Idolatry in context

Not one scrap of dignity is to be allowed us, it would appear.

The missionaries of colonial times were by any measure the greatest heroes Catholic civilization has produced.  No greater courage or charity could be imagined than for a man to go out into a strange land–the New World, India, or the Far East–and risk his life for the salvation of souls, indeed to save the very ones who will likely kill him.  Even as explorers, anthropologists, and humanitarians, their stories are quite remarkable.  Now we are told to be ashamed of them.  Everyone else is allowed to have something to be proud of, but not us.

Sacrifices must be made for the people of the Amazon.  Some say that they are Catholics deprived of the Eucharist who can only be helped by ordaining married men.  Some say that they are non-Catholics who will not convert unless we allow them to continue worshipping their fertility demon.  Some say that they are feminists who will not tolerate that women should not rule their parishes in name as well as in fact.  I suppose it is possible that all three are present in those wild places.

Evangelical zeal is not an unmixed blessing.  The missionaries and inquisitors of the Counter-Reformation would have laid down their lives to bring just one pagan to Christ.  I, however, am a modern man, a tolerant man, meaning I don’t give a shit about any barbarians and would prefer not to mangle the traditions of the Church to suit outsiders.  Perhaps it is true that their brand of heathenish superstition is particularly satisfying and ennobling.  We should then expect to get fewer converts from them.  Present the Gospel.  Let them take it or leave it.

Instead, Pope Francis has overseen the worship of pagan idols in Saint Peter’s itself.  This is taking becoming all things to all people quite far indeed.  The martyrs of ancient Rome chose to die rather than what our priests have now freely done.  Surely the Holy Father must have a reason.  Could it be simply to spite the God Who has so clearly abandoned us?  I can understand the sentiment, but it is nevertheless entirely irrational.  One cannot revenge oneself upon God.  If you decide to hurt God by defying Him, the very fact that you have made that choice proves that God doesn’t care about you enough to give grace to prevent it, and so only you and not He will be hurt by your self-degradation.  In any case, Francis does not seem particularly tribal and so would not be prone to such resentment.

I think the most optimistic reading of Francis’ pontificate is that he is positioning the Church (perhaps clumsily) to rediscover her essence as a priestly people and to lead a reaction against the tyranny of prophets now ruling and tormenting the world.  It is a daring maneuver.  Since the defeat of the Axis powers (Were they in fact the West’s last hope?), prophesy has ruled the world unchecked, and its self-righteousness and intolerance seem to intensify every year.  Despite its escalating illogic and cruelty, there is no reason to think a reaction necessary or even likely.  And yet, placing our hope in such a reaction is the only strategy that is consistent with the spirit of the Catholic people.

Idolatry was the first target of the prophets and remains a paradigmatic one.  The prophet always tells the people that what they think is holy is in fact profane, that in fact the social order is wicked and must be reformed by putting prophets in power.  Whatever the community cherishes, the prophet calls an idol.  A priest would rather tell the people that the social world which they think is profane in fact has a sacred substructure, that the people have in fact intuited this all along, that the social order is then better than they had thought and as good as they had secretly felt, and that existing powers should therefore be obeyed.  Defending idolatry cuts off the prophetic impulse at its source.  Defending the lifestyle of stone-age barbarians is the ultimate repudiation of the idea of progress.

Nevertheless, it is a clumsy move, because the synod’s idol-worship has offended against priestly morality as well by desecrating a space reserved for the worship of God Himself.  Priests do not care so much if uneducated people worship idols.  Such worship might often reflect their own rudimentary apprehension of the true God.  We are faintly disgusted by Saint Boniface cutting down sacred trees.  But idolatry has no place in our Churches, in which the duty to worship the one God has come to full, conscious recognition.

If we must have goddesses, I would rather have them from our own tribe’s history.  We are Roman Catholics, which means we are Romans, so I would rather that we honor Venus, mother of our father Aeneas, our beautiful morning and evening star!  The synod fathers deliberately chose not a goddess whose name would be familiar to men of the West–Minerva, Juno, Ceres, Proserpina, Isis, Ishtar–but one who is most alien to us.  Even in idolatry, they follow the anti-inculturation policy of Vatican II, whereby the sensibility of Catholics must be disturbed by things most foreign to their culture.  If one wants to be optimistic, one could call this a strategy as well.  We put out a case for respecting tribal traditions in the context of a very foreign people and only once the case is accepted apply it to our own traditions.

