America and the Irish

The battle of the Boyne in July 1690 decided the fate of James III, who fled to France, which assured the Protestant Ascendancy. How land ownership in Ireland moved into the hands of absent English aristocracy is a longer story, but it is the essential element in Irish history. At mid 19th century native Irishmen owned very little of the land that is Ireland. Most of it was in the hands of middlemen who collected the rents from the landlords and may never have visited the plantations.

The famine of 1842-1850 triggered an unprecedented immigration, mostly to the United States, but also to Canada. Thousands took ship from the northwest in vessels frequently unseaworthy. Their destinations were often Boston, where Irish Protestants were tolerated but Catholics were viewed as a threat, their religion being inimical to American freedom.

This was not the first time the Irish had immigrated to the United States. It had begun before the War of the Revolution and increased after the Rebellion of 1795.  Of particular interest is the immigration of Irish protestants during and immediately after the revolution, which established Presbyterianism in the American backcountry of Virginia and North Carolina.

Boston, where Catholic immigration threatened Puritan control of the city government, became a center of the Know-Nothing Party, which took control of the Massachusetts legislature in 1854. In the face of the great immigration between ‘42 and ‘50, the legislature passed laws barring Catholics from being buried in public cemeteries, denying church officials any control over church property, and requiring children to read the bible from the Protestant King James version in public schools. The legislature formed a nunnery committee that raided Catholic schools and convents on trumped-up pretexts. In the long run, several Catholic churches were burned. Interestingly, the intellectual founder of the Know-Nothing movement was Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, eminently respectable, respected American, and rabid anti-Catholic. In a screed entitled “Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States,” Morse accused the Vatican of seeking to subvert the values and ideals of Anglo-Protestant America.

Catholics lived through the Know-Nothing Movement (a total dislike of everyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Protestant). There was the task of providing churches for the unprecedented immigration, as well as schools and colleges. The only crisis in the development of the Catholic Church in America was Testem Benevolentiae Nostre, in which Leo XIII warned against what he considered “Americanism,” the claim that American Catholicism was different and needed room to engage the Protestant culture.  This sometimes included the thought that the more difficult teachings of the Church need not be represented. In his letter, the pope warned against valuing the active apostolate more than the apostolate of prayer, which was pursued in monastic devotion.

It’s possible to see Americanism as defining the fracture that has characterized American Catholicism for the last century. Americanism tended to divide the Church into Accommodationists—people who believe the American republic somehow was unique and deserved a place of special consideration—and the old-line Irish Catholics. Over the next century the Accommodationists were represented by America, the flagship magazine of American progressivism, and Father Hesburgh’s Notre Dame. The old-line Irish were represented by The Wanderer newspaper, and their control of the diocesan hierarchies.

The text of Testem Benevolentiae includes what Americans will always see as freedom of the press: “The confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt on any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now greater need for the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful, both of conscience and duty.”


Having lived through the Americanist difficulty and the outbreak of modernism in the early 20th century, the Catholic Church enjoyed a century of what appeared to be real and solid progress. All this was disrupted in 1952 by the Second Vatican Council. In the wake of the council the fracture that could be discerned in the Americanist controversy grew wider. With the Accommodationists adopting the Land o’ Lakes Proposal that the only criterion for success in the universities was rejection of the role of theology in favor of a standard of secular success.

What happened to the Irish in all this? There is no scientific answer but anecdotally I would expect to see the Irish who remember grandmother’s religion clustered around EWTN and the National Catholic Register. EWTN is the most successful communications exercise sponsored by the Catholic Church. It is loudly detested by the Roman authorities as a purveyor of what Pope Francis called “backwardism.” Like the National Catholic Register, it promotes traditional Catholicism in the face of the Progressive Ascendency since 1955.

Now after five generations of immigration it is impossible to identify who is Irish and who is not because almost everyone is Irish to some degree. The religion to which the Irish clung for four centuries appears to have crashed, but we don’t know the end of the story. Meanwhile we can keep doing genealogy, some of which will lead back to Ireland.


Thoughts on the First Christmas 

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift was given

That God imparts to human hearts the wonder of his heaven.

                           “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

         There are competing ideas as to the exact date of Jesus’ birth. For the early Church it was tempting to assimilate the Christian story into the Roman holidays, especially the winter festival known as Saturnalia. On the other hand there is an independent tradition deriving from St. Hippolytus that names December 25 as the birthdate of the Savior.

         It’s important not to confuse the noble liturgical commemoration of Christmas with the general merrymaking of the winter festival–a confusion that persists until this day. Like so much in early Christianity the date is imprecise, but we can be sure that the first Christmas celebration grew from the liturgy and its proper celebration of Christ’s birth.

         The actual date of the birth of the Messiah went unannounced and uncelebrated, unless, of course, one claims the advent of the three magi, strange Easterners on tall camels bearing them across the Syrian desert or perhaps up the caravan route from Petra. We are told only that they journeyed long, bearing gifts and following His star. Their presentation of the precious gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as far as we know, was brief and austere, with the magi returning home while their story went on to claim a place in the medieval history of Christmas.             

         Only in its occurrence could the prophetic voice have been justified. The prophet Michah two hundred years earlier had foretold the birth of the Savior in the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And earlier than that, perhaps five hundred years earlier, Isaiah foretold of one who would bear the wounds of his people (42). The great prophets, Jeremiah (31:31-34), Isaiah ( 44:1-9), and Joel (2:28-29) prophesied a new covenant under whose terms God’s people would receive new hearts, their sins forgiven, themselves made fit subjects of the covenant of grace to replace the old covenant–recalled twice in the letter to the Hebrews:  “I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . I will be merciful toward their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more (Hebrews 8:1-12; 10:16-18).

          Those listening might have discerned that things were coming to a head. The normative prophetic tradition had reached a full stop; a bronze plaque affixed to the temple wall declared:  There is now no prophet in Israel.  The priest Zechariah, taking his turn at the altar of incense, was warned by the angel Gabriel that his much-desired son was to receive not a family name but the name John. After that an angel appeared to Mary to explain to her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, true God and true man, but these things she kept in her own heart.

