Collect

Preface for Maundy Thursday

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord; who for our sins was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; who by his suffering and death became the author of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Fear and Trembling


An adherent of the Enlightenment, a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him, too, and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi's room, he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, rapt in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly, and said, 'But perhaps it is true after all.' The scholar tried in vain to collect himself -- his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Yitschak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: 'My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.' The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible 'perhaps' that echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.

—Martin Buber, Werke [1]
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Trigger Warning: Suicidal Ideation


This was a tough post to write, and may be a tough post for some of you to read. However, if you’re going to read it then I beg you to read the whole thing. Each part of it is important to hold together with each other part.


You may have heard of Josh and Lolly Weed, a Mormon couple in a mixed-orientation marriage whose coming out post, ‘Club Unicorn,’ went viral about six years ago. This wasn’t a late-in-life gay identity epiphany or an ex-gay conversion therapy success story; Josh knew he was gay before he even met Lolly, he told her before they started dating, and he never claimed to be a straight man (or an ex-gay one, for that matter). A couple of weeks ago, they announced on their blog that they are getting divorced.

It’s an eloquent, heartbreaking piece. I admire the Weeds for their courage and honesty. And it left me physically shaking, and mentally shaking, too.

Some key excerpts from their (justly) lengthy post, ‘Turning a Unicorn Into a Bat.’
[Josh:] About three years ago, I finally saw how important it was to love myself, to truly love myself as a gay man. It happened when my dear friend Ben Shafer (who himself is straight) turned to me one day and said, ‘Josh, you realize your sexual orientation is beautiful, right? Not just tolerable. It’s beautiful …’ I could hardly even register what he was trying to say. … ‘But what about it being so obviously not what God or biology intended? I’ve just always believed that I was meant to be straight, and that God will fix me someday so that I fit in with the rest of His children. I’ve always believed I was a broken straight person …’ And it was as I said those last words that my therapist-brain kicked and listened to the words coming out of my mouth. And I was stunned. People who view themselves as fundamentally broken, I knew, are not healthy. What I had just said was not healthy. 
… That night I talked to Lolly and told her all Ben had said, still with a vein of skepticism. ‘Can you believe he said that?’ was the feeling behind my words. And she sat for a moment thinking, then said something that surprised us both. ‘Josh, Ben is right. You aren’t just a broken straight person. Your gayness is a part of who you are. And your sexual orientation is beautiful. You are as God intended you to be.’ Though we had never fully embraced these ideas as reality before, we felt the spirit confirm them powerfully in that moment. The truth of Lolly’s words rang in our bodies. … And we were suddenly able to see more clearly the pain that my sexual orientation brought to our marriage. It hurt us both very deeply, and we spent many long nights holding one another and weeping as we thought of the decades to come for us, neither of us experiencing real romantic love. 
… Probably the most motivating factor of all that got me to actually really consider what God had been telling us for a while was my recognition of my own internalized homophobia—the layers of disgust and self-loathing I felt for myself that I was in denial of—and the way that led to my own suicidal ideation. … Guys, my life was beautiful in every way. My children, my wife, my career, my friends. It was filled with so much joy. The things I talked about in my coming out post in 2012 weren’t false. The joy I felt was real! The love I felt was real, but something in me wanted to die. …

