Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Maritime Museum, Hull

I didn't leave Ireland until I was well into my twenties. I used to preen myself on this. I agreed with George Bernard Shaw that travel narrows the mind. I thought that finding yourself in a conversation with a travel bore was a fate only a few notches below death by dismemberment. I considered travel writing to be the lowest form of writing, fathoms below the writing of fridge manuals and perfume catalogues. (I still agree with the last part.)

Of course, I was being a twit. It's true that you can travel further in an armchair than on an airplane. It's true that someone who stays at home can know more about the world than any globe-trotter. But none of that means we should decline the opportunity to travel, for whatever it is worth. Just leaving the country doesn't make you a traitor to the beauty of the ordinary and near-at-hand. And travel is an experience unlike any other, after all.

In my late twenties, the clamour from friends and colleagues to "give it a try" became too much to resist. I spent a weekend in London, which was my first foray past the borders of the Republic of Ireland. (I've still never been to Northern Ireland, or the six counties, or whatever you want to call it.) And the next place I tried, after that, was-- Hull.

Some of you may be asking, 'Where's Hull?'. People who know the answer to that question may be asking, 'Why Hull'?

To answer both, Hull is a small city close to the east coast of England. It has the reputation of being one of the dullest and least glamorous places in England. In fact, it was named the worst place to live in Britain during the very week I spent there. As for why I went there-- it was mostly me being a contrarian. But it was also because my admiration of the English poet Philip Larkin was reaching a crescendo at this time, and Larkin had been a librarian at the University of Hull for most of his later life. (Hull was a suitable home for the determinedly stolid and curmudgeonly Larkin. Interestingly, for all its mundanity, Hull has been home to so many renowned poets that it has been called "the most poetic city in England". Perhaps there is a lesson there-- and in the fact that "Slough", a tirade against another soulless city, is actually one of John Betjeman's best poems.)

I travelled alone so it was a rather lonely trip. Whenever I gave not having a travelling companion as an excuse for not travelling, people would say: "Just go anyway." I see now that they were right. Not doing things because you have nobody to do them with is a good way to never have anyone to do anything with. Even if you don't meet anyone at the time, at least going out and doing stuff makes you less inward-looking and gives you something to talk about, stories to tell.

The highlight of my visit was the Maritime Museum, about which I wrote this poem. I loved it. It wasn't one of those new, fancy, multi-media, interactive, obnoxiously clean and bright museums. (Its only "fancy" feature was a recording of a whale song, which was played at regular intervals.) It had the musk of the past. Exhibits stood in rather grimy display cases or hung on walls with typed labels and captions attached. It was pleasantly cluttered. It told the story of Hull's whaling past-- at one time, whaling ships used to make their way from Hull to the Antarctic to fish (is that the word?) for whales, a trip that would take months at time. The trip was also dangerous. At one time, an open-air memorial service was being held in the harbour for the crew of one ship, who had not returned from their voyage, when that very ship sailed back into view. (The crews of these ships seemed to be very religious, with services often being held on board.) The museum also displayed various examples of the art of scrimshaw, which involves carving and sculpting from the bones of whales.

I found this memorial to a vanished past very haunting. Hence the poem, which has had more of an introduction than it deserves. (I wrote far too many sonnets back then. Everybody writes too many sonnets. Too often, a sonnet is a poetic form that people use when they won't take the bother to come up with a form more appropriate to the poem. Sonnets should really just be used for the most introspective, reflective poems.)

The Maritime Museum, Hull


The recorded cry of some dead whale resounds
Over and over again. Rusted harpoons
Hang from the walls. On winter afternoons
Descendants of dead sailors make the rounds
And mouth the names: Diana, Truelove, Swan.
Just syllables now. But children must have thrilled
To hear them, once. They gave renown. They killed.
But even the echo of their glory's gone.

These streets still pay their homage to the sea;
Pubs named for admirals, the Harbour Deck
Of a supermarket. Flotsam in time's wreck.
No-one tells tales of the Swan triumphantly
Returned from Arctic ices. Old, revered,
The Humber crawls, still dreaming of the days
It held the city's anxious, longing gaze
Like a mother no longer needed, no longer feared.

Who Doesn't Love Snowglobes?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Joy of the Gospel and Catholic Apologetics

This is the text of a talk I gave to the Blessed John Paul II Theological Society in St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, yesterday evening. I left out a handful of passages on the day because I was worried it was running on too long.

The audio is available here, on the blog of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, thanks to the computer whizzery of my wife Michelle.


Good evening, everybody. I’d like to thank Eamon for inviting me here and to thank all of you for showing up. It’s a real privilege to be here.

