Ephemera V

The pace of life on the Internet is brisk. Earlier today I wrote a few words on the “Tradinista Collective” and its attempt to craft what they call a “Catholic socialism.” Just a few hours later, Chase Padusniak, writing over at Patheos, weighed-in on the matter while also (gently) disagreeing with yours truly. That’s fine. Padusniak is right to point out that socialism comes in many shapes and sizes, though at some point one has to ask if a particular economic ordo is still socialist if it has been defined down to, say, the economic platform of the Democratic Party. Whatever one makes of the Tradinista version of socialism, I have to wonder why they bothered using the word socialism at all. Perhaps this is because I know some of the gentlemen involved with the Tradinista venture and therefore have a sneaking suspicion that the entire endeavor is an attempt to posture cool for Leftists who generally have very little time for the Catholic Church or her teachings. Words matter, and at the end of the day wouldn’t it be better for an enterprise which claims to be Catholic to distance itself as much as possible from an ideology freighted with a long history of problems, both moral and practical? Part of me wonders how people might react if someone pushed for “Catholic National Socialism” before being compelled to pen thousands of words on how this form of Nazism skirts past that other form of Nazism the Church clearly condemns. But I digress . . .

Pepe the Frog has been designated a hate symbol by the ACLU. The alt-right must be overjoyed. What started as an obnoxious gag on 4chan has spilled into one of the most surreal side-stories of this election cycle. Is this how the hypocrisy of “liberal tolerance” will finally be revealed on the grand stage? That a cartoon frog edited to look like Adolph Hitler (and Donald Trump) can generate this much mainstream attention is something to behold. I have no doubt that the same liberals who wept openly on social media for Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and called freedom of speech one of the cornerstones of Western civilization are among those persecuting poor Pepe. What the ACLU and other Pepe haters don’t seem to understand is that the more offended they get, the more convinced the trolls at 4chan and other alt-righters are that they have won. Not only have these cyber miscreants taken the Pepe the Frog meme back from so-called “normies” (i.e., everyday Internet users), they have turned him into a national sensation by getting mainline defenders of “liberal rights” to condemn him. Amazing.

Speaking of the election cycle, I took time out from my weekly viewing of WWE Monday Night Raw to watch the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (Given RAW‘s abysmally low rating this week, it looks like a lot of other fans of the sport of professional wrestling joined me.) I’ll be honest. I paid almost no attention to substance and instead assessed the entire spectacle on style and presentation alone. Clinton was arguably better prepared than Trump for the questions that would be asked, but her delivery was flat, rehearsed, and uninspiring. Trump, who did himself no favors by trying to shoot from the hip, did an okay job playing the “Strong Man” he wants the American public to see him as, but my sense is that he didn’t do anything to win over moderates and other on-the-fence voters. Assuming Trump keeps his improvisational style going into the next debate, Clinton would be wise to hang back and let The Donald hang himself with his own words. The electorate may not care all that much about fact checking; they will, however, pick up on Trump’s noticeable stumbling when pressed on foreign-policy issues that he clearly knows very little about.

Oh, and speaking of the debate, I must say the biggest howler of the night (for me) was when Clinton said she would appoint a special prosecutor to enforce U.S. trade deals with foreign countries. How, I wonder, does she plan to pull that off? The World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement, for instance, is not enforced in national courts of law; it is enforced through transnational adjudication under the auspices of the WTO itself. Moreover, many smaller trade agreements, such as the numerous bilateral air services agreements the U.S. holds with most countries in the world, have no express adjudicatory mechanism — and they don’t need one. If, for example, Canada starts limiting the rights of American Airlines to access its airports, the U.S. can impose reciprocal restrictions on Air Canada, and so forth. And when adhering to a treaty reaches a full breakdown point, one or both parties will simply denounce it and, presumably, return to the negotiating table. This is nothing new; it happens all of the time. That is how international law “works” — legalism not required.

Hart Contra Acton

I couldn’t say for sure, but were I a betting man I’d put my chips behind the possibility that David Bentley Hart doesn’t look kindly on the Acton Institute and its ongoing attempt to fuse social, political, and economic liberalism with Christianity. In a new article for Commonweal, Hart briefly reviews the fallout from his First Thing piece on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ before going into detail why he believes capitalism and the Gospel are at odds. Here’s an excerpt:

The final stage of my work on [translating the New Testament] coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values. Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

The Gregg pieces in question are typical Actonite rehashes of trick-down economic ideology; the glories of capitalism (and the woes of “crony capitalism”); and the compatibility of economic liberalism and Christianity. Hart — being Eastern Orthodox — is not bound to the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, though he arguably comes closer to following it than a professed Catholic like Gregg or Acton’s head-honcho, Fr. Robert Sirico. Where Hart is likely to raise some eyebrows is in his implicit suggestion that Christ’s teaching — and the witness of the Apostles — points to a form of Christian communism with wealth being condemned absolutely. Hart doesn’t have much interest in tethering himself to the development of Christian social doctrine nor, for that matter, engaging in that time-honored Orthodox practice of “appealing to the Fathers.” (He does, after all, have some brief but pointed words for St. Clement of Alexandria, who attempted to make the Gospel mesh with the conventions of his time.) Regardless, Hart’s retelling of the early Church’s admonishment of wealth is worth reflecting on, if only because it stands in such sharp contrast to the manner in which most Christians live their lives. Catholics like to speak a great deal about “avoiding the occasion of sin” but have almost nothing meaningful to say about doing so regarding riches. Instead, what we normally receive are finger-wagging reminders from men who make six figures a year about how even the poor today have it “better off” than the poor a century ago and even a man struggling to keep his family together working two jobs can also make an idol out of his earnings.

