• We all have a romantic image of monks patiently copying texts in their scriptoria, with the more artistic illuminating the manuscripts. But really, it must have been very tedious work, and it’s no surprise that monks wrote comments in the margins. They complain, of course (“It is very cold” and “The ink is thin,” for example). Among our favorite comments, taken from a Lapham’s Quarterly article:
St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.
That’s a hard page, and a weary work to read it.
This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when some-one over your page will say,
“The hand that wrote it is no more.”
As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.
• “As House Republicans continue to appeal to religious conservatives, it’s pretty clear that their budget is not what Jesus would do,” the local newspaper’s editors declared, and Fr. Edward Connolly found it a bit much, since he didn’t know what Jesus would do. So he wrote the editors: “I think it borders on sacrilege to presume you know exactly what Jesus would do in regard to the national budget. Pope Benedict doesn’t know. I don’t know. Quite frankly, you don’t know either! We work it out via the political process, take a deep breath, and hope for the best.”
He included in his letter to the editor a quote from the pope probably too little known among Catholics, especially those, on both right and left, who think of him as an old European lefty. It appears in the book-length interview Light of the World. The interviewer asks if the “colossal debts” being created for future generations aren’t “an insanely big moral problem.”
“Naturally! Because we are living at the expense of future generations!” the pope responds. (You know, we’ve never thought of him as a multiple-exclamation-mark kind of guy.)
We are, he continues, “living in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to. Here, too, everyone understands in theory that it would require careful deliberation to recognize again what is really possible, what one can do, and what one may do. And yet people do not take it to heart.”
• Speaking of Benedict, last month we mentioned the somewhat hostile article in the influential German weekly Der Spiegel—roughly, as we said, the German equivalent of Time, or maybe of the Economist. The article offers the new narrative on Benedict, which began developing early in his papacy and reached maturity about five years in, when the old “God’s Rottweiler” line proved unusable because it was so clearly untrue.
Now the story is that Benedict is old and feeble and an intellectual out of place, who means well but, lost in his books, just can’t run the Church. It’s the patronizing story, not the insulting one, and all the more effective because the writer who tells it usually feigns sympathy.
The real point of the new story is the same as the real point of the old one: The pope’s defective and we don’t have to worry about him. In the end, he won’t advance the reactionaries and won’t impede the progressives. All we have to do is outlast him.
Benedict undoubtedly could be better at running the Vatican, though running the Vatican is not a job most sane people would want to take on. It’s as notoriously ridden with plots and plotters as any bureaucracy—and we won’t even think of mentioning that it’s an Italian bureaucracy to boot—and staffed with people whose agenda is not Benedict’s. But those who advance the new story rarely seem to understand how effective a man may be despite his bureaucracy, and how small things like teaching and witness might succeed.
They used to say all they had to do was outlast John Paul II.
• Horace Mann, one of the old famous New York prep schools, was recently hit by a sex scandal. Stephen Barr, a member of our advisory council and a graduate of the school, sends this remark from an online discussion: “One day, the Horace Mann hierarchy will wake up and join the 21st Century. The time for private-school-teacher celibacy is over. When private school teachers are allowed to marry, women are given the opportunity to teach in private schools, and private schools embrace gay marriage, this will all end.”
• A couple of issues ago we quoted Ross Douthat’s explanation on a Slate.com forum of Christianity’s rejection of homosexual practice. He also noted that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, which homosexual advocates always point out as if it settled anything.
But neither, notes Douthat, does Jesus “revise the male-and-female model for sexuality; if anything, his teaching on divorce only strengthens it.” Jesus “leaves plenty of room for alternative ways of life besides marriage—believers are urged to break family ties if necessary and even to become ‘eunuchs’ for the sake of the kingdom of God, and there are suggestions that friendship rather than romance might be the highest Christian relationship. But he never even hints that there might be a kind of ‘virtually normal’ sexual alternative to the male-female paradigm.”
The argument that “Jesus didn’t care” depends on not actually reading the gospels. No one other than a modern politician expresses his opinion on every issue of the day, much less every issue people will care about two millennia later. His biographers won’t think to include in their books positions their readers would think self-evident. In his new biography of the president, David Maraniss presumably didn’t think to include Obama’s position on the burka.
But you can usually tell what a man thought about some things he didn’t talk about from what he did say about the things he did talk about, and so, as Douthat points out, here.
• The Economist presents itself as a definitive source for news and interpretation, so it would help if they weren’t quite so tendentious when writing about the Catholic Church and a little more careful to get their facts right. Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, writing on the weblog of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is a little vexed by a recent story titled “Earthly Concerns.”
