The thrilling romance of orthodoxy

The thrilling romance of orthodoxy

During my Evangelium presentation on Monday, I spent only half my time presenting two alternate versions of a “Catholic lifetime reading plan.” (I’ll post them here tomorrow.)

The rest of my presentation was spent extolling the virtues of fiction, and novels in particular. A good novel, I’d argue, reveals ‘hidden truths’ about ourselves and the world. Novels can engage in a sort of hyper-realism, which is both real and unreal. The novelist can imagine the perfect set up of characters and dilemmas, which may never occur in the real world, but which reveals a reality that we can all recognise: truths which resonate, but which are somewhat obscured in real life. The best fiction is every bit as formative and educational as non-fiction.

I think Graham Greene illustrates this perfectly. By way of example, we can consider some non-fiction first. Poetical non-fiction, certainly, but non-fiction nonetheless. Here’s an extract from Chesterton’s famous essay on orthodoxy:

People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles . . .

It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.

But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

Chesterton calls on the development of Christian doctrine to illustrate his claim that orthodoxy is a “thrilling romance,” and a “whirling adventure.” But the drama and complexity of Catholic doctrine, as it is lived in individual lives, is more beautifully illustrated in Graham Greene’s so-called “Catholic novels.” Greene explores “the dangerous edge of things” — the dramatic tension which arises when humanity’s freedom to reject God meets God’s infinite love and mercy. Greene is able to concoct dramatic thrillers from the ingredients of Christian orthodoxy.

Fr John McDaniels shows how in the latest issue of The Priest, which is the journal of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic ClergyThe Priest is a subscriber-only journal, although articles are freely available online twelve months after publication. In this instance, as editor I’m making an executive call to make this article available now. It is, after all, an extract from a paper Fr McDaniels delivered many years ago. It makes engaging and entertaining reading, and I’m sure it will compel many readers to acquaint — or reacquaint — themselves with Greene.

Enjoy! Download graham-greene.pdf or read online:

Filipino “culture wars”

Filipino “culture wars”

Sandro Magister is always worth reading. In his latest (translated) post, he addresses the present legal battles in the Philippines, which has pitted the Catholic president against the bishops conference.

The president has pushed forward the legalisation of contraception, which the bishops fought both in the public arena, and in the courts. It was a lost battle — and it was always going to be a lost battle — but should the bishops have fought it anyway? That’s the great debate — one which also impacts the Australian bishops, for example, when ‘gay marriage’ returns to the political agenda.

Fr Pierre de Charentenay SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica and resident in Rome, recently published a book on the Church in the Philippines which raises a very different question.  He is critical of the bishops for employing religious arguments to state their case:

The bill was contested on June 18, 2013, before the supreme court, which […] hesitated for a long time. It was under the pressure of the Catholic Church, which was against the law. But it also knew that it had to take into account the new climate of a society that had become modern and pluralistic. […]

The first topic of discussion concerns the separation between religion and political decisions. It is clear that the Church, speaking to Christians and to public opinion, insists on important questions, the value of life, human dignity, a certain vision of man. Its principal argument, however, is religious. But in the present-day society of the Philippines, it can no longer be supposed that all are Christian. A diversification of opinion exists that prevents the imposition of Christian law, in the same way that it would prevent the imposition of sharia in Malaysia or Indonesia, or in the south in Mindanao. […]

In other words, the Filipino bishops need to get with the program and employ the same secular approach which has been tried and failed in the West. This is not only ineffective, but also, I think, dishonest. Environmentalists employ environmentalist arguments to state their case. Capitalists employ economic arguments. Religious lobbyists should employ religious arguments.

