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Last summer saw the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes, a motu proprio that limited the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass. In December, the Vatican issued clarifications of those limits. I’m not a canon lawyer, so I won’t go into the details. It’s sufficient to say that the clarifications consistently underline prohibition. Pope Francis wants to put an end to attempts to revive the rites of the pre–Vatican II Church.

A number of priests I know have expressed exasperation. None can be described as ardent proponents of the Tridentine Mass (or, for that matter, of the ­­­pre–­Vatican II Church). But they roll their eyes. This ­pontificate has decided that obfuscation of fundamental teaching on the proper discipline for the sacramental participation of the divorced and remarried is necessary to ensure the proper “accompaniment” of those struggling toward greater faithfulness to Christ. But when it comes to those of a traditionalist cast of mind, Pope Francis draws his papal switch and swats those he deems improperly attached to the old liturgy.

I’m not surprised by the hostility. During my years in Catholic higher education, I discovered that liberal Catholic theologians committed to the “spirit of Vatican II” were often ruthless in their suppression of those who disagreed. “Dialogue” was always on their lips, as it is on those of Pope Francis. In truth, they operated in the same manner as do secular progressives, who preach inclusion while rigorously ­policing the institutions they control, quick to exclude those who question progressive pieties. I once passed an Episcopal Church with a sign out front: “We include everyone who includes everyone.” I had to smile. The self-­complimenting affirmation requires excluding those who believe the Church has sacramental boundaries and creedal standards.

As I noted in my comments on Traditionis Custodes last fall (“The Latin Mass,” October 2021), one of the best discussions of the liturgical controversy is Shaun Blanchard’s reflection in Church Life Journal, “Traditionis Custodes Was Never Merely About the Liturgy.” By Blanchard’s analysis, every pope since ­Vatican II has been anxious to assert control over the Council’s interpretation. Paul VI never succeeded in doing so. His pontificate is remembered as a time of tumult and radicalism that nearly shipwrecked the Church. The disorder of those years affected many ­reform-minded Catholic theologians and ­intellectuals, causing them to reassess their priorities and shift toward a more tradition-­affirming perspective. Having begun as theological liberals (or at least as liberal fellow travelers), they were mugged by ecclesial reality and became theological neoconservatives. Nearly all the founding fathers of First Things came from this cohort, not the least among them Avery Dulles.

One can make the case that John Paul II was a theological neoconservative. Benedict XVI is as well, although perhaps he’s better described as ­postliberal—but I’ll leave such nice distinctions for another day. Both men were Young Turks at Vatican II, convinced of the necessity of the Council for the pastoral renewal of the Church in the twentieth century. In the years following, however, both opposed disjunctive post-conciliar radicalism and argued for a reading of the Council that emphasized continuity with what came before.

The central project of liberal theology is one of reaching out to the proverbial modern man and “meeting him on his own terms” (which of course today means refraining from supposedly gender-exclusive language such as “modern man”). John Paul II and Benedict XVI recognized that this approach takes for granted the apostolic solidity and sacred authority of the Church—its spiritual capital, if you will. In the worst cases, a pastoral and theological liberalism spends down the Church’s spiritual capital by downplaying biblical and creedal authority, setting aside moral discipline, and making the liturgy a casual affair—all on the premise that these aspects of the tradition are impediments to fruitful evangelical engagement with the modern world.

Nobody with any knowledge of John Paul II’s pontificate can say that he did not reach out to “modern man.” But his evangelical premise was not liberal.He judged that the human heart seeks heroic virtue, “­giving ­oneself away in love,” as he often put it. ­Benedict XVI did not adopt his predecessor’s personalist approach, but his judgments likewise ran counter to theological liberalism. The German pope promoted theological rigor and affirmed the objectivity of revelation. In a dictatorship of relativism, he argued, the Church must be a voice of firm and unequivocal truth-telling. He also urged greater dignity and beauty in worship.

