Darkness descending – again?

When you read a column in The Sunday Times (London) which introduces itself to you with this cri de coeur,  “I’ve found a way to sidestep cancel culture: I’ll tell you everything I’m not thinking instead”, you can’t help feeling you are in some kind of enemy territory. When someone as outspoken as the larger-than-life Jeremy Clarkson is reduced to a strategy like this you cannot but think, I better keep quiet.

Clarkson’s editors were afraid to print something he had written the previous week because it might offend the safetyniks. They deleted what he had said and substituted it with a new clarksonesque paragraph “expressing an opinion which I don’t have”. So the next week, feeling that letting them do his work for him was selfish, he sat down and “wrote something that I’m not thinking instead”.

We cannot but feel that the cultural surveillance which provokes this state of affairs must end soon. The lunatics may take over the asylum for a period but it’s hardly reasonable to expect that the situation will continue indefinitely, or even for an extended period. Or is it?

A very sobering read which might make you question any naive expectations that sanity might return to our culture anytime soon is Arthur Koestler’s seminal novel, Darkness at Noon.

Koestler wrote this book over the years 1939/40. It is a fictional chronicle of an interrogation of an old Bolshevik who becomes a target and eventually a victim of Stalin’s terror apparatus. It features several such victims who by just not managing to say the right thing, or appear not to be thinking the right thoughts, or are fool enough to suggest the simplest deviation from the “correct” path, end up with bullets in the backs of their heads.

Reading Darkness at Noon will set off all sorts of  unpleasant bells ringing in your head as you find yourself wandering through the labyrinth of a political culture which had determined that human nature was not something that was fixed but was something that a flawed inherited culture had constructed – or mis-constructed – and had to be put right. For this new culture it became an absolute principle that in the name of progress, justice and equality, former ways of thinking had to be replaced by a new order.

There are enough stories appearing in and on our media every day to make it unnecessary to spell out in detail why Koestler’s novel is likely to set off those chimes in your head. Just today, Sunday 18 April, Ben Lawrence writes

in London’s Daily Telegraph:

I nearly didn’t write this piece. I realise that as a white, middle-class, middle-aged man wading into the identity-politics debate, I may as well just find the nearest pack of wolves and throw myself in their path. But something needs to be said about the regressive idiocy that is threatening the creative spirit and the sheer enjoyment which the worlds of arts and entertainment bring to millions of people.

There are enough regular reports of people being required to grovel to make our minds hearken back worryingly to the show trials of 1930s Russia. Like those targeted then, those now in the cross-hairs of ‘woke’ warriors are not only required to grovel but are  being obliged to say that they are very grateful to be made grovel.

In the mental battle of minds which ensued in Darkness at Noon between the interrogator Gletkin and his victim, Rubashov,  we can see the gradual disintegration of truth before the relentless machine which was moulding its own version of “truth”. 

Without becoming aware of it, they had got accustomed to these rules for their game, and neither of them distinguished any longer between actions which Rubashov had committed in fact and those which he merely should have committed as a consequence of his  opinions; they had gradually lost the sense of appearance and reality, logical fiction and fact.

Rubashov occasionally found himself clutching at straws of real truth in the midst of this battle because he was a man who had known truth, who had a history which still lived in him. His interrogator had none. He was the “new man”, the creation of the system. He was a new Neanderthal, fresh out of the mists, whose most conspicuous trait, as Rubashov sees it, “was its absolute humourlessness or, more exactly, its lack of frivolity.”

These are the traits of those in our own time who cannot see beauty, humour, or who cannot value any kind of creativity without passing it through the sterile filter of their own tortured “correct” cultural framework – and then call on those who fail their tests to apologise and disappear. 

Rubashov reflects that he and his fellow victim, Ivanov – whose first appearance in the story is as Rubashov’s interrogator – came from  a world which had vanished. “One can deny one’s childhood,” he observes, “but not erase it. Ivanov had trailed his past after him to the end; that was what gave everything he said that undertone of frivolous melancholy; that was why Gletkin had called him a cynic. The Gletkins had nothing to erase; they need not deny their past, because they had none. They were born without umbilical cords,  without frivolity, without melancholy.” Ivanov’s fate has another parallel in our own time in the fate of those like that one-time progressive, J.K. Rowling.  The guardians of the progressive ideology turned their guns on her when she dared question the latest addition to their ever expanding canon of what is correct and what is not.

Today’s progressive generation has set out to cancel the culture which is our inheritance. This relentless urge, more bewildering every day, stems from this frightening truth: they may know facts but they know nothing of history, of the real past, the living past. Erasing is easy for them because what they are erasing is meaningless to them. Their great evil is so-called privilege but they have no understanding of privilege. They see only a privilege which has a root in some injustice. They condemn all privilege, failing to see that most privilege has its roots in the exercise of human virtues – hard work, love and more. Rather than seek the cultivation of those virtues and the curtailing of the vices which blemish privilege, they tear down structures which offer to all the riches associated with privilege.

The absurdity of it all is laid before us by Jeremy Clarkson when he tells us what he’s not thinking:

You need to be constantly aware of your privilege so that you are aware of the challenges faced by people who lack that privilege. And you need to understand, once you’ve spotted someone without your privilege, that you should give them your Bentley. Then the next day, when they see you waiting for the bus, they should give it back. How refreshing that would be. Sharing everything and chatting in the day-long queue for bread with people who are just the same as you are. And thinking the same thoughts about everything as well.

