Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Else Should We Expect?

Despite setting this blog up to add my tuppenceworth-- or less than tuppenceworth, perhaps-- to the defence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, I have somehow felt disinclined to comment on some of the most recent controveries regarding the State's and the media's attack on the Faith. They are familiar to anyone in Ireland who even reads the newspaper headlines, but for the sake of those reading from abroad, or those who might be coming to this post when the hullaballoo has died down, I might mention...

The Irish government's closing of the Irish embassy in the Vatican (supposedly for economic reasons, but coming a few months after the Taoiseach's diatribe against the Vatican's supposed "interference" in the affairs of State, an accusation shown to be entirely baseless);

The disgraceful accusation made in an RTÉ television documentary that an Irish missionary priest had raped a girl in Kenya and fathered her child, only disproven by the priest taking a paternity test, and the station's half-hearted apology and apparent reluctance to take disiplinary action;

And the eagerness of Ruairi Quinn, Minister of Education, to diminish the Church's effective role in Catholic education, despite polite noises to the contrary.

Somehow, I'm not surprised or even outraged by any of these developments. In fact, quite the opposite is true. I'm surprised that the assault on the Church in Ireland isn't even more intense than it is. I'm surprised that the Angelus is still broadcast on RTÉ, and that all the candidates in the recent Presidential election said they were in favour of this. I'm surprised Catholic schools are allowed to exist in this country at all. I'm surprised, not that Enda Kenny stands up in the Dáil and launches into a tirade against the Vatican, but that he prefaces it by insisting that he himself is a practicing Catholic. I'm surprised that the Irish media even pretends to be fair to Catholicism.

When we have a situation where only a handful of Irish journalists are professing Catholics; where all the parties in the Dáil support the gay marriage lite of civil partnership, and only a very few senators and backbenchers call for a conscience cause to protect religious believers who cannot recognize such partnerships; where even Archbishop Diarmuid Mairtin bemoans the lack of intellectuals and artists who espouse the Catholic faith (and intellectuals and artists are usually adept at going against the mainstream); where Mass attendance in many working class parishes is down to single figures, what else do we expect?

Our Lord told us that he who is not for him is against him, and he who does not gather with him, scatters. History has told us the same thing. Christianity, when rejected, is usually rejected with fire-breathing fanaticism. I very much fear we are now living in the hiatus before the hurricane.

The Fenian John O'Leary, a mentor to WB Yeats, refused to complain about his treatment in an English prison. When it was pointed out to him that such denunciation was good propaganda for the nationalist cause, he said that there were some things a man should not do even to save his country. All he would say was, "I was in the hands of my enemies."

I am not suggesting Catholics in Ireland should adopt John O' Leary's attitude. I am simply saying that I see a certain resemblance. The enemies of the Church in Ireland are, of course, our compatriots and our brothers and sisters; and insofar as they are our enemies, we are instructed to love them and pray for them.

But perhaps we should stop expecting any quarter from them. There is no point appealing to freedom of religion; the militant secularist doesn't believe religion should have any special freedoms. There is no point appealing to Ireland's Catholic heritage; the bullish liberal sees nothing in it but a cause for shame-- and besides, he doesn't have any time for ethnic nostalgia and badges of tribalism. There's no point even asking for objectivity, since the progressive thinks objectivity is a sham-- read a few posts on Indymedia if you doubt me.

We cannot expect fairness, or tolerance, or broadmindedness, and it is foolish even to seek them. I have come to believe more and more that there is only one front on which the Faith can be defended, when the culture has become so hostile-- and that is the front of truth. All we are left with is the insistence that the Creed is true, now that the the hollow promises of pluralism have been shown up. There is no point in Catholics seeking to convince the Irish people that religion deserves a "place at the table". We must seek to convince them that, in rejecting Christ, they are losing everything. And such a bold claim, even if it is rejected, is guaranteed to garner more respect than a mere plea for secular Ireland to be nice to us.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Don't They Just Kill Themselves?

