Saturday, October 15, 2016

Retractions and Reassessments

As I said in my previous post, I have come to a stage in my life that seems like a time for silence rather than a time for speech, a time for listening rather than a time for proclaiming. And I have been doing a lot of that. But it would feel dishonest not to share some of the changes in my own outlook that I have developed recently.

A verse of Scripture that seems more and more important to me is Colossians 3:2: "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." I have not always been very good at doing this.

I am now dubious about much that I have written on this blog. Take, for instance, my many blog posts on the subject of tradition-- human, secular traditions.

All my life I have been tradition-mad, and this had a powerful influence on the trajectory of my beliefs; first of all towards conservatism, and then towards Catholicism.

This was good. But I am coming to think I should have thrown away the ladder once I had reached my destination.

Where did this love of tradition come from? Well, it could have come from many things, but I tend to believe it was the Holy Spirit calling me towards the Truth, or using my own inclinations to guide me to the Truth.

I have written in my series of posts on tradition that much of my love of tradition is based upon the sense of the timeless, or the time-outside-time, that we so often feel when we look at a Halloween bonfire or a Thanksgiving parade, or some other image of a secular tradition.

Well, it seems to me pretty clear that this love of the 'time-outside--time' which I find in tradition is really a yearning for Eternity. That was the message. Once I'd got it, I shouldn't have continued to fixate on human traditions.

Now, I don't want to be too humourless or blinkered about this. There is nothing wrong with taking an ordinary, moderate, incidental pleasure in human traditions (or in other aspects of the world that appeal to us). But the extent to which I fixated on them was, I believe, unhealthy and wrong and a distraction from the thing that matters. It was an excessive attachment to worldly things.

(I'm not talking about sacred traditions here. They are something entirely different.)

Then again, there is my many blog posts about globalization and cultural nationalism.

I declared war on globalization and the cultural homogenization I perceived in the world. But, seen from the view of Eternity-- which is really the only view worth taking-- what difference does this make?

Our purpose in this world is to get to Heaven and to take as many people with us as we can. Our political, cultural and social goals should flow from that. "Martha, Martha, you are worried about so many things, but so few are needed-- indeed, only one." (Luke 10:41-42.)

Again, I'm not suggesting we should all become utterly otherworldly, or cease to take pleasure in our national heritages, or cease to preserve them-- or to preserve other secular institutions that we cherish. But the salient point is how much of an effort, how much focus this demands. If it takes up an extraordinary amount of our time and effort, I think it has become an idol-- and, indeed, I think cultural nationalism (and even more political nationalism) has very often become an idol. I admit that it has been an idol to me.

What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians seems pertinent: "This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away."

The fashion of this world passeth away. Cultural globalization is just another moment in that process. We have enough on our plates, defending life and the family (which we know God wants us to defend), without putting too much effort into defending cultural forms that we have no particular warrant to believe God wants us to defend.

These dread words from the Book of Jeremiah frighten me: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Hearken not to the words of the prophets that prophesy to you, and deceive you: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord."

In fact, I am becoming more and more cautious about worldly causes becoming idols that distract us from the Gospel.

I recently left Facebook, but before I left it, I became more and more bothered by the phenomenon of many of my Catholic Facebook friends-- orthodox, non-dissident Catholics-- becoming sucked into the slipstream of some political ideology. These were ideologies of both right and left, but it was more noticeable in the case of the political left.

I had Catholic Facebook friends who seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of energy attacking Donald Trump, the Republican party, gun ownership, racism, sexism, and 'Islamaphobic' media coverage, but who never seemed to use Facebook to evangelize or defend the Faith-- outside of the occasional picture of Mother Theresa with a non-controversial caption attached. 

They were more than willing to criticize conservatives or right-wing Christians, but they rarely (if ever) seemed to speak out against abortion, or euthanasia, or the persecution of Christians around the globe. These causes were not important enough for them to stick their heads above the parapet. 

(My right-wing Catholic friends were often overly insistent on causes like gun ownership or free market capitalism-- but they were rarely shy about defending their Faith, or controversial aspects thereof. On the other hand, I tended to 'unfollow' them pretty quickly. In many ways, I was temperamentally more sympathetic to my 'liberal' Catholic friends.)

I'm not attacking any of these people. I have no doubt they are better people than me, and better Catholics than me. But the distortion of priorities that I saw in their Facebook feeds was like a mirror wherein I saw my own failings.

There is an awful lot on this blog which is extraneous to the Gospel. But, for a Catholic, I don't think anything should be extraneous to the Gospel. "Now I live, not I, but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:20). That should be our aspiration.

