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?
I seldom pass a group of young children these days – or a mother with a newborn infant in her arms – but I ask myself a rhetorical question. What kind of civilization will that little child grow up in or inhabit as an adult? I was not preoccupied with that question thirty years ago. I was confident then, despite the Cold War, despite the tribal troubles of my country, that changes were for the better. Our progress at worst seemed to be a matter of two steps forward, one step backward. But the trend was forward. Is it no longer possible to have that confidence?
A friend of mine rejects any suggestion that our present discontents on the geopolitical front today are a fulfillment in any way of the late Samuel Huntington’s predictions of a clash of civilizations. It would be consoling to be able to agree with him – but it would also be naive and dangerous.
Know your enemy is one of the most basic principles of self-defence. If we fail to understand the true nature of the enemy confronting us both in and from the Middle East and within our own culture, we will make a terrible mistake.
Question: If the international community could put the clock back would it not now do everything in its power to stop the Rwandan genocide; if it had a choice now would it stand aside as Pol Pot systematically murders millions of his own people in the name of an ideology; does the world not now recognize that the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler was one of the greatest blunders recorded in history?
The Charlie Hebdo murders have been characterized as a vicious attack on one of the most fundamental values of Western civilization – freedom of speech and expression. They were that, but this is only part of the story. That massacre is just another flash-point it a greater war. Indeed it is a flash-point in which can be seen the basic elements of the lethal clash which Huntington foresaw. Huntington may be faulted for identifying too many potential clashing elements in his global analysis – but he was correct in identifying the essential element in the fault lines which were going to disturb the peace of the world. That element was no longer going to be the dynastic interests of the distant past, nor the national interests of the recent past, nor, in any major way, the material resources necessary for our way of life in our own time. These might be elements in the mix of the major conflicts of our times but they are not the root cause – because reason and negotiation are now accepted by the power-brokers as a better means of resolving our conflicting interests in these matters. The current Ukrainian impasse is an ethnic conflict with nationalist undertones. But is is unlikely to get catastrophically out of hand as it might have done in the days when the dynamics of the European Balance of Power was so crucial to states. It will eventually be resolved by negotiation and agreement. It is not a clash of two civilizations, nor will it become one. Vladimir Putin’s posturing does not threaten the common good of the world we would like to see our generation’s children inherit. The jihadis of the Middle East do – and the nihilistic libertarianism represented by the likes of Charlie Hebdo do.
There is a three-way clash of civilizations threatening the peace of the world today. Two kinds of war are being waged – a hot war and a cold war. The hot war has multiple fronts. It is the war of the jihadis. Rather than Islamic, one protagonist in this war is Wahhabist or Salafist. This jihad is waged against two enemies. Its primary enemy is the internal Islamic one – Muslims of any and every denomination who are not of its own pure brand. This is a war within Islam and its outcome is as crucial to non Muslims as it is to the happiness of ordinary Muslims around the world. The jihadist’s secondary target is a dual enemy – Christian civilization and the culture of the secularist West, two cultures under under one umbrella which are themselves engaged in the cold war now in progress within what we call Western civilization.
This cold war is between militant secularists and those whose conscience is guided by principles rooted in a reading of the human condition founded on both reason and faith. It is not a war between secular atheists and the rest because the majority in the secularist camp still profess an allegiance to some personal interpretation of Christianity – as one of its leading generals, Barack Obama, does. This is the war spoken of by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago when he predicted that he would die in his bed, that his successor would die in prison, but that his successor’s successor would be a martyr.
Side by side in the West there now exist Christian and the post-Christian civilization with the same mother, adhered to by one, rejected, more or less, by the other. They have not formally declared war on each other – but, don’t doubt it, they are at war. The battlegrounds are on two fronts: using constitutional and legal weapons on one front; using the media of social communication on the other. The ground being contested? The heritage of Christendom.
There have been victories and defeats on both sides. Who can deny that the witness to the world given by seven million Asians in the Philippines last month was not a resounding victory for Christian culture, or the Humanum Conference in Rome last year for its resounding affirmation of the values of the Judeo-Christian vision of humanity, its nature, dignity and destiny.There are others.
But how are we to read a question like this?
Have one million Brits signed up for an adultery website? American dating network Ashley Madison, which specializes in setting up extramarital affairs, says it has signed up that many British members. The “success” comes despite the fact that the website — which signs on with the tag “Life is short. Have an affair” — has been prevented from advertising on UK television.