My subject is Catholic apologetics today, especially in the light of Pope Francis’s recent document Evangelii Gaudium, which I prefer to call by its English title, The Joy of the Gospel. Since I am such a devotee of G.K. Chesterton, and considering that Chesterton is still the towering figure of Catholic apologetics, I will be mentioning him quite a lot.

The Joy of the Gospel, as you know, is an apostolic exhortation, rather than an encylical. It is not infallible or binding upon the faithful, as has been pointed out frequently by many Catholics who disagree with some of its contents. Its purpose is to encourage all Catholics to focus upon the work of evangelization, and it calls for the Church to make all of its activities “mission-oriented”, as the Pope puts it. It urges us to focus upon the essentials of the Christian message, rather than specific and controversial doctrines, and also to preserve a proper sense of proportion when we proclaim the Gospel. It also calls for a respectful dialogue with non-Catholics and non-Christians. Although the document is not about apologetics per se, it obviously has important implications for that subject. I’m not going to synopsize the exhortation any further, but I will quote from it as I go along.

Apologetics—whether Catholic, Christian, or merely theistic—is a subject of absorbing interest to me. I spent about a year as a voracious consumer of apologetics, before I came to finally accept the truth of the Christian revelation. Since then, I’ve leapt into apologetics myself, through my blog The Irish Papist and also through articles in Catholic publications. And, like so many other Catholics, I often find myself engaged in a kind of impromptu everyday apologetics, as I am so often challenged about my faith in every kind of setting, and from every conceivable angle.

I began to practice my faith less than four years ago. Before that, I don’t know how I would have classified myself in religious terms. I was certainly sympathetic to Christianity, and to Catholicism in particular, but I only ever entered a church for funerals and memorial Masses. I do remember declaring myself an atheist on a handful of occasions, and I can remember once challenging a colleague to explain what the word ‘spirituality’ actually meant. This was more in the spirit of frustration than of belligerence. I was never anti-religious, but I simply couldn’t see what grounds there were to accept the claims of any religion.

At other times I was closer to the outlook of Alexander Pope, in his Universal Prayer:

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

I think this latter attitude is a fairly common one. I actually suspect that there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Mass-going Catholics in Ireland who believe, not in the Trinity and the Resurrection and the Incarnation, but in some ineffable Force behind our reality, one that might as well be worshipped using the stories and rituals of Catholicism as in any other manner. For this reason I think our evangelization and our apologetics should be addressed, not only to declared unebelievers, but to the people in the pews as well.

So through most of my twenties, I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about the meaning of life, or the nature of reality, or any of those things. I had other things to think about.

Then I started to write intensively. I had written poetry for years, plotting to spearhead a revival of traditional poetry that rhymed and scanned, and to smash the free verse establishment to smithereens. I’m still working on this plan, incidentally. But in my late twenties, I began to write fiction. I wrote a fantasy novel, followed by a children’s fantasy novel, followed by a horror novel, and finally a collection of horror short stories. They all remain unpublished, a status I don’t see changing.

I wrote non-stop, at a rattling pace. I spent my holidays and my weekends and my free-time and my tea-breaks at work writing. My imagination had been stirred by reading about Isaac Asimov, the science-fiction writer who wrote over five hundred books, and who famously said: “I think through my fingers”. I flung myself into a similar routine. And this turned out to be my undoing, the hook that God used to reel me in.

Story-telling is a quest. From the earliest times, stories were the means that mankind used to make sense of the universe and his place in it. Stories show us, not just a flux of random events, but something happening under the surface of events. More than that, stories are a quest for meaning. Stories tell us that life matters. They convince us that life is not a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, as Macbeth claimed, but a wonderful adventure, a long homecoming.

I spent months and months, writing my stories, feeling I was probing deeper and deeper into the mystery of existence. Until suddenly, I felt I had come to a dead end, a brick wall, an endless abyss. On the very day I finished writing a collection of a hundred horror stories—I had a little bottle of Bailey’s Irish cream ready, to celebrate—I found myself sliding into the deepest depression of my life.

I found myself asking: After the catharsis and the purple prose of the final page, after the hero finally reaches home, after the heroine discovers who she really is—what then? What makes the final embrace of the star-crossed lovers any more consequential than the buzzing of a fly in the air above them? What makes the noble sacrifice of the last scene any better than the murder in the first scene? Stories were a search for meaning, but what meaning was there for them to find?

I saw with horrible clarity that nothing had meaning unless everything had meaning, that free will and intelligence and purpose and beauty were no more than phantoms unless they had a source in something transcendental, something that was not only relatively free or intelligent or beautiful or meaningful, but absolutely so. And this is, as Aquinas says, is what everyone calls God.