In these and many other ways, John Paul II and ­Benedict XVI promoted a neoconservative spiritual project, one that cherishes and renews the apostolic solidity and sacred authority of the Church (in that sense, conservative). But the two popes also advanced sophisticated, reasoned arguments showing that what the liberal theologian derides as rigid “traditionalism” in fact serves as the key that opens the lock of modernity. It’s the latter element that made their pontificates (and First Things) theologically neoconservative, for both took seriously the concerns of theological liberalism, yet saw renewal from within as the more profound way to address modern man’s solicitude for freedom, authenticity, and reason.

Moreover, both popes insisted that documents of the Second Vatican Council urged this approach. Thus, theological neoconservatism was not to be regarded as their personal opinion, but rather should be held as the authoritative approach for the post–­Vatican II Church.

Shaun Blanchard is certainly correct to note that Pope Francis is asserting his own authority over how we interpret Vatican II. And although Blanchard is coy about it, even the casual observer recognizes that the current pope wishes to displace the neoconservative approach in order to establish the liberal one as ­authoritative. Papal statements and actions have not aimed at renewing the Church’s spiritual capital. The present pontificate always spends, never invests.

This spend-down approach is implicit in one of Pope Francis’s dicta: “Time is greater than space.” What matters are not the solid things of the Church—her sacred traditions, distinctive theological language, and fine details of canon law. Rather, priority goes to creating new spiritual openings, and this is done through bold gestures and risk-taking that bends the rules. Francis’s declining to live in the papal apartment was an early example of the bold gesture. Amoris Laetitia is an example of rule-bending.

Although Benedict XVI was committed to discussions with recusant, traditionalist Catholics who rejected Vatican II, I’m certain he found many of them arrogant, small-minded, and irritating. I’m also fairly confident that Pope Francis resents the German Church’s determined efforts to exploit his rhetoric of “synodality” to justify turning itself into what amounts to a moribund progressive Protestant denomination. But one gains a sense of a pope’s program by whom he’ll put up with—and whom he denounces and disciplines.

Pope Benedict put up with the excesses of traditionalist Catholics because he recognized that they could contribute to the larger goal of renewing the apostolic solidity and sacred authority of the Church—the neoconservative project. Pope Frances does not, because he sees traditionalist Catholics as dangerous ­impediments to the evolution of the Church toward flexible and nonjudgmental evangelical openness—the liberal project.

No doubt Pope Francis is well intentioned. He does not want to “sell out” the Church. He has great missionary ambitions and trusts that his approach will serve the Church well. But I think he gravely misjudges the realities of the now-decadent postmodern West, which, if engaged on its own terms, will drain the gospel of its power. One recent example: A tweet from the official account of the American bishops used therapeutic talk of a “synodal journey” to introduce “seven attitudes” that could have been produced by a computer bot programmed to sound like a diversity consultant. Too often the documents emanating from Rome likewise adopt therapeutic and managerial rhetoric that forsakes the Church’s own language and takes up the debased language of the world.

Perhaps this approach will pan out. The liberal theological project is not without successes, not the least because the best theological liberals are not always consistent. The force of our apostolic inheritance often breaks through, even if the game plan is to blunt the keen edge of the Word of God. Nevertheless, I wish Pope Francis would avoid the progressive spiritual Pharisaism that parades in public its “dialogue” with the “honest atheist” while denouncing more traditionally minded Catholics as spiritual prostitutes and tax collectors.

Selma Weaponized

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris went to Atlanta, Georgia, on January 11. After a pilgrimage to the holy sites of the Civil Rights Movement, they ended up at a historically black college, where Joe Biden delivered a speech crafted to provide political support for the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Many commentators opined that the president’s speech likely had the opposite effect, damaging rather than buttressing these two highly partisan pieces of legislation. Yes, Biden turned the history and ­achievements of the Civil Rights Movement into crude political bludgeons meant to demonize as racist anyone who dares to oppose the interests and ambitions of today’s Democratic party. But what really hit me was that the speech marked a cultural milestone, not a political one.

