Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Fear the Geeks Even When They Bring Gifts...

There has been a fair amount of stir recently, in Catholic and conservative publications, about a new book called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The latest issue of First Things magazine opens with a piece on it. With evident satisfaction, R.R. Reno writes:

"It wasn't a conclusion he thought he'd come to. When he was a young graduate student, Jonathan Haidt presumed that "liberal" was pretty much a synonym for "reasonable", if not for "obvious". Now as he writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he has found that liberalls have limited moral vision. One that is, I'd say, therefore certainly less reasonable than conservatism's, and for the vast majority of people in the world far from obvious."

He goes on to describe Haidt's claims; that "our moral outlooks are largely intuitive rather than reasoned" (fairly obvious, I'd say), and that "people tend to be liberal or conservative because they have different emotional responses to the same social realities" (again, fairly obvious, though some people like to insist they have arrived at their views purely through a process of reason. I don't really believe anyone who makes this claim).

The meat of Haidt's sandwich is the claim that conservatives have more "receptors" for moral intutions than liberals do. Liberals only have "receptors" for "care, freedom and fairness" while conservatives also take "loyalty, authority and sanctity" into consideration.

It's true that, when arguing with a liberal or a progressive, I often feel scandalised that they don't even seem to perceive things that I do-- for instance, they don't seem to care about national identity, or the difference between the sexes, or a sense of rootedness.

But deriving some sort of pseudo-scientific theory from this fact is, I think, a leap too far. I am sure the liberal thinks I am sottishly insensible to concerns or hopes or aspirations that he cherishes. I do believe I inhabit a wider and freer mental world than he does, but I don't think there's anything obviously true about my claim. I think he could claim the same thing.

It is unwise of conservatives or religious people to take books like The Righteous Mind to their hearts. Believing in the freedom and dignity of the human soul as I do, I am not much interested in a social scientist's attempt to anatomise our minds, whether it is Haidt in this book or Theodor Adorno in The Authoritarian Personality, a famous and influential attempt to pathologize right-wingers.

It's true that I haven't read Haidt's book, only reviews of it (most of them short), and perhaps I am being unfair to it. But I am much more interested in arguments and philosophies themselves, rather than theories about why people hold those philosophies or make those arguments.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Nutty Professors

Having worked in a university library for a little over a decade, I have a front-row view of the radicalist crusade that is waged by a great many academics in the humanities and social sciences. Simply glancing at the books that pass over the loans desk is usually enough to demonstrate how utterly one-sided the "debate" within the academy really is. Sometimes the partisanship is actually comical. Canadian Studies: An Introductory Reader (it's hard to dream up an academic discipline that doesn't actually exist somewhere; we actually have Porn Studies now), a volume edited by one Donald Wright, has an introduction that opens thus:

"In his 1975 report, To Know Ourselves, Tom Symons argued that Canadian studies must not be understood as a patriotic project, one designed to preserve and promote a particular Canadian identity....He was right then and and he is right now. Patriotism has no place in the university and the unexamined life isn't worth living."

Impossible to imagine that the examined life might lead one to patriotism! But didn't Socrates himself perish because he refused to flee from his beloved Athens?

Today I have been transferring some books into the restricted collection. These are books that have to be kept permanently in the library, since somebody-- usually an academic-- has put them on a reading list.

One of the books is Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life by Evan Stark. The blurb declares: "If the focus remains on acts of physical violence at the expense of a full assault on the patriarchy, he argues, the domestic violence movement is doomed."

Another is Community Development in Ireland, edited by Ashling Jackson and Colm O'Doherty, and published by Gill and MacMillan (a name with rather pleasant, nostalgic associations for many of us). The blurb promises that, through reading this book, we will "recognise and value community development as a powerful force for social change in Ireland". Because what sane person could doubt the crying need for radical social change in this backward nation of ours?

As is my wont, I looked up various keywords in the index, and the entry for "religion, and diversity"-- there was no entry simply for "religion"-- led me to this very amusing (but disconcerting) passage:

"Religion can be for many an important source of emotional support. Culturally competent practice is achieved, for example, when a community development worker takes the trouble to find out the significance of religious and cultural traditions to the client or client's family. Is there a need to accommodate, in some way, non-Christian religious holidays and prayer times? Does an agency show respect for non-Christian traditions, for example wearing the hijab, and specific dietary requirements?"

To be fair, I doubt that this passage represents anything more sinister than a belief that Christian holidays and traditions are so securely embedded in Irish society that they need no protection. Sadly, this is not true. But I would also guess that most "community development workers", and especially those training them, would probably not be very sympathetic to many Christian traditions and values anyway.

(Incidentally, I noticed that the index cited the feminist and leftist poet bell hooks, who eschews capital letters in her name. It didn't surprise me in the least.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lovely Article by Breda O'Brien in the Irish Catholic this week...

...although I think the headline, "The Church I go on Loving Despite it All", is rather inappropriate and doesn't reflect the text. Maybe it reflects the editorial outlook of The Irish Catholic.

I liked it for its frankness and even its vulnerability. I think Catholic writers certainly have to be able to mix it with anti-Catholic and anti-religious bruisers and there is a crying need for the bullish apologist. But I think that it is the still, small voice that often reaches where the bombardment of heavy-duty philosophical and historical arguments can't.

She begins: "Recently, I was asked to give a talk on being a Catholic in Ireland today. The request got me thinking about what Catholicism means to me, and why it would be extremely difficult to imagine my life without my Catholic faith."

She then goes on to make what I think is a refreshing and disarming admission: "If I had been raised as a Muslim, there is a high probability that I would have been a devout Muslim. I think some people are more inclined to a spiritual or religious outlook on life."

Sceptics so often present this argument as if it was devastating. "If you were born in Pakistan, you'd be just as confident that Islam was true as you are that Christianity is true! If you'd been raised a Mormon, you'd find excuses for all the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon and all the hypocrisies of Joseph Smith, just like you explain away all the dark parts of Catholic history now!"

Of course, counter-factual claims can never be tested, so the sceptic is taking rather a cheap shot. But I do in fact acknowledge the basic truth of the claim. I'd like to think that, whatever religion I had been born to, or even if I had been born into a secular family, I would have found my way to the Catholic faith. But I am not entirely confident of this. It seems to me it would take an enormous independence of thought to reach Catholicism from a devoutly Hindu or Sikh or Muslim background. It's impossible to know.

Is this simply admitting, tacitly if not explicitly, that all religions are basically the same and they are all-- at best-- clumsy but poignant attempts to express the mystery at the heart of life?

No, absolutely not. I believe unreservedly that Catholicism is the true faith, for all that other faiths contain glimmers of the truth. It is perfectly logical to believe that what you believe is true, while accepting that you might have believed differently if your circumstances had been difficult. A twenty-first century liberal could whole-heartedly believe that slavery is wrong while accepting that he would have thought differently if he had been a fifth-century BC Athenian.

But it goes further than this, for me. I never had sympathy with the sceptic's argument that a just Deity would have revealed himself to all mankind at once, and have given each human an equal chance to come to the Truth. How boringly rationalistic that would be! How great a loss it would be to miss out on all those thrilling tales of missionaries and revivals and Road to Damascus moments! I prefer the drama of the Acts of the Apostles to some kind of divine Public Service Broadcast screened all over the world at the same time.

Breda O'Brien goes on to write: "People who incline to intellectual atheism are often unable to identify with the mystical aspects of religion...attemps to talk about a relationship with God evoke a baffled response, akin to embarrassment, as if an adult still sucked her thumb. It's as if I were talking a different language. Perhaps I am."

How familiar a situation this is to most religious believers today! Outside the ranks of New Atheist boors, most non-believers are polite and respectful and recognize that a person's religious faith is of supreme importance to them. They tend to humour us rather than challenge us. There often even seems to be a kind of admiration or benign envy at play.

In a way, this reaction is more of a challenge to the religious believer than the zealotry of the New Atheist. The pathological Church-basher and antagonist of religion seems so obviously to be repressing a spiritual hunger that he is almost making our case for us. Encountering anti-Catholicism tends to buoy up my own faith. Encountering good-humoured unbelief is rather more disarming.

And yet, it usually seems to me that those who seem indifferent to religion feel the religious impulse in another form. Very often they are enraptured by music or art or perhaps devotion to some cause. I sincerely believe that, if they really thought about these insights into the sublime, they would realise that they are actually calls to worship. Nothing human, nothing historical or conditional, can take the weight of human yearning, or the human tendency to complete devotion. I think even a collector of vintage cars is ultimately seeking the sacred.

Futher in the article, Ms O'Brien makes another excellent point: "More importantly, I love churches for their sense of presence. It is not only the combined energy of all the human beings who have come to pray there, but a sense of a greater presence. Presence is a vital concept in our world, where so many people are scattered and distracted. People who are really present are rare, and precious. Naturally, a place with a sense of the presence of God is even more treasured."

Ironically, the writer who probably best expressed my own feelings about churches was the atheist, Philip Larkin, in his poem Church-Going. He hit the bull's-eye with the line: "A serious house on serious earth it is." Churches are serious places-- and how our souls cry out for seriousness! How much of the fun and hilarity and irony and pleasure-seeking in our society is, in reality, an expression of despair! There is certainly a place for mirth in this world, but joy-- true, deep and overwhelming joy-- is a serious, even a solemn thing. 

Somehow, I feel that my joy in everything is centred in the tabernacle of a Catholic church. I quite often get bored during Mass and my mind regularly wanders during the liturgy. But, at the same time, I feel that this holy place is the hearth of all human life, that it spreads warmth and light and comfort through every other element of existence. (I eat my post-Mass breakfast with more relish than any other breakfast.) Somehow, the magic of the darkened cinema and the exciting gloom of early mornings in winter and the carnival atmosphere of a crowded, sun-spangled street in summer all seem to depend upon the existence of churches. My joy in a deserted beach or a cluttered second-hand bookshop or a cosy pub rests on the knowledge that, at that very moment, all over the world, the Lord's Supper is being celebrated. Knowing that raises all the fun and frivolity and feverishness to a higher level. It's a very difficult feeling to express.

