Saturday, October 18, 2014

On the synod

Three months ago, I got married.  While still engaged, my then fiancee and I found ourselves explaining our living arrangements to curious parties.  No, we were not living together.  No, we were not planning on living together before we were married.  In fact, with my fiancee's lease up two weeks before our wedding, she was going to move in, while I would be kicked out to live with a friend.

The reactions to such an explanation were revealing.  Conservative Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, seemed to understand implicitly.  But those who did not share our philosophy about sex and marriage seemed befuddled. 

It's important to note here that living together before marriage is not, absolutely speaking, sinful.  Fornication is sinful; living together is a good example of a near occasion of sin since, though fornication need not take place, it increases the likelihood that it will. 

There is another reason living together is imprudent.  It gives rise to scandal.  Here we refer, not to the tabloid sense of the word, but to its Catholic meaning: an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.  If a younger sibling sees an older sibling living with his fiancee, he will see this as morally acceptable. 

In point of fact, by youngest brother assumed that we would be living together before marriage.  He thought that this "premarital preparation" was a necessary step in the process, a matter which was swiftly corrected.  Even the young are skilled in neologism.

I bring all this up in light of the 2014 Synod of Bishops which is presently taking place in Rome.  The subject matter is marriage and the family.  Reports on the synod have diverged wildly.  Rather than seek to reconcile the reports, I want to clarify a matter of some confusion.

There is a notion that every Church pronouncement is a matter of doctrine.  So if a Pope gives a speech about how the welfare state must respect the dignity of the poor, this is seen as proof that Catholics must accept the welfare state, and in whatever forms it may take. This is to conflate doctrine, which does not change, and policy, which, because it seeks to work out the good in the midst of human frailty, can.  In this case, there are any number of arrangements which respect the human dignity of the poor, and a great many more that do not.  There is no one Catholic way to address this issue.

The synod concerns itself with policy.  Speculation that the Church will drop Her opposition to homosexual relations can be easily dismissed.  This doctrine cannot and will not be altered, neither in this synod, nor in any subsequent council.  However, the Church can make alterations to policy recommendations for pastors who must deal with laity who do not have the same sense of sin as that taught by the Catechism.

If a couple comes to a priest for instruction prior to marriage, it would be easy for him to dismiss them for cohabiting.  But this would mean he would miss an opportunity for catechesis.  If the couple is obdurate, and intends to remain in sin, I do not see how the priest can marry them, but if they are receptive to reconciliation and reform, he has a chance to prepare them for a sacrament of much grace, grace that will be indispensable throughout their married lives.

Other cases are trickier.  What does the Church do with homosexual couples who are "married"?  What about those who are divorced and have not obtained annulments?  Like the cohabiting couple, we can simply exclude them, but the Church should seek to bring these lost sheep back into the fold.  These are important questions in the west, where the divorce rate hovers around fifty percent and gay marriage is increasingly accepted by the secular legal system. 

One last point: it is very easy for those of us who live in the west to forget that these aspects of marriage and family life, though important, are not the be all and end all of the matter.  The Church is catholic, and thus must concern itself with the laity everywhere.  The family is as important in Europe and North America as it is in Africa, or Asia, or South America.  Hopefully, the synod will reflect that reality when it issues its report.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rotten fruit

The fruits of bad philosophy are rotten to the core.  This is not to say that all problems stem from bad philosophy, only that if the core principles which undergird a philosophical system are rotten, so too will be the fruits. 

We may approach the problem from either direction; which is to say, we can discover erroneous philosophical principles, and from them find our way to absurd positions on moral issues; or we may start with the latter and trace our way back to the former.

For instance, the Evil League of Reactionaries has recently been vanquished, and the metaphysical absurdity known as gay marriage has been accepted by the culture.  The legal system will no doubt follow.  In the meantime, the Forces of Progressivism have moved on to win "rights" for the transgendered. 

Note first that the term transgendered is a neologism of the Orwellian sort we have been discussing.  So long as people talked of sex, we resided in the realm of Science.  A male human was one who possessed both an X and a Y chromosome, while a female human possessed two X chromosomes. 

Hence the shift to gender which is, to repeat the cultural Marxist mantra, "a social construct".  Sex is determined biologically: it applies to the body of human being; gender is determined psychologically: it applies to the mind.  By ignoring sex and focusing on gender, a man could claim to feel like a woman inside and that claim was expected to override his biology. 

