Collect

Postcommunion for the Second Sunday Epiphany after Epiphany

Increase, O Lord, we pray thee, and multiply upon us the operation on thine almighty power: that we, whom thou hast quickened with these heavenly Sacraments, may by thy grace be made ready to receive the benefits which thou dost promise; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part II

There is certainly a sense in which execution might be done [1]; we might turn vengeance into sacrifice. It is dangerous, but it could be done. … We should say, in effect: ‘We have no right to punish you for what you have done in the past. But we are determined that we shall make it dangerous for men to do as you have done; we shall make it a matter of death. We shall sacrifice you to that new thing …’ The shedding of that blood would be a pronunciation of sentence against us and our children if we denied or disobeyed the law we had newly made. ‘It is good,’ said Caiaphas, and spoke a truth all civil governments have been compelled to maintain—and ecclesiastical also; why else were heretics condemned?—‘that one man should die for the people.’ … Whether it is conceded outside the Church is another matter. But she herself must not tamper with it. Those who sincerely reject the Single Sacrifice may perhaps be driven back on the many types of it, even if—no, because the centrality of all the types is unacknowledged. But belief in the Single must refuse the multiplicity.



—Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

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It may sound oxymoronic to assert that Christian principles are necessarily in tension with any society built upon Christian principles. But then, the very word oxymoron literally means ‘a sharp foolishness’—as in something that seems stupid at first glance but is actually quite practical or profound. For instance: tungsten has one of the highest melting points of any element, and due to this very little is known about liquid tungsten, for the terribly silly-sounding reason that nobody’s figured out how to make a container to hold it in.

Building a society on Christian principles is, I expect, possible, as it’s probably possible in principle to make a container that will hold liquid tungsten. [2] But history and theory alike suggest that both operations are insanely difficult, and apt to result in a lot of people getting burnt.

I do want to do full justice to Christendom. Our forefathers from Constantine to Chesterton were trying to build, maintain, and defend something that they were deeply convinced was good and right; and not a few among them were saints and heroes, some displaying the kind of grace that puts modern liberals like myself to shame. If they failed—or even if they succeeded and yet it would have been better otherwise—it was not for want of sincere goodwill. I make no secret of the fact that I, personally, think that the attempt to construct Christendom was a fatal mistake; but it was a very natural, plausible, persuasive mistake to make, and it did good as well as harm.

This paradox of Christendom-against-Christianity springs from what society, as such, consists in. Civil society is built on the persons, families, conventions, laws, and governments of the commonwealth in question. Its ‘economy’ is primarily the economy of justice: obligations are distinguished from liberties by enforcement—e.g., paying one’s taxes is an obligation, whereas making charitable donations (even those that may be relevant to taxes) is not. And where obligations end, the state’s power of enforcement ends. Cultural expectations, personal convictions, or individual relationships, may introduce other kinds of pressure, but law and the enforcement of law are ultimately synonymous. [3]

This is quite pointedly not the economy of the Church operates on. She accepts its existence, obviously, as she continues to accept the existence of gravity when celebrating the Ascension; indeed, the economy she does operate on is comprehensible only when the economy of justice has first been grasped, as the Ascension can only be recognized as something remarkable once we’ve noticed gravity. But the essential character of the Church is the economy of grace; of gift; of that which transcends, eludes, and defies obligation. Grace—that is, being filled with the life of God—is not only far past the just deserts of such selfish and flawed beings as ourselves, it’s past what any creature, however, good, could deserve from its creator. We could no more merit grace than a perfect sculpture could merit a sincere proposal of marriage from the sculpture; but our God has proposed to be not only Pygmalion, but Aphrodite to our Galatea.

