Plus ça change …

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

A recent story about Leonard Leo, who advises the President on judicial nominees and is connected to the ascent of judges such as Kavanaugh, was even more hysterical. The author worried about a “secretive network of extremely conservative Catholic activists” who are stacking the federal courts with conservative jurists. Leo’s membership in the Knights of Malta, his public work in defense of religious freedom around the world, and his connection to Catholic-educated nominees such as Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, all caused the author to fret that Leo is “shaping the federal judiciary according to his beliefs, with very clear ideological consequences.” The article asserts that the conviction that human life begins at conception is a religious belief. And it laughably attributes to Catholics the view that natural law “trumps any secular law that humans (or legislatures) might dream up.”

The American tradition of constitutionalism abhors inquiries into the particular creeds espoused by candidates and nominees for public office. The Constitution of the United States prohibits religious tests. And anyway, religion is not the issue. Fidelity to the rule of law is what matters. Anyone can determine to follow the law, even Senators Feinstein and Durbin.

There is no reason to think that someone who accepts on faith the teachings of the Bible or the Roman Catholic Church is any less capable of correctly interpreting and applying the law than someone who accepts on faith what scientists tell us about global warming. Faith in something must precede reason—at the very least, faith in reason itself—else we could never know anything.

Adam J. MacLeod, Why Judge Kavanaugh’s Religion Should Be an Issue.

The other liberal complaint is that since the Catholic position on abortion is religiously derived, if it ultimately becomes law, that constitutes an imposition of religion. This argument is nonsense, too. Under American concepts of political pluralism, it makes no difference from where a belief comes. Whether it comes from church teaching, inner conviction or some trash novel, the legitimacy of any belief rests ultimately on its content, not on its origin. It is absurd to hold that a pro-abortion position derived from, say, Paul Ehrlich’s overpopulation doomsday scenario is legitimate but an anti-abortion position derived from scripture is a violation of the First Amendment.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, March 23, 1990 (part of his collection Things That Matter).

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The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes. Where I glean stuff.

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McCarrick

We conservative Catholics had made such a big deal about the loss of authority within the Church, and had developed within ourselves a chronic reluctance to confront facts that called the integrity of the system into question.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, for example, once upbraided me angrily on the phone for publishing a story about Bishop James Timlin’s handling of the Society of St. John situation.

“The bishop told you there was no story there!” he growled.

I pointed out to Father Neuhaus that I had quoted the bishop saying that in the story. Neuhaus was aghast that I had published the story at all, given the bishop’s words.

“Father Neuhaus, why should I believe Bishop Timlin?” I said.

“Because he is a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church!” Neuhaus shouted.

Really, he shouted ….

Rod Dreher, Cardinal McCarrick: Everybody Knew. What “everybody knew” was the Cardinal’s homosexuality and exploitation of seminarians, not of children, but the massive lying and coverups is what eventually cost Dreher his Catholic, but not Christian, faith.

When I was working on these stories, I learned that most gay priests who are sexually active do not molest children or adolescents. The problem is that they — as well as straight priests who are sexually active — have secrets, and learn to keep their mouths shut as part of an informal system of self-preservation … A source — a devout young Catholic man — had been telling me that he left seminary because he couldn’t stand the constant pressure from priests there to have sex with them. One of the seminary leaders told him that if he’s not gay, fine, but to go get a girlfriend. To me, it was clear that the priest-professor was trying to lead the kid into his own web of corruption, one way or the other.

Dreher has lots more stomach-churning details. I’ve only quoted the parts that seem key to me on why this problem has been intractable: “everybody” has dirt to spill on “everybody” else if they break ranks.

Some of it, I admit, reads like an 80-foot blackboard, but so be it.

Orthodox lay Catholics are not overly inclined to have blind faith in our clergy leaders when it comes to LGBT issues. The Scandal was the first straw, but we haven’t yet reached the last. Actions speak louder than words, even when the words are a recitation of the Catechism’s teachings on the matter. And so far the actions all point to a continuing cover-up the scope of which may be more devastating than we can readily imagine.

Erin Manning, Why We Don’t Trust Them.

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I also blog short items at Micro.blog.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

The worst Lent

After some very tart (and well-chosen) words for the pope, Michael Brendan Dougherty unburdens his own soul:

On the other hand, I’m almost jealous of the pope and could myself use an unguarded moment with an atheist confidante. Maybe it’s the never-ending end of winter, but I’m much more tempted to deny the joys of the blessed than the reality that human souls may be damned to eternal torment. This has been the worst Lent since I came back to the Church in my college years. At Mass, I do little more than wrestle with my squirming children. The great music and great silences of the liturgy are all around me, but their consolations rarely penetrate my consciousness.

