Twilight of the gods?

The interplay of trauma, existential insecurity, and general woe, and the story of mankind’s belief in another life, in God or in gods, seems to persist throughout the ages. We have the Great Flood accounts in both Gilgamesh and in The Bible – given in one as a story of man’s correction by his gods, in the other as an account of the One True God’s solution to man’s waywardness. Then later on in the sacred Judaea-Christian texts, we have the account of the lessons learned by the Israelites about their God’s providence for them through the agency of plagues as they battle with a Pharaoh who has enslaved them. Later their woes in the desert continue to play a part in bringing them back to their supernatural senses as they stray and stray again from their divinely ordered path.

But alongside this persistent narrative we have the seemingly parallel story of mankind’s efforts to deny any agency to a Creator in our lives and a consequent story of punishment for our hubristic follies – from Babel to the Marxist-Leninist utopias of our own time. Are we in the entrance hall of another of these today? An article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs seems to suggest we might be.

Back in 2004 a book appeared, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan. They noted the argument of nineteenth-century social thinkers – from Karl Marx to Max Weber to Émile Durkheim – that the progress of modernity entailed the decline of religion.

Modernization, the authors of Sacred and Secular argued, has involved the rise of rational-bureaucratic states and the gradual displacement of ecclesiastical authority with that of professional and technocratic elites. But they detected, in those early years of this century, a slow-down in this projection. The Tower of Babel projected by Marx had collapsed; that of Weber and Durkheim looked more doubtful in the face of what seemed to be a resurgence of religiosity and a reversal of what had looked like a global trend toward secularization.

This observation was based on what they described as extensive worldwide survey data. To explain what they thought was happening, Norris and Inglehart advanced an “existential security” thesis: the experience of people living in weak and vulnerable societies heightens the importance of religious values, whereas the experience of people in rich and secure societies lessens it. But, supporting their thesis, they found that in most developed countries church attendance and the authority of religious figures had continued to decline, despite what looked like an overall resurgence of religion worldwide.

But now, in 2020, Inglehart is revisiting and updating the data and finds that growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives. Even the United States—long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious—seems to have joined other wealthy countries in moving away from religion. 

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he sees several forces driving this apparent trend, but the most powerful one is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birth-rates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries.

Some religious conservatives, he says, warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality. He disputes this, saying that the evidence doesn’t support the claim. 

As unexpected as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than more religious ones. Needless to say, religion itself doesn’t encourage corruption and crime. This phenomenon reflects the fact that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. And as this level of security rises, people tend to become less religious.

But surely the polarisation and fracturing of modern societies, increase in suicide rates, family  dysfunction and break-up, all place a big question mark over these assumptions? Rigorous and reasonably effective law-enforcement – brutal or not, depending on your point of view, – huge prison populations, may cover-up a multitude of sins.

Is the argument being advanced by Inglehart not flawed by its failure to take cognisance of one crucial element in the architecture of the reality that is the faith of a people – or peoples – in God? The modernist mind-set proposes a blanket denial of the validity of what theology proposes to us for consideration as truth. In doing so it fails to make any allowance for the very real forces which have driven the history of religion from time immemorial. Consequently, end-of-religion predictions are at best questionable, at worst, hopelessly flawed. One might have thought that the abysmal fate of Marxism in its raw communist form would have raised more questions in more minds than it has. Equally the slow pace of the unfolding of the Weber and Durkheim theses hardly inspires confidence – not to mention the doubts we should be having about the chaotic and pitiable pickle in which the neo-Marxist new morality of political correctness has landed us

It may be true that, as Inglehart says, for most people, religious faith is more emotional than cognitive. It may also be true that for most of human history, sheer survival was uncertain and that religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. He says that as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory. When a child no longer needs the support and protection of a parent that does not cancel out the relationship and bond which nature has given them.

If the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mind-set. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures – with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events –  still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events – and follies – of our times.

There can be no doubt but that, as Inglehart says, a quantifiable shift has occurred. Data collected in the World Values Survey over the years offer a glimpse of a deep transformation. The survey uses a ten-point scale based on each country’s acceptance of what might be called the core values of the secularist worldview, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. The numbers presented by this survey they say, while offering a simplified picture of a complex reality, still convey the scale of the recent acceleration of secularization.

But we should surely remind ourselves that the folly of mankind down the ages has come in many shapes and sizes. Not everyone sees divorce, abortion, and the varieties of abuse of sexuality – and the gender-bending which has come in its wake – as marks of progress for mankind. To those who accept the truth of what Revelation and Christian theology tell us about our nature, our society and our destiny, the lazy acceptance of all these things as normal surely needs to be questioned, regardless how many people we count climbing the Tower of Babel.

Inglehart concludes with this observation.

As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives, and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions. That trend seems likely to continue, but the future is always uncertain. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 one reduce people’s sense of existential security. If the pandemic lasts for many years or leads to a new Great Depression, the cultural changes of recent decades might begin to reverse.

On balance, he thinks that shift remains unlikely, “because it would run counter to the powerful, long-term, technology-driven trend of growing prosperity and increased life expectancy that is helping push people away from religion. If that trend continues, the influence that traditional religious authorities wield over public morality will keep shrinking as a culture of growing tolerance becomes ever stronger.”

But the ultimate fallacy which this blinkered vision seems to lead to is that religion is held together among believers by a human agency wielding authority “over public morality”. Any overview of the history of the most durable religion on earth – the Judaea-Christian religion – will show that its persistence in the face of repeated onslaughts of fire, dungeon and sword, points to a much deeper and ultimately more powerful agency – the mystery of a belief in a man who said he was the Son of God, born of the Virgin, who suffered death by crucifixion and rose again, all to save us.