In other words, we've split the human being into two and allowed the mind of man to reign over his body.  This is the rotten philosophical core of modern progressivism.  The ostensible argument was that gender was a social construct; the actual argument was that the real social construct was biology.

This is rank nonsense of the highest order.  A man can no more cease to be male than he can jettison his humanity and become a bird.  Both his maleness and his humanness are fundamental to his nature.  Sure, quack scientists can shoot him up with hormones; they may even treat him as a walking laboratory in which to implant a human child.  But they can't even pretend to alter his genetic structure so that he no longer possesses the dreaded Y chromosome which threatens to call him back to reality.  He cannot become a woman; he can only become a sad freak, upon whom we may look with pity.

If we accept the fiction that the body is only a prison for the mind, there is no end to the silliness which we can assert.  Not only sex, but age, race, ability, all attributes of the body, can be substituted at will.  No longer am I an evil white cismale--the idiotic modifier cis implies that I do not suffer from mental illness, only bad prose--I am actually a gay black trans grandmother.  Please address me accordingly.

Of course, no one is ready to take that sort of nonsense seriously, even though it follows logically from this mind body split.  Sex is held to be amorphous because it further undermines the natural law and healthy human relations.  Sexual autonomy is a goal in a way that racial autonomy simply isn't.  Anything that furthers the illusion of sexual autonomy--for, after all, one can never completely separate sex from procreation--is desirable.

It follows, then, that while it is beneficial to point out the contradictions inherent in what passes for progressive metaphysics, we should not be too troubled when our criticisms are brushed off.  For bad metaphysics are only a means to an end.  We preach to the indifferent, and to the convinced who do not yet realize what is at stake.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Choosing birth prevention

"An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention." - St. Thomas Aquinas

We live in age of moral confusion. Sometimes, we justify our actions based purely on intent: if a policy was enacted with the goal of reducing poverty, that it makes it, per se, good, irrespective of the results of that policy. Other times, we justify our actions based purely on results: if someone is suffering, it is our duty to reduce that suffering, regardless of the means which we utilize to achieve that end.

The problem with such thinking is not just that it is blatantly contradictory and therefore incoherent; the problem is that is is bad philosophy. Pureness of intention does not absolve one from acting in a way that will lead to a bad end. Likewise, achieving a good end does not grant one license to use any means at one's disposable. Ethics must consider the intent of the action, as well as the means and end.

This brings us to an article in Slate magazine: How Choice Can Stop Abortions. Therein, the writer argues that since stopping abortions is desirable, any means to achieve this end must be considered a good.

Before we get to the substance of the article, the headline merits investigation.

There is a sense in which choice could stop abortions. Namely, people could stop choosing to have abortions. All that is necessary to stop abortions is to stop abortions. We need not worry overmuch about the means; what is required to not do an action is to not do it. End of article.

Alas, for Slate, things are much more complicated. The subtitle of the piece reads: Long-acting reversible contraceptives can cut the teen abortion rate by 75 percent. In other words, it is not choice that stops abortions, but choosing a specific set of items, namely, long-acting reversible contraceptives.

It makes no sense to idolize choice in isolation from the thing chosen. Choice employs an end, or, rather, any number of ends. Some of them are good, some are not, and the validity of the choice depends on whether or not the end is good. It is meaningless to insist that one is pro-choice when it comes to drinking and driving unless one is ready to recommend drunk driving. If we extol choice in this area, we mean to extol drunk driving. Otherwise, we would not commend choice, but rather, choosing not to drive drunk.

The Slate piece, in other words, is arguing for the moral goodness of birth control, which is to say, birth prevention. They would make matters much clearer if they simply stated as much.

The author of the piece notes:

More than 1,400 teenage girls in the St. Louis area were offered a range of free contraceptives. Seventy percent chose LARCs. The beauty of LARCs is that they bypass the problem of inconsistent use. Once the implant or IUD is inserted, you don’t have to think about it every time you have sex.

After three years, researchers counted the pregnancies. For hormonal IUDs and injections, the annual failure rate was five per 1,000 women. For hormonal implants and copper IUDs, the failure rate was zero. These methods wildly outperformed contraceptive rings (52 failures per 1,000), pills (57 per 1,000), and patches (61 per 1,000).

This finding makes sense. One of the problems—practical, as opposed to moral—with, say, condoms and birth prevention pills, is that people forget to use them. Implanting an IUD removes the element of human error.