          There was the expectation that one was coming who would heal the sick, liberate the captives, and give sight to the blind. On a certain day the son of Mary went to the synagogue in Nazareth, asked for the Isaiah scroll, and read aloud:  

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

    because the Lord has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim freedom for the captives

    and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

    and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

    instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

    instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

    instead of a spirit of despair.

         Thus began the revolution in the grace-enabled bearing, sharing, and suffering. and praise, marking the days between Jesus’ reading from Isaiah in Nazareth and the day he hung on the cross in Jerusalem. He could have ordered legions of angels to come to his aid, but he did not.  He could have commanded the two swords to free him from the high priests’ officers, but he did not. He could have claimed the title rabbi but he did not. He told his disciples not to construct hierarchies of power as the Gentiles did, but to wash one another’s feet as he had done.

         Out of the body of his teaching emerged the principle: it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong on others. Once, only once, he was indignant at the abuse of his Father’s house. Most suitably the sacrament he left us calls us to share in his suffering as well as in his glory, enabling us by grace to share in his life.  

         Since the early second century the Church has written and spoken as though Jeus had a time and place. He was born in Bethlehem of Judea and crucified under Pontius Pilate. At some point, perhaps in the early third century, perhaps the unremitting pressure from the bodiless, timeless, placeless gnostic connection revived interest in the date of the Savior’s birth.                 

         Not unnaturally, the Church had begun to celebrate the great events of Jesus’ life at times made convenient by the great Roman holidays, though the process remained controversial. The winter festival in December came to be assimilated to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Nine months before Christmas the Feast of the Annunciation marked the appearance of the angel to Mary.    Across the Christian year proper liturgical prefaces for the great events of Christ’s life began to find common usages. Gradually Christmas was celebrated with a solemnity that previously had belonged to the Easter festival.  Perhaps we will never know the date when Christmas was first celebrated with due liturgical solemnity, but whenever that was it meant that at last Jesus Christ had a birthday.

Making it to the War

            Many years ago I was a harmless Episcopalian bedeviled by the inconsistencies of the theology of that church. Kings could be divorced or annulled—take your choice—but into the 19th century an ordinary member of the Church of England needed an act of parliament to secure a divorce.

            And there was the intractable pro-life issue. The sign that says “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” is correct. Add to this the complication of figuring out what Jesus said–if he said anything–and there was always more than one interpretation of what he meant. Buried down inside it all was the clarion call of Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

            It was bound to strike anyone alive in the Pontificate of Pius XII that expectations for Catholics were different from expectations for your run-of-the-mill Episcopalians. And something about that clarion call cast all theological conferences, all of the bright-intelligent books based on continental authors, into the shade because the Lord had said, “Do what you can. Do everything you can, and don’t stop until you’ve done the very most you can do.”

            Guided by this inspiration I left the Episcopal Church with its friendliness and goodwill and made for the further shore of the Tiber.

            Becoming a Catholic was not easy. Once in California I climbed down one mountainside and up another to reach a Catholic seminary where I’d be greeted with advice not to worry because Episcopalians were good people too. That attempt to join the Catholic Church failed; the monsignor suggested I have a cocktail and cool off.

            My next attempt was with a crafty Jesuit at the Catholic church on the hill in Knoxville. He generously received me leaving such questions as confirmation in abeyance.

            During the next year—this would have been 1972—I worked my way into being a decent member of the Catholic faithful, abetted, it would be only fair to say, by the gracious pastor of Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville, Father Hinkle. In truth I was the last thing the Catholic Church wanted: a former Episcopalian there for all the wrong reasons, namely, convinced as I was that the Catholic Church bore the burden of divine revelation.

            Over the years I would find a place in the Roman Catholic Church in service to the flagship Texas academic institution The University of Dallas, where I chaired the theology department and then was the school’s academic head. After that, happily, I spent 30 years with the College of St. Thomas More in Ft. Worth, the love of my life.

            In 2014, the College, having chugged along for 30 years, was destroyed by my own ineptitude in alliance with those who should have been anxious for its preservation. And I now know that with regard to wonderful things like the College of St. Thomas More there are no second chances. But let it be said that I did not pass up the opportunity to join the fight.

            I was reminded just the other day of my maternal great-grandfather, Alan Jasper Harris, and Benjamin Harris, brothers determined not to miss the war.  On November 3, 1864, when the cause was surely lost, they made their way from Copiah County in Southeast Mississippi to the front lines of the Confederacy, which then lay in Middle Tennessee. My grandfather lived to return to south Mississippi. His brother—my great uncle—was shot on Dec. 30 in the battle of Franklin, Tennessee, having served as a lieutenant before falling to the onslaught. He died the next day, on Dec. 1, and was buried in McGavock Confederate Cemetery on the Carnton Plantation—later remembered by Alan Tate in his Ode to the Confederate Dead.

            I hope in the autumn of my life that it will not be said that I failed to make it to the front lines. The battle formations are shifting now–ecclesiastical authority aligned delicately but unmistakably with the comfort of the world, but there is always the Lord’s advice to all of us:  “Do what you can. Do everything you can, and don’t stop until you’ve done the very most you can do.”

The Adventure of Living

‘Out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Matthew 25:24–28

Called the Parable of the Talents because talents were a unit of economic measure preferred by the Authorized or King James Version as well as the Douay-Rheims, the story is among the best-known in the New Testament.  Its fundamental meaning is its blessing of the idea of life as adventure, specifically a moral adventure.  For the talent stands for many things: for ability, which is distributed unequally, and particularly for grace, while remembering that grace is not a quantity.   The parable can even be used to bless capitalism, which is the economic policy of adventure.  One imagines talents however one wishes as long as one recognizes that they are gifts from God the giver who expects a good return, who gathers where He did not sow.  

