• In second place but way behind the leader in a 3000-meter race, Iván Fernández Anaya pulled up when he realized his opponent had stopped before the finish line, thinking he’d won the race. He then, reports the newspaper El País, “stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.” Fernández Anaya explained: “I didn’t deserve to win it. I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner.”
You can only applaud the man. He did what you’d want your children to do—if you’re a good man, a gentleman, and a sportsman, or aspire to be. There are many people who’d cheer their children on as they blew past the runner and took the prize.
If asked, they’d say it’s his fault for not understanding the rules, for not preparing better, that losing will be good for him, that anyone else would have run past him, that part of winning is taking advantage of every opportunity, that such gestures of kindness encourage mediocrity, that everyone benefits when the competition’s most intense, that the one who did win is the one who deserved to win, that athletes have no responsibility to their opponents but only to themselves, and being kind to him hurts their team, nation, and whoever else has a stake in their winning, that in the modern world we don’t act like that, and such traditions went out with hoop skirts, etc.
It’s a version of the small, mean mind some people bring to their economic thinking. Some form of libertarian analysis sweeps away all human values. They offload their moral decisions onto the market and approve, usually not regretfully but eagerly, any action that brings success at whatever cost to others and to the kinds of gestures and boundaries and courtesies that make a good society. Gentlemanliness is for losers.
Three cheers, no, five cheers, ten cheers, for Iván Fernández Anaya.
• “Renewing—because you depend on us,” reads the signs in the subway, related to the ongoing upgrade of the subway system. It’s sincere, we suppose, even if invented by the calculating guys in the PR department, but still, we’d have more confidence that the work will be done and done well if the slogan read “Renewing—because we depend on you.”
• Responding to an article on the Catholic Church in Europe in the Economist, the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg argues that we see in Europe the collapse of Catholic liberalism or progressivism, the kind of Catholicism that “(a) demands nothing from its adherents in terms of belief beyond an emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and endless dialogue-for-the-sake-of-dialogue; (b) dilutes dogma and doctrine to the point of meaninglessness; (c) becomes yet another means of self-affirmation in a culture full of self-affirmation; (d) embraces post-1960s sexual morality; (e) essentially anathematizes anyone who doesn’t more-or-less adhere to secular left-liberal political, social, and economic positions.”
We think he’s put this a little strongly, and is describing the hard dissenting but not the mainstream liberal, but if you dial down the descriptions about 25 to 40 percent you get a good description of broad generic progressivism, Protestant as well as Catholic. And, as he says, “No one needs to be a Christian to hold these views.” Most people who hold them “eventually marginalize their Christianity to the point of irrelevance to their daily lives or simply drift away altogether.” And they’re not likely to raise children who believe even that much.
Theirs is a religion (this is me, not Gregg) for those who can’t let go. As I’ve put it to “progressive” friends: If you weren’t used to this religion from growing up with it, would you get out of bed on Sunday morning for it? Few people would. There’s no cash value to it, no upside, no benefit.
Or, to be fair, not much of one. You might find a small community of like-minded people, a haven in a heartless world, and you might find a way of ordering your life, at least by setting aside Sunday mornings every week, and you might also find worship that moves you and sermons that help you, even if the God you worship is ghostly and the sermons self-helpish. It’s something. Not enough to get me up on Sundays, but something.
From the full version, however, in exchange for your Sunday mornings you get “Your sins are forgiven,” not some version of “Be all you can be.”
• The photographer Bradley Rubenstein replaces children’s eyes with dog’s eyes in his photos, which looks, as you’ll guess, really, really creepy. One photo, exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came with the explanation that “the artist offers an eerie forewarning of the transgressive potential of genetic manipulation.”
A little surprising to see said at the Met, whose descriptions of art tend to be reliably on the left side of the PC spectrum, the idea that there is a limit beyond which one should not go.