This fact is itself interesting because implanting a contraceptive device reduces the range of choice. Once the device is implanted, and so long as the device is working properly, one cannot choose to become pregnant. One must first schedule an appointment with one's doctor, and then, once the device is removed, one may try to become pregnant. Should one change one's mind, or simply decide at a later date to try to prevent pregnancy, a like device must be reinserted.

This may be called many things, but insofar is removes the responsibility of controlling pregnancy from the woman and her partner, and places it in the hands of the medical authorities, I do not see how we can argue that this is especially conducive to choice.

On the contrary, the Catholic school of thought maintains that sex leads to pregnancy. As such, sex should only be engaged in when one is willing to achieve the end to which that act is naturally ordered, that is, children. That, moreover, since children require a good deal of love and attention, prospective parents should be willing to care for the child as long as they can manage. Which is to say, that they have pledged their faithfulness to each other in front of witnesses in the act of marriage.

This places the choice firmly in the hands of the husband and wife. True, they may turn to medical authorities for assistance, but the choice of whether to try to have a child is theirs alone. If we truly wish to glorify choice, this argues in favor of the Catholic position. It also requires us to study human fertility so as to understand it, instead of treating it as if it were an unfortunate medical condition. But that is a topic for another day.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Orwell today

"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." - George Orwell, 1984

Such were the slogans which adorned the outside walls of the aptly named Ministry of Truth in the famous dystopian novel. To a large extent, we live in Orwell's world. True, there is not yet a boot stomping on the human face, forever. But when the peace prize winning President is off bombing another country the citizens cannot find on a map; when we pride ourselves on how free we are, as we dutifully submit to a groping at an airport; when the news ignores all complexity to hammer home a grossly simplified version of events: it's hard not to think of 1984.

Orwell feared that truth would be hidden by false narratives. Because speaking truthfully--and even thinking truthfully--was forbidden, man would be compelled to endure falsehood. Worse, he would depend on it, and, therefore, love it. In our society, no single organization possesses a monopoly on information, so it is always possible to seek out alternatives, usually on the Internet. Still, the mass media consistently upholds various Narratives, rendering slight the influence of alternative sources.

To take but one example, consider the topic of abortion. Ostensibly, the media presents two sides: the feminist left, which insists that women have the right to reproductive choice; on the other, the right, motivated by religious principles, which insists that abortion is murder and therefore should not be allowed.

Let's try to tease apart some of the terms used in the abortion debate between the pro-choice and the pro-life parties. Pro-choice is a neologism, though perhaps not quite an Orwellian one. The problem with the term is its ambiguity; choice implies an end chosen, but this end goes unmentioned. The pro-lifers are also pro-choice; they think the woman should have the right to choose whether the child is kept by his mother, or given up for adoption. Pro-choicers add another option, namely, abortion, but they refrain from using this term too readily because they do not wish to draw too much attention to their actual program. Choice is always good; abortion is on more dubious ground.

The pro-choicers would also insist that this is because they wish to emphasize that they want women to be given a choice as to the fate of their children. But so, too, do the pro-lifers. The distinction is not concerning choice per se but its accepted range. The debate concerns whether abortion ought to be legal in at least some circumstances. And that is the end of it. The media's Narrative only serves to obscure the matter.

I learned another neologism while listening to pro-life speaker Abby Johnson yesterday at a fundraiser for the Guiding Star Project. Some years ago, Abby ran one of Planned Parenthood's abortion clinics. She shared her story with us yesterday, but as it is explained in her book, Unplanned, I'll not recount it here.

Anyway, Abby told us that at her clinic, they referred to fetuses as products of conception. Pro-choicers usually use the term fetus, which is technically correct. But a fetus is an unborn human baby, so while the term conceals the connection, it remains hidden only insofar as we remain ignorant of the dictionary definition.

The term products of conception, however, is starkly Orwellian in the manner in which it seeks to hide the truth. The term is coldly clinical, like describing a tumor as a product of cancer, or a breast as a mammalian outgrowth. There are times when such terminology can be helpful; if it sheds light on an aspect of the item in question, a more precise term is often called for. But in this case, the verbosity only serves to obscure—as intended.

The following is left as an exercise for the reader: why would those who provide abortions wish to be less than truthful about the nature of the service they are providing?  

