Modern Superstition and Trusting the Rich

Donald Trump’s candidacy has been instructive for a number of reasons, albeit regrettable for many others.  It has shown how a loud and colorful personality, promising to make Germany  America great again can quickly gain the allegiance and more, faith, of desperate crowds who will ignore any charge against him because of the faith they have placed in him.  There are books to be written on this subject, but only one small but instructive point concerns us here: the growing faith in the rich.

One of Donald Trump’s key arguments on the campaign trail is that people should trust him because he is rich.  Because he is rich, he cannot be bought and hence is more trustworthy.  Leaving aside the question of whether a person who buys influence, favors, and people is more trustworthy than a person who sells them, what is so interesting here is that we are being asked to trust the rich because they are rich.  Money (supposedly) makes a person trustworthy.  Poverty makes him unreliable.  Money equals virtue and poverty, vice.  This is not a new idea.  G.K. Chesterton wrote about it 100 years ago: “You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed” (Orthodoxy, chapter 7). It was as ridiculous then as it is now, but what is so interesting is how the idea is suddenly seen as widely convincing today just when the influence of Christianity seems to be fading- and there is more than coincidence in this.

Why should nations with proud democratic traditions and governments and nations (America at least) founded on the notion that all men are created equal suddenly appear so ripe for aristocracy?   Why should they suddenly be so ready to submit themselves to rule by the rich believing that only the rich can be trusted to rule?  In the last hours of its decay, the Roman republic did the same thing, as mobs threw power to a patrician strongman railing against corruption and promising to look out for them, but why should American be prepared to do the same?  What makes a nation with America’s history and democracy be suddenly willing to adopt and adopt loudly the position that the poor cannot be trusted, that we must throw ourselves on the rule of the rich?

For G.K Chesterton (and me), it was the decline of Christianity.  For only Christianity provided any consistent bulwark against this superstitious faith in the rich.

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man….if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy (Ibid).

Some of the rich may be trustworthy and some may not, just as some of the poor may be trustworthy and others not, but no man is more trustworthy because he is rich or less so because he is not.  This is a pagan superstition and hence a modern one, but according to Christianity, greater danger lies in riches than in poverty.  As Chesterton remarked:

There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor  (ibid).

But this is why modern America can believe the myth that Trump’s wealth makes him reliable.  Because belief in Christianity is on the decline, such superstitions are on the rise; it can hardly be otherwise.  Man needs a savior and if he cannot have a divine one, then he must have a human one.  Whether such a savior can save anything, bring hope and change, or make America great again, is another, more doubtful question.

  1. Note: I find that Mark Shea already beat me to this passage in Chesterton and its applicationhere: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2015/07/the-prophet-chesterton-on-donald-trump.html
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Kill All the Lawyers? The Place of Law and the Gospel (I)

The first of a two post series on canon law and some current issues in the Church

The great playwright, William Shakespeare, once had one of his characters in Henry VI say: “the first thing we do, let us kill all the lawyers.” The sentiment is one that one suspects would find a sympathetic audience today. Attacking lawyers is certainly fashionable today, both within the Catholic Church and without it, though it is the former that concerns us here. The great canonist Ed Peter’s has recently complained about the spirit of anti-nomianism that seems pervasive today as people reject the law, some in the name of mercy or the gospel, and some simply in the name of their own desires. Defend the law and one risks being labeled a Pharisee, a legalist, one who cares more for law than people.

But we cannot so easily do without canon law. Canon law, that is, the law of the Church, grew to maturity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the same time that saw the founding of the universities and major reform movements in the medieval Church to free it from secular control. This was not mere coincidence. One strength of the law was its ability to draw distinctions, the same skill developed by the scholastic theologians. For instance, throughout Aquinas, when he takes on a problem, he often points out the much lies in how one makes fine distinctions. When discussing whether it was necessary that Christ become man, Aquinas explains that in an absolute sense it was not necessary, but in another sense, it was (because it was the most fitting and efficient way to work salvation). He distinguished sense, he drew lines.

Lawyer did the same things. The also drew lines. Those lines included the line between the sacred and the secular, as the drew a line around the Church as firm as the walls of Constantinople and said that no secular ruler might cross it. Drawing lines between the secular and sacred meant that, free of secular influence (in theory if not always in practice), the Church was free to reform and to grow in holiness.

