The world looked a pretty bleak place in the aftermath of the horrors of The Great War, “the war to end all wars”. For many, T. S. Eliot’s “rhythmic grumbling” in The Waste Land epitomised the mood of the time. Its magnificence as a poem perhaps softened its doleful cry of bewilderment at the dried-up landscape confronting humanity.

In that age other voices also confronted this wilderness. Among them was Romano Guardini, a devout Catholic priest who was to become one of the most significant and influential figures in the history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. He looked at the same uncertain age and searched for signs of hope in the debris confronting  mankind.

“Our age is so uncertain, skeptical, seeking, and homeless”, he wrote in one of his famous Letters from Lake Como, “that there are not a few today, I believe, who stand directly before God. Those who stand in the world have need of a stance in themselves and in something deeper than themselves from which to come to grips with the world again. And indeed a wave is moving out from God and reaching our innermost limit beyond which is the other.”

That was indeed true, but God’s ways are not man’s ways. Neither are God’s waves as predictable in their ebb and flow as Guardini may have supposed them to be. Those who stood before God in the “roaring twenties” were fewer than Guardini thought they might be. Through the thirties and forties mankind piled bewilderment upon bewilderment making Eliot’s vision of our decaying civilisation trump Guardini’s hopes.

Advance four decades into the future, on the other side of the apocalypse that was World War Two, Guardini’s reading of our world was in many ways more pessimistic than even that of Eliot. But it was still rooted in his Christian faith and therefore founded on Christian hope – something profoundly different from optimism and pessimism. But what made it so that pessimism had gained ground? It was not just the manifest evil which had festered through the twenties and then erupted in all its horror in the thirties, forties and in China in the fifties – death camps, gulags and famines perpetrated by ruthless human agents. It was the burgeoning tower of Babel represented by man’s “conquest” of nature and the catastrophes hidden beneath the “promise” of unlimited progress. Blinded by the power which science and technology put at our disposal, and seduced by a false paradigm of how society would best flourish, he foresaw us sinking further and further into a quagmire in which God was either ignored or scoffed at – or both.

All this was contemplated in his 1950 book, The End of the Modern World. In spite of its seemingly categorical title, Guardini, while being clear about the follies he was describing, was nevertheless tentative in his judgements about the future.

“Since”, he wrote, “the spirit of an age becomes wholly clear only when it has begun to vanish from the face of the earth, it has been possible to draw a picture of the modern world without falling victim either in a spirit of admiration or of hatred to the thing represented.

“Of itself my work led me into further studies which threw a shaft of light onto the epoch which is coming but is still unknown. It disclosed how deeply penetrating is the change everywhere passing over the world, it intimated the tasks which man will then have to face.”

Moving forward more than seventy years into what we now call the postmodern world, do we still need to be so tentative? The phenomenon of hubristic man replacing God has not diminished. Even in the realm of the Christian faith itself, Joseph Ratzinger mildly reflected on a tendency in the pastoral life of the Church in which God’s way was being placed as second fiddle to man’s. In God Is Near Us, published in 2001, he wrote:

“I sometimes have the impression that there is a temptation today to set up beside the pastoral approach of faith, or even against it, a pastoral approach based on one’s own cleverness, an approach that no longer actually trusts in faith’s ability to call men together today. Because this approach no longer believes that faith can actually affect anything, it has, so to say, to outwit God and men with its cleverness and to build something on its own account. How can that stand the test? It may perhaps seem simpler to begin with. But it remains our own work and still has the weaknesses of what is ours.

“A bishop from a country with a Marxist government said to me that what was most characteristic of that world, no longer allowed to be open to anything transcendent, was its unbelievable dreariness, the boredom of a world that can expect nothing but itself, the everlasting grayness of leaden everyday life with no celebration, in which, ultimately, nothing else can arrive, because man alone simply reproduces himself. In such a dreary wilderness, in the grayness of merely self-made life, there awakes a longing for something completely different to happen. Vladimir Maximov, the Russian emigré, said, on the basis of a similar experience: ‘For too long already we have talked about man; let us finally talk about God again. The world needs more than just itself.’”

In the 1920s Guardini asked the questions, “Will we come to God from the depths of our being, link ourselves to him, and in his freedom and power master chaos in this coming age? Will there be people who place themselves totally at God’s disposal and alone with and before him make the true decisions?”

We must still ask those question and hope, as Guardini did when he wrote:

“At bottom I do not know what else to say except that from my heart’s core I believe that God is at work. History is going forward in the depths, and we must be ready to play our part, trusting in what God is doing and in the forces that he has made to stir within us.”

But as we move forward again, into the third decade of the twenty-first century, we still find ourselves faced with threats to our civilisation. Even Elon Musk is on board our apparently fragile vessel tweeting about his fear that “the woke mind virus” is “pushing civilisation towards suicide”.