Fairly interesting article by Desmond Fennell in the Irish Times today, on suicide. (I won't provide a link since this blog seems to mangle all the links I put in; besides, I like the idea of a blog without any links. It seems rather swish.) His argument is a rather familiar one-- that is, that the meteoric rise in the suicide rate in recent decades (a fourfold increase since 1971, though it has dropped a little since the eighties) can be laid at the blame of social anomie, the alienation that occurs when engrained social values are discarded and there is a limbo at the heart of society.

Fennell writes: From the 1960s, American consumerist-liberal values and rules were introduced in the US, and through allies, to its west European satellites. There the inherited European rules system held sway, either by reason of its sponsorship by the Christian churches or by social convention. The message was that everyone had the right and ability to become rich and to consume at will. Everyone could also become enlightened and modern by accepting a series of new values and new rules of behaviour, thought and language which were at variance with the European heritage in key spheres.

Of course, suicide is one of those things (like education) that almost everybody has a theory about. A liberal could easily say that suicide stemmed from religious guilt, or suffocating sex roles, or authoritarian power structures, or whatever you're having yourself. If it was pointed out that the suicide rate skyrocketed after Ireland became less religious, conservative, authoritarian, and so on, all the liberal has to do is argue that people stayed alive, back then, out of a sense of duty, or because there was a religious "taboo" against self-murder.

What is interesting to me is how, almost overwhelmingly, there seems to be a consensus that killing yourself is a bad thing, even in our liberal media and commentariat. Why should this be? Isn't it simply the residue of religion? Even proponents of euthansia (an increasingly large and vocal platoon) usually frame their arguments in terms of debilitating illness or old age.

But really, in a liberal society, why should there be any stigma on suicide? Where do we get this a priori view that life is a good thing? Why do we peddle these platitudes that every human life has value, when we no longer believe that every soul is created by God and was ransomed at an infinite price by his Only Son? Surely we should be neutral towards suicide; it is after all an entirely rational choice, from the liberal-atheist perspective. Existence only has the value we assign it. Indeed, given the increasingly bullish market fundamentalism that seems to be speaking its name in louder and louder tones, how long before some ardent disciple of Ayn Rand declares that economically unproductive people would be doing the world a favour by topping themselves?

Of course, I think that is all diabolical nonsense, my own view of suicide being that of Chesterton, as expressed in such fiery terms in Orthodoxy:

Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man's crime is different from other crimes--for it makes even crimes impossible.

But then, I am a right-wing religious nutjob, a fundie wacko, a worshipper of the sky-god, a devotee of the flying spaghetti monster, and all the other charming epithets that are flung at believers by calm and sober rationalists. Of course I would have an illogical taboo against self-termination. But why do the secular media keep talking as though the public should concern themselves about other peoples' private existential choices? And how long before they stop, and start making snarky comments about suicide awareness campaigns?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Commies and Catholics

"In socialism [Dostoevsky] saw the offspring of Catholicism, an offspring in which the movement away from Christ had taken the form of an open and explicit rejection of Christianity. The novelist awarded high marks to Prince Bimsarck as being the only European stateseman who had understood the real nature of Catholicism and the monster begotten by it-- socialism.

An important point was that Dostoevsky saw the Catholic Church as trying to impose its beliefs on mankind, to reduce its members of its own kind of ant-heap. This policy was inherited by socialism, the offspring of Catholicism."

Fr. Frederick Copleston, Russian Philosophy

Dostoyevsky was neither the first nor the last thinker to see communism as the heir of Catholicism. The Russian writer Yevgheniy Zamyatin, writer of We (one of the first dystopian novels) described communism as "a new brand of Catholicism". Orwell made the comparison a couple of times to my knowledge, once in the famous essay Inside the Whale:

There had been a sort of false dawn a few years earlier when numbers of young intellectuals, including several quite gifted writers (Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, and others), had fled into the Catholic Church. It is significant that these people went almost invariably to the Roman Church and not, for instance, to the C. of E., the Greek Church, or the Protestants sects. They went, that is, to the Church with a world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it. Perhaps it is even worth noticing that the only latter-day convert of really first-rate gifts, Eliot, has embraced not Romanism but Anglo-Catholicism, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism. But I do not think one need look farther than this for the reason why the young writers of the thirties flocked into or towards the Communist Party. If was simply something to believe in. Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline.