Thus began my delving into apologetics—books, websites, youtube videos. Choosing to believe was not an option for me. I had no interest in a leap of faith, or in Pascal’s wager, or in some kind of mystical apprehension or auto-suggestion. This was the most important question there could possibly be—ultimately, the only important question—and it was my reason that required satisfaction, not my emotions. A universe without God seemed to leave room for nothing but despair. And yet this very consideration, far from inclining me to give theistic arguments an easy ride, made me relentlessly critical of them. I saw every objection to them with a kind of ghastly clarity. I honestly believe that I journeyed deeper into doubt and scepticism, at this time, than almost any atheist ever does. At least, I rarely today encounter any atheist argument without thinking, “I could put the case even stronger than that.”

I became more and more frustrated with the arguments of apologists. I was tired of reading about the limits of science and of empirical measurement, tired of desperate appeals to half-understood quantum physics, tired of the question-begging quotation that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy”. Who said that there were? Again and again, I was told that science could only answer the “how” and “what” questions, that it left the “why” questions, and what were often referred to as the Big Questions, unanswered. I saw no reason that there should be a “why” answer. I certainly felt an intuition that there must be a “why”. But intuition wasn’t good enough. People believed all kinds of crazy things on the basis of intuition.

Some arguments of apologists just seemed daft to me. For instance, there was the fairly common argument that it was not illogical to believe in God despite having no way to prove His existence, since everybody believed in the existence of other peoples’ minds, and we have no conclusive way to know that other people have minds. I thought one might as well argue that the characters in children’s picture books dance around the page when the covers are closed. Christian apologists were continually pointing to the blood-soaked record of atheistic communism, as well they might. But they seemed to ignore the fact that Scandinavia, the most secularized part of Western civilization, has a very high standard of living and strong social bonds. Sometimes it was claimed that scientists had faith just as surely as religious believers did, since they expected the laws of physics to continue operating into the future, and no experiment could prove that this would actually happen. But wasn’t this really stretching the definition of “faith” to breaking point?

I became absorbed in this debate, which of course stretches back as far as human civilization, just at the time that the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and company—were having their heyday. It was not only Christianity or organized religion or even religion itself that was under attack, but the very notion that there was anything supernatural at all. I discovered that the Amazing James Randi, the American magician and sceptic, had offered a million dollar prize for anyone who could provide evidence of the paranormal, under test conditions. Nobody had ever collected the prize. Various other sceptical societies offered similar prizes, and none had ever been collected. Similarly, experiments that studied the efficacy of petitionary prayer had found very little evidence in its favour.

Today it seems to me rather presumptious to assume that God should perform under laboratory conditions, but this seemed like a devastating, almost knock-down disproof at the time. It was true that many of the miracles associated with Catholicism—like the miracle of the sun at Fatima, the stigmata and bilocations of Padre Pio, the healings at Lourdes, and the uncanny properties of the Turin Shroud—were compelling and difficult to dismiss. But this seemed like a very slender thread on which to build such enormous faith.

That said, the more I became wrapped up in the debate, the more I came to respect the Catholic Church. I even began to feel that it was a two-horse race between atheism and Catholicism. Incidentally, Chesterton once expressed the same belief, in a book about William Blake: “If every human being lived a thousand years”, he said, “every human being would end up either in utter pessimistic scepticism or in the Catholic creed.” I agree.

My respect for the Catholic Church was based upon the fact that it was so willing to lay its cards upon the table, to make definite truth claims—and not only about events in the distant past. It declared various miracles and Marian apparitions, some of them modern, to be worthy of belief. It stood over two thousand years of doctrine and dogma. It insisted upon the historicity of the Gospels and the Resurrection of Christ.

Best of all, it not only rejected fideism—that is, the claim that belief in God is entirely based upon faith, and not at all upon reason—it actually declared it a heresy. Pope Pius X’s Anti-Modernist oath declared: “God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world.” A religion that didn’t insist upon that from the very first didn’t seem worth the time of day to me.

I decided that, if the Church was a liar, it was an amazingly consistent liar. If it was a fraud, it was a brilliant fraud. And, since I was an ardent social and cultural conservative, the culturally unfashionable teachings of the Catholic Church—on abortion, contraception, Papal authority, and so forth-- that were such a stumbling block to so many other potential converts, were a positive attraction to me. In fact, when I was finally convinced by the truth of Catholicism, I found myself having to trim the sails of my rather pugnacious conservatism more than a little.

But I was a long way from that at this time. In fact, I was beginning to despair. Philosophical materialism seemed to have won the day. I had been through all the arguments, over and over—the Argument from Design, the Argument from Morality, the Argument from Reason, the so-called fine-tuning of the universe, and many, many more—and nothing seemed like a winning argument to me. I may not, for instance, have understood or even been able to imagine how human consciousness could be something physical. But weren’t philosophers and scientists already talking about machines that could think? Why should the limits of my understanding be the limits of possibility?