Creeping, Sliding, Ignoring

Jessica M. Murdo, a professor of theology at Villanova University, has a timely article up over at First Things entitled “Creeping Infallibility.” In it, she attempts to set the record straight concerning the various magisterial “layers” one finds in the Church and pushes back against the trend whereby an increasing number of lower level papal documents are given undue weight. Arguably, this “pushback” has been going on for some time, though there is a great deal of disagreement out there over when and where that’s appropriate. For instance, traditional Catholics have been pushing back against the “creeping infallibility” of the Second Vatican Council for half-a-century; their neo-Catholic critics claim that this is beyond the pale. Neo-Catholics, particularly those enamored with political and economic liberalism (e.g., Acton Institute), regularly push back against the possibility that any papal document can speak authoritatively on socio-economic matters unless it first conforms to the tenets of “economic science” (whatever that means). When Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was issued, Fr. Robert Sirico — the head of Acton — was quick to remind everyone that exhortations carry less magisterial weight than encyclicals and that it’s not clear that Catholics need to follow the Holy Father when he speaks about things economic.

Truth be told, the on-the-ground reality in the Catholic Church is that most of the would-be faithful live by a “sliding-scale magisterium” where those parts they like are exalted and those they do not are belittled, if not ignored outright. Neo-Catholics who love ecumenism treat certain documents from Vatican II as sacrosanct but have absolutely no time for the long list of papal and ecclesial condemnations of heresies, schisms, and false religions. When pressed on this point, these Catholics will claim that doctrine “has developed,” as if “development” means a new theological outgrowth can fully cover, nay, replace the trunk from which it allegedly spawned. To be fair, one should not ignore the opposite tendency, championed in some sectors of the traditional Catholic world, to ignore in full the Church’s post-Vatican II magisterium or even much of what happened in the Universal Church prior to the Council of Trent. Traditionalists, for better or worse, have a tendency to absolutize the magisterium as articulated by the 19th and early 20th Century popes as if the Church began and ended there.

For Eastern Catholics, the situation is even more confusing. While it stands to reason that a majority of Eastern Catholics believe they hold to the Faith as articulated in, say, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, there exists a noticeable contingent — the so-called “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” — who have no problem playing de facto sedevacantist when it comes to the Roman Pontiff. That is, they blissfully ignore as authoritative almost everything the Pope says because he is not, according to them, “their bishop.” Moreover, this same crowd openly treats most post-1054 councils as “local councils of the Latin Church” which lack binding authority over Eastern Christians. Their vision of the Church is “Orthodox” insofar as they embrace the East’s confederate model of governance. The fact that the Catholic Church, as recently as both Vatican Councils, rejects this approach is of little-to-no consequence, and if one tells the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” otherwise, they will scream and howl that  they are being oppressed by “Latin innovations.”

From an outsider’s perspective, particularly an Eastern Orthodox one, this all must look terribly ironic. After all, one of the biggest charges Catholics have brought to bear against the Orthodox is that the latter lack doctrinal and governmental unity. While this is true, it’s equally true that the Catholic hierarchy, with their magisterial statements on faith and morals, has not done a particularly good job shepherding their flocks and leading them on the sure path to holiness. It is not difficult to see why certain Orthodox apologists call Catholicism to the carpet for “developing” ways out of its own teaching. The ongoing nonsense involving Amoris Laetitia is just one more in a long line of examples of Catholicism — by Orthodox lights — shifting gears while still claiming to maintain the Apostolic Faith.

Ephemera IV

I know I sound like a broken record, but every time I come across a “1954 v. 1962” liturgical books squabble among traditional Latin Catholics, I want to cry (with laughter). Nobody in their right mind has ever claimed that the “1962 books” are superior to those which were normative in 1954 or earlier; they have merely defended them from the accusation that they are “corrupt” or “harmful” or “theologically dangerous,” etc. What amuses me is how certain “pro-1954” folk speak of the great integrity of the Byzantine Rite to help bolster their claim that the abbreviations instituted first by Pope Pius XII and then by John XXIII are abominations in the eyes of the Lord. Step into any Orthodox or Greek Catholic parish in the world and all you will find are services which have been abbreviated (sometimes rather clumsily and arbitrarily). Even monastic usage contains cuts here n’ there to offices such as Matins or the All-Night Vigil. Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t elements of the “1962 books” which should be reconsidered and revised. Some of the abbreviations instituted make little sense, and the “new” Holy Week Rite is atrocious compared with the original. All things in due course.