In recent years, I have written about the growing political necessity of racism to our predominantly white liberal elite (“Bigot-Baiting,” August/September 2016). The elite must motivate working-class minorities, with whom they have little in common, to vote in ways that keep the elite in power. They do so by presenting themselves as the indispensable guardians, protecting non-whites from surging white supremacy—“Jim Crow 2.0,” as Biden likes to say. The attrition of Hispanic voters from the Democratic ranks makes the mobilization of black voters (and university-educated whites, who are also energized by charges of racism) even more urgent. Perhaps that’s what led Biden and his speechwriters to transform the Civil Rights Movement, such an ­important element of our shared history, into naked and raw ­propaganda. Whatever the motive, the desecration was startling.

In the early decades of my life, the struggle to overcome racism and its consequences was in the fore. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and its scope was expanded by executive orders and court decisions in the decade that followed. After many victories, the Civil Rights Movement became a moral touchstone and a powerful source of political legitimacy. Feminists and gay activists drew upon its prestige to invest their causes with the utmost necessity. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in the 1980s, placing King alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. By the end of the millennium, the tent of American public mythology was held up by three great poles: the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement.

That mythology is losing its power. The founding generation is now subject to unforgiving scrutiny. A plaque honoring George Washington has been removed from the wall of Christ Church in Alexandria, the place where he worshiped. Thomas Jefferson’s statue was removed from New York’s City Hall. The purpose of the 1619 Project is to encourage the moral shame that legitimates those acts, and many others.

Sacred things must be handled with care. The Catholic bishops in the United States recently struggled to come to a consensus about how to maintain the integrity of the Eucharist in the face of Catholic politicians who brazenly champion abortion rights. They worried about the coherence of the Eucharistic community, true. But the bishops know that the sacrament can also be desecrated if it is turned into a political bludgeon. In the event, the bishops erred on the side of avoiding the latter. Liberal pundits, progressive activists, and Democratic politicians manifest no such care when it comes to our civil religion. It’s increasingly evident that the mythic status and ­unquestioned dignity of the Civil Rights Movement is being used by the left as a weapon, a hatchet they swing wildly in the political brawls of our polarized era.

Andrew Gillum is a black Democrat who narrowly lost the Florida gubernatorial election in 2018. For a brief moment, liberal pundits anointed him an up-and-coming national figure. In the midst of his campaign, during a televised debate, he accused his opponent, Ron DeSantis, “of speaking at racist conferences” and consorting with neo-Nazis. “Now I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” he prevaricated, “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

As the American sage Eric Hoffer once observed, “­Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” I’d quibble with every, but Hoffer’s formulation is sadly apt when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement. The sad spectacle of Jussie Smollett and his racial con—so readily believed by our supposedly responsible mainstream media and political leaders—is only the most obvious instance of the racket. The effect is desecration, which means the diminution of the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement. Not long ago, “racist” was a stinging rebuke that was taken seriously by those on the left and right. Not anymore. Count me among those whose eyes roll when I hear someone in 2022 pronounce with great worry and fret the words “racism” and “racist.”

Whose Democracy?

Our democracy is under attack.” I’ve read this sentence countless times since Donald Trump appeared on the scene in 2016. After a mob overran the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the urgent warning has been underlined and put in bold. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I’m puzzled. It’s an odd formulation. Our democracy: Why append the possessive?

On the first anniversary of January 6, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Cynthia Miller-Idriss that suggests an answer. “The most urgent threat to Americans’ safety and security comes not from foreign terrorists,” she states, “but from the country’s own citizens.” These internal enemies aim to destroy “democracy itself.” The peril is real, not notional, because the attack comes “not from the fringe but from the mainstream.” We’re not talking about a few extremists, she insists; there are many “enemies” of democracy.

On its face, the notion of “mainstream” threats to democracy perplexes. One presumes that a democratic system reflects mainstream views. Isn’t the first principle of democracy that the majority rules? Miller-Idriss is not one to ponder paradoxes. Instead, she earnestly recommends adopting the German approach after World War II, a policy of “defensive democracy.” By her reckoning, we need ongoing, government-funded programs to protect democracy from . . . the people.