Or how are we to read the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey? These and many more are signs of battles lost by those who have been fighting for the dignity of mankind and the triumph of that vision of our destiny which embraces more than the simply material, a perishable clump of cells. Charlie Hebdo is just one more manifestation of post-Christian culture. But the Christian way, the Christian weapon, of dealing with all this will never be violence or the suppression of freedom. It can only ever be, should only ever be, by the proclamation of the Truth, the eternal Truth. This, by virtue of its own power and its own promise, will ultimately triumph. How that triumph will be effected in the world is another matter, full of uncertainty. But are those who should be the protagonists in this triumph asleep or awake?
The tragedy of this cold war has many dimensions but one of its immediate and potentially lethal consequences is its weakening effect on those who should be confronting the violent and inhumane salafists, whose Christian victims President Obama did not even think were worthy of a sympathetic mention in his recent national prayer breakfast address.
The campaign of the salafists – whether under the agency of al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, or other manifestations of the jihad – cannot be separated from the spread of Muslim culture into the West. Islam by its very definition has the entire world in it sights. Salafism is not about territory. It is about souls. It is about converting, by fair means or foul, minds and hearts to Islam.
For all the centuries of its existence Islam spread by conquest and by migration. When it gained territory it then consolidated its captive populations and maintained them in the faith by the rigours of sharia law. Foreigners were an evil influence to be controlled or kept at bay – as the Wahhabists of modern Saudi Arabia seek to do today.
A sample of this civilization’s vision for our race can be seen in the manifesto on women’s life under the Islamic State published by female jihadis recently. It states that girls can marry from age nine and labels Western education as “strange”. The document criticizes the “strange studies” of Western education. Under pure Islam: “From ages seven to nine, there will be three lessons: fiqh (understanding) and religion, Quranic Arabic (written and read) and science(accounting and natural sciences).”
“From ten to twelve, there will be more religious studies, especially fiqh, focusing more on fiqh related to women and the rulings on marriage and divorce. This is in addition to the other two subjects. Skills like textiles and knitting, basic cooking will also be taught.”
“From thirteen to fifteen, there will be more of a focus on Sharia, as well as more manual skills (especially those related to raising children) and less of the science, the basics of which will already have been taught. In addition, they will be taught about Islamic history, the life of the Prophet and his followers.” The document, we are told, is designed to “clarify the role of Muslim women and the life which is desired for them”.
The guide is thought to be aimed at Arab women, rather than a Western audience. References to Saudi Arabia suggest that Saudi women are the main targets. But no one should doubt that the ultimate goal of all Islam in principle – and its Wahhabist manifestation in deadly practice – is the entire world.
A telling letter to the London Independent recently noted that the initiative by the Muslim Council of Britain to open the doors of some mosques to the public appears to be positive in the present climate. But, its author, Dr. Rumy Hasan of the University of Sussex, pointed out, “it is mere symbolism, whereas what is needed are policy shifts of substance.” These are few and far between.
The British Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, in a recent and controversial letter to 1,000 mosque leaders, asked them to consider how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. The likelihood is that for a majority of imams, Hasan says, “the two are, in fact, irreconcilable – this would certainly be the case for Saudi-funded mosques and those inspired by Deobandism, with its roots in South Asia. Indeed, they have been singularly hostile to being part of a British identity and integrating into mainstream society.
“We know that the meaning of the name of the Nigerian jihadi group Boko Haram is ‘Western education is sinful’. In a similar manner for many mosque leaders, Western lifestyle is sinful.
“What would be of substance and positive is a commitment to values that embrace freedom of expression and the adherence to universal laws, rather than demanding separate rights and exemptions to the law of the land that has hitherto been the case by Muslim leaders.”
But it is here that we come to the intractable conflict within Islam. Many ordinary Muslim people want to get on with their lives. The imams will not let them. There is no place for freedom in the militant strain of Islam now dictating the pace in much of the Islamic world because there is no place for reason. Not until there is victory for a moderate Islamic culture can there be any semblance of what Eric Pickles is hoping to see.
After centuries of deadlock on the bloody borders shared between Christian civilization and Islamic civilization eventually these frontiers became porous as Islam controlled territories slipped hopelessly behind in development. The eventual consequence of this was the migration of Muslims into the states of Western Europe. In the Islamic homeland of Arabia this was a disaster. For them it meant the sinful contamination of their people and with this arose the sense of mission to save them, to bring them back to the rigourous practice of their faith. This is the mission now in progress among the Muslims settled in the West. The dream of the Wahhabists is that what happened in Anatolia (now Turkey) in the eleventh century will be repeated again. As Bernard Lewis points out in his History of the Middle East, the Islamic transformation of that country was accomplished by migrating tribes rather than by any military action on the part of the Great Seljuks, the Muslim conquerors of that age. After that migrations the Islamic forces moved in to organize the province which had been handed to them on a plate by a process of ethnic migration. By the end of the twelfth century a Turkish Muslim monarchy was firmly in place and Anatolia became a Turkish land. Masses of Turkish immigrants then entered from further east and a Turkish Muslim civilization replaced Greek Christianity.