The bell rings. My knee bends. But the mind has long since drifted away,  taken up with preparations for the weekly battle, with the striving for the successes and satisfactions of middle age, and the achievement of some security for my children. To that end, I’m writing a book and filing several columns a week. Baseball season has started, which means the return of my seven-day-a-week morning newsletter, The Slurve. Season six. Periodically, I check Twitter to see if some social-media outrage typhoon has fallen on my reputation and ruined us. (Not yet!) My son also refuses to sleep through the night. More often than not, every single member of my household wakes up in the morning in a bed or on a couch they did not intend to sleep in that night.

So lately, my relationship to the faith is more aspirational. It would be nice to get back to regularly contemplating life’s mysteries, and slowly turning myself toward the love without which man is nothing, wouldn’t it?

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Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Small, dull, boring, trite, trendy, and commonplace

[I]n order to fix the situation, the [Roman Catholic] bishops in Germany need to get rid of those “monumental church buildings” and appoint lay people to lead Communion services and whatnot, preferably in small ugly buildings that, by their sheer depressing lack of visual appeal (combined, one can only hope, with wretchedly bad music inspired by 1960s rock and a total absence of anything recognizable as art), will paradoxically reveal God’s glory by showing so piercingly what He isn’t: small, dull, boring, trite, trendy, and commonplace. After all, that’s been the approach in America’s Catholic churches since the end of the Second Vatican Council, and you can see how well it’s working here.

(Erin Manning, It usually ends in tears; or, the situation of the Church in Germany)

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Jordan Peterson again

This link was sent from an old teacher, now friend. I’ve modifed it to start with the “red meat” of Peterson’s religious stance. Prepare to be engrossed for maybe 27 minutes.

I don’t know whether Peterson gives an answer or just dances around the subject brilliantly. My friend and I seem to have differing interpretations.

Although I won’t try to distill Peterson’s position, I find this far saner to contemplate than “privilege checks” or insane intersectional tweets from feticidal maniacs.

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

On the other hand …

Two critiques of the newly-reposed Billy Graham, which I note not just for the record, but because I cannot help but agree.

First, a George Will column I passed over, then returned to because, well, it was by George Will: Billy Graham was no prophet.

Because Will is a veteran writer, he tells us right away what he’s going to tell us:

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some, and there are many “miracles around us today, including television and airplanes.” Graham was no theologian.

Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

I made the same points — neither theologian nor prophet — yesterday, but not as an indictment, which Will pretty clearly implies.

The problem, to reframe some of the same points Will makes, is that Evangelist Graham often positioned himself in a fundamentally prophetic role by becoming the intimate of powerful men:

Graham’s dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates “to give them the moral side of the thing.” He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon “the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.” He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, “supernatural wisdom.” Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes.

On Feb. 1, 1972, unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, when Nixon ranted about how Jews “totally dominated” the media, Graham said, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.” He also told Nixon that Jews are the ones “putting out the pornographic stuff.” One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying ….

Yes, if you’re going to get that close to power, you’re surely obliged to don the prophet’s mantle, especially if you’re purporting to “give them the moral side of the thing.” To paraphrase Will, we can acquit Graham of dereliction only by convicting him of toadying — or by assuming that quietly, and in private, he did truly “give them the moral side of the thing” in a way that was at least minimally prophetic.

Is there another alternative?

Second, Darryl Hart (who I likewise passed over at first) makes a subtler point, and one that I probably cannot make strongly enough to heal scotomata: Graham’s itinerant evangelism inherently undermined Churches.

Graham’s work, which was completely independent of a church or a communion, undermined implicitly the work of local pastors who were trying to the best of their abilities to evangelize the locals. Along would come Graham and all of a local pastor or priest’s endeavors seemed paltry by comparison. Here I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken wrote about Billy Sunday and the kind of appeal a popular (and traveling) preacher had compared to the residential and denominational variety:

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb …, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important … It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and … self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

… Mencken’s point about evangelicalism and the evangelists who benefited from it stands. Your average pastor cannot compete with the bells and whistles of a mass meeting and the publicity that surrounds it. Nor can your average minister disregard preaching through a book of the Bible or fashioning a homily based on the lectionary and situating that relatively learned speech into the fabric of a liturgy or order of service (for the Puritans out there). In other words, theology, church government, and convictions about worship constrain a pastor, not to mention the responsibilities of ministering over time to a variety of congregation or parish members in all manner of walks of life. Graham could simply give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row, with a different musical performance or celebrity interview, and then leave town. Your average pastor doesn’t have that pay grade. And if he is actually preparing his flock for the world to come (read death), then a religion that is “a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern” is not necessarily going to cut the Gordian Knot of how sinners become right with the sovereign Lord of the universe.

