New York police officer Wilbert Mora was buried February 2. He was gunned down in a Harlem apartment January 21 after responding to a 911 call; his partner Jason Rivera died at the scene, and Mora succumbed to his wounds a few days later. The funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as Rivera’s had been the week before.
The media were out in force with cameras ready. Fifth Avenue was closed for thirty blocks, filled with tens of thousands of policemen from locales throughout the region and beyond, standing at attention. Loudspeakers on street corners broadcasted the Mass. At the end of the funeral, as the casket was carried to the hearse for a solemn procession down the avenue, the preternatural silence of a city that is never otherwise without the clanging and clamoring of humanity spoke more loudly than any bullhorn. Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s final words of farewell echoed down the glass and steel canyons: “One day we shall joyfully greet him again, when the love of Christ destroys even death itself.”
I paid my respects as the body of Wilbert Mora passed. And I marveled over the paradoxes of our time. Only two days before, I had attended a conference sponsored by the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard that discussed a lecture by French political philosopher Chantal Delsol, “The End of Christendom and the Rise of the Pagan West.” The give-and-take had been animated. Is the “woke revolution” religious in nature? Are there parallels between today’s secular regime and the pagan world of antiquity? In the debate, however, no one had taken issue with the presumption that Christendom was a thing of the past. Perhaps that presumption is mistaken. After all, for more than two hours, the center of New York City had gone silent for a funeral Mass.
The Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police made Rivera and Mora’s funerals events of public importance. Mayor Eric Adams gave a powerful eulogy that was also very much a political statement, one of resolve in the face of a rising tide of crime and violence. And the vast ocean of blue on Fifth Avenue was about more than showing respect for a fallen comrade. There can be little doubt that the policemen, who were arrayed in extraordinary numbers, some coming all the way from the West Coast, were there in part to take a political stand. So, yes, the gathering wasn’t “purely” religious. Isn’t the easy mixture of culture, politics, and faith the norm in Christendom, indeed, its defining feature?
I don’t pretend that the world has not changed. Among my cohort of college students in the late 1970s, few were overtly religious. But nearly everyone had attended church or synagogue as a child, if only a few times a year. This produced a common religious literacy. As a result, those who did not believe knew what they did not believe in. Today, one can easily grow up in a wealthy suburb of Boston and be entirely innocent of religion, knowing that the Bible exists, of course, but ignorant of its content. I’d venture that in 2022 more than half of Yale undergraduates draw a blank when a professor mentions Mount Sinai or the Sermon on the Mount.
This is a difference that makes a difference. For most people, religion and not philosophy is the primary way by which their metaphysical imaginations are enlarged. The rituals of worship convey a high seriousness about life’s origins and purposes that affects and deepens a young person, even if he ends up rejecting his tradition or, as is more often the case, simply falls out of the habit of religious observance. A person raised in a family that attends church regularly is less likely to enter adulthood satisfied that socio-biology, brain science, and game theory provide a sufficient explanation of human behavior. Perhaps we’re in the grip of a smug technocratic elite because our ruling class suffers from a metaphysical shallowness caused by lack of exposure to religion.
In the twentieth century, theologians often championed the end of Christendom, seeing in the old confluence of religion and politics a perversion of the apostolic faith. The young Karl Barth famously announced that Christianity is not a “religion,” a term that for him signaled the domestication of transcendence to serve social and moral needs. Stanley Hauerwas strikes the same note, as do many others. They see the end of Christendom as a blessing, for it releases the Church from its false service as a chaplain to worldly powers.
There’s something right in this attitude. Faith calls us to serve God, not Caesar. But celebrating the end of Christendom can go too far. In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul echoes Isaiah 45:23, teaching that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Like iron filings to a magnet, every dimension of life is tensed with potential for subordination to Christ. Consequently, something like “Christendom” invariably emerges when large numbers of people in a nation harken to the proclamation of the gospel. Faith yearns to bring all things under the Lordship of Christ. This is the kernel of truth in today’s sometimes overheated calls for “integralism.”
