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.”

The shifting sands of the Catholic blogosphere

The shifting sands of the Catholic blogosphere

Diary of a Wimpy Catholic was once my daily go-to. I commonly referred to Max Lindenman as “everybody’s favourite blogger, or mine anyway.”

But I tuned out in recent times, and hadn’t given his blog another thought, until I received this news from a friend:

Max Lindenman has folded his tent – and thank God for that. His kind of clever teetering-on-the-edge of Catholicism is very very dangerous and it looks as though someone – perhaps his own conscience, has enlightened him.

When we look back, Max rarely wrote about Catholicism, but presented the weary scribe’s version, after the style of Graham Greene, but worse. At least you could pick up the glaring errors of Greene, but Max… in this day of relativism… harder.

Together with the addictive confession of one’s weaknesses and errors there has to be some words about God and the hope of achieving heaven, but Max didn’t do this.

Lest you think my friend is too harsh, here’s Max himself, largely agreeing with that assessment:

I’m not enough of a Catholic to blog about being a Catholic. At best, my faith is an on-again, off-again thing — nothing I can evangelize for with a straight face. This has been true, more or less, since I first started blogging here. Initially I tried to put my marginality to good use, by documenting it, along with its discontents. But, looking back, I see I rarely did them justice. Without consciously meaning to, I ended up playing coy, producing writing that now feels, in many spots, profoundly dishonest.

He speaks admiringly of a fellow blogger at the Patheos Catholic portal, whom he deems more honest in her struggles:

Calah already knows where she wants to go — the Catholic heaven – and she’s struggling against everything blocking her path. My version of honesty would sound very different. It would give more space to questions like “Do I really believe these thing?” and “Do I wish everyone believed them?” More importantly, my brand of honesty would leave room for a “No” to both of these questions.

Max’s last post reminds me of why I read his blog so voraciously. He is a masterful writer, and almost always thought-provoking. But his final confession also confirms why I tuned out eventually. He wasn’t completely candid. These days, I want simpler fare, and more critically, more honest fare.

Why? I think it’s part of “the Francis effect.”

Fr Ray Blake  expressed my thoughts exactly in his recent post, Where have all the bloggers gone?

The reign of Benedict produced a real flourish of ‘citizen journalists’, the net was alive with discussion on what the Pope was saying or doing and how it affected the life of our own local Church . . . Benedict stimulated thought, reflection and dialogue, an open and free intellectual environment. There was a solidity and certainty in Benedict’s teaching which made discussion possible and stimulated intellectual honesty, one knew where the Church and the Pope stood. Today we are in less certain times, the intellectual life of the Church is thwart with uncertainty.

The Catholic blogosphere “establishment” abounds with talented and faithful writers. They excel at analysing modern complexities and controversies with compelling hermeneutics which are rich in Catholic culture and supernatural outlook.

In the Benedictine age, I loved it. In the Franciscan age, not so much. The acrobatics sometimes performed by them when Pope Francis is “misquoted,” neither satisfies nor edifies. I remember one occasion — I can’t recall details now — in which many Catholic bloggers defended the indefensible, twisting the meaning of a quote attributed to Pope Francis which was fundamentally irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine. The next news cycle revealed the quote was bogus, leaving many Catholic bloggers with ultra-montane egg on their faces.

That was the moment my enthusiasm for blogs — both reading them and writing them — subsided. Again, Fr Blake has expressed my thoughts for me:

Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church, today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.

The number of blogs I read these days is much smaller, and very different to my original favourites. Where once I valued beautiful prose and clarity of expression, now I look for unvarnished honesty and clarity of thought. Fr Ray Blake and Katrina Fernandez top the list.

I think Max is a bit hard on himself. He is more honest than many others, sometimes me included. I wish him well and continue to pray for him, and I applaud the integrity of his last post.

Always winter, never Christmas

Always winter, never Christmas

I was nine years old when I read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I can still remember the dread which these words carried:

“I’m crying because I’m such a bad Faun,” sobbed Mr Tumnus. “I’m in the pay of the White Witch.”

“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter, and never Christmas; think of that!”

Always winter and never Christmas! I did think of that, with all the horror a nine-year-old can conjure. Even now, the idea stops me in my tracks (which is admittedly odd, considering our antipodean winters are always Christmas-free).

Perhaps Pope Francis was channelling C. S. Lewis when he recently declared, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” Lent without Easter. There’s another idea which must fill children with dread!

It’s no coincidence that Lent is forty days, and Easter is fifty. That’s forty days of fasting, followed by fifty days of feasting.

To feast is to welcome and approve the luxury of excess. We eat and drink too much; we laugh too much; we even sing too much. Feasting does not frown on excess. It embraces excess with intemperate merriment.

Feasting and excess are closely linked to joy. Joy is never temperate. That’s an oxymoron. It’s always and everywhere excessive, and it’s necessary to connect with the transcendent. We need festivals, festivities and feasts, because we need to express our joy — and our gratitude — for life and love.