There is good news and bad.  The good news is the reward given the successful, to those who successfully put their talents at interest is the approval of the Master of the fields.   Also good news is the reward granted even the person who was given two talents. The master of the field recognized from the beginning that there were those who would try hard but come in second.  The kingdom of the new heart is not only for spiritual heroes, the five talent investors, but for Christians who try hard but do not make the first cut.

All this seems reasonable, perhaps even to people who do not believe.  It is when we come to the third man that our expectations are challenged.  He was as far as we know harming no one when he received the gift of one talent.   He was probably not an expert in investments.   He quite reasonably thought that he would just sit on his talent until the Master returned to pick it up, undamaged, its value intact.    But instead of a kind thank you from the Master, the third man is, upon his lord’s return, bound and cast into outer darkness, one of Jesus’ images of hell.    

Whatever a talent is in the story—and it may be many things—it presupposes the greatest gift, the gift of life. Be it so, the gift of life, like all of God’s gifts, the covenants, even the Incarnation, unsent for, obtruding itself upon a quietly dying world, belief in which divides mankind: even if we are not recipients of five talents or two, we are recipients of that one most precious gift.   It may be that on bad days we claim that we did not choose to be born.  But the gift of life like all of God’s gifts, like the covenants, like the Incarnation, is given not at our request  but at the time and in a way that expresses the perfect Providence of God and effects His will, not ours.

Given that we have received a gift we did not ask for, it is important to notice that a further apparent injustice done the third man will be the fact that the Master is expected to return, asking what each of the three recipients of His generosity has done with the gift conferred. For the gift is given on the divine hope and  expectation that the Giver will receive in  return a soul perfected in love for Him.   At the great final examination there will be no opportunity to re-schedule, to delay, or to take an alternative course.  

Perhaps it is true that at the beginning of the great opportunity called life—a gift we cannot decline–we take  up one of two attitudes; either gratitude or something else.   Gratitude may lead us through the Great Thanksgiving that is the Eucharist to the threshold of the throne of God.    The something else; willful neglect of God, cynicism, unbelief, idolatry of some pleasure or temporal good will be the implicit rejection of the Master’s command that, putting aside other fears and aspirations, we grow day by day toward the light that He is.  Only then can we be welcomed with the Master’s words, “well done.”

But there is one other chapter in this story.  The reward for undertaking the adventure, beyond the approval of the Master and His words “Well done,” is more responsibility.  “You have been faithful over a few things; I will make you master over many things.”  So those who used the gift well will not rest on their laurels but will be given more: talents, grace, responsibility

The ‘world,’ in the sense in which New Testament writers condemn it, is always opposed to the moral adventure that is the Christian life.   One of the most telling and important of the Lord’s sayings is a perfect analogy to the famous Parable of the Talents,   Jesus said he who would save his life will lose it, while he who is willing to give up his life will save it into eternity (Luke 17:33).   This is the advice the third man  needed but did not hear and did not obey.  And remember the figure of the seed, which planted in the ground only to die will be reborn in ever greater life. This, too, the third man ignored.    

And the third man keeps ignoring it, believing that one can stand aside, behaving as though they have not received the gift or denying its supreme value, pretending that it does not exist and encouraging the illusion that the Giver requires no accounting for the gift given.   The compelling lesson of the Parable of the Talents is the good news that those who take the risk and show the increase are welcomed into the pleasure of the Master, who will reward them by giving them more responsibilities.  Secondarily, entering the race for human goodness is not an optional activity. Doing nothing does not guarantee a neutral status in the war between good and evil; it enlists the deceived in the march toward outer darkness.

The testimony is that the Church respects the most feeble efforts to live life well.  In addition to making room for those who come in second, the two-talents persons, the Church recognizes the honest efforts of the mistaken who seek God and pursue righteousness under false idea of who He is, attempting to pay the debt incurred by accepting the gift of life as best they may.      



Accessing the New Creation

Most evenings  I contentedly watch right-wing television, hearing the old story one more time, told by the same persons, with familiar graphic illustrations, a pro-life father about to be imprisoned by the F. B I. for protesting abortion, a trans person in the process of trying to reverse surgical mutilation, a retired  colonel who is supposed to know about Iran, and  so on. All very contented, but then comes an advertisement to interrupt my peace by loudly proclaiming that Christ is about appear like lightening shining from east to west, that at his appearing believers will be caught up to meet Jesus, leaving behind the earth and the unbelievers on to presumably await their destruction.

This is a theology generated by  First Thessalonians 4:16, which tells us that on Christ’s return those living as well as all those departed believers will go out to meet the Lord in the air, and so we  will always be with the  Lord.  The First Epistle to the Thessalonians uses the Greek word  ἁρπάζω, meaning “to snatch away” or “to seize”. “This view of eschatology is referred to as dispensational premillennialism, a form of futurism that considers various prophecies in the Bible as remaining unfulfilled and occurring   in the future.“  This understanding of the return of Jesus was put forward by J. R. Darby in the 1830s and has since always had a following. It tends always to assign  the world, invested as it is by sin, to destruction. 

Thessalonians 4 is not the only text that may be used to support Darby.  The parable of those suddenly taken from the mill, the shop, and the field may be used to support Darby.  The account of the Apostle Peter that the cosmos will be destroyed by fire (while presumably the elect are saved) supports Darby obliquely because it assumes the destruction of the cosmos. 

Let it be said that in the first three centuries, one might say even  now, there is great confusion about the Christian future, which in no case is defined or depicted as thoroughly as we might like.  It is not that we know too little but that we know too much.  The third century saw an important controversy between Dionysius of Alexandria  who believed that the Christian future would be ‘spiritual’ and an obscure presbyter named Nepos who believed the Christian future would be ‘real.’   One might suggest that both Dionysius and Nepos had missed the truth that the supernatural is the realm of glory that manifests itself to us in the resurrection of Christ and perhaps occasionally elsewhere.   The supernatural is more real than the real world.   It is perhaps to be regretted that the Creeds and the Councils do not tell us much about the life of the world to come, just “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  However that may be, the great Irenaeus undertook to supply the deficiency in the last chapters of the last book of his great Adversus Heresies.  Remember that he had spent much of his distinguished career as bishop in Lyons combatting Gnosticism, one of the principles of which is the certainty that the created order has no future, indeed perhaps no substance, being as it is an illusion, destined for destruction.  Irenaeus was an Asian who had migrated to Gaul.