The writers (the story carries no byline) claim “donations from the faithful are thought to have declined by as much as 20%” and that “The scandals probably played a part in this.” We like that “are thought” bit coming from professional reporters.
Walsh, the USCCB’s director of media relations, responds with “real data” (we told you she was vexed) taken from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Its director, Mark Gray, notes that giving has actually “increased significantly” in the last few years and that “there is no evidence I know of that Catholic parish weekly collections have declined.”
• The magazine also claims that “local and federal government bankroll the Medicare and Medicaid of patients in Catholic hospitals, the cost of educating pupils in Catholic schools and loans to students attending Catholic universities.” The good sister counters this one too, noting that in educating about two million students, the Church saves the government about $23 billion a year.
That’s a lot of money, $23 billion, even today. Walsh observes that “you could argue it’s the church subsidizing the government (or ‘bankrolling’ it, if you wish to use the Economist’s hyperbole), not vice versa.”
• We’re as vexed as Sr. Walsh. In paying for Medicare and Medicaid, the government is simply paying money it is obligated to pay for the care of individuals to the people who care for them. It’s no more “bankrolling” Catholic hospitals than you bankroll the mechanic for fixing your car or the plumber for fixing your pipes. If the government weren’t paying Catholic hospitals, it would have to pay other hospitals.
Or maybe it wouldn’t, or even couldn’t. As the Economist itself reports, the 630 Catholic hospitals make up 11 percent of the nation’s total, and the Church owns “a similar number of smaller health facilities.” The Church doesn’t have to provide these services, services needed by many people who are not Catholic. The implication behind that word “bankrolling” is that the government is doing the Church a favor (and violating the separation of church and state) when the reality is rather the other way round.
• Writing in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert praises a book called Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, written by Christine Overall, a philosopher. Overall “dismisses the notion that childbearing is ‘natural’ and therefore needs no justification. ‘There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon,’ she observes. If we’re going to keep having kids, we ought to be able to come up with a reason.”
It’s a more pressing question than one might think. In normal people, the connection between sexual intimacy and the natural result of such intimacy seems instinctively obvious, even after the contraceptive revolution. You have sex, you have babies. More to the point, you have sex in a properly ordered relation (i.e., marriage), you want babies.
But an instinct is not a reason. And the common, mostly pragmatic reasons, at least as Overall gives them in Kolbert’s review, really are bad ones. Some people actually argue that people should have children because children not had are deprived of the happiness they would have had were they born, and the world would be a happier place with them than without them (more people means more happy people means more happiness total). Among other things, Overall argues, “nonexistent people have no moral standing. (There are an infinite number of nonexistent people out there, and you don’t notice them complaining, do you?)”
All the more reason for the recovery of that speculative reason Thomas Joseph White mentions in our “Thirteen Theses” forum. We may be inclined to affirm the moral instincts of normal people, and that consensus of traditional cultures C. S. Lewis famously called the Tao, but in a fallen world instincts do not point reliably to truth. People need reasons, and usually want them, and the best reasons have to do with the nature of man, the order of the cosmos, and the like.
• One of the arguments Overall dismisses is that having children makes people happy, and she invokes the well-known studies to show that it doesn’t. This seems to us questionable, because there is happiness and there is happiness: As someone writing a letter to the editor notes, the couch potato will probably record greater happiness measured hour to hour, but the mountain climber will experience greater happiness at the end of the day. Being a father or a mother should be more like climbing a mountain than watching television.
But whether or not the arguments truly describe the effects of having children, many of us feel these claims—parenthood brings misery—to be serious if not fatal wounds to the idea that the vocation to be parents belongs intrinsically to the vocation of marriage. That’s more evidence of the worldliness, and the corrupted instincts, of those of us who believe that human life is oriented to the next world. I say this because I know my own feelings but also observe how quickly other people leap to deny the findings.
We might say that there is happiness and there is blessedness, and we are promised the latter but not the former. And if you get the latter at the cost of the former, you still come out ahead.
• Available at the branch of the New York public library nearest the office is a monthly newspaper called the Indypendent. In the latest issue, the editors complain that we don’t hear anything in the news about global warming, sorry, climate change. The reason, they explain, is ideology. “Determined by one’s class interest, it becomes a narrative that lets some part of reality through but keeps another part out.” We like that “determined.” You sometimes forget people talk like that.
Their unexpected target is weathermen, “our teeth-whitened teleprompter readers.” The “institutions they work for shape their consciousness to protect the status quo, which determines how they read the weather. And that, friends, is the classic definition of ideology.”
Why the editors expect people whose job is to look good and entertain to take up a political question escapes us. What are they supposed to say, “Another scorcher tomorrow, but hey, Buffy, that’s climate change for ya!”? But okay, we’ll grant there’s something to it.
