Tag Archives: secularism

On That Whole Church-and-State Thing

Yesterday was the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the Patroness of the city of Barcelona.  It is the largest festival held in the city each year, including concerts, fireworks, and so on.  The official ecclesiastical portion of the celebrations centers around the baroque Basilica which houses the statue of La Mercè, as she is known.  On September 24th, a mass in honor of the Blessed Mother is celebrated at the basilica, to which dignitaries and officials are invited, including the members of the Barcelona City Council.

This year Councilman Jordi Marti Grau, head of the socialist bloc on the Barcelona City Council, refused to attend the mass.  On Monday he issued a statement saying he would not attend because he finds the custom “anachronistic”, and was offended by the display of “allegiance to the Church” represented by the City Council in attending the annual service.  At the reception held at City Hall following the mass, which Mr. Marti naturally attended – no leftist will turn down free food at taxpayer expense, whatever their anticlerical opinions – Mr. Marti said his party intends to lobby to change the nature of the present ceremony honoring Our Lady to something that is more appropriate “to a secular society and a secular state. ”  You can read Mr. Marti’s entire statement regarding this issue on his blog.

What is interesting about his view, much as I loathe Spanish socialism in all its forms, is that he has a point.  In this country we would not have to raise the issue of whether it would be appropriate or not for government to become involved in a religious ceremony.  Let me give you an example from American civic life by way of contrast.

The annual Red Mass for the opening of the Supreme Court’s term is coming up on Sunday, October 6th at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington, DC.  Several of the Justices of the Supreme Court will likely be in attendance, as will members of Congress and the Cabinet.  This is not a compulsory event, but rather a tradition in which jurists and members of the government are invited to gather together to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their actions over the course of their working year.

Inevitably there are a few complaints about officials attending such a mass, usually from those who also want to see us drop  “In God we trust” from our currency, so that we can worship someone with inferior intellectual credentials to the Almighty, such as Richard Dawkins.  However in general the American people seem to understand that something like the Red Mass is simply an event, which those invited may choose to attend or not attend as they see fit.  For example Justice Elena Kagan attended the mass last year, while she did not attend the year before; Justice Samuel Alito did not attend last year, but he did attend the year before.

As is the case with much of Spain, for Catalonia at least at present is still legally a part of that country, the festival surrounding Our Lady of Mercy is largely more secular than religious in nature these days.  There is little popular interest in taking part in masses or processions, and more in shopping, becoming publicly intoxicated, and doing rude things in alleyways. The collapse of Christianity throughout Spain has taken place at an astonishing pace over the past 30-odd years since the death of General Franco.

Yet because Spain has always been and remains a majority Catholic country, even if in most instances in name only, these festivals and celebrations dating from a time when there was greater religious faith, or at least more social pressure to pretend that one did have faith, have remained in place even while belief and practice have declined.  In America we do not have any religious holidays on our federal, state, or local government calendars which would cause the services provided by government to be shut down for the day, apart from Christmas.  Though some could persuasively argue that the celebration of Christmas in the U.S. has not been related to Christ for quite some time now.

This of course begs the question, “Whose holiday is it, anyway?”

Mr. Marti argues that there should be a more secular celebration of the mass, which is a rather obvious red herring, since one cannot actually have a valid Catholic mass which is secular in nature.  It would be like asking a zebra to turn itself into a cow.  Rather, Mr. Marti simply intends to force the city into a public affairs nightmare which will cause it to disassociate itself from the Church.  Since there is no way that the Archdiocese would agree to hold some sort of secular mass for the Feast of Our Lady at the Basilica, Mr. Marti will then pressure the city to not attend in an official capacity.  And in a city as generally left-wing and anticlerical as Barcelona, he will find a great deal of support toward achieving his goal.

The irony of this controversy is that in the U.S., even those of us who, like myself, happen to be rather conservative, can understand and appreciate why government needs to be careful about being too close to religion.  Most of the time we do not seem to have a problem with the President or a governor or senator attending a religious service, largely because we have such a wide host of religions, denominations, and sects represented within our population, which of course Spain does not.  Nor do most reasonable Americans take the view that even the concept of the Deity must be removed entirely from the public square.

