The current geo-political turmoil, with Ukraine in the eye of the storm, is upsetting all kinds of certainties and semi-certainties. Many of these we may have been priding ourselves of possessing. One is the semi-certainty, held by perhaps a majority of Christians, that on the political spectrum their values were going to be better protected by the right as opposed to the left. This was so much so that in current discourse “the Christian right” itself became a political category.
Now, however, a great deal of rethinking has been forced on the lazy-minded categorizers. This has been forced on all who place value on religion itself, of any denomination or creed. A genuine orthodox Christian has no choice but to flee from the murderous political regime which until very recently was being seen as a defender of the faith. That title has now become as unworthy of Vladimir V. Putin as the title defensor fideibestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 became. In the Islamic world the brutalities of Iran and Saudi Arabia, so-called defenders of the muslim faith, can only be an affront to its genuine adherents. The growing extremism of Narenda Modi’s regime must pain any peace-loving Hindu.
But the cleansing process does not end with the potential it has for the purification of religions. It also shows signs of bringing the secular world back to its senses. Ezra Klein, a young liberal-minded columnist in the New York Times suggests that the exposure of the excesses of the right now gives liberalism itself an opportunity to bring itself back from the brink of disaster, a scenario outlined a few years ago by Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame in his book on the failure of liberalism. Its intolerances and narrow minded bigotry has been for years threatening what Klein sees as its true universal spirit.
In Klein’s reading, the anti-liberal right – where it was identifying itself as Christian – was never true to the Christian faith. In fact, in its true form it was something that they feared – as Vladimir V. Putin must now do. The liberal left, on the other hand, for the recent decades in which it has not adhered to universal principles has suffered by its separation from the belief of genuine Christians.
Klein explores all this in a recent long article in his newspaper. He does so partly in the context of what he describes as a moving and beautiful collection of essays by Ukrainian writers on the country’s history and its troubled relationship with both Russia and the West.
In his article he echoes the famous opening epigram of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-between – “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” He suggests that the trap which liberalism fell into was to marginalize all those who valued elements of tradition, their histories and their nations. To do so for him was a fatal flaw, betraying the universal spirit which should imbue true liberals.
“Liberalism”, he writes, “needs a healthier relationship to time. Can the past become a foreign country without those who still live there being turned into foreigners in their own land? If the future is to be unmapped, then how do we persuade those who fear it, or mistrust us, to agree to venture into its wilds?
“I suspect another way of asking the same question is this: Can the constant confrontation with our failures and deficiencies produce a culture that is generous and forgiving? Can it be concerned with those who feel not just left behind, as many in America do, but left out, as so many Ukrainians were for so long?”
Then he moves to suggest this daring answer.
“The answer to that — if there is an answer to that — may lie in the Christianity the anti-liberals feared, which too few in politics practice. What I, as an outsider to Christianity, (he is Jewish) have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.”
Some of this spirit, in secular form, can, he writes, be seen in the Ukrainian essays. “The tone is anything but triumphalist, with Russia having taken Crimea and the rest of Europe and the United States shrugging it off. The perspective is largely tragic, clear-eyed about the work that may go undone and the distance left to travel. But the writing is generous, too: suffused with love for country, honesty about an often bloody history, determination despite a disappointing present and, above all, a commitment to one another.”
He concludes by saying that there is much to learn from that merger of self-criticism and deep solidarity. Put in Christian terms he might have said that with humility and Charity, the world might well be saved. It would. It will.
The stark communist ideology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries promised the world that its faithful implementation would lead the withering away of the state and the arrival of a utopia like man had only ever dreamed of. The modern Marxist now tells us that because those early enthusiasts got some things wrong in their analysis, poor dears, the great project somehow went off the rails and its wrong turning point resulted in some unfortunate consequences – like millions dying across the multiple nations which were brave enough to undertake the Marxist experiment.
Now they tell us they have got it right and all we need to do is follow the ideology of progressivism – which is essentially Marxism by another name, smelling just as foul. Marxism then as now worshiped at the altar of what it called History; then as now it also saw human beings in terms of raw matter, more or less maelable – more so now; all we needed to do was go along with this reading of our nature as soon we would all be enjoying to the full our time-limited sojourn in a Brave New World.
This is the steamroller of History-a-la-Marx now bearing down on us, constantly warning us not to get on the wrong side of the road. We’ve lost count of the number of progressive issues which carry this warning. Join us in our great triumph or get out of our way. Otherwise you will be crushed.
Crushed, like Keith Olbermann who this time last year was exhorting his readers to crush a certain political figure and his supporters – and the public servants who had the temerity to work for him.
“So, let us brace ourselves. The task is two-fold: the terrorist Trump must be defeated, must be destroyed, must be devoured at the ballot box, and then he, and his enablers, and his supporters, and his collaborators, and the Mike Lees and the William Barrs, and Sean Hannitys, and the Mike Pences, and the Rudy Gullianis and the Kyle Rittenhouses and the Amy Coney Barretts must be prosecuted and convicted and removed from our society while we try to rebuild it and to rebuild the world Trump has destroyed by turning it over to a virus.
