A few days ago William Tighe, an Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College and frequent contributor to numerous Catholic publications, left the following extended comment on this blog:
As I wrote earlier today on another blog, as a comment to a post featuring Edith Piaf singing La Marseillaise:
Why should I applaud, or even listen to, some sluttish chanteuse singing a song that encapsulates and celebrates events that constituted the overthrow of France as “the eldest daughter of the Church” and enthroned “laicite” in it place?
If this is the “French heritage” that we are rallying to defend, my call would, rather, be “pereat!” The French Revolution was the first, and the bellwether, of subsequent revolutions aimed at overthrowing any Catholic Christian social order, and the Marseillaise, like the Internationale, is freighted with anti-Christian (and, indeed, savagely neopagan) ideas. Were I a Frenchman I would have no truck with “1789 and All That” and, indeed, would take some melancholy consolation in the fact that with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and now the Paris Slaughter it seems to be expiring from, as Karl Marx wrote, mistakenly, of bourgeois capitalism, its own “inner contradictions.”
And if I were to feel moved to show solidarity with the French, the flag that I would wave would be the drapeau blanc.
At the time this remark appeared, Owen White was on Facebook rightly snickering at his monarchist and traditionalist friends who didn’t think twice about distorting their profile pictures with the Tricolour. Perhaps these folks misguidedly thought that to stand with the French Republic at this moment in time is to take a stand both against Islam and for Christendom. But Christendom has been almost entirely wiped out and the country which suffered a terrible tragedy at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) played no small part in its demise. Now well-meaning Christians of all stripes are rallying behind Europe and the United States to “do something” about ISIS, as if the destruction of one highly efficient band of Muslim madmen will rid the world of Islamic terror. And even if ISIS falls and the false religion of the false prophet Mohammed is contained in the desert, what have we—good Christians of the West—left ourselves with? Unfettered secular liberalism which holds as much contempt for us as the sons of Ishmael do.
Liberalism will not save us. The self-interested forces of capitalism and sham democracy may find a way to temporarily push back the Islamic threat, but they will leave nothing for us to glory over. The time is not far off where the ostensibly protecting hand of liberalism claps us in irons for not submitting to its perverse and ungodly ideology. Watch well the stripes liberal-democratic polities deal out to the Muslims. They will be our stripes next.
There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites… From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.
– St. John of Damascus, Concerning Heresies
Islam promises a worldly-dominated blissful happiness, the fulfillment of all desires and sensations of the faithful, but also a mental blissful happiness after death for the followers of Allah. Western Christians better understand this blissful happiness, despite the ascetic life of the Orthodox Church which ascetically aims at overcoming blissful happiness. The same commonalities are observed in other issues, such as the issue and source of Faith. For the Muslim the Koran is the revelation of God, and the redemption of the believer depends on the book and its reading. This mindset is also found among Western Christians, for whom the Bible is the word of God and the only source of faith, which is why [Protestant] Westerners better understand the Muslim perception of Revelation rather than the Orthodox, for whom the Gospel is not a Revelation but words about the Revelation
– Metropolitan Hierothos of Nafpaktos
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. God is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats. . . . To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.
– Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, 26 Dialogues with a Persian
Islam is apparently unconvertible. The missionary efforts made by great Catholic orders which have been occupied in trying to turn Mohammedans into Christians for nearly 400 years have everywhere wholly failed. We have in some places driven the Mohammedan master out and freed his Christian subjects from Mohammedan control, but we have had hardly any effect in converting individual Mohammedans[.]
– Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies
There is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets. Of these the mightiest in modern times were the man whose name was Ahmed, and whose more famous title was the Mahdi; and his more ferocious successor Abdullahi, who was generally known as the Khalifa. These great fanatics, or great creators of fanaticism, succeeded in making a militarism almost as famous and formidable as that of the Turkish Empire on whose frontiers it hovered, and in spreading a reign of terror such as can seldom be organised except by civilisation
– G.K. Chesterton, Lord Kitchener
For as long as Moslems are an insignificant minority in a Christian country they can live in a friendly way, because they follow the laws and customs of the country which accepts them. But as soon as they are numerous and organized they become aggressive and they seek to impose their laws, which are hostile to European civilization. Examples are abundant. Soon they will take charge of our city councils, and will transform our churches into mosques. We will either have to become Moslem, leave the country or become their captives. This is in the profound nature of Islam. It is not I who am racist in denouncing this very racism.
– Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
There is a quite a bit of clamor on social media and other outlets that Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris are receiving a disproportionate amount of media attention compared to other high-casualty attacks in places like Kenya and Lebanon. The critical read of this reality is that (mostly white) Western Europeans and Americans don’t care about “dark people” from third-world countries. There is probably more than a ring of truth to this observation, though it ignores the fact that brutal, well-planned terrorist assaults are “not supposed to happen” in places like Paris, London, and New York. If Paris is susceptible to such organized violence by so-called extremists, what’s to top something similar from happening in Berlin or Rome or Chicago? Paris makes the threat of Islamic terror feel more immediate than bomb blasts in Beirut. A soberminded reflection reveals that terrorist violence is always abhorrent; but that doesn’t change how the popular consciousness will react to it. Remember: One of the (rickety) promises of liberalism, which finds its roots in Thomas Hobbes, is to keep the citizenry safe from violent death. Terrorism upsets this claim.
Terrorism upsets this claim not simply by the fact it kills people, but because it reminds us that there are still genuine enemies in the world, that is, those who force us to make an existential decision about ourselves. The problem is that liberalism itself is not a banner most spiritually healthy individuals which to march under, for there is really nothing “to” liberalism except a series of promises culminating in an unimaginative, hedonistic, and ultimately cowardly life—a life of “entertainment” as Carl Schmitt quietly, but powerfully, noted in his The Concept of the Political. Men are not willing to die for such things; they are only willing to put their power behind making sure that others die for them. Granted, America, more than its European neighbors, still presents a tale of transcendent meaning to prop-up the prevailing liberal ideology, but how long is that bound to last? At some point in the not-so-distant future the vacuousness of the so-called “American Experiment” will be as evident as the moral and spiritual emptiness of European-style liberalism. How long until we submit—as European is submitting—to the crescent moon?
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. The future is not written in stone. The great and terrible problem before us is that nothing appears ready to step-in and renew the West’s spirit, to reorient its existential self-understanding toward something higher than natural desires. The institutional Catholic Church, which has been gutted by the same liberalism which has already eroded the traditional bases of society, has little more to offer than a banalized rhetoric of intramundane peace. Instead of praying to Almighty God for protection from the infidels and their conversion, the shepherds scramble to setup “interfaith prayer services.” Instead of using large public gatherings to inform people that what they need in their lives above all else is Jesus Christ, the Pope himself dresses up fashionable political problems in light Christian garb. Although it is a false religion built on violence, perversion, and lies, Islam at least offers a spiritually robust alternative to the West’s cultural malaise. It may be grotesque, but at least it is something. When will the Church wake up to this horror and fight back? How long will God allow us to suffer these evils? Pray. Pray that our Lord, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the Saints, raise up His Church again, not only in the West but the longsuffering East as well. The fate of not just civilization, but millions upon millions of souls, depends on it.
Much to the chagrin of many, the American comedian Anthony Jeselnik likes to have a bit of sport with tragedies on Twitter. At the end of his most recent comedy special, Thoughts and Prayers, Jeselnik explained that his reason for doing so wasn’t to belittle the victims but to lampoon the millions who take to social media to express their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, which—according to Jeselnik—amounts to nothing more than empty self-aggrandizing. Being that I am not quite that cynical, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, though admittedly I keep a light social-media profile. I certainly have no problem with people expressing their opinions on social media so long as they are informed opinions (I’m naïve). Looking over my Facebook feed this morning, most of my online (and some real-life) friends are genuinely upset over what took place last night in Paris. Many differ on what those attacks mean and what the proper international response ought to be. Certainly the tragedy will have power political ramifications for both France and the European Union as a whole. The ongoing refugee crisis will likely worsen and further attacks are inevitable.