A much more considered judgment as to what has happened and is happening to our culture and civilisation here and now is that of Jewish philosopher and writer, Yoram Hazony. His recent book, Conservatism – A Rediscovery, was reviewed in these pages several months ago (Position Papers 561) by James Bradshaw. In Hazony’s reading it is the liberal paradigm for the organisation of our society which has led us down the path to potential destruction. This paradigm, he argues, carries within it a vision of mankind which allows for neither God nor mankind as they really are. Within its DNA is a dogmatic belief in the individual’s freedom which “has moved liberals to destigmatise – and, eventually, to actively legitimise – sexual license, narcotics, and pornography, as well as abortion, easy divorce, and out-of-marriage births, until finally the family has been broken and fertility ruined in nearly every Western country.

“Now an entirely different kind of decay is ascendant: a growing lassitude and despair, a true decadence in which no praise is to be gained from moving in any direction. And so meaningful movement ceases, and all that is left is the monotonous parade of sensations induced by alcohol, drugs, and flickering screens.”

With a little more than a flicker of hope he predicts regeneration.

“No human society can remain in such a condition indefinitely. A shattered society will eventually regenerate itself. The human ruins will cohere into households and clans, and then tribes. Their leading figures will teach self-discipline and constraint, and individuals will be honored and advanced for upholding certain beliefs and behavioral norms.”

The false paradigm which Hazony identifies as having led us into this morass is based on four assumptions which he outlines as follows:

  1. All men are perfectly free and equal by nature. 
  2. Political obligation arises from the consent of the free individual. 
  3. Government exists due to the consent of a large number of individuals, and its only legitimate purpose is to enable these individuals to make use of the freedom that is theirs by nature. 

4. These premises are universally valid truths, which every individual can derive on his own, if he only chooses to do so, by reasoning about these matters.

The alternative paradigm, based on realism and evidenced in human history, by which we can escape from the abyss to which the former is leading us can be identified in the following premises:

  1. Men are born into families, tribes, and nations to which they are bound by ties of mutual loyalty. 
  2. Individuals, families, tribes, and nations compete for honour, importance, and influence, until a threat or a common endeavour recalls them to the mutual loyalties that bind them to one another. 
  3. Families, tribes, and nations are hierarchically structured, their members having importance and influence to the degree they are honoured within the hierarchy. 
  4. Language, religion, law, and the forms of government and economic activity are traditional institutions, developed by families, tribes, and nations as they seek to strengthen their material prosperity, internal integrity, and cultural inheritance and to propagate themselves through future generations. 

5. Political obligation is a consequence of membership in families, tribes, and nations. 6. These premises are derived from experience, and may be challenged and improved upon in light of experience.

In elaborating a programme, based on those six premises, which might be adopted for the rescue and reform of our political culture, he advocates that all who can, emphasise honour and loyalty in speaking to adults and in teaching children. “Let them be zealous in giving weight to parents and grandparents, elders and teachers. Let them honour our forefathers, their political and intellectual achievements, their military service and their acts of righteousness, their God and their Scripture. Where honour and praise are given to those who came before us, restoration and renewed health become possible again.”

In relation to the most egregious folly of the Enlightenment paradigm Hazony is withering – and in it we can surely hear echoes of both Guardini and Ratzinger as quoted above.

“This new world announced by Enlightenment rationalism is a fraud. It is a fantasy world that does not exist. In reality, an individual who believes that the political or moral principles delivered by his own mind hold good for all mankind and for all time is a confused person. He has confused his own local, limited perspective for that of God. He has forgotten that he approaches truth by means of a scheme of ideas that blinds him to whatever it was not framed to grasp, and that there are, inevitably, hidden factors that his principles are not taking into account.

“These hidden factors will eventually emerge and demand their due, often bringing on a calamity that a less arrogant theory of knowledge might have avoided. For this reason, a man who has confused his own local, limited perspective for that of God is potentially a very dangerous person indeed. The belief that one’s local, limited perspective is that of a god is paganism.”

He identifies this paganism as the poisonous ancient Roman type where emperors claimed to be gods – as opposed to the paganism of the city states who looked to gods who were not confused with men.

For one hundred years – indeed more – we have been sliding into a world which the wisest of men have been warning us to avoid. At the heart of our folly is our ignoring the admonition of Christ himself, “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

The original of this essay first appeared in the March 2023 issue of the review, Position Papers

Of the real and the unreal

About four years ago, a then twenty-six year old Irish writer – now world famous, if reviews of your books in The New York Times and a host of other national and international media is enough to give you that reputation – made this remark in an interview: “So yeah, I don’t know. I like Christianity. I’m a fan of Jesus and his whole philosophy, but not the social teaching aspects of it, of course.” She has said more on the topic since, most of it in the same nonchalant vein, betraying the inherent but increasingly shallow links Irish people of her generation have with the Faith of their Fathers. It also betrays an abysmal ignorance of the essence of what that religion and its practice really are. 