The limited vision of religion which seems to predict, once more, its slow demise, fails to acknowledge the power of a much longer-term factor in the equation – those mysterious forces in which mankind believes and for which theology gives us names and some understanding: divine mercy, divine grace and divine providence. Only if we take account of all this will serious sociology and political science offer us a reasonable basis for working out where we are going and how we might best set a path to the pursuit of true happiness for future generations.

Fiction that takes us a step beyond

There is a genre of fiction with which not everyone may feel comfortable. It either suggests a holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness or worse, a touch of the sect about it. But there is no getting away from it. It exists – and it has to exist. It is the “Catholic novel”.

This not just a genre in which Catholicism is the subject chosen by the authors. It is literature in which the authors, for good or for ill, cannot escape from the Catholic faith – or the culture of that faith and the condition of that culture in the time and place in which they may live. The authors may be practicing Catholics, doubt-filled Catholics, or lapsed Catholics.

What we see in this genre of fiction is a trace in the soul of the author. It is a trace which has enables a writer to tell something of the story of their faith, their vision of what it is to be human – and to be divine. Joyce did this – rebelling against much, but not all, of it; Waugh did it – exuberantly; Greene did it with some kind of a twist all his own. Some did it with a grim preoccupation with our sinfulness, others did it rejoicing more in our redemption.

The English novel in the nineteenth century had a good deal of it, much of it from people who were denominational Protestants rather than Catholics but in whom enough of the old faith still lived to give them a Christian vision of the human condition.  We will find it in Dickens, in the Brontes and in the earlier George Eliot. But by the time of Hardy, James, Conrad and Woolf, we enter into the age of denial – and a denial which is deep in the heart, not just in the head – as it was in Joyce. I don’t think Joyce really believed his disbelief. He had too much affection for the good people whom he loved and who believed. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries this is really only be found in Catholic writers.

Ann Patchett is a 21st century novelist who is a Catholic and who really understands how, in her fiction, her Catholic mind and heart are important to her vision of our world and its meaning. That surely is what makes her writing so authentic. She says that she is writing for herself. In an interview she has said that she wondered if people are buying her novels and “using them as building material or putting additions on their house with them or something.” 

“But I know”, she says, “there’s some way in which I don’t make that fundamental connection between what I do in the privacy of my home when I’m sitting in my study working and what somebody else is doing in the privacy of their home years later when they’re sitting in their study reading. I don’t write for an audience.” She writes from within and she expects her readers to recreate within themselves what her writing means to them.

Another interpretation of that position – and one that is founded on the christian experience – is that fiction at this level is nothing more or less than prayer, a conversation with not just the creator of what we are reading, but with the Creator of all things. That is the essence of the Catholic novel, and an essence of which not the slightest trace will be found in the writing of someone whose vision has been obscured or obliterated by the scales of materialism which cloud their eyes. Surely this is what makes so much late 20th century and contemporary fiction so empty and unrewarding for the the human spirit.

What we are looking at in this genre of fiction is not some kind of sanctimonious posturing for a niche market. No doubt that market exists and there are writers who set out to supply it. But when we receive a gift of the genuine product from a writer like Patchett we are in fact receiving a kind of grace, an insight which they give us of a wider world, a world beyond both us and them. The capability of what they give us may be positive and pleasing or it may be negative, showing us something regrettable but none the less real and therefore worth receiving. Catholic literary fiction has about it something of the character of sacred prophesy.

Patchett has said, “Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.”

To do that I think you really need to know something about the human soul and its destiny. Patchett was once asked why Catholics who both adore and sometimes struggle with their faith play such a major role in her stories? “Because I am one, both adoring and struggling. I went to Catholic schools for 12 years, and it’s just so much a part of the fabric of my life that I would have a hard time picking it out of things. It’s not that I’m trying to put it into my writing. It’s that I would have a hard time getting it out.”

Speaking of the emphasis Catholic morality places on virtue, she explained the influence of her upbringing and education in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard:

“The nuns raised us to believe that poverty was the most noble calling, the very best thing you could be if you were spiritually evolved,” she says. “So I’m horrified by what I have, and as much as I give away and try to do the right thing, I know I don’t try hard enough.” In her most recent book, this virtue is a major theme. “I was coming at it from those two polarities: the worship of wealth and the worship of poverty.”

In The Dutch House Patchett tells a story, and if she allows me the license she gives her readers, I read it as a funny but also a sad, poignant story. It is not so only because of the real, funny and flawed people who populate it, but because of what it tells about the neglect of many virtues in popular Catholic culture today. At the centre of the novel is the eponymous Dutch House and the influence it seems to have on all the characters whose lives it touches. What does it represent? It represents both wealth and beauty and the corrupting power of both. But at the same time the story reveals how good people can free themselves from this influence and let it become something benign and enriching.

It is a story of a girl and a boy growing into adulthood over about four decades. It is the story of their relationship with their parents, a step-parent and step-sisters, the boy’s wife and the children of that family, along with serveral other major and minor characters who play key roles in their story. The non-linear narrative takes us backwards and forwards through the decades with the girl and the boy, Maeve – five or six years older – and Daniel, one or other, never off the pages from beginning to end. None of the central characters is shown to be flawless. Some we experience as irritatingly so, others tragically so. Big mistakes are made by some which end up punishing others and for which the subjects themselves are punished. But there are no villains, they are all simply fallible human beings like ourselves and those we see around us every day. They are also people who, with varying degrees of depth, live with a consciousness that there is a truth beyond this world and that moral values are real – even iif they do not always live by them. Their faith, for the most part Catholic, is a real element in their lives. That a novel set in this context, in our secular age, has resonated so powerfully with readers around the world is remarkable.