As a young theologian influenced by debates about Christendom, I was anxious to formulate the “right” account of the relation of the Church and the world. Theologian David Yeago waved off such an ambition. He observed that there is no timeless relation of Church and society, no fixed account of the Church’s role in politics, for the relation of the Church and the world is up to the world, which is sometimes hostile, sometimes indifferent, and sometimes solicitous. It’s foolish to imagine that the bishops must crown kings for a regime to be legitimate—or that legislative sessions must open with prayer in order for the laws passed to be just. But it makes no theological sense for the Church to reject the world’s request for God’s favor and protection.
One legacy of modernity has been hostility toward religion’s influence in public life. An ideological secularism insists upon a “wall of separation.” The slightest theo-political whisper evokes denunciations. Yet there are (and always have been) countervailing tendencies. Adopted in 2011, the new Hungarian Constitution recognizes the role of Christianity in sustaining the nation. Last year, Éric Zemmour, the populist candidate for France’s highest office, issued a Christmas statement more theologically robust and rhetorically uplifting than anything coming from the Vatican.
And as I saw at Wilbert Mora’s funeral, a politician can use a eulogy to make a political statement at a public Mass celebrated by an ecclesiastical eminence. And the religious ceremony allows a sector of society to flood into the public square to show support for a secular cause.
Our age, like every age, requires a discerning eye. Christendom is surely over. As Aaron Renn observes, Christians now face a negative culture (“The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” February 2022). But the old ways are not entirely behind us, and the public role of Christianity endures. This is not something we should regret; rather, it is to be judiciously encouraged.
Julie is an attractive young Norwegian, the main character in The Worst Person in the World, a new film by Joachim Trier. The story begins as she decides that she went into medicine only because it’s what students with good grades are supposed to do. It’s not the body, but the spirit that compels her. So, Julie switches to psychology, only to drop it for photography. At each step, her mother is supportive: “Whatever you want, dear.”
Changing majors, experimenting with careers, boyfriends, and girlfriends: It’s a familiar stage in life, the extended adolescence that’s now the norm, allowing us to delay commitments. Our societies seem able to subsidize this long interlude between childhood and adulthood. The early-twenty-first-century West is very rich, especially in Norway, where royalties on North Sea oil have filled the coffers of a sovereign wealth fund to the tune of $250,000 per citizen. And in the event, Julie’s parents (divorced, of course) are prosperous. There’s no pressure on her to hustle along. A man to marry, children, a career—there’s time.
The Worst Person in the World has no touch of urgency, and it makes fun of today’s ardent zealotries. The film was shot in Oslo, an appealing but not ravishing city. Some scenes take place in winter, but most unfold during the long days of summer, when evenings last for many delicious hours. This not only makes for beautiful cinematography; it also reinforces the arc of the drama, which takes Julie from a short fling to a serious boyfriend and then to another boyfriend. Beginning in her early twenties and ending in her mid-thirties, her journey is morally serious at times, though often frivolous, as real life is. She treads water rather than moving forward. She lives eternally in a summer-solstice evening of youth’s lingering freshness.
The emotional center of the film rests in Julie’s long-term relationship with Aksel, an established graphic artist and older man. A Gen-X character, Aksel sees himself and his work as enrolled in a countercultural quest for authenticity, the spirit of the sixties carried forward. At middle age and in love with Julie, he feels the pull of marriage and children. Julie is not so sure. As she wavers, she falls for another man out of happenstance as much as conscious decision. Eivind is younger than Aksel and less serious, more suited to the circular movement of her life. Like Julie, he does not want children. He fits into her world, which is populated with things she cares about. Events transpire, but Julie keeps returning to the same places.