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A challenge

Over at a certain ubiquitous and intrusive social networking site, a good friend has laid down the gauntlet.  I am to provide a list of 10 books which are important to me/had an impact.

In no particular order.

1) Orthodoxy - G. K. Chesterton - This book was the catalyst for my reversion.  Too many years of Catholic education had left me unconvinced of the truth of the Faith I was too ignorant to comprehend.  Reading the book didn't bring me back, not completely, but it forever disabused be of the notion that the Church offered claims to be taken lightly.

2) The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - How does one praise the greatest poem ever written?  Dante offers us a complete education.  He is a great moralist, an aesthete, and a sage.  No matter how well we think we may know him, he is always there to offer us more.

3) A Mencken Chrestomathy - H. L. Mencken - As David Bentley Hart recently put it:
"My affection for H. L. Mencken verges on the idolatrous."  Except for Chesterton, no one has influenced my writing more than this joyful cynic. 

4)
Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville - No one has ever described another country quite so well.  While Mencken lambasted democracy for its idiocies, Toqueville praised it for its virtues.  But he was also keenly aware of its vices.

5) Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh.  I read non-fiction primarily, but this novel comes close to perfection.  Describing the conversion of the head is accomplishment enough.  Here, Waugh captures the heart of the matter.

6) Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman - At long last, an explanation for why television, and now, the Internet, seem to make us so stupid.

7)
The Closing of the American Mind - Allan Bloom - To many extents, a very frustrating read, but all the more so rewarding because of it.  The book is probably irredeemably political, but it would be better to see here a real professor wrestling with some of the world's greatest thinkers.

8) The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe - The style can be grating at times, but the novel is prophetic.  To quote Judge Richard Posner:
"American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even though the book was written before the intersection had come into view."

9) The Story of Civilization - Will and Ariel Durant - I'm cheating here, since this is a whole series, but these books provided me the liberal arts education I didn't receive while studying engineering.  Yes, they're long, but they'll cost much less than that math class you slept through.


10) The Everlasting Man - G. K. Chesterton - In many ways, Chesterton's best book.  Here is the Catholic account of history, the human drama in which we play but a small part.  Here is the Faith.

Concering the DHS

One of the many disappointing aspects of the Ferguson affair was the way in which the media insisted that this was only further evidence of the irredeemable racism of white America, just another example of a white cop gunning down a sainted black boy.

I say disappointing because there was another aspect of the story that was of considerable interest, but got less attention than it merited.  As Trevor Timm notes in the Guardian:

For three weeks and counting, America has raged against the appalling behavior of the local police in Ferguson, Missouri, and for good reason: automatic rifles pointed at protesters, tank-like armored trucks blocking marches, the teargassing and arresting of reporters, tactics unfit even for war zones – it was all enough to make you wonder whether this was America at all. But as Congress returns to Washington this week, the ire of a nation should also be focused on the federal government agency that has enabled the rise of military police, and so much more: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The 240,000-employee, Bush-invented bureaucratic behemoth that didn’t even exist 15 years ago has been the primary arms dealer for out-of-control local cops in Ferguson and beyond, handing out tens of billions of dollars in grants for military equipment in the last decade with little to no oversight and even less training on how to use it.


We might call this extraordinary but for the fact that this so often seems to be the nature of the beast.  The Department of Energy was created by Jimmy Carter.  It's budget is $30 billion a year and it employs over 100,000 people, most of them contractors.  It was created with the goal of reducing our dependency on foreign oil.  Having failed spectacularly, it continues to receive funding, in the meantime, arrogating to itself a slew of unrelated special projects.

Or consider the Department of Agriculture.  Its budget is $132 billion a year and it also employs roughly 100,000 people, 1 bureaucrat for every 22 farms

But the Department of Homeland Security is arguably the worst bureaucracy of them all.  September 11th, was, among other things, a stupendous failure of the national security apparatus.  In a sensible world, the President would have, at a minimum, ordered a review of the NSA to determine how such a colossal mistake could have been made.  Going further, failing to notice and properly classify such a security threat could be seen as evidence of the impossible nature of the tasks that agency is expected to accomplish.  As such, it should have been abolished.

Instead, Bush--a Republican President we hasten to remind the reader--worked to expand the Federal Government.  With the rubble still smoldering, a crisis was at hand, and it would do no good to let a crisis go to waste.  The Department of Homeland Security was created; its mission, to succeed where other agencies had failed.  In a decade and a half, it has grown until it employs almost as many citizens as live in the city of St. Paul.