It does go to show, however, that the generally rather peaceful separation of Church and State which we enjoy in this country is not something which is a part of public life in many others, including those with democratic forms of government.  In the case of Mr. Marti, who is more interested in becoming mayor someday than in anything else, he picks on the Church because he can.  Like his political ancestors who within living memory did things like dig up the corpses of dead nuns and take them out into the streets to shoot at them, Spanish leftists find Catholic institutions an easy target because they tend not to be able to fight back anymore.  Yet even putting that aside, one does have to consider, in a country which is largely no longer Christian, whether Mr. Marti has a valid point about changing the participation of government officials in religious events from official to unofficial status.


Cardinal Sistach (center) celebrating mass at the
Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy in Barcelona

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The State Is Not Your Mommy

Oftentimes conservatives talk about the dangers of a “nanny state”, where citizens come to expect their government to care for them rather than caring for themselves.  However while we often debate this concept on a philosophical and public policy level, we do not often consider this line of thinking on a cultural level.  And we should think about the impact of making the state at least as worthy of our filial devotion as our mother, for it is a notion replete with problems of its own, particularly in the area of culture.

An interesting story from the art world, out of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, caught my eye this morning.  Reports are that an artist who painted what is referred to as an “interpretation” of the Biblical Last Judgment is upset, because the director of the art museum which was to display his piece is said to have “covered” the work in black paint, thereby destroying it.  It was to be part of an exhibition entitled “Great and Grand”, on the 1025th anniversary of the conversion of the former state of Kiev to Christianity, exploring the effect which that conversion has had on Ukrainian arts and culture.

The piece depicts elements from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, intermixed with images making various political and social statements.  It resembles something that weird Goth kid in your 10th grade geometry class would have drawn with a black and a red pen on the back of his copybook.  Impressive, perhaps, in an adolescent, but ultimately highly derivative. The painting was an immature piece of protest art, not worth paying much attention to.

The motivation of the (admittedly rather fetching) Mystetskyi Arsenal director, Natalia Zabolotna, according to a statement which she subsequently released, was not one of attacking blasphemy or poor execution, both of which this piece had in abundance, but rather something more reminiscent of the concept of the imagined fecundity of the nanny state, combined with the jingoism of early 20th century politics.  “You cannot criticize the homeland,” she stated, “just as you cannot criticize your mother. I feel that anything said against the homeland is immoral.”

This brings us to an interesting question about what, exactly, is immoral about criticizing the state, particularly in the arts.  For the state, after all, is simply an artificial construct.  It only exists, insofar as it does, because people choose to believe it exists, and agree to be bound by it. Moreover, one can reasonably argue that in order for a state to exist, at least some other states need to also recognize that it exists, or the whole enterprise collapses.  Thus, while everyone in the world has a mother, not everyone in the world has a state.

Zabolotna’s reasoning that it is immoral to criticize one’s mother is not borne out either in human experience or in the arts.  No doubt we can all think of people in our own lives whose relationships with their mothers were not characterized by the loving, supportive, and nurturing care which motherhood usually provides to children.  We see examples of this going all the way back to the roots of Western civilization, such as the Greek tragedies about the scheming Clytemnestra and her vengeful children Orestes and Elektra; to the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of the bitter relationship between Prince Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude; to the modern camp classic film, “Mommie Dearest”, about the vicious, lifelong competition between actress Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina.

All of the mothers in these tales betrayed their children in some fashion, and were deserving of criticism.  While we may deplore the actions taken in some cases against those mothers, reasonable people should be able to agree that in some cases, there comes a point where honoring thy mother is a duty they ought best perform at a safe distance.  Fortunately such circumstances are rare, but those of us who have always had a close and loving relationship with our mothers ought to embrace them more tightly the next time we see them, and thank Heaven that we have such love in our lives.

Given that there are, regrettably, times when a bad mother must be criticized for mistreating her children, is it so unreasonable to point out that there are also times when, regrettably, a bad state must be criticized by her citizens?  There is nothing intrinsically immoral about speaking out against the state, and indeed, as the Founding Fathers showed us, one may in fact have a moral duty to criticize the state. Destroying a piece of art because of a false, secular morality which defines the state as mother, smacks of the kind of secular state-worship which brought about the great bloodbaths of the 20th century.

