In the Mire Below

Much has been written about the revival of “white nationalism” in the United States due to the ascendency of the alt-right. Most of it isn’t very good. Originating as a mixture of dark humor, trolling, and unaccountable venting on forums such as 4chan, the alt-right, according to many in the Left, is a political force to be reckoned with. That some, if not many, of those who claim to identify with the alt-right are both white and nationalist is not in dispute. What’s not entirely clear is if the alt-right represents a distinct and coherent political movement rather than just an amalgamation of dissenters, online troublemakers, and old-fashioned fever-swamp racists.

The only interest I have in the alt-right is why so many Catholics (many of them traditional) are drawn to it, especially given the Church’s historic condemnations of liberalism, racism, and nationalism. Keep in mind that despite its ostensibly extreme views, the alt-right is a liberal movement; it buys into the idea that democracy is a proper vehicle for political change and that religion has, at best, salutary function in maintaining social cohesion. (It is worth noting that many alt-righters, at least those who inhabit some of the darker regions of the Internet, are virulently anti-Christian.) As best as I can tell, the alt-right fills a certain vacuum for Catholics who have long felt disenfranchised from mainline American politics, liberal or conservative. Instead of banding together to form authentically Catholic political organizations in the United States, these individuals are leaping aboard the alt-right bandwagon in the hopes of gaining some measure of relevance in today’s fractured political landscape. Will it work? I’m skeptical. For though the alt-right or, really, the forthcoming Trump Presidency may deliver on certain promises relating to health-care reform, stricter immigration rules, and trade, “pelvic issues” such as same-sex marriage and abortion are unlikely to be touched.

Some might object here and claim that nationalism is no bad thing; it’s just an expression of patriotism, which the Church has never condemned. Indeed, Catholic teaching holds that patriotism can be a virtue (within limits). The problem with nationalism, particularly in its American guise, is that it often degrades into a political religion; the nation takes primacy of place over God and the Church. Even heavily Catholic areas, such as Galicia (west Ukraine) during the interwar period, risked succumbing to nationalism as a political religion due to both the passions of the people for self-determination and the uncertainty which loomed on the horizon due to the rise of Soviet Russia and the reassertion of Polish control of the region following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While Ukrainian nationalists could not be prevented in full from carrying out terrorist attacks, including ethnic cleansing operations, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) was able to serve as a check on nationalist ideology by both condemning violence and asserting the priority of the Church over politics. Without deep roots in Galicia, however, it is doubtful the UGCC would have had any success, and whatever success it did have dissipated by the 1940s with the invasion of the Soviets and the destruction of the Ukrainian Church.

What certain UGCC churchmen proposed at the time was a form of Christian nationalism, perhaps best exemplified by St. Mykola Konrad’s declaration: “The sword and the cross—this is the only hope of nations and humankind for a new and better tomorrow.” Konrad, like other UGCC clerics who supported Ukrainian independence within the limits of Church teaching, envisioned a social order that rejected both capitalism and communism; it was not built upon secular nationalism, but rather Christianity. Such a vision was sustainable only to the extent that the UGCC was willing to assert indirect temporal authority over Galician society by not only reminding the faithful of their duties before God, but also building-up the necessary infrastructure for a Christian state (e.g., schools, literacy programs, charitable organizations, etc.). What was sorely lacking during this period was meaningful and sustained external support, the sort which would have checked Polish nervousness over Ukraine and provided the fledgling nation with the means to defend itself from Soviet encroachment. It is little wonder then that the entrance of Nazi Germany into Galicia, and its promise to combat the Russians, was met initially with approval from Greek-Catholic authorities, including Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. That approval quickly dissolved into disgust once it became apparent to Metropolitan Andrei and others what the Nazis truly intended to do to the peoples of Ukraine, Jew and Gentile alike.