Points of Catholic pride

If the Church is to survive the next decade, Catholics must overcome their overwhelming, debilitating self-hatred.  Boasting about doctrine, sacraments, and apostolic succession does not help.  Thinking that we’re the scum of the Earth who have been given unprecedented spiritual gifts will just make us hate ourselves more.  We need to find ways to esteem ourselves.

As always, to learn how to survive, look at what the Jews are doing.  We don’t have their record of objective accomplishment, so we will have to be more creative.  In fact, the best boasts are unfalsifiable.  One cannot allow one’s collective self-esteem to be held hostage to empirical investigation.  On the other hand, boasts must have some connection to observations and judgments (however subjective) to be plausible.

Consider the following.

  • Catholics have the best food.  This is a no-brainer.  We’ve got the French.  We’ve got the Italians.  We’ve got the Mexicans.
  • Catholics have the prettiest girls.  We’ve got the French.  We’ve got the Italians.  We’ve got the Latinas.  I was also quite impressed with Polish girls, truth be told.  What’s more, Catholic girls like being girls.  You must admit that there’s something mannish about Protestant and Jewish women, as if they are carrying a grudge against God for not making them men.

Of course, one never argues it.  One speaks as if it’s something everyone already knows.  Thus is the status of the tribe advanced.

Only tribalism can fulfill the promises of Vatican II

By Vatican II, I mean what has generally been taken to be the “spirit” of the council:  a switch of emphasis from the “vertical” to the “horizontal” dimension of Catholicism, toward the community and away from God, toward lay action as opposed to purely cultic concerns.

There is a great deal of confusion here because what the progressives did is in almost every case the opposite of what they said they were doing, indeed even the opposite of what traditionalists accused them of doing.  I’ve noted before that organized action by the laity to sanctify the world was widespread before the council (Catholic Action, Christian Democracy and–better!–legitimism, the Legion of Decency,…), was hated by progressives who claimed to love the idea of lay action in the abstract, and collapsed immediately after the council.  The progressives praised inculturation and then forced us to use pictures of Jesus and the Apostles that make them look as foreign to us as possible.  They They called on Catholics to work together with “people of good will” but then lamented our alliance with right-wing authoritarians who provided the only protection against communist persecution.  The progressives praised Catholic communitarianism in the abstract, but then attacked without ceasing the chauvinism (“triumphalism”) any community needs to survive.  Indeed, the progressives were anxious to denounce the Catholic people–our ancestors and our average man in the pew–every chance they got.  They claimed to celebrate us as “the people of God” but never did anything of the sort.  They certainly let us know that we are morally inferior to communists, that our past is shameful and our present an embarrassment.  One might say that Catholicism after the council was much more centered on dogma and morality than it had ever been before, when the skeleton of doctrine had been clothed in the flesh of a distinctive subculture and its customs.

One wonders if the progressives ever stopped to think about what their slogans really mean.

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Book review: The View from Nowhere

The View from Nowhere
by Thomas Nagel (1986)

Objectivity is a distinguishing feature of intelligent beings, our ability to conceive the world not only from our own point of view, not only through that of others, but from an outside point of view that is no one’s in particular.  Our ability to see the world both subjectively and objectively introduces a duality in the soul.  For example, I realize from the objective perspective that my own personal concerns are of little ultimate concern (to the universe as a whole or even to the human race), and such a realization can be demoralizing.

Nagel has great appreciation for the objective view, crediting it, or at least the striving for greater approximation to it, as an important feature to science and ethics.  Nevertheless, he thinks the objective view, the view from nowhere, is necessarily incomplete and that the subjective view has its own legitimacy in a properly integrated human consciousness.  There can be no supremacy for one view or the other and no complete reconciliation, but philosophy can help manage the unavoidable tension.

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