Another excellent point that Breda O'Brien makes is that "human nature is such that unless it has something powerfully attractive drawing it beyond itself, it declines into hedonism, boredom and cruelty." Absolutely. There is no equilibrium. Those who attack Christianity think they are dealing it a crushing blow when they point out how pitifully short Christians fall of their own ideals. But should we really lower our moral standards to make it easier for ourselves? It is our nature to strive. If we are not striving to love God and our neighbour (and doubtless failing miserably) we are soon striving to outdo our neighbour and become God.

 This paragraph is quite brilliant: "When I am gazing at my own navel, nothing makes sense, and the world is dull and painful. When I am gazing at the beauty of stars, nothing makes sense, either, but things do not make sense in a mysterious, reassuring, and fascinating way."

Religious people are often criticized for needing a cut-and-dried philosophy of life, for taking refuge from uncertainty in dogma. It seems to me that religion opens up the world more than any non-religious philosophy. It exposes us even more nakedly to mystery. Scientific materialism, liberalism, Marxism, anarchism, nationalism-- all those merely human outlooks seem so settled and tidy. But the voice of religion is like the voice of God in  the Book of Job, or the apparently evasive answers that our Lord so often makes in the Gospels. It seems to explain the enigma of life by deepening it. And something deep within us responds; yes, this makes sense. This corresponds to the strangeness of life.

Breda O'Brien concludes: "It [the Church] is my still point in a turning world, and it is incredibly precious to me."

All too often, "spiritual" articles in Catholic publications are composed of little more than platitudes and "the warm fuzzies". That has its place, but it is too prevalent. It is so much more effective and powerful when a writer really examines his or her faith with an effort at objectivity. I also think articles like this might be better placed in the secular press,  where I really think they might catch the attention of those who do not consider themselves religious, or who have drifted out of practicing their faith. In any case, hats off to Breda O'Brien!

And may the Holy Spirit shower graces on all of us this Pentecost! 

P.S.: Holy cow! I just did an internet search on Breda O'Brien and was knocked over by all the vitriolic posts from left-feminist, secularist and otherwise embittered bloggers. Even the hatred heaped on David Quinn pales in comparison. I hope this post balances the ledger even a little bit-- in fact, that is one of the reasons I set up this blog. Far too many Irish bloggers seem to be consumed by hatred towards the Church. I'm hoping to provide some counterbalance.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative

I'm tired of invoking Edmund Burke
And tired of the shuttlecock of debate.
I really don't care if the new ways work,
I'll always root for the out-of-date.
I'll always root for the long-in-the-tooth
Though the new be better a thousandfold.
No more shall I hide the terrible truth;
I like old things because they are old.

I like old things because they are slower
And cruder and leave us a chance to laugh.
Give me a scythe, not a new lawn-mower;
A daguerreotype, not a photograph.
I like old ways because they wander
I like them because they don't make sense.
I can't add seven and six, but I'm fonder
Of shillings and farthings than pounds and pence.

I like old things because the dust
Of custom and habit have fallen on them.
I like them because they've been blessed and cussed
And joked about since the time of Shem.
I'm all for cooked-up and fake traditions;
There's not a quaint fiction I won't uphold.
Let Christmas be laden with new additions;
I like new things that pretend to be old.

I thirst for cobwebs and rust and dog-ears
By ivy and lichen I take my stand.
I am not pleased when nostalgia's fog clears
And leaves us standing in no-man's-land.
I like a verse more the more it's recited;
I like a tale more the more it's told.
So call me backwards, blockish, benighted;
I like old things because they are old.

You tell me my sort have been moaning and mourning
Since someone rubbed sticks and discovered fire;
That mankind lives in an endless dawning
From tin to typeface to telephone wire.
You say that the past is doomed, you sages,
And tramp on its deathbed to prove you're bold;
By God, I don't think you so very courageous;
I like old things because they are old.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I Loved This Post so Much...

...I just had to link to it

I actually discovered it by searching "Athanasius" and "badass" on the internet. I'm not really a fan of contemporary lingo, but I'm reading a history of the Church right now and, after reading about St. Athanasius of Alexandria's no-compromise, no-prisoners, gung-ho defence of Catholic orthodoxy when both the Church and the Roman Empire seemed to have been utterly conquered by the Arian heresy, I realized that "badass" is the perfect adjective to describe him. He was the John Shaft of the saints.

If I ever have a son, I think I might give him "Athanasisus" as a middle name. He is now officially my favourite saint (after Our Lady, who is the greatest of all saints). Athanasius contra mundum indeed!

"If anyone can be singled out as a saint for our times", says the author, "surely it is Saint Athanasius". I entirely agree.

And the blog is pretty badass, too, though I only read one post. It's written by a twenty-year old American Catholic who was ten years ahead of me in realizing that all the powers of this world have one mortal enemy, and that enemy is the Catholic Church.

It looks like there is a whole generation of young Catholics growing up who are fully clued in to the utter banality of secularism, the dead end of liberal religion, and the galloping romance of full-blooded orthodoxy. God be praised!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why I am a Monarchist

As a fairly keen monarchist, I have sometimes found myself visiting monarchist blogs and the websites of monarchist groups. A lot of these sites, probably a majority, tend to have Roman Catholic authors. This isn't too surprising, I suppose. Monarchism and Catholicism both fit with a temper that could be described as "traditionalist" or "reactionary" (depending on who is speaking). The connection also harks back to the political philosophy of Joseph de Maistre, the philosopher of "Throne and Altar" conservatism, who wrote in the wake of the French Revolution.

Sometimes I worry that this link between monarchism and Catholicism might tempt non-Catholics to take the Faith less seriously. They might get the idea that Catholics are simply panting for ceremony and tradition, for croziers and mitres and crowns and birettas. Or that Catholicism is nothing but reaction, an allergic response to the disenchanted, utiltarian, egalitarian modern age.

I think there is some truth to the perception. Certainly, in my case, the ritual and ceremony and historical continuity of the Church appeals to me greatly. It's not that the whiff of incense lured me into the Church, but it seems fitting to me that God's presence on Earth would be heralded by such beauty and pageantry. It seems right. It makes sense.

But I'm not a monarchist because I'm a Catholic. And would I bet most Catholics aren't monarchists at all.

So why am I a monarchist?

First of all, I should clarify what kind of monarchist I am-- that is, a constitutional monarchist. I like the idea of a monarch as the ceremonial head of State. I don't care much about what powers the monarch holds, although I think it is generally a good idea to have a separation of constitutional powers, and the monarch-- being both an ordinary person and (hopefully) one brought up to feel a strong sense of duty-- might have a valid role as a brake on the legislative power. I think the powers and privileges of the English monarch are about right, although it would be better if the Queen actually used those powers more extensively-- for instance, in writing her own Christmas Speech (it has to better than the annual servings of pabulum written by her Government), and to call conferences of political leaders in times of crisis-- similar to the role King George V played in engineering the Irish Truce of 1921.

There are a fair few Catholics, at least ones I've encountered in cyberspace, who are bona fide royal absolutists. I respect their beliefs but they do rather baffle me. Would they like to live in the reigns of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I? Dictatorship opens up great possibilities, if you happen to get a Philosopher King or benevolent despot, but the risks are infinitely greater.

To me, the real importance of monarchy is the tone that it sets. A nation that styles itself The Kingdom of Such-and-Such seems to be on a much healthier footing than a nation that styles itself The Republic of Such-and-Such.The Kingdom is, from the very start (to use two evocative phrases from Edmund Burke) declaring that is not the "fly of a summer's day" but "a contract between the living, the dead and the unborn."

The Kingdom looks to the past and the future, since it has at least one old tradition-- monarchy-- which it has taken to its heart and sought to hand on to its posterity.

The Kingdom has a poetic, particular image in its very title-- it may evoke in your mind a crown, or a throne, or a man on a throne wearing a crown, or perhaps a coat of arms. A Republic is simply an abstraction, and who can love an abstraction? Even the flags of Republics tend to be ugly, like our own lacklustre and uninspired tricolour. (Yes, seeing the tricolour billowing in the breeze above the GPO makes my heart leap-- but not for the sake of the design.)

A Kingdom measures its epochs in a poetical and human way-- aren't the Elizabethan and Victorian and Edwardian eras of British history more "user-friendly" and appealing than the ante-bellum, post-bellum, Depression, inter-war and New Deal eras of American history?

The keynote of a Kingdom is reverence, while they keynote of a Republic is resentment. The guiding idea of a Kingdom is that, for all our ideological and social and philosophical differences, we express our aspiration to harmony by honouring the Queen or King, by setting one institution above the affray. I can't but believe that this simple act of graciousness ripples outwards through the national life. The guiding idea of a Republic is "nobody is better than me; nobody is to be privileged over me; nobody is to look down on me". And I know from experience where that mentality takes us-- a drive towards equality as sameness, towards stripping the public square naked of any vestige of history or heritage or the sacred.

A Kingdom is a family. A Republic is a hotel. And even the worst family is better than the most opulent hotel, after a while.

But, for me, the ultimate argument is the argument of the sauce bottle label. A humble bottle of Worcester Sauce attains a sort of grandeur by having the Royal coat of arms and the words, "By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen" printed on it. The dingiest pub gains in dignity by having the name The King's Head emblazoned over its door.

