Monday, August 31, 2015

Lord God of Abraham from Mendelssohn's Elijah

    The mid-nineteenth century composer Felix Mendelssohn is generally considered one of the Romantics, although his tastes were somewhat more conservative than some of his contemporaries: he was the foremost reviver of the almost-forgotten Johann Sebastian Bach, and also a great admirer of another eighteenth century composer, Friedrich Handel.  Inspired by Handel's Messiah and other oratorios, Mendelssohn wrote Elijah, his last great work.
    The clip below, featuring a fine performance by an earnest young fellow named Alex Lawrence, is sung by Elijah during his contest with the priests of Ba'al (1 Kings 18).  The pagan priests have called in vain for Ba'al to receive their sacrificial victims, and Elijah now calls on God to send down Fire from Heaven to consume his offering, and "Let it be known today that You are God".
     Elijah is in what looks like a bad situation in 1 Kings: the ruling powers in his country are against him, he is outnumbered 450 to 1 by the heathen priests, and the people of Israel do not "answer him a word" (1 Kings 18:21).  Elijah puts his faith in the Lord, however, and not in the power of men, and his faith is rewarded. Today, when we Christians feel ever more marginalized, that's not a bad lesson to remember.

Lord God of Abraham,
Isaac and Israel
Let it be known today that You are God
We ofter up our lives
As a living sacrifice

Purify us with Your holy fire
Holy fire

You are the holy One
Highly exalted One
We've come to worship at Your holy hill
You are the holy One
Highly exalted One
And we surrender to Your sovereign will

Oh Lord God of Abraham
Lord God of Abraham
Isaac and Israel
Let it be known today that You are God
There is no other one like You

Come now and fill this place
Be exalted in our praise
Let it be known today that You are God
You are God
You are the holy One
Highly exalted One

Weve come to worship at Your holy hill
(Here we come Lord)
You are the holy One
Highly exalted One
And we surrender to Your sovereign will

Oh Lord God of Abraham
For the Lord He is God
For the Lord He is God
And He shall reign forevermore

For the Lord He is God
For the Lord He is God
And He shall reign forevermore

You are the holy One
Highly exalted One
Weve come to worship at Your holy hill
(Holy hill)

You are the ho
ly One
Highly exalted One
And we surrender to Your sovereign will

Oh Lord God Abraham

Friday, August 28, 2015

Three Great Saints: A Dynamic Trio

St. Ambrose, St. Monica, & St. Augustine
     Today it seems fitting to talk about not one Saint, but a trio. I'll begin with the first two: St. Augustine [ here] whose feast is today, and St. Monica [here], whose feast was yesterday.  St. Augustine, of course, is one of the greatest theologians, a bishop, Doctor of the Church, and subject of one of the best-known conversion stories in the history of Christianity. The story of St. Monica is also well-known, how she “stormed Heaven” with her fervent prayer over many years on behalf of her wayward son in his less than saintly days, and how after he had at last returned to Christ and his Church she died in great contentment.
    St. Monica has long been an inspiration to parents worried about the spiritual welfare of their offspring. And she is a powerful intercessor on their behalf.  We need to bear in mind, however, that as essential as her prayers were, they were not enough.  She softened Augustine’s heart, and prepared the ground to receive the seeds of his conversion, but she herself was not able to plant those seeds: she could not convince her son to change his life.
     Although Augustine was unwilling to be swayed by his mother’s entreaties, it seems that her prayers brought someone into his life to whom he was willing to listen: St. Ambrose [here], our third Saint.  St. Monica’s efforts in the realm of the spirit combined with Ambrose’s eloquence and intellectual brilliance were too much for Augustine’s will to resist.  Together they brought him back to communion with the Body of Christ.
     It often perplexes and saddens those of us who are parents that however hard we try, sometimes our children simply can’t, or won’t, hear what we have to say.  What’s even more maddening, they often treat those same things as the height of wisdom when they encounter them on the lips of a stranger.  It’s a hard reality.  That’s why when we are Storming Heaven for the sake of our children, whatever else we pray for, we would do well to ask the Lord to send a St. Ambrose.   

