• The parish, Immaculate Conception down on First and Fourteenth, is the one Richard John Neuhaus served for so many years, and one of the places, we suspect, that made him so fond of quoting the famous description of the Church as “here comes everybody.”
Beside us, at the Easter vigil, was an older man in tie and leather bomber jacket, in front was a young woman in a camel-hair coat, sitting next to a homeless man who’d stacked two bags with his possessions against the wall, and in front of them were a guy and a girl, both in jeans and t-shirts. Behind us was a Latino family, their responses heavily accented, the mother holding her rosary, the husband wearing a pectoral cross.
Twelve people, only about half of them infants, were baptized that night, the pastor performing most of the baptisms in Spanish. A number of children, including a Zachary and a Trevor and two Guadalupes, made their first Communion.
The church was packed and Communion went on a very long time, and at the end everyone sang out “Jesus Christ is risen today,” except for those who never sing, of which Immaculate Conception has few, since so much of the parish is Filipino, Italian, and WASP.
Here came everybody, and a good time was had by all.
• In this case, WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Papist.
• We mentioned fact checking last month, and a friend sent a selection from the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik about his experiences in France. When Gopnik tells a subject that une fact checker will be calling, they say with annoyance, “No, no, I’ve told you everything I know,” then, “You mean your editor double-checks?” and finally, “This is a way of maintaining an ideological line?”
The French believe, Gopnik reports, that people “don’t speak in straight facts; the facts they employ to enforce their truths change, flexibly and with varying emphasis, as the conversation changes, and the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of pure factual consistency is an absurd denial of what conversation ought to be. Not, of course, that the French intellectual doesn’t use and respect facts, up to a useful point.”
Our friend Matthew Boudway, an editor at Commonweal, notes that the French may just distrust journalists.
• For a reason. The reporter asked what kind of pope the next pope should be, and America’s Fr. James Martin, S.J., said, “Well, first, he has to be a holy person.” After a pause, which Fr. Martin described as “uncomfortable,” the reporter said, “Father, I can’t just say that he needs to be holy. I was hoping you would talk about something like women’s ordination and birth control.”
• In this month’s “Public Square,” the editor celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in response to eight pastors whose own letter has not gone down well since. But no one reads it, so, curious, we looked it up. Its authors included the state’s two Catholic bishops, the Episcopal bishop, the two Methodist bishops, the leader of the state’s Presbyterian synod, a leading Baptist pastor, and a rabbi—in other words, Alabama’s religious establishment.
• “It’s really complicated,” explains Jim Strouse, a thirty-six-year-old filmmaker. Breaking up with the mother of his children when they hadn’t created a relation—that is, a marriage—that they could formally break up “was weird. It was strange. We were just winging it from day to day with the kids.”
“Getting married is kind of like closing the door in some ways,” he said. “When you’re not married, the door is always open, and that was confusing. Even when we had a terrible fight, it always felt like I could just leave now and it doesn’t matter, because we never got married. The lack of legal, formal commitment did not help.”
He’d had, as the article puts it, “the perfect arty bohemian relationship.” But it didn’t work. “The cloudiness around our separation was definitely the worst part of our relationship, looking back. Kids need to know what’s going on, and things were so unclear for so long, I think it was even more strange and confusing for the children.”
“It’s helpful to get married, if you want to get divorced,” Strouse observed. His eight-year-old daughter, the article reports, “has already sworn off marriage.”
• The article appeared, a little surprisingly, not just in the New York Observer, a weekly filled with politics, personalities (serious and celebrity), and artsy stuff, and reliably libertarian in morality, but on the front page, above the fold and illustrated with a striking drawing. We expected the usual lament about how hard life is but found, instead, a defense of marriage.
The evidence was mostly negative, such as Strouse’s story and a few others even sadder, and references to studies like the one showing that 66 percent of couples living together break up before their child is ten, while only 28 percent of married couples do. Of marriage as a good in itself there was little mention. But still, not what we expected to find on the front page of a New York City weekly.
• It’s not an analogy we’d choose, but still, the article’s closing quote suggests that some people are beginning to think of marriage more practically, and that’s all to the good. “Marriage is a business, in my opinion, and it has only been in the last fifty or so years that it has been about this love thing,” said one woman, whose boyfriend left her when she became pregnant and now has “a perfunctory relationship” with his son. “It’s like running a boring corporation. The people who think it’s different are the ones who end up getting divorced. People that go into it knowing that it’s a business, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, will last forever.”
• Everyone was talking about Pope Francis—for about two weeks, while everyone tried to figure out what kind of pope he would be. Disgruntled liberal Catholics and angry traditionalists wanted him to be a liberal, for different reasons, one being “Finally, finally, a good guy!” and the other being “Told you the Church was going to hell!” Some secularists wanted him to be a liberal (the Church comes round!) and others a reactionary (see, the Church is irrelevant!).
