Bishops’ Dilemma

  This note is about what might seem to be a Catholic problem.  In fact it is everyman’s problem, for it involves deep questions about the natural law and human agency and integrity.

       For the first one hundred fifty years of our national existence the chances that a Roman Catholic might win the presidency was not really a question.  And there was this: should such an unlikely event occur, the moral formation of such a person would not have been markedly unlike the moral formation of his Protestant neighbors.  Presbyterians and Baptists were just as morally firm, some would say rigid, as Catholics until the artificial birth control issue came up with Margaret Sanger’s campaigns of the twenties.   That split the moral witness of American Christianity; Episcopalians in 1930, other Christian bodies soon afterward.  And to anticipate, then came the pill, about 1963, just after John F. Kennedy’s speech before the Methodists in Houston in 1960.      

       It was a reassuring speech, cleverly constructed.   And while there was the brave line:  “Should there be a conflict between my conscience and my office I would resign my office,”  there was also, “My opinion will not be shaped by any Church,” and overall the Houston Speech promised that he would not govern according to the moral teachings of his Church.  John Kennedy was never very much of a Catholic.  The flaws in his behavior, as with Martin Luther King, have been obviated by assassination and memorable rhetoric, as is right; we ought always to remember the best.  There was something to be said for Camelot.

        Kennedy’s speech quietly laid the groundwork for the personally opposed position, in which one was excused from displaying any personal integrity by holding an opinion which did not affect behavior of governing principles. In 1960 Roe v Wade lay 13 years in the future.    When it became law in 1973, it became the duty of the Chief executive to conform presidential actions and decisions to it, whatever the moral convictions of the executive  might be.  It was a  ruling that set part of the population against government policy and set anti-abortion forces in motion.  As the abortion question settled into the culture it became clear that about half the population energetically disagreed with the 1960 court decision.  This disagreement had and  has a religious base,  being located principally among believing Protestants and Roman Catholics. 

       Adding fuel to the fire was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life.   This of course did not mean that every such act that was not, for instance in the natural periods of infertility, was unlawful;  indeed  the Church encouraged knowledge of such periods, and said that with due regard to charity these could be recognized as a means of limiting procreation.   But one could not deliberately subvert nature’s purposes with devices mechanical or chemical so that the only purpose of the ultimate intimacy was pleasure.  This decision, which probably assumed that those to whom it was addressed would be married couples, now seems quaint.   In 1968 Paul VI could not imagine that for many, perhaps most, sex would become an amusement, nothing sacred, or even romantic about it.   But this became the cultural premise and as such it fed the abortion market.  If one assumes that sexual intercourse is a conscience-less pleasure and then, sure enough, one turns up pregnant, abortion appears as a right, a right for whom a large majority of Americans will fight by whatever means possible.    

       And thus late modernity got crosswise with a large minority of  the Christian population of the United States, the last culture in Western society with a big enough minority to effectively represent the Christian cause.   At the heart of the resistance to the destruction of little children was the Catholic Church, although many, many non-Catholics joined the battle.   The very first Christian document, dating from about seventy-five or eighty, before there was any Gospel text, having gone through the Sermon on the Mount, lists the actions that must be avoided by Christians just coming in out of the cold of Hellenistic sensuality.   No abortion, no infanticide, no corrupting of boys, all actions that while distasteful among the best were tolerated and in a sense unremarkable.   Tertullian, writing about 200, developed the matter thus.  “Murder, being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance.  To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing, nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or one that is coming to the birth.  That is a man which is coming to be one.”   Reiterations could be multiplied unto this present.     

       Now let us think about another element in the currently explosive mix.  Justin Martyr wrote about 150, that those are welcomed to the Eucharist who are baptized and who live as Christ handed down to us.   This meant that those Christians guilty of serious or mortal sin should not participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood until they had made it right with God by confessing their sins.  [In this vocabulary  grave or serious or mortal sin is one in which the matter is grave—stealing a pencil usually does not qualify—and one’s will deliberately and knowingly is set against God’s commandments.] From that day till the present the Church has taught that failure to live as Christ taught us prevented those guilty of mortal sin from receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ until they repent.  The Reformed tradition, the most important Christian tradition in America for much of its history, would seem to have forgotten that before about 1850 on the weekend of the Lord’s Supper the minister would routinely issue communion tokens to  those in good standing, those not guilty of immoral behavior, permitting them to share in the communion service.  The usual remedy for Catholics who have slipped up badly was and is just to go confession and all would be well.   Unless, of course one had been publicly promoting say adultery or homosexuality or abortion or, in the case of one of the fourth-century emperors, Theodosius, permitting soldiers to commit atrocities unrebuked.    On which occasion Saint Ambrose—this was during the brief period when Milan was the capital of the western empire—asked the emperor not to show up for Mass until he had publicly repented.    Over time excommunication became the method for protecting both the sinner and the Sacrament from sacrilege.  Rarely used, and obviously, if one is not a Catholic, excommunication has no meaning or effect.  

       Now consider this.   In the United States there remaineth even in this present a core of Catholic fideles,  Maybe half the Catholic population of perhaps 70 million, maybe less, maybe thirty percent.   These 30 or 35 million at their best are characterized by a disposition of obedience, the obedience that belongs to love.   From them comes the cash that makes ecclesiastical wheels spin.   They are likely to go to confession maybe once  a month, confessing having been rude in traffic or having read a salacious book or looked at the wrong movie or cheated in their income tax.   They will show up on Saturday afternoon or whenever to confess their sins whether these be mortal (1 John 5:16-17) or not.    And they will be there on Sunday.   Perhaps ten percent of them pay some attention to Humanae Vitae.  They all abominate abortion as wrong and morally repugnant.   And it is the case that they, this small percentage of the much larger number who will check the Catholic box on survey forms, consider the Blessed Sacrament the very presence of Jesus in time and place.   It does not matter much to them that millions of atheists consider such beliefs delusional, that Baptists, if they think about it at all, consider this idolatrous, or that Lutherans consider the doctrine a metaphysical impossibility.  For them, just as a sociological fact about a part of the American population, the Blessed Sacrament is the center of life. 

       Now comes a president who is advertised, and lets himself be advertised, as a practicing Catholic, who, while claiming that he is personally opposed to abortion, is putting the entire force of the government behind promoting abortion.   It has been suggested by a learned letter in the WSJ that since Pius X encouraged frequent communion, teaching that the Eucharist is food for the pilgrim on the way, not a reward for the perfect, all, thinking now of the President, should be welcomed to the Lord’s table.   What this overlooks is the fact that since Saint Paul about 45 AD  advised the Corinthians that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” no bishop, no pope, no faithful Christian has ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin, should share in the Mass or Holy Communion.  

       It is a bad year to be a Catholic bishop.  The President is a scandal to the faithful, and I suspect not merely to Roman Catholics.   What kind of person says:  I’m personally opposed, but I don’t think I can foist my opinion on others.  Let the killing proceed and multiply.   Or perhaps the President is among the multitude who have convinced themselves that being opposed to abortion is just an opinion, rather than a close derivative of natural law and of the divine command “Thou shall not kill.”  Tertullian was right, you can kill a child early or late, but you are still killing  a child.   As Benedict XVI put it, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”         

       So what are the bishops to do?   They have been told that Pope Francis would not support a national policy; Cardinals Gregory in Washington and Tobin in Newark and Cupich in Chicago and their allies must be allowed to go on welcoming the unrepentant to Communion.  Stuck between a hard place and a rock the majority of the bishops on June 17th decided by a vote of  165  to 71 that they should say something.  Apart from the question of duty and conscience, if they remain silent they will slip further in the esteem of the fideles.  On the other hand, if they dare to single out the President and the Speaker, they will be accused of politicizing the sacraments by liberal Catholics represented by the 71. They know that in the entire still-vast organism of the Catholic Church there has been only one, a priest in South Carolina, who has dared to refuse communion to the President, and furthermore that the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an appointee of Pope Francis, would be the last person to do so or to back up his clergy should they.  