The Adversus heresies is a long book, written in Greek but known to us mostly in a Latin translation that was never lost during the centuries when transmission of texts was difficult.  Valentinus is perhaps the obvious target, but there are also chapters against Marcion, and other Gnostics. 

In the last chapter of Against Heresies Irenaeus turns to consider the last things.   The principle of his treatment of the topic is this:

Since there are real men, so must there be a real establishment, that they vanish  not away among non-existent things but progress among those things that have an actual existence.  For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated (for faithful and true is he who established it.) but the fashion of the world passes away, that is those things among which transgression has occurred, since man has grown old in them.  Therefore he made this present fashion temporary . . . . When this present fashion passes away and man has been renewed  and flourishes in an incorruptible state so as to preclude the possibility of growing old,  then there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, in which man shall remain, always holding fresh converse with God.

The point of Irenaeus theology of the new creation is the belief that just as the human person has a teleology, passing from finite sinfulness into eternal glory, so to must all creation have a teleology, which, as in the case of man, involves not destruction but purification and renewal,    This is the burden of the highly suggestive text in Romans 5:  “Creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected  it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” 

On the grounds of natural insight one might reasonably ask, especially as we know more about the history of nature itself, if it is likely that this vast drama of creation, proceeding from chaos to order,  from the age of the flying serpents to the zoo, a world of animals that man can and does dominate, in which the seasons are stable; if it is likely that, assuming the providence of God, this should come to nothing.    Looking at man and the world always as something being born rather than seeing it as destined for destruction undergirds a whole worldview that is distinctively Christian and which dominated imagination until the fifteenth century.   One of the most significant shifts in Chrisian imagination is the abandonment of the image of Christ returning to the new creation in favor of the crucifix, the image of Christ suffering that echoes in Christian life.   This in a sense represents the abandonment of future hope in favor of present experience, and it is the original de-eschatologicalization, not of course denying that Christ will return but refocusing thought and imagination on the present.  

People fall for the rapture theology because they want to believe that their lives come to something.  Part of that theology is the belief that true Christians will be spared the hard times called the tribulation.   But there is nothing in Scripture or tradition that suggests that believers are spared the troubles of the last days that are history between Christ’s first coming and his return.  But amidst these troubles it is reasonable and faithful to believe that the world and man in it is coming to something glorious.

Backwardism and Progress

It is remarkable that an Argentinian from Italy can think of a neologism that is translated “Backwardism,” proposed evidently as an antonym to progress, which is what the pope endorses and encourages. 

The dynamic of Backwardism versus Progressivism manages to obscure several important and highly relevant topics.   One is the doctrine of the Development of Doctrine, which proposes to unpack the original revelation given in Scripture and Tradition to create a body of intelligible and interrelated truths.  Christian doctrine has been developing from the original sketch through the mill of popular piety into careful consideration and promulgation by wisdom, the theological schools, and authority, the Church.  It is the specific claim of the Church that in the process nothing has changed in the sense that the end was implied by the beginning.   If this is progress it is progress of a particular and narrowly-based kind.  Examples of this process abound.  The teaching of the Apostle Peter intended to relieve the pressure of fervent expectation of the Lord’s return with the teaching that God of his mercy might delay winding up history for a long time is a fine early example of development.   The development of the doctrine or dogma of the Trinity is the classic example.   Belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit required resolution in a doctrine which acknowledged the equality of the three while recognizing the Father as the origin of all.  Development is not progress as post-modernity understands it.

The concept of progress was implied if not invented by the secularizing movements of the eighteenth century, with the enlightenment claiming to bring civilization out of the dark past into the clear light of secularism and science, to leave behind the regimen of priests and kings, and to establish perfect liberty.  “The term “dark ages” was widely used by 19th-century historians as  in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt in 1860.    “Progress was assumed in early-19th-century social theories, especially social evolution as described by Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.”  It was present in Enlightenment’s philosophies of history, as, for example, in  Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. As a goal, social progress has been advocated by varying realms of political ideologies with different theories on how it is to be achieved.   The Whig theory of history as progressive has become a common trope.   

It remained for the nineteenth century to make progress in the presupposition of thought and life.   The general conviction that the world was moving from inhuman conditions into a better world,  fostered by John Ruskin and Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Dickens, was caught up in the more systematic Hegelian myth and in the popular myth of  “March of Mind,”  which saw such things as the settling of the American West, undoubtedly an acquisition of land and an extension of power, as progress.   In the United Kingdom the reforms that enlarged the franchise were assumed to be progressive.   In politics in the United States progress blossomed as the Progressive Era (1896–1917),  “a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States focused on defeating corruption, monopoly, waste, and inefficiency.”  Begun in the United Kingdom, and derived ultimately from Robert Owen and from the Rochdale group, “the cooperative movement, based on mutual assistance rather than competitive individualism, proposed a  ‘New Moral World’ whose superiority, once established through the working of communities in which labor was the unit of currency, would drive out the irrationality of capitalism.” The First World War was a speed bump in the progressive movement, in its various manifestations but its advocates might have lived to see the era of Roosevelt progressivism.  But political change is no better than Francis Bacon as an interpreter of the moral meaning of human experience. 

