Author: Gabriel Sanchez

It’s Raining in Grand Rapids

The New York Review of Books has a new essay up by Sue Halpern reviewing a recent documentary on Julian Assange. Proactively titled “The Nihilism of Julian Assange,” Halpern—through frequent references to the film—isn’t a big fan of Mr. Assange. In fact, she appears to downright despise him, which only makes sense since Assange, much to the chagrin of the Left, helped cost Hillary Clinton the American Presidency through a series of calibrated leaks. When Assange was releasing documents that embarrassed conservatives and exposed American misdeeds at home and abroad, he was a hero, a man of principles that risked all for the greater good. Now Assange is an unprincipled monster, an opportunist who keeps company with toxic nationalists like Nigel Farage, neo-Nazis in Australia, and allies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. As her praise of Edward Snowden reveals, Halpern is all for leaking classified material, just as long as it helps the “right causes.”

This is not surprising. Over the years, (in)famous leakers like Assange and Snowden have been praised or demonized across the political spectrum. When their work shows how liberal democracy is being compromised, then praise be; but if their work—specifically the work of Assange—apparently undermines the democratic process, then there are not enough condemnatory phrases in the English language available. While sideline legalists have various opinions on what, if any, laws a leaker like Assange has violated, it’s doubtful that his work will stop anytime soon. What’s unclear at this point is if that work will continue to assist the political Right or provide some new cover for the Left. Maybe it will be a bit of both. Either way, democratic legitimacy will continue to be bruised as those holding the reins of power are shown to be the hypocrites, opportunists, and unscrupulous careerists many already suspect.

And why is this a bad thing? Only those still wedded to a belief that liberal democracy has been anything other than a manifest failure should want to see it stand; those with eyes to see are starting to anticipate its long overdue demise. The worry in the air is, “What comes next?” And this is something leakers like Assange cannot assist in answering. The gulf between providing shocking intelligence and proposing a way ahead is radically wide. Assange and other leakers can unsettle the foundations; it is up to those exhausted by the Enlightenment’s lies to start writing the next chapter of the West. And to do that in a manner which is detached from the tenets of liberalism will be an impossible task so long as people insist on keeping some vestiges of the liberal order. Such reformist impulses are understandable, but betrays an absence of nerve and a lack of vision.

This a point missed by secular anti-liberals who believe the imminent plane can be transformed without reference to the transcendent. Talentless to the core, they advocate for steady-to-progressive reform that will meet their personal needs rather than accord with any higher conception of right. Whether motivated by fear or some base desire, those committed to a secular worldview have nothing to propose but ideas that will fail under all circumstances. No commitment to change, no longing for what must come after liberalism, can be actualized if it is motivated by little more than what makes us anxious in this life. Indeed, that is a pathway back to liberalism, as Leo Strauss demonstrated in his review of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. Fear, specifically fear of a violent death, becomes the basis for liberalism—an order that makes no demands while providing living space for frivolity, distraction, and discussion. Death is the foreclosure of existence-as-entertainment, not the pathway to eternity.

Looking for Antiques Near Sedevacantists

I am not a professional antique hunter; in fact, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it entails other than walking into stores, looking around, and waiting for something to catch my eye. More often than not, this results in a series of failed endeavors where some anxious owner of a small town shop puts his hopes of making a sale on me and I inevitably disappoint. If more of these enterprises sold bottled water or cigarettes, I would at least provide them a courtesy purchase. Instead, I typically find myself hoping another customer enters the premises so I can bolt for the door, walk briskly down the sidewalk to the car, and never look back. Similar scenarios involving yours truly have been played out at used booksellers, record stores, and comic book shops across the land.

Today’s tale, which went down with nothing in the way of either a successful purchase or the need to make a hasty exit (the shop owner paid me no mind), took place in the two-star town of Middleville, Michigan, a 30-minute drive south of Grand Rapids surrounded by farms, bars, and gas stations. The downtown area has benefitted from a bit of investment in recent years, though it’s nothing to write home about. Approximately 500 feet from the business district, on good old Main St., sits an old Protestant church building with a weatherworn sign out front reading: “Most Holy Rosary Church – Catholic Latin Mass – Sunday 6pm.”

Knowing immediately that this was no diocesan church, I repaired to my phone and after a bit of searching confirmed my suspicions that it was a sedevacantist chapel—one that happens to be run by the CMRI (Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen). Other than the American flag flying distastefully over the structure, there was nothing especially remarkable about it. I couldn’t see in the windows; but at least lightning didn’t strike me down as I walked around the property wondering if its ever visited outside the normal operating hours. Truth be told, I had hoped the front doors would fly open, with either a cleric or—more likely—sacristan there to inquire about my business. In the few minutes I was nosing about, I had even come up with a few form answers, my hope being to engage a real-life sedevacantist in everyday chitchat. Realizing that was not coming to pass, I hitched my horses to the wagon and moved down the road.