I was in this sorry state—and it is no exaggeration to say that, at times, it amounted to a kind of mental and spiritual torture—when I read G.K. Chesterton’s little book Orthodoxy, first published in 1908. Chesterton, as you all doubtless know, was a journalist, novelist, poet, wit and Christian apologists. Later in life, he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. But Orthodoxy was more or less his debut as a self-confessed Christian, even though he had been a prominent polemicist for several years.

Pope Francis, in the only explicit mention of apologetics in The Joy of the Gospel, has called for a “creative apologetics”, and you could hardly get more creative than Orthodoxy. Chesterton, only thirty-four when he wrote it, makes an utterly original case for the truth of the Christian creed. It’s a virtuoso performance. I read it in one day, and by the time I put it down, I had all but accepted the truth of Christianity.

Amazingly, Chesterton opens by describing the very windowless cell of materialism that I had been trapped inside. He wrote:
“As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
It must be understood [Chesterton goes on] that I am not now discussing the relation of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.” End of quotation.

And later on in the argument, Chesterton does indeed attack the question of objective verity, but from the most extraordinary angles of attack. A chapter about fairy tales become a critique of the supposed necessity of the laws of nature. Chesterton argues that the regularities, the causes and effects, that we witness in the natural world are no less magical or less surprising than a mouse turning into a horse. Whimsical as it is, it is also the most rigorous philosophy. Chesterton is undermining the assumptions of the scientific fatalism of his day.

As the book goes on, his arguments become even more acrobatic and inspired. The chapter The Suicide of Thought contrasts the self-contradiction of various modish philosophies with the lucidity of Christianity, which—crazy as it seemed to his contemporaries—at least made internal sense. The chapter The Paradoxes of Christianity asks why Christianity has been attacked on so many grounds through the centuries; many of them starkly contradictory grounds. He concludes that Christianity must be at least be a most extraordinary thing, having been at different times attacked for being too dark and too bright, too timid and too warlike, too sensual and too otherworldy.
Finally, and triumphantly, Chesterton identifies this combination of opposites as being the very thing that makes Christianity unique, and that gives the Faith its uncanny knack of comprehending reality in all its irregularities and messiness.

“This”, he writes, “is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities of life. This is knowing that a man's heart is to the left and not in the middle. This is knowing not only that the earth is round, but knowing exactly where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe -- that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one. Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy -- that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" -- that was an emancipation.”

I have described Orthodoxy at what might seem excessive length in order to make a point, and what I think is a very important point. The point is that the book, though an intellectual tour-de-force, is not purely intellectual. Nor is it purely poetical. Nor is it purely historical, or purely philosophical, or purely anything else. It is, in fact, a marriage of many different types of evidence. It also stunningly original. Chesterton, in looking into his own soul and describing his own reasons for belief, had come up with a genuinely new contribution to this most ancient of arguments. And this I consider truly creative apologetics. I believe it is this that made the apologetics of Chesterton, and later of C.S. Lewis, so influential.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing against the use of pure reason in the defence of religious belief and of Christianity, nor am I arguing against the use of pure science or pure history or pure philosophy. The fact that I had been left unsatisfied by such arguments until I read Orthodoxy did not mean that they would not play a part in the later solidification of my belief. A book by the Catholic physicist, Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, finally convinced me—where several similar books had failed—that there was no conflict between modern science and Christianity. The Last Superstition, a polemic against the New Atheism by the American Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, showed me that my understanding of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God had been shallow indeed. It also convinced me that at least one of the arguments, the Argument from Contingency, was irrefutable. Feser’s blog also deepened my appreciation for the intellectual case for religious belief, and the philosphical poverty of materialism and naturalism. Finally, the debates I watched on Youtube between the Evangelical Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and many of the most famous atheists deeply impressed me. Craig relied upon purely academic arguments, and even atheists often conceded that he won the debates. His book The Son Rises, despite the awful title, is a very powerful defence of the Resurrection, on purely historical grounds.

So I do, in fact, think that pure reason is an indispensable weapon in the armoury of Christian apologetics. But I firmly believe that the most important form of Christian apologetics, the one that will win most minds and hopefully also most souls, is one that seeks to defend Christianity from as many different angles as possible, while using as many different strategies as possible.

I think that both Chesterton and Lewis were masters of this approach, and that this goes a long way towards explaining their continuing popularity, which eclipses that of any living Christian apologist. Chesterton was a writer whose output and whose diversity of subject matter was legendary. Collections of his essays have been given titles such as The Uses of Diversity, Generally Speaking and All I Survey. He wrote on every imaginable subject—some of his more noted essays were on the subject of chalk, on lying in bed, and on the case of a woman keeping a pig as a pet. But everything he wrote, articles and detective stories and novels and poems, was pervaded by his Christian and later Catholic viewpoint. Or as George Orwell put it, more disparagingly:

"Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan." End of quotation. Well, that’s one way of putting it, I suppose.