“Remember it, even as we dream for a return to reality and safety and the country for which our forefathers died, that the fight is not just to win the election, but to win it by enough to chase…the maggots off the stage and then try to clean up what they left”
This is the price to be paid now for being on ‘the wrong side of history’.
This reading of history is of course a travesty, just as their reading of literature is a travesty of literature. We are watching a version of progress which is slowly but surely eliminating both history and literature – and indeed everything cultural – from our lives. Critical theory, the current weapon of choice of progressive Marxism, does not read history. It simply molds its weapons of destruction from the fragments of history which it hand picks to suit its purpose. Harvard historian, Jill Lepore, tells us “History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence.” The Marxist progressive turns this on its head and makes history tell us a story about the present, designed to suit its deterministic vision, playing fast and loose with the evidence.
With these people in the driving seat we are in a very dangerous place – and increasingly they are in the driving seat of all our major institutions – political, media and academic. One alone stands effectively against them.
As with the old more primitive form of Marxism, the abiding enemy of this ideology is of course religion. Religion is its enemy for two reasons. The first is that it has called out the ideology for the lies at its heart; the second is that any religion which teaches something of the transcendental truth about our race cannot coexist with an ideology which teaches that we are no more that a collection of cells.
Progressivism in its most vibrant form now dominates the United States and Canada – and their satelite anglophone nations – among whom I number my native Ireland. This progressivism is obliged denigrate and if possible eliminate the Christian religion. The Christian faith has no problem with rational modernity. As its path through history shows it has always sought to live peacebly with Caesar and has ultimately always succeeded in winning Caesar over to the marriage feast of faith and reason – from the Classical world down through the Renaissance and on into the Enlightment. That is why it is progressive Marxism’s Enemy Number One. Cartago delenda est has to be progressivism’s battle-cry.
We are now engaged in a new punic war. The engagement will be troublesome but the outcome will be the triumph of the good. Patrick Deneen in his study of the failure of Liberalism predicted that things would get worse and be more confused before they get better, before viable moral structures are restored on both the left and right. We can only hope that this will not take too long. The only show in town offering a true moral compass to the world is genuine Christianity.
What is the current state of play between the forces in the field just now?
Catholic President Biden was persuaded to leave the word “God” out of his first address to Congress last month. A win for progressives.
Across the Atlantic in Britain, Abby Day, professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, reports that less than half of Britons are expected to tick “Christian” in the UK census. In the 2011 census, 59.3% ticked Christianity, a fall from 71.6% a decade earlier. Day says post-war generations regard the church as irrelevant and immoral. Another win for progressivism.
Across the Irish Sea from Britain the Irish government is pummeling the Catholic Church and now the Deputy Prime Minister has declared that all publicly funded schools should adhere to Government policy by including LGBTI+ relationships in all sex education programmes. This is a response to a new sex education programme for Catholic primary schools which stated that the Church’s teaching on marriage between a man and a woman “cannot be omitted”. It’s description that sex was a “gift from God” is a problem for Irish progressives because it implies that as a gift it should be treated with due respect. This might still be a stalemate.
Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Republican Senator Tim Scott in his dignified reply to Biden’s Godless address spoke of his hope for a better future. “I am confident that our finest hour is yet to come. Original sin is never the end of the story. Not in our souls and not for our nation. The real story is always redemption.” Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal commented, “Broadcasters missed the meaning, thinking it was just some sweet Christian talk.” It was more. It was a win.
Ross Douthat, in a New York Times column a few days ago reflected on the implications of what he saw as the gradual erosion of Catholic faith in the face of progressivism.
“If you’re a liberal Catholic, especially one whose peers are members of the secular clerisy in Europe and the United States”, he observed, “your position has become much more difficult as progressivism has become more comprehensive in its demands. A small but telling example was offered in a recent essay for The Hedgehog Review, in which a Catholic campus minister wrote about her experience as an impeccably liberal and feminist Catholic working on a contemporary liberal-arts campus.
“She was startled to find that the new progressivism regarded even liberal Catholics as tainted by their association with something as white or patriarchal or Western as the official Catholic Church. She in turn cited the experience another: ‘It’s taboo to explore Western spirituality, especially in liberal circles. I’m careful who I tell about it.’ She was not alone. Other students asked me not to take photos of Mass and post them on social media. They didn’t want to be ‘outed’ as Catholic.”
But we must remember that although Rome did destroy Carthage, nevertheless, it arose from the ashes and eventually was the home of St. Augustine who became bishop of neighbouring Hippo and one the greatest champions of the Christian faith the world has ever seen. His work still endures with powerful effect to this day.
Is it not all a question of the vine and the branches? You either reunite with the vine or you wither away. At the root of this whole debacle are misconceptions about human nature – and in our time, family and sexuality in particular. That in its turn however, is rooted in something else. It is rooted in a shriveling up of the life of the spirit and the spirit’s conversation with the God whom Biden chose to ignore. True knowledge of God only comes through that conversation. Tim Scott, in that same address, said: “Becoming a Christian transformed my life,” He concluded telling us that he was “standing here because my mom has prayed me through some really tough times. I believe our nation has succeeded the same way, because generations of Americans in their own ways have asked for grace, and God has supplied it.”
