Good (inspiring, confident, faithful Catholicism):
Almighty God, give us, we pray, the grace always to see the image of your son in all people, and, loving Christ, to love them too. Help us always to shine forth as witnesses of the light of Christ, so that, ever patient and gentle, we may lead all people to the fullness of faith in your holy Catholic Church.
Bad (yawn Catholicism, of the kind found in places with ugly, banal liturgy):
We pray that all religions and cultures may always be valued and respected, and that religious discrimination may come to an end, so that human rights may always be upheld.
Now, obviously I’m not against human rights, or the respecting of people’s religious convictions as such. But bland, secular imprecations like the above—-variations of which one hears in church all too often—don’t mention the reason why all should, and Catholics do, respect people’s rights (namely, God’s having created all men for a purpose, and his loving them all), nor the cause of Catholics’ typically keen awareness of the dignity of man (namely, the work of the Holy Spirit).
You will see that my fictional bad intercession also talks of ‘religious discrimination’. On this and similar subjects, too, the intercessions of ‘yawn Catholicism’ are often very unsatisfactory. For we should remember that religious discrimation (to consider only that kind of discrimation) is not always invalid: for example, Catholic schools may legitimately discern their applicants by religion. Indeed, I don’t think the Second Vatican Council precludes states from discriminating in favour of Christians in immigration policy (and I would argue that, if Britain adopts a point-based immigration system, we ought to do just that—not that we ever will of course!).
Nor is this a merely academic point. It is because of wishy-washy incautious indifferentism like the above that so much of the liturgy of ‘yawn Catholicism’ sounds so boring and uninspiring to most Catholics. Most of us are probably afraid to admit just how dull it can be, for fear of being accused of being reactionary, anti-Vat-II types; but in fact we (mostly) aren’t, and we really should be more honest about the meagre liturgical fare that is so often served to us. Better that than simply lapsing, as so many do. Indeed, we should refute people who try to smear us for demanding more faithful prayers.
I wrote this poem this Lent. Now that I’m including a greater range of things on my blog, I just thought I’d share it:
No pious weakness this,
No pain proudly borne;
No token of flesh,
No easy, Godly scorn.
What Christ is this?
Dying weak, weak to die,
Falling on Calvary’s way
A stumbling stumbling-block, they say,
All blood, filth and thorns.
This Christ is he:
Who took his cup,
Who mocking-garland bore,
Loved the very hands that plaited,
Never them forswore.
They mocked and spat and cursed:
He suffered all the more–
For love; for love of
Those who tore.
No pious weakness this,
No pain proudly born,
No token of flesh,
No easy, Godly, scorn.
For the thud of every sin,
In every mallet blow,
Need not have grieved God’s hands,
Need not have brought him low,
If not that he had loved us,
Even in full fall.
I here offer my translation of Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 letter Testem benevolentiae Nostrae. The below introduction to the letter is taken from an email that I wrote to a publisher, in which I proposed that a new translation of Leo’s works be commissioned:
Testem benevolentiae Nostrae, a letter that Pope Leo sent to the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore in 1899, is, I think, interesting and valuable; but no accurate and readable modern English translation of it appears to be available to the public at present. I have come across an online preview of A Light in the Heavens: The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1903), which contains the letter; but that book is neither especially modern nor—from what I’ve seen—especially readable.
I should perhaps briefly explain my approach in translating Pope Leo’s scholarly and intricate Latin. For the most part, I have not attempted to following anything like his sentence structure; English, in my view, simply doesn’t have the syntactical resources to cope. So, instead of replicating the semantics of his language, I have committed myself more, taking a clear view on what his meaning is, and always trying to work out how an intelligent English speaker would go about conveying the same meaning clearly in his own language. (He will usually need many more full stops, and will have to repeat himself much more often). I have also tried hard to catch the nuances in Leo’s text: clearly, he chooses words very deliberately, and I have found that I have often benefited from a careful consideration of the etymology and imagery/logic behind his words’ dictionary meanings.
