Postcommunion for the Second Sunday Epiphany after Epiphany

Increase, O Lord, we pray thee, and multiply upon us the operation on thine almighty power: that we, whom thou hast quickened with these heavenly Sacraments, may by thy grace be made ready to receive the benefits which thou dost promise; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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

✠ ✠ ✠

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.


  1. "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."

    Have you read "Before Church and State" by Andrew Willard Jones? A large part of his thesis is that the sentiment above is predicated upon the assumptions of modern political philosophy, and doesn't reflect the reality of Christendom, especially in the Middle Ages (which he explores through the example of St. Louis's France). Jones contends that Christianity and politics *really were* integrated, in a society based primarily on friendship and then on justice, which, far from using supernatural means for natural ends, structured its business around the proximate end of peace and the ultimate end of salvation. It's a phenomenal book that's challenged many of my own beliefs, and I think it has a direct bearing on your post.

    Also, what's wrong with being more Catholic than the Pope? I quite like Life Site news. :p Although I definitely share your incredulity and disgust for their love of President Trump, who is, at best, the (marginally) lesser evil in comparison with the alternative offered us.

    1. My own distaste for being more Catholic than the Pope comes from the theological fact that Catholicism is defined by being in full communion with the Pope. I won't *quite* say that a given individual couldn't be more orthodox than the Pope, given that some of our Popes have been weak, silly, or immoral individuals (perhaps including, e.g., Anastasius II, Honorius I, Clement XIV, and Paul VI, and certainly including, e.g., Sergius III, Boniface VIII, Clement V, John XXII, Urban VI, and Julius II). I will say that the concrete, objective fact of being in communion with Peter's successor, however unworthy said successor may be, is what makes a person Catholic, and that Catholicism is a distinct quality from holiness. To wish to be holier than the Pope is by all means admirable; to wish to be more Catholic than he is, at lowest, an intellectual confusion, and at highest a diseased and self-aggrandizing theory of what the Vicariate of Christ consists in. (That being said, I would expect comparatively innocent confusion to be a *far* commoner phenomenon than serious autolatry.)

      Of Lifesite News in particular, my complaints include that, in addition to being self-righteous and hysterical, they are careless about both facts and the importance of facts. I would object to this no matter what source it came from, but in a specifically Catholic source I find it not only disgraceful, but (in the theological sense) scandalous.

      As for Jones, I can't say that I've read him, or indeed heard of him. I am certainly prepared to admit that the Mediaeval world, politically and otherwise, was far more integrated than our own. While many criticisms can, and certain criticisms must, be aimed at the Mediaevals, they had a multitude of virtues neglected by most moderns, and their grasp of how religion was intertwined with life in general was not least among these virtues.

      However. I do contend that, in any society that predates the Second Coming, every civil government will of necessity contain certain contrasts with specifically Christian truth -- not contradictions necessarily, but unlikenesses. (This will, I hope, become clearer as I proceed with this series, both in actual content and in underlying reasoning.) I might be prepared to assent even to the thesis that Christendom is the best kind of civil government possible, while still insisting that it is neither synonymous with Christianity nor always allied to Christianity.

  2. Gabriel,

    If you admit that it's valid to aspire to greater holiness than the Pope (which would presumably include greater accuracy in doctrine, given the example of Honorius I), in what sense are you using the term "more Catholic than the Pope"? And in what sense does Life Site commit that mistake? Perhaps I haven't understood your meaning.

    I suppose we have different ideas of self-righteousness and sensationalism; I quite enjoy the articles on Life Site (in general, of course, not in every particular), and don't think their tone is inappropriate given the magnitude of the issues they deal with. Not suited for an academic debate, perhaps, but perfectly acceptable for polemics.

    As to your last paragraph, I definitely agree that "every civil government will . . . contain certain contrasts with specifically Christian truth." We are, and remain, sinners. And certainly Christendom is not *synonymous* with Christianity, insofar as our distant ancestors, and we ourselves, practice the latter without dwelling in the former. But I'm still uneasy with the stark contrast you drew in the original post between "civil, financial, [and] military force" and love / holiness. A father uses force, not in spite of, but *because* of his love for his children. A good ruler may well desire the reformation of errant subjects, and can, if circumstances call for it, use force in the hope of inspiring their repentance. Moreover, the Church retains the right of coercion over her members, no? Such that, if she judged it best for the salvation of an individual, or even for the greater good of her other members, she can authorize and commend the use of force against heretics or schismatics?