Chance takes her back to Aksel, with whom she had lost touch. He has pancreatic cancer. At a picnic table on the hospital grounds, she tells him that she is pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, and that she fears being a mother. He tells her about his illness, and that he is afraid of death. He dies. A miscarriage determines Julie’s fate: She will not have to face motherhood.
Death does not have the final word. The film ends a few years later. The scene is a movie set. The technicians are wearing masks, a signal that it is now the present. Julia is shooting publicity stills of the female lead. The actress has just finished takes of a scene in which her boyfriend in the film tells her that their relationship is over. After snapping some pictures, Julie peers out the window and sees the actress leaving. The actress kisses Eivind on the sidewalk as they turn to push their baby carriage home.
In the first chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict describes four different types of monks. The cenobites live in monasteries, waging war against temptation under the governance of the rule and supervision of an abbot. Anchorites live as hermits, having been trained to fight against the devil. The sarabaites live here and there, following no rule and acknowledging no monastic superiors. St. Benedict calls them “the worst kind”—only to turn to the fourth type, the gyratory monks, who “are much worse in all things than the sarabaites.”
“Gyratory” means characterized by circular motion. These monks “wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three or four days at a time.” Their souls are restless, making them “servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites.” St. Benedict is so disgusted by this spiritual tourism that he dismisses the topic outright: “It is better to be silent as to their wretched lifestyle than to speak.”
Julie’s decision to leave Askel wounds him. But according to contemporary norms, the breakup is amicable. She can at times be thoughtless. But who isn’t? It’s hard to conceive of Julie as the worst person in the world.
I suppose the same can be said of the gyratory monks who bounced from monastery to monastery. They were not thieves or murderers. They broke no vows. I can imagine that many of these spiritual seekers were charming in their own ways, able to provide amiable companionship while sharing a glass of wine, as Julie often does in the film. Yet St. Benedict denounces them as worse than “the worst kind.” The gyratory do not merit St. Benedict’s negative superlative because they do others harm. What makes them the worst is their circular motion, which wounds their souls in the worst possible way.
At one point in The Worst Person in the World, the unambitious and innocuous Eivind pronounces himself the worst possible man in the world. He should be doing more to fight global warming, reduce the use of plastics, and preserve natural habitats! Julie does him the kindness of waving away today’s moralistic self-accusations. She helps Eivind see that the first task of life is to live, to be present to others and relish everyday joys. But this first task is not sufficient for a good life. Our joys must be sealed in commitment. We need to make those perilous decisions to go down paths from which there can be no turning back.
The film’s director maintains perfect discipline. There’s not a hint of judgment, not the slightest shadow of a consensus that we can hold Julie responsible for violating. It is not so much that Julie refuses commitment as that it slides away. Marriage hovers on the horizon, but she does not grasp it. She has talent as a writer but does not develop it. Pregnancy comes, only to end. Her world does not give her “jigs”—Matthew Crawford’s term for the set patterns of life, such as courtship, marriage, and children, which are, if not obligatory, at least expected. She gyrates as much by default as choice.
I recommend The Worst Person in the World. It’s a slow-moving, dialogue-driven film for grown-ups, a rarity these days. The opposite of sanctimonious and politically correct, the film makes gentle fun of both, showing that Norwegian filmmakers have more creative freedom than do those plying their trade in Hollywood. But most of all, I commend the movie because it illuminates our cultural moment. There’s a great deal of water-treading these days. Our age is active with gyratory motion, the circular pattern that constantly calculates utility and throws itself into manic efforts to find happiness—but goes nowhere.
Curse of the Sexual Revolution
The Catholic chaplain at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, Franciscan Fr. Daniel P. Horan, thinks the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality is mistaken—indeed, wicked. He insists that the Church must change course. By his reckoning, to speak of homosexual orientation as objectively disordered is akin to arguing that some people are “natural slaves.” Just as we now judge justifications of chattel slavery odious, “history will likewise judge the discrimination against and treatment of LGBTQ persons by the church and many of its members as . . . reprehensible.”
