Looking back in anger, looking forward in hope

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.

Footnote to a commemoration


A biography of the great art historian, Kenneth Clark, has just been published. It is reviewed in the Times Literary Supprumlement this week. And a paragraph in the review reminds us of something that might be forgotten in the commemoration currently going on around the world of an event 500 years ago.

Clark is mainly remembered now for his masterly book and BBC Television series, Civilization, first broadcast back in the 1960s.

Susan Owens, reviewing James Stourton’s new biography, notes that he has been able to quote extensively from Clark’s letters for the first time, “and the voice we hear is unexpectedly funny and candid.

“But it is the accounts of Clark’s involuntary reactions that perhaps shed the most light on the character of someone so often described as ‘chilly’ and ‘remote’. While making episode six of Civilisation, ‘Protest and Communication’, he kept breaking down in tears in front of an astonished crew as he stood at the church door in Wittenberg to speak Luther’s words ‘Here I stand!’ The shot took six takes.”

In the very depths of his being Clark felt the pain of the devastating impact on western civilisation symbolised by that moment in history, a gesture of rebellion – without passing judgement on its causes – from which flowed so much death and destruction, wars, persecution and impoverishment of the human spirit, century after century ever since.

James Stourton, KENNETH CLARK Life, art and civilisation, 496pp. William Collins. £30. ISBN 978 0 00 749341 8

The moment when the wheels come off the tumbril?

As the horror of the Planned Parenthood’s exposure in the USA gathers momentum we wonder if this might not be the Harriet Beecher Stowe / Frederick Douglass moment which will lead to the end of the mass killing of human beings which our civilization has not only condoned but has also massively funded for the past few generations.

The wheels seem to be well and truly coming  the tumbrils of this reign of chilling slaughter. This is nowhere more evident than in the total lack of moral coherence – not to mention logical coherence – in the scramble to defend this extraordinarily  callous organisation by its liberal camp followers in recent weeks. “Care no matter what” is the organizations mantra. We now know that a great deal of things matter to Planned Parenthood, and that they have nothing to do with care for anyone. It’s big business.

In his superb post in the New York Times over the past few days Ross Douthat does not mince his words in calling them to order, even shaming them for their little better than infantile efforts to defend the indefensible.

He concludes with these words:

So let’s be clear about what’s really going on here. It is not the pro-life movement that’s forced Planned Parenthood to unite actual family planning and mass feticide under one institutional umbrella. It is not the Catholic Church or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the Southern Baptist Convention or the Republican Party that have bundled pap smears and pregnancy tests and HPV vaccines with the kind of grisly business being conducted on those videos. This is Planned Parenthood’s choice; it is liberalism’s choice; it is the respectable center-left of Dana Milbank and Ruth Marcus and Will Saletan that’s telling pro-life and pro-choice Americans alike that contraceptive access and fetal dismemberment are just a package deal, that if you want to fund an institution that makes contraception widely available then you just have to live with those “it’s another boy!” fetal corpses in said institution’s freezer, that’s just the price of women’s health care and contraceptive access, and who are you to complain about paying it, since after all the abortion arm of Planned Parenthood is actually pretty profitable and doesn’t need your tax dollars?

This is a frankly terrible argument, rooted in a form of self-deception that would be recognized as such in any other context. Tell me anything but this, liberals: Tell me that you aren’t just pro-choice but pro-abortion, tell me that abortion is morally necessary and praiseworthy, tell me that it’s as morally neutral as snuffing out a rabbit, tell me that a fetus is just a clump of cells and that pro-lifers are all unhinged zealots. Those arguments, as much as I disagree with them, have a real consistency, a moral logic that actually makes sense and actually justifies the continued funding of Planned Parenthood.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

Read the full column here.

Reliving the nightmare of Mary Shelly

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”,[83] 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”,[84] 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”.[85] 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.  