In Notes on Nationalism (where Orwell is using the term "nationalism" to mean any orthodoxy that extinguishes a man's reasoning powers or fair-mindedness) he makes this swipe at Chesterton:

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent -- though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one -- was G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who was able to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.

(Fans of Chesterton, like me, will feel this to be absurd. You don't have to read much Chesterton to realise that there was no internal struggle on his part to conform to Catholic doctrine. His heart rose up to it gratefully-- he seemed in love with every aspect of Catholicism, theological, aesthetic, historical, social, or otherwise. The only exception I can think of is his admission in The Resurrection of Rome that he found some of the Vatican cathedrals too baroque. For that matter, my own taste in churches runs more to Protestant understatement-- but that doesn't mean I am suffering from cognitive dissonance.)

The parallels between Catholicism and communism are obvious. Both require that their adherents be in the world, but not of it-- the Catholic because he looks towards eternity, the communist because he looks toward the revolution. Both require discipline-- a discipline that can be an attraction to ardent spirits. Before the USSR fell, both had a definitive authority-- the Kremlin for communists (apart from Trotyskists and other "schismatics", of course), the Vatican for Catholics.

They are both overarching theories of life, which supply a man with a comprehensive explanation of all phenomena-- though I think the Church leaves more to the prudential intellect, while communism tends to explain away rather than explain-- its dialectic materialism performing acrobatics to prove how apparent altruism is actually self-interest (much like Darwinism does), or to prove how material considerations are behind all human behaviour, even where it seems to be based on ethnic or religious motives, or to explain why the condition of the working classes grew not more desperate but better in the twentieth century.

The biggest similarity, I think, is that both have an impressive intellectual rigour-- although, of course, being a Catholic I think the rigour of Communism is a phony rigour, but at least it possesses a certain internal consistency (as long as you don't look too closely). Orwell may have sneered, but surely there is much to be said for intellectual discipline; when Peter has spoken, the issue has decided; and Marxism had its dogma, too. After all, only dogmatic systems can really let us think. Where there is no dogma, the intellect pirouettes ceaselessly, never reaching any conclusions.

Is there not something self-congratulatory and lily-livered about the much-vaunted integrity of an Orwell? "Smelly little orthodoxies" may seem uninspiring to some, but personally I can't help admiring someone who gets their butt off the fence, somebody who dares to be wrong. Only a megalomaniac can possibly believe he can solve the riddles of history and life with his unaided intellect; experience should show him it's not possible; and what seems more intuitive than the expectation that the truth, when we encounter it, should be at least to some degree "a hard saying?". Chesterton said he didn't want a Church that was right where he was right, but one that was right where he wrong. It seems entirely logical that a true intellectual creed would require humility and (at some point) a leap of faith.

I admire some things about communists. Don't get me wrong; I think the communist societies that have actually existed have been unutterably evil, even Satanic. But Satan lures us in with half-truths, not with pure lies. There were some virtues in the USSR, for all its undoubted evil. For instance, communism put a high premium upon the intellectual life and seems to have genuinely done its best to bring culture to the masses. I read one dissident playwright admitting that he was sometimes nostalgic for the days of communism, since at least the Soviets cared about art-- even if they showed they cared by censoring it. Liberal-consumerist society destroys the intellectual life, not with persecution (there is something to be said for Nietzsche's claim that real freedom is found four steps from tyranny), but with apathy.

There are still communists in our midst, and we should pray for them fervently. They are generally people dissatisfied with the contradictions and muddle-headedness of post-modern liberalim-- they are seeking to get to the bottom of things. Let us be gentle with them. At least, the words of Christ to the Church at Laodicea could never apply to them: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Nice Nihilism

A recent letter writer to the Irish Times, Alex Stavely from Donabate, wrote on October 6th of this year:

A chara, – Michael Nugent claims atheists agree “values such as love and goodness are part of our experience as human beings”. One may be an atheist and be filled with goodness and love or one may be an atheist like Stalin or Pol Pot and struggle on such matters.