Who this young writer is, or why she is famous, is irrelevant in the context of what follows. She is one of several million, indeed hundreds of millions, who have lost the plot of what it is to be Catholic and Christian. Modernity is a mixed blessing – which is a way of saying that it is a blessing and a curse. It’s malefaction is its destruction of the human race’s grasp of the essence of the real world, and our place in it, by its corruption of the religious sense.

The only way back from this confused state which has suffocated the faith of so many and particularly that of the generations since the 1960s, is an effective articulation of the truth about the catholic church, what it is in its essence, and what its mission is. Only then will intelligent young people be able to break away from the prejudices about Christ’s church with which everything from shallow practice down to heinous scandals has left them. Only then will a young person who can now talk about “the crushing power of the catholic church” – another young Irish writer – come out and separate the wheat from the weeds, defend and protect the institution founded by Christ for the salvation of mankind.

We cannot talk of this being a crisis. Crises are relatively short-lived. Just as epidemics become endemic, crises can turn into something more permanent that we have to live with, cope with and build our defences against. The phenomenon which produced the response we began with is older than the ’60s. In a book published one hundred years ago, Romano Guardini wrote of the sad consequences of the failures in understanding we are looking at here. Their origins do not lie in the early twentieth century, nor even in the liberalism of the nineteenth century. They go back to early modernity and the emergence of a new  consciousness of individuality. The failure to balance this consciousness with social and communal consciousness created a rift which we can follow as it developed down through the centuries to our own time.

He wrote of this in terms of the tension which he saw then, and we see now, between the church and the individual. He connected this with a broader tension between the community and the individual which also had its manifestation in relations between the church and the individual, thereby imperilling our understanding of the very essence of the church.

In the Middle Ages the objective reality of the church, like that of society in general, was directly experienced. The individual had been integrated into the social organism in which he or she freely developed a distinctive personality. At the Renaissance individuals attained a critical self-consciousness and asserted their own independence at the expense of the objective community. By doing so, however, they gradually lost sight of their profound dependence upon the entire social organism. 

Consequently, he argued, the modern person’s consciousness of his or her own personality, no longer closely bound up with the conscious life of the community, overshot a critical mark and detached itself from its living social context. In terms of their relationship with the church, individuals began to think of the church, with its claim to authority, as a power hostile to themselves. At the time in which Guardini was writing this, James Joyce was the literary world figure deeply affected by the malaise he was describing. 

The mission Guardini envisaged for the Christian then was to foment an understanding of the true relationship between the church and the individual. It must still be so, one hundred years later. It will always be so. 

To achieve this, he maintained, our conceptions of society and individual personality must once more be adequate. To get there to any degree, self-consciousness and the sense of life within community must again be brought into harmony, and in terms of religious faith the inherent interdependence of the church and the individual must again be accepted as a self-evident truth. 

For him, modern man needed to see how the church and the individual personality are mutually bound together, “how they live, the one by the other.” It was in this context and in this mutual relationship that we could only properly explain the justification of ecclesiastical authority. This could only be done if people freed themselves from “the partial philosophies of the age, such as individualism, state socialism, or communism.” In our age there is no shortage of partial philosophies competing to warp our understanding of reality. He put it this way:

Once more we must be wholeheartedly Catholic. Our thought and feeling must be determined by the essential nature of the Catholic position, must proceed from that direct insight into the center of reality which is the privilege of the genuine Catholic.  

We agonise today, we talk and write about the atomistic disintegration of our society, and the sad consequences of family break-up, loneliness and worse which it brings in its wake. One hundred years ago he talked and wrote about the individual personality “starving in frigid isolation” if it is cut off from the living community. Being cut off from the church was even worse. The richness of the life which union with the church gives to the individual is the only true fulfilment of life, a “precondition of their most individual and personal life”. The church must necessarily be intolerable to those who fail to see this in her, to those who view her only as a power which confronts them and which, far from having any share in their most intimate, vital purpose, actually threatens or represses it. This, sadly, is the view of many today, who have not heard or understood that she is something infinitely different from that.

A person’s living will cannot accept a church so conceived… But the individual whose eyes have been opened to the meaning of the church experiences a great and liberating joy, for such individuals see that it is the living presupposition of their personal existence, the essential path to their perfection. They are aware of profound solidarity between their personal being and the church, how the one lives by the other, and how the life of the one is the strength of the other.  

He concluded optimistically that the possibility of loving and living in the church in this way is not something remote: we can love the church by virtue of a supreme grace which may be ours today, and it is the grace which we need most. But for Christians to help make this happen in our time, what he wrote back in 1922 applies even more to 2022. It must be taken into account that men and women of the present generation cannot love the church merely because they were born of Catholic parents. 

With equal force he warned that it would be folly to think that the love we are looking for could be produced by the intoxication of oratory and mass meetings. Neither would vague sentiments give us that love. He said that the young generation of his time was too honest for that. Honesty may well be a virtue more found in the young than in those of a certain age, something as true today as it was a hundred years ago.