       But on the other hand it is a great opportunity for teaching, for teaching Catholics, any Catholics anywhere, to approach the body and blood of Jesus with serious sins on their conscience is a sacrilege that is fatally damaging to their souls and derogative of the honor due Christ.  The teaching is not in doubt.  There are several millions who need to hear this who are not in politics.   As for the President and the Speaker and the like,  just pray for them, for they are sold-out souls, too characteristic of a culture in which, taking the advice of the Serpent, we make up the rules for ourselves, in which the gap between profession and action yawns, in which sentimentality is taken for reality.  In a way Catholic politicians who claim the word Catholic with the respectability it still brings while despising the teachings of the Church are a poignant sign of the times, an era when words mean nothing, when the political discourse that shapes the culture is, and is known to be, more often than not, a texture of untruths, if not formally, then materially, uttered by those among whom the relation between words and reality has long been considered a matter of mere expediency.

The Empire of Freedom

Presented at the weekly Text & Talk session available on Zoom.  These sessions are open to those persons registered with Lewis Tolkien Society.  To register go to the Lewis Tolkien Website.  To attend a Text & Talk session go to the web site and click on the calendar. then click on the day of the meeting.

To begin with a thesis that is not popular.   There will always be an empire, now perhaps more than one, contending for military and ideological or better cultural supremacy.    The Roman Empire, Christian since the third century, made the world we inherited.   Its rule extended from the Euphrates in the East to Hadrian’s wall across the neck of Scotland and from the Rhine to the Sahara. It inherited the idea of freedom we associate with fifth century Athens.  It was free in the sense that its citizens were pretty much left alone, perhaps this was partly because the state had such limited information and such limited instruments of coercion.  But in any event there was freedom, unless you were a slave.   The empire would have left Christians alone if they would have acknowledged the supremacy of the state, which seemed obvious to Romans, and within which broad cultural requirements citizens were, as above, left alone.  What destroyed the Roman empire remains a question and an argument.   That Christianity was the culprit is unlikely; even under persecution their loyalty was impressive.    More probably they followed the classic pattern:  fiscal profligacy, debased coinage, inability to defend the borders, dilution of the will to fight in a stew of internal politics.  They forgot, or could not sustain, the fact that continuing to be successful means continuing through military means to defend against the enemies at the borders.   The Persians in the East and the Goths in the north were suppressed but never defeated.  The war with Carthage was the only ideological or partly ideological war; the Romans hated the religion of the Carthaginians.

The Christian Roman empire morphed into the empire of Charlemagne, roughly the same territory minus Africa and Spain which had gone to the Muslims and Britain which after the legions were withdrawn in 410 had slipped back into a kind of tribalism of chaos and petty kingdoms.   

           The Carolingians empire then became the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, which existed in one form or another until 1808 (Napoleon) or 1919 (Woodrow Wilson), Britain and France and Spain lying outside its geographical borders but within  a common field of ideas.   

            Meanwhile the Spanish, French, and English contended from imperial success in the New world. With Spain and Portugal successfully colonizing South and Central America, England North America, while France gave up the enterprise, leaving behind cultural victories such as Quebec and Haiti.    

The eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century saw the efforts by European states to colonize Africa and Asia, especially southeast Asia.   In the eighteenth century England emerged as the world empire, while Spain gently declined, leaving behind an impressive cultural heritage in Spanish-speaking South and Central America and in the United States.

What all these empires at their best have had in common is freedom under the rule of law.  There are degrees of freedom.   Many south and central American states would be ranked “partly free,”  But it is a defensible generality that freedom under law has grown up under the shelter of Christianity, and the corollary that when Christianity fails societies descend first into reliance on positive law and then fall into tyranny or chaos.    A part of this freedom has been the right to be left alone with the corresponding duty to be responsible for one’s self. 

Beginning in 1900 with the defeat of the Spanish Empire the United States set upon the road to become the world empire.    We have always protested that we did not intend to be a world empire.    But that is what the United States is.   I will digress to point out that since the seventies, with the Viet Nam debacle, the United States has been increasingly restive under the imperial burden.   Defeated in VietNam.  Uncertain in Iraq.   It is hard to believe that, having given up the political position by adopting the one China policy, the United States is prepared to go to war over Taiwan or for that matter the Crimea.    Not to suggest that such wars would be a good thing, but unwillingness to defend one’s allies is the hallmark of imperial failure.    Just so the suppression of violence in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan, which we are preparing to leave, is a sign of failure.  US troops are not in Afghanistan to win a war against the Taliban, which, given their support in Pakistan, is probably impossible, but to suppress the Taliban and at a great cost in life and treasure to secure a forward position.

Similarly troops in Germany and Korea are not there to fight a war but to provide a counter force to Russia and North Korea.   One cannot imagine the Roman Senate debating the removal of the legions on the Rhine because they have been there a long time.  The legions were at Hadrian’s Wall for three hundred years and when they were withdrawn Roman Britain quickly ended.  The fact is that the United States faces every day the temptation to give up its imperial role on the grounds that it is burdensome and expensive; and surely all nation states will  live peaceably together under the rule of law.    How this is to be decided is still undetermined at this writing.   

  And there is this.   Empire building from Rome to the present has always been the work of states whose normal formation was that of Christendom, with Christianity being the ultimate, if unacknowledged,  cultural steam.   The pressures have always been from without.  Now there is the threat of dissolution from within.   Great writers, political and theological, from Justinian to the 1500s, almost universally insisted that the glue that held the state together was love and friendship.   This is not easy to imagine in fourteenth century Florence but in any event Christianity was assumed.    There have been rebellions of one class against another; occasional servile wars, the peasant rebellions of the 1500s for example, but they have not carried public opinion with them.   This was, one suspects, in part the result of two doctrines.     The doctrine of providence which is the most significant conveyor of contentment, teaching us all that we are where God had put us. And the doctrine of the symbiotic roles of the rich and the poor, it being the duty of the rich to relieve the necessity of the poor and the duty of the poor to pray for the rich.    

In the nineteenth century, perhaps under the power of the abstractive themes of the industrial revolution these doctrines weakened to the point of irrelevance.  And then the Devil steps in with class hatred.   I wonder if the hatred was real or if it was mostly just a theory.  At least in the Anglosphere it is hard to find cases of full-blooded hatred of the poor for the rich.  But be that as may be, hatred, marching at first under the banner of justice, was the doctrine of Marxism, which framed itself as the defender of the proletariat.  In fact the only culture that has ever done much for the proletariat is the liberal capitalism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries while every Marxist regime became a prison, from which millions escaped.    Five thousand Nicaraguans leave every day,  Finally, flight is prohibited as in Cuba.   As in East Germany, where a wall was built to keep the population captive.   As a populist movement Marxism is a dismal failure, for without the police power, exercised by a corrupt intelligentsia, it always fails.   North Korea and China are vast prisons.   In its perfected form there is always Orwell’s five minutes of hate in some form, soft or strident.     

But hatred has its ways, and now its program is, in the United States, to generate hatred between the races, building on the fact that retrospectively slavery is recognized as unjust, using the equality doctrine, interpreted in economic and political terms, to bring down the civilization, with thugs enlisted as the foot soldiers of neo-Marxism. The name of the system is critical race theory.     Its auxiliary is the alleged climate crisis, in which what should be of some concern is magnified into apocalyptic proportions,  which has grown men under the inspiration of political purposes  believing that the world will end in what must now be a mere ten years.   And not to be forgotten is the middle class sop that enlists millions of women and men in the cause of the destruction of the unborn.  People who will do this have already, perhaps unconsciously,  passed into the precincts of lawfulness, of which the broad attack upon language and nature are symptomatic.  The characteristics of these movements is a kind of lawlessness stoked and fired by a  ‘Puritanism’ or fanaticism in which, as in progressivism generally, the goal is theoretical or elusive so that there can never be enough equity or enough suppression of greenhouse gases.    There will never be enough destruction of language.   Ultimately, such things are made possible by the descent of the West into reliance on nothing more compelling than positive law, law which is enforced by no authority higher than the power of the state.    

These things have as their end game the destruction of the empire of freedom under law because they recognize no law.   Law that is merely positive will not fight.  And in the end there is no will to defend what I have called the empire of freedom.   An army that in its higher ranks is increasingly not a fighting force but an instrument of social change, in which the criterion of  success includes  the number of women and minorities in command positions,  can only with difficulty and improbability be set to oppose China when it strangles Taiwan or Russia when it lops off another piece of Ukraine.   