Viewed as the fruition of Francis Bacon’s project for the utilization of nature, progressivism has been a stellar success.   If 1830 is taken as the base line, everything subject to the ingenuity of humanity has improved.   Average life expectancy was then 37; now it is in the eighties.  It took Andrew Jackson three weeks to travel from the Hermitage near Nashville to Washington in 1824. By 1860 the trip might have been made in a day.  After 1849, with the invention of the telegraph, information traveled at the speed of an electron moving along a copper wire. By 1880 slums were considered an urban embarrassment and the attempt to build better has been begun, often with the imposition of building codes. By 1940 life in the United States was not perfect. But the ‘ ‘standard of living” had reached a height heretofore unknown.   The history of the next century is the story of Baconian science triumphant, with belief that nature could be mined and controlled, which had characterized the world before 1940 incorporated in a much larger project involving ambitious goals:  fusion and fission, population control by state fiat and propaganda, Chemical sterility for the majority, scientific-medical determination of gender, universal instantaneous communication, imitation humans who are better than the  original, and finally control of the climate.  To the degree that the goal has remained the control of nature, who could deny that the Baconian project has been a great success.   In Baconian terms the world is much improved, even if more dangerous.

The difficulty with the scene of improvement I have set before you lies in the fact that the inheritors of the Baconian project have not themselves made progress, being the same creatures who started a war over a woman at Troy in the eighth century BC; the same creatures who will wreck the system as Brutus did when their opponent, Julius Caesar,  seems triumphant; the same creatures who will in England in 1520 destroy the religion of a people through pusillanimity and  fear and sycophancy; the same people who will not happily consent to the reduction of Social Security  benefits or an increase in taxation to save the system, which absent such measures will surely go bankrupt; the same people who stubbornly refuse to understand that the collapse of private morality will be reflected in the failure of public morality and vice versa.    

The tradition of the wise men, Confucius and Cicero, with Epictetus, to say nothing of the tradition of the Hebrews,  in one form or another provide  a kind of theoretical check on the folly of fallen mankind, with what Christians call “the fall” being a doctrine accepted across the world in one form or another; the Greeks knew all about hybris, which threatened all human projects from the smallest to the greatest.  The greatest moralists in the classical world, Aristotle and Epictetus, gave good advice, sometimes followed, but the wise men of the ancient world did not propose to renovate human nature.  There have been modern attempts.  Rousseau and Voltaire believed that there had been a kind of cosmic misunderstanding, which they proposed to clear away.  The belief in God, the moral tradition they had inherited, the regime of kings and priests, had imposed a morality of guilt and obedience that had warped human nature, which, once freed from this destructive past, would blossom.   A century later Sigmund Freud proposed another revision:  we had been mistaken in believing that conscious life defined personality. The disciples of Rousseau have their modern disciples aplenty Whether these proposed revisions in fact advanced knowledge of human nature is contentious, a matter of argument.   That they changed it is even more in doubt.   

That was reserved for Christianity, which came not only with laws and counsel but with power, the power to open the soul toward God and to fill it with the divine life itself through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. We are, says the Apostle Peter, called to participate in the divine nature, given the Holy Spirit as a living presence in Christian life.  

The reign of grace does not change human nature; it heals and elevates, producing the only condition that looks like progress, but is in fact restoration.  The difficulty with religious progressives is their tendency to draw an analogy between the success of the Baconian project and the illusion that human nature in itself has improved.   This in turn reinforces the progressive moral illusion that there could be such a thing as progress that would render some part of the moral canon moot.   For example, in moral theology this might mean that the two-thousand year old prohibition denying access to the Eucharist to those in mortal sin has been a mistake, or, alternatively, that the understanding of what constitutes mortal sin is a mistake.

Pope Francis obviously considers this, to mention only one of the proposed moral revisions, to be progress and progress, improvement, silently construed on the Baconian model,  to be self-evidently good.  Doctrine on this model does not so much develop, it progresses, so that it is possible that actions uniformly considered wrong can be right,

The word “backwardism” aimed at American Catholics could equally well be aimed at conservative American protestants.  Perhaps is has to do with the existence of a preference for the traditional Latin mass among some American Catholics.  But this is a small group; perhaps the Pope thinks the troublesome Bishop of Tyler represents American Catholics.   Would that this were true.   In any event, the progressive model has been progressively destructive, removing, among other things in the name of progress (and kindness, the only progressive virtue) the legal structure that supported marriage and piety. The only salvation lies in supporting and defending backwardism.  The Baconian model, in none of its forms,  is suitable for understanding the moral universe.    If Backwardism means fighting to preserve the great moral and moral-theological tradition, long may it live.

God Permits Evil

Thus says the LORD to His anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before Him,
and making kings run in His service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,

Isaiah 45:1, 4–6

In BC 589 the citizens of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were taken into captivity in Babylon, where they remained for forty years, until 539, when the army of the Assyrian king Cyrus  swept out of the east and set Israel free.  Neither their captivity nor their liberation was anticipated.  Furthermore, the liberation of Israel was accomplished by Cyrus, a heathen king, whom Isaiah calls God’s anointed.   Cyrus was a barbarian tyrant, whose action in invading the Babylonian empire was not conceived or executed in service to the God of Israel, but God used Cyrus to work His will.    God’s action is a pristine example of His  willingness to use evil to work His will for good.  Cyrus is named “God’s anointed,” The analogy is to the anointed kings of Israel, who are anointed to do God’s will.  And in achieving His will God sometimes uses those instruments that are themselves not forged in obedience to God’s will but in a determination to dominance.   Thus it is not inconceivable that the regime of National Socialism was used to bring to heel the degeneracy that is attributed to the Weimar Republic, nor is it unreasonable to believe that God used effectively godless states such as the United States to punish the Germans.   The moral meaning of these political events is always speculative; lacking the defining voice of Scripture (as in the case of Cyril) there is ambiguity as to who was on God’s side.

One thing we know with certainty.  The good God is not the author of evil; God can neither be tempted by evil nor does He tempt anyone (Jas 1:13).  That there is evil in the world is the result of the rebellion of angels in the first moment of primordial time and of men in the Garden.  Since evil exists, and since it is God’s evident will not to destroy it while time lasts, it being part of the burden that sinful mankind must bear, the government of evil must take its place in God’s providential government.  So we meet God’s management of evil not only in the events that shape history but even, and more existentially, in His permitting humans to suffer temptation.    Humankind may experience the power of evil in disease and war, but to be assaulted by temptation is our most significant and soul-endangering encounter with evil      Christ, like us in all things except sin, submitted to the temptations of the Devil, in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11).     The Apostle Peter tells us that we must suffer many kinds of temptations in order to give proof of our faith (1 Pet 1:6). 