Feasting is something Christians should heartily endorse, but maybe there’s a secret Puritan lurking in each of us. The Puritans foreshadowed Narnia’s White Witch by outlawing the feast of Christmas first in England and later in the American colonies. Christians have since re-claimed the feast and the practice of feasting, but the spectacle of modern-day excess might undermine that progress.

The unprecedented prosperity of the modern world lends itself to excess, and the consumer economy depends on it. Consumerism exploits the poor and diminishes the spiritual life, so it’s clearly incompatible with the Christian worldview. But there’s a danger that in rejecting consumer excess, we reject feasting too.

Josef Pieper, a twentieth-century German philosopher, proposed in Leisure: the Basis of Culture that feasting and excess are essential to Christian worship. Moreover, he argued that Christian puritanism only feeds consumerism. If we have no time to give thanks for what we have and who we are, we become engrossed with acquiring more and joining the rat race. “Cut off from worship of the divine,” he warns, “leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.”

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to do something purely for the joy of it? That’s the essence of feasting, and it’s what we’re called to do in Easter.

Many Christians observe the forty days of Lent by “giving something up.” Small acts of self-denial can unite us with Christ on the cross, and help us to foster detachment.

It’s not implausible to observe the fifty days of Easter by “taking something up.” Something which puts a smile on our face. It might be as simple as deliberately indulging at a café or pub with a friend, or taking the family to the cinema.

The excess of feasting can express the joy of faith, which can in turn help us to attract others to Christ. And feasting reminds us that there is more to life than work, and more to love than pleasure.

The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed.

(H/T Christina Kennedy.)

Liberal v. progressive

Liberal v. progressive

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post this week. Sullivan, for those who don’t know, is one of one of the grandfathers of blogging, launching The Dish back in 2000.

He is also one of the grandfathers of the gay marriage movement, and it is on this subject that he is most interesting. Sullivan has discerned two “core narratives” shaping the debate over gay marriage in America. Apart from the obvious conservative-progressive dichotomy, there is also a liberal-progressive dichotomy. (Did I mention Sullivan is English? That’s probably important. I don’t think Americans, whose understanding of liberalism is a little parochial, would have coined this argument.)

Here’s Jon Lovett making a fundamentally liberal point:

The trouble, I think, is when ostracizing a viewpoint as “beyond the pale” becomes not an end but a means to an end; that by declaring something unsayable, we make it so. It makes me uncomfortable, even as I see the value of it. I for one would love homophobia to fully make it on that list [of impermissible opinions], to get to the point where being against gay marriage is as vulgar and shameful as being against interracial marriage. But it isn’t. Maybe it will be. But it isn’t. And kicking a reality-show star off his reality show doesn’t make that less true. Win the argument; don’t declare the argument too offensive to be won. And that’s true whether it’s GLAAD making demands of A&E or the head of the Republican National Committee making demands of MSNBC.

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea.

Then there is another approach, in which creating a progressive culture in which some things are unsayable is the whole point of the exercise. Here’s a piece by J. Brian Lowder with that perspective. Money quote:

Tim Teeman wrote on Friday that “the ‘shame’ axis around homosexuality has positively shifted from those who are gay to those who are anti-gay.” He may be right about that, but speaking personally, I am not interested in shaming anyone; it would be enough for me if those people who are so ignorant or intransigent as to still be anti-gay in 2014 would simply shut up.

This is not a minor disagreement. It’s a profound one. One side wants to continue engaging the debate. The other wants one side to shut up.

For what it’s worth, Sullivan sides with the liberal approach. He wants to engage debate, rather than shut down debate. Read the whole post to find out why.

I don’t agree with Andrew Sullivan on many things, but I agree with him on this.

Exposing abortion secrets

Exposing abortion secrets

This year’s Lenten programme from the Brisbane Archdiocese is very good. Each week is focused on the Sunday gospel, and incorporates both a homiletical reflection, and a personal testimony.

This week’s testimony came from Melissa Ohden, who defied the odds and survived a saline abortion in 1977. It’s a remarkable story of endurance and healing.

As I listened then and pondered later, I concluded things have only gotten worse since 1977. In many parts of the world, survivors of abortion are refused medical care and deliberately left to die. Or they are actively murdered.

This tragedy — and scandal — has been on my mind all week, so the emergence of this fundraising appeal is very timely. A trio of journalists and film-makers have launched a crowd funding campaign to produce a TV movie documenting the crimes of Kermit Gosnell.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell is the most prolific serial killer in American History, but almost no one knows who he is… Gosnell is serving several life sentences but the media basically ignored his crimes and his trial.

It’s very encouraging that, in the United States at least, abortion on demand is perpetuated only under a cloud of misinformation and censorship. It suggests that the more the truth is told, the less people endorse the pro-‘choice’ policy agenda.

Visit gosnellmovie.com to assist this worthy cause.