I think C.S. Lewis put it extremely well, when he tried to point out the folly of judging monarchy by a utiltarian calculus: "It would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how if, by doing so, you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How if the Monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship – loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principal, splendour, ceremony, continuity – still trickle down to irrigate the dustbowl of modern economic Statecraft?”

So, having written all of this, I must be a pretty ardent monarchist, right?

Well, not really. I don't have a portrait of King Charles the First hanging over my bed. I know less about the English Royals than does the average reader of Hello! magazine. I stood outside Buckingham Palace not so long ago and found the whole thing a little bit garish, to be honest. I doubt it would even be worth a single human life to preserve a monarchy from destruction. As a Christian, I view all worldly things as ephemeral and even trivial, against the backdrop of Eternity.

 But, for all that, I am a convinced monarchist. And if there is ever a cry to restore the line of Brian Boru to Tara, I will happily raise my voice along with it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Political Correctness and Courtesy-- Two Very Different Things

I am currently listening to Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCullough. (The only reason I would ever listen to an audiobook is because it is not always possible to be reading a proper book. But I swear I will never, ever, ever own a Kindle.)

MacCullough is a genial host. He is not a believer himself, but he seems intent on treating Christianity with respect and even affection. (I have only started listening to the book so I can't comment on how well he achieves this.) I've enjoyed the book so far, although the fact that it appears to be narrated by Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a bit off-putting.

One thing I haven't appreciated is the book's politically-correct preamble, where MacCullough announces the conventions he will use, apologises in advance for not using gender-neutral language when quoting historical texts, and defends his use of terms such as "Common Era" and "Atlantic Isles". He anticipates the accusation of political correctness by arguing: "Some may sneer at this as 'political correctness'.When I was young my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions and I am saddened that those undramatic virtues have now been relabeled in an unfriendly spirit."

Well, I bet your parents didn't go around saying "LGBT" and "Atlantic Isles", Professor MacCullough.Shouldn't that tell you something?

Peter Hitchens has made the excellent point that political correctness is not an extension of courtesy, or a form of courtesy, but a replacement for courtesy. It's the stabilisers on the bicycle of conversation, stabilisers that we need when politeness and restraint and decency-- much more subtle and delicate membranes than the brick walls of taboo that PC erects-- have disappeared.

Courtesy and respect do exactly what political correctness can't do, by definition. They discriminate. They judge each situation individually. We all know the joke of the butler who accidentally walks in on a woman taking a bath and, with lightning tact, says: "Excuse me, sir", before swiftly disappearing. That's a whole world away from the same butler in the same situation saying "Excuse me, sir" because he knows the woman in the bath is "transgendered" and considers herself to be a man called Derek.

Comedians like Ricky Gervais who mock the disabled and afflicted, and who defend this as a defiance of "political correctness", are also getting it wrong. Being mentally disabled is a misfortune and it is cruel to mock it for this very reason. But being a woman or Irish or Jewish or Catholic is not a misfortune. That is why jokes about those groups are fair game-- always subject to considerations of good humour and courtesy.

Our local priest and Ministers of the Word often "correct" Holy Scripture, inserting gender-sensitive language. Recently we had the pleasure of hearing our Lord's words rendered: "Greater love hath no man or woman than this, that they should lay down their life for their friends". I don't get my knickers in a twist about this, but it does seem rather a liberty to take with the Word of God. Also, it tends to replace the profundity of the words with bathos.

Political correctness usually protects the sensibilities of the politically correct, rather than the actual groups that are supposedly being enfranchised by it. One phenomenon I've noticed during my years working in UCD library-- and that has pleased me vastly-- is that the young female students, who are given the choice of registering as "Miss" or "Ms", tend to choose the cheerful traditional title rather than the awful, awkward, resentful "Mzzzzzz". (I wouldn't in the least mind styling myself "Master O'Ceallaigh", incidentally. But unfortunately, I can't remember the last time a form presented me with that option.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Wonderful Idea

I spend enough time kvetching on this blog, so I thought I would say something nice for once! Walking through my local shopping centre in Ballymun yesterday, I saw this notice:


In 2012 Ballymun Market will celebrate traditional market festivals including Beataine, Lúnasa Samhain & Nollaig. If you are a local community group involved in singing, acting, music, art, dancing or other entertainment displays, Ballymun Market would like to work with you. We have a limited budget for each festival which is available to those community groups who participate.


Seeing this really gladdened my heart. I think this is exactly what patriotism and the celebration of our national identity should look like. It should not be restricted to pride in international sporting events and Nobel prize winners and chart-topping rock stars. It should be rooted in the rhythms and routines of our everyday life, and in things-- festivals and customs and traditions and institutions-- that are distinctively Irish. National identity is one area where it is absolutely essential to be backward-looking.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Not-Very-Critical Review of The End of Irish Catholicism? by Vincent Twomey

The End of Irish Catholicism?
D. Vincent Twomey SVD
Veritas Publications, 2003

The first thing that occurs to me about The End of Irish Catholicism? is that the question in the title is never really answered. The book is more diagnostic than prophetic in nature.

Perhaps this is inevitable. I, for one, have no predictions to make about the future of Irish Catholicism. Of course, as long as there are any practicing Catholics on this island, there will still be an Irish Catholicism of some sort-- and, with such a huge majority having declared themselves Catholic on the recent census, it's hard to see the faith of our fathers going the way of the Irish Elk any time soon.

But will Catholicism survive as a social and cultural force on this island?

It only takes a look around most Sunday or weekday Mass congregations to feel very bleak about this. All too often there are empty pews, and the smattering of worshippers are mostly in their sixties or seventies or beyond. Our priests, too, are mostly well into their twilight years. A decade or two more, and what will become of those congregations? Will church after church have to be sold off? Will Catholics get used to making long treks to the nearest Mass? When journalists in that future Ireland talk about "the church"-- if they talk about any church, that is-- will it still be assumed that they mean the Catholic church?

But it's not all doom and gloom-- in fact, the state of the Church in Ireland seems quite contradictory in many ways. Though many congregations are scanty-- and it has to be remembered that I am writing from a Dublin perspective, and the situation in rural areas is very different-- at other times, churches are packed. St. Teresa's Church in Clarendon Street is often full for Mass, even on weekdays, and there is always a queue for confessions. The Archbishop of Dublin drew a crowd when he came to UCD to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass this year. The Veritas Catholic shop in Abbey Street seems to do a booming trade. Younger Catholics tend to be more orthodox, and the decline in vocations seems to have levelled off.

The End of Irish Catholicism? attempts to describe how we got where we are now, and to suggest possible measures towards revival.

At the beginning of the book, Dr. Twomey addresses a topic of particular interest to me-- the link between patriotism and religion, nation and faith. He says, "growing up in the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s, I was certainly aware that part of our self-identity as Irish Catholics was to see ourselves as Christian Jews, God's chosen people, materially weak but spiritually strong, spread diaspora-like throughout the world, ever loyal to the faith of our fathers." He then describes this notion of chosen-ness as being "of dubious theological value", and points out that "the New Israel is not any particular race but is made up of Jews and gentiles, that is, people from all races and nations now united in one faith..."

However, a Christian is not obliged to renounce national feeling, and Dr. Twomey quotes Solzhenitsyn: "Nations are [part of] the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special aspect of divine intention." And the author is himself rather critical of the modern Irish attitude to nationhood: "The very concept of nation, not to mention nationality, seems to have vanished from public discourse, not least due to the 'Troubles' in the North-- we now refer rather disparagingly to 'this island'. In addition, national identity is difficult to reconcile with the vague cosmopolitanism of our new mid-Atlantic identity."

One thing I really like about this book is that Dr. Twomey resists the temptation to caricature the Irish Catholicism of the twentieth century. It has become rather fashionable to do this-- to find the seeds of our current spiritual "recession" in the devotional "Celtic Tiger" of previous generations. I think this is too simple. It is true that the faith of our fathers (and mothers)-- or, more accurately, of our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers-- was often quite naive and ritualistic, focused on popular devotions such as First Fridays and sacramentals like the Miraculous Medal. We often hear that the faith of the Irish had become so complacent and unthinking that it crumbed at the first tides of secularism.

I don't really go along with these criticisms. I think every generation has to answer for itself. Perhaps lots of people went to Mass in the forties, fifties and sixties because it was the done thing. But I am sure that thousands, tens of thousands, went out of genuine religious fervour. Nor is a devotion to sacramentals, pilgrimage and popular devotions a bad thing.

A more plausible explanation for Ireland's crisis of faith comes with Dr. Twomey's description of the post-Vatican II atmosphere. Suddenly, everything seemed to be up in the air.  "Things were permitted, like attending services in a Protestant church, which up to then had been strictly forbidden under all kinds of dire penalties...few have pondered the effect it must have had on the majority of priests, many of whom, up to relatively recently, controlled all the strings. The ground had been taken from under them."

An intriguing theory that Dr. Twomey puts forward is that Irish Catholicism had rather more in common with English puritanism than we like to think. Ireland, in comparison with Catholic countries on the continent, had little concept of sacral time and space, of religious festivity, of the cult of saints and martyrs. Dr.Twomey instead posits that traditional Irish Catholicism focused on an intensely moralistic, anti-sensual, anti-sexual piety that he describes as "angelism". This is also a familiar argument from John Waters.

I'm not sure what to make of this, either. Irish Christianity has always had an ascetic, rather sombre flavour to it. In this it is much like Russian Christianity. This seems to me a matter more of tone than of doctrine. Ireland never seemed to fit into the spirit of Belloc's couplet:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine.
Edward Feser, the Thomistic philosopher, has pointed out that attempting to distill a spirit of Catholic culture is contrary to the very catholicity and universality of our Church-- that Catholicism embraces and consecrates all that is good in every culture. Ireland has its unique gifts and temptations, just as continental forms of Catholicism have their own.

