“Something True to Believe”

Every Godzilla fan is familiar with the song All to Blame by Sum 41, which was the official song of Godzilla: Final Wars, the fiftieth-anniversary film and third ‘grand finale’ of the series (it’s been around for nearly sixty-five years; it’s had a couple finales). It’s actually a decent song, despite some screaming and slightly heavy-handed lyrics. But there’s one line that really stands out:

“We’re hopelessly blissful and blind / when all we need / is something true to believe.”

I actually think, with that line, they nailed the essential frustration of my generation. Despite what some of us say or even think, all we really want is “something true to believe.” We’re sick and tired of relativistic mush, of ambiguity, of “free thought,” of “self-esteem,” and all the rest of it. You can’t build a life on that, you can’t derive real principles for that, you can’t sacrifice for that. All that it leaves us in is uncertainty and frustration. Cut off from tradition, from family, from any kind of roots, we find ourselves lost and adrift, searching in vain for solid ground.

That’s why so many millenials are turning to communism and political activism; it at least claims to be true in a certain way. Contrariwise, that’s also why young Catholics are growing more traditionalist; not just because traditionalism appeals to them, but because it is only the traditionalists who actually act as if they believe what they’re saying is true.

In other words, the Church, as a whole, is going about its work completely the wrong way in striving for ‘relevance’ and trying to accommodate and accompany and whatever other buzzwords are vomited up to blur the issue. Millenials are starving and practically begging for the truth, but the Church, which possess it, is afraid to offer it. If she wants to draw young people in and save their souls (i.e. do her job), then she ought to plant herself firmly and say, “this clear and objective statement is the truth, and it’s true whether you like it or not; following it will not be easy, will likely lead to your losing friends, and will require all you have, up to and including your life, but it will lead to your salvation.”

That’s the kind of message that will attract young people, not the mealy-mouthed nonsense we get about cultures of this and accompaniments of that.

Really Good Post at First Things

I found this essay at First Things and had to share it. Of the many issues plaguing the contemporary Church, perhaps the strangest is our great fear of rigidity or ‘legalism.’ Really, who looking at Christians in America or Western Europe could honestly think “our biggest problem is that we’re too rigid, too intolerant of sin, and too zealous for the letter of the law.”

The author of this piece explains the mentality behind ‘legalism’ and how helpful it can be in fighting against sin and drawing us to greater heights of holiness.

Who has not reflected on a certain moment of temptation and been impressed by the mastery and expertise with which the trap was laid? A very fine temptation offers not only secrecy, but justification and promises of no harassment from a nagging conscience later on. If Christians would fight temptation, they must have not only the desire to win, but a strategy for obedience that respects the prowess of their enemy.

“I will not gossip at school” is not a rule, I explained to my students, “because it is a Christian obligation.” A monastic rule does not deal in obligations, but in voluntarily laying down your rights. No Christian is allowed to gossip. No Christian is allowed to be slothful. No Christian is allowed to lust. These are not rules a man gives himself, but commands of God, which are not up for debate. But Lucifer is a crafty devil and does not tempt every human in the same way. He tailors temptations. He has learned that men fall prey to certain temptations more readily than women, and vice versa. Healthy men are more tempted by pride, unhealthy more tempted by sloth. Thus, gluttony is prohibited by God, but ice cream and potato chips are not. If a man has no problem eating a modest portion of ice cream and laying the spoon aside, then he needs no rule to aid him in fulfilling God’s command not to be a glutton. If another man cannot eat a bite of ice cream without eating the whole bucket, he needs a rule to help him fight temptation.

Read it all. We need more of this in the Church.

 

The Dangers of Attacking Hypocrisy

There’s nothing more popular these days, either in the Church or the surrounding culture, than attacking hypocrisy or moral pride: Pope Francis talks about it all the time, and slinging accusations of it back and forth has become something of a pastime among Catholics of differing traditions. Of course, the Other Side uses it as a “shut up criticism free” card whenever anyone dares to criticize their behavior or suggest that perhaps their way of life isn’t the most conducive to health and happiness.

I think this is a very dangerous state of affairs for the Church, and that we seriously need to downplay this kind of talk, especially with regards to one another.

fred_barnard07

“Seeing as I am so very ‘umble…”

In David Copperfield we have one of Dickens’s more interesting villains; Uriah Heep. Heep is a man of lower class and oily manners, constantly talking about how “’umble” he is and affecting submissive manners towards his social superiors. Before long, however, it becomes clear that Heep is an ambitious, selfish, amoral man whose humility is a blind that he uses to manipulate and control those around him. In fact, he loathes the rich, well-mannered, ‘respectable’ people, like Copperfield himself. He is eaten up with envy and considers all their good manners, morals, and ‘respectability’ to be nothing but pride and hypocrisy.