With old Europe now threatening to degenerate itself out of existence and with its growing Muslim population now a target for zealous Wahhabist imams, who can predict what will happen? The outcome of the West’s own internal cultural conflict – between its Christians and its secularists is crucial. The latter is the primary force behind its plunging demographics. This suicidal trend is the product of the rampant hedonistic individualism embedded in modern secularism. It can only be arrested within the context of a truly Christian culture of life. If not, then the fate of Europe can only be the fate of Anatolia.
It is hard not to conclude that the world is now facing into an era of momentous change of the deepest kind. Not to recognize the nature of this conflict, or the character of the forces now at war with each other, is to bury our heads in the sand and to render ourselves impotent when we need to be effective protagonists in the struggle to shape this world in every way necessary to serve the common good of humanity for centuries to come.
In a conversation with some friends recently about the perilous state of our world and its social institutions, the very elements which hold it together this side of chaos – especially the family and marriage – the following point was made:
We know that reason is on our side when we argue for the protection of the family, and for the institution of marriage which is one of its most important pillars. We know that the natural family has been crippled with things like divorce, the normalization of cohabitation and the latest paralysing threat to it – the removal of the complementarity of the sexes as one of the defining elements of marriage. We can explain all this in rational terms. But we also know that none of the explanations we offer is helping us turn the tide.
Christians know these things on two levels and they have two powerful sources on which they can base their convictions and present their case – faith and reason. With reason they can win the argument but seldom change the heart. They should rely far more on their faith, and its beauty, to win, not just the argument, but the heart as well. That will be when the tide will begin to turn.
The case was made that while the campaigns now in progress in the culture wars – the campaign for the human rights of the children in the womb who are awaiting birth, any campaign to protect children for the plague of divorce which shatters their homes, any campaign to disabuse those who think that the best way to marriage is the experimental one of cohabitation, a way which is leaving millions of children without fathers – all these have reason on their side but there would be no campaign at all if there were not people of faith behind them. Christian faith is the motive power behind them all.
The conclusion was that the surest way to bring the world back to its senses on all these issues was to try to bring people back to the faith. In so doing the world will then again be breathing with two lungs rather than one. Then, and only then, will we grasp the complete vision of humanity and all things truly human, enlightened by the beauty of that mysterious thing which faith is. Only when such a vision is restored will we find a way of living which is truly human.
Shortly after having this conversation I read an article, a personal testimony which seemed to be, on the one hand, a portrait of our self-destructing society, and on the other hand, an illustration of transforming power of faith. It was posted some days ago on Garvan Hill’s Twitter platform and on Garvan Hill’s Facebook page. It is so good, so powerful, that it deserves maximum exposure for it impels us to be courageous about speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when we set out to bring western civilization back from the brink of suicide.
It is the somewhat frightening but very moving and very revealing story of an American woman, Catherine Quinn. Read it here and listen to an interview with her here.
What is the difference between the Muslim call for sharia law and the Christian aspiration that no civil law should be contrary to the core moral principles of the Christian faith? Answer: liberal secularism.
Not however, that destructive brand of secularism which is now at the heart of the cold culture war which is rupturing the civil and religious tolerance which the western world has enjoyed, on and off, for two centuries or more. We are talking about the secularism which has its roots in the development of the Christian church’s own teaching.
It is a fact of history that down through the centuries there has been a kind of law operating by which much of the development of Christian teaching – by which, I suppose, we mean our understanding of all the implications of Christ’s teaching – takes place in a context of conflict. This conflict comes from challenges from without or within to the practices and beliefs of any given time or place which are deemed to be consistent with and even central to what Judeo-Christian Scriptures and Tradition teach. Out of these conflicts comes a constantly developing thought about and practical approach to the journey on which Christian “wayfarers” are embarked and which in any given age seeks to meet the needs of this pilgrim people and the entire race to which they belong.
So, in the early centuries the true identity of Christ as God and Man became clearer, as did the special character of his mother’s identity and holiness. In later centuries the purpose, nature and structure of the government of the Church which he founded became clearer. In the early modern age – the epoch of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic – that Church, weakened by the corruption of its all-too-human members, was challenged. That challenge threatened both its teaching and its very form. But in its response to that challenge and threat came a new understanding, hand in hand with its reaffirmation of its original foundational teaching.