Dr. Twomey calls for a rediscovery of Catholic festivity and community celebration. I wonder about this. My own guess is that religious joy overflows into festivity, and not the other way around. I don't think people come for the parties and stay for the prayer, but vice versa. Of course, Dr. Twomey is not making such a claim himself, but I suspect that this mentality exists elsewhere.

One powerful argument that Dr. Twomey makes is for the recovery of contemplative life: "In Ireland over the past two centuries, most religious orders were engaged in some form of apostolic work, or, as they are called today, active ministeries, such as teaching, nursing, or missionary activites abroad. There was always a core of strict contemplatives, men and women, and indeed most active orders (especially of women) had, before the Council, evolved into semi-contemplative orders with strict enclosure. The initial implementation of the decrees of the Council by the active congregations resulted in the gradual removal of the contemplative dimension almost entirely....good and necessary though these social concerns are, one may well ask: should they be the main focus of our attention for those consecrated by vows to the religious life? Or should men and women religious perhaps be more concerned with testifying to 'mankind's yearning for its heavenly home', as the Council put it?"

I think this is right on the money. As Tennyson wrote, "more things are wrought in prayer than this world dreams of", and the story of Mary and Martha should be a permanent reminder to Christians that we are forever tempted to value bustle and activity over the "direct line" to our Creator. It seems to me that nothing is more radically counter-cultural and (in the best sense) subversive than prayer. Making it a priority is, in itself, an act of renewal, an affirmation of Christian identity.

Besides this, I believe that our culture thirsts for prayer more than for social workers. We can see this in the endless flood of prayer requests that the Poor Clares receive. I see it, also, whenever I visit the UCD church, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. This small (but handsome) church rarely seems to attract more than a handful of worshippers outside Mass times, and is often to be found empty. But the book of prayer intentions by the door seems to be written in almost every day, and usually several times a day. Turning these poignant pages, I always feel I am seeing a different Ireland to the one we see on television and in the media-- an Ireland of sleepless nights and silent rooms and unquenchable spiritual yearning.

Dr. Twomey's book was written in 2003, and I wonder if the author himself would now consider the proposals in his chapter "Beyond Church vs. State" to be at all plausible. "Perhaps, also, the time has consider working towards a concordat between the Catholic Church and the Republic of Ireland that would define more clearly, and anchor in international law, the relationship (and so the authentic separation) between Church and State". The tide now seems to be running in the opposite direction. Dr. Twomey deplores a comment by a recent Minister for Justice "that he would accord the Church's canon law the same status as the rules governing a golf club". Even that seems benign now.

Rather than seeking greater institutional relations between Church and State-- even relations that emphasise Church/State separation-- it seems wiser, at this point in time, for the Church to regard the hand of Caesar with suspicion. The Church authorities in Ireland surely made the right decision in not seeking any public funding for the International Eucharistic Congress this year-- as evinced when one texter to a recent radio show, in the wake of the latest anti-Church frenzy in the media, wondered whether the taxpayer was paying for this event and suggested that, if so, such funding should be removed.

Dr. Twomey complains of a fatalistic attitude amongst Catholic and, especially, religious orders in Ireland, as though secularisation was some inevitable law of history. This is certainly a strong tempation. We live in a culture in which deterministic thinking has almost become a second nature to us (even while we are encouraged, by the fashion and entertaintment and advertising industries, to assert our individual freedom ever more aggressively-- and ever more superficially).

When it comes to the future of Catholicism in Ireland, and our attitude towards it, the two great temptations remain-- as always-- presumption and despair. We hear the note of despair when Catholics of the liberal stamp suggest that the Church has to reformulate its doctrine according to the spirit of the age. But perhaps we hear it also in the most stubbornly traditionalist Catholics, who seem to see the Church as nothing but a sign of contradiction, and a bulwark against every manifestation of modernism.

As for the note of presumption, I think we hear that whenever any sign of "green shoots" are hailed as a new Spring-time of the Church. Not only is this presumptious, it is foolish. We can only cry "revival" so often before we lose all credibility, like the ageing Marxist who always believes the Revolution is just around the corner. We should give thanks for every welcome development, while firmly resisting the temptation to make too much of it.

Our Lord has told us not to be afraid, that he will be with us even to the end of the age, that he who perseveres to the end shall be saved, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against his Church. That is all we can know, and it's enough.  What the future holds for our own era and nation, we cannot know.

In a final appendix, Dr. Twomey welcomes the phenomenon of a greater lay interest in theology, and calls for greater academic study of the subject in Ireland. Here I must simply defer to his authority, while admitting a personal scepticism. I once lodged, very briefly, with a gay philosophy PhD student who taught (I can't remember if it was theology or philosophy) in a well-known institute of Irish theology. His living room walls were bedecked with rather erotic drawings of nude men. The philosophers he tended to cite were Heidegger and Nietzsche and other figures who are hardly within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy. When I think of lay theological studies in Ireland today, I think of him. Perhaps that is unfair.

My own guess is that, if all Irish Catholics knew their Catechism, that would be an extraordinary advance in faith formation. It seems to me-- especially flicking through the pages of The Irish Catholic-- that Irish Catholicism will certainly not perish for the want of seminars, courses, book launches and magazines.

But doubtless I am wrong to be so cynical. As Dr. Twomey says, "Once people begin to think about their faith, they will in time search for, and find, the truth." Or as Chesterton put it, if every human being lived to be a thousand years old, everybody would end up either a Roman Catholic or a stark nihilist. The problem with dissidents who call for a "debate" in the Church is that they don't realise the debate has been going on for centuries, and has in fact already reached conclusions on most of the topics they consider to be unaddressed.

The End of Irish Catholicism? gives suggestions rather than answers, and it's hard to see how it could give easy answers to such vexing questions. I wonder how Dr. Twomey would have written the book today, and if he would have substantially altered any of the arguments and proposals he makes.

When it comes to Irish Catholicism today, I think even the most bullish secularist would have to admit-- to quote the title of a perennial favourite on Donncha O'Dulaing's radio show Failte Isteach-- "There's Life in the Old Dog Yet".

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Eamon Gilmore's Children

I recently picked up a copy of The Left Tribune, the Labour Youth freesheet. (I work in UCD, and a heap of them were left lying in one of the hallways.) I read through the entire issue. I did this because I don't want to be a ghettoised conservative Catholic, never opening my mind to other streams of opinion.

I remember I was enough of a socialist in my youth to feel a sense of jubilation-- mild jubilation, mind you, but jubilation-- when the Spring Tide brought a record number of Labour TD's into the Dáil in 1992. In my college years, I was even more of a socialist (in my own uninformed and inactive way), but I was already getting sick of the liberal, progressive and identity politics that seemed to be tangled up with the red flag. I remember approving very much of this old trade union slogan, when I came across it in a book:

Eight hours work, eight hours play,
Eight hours lie-a-bed, and eight bob a day.

That was enough socialism for me, and never mind all the political correctness.

Even now, as a two-fisted traditionalist conservative-- though I fear I might alienate some of my readers in admitting this-- I feel a lot more affection for socialists than I do for libertarians or anarcho-capitalists. If conservatism is the worship of the free market, then I would rather not be conservative. Thankfully, it's not, and we don't have to choose between a naive belief in the infallibility of private enterprise and an equally naive belief in government intervention as the answer to every problem.

However, in the Ireland of 2012, it seems that there is no left outside the liberal left, as the April '12 issue of The Left Tribune shows.

The very first photograph (if you don't count an ad) in the twenty page journal-- a photograph that accompanies an article headed "How is Labour Shaping Society?"-- shows a demonstrator whose placard reads "Did we Vote on your Marriage?". The text of the article includes the sentence "Some progress has been made. Particularly welcomed by most Labour supporters was Minister Ruairi Quinn's push to end the patronage of schools by the Catholic Church...this element of progress will hopefully produe strong social dividends to come." Later on, the article laments Labour's failure to introduce same-sex marriage.

The first article of the publication is headed "What Will Labour's Legacy Be for Single-Parent Families?". The article deals almost entirely with welfare entitlements. A post-script mentions that Census 2011 shows that there are 215,300 families "headed by lone parents with children, 87 per cent with mothers". But the article nowhere asks why there are so many fatherless and motherless families, and how this can be reversed. It seems government intervention only involves picking up the pieces.

The third article, by a UCC student, is a call for abortion to be introduced in Ireland. It describes the ambiguous legal position after the Supreme Court's X-Case ruling, and says: "In a debate so steeped in moral and religious bias, it may be the difficult to have an articulate debate on the issue of reproductive rights." (Religious bias is bad enough, but imagine dragging moral bias into an issue like abortion!) "Taking the lonely trip 'on the boat' to England is not the ideal situation either psychologically or financially for a woman who is already dealing with a traumatic situation, and yet it is a lonely trip that is made by about 10 or more Irish women every day. Worse still is the growing trend of women and young girls buying unregulated abortifacients online or seeking other DIY solutions. Women should be supported by both the state and the medical system in such a case, even if it is unpalatable for some."

As with most abortion-related discourse on the liberal left, the writer simply assumes the agreement of the reader. The moral case for abortion is not argued at all-- the only justification invoked are court rulings. Talk about legalism!

A whole-page article opposite sets out its stall pretty plainly: "Life-Saving Abortions Aren't the Only Abortions we Should be Legalising." In chillingly calm terms, the young woman writes: "Discourse on abortion should stop focusing on saving women's lives and start focusing on the most common reason for seeking an abortion-- a woman simply does not want to go through with the pregnancy." Well, at least the pretence is dropped-- finally, after decades of subterfuge.

Later on in the article there is a surprising admission: "If we accept that a foetus is not a life, then the X-case doesn't go far enough. If we think that it is a life, then rape, incest, or the threat of maternal suicide are no reasons to end it." But once again, the question goes a-begging. It seems that all members of Labour Youth are on the same metaphysical page when it comes to the definition of human life.