To neutralise the atomistic process in which we still seem locked, Guardini wrote: One thing only can avail: a clear insight into the nature and significance of the church. We must realize that, as Christians, our personality is achieved in proportion as we are more closely incorporated into the church and as the church lives in us. When we address her, we say with deep understanding not “thou” but “I”. 

If I have really grasped these truths, I shall no longer regard the church as a spiritual police force, but blood of my own blood, the life of whose abundance I live. I shall see it as the all-embracing kingdom of my God, and his kingdom in my soul as its living counterpart. Then will the church be my mother and my queen, the bride of Christ. Then can I love her! And only then can I find peace! We shall not be at peace with the church till we have reached the point at which we can…love it. Not till then…” 

‘For All Mankind’ and our destiny – not just the Moon or Mars

It is probably not the most original plot-line you have ever encountered in science-fiction – our heroes in their orbiting spacecraft fly off out of gravity’s pull and face death hurtling into the universe.  Space Oddity was always going to be a hard act to follow. But taken in juxtaposition with the reflections of Romano Guardini in The Faith and Modern Man – written back in 1944 – it is intriguing as a metaphor for the human condition and the choices which our kind confront as we hurtle through the years of our existence in – or around – this planet.

For All Mankind is a space opera currently streaming on Apple TV+. It is good in parts – if you can bear with its embedded nod to wokeness and have a sufficiently tuned detector to deal with the moral ambiguity which wokeness now almost invariably carries with it as baggage. But deep down this is a work about the human sacrifices we make to fulfil our ambitions, and the answers it gives only take us so far. God does not get much of a nod – he’s not in the woke canon.

The episode which resonated in the context of what Guardini has to say about the destiny of mankind tells the story of two astronauts, on a rescue mission to a space station on the moon. They sustain damage to their craft and suddenly find themselves slipping out of orbit. They are in big trouble because they don’t have enough fuel to propel themselves out of danger. Compounding their trouble, they have also lost contact with mission control. Facing them is certain death. They then discuss   whether to face death by starvation as they hurtle into outer space, or hasten their deaths by jettisoning themselves from their craft.

With just a sliver of hope they make a last desperate call for help. Against all the odds they make contact and help comes under the guiding hand of mission control in Houston. That sliver of hope grows exponentially. Enough not said here to avoid a spoiler, I hope.

Try to read the story as a parable – and there is no suggestion that this is the intention of the show’s creators; this is a very personal interpretation prompted by a serendipitous encounter with Romano Guardini’s more transcendental reflections on mankind’s nature and needs.

Our heroes are not unlike the members of the human race with which Guardini preoccupies himself in The Faith and Modern Man. Like our two astronauts, he sees us as creatures making our way through a beautiful but dangerous universe. For reasons beyond our control, “stuff happens” to us and we have to respond to it, or be helped to respond to it, in one way or another. In any one situation there may appear to be no ‘win-win’ options open to us, but there may be ‘lose-win’ options as against only ‘lose-lose’ options. 

If we read the human condition with a truly Christian vision of life it is all ‘win-win’. The condition of the Christian in the world is that of a ‘hundredfold’ in this life and eternal happiness in eternity. The ‘lose-win’ scenario is also one of hope. It is that of the person who does not know the truth of existence but who by the grace of God and the help of some human agency eventually sees the meaning of life and departs this world in the full knowledge and acceptance of the creator’s will. The ‘lose-lose’ scenario is the tragic one, brought about by the wilful rejection of the truth of that purpose for which we have our being, and the subsequent drifting into outer darkness which that rejection inevitably entails.

Guardini puts the Christian in the world in the context of all mankind. Christian men and women are situated in life exactly as are all other human beings. Their bodies are made up of natural elements and are subject to natural laws. They live in the community of family and nation. They participate in the events of history, and share in the economic, scientific and artistic life of their days. Their dreams, thoughts, ethical motives, standards of right living, hopes of fulfilment, are like those of everybody else. 

But then he makes a vital distinction. In their consciousness they have thoughts of another kind too — they know and believe in a God who created all things and guides people by his providential wisdom. They also know of redemption and of a new, radically different life which springs from it, which begins here on earth and finds its fulfilment in eternity. 

These thoughts in their totality do not derive from human knowledge and experience, he explains. The Christian knows that the truth that underlies this consciousness, the kind of mind it speaks of, the way of life to which it calls for, is anchored on one reality, one definite person. This is Jesus Christ who claims to be the living revelation of the hidden God, the redeemer of the lost, the bringer of new life. A Christian is one who takes him at his word and accepts all the terms and conditions of the rescue proposed to him by Christ when, in one way or another, he cries out for help when he finds himself, as it were, lost in space.

Guardini put the story of the Christian’s life in this way. 