But perhaps that very resonance owes something to the way in which this novel also says something to us about the wider picture it gives us of the state of Catholic culture in this age – with not a little suggestion that it is slowly evaporating before the onslaught of the now dominant materialistic and individualistic ethos. These human being could exist anywhere but in this story they exist in mid-twentieth century America. The children’s parents are Irish American Catholics. The children grow up as Catholics, conscientiously go to Mass every Sunday – although as their family begins to unravel the older and more conscientious sibling eventually is unable to persuade Daniel to get out of bed to do so. Then there is divorce, there is co-habitation, contraception – all still with a recognition of the moral waywardness of those things. But as time passes the moral sense weakens and these things become easier to live with. The ease with which the moral environment slowly dissolves is an accurate reflection of the way we have seen it all happen over those decades up to the present age. As we know, we now live in a time when for the children and the grandchildren of the characters in this story, the characteristic response to the question of what religious culture they adhere to is simply “none”.

As I said, I am reading Ann Patchett with the presumed license she gives her readers to to see in her writing a meaning which we cannot presume is her own. But as well as telling the story of the Dutch House and all the characters whose lives it touches, she is also inevitably portraying a culture as it has evolved, for better or worse, over the times she has chosen in which to set this story. For me that broader cultural story is a sad one, devoid of the humour and goodness evident in the lives of the characters she has so engagingly created for us. But that sadness is not something she is responsible for. That is something for which we ourselves have to take responsibility, and, if we take a commitment to our Catholic faith at all seriously, think about the challenge with which it presents us.

A rudderless ship on a treacherous sea

One of the many, many revealing things which historian Tom Holland brings to our attention in his important book, Dominion, (reviewed by James Bradshaw in last December’s issue of Position Papers) is the distinction between the secular and the religious which Christianity brought to our Civilization.

Properly understood, this distinction is embodied in Christ’s own words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” Philosophically the great elaboration of this teaching is rendered to us by St. Augustine in his City of God, where the journey of humankind in this world is described in terms of our harmonious – or otherwise – engagement with the affairs of the planet in the Earthly City and the life of the spirit in the Heavenly City.

What this distinction does not mean, of course, is that these two realms do not mix and merge with each other. They do, but ultimately do so in the consciences of each one of us, either well or badly – a good conscience requires that our actions in one realm are at peace with our actions, beliefs and understanding in the other. If not, our lives will be on a short road to the horror of rank hypocrisy.

All of which brought me back to reflect on a book written about two years ago by Isabel Hardman, now assistant editor of The Spectator. Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a worrying book. It places before us a picture which tells us that all is not well in the affairs and workings of the Earthly City. She wrote this book in the context of British political life but our own everyday observation makes it clear, however, that the malaise in that system is one which is mirrored in many if not most western democracies. Nor is it just the rise of what we rather lazily call “populism” which is at the heart of our current winter of discontent. That is just a symptom of the deeper problem infecting our political souls.

Hardman’s book is the fruit of more than two years research carried out largely in the heart of the mother of parliaments. Essentially, the concerns she raises about modern political life stem from the breakdown of that vital connection between the governed and the governing. This crucial element in the structure of a functioning political system has been damaged to the degree that it no longer seems fit for purpose. The challenge which Hardman lays before us now is that of finding a solution to this rift.

It is a good book, descriptive and anecdotal rather than severely analytical. Despite its provocative title, it is a very balanced and honest examination of the workings of British parliamentary democracy, a kind of limited version of de Tocqueville’s 19th century masterpiece, Democracy in America.

On the one hand the elected governors have to be wise enough and willing enough to address both the deficiencies in the system and the personal inertia which for decades – if not for the best part of a century – has prevented them from doing so to date. On the other hand, the governed have also to be wiser and more willing to appreciate the very nature and limitations of the system they expect to serve their common good. As a consequence they must demand integrity and better leadership from their politicians. .

Among the things she highlights as blighting the judgment of all those who are seeking – or who should be seeking – the common good in the earthly city is the debilitating phenomenon which we now call the “bubble” effect.

The Westminster Bubble, she tells us, was first identified in the late 1990s. It was a description of the tight community of politicians, researchers, think tanks and journalists around Parliament. “It has gained increasingly negative connotations as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored. Bubble members are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

It is this which is at the root of the distrust which so many now harbour about the assemblies of their representatives in many jurisdictions, including Ireland. Hardman observes that MPs are the least trusted professional group, surveys tell us – below estate agents, bankers and journalists – with just 21 per cent of Britons saying they’d trust an MP to tell the truth.

A YouGov poll Hardman commissioned for her book asked those who wouldn’t even consider standing for Parliament what put them off. Forty-one per cent of them said, ‘I don’t like politicians and the way politics works’, and 16 per cent said, ‘none of the main political parties reflects my views’.

This is serious and is, to an extent, a form of disenfranchisement. If 16 per cent is bad, think of the 30 plus percent of the Irish who now consider themselves disenfranchised. Over 90 per cent of Irish legislators passed an extremely liberal abortion law (they deny that it is extreme, of course) with the effect that the 33 percent who clearly opposed abortion in a referendum in 2018 now consider that they have no effective representation in parliament.

In the Irish context two major factors have produced this chronic dysfunction in that country’s political life.

The first is the fatal three-way nexus which characterises politics there. The system is essentially one where a group of, at best, marginally trusted parliamentarians, locked into a rigid party system, represents the people. In her book Hardman does a great job of describing how the “necessary evil” – de Tocqueville’s term – of the party system militates against genuine choice in the British system. It is even more limiting in Ireland.