But it's not just the proclamation and excessive attachment to worldly causes that I've come to see as wrong. It's just as important (I think) that we proclaim the Faith in the right way, and for the right motivations, and in the right terms. 

"Through him, and with him, and in him" is what the priest says in the moments before Communion. I've been pondering those words a lot recently.

Take the example of the term 'pro-life', especially as it is used by Catholics who belong to the 'seamless garment' school of thought.

"Pro-life" was a word coined to argue against abortion-- and, perhaps, euthanasia. These are practices that all Catholics must oppose and abhor. But Catholics and Christians of the 'seamless garment' school use the term 'pro-life' to argue in favour of all sorts of measures which are not required by faith, which are in fact prudential matters upon which Catholics may legitimately disagree-- the complete abolition of the death penalty, pacifism, socialised healthcare, open borders, and so on.

Not only did I witness this expansion of the term 'pro-life' on my Facebook feed, but it has unfortunately been taken up in this sense by many Catholics I greatly admire-- such as the blogger and writer Mark Shea. 

I have deep, deep respect for Mark Shea. His writings were very influential on me when I was moving to the Faith, and his book Mary: Mother of the Son is one of my favourite books, and is indeed the book that unlocked Mary's role in salvation to me. But he seems to have become hypnotised by left-wing causes, like many of my Catholic Facebook friends. In such cases, passions are raised so high that Catholics almost seem to be locked into a left wing/right wing faction fight where the real enemy is some pet hate figure on the right or left, rather than Satan and his fallen angels-- where the cosmic battle becomes less important than a transient squabble that only historians will care about in a hundred years.

In a blog post in which he was responding to some very intemperate language from Mark Shea, who was accusing him of not being 'pro-life' enough in refusing to support the complete abolition of the death penalty, Edward Feser responded: "Shouting the phrase “pro-life” – a slogan that has its origins in U.S. political discourse, not in Catholic moral theology – no more settles anything than shouting the slogan “pro-choice” does."

Edward Feser

That sentence struck me very powerfully. If even a term like 'pro-life', which rolls off our tongue so easily and which seems so unobjectionable, can contain such potential confusion within it, we have to be very careful of the language and lines of argument and apologetic strategies we use.

Indeed, Dr. Feser has argued persuasively that a solid Catholic apologetics has to be built on Thomism and scholastic philosophy, and the 'New Theology' which more or less replaced it in the twentieth century--- and many of whose proponents, as Dr. Feser points out, were in no way 'liberal' or 'progressive' in their own minds-- is not, at least by itself, up to the intellectual task of defending the Faith against its opponents.

"Through him, and with him, and in him." It's not enough to assert and defend the Faith. We have to defend it using solid Catholic arguments, and solid Catholic apologetics, and solid Catholic interpretations of Scripture. This is too important a business to indulge our own eccentricities, idiosyncracies, or irresponsible creativity.

I aim this criticism against myself principally. Too often, on this blog, I have drawn on my own imaginative impulses, or my own memories, or upon parts of popular culture or literature that particularly appealed to me, to make (what I thought was) an argument for the Faith.

Now, I'm not going so far as to say that this is completely illegitimate, but I have come to view it with tremendous caution. I don't think I'm the only Catholic who has been too eager to 'canonize' his favourite philosopher, movie, song, historical figure, novel, non-Catholic theologian, or non-Christian historical figure (such as Gandhi, who seems to have been made a kind of honorary saint by many Christians).

We have Scripture, the Church Fathers, approved classics of devotion, a treasury of traditional prayers, the lives and writings of the saints, Church-approved apparitions, and a whole wealth of other 'safe' material to drawn on-- more of it than anyone could ever get through in one lifetime. There is no austerity involved in sticking to the authentically Catholic. We have an abundance. We don't have to write blog posts making a Catholic case for Star Trek and Groundhog Day, and so forth.

I did this far too much, perhaps exulting in my own sense of creativity and ingenuity. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But I'm not the only one.

We are always trying to conform Christ to our own image, rather than conform ourselves to Christ's image. This tendency has to be fought against constantly.

Finally, I have to admit a change of heart regarding a prominent and controversial Catholic apologist. I have been publicly and strongly critical of Michael Voris, the founder of Real Catholic TV, now Church Militant TV.

Not only have I criticized him on this blog, but I once criticized him in a lecture (of the two lectures I've ever given!) to the John Paul II Theological Society in Maynooth.