Horan was emboldened by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich’s recent statements endorsing gay liberation, which, like Horan’s assertion, draw upon the progressive conceit that “history” has spoken. This is a naive and complacent view. Present realities suggest the contrary. The normalization of homosexuality has had harmful consequences throughout the West.
A recent Gallup poll documents the decline in support for marriage as a fundamental institution of society. In 2006, 49 percent of those polled agreed that it was “very important” for men and women who have children to be married. Today, 29 percent think marriage is “very important” for childrearing. Self-identified conservative and regular churchgoers remain more likely to prize marriage than liberals and those who don’t go to church. But the Gallup poll suggests that support for marriage has declined more rapidly for the former cohort than the latter. In 2006, 62 percent of conservatives thought it was “very important” for couples with children to be married, compared to 30 percent of liberals. Now, only 41 percent of conservatives think so, a downward shift of 21 percent—compared to liberals’ downward shift of 9 percent over the same period. The same holds for those who go to church. Although those who attend church are still the most solicitous of marriage, the drop-off in affirmation of marriage is more pronounced among this cohort than among secularists.
We should beware reading too much into polling results. Other polls indicate that most young Americans want to get married. It’s likely that the decline in support for the principle that marriage is very important to raising children has to do with the desire not to appear judgmental, and that desire has certainly gained ground in recent decades. Non-judgmentalism has blocked the transmission of basic moral norms, which has exacerbated inequality and made miserable the lives of many. Some researchers project that by the time the entire millennial cohort is forty or older, more than one-third of males will never have married. The epidemic of loneliness and meaningless existence is almost certain to be severe.
As I note in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, non-judgmentalism opens the way for the powerful to dominate the weak. As we deregulate culture, especially sex and other intimate matters, a therapeutic vocabulary takes over. Moral situations must be addressed with delicacy and circumspection. Euphemisms such as “healthy” and “appropriate” abound. There are endless calls for “dialogue” and new thinking grounded in “the best psychological research.”
In the late 1960s, the renowned anthropologist Mary Douglas was appalled. She observed that the push toward a more “open” approach to moral issues, which was in full force at that time (and has been pressing forward ever since), was a form of class warfare. Upper-middle-class parents discipline their children with an “open code.” Imagine the twelve-year-old in a fancy suburb. He wants to know why he has to do his homework. His mother might say, “Because your father and I want you to succeed.” If he’s recalcitrant, the mother might go on: “You need to think about the importance of education and see that doing well is an appropriate priority.” In this way, the wealthy child is socialized to talk about his feelings and goals, which is to say, his “identity.”
Douglas was aware of research showing that working-class parents adopt a different approach, a “restricted code.” The construction-worker father and nurse’s-aide mother have not been socialized in accord with therapeutic idioms. They are more likely to take a direct approach to the recalcitrant twelve-year-old, responding to his questions with “Because that’s how school works,” or the even more blunt, “Because I said so.” In this instance, the child is socialized to accept dominant norms and live by set patterns of life.
The “restricted code” is egalitarian. The rules are the rules, easily grasped and not hard to articulate. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that boys should not be allowed in the girls’ locker room. The “open code” is not egalitarian. It favors those who are adept with concepts and theories, allowing them to talk fluently about moral “complexity” while drawing on “the best science.”
What angered Mary Douglas about the 1960s was the way in which liberation from “conventionality” and the supposed evil of “conformism” put the wealthy and well-educated in a superordinate position. That she recognized this fifty years ago is remarkable. Today, the dynamic is all too evident. As we now know, the sort of person who thinks his daughter ought not to be subjected to “gender fluid” boys in school bathrooms gets denounced. The “open code” crowd calls him a bigot. And if he’s too insistent, he may end up on an FBI watch list.