West Michigan, as most should know, is a deeply conservative region of the Midwest. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America have their headquarters here, and for decades Grand Rapids and Holland were dominated by a Dutch Calvinist ethos. While that ethos has retracted in recent years, particularly in Grand Rapids, the area remains a conservative hub with neoconservatives, Tea Partiers, and old-guard movement conservatives uneasily occupying the political landscape together, self-assured that the political Left will never amount to anything more than a blip on the radar. Grand Rapids’s Easttown neighborhood may fly rainbow flags and boast lawns littered with anti-Trump and “Black Lives Matter” signs, but the ideologies they represent will never be politically relevant.

Catholicism in the region is, at best, a mixed bag. The “spirit of Vatican II” hit the diocese of Grand Rapids like a hurricane, leveling orthodoxy, liturgy, and good taste without compunction. The surrounding dioceses didn’t fare much better. Today, only a couple of “official” safe havens remain for those with a conservative-to-traditional sensibility. And so it came as little surprise that sedevacantists have set-up shop on the distant outskirts of the distant outskirts of town, though without much self-promotion or fanfare. Apparently to be with the sedevacantists requires special election, not advertising; a certain form of degraded Calvinism, as usual, gets the last say around these parts.

Had I come across one of the sede faithful who attend Most Holy Rosary, what might have happened? What would have offended them more? That I recognize Francis as the Pope of Rome or that I am a Greco-Catholic? Maybe they would have gone on to me about the horrors of married priests, the failure of “Uniates” to become “full Catholics” by adopting the Roman Rite, or the use of the vernacular in a large swathe of Eastern Catholic worship. Perhaps they would have thought of me as an “Eastern Orthodox schismatic.” On the other hand, maybe they would have been courteous, hospitable, and inviting. Could it be that they would have looked into the eyes of this poor sinner and felt a genuinely (albeit misplaced) longing to save my soul, to bring me closer to Christ, not for their own glory but the greater glory of God? I have met a Calvinist or two with similar hopes for my soul; it’s still possible I’ll come across a sedevacantist who wants the best for me, too.

Pray for the Russian Church

Much to my surprise (and delight), the Wall Street Journal ran a story today covering the plight of the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) and their ongoing synod in Italy which, among other things, is seeking greater recognition of their rights from Pope Francis. Here are some excerpts.

A group of Russian Catholics is demanding greater recognition from Pope Francis, saying the Vatican’s appeasement of Moscow threatens its very existence.

. . .

On the agenda is a longstanding request for their own bishop and resources for training their own clergy. Church leaders say the pope has ignored their appeals as he pursues closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is dominant in the country.

. . .

The complaints of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church echo those of other groups who feel Pope Francis is willing to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of other priorities.

Catholics in Ukraine accuse the pope of playing down Russian aggression toward their country in order to placate the Russian Orthodox Church, which has criticized Ukrainian Catholics’ opposition to Russian-backed separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church as part of a nationalist campaign.

Lamentably, Francis and Vatican hyper-ecumenists are not the only Catholics willing to overlook the plight of Greco-Catholics. As I have discussed elsewhere several times, far too many traditional Latin Catholics romanticize the Russian Orthodox Church and the secular Russian state on the belief that both represent twin pillars of Christian virtue. While the Russian Orthodox Church should be commended at times for its public witness against numerous liberal pathologies, no one should ignore the hard truth that many Russians remain nominally Orthodox and the Russian nation itself is steadily depopulating. Although the RGCC is small, it will never have any chance for ground-level growth unless it is given proper recognition and support from the Roman authorities. Now more than ever the RGCC needs the prayers of all of the faithful. With more and more Russians realizing that Orthodox Church has been compromised by secular politics, there is a moment of opportunity for the RGCC to bring souls into the Catholic fold. But will the Vatican let them?

A Remark on Economics/Political Economy

The Josias recently offered up a fresh translation of Pope Pius XII’s 1941 Pentecost radio address which, inter alia, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Patrick Smith, who had a hand in its publication, offers up some thoughts on the address over at his web-log while highlighting Pius XII’s reaffirmation of the Catholic Church’s competence to teach when the social and moral order intersect. That is distinct from teaching on purely practical matters, such as how a society ought to calibrate its competition (antitrust) penalties or design social safety nets. While popes—and indeed the episcopate as a whole—can weigh-in with suggestions, the faithful are not necessarily bound to follow them.