Abortion Myth # 18

MYTH: "Nobody has a right to use someone else’s body without their consent; therefore a woman should not be forced to be pregnant against her will."

TRUTH: This is wrong on a number of different levels.

First, this attempt to equate an unborn baby with an attacker or trespasser is a false analogy because:

1)      Unborn babies are fundamentally unlike a trespasser or rapist: they are exactly where nature designed them to be, in their mothers’ wombs.  Criminal assailants are criminals precisely because they are where they are not supposed to be. 

2)      The unborn child in her womb has been created through the natural functioning of the mother’s own body, and has received half of her genetic material directly from the mother.  An unwelcome assailant is completely separate, and has no intrinsic connection to the woman’s body.

3)      Unborn humans are incapable of asking “consent”: it is absurd to hold them to a standard that applies to adults only. Even if there is a violation, we are executing an innocent party.

4)      Do we permit killing 2 year-olds, or 10 year-olds, for instance, for “using someone else’s body without their consent”?  Children continue to “use” their parents’ bodies for years after birth, depending upon them for shelter, food, education, and a host of other things. A woman who kills a newborn baby, or a 2 year-old, or a 10 year old will still be held liable, regardless of whether or not she “consented” to have them.  Parents’ obligation to protect and nurture their children is based on their biological relationship, not the parents’ attitude.

Randy Alcorn, in Pro Life Answers to Pro Choice Arguments also makes the following points in response to similar arguments:

1)      The vast majority of pregnancies result from consensual sexual intercourse, and pregnancy is the natural consequence (in fact, the biological purpose) of the sexual act.  Also, there is no contraceptive method that is 100% effective.  Over 90% of pregnancies are the result of a free choice on the part of the mother.

2)      Pregnancy is a temporary condition , and since “the great majority of abortions take place from seven weeks to six months of development, the actual difference between the woman who aborts her child and the woman who doesn’t is not nine months  but three to seven months.” Is a few months inconvenience too much to ask in return for the life of an innocent child?

3)      “Any civilized society restricts the individual’s freedom to choose whenever that choice would harm an innocent person.”

4)      “The one-time choice of abortion robs someone else of a lifetime of choices and prevents him from ever exercising” his or her rights.


Essential Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Are We Building A Fortress Church?

Shaw’s Thesis

      Everyone wants to know what Pope Francis is really up to.  Is he the warm and fuzzy fulfillment of the “Spirit of Vatican II”?  Or, is he really another John Paul II or Benedict XVI in “progressive” clothing?  Who knows?  Russell Shaw comes up with as plausible an answer as any – really, better than most.  The Pope, he says, wants “to reshape the Catholic Church as a Missionary Church” (“Wanted: An American Missionary Church – Soon” here at The Catholic Thing).  Shaw cites Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in which the Pope says:

All of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all “the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel” [20]

“This”, Shaw tells us, “should be taken seriously”.  But he also adds that “taking up the challenge of being a Missionary Church would be a far more demanding – and exhilarating – project than this one-dimensional version of Francis and the Church” (he’s referring to the fluffy, easy-going, “who am I to judge?” image of the Pope popular with progressive types both in the Church and in the secular media).
     I don’t doubt that Shaw is correct that Pope Francis intends to encourage a more missionary ethos in the Church; it is also true that putting this ethos into practice is no easy task.  The Pope, quite properly, has presented a general direction; he has not dictated a concrete program or detailed plan, which leaves room for Catholic commentators like Mr. Shaw (and me - and you, if you’d like) to toss out our own ideas. 

The Assimilated Church and the Fortress Church

     Shaw turns his discussion at this point to the Church in the United States (although this discussion can apply to westernized countries in general).  Here is how he characterizes the issue:

Taking him seriously also could be a matter of survival, or something close to it.  Certainly, unless American Catholicism remakes itself as a Missionary Church, actively engaged in outreach to the world, it could become a rapidly, and irreversibly, shrinking ecclesiastical entity.

     The alternatives to a missionary Church for American Catholics are two and only two: the Assimilated Church and the Fortress Church.