And yet, according to some online pundits and self-anointed moralists of the Left, Europe—and the rest of the world—must take care not to jump too any conclusions or, worse, “politicize the tragedy.” Already the “Religion of Peace” rhetoric is starting to fly, along with stern reminders that Christians, Jews, and Hindus “do bad stuff, too.” (Atheists are always left off of these lists.) Some want to cast last night’s attacks as part of a larger tale about “victims”—not just those killed or wounded in Paris, but all victims everywhere. If Europe could just find it in its heart to not be so mean to refugees (some of whom aren’t even refugees) and the rest of the world would just help “peaceful democracy” spread to countries which have never known it (and arguably have no use for it), then 130+ people would still be alive this morning. We shouldn’t be angry at the ones taking credit for the attacks, the so-called Islamic State. We should shake our fists at Obama, Hollande, Merkel, Assad, Putin, and so on and so forth. We should shake our fists at ourselves for clearly the decadent West alone is to blame.
The funny thing about this line of moralizing is that it does have a ring of truth to it. The West is decadent. It is fueled by passion and guided by consumption, comfort, and greed. None of that means that the West, or any part of the world, “deserves” to be hit by terrorist attacks. And none of that means that Islam is what we’re supposed to believe it is. By Christian lights—the only lights that matter—Islam is evil. It is a false religion built around a false god, brought into the world by a false prophet who deserves nothing but humanity’s contempt. If we cannot begin with that truth then there is no way to make sense of what has happened in Paris and will continue to happen all over the world. Instead, we all scramble about looking for political, sociological, and economic explanations when in reality the only explanation that means anything is religious. Maybe more people are aware of this than I assume. Perhaps that is why so many are expressing thoughts and prayers for France. They know that only God can save Europe now.
“Normativity” is a tricky word, one I prefer to avoid in polite company. And yet it is taken for granted in both the legal and economic fields that their respective professionals are somehow “allowed” to make normative judgments, transcending the “is” to pontificate on the “ought.” When hybridized, law and economics or “economic analysis of law” takes the neo-classical conception of “efficiency” and applies it to all sorts of legal rules, procedures, and marginal phenomena to declare what should stay and what should go. Not all economists agree with using “efficiency” in this manner, and some reject the concept altogether. One such camp is the so-called “Austrian School” of economics which, traditionally, holds that economics is the science of “is” not “ought.” Ludwig von Mises makes this very clear in Human Action and other works; a slightly more recent Austrian, Irving Kirzner, does as well. Some Austrians have, from time to time, tried to develop normative criteria for their school, though none of it has ever really taken hold. This is perhaps why the Austrian School, as opposed to the neo-classical Chicago School, never had much influence over the law and economics movement. Without the ability to transcend the “is,” it couldn’t gain away over brilliant legal professors who—unlike the rest of us—always know the “ought.”
Strange then that so many Austrian economists, almost all of whom are epigones of Mises or Hayek, spend so much time wagging their fingers at fellow economists, lawyers, and politicians over economic policy. Despite being deprived of any right to speak of the “ought” on purely economic grounds, the Austrians continue to push for the usual menu of libertarian reforms: deregulation, limited-to-no taxation, ostensibly neutral rules affecting the economy, and so on and so forth. On what possible normative basis do they stand to make their claims? It is only after importing rickety liberal ideology, the sort which exalts individualism and personal freedom above the common good (or identifies the two with it), can they start to say something substantive about how society, particularly its economic structures, ought to be organized.
Stranger still that so many Catholics, like those associated with the Acton Institute, would be drawn to Austrianism. Setting aside the fact that the Austrian School has been marginalized by the economics profession as a whole, shouldn’t Catholics—of all people—have some worries about a school within a discipline which, by its own pure self-understanding, cannot transcend the “is” to arrive at the “ought”? Or do those Catholics who adhere to Austrianism believe that it is their duty to supply the “ought,” this time not form liberal ideology but rather from a warped understanding of both the natural-law tradition and the Church’s social magisterium? Or perhaps that’s just window dressing meant to distract from the vacuity of Austrian-style economics while drawing unsuspecting Catholics into the belief that markets will save the world. What a grisly state of affairs that would be.
