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A few months ago, I predicted that the Francis pontificate would seek to establish cordial relations with the Rainbow Reich. (See “While We’re At It,” January 2024, composed late November 2023.) In mid-December the Vatican issued the declaration Fiducia Supplicans, vindicating my assessment of the present regime in Rome. The document provides urgent restatements of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual morality, which of course proscribe gay unions and gay sex. But Fiducia Supplicans advertises itself as a “specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings.” Its purportedly groundbreaking insights allow the “non-ritualized” blessing of couples in “irregular situations,” a category that includes gay couples. In intent and effect, the new teaching offers a fig leaf to the sexual revolution.

Viewed in terms of the history of moral theology, the teachings of Fiducia Supplicans on priestly blessings recapitulate the perennial debate between rigorism and probabilism, although in a muddy, pastoral way. Under this framework, the document admits of a narrow reading that minimizes (or even eliminates) any suggestion of changes in the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage and sexual morality. Cardinal Müller makes a good case that, even read charitably, Fiducia Supplicans goes beyond probabilism into error. I agree, but my point is different. Whatever one’s assessment of the finer points of moral theology, the notion that nothing important is changed by Fiducia Supplicans ignores ecclesial and social realities.

You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the winds are blowing in this pontificate. During his reign, Pope Benedict XVI established a presumptive permission to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the traditional Latin Mass). Pope Francis reversed this ruling in Traditionis Custodes. Aside from narrowly circumscribed situations, priests are now prohibited from celebrating the traditional Latin Mass. Rome can grant special permission, but I’m told the requests are routinely denied.

The reverse has now happened when it comes to the Church’s relation to the sexual revolution. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI made concessions to the LGBTQ juggernaut that has brought gay “marriage” to the West. John Paul II underscored the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts. Pope Benedict urged greater scrutiny of seminarians to exclude those with a homosexual orientation. The broad prohibition against any appearance of accommodation to the Rainbow Reich was plain to even the casual observer. The details of moral theology as they apply to Fiducia Supplicans admit of a range of interpretations, as I note above. But the general implications are obvious. A clarifying document was issued in early January by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which had issued Fiducia Supplicans. It allows that a bishop may use his judgment concerning local conditions and impose strict criteria for blessings of same-sex couples. But the clarification insists that bishops cannot enact a “total or definitive denial of this path [of blessing same-sex couples] that is proposed to priests.”

Note well: Under Pope Francis, bishops are expressly denied the authority to prevent their priests from offering blessings to same-sex couples, even as they are denied the authority to permit their priests to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. Ordinary Catholics, progressive, conservative, and in between, are not stupid. They can see what is being indulged, encouraged, and rewarded—and what is being discouraged, chastised, and punished. The pattern is clear. Team Francis bends over backward to accommodate “new realities,” while never tiring of wielding rhetorical truncheons against the “rigid” and “backward-looking” folks who are not keen to sell the apostolic inheritance for the pottage of relevance. Bishops and priests are all the more attentive to these signs of papal intention, for they must live out their vocations under strictures laid out by Rome.

So Fiducia Supplicans did not surprise me in the least. Nor did it surprise any but the most naive bishops and priests. Nevertheless, it has sparked remarkable dissent, perhaps because it makes explicit an unhappy reality: a long-established, well recognized pattern of cultural accommodation. From the Archbishop of Montevideo, Uruguay to the Archbishop of Nairobi, Kenya, statements have been issued that, in one way or another, amount to a rejection of the substance and implications of the latest teaching of Pope Francis. Fiducia Supplicans brings into the open a general trend of this pontificate. Rome wants to negotiate a concordat with the sexual revolution. Many Catholics are resisting, and I expect the backlash to grow. The Dutch episcopacy, which a generation ago was at the forefront of theological liberalization, has quietly cold-shouldered Fiducia Supplicans; some French bishops have instructed priests that they may bless homosexual individuals (as was already the case), but not homosexual couples.

Another sign of the true import of Fiducia Supplicans is the fact that progressive Catholics likewise sense that the document opens the way for accommodation with the sexual mores of the West. Church authorities in Germany, Austria, Belgium, and elsewhere in Western Europe are eager to make ever greater concessions to the sexual revolution. They toss aside the caution expressed in the magisterial document, which emphasizes discernment of particular situations and circumstances. A recent statement by a group of European bishops says that priests must bless same-sex couples when asked. In these circles, the Church is positively required to use its sacred authority to buttress the Rainbow Reich.

