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

It’s All Straw

The Twitterverse exploded this morning because of a tweet by Pope Francis: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”  Many of my fellow conservatives in particular were infuriated that the Holy Father would appear to lay the blame for unemployment at the feet of capitalism, which is not in fact what he was saying.   Yet in writing what he did, the Pope called attention to something which many devout Christians in the Western world regularly forget: this life will end, and sooner than you think.

Before we begin, a bit of history should be kept in mind here by conservatives who are hopping mad at the Holy Father today, and who will then jump for joy at what he might tweet next week.   Pope Francis was not advocating some sort of socialist economic model, or saying that capitalism is the work of the Devil.  Keep in mind that he was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires until just a few weeks ago.  If you know anything of what has happened to Argentina economically and politically over the past decade, the Pope is all too well-aware of the impact of various economic theories and practices.  Moreover, he was certainly no ally of the current populist-socialist President of Argentina, who imagines herself some sort of Kmart version of Eva Perón.

There are many areas of overlap between conservatism and Christianity, but there are also many areas of tension.  While recently a number of Christian denominations have adopted a policy of going along to get along, with regard to various societal and political issues, the Catholic Church remains immovable on a number of fundamental points, as she has for the past two thousand years of her existence.  One of those points is that love of both God and neighbor is the basis for the truly Christian life.  And while not in principle against the possession of wealth, the Christian does not make its pursuit his reason for living.

As we heard in the Gospel reading at mass this past Sunday, “‘I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ ” (St. John 13:34-35)

Nothing the Pope tweeted today was new, as you can see here for example, from two sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which point to the inherent dangers of both atheist socialism AND unfettered capitalism:

2124  The name “atheism” covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be “an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history.”  Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. “It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man’s hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth.”

2424    A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order.  A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity.  Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

Secular materialism is not an illness confined only to those who practice socialism.  There are many conservatives, including those who call themselves Christians, who bow and worship at the feet of people like economists and market gurus, leaving God out of the picture entirely, or relegating Him to some sort of secondary place in their lives.  This is a very dangerous path to tread, and a choice which Catholics believe has eternal consequences.

In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles lays out, very simply, why the pursuit of wealth leads nowhere:

For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.

(1 Timothy 6:7-10)

Please note, no one is saying that wealth is something which is inherently evil.  After all, the ministry of Christ Himself, and later that of the Apostles and the Church, would have been impossible without the material support of those Christians with the means to help.  Rather wealth is a tool, and what one does with that tool, for good or for ill, will give lie to what is really important in one’s life.  For in the end, no matter how much wealth one creates or accumulates, we are, all of us, worm food.

Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike are familiar with the prolific medieval writer St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers of the Church.  One of my favorite passages from his copious output – and be assured I have not even read 1/100th of it – is something which I not infrequently recall to myself.  It is useful to keep in mind both when things go wrong in life, but also when things are going well.

While celebrating mass one day in 1273, St. Thomas apparently received a mystical vision of Heaven; as a result, he stopped writing to prepare himself spiritually to go home to the Lord.  “All that I have written seems like straw to me,” he is reported to have said, in response to urges from others that he resume writing, “compared to what has been revealed to me.”  St. Thomas was by no means rejecting the work he had already done, nor its value to those whom it had helped and indeed continues to help to this day.  Rather he realized that all he had been working on and doing in the material world paled in comparison to what was coming across the great divide, and knew that he had to prepare himself for it, even as close as he was to God.

The fact is that the Pope is right.  Many times hard-working people find themselves unemployed not because they are lazy, or because they are doing a poor job, but because the wealthy chose to protect their own fortunes, and not care for their struggling workers.  This is not a blanket statement, nor an endorsement of trade unionism or forcible wealth distribution.  Rather it is a simple fact of life: these things do happen, and are happening all the time, all over the world.

The Pope is also correct in reminding us of the inherent human tendency of selfishness, and this is why Christianity, which is founded on a Divine act of loving unselfishness, is not as easy a Faith to take on as many of us would like to believe.  The Catholic Church was built on sacrifice and blood, both of Christ’s on Calvary, and of the countless martyrs who suffered torture and death rather than submit to selfishness and sin.  Human beings never like to be reminded of the fact that we are sinners; we all like to think that we are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, nice folks.  The truth is that under the right circumstances, we will not only take whatever we can from one another, but we will actually relish doing it – and that is what makes self-sacrifice such a very hard thing to achieve.

Thus Pope Francis’ job, lest those reading this forget it, is not to help the Republicans take over the Senate or lower the cost of crude oil.  The Holy Father is on Twitter not to chit-chat, but to get as many people to Heaven as he can.  You may not have thought about that, when you posted your snarky comment about the Pope this morning, but there it is.  He is trying to teach us both by word and by example what it means to be a Christian.  Sometimes that instruction is easily palatable, and sometimes we find it bitter and difficult to swallow.

For at the end of your life, God will not care whether you had 100 or 100,000 Twitter followers, or whether a celebrity re-tweeted you, or whether you appeared on Twitchy, BuzzFeed, or any other aggregate site.  Nor for that matter will He care whether you died a rich man or a poor one.   Rather, when you die and go before Him, you are going to have to show Him that you loved Him, as He loved you, and that you demonstrated that love in the way you treated other people, sacrificing your own comforts to meet someone else’s needs, in imitation of the same self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated to His followers.

Remember that, as He Himself pointed out, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head.  He was laid on a bed of straw which did not belong to Him at His birth, and He was laid in a rock tomb which did not belong to Him at His death, and from which He rose on Easter Sunday.   So now would be a good time to ask yourself, if you were angry at the Pope today, whether you are so detached from the world and materialism as to remember that if you are a Christian, these three things are more important to you than absolutely anything whatsoever having to do with the economy.  You are not made for this world, but for the next.