But why do I find this letter interesting? Well: it addresses errors that may arise within the hierarchies of the Church in very advanced and diverse societies; errors which all of us in the West are in danger of making today. Leo talks of the danger of thinking that the Church ought to relax its most difficult (and apparently peripheral) doctrines in order to win converts; the false idea that our age is blessed with a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit than previous ones, and consequently has a better understanding of right and wrong; and other concerning trends of thought.
Most interestingly to me, one of these other problems considered by him is the danger (and irrationality) of preferring the natural virtues to the supernatural, and of the contempt for the religious life that this preference engenders. I find this an especially pregnant point, because it seems to me that bishops in today’s (very diverse) Western societies, and the leaders of other ecclesial communities therein, are too often tempted to try to fulfil their peace-bringing mission merely by entering into religiously-neutral dialogues with governments and other faiths and the wider public; dialogues conducted on the level of natural law. Too much too lazy use of the concept ‘natural law’, in other words, can often disguise a cop-out from the Church’s duty to evangelize; and such lazy use was perhaps growing in the U.S. in Leo’s day, prompted not least by his own Thomist revival. (And I say this as one very interested in that ongoing revival!). Leo neatly shows the incoherence of this: we can only fully adhere to the natural law by the help of grace; nature itself points to the need of the Faith, since only with the help of grace we can perfect our natural virtues.
Lastly: since Leo notes that the cluster of errors mentioned above had been being labelled ‘Americanism’ by some, this document may be of particular interest to readers from the United States.
N.B. The original Latin is available here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/la/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18990122_testem-benevolentiae.html
I recently completed an application form for a certain Catholic conference. One question I was asked in it was whether there was any part of the Church’s teaching that I would like to see changed. Here is my answer to that question, slightly tweaked. Being essentially a form-answer, it is very compressed; but perhaps some people will find it interesting:
Is the anything in the Church’s teaching that you would like to see changed?
Well, to the extent I understand the formal teachings of the Church, as summarized in the Catechism, I agree with them; and what I don’t fully understand, I humbly obey.
But there are of course many things the Church does which seem to imply and communicate her view of things, but which do not amount to formal teachings. And some of these I find concerning.
One example of such things is her architectural practice. I will work here from the example of Buckfast Abbey, since I visited it last week. The main Abbey is extremely impressive. But behind it is a 1960’s extension, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This contains a large impressionistic mosaic of Christ with a loosely patterned background, and (which is far worse) many entirely or almost entirely formless and random pieces of decoration. It’s an early post-modern building.
One can understand what’s so damaging about a church’s having a post-modern chapel by very quickly considering the recent history of architecture and the idea of beauty.
Mediaeval thinkers saw earthly beauty as a reflection of the harmony and order of heaven, the glory of the angelic choirs, and ultimately of the beatific vision. In other words, they thought that there was some analogy between earthly beauty and heavenly beauty; and that therefore earthly beauty fed the soul and nourished the mind, making the latter more adequate to reality. This was why they spent so much time and money on beautiful churches and cathedrals. (For similar reasons, Music was (and is) a higher faculty in the mediaeval universities. After all, music has a unique capacity for providing us with inspiring moments of transcendence; and mediaevals thought that understanding the patterns thereof would give us an insight into the divine mind. This view of the academic subject of Music has perhaps proved a little optimistic; but the mediaevals were certainly right about the nourishing effects of beauty).
Yet after the Reformation, with the loss of the Analogy of Being, the full import of these ideas was unsustainable in Protestant cultures. For just as God’s justice need be nothing like our justice, so earthly beauty wasn’t necessarily linked to heavenly beauty; and so it didn’t necessarily open our minds to anything higher or more ultimate than us.
Now, the value and role of beauty in Western civilization was so fundamental, so deeply embedded, that it long continued to be prized. Yet its cherished role in Western culture could not survive indefinitely once its philosophical underpinnings had been destroyed: and indeed by the 18th century, Protestant thinkers were resorting to a shallow, utilitarian assessment of the value of beauty. They described it as inspiring (in no deeper sense than that it made us feel good, and accept reality as we saw it), and as good for the health. Hence its value was comparable to that of an amusing game, or of fine food. This logic, corrupting Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, eventually led to the gaudy, ignoble degeneration that was Rococo.