Begin with God’s permissive use of Satan in the story of Job, a righteous man whom God accuses of no sin, but upon whom He allowed Satan to inflict misery, permitting Satan to go so far and no further, to destroy Job’s family and property, but not to take Job’s life.  Notice that it is Satan who suggests the harassment of Job, which God then permits, Satan’s charge being that Job is God-fearing because God has blessed him:  But afflict him, says Satan, take his property, threaten his life, and he will curse you. For thirty chapters in the long book of Job, Job  is afflicted in body, his theological friends, Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, being allowed to accuse him of at tedious length  of sin unacknowledged and unrepented, but Job never yields; he will never curse God. That might be the end of the story, but Job’s healing required something more than Job’s stubborn steadfastness. Job has withstood the test, but Job is still not healed; while he will not curse God, he will not admit the justice of God’s testing power.   The charge of Job’s three friends is: You made God unrighteous to demonstrate your righteousness. 

The issue was now clear.  Job may not be a sinner but he exemplifies pride.  God appears to Job to pound him into humility because he had not in fact accepted God’s judgment. Finally, Job finds humility, enabling him to say:  “Before I had heard of you, but now I see; I repent in dust and ashes.”  God has permitted Satan, through the three friends, to bring Job to the truth of his own pride, hence to humility, to the ability to listen to God’s voice, and to repent.       

Job’s is a great account of God’s permitting evil, let into the world by humankind, in order that good may come.  An even more dramatic example is in the Gospel account that tells us Satan entered the heart of Judas to encourage him to betray Jesus to the authorities (Luke 22:3), beginning the long march to Golgotha, where the terrible, glorious death of the Son of God made Him the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.

         Satan can act only with God’s permission.  That he can act at all is part of God’s providential determination that while the earth endures Satan, whose proposition Adam and Eve accepted, should be allowed to roam it in search of souls  he might destroy.  Satan carries out his mission not as a minor irritant in an otherwise peaceably disposed world but as the ruler of a would-be kingdom called in Scripture “the world;”  creation and society organized as much as God will permit, under the Lordship of Satan, acting always as the ruler of the world’s darkness, the outer darkness that Jesus mentions is the default position of mankind.                            

Every grace God gives is a rescue mission in a universe in which every soul is a battleground, every soul, not only the souls of Job or Judas.  When St. Paul wrote that the powers that exist are ordained by God and are not to be resisted, he had in mind the powers of this world exercised in the ambiguous field of politics, in which there are many evils that must be borne.   Temptation, on the other hand, although it must be suffered, is to be resisted, while the reality is that humankind cannot resist Satan successfully depending on its own strength, but only when God fights in and for us.  Without the full armor of God we are the foreordained losers.   Resisting evil nobly, perhaps out of pride but certainly without love will in the end be ruinous.    An empty soul, devoid of demons, is waiting for their return, bringing seven worse than themselves as company (Matt 12:45).  It is only when the mind and heart are filled with the grace of God, with the presence of the Holy Spirit, that temptations can be defeated.   

          In the battle Satan may and does sometimes prompt to malice, to avarice, to anger, but his most  effective appeal is to pleasure.  In the beginning God front-loaded the activities that He wished to encourage with pleasure, eating breakfast, reading the morning papers, our work, multiplying to fill the earth, but after Adam and Eve’s  rebellion reason, designed to tell us how much of which pleasure to pursue, always with restraint, is flawed, bent, indeed powerless to achieve more than a fragile hold on reality absent God’s commandments and power, so that we are left open to temptation to our destruction.  By creating a world full of good things each of which may be an opportunity for evil when holiness is forgotten in aid of human pride.  God permits the path to become hard, or easy, unless we accept the grace God offers.     

Temptations, like the invasion of  Israel by the Babylonians in  BC 589, are permitted  by God in His eternal use of evil to promote goodness in a world submitted to evil by human folly.  Among the powers that God has willed should exist for a time is the power of Satan in this world, which power to  tempt, to harass and accuse will not be destroyed until in the end, along  with death, Satan’s finest creation, he is  thrown into the lake of fire. 

Above all it is important to remember that we know God’s perfect will for creation.  Born of the Trinitarian love that is who He is, His will is always for the existence and perfecting of His creation.   God’s good will has persisted through rebellions, sin, neglect, and rejection, only to blossom again and again, never abandoning those He created in the beginning until they are safe home with Him in the end.   Jesus taught us to ask the Father not to bring us into temptation, but when we are tempted we are not without a powerful ally.  God has sent His holy spirit into every baptized heart.

And He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Can Faith Survive Socialism?

The obvious answer is no.   But first, what is socialism?  At the heart of socialism as a political movement from the beginning was distrust of individualism and a complementary conviction that the conceiving of culture as a collective whole organized for efficient production by the state, whose objectivity would enable it to overcome the inefficiencies and inequities of capitalism.  Elements of this political theory were adopted by the Labor Party in England and, with qualifications,  by the Democratic Party in the United States.  For both the traditional goals of politics, the administration of justice and the defense of the realm were obscured by an increasing willingness to see their role as the protectors of the poor and the middle class against the unreliability of market forces.  These working people were not so much interested in the theory or theories of Socialism.   In 1945 the British Labour Party took as their reward for supporting Churchill’s wartime government a national health service, the which to touch means political suicide.    

Socialism as a religion has no moment of transcendence; being as it is a systematic materialism.    Jesus had taught his followers not to be anxious about tomorrow, what they would eat, what they would wear;  our Father in heaven knows we need these things.   Socialism teaches the necessity of fighting to the end for a fair share of the social wealth, which means that, justly or unjustly, it wants someone else’s property.  Somewhere along the way the Christian vision of a world whose vision was fixed on the future, when Jesus would return in glory, succumbed to the essentially utopian vision of a world administered to give the poor (and the middle class) a fair share of the national wealth and in the end to blunt the consequence of the fall (disease, poverty) with universal health care and social insurance. 