I doubt Pope Francis was happy when he learned that Fr. James Martin had used Fiducia Supplicans as warrant to invite a reporter and photographer to cover his blessing of two men holding hands. But the Argentine pope should not have been surprised. The document he endorsed puts an exclamation point on a wide array of statements, gestures, and actions that encourage the Church to pivot to a friendly stance toward the sexual revolution, one willing to probe from points of comity and cooperation—the basis for a concordat.

Many ironies surround Fiducia Supplicans. Francis portrays himself as the pope of the peripheries. Yet the gay agenda epitomizes the preoccupations of the rich West. The farther one goes from Washington and Brussels, the more intense the opposition to the spirit and letter of this purported “development.”

Another irony: The Francis pontificate has expended a great deal of rhetorical energy playing up “synodality.” Church resources have been devoted to a process that claims to “hear all voices” and discern new and more consultative ways of conducting church affairs. Yet Fiducia Supplicans was drafted without input from other dicasteries, to say nothing of the College of Cardinals and other leaders of the far-flung Catholic Church. Furthermore, even a casual appraisal of the argument for this new “development” of the pastoral theology of blessing reveals a strange, indeed bizarre self-referentiality. Fiducia Supplicans draws primarily on previous statements by Pope Francis. The document relies on a sui generis appeal to papal authority that would make Pius IX blush: The development of pastoral theology by Pope Francis is authoritative because of the authoritative statements of Pope Francis.

Yet another irony: Those who claim that Pope Francis advances a countercultural view of the environment, migration, and the “marginalized” are either deluded or mendacious, since what he says about these issues largely corresponds with what one hears in the halls of Harvard, Google’s boardroom, and other bastions of elite progressivism. The current regime in Rome cheered Covid lockdowns, promotes climate activism, rejects measures to prevent mass migration, uses therapeutic language, and echoes DEI nostrums in official documents. Now, with the promulgation of Fiducia Supplicans, Pope Francis has steered the Church toward a concordat with the Rainbow Reich. In almost every respect, Francis oversees a Curia that is in sync with the richest and most powerful people in the West on many issues—and when not in sync, is careful not to contradict elite dogmas. (To do so would make one “rigid” and “backward-looking.”) It’s plain that Francis has erected a Davos pontificate, as thoroughly captured by secular interests as were the Renaissance popes.

Sow the wind; reap the whirlwind. Major sectors of the Catholic Church in Belgium, Germany, and other rich-world nations have already embraced the Rainbow Reich, in deed if not always in word. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg intones platitudes about our purported new understandings of homosexuality. Lay leaders of the German Synodal Way sound like women’s studies professors at Tufts. In my estimation, it is as close to certain as any prediction of the future that these jurisdictions will find ways to affirm and bless the sexual revolution tout court—not just homosexuality, but abortion and artificial means of reproduction, too, as well as the closely related practice of doctor-assisted suicide. Two hundred years ago, these churches were chaplaincies to a counterrevolutionary elite. In the twenty-first century, they are reverting to type, only this time elites are secular proponents of a world remade by the sexual revolution and its promise to free us from our bodies.

Catholicism has changed since the Congress of Vienna. It is now a global Church, not a European one. I will venture another prediction. The erratic, anti-traditional, and authoritarian Francis pontificate will destroy the modern imperial papacy and usher in a less centralized, more federalized church. When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, he was trying to use papal authority to shore up traditional teaching. He failed, and in failing, he created conditions for the craziness of the 1970s. Progressives of all sorts—theological, moral, and liturgical—saw that, though they were de jure limited, they were de facto free to do as they pleased.

With Fiducia Supplicans, Pope Francis imposes novelty by papal fiat. Past behavior suggests that he will respond to resistance with naked exercises of papal power. The effect will be to discredit the concentration of power in Rome, epitomized by Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility and realized in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which incorporated the Church’s life into a single legal system subject to papal oversight and discretion. The federalization is already happening. Pope Francis made an exception for China, forsaking the right to appoint bishops there. He’ll likely do the same for Germany. In the United States, his effort to limit and eventually eliminate the traditional Latin Mass is being met with quiet noncompliance. Now, African bishops and many others are rejecting Fiducia Supplicans.

Thus a final irony: Pope Francis is creating a synodal church of sorts, not by means of round tables and “sharing,” but through imperious methods that arouse dissent. He is battering the church into more autonomous fragments. This new form of church (not entirely remote from what was envisioned by some at Vatican II) may be less coordinated, less coherent. But it will be more attentive to local realities—and thus less easily captured by the Davos elite, a very positive outcome. God writes straight with crooked lines. Historians may look back on the strange career of Jorge Bergoglio, one marked by a genius for institutional turmoil and destruction, and discern the wry smile of God’s providence.