It worked with climate change. There was a time when the subject could be debated, but then the BBC announced that there was no debate and that anyone who thought man might not be involved was a climate-change “denier”. Suddenly everyone was on side. Like we are today on meat, the royal family, trans issues, mental health and colour. It’s so much easier that way.”

The final dialogue of Rubashov with his interrogator echoes into our contemporary cultural landscape.

He put on his pince-nez, blinked helplessly past the  lamp, and ended in a tired, hoarse voice: 

“After all, the name N. S. Rubashov is itself a piece of  Party history. By dragging it in dirt, you besmirch the history of the Revolution.”  

To which Gletkin responds: 

“To that I can also reply with a citation from your own writings. You wrote: ‘It is necessary to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification. What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch. For consumption by the masses, the political processes must be coloured like ginger—bread figures at a fair.’ 

Rubashov was silent. Then he said; 

So that is what you are aiming at: I am to play the Devil in your Punch and Judy show——howl, grind my teeth and put out my tongue——and voluntarily, too. Danton and his friends were spared that, at least.” 

Gletkin shut the cover of the dossier. He bent forward a bit and settled his cuffs: 

“Your testimony at the trial will be the last service you can do to the Party.”

Darkness at Noon is read by many as an exposure of the fundamental philosophical contradictions of Stalinism. If it is, it offers another parallel with our time. The infuriating illogicality of the progressivism to which we are now being subjected is confronting us every day as Stalinism did when Arthur Koestler wrote his revealing work of political fiction.

Rubashov summed up its inherent contradictions like this:

The Party denied the free will of the individual—and at  the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives—and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil—and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced—and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.

Neither does that of the crazy political philosophy of our time.

Darkness at Noon makes grim but salutary reading. This era must never be forgotten – because its clones are still with us, and will probably always be threatening us. They are with us now in equally virulent forms – China today –  but also in embryonic forms like the ‘woke’ plague just now in gestation. Cancellation then might have been literal and lethal but the poisonous spirit is still the same in the daily cancellations of our time.

Christianity and the political order

The world before Christ – and indeed for centuries after his advent – was a very savage place indeed. The ancient world, embodied in cultures which we identify as civilisations, and in doing so tend to soften the reality which they present to us, was a very cruel and unforgiving one. In this world, despite the benign and wise voices of people like Akenaten, Zoroaster, Socrates, Cicero and others, places like Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome, placed very little value on individual human lives or on many of the values by which we live and govern ourselves today. 

Tom Holland’s Dominion and Professor Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R. – to name but two relatively recent representations of that world – illustrate very well the great divide between the values of pre-Christian civilisation and that set in train by the advent of Christianity. 

But if Rome was not built in a day, neither was Christendom. Professor Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire, or the story of St. Columbanus and his missionaries in the turbulent Europe of the 6th and  7th centuries, show us how long it took to root the values we take for granted today in the soil of that still residually pagan world. Even into the 12th and 13th centuries, the flowering which we see in the lives of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, took place side by side with a brutality underwritten by an utterly confused and confusing political morality, exemplified by The Hundred Years War, blundering Crusaders and the disedifying struggles between the Empire and the Papacy. 

The path to the civilisation we consider ourselves privileged to live in today, great as its deficiencies may still be, was a long and arduous one. It was not only long but it was also faltering, faltering so badly at times that it seemed, as it did so at least twice in the last century, to be even threatened with extinction. What was the common denominator of most if not all the regressions experienced by what we used to call Christian civilisation but now coyly call Western civilisation? It was the abandonment of the principles of life and living which the followers of Christ have derived from the teaching of a Man who claimed to be, and proved to their satisfaction that he is, the Son of God.

Mark Hamilton’s new book looks at our world today and at the dominant political mechanism by which we seek to organise and govern it. He finds it in grave danger of catastrophic collapse. Of his book he writes:

The book stems from an awareness that the secular state cannot adequately  protect its citizens and that as time progresses such failure may prove  catastrophic for democracy itself. Democracy without Christianity is fundamentally incomplete — it is like a tree which has lost the roots which anchor and feed it. 

Hamilton argues that the decline in democracy can only be reversed if the secular state rediscovers its Christian roots. For this to happen, he says, Christians need to understand the challenges, immerse themselves in political life, and take the opportunities presented to restore the democratic process to a condition where it ceases to be hypocritical.

The book is a calm piece of didacticism rather than a polemic raging against the failures of secularism, the flawed pedigree of relativism or the apathy of supposedly committed Christians. It logically explores the political landscape and encouragingly points to a way forward to restore the damaged fabric of democracy on the basis of the Christian values on which, he argues, it is based.

His arguments will make great sense to some. They will not be easily accepted by others, but one suspects that their counter-arguments will seldom rise above the level of superficial knee-jerk reactions – like the lazy confusing of misguided christian zeal with what is of the essence of Christianity. If superficiality could be avoided one might see the book provoking a valuable and intelligent exploration of a very real problem – the growing sense of deficit which is building up around our democratic institutions.