This is part of which the relationship between St John the Baptist and Christ was, and remains, so important. Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. All the virtues of the ancient world were becoming parodies of themselves, from the stubborn piety of the Jews to the vigilant equity of the Romans. The reëstablishment of the visible ideal of justice was necessary, if the grace that transcends justice was to be seen for what it was by anybody. But when once that ideal of justice had been re-manifested, it was promptly transcended by the gospel. Where the Baptist commanded tax farmers not to defraud anyone, Christ told his listeners to chase after those who had requisitioned their property in order to give the thieves more; where the Baptist forbade soldiers to bully and harass the populace, Christ told those who were humiliatingly struck to peaceably invite a fresh blow. Free, wild, irresponsible self-gift, not to fellow Christians but to fellow men as such, friend or foe or stranger, is the ethic of the gospel.

And it is probably pretty obvious why you cannot build a civil society on that sort of principle. Generosity and forgiveness and pacifism and mercy—in a word, grace—can be lived out within a society built on justice. But you cannot build an economy of justice out of the elements of grace. The attempt to do so corrupts both: either justice will be treated as a gift, as though we did not owe it to our fellow man to respect his humanity by not murdering him or robbing him or lying to him; or grace will be treated as an obligation, not only in supernatural but in civil terms, and things that ought to be accepted as gifts will be demanded as payment.


I think, however, that the difference here is that all exclusion from the economy of grace is self-exclusion. Refusal to forgive is not punished by refusal of forgiveness, in the sense that refusal to pay a debt is punished by imprisonment. [4] Rather, refusal to forgive inevitably entails a rejection of the economy of grace, in the sense that refusal to eat and drink inevitably entails death. The refusal of grace places us squarely back in the economy of justice—where everything must be earned if we are to obtain it. And, considering that we depend on God to sustain every aspect of our existence, dealing with him in the economy of justice is a Sisyphean prospect.

Hence, no matter how good the intentions of those who wish to build Christendom, and even no matter how good their results, I think the project of building it is flawed as a matter of first premises. I don’t believe there can be any kingdom of heaven except the kingdom of heaven; I don’t believe that we can erect any Christian society except that which is in fact ruled by Christ. And that will come—but when it does, it’s the end of the world. Nonetheless there are other problems I have with Christendom, which I propose to go into in my next.

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[1] Williams wrote this during the Second World War, and was addressing what was to be done with, or to, or about Germany by the Allies.

[2] I mean, one that will hold it and not immediately melt and/or catch fire.
[3] This is, in my opinion, substantially the same as what Dante wrote in On Monarchy, that non enim jus extenditur ultra posse (‘law does not extend beyond power,’ i.e. you can only really have laws as far as you can enforce them).
[4] At least, I think this analogy is misleading, in our specific cultural context; but I could be wrong even about that, and whether I am or not, it is an analogy that our Lord did not hesitate to use in his cultural context.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part I

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
… Ambition comes behind and unobservable.
Sin grows with doing good. When I imposed the King’s law
In England, and waged war with him against Toulouse,
I beat the barons at their own game. I
Could then despise the men that thought me most contemptible,
The raw nobility, whose manners matched their fingernails.
While I ate out of the King’s dish
To become servant of God was never my wish.
Servant of God has greater chance of sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral

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I grew up in a deeply conservative, pro-life, evangelical household whose breadwinner was a US Naval intelligence officer. Democrats, we were not. Yet the idea of electing a man like Donald Trump as a Republican was not only revolting but baffling to all of us: a man with absolutely no experience, a record on pro-life issues that could be kindly described as spotty [1], a serial adulterer and sexual aggressor, a man with more lawsuits to his name than cells in his body, and one whose fantasticated ego can brook neither limit nor dissent—none of this has anything to do with the GOP my parents signed up for. The adult campaigns run by Kasich, McCain, or Romney (whatever their flaws) make me almost homesick now.

The question has been posed many times about how he could possibly have been elected. It’s been given several intelligent answers, and I think many have an element of truth; but what baffles me is that so many Christians should have supported, and should continue to support, such a grossly unworthy and incompetent figure not only as the President, but as their hero. The tendentious, hysterical, self-appointedly more-Catholic-than-the-Pope rag Lifesite News have declared him their pro-life person of the year for 2017. [2] What the hell happened?