He’s proved to be a Catholic. Silence ensued.
• Francis referred recently to Paul VI as “the great.” While we’re thinking of it, we’d like to say that about Benedict as well. If it catches on, you heard it here first.
• Last year we mentioned John Derbyshire’s just-facing-facts-and-speaking-plainly description of what white parents supposedly tell their children about being friends with black people (don’t, because they’re not as good as us and a lot of them are dangerous, is essentially what he said), which got him fired from National Review.
We were searching the archives the other day for an article on writing and stumbled across Richard John Neuhaus’ judgment on an earlier (2006) Derbyshire event. “Derbyshire,” RJN said, “is a Mencken manqué who, as St. Paul might say, boasts of his shame in not really caring about those embryos, fetuses, or whatever they are.”
He was referring to Derbyshire’s review of Ramesh Ponnuru’s Party of Death in the New English Review and comments he made on NR ’s website afterward. In the review, he’d said the right-to-life movement might “fairly be called a cult,” though he couldn’t make up his mind on the point. It was, on a scale of one to ten, a two on “nuttiness,” a six on hysteria, and a four on threats to liberty.
“How inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!” he said of pro-lifers, before going on to describe them (or rather, us) as “just another species of political correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization for the last forty years.” Oh, and this: “The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and diminish our liberties.”
You can see why RJN called him a Mencken manqué. It’s not a compliment.
• The man who could write as Derbyshire did about the unborn person would naturally write the kind of racist stuff that got him fired. It’s a little distressing, though, that National Review apparently found the first perfectly acceptable. In this case, they made the same personnel decisions (pro-abortion okay, racist not) that the Nation would have made, or Mother Jones, or the New York Times.
• Working on Wesley Smith’s essay in the last issue reminded me that having as creepy and evil-feeling a poster boy as Jack Kevorkian did not harm the euthanasia movement in the least. Yet until recently Christians had as their poster boy a kindly, retiring, elderly German scholar, full of goodwill for everyone, and he’s hated as if he wanted to kill people.
• The Scottish philosopher and First Things contributor John Haldane frequently debates with people like the late Christopher Hitchens and New Atheists in general. The interviewer for 3:AM Magazine tells him he presents an attractive version of Thomism but that [recitation of cultural leftist cliches about “extreme right-wing Christianity” being “bullying” and hateful etc.] and then asks “Haven’t you been hijacked by a very different agenda?”
Haldane says no, and then explains that, through this kind of exchange, “Catholics learn . . . to draw distinctions.” The distinctions, for example, “between the value of an office and the quality of its occupants; the content of the message and the character of the messengers; the dignity of persons and the wrongfulness of human actions; adherence to truth and tolerance of disagreement among truth-seekers; and between what is attainable naturally and what requires grace.”
• Of the great but difficult Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, Haldane writes, “I think there was something of the existentialist or spiritual writer about her in the sense that she thought that the significance of a fact would only be evident to someone who was looking to find or to escape from it.”
• In his “Public Square,” the editor says that plagiarists are lying, because they’re speaking in a voice not their own, but not stealing. Thinking they’re stealing has something to do with worshipping the god of intellectual property. Lying, yes, of course, but why they are not also stealing is not clear to me.
The writer, and the serious writer especially, crafts his work in the same way a sculptor crafts his. He’s not just offering ideas but ideas put a certain way, for a certain reason, and often with considerable effort, effort reflecting years of training and practice. The man who took a sculpture to present as his own would be stealing and would find the police arriving with a warrant. Why would not the man who takes the sculpted words be stealing them?
• And words matter. Even though everyone uses clinic for abortuaries and euthanasia providers, we try to avoid it because clinic means a place of healing (think eye clinic, reading clinic, putting clinic). We use facilities instead.
• In a piece of perhaps surprising sympathy for Keith O’Brien, the former archbishop of St. Andrew’s who spoke out against homosexual marriage in Scotland and was a few months ago brought down by revelations of his own homosexual episodes, Spectator columnist Matthew Parris still offers all the usual explanations for such apparent hypocrisy. People react most strongly against the traits they see and hate in themselves, Catholicism adds its condemnation and increases “self-hatred,” “queer-bashing” advances a man’s career in the Church, repressing one’s sexual desires leads to their coming out anyway.
And who knows? People are complex. But there are other explanations, beginning with the fact that maybe he believed the Catholic teaching even if he found it at this point personally difficult. And maybe he spoke out so strongly because he knew whereof he spoke. It can take a certain degree of courage to be a hypocrite (if that’s indeed what he was).
• An easy target, we admit, but something that still amuses us.
Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”
A lot of American Christians, as reported by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: “Roughly half (48%) of Christians in the U.S. say they believe that Christ will definitely (27%) or probably (20%) return to earth in the next 40 years.”