Thomas Storck has a new piece up over at Ethika Politika, “The Catholic and the Modern Loss of Purpose.” In it, Storck takes aim at the vacuousness of modern economic thinking while calling on Catholics to “reorient our thinking to see ourselves, and indeed the entire trajectory of history with the Catholic understanding of nature and purpose[.]” Here is a sampling of Storck’s critique of economics.
All that economists have to see is this man selling and that man buying, this man producing and that man consuming. They are simply facts, facts from which we can discover how to buy most cheaply or sell most dearly or produce and consume the most. Wealth, however obtained, for whatever end and in whatever amount, is the purpose of economic activity. If I can make money producing a good or service, so long as it is legal, I need never ask if the community really needs the things that I make, or if they are not in fact harmful to it, or if I am otherwise destroying any of the higher goods that pertain to the community.
This understanding of economic life is possible only because men were first convinced that the purpose of economic activity is whatever an individual wants to make it, that it has no inherent purpose to which one must in humility submit. And that view is only possible because Western civilization had already decided that things have no inherent nature. There is no standard by which to judge any economic action because there is no purpose inherent in them, and they have no purpose because they have no nature.
Be sure to read the entire article. And while you’re at it, take a moment to check out Storck’s latest book, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond, which is now available from Angelico Press. I am currently in the midst of reading it and will be reviewing its contents in due course.
Contrary to what some have murmured about in other forums, the previous two posts on Fr. John Meyendorff’s views concerning Catholic marriage and contraception were not intended as cheap shots against the Eastern Orthodox, nor were they meant to be read as easygoing vindications of contemporary Catholic praxis. As I have stated before, the Catholic Church has little-to-no “moral high ground” on the Orthodox with respect to marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, and sexual ethics as a whole. No one should triumphalistically wave the text of Humane Vitae in the air without first acknowledging that most Catholics ignore it. Similarly, the days of condescending digs at the Orthodox over marriage dissolutions should be over, particularly in light of the fact that Pope Francis has cleared a pathway for “Catholic divorce.” Although I believe that Fr. Meyendorff was mistaken on certain points of Catholic doctrine, and exhibited a strange lack of knowledge concerning the natural-law tradition, that hardly means I think less of him as a serious scholar. His works on classical Byzantine theology, St. Gregory Palamas, and East/West relations should be required reading for any serious student of Eastern Christianity.
All thinkers have faults of course, and Meyendroff was no exception. Fr. Peter Totleben, whose contributions to this blog are always welcome, had this to say in the combox to “Meyendorff on Roman Catholic Marriage“:
A typical pattern that you see in the works of Meyendorff (especially when he is critical of Western practices) is that he takes a term, a tag, or a catch-phrase that strikes him as odd, gives it his own meaning, and then criticizes it in terms of the meaning he has given it. So he can be a bit hard to engage.
There are also some problems with Meyendorff’s historical work. He’s usually invested in a particular “side” in the historical events that he investigates. And he doesn’t really take the positions of other sides seriously. He usually is too trusting of his own party’s evaluations of its opponents, and he uncritically repeats them as if they were objective summaries of the state of affairs. And he never really consults what the opponents of his side have to say.
So, reading Meyendorff can sometimes be like letting Rush Limbaugh explain democrats to you . . .
Yesterday’s brief post on Fr. John Meyendorff’s controversial remarks on Roman Catholic marriage prompted me to poke around a bit more in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Here is what Meyendorff has to say on the contraception question.
Recent Roman Catholic teaching also recommends periodic continence, but forbids the “artificial” means, such as the “pill.” But is there a real difference between the means called “artificial” and those considered “natural”? Is continence really “natural”? Is not any medical control of human functions “artificial”? Should it therefore be condemned as sinful? And finally, a serious theological question: is anything “natural” necessarily “good”? For even St. Paul saw that continence can lead to “burning.” Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health?