That group is assisted in the work of government by a cadre of elite public servants – particularly in departments with a brief for social policy – seriously infected with the left-leaning ideology dominating the Irish universities in which they were educated. This elite has been perpetuating itself in that ideological image for decades. Both these elements in turn are manipulated by a media establishment of the same essential colour. This part of the machine cheerleads when things are going according to its ideological principles. When they veer off course, pressure is applied to bring them back by seeking to mould public opinion to the desired shape. This is done partly by the cultivation of a range of pressure groups driven by the self-same secular liberal principles.

The second factor behind this effective disenfranchisement is effectively the child of the first – the collapse of trust in anything said by any of the people in power within this nexus. Surveys of this trust factor don’t exist in Ireland – suggesting perhaps the extent of control which the protagonists in this story have over the narrative about themselves.

Almost twenty years ago the late David Foster Wallace summed up what he saw as a major factor behind the killing of political interest among the young in America. Guess what? It was distrust. Things have moved on inexorably since then but there is little doubt but that what America is now experiencing politically is the direct descendant of what Wallace drew attention to.

Wallace was commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the late Senator John McCain in the primaries for the US election of 2000. At that time McCain, rightly or wrongly, was the face of honesty in US politics. As such he seemed to electrify youth with a promise of integrity. Eventually his campaign was snuffed out by his party’s power-brokers, but before that happened Wallace explained McCain’s appeal in terms of his express commitment to telling the truth. McCain often finished his rallies with this refrain:

“I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.” (sic)

Wallace did not think it was that simple. “But you have to wonder,” he wrote. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie? Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candour, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four —- it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie ‘How would you like it if. . . ?’”.

“Render to Caesar…” The truth, a foundational truth of our Christian civilization, is that without each of us rendering to God that which God asks us to render – honouring truth, serving justice and loving each other as children of a Father who is God himself – rendering to Caesar will be a meaningless sham. A world without God, as Nietzsche tragically foretold, will be a world of misery and barbarism. A political life in which political activists work as if God did not exist will be grim indeed. For as long as the earthly city lasts it needs to be inhabited by souls whose consciences tell them the difference between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice – and ultimately between good and evil. The secular world, devoid of the perceptions which the City of God brings to it, is like a rudderless ship on a treacherous sea.

This article incorporates material from earlier Garvan Hill posts and in this form has now been published in the print and online August/September edition of Dublin based magazine, Position Papers.

The heroic legacy of John Hume

Posted on MercatorNet this morning:

A mural created in Derry to honour John Hume along with fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa

It was a cold, cold night in the city of Derry on February 9, 1969. The world’s media had descended on the province of Ulster. There were no barricades, bombs or bullets yet, but after months of street protests, police harassment and auxiliary police brutality against civil rights demonstrators, Northern Ireland had something of the whiff of a powder-keg about it. Earlier that week, prime minister Terrence O’Neill had dissolved the Stormont parliament and declared a general election.

Everyone knew that this election had the promise of being the beginning of the end of an ancien regime but no one would have guessed that the end was going to take so long — or to be so pain-soaked and murderous. The election itself solved nothing but it did mark one truly significant event in the history of Ireland — the entry of John Hume into the political life of his country. From the moment on that cold Saturday night in the old City Hotel, under the shadow of the Guild Hall clock tower, when Hume decided he was going to contest the parliamentary seat for the city, he never left the political limelight. He was to remain center-stage throughout the long and bitter slow-burn civil war which Ulster was to experience for the next 30 years. 

It was a war, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, which for those 30 years was to unsettle the peace of those green and pleasant lands which make up that historic archipelago to the north west of Europe. When peace eventually came, Hume was among its architects — probably its chief architect — and for his heroism and his constancy in forging that peace, he was deservedly awarded a Nobel Prize. On that wintry night in 1969, peace and justice in his land was already his goal.

I sat with him in the bar of the hotel that evening as the local civil rights activists of the city congregated there to discuss and take the measure among themselves as to what should be done in the light of the political development which had just occurred. The sitting member of parliament for the constituency was the veteran Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer. Nationalist ideology had not become irrelevant in Ireland but the issue of the Unionist government’s denial of basic civil rights to a large minority of people — distrusted because they were Catholics — was now the political problem to be resolved.

Read the full post here.

John Hume, the man who asked for mirac

Today, on MercatorNet, I write about an Irish hero, John Hume, beginning with my account of a personal encounter back in 1969.

It was a cold, cold night in the city of Derry on February 9, 1969. The world’s media had descended on the province of Ulster. There were no barricades, bombs or bullets yet, but after months of street protests, police harassment and auxiliary police brutality against civil rights demonstrators, Northern Ireland had something of the whiff of a powder-keg about it. Earlier that week, prime minister Terrence O’Neill had dissolved the Stormont parliament and declared a general election.

Everyone knew that this election had the promise of being the beginning of the end of an ancien regime but no one would have guessed that the end was going to take so long — or to be so pain-soaked and murderous. The election itself solved nothing but it did mark one truly significant event in the history of Ireland — the entry of John Hume into the political life of his country. From the moment on that cold Saturday night in the old City Hotel, under the shadow of the Guild Hall clock tower, when Hume decided he was going to contest the parliamentary seat for the city, he never left the political limelight. He was to remain center-stage throughout the long and bitter slow-burn civil war which Ulster was to experience for the next 30 years. 

It was a war, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, which for those 30 years was to unsettle the peace of those green and pleasant lands which make up that historic archipelago to the north west of Europe. When peace eventually came, Hume was among its architects — probably its chief architect — and for his heroism and his constancy in forging that peace, he was deservedly awarded a Nobel Prize. On that wintry night in 1969, peace and justice in his land was already his goal.