Lewis, on the other hand, expounded the Christian worldview not only in his apologetics but also in his Narnia books, his science fiction novels and his literary criticism. The chapter on Lucifer in his critical introduction to Paradise Lost is perhaps the most profound analysis of sin that I have ever read.

One reason I believe that this broad-ranging or holistic form of apologetics is so important is because it satisfies a certain demand in the human soul. Human beings, consciously or unconsciously, will seldom be content with a philosophy of life that doesn’t seem to take into account how complicated, wild, many-sided and inexhaustible the world is. An argument that satisfies the intellect but does not satisfy the soul is unlikely to be accepted for long. If Christ is truly the light of the world, rather than the fridge light that only comes on when we are looking inside it, then Christianity should illuminate the entirety of human existence. As Chesterton wrote: “Nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” Or as he also wrote: “A man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.” The best apologists are those who can convince their audiences, through appeals to the imagination and the intuition as well as to reason, that Christianity is big enough to contain their whole world. The best apologists demonstrate the truth of Pope Benedict’s moving words:”If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

Another reason I believe that apologists should strive for this broad, creative, wide-ranging approach is because it is so easy to get locked into a kind of table-tennis game, or perhaps a kind of trench warfare, with our opponents. The argument becomes stereotyped, stalemated, caught on a permanent roundabout. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Ping. The Church needs to move with the times and adapt to the modern world. Pong. No, the truths that the Church teaches are timeless, and it can’t meddle with them to please the fashions of the age. Ping. Oh really? Well, what about Limbo and fish on Friday? Pong. Limbo was never a defined doctrine and fish on Fridays was only ever a discipline. And on and on its goes, back and forth, tit for tat. Everybody knows what the next response is going to be, and it must be rare indeed that anybody changes their mind because of these exchanges.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we should simply retreat from this trench warfare, leaving the battlefield to the other side. That would be irresponsible. But without disengaging, we should always be seeking to open new fronts—or perhaps to dig tunnels into enemy territory, or to parachute in from the skies. We need to come upon those who have ranged such elaborate defences against the Christian gospel from unexpected directions.

One person who I think is very good at doing this is John Waters. Perhaps I should specify that I mean John Waters the Irish writer and journalist, and not John Waters the maker of deliberately offensive movies. John Waters, in his books Lapsed Agnostic and Beyond Consolation, and in innumerable articles in The Irish Catholic and The Irish Times, has written exhaustively of modern Ireland’s almost frantic effort to push away any reference to the transcendental or the spiritual, to limit reality to what can be measured and observed and categorized. He did this so much, and for so long, that I was beginning to get irritated with him. Similarly, I was getting fed up with his constantly repeated references to Pope Benedict’s metaphor of the bunker, the self-made reality that modern man has imprisoned himself inside. Waters used this metaphor again and again. And again and again. And then some more. I wondered how long he was going to labour this point, and when he was going to get round to actually talking about Jesus and about Christianity, which he so seldom seemed to do.

But I’ve come to believe that he was taking the right approach after all. Modern Ireland, or at least those parts of it that Waters is trying to reach, has indeed become so hostile to anything smacking of the spiritual that simply getting such people to recognize the artificiality and littleness of their own mental universe is enough of a labour for all of one man’s efforts. Just to render the bunker visible, as Waters puts it, is indeed a titanic and necessary work.

And I think Pope Francis would agree with this, too. In article 24 of The Joy of the Gospel, he writes: “An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” In article 225, he says: “evangelization…calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long run.”

It’s true that Pope Francis is talking about evangelization rather than apologetics here. But I don’t think evangelization and apologetics can be separated. How can we proclaim the gospel without being ready to answer objections? And what better opportunity is there to proclaim the gospel than when we find ourselves facing critics of Christianity or of the Catholic Church? Since I’m a shy person, I find the idea of approaching a stranger, or even a friend, and initiating a conversation about my faith extremely difficult. I am in awe of street evangelists. But I rarely find it difficult to speak up when I hear somebody taking issue with Catholicism or the Church. I think apologetics is a necessary form of evangelization.

While I’m on the subject of contemporary apologetics, I want to remark on some modern examples. I’m going to take a Goldilocks trio of examples; one that I think is all wrong in one direction, another that I think is all wrong in another direction, and a third that I think is just right.

The first is a TV series that was broadcast on TV3 recently, and hosted by Vincent Browne. The title was Challenging God, and the format was a panel discussion between believers and non-believers on the subject of God and religion. It’s a wonderful concept for a show, but it turned out to be a huge let-down. And I’m sorry to say that it was the Catholic and Christian guests who were mostly at fault.