The law had another advantage. It is said today that “the law is reason free from passion.” Certainly, this saying fits with the attitude of the medieval Church lawyers. Men are too easily given to passion, they find it too easy to put reason aside out of anger, greed, or even compassion. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, once said that “most men live by sense rather than reason.” It was not said as an insult, but a realistic account of human nature. But the men of the Middle Ages knew that passion was no safeguard. Their’s was, in a sense, the first real Age of Reason, for they believed in the power of reason to understand the world in a way few had before. Reason, the rules of logic, would take them to a just and true outcome regardless the personal feelings or preferences or those involved. By reason, man escaped prejudice, and moved away from the animals and toward the angels. Hence, one task of law, reason free from passion, was the justice and fairness that came from truth. This was the purpose of law, to discover justice, regardless the feelings of those involved.

This was important when, in the early thirteenth-century, King Phillip Augustus of France, the most powerful ruler in Europe asked (demanded) that the Pope, Innocent III, grant him a divorce of his wife. Pope Innocent III, however, was not a mere sentimentalist, rather, he was a canon lawyer. Hence, was able to look past the personal preference of himself (he would have preferred not to anger the king) and the king, and tell the king that the law found no justification to put aside the plain words of Christ in the gospel: when a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. By the law, the Pope tried defend the innocent wife of a powerful king who had begun to find her inconvenient.

This is why it is so unfortunate today when some in the Church set the law against the gospel and try to claim that we must put aside the law in the name of the gospel. Nonsense, if the law, reason free from passion, is not allowed not draw out the implications of the gospel and to consider its application to particular situations, then the decision will be unjust. If reason cannot decide, then unreason will. And when two passions collide, the passion of the stronger person usually prevails. Hence Henry VIII, who also demanded a divorce, rejected the advice of his lawyer, Thomas More, who told him that he had no grounds to break up his marriage. Henry ignored him; since his reason would not rule, his passion did and the first thing Henry did, was to kill the lawyer.

One final thought. In Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, Thomas More’s son-in-law told him that he would cut down every law in England to achieve a desired end. More’s reply was biting: “And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you– where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat… if you cut them down– and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then…?” Kill the lawyers, put aside the law, but who, as Bolt’s More says, could stand upright in ensuing storm.

Moral Progress, Conscience, and Moral Decay

Recently, in both the secular and Catholic World, much talk has focused on the notion of personal “conscience.” In the secular world, the question has focused on whether religious institutions may follow their conscience by not paying for their employees contraceptives, since they see contraception as morally objectionable. More interesting though, is the current debate on conscience among Catholics themselves. Yet, from the debate, it is clear that the notion of conscience is poorly understood.

On one hand, traditional Catholic teaching holds that conscience is inviolable; that is to say, the claims of one’s conscience are absolute and may not be violated. Yet depending what is meant by conscience, this leads to absurdities. A bad man may strongly feel that his conscience is telling him to break into his neighbors’ house because his neighbor deserves it. Or a neo-nazi feel that he really is right to burn down a black Church, because it deserves it. But if conscience is inviolable, it seems we need say that these people are right to act as they do, which is absurd.

On the other hand, we clearly admire people who follow their conscience at the cost of great personal risk and loss to themselves. Robert Bolt, an agnostic playwright, could not help but admire the Catholic layman, Sir Thomas More, who stood on his own conscience when he refused to say that his king was not an adulterer for divorcing his wife and attempting to take another. When asked why he admired More so much, Bolt pointed to More’s stubborn insistence on following his conscience even against all the coercive power of the English state. He admired that More “would not place his hand on an ordinary book and tell a very ordinary lie.”

So how to reconcile the two? Clearly, to follow conscience is admirable but at the same time, moral evils cannot be justified with an appeal to conscience. It must be then, that conscience is not simply a matter of strong personal feeling. A person feels a certain way, therefore conscience is speaking. This view of conscience clearly leads to the absurdities mentioned above. In this case, conscience becomes to easy to confuse with personal desire. “My conscience tells me that I can…” comes to mean little more than “I really, really want to do x, therefore I will believe that my conscience wants me to do x.” This is clearly absurd, but if conscience is internal, how can one refute it? Are there no objective, external markers, that conscience may be measured against?