My suicidality was not connected to depression. That’s how my mind could hide it from me. With no context and no warning, I would occasionally be brushing my teeth or some such mundane task and then be broadsided with a gut-wrenching, vast emptiness I can’t put into words, that felt as deep as my marrow—and I would think in a panic ‘I’m only 37. I’m only 37. How can I last five more decades?’ That thought—the thought of having to live five more decades, would fill me with terror. It was inconceivable for a few moments. 
And then it would pass. 
But the other thing I hadn’t been looking at was something I read, with horror, in a text message I sent to a dear friend during my week in Jacksonville. By the time I read what I had sent, the denial had broken down. Lolly was sitting next to me, holding me as I wept, and I was reading these text messages to her, and it felt like reading the words of another person … The text I had sent one week earlier said: I have thought of putting a gun in my mouth more times than I can count. 
… Do you realize how wrong it is that I have had to face the following cost/benefit analysis: if I stay in my marriage then I won’t disrupt my daughters’ sense of continuity. But I also might take my own life. And if I did die, wouldn’t that end up being way worse for them in the long run …? Is it worth the risk? 
[Lolly:] For me, giving my whole heart to Josh while knowing that he did not love me the way a man loves a woman has always been devastating. We were best friends, but he never desired me, never adored me, never longed for me. People who read our previous post might be confused because we mention having a robust sex life. That was true. We put forth a lot of effort and were ‘mechanically’ good at sex—and it did help us to feel intimate, and for a time that did help us to feel content … Whenever he held me in his arms, it was with a love that was similar to the love of a brother to a sister. That does eventually take its toll on your self-esteem. No matter how much I knew ‘why’ he couldn’t respond to me in the ways a lover responds to a partner, it wears a person down, as if you’re not ‘good enough’ to be loved ‘in that way.’ 
… Almost everyone has said to me, with an air of protective emphasis, ‘Oh, but Lolly, you deserve to be loved in that way! You will find someone else who can love you like that. You deserve to love and be loved in that way!’ And I agree with them. … The thing that’s so interesting to me is how few people think of Josh in this way. How few people in his life have ever thought these things about him—things that are so obvious, so clear, so emphatic when talking to another straight person.

Christian, when you talk or think about sexual ethics, when you study and articulate and defend Catholic teaching on the subject, this needs to be held firmly before your eyes, too. Not only are you not speaking in a vacuum; not only are you speaking to human beings; you are speaking to loving, devout, perceptive people, who have spent time and thought and agony in trying to practice their beliefs faithfully and gained nothing from it but more anguish. It’s easy enough to rationally disapprove of the man who gets high and has unprotected sex with four complete strangers in the back room of a bar; it shouldn’t be so easy to turn that same disapproval against a man like Josh Weed. I don’t say it’s impossible to affirm Catholic doctrine in the face of this kind of testimony, but I do say that any affirmation of Catholic doctrine must acknowledge and grapple honestly with this kind of testimony, with the cost the doctrine imposes. If you refuse, you’re printing counterfeits.

Take time to think, actually think, about the effect of pious clichés. ‘Just take it one day at a time’ is among my least favorite, because what it sounds like is: ‘It doesn’t matter that you’re lonely, because after all, you can survive as long as you don’t think about the fact that it isn’t likely to change.’ ‘We all have a cross to bear’ is, please note, not a quote from St Simon of Cyrene. ‘Your sexuality doesn’t define you’: well, no, but this isn’t about what defines people; it’s about whether they can be happy, healthy celibates if they don’t seem to be called to celibacy. And I’ve seen in the lives of others that relationships and marriage aren’t everything, sure, but masturbating into a sock while crying quietly still gets old after a while.

But what I think I hate the most is when people turn us into mascots. Those of us who are able to lead chaste lives as celibates are exceptional, for exactly the same reasons that chastely celibate heterosexuals are exceptional. And mixed-orientation marriages are very exceptional indeed, again for the same reasons that straight people getting into gay relationships, while it does happen (and adorably), is exceedingly rare. [2] Saying that so-and-so can do it, and therefore so can anybody, is not only a blatant error but a terribly cruel one. No two people enjoy identical circumstances, nor identical graces. Using the transparency of one person to shame or pressure another is hideous behavior.

If our religion is true, Catholic reader, then a lot of gay people have to lead lives of intense suffering. We need you to respect that.


For me personally—like I said, this post left me shaking for hours. I’m scared for myself, I’m scared for my gay brothers and sisters, I’m scared for my Church. I don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing: and as a self-appointed quasi-apologist, I need to say that, publicly and clearly. Anything less would be spiritual fraud.