• “I believe that Federal funds should be made available for ‘life support’ organizations to counteract the Federal grants for abortion programs now available to clinics and hospitals,” including better educational services for unwed mothers.
“Both couples and single mothers, I believe, should be able to obtain some type of birth defect insurance during early pregnancy, so that if they have a defective child, the cost of special medical care and training can more readily be borne. And I believe that maternity coverage for dependent minors or unmarried women should be available at the same cost that medical insurance policies presently provide for abortions.
“Simply, the focus should be on the services required to support a woman through a pregnancy, rather than on the provision of abortion. There is no question of the need for such services since the estimates that one in every three pregnant single women in our country today is under the age of seventeen. Abortion is not the answer for these young mothers.”
The writer? Sen. Edward Kennedy, writing to the Pilot, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Boston, in 1975. We wish people had listened then and that the senator had, in the years to follow, listened to himself.
• “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
This writer? The new president John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address. Too bad he didn’t include the nature of marriage as something we don’t get from the state, but no one then, no one, thought marriage was something the state could redefine.
• The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has about 27,000 undergraduate students. About seventy-five, including the sponsors, of whom we suspect there was a significant number, came out on a January Wednesday evening for the opening event of the university’s annual “Sexpertise,” a three-day event hosted by the university’s Sexperteam and sponsored (i.e., paid for) by University Health Services.
The usual things were said. Afterwards, a sophomore member of Sexperteam told the newspaper, “We have to have more events like this so people can realize how important it is to constantly talk about sex in all kinds of different ways, not even just, like, educational or experience-wise.” We know he didn’t really mean “constantly,” but, gosh, you know, he represents a world that has sex on the brain, which, as someone has commented, is a very odd place to have it.
• John Murdock is vexed about my comments on Wendell Berry in the January issue. As “a Kirkian cheerleader for Wendell Berry,” he writes complaining about “the ridiculous statement that ‘there seems to be no principle Berry will think through to its conclusion’ [which] could only be said by one utterly ignorant of his life’s work. There is likely no English speaker alive today who has thought through concepts like community and humanity’s relationship to the land more thoroughly than Mr. Berry. Yet, for some, social conservatism means two and only two issues.”
He quotes from Berry’s Citizenship Papers in which he says that abortion “is killing, of course” and asks, “How do we justify treating an innocent fellow human as an enemy-in-the-womb?”
I haven’t read everything Wendell Berry has written, but I have read a good bit and like some of it a great deal. John Murdock and I would disagree on how coherent it all is, but in this case he has helped make my point.
“How do we justify treating an innocent fellow human as an enemy-in-the-womb?” Berry says, with the implied answer that we cannot. But then he tells National Review ’s interviewer that “abortion for birth control is wrong. That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it . . . as the best of two unhappy choices.” I have no confidence that he’s thought through this conflict of absolutism and consequentialism.
Berry, Murdock continues, “challenges us to move the pro-life ethic beyond the womb,” while this magazine “has a long history of being womb-focused but overly accommodating to polluters and global-warming denialists. If we fail to take seriously the health of our world in the face of daunting challenges like climate change, perhaps we are the ones failing to follow a principle through to its conclusion.”
No one, least of all the editors of this magazine, disagrees with the platitude about applying the pro-life ethic to the born as well as the unborn. We just sincerely and deeply differ on what that means in practice.
• More Berryan than Berry himself has lately been is an essay in the Winter 2013 issue of the new magazine Fare Forward. Young people want to to live in “real, meaningful places,” writes Brandon McGinley, a field director for the PA Family Institute. But even if they create new places they enjoy, “what meaning will they [these places] have for future generations if we are not committing ourselves to those places and to those generations through the stable bond of marriage?
“These new places will only be as lasting as the human relationships that form in and around them,” he continues. “If those relationships are fleeting, conditional, and private, such will be the place. Its meaning will scarcely go beyond utility and sentiment and thus, lacking anything substantial for the generations to grasp, it will not last.