Believe it or not, there is one good thing about Sin City

Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City 2 has been a commercial and a critical flop. That, probably, is no bad thing. It brings Frank Miller’s noir-ish, ultra-violent graphic novels to the big screen for a second time. The first Sin City was a huge box-office hit; now, nine years on, we must  roll up our sleeves, snap on our suspender belts, and return to that titillating place of permanent midnight, where men are men and women are mostly prostitutes, said Kevin Maher in The (London) Times. For another critic, what kills it is its repetitive and unengaging plot. For a film that tries very hard to shock with its “cartoonish sex and violence”, Sin City 2 is remarkably “dull”, and endurance test, he said.

But at least it has one good thing going for it, even if it is only its lurid billboard advertising we see. It is a reminder to us of what we like to forget. Sin is behovely, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well – but only so long as we don’t forget that sin exists.

The world is divided by sin – not between sinners and non-sinners. We are all, each in our own way, sinners. The great divide now is between those who know that sin exists and those who deny its existence. Sin is behovely because the sense of sin is an essential part of our living the good life. It is nothing less than our sense of reality, part of our sense of the existence of God.

It is the modern age’s defining characteristic that it has lost the sense of sin – and it has lost this because it has lost its sense of reality, its sense of God. In little more than one generation – my generation – the rot began in earnest. It was there before, indeed the history of thought shows that it was always there, but in embryonic form. It has had a long gestation but with its birth we have been presented with a true monster.

I know parents of my generation, good people who firmly believe in God and who practice their religion devoutly and publicly. Their children, now adults, are also good people and a credit to their parents, their country. They have all the refinements – kindness, generosity, a sense of responsibility –  engendered in them by the civilization we have the privilege of being part of. But there is a difference between them and their parents. They do not believe.

Does it matter? Will they be any less good, kind, generous and responsible than their parents for all that? Possibly not. Indeed, by all accounts they may be more so. Their parents were good parents and gave them the milk on which they were nurtured, milk filled with the vitamins of their own faith and vision of man’s origin and destiny. But the one thing which many in this generation did not take from that nourishing milk was faith and a belief in God, their creator. The milk with which they nourished their own children in some way failed to be transmitted – on a scale not seen between any two generations in recorded history. If this is an exaggeration please cite chapter and verse to disprove it. Nor is it an exaggeration to predict some dire consequences of this failure.

No society that we know of in history has had the kind of flourishing which the societies marked by Christian civilization have had. It is in these societies and in this civilization that our ideas of the qualities of justice, equality, kindness, mercy and a sense of the unique value of a human life have evolved. They have evolved out of a living source, even when the reality of that source itself has been doubted. That source is the Judaeo-Christian religion.

The big question however, is how long can this flourshing last beyond the outright rejection of the source from which it springs. The result of the cultural chasm which has now opened up in the West is the unravelling of the entire fabric of societities founded on those values. What we call the “triumph of the West” is under threat. It is under threat  because its source and the ultimate vision which sustained it seems to have died in the minds hearts of those who have inherited it.

Has any civilization in history outlasted the force which gave it life? In the majority of cases those forces were undoubtedly physical and brutal. Walter Benjamin observed that there is “no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He is right in most cases but to lay this charge against Christian civilization is to ignore what is at the heart of this culture. Where brutality and barbarism accompanied the spread of Christian civilization it did so in contravention of its very essence. Invariably the barbarisms which afflicted Christian societies were eventually tamed by the beauty and power the Christian message, leaving us with the jewels we have in expressions of faith –  in art, music and literature –  and flowing out from those, the treasures of human expression in all those forms as well.

Will all this now survive the loss of faith, the loss of vision which was at their heart? The signs are not propitious. Art has become banal at best – think of those sickening banners we see hanging in churches – and at worst, nihilistic. Music, for the most part, has become incomprehensible and is a weak caricature of what it was. Literature, for the most part, speaks of little more than destruction, pessimism and death without redemption – when it is not wallowing in lust which it tries to pass off as love.

If these artefacts are the manifestations of contemporary civilization, what does it augur for the future human agents who will live, breathe and look for nourishment in that civilization?  What happens when those who look out from within a culture see nothing beyond the vision presented in these artefacts? Do we really think that the human spirit can flourish in this desert? Will each generation which follows the last not slide further and further into the abyss, as the residue of goodness which they have inherited becomes fainter and fainter?