About the most sense I can make of this experience is in something Pope Benedict wrote:
Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. … Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him. [3]
Note how ‘solving the problem’ is not at all what His Holiness tries to do here. Eliminating doubt isn’t his goal. Facing the truth is.

And to those of my LGBT readers who may be moved to write me words of instruction, urging me to slough off the unhealthy beliefs my Catholic faith has imposed upon me: please don’t. I’m not in a place where I can process that kind of thing. For all her warts, I love my mother the Church very deeply, and being unsettled about her is not merely unpleasant; it’s a shock to my sense of self. I need to spend my own time with that.



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[1] Though I admit I know the passage only through Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity.


[2] Some people (of various orientations and philosophical alignments) insist that a single instance of erotic interest in the same sex should always be classified as bisexuality. I personally don’t find this a very helpful use of the term; falling in love outside of one’s normal attractions once doesn’t necessarily mean that you had been repressing your other attractions, nor that you are attracted to both sexes in general, &c. But I’m not deeply invested in the terminology here: the only distinction that I would want clearly made is that between people who are attracted to both sexes in general, and those who are generally attracted only to one sex but experience an exception.

[3] Also from Introduction to Christianity.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part III

Joints cramped: a double entity
spewed and struggled, good against good;
they saw the mind of the Emperor as they could,
his imagination of the wars of identity.
He walked slowly through his habitation
in the night of himself without him; Byzantium slept …

Phosphorescent on the stagnant level
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope,
volcanic dust blown under the moon.
A brainless form, as of the Emperor,
walks, indecent hands hidden under the cope,
dishallowing in that crimson the flush on the mounds of Caucasia.

—Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Vision of the Empire’ 

It may be that, as imperial adviser, my friend Marsilius is better than I, but as inquisitor I am better. Even better than Bernard Gui, God forgive me. Because Bernard is interested, not in discovering the guilty, but in burning the accused. And I, on the contrary, find the most joyful delight in unravelling a nice, complicated knot.
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
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The reason that I loathe and distrust any prospect of a confusion, or even too close an alliance, between the Church and the state is stated in an ancient maxim: corruptio optimi pessima, or roughly, ‘The better something is, the worse its corruption will be.’ That a blending of Church and state is, intrinsically, a corruption of the Church, even if her members are well-behaved, is intuitive to me and therefore difficult to explain and defend; but I’ll take a stab at it.

The principal thrust of my last post was that the economy of justice (on which civil society by its nature operates) and the economy of grace (on which the Church by her nature operates) are fundamentally different: yes, you have to understand justice before you can recognize grace, but that is because you can only appreciate a gift when you can distinguish it from a payment. Hence, I consider the project of Christendom to be a category error. That makes it sound both abstract and innocent; and innocent it may very well be, but category errors, when we try to force them from abstraction into reality, beget monstrosities.

The two historical grounds on which the Church is most criticized today are perhaps religious wars, especially the Crusades, and state persecutions, especially the Inquisition. I am a little ambivalent about the motives that lay behind the wars; a case could be made that the purposes of the Reconquista or the Jacobite Wars or even the First Crusade were just. And while the persecutors and inquisitors and witch-finders were diabolically wrong, even the devil often deals in half-truths, and the persecutors had a point. That was why they were successfully deceived.
There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. … Mr H. G. Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of skepticism titled Doubts of the Instrument. In this he questions the brain itself … The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. … With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the miter off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it. [1]
But of course the key and tragic word in this passage is the word blind. Man’s blind instinct was correct enough, but without clarity of vision it became, in practice, an impulse to burn and strangle. Chesterton himself knew this well; as he points out in his biography of St Francis, it is only by understanding the rush and romance that originally attended such causes that we can understand how they ever came to seduce people into evil—and only thus can we arm ourselves against making the same mistake.