I won’t give the names of the guests on the couple of episodes I saw. Most of them were theologians and priests that I had never heard of before. Perhaps it was simply a weak selection on the part of the producers. Perhaps it was even a deliberately weak selection. But one way or another, the contributors who were there to speak for the Christian and Catholic creed, and indeed one Jewish contributor, seemed to have only one tactic; retreat, retreat, retreat. When they were challenged as to certain parts of Scripture, they immediately complained about “literalism” on the part of their opponents, and ended up giving the impression that the Bible was nothing but a kind of extended poem. When they were challenged about our knowledge of God, they retreated perpetually behind God’s unknowability, as though we could know nothing at all about God—which is not the Christian belief, and which doesn’t leave us with much of a working relationship to the Deity. And when they were challenged on the subject of Christian history, they outdid the atheists in their eagerness to denounce it. This is a common motif in the sort of Christian apologetics that is all-too-apologetic in the conventional sense of that word—the idea that the history of Christianity, and even the history of Catholicism, has been one long lamentable betrayal of the message of Jesus. Always the implication is that millions upon millions of Christians through twenty centuries, with maybe a few exceptions like St. Francis, made a complete hash of the Christian life, but that the speaker is not about to fall into the same trap. And the sort of person who expounds this view is usually one who would castigate previous generations of Christians for their lack of humility.

Against this tendency, I cherish the words of Pope Francis in article thirteen of The Joy of the Gospel: “Nor should we see the newness of this mission as entailing a kind of displacement or forgetfulness of the living history which surrounds us and carries us forward. Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39). Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”. End of quotation.

I think that one of the challenges of the Catholic apologist is to convey to the unbeliever, or to the non-Catholic Christian, that the history of Catholicism is not—to paraphrase Joyce—a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. It’s very difficult to do this, because in our era we imbibe with our mother’s milk the idea that tradition is a burden and revolution is the ideal, that scrapping everything that went before and starting from scratch is the way to go. To get past simply defending Catholic history, and to try to communicate the wild swashbuckling romance of it all—to explain that a Catholic who enters a Catholic church is not simply lifting his mind from time to eternity, but is seeing eternity refracted through time, as in the scene of the Annunciation—this, I think, is a mighty and necessary labour.

I turn to the other extreme, which is the American Michael Voris and his Church Militant internet TV station. I don’t want to make heavy weather of Voris, if only because every time I mention him I seem to draw the unwelcome attentions of his fanbase. Basically, as many of you doubtless know, Michael Voris is a kind of twenty-first century self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. His internet videos focus overwhelmingly upon the crisis that he sees afflicting today’s Catholic Church; communion in the hand, guitar masses, liberal priests, a lack of focus on the Four Last Things, and the triumph of what he likes to call The Church of Nice. It sometimes seems he wants to replace the Church of Nice with the Church of Nasty.

Many of Voris’s criticisms of the modern Catholic Church are undoubtedly justified, but he seems the prime example of what Pope Francis calls an inward-looking Church. The attitude of apologists like Voris seems to be that, if only we could get the liturgy right, and get catechesis right, and present the world with a supremely self-confident Catholicism purged of liberalism and abuses, the world would flock to our pews. There’s something to be said for that, but I think it’s deeply na├»ve at the same time. Like the cosmos of Chesterton’s materialist, the entirely self-referential cosmos that apologists like Voris inhabit seems like the smallest hole a man can hide his head in. Apparently uninterested in engaging with modern currents of thought with anything but hostility and derision, he has nothing to offer non-Catholics and non-believers except the magnetism of his steely, intransigent certainty. That will always attract some people, but its appeal is limited. And that’s enough about Voris.

After all that, it’s a pleasure to turn to my Goldilocks. I don’t think too many people here will disagree if I claim that Father Robert Barron, another American, is the greatest apologist of our day. He seems to be the very embodiment of Pope Francis’s ideal. He radiates joy and enthusiasm, not in a cheesy way, but in a very sincere way. He is eager to use modern methods to spread the Gospel, as witnessed by his Word on Fire website and his short, meaty Youtube videos. He comments on popular cinema releases and social trends. He tries to find some common ground with the critics of Catholicism, since a conversation or even a debate is not going to go anywhere until there is something both sides can agree on. Like Chesterton and Lewis, to whom he often refers, he isn’t content with answering the stock accusations with stock responses, but strives to come up with new and creative angles. He is eager to convey, not only the truth of Catholicism, but its beauty and sublimity and intellectual depth. And he is always polite and respectful. I honestly believe that, in order to see what a twenty-first century Catholic apologist should be, we could do no better than look at Fr. Barron.