Various agencies rank nations according to the existence of freedom in their borders.   The criterion is apparently complicated and not often published.    Out of about 150 the United states usually ranks in the forties.  Germany and Canada both rank higher than the United States.  But Germany is a place in which you cannot educate your children yourself at home.  Canada is a place in which if your twelve year old has decided it is of a different sex you may go to prison for refusing to refer to that child by his chosen gender.   One wonders what the rankings would be if the criteria included the ability  to educate one’s children  outside the government system.   Not in Germany. Not in Sweden.  In France only with difficulty.   In Canada only with permission.  In New Zealand only with the approval of the Board of Education.  

According to a respected study, only about fourteen percent of the earth’s population is free.  This seems impossibly small until one remembers the population of China and southeast Asia.  The question must be: is this country and the cultural similitude it shares to some degree with some intellectual pockets in Europe, South America, and Africa the last incarnation of the empire of freedom?

Small Hands

Text and Talk With Dr Patrick
09 January 2021

Small Hands

“Such is of the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

These are lines from (I think) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings describing the condition of fallen mankind. Be it remembered that work is a curse: Because you have done this thing, “cursed is the earth in your work, with labor and toil shall you eat thereof all the days of your life” (Genesis 1:12). Throughout the ages a good deal of energy has been spent avoiding work, so that in every society there is a class of persons who are freed from the necessity of labor, these would be at present those who possess enough capital to invest, as well as members of the bureaucracy at the local or national levels, who, although they may be reassigned cannot be fired. In a broad sense members of the professions, although they may work very hard, are viewed as being freed of the necessity of laboring in order to pursue their vocation.
       The small hands who move the wheels of the world are thought of as having a job, not a vocation. In the Old Testament these were the people of the land, for whose protection here were special provisions. They are always there; land owning serfs in the middle ages, cobblers and millers and carpenters who possessed a skill but no property. Those who wove the Anjou Apocalypse tapestry in the 1370s, the builders of the great cathedrals, the principal activity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, whose names are lost.
       This class of workers revolted in England in 1381; in Germany in the 1520s , where they were put down with violence. After the industrial revolution relocated labor from the land to cities, the peasants of industrial society constituted a group sufficiently large and sufficiently vocal to claim the interest of the governing class, and indeed “Labor,” after the near revolution of 1830, claimed the interest of politicians who would variously seek justice for the laboring classes, or appease them, or seduce them for the interests of the governing class.
       Viewed realistically, it is the small hands who make American society habitable. This essay began with a reflection of whoever it is who paints the white lines on the roads. They must do so in the early hours of the morning, for they are seldom seen, but without those white lines it is impossible to drive after dark if you are over seventy. Then there is the cleaning lady, legal or illegal, who makes $10.50 an hour. In recent days those who work through the night to stock the shelves in grocery stores. Plumbers’ helpers, you can make your own list. This is a class of persons no longer poor. The driver of an eighteen-wheeler may earn six figures, as may the operators of the digging and concrete crushing machines. But they are still members of the class I am trying to describe.  The cleaning lady and the backhoe operator are bound together by a common culture.  They watch television. They do not read books.  They do not know who or what Derida and Richard Rorty, subjectivism, deconstruction, or critical theory might be, and although they are perfectly capable of understanding these ideas, they do not find them interesting. They are not socialists because they have property, and yes, they are disproportionately white, although this class will include numbers of Hispanics and blacks. There are generally not socialists, although it has been pointed out that voting socialist would be in their own interest. And in an age of atheism they are disproportionately Christian. They are also disproportionately uneducated in the sense that they do not always go to college. In terms of the criteria that have been established by sociologists and politicians they are racists because they do not understand why black persons who seem to them to lead disorganized lives should be favored by the government, but those minority persons who work and who accept their vision are welcomed to the table by them. They are fiercely independent. Probably they are genetically disproportionately Scotch-Irish. They are a diminishing class, essentially doomed, because urbanism recruits them away from their often unconsciously held principles, because the drug culture ravages them, and because television , apart from Duck Dynasty, recruits their children into modernity.
       While those who say that the Founders established an order that benefited themselves have a point, it was on the behalf of this group that the nation was founded. Gordon S. Wood’s study of how a monarchical, hierarchical society became equalitarian in about ten years ends by pointing out that although what Burke would have called the unbought grace of life was abrogated, the American settlement brought unimagined benefits to the class I have been describing, Jefferson’s small, independent farmers and shopkeepers. Disproportionately, they work with their hands. But these are the people who about 2010 found a voice in the Tea Party: According to political analyst Scott Rasmussen. Tea party participants “think federal spending, deficits and taxes are too high, and they think no one in Washington is listening to them, and that latter point is really, really important.” But how can the political class listen, when once one goes to Washington one is recruited into a conversation run by lobbyists, a culture whose voice is PBS, and whose most important citizens are not the folks back home but the donors that make reelection possible. Historically, resentment of the Federal government’s bailout of everybody but themselves, was, oddly, the spark that ignited a small American fire. Not well-versed in economic theory, they stubbornly refuse to believe that printing paper money to fuel an expansive state will work out well. Their work is not valued. The small hands that do the work of the world are just supposed to be there, while what is valuable is technology, medicine, lawyering, and politics. And what is profitable is trading in non-existent money.
       What we have just been witnessing, over the last decade, culminating in last week, is another peasant revolt, a large group of the small hands who went to Washington convinced that the November election was rigged. Their movement has religious and economic roots. Opposition to it is fueled by hatred, or rather by something worse, by contempt. Hillary Clinton defined the peasants as deplorable. What will be remembered from last week will not be the riots but the words of the ?CNN commentator Anderson Cooper “Look at them, they’re high-fiving each other for this deplorable display of completely unpatriotic, completely against law and order, completely unconstitutional behavior, it’s stunning. And they’re going to go back to the Olive Garden and to the Holiday Inn they’re staying at, or the Garden Marriott, and they’re going to have some drinks and talk about the great day they had in Washington. They stood up for nothing other than mayhem.” What will be remembered of Cooper’s remark is the tone; these people did not stay at the Ritz-Carlton or the St. Regis; they are the common lot.
       One may ask what fuels this attitude or superiority and its complement, contempt. It is the perfection of the attitude of Enlightenment philosophers, whose implicit claim was that they have seen through the dark superstitions of the past, to enter a world in which knew no bounds other than taste. Often the taste of the small hands does not measure up, and the wars of recent days can be seen as differences not over policy but over taste. The mere sight of the president throws the coastal elites into a state of inexpressible rage. He is and represents the wrong sort, so wrong that no rule of courtesy or honesty impinges upon attempts to remove and discredit him.
       The other thing that will be memorable from this disastrous week is the attempt to silence any criticism of the impending glory days. The capitol riots will be used by the left, as was the Reichstag fire, to justify extreme measures. I note that it unleashed the hatred of Peggy Noonan for the president and all his works. In any event, he will go away, and the troublesome small hands will remain unrepresented.

The Poetry of Christmas

The Poetry of Christmas

God gave us the great romance, for what could be more romantic than the story of the king born in a manger, his identity unknown to any but three great kings who follow his star to bring precious gifts, a child destined to struggle against and to defeat evil before offering himself for the life of the world, then to be vindicated as the conqueror of death, reigning gloriously for ever and ever.   

One might suggest that on a natural level, Christianity has a better story than the continual revolution against it.    The story of Lenin or Trotsky or Voltaire or Diderot, although powerful in evil, does not easily inhabit imagination, and it is well nigh impossible to imagine a boy, first realizing that he is in love, breaking into the Communist Internationle or the Marseilles or even the Star Spangled Banner.

This romantic superiority of Christianity coalesces around Christmas, a liturgical celebration of the birth of the Child, not the first or most important celebration, but one beloved perhaps even more than Easter, with its challenge of death and resurrection.   The Baby in the Manger, at least superficially, offers no challenge whatever our way of life, and is easily sentimentalized.   

The incorporation of Christmas into popular culture is accomplished through the poetry that is music. The person who is the meaning of history was not developed or recruited or discovered, but was given to us when the Word, the meaning, the incarnate rationale of the cosmos, who is God, was born  in the manger in Bethlehem.  Unto us a child is born, not a leader or a commander but a child. He is the center and there is no further fulfillment. For Moslems history may mean a will and finally a garden of delight.  For secularists it means death.  For Christians it means a baby in a manger.  It is enough for the author of I John to say  that all we know of what the future holds is that when he appears, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  “And at last our eyes shall see Him. Through His own redeeming love.  