I believe the key lies in the divergence between two superficially similar, historically entangled, yet essentially contrasting and usually inimical ideas. The one is Christendom; the other is Christianity.

By Christianity, I mean the religion taught by Jesus and handed down through his Apostles and the successors they appointed. More specifically, I mean Catholicism, which may be defined by being in full communion with the Bishops of Rome. But the tension between Christianity and Christendom shows up readily in other traditions, too; and there’s a sense in which American history revolves around that tension, and does so more thanks to its Protestant heritage than its Catholic minority.

By Christendom, I mean the attempt to organize civil society on Christian principles, with the express aim of defending Christian truth and promoting Christian faith among the populace. The only objection to doing this is that it cannot be done.

I believe that the Christian imagination has given this truth a magnificent, perhaps unconscious, poetic expression in the famous legend of the Holy Graal. Only a handful of knights—Arthur himself never among them—are said to have attained the relic; and in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, the late but ‘canonical’ version of the story, the guardian of the Graal warns Lancelot that the quest will lead to the ruin of Arthur and his realm. C. S. Lewis, commenting on Charles Williams’ Arthurian poems, says the following:

The saints, beginning with Christ Himself, not by failure but by their very sanctity, inevitably cause immense suffering. Christians naturally think more often of what the world has inflicted on the saints; but the saints also inflict much on the world. Mixed with the cry of martyrs, the cry of nature wounded by Grace also ascends—and presumably to heaven. That cry has indeed been legitimized for all believers by the words of the Virgin Mother herself—‘Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.’ To be silent on this point was impossible for Williams. … He felt that the final reconciliation, far from excluding, pre-supposed a full recognition of all that had been valid in the protests. It was, after all, the protesting Job who had been accepted of God, not his plausible comforters. His irony, his skepticism, his pessimism must all be allowed their say. He was sure they were not merely wrong. At the very least, he felt, Grace owes courtesy to the Nature it must so often reject. …

Galahad has caused Lancelot immense sorrow simply by being born. [3] He has caused Lancelot (and the Round Table in general) further sorrow by beginning ‘the adventures of the Sangreal,’ for ‘when this rich thing goeth about the Round Table shall be destroyed.’ His example has led many of them to undertake the quest of the Grail, and for them the quest has ended in humiliation and failure. This is ‘the double misery’ of Logres—to see their lower good destroyed by the higher and then to lose the higher also. … Logres is becoming Britain. The bright cloud which had almost descended to earth is being drawn back into the Land of the Trinity whence it came: the hard, worldly, unambiguous landscape emerges. There is no irony in Mordred, only commonplace cynicism. [4]

My imaginary, literary idea of why relics like the Graal, and the Holy Lance in the story of the Dolorous Blow, cause such destruction despite being explicitly good objects, is that they represent complete fusions of the material with the spiritual, as is proper to sacraments. [5] Hence anything a person does with them is ‘magical,’ in the sense of being not only the act they perform, but also the spiritual thing such an act symbolizes: wound a man with the Holy Lance, and you have not only symbolically but literally used a spiritual thing to injure a fellow man. It is a kind of witchcraft. For hands and hearts unready to handle these things, being given access to them is no kindness: they can use them only for their own ends (however virtuous), and the power they unleash will inevitably be ruinous.

This, then, is the poetic meaning, the meaning at which the story of the Graal was originally written (or so I conjecture—direct analysis of the images of Mediæval art, while great fun, is not my field of expertise). But allegorically, and whether the poets who composed the legends thought so or not, the meaning indicated is that Christendom is at best ill at ease with Christianity, and at worst actively hostile to it. Mordred, the bastard son of Arthur, was a wicked man, but we are not informed that he was an unorthodox one. Camelot is apt to maintain a double poise / of Catholic morals and another kind of catholic mockery. / It is laidly alike to be a wittol and a whore, / and wittoldom and whoredom are alike good cause for war. [6] Using supernatural things for natural ends is always a kind of witchcraft; and using Christian morals and Christian theology to construct a just society, while it is not necessarily using the specifically supernatural for the merely natural, always carries that temptation in itself.