Well, I have changed my mind. Although his style is still rather more abrasive than is congenial to me, I have come to think that Michael Voris is doing very good and very important work, and that he's right about nearly everything-- but most of all, in his stubborn and terrier-like focus on the supernatural element of the Catholic faith, and the doctrine that 'outside the Church, there is no salvation'-- a doctrine that, though it may have once been understood too narrowly, has today been watered down to homeopathic proportions. His critique of the 'Church of Nice'-- though I think it is exaggerated-- is true more often than not. His emphasis on the rational rather than the emotional aspect of Catholicism is also necessary and right. I feel it is only honourable to publish this retraction.

The Church is a sign of contradiction. Trying to soft-soap the Gospel is (I think) a mistake. Now, I'm not denying that there are points of encounter we can find in contemporary culture, or arguing that we always have to be confrontational in our apologetics. But I have significantly less faith in the 'softly' softly' approach than I had until very recently. Judge it by its fruits. How has it fared? Indeed, it seems to me-- from the many, many conversion stories I have read-- that people are more likely to be drawn to the Church on account of its willingness to confront modern society, than through its attempts at 'dialogue' with it.

I've been watching lots of Voris's videos recently (all the free ones, as I can't afford a subscription). But I think it was this one that did it for me. He's completely and utterly right.

I used to disapprove of Voris's videos being carried on the Catholic Voice website, when I wrote for that newspaper. The irony is that my outlook is more 'Catholic Voice' now than it was when I wrote for The Catholic Voice.

This is a longer post than I intended to write. But I felt honour-bound to write it. Let us pray for each other!

Postscript, written the next day: I have been mulling over this post today, and I wanted to add a qualification or two.

First of all, I wouldn't myself adopt Voris's 'Church of Nice' label to describe the mainstream Catholic Church. Far from it. In fact, most of the priests I have known are good priests. At the moment, I regularly attend Mass celebrated by four different priests, and three of them are excellent-- reverential in their celebration of Mass, supernatural and Christ-centred in their homilies, deeply serious, always willing and available for confession. (The fourth priest, unfortunately, tends towards liturgical abuses such as leaving the  altar at the sign of peace, leading the congregation in applause during Mass, and interposing his own words in the liturgy.) I also find Irish congregations to be generally reverent and serious-minded. I don't see people answering their mobile phones or drinking cans of Diet Coke in Mass. I see a great deal of fervour and reverence.

When we look towards the Irish episcopate, however, the matter is very different. Our bishops seem to be terrified of actually preaching the Gospel in season and out of season (a phrase from today's readings, as it happens). The nadir of this was the homosexual marriage referendum in Ireland, where our bishops seemed to spend more time and energy warning against homophobia, and chiding people who were actually opposing the introduction of gay marriage, than upholding the Christian view of marriage and sexuality. They seem entirely unwilling to 'take on' the anti-Christian forces in the Irish media and political system. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is a particularly lamentable example.

And then there is the whole Catholic and Catholic-lite infrastructure in Ireland-- such as the St. Vincent De Paul, which found it appropriate some years ago to donate money to a homosexual resource centre in Galway, or the Veritas bookshops (and publishers) which sell shelves upon shelves of books which are essentially self-help feel-good tracts with the merest flavouring of Christianity. And we cannot forget the Association of Catholic Priests, a dedicated fifth column whose open apostasies have been ceaselessly indulged by our bishops. (I appreciate, however, that the bishops are in a bit of a tricky position. We have so few priests in Ireland now that we need even the bad ones, so long as they are administering valid sacraments.) 

I do not accept or agree that the institutional church is a 'dead man walking' and that there is only a tiny 'remnant' of faithful priests and laity remaining. I do agree that apostasy and worldliness has penetrated deep into the Church in Ireland and elsewhere, but I think it's in an uneven and selective manner. It's not as simple as good parishes vs. bad parishes, or good priests vs. bad priests, or anything so clear-cut. Yes, there are good priests and bad priests-- I'm not judging souls here, but their deeds--  but there are also lots of priests who are a very mixed bag.

There is a tremendous danger of spiritual pride and Pharisaism in even writing on these matters. That is one reason I have found it so difficult to articulate this change of heart. I am very much alive to that danger. And yes, reforming ourselves is always the most important and achievable task. Yes, prayer and penance are essential. But I no longer believe that the laity (or the clergy) should remain silent or inappropriately docile when it comes to abuses and apostasy in the Church, and (even more so) evil and irreligion in society at large. And I am no longer going to criticize Catholics who have the courage to defend the Faith as it needs to be defended-- so long as they steer clear of schism, sedevacantism, lack of reverence towards the Pope, and all the other 'auto-immune' evils whereby spiritual antibodies are no longer attacking a disease but are attacking the organism itself. (I cannot claim credit for this metaphor-- I think I saw it on a blog comment somewhere.)