The Christian believer of whom we are speaking has, in some way, come upon Jesus Christ, either by steeping himself or herself in the sources which relate his history, or by having learned from others of his person and doctrine. They are convinced that Jesus Christ alone brings truth and salvation, that he alone sheds light upon the riddle of existence, that by his spirit alone can moral problems be solved, that he alone affords a final refuge to the human heart. The lives of such men and women consist of a whole in which two worlds intermingle — the natural life with its realities, and everything which Christ makes known of truth and wisdom, and the strength which he imparts. This unity let us call simply the Faith.

Like our astronauts, the Christian in this world is very vulnerable. Faith for the Christian is life itself, Guardini explains, and since it is life in the fullest sense, it must undergo repeated crises, crises which concern not merely a single part of a person’s life, but their whole nature – their mind and all their potentialities.  

The crisis faced by our astronauts was the result of a mechanical failure. But its consequences made them face not just the prospect of their imminent death but the choice of how they should die. Had they taken the quick sharp shock option and not held on to the sliver of hope they had, they would have short-circuited the providence of mission control and the agents sent to save them. 

In the matter of crises of faith Guardini writes of the role of the church in the life of the struggling Christian. This is the church whose nature and characteristics he elaborates on in another work, The Lord, written in 1937. The church is, he says, the fullness of grace functioning in history. Mystery of that union into which God, through Christ, draws all creation. Family of the children of God assembled about Christ, the firstborn. Beginning of the new holy people. Foundation of the Holy City once to be revealed. And simultaneous with all her graces are her dangers: danger of dominating, danger of “the law.” When we speak of the church, we cannot ignore the fact of Christ’s rejection, which never should have been. 

This church, he tells us, asks people in crisis – moral or otherwise – not to set aside their faith, even for the time being. This is based on the conviction that faith proceeds primarily not from human beings, but from God, whose power helps them to see as far into the question as is necessary and still to remain closely bound to God. He identifies two sides of the relation of a person’s heart to God. On the one side is longing for God, longing for his sacred truth. But on the other side is aversion, distrust, irritation, revolt.  It is this twofold aspect which makes religious doubt dangerous. The moving force in the doubt is hostility toward God. 

Therefore, in any struggle with doubt, one must resort to prayer. The most effective kind of prayer is that in which we place ourselves, in our hearts, before God, relinquishing all resistance, letting go of all secret irritation, opening ourselves to the truth, to God’s holy mystery, saying over and over again, “I desire truth, I am ready to receive it, even this truth which causes me such concern, if it be the truth. Give me light to know it, and to see how it bears on me.”  

This prayer is the equivalent of the astronaut’s call for help, in hope against hope. The simplicity of that call – or prayer – completely belies its power to overcome the most devastating forces facing mankind, in or outside this world, natural or preternatural. It has the power to make all the difference between life and death, between light and outer darkness.

Gender mayhem and the new Babel


The announcement last weekend that the British Equalities Minister Justine Greening wants to change the law so that people are free to specify their gender on their birth certificate regardless of medical opinion, provoked dismay and outrage among conservative people. Not all liberal people were happy with it either – but for the libertarian gender-benders it was like the dawn of a new age.

Tim Stanley, in the Daily Telegraph, took a critical if sober view of it. He didn’t think it would really fly. I wouldn’t be so sure, given the extent to which the very foundations on which common sense and the politics of the common good have been so badly warped. Stanley acknowledged:

Life is messy and the individual should navigate it with free will. But it’s precisely out of deference to the complexity of the human experience that we cling on to certain principles – principles that reflect not just our ideals but the realities of our nature. Biology is one of those realities, and it helps define us as men and women. Because biology is so vital, if you try to rewrite the principles to please one tiny minority, you impact upon the lives of absolutely everybody.

He adds, The Tories are meddling in affairs that are well beyond their intellectual grasp or the country’s willingness or capacity to accept change. Greening is asking the British public not only to accept a radical notion that most will find exotic but to rewrite the daily narrative of their own lives – and behave as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. It is, I suspect, too big an ask.

In The Times (London), Clare Foges struck a warning note suggesting that it would be unwise to be complacent. Storing up trouble for our children now and in future generations was what was on her mind.

Many of the adults among us may dismiss this with an inward roll of the eyes, too polite or too wearied by political correctness to demur. But children are increasingly presented with these complex and confusing ideas as unarguable fact. They are being led to believe, on social media and in schools, that gender is simply a lifestyle choice.
On Facebook, users can choose from a buffet of 71 gender options: polygender to two-spirit person. Last year the children’s commissioner sent a form to schoolchildren asking them to pick one of 25 genders that they identified with (withdrawn once the press started to take an interest). Girlguiding has said that boys as young as five who identify as girls can join the Rainbows or Brownies. Scores of schools have abolished “boys” and “girls” from their dress code. One of the country’s leading private schools, St Paul’s Girls’, now considers requests from students to be known either as gender-neutral or as boys. Pupils aged 11 to 15 “can have discussions at any time to explore their gender identity”. No doubt where St Paul’s leads many other schools will follow.