Over 200 years ago a new framework began to take shape in the public square for the more peaceful coexistence of the city of God and the city of Man. The previous hundred and fifty had been pretty horrendous for both. The founding fathers of the United States of America searched for and found a formula which would free the city of Man of the charge of religious persecution and free the city of God of the charge and scandal of religious intolerance and denial of human freedom. It might not be perfect but it was a massive improvement on what went before. It has served us well – until now. It at least served the Anglophone world well. The French, with their Revolution did not buy into it and slaughtered the Christian faithful; the Germans with their Kulturkampf did their best to push the city of God into the obscure margins of society but in the end failed. The Communists and the National Socialists of course, wherever they raised their heads, thought they could kill off religion altogether but also failed.
The development of Christian doctrine which has occurred over the past 200 years in the light, it has to be said, of the wisdom of these men, means that words like those of Omar Ahmad, the co-founder of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), speaking to a Muslim audience in California in 1998, could not now be spoken by a believing mainstream Christian. He said: “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.”
But, we may ask, is the culture of tolerance, even in the Anglophone world, now beginning to unravel? Unravel, not on the Christian side, but on the side of militant secularists. Has the spirit of tolerance which moved the Founding Fathers to safeguard their society from the horrors of religious wars and religious persecution finally died? Are we being alarmist if we cite Ross Douthat’s recent observation in his New York Times column on the Arizona governor’s refusal to sign a bill protecting marriage as an indication of where America’s political elite is now taking it. He said that “what makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Is traditional liberal secularism now dead? Has it been replaced with the militant secularism’s own version of sharia law?
But what were the roots of the Founding Fathers’ search for a new way. They were in fact Christian roots and had there been no Christianity it is very doubtful if we would ever have got to the reasonably tolerable place where we now are. Just as the American revolt itself was not a revolt against the culture and way of life in the British Empire of that time – but was an assertion of that very ethos which they felt privileged to enjoy – so their declaration of a new way of accommodating religious belief in the public square was not a rejection of Christian religion itself but was an affirmation of some of the deepest principles underpinning that belief, albeit not understood in all their depth – the rights of man, freedom of conscience and innate human dignity. The majority of the Founding Fathers were acting on the principles and ideas which had been emerging in Christian thought for more than a millennium. This is not something that neo-secularists are very willing to admit.
Larry Siedentop is an American intellectual historian and political philosopher who has worked in Oxford University for most of his academic life. For him one of the tragedies of our age is the mistaken identification of “secularism” with non-belief, with indifference and materialism. In an article which he wrote for the February issue of Prospectmagazine he discusses this in the context of what he calls “Europe’s undeclared civil war”, which he describes as being “as tragic as it is unnecessary”. However, everything he says can also be seen unfolding in every jurisdiction where those who seek to adhere to the moral norms which have been the binding elements of western civilization for over 2000 years are now being challenged. In many jurisdictions those norms themselves are now being forcibly unraveled under the pressure of this hostile neo-secularism.
For Siedentop a flawed analysis leads to the view that liberalism and secularism did not have their fundamental roots in the Christian religion. He daringly asserts that this secularism can in fact,properly understood, be seen as “Europe’s noblest achievement and Christianity’s gift to the world”.
He explains, for example, that the most distinctive thing about Greek and Roman antiquity – to which the neo-secularists look as their source and inspiration – is what might be called “moral enclosure”. In this culture the limits of personal identity were established by the limits of physical association and from this they inherited unequal social roles. Those social roles pervaded their civilization from top to bottom. Then Christianity came along with its emphasis on the “moral equality” of humans and broke through these limits. Where does this “moral equality” come from? The Greeks didn’t have it. The Romans didn’t have it. It came from the very essence of Christianity itself. Siedentop explains how, with the advent of Christianity,
Social roles and rules became secondary. They came to be understood as subordinate to a God-given status shared equally by all human beings. Christians, therefore, were expected to live in “two cities” simultaneously, a dualism that would later be expressed in the distinction between the private and public spheres.
We can see this breaking out of moral enclosure everywhere in the New Testament. For St Paul, the love of God revealed in the Christ imposes obligations on the individual, that is, on the individual conscience. Paul refers constantly to “Christian liberty” and downgrades rule-following—the Hebraic “law”—in favour of action governed by conscience. In this way, the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for a new and unprecedented form of human society.
He argues, in this article and in his new book, Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism, that in contrast to most other cultures, western beliefs are informed by the assumption of “moral equality”, which underpins the secular state and the idea of fundamental or “natural” rights. Christianity played a decisive part in the emergence of this culture. Yet the idea that liberalism and secularism have religious roots is not widely understood, he says.