The great French novelist Georges Bernanos once wrote an essay on the train wrecks in the history of the Church. He reminded us all that the church is always saved by its saints. It is they who keep the train on the tracks.
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.
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.
“History is written by the winners” is a trite adage which was probably first circulated by some losers. Ever since, it has been used to cast a shadow of doubt over every account of struggles between human beings of which history purports to tell us.
Searching through our past is a sacred pursuit. It is the pursuit of truth and, regardless of whether or not the goal is attained, if ever the pursuer veers from that course, seeking to serve ulterior motives, the sacred is profaned.
There is, sadly, a surfeit of this kind of profanity for us to contend with in our time. Pseudo historians and journalists – on the pretext that their work is the first draft of history – constantly try to pass off as a true account of the past, narratives which are nothing more than the whitewashing of the victors and the blacklisting of the vanquished.
In the ebb and flow of that cold conflict which we call the culture wars – particularly in the theatre of war where religion and secularism are the protagonists – the secularists seem currently to be the in the ascendant. Their ascendancy is partly the fruit of their committing this very kind of sacrilege – the representation, or misrepresentation, of facts in a wilfully selective way, serving an ulterior purpose.
Christian belief and the Catholic Church in particular are being vilified with every opportunity which presents itself to blacken the name of those who adhere to them. The shelves of our bookstores, the pages – hard or soft – of our news media, our broadcast services, all carry ample evidence of this. The callous indifference of the liberal West to the violent persecution of Christians and the burning of their churches in many parts of the world is just another dimension of their hidden – or not so hidden – agenda.
The consequences of this hostility are felt by ordinary Christians on our streets, in their workplaces and on college campuses every day. How about this, from David Quinn, director of Ireland’s Iona Institute, a secular Ireland’s bête noir in that country?
“It’s getting nastier out there. In the last couple of weeks, I have had a Sinn Fein supporter say on Twitter that I will be paying for my ‘crimes’, and sooner than expected. The University Observer at UCD tried to have me barred from taking part in a debate there and a guy from the paper accosted me afterwards. There was the protest against me the other night in Enniscorthy by People before Profit members. ” (Facebook post)
Even Dublin City Council, in its recent three-week-long Festival of History did not escape the reach of the secular culture warriors. A great deal of its programme was good, some of it very good, but a little too many of its presentations were no more than an opportunity for the ground troops of progressivism to gloat on their victories at the expense of the vanquished.
Black legends passing themselves off as the history of Christianity are nothing new. Each era seems to seek to generate its own to contribute to this destructive campaign. Here and now history is being used to pass judgement on and blacken the reputation of a generation of Irish people and of the Catholic Church, past and present. At the Festival Professor Frank McDonagh, in answer to a question related to his colloquy on his new book on Nazi Germany, wisely reminded us, History is an investigation of the past, not a judgement on it. Too many writers about the past undertake their work as counsels for the prosecution or the defence. They should be neither.
The destructive campaign against religion and religious institutions is being pursued ostensibly by some under the cover if investigating sad injustices perpetrated in the past by individuals and some institutions. In the way this is being done they are only piling injustice upon injustice.
This doubling of injustice is being perpetrated firstly by presenting fractions of truth as the whole truth; secondly by judging the deficiencies of another time in dealing with social problems by the mores, standards and circumstances of our own time; and thirdly – in the case of some at least – by weaponising the victims of past injustices in pursuit of the ulterior goal of destroying a targeted institution and its adherents.
Caelainn Hogan is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Guardian, among others, chronicling for the whole world the injustices she claims the entire Irish State and the entire Catholic Church has inflicted on the people of this island. She has now written her first book, entitled Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s institutions for ‘Fallen Women’. She contributed to the last weekend of this festival in an event where she was ‘in conversation with Tuam survivors.’ This was billed in the published programme as follows:
Until recently, the Catholic Church, in concert with the Irish state, operated a network of institutions for the concealment, punishment and exploitation of ‘fallen women’. In the Magdalene laundries, girls and women were incarcerated and condemned to servitude. And in the mother—and—baby homes, women who had become pregnant out of wedlock were hidden from view, and in most cases their babies were adopted — sometimes illegally. Mortality rates in these institutions were high, and the discovery of a mass infant grave at the mother—and—baby home in Tuam made news all over the world. The Irish state has commissioned investigations, but for countless people, a search for answers continues.
That may be good sensational journalism – if you like that sort of thing. But it has nothing to do with history. It was sad to see this rubbing shoulders with the contributions of people like Tom Holland and Margaret Macmillan and Jung Chang – all of whose presentations were filled with the nuance which the complexity of the past demands.
There is no doubt but that we need to hear the sad accounts of people who have suffered injustice. We need to hear it because we need to help heal the wounds inflicted on them. We need to hear it because we all need to reform what needs reform in ourselves and in our institutions. But when our response to this moves us to general judgements on whole populations and everyone serving in institutions, this does not serve any concept of truthfulness, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which honest historical narrative seeks.
