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.

Monday Mumbling

A Catholic writer who runs a fairly well-trafficked Latin traditionalist website recently tried to rebuke me on social media for inordinately focusing on “things Eastern” vis-à-vis the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church when, so the argument goes, Pope Francis is systematically destroying the Latin Church (which, as we all know, is the dominant form of Catholicism today). This came in response to my rhetorical question over whether or not the same traditional Catholics who are upset over Francis’s recent intervention into the affairs of the Knights of Malta would holler as loudly if the Pope moved to impose clerical celibacy on the Eastern Catholic churches. Clerical celibacy, mind you, was just an example; I could just as easily used azymes. My point was not to discuss the issue of clerical celibacy but to highlight a certain myopia which exists within the Catholic Church (particularly among traditionalists) when it comes to the Christian East, particularly Eastern Catholics who, for centuries, have had to endure incessant incursions into their proper autonomy from Rome for largely indefensible reasons. Why are these incursions—which still transpire today—acceptable but the one against Malta not?

As a Greek Catholic, I have no love for what Pope Francis is doing to the Latin Church; but I believe in consistency. If it is beyond the pale for the Ordinary of Rome to meddle with longstanding constructs of sovereignty, to say nothing of traditional disciplines and norms of the Latin Church, then why should the East ever be fair game for any interference from the West? Granted, most traditional Latin Catholics don’t think on such things, just as they don’t pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary either.

Now, before people start jumping down my throat claiming that I am unfairly picking on Latin Catholics, let me remind everyone reading that I am equally critical of Eastern myopia, particularly when that myopia leads to emptyheaded triumphalism. This is not an exclusively Eastern Orthodox phenomenon, mind you. Plenty of Eastern Catholics—cradle or otherwise—love reveling in the apparent differences (read: deficiencies) found within Latin Catholicism compared to the allegedly “pure East.” For some of those coming from the Byzantine tradition in particular, anything which is not “Byzantine” immediately becomes suspect, if not presumptively aberrant or heretical. Such folks also rejoice at finding instances where the Latin West broke with some (allegedly) “unbroken” tradition from the first millennium, but howl in agony when a Latin notes the many instances where the Byzantines did the same. Undoubtedly the most contentious example of this breaking involves the Eastern Orthodox condoning the practice of second (and even third) marriages when the first spouse is still living—a rather late development that emerged from the conflation of Byzantine (Roman) civil and ecclesiastical law. Make mention of this inconvenient historical truth as a Greek Catholic and be prepared to be called a “Latinizer.”

At some point one has to realize this is all very silly (if not terribly sad). There is no form of triumphalism on this earth that is in any way, shape, or form defensible. Moreover, in a day and age where mankind’s historical horizon stretches to unprecedented lengths, the ignorance which certain bands of Apostolic Christians cling to for dear life are as lamentable as they are perverse. The Church neither began in 1563 nor ended in 1054. Our Lord Jesus Christ had 12 Apostles, not one. No one thought until recent centuries that pious devotions ranging from Novenas to Akathists should displace the Divine Office. Oh, and by the way, “thought” is not a late-medieval Scholastic innovation, either.

Ephemera XVIII: I Will Not Divide You

He Will Not Divide Us (HWNDU), the unity-art project spearheaded in part by the habitually underwhelming actor Shia LaBeuof, is paying some of the best comedic dividends of 2017. Launched on January 20, HWNDU is a live stream camera positioned outside of the Museum of Moving Image in New York; visitors are encouraged to chant, “He will not divide us!” repeatedly for the next four years in response to Donald Trump’s Presidency. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for Internet trolls over at 4chan and other online forums to begin popping up on the feed, spouting everything from white-supremacist rhetoric to calls to retake Constantinople from the Turks. LaBeuof even managed to get himself arrested for assaulting a man live on camera that he believed was a Trump supporter. For an insomniac such as myself, the feed has been a beloved source of entertainment over the past few days, particularly after 1am EST when the trolls really start to come out. Granted, I would not call their behavior edifying, but the entire project — which is childish, vain, and, ironically enough, divisive to the core — was just asking for something like this to happen. And though HWNDU supporters are calling the trolls “neo-Nazis” despite the fact many of them appear to be either Asian or Hispanic, it stands to reason that most just see this as a splendid opportunity for 15 minutes of Internet fame. In this day and age, what more can anyone ask for?