Earlier that week, William Galston appeared to agree—if not with draconian “defensive democracy” efforts to protect America from its citizens, then at least with the notion that democracy is being threatened by the public. In his regular column for the Wall Street Journal, he evoked the plight of Jews who lived in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They had to face the grim fact that their fellow citizens posed a mortal threat to them. Galston allows that the analogy is perhaps overly fraught. But he wants to make a point: Our democracy faces a dangerous (and numerous) them. He reports that polling suggests a large portion of the American population has sympathy for the crowd on January 6: Nearly 50 percent of Republicans described it as patriotic, and more than half of Republicans said it was motivated by the desire to defend freedom. These numbers make Galston blanch.

Miller-Idriss and Galston are not alone. Democrats inveigh against the purported threats to democracy posed by new election laws passed by Republican state legislatures. Anti-democracy? It’s an implausible charge. State legislatures are able to pass these laws because Republicans enjoy majorities in those states, in some cases substantial majorities. Moreover, the struggle to gain marginal advantages in the redistricting process is very nearly a sacred tradition in American politics, so longstanding that the term used for contorted districts shaped to serve partisan interests, “gerrymandering,” was coined more than two centuries ago. By any measure, it’s very much an established part of our politics.

Again, there’s a rich paradox in this heated talk of our democracy. The most thorough redistricting in our history came after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Southern states, federal courts had final say and required dramatic changes to how district boundaries were drawn. Such measures were meant to limit the voting power of the presumptively racist white voters who constituted majorities in those states. Yet this approach, a key element of the Civil Rights Movement, is considered a great triumph of our democracy.

There are other paradoxes. Some on the left denounce the Electoral College. The interposition of electors, determined state by state, between the popular vote and the presidency is a distinctive and very important element of American democracy, so that campaigning to get rid of it would seem to qualify as an assault on our democracy. But those who advocate the abolition of the Electoral College insist that they are trying to save our democracy. Others argue that we should get rid of lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices. This is another element of our democracy, at least as we’ve practiced it for more than two hundred years. Yet again, those proposing such fundamental changes insist that they aim to defend true democracy, which is presumably our democracy, the one that Miller-Idriss and Galston worry is under attack.

So I find myself wondering: To whom, exactly, does our democracy belong?

Democracy, like monarchy, aristocracy, and oligarchy, is a type of regime, a way of determining who rules and under what constraints. There are important differences among regimes. I favor a democratic one—in particular, ours. I hope my readers agree. But we need to be clear-minded about social reality. Every regime is “owned” by the elite of its society. Thus, although all American citizens enjoy the benefits of our well-designed system of constitutional government, strictly speaking, our democracy refers to the arrangements, conceptions, and expectations about power and governance that obtain among America’s ruling class.

This sounds damning. But it’s not. Regime comes from the Latin regimen, which means “rule.” A monarchy operates in accord with a different set of rules than does a democracy. In both cases, however, the regime’s legitimacy depends upon a widespread belief that the rules are being followed. Consider the fact that when the rules of succession are violated a monarchical regime is discredited, and it can easily descend into civil war as aristocratic factions struggle for the crown. This illustrates a general fact: A stable regime depends upon the settled authority of its rule, norms, and mores. If that authority loses its grip, then struggles for power become more intense, more open, and more dangerous.

As a consequence, in any regime, including a democratic one like ours, much importance rests in determining exactly what the rules require. It is true that we have a Constitution, available for all to read and understand. But in nearly all situations, well-educated people with specialized legal, bureaucratic, and procedural knowledge have control over how the rules are interpreted. For example, in the run-up to the 2020 election, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overruled election laws established by that state’s legislature. The Court determined that mail-in ballots received after Election Day must be counted. This ruling triggered lawsuits, and the controversy played a minor role in post-election ­machinations. In this instance, as in so many others, political contestation was carried out through technical, ­legalistic accusations and counter-accusations.The most basic political question—who shall rule?—gets reframed as a struggle over who was or was not following the regime’s rules.