How did this happen, we might ask ourselves? What wrong turning led us to this Chaos? Losing our grip on the Cosmic reality that is God, denying the divine, must surely be somewhere near the heart of it.

Romano Guardini, puzzling over the paradox of an omnipotent God allowing himself to be ignored by his creatures, asks us rhetorically if man can actually turn his back on God? How come it is possible  – if God is really the all-powerful One standing at the beginning and end of time, in history and in eternity, in us and above us in heart and heaven, – that he can be denied, blasphemed, even—incomprehensible mystery—overlooked and forgotten?

Frightening as the prospect is, he confirms:

It is possible—this and more. For it is also possible for God, the one Reality, to exist, and for man, his own creature to declare: God is dead! Man can behave as if God did not exist. He can act, judge, proceed as if nothing existed but himself, man, and the animal, and the tree and the earth. It is possible for man (who has a vital soul through which he exists as man, through which he is joyful or sorrowful) to insist that he is soulless. All this is possible because seeing and understanding, serious contemplation and acceptance of reality are vital processes, hence dependent on man’s will and profoundest disposition. Thus also his capacity for negation is illimitable.

And the consequences are what we have now got. Our capacity for negation is in overdrive.

Roger Scruton put his finger on it in his new book, On Human Nature, when he says:

Take away religion, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this “living down,” which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind——and with it our kindness.

And it is precisely the milk of human kindness which Foges tells us we should be relying on in our efforts to deal with our differences and our diversity. She wants our guiding instinct in these matters to be kindness and warns that in seeking to support the tiny minority of children who feel trapped in the wrong body we run the risk of creating a world of confusion and anxiety for the rest.

But ultimately where does kindness come from? Even in a civilization which acknowledges the existence of God there is a struggle to maintain it against our inherent tendency to selfishness. But in any world we know of – contemporary or historical –  where the existence of God is denied our record is horrific. Individuals who have lost their faith in God can be sustained in their humanity by the mores ingrained in them by a believing society, but when that society itself rejects God, and surrenders itself to the values of self-centred and utterly narcissistic individualism, then we all re-enter the tower of Babel. That is what is now threatening us.

Guardini contemplates this reality when he writes, in his reflection on the last chapters of the Revelation of St. John, that:

Unconverted man lives in the visible world judging all that is or may be by tradition’s experience and by the rules of logic. But when he encounters Christ, he must either accept him and his revolutionary approach to truth or lose him. If he attempts to judge also the Lord by the standards of common experience, he will soon notice that he is dealing with something outside experience. He will have to discard the norms of the past, and take Christ as his new point of departure. When he no longer attempts to subject Christ to immediate reason and experience, he will recognize him as the supreme measure of all possible reality.

A big part of modern man’s ‘problem’ with God is surely rooted in his refusal to accept God as God and not as something in his own image. Doing this is no risk to his innate pride and self-centredness. But God is not made in our image. We are made in his image, and made by him. Ignoring that spells big trouble. Guardini continues:

The intellect jealous for its own sovereignty rejects such recognition, which would put an end to its world-anchored self-glorification, and surrender it into the hands of the God of Revelation. This is the ‘risk’ any would-be Christian must take. If he takes it, a profound revolution begins…. And to the degree that the searching individual experiences such spiritual revolution, he gains an amplitude, a superiority, a synthesizing power of reason that no natural insight can match.

Those of us now facing this new Babel, this incomprehensible confusion in our society and in the hearts and minds of so many, have a difficult choice to make. We are being faced with a world-view which has attempted to compromise with the substance of our nature and identity because it has abandoned one of the defining truths about our existence – we are the creatures of the Living God. If there is to be any hope of rescue from this state, Guardini, back in the 1930s, told us what must be done:

The term ‘Christian culture’ must be purged of all that is questionable in it. The gulf between Revelation and the world must reopen. Perhaps a new period of persecution and outlawry must come to shake Christians back to a living consciousness of the values for which they stand.

Mankind, once again, has a great adventure before it.


The choice is ours


“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis”, Captain Boyle, famously proclaimed in Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock.

Indeed it is, and we suppose it always will be. The evidence is compelling. It’s a long, long story and it’s not really a terribly productive pursuit to go on analysing the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ of it all. But what is incumbent on us is to constantly and creatively respond to and deal as best we can with each new symptom of chaos, generally in the form of some crisis, as it arrives on our doorstep – whether personal, local or global. Generally there are plenty to choose from.

Just now we have the Brexit fallout and its related knock-on implications for the future of the troubled states of the European Union. Across the Atlantic there are the multiple storms associated with a very unusual new US administration, and further to our east we have an enigmatic Russian regime which might or might not be playing high stakes cat and mouse games with its nervous neighbours. ‘Plenty of potential for chassis there – accepting Captain Boyle’s Malapropism – to be going on with.