    Granted that love must be given freely, force can still be a means, within the confines of justice, of encouraging growth in mutual love between subordinates and superiors. "We have had fathers of our flesh who corrected us, and we gave them reverence." Or, in Aquinas' words: "But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice . . . it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, *might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous* . . . . Men who are well disposed are led willingly to virtue by being admonished better than by coercion: but men who are evilly disposed are not led to virtue unless they are compelled."

    1. Well, to begin with, I'm not at all clear that holiness -- that is, love of God -- involves doctrinal accuracy at all. The two go together ceteris paribus; but in a world that contains not only sin, but innocent ignorance, ceteris are frequently not paribus. And although (as you know) I love knowledge, I fear it in some ways, too; if St Thomas was correct, Satan himself is a corrupted cherub, and cherubim are the order of angels that understand God more clearly than any other -- while the seraphim above them love him more passionately. I treasure knowledge, first, because it is light, an image of the Logos; and secondly, because it is in fact much easier to do right when you know what right consists in and how to pursue it. But I'm deeply suspicious of anything that seems to suggest that knowledge and holiness are proportional to one another.

      Additionally, there's the mere grammatical fact that 'Catholic' and 'holy' are not synonyms; which is why both are separately applied to the Church in the creeds. To be a Catholic is to be in full communion with the successor of Peter, as Judas Iscariot was. To be holy is to love God, and to be a saint is to love God more than anything else as (it seems probable) Hugh Latimer, John Bunyan, Hudson Taylor, Simone Weil, Charles Williams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the ten Boom family, and Jim Elliott did.

      So when I speak of being 'more Catholic than the Pope,' in my own view, what I'm saying is an oxymoron if taken literally, and a commentary on those who consider themselves more suitable definers of orthodoxy than His Holiness if taken in the intended sense. Lifesite in particular draws my ire for its tendency to react with intemperate passion to unimportant things ('There are no Christian symbols on the Vatican's Christmas tree!') and its willingness to take things out of context -- a flaw that it shares with most media, but which a Catholic publication, presumably dedicated to honesty on religious as well as journalistic grounds, should be specially ashamed of. Flaws like these also dampen my confidence that Lifesite is, in fact, dealing with issues of any great consequence, which makes both its tone and its readiness to speak ill of people, and the Holy Father in particular, doubly inappropriate.


    2. As far as the uses of force go. I'm not insensible to the fact that external rules can, sometimes, encourage or even initiate internal harmony. (As Chesterton points out, the special genius of Confucius was probably his recognition of this.) Indeed, it's partly this that makes me concede the morality of government despite my anarchist convictions (government being distinguished from statism, for reasons which need not detain us). However, if I may avail myself of a conceit, you say rightly that a father disciplines his children; and the Church is not our father but our mother. When you speak of the Church retaining the right of coercion, I presume that you are talking about refusing an impenitent sinner the sacraments? for if you mean that the Church has the right physically to coerce her children, even in principle, then I disagree. It is our father, God, who has force at his disposal, and has distributed forces of certain kinds among his servants, notably the angelic choir of Virtues who govern natural processes and laws.

      This highlights why civil as well as ecclesiastical authority is needed in a fallen world: ecclesiastical authority operates on the basis of grace, which is a gift, where civil authority operates on the basis of justice, which is an obligation. I feel that any confusion of the two is deadly perilous to soul and mind alike. And in this, it isn't only my classically liberal political principles talking; even at her worst, even in the Inquisition, the Mediaeval Church ostensibly did not torture heretics but 'handed them over to the secular arm.' This was, of course, hypocrisy; but the fact that that particular hypocrisy was felt to be called for is, in my opinion, significant.

      In short, I admit that compulsion can have a good influence in certain cases, and that it can limit evil even when it is, from a human point of view, incurable. What I do not admit is that the Church has permission to employ such means: and since all civil authority is in the end a matter of en*force*ment, I therefore dispute that any civil society, however good, however wedded to certain Christian values, can ever wholly embody the Church; that is, the kingdom of heaven.