Queering Foreign Policy

As I note above, the Rainbow Reich enjoys the loyalty of elites across the West. But it is first and foremost America’s project. So argues Helen Andrews in a survey of the central role of gay rights in American foreign policy (“Our LGBT Empire: Why is it America’s business to queer the Donbass?,” The American Conservative). In a 2011 speech, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intoned, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” and she promised to “use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.” Her promise has been fulfilled. The U.S. unstintingly promotes the LGBTQ agenda.

These efforts have met with resistance. Outside of North America, Western Europe, Australia, and Latin America, the LGBTQ agenda is not popular. Asian countries are not keen to adopt the Rainbow flag. The Chinese government often cracks down on gay activists, deeming their aspirations contrary to China’s family values. Only Taiwan has legalized gay marriage, in the face of popular opposition, as dictated by its Constitutional Court. (In a 2018 referendum, 72 percent voted to restore the understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman.) With the exception of South Africa, African and Islamic countries are actively hostile to the Rainbow Reich. Last October, the Supreme Court of India refused to impose gay marriage on the nation, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inveighed against the “urban, elitist views” behind the push for LGBTQ rights.

America’s crusade to expand the Rainbow Reich has had geopolitical consequences. Nearly ten years ago, I reflected on the ways in which Vladimir Putin was positioning himself as the moral leader of an anti-Western coalition (“Global Culture Wars,” April 2014). Early in the 2010s, Russia passed a law restricting “propaganda promoting non-traditional sexual relations.” In subsequent years, Putin often presented himself as a defender of traditional values. He continues to do so.

Putin is a clever operator. He can see that a great deal of the world resents America’s cultural imperialism, which is evident wherever the Rainbow flag is waved. In 2014, when Russia was hosting the Winter Olympics, the Human Rights Campaign gave $100,000 to the LGBTQ movement in that country. In recent years, American money flowed into Chinese gay advocacy groups until they were shut down by the Chinese government. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. government allocates more than $2 billion annually to promote “gender equity and equality” worldwide, a rubric that includes LGBTQ rights. It’s not an exaggeration to say that nearly the entire gay rights movement in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Islamic world is astroturfed by American money, whether it comes from U.S. government grants or straight from the pockets of wealthy donors, whose efforts are subsidized by our tax code, with its scheme of deductions for charitable donations.

Putin’s decision to position himself as the leader of a global moral majority has paid off. The Human Rights Campaign’s website features a map of the globe. The countries that allow gay marriage are highlighted in red. Outside of Latin America, they are largely the same countries that have joined the American-led sanctions regime established to counter Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Those countries not allowing gay marriage have largely refused to participate in the sanctions regime. India has many reasons to maintain commercial ties with Russia, not the least of which are its energy needs. But the prospect of being lectured to by American diplomats and watching the money flow to gay activists undoubtedly plays a role as well.

And then there are the facts on the ground, which don’t dispose world leaders to join the Rainbow Reich. As Andrews observes:

Even many places that are inclined to be chill about private acts between adults balk at how far America is taking things. In America, tens of thousands of people cut off their breasts or genitals every year trying to change their sex. Judges tell parents they will lose custody if they don’t let their children be castrated. Rising STD rates among gay men have led the CDC to approve the continuous use of antibiotics as a prophylactic (DoxyPEP), even though this will surely result in antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Our birthrates are collapsing, and almost half of the children we do have are out of wedlock. There are lots of reasons other countries might look at us and think maybe we don’t have our sexual norms exactly right.

It’s never pleasant to be pushed around by a superpower. It’s more galling to be cattle-prodded toward the Rainbow Reich’s evident dysfunctions.

Donald Trump, Again

The Biden strategy is succeeding. Democratic operatives, local prosecutors, lawfare activists, and the Biden White House have colluded to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy. A number of legal cases against Trump are under way. Liberal media support these prosecutions as honorable applications of the rule of law, necessary to save “our democracy.” The upshot: Trump’s support among Republican voters has increased. Results from Iowa and New Hampshire indicate that he will be the Republican nominee. Many political savants believe this outcome favors Democrats: The Orange Man’s capacity to turn off voters will pave the way for a Biden victory in November.

Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins has warned that cynical Democratic Party leaders and their media enablers have miscalculated. Their machinations have kept Trump in the public eye. More importantly, the orchestrated prosecutions have burnished his image as an outsider. And because we are living in a time when the American public is angry, alienated, restless, and eager to punish establishment leaders, Trump’s put-upon-outsider image turns out to be a valuable asset.

America’s liberal elites (and their Never-Trump allies on the right) are playing a dangerous game. Having learned nothing from 2016, our establishment is framing the upcoming election as a referendum on its own leadership. As 2024 began, The Atlantic ran a special issue warning that a Trump victory would usher in an authoritarian regime; the New Yorker evoked the fascist threat with a cover cartoon of Trump goose-stepping in a military uniform. The message is clear. It’s either the good people, the smart people, the people who bought into being today’s wonderful, inclusive, innovative, prosperous world (Diversity is our strength!)—or the disastrous ascendancy of the bad people, the insurrectionists, the authoritarians, the fascists, the racists (Jim Crow 2.0!).

Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg insists (again and again) that Trump is a clear and present threat to all that is good and decent. The New York Times and Washington Post run article after article warning that Trump will undermine the “rules-based international order” and prevent the free movement of labor, goods, and capital. (The Wall Street Journal often echoes this charge.) Trump will encourage racists and xenophobes. He will derail the great project of constructing, for the first time in human history, a genuinely “open” society, one that strives toward ever greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. No human being is illegal!

By framing Trump’s campaign in this way, the most powerful people in America are taking a grave risk. Our elite are ensuring that voters will go to the polls knowing that a vote for Trump is a vote against their leadership, against them. What are they thinking? Have they forgotten the endless wars, the uncontrolled border, the deindustrialized heartland, the epidemic of overdose deaths, drag queen story hours, concerned parents deemed domestic terrorists, and homeless encampments? Harvard, the cynosure of elite pride and aspiration, made a plagiarizing social-justice hack its president. Do the high-minded folks currently cheering Trump’s indictments not realize that John Q. Public recognizes that there are rules for ordinary people and rules for elites and their favored clients? (Two lawyers who tossed a Molotov cocktail into a police car during BLM unrest in New York received sympathetic coverage in the New York Times and fifteen- and twelve-month sentences. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes got eighteen years for his involvement in the Capitol riot.) It’s hard to know which is more damning in the framing (yet again!) of the upcoming election as a choice between the Responsible and the Deplorable: the arrogance or the stupidity.

Voters have many hopes and fears. It had been my wish that Ron DeSantis would lead a new generation into power on the right. But very nearly everyone agrees on the role that Donald Trump plays in our increasingly decadent political culture. He is Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. His election—a second time—against every effort of elite-generated propaganda, massive campaign expenditure, manipulation of mail-in voting, and relentless legal warfare would undermine our already unpopular and wobbling system of power and privilege. Goldberg and his friends view this destabilizing role, so central to Trump’s appeal, as prima facie disqualifying. Their governance is good and benevolent. They rely on knowledge and expertise. They follow the science! Any deviation from or opposition to their ascendancy must be evil and wicked. We can’t have ignorant people, unqualified people, running our country.

In my estimation, a Trump victory in November is likely. It is true that outside his circle of devoted followers he is not a beloved candidate. But a majority of Americans are bitter about the current state of our country. Goldberg and his allies, both Democrat and Republican, repeatedly insist that it’s either them or Trump. Given this choice, a surprising number of voters will opt for Trump. His margin of victory will increase in proportion to how many times Joe Biden conjures the ghost of Bull Connor and Washington Post columnists evoke Hitler. Holman Jenkins is right: Our hapless establishment, which has made a mess of so many things over the last thirty years, will ensure the election of Donald Trump.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT

♦ The German government has formulated a National Security Strategy. Its Asian dimension will “prioritise gender-transformative projects,” along with green energy development. The idea seems to be that windmills festooned with rainbow streamers will provide collective defense.


♦ The New York Times recently ran a long piece by Nicholas Confessore. “‘America Is Under Attack’: Inside the Anti-D.E.I. Crusade” informs readers that—gasp!—some people seek to break the grip of DEI ideology on our institutions. (First Things is mentioned as part of the “crusade.”) Lefty socialist Freddie deBoer was unimpressed:

Confessore treats all of the described efforts as straightforwardly malign without bothering to really make the case for why. The piece does not really bother advocating for DEI, makes a remarkably limp attempt at defining what conservatives (and others) are mad about, and clearly proceeds from the assumption that the majority of its readers will recognize everything that’s being described as wicked without argument.