To take another literary villain, consider George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who blames Darcy for the ‘pride’ that led Darcy to refuse to continue supporting him after he had already given him several thousand pounds, which Wickham had squandered on immoral, lascivious, and idle living. Wickham likewise accuses Darcy’s sister of being proud because she had come to her senses in time to avoid being seduced by him. Basically, ‘proud’ to Wickham means ‘anyone who presumes to be more moral than is convenient to me.’

Now, neither Dickens nor Austen lacks for examples of real pride, snobbishness, and hypocrisy. In David Copperfield we have the merciless Murdstones, the snobbish Steerforths, and the cruel Mr. Creakle. In Pride and Prejudice we have the haughty Lady Catherine, the unctuous and ridiculous Mr. Collins (who is offended by Elizabeth’s refusal of his marriage proposal), and the snobbish and hypocritical Bingley sisters, who look down on everyone they consider below their circle, despite the fact that their money all comes from trade. But both authors had the moral subtlety to know that those who lack morals, or who are deficient in that line, very often compensate themselves and sooth their own self-loathing by accusing their superiors of being proud, hypocritical, and self-righteous.

So there is a great danger in warning against moral pride and self-righteousness; the danger is that it is extremely easy to accuse anyone with any morals of having that particular sin. Practically any act of virtue, prudence, or good-judgment is sufficient to render an accusation of self-righteousness plausible.

I’m not, of course, saying that there is no such thing as self-righteousness or that we shouldn’t be on guard against it. What I am saying is that we should be extremely hesitant to either make that accusation or believe one that is made by others. We should be very careful when and how we bring it up. To speak against clear, easily-defined sins is far safer (for our own spiritual wellbeing) and, without a doubt, far more needed in our current world.

Moreover, to speak against moral pride is easy; as I say, everyone does it, and everyone feels confident that they know someone who has it. Very few people feel ‘attacked’ by it (unless specifically directed at them), and those who do tend to be sufficiently morally aware not to resent it. Most of us, when we hear a lecture on moral pride, can take refuge in the assumption that we are decent people who bear no one any ill will (meaning that we feel fairly calm and amiable at the moment) and easily redirect the admonition to our neighbor who dared to lecture us on our parenting techniques the other day.

To speak against one of the favorite sins of the moment, such as fornication, pornography, laziness, self-indulgence, abortion, homosexuality, and so on, however, is another story. These are things that either you do or you don’t; if you do, you can’t hide from that fact by a pleasing self-assessment or fob it off as being directed at someone else. They are concrete facts, and your only two options are to reject the admonition outright (which is uncomfortable in itself) or to regret that you did such things. In either case, I believe it to be far more useful in awakening the conscience than attacks on hypocrisy and spiritual pride, though these may be the deadlier sins.

Now, I know some of you are thinking “But Jesus attacked hypocrites all the time! In fact, He was much harsher with them than with anyone else.” Yes, but we must remember two things: first, Jesus could look into men’s hearts and know that they were hypocrites: we can’t. Second, Jesus never hesitated to call out the more prosaic sins either, but these were more or less common knowledge at the time: everyone knew them. No one had to be told that stealing, fornication, adultery, and self-indulgence were wrong, but they did need to be told that a rotten interior life necessitated repentance as well. That is not the case of the modern world. Today, everyone knows the importance of the interior life, but comparatively few people know or understand the basic principles of practical wisdom. We don’t need to be told not to be hypocrites as much as we need to be told not to be selfish, greedy, lustful, and lazy. These days the story of the publican and the Pharisee would almost be reversed: the publican would pray “I thank you Lord that at least I am not a hypocrite like that Pharisee over there! I may steal, extort, sleep around, and laugh at my neighbors’ pain, but at least I’m not a hypocrite!”

This doesn’t mean we need to be ‘flinging accusations’ around or anything; only that when we talk about morality, we should focus on warning against the specific, unmistakable sins more than the vague, non-concrete ones. Not that we should ignore these (they are, as noted, among the most dangerous), but that we should be careful about how we approach them. Besides, a man only becomes aware of his spiritual pride by being aware of his real sins: if he’s able to ignore them, he likely won’t be aware of his own hypocrisy. To be aware that we commit real and disgusting sins regularly, and that we want to do so is to recognize that we are not a very fine person after all. To awaken a man to the obvious sins is also to awaken him to his pride. Not always, but I think far more often than a direct attack on spiritual pride does.