In America, despite what certain campfire stories claim, the Catholic Church has no deep roots. It is not, how shall I say, an integral part of the American enterprise, nor has it exercised any meaningful influence on society in politics, local or national, in a great number of years. If indeed more and more disaffected Catholics begin flocking to nationalism, either in its alt-right variety or some other equally unsettling form, the American Church can do very little about it. Oh, perhaps some liberal bishop or cardinal may opt to speak out against the alt-right, nationalism, or Trump’s policy platform, but their voice will be easily ignored. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the United States mortgaged its authority a long time ago. Between the still-ongoing sex-abuse crisis and gross revelations about the sexual behavior of seminarians, priests, and bishops, the American Church is bereft of moral credibility. Moreover, intentional injections of confusion into what the Church has always taught concerning marriage, divorce, and the sacraments has left many conservative and traditional Catholics feeling shepherdless. If the Church is so disorganized, corrupt, and beholden to liberalism, what does it matter if her leaders today are uncomfortable with nationalism? Nationalism, for all of its faults, at least provides the hope of surety, the promise of binding people together for a common destiny even if it is intramundane.

Nothing will change until the faithful are awakened from their secular slumber. The problem that remains is who will lead this awakening? If the “approved authorities,” either in America or Rome, cannot speak with credible voices, then who can? It is not enough to run, hide in a ghetto, and “wait for St. Benedict.” Now more than ever we need to be roused by St. John the Baptist. But if such rousing occurs, it will come with great personal and professional costs to the faithful. The time has long past for Catholics to live as Catholics and do so in harmony with the secular-liberal order. The nationalism now running amok in America is a temptation for Catholics, and like all temptations it comes from the devil. Like other modern ideological manifestations, it dangles the dubious hope that Christians can be both in the world and of it, that we can indeed have an earthly home, and that our greatest reward lies not in Heaven above but down in the mire below.

Reeling Forward

During a bout of insomnia last night, I felt compelled to reread Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, “A World Split Apart.” Several passages jumped out at me, particularly the following.

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

And what shall we say criminality as such? Legal frames, especially in the United States, are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorist’s civil rights. There are many such cases.

Before you assume that I intend to directly connect Solzhenitsyn’s penetrating observations with the ongoing uproar over President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, grant me a moment to explain myself. The Trump ban, which many have argued is not only imprudent but ultimately ineffective for thwarting terrorist attacks on American soil, may or may not survive a legal challenge; what has certainly not survived, even in Solzhenitsyn’s time, is our collective capacity to confront evil. Obviously a vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists per se, that is, they do not wear suicide vests, gun or knife people at random, or set off homemade explosive devices in public places. That does not change the fact, however, that all Muslims profess religious error and that these errors, like all errors, pose a danger to all societies at all times and in all places. While the political situation today demands tolerance, it is always tolerance of some evil, not a tolerance of some good. However, even tolerance has its limits, particularly when confronting a false religion that has spread violence, misery, and immorality over the globe for more than 1,000 years.

This reality is ignored by the good liberals and deluded Christians of our day. The only thing that seems to matter is the “rights” of Muslims in positive, legal sense, not the fact that Islam itself is inherently dangerous. In an effort to (weakly) combat such claims, liberals will point to the history of Christianity, claiming that A, B, C, etc. atrocity was carried out by Christians and therefore Christianity is no less (and may even be more) dangerous than Islam. What’s missing from this analysis is a fair reading of what the Church actually teaches and, from there, an evaluation of whether or not this-or-that action, carried out at some point in history, comported with Church teaching. Tomorrow, I could go out my front door naked, covered in peanut butter, flinging sacks of dog feces at people in the name of Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism, and so forth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my barking-mad behavior has any connection whatsoever to those or any other extant religions on the planet.