In a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy, battles over rules are limited to elite circles, because the people have no direct say. By contrast, in a democratic regime, public opinion matters, because legitimacy turns not just on rule-following but also on the consent of the governed. As a consequence, people who control news media and determine the flow of information that shapes the public’s perceptions play important roles. These media executives and prominent journalists are in turn closely networked with other important, powerful people in government and business. Elites control regimes, whether they are Old World monarchies or modern ­democracies.

This control is necessary. Democracies require a stable governing consensus that anchors electoral struggles for power and moderates partisan passions. This consensus does not decide who wins elections. It goes deeper. A governing consensus determines who has the authority to deem elections fair or fraudulent. The consensus determines when public health policies are sound or unsound—and when protests are “mostly peaceful.” Those with the authority to make such determinations are by definition the ruling class—their rulings are authoritative. This class “owns” the regime, not in the way I own my apartment or car, but in the way trustees own institutions. When things are functioning well, they are the custodians of our democracy.

As Galston, Miller-Idriss, and many others recognize, large sectors of the American population no longer accept the authority of those who once issued authoritative rulings. Consider the peculiar case of Donald Trump, who can function as a synecdoche for a wide range of populist repudiations of mainstream institutions, experts, and authorized leaders: anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, Trump loyalists who insist the election was stolen, voters who do not welcome the putative blessings of a diverse society, truculent parents questioning education officials, and more.

One can often detect illness by taking a person’s temperature, which rises as the body mobilizes to fight off infections. The same holds for society. Like a patient massing white blood cells to attack, the mainstream media habitually adopt “false” and “baseless” as part of their language. In 2020, we were instructed about the “false lab leak theory.” Throughout 2021, mainstream media never failed to characterize Trump’s claims about the election as “false” or “baseless.” I’ve become increasingly unsettled by this obsessive insistence. Do journalists and editors believe that at this late date anyone in America doesn’t already know that the authoritative determination has been made? Why are mainstream institutions continuing to insist upon it with feverish urgency? The answer is evident: Those responsible for our governing consensus are exasperated by an increasingly indocile and intractable public that will not accept their authority.

A rising temperature in the ruling class may be counterproductive. Every parent knows that an approach to adolescent children that is ill-considered can erode authority. As my father advised me, “Never threaten punishment you won’t impose.” Disobedience that survives censure shows the censuring authority to be weak. That’s happening in the body politic. Although defeated at the polls and discredited and derided by nearly every mainstream institution in America, Trump and what he represents remain powerful factors in American public life.

I am writing not to praise Trump (nor to condemn him). My point is that our ruling class has not succeeded in burying him. The authority of mainstream institutions, experts, and leaders to determine what counts as scientific or insurrectionary—or even truthful—­continues to erode. Quite simply, the connection of trust, the one that links “the authorities” to the public, is breaking down.

When historians write about the early twenty-first century, a leitmotif will be this erosion of trust, for it underlies a great deal of our present distemper. “Polarization” describes a situation in which a shared consensus is fraying. “Populism” also arises when the grip of a ruling class loosens. These are warning signs. The erosion of authority puts people on edge, causing everyone to imagine that what he holds as precious is under attack. Read Charles Blow’s regular column in the New York Times. He is as outraged and addled as any Trump loyalist who thinks the country is being stolen from him.

Why this unease? Why are people in wealthy neighborhoods putting up signs announcing that “Science is real”? I was nine years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The prestige of science was unassailable. The same held for other authorities that stood astride the many differences that divided our crazy-quilt nation. Walter Cronkite ended the evening news with an assertion of fact: “And that’s the way it is.” The New York Times promised (and still promises) to provide “all the news that’s fit to print.” What happened to these authorities? Why have they lost the trust of so many Americans?

