Augustine in the 21st Century

POSTER EARLIER TODAY ON MERCATORNET.COM

CITY OF…?

We live in the age of the “nones”, those who answer “none” when asked by pollsters, “What is your religion?” “Noneism”, I suppose, is their ideology. This kind of nihilism is a dismal competitor to Christianity, but surely it is even more dismal for the multitudes who consider its bleak landscape as the be-all and end-all of existence.

If we were to look across the centuries for an inspiration to shake us out of this fatal delusion, what might we find? There is one who stands out, one who made the journey from nothing to everything after a long and arduous battle. But there is also one in our own time, among our own millennials.

Augustine of Hippo lived the life many in our wretched world are now living. He originally thought that fame, riches and love offered him happiness. But then he saw through this folly. He went to war on behalf of the Truth – and helped mould our understanding of a new alternative City, the City of God.

If the “Benedict Option” – reading it as a way of bringing Christ to a darkened world rather than misreading it as sealing us off from its wretchedness in isolating cocoons – offers a way for the modern family under siege, the Augustinian option is more personal and more attainable. It is a choice which will become a reality with the immediate assent of the subject under the influence of grace in the moment of conversion. It speaks to the anguish of our time, the anguish driving our suicide rates, our divorce rates, our hedonism and all the maladies driven by a meaningless existence. He found a world as dysfunctional as ours. But with his response, he went on to become a pillar of Christendom. In our time, another saint, Josemaría Escrivá, wrote words which summed up the truth which they embodied and wherein still lies the key to our redemption, “These world crises are crises of saints.”

Manichaeism, which beguiled Augustine as a worldly young man, is as dismal as Noneism. It could be compared to many of the lifestyle vapourings which pass for religion in our time – New Age, Scientology, moral relativism and so on. The brilliant Augustine saw in these doctrines a philosophy untainted by faith. He hoped to find a scientific explanation of nature and escape from a God who set a standard of goodness. But he was tortured by the origin of evil. Augustine and his Manichean companions explained it away just as we explain sin away, by denying the freedom on which personal responsibility is based.

But all that changed with his conversion to Christianity. To appreciate the meaning of Augustine’s life and the power of his message one has to read his Confessions. It is one of the greatest literary achievements of Western culture. There is one passage which poses the questions which we need to answer if we are to come to a redemptive understanding of the Truth. It shows that loving all the goods that come to us from God is not incompatible with loving God Himself, but is in fact the purest way to love God. It is this:

Read the full post to MercatorNet here:

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt

Little, Brown, 2013, London

This novel is a real challenge. It is not for the faint-hearted, depicting as it does, the dysfunctional youth culture which gave us tragedies as far apart as that of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the invasion of rural Ireland by the silly, and for some, self-destructive fad of “neknomination” – and all the aberrations of the post-modern adult world in which they have their roots.

Hoffman, a 46-year-old actor, was found dead in his New York apartment after injecting himself with a dose of Ace of Spades, a lethal mix of heroin and a powerful anti-cancer drug which has already claimed dozens of lives. There has been a huge rise in heroin use in the United States, and particularly the boosted materials like Ace of Spades – used by the young, the affluent and the middle class. On the other side of the Atlantic two Irish lives were sacrificed on the altar of youth hedonism in the latest instance of the ‘neknomination’ game. The craze originally began in Australia and involves social media users ‘downing’ drinks – which are sometimes lethal cocktails – on camera, before nominating a friend to do the same.

But despite its depiction of this disturbing contemporary American underworld this is a superb novel. If its author tells us that the reason it took her 11 years to write it is that this is how long takes her to do justice to what she wants to write, then we will take her at her word. Our regret is that it probably means that we will only get two or three more novels of this quality in her writer’s lifetime. She began her first novel, The Secret History, at 19 years of age and finished it about ten years later in 1992. The next, The Little Friend, appeared in 2002. Both of these have been translated into over thirty languages. They are both great books but neither of them rises to the level of transcendence of The Goldfinch.