The mural defaced by Miss Zabolotna was, frankly, a rather poor piece of art at best, the rather pitiable work of a marginal talent.  It did not belong in any museum, let alone in an exhibition dedicated to the glories of centuries of Christian culture in Kiev.  Yet her disagreement with the painting’s criticism of the state did not give her license to destroy it.  She could have refused to display it, had it removed and sent back to the artist, or taken other, legal measures to keep it out of the show. Instead, she took the law into her own hands, claiming that it was her job to protect the state from what she perceived to be a quasi-immorality, when so far as I am aware no one elected or appointed her to perform that duty.

The real immorality, here, was in escalating what was essentially a matter of bad taste on the part of an artist, and possibly a contractual dispute, into an international scandal in the name of a state held to be above criticism. That escalation was based on fundamentally flawed, and frankly rather frightening, bit of secularist logic.  One cannot conflate the honor due to one’s state, with the honor due to one’s mother.  For when that happens, not only do we see atrophy in the arts, but a decline in the culture of society as a whole.


Detail of “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862)
Chrysler Collection, Norfolk, Virginia


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Raising the Art Alarm in Turkey

Recent legal news from Turkey has provoked concern among a number of commentators in both the art world and the Christian world.  As reported in several news outlets, such as in this article which appeared in The Art Newspaper, Turkish courts have decided that a historic former church in the city of Trabzon can now be turned into a mosque.  It is part of a slowly increasing seepage of more strictly Islamic thought and practice into secular Turkish law and politics, which has been underway for some time now.

The beautifully decorated Byzantine building dates from the 12th century; it was turned into a mosque in the 15th century, subsequently abandoned and used for various secular purposes, then restored and turned into a museum in the early 20th century.  Many art historians and legal watchers believe that this is simply a legal test case, and a prelude to the great Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, which itself is currently operated as a museum rather than a house of worship, being turned back into a mosque.  Yet we should keep in mind of course this sort of thing has happened throughout human history, as a result of some very basic human tendencies and motivations.

One of the key points to realize in the study of history is that the victors get to write the story in a very visible way, i.e. in the form of art and architecture.  They build monuments to themselves, naturally enough, since that is what men do, whether on a grand scale like a public memorial, or in a small way when the founder of a business has a portrait of himself commissioned for the board room.  Yet we should also remember that the victors try to remove those things which call to mind those whom they have replaced.

In Ancient Egypt for example, when a pharaoh died and was succeeded by another from a different family, the carved or painted name of the deceased monarch would often be eradicated from any structures built during his reign.  In Tudor England, Catholic churches such as Canterbury Cathedral were confiscated and made over to the use of the Anglican Church, as a result of which many works of art were destroyed in the frenzy of early Protestantism.  These sorts of things are done, as Yuri Zhivago observes in “Doctor Zhivago” when the family learns of the death of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in order to show the populace that there is no going back.  Even if occasionally there are attempts to bring back what was lost, such as the Bourbon Restorations in France, they are usually short-lived.

What is particularly interesting about the article linked to above is that it brings together two very different groups of people.  This building has not been used as a church for a very long time, of course, so the question of whether it would return to its intended use is not even on the table.  On one hand we have art lovers, who do not want to see the beautiful and historic decoration of this building lost.  And on the other we have Christians, who do not want to see images of Christ, His Apostles, and Our Lady destroyed as a result of Islamic aniconism.

These two groups are so often completely at odds with one another at present, that their having a common interest will make it interesting to see whether they can act in concert on what will no doubt be a growing number of cases such as this, not just in Turkey but in Europe itself.  For of course with the demographic shift toward Islam taking place throughout much of Europe as a result of immigration, falling Christian birth rates, etc., more and more European churches with dwindling numbers of congregants will almost certainly be converted into mosques over time.  If indeed politics makes strange bedfellows, as Charles Dudley Warner once noted, we will see how the art world establishment and the various Christian churches concerned about what will happen in Trabzon and elsewhere, will do in trying to get along with one another.


Dome fresco in the  former Church of Hagia Sophia (12th-13th centuries)
Trabzon, Turkey

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Read For Yourself

Recently I was watching C-Span Book TV ‘s coverage of author Robert Richardson at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.  As I was suffering from a rather potent bout of insomnia, the thought of listening to some old hippies rattle on about how they do not like the mess they have made of our society seemed to be the best way to put me to sleep under the circumstances.  Much of Mr. Richardson’s presentation was what one would expect., in that  we were condemned to a random rattling off of quotations from other writers, with a single adjective attached to each indicating his approval.  This sort of presentation is of course designed not so much to enlighten, as to impress the audience with the amount of books the lecturer has read.