If the vision of reality contained in these words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, written nearly 2000 years ago, shortly after the dawn of Christianity, is now not just ignored but vehemently denied and its adherents persecuted for believing it, the consequences cannot but be other than apocalyptic.

 It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor anyone else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things. For God did not stand in need of these beings, in order to the accomplishing of what he had himself determined with himself beforehand should be done, as if he did not possess his own hands!

 For with him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit by whom and in whom, freely, he made all things, to whom also he speaks, saying, Let us make man after our image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), he taking from himself the substance of the creatures, and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world.

Deny this vision, reject this truth, live life according to that denial and surely things will fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Without this vision all we are left with is the misery of Sin City – and without even knowing that we should call it what it is.

Thinking about…cats and dogs

Rushes of blood to the head can be dangerous – for all sorts of reasons. The biggest risk to life and limb that one of them ever put me in was on that day when I was driving along a country road listening to the radio. There was a discussion about the joys and otherwise, mainly otherwise, of motherhood. Two feminists were waxing eloquently on the subject.

The presenter must have raised the issue of the joy which the companionship of children gives when one of the two sneered and said something along the lines of “If it is companionship you want, get yourself a dog.” The shock and the horror of it sent my blood surging into my head to the extent that I almost lost control of the car.

I was reminded of this by the conjunction of two things this morning. The first was seeing a quotation from G.K. Chesterton in which he observed: “Where there is animal worship there is human sacrifice.”

The second was a tweet from @savethetinyhumans which reminded us all that “Our politicians won’t take abortion seriously until we take abortion seriously. 55 milion dead isn’t enough, yet?.”

Human sacrifices? Yes. Absolutely. They may not be ritual sacrifices – because modern man is not so much into ritual or religious practice, pseudo or otherwise, but they are still sacrifices. They are sacrificial offerings to the comfort zones modern man wants to occupy at all costs. The abortion industry is driven by a middle class which aborts its own children to preserve that comfort zone. It then organises the abortion factories of the world for their poorer neighbours because their fertility is also a threat to the comfort and prosperity which the middle class think is its right.

I would not want to offend the dog-lovers and the cat-lovers of this world but surely we need to put these creatures in perspective. I think that there is something terribly incongruous about a society which organises the destruction of millions or “tiny humans” and at the same time threatens a man with a year in jail for cooking and eating cats. He is an odd fish, certainly, but his oddness is much less revolting that that of someone who could be a mother to a child and sacrifices that gift for the love of a dog.

When our civilization reaches that point it is surely at a stage of disintegration. We are now in a place where the truth about an individual human life is no longer recognised for what it is – the single most inestimable, lovable and precious thing in this universe. The only thing that is recognised in our dazed and confused world is the value of the empowered individual’s pleasure, enjoyment, entertainment or comfort. Everything that stands in the way of this is expendable. Fifty-five million tiny and powerless human beings are the deceased witnesses to this catastrophic degeneration.


The way forward…


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.

Blindly stumbling back to square one?

Sandra Bullock, in some desperation, uttered the complaint that “no one taught me how to pray” as she faced what looked like certain death in the film Gravity. Did she symbolize the present state of helplessness and hopelessness of Western civilization? But she did pray, and in doing that did she also show that in some way, when the human soul is confronted with what looks like the last space station, it can still be redeemed by the still small voice and what it whispers to it?

Arnold J. Toynbee once wrote that “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” Toynbee is not currently the highly thought of historian that he once was but there is no doubt but that his ideas, ideas on the grand scale, can still remind us of some things we might prefer to forget. Civilizations do die.

Equally, cyclical theories of history are taken less seriously now than they once were. Nevertheless, they also often can have an ominous ring of truth about them. The phenomenal changes which the world has seen in material progress over the past half century – and indeed social progress, by some measures at least, –  have tended to lull the popular imagination into accepting something like a false sense of the inevitability of progress and a feeling that the job of history is simply to record that progress.

Some historians, perhaps a good few, still take a more open-ended view of history. But, like the economists who were wise enough – there were a few – to see the path of folly which lead to this century’s economic turmoil, we might wonder who is listening to them? There are still, fortunately, some social commentators who remind us of the all-important relationship between cause and effect, that ideas have consequences, and that mankind can regress as well as progress.