I’ve blogged about this before. Here’s Gerard O’Shea’s take:

When Catholics confine themselves to naturalistic arguments, they deceive no one. Secularists – who argue from their own perspective of “belief” – are able to accuse their Catholic opponents of having a hidden agenda, and of lacking the courage of their convictions by concealing what really motivates them. Any movement away from this situation is likely to be met with derision. Nevertheless, while neither Christians nor Secularists should impose their political views on others, Catholics should feel free to mount the full range of their arguments in public and should reject the notion that they are bound by rules of engagement set by their intellectual opponents.

But Fr de Charentenay’s critique gets worse. Much worse. He not only accepts but co-opts the Filipino government’s argument that liberalising contraception is a matter of social justice; a much needed service to the poor. It will “limit population growth and promote … quality of life.” And now for the extraordinary bit — the bishops should support the liberalisation of contraception because it will reduce the abortion rate:

[The bill] also responds to the desire to avoid the use of abortion as a means of contraception. […] In the discussion, the Catholic Church never mentions the proliferation of abortion, a reality decidedly more serious than the contraception it is fighting. The two things are connected, because abortion is the means for avoiding birth when contraception is not used. The greater evil follows the lesser evil.

In this sense the RH Bill seems to be a pro-life piece of legislation, in terms of both quality of life and anti-abortion politics.

Fr de Charentenay is right that abortion and contraception are connected, but not in the way he thinks. Bad Catholic does an excellent job analysing the studies and statistics which indicate that contraception increases the abortion rate. And you can’t go past Janet E. Smith for a more philosophical account of the phenomenon.

Fr de Charentenay claims that Pope Francis is on his side, but then all Catholics are wont to claim that the pope is on their side! Sandro Magister argues that the pope — who has probably read the book — has indeed taken the side of Fr de Charentenay, since he has not publicly rebuked the book. But I’m not convinced of that. The Holy Father extolled Humane Vitae during his trip to the Philippines, so it seems to me that in this instance, he has “sided” with the Filipino bishops. In other words, the pope has “sided” with the Catholic moral tradition.

What astonishes me — I am absolutely gobsmacked — is that Fr de Charentenay, a serious-minded Catholic, resident in the West, with all the benefits of hindsight, doesn’t recognise the devastating causal relationship between contraception and abortion. As Smith so succinctly puts it:

“Far from being a check to the sexual revolution, contraception is the fuel that facilitated the beginning of the sexual revolution and enables it to continue to rage.”

Love of Australia

Love of Australia

George Bernard Shaw was a famous playwright and political activist who was committed to socialism. His influence was at its height during the first half of the twentieth century.

Shaw is also remembered as the most worthy of G. K. Chesterton’s interlocutors. They were constantly disagreeing with each other in public, but they were also good friends. They were both very witty, and they delighted in controversy. Shaw was tall and lean – a bit like Abraham Lincoln. Chesterton was also tall, and very rotund. He was a big man in every sense.

During one public debate, Chesterton observed, “I see there has been famine in the land.”

Shaw replied, “And I see the cause of it.” He continued, more cruelly now: “If I was as fat as you, I’d hang myself.”

Chesterton didn’t hesitate: “If I were to hang myself, I’d use you as the rope!”

I mention all this, because one of the debates between Shaw and Chesterton relates to patriotism. Which means it relates to what we’re celebrating today: Australia Day.

One of George Bernard Shaw’s most famous quote – certainly his most memorable – arises from his socialist ideology:

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.

This is an internationalist sentiment. It’s borne from the idea that the state exploits its citizens, but still arouses their love, by stirring up “love for country.” Hence a good socialist despises patriotism.

Chesterton, being a Catholic, valued patriotism. But he wasn’t in complete disagreement with Shaw. In fact, he shared with Shaw a very low opinion of the nationalism which passed for patriotism in his time, and ours. Consider his most famous quote on patriotism:

‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

He elaborates in his essay, ‘A Defence of Patriotism’. A truly patriotic love of country – a truly Catholic love of country – doesn’t resemble a boy’s love for jam. It’s not an uncritical love. It’s more like a boy’s love for his mother. It is respectful and it is loyal, even when the times are bad. But it is never indifferent. Patriotism compels us to support our country, which includes doing everything we can to correct its course when it falters.