He cites the great medieval historian from the last century, Richard Southern, who extensively explored this same connection between medieval Christian thought – that of Anselm of Canterbury, Dominic Guzman and Thomas Aquinas, to name but three – and our modern sensibilities about relations between Church and State. It should not be very difficult for us to appreciate what Siedentop and Southern before him are talking about when we look at the view of humanity and nature preached by that deepest of deep Christian souls, Francis of Assisi.
The separation of church and state within the context of a healthy and Christian-friendly secularism has now been re-imagined in a manner which has drawn attention away from those religious roots – and makes secularism anything but friendly to religion. Now, religious belief and “godless” secularism are conceived as irreconcilable opponents and Siedentop speaks of the growing perception of a profound conflict being reawakened between secularism and people of faith – of the kind seen in the past, for example, in the unfolding of the French Revolution. For most of the millennium and a half since its foundation Islam was an external force besieging the borders of Christendom. Now things have changed and Sidentop observes that in recent years, with the insertion of Muslim populations into the Western mix of cultures a new dimension is added to the problem of harmonizing church and state:
In Europe, massive immigration and the growth of large Muslim minorities have widened the range of non-Christian beliefs dramatically—with significant consequences. Quite apart from the acts of terrorism which invoke—more or less dubiously—the name of Islam, Muslims are frequently encouraged by their religious leaders to look forward to replacing the laws of the nation-state with those of sharia. Islam appears to cohabit uneasily with secularism.
He adds to this mix the development on the North American continent of a militant fundamentalist Christian response to materialistic secularists. He does not put it in these terms exactly but what is now occurring there is that the children of the new hedonism of the Western world – abortion, euthanasia and an aggressive homosexuality are lining up for battle with those who want to live a Christian life. Secularism is becoming again, as he puts it, the enemy of the Christian rather than the companion.
In effect what is of course happening is that this kind of secularism has invaded the area of conscience and is setting up for itself dogmas of faith – redefining everything in its own image, declaring its full range of anathemas with a vehemence which will match any fundamentalist in any religion. Siedentop concludes his reflections with these words:
This is a strange and disturbing moment in the history of the west. Europeans, out of touch with the roots of their tradition, often seem to lack conviction, while Americans may be succumbing to a dangerously simplistic version of their faith. If we in the west do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, we cannot hope to shape the conversation of mankind.
Understanding the moral depths of its own traditions must be, for any civilization, a sine qua non for survival. It is a beginning. But honesty, sincerity and simple rational intelligence are also sine qua non in this process. When a leader in a predominantly Christian country expresses the view that those who promote and carry out the killing of millions children awaiting birth should be blessed by God – as President Barak Obama did when he ended a combative speech to the nation’s largest abortion provider last April by saying, “Thank you Planned Parenthood. God bless you,” then he cannot but risk triggering a tsunami of fundamentalism. The wave of Islamic fundamentalism which has been sweeping the world owes no small measure of its force to the scandalisation of Sayyid Qutb, martyr for the Muslim Brotherhood, when he encountered, firsthand, the hedonism of segments of United States society in the two years he spent in colleges there in the 1940s. We cannot doubt that the hedonistic follies of some of the Renaissance popes – considered by Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly – and the complicity of the clerical establishment in the corruption of the aristocracy in seventeenth century France, contributed to the waves of destruction provoked by these excesses. We are undoubtedly at a “strange and disturbing moment in the history of the west”. Whether we will come through it without another deluge in which much of what we know and love about out time will be swept away with the dross which surrounds us remains to be seen.
A version of this article has already appeared on MercatorNet.
What is it about the anti-God brigade that makes them so hate-filled and, well, just downright unpleasant. They truly seem to be the children of wrath. The genuine children of light – as opposed to the faux variety – do at times let themselves down and indulge in rants which border on or cross the line of human decency. But by and large they are restrained by that essential ingredient of their cultural heritage – the charity of Christ.
Take a random comment thread from any faith story on the internet and what are you likely to find? You find yourself wading into a quagmire of irrational contempt, animosity and downright hatred towards anyone professing faith. You don’t even have to go anywhere near the more extreme end of this spectrum, the Dawkins Quarter, to get this. Scroll through any of these stories and you will find yourself not a little depressed by the experience. If you don’t encounter mockery then it will be sterile cynicism or worse. But you will hardly ever encounter an attempt at a real engagement of minds. It is seriously sad.