And as traditional as I am, especially in religious matters, I think the contemporary secular world is in fact right about the religious wars and the persecutions being wrong and evil. The secular opponents of Christianity often propose rather silly or historically illiterate reasons for condemning religious wars and persecutions, but this doesn’t make their condemnation wrong; and there is some excuse for the violence, but not much. And what excuse there is, set beside the sick things done in the name of serving Christ through violence, is of no consequence.

I won’t multiply examples, but I will provide a few, for the benefit of those who wish to defend or at least ameliorate the project of Christendom.

In the early thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade against the Albigenses, a group of heretics in southern France, after his legate in the region was murdered. In the first year of the crusade, the city of Béziers was besieged and promptly breached. The abbot who was commanding the forces was approached and asked what the soldiers should do about distinguishing Catholics from Albigenses, since of course anybody could escape simply by pretending to be a Catholic. He is reported to have said, ‘Cædite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt ejus’: which means, ‘Kill them. For the Lord knows which ones are his.’ According to the abbot himself in a letter to the Pope, the entire population of the city was slaughtered—men, women, children, the clergy (at the cathedral altar no less)—amounting to nearly twenty thousand dead. He expressed no remorse, sorrow, or condolence. And after all, why should he? The Crusades were performed as acts of worship, and worship always involves a sacrifice. What priest would think to apologize for offering such a voluminous sacrifice to his god?

Turning to persecutions, we may consider the fifteenth century’s infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, which was popular among witch-finders despite its unpopularity with the Vatican and many bishops. Charles Williams describes the methods used to extract confessions from witches, and why they were extracted:
The accused is in prison; she is manifestly guilty. But ‘common justice demands that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she is convicted by her own confession.’ ‘Common justice’ therefore demands that she shall be tortured to compel her to confess so that she can be put to death. There can be but few sentences in all the strange and horrible past of man so difficult for us to understand—really understand. But here it is at the very root of torture. Judge and assistants were working for common justice. … No-one could be put to death for witchcraft by the evidence of others. Was the idea less than noble? this was the result. In 1676 a certain learned lawyer of Innsbruck added, as it were, a finishing touch: ‘The torture chamber should be constantly sprinkled with holy water and a smoke made with blessed herbs.’
… She may even be promised mercy: ‘let the judge promise that he will be merciful—with the mental reservation that he means he will be merciful to himself or the State; for whatever is done for the safety of the State is merciful.’ Or if she has been promised her life, there are three ways round the promise: (i) it may be kept on the condition that she helps convict other witches, and providing that she is imprisoned for life …; (ii) she may be kept imprisoned for a while and then burnt; (iii) the judge who promises her life may resign the office of passing sentence and leave her condemnation to another judge. [2]
Time and stomach would fail me to give any more detailed account of the hideous torments and treacheries performed in the ostensible service of Christ by professedly Christian societies and individuals: of the siege of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, where, when the city was breached, so many Muslims were killed that the Crusaders’ accounts describe wading through blood up to their ankles, and the Jews who lived there were burned in their synagogue; of the sacking of Byzantium in the Fourth Crusade, in which Catholics killed Orthodox and Pope Innocent III himself condemned the act in horror; of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in the sixteenth-century, in which French Protestants were murdered by the thousands, and Pope Gregory XIII ordered hymns of celebration and commemorative medals with the legend Ugonottorum Strages MDLXXII, ‘The Slaughter of the Huguenots 1572’; of the dozens of Catholic martyrs in England, Wales, and Scotland, and the ridiculous and blasphemous battle-cry of the Scottish Covenanters: Jesus and no quarter; of the tortures employed by the Inquisition in the Netherlands, from which there was no appeal, whose agents hung heretics upside down by their genitalia, burned men to death, and buried women alive; of the insane witchcraft panics in Trier, in Würzburg, in Salem. Knowingly or not, these things were done in the service of He Who Walks Behind the Pews, whom the poets also call Tash, Moloch, Wyrm, and Nyarlathotep. [3]

Societies that regarded themselves as Christian did other and much better things, too. I'm glad of those things. But the aim of civil society is justice, and its means are expediency; whereas the aim of the Church is holiness, and her means are supernatural. Earthly means cannot effect celestial ends, not because they aren't worthy, but because they have no capacity to do so. And when the attempt is made, either the Church is gutted to serve the state, or she is made monstrous by handling the state's sword.