I often wondered what St. Josemaría  Escrivá meant when he wrote “A secret. – An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints”. It’s an intriguing and even strange phrase. But it is only strange if we limit our understanding of what saints are to those popular images we have of them – halos, pious postures and sometimes living hermetic reclusive lives separated from the affairs of the world. These were the saints a good number of us grew up with, and who indeed may have played an important role n helping generations of Christians to model their lives according to the teaching of Christ.

But these saints do not really get to the heart of St. Josemaría’s challenging phrase, which seems to suggest that being a saint offers some hope of a resolution of the world’s problems. Is that credible? Daringly, maybe outrageously for some, he maintains that it is.

The origins of his thinking about this, and its place in his teaching about what being a saint in the middle of the world is all about, is elaborated by the editor of the critical-historical edition of the book in which he first put this statement down on paper, The Way.*

What the phrase essentially underlines is the central idea of Escrivá, that Earth is really only properly understood in the context of Heaven and that if the problems of the earth are to be solved at all they can only be truly solved on that horizon where heaven and earth meet in the hearts of women and men, in the reality of holiness, that is, sanctity, the stuff of saints.

This phrase, and the chapter of the book from which it comes, is an example of his insistence on the correspondence to grace — holiness — of those who have become aware of God’s calling. That calling was a universal one, not one for the special few – the saints of popular piety. It was a call for all women and men because it was, it is, the express will of God that all be saved. The doctrine on holiness, the editor of the edition points out, is not an idea outside time, but is an idea realised in time, and more specifically, it determines the solution to the “world crises”.

This idea permeated all of St. Josemaría’s teaching and preaching. On another occasion, stating it in very practical terms, he reminded people, putting before them a very simple ideal:

“If every country had a group of holy fathers of families, holy doctors, holy architects, holy workers, all the world’s problems would be solved.”’

Nor did he see it as a big numbers game. The same point in The Way is completed with this rider:

God wants a handful of men, “of his own” in each human activity. – And then…pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.

In 1937, when he was in hiding during the Spanish Civil War, he explained his vision in more detail in a homily:

“A pinch of salt is enough to season a meal for many. To impart new savour to the world, relatively few people will be necessary. But these few, by obeying God’s Will, have to truly be salt that cures and seasons. […] If we carry out our apostolate, then the face of the world will change, and the disorder and wretchedness we see in the world will be replaced with Christian peace and happiness. Then peace will spread throughout the world.”

He always rejected any conception of Christian life as something ‘private’ which absents itself from the “world crises” —- a mistaken sense of ‘interior life’ — and puts, instead, the ‘interior life’ in strict and close connection with ‘human activity’, with the problems of human society.

In this, as in all things, Escrivá’s vision was always united to the popes of his time. He was moved by the vision of Pope Pius XI who used the expression “Pax Christi in regno Christi” which to a great extent summarised his pontificate’s programme laid out in his first encyclical (1922). There Pius recalled that his predecessor, Pius X, in taking as his motto ‘To restore all things in Christ’ was inspired from on High to lay the foundations of that ‘work of peace’ which became the programme and principal task of Benedict XV. These two programmes of Our Predecessors We desire to unite in one — the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ by peace in Christ – ‘the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ . With might and main We shall ever strive to bring about this peace, putting Our trust in God, who when He called Us to the Chair of Peter, promised that the divine assistance would never fail Us.” (Urbi arcano 22)

The teaching of Pius XI gave a great impetus in those years to Catholics to take seriously their responsibilities in the public square. Nevertheless, the understanding of the role of lay people in the life of the Church and in society still remained limited and the universal vision of St. Josemaría was not widely appreciated.

As the editor this edition states in his note, St Josemaría goes to the root of the problem, beyond social and political factors and every form of Catholic organisation. He sees peace as the result of men and women of God – saints – present in all human activity: the peace of Christ springing from within human activity.

His theology of peace, so to speak, has to be seen in close connection with a ‘locutio divina’ more than five years earlier, and which remained engraved in his soul for ever. It took place on 7 August 1931. In his personal notes from that time St Josemaría left an account of this intervention of God in his life, written and dated that very day.

Referring to the celebration of Mass that day, he wrote:

The moment of the Consecration arrived; as I raised the Sacred Host, without losing proper recollection, without being distracted — I had just mentally made my offering to the most merciful Love — some words of Scripture came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity: et si exultatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum’ (And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself: John 12:32). And I understood that it would be the men and women of God who would raise the Cross, with the teachings of Christ, above the summit of all human activity. And I saw Our Lord triumphant, drawing all things to Himself.”

In a recent column by Erasmus in the Economist, reflecting on the origins of the European Union in the aftermath of the horrors of two wars, the Catholic inspiration which was central to that movement in the persons of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspari and Konrad Adenauer is noted. These men, some of whom are now being thought of as candidates for canonisation, were types of the saints Escrivá saw as proper to the modern world, responders to its crises in a thoroughly modern way but moved to do so from the deepest resources of lives sustained by grace and sanctity.