Over the past few years the secularist/religion debate was frequently pitched in terms of one motion: The Catholic Church is (is not) a force for good in the world. Sometimes it was broader and put in terms of “Religion is (is not) a force for good in the world”, a Christopher Hitchens-style generalisation. Hitchens’ book, God is not Great, underlined the problem of debating the question in those terms. Its subtitle, “How religion poisons everything”, said it all. Hitchens’ “religion”, by his definition, is really no religion. The opponent of any and every faith has the faithful at his mercy on this platform. Hitchens’ generalisation of faith allows him to bundle together, for the purposes of confusion, every kind of lunacy which men have for millennia described as religion.
The only meaningful debate on this topic will be one where religion is defended and professed on the basis of the specific doctrines it teaches and the way of life it proposes for its followers – regardless even of how faithfully its followers succeed in living up to those teachings and that way of life.
In many of those debates over the past few years the defenders of the mainstream Christian Churches – and for the most part it was the Catholic Church which was put in the dock – were on the losing side. This was primarily because they failed to demand that the teaching of their church, and not the motley collection of red herrings thrown at them, be made the focus of debate. If that were done, and if the cumulative effect of the effort of millions of Christians across the world to live according to the authentic Christian principles of their church, taking account of the development of its teaching down through the ages – and its influence on our civilization as it did so – then there would be no contest.
Leave aside the red herrings of issues generated by the inherent weakness, folly and sinfulness of mankind and you will find in the teaching of the Catholic Church, enshrined in its moral and social doctrines, a guide second to none for mankind’s flourishing. Examine all of these as closely as you like and you will not fail to find in them an understanding of our human condition which if acted on universally would be the greatest imaginable force for good in the world, bar none. Just do it, and see.
The argument against religion on the basis of the ignorance, weakness or malice of those who profess to follow Christ’s teaching while in fact following some aberrant concoction of their own, is no argument against the truth and value of this teaching. We might use an analogy. Great art is not diminished in its value to mankind, nor in its power to move our race, when confronted by the ignorant, even when they collect it and hoard it as a marketable commodity. The sense of loss felt after the recent burning of some priceless works of art by some crazed woman underlines our appreciation of the value and power to do good of the world’s great literature, music and art.
Ignorance is ever a threat to beauty. Ignorance, culpable or otherwise, has also always been a threat to goodness an truth. That the truth of the Christian religion has historically and contemporaneously been held hostage by the misguided, the ignorant, and even evil people (like vicious slavers in the New World), is inadmissible as evidence against it.
A gem of moral wisdom encountered recently in a book of moral questions and answers compiled in the last century – with resonances very pertinent for our own times – might illustrate how much of the misery we inflict on each other globally might be alleviated if we were more attentive to the teaching of Christ’s Church.
The question, from a person with an eye on Irish history, was asked:
Suppose a person is in possession of land by ancestral right – land confiscated in the time of Cromwell, and given to one of his ancestors. Legally, he owns the land. Is it the teaching of the Cathoiic Church that he morally owns it or does the land rightly belong to the descendants of the original owner?
The answer, from a renowned moral theologian of his day[i], was this:
The confiscation was unjust, and the newcomer held the land on a title that no moral law could sanction. But time heals many wounds. Some of his successors were better than himself; they became bona fide holders of the proceeds of his robbery. The best moral instructors of mankind – and among them the Catholic Church takes the prominent place – have come to the conclusion that to safeguard public order and the rights of the community as a whole, the claims of these successors must be maintained, even in conscience, when a long period of peaceful possession has elapsed.
The principle is termed “prescription,” and is universally acknowledged. The period varies in the different countries, but the time since CromweIl is long enough to satisfy the most exacting reading. The present holder may keep what he has without being troubled in conscience.
If a person questions that conclusion, he must meet certain difficulties. The real owner in the days of Cromwell held the land from an ancestor who disturbed the previous owners in the days of a previous invasion. So through the days of the Milesians, the Firbolgs, and the countless other regimes of which history knows nothing. If we reject the principle of “prescription” we must face the suggestion that no human being on the globe at the present moment owns a single particle of anything he holds.
Another question was asked. This was probably some time early in the last century. It’s clarity is uncompromising.
Should the right of conquest be always recognized?
The “right of conquest” , he answered, has been asserted by bellicose invaders and by their “scientific” supporters. It is no better than the right of the highway robber to seize all he can on a night-raid.
Can we see anything but wisdom and a force for good in a world view which enshrines principles of common sense and justice like these? This is just a glimpse of the patrimony of the authentic Christian Church, passed from generation to generation in the manner eluciadated in the first encyclical letter from the current incumbent of the See of Peter, “Lumen Fidei.”