The TSA, one of its many tentacles, does an admirable job fondling the citizenry, with reckless disregard for due process.  Meanwhile, if it fails to detect the plot of the Boston bombers, why, that only demonstrates, not how useless it is, but how badly we are in need of its many services. 

It has also, like any good bureaucracy, added to its powers.  It has militarized the police--against whom, it is not mentioned.  This, more so than the tired spectre of racism, was the truly ugly face of Ferguson.  The police do not see us as innocents they are to serve and protect.  They see us as the enemy, against whom they must be armed and vigilant.

One last point.  Every bureaucrat must be paid by the free citizens.  Often, this is innocuous enough.  We must be taxed so that the Post Office can do a middling job of delivering the mail.  These sorts of affairs are annoying, but they are hardly tyrannical.  A free republic can stomach an army of postmen.

This is not the case with the brown shirts of the DHS.  We are remunerating them, handsomely one suspects, to violate our right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of our peers.  When we fly, we must demonstrate that we are not terrorists by submitting to be patted down or else scanned with cancer machines so that a stranger may view us naked.  And we pay for this privilege. 

Ferguson says a lot about the Feds, but it says a good deal about us, too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The “I” Word

One of the many faults of the mainstream press is their refusal to portray certain positions with the faintest shred of fairness or accuracy. In colloquial and cliched terms, the media is biased. This bias manifests itself in their exclusion from consideration any facts or viewpoints which do not conform to The Narrative.

This tendency is seldom more clear than on the subject of immigration. When discussing the issue, we are reminded of our “broken system”, “jobs Americans won't do”, “guest workers program”, as well as the general joys of vibrant diversity. The Narrative also precludes mentioning the dreaded “I” word when do to so might lead to hateful Crime Think.

I shall give two examples, both involving the state of California. I am too young to remember this, but there was, a time, evidently, when that state was a beacon of hope, and not the expensive, mismanaged mess it has become.  Anyway, the stories: the first discussed the crumbling infrastructure; the second, the ongoing drought. In neither story could I find a mention of the role played by millions of immigrants, many of them illegal. It would be foolhardy to blame a few million Mexicans for either problem, but the increase in population undoubtedly played a part and merits mentioning in the story.

Merely bringing this up is enough to be sentenced to wear a sanbenito, so strong is the choke hold that the media possesses. But the man who mentions such a connection is not revealing anything about his position on immigration; he is only noting the obvious. More people put more stress on roads as well as the water supply.

The Narrative exists to frame the bounds of acceptable discourse. By rendering any diversion from the talking points about magical immigrants heretical, the media renders a dignified discussion about the issue all but impossible. Which is, of course, the point.

Let us pretend that we wish to have such a discussion. The following points must be conceded. First, that a nation as wealthy as ours, and with generous welfare policies such as ours, must have an immigration policy. To allow everyone into the country would be suicidal. It would reduce this once proud nation to a bankrupt, third world basket case. Only a few fool economists actually recommend this outrageous position. Which is to say that either the keepers of The Narrative are horrible racist xenophobes, or else we have a position from which to start.

Second, a nation ought to prioritize the well-being of its citizens as against those of the world. The US military exists to protect us, not the people of any other country, unless it is in the interests of American citizens. So it should be with each and every program and preoccupation of the State. To this end, it is preposterous to suggest that at a time when the labor participation rate is the lowest it has been in decades, more cheap foreign labor should be imported. The government does not exist so that Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, and other billionaires can purchase another yacht. Until average Americans are again becoming better off, to even talk about more immigration is not just insulting, it is treasonous.

Third, before we add another guest worker program, we need to understand those we have. It would be helpful if the media noted that guest worker programs already exist. John Derbyshire once tried to determine how many we had; he concluded that we had 12, or 20, depending on which count one used. As he further noted, why should we expect the next program to work if the others have failed?

We await sensible discourse on the subject of immigration. Perhaps next republic.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Divorce

Let's take a social problem, say, divorce. We know divorce is bad for children. We know it is bad for men. We know it is bad for women. We suspect that it is good for divorce attorneys. We know that it is, still, on the whole, bad for society. Hence, it would seem that it would be beneficial for society to try to minimize divorce. Yet there are a few factors that act against this impulse.