Ferdinand Mount wrote a very sobering book a few years ago. He called it  Full Circle and its central thesis was that something has happened to Western civilization which modern man finds very hard to accept – that our glorious, seemingly all-conquering Western civilization, in its flight from its Christian roots, may not actually be progressing but may in fact be regressing to its pre-Christian state. However, the idea of progress has now got such grip of the popular imagination that the modern mind refuses to acknowledge it.

This is blindness, a culpable and dangerous blindness which will lead to the death by suicide of what we call Western civilization. Mount’s Full Circle is a description of a process at work in which our society is heading back to where we started. To him it seems clear that the era in which we now find ourselves is one in which we foolishly clap ourselves on the back for being modern and liberated while we are in fact blindly stumbling back to square one. He does not predict that it is going to end in our civilization’s suicide but it should be more than clear that we are in terminal decline and are headed for our inevitable fall, destroyed by our  own navel-gazing excesses, just as surely as the old classical world was some 1500 years ago.

We pride ourselves in the Pax Americana which is now filtering out around the world. Yes, the world is now a more peaceful place than it has ever been. News media will always report wars and rumours of war so it may not always appear that most of us are at peace with each other more than at any time in recorded history. But don’t be deceived by this ‘peace’. The Pax Americana is no better an indicator of the health of our civilization than the Pax Romana was. The Pax Romana was in fact the calm before the storm in which the Roman Empire crumbled under the weight of its own decadence.

Mount presents us with a catalogue of the decadence of the present age, too lurid in some of its detail even to recount. It is remarkable how accurately it mirrors what went on in ancient Rome at the height of what seemed to be its imperial achievement of pacifying the world. Mount connects the dots for us. In our own ultra-modern preoccupations with health, the body beautiful, the body animal, the culinary arts, nature, fame and celebrity, the revolt against God and more, he sees parallels with the Roman baths, the circus, the Dionysian cults and the lip-service to the old gods whom no one believed in anymore.

The blindness we suffer from has been induced by the myth of progress. Mount at one point puts it like this:

“We are now hard-wired to expect history to deliver progress, jerky, flawed progress marred by horrors usually of our own making, but progress nonetheless. We look back primarily in order to see how far we have moved on. And one central element in that ever-growing sense of self-confidence was the gradual exclusion of religion from the picture. Man has wriggled free of the divine plan.” We no longer see ourselves, he says, as the creation of the mind of God but the product of natural development.

But as he sees it, we are, all the time, retracing our steps. Mount concludes his odyssey on an ambiguous note. He discusses Cicero’s reflections on the likely fate of Rome and the famous dream of Scipio in De Re Publica. Vision, Cicero held, and the need for vision is central to the preservation of civilization. Mount observes that “we have adopted some high principles from Athens and Rome: tolerance and civility and equality and democracy. And we have picked up some agreeable habits. But we seem to have mislaid Scipio’s dream. And the search parties are still out there looking for it.”

That is about as far as he seems to want to take it.

The fact is that the Romans lost it, and lost it in the same way in which we have lost it. When the worship of man – and all the self indulgence which follows on its heels – takes centre stage, civilization, as Solzhenitsyn  reminded us in his famous Nobel address, is on a short road to ruin by its own collective wilful decision. In a word, by suicide.

We may be witnessing the end of what we have called Western Civilization.  But we would be wrong to think that this means the end of all civilization. The heart of our civilization may have been torn from its body but its soul is immortal. That soul is Christianity.

Christian civilization is not co-terminus with Western civilization.  The civilization we have know in the West for a millennium and a half has been Christian in character. It will cease to be what history has known it as for those 1500 plus years when it ceases to be Christian. But Christian civilization itself will not cease to be – not so long as its values, way of life, live on in the millions throughout the world who bond together in it. As Mount suggests, from the vantage point of the end of this civilization, and as Cicero did from the vantage point of his decaying world, the abandonment of God,  religion and the vision of the transcendent is the fatal flaw.