Papal fortress at Avignon

Shaw goes on to explain that

In the Assimilated Church, most Catholics will have been homogenized into the values of American secular culture and become parts of it.  Indeed, many American Catholics already have chosen this option . . .

The Fortress Church, on the other hand,

Is fundamentally different.  If this is to be the future, Catholics will have largely withdrawn – psychologically, spiritually, and even physically – from contact with secular culture, raising the ecclesiastical ramparts against its influence as they retreat.  The Fortress Church is already disturbingly evident in some elements of the new Catholic subculture that’s begun to emerge.  It is a survival tactic born of desperation.

By contrast, while American Catholicism as Missionary Church will also be committed to opposing secular values incompatible with the faith, it will work hard to preach the Gospel, attract adherents, and, where, possible, evangelize the culture itself.

This is where Mr. Shaw takes a wrong turn.  I agree with what he says about the Assimilated Church - one might argue that many, maybe most, American Catholics are there already.  It seems to me that in the case of the Fortress Church, however, he’s putting up a straw man.  I don’t doubt that such a thing is a possibility; a fortress mentality may well take hold in the case of some individuals or in isolated pockets of the Church. What I’ve seen of the “emerging Catholic subculture”, however, looks only superficially like the Fortress Mr. Shaw is bemoaning above, and in fact bears a much greater resemblance to his description of the Missionary Church.

The Valley Forge Gambit

     It’s hard for me to be too specific about those things Shaw finds "disturbing" in that emerging “subculture”, because he doesn't give any specifics.  I’m supposing that he means things such as homeschooling, doing away with television, attending the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and other apparent “retreats” from the societal norm. These things, however, don’t necessarily mean closing oneself off from the larger world.  In fact, just such measures may be necessary if one is to be an effective missionary to the world, which includes both Assimilated Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
     A historical analogy may help illustrate my point.  In 1776 George Washington led his large and enthusiastic but largely untrained army against a combined force of British regulars and Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Brooklyn [here].  His inexperienced Continental Army was simply not prepared for the shock of its encounter with professional soldiers, and collapsed in a disastrous rout. After Washington was subsequently driven from New York, he withdrew his army to the relative protection of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Had Washington and his army stayed in Valley Forge, of course, the war would eventually have been lost.   Instead, temporarily safe from enemy attack his army was able to reform, refit (at least after Congress voted the funds) and receive solid military training under the supervision Friedrich Von Steuben, a European soldier who had served as an officer in Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army.  As a result, a much better prepared Continental Army met the British two years later at the Battle of Monmouth [here] and fought them to a standstill, and but for the inept leadership of one of Washington’s subordinates, General Charles Lee, might have won a decisive victory.  As it was, the British withdrew leaving Washington in possession of the battlefield.

Von Steuben drilling American troops at Valley Forge 

     This, I suggest, is a better analogy for what is happening among many American Catholics than Shaw’s fortress.  The culture at large has become toxic: anti-family, anti-morality . . . anti-God.  It is dangerous to immerse ourselves in it, deadly to allow our children to be formed by it.  We need to equip ourselves properly before going out into such a world, or else we’ll fare no better than the Continental Army did in the Battle of Brooklyn. In fact, we may be more likely to be converted by the world than we are to convert it.  We need some space and time in a healthier atmosphere, away from the temptations and onslaughts of the secular world.  We need to train ourselves in our faith, both its meaning and its practice.  We need our own Valley Forge, and perhaps the spiritual equivalent of a Von Steuben, before we can be that Missionary Church that Pope Francis is calling us to be.  And that's what the subculture that Shaw sees emerging is all about.

Did Someone Say “Clericalism”?

     Russell Shaw, who has been a fine observer of and commenter upon the Catholic scene in the United States for a long time, has got this one wrong because he only sees part of the picture.  He is correct, I think, in his description of what the Missionary Church should look like, but he believes that our biggest problem is “clericalism” (!) in the form of a “passivity” that assumes that the ordained clergy will do all the heavy lifting:

Thus a plan of action designed for execution only or mainly by Church professionals won’t do the job.  Unfortunately, this is what we’re all too likely to get from the clericalized  cadres of today’s American Catholicism, indoctrinated as they are in the merits of lay ministry and cut off from the experience of a robust lay apostolate directed to engagement with the world.