It might be wondered what the great Catholic and Christian apologists of recent times would make of the The Joy of the Gospel. Do Pope Francis’s calls for a more joyful, respectful, open, humble approach to evangelization hobble the efforts of Catholic apologists? Who will be drawn to the Faith if he we do not boldly proclaim that our Chuch is the One True Church, if we are not unflinching in our exposure of heresy, if we do not confront the dictatorship of relativism and the wishy-washiness of post-modernism with the certainties of our own Creed? Wasn’t the exodus from the priesthood, the religious life, and the pews after Vatican II a result of just such rhetoric as Pope Francis uses in The Joy of Gospel—rhetoric like this, for instance: “In some places we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time?” Or rhetoric like this: “"Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion.” What encouragement can there be for apologetics in a document that only uses the word “apologetics” once, but that uses the word “dialogue” fifty times? Doesn’t this kind of rhetoric, in fact, bring to mind those words from first Corinthians, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall gird himself for battle?” When the Pope writes that an evangelizer must not look like someone who has just come from a funeral, isn’t it hard not to picture a photograph of Hilaire Belloc with his black clothes and his trademark scowl? Are we all meant to start being happy-clappy now?

Well, it’s hard for me to comment on Belloc. I have always found his work rather tough going. He famously wrote the lines:

Heretics all, whoever you may be,
In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,
You never shall have good words from me.

And judging from these, we may decide that he wouldn’t have been a big fan of the kind of respectful dialogue with other religions and with the surrounding culture for which Pope Francis is calling. But I imagine Belloc was mostly joking in those lines.

It is tempting to say that Belloc was an apologist for a particular moment in English history, a moment when it was necessary to punch with two fists against the prejudices instilled in the English people by four centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda and false history, that Old Thunder has done his work now and can safely be retired. However, this would be to underestimate his continuing popularity. A Hilaire Belloc Society was formed in Ireland only this year. I went along to the first meeting and was surprised by the turnout, the enthusiasm of the attendees, and the number of young people there. So we cannot conclude that Belloc is an exhausted volcano.
From my knowledge of his work, and granted that I might be wrong, I do get the impression that his pugnacious style of apologetics might not be exactly in harmony with The Joy of the Gospel, a document that Pope Francis tells us has “a programmatic significance and important consequences.”

Still, perhaps I am simply doing Belloc an injustice. Even if his manner and his tone could be rather severe, and if he was suspicious of ostentatious emotion, he was equally capable of expressing The Joy of the Gospel in his own restrained style. One of my favourite quotations about Catholicism comes from his essay, An Open Letter to Dean Inge: “One thing in this world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized and (when recognized) most violently hated or loved. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it is the night.” So much for Belloc. I apologize to any Belloc fans who are listening and scandalized at my ignorance.

When we turn to another figures famous for his spirited apologetics, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, we might believe we have another figure who may have been less than happy with the tone of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation. The picture he presented on the his television show Life is Worth Living, clad in all the splendour of his episcopal robes, declaiming rather than speaking, and using a blackboard to illustrate his points as though he was a schoolmaster, seems a long way from the idea of “dialogue”. And yet I think Archbishop Sheen’s apologetics were much more in the style of The Joy of the Gospel than might be supposed, particularly in his ecumenical attitude. Life Is Worth Living drew in ten million viewers at its height. It is unlikely to have been such a hit by appealing only to Catholics. In fact, an ultra-traditionalist Catholic website called Tradition in Action devotes an entire article to complaining about Archbishop Sheen’s wishy-washy statements, especially his generous atttitude towards othe religions. They are appalled by quotations like this one: “the fullness of truth is like a complete circle of 360 degrees. Every religion in the world has a segment of that truth.” Or “Christ is hidden in all world religions, though as yet His face is veiled as it was to Moses, who asked to see it.” Or his boast that, on his television show, “never once was there an attempt at what might be called proselytizing.” As well as this, his pioneering work in religious broadcasting and his frequent strategy of beginning a programme, not by launching into a discussion of religion straight away, but by taking a point of departure from the cultural world of his viewers, seems entirely consistent with the spirit of Pope Francis’s document, and indeed with the spirit of the New Evangelization in general.

And so I come to Chesterton. At this point, my listeners might not be surprised to hear that I think Chesterton would have been fully on board with the programme of the Pope as outlined in The Joy of the Gospel, and not only because of his well-documented reverence towards the successors of St. Peter. In fact, I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Chesterton might have written this document—although, if Chesterton had written it, there would have been rather more jokes.

Those who know little about Chesterton sometimes encounter his epigrams, and see his photograph, or read his war ballad “Lepanto”, and imagine that he was a harrumphing, crusty old curmudgeon who went about waving his fist at the modern world and launching into the most triumphalist, take-no-prisoners form of Catholic apologetics. But nothing could be more mistaken.