Read the full review, posted to MercatorNet this morning.

The path Kenny, Gilmore, Martin and Adams are proposing

Well, Ireland. Are you really ready for this?  A study of the state of things in Canada after ten years of gay “marriage” shows among other things that in that country I might well be brought before the courts for daring to put the word marriage in inverted comas because by this I indicate that I don’t accept the redefinition of marriage which coupling it with the word “gay” implies.

And that would be the least of my problems.

Bradley W. Miller, an associate professor of law at the University of Western Ontario, writing g on Public Discourse looks at the Canadian experience of the impact of the change of the definition of marriage there and asks what that might signify for the US which is now seems to be heading relentlessly in the same direction.

The Irish, the French and the British are on the same track and his study – outlined on MercatorNet – can be applied to these societies just as easily. Would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages be much of a game-changer? What impact, if any, would it have on the public conception of marriage or the state of a nation’s marriage culture, he asks?

The Impact on Human Rights? Once this kind of marriage is accepted as a human right, he says, a  corollary is that anyone who rejects the new orthodoxy must be acting on the basis of bigotry and animus toward gays and lesbians. Any statement of disagreement with same-sex civil marriage is thus considered a straightforward manifestation of hatred toward a minority sexual group. Any reasoned explanation (for example, those that were offered in legal arguments that same-sex marriage is incompatible with a conception of marriage that responds to the needs of the children of the marriage for stability, fidelity, and permanence—what is sometimes called the conjugal conception of marriage), is dismissed right away as mere pretext.

When one understands opposition to same-sex marriage as a manifestation of sheer bigotry and hatred, it becomes very hard to tolerate continued dissent. Thus it was in Canada that the terms of participation in public life changed very quickly. Civil marriage commissioners were the first to feel the hard edge of the new orthodoxy; several provinces refused to allow commissioners a right of conscience to refuse to preside over same-sex weddings, and demanded their resignations. At the same time, religious organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, were fined for refusing to rent their facilities for post-wedding celebrations.

The Right to Freedom of Expression?  He shows that the new orthodoxy’s impact has not been limited to the relatively small number of persons at risk of being coerced into supporting or celebrating a same-sex marriage. The change has widely affected persons—including clergy—who wish to make public arguments about human sexuality.

Much speech that was permitted before same-sex marriage now carries risks. Many of those who have persisted in voicing their dissent have been subjected to investigations by human rights commissions and (in some cases) proceedings before human rights tribunals. Those who are poor, poorly educated, and without institutional affiliation have been particularly easy targets—anti-discrimination laws are not always applied evenly.  Some have been ordered to pay fines, make apologies, and undertake never to speak publicly on such matters again. Targets have included individuals writing letters to the editors of local newspapers, and ministers of small congregations of Christians. A Catholic bishop faced two complaints—both eventually withdrawn—prompted by comments he made in a pastoral letter about marriage.

Teachers are particularly at risk for disciplinary action, for even if they only make public statements criticizing same-sex marriage outside the classroom, they are still deemed to create a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students. Other workplaces and voluntary associations have adopted similar policies as a result of their having internalized this new orthodoxy that disagreement with same-sex marriage is illegal discrimination that must not be tolerated.

Parental Rights in Public Education? Institutionalizing same-sex marriage has subtly but pervasively changed parental rights in public education, he argues. The debate over how to cast same-sex marriage in the classroom is much like the debate over the place of sex education in schools, and of governmental pretensions to exercise primary authority over children. But sex education has always been a discrete matter, in the sense that by its nature it cannot permeate the entirety of the curriculum. Same-sex marriage is on a different footing.

Since one of the tenets of the new orthodoxy is that same-sex relationships deserve the same respect that we give marriage, its proponents have been remarkably successful in demanding that same-sex marriage be depicted positively in the classroom. Curriculum reforms in jurisdictions such as British Columbia now prevent parents from exercising their long-held veto power over contentious educational practices.