Fr. Horan is very wrong about history. Our cultural and educational establishments have waged a war on working-class America. Every aspect of the old “restricted code” has been attacked. A paradoxically punitive non-judgmentalism undermines moral confidence—“Hate has no home here.” The willingness to condemn having children out-of-wedlock has declined and illegitimacy has risen. Marriage rates have fallen. Drug use has increased. Many urban schools are now dysfunctional. Welfare dependency erodes self-esteem. Crime ruins neighborhoods. Compare the life of a young, black man on the South Side of Chicago who was in high school in 1960 with someone from the same neighborhood in high school today. The latter is far more likely to die of gunshot wounds. And if he survives, he goes home to a single-parent household.
Gay activists and their allies have played leading roles in the war on the weak. It was evident to me long ago that gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich that will be paid for by the poor. Marriage operates in a “restricted code.” The age-old limitation of sex to marriage is a core instance of that code, which is why there is no such thing as “healthy” or “appropriate” fornication. Activists campaigned to eliminate the male-female restriction. It was part of a larger project, one that seeks to create an “open” morality, an “open” culture.
The myopic celebrate liberation from the “restricted code” as a great victory for justice. Fr. Horan joins the cheerleaders. In a different but related context nearly three decades ago, Joseph Ratzinger registered his dissent: “But in reality does this not mean that the right of a small group is given more and more privileges over and against the right and dignity of the many?”
Ratzinger raised a question worth asking about many aspects of the progressive cultural revolution. Hasn’t feminism meant more privileges for a small class of professional women? Hasn’t gay liberation undermined limitations on sexual exploitation, predation, and self-destruction other than consent? Don’t transgender rights militate against the normal socialization of children as boys and girls? And hasn’t all this and more compromised the dignity of the many?
I do not think history functions as a judge. But you and I can and should. And for anyone honest enough to count the costs of progressive cultural politics, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a war on the weak.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Last month’s musings (“Our Democracy”) were very much on my mind as I read about the Canadian crackdown on the truckers’ protest in Ottawa. On February 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act to expel the semis from the Canadian capital and put the kibosh on organized dissent from COVID policies. Measures included the suspension of financial services for those participating in or supporting the protests—in effect, financial “cancellation.” Although protestors had been cleared from Ottawa streets a few days after Trudeau invoked the act, the Canadian House of Commons voted to affirm the ongoing use of emergency powers. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-wing New Democratic party, justified his vote by accusing the truckers of attempting to “overthrow our democracy.”
♦ On February 23, The Trudeau government reversed course and revoked the emergency powers. Yet a precedent had been set. The use of the financial system to un-person those deemed threats to “our democracy” echoes the Chinese Communist party’s use of a social credit score to impose discipline and ensure compliance. I fear that such methods will take hold throughout the West. At present, we have a privatized system of social control implemented through corporate-sponsored censorship on social media platforms. It’s a short step from that practice to the public-private partnership proposed in Canada to punish those whom our leadership class regards as enemies of “our democracy.”
♦ Julie Hartman is a senior at Harvard. Her opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Harvard Students Are Covid Sheep,” notes that she and her fellow students have been required to get vaccinations and booster shots and must undergo frequent mandatory testing. Mask-wearing is obligatory as well, of course. Her experience is not unusual. Young people at top schools throughout the country have been subjected to measures far more severe than those imposed upon the general population. It’s the mentality of “safe spaces” taken to public health extremes. All of this rankles Hartman, especially because so many measures are more symbolic than efficacious. But she is more troubled by “the zombielike response of the student body.” Nearly all Harvard students resign themselves to compliance. This is not surprising, she notes, because from grade school on, doing as they are told has been the path to success:
My peers and I are often told that we are the future leaders of America. We may be the future decision makers, but most of us aren’t leaders. Our principal concern is becoming members of the American elite, with whatever compromises, concessions, and conformity that requires. The inability of Harvard students to question or oppose these irrational bureaucratic excesses bodes ill for our ability to meet future challenges.