In other words, not all Protestants were thrilled by Graham’s ministry. In fact, going back to the revivals of the First and Second Great Pretty Good Awakenings, denominationally and theologically self-conscious Protestants (Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed), have opposed mass revivalism because it undermines the work of the ordained ministry and the local church.

Hart says “undermined implicitly.” I say “inherently undermined.” The two are not the same and I stand by my version, precisely because of two things Hart doesn’t mention:

  1. Graham did not merely “give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row … and then leave town.” He or his aides routinely — in my understanding, invariably — told those who responded to his invitation to go back to their churches, provided only that those churches had Jesus and Bible. That was why he caught flak from Bob Jones and a significant number of others: Catholics were sent back into the maw of the whore of Babylon, as the critics saw it.
  2. But despite #1, Graham’s crusades were ineluctibly parachurch, his Gospel transactional, his salvation forensic. Having lived in his world, I can say from personal observation that a whole lotta folks took their “eternal security” to the golf course or beach on Sunday mornings. That kind of tacit falling away was well known to Evangelists, who lamented it but didn’t know how to deal with it. (Campus Crusade for Christ, n/k/a Cru, came up with a “Spirit-filled life” tract to complement “Four Spiritual Laws,” but even then were frustrated by the crypto-lapsi.)

When I referred to “scotomata,” I was referring to such widespread disregard or disrespect of the “institutional” Church as opposed to parachurch ministries. Of this, too, I have personal experience, even though habitually, and all my life long, I’ve attended church — even when I considered church merely a good idea and in no way salvific.

Those who just bristled at the idea of church being salvific are those with the scotomata. Jesus Christ did not “build [His] Church” just to be the sort of thing you might go for if you go for that sort of thing.

You can look that up.

Hart doesn’t put it that bluntly, but a Calvinistic version of that (i.e., a sensibility that probably doesn’t unequivocally see the Church as salvific) is his sensibility, and I agree that undermining local churches was a weakness Billy Graham’s methods could not avoid.

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Where I glean stuff.

Cultural Conformity

A female teacher at a Catholic school married a woman and got fired. Why should anyone be surprised that a Catholic school follows Catholic teachings? The answer’s obvious, of course. National news organizations are populated with people who loathe orthodox Christian teaching on sexual orientation and identity, and stories like this are simply advocacy disguised as reporting. They know news articles ratchet up pressure. They know members of the community respond to negative coverage. And, sure enough, in the middle of the AP article linked above is this depressing detail:

Several parents say they were surprised and upset at Morffi’s firing, which they learned of in a letter from the school Thursday evening. About 20 parents went to the school Friday morning to demand an explanation.

Over the long term, this is the real threat to religious freedom. It’s not, ultimately, the government. It’s the combination of media and cultural pressure — of external and internal anger — that slowly but surely bends church institutions to its will. Talk to thoughtful pastors and religious leaders, even in ruby-red communities, and they’ll concur.

Here’s the interesting thing: Some of the casual Christians who’ve fled the unsatisfying Mainline are joining more traditionalist churches and schools without changing their beliefs. They don’t become more theologically orthodox, they just crave the benefits of the more orthodox communities. Once in their new religious home, they exert the same kind of pressure for cultural conformity that helped kill the churches they fled. It’s the religious analog of the well-known phenomenon of blue-state Americans leaving their high-tax, heavily-regulated states for red America and promptly working to make it more like the place they left.

(David French)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Impeccable (in a reptilian sort of way)

There’s been a run of commentary, mostly negative, about “Catholic Integralism.” Look it up if you don’t know, which isn’t unlikely. I had only the vaguest idea. Some younger Catholics in particular seem to be flirting with it.

It may thus be providential that Patrick Deneen, after detailing the failure of liberalism, insists that we can’t go back (toward Integralism) but must go forward (to something—sigh—unknown); and that Romanus Cessario has (apparently unwittingly) given a vivid and prominent reminder of how Integralism worked as recently as 19th Century Italy. Cessario seems completely earnest about how Pope Pius IX did the right and necessary thing in taking six-year-old Edgardo Montarra from his Jewish parents, to a raise him as a Catholic, because he had been secretly baptized when his parents and doctors agreed that he was going to die.

Indeed, “we can’t go back” is what my viscera agree, precisely because Cessario’s logic is so impeccable (in a reptilian sort of way).

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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Blessing or Curse?