If one is a Christian, of course, the answer is simple. If one’s conscience contradicts the meaning of scripture, then what one believes is his conscience is certainly no more than personal desires or something worse. Certainly, not conscience at all. If one’s desire for a second marriage contradicts the plain words of Jesus, “a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” then clearly the claim that his conscience is telling him to contradict the words of Christ is either delusion or sophistry. If one is in addition to Christian, a Catholic, then he is also bound by the tradition of the Church.

But just as “faith must be purified by reason” (Benedict XVI), conscience too can, at least partially, be measure by reason besides revelation alone. In his book, One Body, the philosopher Alexander Pruss made some useful remarks on conscience. He referred to those who say that their conscience now permits them to use contraception. In reply, Pruss pointed out several things, I mention three:

1. Conscience, when it is really conscience speaking, tends to grow more demanding and not less. This is merely the nature of moral life. The more we try sincerely to follow conscience, the more demands conscience places on us. Conscience permits, not more than it used to, but less than it used to. Hence to say that conscience once did not allow divorce, but now it does allow it, fails to fit with the nature of conscience.

2. This is connected to the last. People say “my conscience allows…”, but conscience does not really permit. The nature of conscience is to forbid. It acts typically as a check on one’s behavior and desires. Hence, any claim “my conscience allows,” seems not to fit this measure of conscience.

3. While there is moral progress, there is also moral decay (Pruss). If there is progress or development, we should expect it to grow organically out of the Christian tradition. A man develops from a child, a dog from a puppy. Yet, the current desire for divorce and remarriage and contraception (for example) seems not to develop from Christian tradition, but from secular culture. This suggests rather than decay is slipping in, influenced by secular culture, not that moral progress is being made.

This is significant for the whole modern discussion of conscience, but also the claims of some, flowing out of the recent synod, that people can, on their own, in their own consciences, discern if their divorce and second marriage (or whatever other moral issue) is permitted by their own conscience or not.

This passes the test neither of scripture nor of reason. Conscience is inviolable, to be obeyed absolutely. But desire that contradict reason and scripture, where a person is likely led by personal wish to something they already wish to do, is not conscience. It is only desire, and to replace conscience (real conscience) with desire and still call it conscience only leads us, “on the short route to chaos.”

The World’s Hatred: A Letter to Catholics

This was initially submitted to my local diocesan paper as an OP-Ed.  The paper published it as a short letter.  Hence, I present the original here.  

As the Holy Father concludes his visit to the United States, the Catholic Church seems to wear a more attractive face. Pope Francis’s popularity and the enormously positive media coverage seem almost overwhelming. Doubtless too, it comes as a welcome relief to Catholics tired of being attacked for their supposedly backward and narrow views on a range of issues from abortion to marriage and beyond. The Pope is popular, the Church is popular, and all seems well. We need no longer talk about unpopular, controversial issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Instead, we can “reach out” to people, by talking about easier subjects. At least, so it seems.

Enjoying this period of popularity is perfectly understandable and probably even morally neutral. But a thing can be morally neutral and still lead one into danger. We may enjoy this period of popularity while it lasts, but herein lies the danger, that we might be tempted to try to make it last. We might be tempted to try to make this time of popularity last by trying to get along too well with the world or by not talking about “controversial” subjects. We might try to put aside Our Lord’s hard words: His talk about suffering, crosses, sin, and hell. We might focus on the Christ who said to help the poor and not to judge, but not the Christ who flipped tables, called his enemies “whitewashed tombs,” and told his closest follower, “get behind me Satan.”

This is the danger: that hoping to maintain present popularity, we may be tempted not to present the full truth of Christ. That we might be tempted to abandon it for mere popularity. And popularity is something no follower of Christ should expect. Our Lord never promised popularity, but a cross; and no one can follow Him and hope to escape it. The world says “blessed are the popular,” but Our Lord said, “blessed are you when they persecute you, revile you, and slander you because of me.” The world says, “woe to the unpopular,” but Our Lord says, “woe to you when men speak well of you.”

If we do not present the full truth of Christ to people, the hard as well as the easy, then we are not presenting the true Christ. If we are not presenting the true Christ, then we are presenting a false Christ. And to deprive people of the truth of Christ and hence of the true Christ is a betrayal of Christ, His gospel, and the poor themselves. Cardinal Sarah, an African Cardinal, and hence someone who knows something about poverty, has recently said that the worst form of discrimination against the poor is not to give them Christ.

