Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I have over the years discussed it with numerous people, including priests and bishops, and nobody can explain why in New York City people are so determined to “get their ashes.” At the Ash Wednesday Masses, my parish and hundreds of others are packed even more than at Christmas or Easter. There is standing room only, and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral people line up by the tens of thousands to get their ashes.
Catholics who have not been to Mass all year insist upon the ashes, as do many non-Catholics, and not a few Jews. It is all very strange. There is a similar, although less intense, determination to get palms on Palm Sunday. Now if only the Church could figure out a couple of other things to give away free during the course of the year.
But I doubt if getting something free is the attraction. The priest, if he does it right, paints a large black cross on the forehead of the faithful and not-so-faithful, with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes of course are from the burned palms of the previous year. The palms signify Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, the ashes his suffering and death. The palms of triumph become the ashes of defeat.
Why are people so eager to be reminded of this solemn, even grim, message of their mortality? It has been suggested, half seriously, that New Yorkers have a deeper sense of sin because they are greater sinners. I’m not at all sure about that. But there is this powerfully intuitive response to Ash Wednesday for which I’ve never seen a persuasive explanation.
People are encouraged to wear the cross all day, although many wipe off the ashes after leaving the church. This day on the streets of New York, in the offices and schools and elsewhere, you encounter many with the black smudge. Maybe they want it to be known that they’re Catholic, although in recent decades Episcopal, Lutheran, and even Baptist churches have taken to the imposition of the ashes. Maybe all these people just want it to be known that, down deep, they are not as frivolous or obsessed with Mammon as they may otherwise appear to be.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They come by the thousands to be reminded. It is, not only in this city but especially in this city, a folk custom that is grounded, I expect, in profound mystery.
The current Newsweek notes that support for Roe v. Wade has been slipping, and suggests that the reason is that so many people think there is something morally wrong about abortion. What would we do without investigative reporters?
The pro-life movement has done an effective job of showing that a fetus is not just a “blob of tissue,” says Peg Johnston, who runs an abortion clinic in New York state. Her patients now talk about “babies” and “killing,” she says. “At first I thought they were picking up the language from [anti-abortion protesters] outside. But then I started really tuning in to my patients, and I realized, ‘She really feels that way.’”
The authors of the story, Martha Brant and Evan Thomas, apparently do not entertain the possibility that women may be right in thinking that the killing of their babies is wrong. Their interest, rather, is in the imaginative ways that abortuaries are encouraging women to go through with “the procedure.”
A growing number of clinics are coming up with coping strategies. At her Pittsburgh clinic, Claire Keyes encourages patients to write their feelings on a paper heart that she later tacks to the waiting-room wall. “I love you even though I know in my heart I can’t keep you,” reads one of about a thousand hearts, which have now overflowed into binders. Keyes gives each patient a polished semiprecious stone to imbue with whatever meaning she wants.
This is moral dissonance of a low order. Don’t think, and please don’t let me think, that my getting rid of you means that I don’t love you. The sometimes provocative Uncle Di over on Catholic World Report comments: “Nice, isn’t it? Some dentists give kids a toy when they leave the chair as a reward; Keyes hands out a polished semiprecious stone as a keepsake for a homicide bravely endured. Does she remind her clients to floss daily? ”
In the Newsweek story, Frances Kissling brings “a Catholic perspective” to bear on the matter:
Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, is pushing for “more honesty about ambiguity,” as she puts it. “There is a deep-seated fear that if you address the moral issues, you’re going to lose,” says Kissling. “But we’re losing anyway. It’s only by addressing the moral issues that we’ll get some relief on the political questions.”
There is a greater tolerance for evil if it is perpetrated with a long face, furrowed brow, and the requisite wringing of hands.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom did important work during the Cold War in making the case for democracy and freedom. Run by notable liberals—some of whom later became notable “neoconservatives”—the CCF published, for instance, the influential magazine Encounter . But then, in the late sixties, the funding of CCF by the CIA and other U.S. agencies was exposed, and the whole thing folded.
Carlin Romano writes in the Chronicles of Higher Education that we need something like the CCF today in order to counter new challenges to freedom.
Yet however one sees today’s gathering storm (Ice storm? Sultry Mideast tempest?) between Western values of tolerance, democracy, and free expression and the authoritarian bent of Islamofascism and Russian state capitalism, a sociological fact seems plain. In the so-called Arab Street and in Moscow streets as well (though, so far, less violently), a herd of independent minds appears, at the signal of governments and private organizations, to denounce Western values. Opposing them we hear the disorganized, disjointed voices of Western intellectuals, sometimes in middle register¯a Chris Hitchens in Slate ¯sometimes in stand-up comic brays, as with Ann Coulter on the campus circuit. In each case, the intellectual pronounces in the voice of one.
Maybe it’s time to revive the structure and spirit of the CCF, if not its budget line, to add strength of numbers and compelling stagecraft to whatever philosophical force Western values possess. Principle 5 of the Manifesto adopted at the CCF’s inaugural 1950 Berlin meeting stated: “Freedom is based on the toleration of divergent opinions. The principle of toleration does not logically permit the practice of intolerance.” Why, you hardly need to change a word.
The noted philosopher Karl Jaspers once remarked that “Truth also needs propaganda.” After Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, “propaganda” became a dirty word. Perhaps its only non-pejorative use today survives in Rome’s missionary agency, Propaganda Fide. The precise meaning of propaganda is the employment of ideas and information in order to advance a cause, which is what almost any organization of serious purpose does. Jaspers was right about propaganda, although I don’t expect a rehabilitation of the term in the near future.
In the April issue of F IRST T HINGS , which subscribers should be receiving in a couple of weeks, I have an extended reflection on “The Two Hundred Years War,” prompted by an excellent book by Mary Habeck of Johns Hopkins, Knowing the Enemy . Habeck provides an admirably careful and sobering account of the past and present of “jihadist” ideology and its long-term dedication to advance its version of Islam around the world.
A great virtue of Habeck’s book is that she takes with utmost seriousness the religious character of jihadism. They really do believe what they say they believe, and are quite prepared to die for it, and to encourage others to die for it. A new Congress of Cultural Freedom that is attuned to that reality, and carefully distanced from the immediacies of U.S. geopolitical strategy, may be just what is needed at this point in history.
In addition to which :
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :
"When it comes to ‘Catholic matters,’ Father Richard Neuhaus’ thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?