Patriotism also compels us to be grateful for our country. To give thanks to God for Australia, through which we have received many blessings. It also means that we ask God to bless Australia anew, just as we’d ask Him to bless our mothers.

Hence the collect in the Australia Day Mass:

Grant we pray, O Lord our God,
that as the Cross shines in our southern skies,
so may Christ bring light to our nation,
to its peoples old and new,
and by saving grace transform our lives.

Catholic digital media down under

Catholic digital media down under

Ten days ago nominations were called for the inaugural Southern Cross Catholic Digital Media Awards. I wasn’t aware of this until nominations were closed, and nominees were announced today.

I’m a bit embarrassed that this blog has been nominated in the Most Inspiring category. I don’t set out to inspire, but evidently at least one reader has been inspired. I suppose I should be grateful to God, not embarrassed!

You can’t help your gut responses, but nor should you give them unthinking assent. In this case, I’m publicising the nomination, and the awards, because there are many excellent nominees who deserve wide exposure. Some, I had never heard of. Others are old favourites. I recommend you discover them all for yourself.

You can review the nominations at Voting closes at midnight New Zealand time, on 31 January.

More TV Masses

More TV Masses

This week and last, I returned to Channel Ten studio in South Yarra to film five episodes of Mass For You At Home.

Last week I was accompanied by Rev Joel Peart, who was ordained a deacon last September, and will be ordained a priest this coming September. One of those Masses was the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Every year on that day, seminarians in Australia visit parishes and promote the seminary and priestly vocations, often by means of a short address after communion. MFYAH’s tight filming schedule prevents that option, but transitional deacons are able to do something strictly prohibited of other seminarians: they can preach the homily! Hence Joel’s invitation to preach – which he did very well. You can see for yourself next June. (The fact I was still jetlagged, and he spared me the specter of preaching, is an accidental bonus!)

This week I filmed three Masses which won’t be televised until February 2016! I asked a seminarian to serve at the altar. This is how I was introduced to MFYAH, assisting Fr Mark Withoos back in 2007. Marcus Goulding, who is due to be ordained a deacon this year, willingly obliged. In the end, though, he didn’t serve at all. He ended up as lector, and unlike any other first timer I’ve seen – myself included – he wasn’t nervous at all! He says he worked a lot in film studios in secondary school, so nothing phases him.

I also brought a couple of guests with me this week, who joined the TV “congregation.” Blog readers are all familiar, I’m sure, with Simon Hogan’s racing tips. (Better than average, I might add.) Simon the Pieman travelled from Warrnambool with his mum on a train which departed at 5am. Unfortunately, although he was in the Channel Ten building in time for my Mass, he was locked out of the filming studio. We still got a few photos though, and Simon and Annette hung around for Fr Martin Dixon’s Masses while I happily returned to make up to remove all that gunk from my face!!

Two one-eyed Collingwood supporters: Simon the Pieman and me

Two one-eyed Collingwood supporters: Simon the Pieman and me


With Jeff Hobbes, MFYAH producer

Simon and Jeff are part of the reason I’m one of MFYAH‘s celebrants. A few years ago, Simon, who watches Neighbours, commented on Facebook that I was on TV. “Fr Corrigan” was an offscreen character, whom the protagonists frequently referred to in the lead up to a Ramsay Street wedding. I basked in the glory of my TV famedom. Jeff is another Facebook friend and occasional reader of the blog, so when he saw the exchange, he asked if I’d really like to appear on television. And the rest is history.


With Bruno, a longtime MFYAH regular who retired last year, but still returned for more!

Evangelium Summer School

Evangelium Summer School

For the last three years, the Evangelium Summer School has been held on the Australia Day weekend, at Melbourne’s seminary. The weekend basically provides young adults with some intensive exposure to the riches of Catholic wisdom.