First, there is the appeal to anecdote. If, on the whole, divorce is known to be bad, people will nonetheless insist that they know someone who is better off after her divorce. Perhaps someone's Aunt Mable married a real low life who used to come home drunk and beat her and the children. Because divorce—or separation—may have been good for Aunt Mable, the argument by anecdote goes, we can make no qualitative judgments about divorce.

When one comes across evidence that bumps up against a blanket statement—and here, we extrapolate the anecdote into data—the correct thing is to alter the blanket statement, not toss it out altogether. Instead of: divorce is bad for wives, we may claim, divorce is bad for wives, except possibly for those who are beaten regularly by alcoholic husbands. But because we toss out the rule, rather than reformulate it, Aunt Mable causes us to invalidate the entire judgment. Social science is not physics; it speaks to general rules, true, for the most part, for a particular group of participants. The Law of Gravity brokers no exceptions; the Law of Divorce and Separation, plenty.

Second, the frequency of the incident, which impact the impetus to reform. Let us say that only a small portion of the populace, two percent, perhaps, is divorced. On the one hand, the infrequency of the occurrence means that the problem is comparatively insignificant. On the other, society can more easily move to ostracize the minority group.

This expression needs some unpacking. Our age, which prides itself on its tolerance—the veracity of which is a subject matter for another time—is fairly certain of two things. First, minority groups are to be praised. Second, ostracizing anyone is horrible. So to ostracize a minority group is the height of awfulness.

Of course, we do this all the time. Murderers are a distinct minority group. If all goes well, they are imprisoned, hopefully for life. This is a form of ostracism, though it is a good deal more besides. Now, I'm not in anyway comparing divorcees to murderers; I am simply pointing out that ostracizing a minority group is not, per se, illegitimate.

Thinking the matter over, it is almost impossible for a group that is not in the minority to be ostracized. If left handed individuals decided to ostracize right handers, the project would almost certainly fail. It is far more likely that right handed people could bring their power to bear against left handers than vice versa.

Once a group has reached, one will not say majority status, but some significant portion of the citizenry, it becomes harder to ostracize that group. After a few barbs from the left-handed, even the most maladroit right-handed individual will notice that he is not alone in his affliction. He will then either laugh it off, or turn the ostracism around.

We have not yet established the desirability of this strategy, merely some practical aspects of its application. Very briefly, we may dismiss the argument that ostracism does not work by reminding the reader of the American smoker. Whether or not he should have been shamed for his habit, there is no doubt he has been. Smoking has thus become less popular. At least some of the time, ostracism works.

Returning to our original example, so long as a small portion of the population was divorced, the majority could seek to exclude those who had worsened society through their divorces. In the case of our own country, that window has closed. For not only is close to half the population divorced, almost everyone knows someone who has been divorced. Even those of us who do not like divorce, who know how terrible it can be for all involved, will tend to soften when the potential subject of our ire is a close friend or a relative. Suddenly, every divorcee is another Aunt Mable. But society remains the worse all the same.

The takeaway, then, is to act before the prevalence of the problem renders effective action impossible. One waits, because there is always time, until there isn't. There is no scientific rule we can apply to know when to act. We can only know that waiting too long will prove disastrous. So it has been with our country and divorce. Fortunately, pendulums swing back—eventually.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The End of Exceptionalism

The “catastrophic decline of the Mainline Protestant churches that had once been central institutions in [American] public life” is far and away the most important development of the last fifty years.  So argues Joseph Bottum in his thoughtful new book, An Anxious Age

Other sociologists, working from materialistic assumptions, have noted the decay of civic virtue and social capital, but Bottum, using the insights of Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, focuses his attention on the cause of the rot.  Protestantism gave America “social unity and cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations.”  This unity and definition provided a common vocabulary with which to navigate secular spheres. 

Bottum uses the image of a stool to envisage the American experiment, with democracy, capitalism and Protestantism as the three legs.  Without the support provided by the Protestant churches, democracy and capitalism—that is, our political and economic arrangements—must bear more weight. 

The effects can be seen everywhere.  One example on which Bottum comments is the degraded form of our national discourse.  Without the framework provided by Protestantism, we can no longer make “rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree.”  Our political opponents aren't merely wrong; they are evil.