I agree, which is why I penned my own opinion piece for the Journal: “Why I Stopped Hiring Ivy League Graduates.”
♦ Dr. Aaron Kheriaty has not been docile. A professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, he challenged the university’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement, stating the medical fact that natural immunity resulting from infection (which he contracted while working in-person in clinics and hospital wards during early waves of the pandemic) is more effective and long-lasting than antibodies produced by the available vaccines. Indifferent to science, the university insisted upon the vaccination requirement. In December 2021, university administrators who had spent the pandemic working safely from home while running things by Zoom fired Kheriaty for refusing to comply, deeming him a “threat to the health and safety of the community.”
I admire Aaron’s courage, and I wish him the best in his new roles as director of both the Health and Human Flourishing Program at the Zephyr Institute and the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
♦ Ethereum Name Service plays a role in web3 development. I won’t bore you with the technical details, which in any event are beyond my competence. It’s sufficient to say that ENS is part of a tech movement to build web infrastructure that is more dispersed and less easily subject to censorship and control than are today’s large platforms and services such as Facebook and Google. So it was ironic that ENS fired its director of operations, Brantly Millegan, because of outrage over a 2016 tweet that summarized Catholic teaching in punchy form: “Homosexual acts are evil. Transgenderism doesn’t exist. Abortion is murder. Contraception is perversion. So is masturbation and porn.” Those calling for Millegan’s ouster insisted that getting rid of him was necessary to keep web3 inclusive. As usual, “inclusion” has a very narrow meaning.
♦ Philip Hamburger hits the bullseye. The Columbia Law professor observes that deans, professors, and powerful attorneys who work to destroy the reputations and careers of those who dissent from the latest progressive dogmas should be barred from judicial appointment. He writes:
The position of a judge is unlike any other job. Judges enjoy vast authority over their fellow Americans, and the primary defense against the abuse of this authority is their internal commitment to impartiality—their dedication to hearing both sides with an open mind and deciding without prejudice. This is a constitutional requirement of judicial office and due process.
So it’s not too much to consider intolerance or cowardice as disqualifying. Those who have shown themselves to be intolerant of difference and too fearful to stand up for what is right have no business sitting on the bench.
I’d like to underline the vice of cowardice. The degree to which our supposedly responsible leaders have kowtowed to the most extreme voices and cowered before Twitter mobs is surely one of the most shocking revelations during the last two years. These weak people certainly must be prevented from advancement to higher offices and more powerful positions.
♦ Wordle is a word game recently purchased by the New York Times. A friend is an aficionado, perhaps to the point of addiction. While playing, he was surprised to find that the version of Wordle now owned by the Times does not recognize “slave” as a word. One can imagine the moralistic nominalism behind the excision of the word from the game’s dictionary: If we get rid of “slave,” then we have eliminated slavery. Or maybe the thinking is therapeutic and goes like this: Those who are enslaved feel humiliated when called “slave,” and using the word might encourage them to internalize their condition. Better, therefore, to speak of “enslaved persons.”
♦ I proposed removing “moron” from the game’s dictionary as well. This will help preserve the self-esteem of the sort of person who deletes “slave,” thinking that doing so strikes a blow for the cause of justice.
♦ The editors at the Wall Street Journal note an increase in Catholic primary school enrollments, which were up 5.8 percent between fall 2020 and fall 2021. They draw the elementary lesson: “Stay open to teach children, and they will come.”
♦ I would like to welcome James Wood to our editorial staff. James is completing his PhD in theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and brings a wealth of pastoral experience to First Things. Unlike your faithful scribe, he can remember the difference between the Apollinarian and Nestorian heresies.
♦ Kirk Susong would like to form a ROFTERS group in Atlanta, Georgia. You can join by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Kester of Roseburg, Oregon also wishes to organize a ROFTERS group. If you live between Eugene and Ashland on the I-5 corridor, drop him a line to join: email@example.com.