It is, we would have thought, a weirdly irrelevant event to speculate about. Your own death is certain but the timing unknown, whatever your life insurance company is betting on. The only question is whether the termination, history’s or yours, makes you live differently.
You can best watch by living as if Jesus might surprise you doing whatever you’re doing. Or as an Evangelical friend likes to say, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”
• “In all my press releases, I make them use the word ‘her,’” says rapper Michael Quattlebaum Jr. in an admiring profile in the Village Voice. Michael, “a gay man who sometimes dresses as a woman” and performs in costume as a teenage girl named Mykki Blanco, explained, “Even if you’re looking at a picture of Mykki Blanco shirtless in baggy pants, you are going to say ‘her,’ because language doesn’t mean anything.”
That’s a convenient theory, of course, when reality is not quite the thing you want. But reality is reality for a reason. The writer says, “His torso . . . is flat and androgynous.” But it isn’t, as you can see from a picture of a shirtless Quattlebaum in the article. You’re not going to say “her,” because he’s a him, and language means something.
• We mentioned last month a reader’s claim that since Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through him, Jews don’t worship the same God as Christians—which is to say, Jews don’t worship God, period, end of story. Jews are often the victims of proof-texting Q.E.D.-type Christianity.
Logic, like the scalpel, is an instrument one must use with care. Surgery looks easier than it is and you can destroy more than you intend. You can build great things with logic, as you can with concrete and steel, but only if you know what you’re doing. (See a famous tower in Pisa and the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the one that started twisting in the wind and then collapsed, the movie of which has entertained high school science classes for decades.)
One can believe the cosmos fundamentally reasonable without believing that we always see the reasons, because we don’t have all the facts, or can’t put them together right, or ignore the ones that don’t fit what we think we know, or want to believe something else. That’s one of the reasons for revelation and for the Church. Which tells us, in the matter with which we began, that the Jews are our elder brothers in the faith, period, end of story.
• At the lowest level, this proof-texting Christianity makes the faith intellectually less interesting. It’s like putting together a Lego castle. No matter how many pieces you have to work with or how complex the plans, there’s no struggle, no mystery, no exploration, no submission to a truth greater than we can grasp but that we can still explore.
That’s the lowest level: Thinking is fun. But there’s more. As Fr. Robert Imbelli writes, “The Catholic intellectual tradition, in its multiple forms, is the quest to explore the significance and implications of the inexhaustible Mystery of Jesus Christ, to give expressions to the reasons of the heart.”
You think about what you love. That’s the reason St. Ignatius wrote his letters while on his way to die in Rome, when most of us would have been fretting too much to write, and St. Irenaeus wrote his fat book on that weird movement, when he must have had more interesting things to do, and Robert Jenson and Stanley Hauerwas and Benedict and a lot of people who write for us spend those years in the library and months at the keyboard.
• Benedict on faith, reason, and culture; the president of the Catholic University of America, John Garvey, on the Catholic university; the poet Paul Mariani on the Catholic imagination; and (source of the quote I just used) Robert Imbelli on the Catholic intellectual tradition are among the writings that can be found in C21 Resources , an occasional magazine published by the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. Very helpful, nicely done, and stimulating. For more information, see bc.edu/church21.
• Sally Thomas, whose “Not Duffers, Won’t Drown” appeared last month, has been awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry for her poems published in the journal In the Lost Country.
• Brian Doyle and I were talking shop, as Brian edits Portland magazine as well as writing for us, and he wrote about the magazine you’re reading now: “I do think, as a snarling longtime editor, that magazines have, and ought to have, characters, almost personalities, a sort of personal flavor, almost, so that First Things is brilliant, well-dressed, a little donnish, with flashes of temper and wry wit. First Things has damn well read Aquinas and not just the greatest hits of Tommy the Ox; and First Things, unlike the rest of the world, actually remembers what the word hermeneutics means for longer than a moment.”
We like that, except maybe for that “donnish” bit, because we think he means a little stuffy and prone to use words with unnecessary numbers of syllables, but still, we like it. If you would like to help promote such a magazine, please send us the mailing addresses of friends who might want to read it and we’ll send them a copy. Send the addresses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
while we’re at it sources: Distrustful French: Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon. Clueless reporters: America, March 18, 2013. King’s critics: newseum.org. Not-marriage is not good: New York Observer, March 25, 2013. Francis the Catholic: news.va , April 23, 2013. The Mencken manqué: firstthings.com/web-exclusives, June 15, 2006, and newenglishreview.org, June 2006. Haldane’s distinctions: 3ammagazine.com, December 4, 2012. Anscombe the writer: Same. O’Brien’s motives: The Spectator, March 9, 2013. Watch out: pewforum.org, March 26, 2013. Mykki’s chest: Village Voice, April 10–16, 2013.
wwai tips: William Tighe.