  The evidence is that to the degree that this goal has been accomplished Christianity has vacated the field.    The Scandinavian countries are effectually post-Christian, while boasting programs that cushion the risk of living, not by outlawing capitalism but by taxing it to provide relief from the most-feared dangers of life:  unemployment and disease, a penurious old age, offering thereby a kind of salvation.  They are the bellwether followed by most western states, whose leaders have found ways to link free-market capitalism to domestic socialism.  

            Socialism slipped its nose under the Christin tent first by providing an alternative to Christian orthodoxy as that orthodoxy suffered blow after blow and then by co-opting the second great commandment.    Does not love of neighbor, mean desiring the best for everyone?   Does not care for the poor mean providing them as a minimum   a guaranteed income and health insurance?   And is not the government the best agent for securing these good outcomes?  And what can a religion shorn of a doctrine of creation (Darwinism) and without an eschatology (Schweitzer and Weiss) be but some version of moralistic therapeutic deism, seeking brotherhood among all, laboring to limit climate change, welcoming all, especially those whom traditional morality marginalizes, its vision firmly focused on this world.   In this new world Christianity is an outlier, with its belief in the Creator, its love of a divine-human person, its emphasis on the conversion of the heart, and its acceptance of suffering, and its contempt for “the world” in its character as “the kingdoms of this world” firmly in the domain of the Adversary (Mt 4:8–9).

 ‘Christian; Socialism was the trojan horse, attempting to combine the fundamental aims of socialism with the religious and ethical convictions of Christianity, promoting cooperation over competition as a means of helping the poor. The term was coined in Britain in 1848 after the failure of the reform movement known as Chartism. It is organized around a desire to meliorate the living and working conditions of the urban poor.  Perhaps it was John Ruskin who first excited interest in the condition of those living in dirty, vermin-infested tenements.  Typically they had moved to town to work in the factories or to enter domestic service.   They were poorly paid and ignorant.   Ruskin’s scheme was to move them back to the country, in aid of which he bought farmland, divided it into small plots, and proposed that the urban poor return to farming.  This was ineffectual but typical of the age of good intentions that was the middle decades of the nineteenth century.  F. D. Maurice attacked ignorance with the workingmen’s colleges.  There was the famous incident in which Newman entered into controversy with Sir Robert Peel over the Tamworth Reading Room.

            Before Socialism could become the religion of nations the old faith must be  Peal.  In the background during the last half of the nineteenth century was the question of the reliability of the Biblical text.  The ‘higher’ criticism challenged many widely held facts about the Old Testament, and Darwin’s account of the genesis of creatures could not be reconciled with the Biblical view.  But it was not until popular Christian belief suffered two damaging blows in the last half of the century that Christian Socialism invaded the churches of the Anglosphere.  First Darwinism then the Konsequent eschatologic movement delivered a one-two punch to popular Christianity;  no creator had created and established an ordered universe, Jesus was a failed prophet whose message that he would come again had proved false.   These opinions provided an opening for what came to be called Modernism, which proposed that  the betterment of the human condition was a goal that could replace the traditional Gospel, which had  been proved false by history:  no creator, no second coming.     

It was a perfect storm.  Just then, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century historicism, a philosophy built around Hegel’s Philosophy of History (E. T. !888), became academically reputable and in some circles dominant.   [Whatever subtleties Hegel may have intended the message was:  history is a self-justifying process that had no need of the transcendent God of Christianity.]  The great ecclesiastical establishments saw what was at stake,   Leo XIII wrote Lamentabili and Pascendi condemning  Modernism in   1907.   Presbyterian Fundamentalism, a work of 1910,   was a deliberate attempt to contradict the  Modernist theses.  

            These movements in theology and philosophy matured in the age of McKinley and Roosevelt while a parallel movement in politics that did not need the qualifier Christian was becoming important.   The word  socialism was used by Pierre Leroux, in the Parisian journal Le Globe in 1832.  Leroux was a follower of Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the founders of what would later be labeled utopian socialism. Socialism rejected the liberal doctrine of individualism that emphasized the importance of the moral agency of every person in favor of the collection of the state. The original utopian socialists condemned this doctrine of individualism for failing to address social concerns, including poverty, oppression, and vast wealth inequality during the Industrial Revolution. They viewed capitalism as harming community life by basing the economy on competition. They presented socialism as an alternative to liberal individualism based on the shared ownership of resources. Saint-Simon proposed economic planning, scientific administration and the application of scientific understanding to the organization of society. By contrast, Robert Owen proposed to organize production and ownership via cooperatives; in  Britain it was  Owen who became one of the fathers of the cooperative movement.

            Much time could be spent on another day in examining the relation between the acceptance in part of the socialist program with its relentless materialism and the general debasing of culture in the pursuit of pleasure. 

            To return to the original question:  can faith survive socialism? If we mean Christianity as dominant in the culture, the answer is that to date it hasn’t been done.  As active Church membership has slipped below fifty percent in the United States transfer payments have reached record levels.   It was Sir William Harcourt, sometime Chancellor of the Exchequer who in the 1880s coined the phrase:  “We are all Socialists now.”   It is to be remembered that Socialism means different things to political scientists and ordinary folk.   To the political scientists it is a theory in political economy with many interesting variations.   To ordinary people it means, whether called by that name or not, a system providing some confidence in the future.    Of course a Christian would reply that the future Socialism guarantees is short and secular, ultimately debasing.   But the evidence is that this, while true, doesn’t matter. 

            In fairness, urbanism means socialism as defined above, for the poor and middle classes will not, or cannot, be trusted to save for old age, and lacking a collective safety net would fall into chaos.   