It is a laudable goal to encourage acceptance of persons. But whatever can be said for the objective, the means chosen to achieve it is a gross violation of the family. It is nothing less than the deliberate indoctrination of children (over the objections of their parents) into a conception of marriage that is fundamentally hostile to what the parents understand to be in their children’s best interests. It frustrates the ability of parents to lead their children to an understanding of marriage that will be conducive to their flourishing as adults. At a very early age, it teaches children that the underlying rationale of marriage is nothing other than the satisfaction of changeable adult desires for companionship.

And what about changes to the Public Conception of Marriage? It has been argued that if same-sex marriage is institutionalized, new marital categories may be accepted, like polygamy. Once one abandons a conjugal conception of marriage, and replaces it with a conception of marriage that has adult companionship as its focus, there is no principled basis for resisting the extension of marriage licenses to polygamist and polyamorist unions.

In other words, if marriage is about satisfying adult desires for companionship, and if the desires of some adults extend to more novel arrangements, how can we deny them?

He cites the case of one prominent polygamist community in British Columbia which was greatly emboldened by the creation of same-sex marriage, and publicly proclaimed that there was now no principled basis for the state’s continued criminalization of polygamy.

Of all the Canadian courts, only a trial court in British Columbia has addressed whether prohibiting polygamy is constitutional, and provided an advisory opinion to the province’s government. The criminal prohibition of polygamy was upheld, but on a narrow basis that defined polygamy as multiple, concurrent civil marriages. The court did not address the phenomenon of multiple common-law marriages. So, thus far, the dominant forms of polygamy and polyamory practiced in Canada have not gained legal status, but neither have they faced practical impediments.

The lesson is this: a society that institutionalizes same-sex marriage needn’t necessarily institutionalize polygamy. But the example from British Columbia suggests that the only way to do so is to ignore principle. The polygamy case’s reasoning gave no convincing explanation why it would be discriminatory not to extend the marriage franchise to gays and lesbians, but not discriminatory to draw the line at polygamists and polyamorists. In fact, the judgment looks like it rests on animus toward polygamists and polyamorists, which is not a stable juridical foundation.

And the Impact on the Practice of Marriage? As for the practice of marriage, he says it is too soon to say much. But what we can gather from available data, is that same-sex marriage has not, contrary to arguments that it would, powered a resurgent marriage culture in Canada. Nor are there any census data (one way or the other) for empirical arguments tying the institutionalization of same-sex marriage to marriage stability.

One can only hope that when the debate on this issue get going in Ireland – and when the Constitutional Forum gets down to business – these realities will be looked at squarely and fairly so that we will all walk into our brave new world knowing exactly what is in store for us. Will Kenny, Gilmore, Martin and Adams, the leaders of Ireland’s main political parties who have committed themselves to going down this Canadian path, take note of all these questions and address then honestly before taking their country on the road to this new world.

Conscience sacrificed on the altar of personal choice and selfish convenience

“Excluding any known wishes of the patient or family to the contrary, a decision to preserve the life of a patient in a state of permanent unconsciousness based on respect for life itself is morally no more sound than a decision to take that life.”

Those words must surely send a shiver down the spine – or more likely, land a blow to the solar plexus – of any half sensitive moral conscience. They are reported on the Careful! blog of MercatorNet.com this morning and they come from an American doctor writing in the latest issue of the leading journal Bioethics.  There, Dr Catherine Constable, of New York University School of Medicine, tells us that artificial nutrition and hydration should be withdrawn from all patients in a permanent vegetative state – unless there is clear evidence that they want to be kept alive. She argues that the current presumption in favour of maintaining ANH is misguided. It is not in the interests of the patient nor, because of its cost, in the interest of society.

Surely we have reached the nightmare of moral chaos to which Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, and his later incarnation, Francis Ford Coppola’s Col. Kurtz, descended in Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now when (in Coppola’s film) he confessed and protested his hellish vision of a judgement-free world – by which he meant the judgement of conscience –  in which the only criteria of choice is the selfish pursuit of our pragmatic ideologies and where the most sacred of all human gifts, life itself, is placed on the sacrificial altar of that merciless god.