Dr. George Huxley, classicist, mathematician and archaeologist – to mention but three of the disciplines in which he is distinguished – is emeritus Professor of Classics at Queen’s University Belfast. In a lecture given in University College Dublin some years ago he defended Aristotle’s right still to be considered a wise man. Huxley said:

We speak much of democracy because we have elections and a wide franchise for women and men. But an ancient Greek democrat would with reason question our assumption that we are democrats. We emphasize elections, but we take too little thought for the quality of our elected rulers. Unlike the Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, we do not subject office holders to adequate scrutiny. 

While, he admits, some effective scrutiny is to be seen in the activities of Congressional Enquiries in the United States he describes House of Commons committees as toothless instruments by comparison and finds little evidence of scrutiny of European Commissioners. In judicial enquiries were necessary because elected representatives failed to police themselves, and for the most part were tardy, cumbersome, expensive, and inconclusive. 

Huxley suggests that we are deceiving ourselves. Perhaps it is this self-deception that is getting to us and disillusioning us about our ‘democracy’? Modern governments, he thinks, are not democratic but oligarchic. The oligarchic establishment of the self—describing ‘great and good’ knows how to use the law to defend itself. An Athenian, therefore, would question our democratic credentials and Aristotle, who yet had grave doubts about radical democracy, would have agreed with him: the millions. of dollars required to secure election to the Presidency of the United States, or the close connexion between British politicians of all parties and business interests, or the ability of powerful persons here in the Ansbacher polity to circumvent the law, are all oligarchic features. 

For an ancient Greek, he said, there were two important questions:  are the laws good and are they obeyed? If they are not good, they can be changed, but they must not be circumvented. How then would an ancient Greek, having read Aristotle’s Politics, classify most Western polities? He or she would not call them democracies. They are, rather, oligarchies interrupted by elections with low turnouts.

So, is it the case that in our readiness to live a lie about our political institutions we do not even reach the standard of the pre-Christian Greeks? Honesty, integrity and a sense of justice are human virtues attainable by all humans. But the element of Grace which is the gift devoutly to be wished for by all Christians is the most powerful of all the agents which reinforce these and the other virtues which keep us civilised. It is in recognising this that Hamilton is correct in seeing Christianity as the true guardian of the common good in the world. What makes a christian Christian is Grace and not self-description. A Christian’s  understanding of his or her identity is that to be truly human they are so because of their Grace-enabled identification with the perfect Man, Jesus Christ – who is also God. 

Democracy is a ground-upward system of defining and governing society. The character and identity of what that ground is composed of is the crucial issue. This brings us to the one haunting question posed implicitly by Hamilton’s book but not really addressed – perhaps because he feels it is not the context in which to address it. That is, where are the Christians who will transform this self-deceiving world? Democracy is not an ideology. It is a process through which a community gives expression to a vision. If that community is as dazed and confused as ours now is then democracy will do no more than create the chaos begotten by that confusion. By all means Christians should engage in the democratic process but perhaps their first responsibility and their first desire should be to speak their faith loudly and clearly, live by and help many others to live by the truths and values which their faith embodies. Then, perhaps slowly, as they did at the dawn of Christianity, but certainly surely, they will transform the society in which they live.

Myers would like to know what is really going on…and so would we all

In his blog Kevin Myers lays before us some unsettling observations on what is going on in our country at the moment, suggesting at the same time that most of us have been fast asleep while our poor nation is being sent floating down the Swanee by a cadre of politicians who are either stark raving mad or just not up to the job.

I don’t want to write about this, mostly because you probably won’t want to read another bloody word about Covid, which is not exactly why I go to the trouble of… et cetera. But what precisely is going on when the only resistance to the insane rules now governing us come from the sort of people for whom the old padded-cells at Grangegorman should be re-opened and Albert Pierrepoint given his job back? Where is the voice of reason? Where is the “conversation” – and just when did that word acquire its slightly creepy note of bogus civility? –  that should accompany the major transformations which have occurred in Irish society?

For the past year, the government has, effectively, being gift-wrapping the entire Irish retail sector and handing it over, lock, stock and barrel, to Jeff Bezos. Maybe some small specialist outlets – boutiques specialising in double-D cup bras for obese fourteen-year-old boys – might emerge amidst the post-nuclear rubble of our high streets and our shopping centres. But Ireland’s towns and cities probably have no commercial future. The original meaning of the word ‘shop’ – a place where things happen, as in workshop or bookshop – has been transliterated into its very opposite with that term ‘shopping-on-line’. A shop is not a location anymore but a meaningless meme circling like Pluto in the outer space of the Bezos mind.

How could so many bizarre and counter-logical rules have been accepted without challenge? How is suspending cancer-scans prolonging life? How is closing down childhood good for children? How is borrowing from tomorrow good for the day after tomorrow?

If it is illegal to travel more than 5km from your home, how can CIE still be running buses and trains between towns hundreds of kilometres apart? How is it possible that our airports are still functioning? Has Michael O’Leary devised a business model with an airline client-base that lives in tents at the end of runway Number One? And just why did the government make it illegal to go rough-shooting or play golf in the open air?

Across the world, beaches have been shut down, yet Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh recently told the House of Commons that not a single transmission of the virus could be attributed to people mingling in such places. Moreover, as the great Lord Sumption has observed, general rules that were devised for coping with the virus have been transmuted into iron laws, to be enforced by the courts, with prison sentences and criminal records for the “guilty”.