Which should have been borne in mind by the writer of the article on page nine: "A Mature and Republican Approach to Diplomatic Relations with the Vatican". The writer blusters: "Recently in Cork, local Fianna Fáil councillor O'Flynn claimed that the closure [of Ireland's embassy to the Vatican] was to satisfy the godlessness of the Labour Party, to which he was throughly and comprehensively rebuked by our own Cllr Michael O'Connell. It would almost be amusing if it weren't such an insult, considering the numerous people of all faiths within the party, and the values we hold that can be considered Christian among others".

There seems to be a contradiction in this publication's attitude to Catholicism. On the one hand, it assumes a support for abortion and gay-marriage that is impossible for a faithful Catholic to share. On the other, it asserts that the Labour Party contains members of "all faiths"-- including Catholicism.

If you cannot be a social democrat-- or a radical or a progressive or whatever other term the members of Labour Youth might use to describe themselves-- without supporting anti-traditional marriage or the murder of the unborn child, surely Catholics have the right to insist on core values, too? Are the liberal left the only believers who are permitted to hold dogmas?

This writer, however, does make some effort to moderate his anti-Catholic stance: "the Catholic Chuch has been an institution fundamentally linked to what it means to be Irish since the failure of the secular-pluralist rebels of 1798. Irish nationalism, a driving force even today, was increasingly linked to Catholicism by both nationalists themselves and the British once the Anglican church was disestablished here. It has been argued that the Church usurped the role of the monarchy once such a vacuum was created after the Treaty. [I wonder why a republican thinks that the abolition of monarchy would create a vaccuum?] Hospitals, schools, care of the poor, these roles were fulfilled by the Church where there were no other groups or societies to do so. For that reasons, the radicals arguing that we must spend far more money than we need to in order to have an embassy can be understood, if not agreed with."

On the debit side of the ledger, the writer then makes the inevitable (and fair) point that the power of the Church in Irish society facilitated the clerical abuse scandals, and follows it with the usual round of hysterical anti-Catholic allegations: "Coupled with the nature of the Vatican as a state, an extremely rich enclave in Italy that was effectively created by Mussolini, and the damage done by the church with regard to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the other sort of radical advocating ending diplomatic relations with the Vatican can also be understood, and again, if not agreed with."

The Mussolini slur is cheap and hilarious. As for the mention of the AIDS epidemic, I'm always bewildered by the attitude of Church-bashers on this topic. The Church forbids the use of condoms, it is true. She also forbids sex outside marriage. If African Catholics are so much in thrall to the Vatican on the one, surely they would also comply with the other, which would hardly give much impetus to a sexually-transmitted epidemic.

The writer of the article seems to be the only person in Ireland who believes that the Vatican embassy was closed for economic reasons-- ah, the sweet naivety of youth!

He admits that "the fact of the matter is that most Irish people continue to claim Catholicism as their religious viewpoint, no matter how serious they are about it." Amusingly, he adds: "Futhermore, many of our new Irish from Easter Europe are Catholics as well. It would be extremely disrespectful to them to snub the leader of their church in such a way while other, more productive options are available." Multiculturalism trumps anti-Catholicism-- at least for the moment.

The writer concludes that "the approach of our government has been quite correct on this issue, and indeed, is the only mature one in sight". A little earlier, he had written: "We already have a building in Rome for diplomatic activity in the form of the Italian embassy. Indulging the Vatican's absurd position on joint embassies at large expense is not reasonable in any sense of the word." Except, perhaps, if the Vatican is the one (relatively) safe place on Earth that the Church has to stand upon, surrounded as it is by a whole cordon of countries that have tried to trample on Catholic rights within living memory. Is it so ridiculously that the Holy See feels the need to assert its independence and sovereignty, even symbolically?

Even this article doesn't exhaust this twenty-page newspaper's anti-Catholic swipes. A review of James Plunkett's Strumpet City doesn't miss the opportunity to mention that "the hypocrisy and culpability of the Church is highlighted in the compelling storyline facing the ambitious but naive Father O'Connor and the deeply troubled Father Giffley, whose ham fisted attempts to make a change are but an endeavour to make up for a life spent in self-loathing and alcoholism".

There is also an article on the proposed constitutional convention-- which seems to take the line that our constitution should be tinkered with just because it is seventy years old. (If it's not broke...break it, I guess.) It supports the removal of "socially conservative anachronisms" (such as any mention of blasphemy, traditional marriage, and the special role of women in the home) but then complains that "while all of these proposals are welcome, they are not exactly revolutionary." (Why should they be?)

What is interesting is that the newsletter's articles on more bread-and-butter topics, such as the Fiscal Treaty and the proposals to re-introduce student fees, are written in a much more open-minded and factual manner. In fact, the article on student fees supports their re-introduction (with grants for poorer students) and there is an article supporting the Fiscal Treaty, as well as one opposing it. I wonder if any consideration was given to pro- and con- articles about abortion or same-sex marriage?

To ask the question (as they say) is to answer it. The core values of the left in our age are not social democratic but liberal and secularist. The real enemy, it seems, is not the multinational company, or poverty, or exploitation. The real enemy is the baby in the womb and the old man in the Vatican.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Papist Popcorn: Dark Shadows (4/5)

I'm just back from seeing Dark Shadows, in my beloved Santry Omniplex. (I've seen two hundred and seventy one films in that cinema to date, not including multiple viewings of the same film. I know that because I record all the films I see on an Excel spreadsheet. How nerdy is that?)

I had never even heard of the American TV series on which it was based. (Which pleased me-- I'm always happy when I find myself untouched by pop culture in some way.) The posters and bus advertisements didn't look very promising, especially since I've heard that films are only advertised on the sides of buses as a desperate measure, when they are expected to tank.

But I went anyway, because I was so intrigued to find out about the TV series. A Gothic horror soap? Whoever heard of that? So, despite the fact that I think the undead are becoming tedious beyond words and that there should be a moratorium on vampire movies for the next ten years (and a moratorium on superhero movies for the next twenty), I decided to go. After all, I wasn't going to swell the coffers of Avengers Assemble or American Pie.

My curiosity was rewarded. Dark Shadows is one of the oddest and most interesting films I've seen in a long time. And, funnily enough, it is odd not because it is quirky but precisely because it is not all that quirky. Considering the battiness of the premise, it's remarkable how straight this movie is played, how tightly the comedic elements are reined in. Remarkable, and refreshing.

The plot is something of a mix between Interview with the Vampire and Crocodile Dundee. Barnabas Collins is the scion of wealthy eighteenth-century Maine family, owners of a lucrative fishing business. Something of a playboy, he makes the mistake of jilting a domestic servant who also happens to be a witch. She enchants his true love into wandering over a cliff, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and then for good measure has him buried alive. When he is finally released from his internment, it is 1972 and the Collins family has hit on hard times, while the witch who beat up on Barnabas has pretty much taken over the area's fishing trade. And she is still harbouring a lust-hate relationship for Barnabas.

Of course, the film provides plenty of scope for fish-out-of-water humour, and it's genuinely funny, as fish-out-of-water humour usually is. Barnabas wonders aloud why one of his female relatives is still unmarried at fifteen, and recommends her to put her good "birthing hips" to use. He reads Love Story by Eric Segal and hangs out with a bunch of hippies. He even invites Alice Cooper to perform at his mansion, (and reflects that she is the ugliest woman he's ever seen).

Inevitably, too, the seventies is mined for its soundtrack and its fashions, and the groovy atmosphere does add an extra relish to the movie. Hey, I like the seventies. I come from there.

There is an awful lot happening in this film. It seems like it has about ten central characters and half a dozen plots, in almost as many genres. Which sounds like a recipe for chaos, but-- quite surprisingly-- Dark Shadows gets away with it.

Visually it is as lip-smacking as you would hope, with atmospheric Gothic sets, exciting camera angles, and magical special effects.

Mixing comedy and horror is a tricky business. The comedy tends to negate the horror. Most of the time it doesn't work and it's a horrible mess. But now and again, a film like Scream or Creepshow will come along and pull off this bravura feat. Dark Shadows doesn't rank with either of those, but it still enters the far-from-crowded ranks of decent comedy-horrors.

The worst fault of the film is that it pushes things just a little too far, trying our patience in the last fifteen minutes or so, as the spectacle becomes more and more spectacular. But I suppose it does have soap opera DNA, and could hardly avoid excess.

As usual, these days, the film was awarded a completely inappropriate certificate. Rated for twelve years or above, it contained very racy humour, and some extremely erotic imagery. Suicide is presented in a morally neutral manner.

But on the whole, a very pleasant surprise, and very much recommended if you are at all a horror aficionado.

Friday, May 11, 2012

In Defence of Liberals (Sort of)

I think conservatives are often unfair to liberals, just as liberals are often unfair to conservatives.

Mostly (in both cases) I think this comes in with the attribution of psychological motives. Conservatives are apt to caricature liberals as people seeking to throw over the old order, or tradition, or religion, in order to install their own idols or fetishes upon the altar-- to replace fidelity with unlimited freedom, or to claim rights and throw away responsibilities. Or conservatives might complain that liberals are radical individualists who don't understand the value of social bonds and traditions and taboos. Or perhaps conservatives might revile liberals as hedonists who want to prevent any pesky obligations, like family life and faithfulness and deference to their elders, ruining their fun.

But that doesn't seem to fit reality. Many of the apostles of sexual liberation, for instance, are greying individuals in stable relationships, who are usually perfectly faithful to their "partners". What do they personally gain from the gospel of promiscuity? What selfish motive could a happily-married radical with three children have in supporting gay marriage, no-fault divorce, sex education for young children, and abortion? Don't get me wrong, I think all those things are immoral, and the last is utterly wicked. But they are often supported by people who seem to have no personal interest in the question.