I think events like this are very important. I attended something similar in the summer of 2000, right before I started university. The Thomas More Summer School introduced me to an intellectual world I’d never known before, and the rest is history. I can’t say it was the reason for my ‘adult conversion’ — that is, my decision to become an intentional Catholic; to claim for myself the faith I was raised in — but certainly it was critical to the process.

So I give a lot of credit to Fr Nicholas Pearce and his team for organising this annual event, which is not limited to intellectual formation. The program also includes liturgy and eucharistic adoration in Corpus Christi College’s beautiful chapel, and time for recreation — an Amazing Race, an Australia Day barbecue, and a “Scholar’s Lounge,” which provides live music in the evenings.

This year’s program is focused on the history of the Church. The main presenter is Bishop Peter Elliott, who will attempt to cover the following:

•  Constantine, the Early Church Fathers and the Mediaeval period.

•  Christendom, the Renaissance and the Reformation.

•  The Enlightenment, revolutions and Jansenism.

•  The Catholic revival, the missions and the Church in Australia.

•  The 20th Century, the Second Vatican Council and beyond.

Right now, I’m preparing the workshop I’ll present next Monday. My one regret is that it prevents me from attending some of the others, which between you and me sound more interesting than my own!


Perhaps I should have blogged about this a week ago, when registrations were still open. The numbers are now fixed. Never mind. Readers can still pray for its success!

Chastity and holy purity

Chastity and holy purity

Speaking now as a preacher, there was a time when I’d have avoided like the plague the theme of this Sunday’s Second Reading.

St Paul gets straight to the point, so I’ll let him speak for himself:

The body is not mean for fornication; it is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

A homily about chastity and holy purity? Pass!

But I was ordained a deacon in late 2010, which means I’ve been preaching most Sundays for over four years now. I guess I’m wary of repeating past homilies. Hence my willingness to dive into the subject this week.

A homily on chastity is not the easiest task. Chastity takes many different forms. Chastity in the celibate life looks very different to chastity in marriage. And in the single life, it’s different again. Hence, at a parish Sunday Mass, one speak only generally about chastity . . .

Why chastity resembles dance

Let’s begin with what chastity is not.

Chastity is not the first virtue in the Christian life, nor the most important. Holiness can’t be reduced to chastity.

Chastity is not renunciation. It’s not about suppressing desire. In fact, it’s about harmonising desire with reason.

Chastity is like a dance, which brings the body in harmony with music. That’s not a bad analogy, since dancing and chastity both require struggle and effort.

We all know that music impacts dance. Music needs to suit the dance it accompanies. Imagine a dancing student who tries to waltz to heavy metal. Frustration is guaranteed. But it would foolish for the student to condemn the waltz as a no-good dance. Instead, they need to change the music to something more suited to waltzing. Once the right music is playing, time and effort will ensure that the steps of the waltz eventually harmonise the movement of body and the sound of music.

In the same way, it is foolish to condemn chastity — to call it impossible, or unattainable, or unnatural — if the wrong music is playing. But that’s what the world does. Our culture is sex-obsessed. And it’s usually the very people who most obsess about sex who scoff at chastity. That’s like Led Zeppelin telling their fans that the waltz is impossible to dance. Very true — until you change the music.

For many people, chastity is very difficult to attain. But the greater part of its difficulty doesn’t lie so much in the intensity of desire. The problem is that carnal desire is constantly being aroused by our modern culture. The wrong music is playing, which makes chastity much harder to live.

Therefore, we must pray for the conviction that chastity and holy purity can be lived. If a person’s experiences give them cause to doubt this, maybe some spiritual direction is in order. Sometimes problems arise because they have never been spoken about in depth.

In any event, let’s remember that chastity isn’t about renunciation. Chastity is about harmony. Not sitting on the sidelines, but dancing with poise and grace.

In terms of our faith, chastity enables us to love God more. It integrates body and soul, and expands our earthbound horizons.