But if beauty was nothing more than one Nice Thing amongst others, the pursuit of it could hardly justify the vast sums that were still being spent on great cathedrals and the like. Therefore Modernists and their immediate predecessors viewed beauty, already conceived in such a dessicated way, with suspicion. Was it not just one of those superstitious illusions which prevented Science and Reason from clearing the slums, and ensuring human progress? Having a limited conception of reality, they came to think that an honesty, a cold, ‘realistic’ assessment of ‘how the world really was’, would be more useful; that buildings that showed their workings, and had minimal ornamentation, would better open the public’s eyes to reality.
But modernism did therefore retain an idea of an objective beauty: the idea that certain patterns nourished the mind better than others, making it more adequate to reality. For objective features of buildings such as obviousness of function (with drains on the outside, etc) were to help rid our minds of the sentimental distortions that a focus on the older kind of beauty fostered. (This reasoning was plausible in its early years precisely because Baroque had degenerated into frippery by then).
But modernism failed in its own terms. It did not stop people longing for lavishly expensive forms, little related to function, that they found immediately uplifting; it did not make people wiser or more peaceable. (Indeed Scruton has observed that graffiti sprayers in depressed urban areas gravitate towards defacing the modern buildings around them, as if by instinct; pre-modern buildings they are least likely to spray).
Postmodernists, then, observing this, rejected the idea of objective beauty altogether: that is, they responded to modernist architecture’s failure not by making things beautiful again but by denying that the mere viewing of, and living amongst, certain objective forms could nourish people’s minds. The near-formlessness of their pieces is intended to provide a vehicle for private perceptions minimally encumbered by the straight-jacket of form. (Hence it’s the art of a post-rational philosophy: it leaves us all imprisoned in ourselves, unable to say anything anyone else could understand).
And where there is form, it is child-like, or trite. This is because, if an architect believes that there is no objective beauty that nourishes the mind, then it is only natural for him to try to make the objective features of his building nourish the mind in other ways—e.g. by making ideological points. And the chief of these points is egalitarianism: the equal validity of all perceptions. For, there being no beauty, there can be no truth either; egalitarianism follows—and indeed is the premise and message of all postmodernist art.
Disturbingly, then, the Church has embraced a style that rejects the Analogy of Being, truth, and hierarchy. If one thing could have prevented my conversion, it would have been recent Church architecture.
Returning recently to my old Oxford college, Trinity, I was dismayed to see that the august portraits which once adorned the hall had been replaced by photographs of recent alumnae (women); who, overall, were of rather less academic distinction than the men they had displaced, most not even being academics. Trinity, I have since learned, claims that the new portraits ‘celebrate the outstanding achievements and wide variety of careers enjoyed by female Trinity graduates and Fellows’. They constitute an exhibition, ‘Feminae Trinitatis’, which will continue ‘until further notice’ (having already lasted over a year). Trinity says that the exhibition ‘highlights Trinity’s commitment to promoting equal opportunities for all’—which is to say that it tries to foster an environment in which all feel equally valued, encouraged and inspired. Evidently, Trinity’s fellows thought that these photographs would inspire women more than the old portraits had been doing; and that people make more of their degrees if they are well inspired.
But this argument is either facile, or reprehensible, or both. If one believes that women are more inspired by women, surely one must also believe that men are more inspired by men? and hence that, if inspiration is valuable, the removal of the old portraits will impair today’s men’s degree performance? Of course, one could argue that men have enough to inspire them as it is; but, since the sources of male inspiration have never before been so systematically removed as they are being today, such an argument would be reckless and unproved. Trinity’s above-quoted statement adduces the concept of ‘equality’, which could possibly justify an equal balance of male and female portraits; but the logic of what has actually been done can only be that ‘two wrongs make a right’.
Indeed, the presence of portraits of old men was explicable by the college’s history: it was never a deliberate snub to women. The removal of them, on the other hand, tells today’s male students that their faces are now being deliberately, thoroughgoingly excluded. For men, it seems, no corner is let alone, no ‘safe space’ conceded.