Is there such a thing as "liberalism", really? It seems to me that every philosophy of life involves both liberation and repression. Our Lord told us that "my yoke is easy and my burden is light". This topic is so mysterious and so complex that I think only a paradox like that one could possibly illuminate it.

Every choice of human life involves some burden and some yoke. In fact, I doubt if a human being could really bear to be without any yoke or burden. Few of us could endure a life of unmitigated pleasure and amusement. We yearn for discipline, sacrifice, renunciation. It's really just a question of what we choose to renounce and what we choose to affirm.

Liberalism doesn't seem like an easy option to me. I couldn't do it. I couldn't spend my entire life checking and second-guessing all my intuitions. For instance, most (heterosexual) liberals probably share the social conservative's intutition that homosexuality is not the ideal, that there is something unique and complementary in the love of man and woman. Most liberal parents probably hope that their children will not grow up gay and find it harder, at least in some ways, to relate to a gay person than to a straight person.

But, instead of taking this as evidence of a transcendent order underlying human life, they put it down to their own prejudice. They rebuke themselves. They deny themselves. I do see something akin to nobility in that. It is misguided, but it is at least principled in its own way.

I think the liberal mentality involves a suspicion of the self, a kind of ascesis, that I can't help finding impressive. There is a certain humility in constantly policing your own words and thoughts for potential racism, sexism and bigotry, in carefully saying "sex worker" instead of "prostitute", or "person with a disability" instead of "disabled person". And liberals also have to be on constant guard against their own nostalgia, against the normal human affection for the past and the normal human piety towards previous generations. They must be careful not to tumble into the even more sinister pitfall of patriotism. If they have their house burgled they have to refrain, even in the privacy of their own thoughts, from raging against anti-social louts.

Or take the case of our liberal priests. I disagree emphatically with pretty much every word that comes out of their mouths (when they are not actually celebrating Mass, of course-- and sometimes even then, when they tinker with the missal). But I am rather struck by their perverse idealism. If I had taken a vow of celibacy, despite wishing to marry, I think I would tend to make a virtue of necessity and place great value upon my sacrifice. But these dissident priests-- most of whom are in their sixties and can't seriously expect the situation to change in their lifetime-- actually denigrate the vow to which they have been faithful. It's a little like a decorated war hero preaching pacifism. Or again, what selfish interest could they have in supporting contraception and women's ordination, or in attacking "clericalism"? Well, I can think of one obvious benefit-- they become media and popular heroes for sticking it to the Pope. But they also surely court hostility from their regular and daily Mass-goers, who are more likely to be orthodox than those Catholics who think boycotting Mass is a legitimate form of protest.

I don't have a progressive bone in my body myself. But I do strive to be fair-minded. It seems to me sheer silliness to pretend that most people of a liberal-left persuasion are bed-hopping, smack-snorting, video-nasty-watching decadents, forever flitting between the conceptual art exhibition, the night-club, and the latest trendy restaurant. Most of them are pretty conservative in their own behaviour. This just makes them more strange to me, and reminds me of Chesterton's Song of the Strange Ascetic, worth quoting in full in this context, since it applies so well:

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have crowned Neaera's curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ireland's Got Religion

I am in danger of being accused of an obsession with The Irish Times letters page, but today I was rather amused that-- out of twenty-five letters-- no less than eight are about religion. They are on various subjects, headed (respectively) "Vatican and Dissenting Voices", "Mock Trial of Clergywoman", "C of I and Same-Sex Relationships", "RTE Board's Response to 'Mission to Prey'", "Cardinal Brady's Role Questioned", and "Anti-Christian Secularism".

Is religion really all that irrelevant to modern Ireland?

Bishop Nazir-Ali on Militant Secularism

"Anthony Giddens, who used to sit behind me in the House of Lords..."

I can't help being impressed by someone who can casually deliver an aside like that. So I was very impressed by former Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who gave a talk on "Aggressive Secularism" in the Davenport Hotel last night. It was organized by the dauntless Iona Institute, the professional pariahs of Irish cultural and political life.

It was a drizzly evening, but there was still a fairly good turnout-- perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty people. The majority seemed to be in their fifties and sixties, though this would probably be true of almost any talk on a serious subject, unless it was delivered to a professional organization of some kind. There was a sprinkling of younger people there, including one very young attendee who gurgled through much of the proceedings-- the Bishop, with his dry sense of humour, noted that the average age of the audience had been drastically reduced by that one addition.

Bishop Nazir-Ali was something of a surprise to me. I have to admit that I have, in the past, tended to accept the lazy caricature of today's Church of England as a coterie of tea-sipping, weak-chinned agnostics, more interested in cake sales and CND than the gospel of Christ.

I have realized more recently how unfair a generalization this is, and it certainly doesn't apply to Bishop Nazir-Ali. This man, soft-spoken but exuding an underlying steely certitude, is no wishy-washy liberal or timeserver. He was born in Pakistan, and has both Islam and Christianity in his family background. Both his worldly experience and his deep reading were obvious, and he spoke without notes or visual aids-- and pretty much without interruption, repetition, or hesitation-- for perhaps an hour or more.

His great scholarship was worn lightly but was still very plain to see. It was strangely exhilarating to hear to him describe the Christianization of England, and the role this played in the making of English society and law-- including such achievements as Magna Carta and the protection of workers in the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly it was brought home to me, as I sat there listening, that the missionaries and priests and bishops of English history had been living, breathing people like us, people who lived a moment at a time, people who had no guarantee that the Faith would take hold or survive, that the Danish invaders would not wipe it out completely, that the Moors would not march undefeated through all of Europe.

It was brought home to me, too, that there was nothing inevitable about secularization, the rise of illiberal liberalism, or the turn towards multiculturalism. (Nazir-Ali, who by liberal logic should be a poster boy of multiculturalism, dismissed it as a form of "amnesia"). The Bishop, though he mentioned Callum Brown's "sudden death" thesis of British secularization, as outlined in Brown's book The Death of Christian Britain, seemed to lean instead towards a "long view" of secularization, seeing it rooted in the de-sacralization of time and space and the mechanistic turn in human enquiry, when we became preoccupied with questions of "how" and "what" to the exclusion of "why"-- that is, of any concern for teleology, final causes or essences.

The Bishop was insistent that the value system and laws of Britain, and of Western Civilization, had been built upon Christianity, and that post-Christian society had nothing to replace them with. This, he said, leaves our society with no protection against the advance of militant Islam, which does have a value system and is not afraid to proclaim it. This reminds me of Belloc's couplet:

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) taught it right.

I was especially interested to hear Bishop Nazir-Ali's thoughts on the different religions of the world, and how non-Christian religions (of which he spoke respectfully) could provide no basis for such Western values as liberty and equality and the dignity of the individual. Islam values social solidity over the rights of the individual. Hinduism gave rise to the caste system, which is totally contrary to our notions of equality. Buddhism, which Westerners see as a rather benign and fluffy religion, contends that there is no such thing as the self, and this undermining of personal identity leaves the door open to abortion and euthanasia and the desecration of the human embryo. (I hope I am not distorting the Bishop's words here; he may have put it less stridently.)

I think the value of events like last night's talk is that they remind us of reality, of the battle of ideas that is always going on around us. Ultimately it is not legislation or firepower or technical knowledge that shapes society, but the beliefs and decisions of free human individuals. We have no more excuse to quail before the secular phalanx than King Alfred had to flee from the apparently unstoppable advance of the Danes. Everything is to play for, and Christ has no body but ours.

All in all, I left the Davenport Hotel feeling fortified and heartened, knowing that there are thinking minds and feeling hearts and strong wills firmly set against the barbarities of our age. Thank God for the Iona Institute!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is the Irish Media Really Biased Against Catholics?

I notice that today there are three letters in The Irish Times responding to a (truly awful) opinion piece earlier this week-- a piece that was written by a science writer named David Robert Grimes, under the headline "Evil, Militant Anti-Christian Secularism is simply a Myth".

The article was the usual thing, except even worse than usual-- it starts in the calm and reasoned tone that anti-religious writers like to assume, but soon descends (again as usual) to the standard schoolyard name-calling-- sky fairies, comparison of the Christian God to Zeus and Odin, and so forth. There is little to no actual argument in the article. Grimes complains of an assertion by John Waters that, if we accept the atheist worldview, we are simply the "accidental offspring of the pointless oozing of primordial slime”. He complains of hearing this argument "ad nauseum", confidently asserts that it is "utterly devoid of merit", and answers it-- or rather, completely fails to answer it-- in these swaggering lines:

In any case, I find it strange that some would see existence as pointless if it is not preordained and controlled by a curiously anthropomorphic higher power. Surely our existence on this wonderful planet, rife with staggering beauty and steeped in discovery is incredible – regardless of how we got here. Why denigrate all life just because it mightn’t have begun as described in a Stone Age tome ?

Oh, Doctor Grimes. You are simply missing the point. How can there be a meaning to life or the universe if that universe is not the creation of a divine Intelligence? Only intelligence creates meaning. Our own human intelligence can pretend to ascribe meaning to the universe, but in that case, that meaning and purpose is not intrinsic to the universe. It is simply a sort of make-believe. Existence is pointless in an atheistic universe.

My point in this post, however, is that the Irish Times letters page today carries three excellent responses to Dr. Grimes's piece, all of them criticizing his thesis from a religious point of view, and one of them (by an Alan French of Dun Laoghaire) really achieving the calm reason which Dr. Grimes merely affects :

[Grimes] says “frank discussion is clouded by often misinformed religious objections”. This sounds like, “If you don’t agree with me, your judgment is clouded.” By this logic, only the secularist view is unclouded. This sounds a bit like old-fashioned religious dogmatism! Secularism is a specific belief, which is subject to debate. It is not worthy of any special privilege in public life. People oppose it with good reason.