To identify the faltering but earnest efforts of the entire Irish state to serve its people in those decades with the tragic mistakes made in some of those efforts, is to portray it as a monster. To identify the Catholic Church in a similar manner is equally gross. This is the institution which for millennia has nurtured our civilization from the rough justice of pagan times, through era after era when new forms of barbarism threatened to swamp it.
In our own time the Catholic Church is the only global institution standing firm against the new barbarism which manifests itself in the daily slaughter of thousands of unborn children.
The writing of tendentious historical narratives seems to be just one more weapon in an arsenal assembled for the destruction of all semblances of Christian values in our civilization.
History gives us many examples of justice warriors who have felt it necessary to destroy their flawed but workable institutions to establish what they saw as justice. Most of them, in doing so, have left trails of pain and suffering in their wakes, until Christian inspired restorations brought the world back to some semblance of justice, even if only of the faltering kind which our race is capable of achieving.
Constantine reformed a Roman regime which brutally tried but failed to destroy the Christian religion; throughout the Middle Ages the Catholic Church resisted repeated incursions of barbaric forces, eventually converting them and with them laying the foundations for what we today call Western Civilization; honest historian now recognise that even the much maligned Inquisition was in fact and effort to ameliorate the kind of summary treatment of dissent which had been standard practice prior to that; nearer our own time came the French Revolution, whose reign of terror held sway until eventually a fragile Christian order brought the Enlightenment back to its sense of humanity; the sad history of the twentieth century’s blood-soaked efforts to supplant Christianity bled itself right into our own time
The Catholic Church has battled on through all these storms and for anyone who wants to question its perennial commitment to justice and truth and the ultimate welfare of mankind, let them start by taking up that seminal document, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is by this compendium of all the teaching of its Founder, as found in the scriptures, its traditions and its explicit pronouncements down through the 2000 years of its history, that it should be judged. The faltering efforts of its adherents can of course often be found wanting, sometimes gravely wanting – and indeed be occasion for scandal. They should not however, be a pretext for condemning that which the Catholic Church works constantly for, and which it insistently asks and encourages us to aspire to and strive for.
There is a special poignancy in our Irish Christmas this year. In some way it links aptly with this no less poignant famous picture of Joseph helping Mary and her unborn child along the road to Bethlehem, just over two thousand years ago.
It is Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem, from the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
In it, The Guardian newspaper (believe it or not), tells us that we see Mary and Joseph who are on their way to Bethlehem through a rocky landscape. She has climbed down from the donkey, perhaps afraid of riding down such a perilous, ankle-breaking slope. Joseph, grizzled and weary, is helping her along with all his loving kindness, his actions (rather than her physical appearance) suggesting just how pregnant she is. He is doing everything he can, as husband and prospective new father, to protect his little family from hardship and danger.
In Ireland the unborn have now lost the protection of the State. The fatal decision was made by a majority of the Irish people last May. That they did so, many still find very hard to come to terms with. Legislatures, at one remove from the will of the people, pass laws like this – but that a people should directly ask it legislature to do so is in some way harder to comprehend. But comprehend it we must.
The antiphon to the second Psalm, a substantial portion of which constitutes part of the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah, proclaims:
“His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. “
These lines challenge us, challenge our faith in the word of God. When I look around me at our crazy world and my apostate nation, I have the temerity to question these words as so much self-delusion. I’m inclined to say, “Really? Serve and obey? Will they really? You must be joking.”
Credibly enough, the psalmist asks rhetorically, “Quare fremuérunt gentes, et pópuli meditáti sunt inánia?” Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? Indeed the more direct translation, “thinking up inanities” might be better.
Tumult certainly; useless also; even self-negating – all that self-grandising posturing which we call identity politics, signifying nothing; hang-ups over ‘diversity’ to the point where the world is becoming a new Tower of Babel.
And the political classes, left, right and center? They also fit into this picture, personified by the royalty of a former age:
“They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed. They shout, ‘Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke.’”
There is certainly a great deal of that around. How else are we to interpret the abuse piled on those who dare to defend the rights of medical professionals whose consciences are being trampled on by their own elected representatives? For our “rulers” conscience is now a fetter, a yoke to be cast off.
“Carol Nolan TD (a member of the Irish Parliament) has received a lot vitriol abuse from fellow TD’S for opposing the abortion bill,” we were reminded courtesy of Facebook a few weeks ago.
But then comes an even harder bit for the beleaguered remnants of Israel to take on board.
“He who sits in the heavens”, we are told, “ laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his rage. It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
But where is he, we ask, as the division bell rings in the Irish parliament and “the kings of the earth”, the “princes”, troop to the lobby to pass death sentence on thousands of unborn children? The estimate is that close to 10000 Irish babies will perish next year under the legislation now passing through the two Houses of Parliament – with only a few brave voices offering resistance.
We look around and see a crumbling civilization. I walk through the campus of a famous university; I pick up a student newspaper – free because it is printed with money from taxpayers, in the name of education. What do I find in it? Very little that is not advocating licentious hedonism. Irony of ironies, this university was dedicated to the Most Blessed Trinity over four hundred years ago. If I were an advocate of “safe spaces” for young people I would certainly not be recommending this university campus, my alma mater, as one of them.