I sat with him in the bar of the hotel that evening as the local civil rights activists of the city congregated there to discuss and take the measure among themselves as to what should be done in the light of the political development which had just occurred. The sitting member of parliament for the constituency was the veteran Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer. Nationalist ideology had not become irrelevant in Ireland but the issue of the Unionist government’s denial of basic civil rights to a large minority of people — distrusted because they were Catholics — was now the political problem to be resolved.

John Hume, whom I was interviewing for my paper, talked with me late into that night and was clearly anguishing over whether or not he should run for the seat. For him, however, it was not a question of whether he might win or lose — he was certain to win the seat if he ran. It was a question of loyalty to McAteer, a man who was a friend and who had faithfully served the people of Derry, for a quarter of a century. But it was also clear to Hume that the old politics of the province had to change and the historic preoccupations of the Nationalist Party were no longer fit for purpose. In the end he saw that he had no choice. He decided to contest the seat. On Monday, 10 February, he launched his campaign.

Read my full post here.



I recently watched a conversation between Richard Dawkins and the redoubtable Cardinal George Pell. As you might expect, given that dramatis personae, it revolved around the “God question”. It was not a recent encounter. It dated back about a decade or so, but already within it there were signals of what was to come in terms of the unjust persecution of George Pell which was to unfold over the years since then. It was hosted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The abysmal dereliction of ABC’s media responsibilities in the saga of that prosecution could already be sensed in the uneven-handed role of their chosen moderator for this encounter. That, however, is a topic for another time. 

Just now what is of interest is the discussion itself between these two  and the the lights which it throws on our world, our faith and the enduring struggles of our race to see and understand what our lives and our existence mean. The protagonists in that little drama represented in a real way the two choices which mankind as a whole is faced with – that of choosing between the two paths on offer to us in our passage through this world – revealing the hopeless and tragic nature of one as opposed to the hopeful and joy-filled prospect opened up by the other.

The contrast between the two men was striking indeed. The easily agitated Dawkins, while not quite his usual arrogant self, but bordering on it, did not seem as comfortable in his skin as the calm and assured Pell. The latter was unruffled and quietly confident with his vision of the divine and the divinely balanced harmony of the natural and supernatural worlds. His vision was grounded in his grasp of that one thing which Dawkins found incomprehensible – that there might be, paraphrasing Hamlet, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. Any man for whom Aristotelian metaphysics is little more than gobbledygook is a man lost at sea in the world occupied by a man like George Pell.

It can only be with sadness that we contemplate the limited vision of our fellow men and women of whom Dawkins is a type. He is the type of the “scandalised” man explained to us by Romano Guardini in his book, The Humanity of Christ, when he speaks to us of the tragedy of the “antithesis of faith”. He recalls the words of Christ when he responded to John the Baptist’s question addressed to him through his disciples, “Art thou he that is to come that is to come, or look we for another?” At the end of his answer to the Baptist, Christ adds, “And blessed is he that shall not be scandalised in me” (Mat. 11. 3, 6)

Christ, by his incarnation, was the like of which had never been seen before – he was, is, “the beginning” of something utterly new and as such made an astounding demand on those who would choose to follow him. It was a choice to be made in full freedom but a freedom which if exercised wrongly, deprived the denier of all access to the Truth itself. As Guardini put it,

The possibility that people would be scandalised by him was part of his nature, for the very reason that he is the beginning. He expected men to give up the certainties of this world and risk everything for his sake. If a man was able to accept these terms, then the new relationship of grace and of faith emerged and a new life began. But if the man shut up his heart and  refused, then he rebelled against the notion that Christ  was expecting this of him; and this constitutes being scandalised.

Faith or scandal: these are the only real attitudes caused in man by Christ. Faith sees him as the beginning and takes its stance there. It is prepared to think and live as from Christ, to submit to his judgement and appeal to his grace. Scandal affirms that he is the enemy of life, the world’s adversary, and declares on him a war the like of which is unknown. Perhaps the only clearly defined lesson of history is to the effect that this cleavage becomes more and more pronounced. More and more  obviously the world is becoming divided into those  who believe in Christ and those who find him a scandal. (The Humanity of Christ, pp 125-6).

This is the tragedy – and the challenge – of our time. It is not new. It is indeed both triumph and tragedy, just as the events on Golgotha two thousand years ago were, and still are, both triumph and tragedy. Similarly, the story of each man’s salvation or otherwise is triumph or tragedy, every day. And for each man and woman seeking salvation herein lies the challenge, a challenge which was playing out before our eyes as George Pell sought to dialogue with Richard Dawkins in that hostile television studio ten years ago.

It is also the challenge foreseen by Karl Adam when he wrote in his book “The Son of God”, many decades ago, of the immense danger facing European Christians of his time. Then, he said, – and the danger is even more acute in our time – “not only individual thinkers but thought itself has consciously turned from God and become atheistical; and this is even true of Christian thought in Europe. All our thoughts and opinions move in ruts which only have a meaning on purely naturalistic presuppositions, in as much as they  are deliberately and on principle limited to sensual experience.” G. K. Chesterton, he recalled, said, “The natural can be the most unnatural of all things to a man.” A vision of the world, the great apologist was arguing, which deliberately confines itself to natural occurrences is actually unnatural, for it takes the smallest section of reality to be the whole reality, and ignores or denies the ultimate roots of this reality, its profoundest relations, its connection with the invisible, the super-terrestrial, the divine. 