      The great poets found Christmas a challenging subject.  For Longfellow Christmas posed a too-sharp  contrast between the peace of Christ and a nation at war, as in his poem “Christmas Bells.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”


I will merely mention in passing Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve,” a long poem ruminating on the  ambiguities of religion.  Tennyson’s Christmas poem. “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” is melancholic.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good. 

  These oblique reflections did not pass into poplar culture, where the life of the Child born in the mangers was set to music. We are not told that upon the announcement of his coming the Blessed Virgin sang, but the Magnificat is poetry, and surely the author of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels we have heard on High, Sweetly Singing through the Night” were right that multitudes of the angels sang their Gloria.   At the end of the story, after he had given us his Body and Blood, Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples (Mt. 26:30), his last act before the Garden and Golgotha.  St. Paul said that the life of the Church should be characterized by hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) 

      And not much time passed before the Church had set the liturgy to music, first to the plainchant, the majesty of Gregorian plainchant, then to polyphony; Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, and Elgar.   And all this glory because “He Came down from earth to Heaven, Who is Lord of all.” These words are from “Once in Royal David’s City,” and that brings us to the fact that only the church has a song that sums up the meaning of things as it lifts up the heart.   Many things could be said about the song Christ creates in us.  He was in the Psalms, and the song he inspires has always accompanied the liturgy.   He created hymns, but most dramatically he created the music of Christmas; it is Jesus who is the song that makes the world sing.  

      The origin of the Christmas Carol is not well known. The word has an etymology too rich to yield precision. It may be derived from the Greek word for chorus, and it is obviously related to the French carole and caroler.  A carol is a hymn, and more specifically a hymn of joy.  An 1889 reference associates it with wassailing, described as “the singing of Christmas carols at the doors of houses, a practice which is dying out.”

       But not so fast.  A century later carols are still sung, sometimes  at the doors of houses.   The genre has its models and its history.  The most famous carol is perhaps “Silent Night,” the words of which were written in German by the young parish Priest of Amsdorf in the Austrian Tyrol in December 1818.  Performed originally on a guitar, “Silent Night, Holy Night” quickly captured  hearts.

       Not all famous carols were composed in such a straight forward way.  “O Come All Ye Faithful” appears first among the supporters of James III, exiled in France, and is assigned on calligraphic evidence to James Francis Wade (1711-1786)..  The Latin Adeste fidelis was translated into dearly loved English as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” by Frederick Oakley of Oxford Movement fame in 1841.  The impetus for the writing of the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was the recollection of Phillips Brooks, later the famous Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, on a  Christmas Eve night in the fateful year 1865.  By 1868 the words had been set to music by Louis H. Redener, in a hymn titled “St. Louis.”  

The late-Gothic Kings College Chapel in Cambridge is one of the great works of the human imagination and human hand.  Every year since 1919, the year that stood in the shadow of the Great War that effectively ended Europe, the choir of Kings College has presented in the chapel the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.   Famously, the service open with a processional:  “Once in Royal David’s City,” a Christmas carol  originally a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, and shortly afterward set to music by H. J. Gauntlett, published in that year in Miss Celia Humphrey’s Hymns for Little Children.  The memory of the single voice singing “Once in Royal David’s City” invests imagination with its beauty.

      All of these, every Christmas carol is a gift of Jesus Christ, who makes the whole world sing, and especially at Christmas.   “God rest you merry, Gentlemen, Let Nothing You Dismay.”  “Joy to the World. Carols are the popular form of Christmas poetry 

Along the way music that would be considered classical was recruited into Christmas.  Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892, is a popular favorite , particularly in North America, where it is often staged or played at Christmastime.  The revenue from the Nutcracker constitutes about forty percent of the income of the major ballet companies.  George Frederick Handel’s Messiah was originally intended as an Easter Oratorio, but it is now Christmas music par excellence.   

Handel was a composer of operas who, when that form lost popularity turned to the oratorio, of which he had composed three before The Messiah in 1741, written originally for performance at Easter in Dublin in 1742.  The text or libretto is by Charles Jennens, a high Anglican Jacobite who used the Authorized Version or King James and the Coverdale Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer to create a text that illustrates the life of the Messiah. “A meditation on our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.” The finished work, says one critic, “amounts to little short of a work of genius”. There is no evidence that Handel played any active role in the selection or preparation of the text; it seems, rather, that he saw no need to make any significant amendment to Jennens’s work.  How Handel made the text and the music come together is one of the several mysteries of music.  Handel had made his reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, as a writer of Italian Opera, and The Messiah is an opera in which the plot is the text, written in scenes arranged around Scripture. Everybody knows the so-called ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ the ascending repetition of the line “King of “Kings and Lord of Lords, He shall reign forever and forever.”  And there is the full stop followed by “The Kingdom of this World has become the Kingdom of Our Lord and His Christ.”  Heavy on the prophets and the Apocalypse, The Messiah completely lacks sentimentality.  It now means Christmas in the Anglosphere.    

           And lastly not to forget the Christmas ballad tradition of which the centerpiece is the nostalgic “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Just like the ones I used to know,” written by Irving Berlin for Holiday Inn in 1942, the worst year of the war.   And one more “The Christmas Song” written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells  in 1945, that begins: 

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose

Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos

And ends:

And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.

—– Dr James Patrick —–

Tom Wolfe and the Kingdom of Speech

The Kingdom of Speech:  Tom Wolfe / Little, Brown Pub. / 200 pages

A complicated and brilliant book.  Perhaps the impetus for writing it came from the awareness that science, while in the 150 years that separates us from Darwin, had invented relativity and microbiology, despite intense effort had failed to produce even a compelling theory regarding  the origin of speech.   The story begins with the failure of Darwin, who having been enormously successful in presenting a theory fostered by William Wallace, never got further than, in his 1871 Descent of Man, suggesting that speech evolved from the human ability to imitate the song of birds.  Wolfe is a Darwinian (I think), but he believes on good evidence that Darwin stole his theory from Wallace, who had written Darwin asking him to forward his paper sketching a theory of evolution to Charles Lyell.  Wallace’s paper stirred Darwin into hurriedly writing the Origin of Species.     

After that a great silence on the question ensued until Noam Chomsky came on the scene proposing the existence in the brain, or as a function of the brain,  of a language organ containing a basic universal grammar.  Wolfe has a good deal of fun with Chomsky, whom he presents as a somewhat vain and pompous theorist. Then enter Daniel Everett, born in dry and dusty Holtsville, California, destined by his upbringing to a life of insignificance, something in the way of William Wallace, who somehow got saved by his future wife Karen, wound up at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, became a brilliant linguist and then became a missionary in the back of the beyond, in the Amazon basin, with a tribe of 350-500 people called the Piranha, pronounced with one short and one long vowel.  

  No one had ever learned their language, but Everett mastered it, including that bird-song imitations useful for hunting.  So Everett had before him a living laboratory in which these tiny people spoke a language perhaps unchanged for thousands of years.   But it was a strange language, having only a present tense, no word for yesterday or tomorrow, just “other day,” and no word for up or down.  They made no artifacts other than the bow and arrow, the existence of which among them was part of the mystery.  They were merely irritated by Everett’s talk of Jesus, which they politely asked him to drop after a while.  They lived not even in huts but in shelters thrown together of tree branches, shelters the next high winds would destroy, which would make the Piranha laugh and laugh.    

But their chief interest for Everett lay in the fact  that they had no language organ containing a universal basic grammar.  This observation opened the way for the conviction that the Piranha language was a cultural artifact.  It had no recursion, a word coined by Chomsky to describe the ability of language to use complex sentences implying many ideas.  “Every sentence stands alone and refers to a single event.”  “The Piranha language comes from their culture, not from any pre-existing mental template.”   This claim was devastating to Chomsky’s theory, and a war of words between Chomsky and Everett ensued.  With the public Everett was the easy winner.  He wrote a best-seller with the title Don’t Sleep—There are Snakes,” which was Piranha for “Good Night.”  If Chomsky’s theory was not defeated it was highly qualified.  So after the silence of a century, during which grave scholars had admitted that they knew nothing of the origin of speech, the idea grew that speech was the ultimate cultural accomplishment, the tool that enabled man to master nature.  The thesis of Everett’s book Language The Cultural Tool was: “Speech is man-made.  It is an artifact and it explains man’s power over all other creatures in a way Evolution all by itself can’t begin to.”   Speech is the dividing line between man and other animals; only speech gives the human beast the ability to make plans . . . not just long-term but any plans, even for something to do five minutes from now.”   