This tendency is typified by a particular group of post-Protestants, whom Bottum dubs the Poster Children.  They belong to Flannery O'Connor's Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, which worships no God and preaches a sort of “Christian morality without the tommyrot,” to quote John Humphrey.  Above all, its adherents believe themselves to be morally superior—not merely elite, but elect.  In the process, they have also transferred “the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and unto food.”  Drinking soda and eating meat are venial sins, with smoking and obesity warranting the post-Christian equivalent of damnation.

In the second half of the book, Bottum traces the history of Catholicism in American during the decline of Protestantism.  Catholicism was always seen as something foreign—which, in a sense, it was.  This gave rise to American anti-Catholic sentiment.  But the same forces that undermined Protestantism also swept away a good deal of the bias against the Church of Rome, as evidenced by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Catholicism found itself trying to occupy the space left by Protestantism.  It failed to serve as a replacement for a variety of reasons, ranging from the tumult of Vatican II to the priest sex abuse scandals.  There's no indication that the author regards this failure as inevitable, as indeed it may not have been.  But if the language of Catholicism was too irregular, too alien, to serve as an adequate substitute in a Protestant country, what hope is there in one that is post-Protestant?

Moreover, the Swallows of Capistrano—Bottum's name for American Catholics—have been scattered.  He hypothesizes hopefully that they may soon return to play a larger role in American culture.  And his book ends by noting that these Swallows and his Poster Children might well get along because of “the middle-class etiquette, the good manners of niceness” that they share.  This is, well, tommyrot.  Our books must conclude with just this sort of boilerplate.  First problem, then solution—no matter how insufficient.

As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap.  America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so.  Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Fitting Conclusion

How does one begin to review a book such as this?  The Crisis of Christendom is the sixth and final volume of Dr. Warren Carroll's History of Christendom series.  Carroll began work on this book in 1975; when he passed away in 2011, his wife, Ann, edited it, and brought it to publication in 2013.  All told, the series took thirty-eight years to complete, longer than I have been alive.  This book is the capstone to a wonderful history series, the crowning achievement of a life well-lived.

And yet, the critic must criticize.  This book takes over where the previous volume left off.  Napoleon has been exiled to Saint Helena as an exhausted Europe prepares to make peace.  His volume concludes, more or less, with the death of Pope John Paul II (whom he rightly calls the Great) in 2005.  Covering two eventful centuries in a single volume is no mean feat.  On the whole, Carroll is successful, but, as Ann notes in the introduction, the latest installment is not as thorough as were the previous volumes.  This cannot be helped, but it is unfortunate all the same.

Carroll hits the important events both on the secular front—the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Communist Revolution—as well as both Vatican Councils.  He also instructively includes a section on Marian apparitions, which the secular history ignores completely, despite the wealth of evidence in favor of supernatural phenomenon.

In this vein, an appendix explores Principles for Writing Catholic History.  One could compare and contrast Carroll, the Catholic historian, with Paul Johnson, an historian who is Catholic, and one Carroll has repeatedly cited favorably throughout his series.  The former has no compunctions about chronicling the miraculous; the latter, although he is doubtless influenced by his faith, writes history that is more consistent with a secular narrative.  Although there are obvious advantages to Carroll's approach,  it must be granted that getting a secularist to read his history is a tough sell.  This is the regrettable reality in our secular age.

It is unclear to what extent this series is intended as a reference guide, rather than something to be read straight through--undoubtedly both.  The total series comes in at just over 4500 pages.  This is a fair amount of material, but those who neglect to read the series in its entirety are poorer for it.

The inclusion of a bibliography bears mentioning, helpful for either type of reader.  For many, a number of the events covered by Carroll will be new, or almost so.  Alternatively, the reader may wish for more information about a particular event.  The bibliography includes a short verdict by the historian, by way of assistance to the curious.   Wading through the thousands of volumes written about the last few centuries to find useful information is an almost herculean task, so this recommended reading list of sorts is an invaluable resource.

There's something else which I hesitate to add.  Carroll is an excellent writer.  The earlier volumes of his history read almost like novels, for, as he himself said, all good history is a story.  In the present book, the narrative flags at times, and the prose, though good, is less than stellar.  The historian's health had deteriorated in his later years; perhaps this is to blame.  It is uncharitable to fault him for his mortality; still, this book was less splendidly written than the previous installments.

But these are quibbles.  Warren Carroll has written a series that will be cherished by enthusiastic readers for many decades to come.  If it did not end as well as it began, well, neither did Christendom.    Carroll has fought the good fight, he has finished the course, he has kept the faith.  It is enough.