With this noted, it is important to highlight the fact that a great deal of confusion surrounds statements such as, “The Church does/does not have the competence to speak on economics.” Why? Because “economics,” in the widespread understanding, refers to a particular academic discipline which is often regarded as part of the “social sciences.” Economics, in this sense, refers to both a theoretical and practical discipline which, like so many academic disciplines, remains fractured into a series of “schools,” many of which disagree with each other on questions ranging from methodology to normativity. Those wishing to set aside the Church’s social magisterium when it conflicts with the tenets of libertarian or neoliberal ideology are, in a certain sense, correct when they say that the Church has no competence to speak on economics when “economics” is understood as “economic science.” (More on that below.) This is an easy parry, and one that needs to be addressed.

One way to do that is for Catholics who wish to defend the Church’s authentic social magisterium to move away from using the expression “economics” as commonly understood in favor of an older—and more defensible—expression, “political economy,” which does a better job of capturing the policy aspect of economics. Economics is not, as many economists would have it, a “value neutral” science; behind every economic theory or research question lies pre-scientific value judgments over what is to be studied, why, and how. Anthropological assumptions, which have nothing to do with economics per se, animate most branches of the economics discipline, and too often those assumptions are directly at odds with what revelation and natural reason tell us about the human person. Today, however, the economics discipline has cloaked itself in the garb of the physical sciences in order to give itself a prestige which it may not deserve. As the old joke goes, economists love to say that what they do is similar to what physicists and biologists do; but physicists and biologists would never dare say that what they do is similar to what an economist does.

Least Amount of Terror, Greatest Amount of Security

In the provocative Preface to the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Leo Strauss opines that “[t]he controversy between [reason and revelation/philosophy and theology] can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest amount of security and the greatest terror.” “But,” Strauss continues, “just as an assertion does not become true because it is shown to be comforting, so it does not become true because it is shown to be terrifying.”

Sitting in the background of these remarks, penned three decades after the original German publication of the Spinoza book, is the problem of Heidegger, or more generally, the problem of existentialism—both religious and atheistic. An insecure world, gripped by terror, is what existentialism wishes to both expose and relieve. That relief, however, can only come about “if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure,” or so says Strauss. Revelation offers the security of truth, but the terrifying prospect that not even all men who come to knowledge of the truth will be secure in the end. For a philosopher like Heidegger—to turn to Strauss again—“there is no security, no happy ending, no divine shepherd, hope is replaced by thinking, the longing for eternity or belief in anything eternal is understood as stemming from ‘the spirit of revenge,’ from the desire to escape from all passing-away into something that never passes away.”

In considering the state of religion today (particularly Christianity), somewhat removed from the more poignant existential concerns of early 20th century Teutonic philosophers and theologians, it is possible to say that it has come around to the idea that best way to touch men’s souls is to offer the least amount of terror and the greatest degree of security (at least as concerns his final end). This shift, which among “magisterial” Christian confessions, is in noticeable tension with their respective traditions of promoting insecurity and terror as a sure (though perhaps not the surest) path to virtue (and onward to salvation), is often castigated as “liberal,” with “liberal” too often meaning little more than “not conservative” or, rather, “not traditional.” From a certain point of view, this trend does appear to start from the reality of insecurity in this world to a hope for security in the next; terror today does not mean terror for eternity; and the God who made all things good will not tolerate His creation to be lost to sin.

There is something paralyzing about this view, at least as it concerns the time that remains before the end of all things. Granted, under conditions of radically reduced terror and unprecedentedly amplified security, the temporal plane becomes a blank canvass onto which man can lightly sketch or intricately detail his greatest hopes and fears; his basest desires and noblest instincts; and so on, and so forth. There is, broadly speaking, a “background” or “source” to which he can repair to for guidance, namely a holy book with an ostensibly inspired but contested canon that fails to provide its own proper hermeneutic, though except for those who are typically castigated as “fundamentalist,” this need not be the only source. Convention rather than nature becomes the measuring stick, with too little scrutiny being given as to where and when those conventions emerged or why. If “why” is explored at all, it is explored in a “scientific” manner, that is the manner which sociology and psychology and anthropology deem appropriate; man’s movement from cannibalism and rape to agriculture and marriage has a survival component and nothing to do with the illumination of his faculties, either from within or above.