The greatest achievement of words has been “the creation of an inner self, and ego.  Speech and only speech gives man the  ability to ask questions about his own life.”    “Only speech gives man the power to dream up religions and gods to animate them, and in extraordinary cases to change history, with words alone and without political backing.”  Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Marx, and Darwin.  Marxism may now be discredited, but his idea of one social class dominating another will be with us forever.  Millions of sexual acts throughout the world would not be occurring were it not for the words of Sigmund Freud.   Mighty men might say the wrong words and tens of thousands of little men would die.  “Word are artifacts, and until man had speech, he couldn’t create any other artifacts, whether it was a slingshot or an Iphone or the tango.” You could lay aside your slingshot or your  Iphone and forget about it . . . But you could not make speech lie down once it had left your lips.   Wolfe suggests that we have entered a fourth Kingdom of Earth, After the ages of animals, vegetables, and  minerals we enter the Kingdom of Speech.  Wolfe concludes his account by telling of his casual page-turning of a book about evolution when, upon seeing the image of apes cuddling their young while the males stamp down under bush to make desks for the night, when he looked up and saw through his apartment windows the New York skyline, with the Marks and the Carlisle ($750 per night, Bose sound systematic, German brass fixtured) framed  against the peaks of the Chrysler Building, the empire State Building, and the Citicorp Building.” 

And there Wolfe’s story ends.

A story beautifully told, yet one in which it clarifies the nature and function of language still does not tell us much about the origin of language and speech.   Of course Wolfe could not  offer a theory that says simply that man, being created by the Word in the image of God, with the Word enlightening every man coming into the world, has never been without words and language.  Word does what Wolfe claims for them; he has a magnificent vision of their power, but of the origin of speech he tells us nothing.  

It is to be regretted that Wolfe did not or could not go on to remember that Christianity believes that creation exists through God’s speech, that he did not fashion the world but spoke existence where before there was nothing.  And Christianity would agree most specifically with Wolfe’s conviction that words divine and even human have nuclear potentiality.  It was man’s use of speech to defy God that caused the destruction of the tower of Babel and the subsequent linguistic divisions. And there is nothing in Scripture more frightening than the promise that every word we have spoken is known to God and will be heard again.   And above all is the glad fact that the name of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the savior of mankind, called faithful and true, is “clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God” (Revelation 19:13-14). 

Questions remain.  What is the relation between speech and writing, which is the attempt to make speech live and be shared through time.  And what is the relation between words and thought.  Wolfe suggests that one might try to count to ten, just mentally, without using words. And there is the mystery involved in the sudden ability of two-year-olds to speak their language, recursively, a phenomenon that supports Chomsky’s language organ thesis.  But Everitt was surely right that speech is a cultural inheritance, still an irrefutable witness to who you are and where you are from and how you will manage the world.    

  Finally, this book seems to be Wolfe’s own working through of the meaning and power of speech, a kind of revelation to himself about what he has been doing.                              

Was Tertullian Right?

Presented at The Lewis Tolkien Society’s weekly Text & Talk meeting on Zoom, 05 December 2020.

The second decade of the second Christian century saw the Church go through a crisis during which that which before was unresolved was clarified and established.   The topics thus canvassed were the status of the Johannine literature, especially the Gospel but also the Apocalypse in the emerging canonical literature of the cosmopolitan Church, the uses and abuses of the gift of prophecy, the management of souls with respect to the forgiveness of sins, and in a broader sense the relation of Christians to the post-Hellenistic world as the Church moved into the culture and the culture into the Church.   

The career of Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus cut across in a controversial way each of these issues but the first.    Born in 155, son of a centurion of the proconsular legion, Tertullian began as a lawyer, an advocate, necessarily well-versed in the literary inheritance of Rome, a skilled rhetorician.   We do not know why he became a Christian in 193 at about the age of thirty-eight, but we do know that he brought to his new profession all the zeal, every talent, and a lawyerly intellectual formation that caused him to write as though arguing a case, giving no quarter and always expecting a decisive judgement.   Between 193 and 207 Tertullian was part of the Catholic Church of Carthage,  For the last thirteen years of his life he was a member of and advocate for the New Prophecy, called by its opponents Montanism with reference to its putative founder.    

The New Prophecy may be understood in dramatically different ways.   Its advocates saw it is the perpetuation and development of an ancient and essential gift, a gift encouraged by Paul, instantiated in the office of prophet in the apostolic order by apostles, prophets, teachers, and defended by Irenaeus.  That two of the principals of the movement were women would not have necessarily counted against it; the prophetess Anna is quoted in Luke, the Apostle Philip’s prophetic daughters were famous in Hierapolis Salutaris in Phrygia.  From a somewhat different angle the New Prophecy, sometimes called the Phrygian heresy, was viewed by the regular hierarchy as bearing an ineradicable heretical taint.  The great prophetesses of the New Prophecy, Maximilla and Priscilla, admired by Tertullian were considered dangerous if not immoral.   One senses that  the existence of the New Prophecy threatened a hard-won ecclesiastical order for that was the history.  In the Didache prophets are viewed with great reverence and a certain distrust, for while their charismatic gifts made them impressive, especially when compared with the newly important order of bishops, there must have been a history of abuse, for the great liturgical latitude granted   prophets was matched by the caution that they should not stay longer than three days.  So the New Prophecy may have been defended as the perpetuation and development of ancient practice.  

And above all the New Prophecy stood for moral renovation based on  willing distancing of Christian life and manners from a culture seen as “the world.”    Central to Tertullian’s theology was a polemic against what he perceived as failure of discipline under the influence of what he saw as a newly emergent practice of forgiving serious or mortal sins such as adultery freely upon evidence of contrition and the acceptance of some form of penance, a penance that might, or over time might not, involve exclusion from participation in the Eucharist for long periods.  The forgiveness of mortal post-baptismal sin, never, or only one, or freely was an issue unresolved that had much occupied the Church in the second century.  Perhaps part of the problem was the realization of the implications of the subjectivity of the Sermon on the Mount, the command that Christians were to be pure in heart.  Perhaps an early appearance of a popular literature that vexed the question of the meaning of purity of heart was a novella-like book called the Shepherd of Hermas. In it the danger of luke-warmness that Tertullian opposes in the early third century is evident in outline.  Hermas is chilled because his involvement in business is driving him away from God and because he has not governed his family with strictness, so that his children may be lost to the faith.   But more than these concerns there is the anxiety caused by the fact that he has looked with impure desire upon the lady Rhoda.  Can this be forgiven, or forgiven more than once?   The Shepherd may not give a decisive answer. It seems to hold the line on the proposition that serious sins may be forgiven only once but in its parables and images it seems to hold out hope of mercy.

Tertullian’s Christian is made of sterner stuff.  A crisis was provoked, or this is one common interpretation, by the election of Callixtus to the see of Peter in 217.  Callixtus believed that even serious sins could be forgiven, and that perhaps more than once.  Hippolytus called this the practice of the school of Callixtians.    The bishop whom Tertullian upbraids for following this practice may or may not have been Callixtus, for the practice spread.   It is not possible here to review the subtleties of penitential practice in the Ante-Nicaean Church, but one can see that the generous forgiveness of even serious sins would  militate against the very existence of the pure Church Tertullian the Montanist envisioned and believed he had inherited.  

Tertullian saw this weakness as the result of a demonic surrender to the culture, and to stave it off he wrote.  In his catholic days he wrote against heresy, against the pseudo-Paulinist Marcion and against the Valentinians and the Monarchian Praxeas.    In his Montanist days he considered the catholic Church his opponent, and wrote in favor of what we might consider an unwarranted rigorism, against any attendance at the arena or the racecourse, where passions would be aroused, in favor of modesty in dress, condemning the use of pigments and jewelry, in favor of the veiling of virgins, by which he apparently meant the covering of faces as well  as heads.  He wrote that it was the higher way not to flee from persecution and wrote in praise of the soldier who would not wear the emperor’s garland on dress parade because Christ was his crown, and who as a consequence was martyred.   Tertullian forbids to Christians many professions,  that of magician or enchanter of course, but also  excluded are teachers and professors of literature. 