Islam, on the other hand, has a long and storied history of aggression toward non-believers with periods of relative calm coming at the expense of non-Islamic persons. The Christians of the former Byzantine Empire were not all forced to convert by the sword, but their continued existence depending upon living as second-class human beings under the Ottomans and watching as their church degenerated into an ethnic enclave, cut off from the wider Christian world. In more recent times, we have witnessed the Islamic State (ISIS)—a highly organized politico-religious movement that has managed to hold significant ground in Syria and Iraq precisely because its iteration of Islam is attractive to other Muslims—carry out one of the bloodiest persecutions of Christians since the days of the Soviet Union. People protest and call it an aberration without bothering to look back over centuries upon centuries of similar actions carried out in the name of the false Prophet Muhammad and his dirt deity Allah.

Even if it were possible, by the waive of a magic wand, to distinguish the “good Muslim” from the “bad Muslim,” that is, the terrorist, the liberals of today would opine that that such wand-waiving violates the terrorists’ rights. Where is the due process? What laws are being cited and what is their proper interpretation? Is there not a way for the text of the Constitution—or any other foundational document—to be read upside down, sideways, and inside out to protect these poor terrorists from being singled-out a priori and prevented from carrying out their terrible acts? If you think such questions would not be asked, then please let me encourage you to peruse social media; the idiocy that is now running wild is astounding.

Of course, terrorism and the scourge that is Islam is not our only challenge today. And, truth be told, it may not be our biggest problem. Returning to Solzhenitsyn, it must be acknowledged that our “[s]ociety appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence,” especially now, in the digital age, where “pornography, crime, and horror” come packaged together in a single streaming video from any number of online “adult” websites. Consumerism, and the destructive capitalism which feeds off of it, is no longer condemned by Christians, even Catholics, but rather propped-up by churchmen and “think tanks” who believe, without reason, that “human flourishing” is not only an end in itself, but can be secured materially rather than spiritually. As perverse as their theology is in parts, can any of us blame the ISIS fighter for looking upon our works, our empire of smut and entertainment (or smut-as-entertainment), and feeling nothing but revulsion—the sort that easily elicits violence?

The promise of liberalism, which many believe was renewed in 1989 with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, rings hollow today, and yet those intoxicated with liberal ideology still control the machinery of society. In fact, liberals now control the machinery of the Catholic Church, meaning that the truth of things, the very truth of life and what it is for, must now take second place to securing an unimaginative, prepackaged “living space” in this fallen world. We clamor on about rights without reference to obligations, rarely contemplating the doom we have secured for ourselves in exchange for transient pleasures, many of which are not even available to those consigned to destitution and depravity by an intrinsically immoral socio-economic system.

Ours is not merely “a world split apart,” as Solzhenitsyn said, but a world gone mad. The United States in particular is not “a shining city upon a hill” but rather—to paraphrase Carl Schmitt summarizing the counterrevolutionary thinker Juan Donoso Cortes— “a ship that reels forward, piloted by a crew of drunken sailors, who dance and howl until God decides to sink the ship so that silence can rule the sea once again.” When that day comes, no doubt there will be some of us, perhaps many of us, standing before the Throne of Christ weeping about our rights.

Midweek Scribbling

As I scanned the Catholic news waves this morning, I found a great deal of chatter about the Sovereign Order of Malta and Pope Francis; some consternation over a liturgical directive in Rockford, Illinois; and a few words about an Anglican Use parish in Texas. What surprised me about all of this is not the fact the Roman Catholic Church continues to be in disarray, but how unmoved I am by it now. Two or three years ago, I would have been up in arms; now I can barely muster the energy to read these tales of woe from start to finish. Have I given up? Am I losing my faith? Do I actually believe that what is transpiring in the Church is “right” or, at the very least, “ok”? The answer to all of those questions is an unqualified, “No.” I do believe, however, that I have hit the burn-out point when it comes to “crisis porn”; one can only gawk at the carnage for so long before they start to feel like a pervert.