Atheism is only a position on an existential question, namely the existence of God(s). Humanism may make further claims. Atheism does not. It is grossly inaccurate to infer it is anything to do with any other life stance, be that positive or negative. – Is mise,

This is a claim we encounter increasingly; that atheism is a value-free theory of reality, and nothing more. Of course some atheists will go further, and concede that many of the implications of atheism are indeed cataclysmic. My favourite Catholic philsopher, Edward Feser, has been engaging on his blog recently with the theories of fellow philosopher Alex Rosenborg, whose book "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" is blurbed thus on Amazon:

We can't avoid the persistent questions about the meaning of life-and the nature of reality. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg maintains that science is the only thing that can really answer them...He shows how physics makes Darwinian natural selection the only way life can emerge, and how that deprives nature of purpose, and human action of meaning, while it exposes conscious illusions such as free will and the self...The result is nice nihilism....

What I want to draw attention to here is how atheism, considered as a social and cultural phenomenon, has increasingly withdrawn to this stockade of a single negative. Think of all the schools of thought that have taken the denial of the divine as the foundation for some elaborate philosophy, whether wildly optimistic or determinedly, self-admiringly bleak. Gone indeed are the heady days of Victorian social and technological progressivism, of Russian nihilism (philosophers like Chernyshevsky who rejected altruism and believed that all mankind were egoists, but enlighened egoism would lead to the good of all), of Marxism in its various guises, of anarchism, of Freudianism, of racialism, of counter-cultural liberalism with its communes and pot-smoking and heightened consciousness. No longer does it really seem true that (as GK Chesterton never said but should have) "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Today we increasingly seem to have people who do indeed believe in nothing, and make unbelief the master-passion of their lives.

The communist project, the dreams of scientific utopias, the nostrums of liberalism have failed so wildly that atheism no longer dares appeal to them. All the idols have failed, there is no longer anything to replace religious belief; but the spirit of nihilism has bitten Western man so deeply that he would rather embrace this single negative-- with all its attendant metaphysical, epistemological, social and historical absurdities-- and live his life by it, than accept the alternative.

On the one hand, it makes it more difficult to argue against atheists and philosophical materialists when they fold their arms, smirk, and refuse to make any positive claims, to affirm anything whatsoever. But on the other hand, I think it is rather an encouraging sign for believers; a siege mentality can only be maintained for so long.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Hydra-Headedness of Anti-Catholicism

So the government has closed our embassy to the Holy See, but refused to admit that it was a political decision, or a gesture of hostility. This goes with the general "hit and run" spirit in which the modern Irish Kulturkampf has been conducted. Enda Kenny stands up in the Dáil and criticizes the Church for interfering in the State's affairs; and, after these outspoken words, suddenly becomes bashful and decides that the accusation refers to no particular incident.

The push against the Church in this country is blurry, all-surrounding, mist-like. Critics switch from one accusation to another with bewildering speed. The Church is irrelevant and shouldn't exist. The Church is a crony of capitalism. The Church is a bunch of irrelevant old hippies that don't understand hard-headed science/economics/Realpolitik. The Church is hypocritical for preaching charity (despite being the biggest charitable organisation in the world) and not selling off the artistic treasures of the Vatican and giving the money to Oxfam. The Church isn't hypocritical enough, insisting on preserving the deposit of faith even when it clashes with the last market surveys.

A very intelligent and fair-minded person, of a liberal persusaion, recently asked me what I was reading. I answered that I was reading a book about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. She said, "Didn't the Vatican hide a load of Nazis after World War II?". I answered, "Some Catholics helped Nazis escape. The Church also saved thousands of Jews in World War II." She said, "Really? I didn't know that. Cool."

The exchange seemed all too typical of the vague, opportunistic, insubstantial hostility that has closed in around the Irish Catholic Church in our time.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Weigel on the Liturgy

Though his cheering for free market capitalism and somewhat hawkish US foreign policy becomes tiresome, George Weigel's column is always worth reading. (It is a syndicated column and easily found through a search engine.) This week he returns to a subject he has raised before; the sloppy attitude to the liturgy that many Catholics have slipped into. (Mark Dooley has recently written an entire book-- albeit a slim one-- one pretty much the same subject, with the rather misleading title Why Be a Catholic?)