In short, to warn against hypocrisy is at least as dangerous as a simple condemnation of obvious sins. We should warn against both, but the latter should be much more the focus of our efforts, while the former should be approached with great caution lest we encourage the very thing we seek to cure.

 

Why I Am a Catholic:

compassion

The Reasons:

I am tempted to answer as Walker Percy did: what else is there? The alternatives all seem to me grossly inadequate. This is true speaking both philosophically and historically: that is, both the competing worldviews and the alternative explanations for the figure of Christ.

Philosophically, I have never heard any good atheist answers to the argument from contingency (everything in our experience derives its being from another source and cannot sustain itself, but if that were true of everything, nothing would exist, so a self-contained, eternal, uncreated being must exist), or a good explanation for human morality (why we have the experience of “I ought” and “I ought not”), or for the experience of beauty (why do such disparate things as music, a woman’s face, a mountain, an ocean, a bird, a poem, and the night sky affect us in much the same way), or for the universality of religious belief among the cultures of mankind. In short, any purely materialistic belief system must be false because it runs contrary to the experience of mankind.

Agnosticism, the belief that man cannot possibly know the truth about God, seems to me irrational. If man came from God, then there must be, however faint, a likeness or kinship between God and man, meaning that God can, to an extent, be known by man. If not, then the agnostic has to come up with a workable explanation both why not and why all the millions of people who claimed to know God throughout history, including many of its best and brightest, were mistaken, but the agnostic is not. To say that man cannot possibly know God or know the truth (which is more or less the same thing) seems to me to be an attempt at evasion rather than a real cogent position. Besides, there’s no reason to believe we can’t know something until it has been definitively proven that we don’t.

First, I believe in God. It seems to me that our experience both of the world and of human nature can’t possibly be explained absent the divine. Such difficulties as arise of positing that God exists and is good (i.e. the problem of evil) seem to me to be only problems of perspective; when dealing with something infinitely far above us, it will of course seem as if there are contradictions, but having good reason to believe in God’s existence and goodness on other grounds we can trust that these are illusory. The problem of evil, therefore, can be accepted as a problem that is accounted for by the premise, much as the lack of stellar parallaxes was accepted as a problem that was accounted for once Newton’s laws provided a workable context for Kepler’s model of the solar system. We admit the problem exists, but say that it is due to a lack of knowledge rather than being a serious contradiction.

I believe that Jesus Christ was and is the second person of the Trinity, the only begotten Son of God, true God and true Man, come to Earth to bring the forgiveness of sins to mankind. Like with God, I don’t see a cogent explanation for the figure of Christ that does not accept His claim to be God. The event of the Resurrection is the insurmountable obstacle; either it happened, or it didn’t. If it did, Christ is who He says He is. If it didn’t, then an explanation is needed for how and why the event was faked in a manner convincing enough to successfully bring about the conversion of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, the witness of the Saints and the Church seem to me conclusive: if Christ was a fake or fable, He’s the most successful and effective fake in human history. Lives are noticeably improved by following Him. His followers do great good for the people around them and humanity in general. The saints are striking examples of human excellence in all its forms and are admired even by atheists.

People sometimes talk as if it were easy to explain away Jesus as a simple preacher who was divinized by his ignorant and/or conniving followers. Such explanations are pathetically inadequate (not to mention transparently false to facts) to explain the Christian phenomenon. As far as I can see, the only explanation that covers all the facts is the one that Christianity itself proposes: that Jesus was the Son of God and that He founded the Church to be His instrument on Earth and to bring His Word to all nations. This explanation accounts not only for all the good the Church has done, but also all the evil, as the Church is explicitly an institution made up of fallen human beings in need of God’s mercy and nothing in the Christian religion claims that those who follow Christ will never sin, make mistakes, or act out of ignorance. The Christian view accounts for the whole of the observed facts, while the non-Christian view only accounts for part of them.

This brings me to the fact that, as a Catholic, I find I can account for pretty much everything that comes my way. Not that I can explain everything, but I can see how it could be explained without resorting to either flat denial or contradiction. From social conditions to historical events to scientific discoveries to ghost stories, I can more-or-less see how everything has its place in the Catholic worldview. Yes, science too: no matter how far down physics explores, below the electron and into the deep sub-atomic, it can never touch religious faith. No matter how minutely you examine the wall of a house, no matter how deep into the architecture and structure of the beams and nails that make it up, you are never going to seriously affect the question of the architect’s identity. Exploring the structure of God’s creation strikes me as a very wonderful thing to do, but I find the idea that, in so doing, you can somehow disprove God’s existence to be ridiculous.