With all due respect to Mr. Shaw, he seems completely unaware of the new ecclesial movements (Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, etc.), composed mostly of lay people, and most of which have an explicit goal of better equipping the laity to witness to Christ “out in the world”.  He makes no mention of a whole Apologetics Industry that includes Catholic television, radio, print publications, and more online resources than can be listed here.  None of these resources, created and staffed overwhelmingly by lay persons, existed fifty years ago at the time of the Second Vatican Council.  I regularly listen to one Catholic radio program that at least once a week has programs restricted to calls from non-Catholics, or from Atheists, or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage callers – and they never seem to run out of such callers.  That’s hardly a fortress mentality.  And it’s worth pointing out that homeschooled students tend to be more socially involved than the population as a whole, both as teens and adults (see here and here).

What Do You Want First, The Good News Or The Bad News?

     Am I saying that all is well, and that the Church in the United States is the picture of spiritual health?  No, indeed.  The statistics that Mr. Shaw cites to illustrate the decline of the Church are real and sobering:

According to the Official Catholic Directory, from 1998 tom 2013 the annual number of Catholic marriages dropped from 289,000 to 164,000; infant baptisms from just over 1 million to 763,000; enrollment in Catholic elementary and secondary schools from 2.7 million to barely 2 million; and enrollment in non-school religious education from 4.3 million to 3.4 million.

The logical end point of assimilation is to become so assimilated that one ceases to be Catholic altogether.  At the same time, there’s a growing core of lay Catholics who are committed to living a truly Christ-centered life, and who are likewise committed to bringing the faith in its fullness to both their fallen-away brethren and to the wider world.  They fit very nicely, in fact, Russell Shaw’s description of the Missionary Church: “committed to opposing secular values incompatible with the faith, [working] hard to preach the Gospel, attract adherents, and, where, possible, evangelize the culture itself.”

There lies the future of Catholicism.

An earlier version of this Thursday Throwback was first published on August 19th of last year under the title "To Be In, But Not Of, The World".

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why We Fight: Powers, Principalities & The Culture Wars

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was published October 9th, 2014 under the title "Why We Fight"To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

The latest bizarro piece of news from the Culture Wars: a school district in Nebraska has decreed that its teachers and its students may no longer use gender-specific terms  - like "boys" and "girls".  Instead, teachers must use alternative terms like "Purple Penguins" (I'm not making this up!) so that "all genders" will feel "welcome". [link] As absurd as it seems, this story shows just how far the assault on the Family, traditional morality, and plain common sense has come. It brings to mind the following scripture passage:

Put on the whole armor of God,that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the  powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. -Ephesians 6:11-20