  1. I agree about how easy it is to fall into the traps you mention, but I'd make these criticisms of most of the Internet before I'd make them of your blog. I've always found this corner of the web an island of sanity in the Internet and even in the Catholic blogosphere, precisely because I have felt that it has its priorities right.

    I know I feel much as you do about earthly traditions and customs, but I don't think you've ever idolised these things as far as I am entitled to judge. For all that idolatry may be a yawning trap, I think you have to go quite a long way down before you reach it. There's a difference between idolatry, which is misplaced worship, and a deep non-devotional attachment to good things that glorify God. Otherwise, where would that leave marriage? Or motherly love?

    The thing about the Catholic faith is that, rightly lived (if only!), it turns everyday life into a proliferation of praise of God, or more precisely a proliferation of kinds of praise of God. In other words, we might (may!) glorify God by worshipping Him in the Eucharist, the 'source and summit', or in the veneration of Our Lady and the saints, or even in proper reverence for created things like tradition, art, music and even sport, come to that. In their different orders, they are all gifts from God with which to furnish our lives, and the world is filled with reflections, and reflections of reflections, of God's glory. You can revere something quite deeply and still be praising the Triune God. If you had been worshipping human tradition as an idol, it wouldn't have led you to the Church!

    One way of guarding against idolatry, it occurs to me, is to mind how one refers to oneself. I'm willing to describe myself as 'a Catholic', 'an Englishman', even 'a writer', because, I suppose, I can see that these are to do with my vocation. But try, and often fail, to resist the temptation to describe myself, for instance, as 'a conservative' because, even though that word might accurately describe many of my beliefs, it doesn't prescribe them. My beliefs that woodlands should be preserved and that the bond of marriage is unsunderable both fall into the category of conservative opinions, but I'm fairly sure I don't hold them simply because they are conservative: I have other reasons to believe them, which I suppose come mainly and ultimately from my Catholic faith (if they don't, they should). It seems to me that if I thought of myself as a conservative I might be more tempted to sneer at theories of global warming or cheer on an unbridled free market, which I don't by any means at the moment, and thus, maybe, in the end, to make conservatism, and not Catholicism, my creed. I'm not immune to this by any means. I'm only mentioning this because I catch myself doing it all the time!

  2. I haven't watched many Michael Voris videos, but from what I have seen I think my main objection to his style, and indeed his substance, is the way he airs the Church's dirty laundry for all to see. The Church is a family, and has disagreements like any family, and it isn't always right to shout them abroad. I also fear he forgets where the battle lines are really drawn, which is between the Church and the world. Hearing him speak, one is made to feel that the walls of the Church have been breached and the enemy is pouring in. Yet surely the Church is the Church, and to some extent once you are in, you are in, even among lukewarm priests and wet congregations. Even though the Enemy sneaks behind the lines, he never breaks them: there's no inner keep or sanctuary to which we have to retreat; we just have to do our part in defending it and rescuing defectors! The Church may be a shambles, but it is a shambles built on a rock — indeed The Rock — and shows no signs of disappearing after two thousand shambolic years. Yet where Voris could fire us up to put right what is undoubtedly lacking in the Church, he makes us afraid and defensive. I think you could reasonably say of Voris that, even if he serves as a spiritual antibody, he has some quite severe side-effects that don't do us any good. Nevertheless, I say all this knowing that he has considerably more backbone than I do.

    That said, these are open traps and easy to fall into. Who's to say I haven't myself? I started reading Catholic blogs regularly around the time that Pope Benedict (God bless B16!) came to the United Kingdom in 2010, and got fired up by their spirited defence of the Church in the face of a good deal of anti-Catholic sentiment: protestors, Internet warriors, the media and so on. (Of course, the visit was a triumph, and the number of troublemakers was actually pitifully small, but they received a sympathetic ear from the media, and for some time there was good reason to think that the visit would be disrupted). Yet once B16 had gently routed all the protestors, some of these blogs seemed to run out of something to get their teeth into, and instead turned on the bishops and clergy of England and Wales. I found the eagerness with which this was done, and the publicity, rather unedifying, especially given their previous courage. It was enthusiastic, not reluctant, criticism. Now, I might be naive, but I rather think that these concerns ought to be made with discretion and that we ought to respect our bishops as much as we can. What about somebody beginning to feel interested in the Church, what would they feel, reading these articles? That was probably idolatry of something like page-views, or writerly momentum, or defensiveness. But — I'll say it again — there's no evidence of that on this blog.