I sincerely believe that the reason these horrible evils have sprung up in the soil of Christianity is that Christianity is true, and that therefore the power it wields over men’s hearts, when they are misled by the attempt to erect the kingdom of God as a kingdom of this world, is lethally poisoned. If Christ had accepted the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, it would have been by worshipping Satan and so becoming Antichrist.

And I believe it is precisely the prospect of restoring Christendom that remains a temptation to many Catholics today, not in spite of but because of their orthodoxy, virtue, and devotion. Satan likes to play on our strengths even more than he likes to play on our weaknesses; it’s ‘better’ style.


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[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.
[2] From Williams’ history Witchcraft.
[3] Not that Lovecraft himself would have conceived of Nyarlathotep or any of his creations in these terms. But the fact that he disbelieved in the figure he painted does not make the portrait any less accurate.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part II

There is certainly a sense in which execution might be done [1]; we might turn vengeance into sacrifice. It is dangerous, but it could be done. … We should say, in effect: ‘We have no right to punish you for what you have done in the past. But we are determined that we shall make it dangerous for men to do as you have done; we shall make it a matter of death. We shall sacrifice you to that new thing …’ The shedding of that blood would be a pronunciation of sentence against us and our children if we denied or disobeyed the law we had newly made. ‘It is good,’ said Caiaphas, and spoke a truth all civil governments have been compelled to maintain—and ecclesiastical also; why else were heretics condemned?—‘that one man should die for the people.’ … Whether it is conceded outside the Church is another matter. But she herself must not tamper with it. Those who sincerely reject the Single Sacrifice may perhaps be driven back on the many types of it, even if—no, because the centrality of all the types is unacknowledged. But belief in the Single must refuse the multiplicity.



—Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

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It may sound oxymoronic to assert that Christian principles are necessarily in tension with any society built upon Christian principles. But then, the very word oxymoron literally means ‘a sharp foolishness’—as in something that seems stupid at first glance but is actually quite practical or profound. For instance: tungsten has one of the highest melting points of any element, and due to this very little is known about liquid tungsten, for the terribly silly-sounding reason that nobody’s figured out how to make a container to hold it in.

Building a society on Christian principles is, I expect, possible, as it’s probably possible in principle to make a container that will hold liquid tungsten. [2] But history and theory alike suggest that both operations are insanely difficult, and apt to result in a lot of people getting burnt.

I do want to do full justice to Christendom. Our forefathers from Constantine to Chesterton were trying to build, maintain, and defend something that they were deeply convinced was good and right; and not a few among them were saints and heroes, some displaying the kind of grace that puts modern liberals like myself to shame. If they failed—or even if they succeeded and yet it would have been better otherwise—it was not for want of sincere goodwill. I make no secret of the fact that I, personally, think that the attempt to construct Christendom was a fatal mistake; but it was a very natural, plausible, persuasive mistake to make, and it did good as well as harm.