So the project, especially of Tertullian’s Montanist days, can be described as an attempt, made just on the cusp of the cultural victory of Christianity, to prevent the weakening of moral discipline, and to maintain distance from the culture of decaying Hellenism.  Not an ignoble project by any means.    Involved is the relation between Christian discipline, the discipline of the sacraments, and the Christian virtues.   If Tertullian can in principle be criticized it is on the suspicion that he thought human culture should always be resisted rather than penetrated and in a sense converted.   Dicey.  Which works best is probably a work of inspired imagination, and providence.  The world today has plenty of recent graduates who have set out to write for Christian television but it seems never to come to much, at least not that I have noticed.   When the culture is penetrated by Christian faith you get Dante’s Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman and Shakespeare and in a small, local, and ironic way Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh.  

But when Christianity loses entirely the Tertullianesque  stance, it becomes flaccid and impotent.   The Church of the decades after Tertullian did not follow the path he might have predicted.   What followed as the Church moved into the imperial culture was the unlikely flourishing of the monastic life, in the desert, at Lérins, Marseilles, and especially Nursia, the monastic life being the medicine against dissolution and absorption into the culture, the communities of those who have shut out the world in order to find God.

The Political Economy of J. R. R. Tolkien

     The PPE curriculum, philosophy and political economy, was I suppose an Oxford invention, calculated to combine the reflective, intellectual aspects of thought with the arts of politics and economics.  It suggested that what we do in the marketplace and in the forum is grounded in a set of philosophic principles.   With Tolkien this was certainly true; his pen carried with it the entire freight of the Christianity into which he was baptized when his mother became a Roman Catholic in Birmingham about 1903.  The most visible, obviously operant principle was Tolkien’s conviction that Eden had existed, and that the rebellion was real, marking human actions with the brokenness that belongs to a fallen will.  

     We can know something of what Tolkien might have considered the ideal society from his descriptions of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.   Although there are occasionally houses, most hobbits live in excavated space under the hill which is accessed by round doors, the round doors being a clue to the anti-industrial character of the Shire.  A hobbit’s concerns are genealogy and food, and communal feasting seems to be the nearest that Shire life comes to having  a sacrament. Unless, of course, you want to count the exchange of re-gifted objects.  Charles Williams, who was in Oxford in December 1944, commenting on the unpublished text, saw that the great thing about the book was not Frodo and his heroic vocation but the fact that the center was not in strife and war but “In freedom, peace, and good liking.”  

     Hobbits, as Gollum shows, can be corrupted, and Tolkien sees the world as the work of corrupted Hobbits who want to exercise power through organization and regimentation.    In the Lord of the Rings this is Sauron, who would organize the world right into slavery; in England in the 1940s it is your local county council.  When Christopher wrote complaining of the waste and stupidity of camp life, Tolkien replied remembering his own experience in 1917 and 1918:  “What makes it so exasperating is that . . . its worst features are unnecessary, and due to human stupidity, which (as the planners refuse to see) is always magnified indefinitely by ‘organization.’  . . . However it is, humans’ beings what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars—nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation.”  

     In July 1944, the invasion of Europe well under way, Christopher, who was flying over the channel, wrote of  flock skimming martins he had seen.  Tolkien replied, “That touches the heart of things, doesn’t it? There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare.  Unlike art, which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World, and that cannot really be done with any satisfaction.  Labor-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labor.  And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to a new and horrible evil.  So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the giant bomber.  It is not an advance in wisdom!  This terrible truth, . . .  sticks out so plainly and so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse meaning for the future, that it seems almost a worldwide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it.” On 30 January 1945 Tolkien wrote, “Well, the First War of the Machines seems to be drawing toward its final chapter—leaving alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or dead and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.  As  the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful.   What’s their next move?”

     It was part of Tolkien’s character that he saw the imminent Allied Victory as deeply flawed.  This was in part because he disliked the Americanization of England and Europe,   He never visited the United States, but he saw that “American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production would spread throughout the world. There will be no place to go, so people will (I opine) go all the faster.”  This was the passage in which Tolkien became at least one of the fathers of the flattening metaphor as a description of the modern world.  But seriously, he wrote,  “I do find this American cosmopolitanism very terrifying.  Qua mind and spirit. . . . I am not really sure that the victory is going to be so much better for the world as a whole. . . .”    It was in this mood that he criticized the English press for declaring the Germans who held out to be drunken fanatics, warning that you can’t defeat Mordor with Mordor and reminding that Germans, too, had their just loyalties.   His fear was that victory would bring a culture that meant defeat: “When it is all over will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it,  or will they be too tired to resist. The last rather seems the idea of some of the Big Folk, who have for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars.  Too many are childless.  But I suppose that one certain result of it all is the growth in the great amalgamations with their mass-produced notions and emotions.  Music will give place to jiving.  His delicately cultured amusement is said to be a fever in the U. S. A.   O God! O Montreal! O Minnesota!   

     The center of Tolkien’s social life was the Thursday evening meetings of the Inklings in the Bird and the Baby, a tiny pub perhaps fourteen feet wide. Back in 1925, when he had first come to Oxford from red brick Reading University, Tolkien had been one of the sponsors of the Kolbitars, assembled to read Icelandic poetry.  This had gradually given way to the Inklings:  Lewis, Tolkien, Havard, Charles Williams (1939-1945), and others.  This was about beer, good company, and reading manuscripts in progress.  In this company Tolkien was superbly at home.  The company began to fray when after 1957 Lewis would bring Joy Davidman, whom he soon would marry, who was considered by Lewis to be  master intellect and sparkling wit but considered by others to be merely intrusive.  Whatever else it was, the Inklings fostered the literary genius of Lewis and Tolkien.    Both seem to have had very little literary conversation at home, where Lewis found  the woman he had cohabited with and cared for since about 1925, and Tolkien found Edith.  Having fallen in love about 1915, Tolkien was forbidden by his guardian to communicate with her until his twenty-first birthday, upon which, perhaps unwisely, they were married.   Edith did not want to be the wife of a professor.  She did not want to be a Catholic, into which profession she was shuttled.   They managed, she being sometimes in the Church, sometimes out.  Toward the end of her life she received some reward, doing what she enjoyed, which was living in a Bournemouth hotel and playing bridge.  So the Inklings was a lifesaver and a kind of model of the good life.  One supposes this is what provoked the “good Christian friends engaged in conversation before the fire.”  

     Tolkien wrote little directly about politics.  His Catholicism was traditional; he regretted the destruction of the Roman Rite, along with Waugh and T. S. Eliot.

Paley, Darwin, and the Future

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. 

— St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Article 3, Question 2) 

Animals have instinct, which is a name for we know not what, and planets, stars, and trees behave as though they have an intelligent purpose.  

William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity was published in 1794.  The illustration Paley bought forward was the finding of a watch on a forest trail.   His conclusion that someone must have made the watch, obviously some intelligent purposeful creature, construed as an analogy to creation by God, is considered jejune.     

Generations of students have believed Saint Thomas’s fifth way (and Paley’s watch analogy) to have been refuted by a parable told in John Wisdom’s book God.   It tells of those who came across a perfectly maintained garden in wilderness, the sight of which caused one of the party to claim that there must be a gardener. So they watched carefully and set up a guard.  No gardener appeared.  So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

This argument contains or presupposes a famous enthymeme; it assumes that if there were a gardener who tends the universe he would be a finite, material being,  Since God governs and perfects creation by his providence, one need not expect him to set off alarms.  Still, countless students of philosophy have been impressed by John Wisdom’s parable.   

My argument in this short paper is neither to refute nor justify either Darwin or Saint Thomas.  I might begin with the vernacular observation that, like all of Saint Thomas’s five ways, the argument from design seems rooted in human imagination.  At some point we wake up and look around and see that the world is wonderful.   We may be the Hebrew psalmist:  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), or Saint Francis, who sang of brother sun and sister moon, or Shakespeare: “Juliet is the sun!”  or Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world I charged with the grandeur of God,” or perhaps we remember the lyrics of the 1950s song: “Every time I hear a new born baby cry/ Or touch a leaf or see the sky/Then I know why, I believe.”   This, in words elevated or popular, is intrinsic to the human heart and to human experience; it is the argument from design writ small, and like Christianity itself I doubt that, while these just sentiments may be suppressed, they will ever disappear.         