But then, in the midst of all these temptations to doubt the sacred texts, we remember the crumbling of Christ’s cohort of followers. Just four are left at the foot of the Cross, while faithful Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus face up to the powers-that-be and prepare to take him down from the gibbet to lay him in the tomb prepared by one of them. That makes six out of all those who, less than a week before, the were hailing him as the Son of David.
Then we hear the psalmist say with utmost confidence:
“I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession.’”
And the reckoning?
“‘With a rod of iron you shall break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar.’ Now, O kings, understand; take warning, rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage.
Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze.”
Can all that really be balderdash? No. These words have been sung and believed in for more, much more probably, than three thousand years. They have also been scoffed at by kings, princes and peoples who delude themselves with “useless murmuring”. These words have been at the heart of the Christian transformation of the world foretold in the Old Testament and announced in the New. Strip away all that has come to us from these words and we will be left with a nasty and brutal world dominated by superstition and fatalistic myth, ruled by fools who think they can mold human nature into whatever shape they dream up or desire.
The final line of the psalm proclaims, “Blessed are they who put their trust in the Lord.” So, with those words, all doubt melts away – if trust in the Lord is the condition for Blessedness what more is there to say. If we were to value anything in the world over this then we make ourselves nothing more than useless murmurers and lackeys of the “kings of the earth”.
That trust, that Blessedness, will still be as real three thousand years from now, as real as it is today, as real as it was in the souls of Mary and Joseph as they struggled towards Bethlehem with the unborn child who is the saviour of mankind; and as real as it was three thousand years ago – in spite of the world’s Herods, dictators, pseudo-democrats and all the other varieties of rulers it offers us.
We look back at the classical world and classical civilization with glasses that are a little too rose-tinted. Myths were at the foundation of that world – myths about men as well as myths about gods. Myths are still at the foundations of our conception of that world. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics in Cambridge, in her new work, SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, prefaces the book by emphasising how ancient Rome is still important. She certainly convinces us. But there are many things that are important but boring. Boring, Rome is emphatically not. This is a fascinating book for all sorts of reasons and on all sorts of levels. One of Beard’s achievements in S.P.Q.R. is to unravel those myths for us and to puncture our own mythical conceptions about the events and the heroes of that time.
It is that rare thing, scholarly and readable, learned and light. It is a joy to read and a magnificent stimulus for reflection on both the origins and development of our own civilization as well as on the perennial threats to its survival which are active in our contemporary world.
This book will not endear you to the Romans, it may even horrify you. It is not that there were not people there trying to do their best, striving for some kind of justice. There were. One of the abiding impressions you get from the book is a sense of mankind’s long, painstaking and faltering journey towards the rule of law in our world.
But one of the questions which haunts us as we make our way through this revision of our cosy and benign view of the Roman world is this: what would our modern world be like today if the radical revolution which was the conversion of this world to Christianity had not taken hold?
Richard Dawkins – in one of his wiser reflections some years ago, in the middle of a diatribe against the Christian Faith – expressed some concern about what might replace Christianity if his wishes for it came true. Well he might, given some of the evidence we have from mankind’s more recent efforts to create godless utopias.
The thought which this book prompts, however, is even more radical. What kind of civilization could faltering mankind ever have achieved had it not been for the emergence of the Christian Faith to take centre-stage in that evolution. The Roman world, even with its ameliorating Greek influences, was devoid of the radical goodness which the Christian message holds. While classical civilization had elements which that message was capable of taking and transforming, it could never have produced that transformation from within its own resources.
Mary Beard helps us to look back to this world with a cold eye and there we see what a floundering and inhumane world it was in which to live – and truly alien to the spirit of the ages, even in their rawest expressions, which followed the leavening of the mass by Christianity.
Beard’s narrative approach is very different from what we are used to in the writing of ancient history. While the approach is generally chronological she deliberately eschews the tracing of cause and effect in the story. She concentrates instead on giving us insights into the mentality of the people, the life-style and the mores prevailing over her 1000 year span. In this we do not get blow by blow accounts of political or military action but get a real feel for how political life worked in a militarised state – or did not – as well as what it was like to be a family, a mother, a child in that world.
She recounts the attitude to and the fate of children in the womb: “One letter, surviving on papyrus from Roman Egypt, written by a husband to his pregnant wife, instructs her to raise the child if it is a boy, but ‘if it is a girl, discard it’. How often this happened, and what the exact ratio of the victims was, is a matter of conjecture, but it was often enough for rubbish tips to be thought of as a source of free slaves.” Was this the ancient world’s version of Planned Parenthood (capitals deliberate)? Is there not just a little more than a echo of this in the current controversies surrounding that American state-funded organization?
As for poverty and destitution, the Roman world was truly dark. The sources don’t give a great deal of evidence. The reason for that, Beard tells us, is clear. “First, those who have nothing leave very few traces in the historical or archaeological record. Ephemeral shanty towns do not leave a permanent imprint in the soil; those buried in unmarked graves tell us much less about themselves than those accompanied by an eloquent epitaph. But second, and even more to the point, extreme poverty in the Roman world was a condition that usually solved itself: its victims died.” What there was by way of some social provision for the needy, the “corn dole”, was for the needy within a “privileged group of about 250,000 male citizens in the first and second centuries CE.”