One possible explanation of this act of cultural vandalism, then, is that a few—no doubt not all—of the feminist fellows who effected it just don’t care about men’s success as much as they do about women’s. They argue in terms of ‘equality’: but ‘equality’ of different groups has always been an unintelligible notion; a front-word for a brutal power grab which will never end.
But let’s take a step back. What if one drops the apparent first premise, and accepts that any human can be well inspired by another? (We do need to drop it: otherwise, it’s hard to see what would be objectionable if a predominately-white athletics club refused to put up pictures of black athletes). In that case, the only salient point in the choice of portraits is that the original ones in Trinity’s hall, which show off the cream of 424 years, are far more academically inspiring, because far more academically distinguished, than the present rather curious assortment of 49 years’ worth of ladies. True, the ladies are mostly not academics. They better represent the range of careers that Trinity students will pursue—hence Trinity’s talk of highlighting the ‘wide variety of careers’ enjoyed by female graduates. But if the portraits have any value, it is surely to suggest that those women’s academic studies, their academic inspirations, helped them to be the middle-to-high-ranking professionals that they are today. If in fact Trinitarians could do just as well in life by spending their undergraduate years thinking about businesswomen rather than scholars, then what’s the point of an academic education at all?
The entire, unwarranted experiment is absurd. Kudos, I say, to the man—or woman—who proposes reversing it.
Those arguing for or against the excommunication of Governor Cuomo seem largely to be missing the point. A bishop’s duty is to safeguard the souls of his flock; he must always judge any proposed ecclesiastic discipline by this question: Will the penalty make the punished more likely to make it to heaven, or less? Wider political considerations, the ‘message’ an action ‘will send’ to others, are scarcely relevant, therefore, to the grave question of whether a bishop should excommunicate someone.
Now, it is entirely clear that Cardinal Dolan is a good man who is entirely orthodox. Therefore, he surely thinks that a) abortion and the abetting thereof are gravely sinful b) hell exists c) those persisting in grave sin are at risk of going there.
Therefore, I would humbly suggest that his Eminence’s decision as to how to proceed in the Cuomo case should be determined by just two questions. First, might penalties lesser than excommunication make Cuomo desist in his error? and, if not, might excommunication? Given the governor’s hitherto blatant contempt for the Magisterium, it seems likely that he will continue to hold it in contempt unless given the one punishment—excommunication—that gives one cause seriously to doubt the safety of one’s soul. Moreover, only excommunication would show him that the Church really means what it says about abortion; other options would be unconvincing precisely because so many American prelates have been so slow to rebuke Catholic politicians’ public declarations of heterodox views the matter. Now, it is probably true, as many say, that even excommunication is unlikely to correct Cuomo; my point is just that it surely has a greater chance of correcting him than any other.
Second: is excommunication a canonically legitimate sanction in this case? His Eminence seems to think not; canon lawyers, he says, claim it isn’t, since it is only the having or procuring of an abortion that is canonically an excommunication offence. Now, the Cardinal has grave responsibilities, and it is not for me to criticise his decisions, which he doubtless makes on the basis of careful and prayerful thought. But, if I may offer my own feeling, I do think that the Archbishop seems here to manifest the very worst, and by no means ubiquitous, facet of the (largely admirable) American national character: that of deferring slavishly to those with qualifications in the subject at hand—who themselves can’t see the wood for the trees—to the extent of forfeiting all common sense and independent thought. Cuomo hasn’t had an abortion, but he is clearly promoting serious heresy, for which excommunication is an entirely valid sanction.
The case for excommunication then, seems clear. Not to mention the life of St Ambrose, I would urge Cardinal Dolan to recall a letter recounted in Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. As an Anglican, Newman had once complained to a Catholic friend that the Catholic Church had undermined Anglican-Catholic conferences by converting Anglican delegates thereto. But as he later seemed to realise, this only showed that the Church placed the salvation of each soul above all political considerations.
Therefore, I would say to the archbishop: forget such considerations. Forget how it will look. Live up to that grave name ‘Bishop’. One of your sheep has stayed. Act to save him.
James Delingpole of the Spectator often compares scientists with the priests of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. We defer to today’s scientists, he says, in the same way in that mediaeval people deferred to the Catholic clergy. Both kinds of deference undermine our capacity for independent thinking and critical thought.