As a side note, when it comes to evolution I reject the natural selection model as laughably inadequate (though it may account for some things: no one ever said there had to be only a single engine), but I think whatever does drive evolution will prove to be as ‘scientific’ as anything else (i.e. there will be a clear trail of physical events leading one to another). The question doesn’t affect my faith one way or another.

Thus far I have not found a single really concrete fact or truth which openly contradicts my faith. In addition, I find most modern objections to Christianity are moral rather than philosophical or historical (the only grounds I think Christianity can adequately be attacked). That is, people object to it on the grounds that Christian belief forbids certain practices that the modern world considers sacred rights (mostly related to sex). Even if I didn’t personally object to the practices being so guarded, there would still be the problem that to find a belief inconvenient to your lifestyle does not prove that it is false, only that if it is true, your lifestyle is an improper one. To reject a belief system for no other reason than because you want to violate it seems to me insane.

The fact that Catholicism demands that I often act contrary to my own desires and inclinations I hold to be one of the proofs of its validity. A belief system that doesn’t place any demands on me beyond what is already in my mind or which flatters my own desires looks very much like a mere justification on my part.

Now all this is a reason why I am Christian. Why am I a Roman Catholic?

Once one accepts Christianity as true, I don’t think there can be a really cogent reason for being Protestant. The Protestant system is too new, having emerged in the 1500s, largely on account of an intellectual lightweight named Martin Luther and a more rigorous, but equally irrational theologian named John Calvin. Its chief precepts have no basis in the writings of the early Church Fathers and its sola scriptura doctrine is itself ascriptural and illogical (if scripture alone is authoritative, by what authority was scripture defined?). Moreover, most Protestant churches lack the structural characteristics that the Church had even in Biblical times, indicating that they lack any kind of continuity with the Church of the Apostles.

Once Protestantism is rejected, there remain the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches. Anglicanism is rejected at once both because of its shameful origins (a church that exists because a king wanted a divorce) and national character (by what possible reading of Scripture could a local monarch be given authority over the Church of Christ?). Perhaps it might have been possible to be Anglican when England ruled a quarter of the planet, lending a kind of universality to it, but even then it was obviously a national church. The Church of Christ must be a universal institution and can never be nationalized or subject to any human nation.

Of the three remaining, a similar problem emerges with the Copts and Orthodox; they are too localized and insular. Indeed, the Orthodox Church had its origins in a similar (though far less blatant) nationalist effort to the Anglican: the Emperor ruled from Constantinople, so Constantinople must be a great Holy See (though even so they remained in communion with Rome for many centuries, until some unfortunate incidents around the time of the Crusades). But in any case, neither the Orthodox nor the Copts have ever showed the kind of universality that the Romans have in sending missionaries to the far corners of the globe and exercising authority over Christians from innumerable different cultures. Though I would say that they both are branches of the true Church, just stubbornly independent ones.

Thus I think that, once one accepts the truth of God one must accept the truth of Christianity, and once one does that, one must be a Roman Catholic. I can conceive of one who is born into the faith remaining Orthodox or Coptic without contradiction, but other than that I can see no cogent reason for not being Catholic.

The Benefits

In addition to all of the above, the benefits of being Roman Catholic are, of course, excellent (as might be expected from the truth). The one I find most useful is that it shields you from the parochialism of modernity. In a field where one can profitably turn to advice written in the fifth, eighth, twelfth, or sixteenth century it is hard to conceive of the modern age as being the pinnacle of the human intellect it claims to be. The trap that so many contemporaries fall into of viewing our ancestors as either villains or children is eliminated for the faithful Catholic. The idea that, say, Richard Dawson is more intelligent than Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas simply because he happened to be born later is laughable.

The Catholic, assured that mankind is fallen and the world is a vale of tears, is typically defended against the lure of Utopia and the temptation to do anything and everything, however absurdly impractical, in an attempt to eliminate some great perennial evil. The idea of stealing from everyone to eliminate poverty, or of throwing away all weapons to eliminate war, is seen for the insanity it is. The answer to poverty is to give generously to the poor man and provide an opportunity for him to better himself. The answer to war is to win the one you’re fighting, show mercy to the conquered, and do your best to avert the next one. These things are not going to go away no matter what we do and attempts to eliminate them wholesale always have disastrous consequences (e.g. a concentrated effort by the world’s great powers to never have another war led directly to the most destructive war in human history).