No one in the Roman world, she tells us, “seriously believed that poverty was honourable – until the growth of Christianity… The idea that a rich man might have a problem entering the kingdom of heaven would have seemed as preposterous to those hanging out in our Ostian bar as to the plutocrat in his mansion.”
Political life operated in a pretty brutal and murderous way, family life would have had its moments but was a very different reality from what we think of as ideal family life today. It may have taken centuries, even a millennium or more for much of what we experience today to become the norm for us, but we should have no illusions about where it all began. Its beginning is to be found in the words of Christ, “suffer little children to come unto me…”, and in the articulation of Christ’s teaching in the words of St. Paul about husbands loving their wives, wives loving their husbands, the sanctity of marriage, and much else.
What shocks us not a little in reading this book is the realization that although we see some of the elements of our own civilization in the world Beard lays before us, we realize how radical and necessary was the peaceful Christian revolution to bring us from there to where we are today. It also helps us ask ourselves the question – what will we lose if we abandon the principles of that revolution as the West is now doing wholesale? It was not until Roman society began to be impregnated by the values of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that the Roman world and Roman law flourished as the framework for western civilisation.
Christians have not always lived up to the standards set by Christ. Benedict XVI has often stressed that profound changes in institutions and people are usually the result of the saints, not of the learned or powerful: “Amid the vicissitudes of history, it has been the saints who have been the true reformers, who have so often lifted mankind out of the dark valleys into which it constantly runs the risk of sinking back again and have brought light whenever necessary “.
So it was in Rome. As Beard recounts in the conclusion of her book, “after periods of coordinated persecution of the Christians in the later third century CE, the universal empire decided to embrace the universal religion (or vice versa). The emperor Constantine…, the first Roman emperor to formally convert to Christianity was baptised on his deathbed. Constantine did, in a way, follow the Augustan model of building himself into power, but what he built was churches.” Her narrative ends just before that event, with the reign of Caracalla.
Casting this kind of a cold eye on Rome is not to denigrate it. It is just important to tell it as it is, as it was. Beard concludes: “We do a disservice to the Romans if we heroise them, as much as if we demonise them. But we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to take them seriously – and if we close our long conversation with them.” We might add that knowing the truth about what we have left behind us is important as an incentive to help us to maintain and treasure what we have. Part of the value of this book is that it does just that.
Addendum (March 24th)
George Weigel wrote in a post on Easter in First Things this week:
The grittiness of Lent, and the “intransigent historical claims” without which Easter makes no sense at all, should remind us that Christianity does not rest on myths or “narratives,” but on radically changed human lives whose effect on their times are historical fact. Within two and a half centuries, what began as a ragtag gang of nobodies from the civilizational outback had so transformed the Mediterranean world that the most powerful man in that world, the Roman emperor Constantine, joined the winning side. How did that happen?
It didn’t happen because of better myth-making. It happened because those first Christians met a young rabbi who promised that, should they believe in him, each of them would become “ a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John 4.14]. Then came what seemed complete catastrophe: his crucifixion. But they met that teacher again as the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and were infused by his Spirit. And after that, they didn’t sit around in the “presence of the question mark; rather, they told the truth of what they had “seen and heard” [cf. 1 John 1.1].
The New York Times reports that Ecuador, with just 16 million people, has little presence on the global stage, but that China’s rapidly expanding footprint there speaks volumes about the changing world order, as Beijing surges forward and Washington gradually loses ground.
Without ignoring the harsh realities of the Chinese political system and the questions which keep being asked about its human rights abuses, it might be worth considering that backing China is like taking a train going in the direction of freedom whereas backing the Western liberal model is like putting your money on one going in the opposite direction.
Growing Chinese influence – there and elsewhere, as in Africa – might be much more positive than a growth of American influence where the dominant and ascendant culture is far more hostile to real human values than the increasingly Christian culture in China might be.
Across the Ecuadorian countryside, the Times reports, in villages and towns, Chinese money is going to build roads, highways, bridges, hospitals, even a network of surveillance cameras stretching to the Galápagos Islands. State-owned Chinese banks have already put nearly $11 billion into the country, and the Ecuadorean government is asking for more.
While China has been important to the world economy for decades, the country is now wielding its financial heft with the confidence and purpose of a global superpower. Dare we give two cheers for that?
In China itself, according to the China Religion Survey 2015, details of which have been released by the National Survey Research Centre at Renmin University, Islam and Catholicism are the two religions that have seen rapid growth among the Chinese who are under 30 years old.
In that age bracket, 22.4 percent of Chinese are now Muslims while Catholics follow very closely at 22 percent. But while the Muslim growth comes mainly from population growth – with that clearly indicating resistance to the one-child policy – the Catholic and wider Christian growth is through conversion. Conversion to Islam is relatively rare.