However, against the relentless assaults of the civilization-without-god brigades which have been decade by decade transplanting a materialist heart into our civilization we have to consider the following. In a 2005 issue of The New Criterion, David Bentley Hart, author and Eastern Orthodox theologian teaching in Providence College, Rhode Island, took issue with the pessimism of the English writer, A. N. Wilson. Wilson’s view was that we are now living in the waning days of the Christian religion. “Here we are”, writes Bentley Hart, “living in an age when Christianity is spreading more rapidly and more widely than at any point in the two millennia of its history – throughout the global South and East – and yet, because the Church languishes in the sterile cultures of a small geological apophasis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia, Wilson concludes that the faith is in its death throes.”

The reality is that Christian civilization is in robust health. Furthermore is is fully alert to the slings and arrows which are being thrown at it and has within itself all the resources needed to counter the assault on a global scale, the scale on which we now live daily. A few centuries ago Christian civilization was much more dependent on its Western base than it is today. With the waning of the West, with its lemming-like pursuit of extinction – look only at what the culture of death and selfishness which is endemic in the West is now storing up for it on the demographic front – Christian culture will eventually reassert itself from those territories and those populations which have not lost the vision of the transcendental.

These words from the leader of the world’s Catholics speak to all Christians and all men and women who are prepared to raise their eyes above the merely material. They alert us to danger but they also point to a bright future:

 “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

“Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy” [Pope Paul VI]. I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.”

These words come from the Catholic Church’s exhortation to all Christians to get out there and save our civilization by simply telling the truth about man – which Christian believe only they have in its fullness. They reminds us that we become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Christians, the Pope tells us, cannot but do this. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”

 “Goodness always”, he goes on to explain, ”tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good.”

This is the force which drove the same embryonic civilization to pick up the pieces of the failed pagan civilization of ancient Greece and Rome after it abandoned “Scipio’s dream”, a dream so powerful that one thinks Cicero would have become a Christian had he had to opportunity to receive the grace to do so. The first Christians did so and gave the world a relatively glorious for 1500 years.

From the time of King David – and who knows how long before – the adherents of the Judaic-Christian faith have been contemplating these words and seeing their palpable truth lived out from generation to generation:

His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him.

Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring?

They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed.

“Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke.”

 “Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession.”

Who would be foolish enough to say that they will cease seeing it now? There may be limits to the cyclical theory of history, but don’t look for them in this quarter.

When the cure is worse than the disease

Bread and circuses

Juvenal was a sharp and refined satirist who drew us upwards from our follies  When he cut, he cut with the purpose of civilising. One path alone leads to a life of peace: The path of virtue, he said, and everything he wrote matched that goal. He also warned us, Fortune can, for her pleasure, fools advance, and toss them on the wheels of Chance.

 How painful the difference is today. Ricky Gervais has certainly been advanced by Fortune and with his sharp and cutting tongue seems to rule the world just now. He does not lack intelligence, at times he does not lack wisdom, but oh how he lacks any kind of dignity. He cuts us down and draws us further downward.

 He did not, it seems, as some allege, call all Catholics morons – but even to call “some” morons is hardly worthy of a practitioner of the art of satire. To explain the right to free expression of beliefs and opinions is a useful exercise in this bewildering day and age but to do so in terms like this is impoverishing our language and conversation: Everyone has the right to hold whatever beliefs they want. And everyone else has the right to find those beliefs f*****g ridiculous.

 Have we come to the point in our civilisation to which the Romans arrived nineteen hundred years ago when Juvenal wrote: The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses! With us, TV, Oscar nights, belly-laughs and sterile mockery?

 He may not care what he leaves his children with as a heritage but perhaps some other words of Juvenal might be worth his consideration: Refrain from doing ill; for one all powerful reason, lest our children should copy our misdeeds; we are all too prone to imitate whatever is base and depraved.

 Would it not be better for us all to observe the advice of that other great satirist, Jonathan Swift when he wrote, One of the best rules in conversation is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish had been left unsaid.

 Of course, to a great number of people these older expressions of wisdom to be found in utterances of the great satirists of the past might be “boring” – but beware, admission of boredom is very often evidence of ignorance, at best, and at worst, simple stupidity.