For of course the thing about politics is that it is a game of power, of pragmatism, and of sides. And the thing about political sides is that what they’re after is the civil, financial, or military force to effect their plans; and those kinds of power have no tendency to encourage the love and holiness that our Master’s teaching exclusively consists in. Love and force are opposites.

I want to explore this further over my next few posts; for now, I leave my readers with another quotation from T. S. Eliot’s version of St Thomas Becket, killed in the midst of a Christian nation and a Catholic cathedral:

Peace! be quiet! remember where you are, and what is happening;
No life here is sought for but mine,
And I am not in danger: only near to death.
… The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
As oak and stone; stone and oak decay,
Give no stay, but the Church shall endure.
The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!

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[1] In 1999, Trump described himself as loathing abortion but considering the right to choose paramount, up to and including partial-birth abortion. Now, to do him justice, he seems to have moved away from that viewpoint long before his 2016 campaign. His apparently cavalier attitude toward the lives of the poor and sick, his hostility to refugees (even those that have lived in this country for years or decades, let alone those fleeing the horrors of groups like ISIS), and his alarming readiness to engage in braggadocio with unbalanced communities like North Korea, continue to leave me dissatisfied with any claim that he is pro-life.
[2] That awful sound you’re hearing is me, retching.
[3] Galahad was Lancelot’s illegitimate son, begotten on the Lady Elaine, daughter of the keeper of the Graal and a consecrated virgin; due to an enchantment Lancelot had supposed himself to be sleeping with Queen Guinevere, and when the enchantment faded, he was so horrified at his faithlessness to the Queen, and she in turn was so angry with him, that he went mad for months. The ironies at play in Galahad, the High Prince destined to achieve the Graal, being begotten through such a web of immoralities, is a literary accomplishment of the first order, and a kind of mythologized picture of the ironies at play in the redemption being accomplished through the corruption and weakness of the Apostles, the Jewish priesthood, and the Roman state.
[4] Arthurian Torso pp. 175-177.
[5] Relics are, of course, not sacraments per se, and do not have the intrinsic effects the sacraments do. This is one of several reasons this explanation is imaginative and artistic, rather than philosophical.
[6] From Williams’ poem The Meditation of Mordred, ll. 17-20. Laidly is an Anglo-Scottish dialectal word meaning ‘ugly,’ while wittol is an obsolete synonym for ‘cuckold,’ especially one who knowingly tolerates his wife’s adultery.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: A Year in Revue

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2017, the year of Are You Kidding Me With This Shit, has drawn to its close; some of my family have chosen theme words for 2018 (I guess it’s a custom like a New Year’s resolution?). I have selected the word blood-feud.

I generally do an arts review for the past year on New Year’s Eve, and this year is no exception. First up, much to my own surprise, is Kesha. She started making music when I was in college (in fact, we both went to the University of Maryland, though we never met), and I had always assumed she was just a forgettable, fun, kind of trashy singer who would have a few years of popularity and then fade. However, this year—after a lengthy legal battle with her ex-producer—she released a new album, and when I heard the single Praying, I was floored. Not only is it head and shoulders above her earlier work, it’s a good song in its own right: in particular, it showcases her remarkable vocal range, which I’d never guessed at before. The music video is compelling, too, featuring a lush mixture of Christian and Hindu religious symbolism, from Salvation Mountain, a dramatic example of American Christian folk art, to Holi, the Indian ‘festival of colors,’ which celebrates renewal, forgiveness, and the triumph of goodness over evil.