   Every time I look at the news I am reminded that we are engaged in a Spiritual Battle, we collectively, and each one of us personally.  It has always been this way, and will be until Christ comes again in glory. The nature of the battle is constantly changing: for individual believers there is always a personal, internal struggle, but there is also a more external, public conflict which changes and ebbs and flows over time and in different places.  We can see this external spiritual battle raging all around, and picking up intensity, in the so-called “Culture Wars”.  A major theme of George Weigel’s authorized biography of Pope John Paul II is that the Pope understood that culture trumps politics and economics, and that culture grows out of religion, a given people’s understanding of God.  And acting on that understanding, St. John Paul the Great helped bring down the walls of that latter-day Jericho, Soviet communism.     
     If the cultural war is really spiritual warfare, then, who is the real antagonist?   This becomes tricky, not because we don’t know, but because saying so in our current climate is difficult.  Those of us of a certain age will remember the Flip Wilson Show.  One of the comedian’s most successful gags was a character called “Geraldine”, actually Wilson himself in none-too-convincing drag, whose most memorable laugh-line was “The devil made me do it!”  More recently, Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live always provoked uproarious laughter from the audience when she said “Could it be . . .(pregnant pause) . . . SATAN?!?”  For a long time now, the message in the popular culture has been that anyone who actually attributes anything to the Evil One is, well, ridiculous (interesting, by the way, that both of the examples above involve men dressed as women).  We are set up to be dismissed as unserious cranks if we see the hand of the Devil anywhere.     
     There are some who are still willing to speak out, however.  Just a few years ago, one South American cleric described a law legalizing same sex marriage as “a move by the devil, looking to confuse and deceive all children of God” [link] (interesting that this same cleric, who now has a rather prominent position in Rome, was recently named "Person of the Year" by the gay magazine The Advocate).  Closer to home, I was listening to a radio interview the other day with Joseph Bottum, who was arguing that one reason why it’s so difficult to make any headway with those who have left the faith and are now clinging to new enthusiasms like gay marriage, global warming, Marxism, etc. is that those beliefs have taken on a religious significance for them, and are occupying the place reserved in our hearts for God. Those other things, of course, are poor substitutes indeed for the Real Thing, the One who made us for himself, as St. Augustine tells us, and to Whom we can say “our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in Te). For which reason they cling to their false spiritual consolations all the harder, in the unconscious hope that if they just try a little harder, they'll feel fulfilled; but such things do not ultimately satisfy.   We can see here where we get the word “Devil”, from the Greek Diabolos, the Divider, because he divides us from God.       
     None of us is immune to the temptations of Division. St. Ignatius of Loyola represented this internal battle as a conflict between the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Satan, and pictured it as Two Standards, as in Roman battle standards, around which the armies of each Spirit gather.  When we follow the Standard of Jesus internally, we serve in his army out in the world as well, and so it is in the case of the other side. As St. Paul tells us, our battle is with "spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places".  Those whom we take to be their foot soldiers here on Earth most certainly do not think of themselves in those terms.  Having spent many years as secular leftist, I know that the vast majority of those who serve in that camp are well-meaning, and honestly believe they are on the side of good and righteousness, not realizing that the breastplate of righteousness is part of the full armor of God. That’s the other message of Paul’s letter: we can’t withstand in the evil day without "the armor of God", without the "Gospel of Peace", without "all prayer and supplication". When we separate ourselves from God, or don’t avail ourselves of all the spiritual arms with which he provides us, we are helpless against the wiles of the Divider.  We need to remember this in our interactions with those who are on the other side.  We need to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and aim for the conversion of their hearts, and, ultimately, their redemption, not their destruction.     
     Finally, this is the reason why St. Paul asks that "utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak". Jesus rallies an Army of Love around His Standard. That’s why we engage in the culture wars: not because we like brawling (see Eph. 4:15 above), and not to inflate our egos (Scripture is chock full of warnings about getting “puffed up”), but to win hearts and souls for Christ. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Abortion Myth # 17

MYTH: "Voting pro-life doesn't do any good; once they're elected, pro-life candidates don't do anything about abortion."

TRUTH: Although the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roe vs. Wade, Doe vs. Bolton, and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood prevent the passage of laws directly outlawing most abortions in the United States, pro-life legislators and governors have put in place numerous pro-life laws that, while not outlawing abortion, have significantly reduced its incidence (while simultaneously improving maternal health):

Pro-life laws lead to real reductions in abortion

-          Dr. Michael New reviewed 16 peer-reviewed studies, and reports that all of them show significant decreases in teen abortions after the enactment of parental involvement laws (reductions from 13-42%). [here]

-          Informed consent laws, Medicaid restrictions, and partial-birth abortion bans have all been shown to lead to significant measurable decreases in the abortion rate. [here]

Pro-life laws lead to real improvements in Women’s health

-          Informed consent laws, Medicaid restrictions, and partial-birth abortion bans have also been shown to lead to significant measurable decreases in various health problems such as gonorrhea (12%-20% reduction for women under 20 yrs old) and suicide (11%-21% reduction in women 15-17 yrs old)[here]

-          Maternal mortality is consistently, and significantly, lower in countries where abortion is illegal than it is in countires where it is legal. [here]

-          In Ireland and Northern Ireland, where abortion is heavily restricted, rates of low birth weight and still births are consistently and significantly lower than in England Scotland, and Wales, where abortion has been legal since 1968 (in 1971 the rates were much higher in Ireland and Northern Ireland). The Irish countries also have lower maternal mortality rates and lower breast cancer rates. [here

There are also ways that government officials can promote life other than by the passage of laws:

Federal judges are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate; pro-life Presidents and senators are more likely to put in place justices willing to reverse those decisions (pro-abortion politicians regularly go before groups such as Planned Parenthood and explicitly promise to nominate only judges who will uphold pro-abortion decisions).