“I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen”, Kurtz – a rogue US Marine commander fighting the Viet Cong – expounded his confused and contradictory moral reasoning to Willard who has been sent to “terminate” him. “But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!”

Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the heart of darkness

It is hard not to conclude, reading things like those written by Dr. Constable, that we have already surrendered to that horror. Because some living human beings are not able to express their intentions it is deemed that they are no longer interested in living. Therefore, “because of its cost,” their lives are no longer “in the interest of society.”

Kurtz recalled the moment he surrendered his conscience to the evil of a world freed from the restrictions imposed by that inner voice:

“I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget.

“And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

Can we not say that  forces of “enlightenment” at work in the propagation of this new morality represented by Dr. Constable are driven by the same dreadful ethic which Kurtz adopted in which the judgement of conscience is seen as a hindrance to the proper running of this world of ours. Let us set aside all those “taboos”, they say, with which we clutter our proper judgement and let us act coldly, clinically and ruthlessly for the end we desire. Kurtz knew – and Conrad knew – in his heart where all that led, to the horror of a hell on earth. The leaders of our new enlightenment, sadly, do not seem to know.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. It is all around us and is clearly manifested in the spectacle unfolding in the United States’ current political debate on the Obama “mandate”. The subtext of this entire proposal is the disregard and sacrifice of moral conscience – as understood for 2000 years in its fullest clarity, and for eons before that, albeit in a less clear way – on the altar of personal choice and convenience. It all emanates from a philosophy of freedom devoid of any judgement based on a rational and principled understanding of the truth of our nature. It is a philosophy of freedom where freedom is seen as the right to do what you like within the arbitrary bounds of the general will of a given group of people – which we know even from history can lead to the greatest atrocity. Slavery was once supported by such a general will. The deaths of millions of unborn human beings is now enjoying the same support.

Another more recent visit to the heart of darkness was Cormac McCarthy’s  No Country For Old Men, filmed by the Coen brothers in 2007. In the book, the wise and weary Sheriff Bell, who is pursuing the semi-mystical but diabolical Chigurh, reflects on the sorry state of our society in telling us of an encounter with a fully paid-up member of our brave new world.

The wise and weary Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)

“Here a year or two back …I got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talkin’ about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it…. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well ma’m I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin’ I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin’ to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

The tragedy may be just this – that the conversation has ended. But perhaps there are a few more battles to be fought and with them the tide may be turned and sanity may return to the earth. If not, like Sherrif Bell said, we may all look forward to being put to sleep.

Marriage, a mere rite of passage?

The following article appeared on February 27 in MercatorNet’s new blog on the issues confronting the institution of marriage in the western world today. The blog, Conjugality, already contains a number of articles focusing on the challenge being presented to the integrity of marriage by the campaign to have same-sex unions recognized as marriage by legislatures across the world.

“This is about the underlying principles of family, society, and personal freedoms”, Miss Lynne Featherstone MP, Britain’s Equalities Minister, wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph last week, referring to her Government’s plans to introduce legislation enabling gay people to describe their civil partnerships as marriage. Reading those words you might think that at last someone is about to address this fraught subject on the basis of such basic things as principles, family, society and personal freedom. But alas, no. Clearly, what we are confronted with here is more of the same – phony principles, redefinition of that basic building brick of community, the family, and therefore a very wobbly definition of society itself.

One would have hoped for more from the mother of parliaments.

Lynne Featherstone

“Marriage [she maintained] is a rite of passage for couples who want to show they are in a committed relationship, for people who want to show they have found love and wish to remain together until death do them part. Why should we deny it to people who happen to be gay or lesbian who wish to show that commitment and share it with their family, friends and everybody else? We should be proud of couples who love each other and a society that recognises their love as equal.

“That is why you will not find us watering down this commitment.”