Detail of “The Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Santi de Tito (1593)
San Marco, Florence

Tonight: Dropping the Philosophical Bomb on Progressivism

I hope those of my readers in DC will join me tonight at the Catholic Information Center on K Street at 6:30 pm for when Dr. Peter A. Redpath presents “A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics”.  And for those who cannot join us, I will highly recommend his work to you, even if writers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas are not part of your regular conversation or reading.  For this book, as its cover art rather dramatically illustrates, drops a bomb on many of the sacred cows of contemporary, secular philosophy, which have brought about the rather selfish, ignorant culture which, sad to say, we find ourselves mucking about in at present.

Very early on in his book, Dr. Redpath gives a clear indication that he intends to call a philosophical spade a spade.  Metaphysics, as you may recall, is traditionally the area of philosophy which concerns itself with the nature of being and reality.  Unfortunately, over time and under the influence of so-called progressives, it has become such a muddle that even alleged experts can no longer bring themselves to define exactly what it means.  For example, have a look at the contortionist act performed by those who compiled the entry on metaphysics for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will rather quickly develop a splitting headache.

Dr. Redpath argues that part of the reason why everything’s gone relative is because modern philosophy, from the time of the Enlightenment through the various branches of socialism and beyond, has adopted a view of human reason which is completely out of touch with reality and morality.  It discounts the individual and the eternal in favor of the collective, and of course the elites who must control that collective.  For example, he points out that socialist propaganda and “secularized fundamentalism” have given birth to a “metaphysical myth in the form of utopian history that the whole of science, philosophy, wisdom, and truth are contained in the story, ‘narrative’, of the birth and development of the practical science of modern physics, which only the socialistically-minded, mathematical physicist, like a shaman, can supposedly comprehend.”

And in case some of you were not already squirming in your seats, he goes on to write that in the case of utopian-socialist, secular humanists:

For their adherents, metaphysics is the epic poetic story, an Enlightened fairy-tale history, about evolution, or emergence, of human consciousness, the universal human spirit (“true science”) from backward states of selfishness and primitive religions like Judaism and Catholicism to that of a new political world order dominated by Enlightened systematic science and the religion of love of humanity, “secular humanism”.  And tolerance is this mythical history’s chief engine of progress, story-telling, and means of reading history.

Dr. Redpath then charts the development of metaphysics in Western philosophy, working his way from the Ancients through to the present day.  While this sounds somewhat like a philosophy survey, and perhaps in some respects it is, it is much more than that, and indeed much more readable than a straight-forward philosophy textbook.  How can you not stop and laugh, and want to read a chapter with the rather eye-catching title, “Plato’s Advice About How to Avoid Becoming a Philosophical Bastard,” for example, which talks about how Socrates tried to keep his students from veering off into sophistry, an illness which has claimed the brains of many modern political commentators and so-called journalists?

In another section, Dr. Redpath explores why it is that the promises of the secularist scientific and philosophical classes contradict themselves.  Some of these, he writes, “tend to glory in the claim that no natural aims or ends exist in reality.  Such a claim is the statement of a fool or ignoramus.  If what they say is true, modern science can contribute nothing to wisdom and moral culture, helping human beings improve their lives, become wiser, happy.  So conceived, modern science is worthless.  If so, why would anyone seek to possess it?”

Of course in saying this Dr. Redpath is not denying the advances that modern science has made in helping us to live longer, physically healthier lives.  Rather, he is questioning whether this advancement, alone, without any other meaning, is enough on which to base an entire philosophy, or indeed an entire civilization.  “I do not deny – I celebrate – the many marvels of modern mathematics, mathematical physics, and modern technology as real human goods that have immeasurably improved my life,” he writes, “and I am convinced that many of the practitioners of these studies engage in their work with the best of intentions (while simultaneously not realizing the behavioral contradiction they practice when claiming that science has no real end or good that, by nature, it pursues.)”

He gives a rather apt example of the progressive’s meaningless view of the universe, which personally I found rather devastatingly funny.  “To me,” he writes, “this situation resembles that of a marvelous chef who, at times, can create culinary masterpieces and, at times, can only destroy meals.  All the while this poor soul cooks, he has no idea of what he is doing or why; nor can he tell anyone else.”

In countering this understanding of the “why” behind our human efforts, Dr. Redpath reminds us that Aquinas,  Plato, and many others always held that these types of advances actually do have a purpose.  It is through the imagination and creativity in the sciences, in art, in music, and so on, that human beings have always come to understand that there are immaterial realities which can be known, rather than natural phenomena simply reacted to in terror.  Through these ways of knowing mankind liberated itself, rather than remaining enslaved to ignorance, as secular humanists and moral relativists would have us believe.  Meanwhile, so-called progressives from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Peter Singer are more intent on returning us to a primitive, dog-eat-dog world, even while clothing that anarchy in the trappings of a supposedly more enlightened and humane way of being.

The broad appeal of this book is the fact that it was written at this particular time in which we live, when so many of the authorities which dominate our governments, universities, and institutions are so opposed to human reason in their embrace of secular, “progressive” philosophy couched as virtue.  Works such as these provide us with the opportunity to ask questions about where we are going as a culture, which many of the present elites do not want us to ask.  Do yourself a favor, then, and read Dr. Redpath’s excellent book, so that you can ask them.

If you are someone who has never picked up a philosophy book, gentle reader, or have not done so in quite a long time, there is much to enjoy and to learn in this volume.  At the same time, those who regularly return to thinkers like Boethius or Kant will, I suspect, discover much to think about within these pages to challenge some of their long-held notions.  And of course if you are not sure it is for you, and happen to be in the Washington D.C. area, then come along tonight to hear the man himself – and be sure to snag me at the reception afterwards and say hello.