This paradox of Christendom-against-Christianity springs from what society, as such, consists in. Civil society is built on the persons, families, conventions, laws, and governments of the commonwealth in question. Its ‘economy’ is primarily the economy of justice: obligations are distinguished from liberties by enforcement—e.g., paying one’s taxes is an obligation, whereas making charitable donations (even those that may be relevant to taxes) is not. And where obligations end, the state’s power of enforcement ends. Cultural expectations, personal convictions, or individual relationships, may introduce other kinds of pressure, but law and the enforcement of law are ultimately synonymous. [3]

This is quite pointedly not the economy of the Church operates on. She accepts its existence, obviously, as she continues to accept the existence of gravity when celebrating the Ascension; indeed, the economy she does operate on is comprehensible only when the economy of justice has first been grasped, as the Ascension can only be recognized as something remarkable once we’ve noticed gravity. But the essential character of the Church is the economy of grace; of gift; of that which transcends, eludes, and defies obligation. Grace—that is, being filled with the life of God—is not only far past the just deserts of such selfish and flawed beings as ourselves, it’s past what any creature, however, good, could deserve from its creator. We could no more merit grace than a perfect sculpture could merit a sincere proposal of marriage from the sculpture; but our God has proposed to be not only Pygmalion, but Aphrodite to our Galatea.

This is part of which the relationship between St John the Baptist and Christ was, and remains, so important. Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. All the virtues of the ancient world were becoming parodies of themselves, from the stubborn piety of the Jews to the vigilant equity of the Romans. The reëstablishment of the visible ideal of justice was necessary, if the grace that transcends justice was to be seen for what it was by anybody. But when once that ideal of justice had been re-manifested, it was promptly transcended by the gospel. Where the Baptist commanded tax farmers not to defraud anyone, Christ told his listeners to chase after those who had requisitioned their property in order to give the thieves more; where the Baptist forbade soldiers to bully and harass the populace, Christ told those who were humiliatingly struck to peaceably invite a fresh blow. Free, wild, irresponsible self-gift, not to fellow Christians but to fellow men as such, friend or foe or stranger, is the ethic of the gospel.

And it is probably pretty obvious why you cannot build a civil society on that sort of principle. Generosity and forgiveness and pacifism and mercy—in a word, grace—can be lived out within a society built on justice. But you cannot build an economy of justice out of the elements of grace. The attempt to do so corrupts both: either justice will be treated as a gift, as though we did not owe it to our fellow man to respect his humanity by not murdering him or robbing him or lying to him; or grace will be treated as an obligation, not only in supernatural but in civil terms, and things that ought to be accepted as gifts will be demanded as payment.


I think, however, that the difference here is that all exclusion from the economy of grace is self-exclusion. Refusal to forgive is not punished by refusal of forgiveness, in the sense that refusal to pay a debt is punished by imprisonment. [4] Rather, refusal to forgive inevitably entails a rejection of the economy of grace, in the sense that refusal to eat and drink inevitably entails death. The refusal of grace places us squarely back in the economy of justice—where everything must be earned if we are to obtain it. And, considering that we depend on God to sustain every aspect of our existence, dealing with him in the economy of justice is a Sisyphean prospect.

Hence, no matter how good the intentions of those who wish to build Christendom, and even no matter how good their results, I think the project of building it is flawed as a matter of first premises. I don’t believe there can be any kingdom of heaven except the kingdom of heaven; I don’t believe that we can erect any Christian society except that which is in fact ruled by Christ. And that will come—but when it does, it’s the end of the world. Nonetheless there are other problems I have with Christendom, which I propose to go into in my next.

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[1] Williams wrote this during the Second World War, and was addressing what was to be done with, or to, or about Germany by the Allies.

[2] I mean, one that will hold it and not immediately melt and/or catch fire.
[3] This is, in my opinion, substantially the same as what Dante wrote in On Monarchy, that non enim jus extenditur ultra posse (‘law does not extend beyond power,’ i.e. you can only really have laws as far as you can enforce them).
[4] At least, I think this analogy is misleading, in our specific cultural context; but I could be wrong even about that, and whether I am or not, it is an analogy that our Lord did not hesitate to use in his cultural context.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part I