Read his full challenge here.

On the ironies of history

The ironies of history are manifold. They can intrigue us as much as do the parallels which we can see in events many centuries apart. As I read of and watched the progress of Pope Francis in Iraq last week and his wonderful rapport with the Muslim leaders of that country, I could not but help see a parallel between the peace-making efforts of this Pope and the peace brokered between the crusading Emperor Frederick II and the sultan of Egypt, Al Kamil, recounted in Ernst Kantorovicz’s recently republished biography of Frederick Hohenstaufen. The irony? That Frederick can now be seen in parallel with a reigning pope, knowing that at the time the Emperor made this peace, and won back Jerusalem for Christians for a ten-year period – and was duly crowned its king – he was himself under a ban of excommunication by a Pope who initially rejected the peace he had made. 

The story of Frederick II and his battles with the popes is one of the great personal tragedies of the Middle Ages, and one of the darkest epochs in the history of the Church. These were strange times, in many ways incomprehensible to us in terms of their brutality, but also awesome in terms of how crucial they were in determining so much of what our world is today.

Frederick was known in his time as The Wonder of the World, Stupor Mundi. He was only an infant when he succeeded his brutal German father, the Hohenstaufen Emperor Henry VI, as king of Sicily in 1198. Henry had just savagely subdued the kingdom which became his when he married Frederick’s mother, the Norman Queen of Sicily, Constance. He was then orphaned when his mother died and he became the ward of Innocent III, the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages, whose fiefdom the kingdom was. 

That he survived his childhood in the strife-torn kingdom was in itself something of a miracle. Then, while still a teenager, the young king of Sicily, in an extraordinary series of circumstances which many, not least Frederick himself, also read in semi-miraculous terms, reached the point where he succeeded his father and grandfather, Frederick Barbarossa, and was elected German Emperor. In 1220 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by Pope Honorious III.

That was when the trouble began – or one might say the seemingly endless conflict of the Middle Ages, the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy, resumed its tortured journey. This episode was to be a kind of Endgame which, while it might have looked like a victory for the Papacy, brought neither credit nor victory to anyone. It plunged Italy into savage internecine factional warfare; it destroyed, for centuries, any prospect of Italy or Germany being unified nations as all their neighbours were becoming – some more, some less – at that time. It also sowed the seeds of the Reformation in the damage it inflicted on the Church. The horrendous wounds inflicted on the Church festered for centuries until eventually recovery came with the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation. On the positive side, it is also credited with sowing the seeds of the Italian Renaissance.

The excesses of that age were not only manifested in murder, mayhem and devastation but also in the wild swings of language in which the protagonists in this struggle addressed each other. In the brief periods of peace they addressed each other in terms which made them appear truly cor unum et anima una, of one mind and one heart, dedicated to the salvation of souls. When at enmity however, insults and accusations were hurled across the divide in terms which were strong enough to curdle the blood.

Kantorovicz portrays the tragedy of Frederick in all its manic detail – a flawed genius of brilliance, showing great promise in his early years but ultimately corrupted by his own anger, pride and cruelty. The papal response to the threat Frederick posed to the Church’s freedom and teaching mission was flawed and far too human. The papal vision of how things needed to be was hopelessly encumbered by the burden of having to maintain the integrity of the territories where it was a temporal power – the Papal States, lying between the Kingdom of Sicily and Northern Italy. At all costs – a terrible cost – the papal calculation was that the Emperor could not be allowed to fulfil his dream of uniting his Sicilian kingdom with the rest of the Empire, creating an imperium stretching from the Baltic to the southern Mediterranean. To allow this, it was thought, would put in peril the Church’s freedom to govern itself and to teach the doctrine of Christ as only she had been given the authority to do.

The magnetism of Frederick, and the aura around him, was frightening to his opponents. Kantorowicz, writing before the rise of Hitler in Germany, compares the flaws of this genius with those of another megalomaniac genius, Napoleon Bonaparte. Kaiser Frederick, modelling himself on the original ‘divine’ Caesars, like them, fostered visions of himself as God’s chosen instrument for the rescue of the world from the chaos which he saw around him. In an age when illusions of Arthurian reincarnations were not uncommon, it was not too difficult to make these take hold of the popular imagination. Such things happened even in the early twentieth century when people became mesmerised by megalomaniacs. A recently revealed example might be  the admission in the  diaries of early twentieth century British MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, which have just been published. He remarks that  in the  presence of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, “one felt as if one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature”. 

Kantorowicz, like many before him, was in awe of Frederick II. This heightens the sense of  tragedy surrounding his life and death.  Kantorowicz’s account, however, is marred by his failure to discuss in detail the reality and provenance of the threat to the freedom of the Church perceived by the three popes who had to deal with this Emperor. His narrative, one suspects, has to some extent suffered the same clouding of human judgment as afflicted, in their bitter enmity, all the protagonists in this terrible struggle. Frederick died just short of his 56th birthday, still officially excommunicated. Garbed in a Cistercian habit, he received the last rites from one of the not insignificant number of churchmen who did not accept the ban or his deposition. Not even Louis IX, St. Louis, proclaimed the excommunication in his kingdom.