Adam described how our thought is now divorced from the totality of being, from the wealth of all the possibilities, since it has isolated itself from the creative thought of God. Modern man, in his view, in breaking away from faith, thought he could emancipate all human thought from the creative thought of God; he artificially mapped out a particular field of reality and called it Nature,  encouraging “the evil illusion” that the other reality, the supernatural, was  a more or less secondary reality – or worse, a delusion. The consequence was that nature was secularised by being released from its actual union with the supernatural, and the fiction was favoured that Nature was a thing per se capable of complete and independent explanation.

The way out of our impasse, he maintained was to again take seriously the truth that the possibilities of modern man do not exhaust God’s possibilities, and that our thought is conditioned and bounded in time and therefore in no sense comparable with the absolute thought of God. To do this wmust again become little before God and abandon our arrogant autonomy and autocracy, our narrow-minded rationalism and “sickly enlightenment”. He wrote that we must again return to ourselves, to our true nature, to the child in us. “Never in the whole history of the West was the word of Jesus so full of significance, so charged with fate as it is today, that word which he spoke to his own disciples: Unless  you … become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3)

And this huge gap in the vision of modern man is at core of the heart-breaking tragedy unfolding itself in the lives of Richard Dawkins and all campaigning atheists and their fellow travellers. It is as a virus in the soul, more deadly than any in the physiological order, deadly for us as persons and deadly for our civilisation which has never looked more decadent than it does today. This scandalising and blinding virus calls for a response from all those with the vision of truth which Cardinal George Pell, by the grace of God, has. They also can do as he does: calmly, and with clarity and affection, try to bring them to a vision of the truth – but all the time realising also that in this endeavour, without the grace of God accompanying them, all the words in the world are as so much hot air. For those now living among the fragments of what we call Western Civilisation, this is the great challenge of our time.

The Christian future – resurgence or ruin?


In the cover story of the Easter edition of The Spectator, Luke Coppen, lately editor of the Catholic Herald and currently London correspondent for the Catholic News Agency, contemplated the strange ghostly panorama of worship around the world just now. For Christians it was, he said, an Easter like no other. It was, in some ways. However, it did resemble another Easter – the very first Easter.  

Coppen went on to look at the two interpretations which are now being offered on the subject of the future of Christianity in the light of this strange social, economic and religious landscape which we currently find ourselves inhabiting. 

He found Christian thinkers split into two broad camps: those who believe the crisis will lead to a religious revival and those who think it will hasten the demise of organised religion. Ruination or resurgence, which one will it be? 

The first of those outcomes, ruination, is not an option for Christianity because ruination and the divine are incompatible. The unbelievers around the foot of the Cross on that first Easter weekend scoffed with words that sceptics have continued to parrot ad nauseam down through the centuries:  

And those who passed by heaped abuse on Him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, come down from the cross and save Yourself!” In the same way, the chief priests and scribes mocked Him among themselves, saying, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself!… 

But He did – and He saved us as well. 

The second option, resurgence, is a more credible outcome. But as a hope, particularly in the terms in which we think about it, it is tainted with superficiality. History is really not such a fickle thing to allow itself to be turned on events of the ultimately passing kind as is this temporary terror.  

If we are looking for a resurgence of the kind which were imagined to have occurred in the so-called Great Revivals of the past, resurgences filled with, and built on, a dreamy enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God on earth, we will be foolish – and disappointed. The work which has to be done and the power which will bring that resurgence about requires a deeper supernatural outlook and a more profound appreciation of the ways of God than are contained in this kind of philosophy. It will also require a better grasp of the long view of history and of where the false turnings of mankind have brought us. 

We might begin by reflecting on a penetrating analysis of the state of Christianity by the young Fr Joseph Ratzinger in a 1958 lecture. In that famous – long and indeed difficult – lecture, he gave us a map of what a deep and genuine resurgence of the Christian Church might look like.  

According to religious statistics at that time, he pointed out, old Europe was still a part of the earth that was almost completely Christian. But, he said, that statistic is false: “This so-called Christian Europe for almost four hundred years has become the birthplace of a new paganism, which is growing steadily in the heart of the Church, and threatens to undermine her from within.” That was 1958. We now know how the grip of that new paganism has tightened and indeed strangled whole swathes of the Christian West.   

His analysis was as stark as it was startling:

The outward shape of the modern Church is determined essentially by the fact that, in a totally new way, she has become the Church of pagans, and is constantly becoming even more so. She is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans. Paganism resides today in the Church herself, and precisely that is the characteristic of the Church of our day, and that of the new paganism, so that it is a matter of a paganism in the Church, and of a Church in whose heart paganism is living. 

  Summing up his description of how he saw things back in 1958, he said: 

One should speak rather about the much more characteristic phenomenon of our time, which determines the real attack against the Christian, from the paganism within the Church herself, from the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (Mk 13:14). 

In the lecture he took us through the historical process in which the Church’s mission grew and developed – the path to the era in which we now find ourselves, and from which, if there is to be a meaningful resurgence, we must emerge with a renewed co-redemptive response to God’s call to both increase and multiply and preach the Gospel to all men.  

When the Church had her beginning, he explained, it rested on the spiritual decision of the individual person to believe. There was an act of personal conversion. The Church was a community of believers, of men and women who had adopted a definite spiritual choice. Because of that, they distinguished themselves from all those who refused to make this choice. In the common possession of this decision, and based on the strength of the conviction with which it was held, the true and living community of the faithful was founded, and also its certainty. Furthermore, because of this, as the community of those in the state of grace, they knew that they were separated from those who closed themselves off from grace. Grace, and the sacraments through which grace was channelled to believers, was the sine qua non of this community. But it was a community which reached out, constantly, to evangelise those not sharing their treasures. 