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
… Ambition comes behind and unobservable.
Sin grows with doing good. When I imposed the King’s law
In England, and waged war with him against Toulouse,
I beat the barons at their own game. I
Could then despise the men that thought me most contemptible,
The raw nobility, whose manners matched their fingernails.
While I ate out of the King’s dish
To become servant of God was never my wish.
Servant of God has greater chance of sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral

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I grew up in a deeply conservative, pro-life, evangelical household whose breadwinner was a US Naval intelligence officer. Democrats, we were not. Yet the idea of electing a man like Donald Trump as a Republican was not only revolting but baffling to all of us: a man with absolutely no experience, a record on pro-life issues that could be kindly described as spotty [1], a serial adulterer and sexual aggressor, a man with more lawsuits to his name than cells in his body, and one whose fantasticated ego can brook neither limit nor dissent—none of this has anything to do with the GOP my parents signed up for. The adult campaigns run by Kasich, McCain, or Romney (whatever their flaws) make me almost homesick now.

The question has been posed many times about how he could possibly have been elected. It’s been given several intelligent answers, and I think many have an element of truth; but what baffles me is that so many Christians should have supported, and should continue to support, such a grossly unworthy and incompetent figure not only as the President, but as their hero. The tendentious, hysterical, self-appointedly more-Catholic-than-the-Pope rag Lifesite News have declared him their pro-life person of the year for 2017. [2] What the hell happened?

I believe the key lies in the divergence between two superficially similar, historically entangled, yet essentially contrasting and usually inimical ideas. The one is Christendom; the other is Christianity.

By Christianity, I mean the religion taught by Jesus and handed down through his Apostles and the successors they appointed. More specifically, I mean Catholicism, which may be defined by being in full communion with the Bishops of Rome. But the tension between Christianity and Christendom shows up readily in other traditions, too; and there’s a sense in which American history revolves around that tension, and does so more thanks to its Protestant heritage than its Catholic minority.

By Christendom, I mean the attempt to organize civil society on Christian principles, with the express aim of defending Christian truth and promoting Christian faith among the populace. The only objection to doing this is that it cannot be done.

I believe that the Christian imagination has given this truth a magnificent, perhaps unconscious, poetic expression in the famous legend of the Holy Graal. Only a handful of knights—Arthur himself never among them—are said to have attained the relic; and in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, the late but ‘canonical’ version of the story, the guardian of the Graal warns Lancelot that the quest will lead to the ruin of Arthur and his realm. C. S. Lewis, commenting on Charles Williams’ Arthurian poems, says the following:

The saints, beginning with Christ Himself, not by failure but by their very sanctity, inevitably cause immense suffering. Christians naturally think more often of what the world has inflicted on the saints; but the saints also inflict much on the world. Mixed with the cry of martyrs, the cry of nature wounded by Grace also ascends—and presumably to heaven. That cry has indeed been legitimized for all believers by the words of the Virgin Mother herself—‘Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.’ To be silent on this point was impossible for Williams. … He felt that the final reconciliation, far from excluding, pre-supposed a full recognition of all that had been valid in the protests. It was, after all, the protesting Job who had been accepted of God, not his plausible comforters. His irony, his skepticism, his pessimism must all be allowed their say. He was sure they were not merely wrong. At the very least, he felt, Grace owes courtesy to the Nature it must so often reject. …

Galahad has caused Lancelot immense sorrow simply by being born. [3] He has caused Lancelot (and the Round Table in general) further sorrow by beginning ‘the adventures of the Sangreal,’ for ‘when this rich thing goeth about the Round Table shall be destroyed.’ His example has led many of them to undertake the quest of the Grail, and for them the quest has ended in humiliation and failure. This is ‘the double misery’ of Logres—to see their lower good destroyed by the higher and then to lose the higher also. … Logres is becoming Britain. The bright cloud which had almost descended to earth is being drawn back into the Land of the Trinity whence it came: the hard, worldly, unambiguous landscape emerges. There is no irony in Mordred, only commonplace cynicism. [4]