There are other things Presidents, governors, and other officials do that encourage or discourage abortion. For instance, President Reagan and both Bushes had policies in place forbidding use of U.S. funds for abortion overseas (the “Mexico City Policy”); Presidents Clinton and Obama both reversed those policies on their first day in office. State governors also make decisions that either encourage or discourage abortion (see here, for instance).


Essential Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

When A Church Is Not A Church

(This "throwback" originally appeared December 19th, 2014)

     These are strange days indeed, brothers and sisters.  In my most recent “Sunday Snippets” post from December 14th, 2014 [here], commenting upon St. Mary's in Lewiston, Maine, a former church that had been converted to secular use, I remarked that “I was struck with the realization that this secular hall still looked more like a Catholic Church than many recent church buildings still being used for that purpose.”  I had been intending to expand on the theme in a blog post this week; as it happens, two notable Catholic commentators, Prof. Anthony Esolen and the inimitable Fr. Z both beat me to it. 

The interior of St. Ann's Woonsocket, RI
     Esolen published an essay [here] in Crisis magazine, using the magnificent St. Ann’s Church in Woonsocket, RI, as his vehicle for discussing what he calls the libido delendi, “lust for destruction”.  This odious force has had its way with the Catholic Church over the past few decades, and not only in matters relating to church art and architecture, but in terms of language, liturgy, and much else.  Fr. Z approvingly takes up Esolen’s evocative Latin phrase in his post [here] commenting on the Crisis article, and ends with a rousing call to battle the libido delendi with a renewed push to revive the Extraordinary Form in as many places as possible.  As it turns out, the indefatigable Prof. Esolen also published a second essay on a the theme of tradition and destruction [here] at The Catholic Thing, this time focusing on the posture of prayer in the Mass (ably assisted by Homer and his Odyssey).
     All of the above is worth reading, but if I may try to summarize: Esolen’s overarching theme is the incarnational nature of Catholic worship, how the art, architecture, language and posture of prayer, and the direct tangible connection to the experiences of our predecessors in the Faith, are all part of our experience of God.  As he says in his Crisis article, referring to the former parishioners of the beautifully frescoed St. Ann’s:

Every time they entered their church, they walked into a great symphony of stories. Here is Abel, the smoke of his sacrifice ascending straight toward the heavens. Here is Cain, ducking, his arms held before his head, the smoke of his sacrifice blinding and choking. Here is God the Father, bringing light out of darkness. Here exactly opposite Him is the prophet Jonah, spat out by the whale de profundis onto the shore. You cannot understand the paintings and their placement in the same way in which you understand a bald message, such as, “The last person to leave the church must lock the doors.” You cannot come to an end of understanding them. They are mysteries, familiar and utterly unfamiliar at once. They cause you to be at home with wonders.

We worship the God Who Became Flesh with our entire being, and we can’t contain that experience within our limited minds and in narrow categories of our own devising.  In The Catholic Thing Esolen describes the church/liturgy/doctrine wreck-o-vators as people who simply don’t grasp this expansive understanding of Catholic practice (and, really, human existence):

Over-schooled people, long sheltered from the physical necessities of life, from plowing, sowing, digging, sawing, stitching, bleaching, ironing, mowing – they are most prone to lifeless abstractions, and most dismissive of the bodily gestures that people who work with hands and shoulders and backs understand.