Watering down? A mere rite of passage? Marriage is a state in which a man and woman live. This is nothing less than complete obliteration of the very concept of natural marriage. When Romeo and Juliet tried to grapple with the Capulet-Montague problem they bypassed names and solved the conflict – up to a point.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet…”

But this does not solve the marriage problem which gays have created for themselves. Call a rose an onion and it is still a rose. But it does not work the other way around – no matter how many things you call by the name of rose you will never turn them into roses. The onion which you call a rose remains an onion. It will look like an onion, smell like an onion and will still sting your eyes and, like an onion, make you. The exercise is sheer folly. So is the effort to make into marriages things that are not marriages and never will be marriages. This bond between a man and a woman which we call marriage is something “given”, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey said when he wrote in the English and Irish editions of The Daily Mail on February 20. It is given by our nature and it has its own intrinsic and inherent meaning. We do not give it its meaning. It, of itself, like Romeo, gives us its value and meaning.

“The fierce debate over the past few weeks [Miss Featherstone wrote] has shown people feel very strongly about marriage. Some believe the Government has no right to change it at all; they want to leave tradition alone. I want to challenge that view – it is the Government’s fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better.”

Miss Featherstone is working by the notorious definition of the powers of the British Parliament left to us by Sir Hartley Shawcross, then British Attorney General, when he declared that

Lord Hartley Shawcross

“Parliament is sovereign; it can make any laws. It could ordain that all blue-eyed babies should be destroyed at birth, and because Parliament so declared it, it would be legal.”

Legal, but utterly immoral. It is not enough that Parliament “reflect” society. Parliament’s duty is seek justice and legislate according to the principles of that justice and right reason.

People who understand what marriage really is are calling on the British Government to bring this question to the people and in doing so are showing a much deeper trust in the good sense of the British people than the Government is showing. Is it another instance of the drive for statute law riding roughshod through the treasure-house of British common law, something noted and predicted over 60 years ago by a British legal expert, Richard O’Sullivan, Q.C., when he wrote,

“All around us here today…is a scene of material destruction. In a recent lecture on “Law and Custom at the University of St. Andrews, Lord Macmillan (not to be confused with former British prime Minister, Harold Macmillan) drew attention to what he called the suppression – and what we may call the spiritual destruction – of the common law. The lover of our ancient laws and institutions, which we have inherited from our fathers, cannot but look on with some dismay at the process which we see daily’ in operation around us whereby the customary common law of the land, which has served us so well in the past, is being more and more superseded by a system of laws which have no regard for the usages and customs of the people, but are dictated by ‘ideological theories’.”

This is not a question of “rights”. It is a question of possibilities. It is not simply a question a tradition which people wish to preserve for some sentimental reason. It is a question of a law of nature which is prior to anything we call tradition, which has its roots in our very being and on which the common good of our society depends.

We are not prioritising gay rights, Featherstone added, or trampling over tradition; we are allowing a space for the two to exist side by side. In other words, she wants to allow one group of people to continue to see roses where roses exist and she wants to facilitate another group to see roses in a field of onions and say that there is no difference between the two.

Lord Carey commented on Miss Featherstone’s article:

“Lynne’s logic implies the will of the people is sovereign. So let’s suppose that in 10 years’ time it is proposed that, as people are living in multiples of four, we may call that marriage also.”

Why not, we might add, should those people living in what we euphemistically call a ménage a trios not also be granted the right to call their union a marriage bond. The possibilities are endless.

Ms. Featherstone and others are muddying the waters when they make all this is a Church-State conflict. It is not. It is a matter of logic, epistemology and anthropology. Any parliament which sets out – as foolish legislatures across the western world are now doing – to redefine things “given” by nature is confusing, in this instance, the law written in men’s hearts and minds with the law written in their libido. In the process they are legitimising social chaos, not enhancing human freedom. They are surely taking us back over a thousand years to that moment at the end of the Dark Ages when on a shore on the east coast of England the legendary King Cnut tried to command the tide of the North Sea to change its ways. But at least he learned a lesson and did no harm. This foolishness, sadly, will have no such happy outcome.