Whether or not this all seems personally quite horrific is secondary to the truth that there are those who do indeed see it as quite horrific. Against the narrative of greatest security and least terror comes a flurry of reminders in the opposite direction, rooted—again—not in existentialist concerns per se, but a nagging sense that physical and psychic hardships of an earlier age pointed toward the truth that without the transcendent, man’s position in this world amounted to nothing. It would have been better to have never been born into a world riddled with war, famine, and pestilence if death could not bring anything except a cessation of the misery without the promise of redemption. But since not all men have an equal participation in these miseries, and by a sheer act of the will, choose to bring new miseries down upon others for their own gain, death alone cannot be the answer—it should not be the answer. This belief, rooted in what seems to be a certain “natural” instinct for justice, should be a relic of bygone ages; it seems look an entirely inappropriate basis for conversion, repentance, and (possible) salvation.

Unfair to Dreher?

Recently, over at that great forum of learned and calm disputation known as Facebook, my friend Conor Dugan posted a link to his recent review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for Catholic World Report. Although I disagree with some of Dugan’s comments on the book, I am not interested in critiquing it. In response to Dugan’s post, Dreher himself wrote the following: “I do not mind at all constructive criticism, or any kind of criticism, as long as it challenges what I actually wrote in the book. But so many of these reviews don’t even do that. It’s bizarre. I wonder why that is?” This prompted me to write the following reply (to which I expect no answer to):

Because, in all fairness, much of what you wrote is derivative and seems divorced from the intellectual moorings you wanted it to have. Also keep in mind that no matter how much time goes on, people won’t forget the manner in which you left the Catholic Church; besmirched the Catholic Church for years in your writings; and yet repair to Catholicism whenever you need to add some heft to your positions (heft which you apparently cannot find from the Orthodox).

As I have noted elsewhere, people have been doing what you are now marketing for years—decades even. It’s not new. It doesn’t require a catchy title. And unlike what you are proposing, these folks—particularly traditional Catholic communities such as the one found in St. Mary’s, Kansas — aren’t backing down or retreating from the world. They are working — to quote St. Pius X’s motto—”to restore all things in Christ.” There is very little of that restorationist spirit in your book.

Please understand that I am saying this in all honesty and charity. While I would agree that some criticisms of your book have been uncharitable, I think in your understandable desire to defend yourself, you are overlooking some of the “meta” issues surrounding your work.

Although an argument could be made that Dreher’s confessional leanings should not affect the reception of his work, the truth of the matter is that he does strike a lot of people, particularly Catholics, as an opportunist who leans heavily on the Catholic tradition (or, at least, his own interpretation of it) while simultaneously rejecting the Church which gave birth to it. Moreover, Dreher appears to be insensitive to the fact that there are those in the West—including Catholics—who oppose Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church not out of some naïve love for secular liberalism but because of Russia’s longstanding and ongoing history of aggression toward the Catholic Church.

For instance, Dreher is quick to defend Russia from its Western critics, but fails to take note of Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and east Ukraine, including backing the persecution of Greek Catholics in the region. While Dreher recently opined that he “bristle[s]… at restrictions on religious liberty in Russia, in particular on the freedom of minority forms of Christianity,” he quickly writes this off as little more than an expression of his “Westernized view of how religion relates to society.” Now that Dreher is apparently cognizant of this, does that mean he now realizes that his “Westernized view” is wrong and that, as an Orthodox Christian, he should adopt the “Russian view”? That’s all fine and well if he does, but he should realize that by aligning with the ideology of the Russian state and its vassal church, Dreher places himself directly at odds with Catholicism—the very thing he needs above all else to advance his idea (or career).

There is more. As already noted above and elsewhere on this web-log, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” brand has been chided as derivative, incomplete, and retreatist. There are Catholic communities all over the world which have been living out what Dreher calls the “Benedict Option” for decades, and none of them saw fit to promote themselves through blogs, TV appearances, and book deals. They are simply working and living as they are supposed to be—in accordance with the timeless principles of the Catholic Church. And even those who find it impossible to relocate to an intentional Catholic community still find it possible to practice their faith without succumbing to the machinations of secular liberalism. And so it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Catholics might be put off that Dreher—an unapologetic rejecter of Catholicism—is hijacking their way of life in order to fill his bank account.

While some lines of criticism against The Benedict Option book do miss the mark (particularly those lines of criticism coming from liberal Christians), I do believe that in Dreher’s race to defend himself from all charges, he overlooks why so many Catholics are unsympathetic to his various projects. What can he do to correct that situation? One might hope, at the very least, that he publicly repents of the ways in which he has uncharitably attacked the Catholic Church since his departure more than a decade ago. I don’t see that happening, however, but with God all things are possible.