And as he points out, again in Crisis:

Intellectuals are the original smashers of images. It was not quarry workers who demanded that their communion rails be knocked out with sledge hammers. It was not little children who pleaded with their pastors to cover paintings with whitewash. It was not housewives who demanded that the high altars with all their draperies and candelabra be replaced with tables so bare and spare that they would not do for an ordinary kitchen.

Our intellectual understandings need to be refined by the real corporeal experience of the Faith as handed on and as lived by generations of believers. Esolen suggests that when we separate ourselves from the tangible signs of that history, we get the de-mystifiying, the leveling, the whitewashing and, “as an ultimate but never to be realized aim, the destruction of Christ’s Church on earth.”
The reredos of the former St. Mary's, Lewiston, ME
     I found myself entertaining similar thoughts a couple weeks ago as I sat in the former St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston, Maine, now a private meeting hall. I was  listening to a lawyer who is also a Baptist preacher talking, ironically enough, about the deconstruction of the U.S. Constitution, as a statue of the Blessed Mother cradling the Baby Jesus looked down on it all. As I looked at that lovely old reredos (the structure that stands behind an old-fashioned high altar) I kept thinking of all the newer churches I’ve seen, where they don’t seem to know what to do with the space behind the new-style free-standing altar. One of the better choices I’ve seen is a large wall painting of Christ Pantocrator; a large Crucifix is also appropriate; less suitably, I’ve seen shelves or plants; the worst solution I can recall was a piano occupying the area behind the altar, as if it we were in a concert hall.
     One thing I’ve never seen on the back wall in any church built since 1965 is a high altar, with or without a reredos.  One of the most distinctive architectural features, perhaps the only essential architectural element, of every single Catholic church built from the time of Constantine seventeen centuries ago up until the mid sixties, and it doesn’t occur to anyone involved in designing Catholic churches as the solution to the problem of what to put behind the new altar - even if only for the sake of appearance.  It reminds me of the people I’ve seen doing the awkward dance of holding a squirming baby in one arm while trying to receive communion in the other hand without dropping either the Sacred Host or the child (and I have seen this many times).  Do they not realize that they if they simply held their youngster securely with both hands and put their tongue out to receive they could protect the safety of the child, the sanctity of the Sacrament, and their own dignity all at the same time?  In both cases, doing what has been the long-standing tradition of our predecessors is both more elegant and more practical. 
     The high altar, as an architectural element, also does something else as well: it serves as a natural focal point (especially when it is emphasized by the reredos or a baldacchino, a canopy-like structure over the altar). In a church of traditional design, all the elements naturally draw the eye toward the high altar, where the miracle of transubstantiation takes place as the Word becomes Flesh, and just above that the Tabernacle, containing the Body of Christ. Even on an unconscious level we understand that Christ is the center, and that our encounter with Him in the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian Life.  Compare the esthetic confusion of many contemporary altars and churches with the still profound impact of  a preserved former church like the former St. Mary’s in Lewiston . . . or St. Ann in Woonsocket.
     Did I mention St. Ann’s, like St. Mary’s, is no longer a church?  That’s a detail that Prof. Esolen seems to have left out of his otherwise excellent essay.  You can visit the web site of the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center here.  Strange days, as I said above.  The Diocese was going to tear down one of the most beautiful, and one of the most theologically engaging, parish churches in the United States, but the building, along with its treasure of art and inspiring architecture was saved by a secular group.  Now its gorgeous frescoes look down on wedding receptions and the like, but the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is no longer offered, as far as I can tell: neither on the high altar nor on the free-standing post-Vatican II altar.  At any rate, while there is a link on the website labeled “Church Services”, the page it leads to is empty.

Detail of a Fresco at St. Ann: Angel wings come through the architecture

     How odd, and sad. “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Secular groups are willing to save, on purely esthetic or sentimental grounds, sacred treasures that have been entrusted to us but which we are trying to throw away. The church buildings are only an example.  As Anthony Esolen argues, the whole project of eradication of the old and beautiful, including not just buildings but sacred art, sacred language, traditional devotions, and much more, the libido delendi aims at destroying the Church by destroying any sense of identity among its members.  Totalitarian states try to smother opposition by separating people from each other and from their history, so that they have no strong sense of self, of who they are.  St. John Paul understood this well, and by recalling the Polish people to their national and Christian identity led the way to the overthrow of communism.  So why are we trying so hard to destroy our own Catholic identity?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cicero at Planet Fitness

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was published March 15th, 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus under the title "Cicero at the Gym"To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

"Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, latrinis femineis nostris?"