This is not to say that responsible pressmen shouldn’t report on what’s happening around the Corpus Mysticum, nor that all analytical commentary be ignored. There are, thankfully, two or three sober-minded voices out there, the sort who are willing to put the Church’s present problems into perspective without falling prey to pearl-clutching hysteria. Hysteria generates hits, and for more than one traditional Catholic website out there, that’s what seems to matter above all else. What, I wonder, would these folks do if their wildest dreams of Pope Pius XIII ascending the throne and cleaning up the house came true? What would they write about? Maybe at that moment all of the ire directed toward the Novus Ordo Missae will be rerouted toward, say, the Pian reforms of the Breviarium Romanum; there’s always something to be upset about, I suppose.

Speaking of hysteria and hits, I took time out to track my web-log traffic over the past year and compare it to the previous two. Not surprisingly, the less angry, bitter, perturbed, and resentful my posts became, the less interest began to be shown in Opus Publicum, particularly from the traditional Catholic community. Granted, that may be a coincidence, especially since an increasing number of posts started to focus on “things Eastern” which, as best as I can tell, is of little-to-no interest to a vast majority of Catholics out there, specifically those who enjoy magic prayers, ahistorical theology, and early-modern devotions that wantonly displace the liturgical patrimony of the Latin Church. And, naturally, a web-log penned by a dirty “Uniate” is unlikely to attract all that many Orthodox readers, though ironically I seem to have far more of those than I do of the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” types, that is, those who persist in promoting a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style ecclesiology.

The other day a veteran, long-single theologian who used to have some renown in the Catholic blogosphere sent out a social-media message that began, “I have been asked several times lately how I’ve managed to avoid fornication for all of these years.” Setting aside that this statement is one of the finest humble brags I have ever come across, I personally can’t imagine ever asking someone that question, particularly since it rests on the assumption that the individual being queried has, in fact, avoided the sin in question. Moreover, were I asked how I’ve avoided, say, defrauding large financial institutions millions of dollars or purchasing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, I wouldn’t go public with it. It just seems so, well, untoward to parade certain virtues or, more accurately, “things we’re supposed to be doing in the first place.”

Or maybe I missed something along the way. It’s happened before.

A Thought on “Thick Faith”

David Mills has penned another one of his customarily thoughtful pieces for Aleteia, “Make the Faith Thick and the Church Expensive.” In it, he discusses some recent sociological data on orthodox Jewish birthrates compared to non-orthodox birthrates. (For some reason the piece comes accompanied with a picture of an Eastern Orthodox subdeacon, but whatever.) Not surprisingly, orthodox Jews are “out-birthing” other Jews by a considerable margin, likely because they take the tenets of their religion concerning children seriously. That is to say that orthodox Jews, rather than paring down the Law in the name an inner “spirituality,” following through on the Judaism’s legal prescriptions as an indispensable part of their religious life. Critics, I suppose, will say that this is proof that orthodox Jews are only concerned with “externals” while glibly ignoring even the possibility that adherence to “externals” is reflective of deeply held religious convictions.

Good sophisticated Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) of the 21st C. will have none of this, of course. There is nothing worse in the minds of many than adherence to “externals,” ranging from counting Rosary beads to receiving Communion on the tongue to rejecting contraception. All of these “rules,” all of these “empty rituals,” went out the door 50 years ago, or so they say. Moral prescriptions, while ideal and nice, are difficult; people must be brought to them “gradually” so as not to feel isolated or alienated from God’s mercy. Perhaps, after undergoing a purely internal transformation, a Catholic may be brought, by their own conscience, to think more deeply about “externals” and even follow through on them. If they do, they should, of course, keep it to themselves so as to not come across as “judgmental.” For the rest of the Catholic faithful, however, they are fine where they are at, so long as they don’t deny global warming or harbor any reservations over open-door immigration policies.