Hence, failure to present the whole Gospel is a betrayal of the poor and the weak themselves. It is a betrayal of children— denied a father and a mother—who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage and the family. It is a betrayal of the unborn, the poorest of all, who have no one to defend them but us.

The world may hate us for that defense. But such is our duty, and Christ warned his followers that if the world hates them, know it hated Him first. In His life, same crowds that shouted “hosanna” on Sunday, shouted “crucify” the next Friday. He never sought to escape it. Neither can we.

Women in Paganism and Christianity

In the early years of Christianity, the ancient pagan world held Christians in disgust because of their poor understanding of Christianity. The knew little about it, but they “knew” Christians practiced cannibalism, blood sacrifice, conspired against the state, and engaged in sexual deviancy. The modern world, also increasingly pagan, seems to understand Christianity little better. It knows little about Christianity, but it at least “knows” that Christians hate women and gays, are against science, and enjoy long lists of pointless rules.

All these errors are beyond purpose of this piece; rather, what concerns here is the claim that Christianity is oppressive towards women. What interests about this claim is a very odd historical coincidence: Christianity is supposed to be oppressive towards women, yet in early Christianity a majority of the converts were women. This need not disprove the claim that Christianity oppresses women, yet it is at least surely a very odd coincidence. It would be at least as strange as removing the hoods from a KKK meeting and finding a large majority of African Americans were wearing them. Not impossible, perhaps, but highly puzzling.

In, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark has argued that one of the reasons for the rapid rise of Christianity from a small break-off Jewish sect to a religion that dominated the Roman empire was its appeal to women. In pagan antiquity, women had few rights and little respect. Men generally agreed that wives were too much trouble and marriage undesirable; the promise of land and money from the Roman government did little to make women and marriage more palatable. Women who married were likely to be pushed into marriage to much older men with the result that there was little affection between the spouses. For men it was easier and more convenient to find sex elsewhere, hence adultery and affairs were common- at least for men.

Women were also likely to be forced or coerced into abortions and infanticide. They had little power. The real power, the pater potestas, lay with the husband and father, who had the power of life and death over his family. And he used it. Stark has shown that infant girls were killed in enormous numbers by romans preferring a son; this led to a significant gender gap (as in modern China), and made marriage even more difficult.

Christian behavior was different. The marriage age gap was minimized. Abortion and infanticide forbidden. The double standard on adultery was abolished and, as a result, the gender gap was diminished. The pater potestas, at least in the pagan sense, was abolished. No longer did the husband have the power of life and death over his family; the headship remained, but it was now to be a headship of service. The husband was called the head of the family, but this was said, not by way of domination, but by way of sacrifice. He was, in the language of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, to love his wife even as Christ loved his Church, handing himself over for her to sanctify her. Perhaps the ideal was no more met then than now, but it was still different than the pagan, and the ideal mattered.

Why was the Christian practice so different? First was the language already discussed of Ephesians comparing marriage of a husband and wife to the union of Christ and His Church. Such an image placed higher obligations on both partners and forced them to view their marriages differently. Marriage became a sacrament, not a mere social contract.

This has another important aspect. The marriage symbolism implied a new purpose to marriage. In the old pagan view, marriage was for heir or perhaps family alliances. But the purpose of the union of Christ and the Church was holiness. In the Christian view, the purpose of marriage was not children (though they were to be welcomed) or social benefit, but the mutual holiness of the spouses. Hence women could not be seen as mere tools, as a means to an end (heirs or alliances). Because a woman was not mere matter, but had a soul, a soul for which the husband was responsible and so a woman, because she could not be seen solely in material terms, has a basis to be treated better in the Christian than pagan world- and this is what happened.

Today, with the advent of secularism and return of the materialist philosophy, the pagan world is again slowly returning. And again, the pagan world begins to see women only in material terms, which is to say, in sexual and reproductive terms. Hence, women’s “rights” are almost exclusively seen in sexual terms, which explains the paramount importance placed on birth control and abortion. This is because since women are only matter (or thought to be so), they are are seen solely in light of a material purpose- reproduction. And the modern world is becoming as proficient at preventing women from giving birth and being born as the pagan was. This keeps women more available to serve (as tools) the sexual desires of men. The propaganda has changed, cloaked in the language of “rights” but the facts have not.