During his presentation, Mr. Richardson recounted the passage in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which one of the brothers justifies his quasi-atheistic views, doubtless as a foil for the author himself or at least some of his thought process, since if you have read other works by Dostoevsky you know that he was something of a mixed bag when it comes to his opinions on religion.  A story is recounted about an 8-year-old boy who is quite literally hounded to death, with a gruesome punishment for a minor misdeed, before the eyes of his own mother.  If God allows such things to happen, the story concludes, then the recounter of the tale was not interested in having anything to do with him.

That attitude, according to Mr. Richardson, aptly reflects his own views on the subject as well.  The rather obvious rejoinder to this of course, at least for the Christian, is that Mr. Richardson’s argument is something of a cop-out, since God Himself was brutally and unjustly killed before the eyes of His Mother on Calvary.  It also assumes that the concept of free will is something which must be imposed or lifted at will, as if God is playing a chess match with human playing pieces.  Be that as it may, such a simplistic and rather narcissistic understanding of the Divine is regrettably not uncommon among the so-called intelligentsia who dominate our universities, publishing houses, and media outlets.

For forty years or so we have witnessed the build-up of an intellectual establishment built not on universal truths, let alone intellect, but rather on relative opinions, and Mr. Richardson is merely one cog in that infernal machine.  We have seen the effect of the worship of Priapus instead of God, for example, in the enormous amount of sexually transmitted disease that runs rampant through our society which, as a very wise theology teacher of my acquaintance pointed out the other evening, no one seems to talk about.  The supposed freedom granted by the Sexual Revolution has in fact enslaved us to, among other things, the pharmaceutical industry.  This chasing after temporary personal pleasure in lieu of preparing for eternity, following millennia of human intellectual endeavors to instill virtues of self-control and self-sacrifice, has had a devastating impact on our world.

Yet there is something to be said for the example of those like Mr. Richardson, who stand at podiums and preach their gospels of nothingness, and that is the fact that they do actually read.  They may largely be reading a lot of garbage bound between two covers and presented as books, but nevertheless they do undertake the effort to continue to work on the exercise of their minds  through the exploration of writing.  Of course, part of the reason many otherwise educated younger people do not read today, is precisely because they had professors like Mr. Richardson in college.  If you are burdened with a teacher who turns you off to the world of literature by insisting that everything is about oppression and sex, there can be no better barrier to raise to the concept of reading as a form of ongoing education and the formation of ideas.

Fortunately, there are remedies to the situation.  I have always found that one of the best ways to critically evaluate a work of fiction, biography, and so on which you cannot bring yourself to agree with, is to always keep in mind the question of whether the author actually understands the truth he is rejecting.  I do not have to agree with a writer’s point of view in order to be able to find merit or even truth in his work.  This is not an easy task, of course, yet if you know what you believe, then you can be at the ready when you perceive that a scrivener or a professor is trying to convince you that they are right, and you are merely ignorant.  (How one establishes what is right and what is wrong when everything is supposedly relative is another matter entirely.)

By no means am I suggesting that you go off and read the collected works of Engels and Marx, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment, or for that matter wish to fully know thy enemy.  After all, without having at least some idea of what the devil looks like, when he tells you there is no such thing as personal accountability for example, you will be hard-pressed to recognize him when he presents himself in one of his countless guises.  Just as the lawyer in the courtroom needs to be able to anticipate his opponent’s argument in order to be able to successfully defeat it, it is insufficient to say that simply because part of what an author believes or concludes is incorrect, that it is therefore impossible to gain anything from his work.’

It is often unpleasant to read the work of those who are still fighting the culture wars that led our society into the morass in which it wallows in at present.  However to back away and give those digging us in, ever deeper, into such muck is not helpful either.  One may be able to refute Mr. Richardson – and indeed Dostoevsky – without having read any of their work, but it would be a difficult endeavor to sustain over a long period.