Conservatives are inclined to say that mainstream institutions became politicized, captured by the left. This capture was epitomized by public health experts who shamelessly announced that massive Black Lives Matter protests were legitimate violations of lockdown policies, because racism is “a public health emergency.” At that moment, any trust I had in public health as a scientific discipline evaporated.

Yet “politicization” is as much a symptom as “polarization.” To offer it as an explanation begs the question: Why have formerly authoritative institutions allowed themselves to be hijacked? Why have once reliable medical journals such as The Lancet become so politically correct? Why do baby boomer senior editors of mainstream publications fear their young, woke staff? Why is Joe Biden talking like Al Sharpton?

Politicization is a disease of institutions, and diseases take hold of bodies already weakened. In my recent book, Return of the Strong Gods, I argue that our governing consensus arose as a response to twentieth-century totalitarianism. Initially effective, the consensus has degenerated into the petrified and dysfunctional ideology of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a consequence, our ruling class misgoverns, often making our problems worse, not better. The public is not unwise to withdraw its trust.

Patrick Deneen offers a different diagnosis. Our liberal tradition prizes freedom in ways that treat all forms of authority as threats to be neutralized. The resulting individualism discourages loyalty to institutions and weakens bonds of community. Are we then surprised that our liberal-dominated political culture has produced atomized, distrustful citizens who suspect that our supposedly authoritative experts and other elites are in it for themselves rather than serving the common good?

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that the ideal of democratic equality would ­stimulate ­unrealistic expectations, eventually ending in a ­culture of frustration and anger. After all, we can never be equally successful, equally self-assured, and equally happy. To a great extent, left-wing extremism arises from this frustration and anger. Why should young people who were promised equality trust the authorities who failed to make unmarried mothers as secure as married ­mothers—or troubled children who think they were born in the wrong bodies as happy as mentally stable children?

The young do not need to meditate on the promise of equality to cultivate distrust. For the last two generations, universities have promoted a pedagogy of suspicion, one that traces claims of authority back to a supposedly deeper and self-interested desire for power, utility, or pleasure. Are we then surprised that those educated in this way apply the same suspicion to liberal institutions and establishment authorities?

In The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri offers yet ­another angle on the problem. By his analysis, the silicon chip broke the elite monopoly on the flow of information. Bloggers can air dirty laundry, showing that those in positions of authority have clay feet. Social media allows for dissident communities to form and unauthorized authorities (a sociological contradiction that is obviously a social reality) to emerge. All of this undermines the ruling class’s control over what counts as prudent and legitimate, and even what counts as true.

In my undergraduate days, I read Alasdair ­MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I can now see that this book provides a profound analysis of our political and social predicament. The central argument of the book is that “emotivism” functions as our theory of morality. We hold that moral truth is subjective; it is what we “value.” But to say that moral truth is subjective means that those who feel the most strongly—and who have the cultural, legal, and economic power to impose their views—determine what is right and wrong, indeed, what is true and false. Thus, “politicization” does not arise from a Marxist invasion of American universities. It is an inevitable outcome of emotivism. Mute on the question of truth, we angle to ensure that our “values” triumph. It was only a matter of time before authorities such as science would be conscripted into this project, and thus perverted. In this regard, Nietzsche’s essay “On the Use and Abuse of History” was prophetic.

MacIntyre focuses on moral theory, but his basic point echoes a long-standing Catholic criticism of the Reformation and modern culture. By this line of analysis, our problems arise from nominalism, a view of language and reason that denies a close connection between truth statements and reality. When contemplating the perversions of modern public life, the conservative cultural critic Richard Weaver advanced a version of this explanation. Matthew Crawford follows in this tradition, emulating Weaver’s quirky refusal to write political philosophy in the language of political philosophy. Again, we end with a naked struggle for power. If statements are not measured against what is real, then we are in a war for control of “truth.” Words and concepts become weapons for victory rather than tools for understanding. My observations about the use of “racism” by President Biden and others suggest that we’ve come to that juncture.