Though decidedly late to the party, I also have to give props to The Young Professionals, an Israeli pop-electro fusion band that I discovered thanks to a friend. Their music is fun and catchy, as pop should be, with a delicious Middle Eastern edge that sets it apart. Their music videos are deeply baffling; they’ve been compared to a high-end Milanese fashion show, and they’re certainly as bizarre as anything I’ve ever seen on a catwalk. But despite this, they are well-suited to the music, and their imagery is striking rather than repellent in its weirdness.

Another instance of me being late to the party would be that, thanks to Film Theory, I’ve just discovered Gravity Falls. I haven’t finished Season One yet, but I’m already a solid fan: it’s almost as good as Rick and Morty. In fact, there are some pretty persuasive fan theories that the two shows are secretly connected—theories bolstered by the fact that Alex Hirsch, the creator of Gravity Falls, is friends with Justin Roiland, one of the two minds behind Rick and Morty. (Falls has the added bonus of being something you could watch even if the kids are still up.) I’m not familiar with Hirsch’s other work, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled for his name in future.

In writing, I am super excited that the lovely and talented Eve Tushnet has another novel in the works, which she kindly asked me to beta-read. It’s about 250 pages and I got through it in three or four days; usually when I’m reading or watching something, even something I like, I’ll take frequent breaks, because I have the attention span of a coked-up squirrel. Not this. Every page of her writing makes me want to read the next one. If you’d like to get a taste of her fiction RFN (and you do), I strongly recommend her novel Amends, in which a group of alcoholics are put into a rehab reality show. It’s one of the cleverest, funniest, most empathetic, and shrewdest books I’ve ever read: her characters are so well-crafted that I feel like I’d recognize them if we met in real life.

Lastly, but not leastly, I recently found out about Drew Magary, author of several iterations of The Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalogue. Apparently he’s been at it since 2012, and a friend of mine recommended it to me. Reminiscent of Mallory Ortberg or P. J. O’Rourke, Magary roasts the Williams-Sonoma Christmas offerings (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) not only with gusto, but with profound, nay, philosophical insight into the raving stupidity that would make any single product advertised seem worth the price.

Finally, as the custom is, I’d like to wish my ten biggest readerships, or at any rate my best guess at them, a happy 2018. This year it’s English, Russian, French, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Irish Gaelic, Portuguese, Hindi, and Indonesian.

Happy New Year
С Новым Годом
Bonne Année
Щасдивого Нового Року
Frohes Neues Jahr
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Bhliain Nua Sásta
Feliz Ano Novo
नया साल मुबारक हो
Selamat Tahun Baru

Catch you all on the flip side!

PS: I have been having some seriously strange formatting problems, hence the absence of pictures and mixture of fonts; advice is welcome.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Ethics of Compromise; Or, Wittering

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavors to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defense;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

‘I believe God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people.’
‘For God’s sake,’ I said, for I was near to tears that morning, ‘why bring God into everything?’
‘I’m sorry. I forgot. But you know that’s an extremely funny question.’
‘Is it?’
‘To me. Not to you.’
‘No, not to me. It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.’
‘It’s arguable,’ said Brideshead. ‘Do you think he will need this elephant’s foot again?’

—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

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Melinda Selmys has hit it out of the park once again with her latest, which I propose to shamelessly misappropriate.

The priest that I actually confessed to did what most priests (in my experience) do if you come to them with an NFP hard-case: he said ‘I don’t know.’ But then he added that if I was willing to stay afterwards, one of the other priests might be able to advise. I waited, and eventually a very kind, older priest came over and listened while I explained my situation. His advice was, ‘Every day, you should try not to sin. But if you do anyway, know that you have done everything humanly possible. Put it in God’s hands.’ It was in many ways very helpful—being told by someone in authority that I really actually had tried as hard as I could made a huge difference in terms of shutting down the shame and self-accusation machine. It was also meant charitably: this was a priest trying to somehow steer a path between the demands of the teaching and the needs of the person in front of him.