Thus while it is certainly inadvisable to take your views on the question of eternal life from those who write novels, or indeed biographies of existentialists, it is important to at least be somewhat familiar with such thinkers, however misguided they may be.  It is through a systematic emphasis on the dumbing down of Western society, paradoxically as access to higher education has never been more widespread, that we have found ourselves in a culture that is rather shallow, materialistic, and interested largely in the seeking of personal pleasure, much like the ancient pagan societies we emerged out of.  The fight to make us into a fat, lazy, and ignorant society which can be easily controlled and placated has very nearly been achieved.

In order to take back this battle then,  you cannot rely solely on your wits: you must work. And by work, I mean you must read.  Read all of the writers you love and admire, yes, but also take the time to read those whom you are suspicious of, and do so with a critical eye as to why you find them so untrustworthy.  It is entirely possible to examine what the world is trying to sell you as truth, without actually buying into its message in the process.  And unlike Mr. Richardson, I would posit that reading someone like Emerson does not require that you actually throw yourself head-first into Walden Pond.

3ages (800x600)
“The Three Ages of Man” by Giorgione (c. 1500-1501)
Pitti, Florence


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No Room at the Bank

This morning while making my way into the office I had a lot on my mind: meetings and deadlines for this last week of work before going on Christmas vacation, things that need to be completed at home before my departure, and some last events and appointments I need to attend to as well.  At this time of year many of us are completely overwhelmed with all sorts of matters that require our attention, wondering where we are going to find the time and resources to address all of them.  One of the things which helps us – or me, at least – to keep things in perspective is the fact that there are decorations all around, to remind us that this is meant to be a joyous time of year, whatever else it brings.

As you make your way through the area of Lawyer Gulch, otherwise known as the K Street Corridor of downtown Washington, there are many of these reminders on display.  The exteriors and lobby areas of the offices, hotels, shops, and other businesses are festooned with Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, and so on, that are a joy to the eyes.  Even as you think about how you are going to squeeze in so many things which need to happen in a very limited time, you have a mental reminder that there is something to look forward to beyond simply having a few days off.

And then I passed by a brand-new office building containing a branch of a major American bank.  Like many “green” buildings, the lobby of the building was white, cold, and sterile, a soulless place looking something like a Stanley Kubrick film set.  While the lobby of the adjoining building was festooned with garlands, paper snowflakes, and the like, this building not only looked as though it was the reception area for the lair of a Bond villain, it had no indication whatsoever that it is Christmastime.

Similarly, the bank which occupies part of this building had no decorations whatsoever.   I actually stopped to look closely for several minutes, since in keeping with the space-age theme the space is open-concept, and allows you to see through from one end to the other.  There was not one sign of anything joyous or festive, not even a potted poinsettia or a Christmas card on a desk.

No doubt those who own and run these businesses have their reasons for behaving in this fashion, and perhaps there are those among my readers who will say that this is more appropriate than decorating with artificial snowmen and mistletoe.  To me, however, what this lack of adornment signifies is cowardice.  For the vast majority of Americans do celebrate Christmas, whether they do so because they are Christians, or because they simply enjoy the traditions as a part of our cultural heritage.  The absence of such decorations smacks not of tolerance, but rather of a vociferous minority which becomes offended if you so much as whistle “Joy to the World” on a city bus.

Truth be told we do not need, strictly speaking, the presence of Christmas trees in order to celebrate Christmas, any more than we need a turkey to give thanks at Thanksgiving or fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.  They are traditions, and insofar as they are secondary to the primary message while still supporting it, they are good things.  However when their absence is intentional, it makes us question not only that intent, but also whether we have been so focused on our own materialism that we have forgotten to stand up for our faith.

Before you get completely worn down then, gentle reader, with bills, social obligations, and physical exhaustion, I would ask those of you who are Christians to appreciate such decorations as you come across them, and to thank those who have put them on display.  They are a visual reminder for us that all of this “stuff” which we argue about – fiscal cliff diving, the latest epistolae pomum, who will be America’s next top tart – is simply that: stuff.  It ultimately means nothing.

What *does* mean something is the Incarnation: God humbling Himself to come in the form of one of us, to be born in a place where there was no room for Him.  It is rather ironic then, to see that there is still no room for Him in certain places, including places where once He was previously welcomed, or at least acknowledged.  All the more important then, to take the time to thank those who are still celebrating His coming.

NativityDetail of “The Adoration of the Christ Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst (c. 1620-1622)
The Uffizi, Florence


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