The Erasmus column looks at the resurgence of Catholicism in France but sees it as a much weaker player now in the politics of that nation. Nevertheless, its influence is there and perhaps it will only be when, or if, the fullness of Christian virtue begins to flower in the lives of people that the many crises of that nation will be responded to effectively and fruitfully.

Romano Guardini has called for a purer reading of Christ’s role in the world and an end to the reductive reading of him as the greatest and wisest man who ever lived. Again, it is a reading which calls on his followers to be saints, people who as such must read the world and their place in it in a truly radical way, not just followers of another great leader.

Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him. Jesus actually is the Rescue-pilot who puts us back on the right course.”

This is a hard saying for the world to accept. It offends our vain-glorious sense of self-sufficiency. But there it is, until it does, these world crises will go on and on in their chaotic way. Some will leave us muddled, like poor Captain Boyle. Others, tragically will once again plunge us into the abyss of human degradation. The choice is ours.

In our struggles with the world’s and our own crises, we may be, as T.S. Eliot said, “only undefeated because we have gone on trying”. But that is not a little. That, in fact, in the eyes of our Creator, is certain victory.

  • The Way (Critical-Historical Edition), P. Rodriguez, Scepter.

Epiphany in Trafalgar Square – beyond ‘Beyond Caravaggio’

An image has been haunting me for months. It was captured – or, I should say, it captured me – one September evening in Trafalgar Square. It evoked a strange sensation of timelessness, as though 2000 years had been transcended in a moment. Somehow, that historic moment of betrayal in a garden in Jerusalem in 33 AD, was present again in that iconic London meeting place in 2016 – and nobody seemed to care too much. Everyone seemed to be looking the other way. An emblem of our age?


A few days before the scene depicted by Caravaggio, the subject of the painting prophesied the terrible fate which was going to befall his city within a generation. And it did happen. The Temple was razed to the ground and the streets ran with blood.

Perhaps I should have blessed myself and prayed that this city I was now strolling through, this pivot of the modern world, would be spared a similar fate. I didn’t – even though the stones of Palmyra had recently been strewn around the Mesopotamian desert and the women of Aleppo were weeping – and continue to weep – for themselves and for their children. This morning’s paper tells us that the battle for this city is over but  fears are mounting because of reports that Syrian troops or allied Iraqi militiamen were shooting people in apartments and on the streets.

The forces of militant Islam, I thought to myself, have already proven themselves no less interested in inflicting death and destruction on this city. The same great evil which was at the root of that act of betrayal, in that distant garden, is also the source of today’s horrors, is at the heart of every war.

That face, looking across Trafalgar Square, is a penetrating representation of the face of the one Person who really knows what this evil is, that its origin is a creature of enormous power and that the this creature is the irreconcilable enemy of both God and man.

That look of pity, mixed with dismay – “do you betray me with a kiss” – stopped me in my tracks. I sensed – and know – that this look is eternal. Caravaggio’s spellbinding capture of that look reminds us that each one of those figures strolling before the image is the object of the infinite love behind that gaze. A few moments before, some of them were singing and dancing on this very spot in one of those spontaneous pieces of street theatre you stumble across in this very special place.

Behind that look is the knowledge that, as Romano Guardini observed, “there is more than the mere possibility of evil as the price of human freedom; more than the inclination to evil, fruit of individual or collective (inherited) sin. Jesus recognizes a personal power that fundamentally wills evil: evil per se. It is not satisfied by the achievement of positive values through wicked means; does not simply accept the evil along with the good. Here is something or someone who positively defies divinity and attempts to tear the world from God’s hands—even to dethrone God. God being who he is, this is possible only by leading the world into apostasy and self-destruction.”

Given the look in those eyes one could not but long and long that these wayfarers might know more than they seemed to know; that they might only connect the prophetic words of that betrayed God-man with our world and its sometimes terrible predicaments. We know that human kind cannot bear very much reality and we know that singing and dancing are good for the soul – as does he, – but even just a little recognition of the divine inter-connectedness of all things would surely help?

This momentary musing on a London pavement was occasioned by the National Gallery’s use of a protective hoarding at the Gallery to advertise the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition currently being held there to great acclaim. This is the first major exhibition in these islands to explore the influence of Caravaggio on the art of his contemporaries and followers.

After the unveiling of Caravaggio’s first public commission in 1600, artists from across Europe flocked to Rome to see his work. Seduced by the pictorial and narrative power of his paintings, many went on to imitate their naturalism and dramatic lighting effects.

Bringing together exceptional works by Caravaggio’s and the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish artists he inspired, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ examines the international artistic phenomenon known as Caravaggism.

This exhibition is a collaboration between the National Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, and the National Galleries of Scotland. The exhibition continues in London until 15 January. It then moves to Dublin where it opens on 11 February and continues until 14 May – after which it then goes to Scotland.

The image on display in the square is a detail from Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, 1602. This painting is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin, who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson who gave them this masterpiece as a gift.