The Working Class and Others

One definition is: those who have nothing to sell but their labor.  But this immediately degenerates into an unmanageable ambiguity.    This is not simply the lineman and plumber; it may include the computer programmer and the bank clerk and the teacher.    It describes a condition of property lessness, characteristic of many who came to live in industrial cities in the nineteenth century, the poor in the age of Jackson and Grant, of Victoria, often depicted by Dickens.  

It is a tribute to capitalism and socialism in the West that this class has largely disappeared, property lessness being ameliorated by social security and other safety networks, and by a generally rising market economy.  It is difficult to find persons without social security;  64% of Americans own their homes and 32% have a 401K, while private pension plans are numerous.  This is not to say that there are no more propertyless persons.

Often the working class is not imagined economically but according to slippery defining characteristics.   Working with one’s hands, laboring manually, should define a member of the working class, but this definition catches piano tuners, the folk who hold the “Slow” sign at the site of street repairs, the cable tv repairman who can climb the pole as well as figure out just which of the little wires is disconnected, the HVAC installer, the bricklayer, the finish carpenter and hundred of other hands-on projects, and a vast range of ‘tech’ workers.   Interestingly, tech people who now inhabit offices by the thousands are not considered working class, although they are now often the landless peasants of post-modernity. Among some of these, especially in the building trades, craftsmanship survives. Then there is the popular image of the working man, who used to drink Bud Light, drives an F150, who finished High School but did not go to college, who usually thinks religion is a good thing whether he does much of it or not, and whose moral education is various.   A good number of these folks are technically racist; they sometimes compete with African-Americans.  These are the folks from among whom come a disproportionate number of the soldiers and sailors that make the projection of American power possible.  They are to be found mostly in the South and Midwest.   They are usually decent.  They do the dry-wall,  bring the mail, manage the McDonald’s,  man the Seven Eleven, mow the lawn.  At its upper edge is the Rotary Club and the Knights of Columbus, where working men culture overlaps with the bourgeoisie.   They read People.  Only at the very top edge of this ‘class’ will anyone listen to PBS; they are glued to Fox or Newsmax.  

 If “working class” cannot be defined functionally, there are other characteristics.  They are united against a class the dimensions of which they probably discern but dimly.   It is a class whose members feel responsible for rearranging society  to amend social ills, especially inequality; they are theoretically socialists although they are often haut bourgeois rentiers, living off the capital somebody in Oklahoma bequeathed to them. They graduated from a northeastern college; they read the Atlantic,  Washington Post, and New York Times.  They are located disproportionately in the Northeast.  They know wine.  They know opera.  They listen to PBS. They are generally untroubled by religion.   Sometimes they are refugees from the midwest.   Their careers are in law, finance, academia, government, and the nonprofit world.  Their charities are not libraries and schools but projects working men do not understand and, when they do understand them, view with apathy or hostility;  more birth control in Kenya, equality projects in Louisiana, climate melioration in Morocco.   . 

The realities that bind the elites to working men, making them citizens of one country,  are the tax system, national elections, and Delta Airlines.   How did the separation between the elite and workingmen develop?   National organisms and organizations that had been national became regional or sectional.   The national religions, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholicism have to some degree become regional, with conservative Protestants, often in rebellion from the national church, located disproportionately in the South and Midwest.  The political parties that have always been sectional to some degree have become decidedly more so.   It is difficult for a democrat to gain state office south of the Potomac, and impossible  for a Republican to be elected in a blue city.   National elections will depend upon the outcome in fours states—we pretty well know how the other forty seven will vote.  All universities are to some degree woke, but red state universities are generally less woke.  It would be interesting to have someone do a study of the differences in student culture between Texas A & M and the University of Massachusetts, the differences if not dramatic might still be significant.  Working men country is still marginally closer to mother earth than the elite northeast.  Not only is the farm likely to still be in the family, but if you are rich in Dallas as well as a townhouse in 75205 you have a ranch.   Elite folks ski in Colorado or Switzerland, where they may own a chalet.  They listen to PBS and CNN.  

To seal the differences between these two cultures, the high priestess of elitism, running hard to be the first woman elected president, called working men deplorable.    That crystallized the differences between working men’s culture (and their allies in the bourgeois middle class) and the elite.  [Incidentally, someone with a sympathetic eye should study the American bourgeoisie middle class, which thrives on a mixture of capitalism and socialism.]  The ‘deplorables’ remark, which had force because it represented the contempt of not just one woman but of elite, left working men with a permanent sense of resentment, not least because as Massachusetts has always done, the elite proceeded to activate, passive aggressively, the southern racial minority against the majority.     But a more substantive difference was on the question of access.   The elite controlled the national capital and its culture, the means of communication,  existential access to power, to senators, to the national press.   

But the working men found a populist champion, a champion who could not be defunded because he had enough money,  and who understood the resentment, who now represents the interests of working men,  the degree to which this alliance is cynical on his part being left to individual insight,   [Another study needs to be made of just why the elites hate the populist champion.  It is true that he dislikes the bureaucracy and might try to dismantle it, but the contempt is visceral and runs deeper. Why?]   There are analogies to his political success.   One thinks of the liberal party’s victory in 1906, which ended Tory dominance for a generation, but a more apt analogy may be the rise of Benito Mussolini in 1921  It is important to understand the very personal connection that working men feel with their hero,  who repeatedly says, they are coming after you, I’m just standing in the way.     This resonates because it is true, “they,” understood to be the elite bureaucracy, are coming after your truck—they want you to buy an electric car, which is intuitively understood to be an attack on freedom—they want  your natural gas heaters, and most importantly they want you children; they want you son to consider seriously the possibility that he may be a girl, and they want your children to start thinking about sex when they are six.    On top of this the elite intuitively despise your religion as a matrix for racism and resistance to wokeism.  

This is the situation, and it is unlikely that anyone from the right can achieve political power without earning the loyalty of the working men and women who flock to his rallies.   A kind of moral sense exists among them as well as a sense of independence, and   because they are often not quite propertyless, there exists a fierce defense of what they have.