I almost didn’t click the New York Times Opinion headline “Is Trump a Blessing or Curse for Religious Conservatives?” But since it was by “OpEd Contributors” rather than the Editorial Board (from which I would have expected disingenuous concern trolling had they adopted such a headline), I clicked, and found Ross Douthat, a Never-Trumper, interviewing Never-Trumper David French (Evangelical/Calvinist) and Trump Supporter John Zmirak (a Crisis Magazine type Catholic). It is outstanding and well worth using one of your free looks at New York Times pieces should you not be a subscriber.

The views of French and Zmirak are starkly opposed to one another, but the disagreement remains polite. Zmirak (whose articles at Crisis were sometimes off-putting when I followed Crisis) skillfully and unexpectedly pushes some of my buttons:

Were Christians scandalized by the spectacle of George W. Bush leaving Iraqi Christians to face jihadi violence? They should have been. It was far worse than anything Trump has done. I must confess that I am deeply embittered by the callousness that George W. Bush displayed toward the lives and liberties of religious minorities in Iraq — when as U.S. commander in chief, he had essentially absolute power over that occupied country. Of about one million Christians, some 900,000 were ethnically cleansed, most of them while our troops still occupied the country. I can put up with Donald Trump’s old Howard Stern tapes all day long, compared with that.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I was scandalized. And embittered. That is closely related to why I declared my break with the GOP, and why Ted Cruz turned my stomach and earned my hostility with his calculated provocation of folks at an In Defense of Christians conference.

Zmirak almost had me with the seductive “skeptical prudence” until French weighed back in:

Douthat: So when we see polls showing a wild swing between the 1990s and the present in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician, John, you think evangelicals are actually coming around to a more sensible view than they held in the Clinton era?

Zmirak: Yes. Just as evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions, I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking. Read what the Family Research Council, or National Organization for Marriage, publish on social issues. They’re not thumping the Bible. They’re citing Cicero and Aristotle.

French: I’m sorry, but the transformation of the evangelical public from the American segment most willing to hold leaders to a high moral standard to the segment now least likely smacks of pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle. Evangelicals aren’t coming around to using Natural Law at all. It’s pure instrumentalism. They’ve made an alliance of convenience. They haven’t made some sort of thoughtful intellectual shift.

The interview goes beyond political ramifications and also discusses such things as how Trump relates to the surge of “nones.” There, too, there’s a point-counterpoint that is skillful and make some sorting out and critical analysis necessary to decide.

Here’s my sorting: Zmirak is riding an a wave of kept promises by Trump. I consider that wave welcome, but entirely unexpected.

Before November 8, 2016, I had no reason to expect Trump, a man of extraordinarily base character and a world-class bullshitter, to keep a single promise to Christian supporters. All I felt fairly confident of was that on religious freedom, his fickleness would be preferable to Hillary’s hostility to orthodox Christians who want to live openly as such. But that one issue was not sufficient to outweigh what has proven to be epic narcissism (I knew it was severe narcissism, possibly sociopathy, but events have proven it worse than I feared) that drives him to irrational and counter-productive behavior.

Zmirak has at least one more notable comment:

I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.

Trump sees that the church is a big part of what made America great, and he sees that the state persecution that President Obama began hurts the country. I hope that he sees more, sees Christ as his savior. But in his role as Caesar, protecting our rights is quite enough.

If I had known this from credible sources before the election, it would have impressed me somewhat that narcissist Trump is actually capable of listening for longer than it takes to compose a Tweet. But such was the sycophancy on display from Trump-friendly pastors that it would have been hard to persuade me that such a report was credible.

So in the end, though I’m closer kin to Zmirak religiously than to French, I’m with the latter, for reasons this can serve to summarize:

I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture. While policy positions are important (though Trump’s real impact is often vastly overblown), a nation is ultimately shaped far more by its culture than its policies, and we can never forsake the greater power for the lesser win.

Where Christians once demanded honesty, they rationalized lies. Where Christians once sought evidence of ideological consistency, they accepted incoherence.

Many of us, however, looked at these accommodations and asked a simple question. Where is your faith? Christians were acting as if not just the nation — but the church itself — was in peril based on the outcome of a single election. Yet is God not sovereign over all the nations, including our own? Doesn’t scripture repeatedly condemn the exact kinds of moral compromises that so many Christians made? Don’t we believe those scriptures?

There is nothing more dangerous to the church than a lack of faith. I don’t at all mind it when Christians cheer the good things that Donald Trump has done. I join them. I do mind when they rationalize and excuse bad acts out of a completely misguided and faithless sense of cultural and political necessity.

(Emphasis added)

It is possible that in 20 years, I’ll say “God in his providence used this most improbable Caesar to good end,” but I don’t think I’ll ever regret my write-in vote, which was based on what I knew then. That God can use evil men, or turn evil to good, never justifies voting for evil men or evil policies.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.