Have you watched the video Anointed, produced by the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer (F.SS.R.) in honor of one of the congregation’s founders, Fr. Anthony Mary, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood? If not, you should. For those unaware, the F.SS.R. (sometimes referred to as the Transalpine Redemptorists) is a traditional order of priests living a semi-monastic life on the isle of Papa Stronsay in northern Scotland. As their name indicates, they are spiritually descended from the Redemptorist tradition established by St. Alphonus Liguori in the 18th Century and carried forth by such great saints of the Church as Gerhard Majella, John Neumann, Clement Hofbauer, and Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky. Whether you are of Western or Eastern persuasion, the video is well worth spending some time with.

I don’t often go to the movies, but several weeks ago my brother and I went to see Hell or High Water, the heist film which is generating overwhelmingly positive reviews. Some, however, have criticized the movie for glorifying robbery and making bankers out to be a cadre of predators seeking to rob honest, hard-working people of their property and livelihood. The latter charge doesn’t really strike me as too far from the mark, and besides the movie sets this form of legalized theft against the backdrop of the even greater acts of theft which secured the West for America’s white citizenry well more than a century ago. While it may be cliché to speak of a film containing “shades of grey,” this one certainly does. If there is a true hero to be found amidst the desperation and panic that drives Hell or High Water, it is Jeff Bridges’s Texas Ranger, and even by the end he is tempted by lawlessness as a means to do right in an unforgiving, morally indifferent world.

Dylan Pahman, the Acton Institute’s resident Orthodox apologist for free-market capitalism, is back preaching that old-time liberal religion in his most recent article for Public Orthodoxy, “Orthodox Theology and Economic Reality.” Like many of Pahman’s pieces, this one is shot through with a number of strange assertions, the most startling being his claim that the Orthodox “lack any serious engagement with the insights of modern economic science.” Whatever does Pahman mean by “economic science”? A brief perusal through Acton’s archives—and Pahman’s own writings—reveals that “economic science” actually means the heterodox claims of the so-called “Austrian School,” a marginalized economic ideology that eschews empiricism and falsifiability. Nowhere does Pahman make mention that the Russian Orthodox Church has spoken forcefully on economic matters—including condemning global capitalism—as recently as a few months ago. It’s a shame that the real failure evident in Pahman’s writings is his unwillingness to engage honestly and openly with his own ecclesiastic tradition.

Robinson on Staying Orthodox

Steve Robinson, the great wit and honest soul behind the sadly defunct Pithless Thoughts web-log, returned to his Ancient Faith Radio podcast earlier this year. Robinson’s “re-debut” came accompanied with a moving, albeit general, account of where he had been spiritually for the past few years. His latest installment, “Staying Orthodox,” provides one of the best accounts I have ever encountered about why people convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and how to stay there. Robinson’s reflection on these sensitive matters is open and non-polemical, which is as refreshing as it is rare. Many of Robinson’s thoughts can be applied to the experience of converts to Catholicism, particularly those who entered the Catholic Church during the comparatively steady reign of Pope Benedict XVI and now find themselves being thrown about in the sea of chaos which is the Pontificate of Francis. Some, however, are fairly limited to the unique challenges which attend to trying to be a first-best Orthodox Christian amidst a second-best reality.

Personally speaking, I cannot identify directly with Robinson’s book-based or intellectual conversion experience because for me, becoming Orthodox was more like switching teams between divisions after a prolonged period on the Disabled List rather than going from the American League to the National League (or even to another sport altogether). With that said, I quickly shared Robinson’s affinity for attempting to grasp the ways and means of Orthodoxy through thick theological tomes, collections of spiritual writings from ages past, and a scrupulous understanding of canons, customs, and cockamamie spiritual advice. Robinson, having seen much more of “on-the-ground” Orthodoxy than I ever did, fought the good fight to stay faithful to his conversion as long as he could before realizing that retreating away from the beauty and banality, greatness and grotesqueness, and surety and senselessness of the Orthodox Church was the only option he had left.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to spoil Robinson’s account any further, and there is no way I can recreate the power of words which so clearly emanated from his heart. Although I share a different confessional commitment than Robinson, I can sympathize with what he has gone through and the great trials any man must undergo to follow their conscience amidst the confusion of the present age.

Thy Precepts Are a Light Upon the Earth

I don’t always listen to Fr. Patrick Reardon’s podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, All Saints Homilies, but I probably should. If you, dear readers, have never given Fr. Patrick’s sermons a listen, then let me suggest you go out of your way to sample one in particular, “And Leave the Rest to God.” Billed at the beginning as a reflection on the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Fr. Patrick’s homily is a bit more than that. It is, as the official summary has it, a “look[ ] at God’s providence with respect to three things: our sin, the moral order, and our conduct.”

There is much to be said about this homily, though I fear I can neither its profundity nor seriousness the justice they deserve. What became clear to me in listening to it is how far down the consequentialist path we have tread, and by “we” I don’t mean “the world” (as if we are not in it) but rather ourselves as Christians. Bombarded regularly as I am with elaborate (and many not-so-elaborate) justifications for participating in a socio-political order that is as false as it is evil from fellow Catholics, many of whom are very well-meaning, it is remarkable to hear an Orthodox cleric get right what we so painfully get wrong on a daily basis.