“But if those relationships are committed, permanent, and public, such will be the place. Its meaning will continually expand as stories and memories and legends accumulate among a stable and organic—but dynamic—intergenerational community.”
Fare Forward, a “Christian review of ideas” now in its third issue, is edited and written by gifted and mostly twenty-something writers. The winter issue includes articles on neuroscience’s challenge to our belief in free will, the virtues of Atticus Finch, the problems with the suburbs, a defense of localism, and a call to live without irony. For more information and several free articles, see fare-forward.com.
• The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has closed down the biweekly “Soho Masses” in London celebrated for the pastoral care of homosexual Catholics, but generally thought to be rather friendly to the idea that the Church is wrong about homosexuality.
“First among the principles of pastoral care is the innate dignity of every person and the respect in which they must be held,” explained the archdiocese in its official statement. “Also, of great importance, is the teaching of the Church that a person must not be identified by their sexual orientation. The moral teaching of the Church is that the proper use of our sexual faculty is within a marriage, between a man and a woman, open to the procreation and nurturing of new human life.”
“Must not be identified by their sexual orientation” also means “must not identify themselves by their sexual orientation,” which is to say, must not assume they can or must act upon their desires. You are not first a homosexual, the archdiocese is saying to the people who attended that Mass. You are first and primarily a human being, and therefore someone called to chastity.
Being homosexual is only the personal context in which you are called to be chaste, as being heterosexual is the context for most people. But it is not an identity that brings with it a way of life.
Even serious Christians assume that “I am X, therefore I must do X,” for reasons all of us can understand, since most of us assume it when explaining our own actions. “I’m just a cranky old man” is a version, as is “I’m just not patient” and “I suppose I’m simply too set in my ways.”
The homosexual person has better reason to assume this than the cranky, impatient, and selfish, because his desires feel so natural and seem the same as everyone else’s, only directed to somewhat different objects. But still, as the archdiocese has said, you are not your sexual orientation.
• Sick as a dog, we watched a detective show we’d heard about, helpfully available online for free. In the last scene a man who had killed a little boy twenty years earlier pleads with the cops for understanding. It’s the dramatic climax of the show. “I’m not a bad person,” he says.
“You’re the worst kind of person,” one of the detectives replies, her voice and face loaded with contempt. “You look like us. You walk and talk like us. But you’re nothing like us.” The viewer is clearly expected to say “Yeah! Take that, scum!”
It was the most secular, or at least post-Christian, moment we’ve seen on television (not that we watch much of it). It’s not a good sign when the writers of a very popular show have so completely lost touch with the reality of original sin and therefore of human solidarity.
• In a war-on-Christmas press release of which a friend has just reminded us, the Catholic League argued that the major divinity schools—Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Emory, Duke, and Vanderbilt in particular—were ignoring Christmas because they didn’t have Christmas pictures on their websites and listed few if any Christmas services on their calendars.
Ah, one thinks at first, a very good point—but one ought to be skeptical just from the inclusion of Duke, Duke the home of Paul Griffiths, Reinhard Hütter, Kavin Rowe, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays, and Geoffrey Wainwright, all of whom have written for First Things, among many other good people.
And indeed, the two criteria don’t prove anything of the sort. Like the websites of almost every similar institution, seminary websites don’t change from season to season.
That’s not what they’re for. Look, for example, at the websites of Gordon-Conwell and St. Vladimir’s, two schools of impeccable orthodoxy (and in the case of St. Vlad’s, Orthodoxy). They’re no more Christmasy than those of Duke etc.
Most seminaries will have perhaps just one Christmas event on their calendars because their students are supposed to be active members of local churches, and in any case classes usually end halfway through December, so there’s no one on campus for Christmas. Look, again, at Gordon-Conwell’s and St. Vlad’s websites.
Not a fair hit, this press release.