In contrast, the editors explain, academics “don’t have the profit-motive to warp their work. . . . They compile the facts.” Unfortunately, “they are awkward in front of a camera. They don’t have the money or connections from the late-night corporate mingling. And that means they don’t have the mass audience of TV forecasters.”
But, you know, if profit warps the work of weathermen, it warps the work of academics. The form the profits take may be somewhat different, but they are no freer from self-interest than anyone else, and no less eager to find what it benefits them to find.
As William Happer pointed out in these pages last summer (“The Truth About Greenhouse Gases,” June/July 2011), “Funding for climate studies is second only to funding for biological sciences. Large academic empires, prizes, elections to honorary societies, fellowships, and other perquisites go to those researchers whose results may help ‘save the planet.’” A lot of money goes to green companies that will, of course, “incentivize” academics to find evidence that increases the value of those companies’ products and services. And the personal rewards (which are a kind of profit) of simply being in agreement with enlightened opinion should not be underestimated.
• Happer quotes a great line from Pushkin’s novella Dubrovsky: “If there happens to be a trough, there will be pigs.”
• Though you rarely see the idea of ideology put so starkly as the Indypendent’s editors do, much of today’s political commentary does focus on motivation rather than argument. The liberal version of this story line is “Why are conservatives so mean?” and the conservative version “Why are liberals so stupid?” Though, now that we think of it, the liberal answer is sometimes “Because they’re so stupid,” thereby getting in both hits.
• A reader writes suggesting we review a book arguing that the earth is the center of the universe. We said no, because we don’t see any point in denying well-established scientific findings that in no way deny anything the Church teaches. As Pope Benedict XV noted in 1921 in his encyclical on Dante, In Praeclara Summorum.
If, he wrote, “the progress of science showed later that that conception of the world [that of Dante’s age] rested on no sure foundation,” still the fundamental principle remained that the universe, whatever be the order that sustains it in its parts, is the work of the creating and preserving sign of Omnipotent God, who moves and governs all, and whose glory risplende in una parte piu e meno altrove.
And, continues the pope, “though this earth on which we live may not be the center of the universe as at one time was thought, it was the scene of the original happiness of our first ancestors, witness of their unhappy fall, as too of the Redemption of mankind through the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ.” So the center of the universe in another way.
• We had never understood why such theories appeal to some people, but our reader suggests a reason. He explains (quoting someone else) that geocentrism “would destroy, in one mortal blow, the theories of evolution, paleontology, cosmology, cosmogony, relativity, and many other modern disciplines, placing them all on the dust heap of history. . . . Copernicanism is the foundation for modern man’s independence from God.”
Geocentrism is a kind of apologetical one-stop shopping. Win this one battle and you win the war against ideas you perceive to be un-Christian. To put it another way, it’s an argumentative nuclear weapon. Why wage a long, tiring war you might not win when you can take out the enemy with one blow?
The Church doesn’t take the easy way out. She grants science its authority and undertakes the long, tiring work of understanding how revelation and science relate, to the glory of God and the betterment of man.
• Admittedly, some people have tried to use the earth’s place in the universe as evidence against God. Carl Sagan claimed that “we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe.” But insignificant to whom? Forgotten by whom? Maybe, the religious believer will want to note, it’s significant to and remembered by someone, or rather Someone.
• Last month I was pleased to participate in the Colloquy on Christian Education and Culture, an annual gathering, mostly but not entirely of Evangelicals, and mostly but not entirely of scholars, to talk about the challenges facing Christian education. Each colloquy is moderated by a noted scholar, this year’s moderator being our friend and advisory council member Robert P. George, who gave a paper and then led a discussion on “Religious Liberty and Rights of Conscience.”
A good and edifying time was had by all. For information on the enterprise, write the director, Robert F. Davis, at email@example.com. He is also directing a summit in the spring called the Integrity Project, examining the challenges to honesty in Christian leadership, which is, alas, more of a problem for some Christian leaders than you might think.
• While we’re commending worthy enterprises, we should mention the book by our friend and sometime writer Victor Lee Austin, who serves as theologian in residence at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, one of the great bastions of Anglicanism in America. Priest in New York: Church, Street, and Theology offers a series of short meditations, some on religious life, others startling and sometimes moving reflections on being a Christian in the city.
Highly recommended, and available from the usual online sources.
• Another worthy enterprise, we think, is this magazine. Financial support is always appreciated, as are prayers. As are the names and addresses of people who might want to start reading First Things, whose names and addresses you can send to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 35 East 21st Street, Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10010.