But by the Middle Ages, as Fr Ratzinger described in his lecture, this dynamic changed. The Church and the world now became identical, and so to be a Christian fundamentally no longer meant that a person made his own decision about the faith. Being a Christian became, a political-cultural presupposition. Today, this outward identity of Church and world has remained. What has disappeared is the conviction that in this, that is, in the “unchosen” belonging to the Church, also that a certain divine favour, a heavenly redemption lies hidden. By which I think he meant, so called nominal Christians have neither an interest in nor any sense of grace. 

What he proposed back in 1958 is as pertinent today as it was then:

It must become clear that Sacraments without faith are meaningless, and the Church here will have to abandon gradually and with great care, a type of activity, which ultimately includes a form of self-deception, and deception of others. In this matter, the more the Church brings about a self-limitation, the distinction of what is really Christian and, if necessary, becomes a small flock, to this extent will she be able, in a realistic way, to reach the second level, that is, to see clearly that her duty is the proclamation of the Gospel.  

In short, resurgence will be a matter of depth before it becomes a matter of   expansion. He added to this the ideal that, naturally, among the faithful,

… gradually something like the brotherhood of communicants should once again be established who, because of their common participation in the Lord’s Table in their private life, feel and know that they are bound together. This is so that in times of need, they can count on each other, and they know they really are a family community. This family community, which the Protestants have, and which attracts many people to them, can and should be sought, more and more, among the true receivers of the Sacraments. The individual Christian will strive more earnestly for a brotherhood of Christians, and, at the same time, try to show his shared humanity, to unbelievers around him, in a truly human and deeply Christian way. 

In other words, it will become a resurgence of evangelisation, of mission, as well as of personal conviction and commitment of love. This, of course, echoes what Karl Adam wrote in The Son of God back in 1934 (Scepter Publishers, Princeton, N.J. 1992, p 14):

The third mark of Christianity is its sociological  form. Because the Man Jesus, the personified “ We ” of the redeemed, embraces in his Person the whole multitude of those needing redemption, Christianity is essentially a union of the members with their Head, a Holy Community, a Holy Body. There is no such thing as an isolated and solitary Christian, for there is no isolated and solitary Christ. This interior and invisible union of the members with the Head necessarily presses for an exterior unity equally close-knit. Hence Christianity in the world of time and space has existed always as an exterior unity, as a visible community, as a Church. Christianity has always demanded that its interior unity should be embodied and exhibited in an exterior unity. Christianity has ever been an ecclesiastical Christianity; it has never been anything else.  

 So, post-Corona will there be a resurgence? There will, but it will be so because resurgence is in the DNA of Christianity. Resurrection is something Christians profess and proclaim every time they attend Mass. But it will be a resurgence founded on more than the simple goodness and generosity, wonderful though that may be, of the thousands, hundreds of thousands indeed, now responding so heroically to the needs of their fellow-human beings in this Covid-crisis. 

The salvation of mankind is a divinely wrought-thing – with which everything that is human in us must cooperate. But without our recognition and acceptance of that divine intervention – and the sacramental signs it has gifted to us – Christianity has no meaning. Without this, our lives and our actions might for a time remain christian but they will not be Christian. 

The terms and conditions for a Christian resurgence are encompassed by the words and spirit of the collect prayer of the Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday: 

God of ever-living mercy, who, in the very recurrence of the paschal feast, kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in whose font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, through whose Blood they have been redeemed.

(This post was first published in the May edition of Position Papers)


It was an eerie sight. The lone figure of the Vicar of Christ on earth standing under a canopy in the rain-drenched esplanade of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome addressing the world, Urbi et orbi. A little short of one year earlier he imparted the same traditional blessing to something in the region of a hundred thousand pilgrims gathered in the same esplanade. What apocalyptic event had brought this about? We know the answer well enough – and few will argue that the ‘A’ word is overstating reality.

For some, perhaps for many, thinking and talking about death betrays a morbid obsession. For others it is a truly liberating preoccupation, for it is an engagement with a reality, a gate through which we enter on the Way to nothing less than Truth and Life itself.

The message of that evening was about hope; hope in the face of fear – for fear is what now is predominantly in the hearts of mankind, the fear of death. But the message of hope was centred on the answer to that question asked by Christ of those fearful disciples in the sinking boat who called out to be saved from what looked to them like certain death. Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

The Scriptural apocalyptic vision of death describes it as coming accompanied by and through the three-fold agency of Famine, War and Pestilence. In the lifetimes of those of us present on this planet today the former two have been, sadly, familiar enough. The latter, in the terms in which it threatens us today and now – the prospect that it would bear away, as some experts estimate, forty million of us were it to get out of control – is a new experience. But in all this there is also an invitation to each one of us to reflect on the true nature of that fourth horseman – is he friend or is he foe?

He is friend for he is the bringer of wisdom. Don’t be afraid of death. Accept it from now on, generously … when God wills it, where God wills it, as God wills it. Don’t doubt what I say: it will come in the moment, in the place and in the way that are best: sent by your Father-God. Welcome be our sister death! (The Way, 739) These are the words of St Josemaría Escrivá.

The wisdom which the Christian life embodies encompasses both a glorious rejoicing in the gift of life and a peaceful acceptance of the inevitable moment in which we will pass from this temporary sojourn to an eternal joy. What Pope Francis reminded us of emphatically was that faith is the antidote to fear. His words were also a reminder and an encouragement to fight together those three humanly engineered real enemies of mankind, War, Famine and Pestilence. We know that Death came into the world through the willful folly of our race. But we also know that the act and witness of Christ’s death on a Cross, followed by his Resurrection, has totally changed its meaning for mankind and is now in itself a reminder to us of the true meaning and ultimate end of our existence.