This China Religion Survey, 2015, held interviews from more than 4,000 religious sites between 2013 and 2015. The research found that even though Buddhism and Taoism are more popular with the older generations, Protestantism has posted the greatest number in terms of places of worship.
Furthermore, 60 percent of people who work in places of worship see state regulations as “fair.”
This is contrary to the latest report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which said there is an “alarming increase in systematic, egregious, and ongoing abuses” on religious freedom in China last year.
In 2014, the Chinese government took steps to consolidate further its authoritarian monopoly of power over all aspects of its citizens’ lives. For religious freedom, this has meant unprecedented violations against Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Falun Gong practitioners. People of faith continue to face arrests, fines, denials of justice, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases, the closing or bulldozing of places of worship. Based on the alarming increase in systematic, egregious, and ongoing abuses, USCIRF again recommends China be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The State Department has designated China as a CPC since 1999, most recently in July 2014.
Religious observance in China is on the rise. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is officially atheist, but it has grown more tolerant of religious activity over the past forty years. Amid China’s economic boom and rapid modernization, experts point to the emergence of a spiritual vacuum as a trigger for the growing number of religious believers, particularly adherents of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups. Though China’s constitution explicitly allows “freedom of religious belief,” adherents across all religious organizations, from state-sanctioned to underground and banned groups, still face persecution and repression.
While no one could argue that the level of difficulty – and even persecution – being experienced by people holding religious beliefs in the West is at the level experienced by Christians in India or China, it does seem that in China at least the trend is in the opposite direction. Take, for example, the complaints of Christians in the United States who now find that the moral codes of their religion are in conflict with the new politically correct codes being affirmed in the public square and which are assigning them, at best, to the margins of society.
A few examples:
The implications of the multiple court battles going on over Obamacare enforcement of contraceptive culture on Christian institutions.
The forcing of service providers to act contrary to their consciences by obliging them to endorse what they consider immoral behavior.
The Supreme Court determining to exclude anyone who prays in Jesus’ name from a rotation of officials who open city business meetings.
The removal of US military Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, over the issue of praying in Jesus Name.
UCLA’s prohibiting a graduating student from thanking her “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” in her graduation speech.
Colleges making special accommodations for foot baths and Muslim only prayer rooms, while a Muslim group membership may be suspended or revoked for 57 reasons including but not limited to: unbecoming behavior, insubordination, or inactivity; but denying Christian groups campus recognition “because it requires its officers and voting members to agree with its Christian beliefs”.
Matthew Staver, Dean and Professor of Law at the Evangelical Christian Liberty University School of Law, puts it this way:
In a world of political correctness devoid of the rule of law, tolerance has come to mean total rejection of Christianity and moral standards. Modern tolerance redefines words like ‘marriage,’ ‘discrimination,’ ‘equality,’ ‘morality,’ and even ‘absolutes.’ The word ‘tolerance’ as it is used today never includes opposing arguments or competing worldviews. Tolerance has become Orwellian and decidedly intolerant.
So where does that leave Ecuador? It is not in a very good place just now and, with its Chavez-like regime headed by President Rafael Correa, in the longer-term it may be playing with fire in exposing itself to an economic colonization by China. Seeking to distance itself from the US it has turned to China as Cuba did to Russia back in the 1950s and ’60s. That did not end well.
But if all did turn out well, the question which poses itself about all this is whether there is a better future in store for a country which allies itself with a power which may be evolving towards a tolerant and Christian society than being dependent on one whose Christian civilization is in decay. Furthermore, American investment seems increasingly to come with politically correct cultural strings attached which bear within them the seeds of its ultimate self-destruction.
I watched a chilling interview with David Foster Wallace just a few days ago. It was chilling because of how this tortured soul ended his life. It was chilling because it was hard not to connect his sad death from the grim prospect which he foresaw for America, captivated as it was by a culture of greed, self-indulgence and consumption.
For many this will be just one more reason to throw Christians – and particularly Catholics – to the lions again.
Planned Parenthood, the world’s leading abortion provider and promoter, has been put on the back foot again. Its political wing, the US Democratic Party, is hoping against hope that the storm created by David Daleiden will somehow be defused before it gains too much traction in the run-in to next year’s big election. Whether it does or doesn’t we can still anticipate that it will harden their resolve to continue moving conscientious Christians to the margins of the public square.
Daleiden is the man behind the abortion provider’s exposure as a purveyor of body parts of aborted babies. His undercover videos have appeared online showing a Planned Parenthood official in California discussing, over what looked like a very nice lunch, the price of providing bits of babies’ bodies to a man and woman posing as buyers from a firm that procures tissue for medical researchers.
The New York Times and other fellow travelers, like the Democrats and the abortion lobby, cannot ignore the story. Today the Times carried a useful interview with Daleiden – the third item on its online headlines newsletter this morning. It could be described as even handed but between the lines I think you get a sense that they were looking for the story which might derail Daleiden and his activist group’s campaign. They didn’t get it.
In the videos the man off-camera is Daleiden. And, he said in an interview with the Times, more episodes are coming. Planned Parenthood’s estimates that he must have “thousands of hours of videotape” from infiltrating its clinics for two and a half years. Daleiden himself reckons he has enough recordings for perhaps a dozen videos that he can release at the rate of one a week for the next few months.