Darwinism appeared in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), launched into a world that wanted a holiday from Christianity.  It was in its origin not very complicated.   It was enabled by Charles Lyell’s idea that, creation, as demonstrated by new-born geology, was a million years, not six thousand years old.  The same geology had unearthed hundreds of fossilized species.  The theory states that  all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.   There is no agreement as to just who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”   [This opens upon an ongoing argument as to the definition of the fittest.   To be truly human it is essential to believe that there is something more important than survival.]  

Darwin had a motive, even if seldom expressed.  He thought the argument from design false and Christianity cruel:  ‘I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.’ Of course that depends upon whether, having ample opportunity they consciously and advisedly had ignored God.  But the real complaint is not against God’s putative injustice but against his government in the first place.  Darwin was one of those Friends of Humanity who wished to set us free.   Interestingly enough, his friend and sometimes collaborator William Wallace, came to the conclusion that there must be an intelligent designer.   

The theory made some sense of an older, more complex, natural world.  On its face it contradicted the Genesis story.  If anyone knows anything about the history of public education in the United States it is easy to see why evolution, which John Paul II considered “more than a theory,” is as a practical matter relentlessly inflicted upon the sixth and subsequent grades.   A  person who believes he has been known to God from the foundations of the world and given a unique soul by God at the moment of conception is different from a person who believes he is one who believes he is a product of nature.          

As most of you know, I believe it is possible to do a better reading of Scripture that would not eliminate but reduce the apparently obstinate differences between the Bible and Darwin.   Broadly, twenty-first century students of the natural history of the world, evolutionists and students of Genesis, share two ideas or beliefs.  The natural world at some point or perhaps from many points has proceeded from disorganization and chaos to a state of organization suitable to human  habitation while at the same time humans suitable to inhabit this world appeared.   And the second:  there have been catastrophes, perhaps not enough to turn a hard evolutionist into a catastrophist, but elements of catastrophism have gained credence among evolutionists.   The opening verses of Genesis are a key and a difficulty.  I am the opponent of the modern translation of the Hebrew which reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was formless.”   Better is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was or came to be formless.”   I do not believe that God came upon a scene of pre-existing formlessness and chaos and then created the world we know by overcoming chaos.  That might be an evolutionary tale.  But if God can create anything out of nothing, he can create it in or with perfection.  Chaos, darkness, and emptiness are the hallmarks of Satan; God’s perfect creation had been invaded by the fallen angels.

But however the text is read, there is at some point a bringing of order out of chaos or next to nothing.  There is no chronology of the early verses of Genesis; if evolutionists wish to insert millions of years in Genesis 1, let there be no objection.   I am also intrigued by the fact that the age before the age of man was the age of serpents, small and large, birds and the brontosaurus rex.  All of whom were suddenly destroyed.  By a single meteor.  Maybe.  I wonder also why one of the gifts of the original covenant, with Noah, was the stability of the seasons (Genesis 8:22); not much gift unless there had been no seasons earlier.   What knocked the earth off its axis to create four seasons?  And by the way, what ripped the continents apart?  And how did all those broken bones of animals get deposited in caves and crevasses around the world?

   I am also interested in what mathematics might have to do with evolutionary theory.  Evolution as presents a process, not easily subject to rules.  Interestingly enough, these laws are held to be permanent; one does not hear  of the laws of thermodynamics changing when they become unfashionable.   Very often these laws are mathematical.  Surely you know somebody who has spent frustrating hours trying to explain to a high school sophomore why the inclined plane experiment is never exact, why in the end we get a percentage of error based on a rule that is never exemplified.  

So many puzzles.   Why was Paris at one time under water, populated by shellfish, then later dry land, then submerged again but with the bones of mammals, but then dry land again?  Why are there no trees older than BC 800?   And why are there shellfish on top of Mount LeConte?   Geology is not nearly as neat as evolutionary theory.

Finally, let us consider the last four of St. Thomas’s proofs as a cluster of reasonable reflection.   If real perfection doesn’t exist somewhere, then best and better are meaningless.   The existence of a world of finite beings, no one of which may be here tomorrow, argues by their very persistence the existence of a necessary first cause.  Everything that exists must have a cause; this world is no different. And always the argument from design; this beauty and order came from somewhere; I didn’t make it. 

As for the future, perhaps, the Pope to the contrary notwithstanding, school children should be taught to appreciate Darwin, as well as St. Thomas, and to remember that every large scale historical theory such as Darwin’s will be refined and amended, we know not how, in the future.


You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that strikes in darkness

Psalm 91:5

To understand the evil of which plague and pestilence are species one must begin with Genesis One, making a decision whether the picture given in the opening verses of Scripture is the image of God struggling to create a world from disorder and chaos or whether the image we are given is of God overcoming chaos, darkness, and emptiness after a primordial catastrophe, the rebellion of the angels, on behalf of order, fullness of being, and light, making a world for Adam and Eve.   I believe the latter is the right picture, while the former makes chaos, emptiness and darkness part of God’s original creation, which is impossible. God does not create chaos and disorder, or disease, or sickness, or viruses and germs. A cancerous cell is instructive; it is a cell that has given up on its proper form and gone wild.  

Disease and sickness, whether forestalled temporarily or not, are the heralds of death, which is both a divine punishment, given so that rebel mankind will not live forever, making up good and evil for himself, eternal beings given to evil, and at the same time death is Satan’s masterpiece. 

Both nature and supernature are expressions of God’s will, of His creative will and His salvific will respectively.  In a sense nature is not ‘natural,’ for its existences, patterns, and reliabilities are willed by Him in every moment of time.   At the same time there are no accidents. Whatever happens is willed or permitted by God. Because He has not denied Satan the freedom he accords every rational being, the interface between God’s will and Satan’s malignancy is to us a mystery.   

Various things can be said about God’s government of nature and of souls, some at least partly true.  Underlying all is His good will toward man and nature, which is expressed on one hand in the consistency of nature granted in Genesis, a covenant of which the rainbow is the sign and on the other by his patient pursuit of fallen mankind throughout long years described in the Old Testament until there is the Incarnation and life with the Blessed Trinity forever.  At the same time, just as sin is not driven from the world, natural evil, moderated in Genesis One, is not driven out of creation. These, perduring natural evils and sin, are used by God in his government of man and nature. They may be employed by God to compel obedience, as in the seven plagues visited upon Egypt to secure Pharaoh’s willingness to let Israel go.   They may be used in punishment, as when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. They may be used first to punish then to allure the woman depicted in Hosea Chapter One. The Babylonians may be used to punish Israel with captivity in a foreign land because of Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. One may doubt that Jonah appeared in the Jerusalem Directory while believing that God is quite able to have the prophet swallowed by a large fish and redirected toward the Lord’s purpose.  At the same time we are warned against attributing the suffering of evil to those specifically afflicted by Our Lord Himself, who pointed out the truth that the Galileans whom Herod destroyed and the eighteen men on whom the tower fell were not worse offenders than the other Galileans and other inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is not our’s to know who deserved what.

But the mitigation of blame we might think due others on our part does not exhaust the matter of God’s particular government, regarding which Shakespeare left a brilliant essay in Henry V.   Contemplating the fact that many will die in battle at Agincourt.  

There is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to arbitrament of arms, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.  Some peradventure have upon them the guilt of contrived and premeditated murder; some of beguiling virgins . . . some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle peace with pillage and robbery. . . .  Now if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is his beadle; war is his vengeance. . . . Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed—wash every mote out of his conscience.  And dying so, death is to him an advantage, or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained. And in him that escapes, it were not sin to think, that making God so free an offer, he let him live to see his greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.

War, sickness, the permission of evil, evil that we let into the world,  of any kind, are God’s beadles or correction officers. We do not expect to die from any modern plague; planning and good medicine will mitigate.  This was not always true. The Plague of Athens in BC 430 blunted the Athenians’ chances to defeat Sparta and caused political instability. The Plague of Justinian, from about 540 to 585, was caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, the same that fueled the Black Death.  DNA suggests that the origin of Justinian’s plague was in Central Asia. The most basal or root level existing strains of the Yersinia pestis as a whole species are found in Qinghai, China. After samples of DNA from Yersinia pestis were isolated from skeletons of Justinian plague victims in Germany, It was found that modern strains currently found in the Tian Shan mountain range system are most basal known in comparison with the Justinian plague strain. If order and health are good things, bacteria and contemporary viruses are evil things.  They are not ‘natural’ any more than Covid-19 is ‘natural.’ They must be a perversion of something but I do not know what.  