Sadly, Confessore is right about New York Times readers. DeBoer: “The problem with the New York Times [sic] in 2024 is that their business model entails selling affluent urban liberals their own assumptions about the world back to them.”


♦ After the release of Fiducia Supplicans last December, Anglican theologian (and First Things regular) Hans Boersma penned an editorial in Touchstone magazine. He pulled no punches:

December 18, 2023, will go down in history as the date on which the die was cast: the date on which the church renounced the gospel’s right to call us to repentance; the date that, more than any other, signals the church’s implosion in the West.

He goes on to write, “When the church refuses to teach the truth, when she fails to call sinners to repentance, and when she blesses homosexual unions, it is the prince of darkness she follows, not the God of the Scriptures.” That’s not Protestant gloating. “The moral collapse of Catholic sexual ethics concerns every one of our ecclesial communities, for the entire Christian world has for many years been inspired by the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.” Everyone, not just Catholics, suffers from “the loss of the Catholic Church as a moral compass for Western Civilization.” As I note above, however, “implosion” oversells papal authority. The Catholic Church is gathering herself to recover her voice as steward of the apostolic inheritance.


♦ A woman is sitting at her husband’s wake. A man leans over and asks, “Do you mind if I say a word?” “No, go right ahead,” she replies. He stands, clears his throat, and pronounces, “Plethora.” The gathered friends are baffled. He sits down and the woman says to him quietly, “Thanks, that means a lot.”


♦ Writing on X, a priest reports: “A bit of good news . . . I’ve had more confessions of the ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned, it’s been 20, 25, 30, 40, 50 years since my last confession . . .’ sort this year than I ever remember. I’m seeing more people at Mass than I ever remember.”


♦ Bowling Green State University associate professor of philosophy Kevin Vallier has recently published All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism, a book defending liberalism against its religious critics. A précis of his brief against Catholic integralism (“The integralist crusade”) appeared as the 11 January 2024 feature of The Tablet. I was struck by the closing exhortation: “Liberals should ensure that the state strives to remain neutral between belief systems and moral doctrines, and allow social and political space for communities who do not share their values to experiment with their own forms of life.” It’s hard to know where to begin. The liberal state as neutral? Isn’t the liberal state’s vaunted neutrality based on liberal “belief systems and moral doctrines,” in particular the belief system wherein the individual choice of values is the supreme value? And the moral doctrine that any and all obligatory moral doctrines are violations of the highest good, which is personal autonomy? Vallier would be less self-deceived if he had written the following: “Liberals should ensure that the state strive to remain liberal,” which is to say under the dominion of liberals—or, put differently, integrally liberal. 


♦ Another sentence in Vallier’s article struck me: “In the US, Catholics have enormous intellectual influence among right-wing elites: if integralists can convert them, they can rule.” Enormous influence? That’s likely news to the leadership team at the Club for Growth, the Bush family political mafia, and the Trump campaign. But there’s something to Vallier’s observation, hyperbole aside. Among young conservatives engaged in politics, Catholicism has cachet, and this in spite of the hostility of Pope Francis toward anything related to American conservatism. To some degree, the rich tradition of Catholic social doctrine explains the appeal, as it allows Christian wisdom to inform political judgment in nuanced ways. But I would not discount the image (and reality) of Catholicism as the most imposing anti-modern institution in the West. Intransigent opposition to abortion, a celibate clergy, governance without obeisance to the democratic ethos, unrepentant ritualism—the Catholic Church limns a world antithetical to that imaged by progressivism and Whiggery.


♦ And then there’s Catholicism’s clarity about the priority of prayer and contemplation over politics and action (an emphasis by no means unique to Catholicism). Hans Urs von Balthasar, writing in Love Alone Is Credible: “Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognize it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed and humiliated.”


♦ Whenever I book a plane ticket, I’m reminded that, beginning on May 7, 2025, I will be required to present a REAL-ID compliant license—that is, a technically advanced form of identification that is more secure. Meanwhile, TSA has implemented a policy of allowing illegal immigrants to pass through airport security checkpoints without identification. Xenophobia would dictate a lax law for citizens and a severe law for foreigners. What do you call the reverse? Roger Scruton proposed oikophobia: fear of home, or self-contempt.


♦ In January, the European Parliament voted to make hate speech a “cross-border” crime, as are terrorism, arms trafficking, and money laundering. This measure allows Brussels to define what counts as hate speech and to stipulate minimum penalties. The main target is social media, the content of which the European establishment would like to control after the fashion of the American regime. Jacob Siegel’s 2023 essay in Tablet magazine, “A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century,” remains the definitive account of our domestic censorship regime.