This isn’t unlike the experiences I’ve had in the confessional. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of priests who’ve been severe with me about my sins, however grave; the Church is famously uncompromising in the content of her teaching about sex, especially sex between men, but the application of that teaching to actual penitents is eager to absolve and console, in my (perhaps extremely fortunate) experience. Some confessors have been much too lax, and many have given useless advice. But they’ve overwhelmingly been gentle and kind, and often they have been wise too.

Unfortunately that is not the whole story.

It was, however, problematic advice in practice. What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life1 … but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure, it wasn’t really my fault.

It’s a problem, not just in NFP culture but in purity culture more generally. If your situation is in any way irregular—that is, if you are not having married sex primarily for the purpose of procreation, there is a more or less strong psychological incentive towards sexual expression that is not quite consensual. There’s a lot of understanding, a lot of leeway, for people who are just carried away by a desire that overwhelms them. But if you’ve arrived at a sober, rational, well-considered and empirically tested conviction that a sexless marriage would be a disaster, that pregnancy would be worse, and that NFP does not work for you … well, you’re out of luck. [...] Suddenly not only are you sinning, you’re veering into the territory of willful rejection of the truth. And into the near orbit of presumption. Until you repudiate the error of your ways, confession isn’t even an option.2 Of course most confessors have more sense than people in NFP forums and comboxes. They’ll point out that emotional factors are only one of the factors that can reduce culpability,3 that in an objectively hard case you probably don’t meet the criteria for full knowledge, that if you want to do the right thing but are finding it functionally impossible due to external circumstances this also impedes full consent, and so on.

And for a long time, for eight or nine years, this really was satisfying to me. It’s rigorously logical, yet leaves space for moral generosity and humility; it allows for the difficult combination of idealism and compassion, not only within the same philosophy, but within the same person. That’s nothing to shake a stick at. Plenty of moral traditions that have successfully retained the loyalty of millions for generations aim lower than this, while yet being less flexible. (Even contemporary secular morality, while it operates on different principles from Catholic morality, is far harsher with those who transgress its principles, demanding mass shamings, public and groveling apologies, even personal ruin as its penances.)

And then, one day, it wasn’t satisfying. It was still good. But it ceased to be adequate to the dilemma I was facing, because its proponents didn’t seem ready to grapple honestly with its consequences. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to move forward.

But this is not the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture. Here, external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that [...] if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that. What people do instead is engage in a kind of psychodrama where you are tempted, you resist, you try to get away, but temptation slowly reels you in. It’s not quite your fault. It’s the feeling. The music. Your drink. The weather. Before you know it, almost against your will, there you are having sex like all the normal, badly catechized people. But at least you know enough to feel bad about it in the morning. Then you go to confession in the morning. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

This means that you can have a sex life … provided you’re not too hung up on giving clear consent. Because if you insist too much on explicit consent, sober consent, or worse, premeditated consent, this interrupts the entire drama. It shines too much light on its fundamental assumption that it is acceptable, indeed better, to lose control of yourself sexually than it is to rationally think about what will be good for you and discuss it clearly with your partner.

The moral revisionist (Christian or otherwise) will protest against Catholic principles on these grounds, while the traditionalist will protest instead against Mrs Selmys. I’m not prepared to do either, because I don’t understand.

On the one hand, I certainly see the revisionist’s point. It would be idle to deny that beliefs like those of Matthew Vines, Rev Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Justin Lee are appealing; but this does not make them either false or insincere (as I have insisted for years and shall continue to), and one of the strongest criticisms of Catholic teaching from that perspective is the anguish that our doctrine of chastity normally imposes on LGBT people. Is that anguish universal, or inevitable, or proof that the Catholic faith is wrong? No. But that’s cold comfort at best, and rank hypocrisy at worst, when offered by those who are exempt from such suffering to those who are subject to it continually. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and hath not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

But for me, that horror isn’t enough to alter my beliefs, for the simple reason that the central symbol of my faith is my God being tortured to death. That, you see, is what a crucifix is. The God who makes these demands of us did not spare himself their costliness.