Napoleon Bonaparte, approaching death on the bleak South Atlantic Island of St Helena, reflected on his self-absorbed life and the turbulent events of his time. In doing so, with the help of his sister Death, he finally and peacefully saw the true measure of the significance of life, fame and human glory.

St John Henry Newman recalled – in The Grammar of Assent – that in the solitude of his imprisonment, and in the view of death, Napoleon was said to have reflected on the motivations of his years in pursuit of glory.

“I have been”, he said, “accustomed to put before me the examples of Alexander and Cæsar, with the hope of rivalling their exploits, and living in the minds of men for ever. Yet, after all, in what sense does Cæsar, in what sense does Alexander live? Who knows or cares anything about them? At best, nothing but their names is known; for who among the multitude of men, who hear or who utter their names, really knows anything about their lives or their deeds, or attaches to those names any definite idea?”

“But, on the contrary” he is reported to have continued, “there is just One Name in the whole world that lives; it is the Name of One who passed His years in obscurity, and who died a malefactor’s death. Eighteen hundred years have gone since that time, but still it has its hold upon the human mind. It has possessed the world, and it maintains possession.” 

“Amid the most varied nations, under the most diversified circumstances, in the most cultivated, in the rudest races and intellects, in all classes of society, the Owner of that great Name reigns. High and low, rich and poor acknowledge Him. Millions of souls are conversing with Him, are venturing on His word, are looking for His presence. Palaces, sumptuous, innumerable, are raised to His honour; His image, as in the hour of His deepest humiliation, is triumphantly displayed in the proud city, in the open country, in the corners of streets, on the tops of mountains. It sanctifies the ancestral hall, the closet, and the bedchamber; it is the subject for the exercise of the highest genius in the imitative arts. It is worn next the heart in life; it is held before the failing eyes in death.”

“Here, then, is One who is not a mere name, who is not a mere fiction, who is a reality. He is dead and gone, but still He lives, – lives as the living, energetic thought of successive generations, as the awful motive-power of a thousand great events. He has done without effort what others with life-long struggles have not done. Can He be less than Divine? Who is He but the Creator Himself; who is sovereign over His own works, towards whom our eyes and hearts turn instinctively, because He is our Father and our God?”

And it was to Him, two hundred years after Napoleon uttered those wise words, that Pope Francis once again drew the city of Rome and all the cities of the world to ask for help today as we face the rampaging Third Horseman of the Apocalypse, asking for help to deal with the multiple devastations he will bring in his wake. But the miraculous crucifix which was so central in the images relayed from St Peter’s on March 27 reminded us powerfully of the truth that death itself is not a fearful thing, but is the true beginning of all Wisdom and Life.

(First published in Position Papers, April 2020.

Staring us in the face…

Going hand in hand to an uncertain future

Michel Barnier continues to huff and puff about what he clearly considers to be a reincarnation of Perfidious Albion while Europe itself, that is the entity that is the European Union rather than the real thing – from Ireland to the Urals – faces what many diagnose as an existential malady. And that’s not Covid19.

The editor of The Week, Theo Tait, in the current issue of the magazine, asks, ‘What is the “existential problem” facing the EU? The euro’s many crises? The bloc’s democratic deficit? Immigration in the Mediterranean? The coronavirus apocalypse? 

None of the above, he suggests, taking up the theme of the current EU President, Andrej Plenkovic, the PM of Croatia – which currently holds the EU presidency.

It is none of these,  Plenkovic maintains. it’s the depopulation of large parts of eastern and southern Europe, due to migration and low birth rates. 

The demographic reality is that since 1989, the population of the Baltic republics has declined by almost a third; Bulgaria lost 20% of its people, and is projected to lose 20% more in the coming 30 years. Romania’s population fell from 22.4 million in 2000 to 19.5 million in 2018. Between 2013, when Croatia joined the EU, and 2017, some 5% of its people moved to other member states. Since the financial crisis in 2008, Greece and Spain have also seen great waves of emigration to other parts of the EU.

It is a startling picture and there is no sign of a swing in any other direction just now. The UK, which suffers from the same malady has just revealed that it kills one in every four children who begin life in the wombs of their mothers. It is – apart from its immorality – demographic and economic madness rooted in myopic selfishness, blinding the carriers of the virus to the fate they will be facing in thirty of forty years from now.

In the shorter term the migration of populations is showing what will be happening decades from now in whole countries left with just elderly people living on diminishing incomes and in economic wildernesses.

As Tait points out, in relation to migration, in most cases, it’s the young and well-educated that leave. “This drives a pan-European version of the regional inequality that we see in the UK: profitable companies and younger, highly-skilled people cluster together in thriving cities, leaving older, less successful areas far behind. A recent Guardian study found a series of “youth deserts” across the continent: in eastern Germany and rural Spain, Romania and Greece. It’s demoralising for those who stay, and it changes the politics too: older areas skew to the right. The EU appointed a new commissioner for “democracy and demography”, Dubravka Šuica, last year. She has a great deal of work to do.”

She will be wasting her time unless the wholesale destruction of future populations is tackled. A culture and its supporting education system which glorifies selfish individualism will never provide anything other than a quicksand foundation for the work that has to be done.


‪Courtesy of The Spectator:‬

‪”Is climate change making it more windy? Average UK wind speed in knots:‬
‪Mean 2002-2011 8.9‬
‪2012 8.2‬
‪2013 8.6‬
‪2014 8.7‬
‪2015 9.4‬
‪2016 8.4‬
‪2017 8.7‬
‪2018 8.5‬
‪2019 8.2‬
‪Source: Dept for Business, Investment and Industrial Strategy”‬