• “Sinners welcome,” said the banner in front of a Catholic church. Mary Karr—“completely unbaptized, completely without faith,” an “undiluted agnostic,” herself an alcoholic and someone who wants “to eat all of the chocolate and snort all of the cocaine and kiss all the boys,” the child of a father who drank himself to death and a mother who married seven times—started going.
“I thought I had a better shot at becoming a pole dancer at forty, right, than of making it in the Catholic Church,” she says. “I think what struck me really wasn’t the grandeur of the Mass. It was the simple faith of the people. For me this whole journey was a journey into awe. I would just get these moments of quiet where there wasn’t anything. My head would just shut up, and I knew that was a good thing. And also the carnality of the church: There was a body on the cross.”
“I’m somebody who really does feel like I was snatched out of the fire,” she says. The story of the snatching appears in her book Lit.
• Our friend Michael Liccione sends his commencement-speech-on-an-index-card:
(1) Y’snooze, y’lose.
(2) Y’play, y’pay.
(3) Never forget tax and tip. Wherever you are, everybody gets their cut.
(4) It is important to hope, but irrational to expect, that reason will prevail in human affairs.
(5) Love in spite of everything.
He is, he writes, open to invitations from the better colleges. His thoughtful and learned writing can be found on his weblog Sacramentum Vitae, at mliccione.blogspot.com.
• A helpful image. As a mathematician, writes Bobby Winters, professor, Methodist lay preacher, and newspaper columnist, he thought of reconciliation as “two parties each bringing out accounts of their mutual transactions to see whether they line up.” When his records and his bank’s don’t agree, they search their records, in (ideally) good faith, to find the mistake, but when they can’t find it, one of them, usually Bobby, has to give up the claim for perfect justice.
As he got to the age he’d been when his father, suffering from cancer, committed suicide, he was finding it hard to forgive him. “This,” he writes, “is what I’ve been doing in reconciling with my father. There comes a point where the accounts don’t match up and if the relationship is to continue somebody has to let the difference go.”
His weblog, a mixture of science-nerdiness, eccentric interests (he’s an expert in the manufacture of potato cannons), preaching, and story-telling, is found at okieinexile.blogspot.com.
• We were once yelled at by an editor for using the word “depend” to mean “hanging from” because readers wouldn’t know that meaning of the word—we had thought that by using it in that sense we’d point readers to the real meaning of the usual sense.
Maybe we were right. According to E. D. Hirsch, writing in the always interesting City Journal, “correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.”
The reason, he explains, is that we can keep only a few things in our working memory for a few seconds and need to make the right connections within that time. A word that stands for many other words and ideas “serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems.”
Apparently the more words the better. Those of you who write for us, however, please ignore this.
• In this month’s “Public Square” the editor includes the followers of Dorothy Day among those who emphasize solidarity but find themselves pushed to the right by the moral liberalism of their natural allies. It is not the first time, at least for Day’s followers, that they’ve been alienated from the left—much like religious conservatives who are now, Reno suggests, uncomfortable with an American right that is “too individualistic, too antigovernment, too confident in the omni-benevolent powers of the marketplace.”
Some of us here have gotten to know Geoffrey Gneuhs, a painter who as a Dominican served as chaplain to the Catholic Worker community here in New York and preached Day’s funeral homily. (Which includes Day’s convicting line, “What a simplification of life it would be if we saw Christ everywhere we go” and the homilist’s convicting gloss, “Did you give me clothes? Did you give me food? Did you give me shelter in the empty room in your home, of your rectory or priory?”)
In an article in the English magazine the Tablet, he described her early opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1965, leading a rally in Union Square (a few blocks south of our office), she stood with four men from the Catholic Worker community as they burned their draft cards. He doesn’t say if she was arrested that time, but she spent a lot of time in jail for similar actions.