Which leads me to the orthodox Catholic perspective and its problems.4 The premises are straightforward enough: the thing that matters most, in life and after it, is being united with God, who literally is goodness, beauty, and meaning; anything that impedes union with God is accordingly something to renounce and avoid, whatever else it costs us; therefore, the visible and tangible costs of doing the right thing are rightly to be regarded as trivial.

Where it gets problematic is, one of the things the Church insists upon is that the visible and tangible cost of an action is actually important. Morally relevant, even: whatever we think of Just War Theory, one of the standard criteria for the justice of a war is that there should be a reasonable prospect of success—meaning that if there isn’t, even a war fought in defense of one’s country is not just (since it would be sacrificing lives to national pride rather than national well-being). And the thing about being somebody who needs to ask forgiveness seventy times seven times is, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the people around you. Sometimes a compromise really would be healthier; just as, in a logically parallel case, it is much healthier to insincerely renounce one’s faith rather than be killed for it. The Church admires and celebrates her martyrs. But she also admires and celebrates the Kakure Kirishitan, the underground Catholics of Japan, who were forced to practice insincere apostasy or else be exterminated; and who survived in secret, without a single priest, for two centuries of longing and faithfulness, until they were reunited with the whole Church under the Emperor Meiji.

And anyway, the objection to the life of reasoned compromise is that it can harden your heart against God. I don’t deny that. But does a life of incessant failure to live up to perfection always keep your heart soft to God? I’m seriously asking.

If we’re virtue ethicists, it seems as though the life of reluctant but considered, frank compromise seems to draw nearer to full integration—it at least encourages our sexual behavior to be ruled by the brain rather than the, uh, little head. If we’re baptized Kantians, the life of the second, intending chastity even while anticipating failure, appears preferable; never mind the question of whether it’s psychological possible to intend something that you have no reason to believe you can actually accomplish. (Can an underweight guy who doesn’t work out sincerely intend to lift three hundred pounds?) But then again, if we are meant to have faith that God can do the impossible in us, what does that look like, if it doesn’t look like attempting what seems impossible? How many times ought we to attempt what looks impossible before we accept that, for whatever reason, God does not seem to be granting this particular grace?5

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I wittered there to passersby, and that has made small difference.

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1To dispose in advance of one tasteless response to this remark, to the effect that what a person wants out of sex isn’t morally relevant: I see nothing wrong in a woman wanting certain things from her sex life, certainly not any more than a man wanting certain things from his sex life. There are other moral factors to consider than what we want out of sex; I even assent that what we simply want may be the least weighty factor; it doesn’t follow that it can be ignored, either in moral theology or in daily life. Moreover, it bears saying that I have a vague impression that such dismissiveness of desire is directed at married women more often than at men (in any state of life), which doesn’t square with St Paul’s teaching that a wife rightly has authority over the body of her husband—and seems a little sexist in differing ways towards both sexes, if that has anything to do with it.
2This is due to the, oh, mechanics of Confession (side note: I’ve found Catholic sacramental theology easiest to understand as being like the rules to an RPG; plenty of nerds will happily read six hundred pages of role-playing mechanics to make sure they aren’t confusing a warlock with a sorcerer). The formula of absolution is not magical; it is the concrete manifestation of God’s forgiveness of the penitent—which means that repentance, in the Greek μετάνοια (metanoia) or change of heart, which by its nature includes an intention to leave one’s sin behind, is required. This is not an arbitrary requirement, imposed by God as a way of making things more difficult for us: rather, the purpose of divine forgiveness is a restored union of life between the sinner and God, and the defining characteristic of sin is that it mangles that life; that life and that mangling cannot coëxist, not permanently anyway. Incidentally, this is also (probably) why our Lord commanded us to forgive up to seventy times seven times: because forgiveness, in a sense, operates of itself, and since we cannot read hearts we must always be ready to forgive, or else, when a sincerely penitent person asks us for forgiveness and we refuse it, it will be we rather than they who have broken the relationship.
3This again refers to mechanics. For a sin to be what theology calls mortal sin in technical terms, it must meet three requirements: grave matter (i.e., doing something serious in itself), full knowledge (i.e., understanding not only what the moral law says but why it says it, and being aware of other relevant facts), and full consent (i.e., deciding to do it anyway without being controlled by passions, addiction, forgetfulness, threats, or whatever else). If one or more of these conditions isn’t met, then the sin in question is what is called a venial sin: not that it doesn’t matter, but that it doesn’t kill the divine life placed within us through the sacraments.
4Problem here is not a synonym for inconsistency or falsehood or anything of that kind. A problem is to be solved; the proper response to inconsistencies and falsehoods is, rather, unmasking.
5We know, if only from the uniqueness of the Immaculate Conception, that God does not grant every grace to every person.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Confiteor in Leather