Straight condemnation of birth-control fails to give satisfactory answers to all these questions. It has never been endorsed by the Orthodox Church as a whole, even if, at times, local Church authorities may have issued statements on the matter identical to that of the Pope. In any case, it has never been the Church’s practice to give moral guidance by issuing standard formulas claiming universal validity on questions which actually require a personal act of conscience. There are forms of birth control which will be acceptable, and even unavoidable, for certain couples, while others will prefer avoiding them. This is particularly true of the “pill.”
A Facebook friend of mine posted a controversial passage from Fr. John Meyendorff’s Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Here is the quote, along with some prefatory sentences he omitted.
Many confusions and misunderstandings concerning marriage in our contemporary Orthodox practice would be easily eliminated if the original connection between marriage and the Eucharist were restored. Theoretically, Orthodox sacramental theology, even in its scholastic, textbook form, has preserved this connection in affirming, in opposition to Roman Catholicism, that the priest is the ‘minister’ of marriage. Western medieval theology, on the contrary, has created a series of confusions by adopting, as in so many other points Roman legalism as the basis of sacramental theology: marriage, being a ‘contract’, is concluded by the husband and wife themselves, who are therefore the ‘ministers’ of the sacrament, the priest being only a witness. As a legal contract, marriage is dissolved by the death of one of the partners, but it is indissoluble as long as both are alive. Actually, indissolubility i.e., a legal concept taken as an absolute is the main, if not the only, contribution of Christianity to the Roman Catholic concept of marriage. Broken by death, assimilated with a human agreement, marriage, in the prevailing Western view, is only an earthly affair, concerned with the body, unworthy of entering the Kingdom of God. One can even wonder whether marriage, so understood, can still be called a sacrament. But, by affirming that the priest is the minister of the marriage, as he is also the minister of the Eucharist, the Orthodox Church implicitly integrates marriage in the eternal Mystery, where the boundaries between heaven and earth are broken and where human decision and action acquire an eternal dimension.
In the 40 years since Meyendorff penned those lines there have been various attempts within Catholicism to “correct” the idea of marriage-as-contract and adopt an ostensibly more Eastern take on the supernatural end of marriage rather than droning-on exclusively about the begetting and rearing of children. Even so, Latin “contractual theology” regarding marriage remains the prevailing view. It is so prevalent in fact that we have reached a point where a pope can (allegedly) say that more than half of Catholic marriages are invalid on the basis of the partners’ inability to form the proper intention to make a sacramental pact. Had Latin Catholicism adopted the Eastern view, whereby the priest is the minister of the sacrament, it would be far more difficult — if not impossible — to claim that any more than a relative handful of Catholic marriages are in fact invalid. Although Roman Catholics still enjoy lobbing stones at the Orthodox for allowing marriages to be dissolved, arguably the Eastern view of the sacrament better protects its integrity than the dominant Latin one. (And before anyone flies into a huff, I in no way, shape, or form reject fixed Catholic doctrine on marriage.)
Of course, one ought to take some of Meyendorff’s remarks with a grain of salt. As my aforementioned Facebook friend observed — and any Orthodox Christian can confirm — , Orthodox marriage ceremonies take place outside of the context of the Divine Liturgy all of the time. Reception of the Eucharist is not an “essential element” of the rite. Moreover, mixed marriages never include the non-Orthodox spouse receiving Communion. And as Meyendorff himself states elsewhere in the book, Roman Catholic marriages are typically celebrated with the Mass, which seems to splash at least a bit of cold water on Meyendorff’s hyper-contractualist retelling of Latin sacramental theology regarding marriage. Still, one can rightly speculate about the general effect the Latin view has had on the popular Catholic understanding of marriage and whether or not it may have something to do with the anthropocentric — rather than Christocentric — approach many couples take to the wedding ceremony itself. Contemporary Catholic weddings, by and large, have a great deal to do with the couple and very little to do with God.