For those who care, I have not given up on my “A Year of 100 Books” project; I just haven’t had time to post updates lately. After my bout with Eire’s Reformations, I am giving myself the grace to take my foot off the pedal for a bit. The problem now confronting me is what to read. Several times now I have found myself staring at my bookshelves (and mountains of books stacked up around my shelves) wondering what I ought to tackle next. Part of me wants to avoid thematic reading, but that’s hard to avoid. There isn’t a single book to be read which doesn’t call to mind a half-dozen more that I should get around to. I had thought of scribbling down 25-30 titles, placing them into a hat, and pulling from there. Knowing my luck, however, every tome I selected would be lengthy and, really, it would take me weeks to settle on a list of candidates. Better to just look-and-grab for now.

“Are you ever going to do anything in aviation law again?” An acquaintance asked me this question the other week. I quickly replied, “No . . . well . . . maybe?” It has been over two  years since Cambridge University Press published my book, The Principles and Practice of International Aviation Law, and I have had little desire to pen another word about it outside of a few random blog posts and a contribution to The National Interest. Whenever I take a glance at aviation legal scholarship, I find myself feeling much like I did when I started writing my book: underwhelmed. Though certain aviation-law aficionados took umbrage with my claim that the aviation law field is woefully under-theorized and most aviation scholarship remains unimpressive, no one has actively tried to overturn either thesis. They would prefer to leave the nasty truth alone rathe than confront it head on. After all, there are careers at stake, and if those outside of the narrow circle of aviation-law scholars knew the truth about the banality of the field, they may opt to either overtake it or perhaps even bury it. So it goes. Despite my initial protestations to the contrary, there is a part of me that feels I will go to the grave believing that aviation law, as a particular subject of study, is as absurd as the “law of the horse” that Judge Frank Easterbrook mocked so many years ago.

Part of me feels like I should say something about the ongoing Knights of Malta/Pope Francis debacle. I will limit myself to this observation. The alleged usurpation of the largely symbolic Military Order of Malta’s sovereignty by the Pope pales in comparison to the usurpation of authority the sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches have endured at the hands of the Pope and other Roman authorities for centuries. Thankfully, after more than a century of calls for the Eastern churches to effectively be themselves by governing themselves from top to bottom, things have started to change, though there is still a great deal of work to do. Latin Catholics who are concerned about the Pope meddling in the affairs of his own particular church should be doubly, even triply, critical when the Pope wandering into the jurisdictional space of other churches. It rarely causes anything but trouble. Maybe when some Eastern patriarch or another starts issuing highly ambiguous exhortations that appear to give his clerics license to commune those living in objective mortal sin, it will be necessary — following an appeal — for the successor to St. Peter to step in lest scandal and schism break loose throughout the Mystical Body of Christ. Let us pray such a day never comes.

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.

Y100B: Reformations

Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale University Press 2016, 920pgs.)

What can I say about Reformations that Eamon Duffy didn’t cover in his outstanding review, “The End of Christendom“?  Despite its considerable heft, one thought ran through my head after I finished each chapter: I have to read this again. Eire’s prose is neither dense nor intentionally complicated; but the sheer array of material he draws effortlessly together cannot be digested in a single run through a book which, I pray, every thoughtful Catholic sits down with in this, the 500th sorrowful anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolt against the Church. Why these reform movements broke out across Europe and what they left in their wake are at the heart of Eire’s analysis, as his sobering account of the decrepit state of the Church in the 16th Century. Catholics, particularly traditional Catholics, are unlikely to be comfortable with much of what Eire has to say about that. Good. Romanticizing the past cannot help anyone prepare for the future or, for that matter, deal with the present.

The Concept of Progress

The concept of progress, i.e., an improvement or completion (in modern jargon, a rationalization) became dominant in the eighteenth century, in an age of humanitarian-moral belief. Accordingly, progress meant above all progress in culture, self-determination, and education: moral perfection. In an age of economic or technical thinking, it is self-evident that progress is economic or technical progress. To the extent that anyone is still interested in humanitarian-moral progress, it appears as a byproduct of economic progress. If a domain of thought becomes central, then the problems of other domains are solved in terms of the central domain – they are considered secondary problems, whose solution follows as a matter of course only if the problems of the central domain are solved.

– Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 

In an unintentional manner, Schmitt summarizes well not just the concept of progress generally, but — unintentionally — the ethos of think-tanks such as The Mises Institute, The Cato Institute, and even the Catholic-backed Acton Institute. It is the ethos of the so-called “Washington Consensus” that emerged after 1989, the consensus which gave us the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and a global investment regime that erodes national sovereignty in the name of economic improvement. “Spread the wealth” via “free trade” and everything will fall into place: peace, security, stability, “human rights,” etc. How quickly has that dream, that myth, unraveled in the wake of the terrible realization that human souls cannot be placated with “stuff” and a life infused with meaning, even demonic meaning, has more power to move mountains than the wealth of every global elite combined.

Watching Silence with Protestants

Just to be clear, this is not a formal review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is being released nationwide today. Quite by accident, I had the opportunity last night to attend a preview screening of the film hosted by John Loeks, Jr., the owner and operator of the highly successful Celebration Cinema theater chain in West Michigan. The screening, which was attended primarily by Protestants of various stripes and featured an after-viewing discussion facilitated by Calvin College’s Carl Plantinga, provided not only an opportunity for me to witness how a master filmmaker handled one of the most unsettling and contentious novels I have ever read, but a chance to see first-hand how emaciated American Protestantism has become. Keep in mind that West Michigan is no secular outlier; it is home to both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America, along with countless evangelical sects and mega-churches. As recently as a decade or so ago, West Michigan was identified as the second most conservative area in the United States—just behind Salt Lake City, Utah. Whatever our faults (and there are plenty of them), a lack of Jesus isn’t one of them.

In both my casual conservations with the screening’s attendees and the audience-wide discussion itself, I found myself unsettled by how easily the heroic ideal of mission is reduced to a vague notion of “service.” One audience member, who not surprisingly is involved in interfaith dialogue, declaredly proudly that the message of Silence is about setting aside pride, particularly the pride of believing one knows “the truth.” In absolute defiance of the film’s brutal depiction of heroic martyrdom, this gentleman lauded the “enlightenment” of contemporary missionaries who go abroad not to “convince others” but to engage in public works. While missionary activity has long been connected with education, charitable giving, and even bottom-up social renewal, at the heart of all true missionary activity—particularly the Tridentine missionary activity of the Society of Jesus in the 16th and 17th centuries—is the salvation of souls. I dare say that some thought I was an alien from another world when I suggested that Jesuits once went forth to win souls for Christ, not spread multiculturalism.

If the aforementioned gentleman’s comments were an aberration, I’d think nothing of it. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Almost without exception, every audience remark was pregnant with religious liberalism and the belief that Scorsese’s movie—just like the novel it is based on—gloriously preaches indifferentism. How that shoddy interpretation squares with the martyric witness of simple peasants is quite beyond me. Beyond me as well is the sense that many in the audience got that Endo’s story is about the spreading of neutered Christianity unmoored from a concrete Church rather than Catholicism. And at least on this point, one audience member (a professor at Calvin College) suggested that the movie’s meaning is likely to be more apparent to Catholics than Protestants. In replying to her, I was tempted to say something about iconoclasts, but I resisted.

There’s no need for me to repeat every scandalous opinion put forth. However, after leaving the theater, I spent a good 15-30 minutes going over the film in my head, wondering if I hadn’t been too quick to read the Catholic Faith into a film that many apparently understood as a lesson in why it’s important to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” around a campfire rather than ask the only question ever worth asking, “What think ye of Christ?”

Although subsequent viewings may dislodge this belief, I remain convinced that whether by accident, design, or a bit of both, Scorsese’s Silence is neither an apologia for apostasy nor panegyric to cultural relativism. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy film. Some concerned Catholics have suggested the film, like the book, is theologically dangerous—and to some extent they’re right. Any artistic achievement that attempts to wrestle with the most difficult tenets of the Faith risks obscuring more than it clarifies. By raising difficult questions without ready-made, manulist answers, Silence inadvertently invites idiotic replies. But more than that, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of faith and the hard truth that God’s apparent silence is more often than not our obstinate refusal to listen.