We began by reflecting on the irony of a Pope apparently following in the footsteps of an excommunicated Emperor – in one of his better moments. We might end with the consideration of another link across the centuries to our own time. It symbolises the persistent chain of seemingly endless tension which accompanies our efforts to observe that simple command of Christ, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” The struggle to keep this balance between the things that are Caesar’s and the Church’s defence of the things that are God’s was what tore apart the Empire and the Papacy in the Middle Ages – and the tension continues into our own day. 

It is unlikely that any ecclesiastical authority will seek to depose America’s new President, Joe Biden, as Innocent IV did to Frederick II.  However, it is notable that the head of the US Episcopal Conference, Archbishop José H. Gomez, had to implicitly call attention to the need to protect the integrity of the respective offices of Church and State in his address for the president’s inauguration in January, courting controversy in doing so.  

A President who proclaims himself to be a Catholic – precisely because he proclaims himself to be such – but whose ideology, in the context of many issues central to Christian and Catholic teaching, is profoundly un-Christian, might well be seen as more of a threat to the teaching and saving mission of the Church than even Frederick II.

Archbishop Gomez, felt obliged to say this to the President: “I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.” For saying those words some have felt free to publicly proclaim him to be no longer fit to be in charge of the largest Catholic diocese in the world. President Biden did not say this, but in the age of culture cancellation, does he need to?

So, centuries pass, but the struggles of the Church and the world continue as she seeks to persevere in her mission to teach mankind all that it needs to know about “the way, the truth and the life” – and to render to God the things that are God’s. But Christians will not be dismayed by this. They are well aware that it is part of the script given to them two thousand years ago and which Pope Francis constantly draws to our attention.

Another rare morsel of common sense

Suzanne Moore talking common sense to a mad and maddening world again: The only wrong way to be a woman these days is to stand up for women’s rights.

The right way to react to this ridiculous mantra is surely to feel murderous. What is this slogan for? Who is it for? These endless attempts at inclusivity mean that being a woman can now even be a feeling in a man’s head. Eddie Izzard, I saw the other day, had been voted the best female comedian. Sorry, but I am not laughing. 

There is no wrong way to be a woman.” Are they serious? Let me list the ways. I and many women live with them every single day.

Read the full column here.

Faulty signposts at this intersection

Margaret Hickey writes in MercatorNet:

Margaret Hickey writes in MercatorNet:

Under the Biden Administration, we are going to be hearing a lot about “intersectionality” as an ineluctable dimension of social justice and the American Dream.

Intersectionality is a refinement of identity politics. It is not as complex as it might sound. For instance, being black or female or gay in America is regarded as a distinct identity that implies disadvantage or at least challenges on the path to equality. If someone ticks two or more of those boxes they have an intersectional identity. This means that their challenges and disadvantages are greatly compounded.  

So, intersectionality identifies the overlapping prejudices that people face because of their ethnicity, race, sex, sexuality, disability, etc. In the victim stakes the person with the thickest overlap wins. The more prejudice, the more moral prestige, the greater the claim to affirmative support.

This is going to be important over the next four years, so let’s see how it’s working out.

American Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who read her poem, The Hill we Climb, at the inauguration of President Biden is a good example of the moral prestige of intersectionality. Amanda spoke of herself as “the skinny black girl, descended from slaves, raised by a single mother” who is now free to dream of becoming President. In those few well-chosen words, she bedded herself securely within the pie chart of intersectional disadvantage.

Read Margaret Hickey’s full article here.

Words, words, words and the good life

Many years ago a responsible figure in the world of Irish education had occasion to issue a strong but measured and carefully worded address on a controversial topic of the day. It was duly reported in a tabloid evening paper. But there was nothing measured or careful about the headline on the story. It went something like this: PROFESSOR SLAMS MINISTER AT CONGRESS.

The professor was amused but not entirely displeased with the attention his mild-mannered words received as a result. He reflected to me afterwards that he was happy to have been able to give The Herald an opportunity to use SLAM again, seemingly its favourite word.

That was then and that was a tabloid paper. Language like that was rarely found – in fact sub-editors would have been merciless with language like that – in what was once called “the quality press”. This is now and evidence of that kind of chronic intemperate language can be found in any number of news media in which we could formerly have hoped to be served with an account of what is happening in the world around us, couched in reasoned language without a topping of exaggerated emotions.

In little more than the space of a few days recently, we were served up the following by respectable news organisations:

– Government plans to reopen schools for pupils with special needs are in chaos amidst a backlash from teachers

– A row broke out over whether the UK had approved the vaccine first because of the freedoms created by Brexit

– Patel slams ‘do-gooding’ celebs for Windrush comparison

– European politicians have mocked Britain’s celebration of its status as the first nation to roll out a vaccine against coronavirus

– Ministers break pledge by slashing £1bn from rail budget

– a backlash from the right is brewing

And so it goes. What an unpleasant world they seem to want us to think we live – in which the only way we can relate to each other is through aggressive behaviour? 

OK, they are only words. Is it that important? Yes it is. Words and the way we use them are important. They both define and help refine our cultural life, our civilisation. They do so because they reflect in some way the virtues by which we conduct our lives – temperance, yes, but also our love of truth, justice and charity. Undermine those things in our culture and we are on a short road to a very bad place.

In the context of our current woes, it is also important. Many are beset with temptations to discouragement, despondency  and even despair. The negativity and pessimism generated by what has been too readily accepted as a media principle of operation, that good news is no news, is simply destructive of the inner peace now in such short supply.