My imaginary, literary idea of why relics like the Graal, and the Holy Lance in the story of the Dolorous Blow, cause such destruction despite being explicitly good objects, is that they represent complete fusions of the material with the spiritual, as is proper to sacraments. [5] Hence anything a person does with them is ‘magical,’ in the sense of being not only the act they perform, but also the spiritual thing such an act symbolizes: wound a man with the Holy Lance, and you have not only symbolically but literally used a spiritual thing to injure a fellow man. It is a kind of witchcraft. For hands and hearts unready to handle these things, being given access to them is no kindness: they can use them only for their own ends (however virtuous), and the power they unleash will inevitably be ruinous.

This, then, is the poetic meaning, the meaning at which the story of the Graal was originally written (or so I conjecture—direct analysis of the images of Mediæval art, while great fun, is not my field of expertise). But allegorically, and whether the poets who composed the legends thought so or not, the meaning indicated is that Christendom is at best ill at ease with Christianity, and at worst actively hostile to it. Mordred, the bastard son of Arthur, was a wicked man, but we are not informed that he was an unorthodox one. Camelot is apt to maintain a double poise / of Catholic morals and another kind of catholic mockery. / It is laidly alike to be a wittol and a whore, / and wittoldom and whoredom are alike good cause for war. [6] Using supernatural things for natural ends is always a kind of witchcraft; and using Christian morals and Christian theology to construct a just society, while it is not necessarily using the specifically supernatural for the merely natural, always carries that temptation in itself.

For of course the thing about politics is that it is a game of power, of pragmatism, and of sides. And the thing about political sides is that what they’re after is the civil, financial, or military force to effect their plans; and those kinds of power have no tendency to encourage the love and holiness that our Master’s teaching exclusively consists in. Love and force are opposites.

I want to explore this further over my next few posts; for now, I leave my readers with another quotation from T. S. Eliot’s version of St Thomas Becket, killed in the midst of a Christian nation and a Catholic cathedral:

Peace! be quiet! remember where you are, and what is happening;
No life here is sought for but mine,
And I am not in danger: only near to death.
… The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
As oak and stone; stone and oak decay,
Give no stay, but the Church shall endure.
The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!

✠ ✠ ✠

[1] In 1999, Trump described himself as loathing abortion but considering the right to choose paramount, up to and including partial-birth abortion. Now, to do him justice, he seems to have moved away from that viewpoint long before his 2016 campaign. His apparently cavalier attitude toward the lives of the poor and sick, his hostility to refugees (even those that have lived in this country for years or decades, let alone those fleeing the horrors of groups like ISIS), and his alarming readiness to engage in braggadocio with unbalanced communities like North Korea, continue to leave me dissatisfied with any claim that he is pro-life.
[2] That awful sound you’re hearing is me, retching.
[3] Galahad was Lancelot’s illegitimate son, begotten on the Lady Elaine, daughter of the keeper of the Graal and a consecrated virgin; due to an enchantment Lancelot had supposed himself to be sleeping with Queen Guinevere, and when the enchantment faded, he was so horrified at his faithlessness to the Queen, and she in turn was so angry with him, that he went mad for months. The ironies at play in Galahad, the High Prince destined to achieve the Graal, being begotten through such a web of immoralities, is a literary accomplishment of the first order, and a kind of mythologized picture of the ironies at play in the redemption being accomplished through the corruption and weakness of the Apostles, the Jewish priesthood, and the Roman state.
[4] Arthurian Torso pp. 175-177.
[5] Relics are, of course, not sacraments per se, and do not have the intrinsic effects the sacraments do. This is one of several reasons this explanation is imaginative and artistic, rather than philosophical.
[6] From Williams’ poem The Meditation of Mordred, ll. 17-20. Laidly is an Anglo-Scottish dialectal word meaning ‘ugly,’ while wittol is an obsolete synonym for ‘cuckold,’ especially one who knowingly tolerates his wife’s adultery.