As 2016 draws to a close, let me just come out and say that as much as I admire Mills’s call not to present a thin, cheapened form of the Faith, this is all that’s really available to most people today — and it’s the only form that many Catholic priests and bishops know how to deliver. While there are pockets of resistance out there to the liberal and secularizing trends that overtook the Church during the last century and continue to cause chaos today, they remain few and far between, largely marginalized and even openly mocked by the Ordinary of Rome himself. It’s not that people who truly wish to take up their cross and follow Christ are barred absolutely from doing so; it’s just that the Church, at this present and perilous moment in history, is so grotesquely unwilling to help them along the way.

Lord have mercy.

Lightfoot

While thumbing through Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers today, it occurred to me that these epistles and other documents from the second century of Christian history must still strike many today as strange, divorced as they are from our common experience of the Church. Indeed, many of the most treasured works from the centuries following the Ascension bear little resemblance to the theological manuals, spiritual scribbings, and unctuous religious prose that Christians of all confessional commitments consume on a regular basis. This isn’t a novel observation, mind you; it’s just an unsettling one. Could it really be that the Church of today—One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic—is not only far removed from the “church of yesterday,” but really amounts to little more than a hollowed-out relic that people cling to out of cultural habit more than sincere religious conviction?

As 2016 draws to a close, I would prefer to not slip into pessimism, but it is . . . difficult. Still, in these times, I try to remind myself that I have no right to despair. None of us do. The problem is that hope, sincere and realistic hope, is so alarmingly elusive. It’s not enough to just say, “I hope for the best” or “I hope things will improve.” That desire never leaves. What doesn’t wish to stay is the sense that this hope can lead anywhere except to crushing disappointment. And then I look back to the Apostolic age, the Arian crisis, Iconoclasm, the Great Schism, and the relatively more recent onslaught from atheistic communism and I start to see, albeit faintly, that what unites the Church of Christ through the ages is suffering for the truth. Granted, in this day and age of entertainment and ease, the meaning of suffering has been grossly distorted to the point where we might need a new word to describe experiences more agonizing than poor cell phone reception or slow download speeds for pornography. So it goes.

Confronted with these truths and listening to them with attention, ye shall know how much God bestoweth on those that love (Him) rightly, who become a Paradise of delight, a tree bearing all manner of fruits and flourishing, growing up in themselves and adorned with various fruits. For in this garden a tree of knowledge and a tree of life hath been planted; yet the tree of knowledge does not kill, but disobedience kills; for the scriptures state clearly how God from the beginning planted a tree [of knowledge and a tree] of life in the midst of Paradise, revealing life through knowledge; and because our first parents used it not genuinely they were made naked by the deceit of the serpent. For neither is there life without knowledge, nor sound knowledge without true life; therefore the one (tree) is planted near the other. Discerning the force of this and blaming the knowledge which is exercised apart from the truth of the injunction which leads to life, the apostle says, Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. For the man who supposes that he knows anything without the true knowledge which is testified by the life, is ignorant, he is deceived by the serpent, because he loved not life; whereas he who with fear recognises and desires life plants in hope expecting fruit. Let your heart be knowledge, and your life true reason, duly comprehended. Whereof if thou bear the tree and pluck the fruit, thou shalt ever gather the harvest which God looks for, which serpent toucheth not, nor deceit infecteth, neither is Eve corrupted, but is believed on as a virgin, and salvation is set forth, and the apostles are filled with understanding, and the passover of the Lord goes forward, and the congregations are gathered together, and [all things] are arranged in order, and as He teacheth the saints the Word is gladdened, through Whom the Father is glorified, to Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

– Epistle to Diognetus

Any Given Sunday

Somewhere in the world a Tridentine Mass was said without the servers reciting the second Confiteor and a Divine Liturgy served without the second antiphon. Millions of complacent Christians did their weekly duty of showing up to church, pretended to pray, and silently judged the proceedings with thoughts of football, fornication, or just about anything else besides Christ on their minds. And then, in the ancient city of Cairo, dozens of Coptic Christians—mainly women and children—were torn to shreds as a giant explosion ripped through St. Mark’s Cathedral.