James may well be right about today’s scientists, but he’s wrong about yesterday’s priests. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of a rational, loving God, whom we are called to love, serve, and better understand. Hence, for the Church, a person’s knowledge of God, which cannot grow without his broader intellectual development, is central to his salvation. For this reason, the Church has always fostered the intellectual development of individuals. For sure, this fostering happens within a supporting framework of established truth, which is imparted to Catholics through catechesis, or indoctrination into the Faith. But the framework itself is not enough: every individual, as a rational creature of infinite value to God, needs to grow his mind for himself. This growth is what education is about—as opposed to mere indoctrination or training. It is, then, no coincidence that the mediaeval Church was by far the biggest provider of education in Europe. Priests had the intellectual seat of honour in society; and this was the result.
As James rightly says, it is now scientists—specifically social and human scientists—that take that place of honour. And such scientists, who are largely atheists, have little reason to encourage ordinary people to develop their minds. For on a scientistic-atheist world-view, it is hard to sustain the idea that there is value in ordinary people’s thinking for themselves: on this view, if someone is incapable of contributing to science, the natural inference is that he is best off simply learning to accept established Truth as unquestioningly as possible. On such a view, some professional people will still need intellectual toolkits, to do their jobs; but nothing more than that. So whenever this view dominates, education descends into mere training—into mere indoctrination in the received methods of thought.
And this is, in fact, precisely what is happening to education today. Even Critical Thinking is now taught as a method, or set of rules: that is, as a doctrine. Indeed, nowadays academia is all about toolkits: today’s most thoughtful arts students, even of English or Classics, often suspect that their tutors give them great texts to read more because they want them to learn the techniques of critiquing those texts, than because they want their students to glean wisdom from them. This is where secularism has brought us: to a culture in which no one can remember why there are two separate words, ‘education’, and ‘training’; to a state of things in which grown men will describe themselves as—I shudder to write the phrase—‘trained philosophers’.
All this points to a simple conclusion, which I would put to James Delingpole: if we want our society’s intellectual life to thrive, James, we need to start listening to our priests again!
I saw a very odd artwork at Ely Cathedral yesterday. It was a huge, metal cross, about thirty feet high, which hung on the wall near the West Door. The upright beam of the cross wasn’t straight, but wavy. A little board beneath explained that the curved line represented the emotional struggles of the way of faith. The viewer was, I think, supposed to imagine a pilgrim slowly shaping the wavy line as he progressed through various emotional states. In other words, this was expressive art: the wavy shape was supposed to be the sort of thing one might make as part of having an emotion, rather than reflecting on it. It was expressive in the sense in which a scream is expressive of fear.
On problem occurred to me. Consciously produced art can never be a pure expression of emotion, because reflection upon one’s emotions compromises those very emotions: just as tears that a child deliberately uses to convey emotion are less sincere than spontaneous ones. Realising this, I tried to give the Ely artwork its due: I tried to image its maker reflecting upon the emotions of pilgrimage, and to imagine the emotions that he might have thought a pilgrim might have expressed at the time of having them by fashioning a wavy line. But I didn’t feel that I had gained anything from the exercise: no real understanding of the artist’s feelings, or pilgrims’; no better understanding of my own; no sense that he had clearly captured some moment of human experience that the world could then reflect on at leisure.
In contrast, I feel all of these things when I look at a pre-modernist masterpiece: at art that aims to represent—to make something present again—rather than to express. Take Giotto’s Lamenti. We can tell that the women are grieving not because Giotto waved his paintbrush around in a sad way—that would not have worked—but because he had the skill to paint faces that look sad. He had, in other words, a certain emotional detachment or control, of a kind that a purely expressive (or pseudo-expressive) artist consciously rejects. For sure, his was not a full detachment; but it was enough for him to package up, in a disciplined form, the emotions he wanted to represent. His act of painting was analogous to the act of expressing one’s emotions in language. For however much one might be enthralled with emotion as one is describing it with words, the mere act of putting one’s feelings into the disciplined structure of language gives one a certain rational mastery over them. After all, to characterize a feeling, one’s brain has to be doing something more than merely feeling it. Such characterization moves one’s emotions out of the sphere of the dark, irrational and inscrutable, and into the sphere of the scrutible, the intelligible. It is a fundamentally human act; and so is non-expressive painting.