Why I Remain A Narnian (Catholic)

The following is written at the suggestion of Elizabeth Scalia, here, that people write why they remain Catholic in response to a Pew survey showing a decline of religious affiliation over the past seven years.  If anyone else wishes to write one, use the twitter hashtag, #WhyRemainCatholic  If someone wishes to write one and doesn’t have a blog, I will publish it here as a guest post. 

A recent Pew study has made waves by noting the decline of religiosity in American society over the past seven years. This has led to a certain silly season on the internet, as a brief (and mind-numbing) glance at the comment boxes at Huffington Post reveal. Certainly, many reasons can be given for this. Poor instruction in the faith, rejection of the rule associated with religion, and the influence of an increasingly secular society come to mind. The Catholic Church, we are told, is “out of touch” with the modern word, too backward, clinging to its old superstitions. Given this, why still remain Catholic in an unCatholic world? If the world is moving on, why not move on with it?

Others reasons will vary, but first, I remain Catholic because Catholicism is not in touch with the modern world. If the Catholic Church only happened to tell me everything that the modern world already told me, then I should suspect it was all made up. If it made no truth claims that contradicted the World’s, I would think it only offered the world. But as James Bond put it, the world is not enough. A man doesn’t join the Church because he wants this world, but because he wants the next one.

In the Middle Ages, the common assumption was that a true Church should not be worldly, but should be unworldly. Pope Gregory VII waged a fierce battle, dying in exile as German troops descended on Rome, to free the Catholic Church from the control of secular princes. He reasoned that a Church too tied up with the world was less spiritual. A Church that was more unworldly, was more other-worldly. A Church that was less material and political was more spiritual. This is the same sense in which Fulton Sheen wrote that were he not Catholic and looking for the true Church, he would not look for the Church that got on with the world, but the one that did not. Not the Church that was progressive, but the one accused of being behind the times:

 would look for the Church which the world hated… look for the Church that is hated by the world as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church that is accused of being behind the times, as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned… Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God… Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men.… and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly it is other worldly… [then] the Church is Divine.” (2)

This is my first reason for remaining Catholic while Catholicism is out of touch with a world that is out of touch with God. A worldly Church would be mere vanity or conceit, an unwordly one might just be true. When the rest of world starts to run off a cliff, I want a Church that can stop and say, Humane Vitae.

The second reason is a matter of reason and may be dealt with more briefly here. I remain Catholic on the evidence. The Catholic Church may be ridiculed for its “ancient superstitions” and “bronze age gods,” but it is hard to see anything more superstitious than atheism. An atheist must believe that for no reason at all and with no explanation, the universe just happened to pop into existence out of nothing, that it just happened to be finely tuned for intelligent life, and that it just happened to lead to the development of conscious creatures capable of intelligence, reason, and discerning right from wrong. By contrast, in Catholicism, there is nothing strange about God creating a life permitting universe with creatures sharing in his own rationality. And once a man rejects atheism, there is no figure in any religion like the God-Man in the Gospels. There is no figure who claims that degree of divine authority, yet whose stories simply do not read like myths or legends, and whose followers went on to be tortured and killed in the belief that he was God crucified and risen from the dead.

Those two reasons probably account for why I remain Catholic, but there is one more consideration worth mentioning. Occasionally some atheist will make the very silly remark that atheism is not so different from Christianity; atheists simply disbelieve in one more God than Christians do. But, of course, this is absurd. Atheism is not simply disbelieving one more god than the Christians do, but a difference of world-view. It is the difference of being able to believe in a world of objective meaning, value, and purpose. It is a richer and larger world, where matter, with its meaning written into it by its maker, can represent a higher, more real, spiritual world. It means hope for the hopeless, a crown after the cross, and an Easter morning after a Good Friday.

And so even if there were no reason to be Catholic (and there are many), even if the God-Man in the Gospels were a deluded fool (and He is not), I think I should still have to say to the materialist, with C.S. Lewis:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up all those things … Then all I can say is … the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. […] That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (3)

And that is why I am Catholic, whatever the Pew studies may say and whatever others may say about the direction history is moving. A man can move with history or he can move history. The Church can, because it is not in touch with this world; it is in touch with a more real one.

(1) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

(2) http://www.catholicfamilycatalog.com/fulton-sheens-if-i-were-not-catholic.htm

(3) The Silver Chair, chapter 12.