The time frame all but ensures political tumult ahead, according to the paper. “The videos will coincide with the Republican-controlled Congress’s final weeks of work on spending bills needed to finance the government after the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year. The first videos have already given impetus to conservatives’ push to hold those bills hostage unless they are amended to eliminate money for Planned Parenthood and other family planning programs. The risk, as in past years, is a government shutdown.”
All that is before we even begin to think of the Presidential election – and what Hilary Clinton is going to say in trying to defend her and Obama’s favourite NGO. Republicans are already shouting about this and Democrats clearly think they can use their interest in the issue against their political rivals and against Daleiden.
“By Boehner and the Republicans leaping into the middle of this, I think they further demonstrate the political nature of the attack,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “And as someone who’s done a lot of polling about Planned Parenthood, I feel reasonably confident that Americans, particularly American women, will see this as about politics, not about health care.”
What, we might ask, are politicians for, what is politics about, if they are not going to concern themselves with issues like this. Once again it all comes down to the definition and scope of the term “health care”. For some their duty of care only covers a portion of the population, for others it covers all the human beings living on the planet, before as well as after birth. This simple disagreement is at the root of the clash between two civilizations, a clash which at least matches that between the pagan Roman Empire and embryonic Christian world.
Daleiden’s storm is now gathering force and doing what he always hoped it would do over the past two years as he prepared the ground and put his plan into place. “When you know that you have something powerful, that’s going to shock a lot of consciences,”Daleiden said, it is “natural not to want to keep that under wraps.”
The Times interview tried the ploy of pleading the value to medical research which he might now be jeopardizing. He rejected that, saying, “Most fetal tissue work is real Frankenstein stuff.”
Daleiden said he had been an anti-abortion activist for more than a decade. He formed an anti-abortion group at his high school in Sacramento, a period when he met another young activist named Lila Rose. Until now, Rose had been better known to Planned Parenthood and other abortion-rights advocates for video stings by her group, Live Action. “Lila and I have been friends for many, many years,” Daleiden said.
He attributes his anti-abortion militancy to seeing images of aborted fetuses as a teenager. He is also the child of a crisis pregnancy. His parents, who are now divorced, were juniors in college when his mother became pregnant. He grew up “culturally Catholic,” and does not see himself aws particularly religious. But he now calls Pope Francis “my inspiration,” moved to follow the Pope’s encouragement to reach out to the peripheries and his “emphasis on just being active, on going outside of yourself to accomplish things.”
All this is indeed a chilling illustration of what Pope Francis reminds us of in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si‘, “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”
There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”, as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”. But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.
Apart from the immediate horror aroused by the vision of this trade in baby body parts, the related question which it poses and prompts to our consciences is once again that of the problem of men of science who do not see themselves bound by any conscience. If conscience plays no part in the way a scientist goes about his work then all we can expect is to relive the nightmare of that prescient woman, Mary Shelly – and it will be no nightmare. It will be the real world.
Some Irish people are a little dismayed this morning, opening their newspapers or listening to their radios, finding a priest asking them to vote for the redefinition of marriage in the forthcoming referendum on the issue. They shouldn’t be.
The early history of Christianity should help any modern Christians trying hard to live by the authentic teaching of Christ in dealing with the disappointment occasioned by the utterances of Fr. Iggy O’Donovan. O’Donovan may not be Gnostic and may be small fry when taken in the context of what authentic Christianity was up against in those first centuries. But he is cut from the same cloth as the likes of Valentinius, Marcion and Tatian. Pedigree, or association with faithful Christians, is no gaurantor of orthodoxy.
Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us, intially quoting another source:
“When [the reader of Christian history] comes to the second century,” says Dr. (Edward) Burton, “he finds that Gnosticism, under some form or other, was professed in every part of the then civilized world. He finds it divided into schools, as numerously and as zealously attended as any which Greece or Asia could boast in their happiest days. He meets with names totally unknown to him before, which excited as much sensation as those of Aristotle or Plato. He hears of volumes having been written in support of this new philosophy, not one of which has survived to our own day.”[221:1] Many of the founders of these sects had been Christians; others were of Jewish parentage; others were more or less connected in fact with the Pagan rites to which their own bore so great a resemblance. Montanus seems even to have been a mutilated priest of Cybele; the followers of Prodicus professed to possess the secret books of Zoroaster; and the doctrine of dualism, which so many of the sects held, is to be traced to the same source. Basilides seems to have recognized Mithras as the Supreme Being, or the Prince of Angels, or the Sun, if Mithras is equivalent to Abraxas, which was inscribed upon his amulets: on the other hand, he is said to have been taught by an immediate disciple of St. Peter, and Valentinus by an immediate disciple of St. Paul. Marcion was the son of a Bishop of Pontus; Tatian, a disciple of St. Justin Martyr.
The Church has had to contend with this kind of thing throughout its history and will always have to do so. But if the gates of Hell will not prevail against it why should a few turbulent clerics worry it?