The Irish Times often carries letters which defend Catholic orthodoxy, as well as articles by David Quinn, John Waters, Fr. Vincent Twomey, and other conservative Catholics. RTÉ, too, gives airtime to these voices. I think Catholics should acknowledge this. I think we should acknowledge it especially when a newspaper publishes calm and intelligent letters from orthodox Catholics and Christians, since it would be easy for them simply to cherry-pick the most embarrassing or feeble responses, in order to simultaneously provide "balance" and show religious faith in a bad light.

I myself would not disagree that the Irish media is anti-Catholic-- the hostility of most presenters and journalists towards religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular is obvious. Still, that is their prerogative. The fact that news stories regarding Catholicism are coloured by that hostility (for instance, every report of a Papal speech focusing on questions such as child abuse and contraception, even if the Pope says nothing about them), is much more problematic.

The Irish media is anti-Catholic and unfair to Catholicism. But as long as there remains a right of reply, I think we should acknowledge a basic level of fairness. Otherwise we seem like relentless whingers.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

If This isn't Hypocrisy, What Is?

The Catholic primate of Ireland is held to account for an investigation into sex abuse that occurred more than thirty years ago and in which he played a relatively minor role. He points out that it was not his responsibility to report the sex abuse discovered to the parents of the abused children or to the authorities, that responsibility resting with his superiors.

Government ministers, senior politicians, journalists, and an easily-led public clamour for his resignation-- including Eamon Gilmore, the Tanaiste and leader of the Labour Party.

An RTE current affairs programme, all the way back in dim and distant 2011, falsely accuses a Catholic priest of sexually abusing a girl and fathering her child. Today, the Labour Party member and Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, said that he had not sought any resignations from the board of RTÉ-- the people who should assume ultimate responsibility for the actions of the national broadcaster.

Church-bashing? Anti-Catholicism? What, here, in liberal and pluralist and tolerant Ireland?

It will almost certainly get worse, as the militant secular wing of the Labour party gain in strength and confidence-- not to mention their sympathizers in other political parties, and in other walks of Irish life.

Monday, May 7, 2012

John D. Sheridan, Humourist of Catholic Ireland

The newspaper column is one of my favourite forms of writing. It seems comfortably ensconced between journalism and literature, the private chat and the public square, the topical and the timeless. My favourite writer of all time, the matchless GK Chesterton, used the format to near-miraculous effect. His column in the Illustrated London News ran for three decades. The free and loose format allowed full play to Chesterton's undisciplined genius. Even the title of one of his most famous newspaper articles-- Rhapsody on a Pig-- gives some idea of the scope and versatility of his talent.

The first columnist for whom I developed a passion was Keith Waterhouse, an English writer whose long career ended with his death some years ago. I found a book of his newspaper columns, Monday Thursdays, lying around the house when I was a child, and read it over and over again. I remember one column about a delicious cheese he had bought as a gift on a visit to some English country town, and every crumb of which he ended up scoffing himself. Another column described an encounter he had with a graffiti artist on the London Underground. When Waterhouse asked the surprised vandal why he was defacing a wall, the young fellow asked him what else there was to do. Waterhouse takes up the challenge and gives him a pretty long list of suggestions. I remember two of them were "eating a Mars bar" and "building a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks". When he is finished, the vandal gives Waterhouse a pitying look and says, "You're a sad git, you are."

I remember the cover of Mondays, Thursdays showed a cartoon of various figures sitting on a merry-go-round. They included Mickey Mouse and JR of Dallas fame. I think this is the poetry of the newspaper column-- it gives us a confidence in the inexhaustible variety and picturesqueness of life.

Another book of newspaper columns I enjoyed was An Irish Eye by Anthony Cronin (though I disagreed with nearly all of his opinions) and-- of course-- the majestic Best of Myles by Myles Na Gopaleen. Cruiskeen Lawn by Myles Na Gopaleen was probably the apotheosis of the newspaper column. In fact, it is difficult to even think of Cruiskeen Lawn as a newspaper column, since Myles (AKA Flann O'Brien and Brian O'Nolan) rarely paid much attention to the events of the day, or engaged in the kind of social observation and commentary that is the bread and butter of most columnists. Cruiskeen Lawn instead was a dazzling display of comic fireworks, too idiosyncratic and brilliant to bear much comparison with any other columnist.

It is a perfect contrast with the columns of John D. Sheridan, an Irish newspaper humourist whose career overlapped with that of Myles. Sheridan wrote for the Irish Independent, while Myles wrote for the Irish Times, the other major Irish national daily. Both writers were Catholics, though many readers of Myles might be surprised to learn of his religious faith. John D. Sheridan, on the other hand, was much more straightforwardly devout, writing for a magazine called The Irish Rosary and even producing a book-length defence of Catholic doctrine (The Hungry Sheep).

The biggest difference, it has to be said, was that Myles was a literary genius, while John D. Sheridan was-- not.

All the same, I am a fan of Sheridan. Reading him takes me back to an Ireland that I never knew, but for which I feel nostalgic anyway, the Ireland of the fities and sixties. (He was published from the thirties onwards, but I've mostly read his later writing.) It was a fairly complacent Ireland, or (as John Major might put it) a nation at ease with itself. The great majority of Irish people were Catholic and nationalist, while those that were not Catholic were still Christian or, at the very least, respectful of religion. The turmoil of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Emergency were a memory, and the Troubles in the North were yet to come. Ireland was enjoying the first comforts of modernity-- cars and radios and foreign holidays-- while still retaining a vibrant national tradition.

Even the dustjackets of John D. Sheridan's books describe his humour as "gentle"-- and if it was gentle then, it is trebly gentle now. (It has to be admitted that, in this case as many others, "gentle" is sometimes a synonym for "mediocre" and "bland". But even mediocrity and blandness have their charms.)

Sheridan was not just a newspaper columnist. He also wrote poetry (especially children's poetry), biography (a biography of James Clarence Mangan, the poet) and novels. I've read only one of his novels, The Magnificent McDarney. It is a surprisingly gritty and dark work, somewhat similar to the novels of Walter Macken in style. It chronicles the last days of an alcoholic who neglects and exploits his family, a former actor who gets by on handouts and charm. The novel does not flinch from the ugliness of alcoholism, poverty or feckless fatherhood, but-- spoiler alert-- it has a happy ending, in which McDarney goes on a retreat and makes a good confession before suddenly dying. An ending like that, in which Catholic beliefs are not only a metaphor or a theme, but actually crucial to the whole point of the story, is difficult to imagine in a popular writer today.

But it is Sheridan's newspaper articles that I enjoy the most, and they are much lighter in tone. Even their titles convey a certain naivety, a lack of obliqueness that I find refreshing. Scanning down the contents page of My Hat Blew Off (one of two collections on my shelf), I find titles like Christmas Parties And Paper Hats, On Wedding Breakfasts, On Asking the Way and A Letter to Santa. They read like set titles for schoolboy essays-- an appealing association, in my view.

It has to be admitted that Sheridan was not always inspired, often stretching a theme as far as it could go and further, even within three pages. He has one feeble piece in which he describes an evening alone in the house, during which he amuses himself by ringing its various bells. (It sounds more interesting than it is.) And then there is the article in which he tries to make comic mileage out of the awkwardness of railway station farewells, a situation in which nobody (he insists) can ever think of anything to say. Artistic representations of boredom are always boring, and I no more want to read about somebody with nothing to say than I want to meet (or read) somebody with nothing to say.

But more often, Sheridan does have something to say-- usually some meditation on the mishaps of daily life, or the little pleasures of existence, or the changes in manners and in ways of life.

Writers like him are a good source of social history. In one of the articles in My Hat Blew Off-- a piece decrying the observance of the New Year-- he records that the "War on Christmas" had begun as long ago as 1951 (the year the collection was published):

It is not without significance that as New Year's becomes more and more of a feast, Christmas is becoming less and less of a feast-- in the sense that millions of people the world over no longer believe in the Founder of the feast. We have reached the stage where we commemorate a birthday without adverting to the tremendous and central fact that Someone was born; and it is on record that, some years ago, an American director of education issued instructions to his teachers, saying that every school should have a Santa Claus and a Christmas tree, but banning all songs, carols and dramatizations that "mention the Nativity" or "stress the religious significance" of a feast that has no other significance. For you cannot even use the word "Christmas" without declaring your allegiance, and even "Xmas", that miserable subterfuge, begins with a letter that is shaped like a cross.

(Incidentally, I don't myself think there is anything wrong or anti-Christian with "Xmas", and I often use it. I also don't see any conflict in celebrating both Christmas and the New Year)

One of my favourite articles is On Wedding Breakfasts, in which Sheridan lambasts the pretentiousness of modern wedding breakfasts. He writes:

Presently the guests are taken off to breakfast, and they expect, but don't get, a magnificent breakfast. They get one and a half sardines, five congealed green peas, two cubes of beetroot, several unrecognizable foreign bodies, and an immensity of knives and forks.

Sheridan is right to abhor all this, and I wish I could shake the man's hand for his own recommendation, which is exactly and even exuberantly correct:

The backbone of a breakfast, wedding or ordinary, is rashers and eggs and TEA; lashing and leavings of tea-- and from the word "go", not when one has been chilled with diced betroot and green peas. For a wedding, of course, there should be something more: since the guests expect it, and since the bride's father will have to pay through the nose whether or no. So we should have-- in addition to the basic constituents-- such trimmings as liver, sausages, black pudding, fried bread and potato cake; not all on one plate, but distributed in easily-accessible places, like side-dishes at a hunting breakfast.