What is not so human is the mere bawling out of shrieks and cries; of tears and rage and melodramatic gestures. But it is such pure expression that modern art both indulges and encourages; it promotes infantilism in the most literal sense—and the superstitious servility that goes with it.
I think that the artist of Ely was sincere; I think he was simply trying to be part of current artistic discourse. But I would enjoin him to try something more human, in the Christian sense of the word.
This Commonwealth games, the BBC is once again encouraging us to worship our sporting ‘heroes’, with its presenters setting an uncomfortable (and notably inegalitarian) tone of deference. No doubt, there will be M.B.E.’s aplenty for the very best, in addition to all the T.V. adulation. The state’s message is clear: our most physically impressive citizens are to be our new national heroes.
But isn’t this all rather pagan? Today’s games stem from those developed by the Ancient Greeks, who thought that the physically impressive were closer to the Gods than the rest of us—and who therefore wanted to sift out, and reverence, the most impressive men of all. In modern times, it was their Greek descendants—poor, humiliated, long oppressed—who first seriously reprised these ancient celebrations of raw power. (Having said that: one might also mention Revolutionary France’s short-lived Olympiade de la République, which even included a rather pagan peace-and-fertility pageant). Carried away with a rush of Byronic enthusiasm, the Greeks modelled their new games on the most prestigious ones of antiquity—those held at Olympia.
Famously, Nazi Germany was perhaps the first powerful modern nation to make its sporting performance a matter of national prestige; later, the Soviets were crass enough to toss human material on to the Olympic altar-pyre, in an effort to make the rest of the world forget that most of its people were starving.
Have you noticed a pattern here? Since Christ, it has always been the insecure nations, the nations with a point to prove, that have hung their hats on their Olympic performances. After all, what does it really matter, morally speaking, if one country’s men can throw further than others’, or one country’s women swim faster? What does it really tell us about what a nation can achieve, or whether it is in strong health? Nations only fixate on ‘Games’ when they have nothing else to be proud of.
Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing that they want to be proud of. For it was undoubtedly a contempt for Britain’s past that led the Labour Government to bid for London 2012, the games at which Britain’s own sporting hero-cult really began. Labour ministers saw in it the chance of a year-zero moment: the chance to purge the nation of its regressive, redundant ‘Two World Wars and One Word Cup mentality’—for such was the mindset that they would always snobbishly impute to ordinary British patriots—and to exchange it for a new, enlightened world-view. In other words: for a ‘One World Cup’ sort of attitude. One might have thought that we, whose country has enriched the world, abolished slavery, spread the rule of law and saved Europe from several tyrannies, would have no reason to feel threatened if, say, the Kenyans could run faster than us. Not according to the Labour and Coalition Governments: suddenly, it really mattered if we weren’t putting on a good show.
And that’s all it’s really about, isn’t it, a show? Such superficiality drains a nation morally; but it also has more immediate effects. In this case, the billions squandered on ‘elite’ sport mean that we have little to spare for things like playing field provision in state schools. (In what other sphere, by the way, would we still use the term ‘elite’ without circumspection? Especially when the ‘eliteness’ concerned can get one a knighthood?) This, ironically, gives a specious vindication to the claim that the ‘elite sports’ budget, and the televised performances of the athletes inspired by it, inspire children to become sporty: for it’s true that, nowadays, inner city comprehensive pupils are unlikely to first see a playing field, if not on a screen. But the problem with this logic—as everyone who isn’t a civil servant in the Department of Culture Media, and Sport knows—is that children will quite happily play games if they simply have some safe green space, and a ball. ‘But what’s that, Christopher Robin? You say you haven’t got a ball, or a field? Oh dear: regrettably, you see, some big men took all the money!’.
This whole cult of Games, then, is a post-Christian neo-pagan reversion to a vicious, divisive, inherently socially unjust kind of elitism. Can we please stop it?