Recently I returned to the work of Eric Voegelin (“­Gnostic Politics,” April 2021). Although elaborated with more rigor, his overall judgment is not unlike that suggested by G. K. Chesterton and many others: The recession of Christianity has created a spiritual vacuum, which we fill with political idols. Unable to believe the true religion, we are not able to live in accord with Enlightenment ideals of freedom and reason as modernity promised. Instead, we throw ourselves into bondage to false religions.

I’m not inclined to grasp the One Ring, the one explanation to rule them all. In my estimation, things that matter in human life admit of many overlapping explanations, and there’s something to be said for all those I’ve briefly surveyed. But I find myself coming back to MacIntyre, Weaver, Crawford, and many others who see our problems as metaphysical. We are living through a political crisis. It is difficult to find true north. As we seek to navigate this crisis responsibly, these thinkers provide no detailed program or set agenda. Rather, they give sage counsel: Cling to that which is real. God, family, friendship, community, the marriage covenant, the difference between men and women. A reality-anchored life protects us from being swept up by ideologies and their destructive certainties.


♦ On January 15, San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordelione came to New York to celebrate the Mass of the Americas, a newly composed setting of the Mass by Frank La Rocca. The music was magnificent, expressing in sound the hermeneutic of continuity advocated by Pope Benedict. Rooted in Renaissance polyphony, La Rocca’s pieces are perfectly spiced with contemporary musical tropes. This composition was sponsored by the Benedict XVI Institute. Visit the Institute’s website and listen:

♦ News of popular media comes to me at the speed of a Conestoga wagon. So it was only recently that I learned of the HBO series Succession. The sixth episode of the current season (if one is to believe a Washington Post account of a recent episode) features an ambitious YouTube provocateur by the name of Jeryd Mencken, who speaks darkly about “aristo-populism.” I nearly fell out of my chair. The obscure (and apt) term comes from ­Patrick Deneen’s 2019 First Things lecture in Washington, D.C. Deneen spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of five hundred. That’s not a small crowd by our standards. Nevertheless, one marvels that the notion found its way into the latest prestige drama on TV.

♦ It seems Succession recently added playwright Will Arbery to its scriptwriting staff. In his 2019 play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Arbery demonstrated an insider’s knowledge of conservative intellectual culture. Knowing his parents as I do, I’m willing to bet that he’s laid eyes on First Things.

♦ In her new book, What Do Men Want?, Nina Power observes: “We live in a pruritanical world.” Our society is at once devoted to prurient preoccupations and deeply moralistic to the point of brutal censure. “On the one hand, we are encouraged to have fun, to be completely selfish and pleasure-seeking,” Power notes, “but, on the other, if we make a mistake, or become the target of others, there is no limit to the societal punishment that can be meted out.”

♦ Last fall, California amended its civil definition of sexual battery by making a man’s removal of a condom during sexual intercourse without his partner’s consent actionable under the law. It’s fascinating to see the sexual revolution come full circle. The Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold decision deemed unconstitutional the state of Connecticut’s prohibitions against the purchase and use of contraceptives, and it did so by discovering a right of privacy. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas asked in mock horror, “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?” In California the courts now adjudicate proper contraceptive use in the bedroom.

♦ Seyed Mohammad Marandi teaches English at the University of Tehran. He’s an intellectual ally of the Iranian government’s Islamist hard-liners. About the spate of Twitter banishments at the end of 2021, he tweeted: “When Joe Rogan becomes the most powerful US media figure & Dr. Robert Malone (WHATEVER his views) is removed from twitter, the lack of public credibility as well as the intolerance of the regime becomes clear.” One must note that our social media regime isn’t so ­intolerant as to censor Marandi. This is not surprising. He does not count. Progressives in the West are concerned about domestic dissenters, not global ­adversaries.

♦ A leading Danish newspaper issued an apology to readers. Ekstra Bladet admitted: “For almost two years, we—the press and the population—have been almost hypnotically preoccupied with the authorities’ daily coronavirus figures.” This fixation led to a climate of hysteria. “The constant mental alertness has worn tremendously on all of us. That is why we—the press—must also take stock of our efforts. And we have failed.” The newspaper goes on to list its failures: credulous reporting of government statistics, the highlighting of experts who expressed the direst views, and the overselling of the vaccine as a “superweapon.” We await similar apologies from American media.

