very powerfully. If even a term like 'pro-life', which rolls off our tongue so easily and which seems so unobjectionable, can contain such potential confusion within it, we have to be very careful of the language and lines of argument and apologetic strategies we use.
Indeed, Dr. Feser has argued persuasively that a solid Catholic apologetics has to be built on Thomism and scholastic philosophy, and the 'New Theology' which more or less replaced it in the twentieth century--- and many of whose proponents, as Dr. Feser points out, were in no way 'liberal' or 'progressive' in their own minds-- is not, at least by itself, up to the intellectual task of defending the Faith against its opponents.
"Through him, and with him, and in him." It's not enough to assert and defend the Faith. We have to defend it using solid Catholic arguments, and solid Catholic apologetics, and solid Catholic interpretations of Scripture. This is too important a business to indulge our own eccentricities, idiosyncracies, or irresponsible creativity.
I aim this criticism against myself principally. Too often, on this blog, I have drawn on my own imaginative impulses, or my own memories, or upon parts of popular culture or literature that particularly appealed to me, to make (what I thought was) an argument for the Faith.
Now, I'm not going so far as to say that this is completely illegitimate, but I have come to view it with tremendous caution. I don't think I'm the only Catholic who has been too eager to 'canonize' his favourite philosopher, movie, song, historical figure, novel, non-Catholic theologian, or non-Christian historical figure (such as Gandhi, who seems to have been made a kind of honorary saint by many Christians).
We have Scripture, the Church Fathers, approved classics of devotion, a treasury of traditional prayers, the lives and writings of the saints, Church-approved apparitions, and a whole wealth of other 'safe' material to drawn on-- more of it than anyone could ever get through in one lifetime. There is no austerity involved in sticking to the authentically Catholic. We have an abundance. We don't have to write blog posts making a Catholic case for Star Trek and Groundhog Day, and so forth.
I did this far too much, perhaps exulting in my own sense of creativity and ingenuity. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But I'm not the only one.
We are always trying to conform Christ to our own image, rather than conform ourselves to Christ's image. This tendency has to be fought against constantly.
Finally, I have to admit a change of heart regarding a prominent and controversial Catholic apologist. I have been publicly and strongly critical of Michael Voris, the founder of Real Catholic TV, now Church Militant TV.
Not only have I criticized him on this blog, but I once criticized him in a lecture (of the two lectures I've ever given!) to the John Paul II Theological Society in Maynooth.
Well, I have changed my mind. Although his style is still rather more abrasive than is congenial to me, I have come to think that Michael Voris is doing very good and very important work, and that he's right about nearly everything-- but most of all, in his stubborn and terrier-like focus on the supernatural element of the Catholic faith, and the doctrine that 'outside the Church, there is no salvation'-- a doctrine that, though it may have once been understood too narrowly, has today been watered down to homeopathic proportions. His critique of the 'Church of Nice'-- though I think it is exaggerated-- is true more often than not. His emphasis on the rational rather than the emotional aspect of Catholicism is also necessary and right. I feel it is only honourable to publish this retraction.
The Church is a sign of contradiction. Trying to soft-soap the Gospel is (I think) a mistake. Now, I'm not denying that there are points of encounter we can find in contemporary culture, or arguing that we always have to be confrontational in our apologetics. But I have significantly less faith in the 'softly' softly' approach than I had until very recently. Judge it by its fruits. How has it fared? Indeed, it seems to me-- from the many, many conversion stories I have read-- that people are more likely to be drawn to the Church on account of its willingness to confront modern society, than through its attempts at 'dialogue' with it.
I've been watching lots of Voris's videos recently (all the free ones, as I can't afford a subscription). But I think it was this one that did it for me. He's completely and utterly right.
I used to disapprove of Voris's videos being carried on the Catholic Voice website, when I wrote for that newspaper. The irony is that my outlook is more 'Catholic Voice' now than it was when I wrote for The Catholic Voice.
This is a longer post than I intended to write. But I felt honour-bound to write it. Let us pray for each other!
Postscript, written the next day: I have been mulling over this post today, and I wanted to add a qualification or two.
First of all, I wouldn't myself adopt Voris's 'Church of Nice' label to describe the mainstream Catholic Church. Far from it. In fact, most of the priests I have known are good priests. At the moment, I regularly attend Mass celebrated by four different priests, and three of them are excellent-- reverential in their celebration of Mass, supernatural and Christ-centred in their homilies, deeply serious, always willing and available for confession. (The fourth priest, unfortunately, tends towards liturgical abuses such as leaving the altar at the sign of peace, leading the congregation in applause during Mass, and interposing his own words in the liturgy.) I also find Irish congregations to be generally reverent and serious-minded. I don't see people answering their mobile phones or drinking cans of Diet Coke in Mass. I see a great deal of fervour and reverence.
When we look towards the Irish episcopate, however, the matter is very different. Our bishops seem to be terrified of actually preaching the Gospel in season and out of season (a phrase from today's readings, as it happens). The nadir of this was the homosexual marriage referendum in Ireland, where our bishops seemed to spend more time and energy warning against homophobia, and chiding people who were actually opposing the introduction of gay marriage, than upholding the Christian view of marriage and sexuality. They seem entirely unwilling to 'take on' the anti-Christian forces in the Irish media and political system. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is a particularly lamentable example.
And then there is the whole Catholic and Catholic-lite infrastructure in Ireland-- such as the St. Vincent De Paul, which found it appropriate some years ago to donate money to a homosexual resource centre in Galway, or the Veritas bookshops (and publishers) which sell shelves upon shelves of books which are essentially self-help feel-good tracts with the merest flavouring of Christianity. And we cannot forget the Association of Catholic Priests, a dedicated fifth column whose open apostasies have been ceaselessly indulged by our bishops. (I appreciate, however, that the bishops are in a bit of a tricky position. We have so few priests in Ireland now that we need even the bad ones, so long as they are administering valid sacraments.)
I do not accept or agree that the institutional church is a 'dead man walking' and that there is only a tiny 'remnant' of faithful priests and laity remaining. I do agree that apostasy and worldliness has penetrated deep into the Church in Ireland and elsewhere, but I think it's in an uneven and selective manner. It's not as simple as good parishes vs. bad parishes, or good priests vs. bad priests, or anything so clear-cut. Yes, there are good priests and bad priests-- I'm not judging souls here, but their deeds-- but there are also lots of priests who are a very mixed bag.
There is a tremendous danger of spiritual pride and Pharisaism in even writing on these matters. That is one reason I have found it so difficult to articulate this change of heart. I am very much alive to that danger. And yes, reforming ourselves is always the most important and achievable task. Yes, prayer and penance are essential. But I no longer believe that the laity (or the clergy) should remain silent or inappropriately docile when it comes to abuses and apostasy in the Church, and (even more so) evil and irreligion in society at large. And I am no longer going to criticize Catholics who have the courage to defend the Faith as it needs to be defended-- so long as they steer clear of schism, sedevacantism, lack of reverence towards the Pope, and all the other 'auto-immune' evils whereby spiritual antibodies are no longer attacking a disease but are attacking the organism itself. (I cannot claim credit for this metaphor-- I think I saw it on a blog comment somewhere.)