The Church, like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories. But how does this come about in a way that nothing is lost, but rather everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood? It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory. What was handed down by the apostles — as the Second Vatican Council states — “comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.
The often flawed striving and rough hewing of mankind to implement this patrimony should not be the measure of the value or goodness of the Foundation itself. What is frightening in the contemporary debate – and it is often hard to recognise it as a debate – is the flight from reasonableness in failing to recognize this distinction, a flight accompanied by what appears to be a visceral hatred of the very idea that underlying our existence there might just be that benign “divinity that shapes our end” and that this Divinity subsists in the Catholic Church.
[i] Dr. Michael J. O’Donnell, Professor of Moral Theology in st. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland, in the early decades of the twentieth century.
“It was twenty years ago today” – well perhaps not today, but certainly this year – that Samuel P. Huntington published his seminal article in Foreign Affairs and set the world thinking again about new rumours of war. Just a year earlier Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History and the Last Man. That book was an expansion of his essay in the summer issue of The National Interest in 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin wall on the night of 9 November in the same year.
What we may be witnessing” he wrote, is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
That was a very controversial view and for most people it was read – or perhaps misread – as an oversimplification of the consequences of the events of the 1980s. But on a positive interpretation we did seem to be witnessing the end of three hundred years of conflict – sometimes dynastic, sometimes nationalistic, sometimes nakedly imperial and latterly a conflict between two ideologies, the one socialist and totalitarian, the other liberal and capitalist. There did seem to be a basis for optimism that there was now nothing really powerful enough to divide the human race and drive its factions into a war which if unleashed in our day and age might render the very planet itself incapable of sustaining human life.
That optimism was short-lived and the first wake-up call came from Samuel Huntington, the late Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, with the publication of his Foreign Affairs article, The Clash of Civilizations. With that our cosy reading of history came to an end and we were confronted with the prospect of new and even more intractable conflicts rooted in the deepest recesses of human consciousness, supra-rational and sometimes irrational, depending on your point of view. These conflicts would be much less susceptible to negotiation and compromise than conflicts rooted in political and economic differences.
In Huntington’s view the world had more or less now returned to the pre-Westphalian condition when wars of religion plagued Europe, or to the age of the Islamic conquests and the reconquista of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Once again the primary axis of global and regional conflicts was going to be cultural and religious.
Twenty years on, how does his thesis stand up? Without its oversimplifications, pretty well. At the time of his writing that essay there is no doubt but that Islamic militants were already on the move. But they were still not perceived as the global threat to peace that they have now become, necessitating a global protective security shield which in its own way matches anything that had to be put in place by western democracies to protect themselves from the threat of communism.
While the range of potential clashes he proposed for consideration looks a little too extensive, nevertheless the emergence of militant Islamic movements is enough to validate his central thesis. This clash has well and truly re-splattered red markings along the “bloody borders of Islam”, both the external ones and the internal ones where Shia and Sunni factions slaughter each other on a daily basis. It is hard to find a location along those borders where there is not currently some jihadist group at work – from western to eastern Africa, or among the Mediterranean nations of north Africa, the Middle to the Far East and into those western societies where substantial Islamic immigration has taken place.
This is a war-in-progress and it is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. By and large it seems to bear out Huntington’s main thesis. The intractability of the conflict can be seen in the bleakness of the prospects for peace negotiation in one of the many theatres in which this war is being played out in full battle dress – that of Afghanistan and the conflict with the intransigent Taliban.
But there is another war brewing which also has all the characteristics of the clashes predicted by Huntington. This is not one to which he paid much attention but it is brewing nonetheless. It will probably remain a largely cold war but it promises to be war just the same and will bring its quota of victims and suffering in its wake. It is the war which has already broken out within the old West to which we have already pinned the term, “culture wars”, making it seem with that soft word “culture”, a little more benign than it actually is.
It is in fact, largely, a new war of religion although few dare to call it so as yet. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a robust defender of what he holds to be inalienable human rights – like the right to life from conception to natural death – and the moral teaching of his Catholic Church, said last year that he expected to die in his bed. He thought, however, that his successor would probably die in prison while the man who would succeed his successor would die the death of a martyr.
Within western civilization there are now two separate civilizations developing and the fault line between them is deepening with each year that passes. On the one hand are the adherents of the central Christian beliefs and moral laws. On the other are the nominal Christians for whom these beliefs and laws are a relative thing, susceptible to change and for whom the will of the majority is the guiding principle of life. These latter are allied with many who hold no religious belief and for whom all truth is essentially relative. These have bought into the version of modernity which exalts individualism over the common good, where marriage is redefined to eliminate the principle of indissolubility and its basis in the complementarity of the sexes is ignored, where sex itself is as much about recreation as it is about procreation and where the notion of equality is no longer linked to liberty or fraternity.