Underlining this, a  cri de coeur  went out recently from Janet Daley writing in The Daily Telegraph complaining that the excessive use of distressing films from the frontline is terrifying already frightened people.

“I had to turn off the television news half a dozen times last week”, she wrote, adding, “which, for a journalist who is obliged to stay on top of events, is quite something. I took this uncharacteristic step because I could not bear to watch, over and over again, the same film reports of appalling distress from hospital intensive care wards, some of them featuring interviews with patients who died after being filmed.

“Presumably, the managers of broadcast news believe that this intrusive, emotionally manipulative programming is serving the national interest. By displaying the reality of the Covid epidemic and its consequences for the NHS, they are convincing those who doubt the seriousness of the situation – or who treat lockdown restrictions with contempt – that they are being criminally irresponsible.

“I am sorry to have to tell all of you who are doing this in good conscience – the producers and the film crews, touring hospitals to make sensational film packages from the front line, perhaps with the encouragement of Government ministers – that the delinquents who organise illegal raves and the indifferent who host big parties ARE NOT WATCHING. They detached themselves long ago from this phenomenon which, for various reasons, they feel has nothing to do with them.”

Every journalist’s perennial ethical challenge is not to succumb to the temptation to gild the lilies in their stories to grab more attention or to steal a march on rival media; not to use the fig leaf of the public’s right to know as a pretext for sensationalising what the public has a right to be informed of; not to shock on the doubtful pretext that shock is needed to get attention. That way lies a kind of addiction to sensation and all addictions are paths to a place beyond reality. If our media take us there they are perpetrating a betrayal of trust beyond falsehood.

Can we not think a little more about virtue? The four virtues to which one would like to see all truth-tellers committed and which should be the hinges on which the work which goes into all media might turn are surely as cardinal for good journalism as they are for the Good Life itself – Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.

A call to arms to resist the counterrevolution

Brendan O’Neill writes in SPIKED:

The internet revolution held so much promise for humankind. This technology made even the birth of the printing press – that revolution in thinking and dissent – seem small in comparison. For with the spread of the world wide web people had, for the first time in history, the liberty to express themselves unfettered. No priest or prince or state could stop us. We didn’t even need the approval of editors or publishers. We just needed a computer, or a phone, and something to say. With our thumbs we can do something that generations before us would never have thought possible – speak to the world (or at least to however many followers we have). Now this is under threat. The web is being bound in woke tape. Silicon Valley billionaires, backed by states and cheered by political elites, are cleansing the web of ‘undesirable’ voices and switching off sites and social-media outlets they disapprove of. A fightback is needed, and urgently. The struggle for internet freedom will be one of the most important battles of 2021.

Where do we begin?

Faith in fiction and in fact

Oscar Wilde came to the sacraments of the Catholic Faith late in his tragic life. But he had, before his conversion, sensed their mystery and reflected on it in his portrayal of the goings-on in the troubled heart of his tragic hero, Dorian Gray. While on his deathbed he may have received only two from a Catholic priest – confessing his sins and receiving the last rites – his sense of their ineffable significance can be seen ten years earlier in that timeless moral masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The novel’s narrator, in taking us through the furtive meandering of Gray’s journey to destruction tells us that “It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolise.”

The narrator goes on to tell us that “he loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement, and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered vestment, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the panis cælestis, the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice, and smiting his breast for his sins.

Dorian, his narrator tells us, finishing his account of this encounter with the Holy, would, as he passed out of whatever church he was in the habit of visiting,  “look with wonder at the black confessionals, and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.”

 A childhood memory which might perhaps be shared by any number of those of us of a certain generation who grew up in Catholic families might be this: the quiet joy and happiness of our parents on hearing that a lapsed friend, neighbour, or even some well known figure – celebrities are a modern phenomenon – had “returned to the sacraments”.

As believing children the hidden depth of that joy was not something we would have fully appreciated, but it was something palpable and indeed infectious. It left us with some sense that in these mysterious seven literal and tangible elements there was something special on which joy and happiness depended.

Those childhood intimations of the awful reality which the sacraments represent, literary representations of that same power reflected on by Oscar Wilde and other writers, all bring home to us the dangers in the version of modernity which now seem to confront us. This version denies this reality, or has such a superficial awareness of it that it is virtually blind to it.

This crisis for our human race is calmly and wonderfully laid before us in all its terrible beauty by Oliver Treanor in a book which he wrote a handful of years ago called Maelstrom Of Love. Treanor is an Irish theologian. In introducing his theme – the Eucharist and its pivotal role as the centre around which all the sacraments of Christ revolve and by which the Church lives – he tells us that the gravest danger for the human person and for civilisation is to lose touch with reality. Any version of reality which denies the existence of God is for him, something not only incomprehensible but a terrifying prospect.

He reminds us that in the twentieth century we all saw what happens when pure fantasy replaces “the realism of the good”: two world wars, totalitarianism, political breakdown, social chaos, moral disintegration, exploitation of the helpless, disregard for human life at its beginning and its end. In sum, he says, it was the century of mass genocide, physical and spiritual, the beginning of civilization’s descent into suicide. 

It was everything which Dorian Gray personified in Wilde’s prophetic novel.