O Tempora, O Mores!

Are we living in a neo-pagan culture?  One could argue that we are doing just that, or heading in that direction, given that our culture has largely abandoned God and Christianity.  If we are, then we Neo-pagans are in much sorrier shape than the Old Pagans ever were, because they had no access to the Revelation of Jesus Christ, but we do, and we are consciously rejecting it.  Along with Supernatural Truth, we are also increasingly abandoning even natural truths in a way that would have horrified the heathens of old.  Consider, for instance, what the Roman orator, philosopher, and writer Cicero has to say about what we would call Natural Law:

There is a true law, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil.  Whether it enjoins or forbids, the Good respect its injunctions, and the Wicked treat them with indifference.  This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and it is not liable either to derogation or abrogation.  Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice.  It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience.  It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this eternal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable.  It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings.  God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer.  He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man.  For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life.

We live in a culture that no longer believes that: today's conventional wisdom is that we can make reality whatever we want it to be (we are like God, as the serpent promises Eve in Genesis 3:5, “knowing good from evil”). We scoff at the pagan philosopher’s assertion that the natural law “cannot be contradicted by any other law”, and we are increasingly using the power of the state (the senate and the people, as Cicero would put it) to this impose Bold New World on those who won’t accept it willingly. If Cicero were to say today what he says above, he might find himself employing his prodigious rhetorical skills to defend himself from charges of "hate speech."

Intolerance Won't Be Tolerated

     The cutting edge of the new paganism, after all, is the question of what today is called "gender".  This is no longer a function of one's biological sex, but is an "identity" chosen by individuals that need not correspond to any external reality (which frees us from the tyranny of being either male or female, there now being dozens of genders from which we can choose).  Cicero never guessed how truly a man might fly from himself, and do “violence to the very nature of man.”
   If this were simply a matter of people calling themselves what they want, it would be sad and unfortunate.  It seems, however, that those who create their own reality cannot tolerate any opposition, even the unspoken opposition of those who simply live in accord with a more traditional understanding of the nature of things.  That's why we see cases such as this one (link) in which the highest court in the state of Maine ruled that "School officials violated state anti-discrimination law when they would not allow a transgender fifth-grader to use the girls' bathroom."  There is no law, apparently, forbidding discrimination against the vast majority of girls who don't want a boy in their bathroom (the reporter refers to the student in question as "she" throughout the article, but does concede toward the end that the student "is a biological male who identified as a girl beginning at age 2").  In a similar case involving adults, “The head of Ontario’s human rights commission” defended “the right of ‘transgendered’ men to use women’s changing rooms in response to a woman’s complaint that she was ogled” by a man who was not, shall we say, adhering to traditional norms of modesty in his attire or his behavior (link, for mature audiences only).

A Non-Intimidating, Welcoming Environment . . . For Some

   Now it has gone a step further.  We heard last week (link) about a woman who was banned from her local Planet Fitness gym because she complained about a man (who "identified as a woman") in her locker room, and warned other female patrons of his presence.  The gym declared her behavior "inappropriate  and disruptive to other members", and so she was asked to leave, since “Planet Fitness is committed to creating a non-intimidating, welcoming environment for our members”.  Except for female members who object to undressing in the presence of naked men. Apparently, there is nothing inappropriate or disruptive about a man (whatever he thinks of himself) invading an area where women are accustomed to changing and showering.
   It may be that Chesterton didn't really say, "when people cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything."  It perfectly describes, however, what we're seeing in our society today, and is a reminder that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6:12), but is at root a battle in the spiritual realm, which is why spiritual and natural Truth rise and fall together.  And so we must continue to oppose unreason with reason, but also offer prayer and sacrifice in response to unbelief and, of course, always engage our opponents in a spirit of love.