As honest as the Western media may want to be when it comes to the state of Egyptian politics in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the religious significance of the attack is all but lost on them. The Islamists who no doubt carried out this strike are already being referred to as “extremists” and the Copts themselves defined in terms of politics rather than religion. Lost is any sincere acknowledgment that from the days of the false prophet Muhammad, whose tragic birth is celebrated this day, millions of Christians have perished under the crescent moon.

Eastern Christians are, unsurprisingly, much more sensitive to this reality than their Western brethren. For while Latin Catholics may still give passing notice to events such as Lepanto or the Battle of Vienna, Easterners are forced to recall the fall of their ancient patriarchal sees, not to mention historical defeats at Constantinople, Kosovo, and many more. Regardless of local church affiliation or rite, the Eastern liturgical year commemorates numerous incidences of grotesque Muslim violence against the Christians of the East. It is hoped that the prayers of these holy martyrs will sustain what’s left of Christianity in the Middle East, though right now those prayers must feel unanswered.

Without discounting the deleterious effect secular liberalism has had on the West for two centuries, it is difficult at times like this to take the persecution narrative of certain Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all that seriously. The day may come when the liberal order finally seeks to violently rid itself of the last remnants of Christendom, but that still seems a long way off when compared to the more immediate and savage violence that Islam continues to perpetrate all over the world against the followers of Jesus Christ. Western political leaders will, naturally, express some condolences before returning to business-as-usual, that is, ignoring the plight of the Middle East’s dwindling Christian population.

And what will the Church say? Should we expect an outcry followed by an outpouring of prayers for the deceased and wounded or some highly qualified statements meant to ensure everyone that the attack in Cairo, like the numerous attacks which preceded it in the past few years, was the work of “extremists,” a “fringe” not representative of Muslims generally? Shall we be scolded into accepting the lie that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Heaven help us all.

If He Is Not Your King…

Over the course of the past few months I have been going in chronological order through the archived sermons of Fr. Patrick Reardon over at Ancient Faith Radio (AFR). The archive, which dates back over a decade, may be the most impressive audio collection of Eastern Orthodox homilies in existence. For though some have not always seen eye-to-eye with Reardon on certain subjects (e.g. the nature of Orthodox theology, liturgics, the role of the Old Testament in the life of the Church, sexual ethics, etc.), no serious person can deny that Reardon is one of the most learned Orthodox churchmen in the West and maybe the most Scripturally sound Eastern cleric in the world.

In a brief 2005 homily, simply entitled “Melchizedek,” Fr. Patrick makes the point that just as Melchizedek’s kingship cannot be separated from his priesthood, neither can Christ’s. And if we, as Christians, will not have the Lord Jesus as our king, neither can we have him as our priest. This is an unsettling lesson for modern man, being that we are so accustomed to rejecting both the need for a mediator and authority. Today, even those of us (Orthodox and Catholic) who are willing to accept the idea of a mediator tend to do so on our own terms; that is, in a largely private and circumscribed manner. Is it any wonder then that we see this play out as well with regard to Christ’s kingship? In the privacy of our homes and the silence of the pew, we may pay private homage to Christ the King, but not in public. In public we live as the world expects. Perhaps we try to be “nicer” than others, or take the Lord’s name in vain a tad bit less, but that is not enough. God does not call men to love and worship Him on their own terms; He calls us to total obedience, even unto death. How quickly we forget that.

If we live our lives as Christians, that is, in obedience to God, we will be rejected by the world. We will not “get along,” either in the workplace or at school or even among friends. This is a a truth that Reardon stresses — a truth most of us would rather not be reminded of. Look today at how Christians, specifically Catholics, are so eager to adopt the garments of capitalism or communism in order to win worldly approval and benefits while paying no mind to the divine teachings entrusted to the Church. See how Catholics chase after secular political leaders to be their kings or queens without paying any mind to Christ. We reject His Kingship and still believe we are entitled to his priesthood. We want His Grace, but not His Law. In the end, we love to be in the world and long to be of it.