We build in vain unless the LORD build with us.
Can you keep the City that the LORD keeps not with you?
A thousand policemen directing the traffic
Cannot tell you why you come or where you go.
A colony of cavies or a horde of active marmots
Build better than they that build without the LORD.
Shall we lift up our feet among perpetual ruins?
I have loved the beauty of Thy House, the peace of Thy sanctuary,
I have swept the floors and garnished the altars.

T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’

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It’s been a strange year—not unlike 2013, though less skull-crushingly awful (for me personally). I can’t tell whether my spiritual life is cyclical in an ascending-Mount-Purgatory sort of way, or whether I’m just in a rut. Probably the latter.


Diagram of Purgatory from Dorothy Sayers' introduction to the Purgatorio.

I’m entangled in a great many things that I should leave behind; most of them have to do with a leather bar here in Baltimore that I go to a lot.1 Now, before you flip your lid, gentle reader, allow me to assure you that Fifty Shades of Grey has as little to do with my life as it does with yours, and that in my (limited) experience, men and women in the leather world are some of the most sweet-natured people on earth. Kind of like people who work at Hot Topic. That’s a big part of why I am thus entangled: that bar is full of my friends. I like them, I like being with them, I feel lonely and bored when I'm away from them too long. And, like most millennials, they have to work so much to make ends meet that hanging out with them while they’re both off work and awake is a challenging, rare prospect.

There are less creditable motives, obviously. I like getting drunk; I like looking at men in leather, or out of it for that matter; I like fooling around with them. I have no desire to paint myself as some kind of compassionately conflicted saint—or rather, I have a great deal of desire to paint myself that way, but it wouldn’t be true, which is what matters.


Take that, pedestal.

All the same, as shabby a witness as I am (how credible, exactly, is a guy who will dance around in a jockstrap and a harness but won’t eat meat because it’s Friday?), I worry that there’s no other Christian presence in the lives of a lot of these guys; and that does matter to me. Messiah complex, probably. Foolishness, certainly: it’s neither my job nor my business to save anybody, and God is perfectly capable of reaching them without my assistance or my embarrassment. Is it better to be a scandal, or not be there at all?

Theologically that question is easy. Better not to be there. God can reach them as he pleases. Living in sin is destructive, by its nature; they are not (as far as I know) transgressing their consciences, whereas I am, and I should cut that shit right out. We know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal.

Yet I can’t get St Paul’s other strange words out of my head: I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. That can’t apply here—can it?

I loathe easy answers, and perhaps that’s the problem. I have a deep-seated mistrust of any answer that dissolves one of the parameters of a paradox; my whole life, I’ve found paradoxes to be built into the fabric of the universe at every level—scientific, social, theological, personal—and accordingly look for them everywhere.2 Maybe I’m more addicted to paradox than I am to truth? Or maybe I’m looking for the wrong kind of paradox here, more invested in a romantically dark conflict than in illumination and harmony. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time I made a bad decision.

Jesus embraced whores. He didn’t pay them, though. How do I become that person instead of this one?


Christ and the Samaritan Woman (St Photini)

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1It ain’t to hand out tracts.
2What confirmation bias?