He suggest that the introduction of the New Missal is a great opportunity to break bad habits, and I think it's a very good point.

Weigel complains about Masses that begin with a greeting, that do not allow for moments of reflective silence, and especially the abuse of the sign of peace:

Fully aware that I shall be accused by some of crankiness bordering on misanthropy, let me repeat a point made in this space before: the exchange of peace is not meant to be the occasion for a chat with the neighbors, but for the greetings of those closest to us in church with a simple, evangelical salutation: “the peace of the Lord be with you;” “peace be with you;” “the peace of Christ.”

It is easy to pass into pedantry and crankishness on this subject. The Mass is no less Heaven on Earth just because it includes a hymn that we consider too folkish or banal. But sometimes I am rather taken aback by the behaviour of worshippers at my own church, and funnily enough it is the elderly who are often the most blasé. There is one group of older men who regularly discuss the week's betting in the pews behind me. I am sure they are much better men than I am, and I have to admit that I can't help smiling at the incongruity. But I do wonder how much holy terror the Church can really have beaten into their generation (as we are constantly told was the case) if they behave so profanely in the house of God.

Younger people, insofar as they are there at all, tend to be more fervent, and the Africans who attend my own church are the most reverential of all. They sing the hymns with gusto, radiate joyfulness, and kneel for long periods both before and after the Mass. Perhaps not all African Catholics are like that, but is certainly a feature of the ones I have encountered.

One thing that always bothers me is the taking of the second collection immediately after Communion. Surely no time should be more important and exalted, or should be more prayerful, than the minutes after we have received the Eucharist; to go scrabbling in your pockets immediately after seems incongruous and unseemly. But perhaps I am being pharasaical. Still, I wish it could take place at some other time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Eve of All Hallows, and How We Never Seem to Go Too Far From Jesus

Happy All Saints' Day!

I love Halloween, but I think it was only very recently that I realised it had anything to do with the Christian feast that immediately follows it (or, indeed, that I even knew anything about the Christian feast that immediately follows it). But that doesn't seem surprising to me now. It seems a regular pattern that the secular world, once it has been touched by Christianity, can never get too far away from it.

Last night I watched a documentary on horror films, presented by the League of Gentlemen writer and actor Mark Gatiss, who is a big horror fan. It was lovingly put together and presented with great affection (and, thankfully, not too much levity, even though Gatiss is a comedian).

What struck me is how horror circles around the Christian tradition, never flying too far away from it, always seeming to return to it compulsively. Many of the films featured in Gatiss's selection (and he stressed it was an unashameldy personal one) had explicity Christian themes; Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen. Others merely used Christian elements; for instance, Gatiss refers to an "almost blasphemous" image of Frankenstein's monster tied to a post and surrounded by a lynch mob. In a scene from a Hammer Dracula film, Peter Cushing fashions a makeshift crucifix in order to confront Dracula. In The Wicker Man, we see Edward Woodward (playing a fervently Christian police sergeant) being martyred by Scottish pagans (what a combination!).

When discussing The Exorcist, Gatiss presents from a Catholic church, and in the section on The Omen there is some discussion of the Book of Revelation.

Earlier in the day, as part of my Halloween activities (I am keen on secular holidays, too) I watched the John Carpenter film Carrie and the Hammer horror Plague of the Zombies. Religious imagery abounds in Carrie, since Carrie's mother is a religious nut who thinks sex is evil and calls breasts "dirty pillows". Even in Plague of the Zombies, which features the usual unflappable Victorian scientist, the local vicar is part of the zombie-busting team.

It seems quite ironic to me that horror, at which many pious people may have looked askance over the generations, preserves an undercurrent of Christianity that is rapidly being repressed in more mainstream entertainments. Supernatural dread, it seems to me, is the flipside of religious awe-- and both return in our culture's dreams, and nightmares, when we try to push them beyond the pale.

"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God", says St. Paul. I think our modern world is-- to use the old-fashioned expression-- rather more God-fearing than we sometimes allow it to be.