♦ I asked a friend whether he thought things would return to normal after the pandemic. His response: “Oh, yes, everything will be as it was before, only worse.”

♦ On a temperate day in mid-January in midtown Manhattan, a black man passed me on the street, announcing in a loud voice, “Cocaine for white people!” I’ve been in New York for ten years, and this was my first experience of open dealing on the sidewalks. Is it a ­coincidence that the newly elected Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has announced that he will not seek prison sentences for armed robberies, drug dealing, and gun possession?

♦ Fr. John Perricone is on to something. Writing for Crisis Magazine, he urges us to offer rousing support for smokers (“Three Cheers for Smokers”). The woke revolutionaries fuel their cause with moral outrage, directing it toward unfortunates who do not ape the mores of the cognoscenti. “With our culture cobbling a New ­Moral Code to replace the Old one, new virtues and new sins are being created. It used to be that we stigmatized adulterers, now we shun smokers. Once upon a time, society showed disgust for pornography, now disgust is reserved for those who refuse to recycle.” What’s needed is resistance, and Perricone argues for a united front.

♦ SSM Health, which operates twenty-three hospitals in the Midwest, has developed a point system for the allocation of Regeneron, an antibody medicine to combat severe COVID illness. A total of twenty points are necessary to qualify. Patients with diabetes get three points. Obesity, asthma, and hypertension earn one point each, as do other conditions. There is a non-­medical category: “Non-White or Hispanic.” Checking this box gives patients seven points. In short, SSM Health developed a rubric for treatment that discriminates on the basis of race. Needless to say, this violates civil rights law. In the event, SSM Health withdrew the policy after threats of legal action.

SSM Health is a Catholic hospital system sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary (SSM=“Sisters of St. Mary”), and the Catholic Church is on record opposing racism. Another Franciscan, Bishop John Stowe, who was so quick to falsely accuse the Covington kids of racism, said not a word, nor did other Catholic leaders who trumpet their anti-racist bona fides. This does not surprise me. As I note in this month’s Public Square, “racism” does not mean discriminating on the basis of race.” It’s an open-ended word that means “opposing progressive political ambitions.” By this definition, to draw attention to the SSM Health policy and race-based criterion for treatment is “racist.”

♦ In January, the University of Chicago instituted a booster shot mandate for all students, faculty, and employees. A student-run newspaper, Chicago Thinker (motto: “outthink the mob”), made inquiries. The paper’s staff discovered that University of Chicago ­Medical Center employees are exempt from the booster mandate. Apparently, the purported medical necessity of more shots is not necessary for medical ­professionals.

♦ Before World War II, Germany had a powerful Catholic party, the Center party. It often played crucial roles in governing coalitions, including the fateful decision to support the 1933 Enabling Act that suspended parliamentary democracy and accorded Hitler’s government plenary power. After the war, an attempt was made to revive the Center party, but it fizzled, overwhelmed by a new party that combined Protestants and Catholics, the Christian Democratic Union. But in ­January the Center party came to life again. Bundestag member Uwe Witt resigned his membership in ­Alternative für Deutschland and announced that he would sit as a representative of a revived Center party, which hopes to grow with the support of voters who “want a new and serious social-conservative force.” I’m not sure the reborn Center party will succeed. But of this I’m fairly certain: A revived conservative Catholic party will be ­strenuously opposed by the bishops of the German Catholic Church.

♦ A subscriber recently wrote, expressing appre­ciation for what we’re doing: “First Things is a valuable publication promoting truth over falsehood, profound rational thinking over superficial opinion, and faith and hope over unbelief and despair.”

♦ Paul Wilson would like to form a ROFTERS group in the Greeley-Loveland area of Colorado. If you’d like to join, drop him a line:

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