Christianity is an incredibly open and varied religion. Barring sin, just about everything mankind can do can be turned to the glory of God. A Catholic can be a miner, a musician, a politician, a farmer, a soldier, a priest, a police officer, a writer, an artist, a businessman, a housewife, a beggar, an aristocrat, a scientist, a scholar, or a sailor without any kind of impediment to his faith. Every field of human endeavor is open to the Catholic as a means to give glory to God, and just about every one has done so. Every kind of personality can be turned to Christ, even very prickly and unpleasant ones (rudeness isn’t a sin). A Catholic can be irritable, blunt, and rude like, Hillare Belloc, or open, friendly, and charming like G.K. Chesterton. The Church accepts all kinds.

Because Christianity gives life a real end goal and some fairly straightforward criteria for meeting it: believe in Christ, receive the sacraments, confess your sins, forgive others, do your duty. Everything else is a matter of style. He who keeps the commandments can dispense with convention. As a Catholic I am far more free to be myself than I am as a millennial.

As a Catholic, I am free to apply the normal rules of skepticism, evidence, and belief to everything. For instance, I don’t have to accept the word of scientists as of gods because I know scientists are fallen men and that science itself is not the final word on reality. I can thumb my nose at the zeitgeist and declare that diversity is absurd, tolerance only a limited virtue, and that expecting someone not to have sex if they can’t handle the consequences is not a human rights violation. Once I have my faith in place, I am free to question everything, including the most cherished assumptions of the current age. That’s how I came to conclude that Imperialism was a legitimate form of foreign policy, that there is no fundamental difference between ‘homosexuality’ and any other form of temptation, and that the notion of equality is effectively meaningless when applied to human beings. These ideas run directly contrary to the surrounding culture, but because I know, through my faith, how limited that is I’m able to look beyond it and examine questions more (I hope) objectively.

So, the canard that religious dogma limits thought is almost the exact opposite of the truth: once religious dogma is in place, the mind has a scope to explore beyond the current climate of opinion and entertain ideas that would otherwise be unthinkable. Mere ‘open-mindedness’ only leads to conforming to ideas are in the air at the moment. Of all people the self-styled free-thinker is most a child of his own age.

A popular idea is that, freed from Christianity, one is freed from guilt. That’s not true. Freedom from Christianity allows a man to more effectively deaden his conscience to a particular beloved sin, but not to all. And if he does commit what he still regards as a sin, or if someone else does, then he finds that what he’s really been freed from is not guilt but forgiveness. The agonistic or the atheist has no mechanism to forgive the really sinful. He can excuse, but he can’t forgive. Hence the fanatical hatred of secularists, hedonists, communists, and so on for those they regard as evil. Their only recourse is to declare a sin not to be sinful, but that only takes you so far. As a Christian, I may count more things as being sinful than the average man, but I have a remedy for it. I can be unsparing in my assessment of myself because I know that anything I account as evil is not incurable or beyond forgiveness. In other words, a secularist can’t admit to being a bad person, because in his worldview there is no remedy for that. I can because I know Christ came to call sinners to repentance. Every time I go to Confession I wonder how non-Catholics can stand to live without it; I certainly couldn’t.

This, I think, is one of the things secularists really fail to understand; lacking a mechanism for forgiveness themselves, they assume that when a Christian says that something is sinful, they mean that a person who does this should be shunned and punished and destroyed (because that’s what the secularist thinks should happen). But the Christian thinks that a person who has sinned should repent and be forgiven, and that they will be much happier if they do. If I say homosexuality is sinful, I don’t mean that I hate and shun anyone who has committed that sin, only that I think they ought, for their own sakes, to repent and be forgiven for it. Christians don’t dismiss people as being unworthy of life or irredeemably evil: secularists do.

Catholicism is a wonderfully human religion. Surrounding the core, unchangeable dogmas is a whole wonderful palace of devotions, sacramentals, pious legends, history, folk practices, books, art, and so on. It gives you something to grab onto (literally), something to look at and enjoy while you praise God. It’s a religion that has weathered real life for two millennia and has the scuffs and scars of something that’s been used hard and endured. This isn’t something made up in a college classroom by ivory tower academics; it’s something that’s been out in the real world living, suffering, rejoicing, and fighting with real people for thousands of years. Its roots go all the way back to the beginning of recorded history with Abraham. It’s been tried and tested as thoroughly as any human institution or philosophy can be and has endured. In short, it works.

So, that’s the summary version of why I am Catholic. To summarize the summary, the reason I’m Catholic is because it’s true.