Huntington maintained that cultural conflicts were inevitable when adherents of the major religions – Christianity and Islam – found themselves confronted by a society dominated by the irreligious. Conflict became inevitable when the agents of government in that society begin to control and organise it in ways which change the very meaning of life itself and a people’s understanding of what the pursuit of happiness is all about.
His focus on all this was more in the context of conflicts between already constituted geographical blocks and much less about struggles between segments of populations within existing societies. It is in these theatres that this new cold war has now begun to break out.
Within Western societies – which are still largely but at best nominally Christian – there are now two emerging blocks. There are those who are essentially nominal in their allegiance to the ideals of Christian belief and practice and there are those who are actually committed to the effort, albeit sometimes failing, of living their lives according to the principles enshrined in those beliefs and practices. This latter fits Huntington’s categorization of the type of civilization which is likely to provoke hostility and conflict. Its adherents are missionary, universal and teleological, that is: they seek conversions (mission), they see themselves in possession of the whole (universal) truth and that truth is where the end (telos) and destiny of mankind is revealed.
When, as is the case now in Western societies, laws begin to be put in place by one group – in this case the now dominant nominally Christian group under the influence of an irreligious version of modernity – which contradict and deny fundamental principles by which the other groups seeks to live, trouble is in store. What we call the “culture war” is in fact a clash of these two civilizations on a series of issues ranging through principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, principles governing the beginning and end of life, the nature of family, marriage as a social institution and the nature and purpose of human sexuality. For one group these are matters governed by expediency and a lassiez faire approach; for the other group they are non-negotiable issues founded in an immutable human nature and – for a believer in a divine creator – revealed in the teachings of their religion.
The conscientious Christian cannot, for example, accept as a basis for political legislation the principle enunciated by many politicians in all these societies, that while they see a particular human act as morally wrong they must still legislate to facilitate others to carry out such acts if they so choose. The following segment of a correspondence between a constituent and an elected representative in one Western democratic jurisdiction – Ireland – on the issue of abortion legislation illustrates the impasse between these two civilizations.
In the context of the lassiez faire political approach to human abuse “the citizen” put the case to “the citizen’s representative” as follows:
In the case of deliberate abortion, the abuse is on the mother, on the child in the womb, and indirectly on the wider community. You didn’t say it, but I often hear other people say “It will happen anyway, so let’s legislate to allow it under certain circumstances.” Again, I’ve never heard this said about any other kind of crime (tax fraud, bank robberies, dangerous driving, drug dealing).
There is enormous pressure worldwide to allow abortion, backed by a mighty industry and driven by so many people’s desire to have complete control of their lives, complete freedom in choice of lifestyle, escape from all suffering, escape from all constraints. These desires, often fostered by commercial interests, are based on illusions and ultimately lead to despair.
The proposed change in (Irish) law seems very restricted, but in fact it would be taking a giant leap. It would be allowing people to decide which life is worth (preserving), and which life can be deliberately terminated. This is clearly pulling up an ethical and moral anchor, with drastic consequences.
One day societies will look back in horror at the idea that they once used to kill their young, in much the same way as we now look back in horror at slavery. We can have the chance to take the enlightened approach, of resisting the pressure to conform in something which is inherently repulsive, no matter how it is dressed up.
To this “the citizen’s representative” replied:
For an elected representative, one’s own feelings on a matter must not generally supersede what might be considered to be appropriate for the population as a whole. Where they are in common with each other, it is of course easier, but where there is a conflict the elected member must decide where the general interest lies – to attempt as best he/she can find the objective view.
While I might not like the idea or practice of abortion, is it for me to impose these beliefs on the population as a whole? What is the balance between the State’s responsibilities and the individual’s rights? This is the debate that plays out.
Therein lies the very fragile fault line between two civilizations, the one pragmatic in the extreme, responsive not to any principle but to the will of a majority – regardless of what that majority should wish. For those on the other side, rooted in firm and time-tested ethical principles, this is the philosophy which allowed and determined such human atrocities as slavery and the holocausts of the twentieth century. For them this is much more than a “debate that plays out”, it is a matter of life death and the destiny of mankind. It is something that in the last analysis they will be prepared to give their lives for – in one way or another. It is not a comfortable thought but Huntington’s explorations of the issue of the clash of civilizations twenty years ago cannot be seen as anything other than prescient.