Still, “this American teacher of non-violence became more and more disenchanted with the direction of the anti-war movement,” he writes. “In an entry in her journal of January 1967, she wrote: ‘It makes me sick to see priests go all romantic over revolution . . . knowing nothing of genuine non-violence. . . . People are losing sight of the primacy of the spiritual.’”
Later she told her friend Maisie Ward, “who used to chide Day for being too damn precious about her pacifism, that she regretted her role in the anti-war movement, because it had become violent and many Catholic protesters had turned away from the Church.”
In politics, serious Christians, left or right, tend to find themselves square pegs in round holes.
In this world. In the next we pray to be square pegs in square holes. John Cardinal O’Connor opened Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization in 2000. The holy card with the prayer for her cause is illustrated with a portrait by Geoffrey Gneuhs.
• “We’ve been here forever. We’re true Egyptians. We belong here,” the Coptic taxi driver told David Pinault as they drove around Cairo. Coptic Christians “fear the destruction of ‘what remains of the Egyptian identity of Egypt,’” writes Pinault, a professor at Santa Clara University, in the Jesuit weekly America.
One Coptic group called the Theban Legion (named after third-century martyrs), for example, “rejects Arab identity . . . in favor of a much more ancient pharaonic tradition that dates to the fourth millennium before Christ.” A copy of the group’s newspaper illustrated its cultural page with both icons and a jeweled gold talisman from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Members in protest marches held up large crosses while wearing “pharaonic-style” gowns decorated with ankhs.
They’ve been there forever, but whether they’ll be there in the future is, alas, an open question.
• The late Judge Robert Bork—whose picture we have here on the wall with the other distinguished friends of the magazine—could be gloomy. He wrote, after all, a book titled Slouching Toward Gomorrah. In a recent column, Grove City College’s Paul Kengor tells of the judge’s meeting with a cheerful young law student, who just happens to be our friend Mark Barrett.
Mark told the judge that things were looking good, because committed Evangelicals and Catholics were having a lot of children and liberals weren’t. Bork said, “No,” and pointed out that these parents sent their many children to schools that undermined their faith and turned them into liberals. “We’re doomed,” he concluded.
“One couldn’t always quite tell when Bork was goading you and when he was serious,” says Mark. “On this point I’m sure he was serious.”
• We might be even gloomier than Bork, thinking that these kids bring with them both the moral earnestness and the confidence and security that a religious upbringing gave them, but that then, once separated from their religion in college, they apply these gifts to secular causes. They feel secure in the cosmos, even when they’ve left the belief that gave them that security, so they do not see the inevitable end of the philosophies they adopt.
It’s easier to be an atheist when you grew up a Christian. The world just doesn’t feel as dark and lonely as your atheism tells you it is. If there is no God, then everything is permitted—yeah, sure, probably, one will think, but still, nothing really bad’s going to happen.
But on the other hand, as the twig is bent etc. Life can force you to see that your parents and priest were right after all. So we have reason for hope as well as gloom.
• Help advancing the work of First Things is always gratefully received. If you’d like us to send a copy to a friend, just send the name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org .
while we’re at it sources: Courteous runner: theamericanconservative.com/dreher , January 18, 2013. Thin progressivism: blog.acton.org , no date. Kennedy’s answers: archive.catholicherald.co.uk , August 22, 1975. Sexpertise: michigandaily.com , January 23, 2013. Places for marriage: fare-forward.com , Winter 2013. Soho chastity: catholicherald.co.uk , January 2, 2013. Christmas seminaries: catholicleague.org , December 13, 2012. Karr’s conversion: pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics , March 4, 2011. Forgiveness: okieinexile.blogspot.com , January 12, 2013. Big words: city-journal.org , Winter 2013. Day’s square peg: thetablet.co.uk , May 23, 1998. Real Egyptians: America, December 17, 2012.
tips: Mark Barrett, Stanton L. Jones, Nathaniel Peters, Emily Stimpson, William Wilcox, Robert Louis Wilken.