Oh, all ye organizers of parties and celebrations and nosh-ups of every kind, commit these words of wisdom to memory, and never fail to heed them:

A feast should mean enormous helpings of the things you are used to, not a dismal succession of bite-sized fragments that are as unfamiliar as they are unappetizing.

A man who has made his mind up to enjoy himself thoroughly is in no mood for experiment.

Many of his articles appeal on account of their Irishness. Just One Little Word is a meditation on the Irish dialect word oul' (as in Dublin in the Rare Oul' Times). Sheridan spells it owl, and gives quite an accomplished and entertaining description of its range of meanings, its many uses and undertones. In the final paragraphs, Sheridan writes:

We Irish are supposed to wear our hearts on our sleeves; but we don't. We are terribly afraid of our hearts, and the old Gaelic reticence is still strong in us. We hide our deepest feelings, and give our emotions no words.

We can coin mighty compliments when we speak from the head, but when we speak from the heart we are tongue-tied. However, we manage to get along. We have one little word that sees us through all our emotional difficulties, and it is a fine stand-by when th'owl tongue lets us down.

 Another instance in which Sheridan gives tongue to my own views is in his tirade against eating out of doors, entitled (with usual imagination) Meals Out-of-Doors:

Country folk, with centuries of true culture behind them, never take their food out-of-doors-- unless some desperate adventure is afoot, like mowing the far meadow, or selling a cow in the neighbouring town. They may bring a can of tea to the meadow, or a few monster sandwiches to the town, but when they do they have the air of exiles, and they are always glad to get back again to the one place where a human being can eat properly...Every time you go on a picnic, you sell your birthright and become a beast of the field.

I can't cheer this loud enough! As far as I'm concerned, there are two requirements to the proper enjoyment of food and drink. One is a table beneath you, and the other is a roof above you.

Sheridan's essays usually reflect a comfortable, middle-class world-- "the office" is taken to be the typical working hours location of the reader-- but, this being Catholic Ireland, he is aware of poverty and deprivation. One article describes his experience of volunteering for the St. Vincent de Paul, while another describes a carefree down-and-out sunning himself by the O'Connell monument in Dublin.

In an article entitled By The Sea, Sheridan puts forward a thesis that I have established to my own satisfaction, by spending the entirety of a passage between Dublin and Holyhead on the deck of a ferry:

I found that man of normal intelligence can exhaust the intellectual possibilities of the sea in about twenty minutes. After that it becomes monotonous. You have seen the picture through dozens of times, and there is nothing for it but to go home to your supper.

(The sea serves very well for a backdrop when you are thinking of other things, or when you are walking along it discussing other things with another soul. But try gazing into it for any length of time and you will find that Sheridan is entirely right.)

Sheridan's most touching and enjoyable pieces are usually his forays into nostalgia, and his accounts of how times have changed. This is a valuable service that the topical writer performs for posterity; he is there to capture the passing of one way of doing things, and the introduction of another. New Lamps for Old is a fascinating description of electrification, and an affectionate tribute to the oil lamp:

One of the things I noticed during two recent runs by car to places west of the Shannon is that the lights of the cities have rivals now in the lights of the little towns. Main Street is not yet as bright as O'Connell Street, but it at least belongs to the same order of brightness...the thing is spreading. To-day the towns, tomorrow the villages, and the townlands the day after...Manus the Shop, who can sell you anything from a quarter of cough-lozenges to a bag of meal, now has electric irons in his shelves, and old men are telling each other that it was all set down in Colmcille's prophecies and the end of the world is only round the corner.

(I can remember my own uncle, a Limerick farmer, discussing Colmcille's prophecies with a neighbour, in no flippant tone.)

This is what he has to say about the oil-lamp, and it makes me envious of people in those days:

Getting the lamp going was almost as soothing as filling a pipe. The globe was breathed on and polished with soft flannel, the wick was trimmed, and women cautioned their daughters to keep the flame low until the glass had time to heat. The light did not burst on you suddenly, and your eyes were ready for the full glare when it came...

One essay, A Happy Christmas, is written in Ogden Nash-like verse and shows that Sheridan's attitude towards Christmas shopping is the same as my father's:

I want to have my old-fashioned Christmas fun and do all the things that in the best circles are no longer done.
I want to be trampled and squeezed to death, to dig with and be dug by elbows as I struggle for breath,
To move in a sardine crush of reactionary fellow-shoppers in places like the Coombe and Henry Street
Where I have to ask total strangers not to stand on my feet.
I want to be one of the gawkers who stand and look at the hawkers
To be importuned to contribute to the gaiety of nations by buying a dancing sailor or a Christmas motto or the last-- the very last-- of the Christmas decorations.

I do admire the ideal, but I am afraid it is too heroic for me. I shop ahead.

One essay, On Bridges, in which Sheridan laments the city habit of passing bridges without stopping to stare into the waters below for a meditative moment, has actually changed my own behaviour. I now usually remind myself not to pass the glories of running water, even in a bus, without pausing to look.

An essay entitled The Country Dresser praises this piece of furniture and mourns its passing. One paragraph in particular is a fine summation of the whole cultural and social world that Sheridan's columns occupy:

There were letters for answering, and ink to answer them with; Rosary beads hanging from nails, prayer books, tin "pandies" with wire handles, scones of bread, neckties that were worn only once a week, and a crock of cream with a piece of fine butter-muslin across it. You went to the dresser for everything from a drink of clean water to a dab of holy water. It answered every need and was the universal provider.

Sheridan writes perceptively and sensitively about childhood. His own children, who he calls Morsels One, Two and Three (I wonder how they liked that as they grew older?) often form the subject-matter of his articles. I liked this description of a child's love for lemonade (a love I share-- and American readers, please note that, in Ireland, lemonade is a fizzy drink, commercially produced rather than homemade):

 Children love lemonade. They love the fizz and sparkle of it, the cold cutting taste of it, and the tickle that it gives the throat as it goes down. They can almost feel the beaded bubbles crumbling between their teeth. They tire in time of iced cake and trifle, and they sometimes leave a sliver of apple tart on the plate, but they would sell their nearest and dearest for lemonade, and the party is never over until the last siphon is empty.

I like John D. Sheridan because he is sentimental. I like him because is nostalgic. I like him because he is affectionate. I enjoy reading his books as much on account of the things I know won't be there as the things that I know will be there. There will be no explicit sex references, no scatology, no blasphemy or disrespect to religion. The references to pop culture will be limited to mentioning a film star here and there. The moral universe he inhabits is one that assumes every human being has dignity and worth-- there will be no reference to "losers" or "loners" or "wasters". Perhaps these are the virtues of the public he wrote for, rather than virtues particular to his work. But the point is that John D. Sheridan gave voice to that public-- he wrote for a society whose taboos and pieties, I believe, actually created more freedom than oppression, on balance. Another man may feel oppressed in a culture where he cannot describe unsavoury bodily functions in lurid language; but I feel rather liberated in knowing that he is not going to do so.

My favourite of Sheridan's articles goes by the title A Letter to Santa, and it actually made me weep one very early morning, while I was waiting to take a bus to Dublin Airport, en route to America. I think an article like this illustrates how drastically our society has been de-Christianized. In today's Ireland it is considered acceptable to write seriously about God only if you are a licensed God-botherer; a priest, or a theologian, or a spokesman for the Iona Institute. That a humourist writing for the masses, today, might introduce a serious Christian theme is almost unthinkable.

I also love this article because it makes a case for the Santa myth in a Christian household. Many of my favourite Catholic writers, like Edward Feser and Mark Shea, discourage the propogation of the Santa myth. Chesterton, on the other hand, defended it, and Tolkien (an ardent Catholic) wrote his children letters from Father Christmas every year. Is Santa a lie? Or is he an allegory that children come to understand as they mature? I don't know the answer, but I know which answer I prefer. I certainly don't feel my faith was harmed by the claim that Santa brought me gifts at Christmas time.

Sheridan writes:

Once-- and not so long ago-- Europe, at this blessed time of year, was a blaze of lighted chuch-windows, carols meant more than carousals, and red, symbolic candles shone out from a million sills to guide your landings. But the lights grow fewer every year, and a great darkness is spreading over the face of Christendom.

You were always a legend, Santa, but now they are trying to make you a lie; and you were never a lie. You were, rather, a logical necessity. You just had to be invented. You stand, not just for a parable, but for a whole medley of parables.

You represent, for instance, the belief that prayers are heard-- and answered; the belief that time and space do not exist in the spiritual dimension; the belief that there is a Bounty that is not embarrassed or diminished by the number of clients or the immensity of their needs.

Futher on, Sheridan insists: "Nothing is surer than that the spatter of Christmas lights that once pin-pointed Europe, from Tagus to Volga will come again in God's good time."

His closing lines are even more touching, and show that, though Sheridan wrote a lot of dull and plodding pieces, now and again his prose could sing:

That is why I am still prepared, in spite of the cost of living, to act as your local representative and depot superintendent until my Illustrious Virtues [his children] find both of us out; why I am prepared to perpetuate a legend that looks like a lie but is merely a cloak for the truth; why I can say, literally and with all reverence, that the tiny things I have wrapped in brown paper and hidden away against the Vigil of the Feast are part of the Deposit of Faith.

But sure, who am I telling it to?

John D. Sheridan was by no means a great writer. But I turn to his writings with great pleasure and relief, because I believe they reflect a time and a society that had attained something like greatness-- or (if that is too bold a claim) a society that was, at least, turned towards those mysteries and dogmas that are the only truly great things in this world, and are also the only enduring pillars of a life that is fully human, humane, and happy.

(NOTE: If you liked this post-- and it seems to generate a fair amount of traffic, probably because there is so little about this author on the internet-- you might also like my review of The Hungry Sheep, Sheridan's book in defence of the Catholic faith.)