♦ Covid lockdowns, the Russian collusion hoax, the Great Reset, anti-Trump hysteria, the green transition, uncontrolled migration—a number of my friends look at these and discern an elite conspiracy to override popular sentiment and suppress dissent. What else could explain that dark turn of events in recent years? I counsel them against false optimism: “No, no, it’s much worse than a conspiracy; it’s a consensus.”


♦ Pascal on the danger of satiation: “It is not good to be too free / It is not good to have all one needs.”


♦ Elite media are finally waking up to the fact that “evangelical” supporters of Trump are often EINOs, Evangelicals in Name Only. A January 8, 2024 New York Times article (“Trump Is Connecting With a Different Type of Evangelical Voter”) acknowledges that polling shows that Trump’s deepest support comes from self-identified evangelicals who don’t go to church. A 2021 Pew report indicates that Trump’s political popularity may have fueled an increase in self-identification as evangelical. A 2016 survey recorded that 25 percent of all white adults identified as born-againor evangelical Protestants. That cohort grew to 29 percent in 2020, even as church attendance declined. Takeaway: Religion in American public life is complicated, often paradoxical.


♦ In mid-January, I met a friend at the rock climbing gym. She’s Chinese-American, born to parents who fled the Mao-led communists in the 1950s. I was taken aback to find that she had bitter words to say about the fact that New York City has housed and supported illegal immigrants, giving them hotel rooms, cell phones, and spending money. Even more striking: She reported that her boyfriend, a retired Wall Street guy, speculates that the Catholic Church is conspiring to bring in as many people as possible from Latin America. My policy is to avoid basing judgments about the public mood on anecdotes. But I’m also aware that it’s wise to pay attention to what people say.


♦ Speaking of which: I often buy a cappuccino from a small proprietor down the street from my apartment. His parents fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama after the Chinese invaded in 1950. Born in southern India, he came to the United States as a teenager. He, too, was angered by the influx of migrants: “We’re putting them in the Roosevelt Hotel while our own people are homeless and living on the street.”


♦ “Our own people”—it warms my heart to hear a man whose English is accented speak so warmly of his fellow citizens.


♦ I’ve long thought that the mid-twentieth-century hostility to theological manuals was mistaken. As I was catching up on my reading, I was therefore pleased to read Brian Besong’s 2015 essay in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, “Reappraising the Manual Tradition.” In the Catholic tradition, the term “manual” refers to instructional textbooks used in seminaries before Vatican II. Of their nature, these volumes have limitations. Primary sources offer a richer experience than a history textbook, and just so, reading St. Thomas’s Summa enriches theological understanding more than a Thomistic manual, however well done. Yet as Besong notes, textbooks play an important role in any educational system. They provide an overview, a general orientation to the subject matter. Manuals in moral theology also give illustrations of moral principles as applied to particular cases. Taking students through these cases anchors their moral imaginations in the complex particularity of human life, an invaluable lesson not just for a priest in training, but for anyone who must exercise moral responsibility.

The theological manuals certainly have limitations. But Besong is right to defend their virtues. However limited and unimaginative these textbooks might be, they provide a foundation upon which talented and creative minds can build. Mid-century Catholic theological “giants” such as Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and others derided “manualism.” They were blind to the fact that their own innovations and developments would be unintelligible to (and often misused by) those without solid training in the manual tradition. And, of course, most seminarians do not aim to become theological giants. They want to be good, well-formed priests. The demise of the manual tradition has deprived them of coherent, graspable, and reliable intellectual formation.


♦ Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”


♦ Seán Cardinal O’Malley spoke at the student-organized annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. “There’s no doubt,” O’Malley observed, “that the next major assaults in the next twenty-five years are going to come from those pushing physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.” He pointed to present practices in Canada, where young people and the mentally ill are considered legitimate candidates for “assisted death.” He warned, “A society that allows parents to kill their children will eventually allow children to kill their parents.”


♦   The ROFTers group in Albuquerque, New Mexico is looking for new members. If you’d like to meet monthly with First Things devotees, get in touch with Michael Sides: msides1947[at]comcast.net.

     Rev. Wally Mees and Rev. Ken Frese of West Los Angeles, California would like to form a new ROFTers group. To become a founding member, contact Mees at wmeesjr[at]gmail.com.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. 

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