Our grasp of reality is what is at stake if we lose sight of God because God is man’s foundational and ultimate reality is what Treanor is telling us. “The twentieth century lost sight of God. The Eucharist and the sacraments put us in touch again with him who touches us through them, re-forming our minds and hearts, bringing them back to reality. Given this, the Church is no optional extra for the pious and reverent, not a footnote to social history, some inconsequential aside non-essential to the text. Rather it can be said that without the Church and sacraments, primarily the Eucharist, the world would cease to exist. For they embody the mercy of God which alone sustains the creation in Christ ‘through whom and for whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together’.”

Treanor masterfully explains the entire Christian economy based on the the foundation which the Catholic Church calls the sacramental system. For him it is, in a manner of speaking, “the cipher that breaks the enigma of the cosmos and decodes the meaning of life. In short, it gives God away.” It is, he says, so simple that even a child can see it, yet so profound the mature intelligence cannot fathom it.

But he then comes to the false turning taken by the  forces now dominant in modern culture. While he sees in that turning, a search for the very answers which a God-centered worldview offers, he lays bare the fatal flaw in the alternative path they offer to man in his search for truth, meaning and happiness:

“The worldview that underpins post-modernism’s resistance to religious conviction (or grants it grudging tolerance as a social convention) is actually in its own right a response — however inadequate — to those questions at the heart of human existence that find their answer in the Eucharist. Atheistic autonomy, scientific rationalism, false pluralism, so-called liberationism, all have this in common with orthodox faith: they begin with some concept of what meaningfulness is, even if they settle for finding it in no meaning at all other than mere activity. But because God is not their centre and the human person not their end, they lack what the sacraments offer, namely real human progress.” ( p 23)

They are sterile and hopeless because “the object of their search is incomplete even though the search itself emanates from the Completeness that beckons to us all. Hence they look for knowledge but not truth, for expedience but not justice, for productivity but not fellowship, for engagement but not commitment, for absence of ties but not freedom, and for control but not service.”  

Treanor takes his reader through the sacraments one by one and does so in a way which makes clearer than anything I have ever read, the unity of the whole, with the Eucharist at its centre. Writing about Matrimony, for example, he describes how (p133) this sacrament springs from the Eucharist and finds its meaning and strength in returning to the Eucharist as “the sacrament of the purification of Christ’s bride, generated from his crucified side and espoused by his rising to claim her as his own. Gradually, married life takes on the self-sacrificing character of him who is its inspiration and example and the means to attaining love’s highest possibilities. The grace matrimony provides is that of centring on the person of Christ, his passion and resurrection as the foundation of life’s realism and love’s maturity.”

But the true crisis of our time is the loss of the sense we used to have of the value and unfathomable depth of the treasure which faith is, and which the sacraments keep alive in us. This loss is reflected in the scenario recounted by Treanor when he enumerates features of the laxity prevailing today (p166). These include Catholics who rarely attend Mass but who will routinely receive the Eucharist at weddings and funerals for instance; others, divorced and re-married or co-habiting without matrimony who are Mass-goers, and who will automatically receive on each occasion; others still whose ethical life contravenes the Church’s teaching on abortion, the regulation of birth, fertility treatment, homosexuality, or euthanasia — to name the principal areas of concern — will expect to be given communion as a matter of course as by right.

All this is done oblivious of the fact that the mystery that here stands revealed is an eternal truth that lays bare the mind of God, the real nature of mankind, the meaning of history and the destiny of creation. They are oblivious of all that Christ’s mandate, ‘Take, eat, thls is my body…Do this…’ really intended. They are unaware that ‘Love one another as I have loved you…’ is only truly Christian when it means washing feet en Christo, forgiving enemies en Christo, laying down one’s life for friends en Christo, following ‘my example’, keeping ‘my word’. Treanor explains that “it means entering the maelstrom of love to be caught up in the centrifugal force of Christ’s charity towards the world in union with God and in service of men; and then to be constantly drawn back again by that same charity in the centripetal force by which God in Christ is taking the world, as he always intended, into his heart. (p172)

He explains that “what the Eucharist is substantially, the Church is mystically so that it has even been said that the Church is the Eucharist extended, while the Eucharist is the Church condensed.” Both can be called the universal sacrament of salvation and are so by dint of their interrelatedness, the Eucharist generating the Church, the Church making the Eucharist. (p 195)

Is not a denial of the teaching of the Church and a refusal to accept its admonitions and moral guidance about the way we live our lives not also a denial of the Eucharist?

Among all the things which Treanor’s rich and revealing exposition of the Church, the Eucharist and the sacraments make very clear, two things stand out. The first is the blind and terrible folly of those who denigrate this sacred and ineffable truth because they confuse the errors and misjudgment of its servants with the holy thing that it is in itself. The second is the need to reaffirm, teach and learn how to love again those things which our forebears appreciated and which are the only secure basis of a moral life and a truly just society. Had Dorian Gray not passed out of that church and had he accepted the grace of conversion which Wilde depicts him walking away from in his weakness, his picture would have been a very different one.

A wolf in health establishment clothing

Not since penal era have priests been criminalised for celebrating public Mass

Maria Steen calls out the flawed reasoning of our health establishment in today’s Irish Times. This is the same statist agency which has, since the 1970s, been so successfully pushing sexual permissive mores in in Irish culture under the banner of ‘health education’. Why would the not see they pandemic as a golden opportunity to further undermine the only force which has been offering them any resistance – the Christian faith of a people?