The rat-borne Yersina pestis literally plagued Europe until 1750.  Plague occurred in Venice 22 times between 1361 and 1528. The plague of 1576–1577 killed 50,000 in Venice, almost a third of the population. Late outbreaks in central Europe included the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, which is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years’ War, may have killed one-third of the population. The Great Plague of Vienna in 1679 killed 100,000.

During the last century medicine has made a brave, and much appreciated, show of being able to manage epidemics and pandemics.   Perhaps ten common potentially killer diseases have been mastered though hygiene, clean water, sewage disposal systems, and vaccinations, one great triumph being that near eradication of poliomyelitis.  How the present plague is different from those in the past is still unknown. Its moral dimensions are no different from any other.

And by the way, one of the puzzles of God’s providence is the fact that he sometimes seems to change his mind about the planned reminders, if we ask and repent.

– Dr. James Patrick –

Santa Claus: Gentling Gomorrah

Wherever there is a living religion it will influence the popular culture.  The notion of gentling the culture, in that specific language, belongs, I think, to Leo XIII, and was used by him to describe the situation in which Christianity, while it elevates souls directly through conversion touches and elevates the general culture indirectly by the tendency of that culture to engage the customs and themes of religion at a popular level.  Where there are Italian Catholics there still will be processions of the statue of the Blessed Virgin or the local saint, held shoulder high, amidst showers of sparklers and fireworks. Where there are English-speaking Christians there will be Santa Claus and more recently Lessons and Carols. In Czechoslovakia there has recently been objection to Santa Claus, on the grounds that their tradition insists that presents are delivered by Baby Jesus.      

  One of the first and most persistent incursions of Christianity into popular culture involved and still involves the rhythm of time. The Christian calendar is rooted in Jewish practice and in the Roman calendar, while reflecting as well the natural cycle of the seasons.  Over time the Roman week of eight days was replaced by the seven-day Christian week borrowed from Judaism and Genesis. Easter, the first and still-greatest Christian festival, set the Passover, as it were, in a new key, and after a period when it was celebrated (at least in Asia) on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nissan, its date was determined by astronomical calculation. In Rome the new year traditionally began in March, the season of nature’s regeneration. The tradition that Christmas was to be celebrated on December 25th dates to the third century.  [I am reminded of the (to us) odd custom of reciting the date of Epiphany and (I think) Easter at the Christmas midnight Mass.]  In the Middle Ages March 25, was New Year’s Day as well as the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel, or Lady Day. Nine months after March 25 is Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the Lord, which falls upon or near the December feast of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and gift-giving.

Hippolytus wrote about 204 in his Commentary on Daniel that Christians esteemed December 25 the birthdate of Jesus and March 25 the date of the great sacrifice, or the Easter celebration.  None of this was rationalized until the scholarship of Dionysius (470–554), a Scythian monk called Exiguus, “the humble”, in his work Anni Domini nostril Jesu Christi 532–627 gave the Christian world a calendar that for the first time counted years from the birth of Christ, a task Dionysius undertook because he “preferred to count and denote the years from the Incarnation  of our Lord, in order to make the foundation of our hope better known and the cause of the redemption of man more conspicuous.” This has proved a challenge to secular scholarship, which prefers BCE (before the common era) and CE (Common Era) to “Before Christ” (BC) and AD (Anno Domini, the year of our Lord).   However one does it, unless willing to redate every event, the dividing point is still the life and death of Jesus Christ.  

The relation between the Roman feast of Lupercalia, celebrated in early February, involved the (unusual) sacrifice of a goat and a dog, whose blood would be smeared on the Luperci, who then would run a race. The Lupercalia was still celebrated in 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned it and substituted the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.  Because the Lupercalia was the merriest feast of the year, a time of gift-giving, there is always the thought that some relation existed between that Roman festival and Christmas, but the date of Christmas seems to have been determined by factors distinctly Christian. 

The influence of Christianity on the calendar was small stuff in comparison to its moral influence in the general culture, especially on the customs and rules regarding marriage.   The Church tried persistently to suppress abortion and infanticide and in general succeeded. The church also attempted with some success to make divorce illegal, resting its case on Matthew 19 and Saint Paul’s analogy relating the indissolubility of marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church.  

            Not the least influence of Christianity was the coopting of the chivalry into what one might call a quasi-religious vocation, especially evident in the crusades. 

The preparation for a knighting (or dubbing as it is sometimes called), which might include any number of knights-to-be, began the day before, with the squire brushing himself up with a bath and a shave or beard trim. Overnight he might spend the hours in a vigil within a chapel with his sword resting upon the altar. . . . On the day of the ceremony the squire was dressed by two knights with a white tunic and white belt to symbolize purity, black or brown stockings to represent the earth to which he will one day return, and a scarlet cloak for the blood he is now ready to spill for his baron, sovereign, and church.  The newly made knight was given back his sword, which had been blessed by a priest with the proviso he always protect the poor and weak. The blade had two cutting edges – one to represent justice, the other loyalty, or more generally, chivalry. The squire was actually knighted by a simple tap on the shoulders or neck with the hand or sword, or even a heavy blow, meant to be the last blow he should ever take without retaliating and to remind him of his obligations and moral duty not to disgrace the man who dealt the blow. A few words might be said but nothing too fancy, perhaps a simple ‘Be thou a knight.’ 

One of the projects of knighthood was the maintenance of the Peace of God. Robert the Pious (996–1031) espoused an oath that instantiated the peace of God, which while never effectively maintained offered some respite from the incessant wars of the Middle Ages.  

I will not infringe on the Church in any way. I will not hurt a cleric or a monk if unarmed. I will not steal an ox, cow, pig, sheep, goat, ass, or a mare with colt. I will not attack a villain or villainess or servants or merchants for ransom. I will not take a mule or a horse male or female or a colt in pasture from any man from the calends of March to the feast of the All Saints unless to recover a debt. I will not burn houses or destroy them unless there is a knight inside. I will not root up vines. I will not attack noble ladies traveling without husband nor their maids, nor widows or nuns unless it is their fault. From the beginning of Lent to the end of Easter I will not attack an unarmed knight.

While these large aims were being pursued as derivative manifestations of Christianity in popular culture, the popular culture itself was recruited into the Christian cause through the mystery plays and through the magnificence of the liturgy.  And one might remember the guilds, an organization of artisans conceived as having the religious purposes of mutual support and dedicated to maintaining the standards of the craft, its activities typically aranged around a patronal festivals. Often the guild would have a church such as Raphael’s Sant’ Eligio degli Orefic, built in 1509 for the goldsmiths of Rome.    

Christmas was of course a liturgical celebration required as the Feast of the Nativity by the Roman missal and the English book of Common Prayer.  Puritans did not like it, attributing its origin to paganism or Catholicism, and in the Cromwellian years of mid-seventeenth century, its celebration was illegal.  This was the Puritan tradition inherited by Massachusetts. When the Reverend Charles Coffin travelled south about 1800, he encountered as an oddity the celebration of Christmas in Virginia.  

To skip to the nineteenth  century, the secularization of the two greatest Christian festivals brought an increasingly secular culture face to face with the fact that it had no cause for celebration that was not ultimately rooted in the Christian story.  One might suppress “Christmas” in favor of “holiday,” but a holiday is nothing but a holy day, and the giving of gifts is derived from Saint Nicholas, whose feast was December 6th. Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas.  

In  1821, the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. “It contained Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Our modern idea of Santa Claus was encouraged by the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823; Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at the General Seminary in New York,  is reputed to have written it while on a shopping trip by sleigh.”  St. Nick is described as being chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf with a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.   The reindeer were named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem, the last two of which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen. 

Santa Claus lost his character as a Christian bishop and became childhood’s delight and a commercial property, first of New York merchants and then of the country, but he remains the symbol of love and generosity.  And if the world is a bit gentler; if almost everyone gets a day off for the purpose of eating themselves silly and talking with family, this is attributable to the ability of Christ to gentle civilization. The pope chose his words well because the Church does not propose to create a Christian civilization.  It asks the right to be itself and to tell its story, which makes the world a better place, not in the sense of some cumulative progress toward a historical utopia but by way of gentling a culture that without its elevating touch will become coarser by the day. And of course at Christmas stores make money, recouping the dry mid-summer months; and that’s a good gift too.