  3. Many thanks for those very thoughtful and kind contributions, Dominic. Recently I have become addicted to cogitation and contemplation so, rather than fire off a response to your points, I am going to mull over them.

    But some responses do occur to me initially. Your comments regarding the Church's dirty laundry is actually something I would have agreed with you on until recently, but I have changed my mind.

    One experience that had a big effect on me was when I went to a funeral with a group of agnostic/atheists, in a Catholic Mass. This particular church had no confessional and one of my friends said: "It must be because nobody goes to confession anymore." The thing is, I really think outsiders DO see a lot of what is going on in the Church. The dirty laundry is there already. The wider culture has developed a good deal of contempt for the Church's embrace of politically correctness and leftist rhetoric. I think it's more important that they see that many Catholics DO take the Faith deadly seriously and are not settling in to a gracious and slow-motion accommodation with secularism. The Oxford Movement in the Church of England is a good analogy here, I think. Newman was treated as a trouble-maker, but he gave a new lease of life to Christianity in England.

    Your comments regarding the Church being a family also reflects something I would have agreed with until recently. I think it was the Synods on the Family that woke me up. The stark truth is that there really are heretical prelates and priests who are quite aware that they are undermining orthodox Christianity and who are determined to carry the day. They are NOT well-intentioned or misguided, and they are not seeking to be true to orthodox Christianity but going awry. I don't see that there is any benefit in being naive about this.

    There IS a danger of becoming addicted to controversy and righteous indignation, and that is something that weighs very heavily on me.

    Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I'm very glad my posts have seemed sane and not idolatrous to you. That is reassuring.

  4. Actually, it's not so much Voris's calling out of bishops and other figures that I appreciate (although I have to be honest and admit that I think it's necessary, though it can go too far and become a kind of blood sport that is enjoyed for its own sake). It's more his continual re-emphasis of the essentials of the Faith, and their supernatural character, which I think have been watered down to such an extent that most people now assume that all religions are basically the same, or that it doesn't matter what you believe, or that the Faith is in a process of continual flux, lagging a little bit behind the surrounding culture. And I do fear that ordinary Catholics are often so mellow and tolerant and vague in our language that we encourage this perception.

    I do also worry that I am excessively worldly in my own Faith, and that in this blog I have often confused my own preoccupations and fascinations with Catholicism. Perhaps I am being over scrupulous. I hope so. But I admit that some of this reaction comes from readings articles and watching videos where various commentators seem determined to read their own preoccupations into the Faith, and to interpret Church teaching and Scripture very creatively.

  5. Yes, I see what you mean. But I suppose one needs serious spiritual armour to wade publicly into this sort of thing: it's advanced-level stuff that I for one haven't yet reached! One would need to be able to argue one's case, and then emerge with a laugh and a smile and a 'The gates of hell shall never prevail'...

    I'm not saying we should all adopt a superficial jollity, nor that all is well in the Church, but that we can't get too wound up about the things that are (undoubtedly) wrong. It's funny - the more convinced I am that the New Evangelisation cannot wait a moment longer, the more relaxed (I think that is the word) I am about the health of the Church, and refuse to get wound up by individual prelates or wilful misinterpretations of Pope F's words, etc. I suppose the best evangelism is the example of a well-adjusted, healthy 'the Catholic Church is a thick steak and a good cigar' foot-soldier (see World Youth Day, for instance), precisely because that's what nobody expects. The world already thinks Catholics are infuriated with 'the hierarchy' in one particular way; if we really are impatient with them, albeit for different reasons than the culture imagines, then our task is only half complete. But it would be quite surprising for most people to hear confidence expressed in the Church as it stands, even if it is later qualified.

  6. Well, again, I think it is the difference between a natural confidence and a supernatural confidence. As I say, I think Voris's dire diagnosis of the Church is exaggerated and I see many promising signs. But how to convey to people that, although the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church in an ultimate sense, human souls and human cultures (look at Germany or Belgium!) have no such guarantee?

  7. >>(My right-wing Catholic friends were often overly insistent on causes like gun ownership or free market capitalism-- but they were rarely shy about defending their Faith, or controversial aspects thereof. On the other hand, I tended to 'unfollow' them pretty quickly. In many ways, I was temperamentally more sympathetic to my 'liberal' Catholic friends.)

    Why's that?

  8. In terms of their personalities, the liberals (not dissident or heretic, I hasten to add) were less abrasive and less confrontational, which accords with my own personality-- for good or ill.