Cardinal Pietro Parolin celebrates a New Year Mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/EPA
Cardinal Pietro Parolin celebrates a New Year Mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/EPA

The Catholic Church has a 2,000-year history of people risking everything for their belief in Christ: the first day after Christmas recalls the first Christian martyr, Stephen. All the apostles except John were martyred. The word “martyr” means “witness”, and this kind of witness – willingness to face torture and death – is heroism of a kind we rarely see in this country nowadays.

It was not always thus. In his remarkable book Our Martyrs, Fr Dennis Murphy catalogues the almost unbelievable cruelty endured by heroic Irish men and women, many priests and bishops, including St Oliver Plunkett, under the Penal Laws from 1535 to 1691. These witnesses suffered hanging, quartering, burning, dismemberment, beheading and stoning. Their remains were often desecrated. These were the consequences of speaking truth to power in a bloody and brutal time.

Denied access to the sacraments, Catholics can, however, avail of ‘essential’ services, such as buying vodka, doing the dry cleaning or popping out to the bike shop 

The world often turns its back on people like this, and regards their belief as a form of madness. Yet the martyrs exhibited a crystal-clear kind of sanity when faced with threats to freedom of conscience. These witnesses concentrated their minds and focused on what is important in life, even to the point of death.

To Catholics, the most important thing is the Mass. It is the “sum and summit” of the Christian life. A Catholic’s duty to worship God in the manner commanded by Christ is the most important of all Christian duties.

Secular culture

For years, an aggressively secular culture has proposed that religious practice and expression be confined to the private sphere – hence the push to remove religion from schools and to suppress religious voices in the public square. The pandemic has provided an opportunity too good to miss. Those who do not themselves profess any religious belief now tell those who do that God is “everywhere”. So He is. However, it is theological non sequitur – not to mention deeply condescending – to say that there is no need to go to church or worship publicly.

On December 30th, the Government once again made it a penal offence to leave one’s house to attend Mass or confession or avail of other sacraments. Last November, as reported in this paper, a priest was threatened by gardaí with prosecution, a fine and imprisonment for saying Mass in his church with others in attendance. Not since the penal era has the law of the land criminalised priests for celebrating a public Mass.

Denied access to the sacraments, Catholics can, however, avail of “essential” services, such as buying vodka, doing the dry cleaning or popping out to the bike shop. Under the regulations, universities, schools and creches can remain open. Earlier this year, the deputy chief medical officer said simply that, in the context of a pandemic, public worship was considered “less important”.

The Constitution suggests otherwise. The right to the free and public profession of religion is expressly guaranteed. No Catholic would argue that any right is unlimited. However, infringements on religious freedoms must be anxiously scrutinised and carefully justified. No restriction should go further than is absolutely necessary. At present, the practice of religion is effectively criminalised, but so far no justification has been offered.

The Government’s stated aim is to protect life. Yet its methods have been costly and the trade-offs cannot be ignored 

The Government might argue that churches are places where the virus is widely transmitted. But on its own figures, there is little or no evidence to suggest this. Religious services of all denominations and other ceremonies (whatever that means) account for a tiny proportion of cases.

The Government might argue – as we were told earlier this year – that lockdowns are necessary to ensure adequate hospital capacity for treating people with Covid-19. But at no time this year have the hospitals been overwhelmed. At the time of the coming into force of the new Level 5 restrictions, there were 623 beds available in the public hospital system.null

Hospital beds

We are now told that confirmed cases are rising sharply. However, it is striking that, having had many months to prepare for the winter season and with much experience treating Covid-19 patients, and a known historical undercapacity, by September (according to the Department of Health’s Open Beds report), only 78 inpatient beds had been added to the December 2019 national total of 10,919. It was not until December 18th that the Minister for Health announced that more critical-care beds would be made available in a multi-year plan. A government more concerned about capacity in the system might have been expected to do more on the supply side of the equation, and to have done it more quickly.

The Government’s stated aim is to protect life. Yet its methods have been costly and the trade-offs cannot be ignored. Many have lost their jobs, businesses and livelihoods. All have been prevented from social interaction; a year out of the life of a young person or someone hoping to meet a future spouse and start a family is a long time, particularly for young women.

Some have witnessed the rapid deterioration of the mobility, fitness and mental acuity of elderly relatives brought about by a cycle of lockdowns and isolation. Others have been prevented from attending their own parent’s funeral. Although Central Statistics Office figures show that overall deaths are down on last year, many people now live in real terror of the virus. Some who were in any event approaching their final days due to other conditions or old age have spent those days in fear of the virus, alone and regarding friends and family with suspicion. Those who are Catholic may have done so without even the solace of the sacraments.

Churches have made extraordinary efforts to protect those attending for public worship. Many church buildings are immense, with the capacity to observe strict social-distancing protocols. A typical Mass is of 20 to 40 minutes’ duration – comparable to many visits to “essential” retailers, whose aisles are less able to facilitate effective separation. The Government has offered no evidence that Masses have contributed significantly to the spread of the virus. It has simply decided that public worship is not sufficiently important to qualify as “essential”.