In an introduction to an anthology of Chesterton’s Catholic writings, James J. Thompson describes Chesterton the apologist as he really was:

“A controversialist can easily sink into bitterness, especially when the creed they champion, as with Catholicism in England, is despised and mistrusted. In defence of a good cause, a good man can be transmogrified into a crotchety, dyspeptic misanthrope. Chesterton never succumbed to this temptation. He refused to relinquish his boyish high spirits and sanguine temperament; to him, contending for the Faith was immense fun. He exemplified the laughing apologist, chortling merrily as he pricked pomposities, exposed illogic, and smashed ramshackle arguments. Although he took the Faith seriously, he never made the mistake of assuming that one Gilbert Keith Chesteton should be treated with a grave demeanour.

Chesterton usually liked his adversaries as persons, and they generally responded to him in a kindred spirit. For over three decades he conducted a running dispute with Bernard Shaw; had they ever exhausted their substantive disagreements, they probably would have intitiated a round of fierce polemics over the weather. Yet the two remained fast friends, each recognizing in the other qualities that transcended intellectual difficulties. H.G. Wells, another of Chesterton’s regular sparring partners, represented, in Chesterton’s eyes, a prime example of a man inebriated with modern progressivism. The two men pounced upon one another with gusto, yet Chesterton lauded Wells as a jewel in England’s literary crown.” End of quotation.

But it wasn’t just Chesterton’s good humour and affability that was remarkable, when it came to his clashes with the enemies of Christianity. It was his willingness to see things from the other side, to enter sympathetically into a different mentality, to appreciate and acknowledge the element of truth in every half-truth that had been set in opposition to the fullness of truth. In other words, he was committed to dialogue, not simply to debate.

The similarities between The Joy of the Gospel and Chesterton’s philosophy are startling.

Pope Frances devotes a fairly long passage to the theme of city life, and the importance of discovering a spirituality of the city. Chesterton, a Londoner through and through, was always trying to discover the magical and the mystical in an urban setting. He wrote: “The suburbs ought to be either glorified by romance and religion or else destroyed by fire from heaven.” His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill is one attempt to do the first.

Pope Frances devotes a whole thirty pages of The Joy of the Gospel to the question of the poor, and the preferential option for the poor, insisting “They have much to teach us”. Chesterton never stopped writing about the poor, who he did not see as charity cases but the members of society who were most likely to preserve healthy instincts and traditions. He wrote: “We are always wondering what we shall do with the poor. If we were democrats, we should be wondering what the poor will do with us”. Nothing infuriated him more than condescending philantropy towards the poor.

Both men are concerned with the need for a philosophy of life to have a proportion, a fitting synthesis. The Pope writes: “The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values. Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.” Chesterton wrote: “What is to prevent one Humanist wanting chastity without humility, and another humility without chastity, and another truth or beauty without either? The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch. And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.”

The Pope insists upon the importance of concentrating upon the most important aspects of the Gospel when we evangelize. He writes: “When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”

This was always Chesterton’s modus operandi. He was not unwilling to engage in controversy about the smallest points of doctrine, but he always strove to emphasize the essence of Christianity, rather than the details.

Take these wonderful words from his sermon against pride, which I think are a good example of the kind of bold and creative evangelization the Pope is calling for:

"I should begin my sermon by telling people not to enjoy themselves. I should tell them to enjoy dances and theatres and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; to enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if they can enjoy nothing better; to enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to this other alternative; but never to learn to enjoy themselves. Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have as the greatest minds have always declared, a something that is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair." End of quotation.

Finally, and most importantly of all, the Pope and Chesterton resemble each other in the great emphasis that they put upon joy. The Pope’s document is entitled The Joy of the Gospel and the first words are: “The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” A few lines later, he writes: “I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy,”

Chesterton was ahead of him by a century or so. Joy and gratitude are the great Chestertonian themes, and the word “joy” resounds throughout all his writings.

Take this passage from a discussion of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, a poem full of the praises of wine and of seizing the pleasure of each moment, but which is laden with religious scepticism and pessimism:

Neither nature nor wine nor anything else can be enjoyed if we have the wrong attitude towards happiness, and Omar (or Fitzgerald) did have the wrong attitude towards happiness. He and those he has influenced do not see that if we are to be truly gay, we must believe that there is some eternal gaiety in the nature of things. We cannot enjoy thoroughly even a pas-de-quatre at a subscription dance unless we believe that the stars are dancing to the same tune. No one can be really hilarious but the serious man. “Wine,” says the Scripture, “maketh glad the heart of man,” but only of the man who has a heart. The thing called high spirits is possible only to the spiritual. Ultimately a man cannot rejoice in anything except the nature of things. Ultimately a man can enjoy nothing except religion. Once in the world’s history men did believe that the stars were dancing to the tune of their temples, and they danced as men have never danced since. With this old pagan eudaemonism the sage of the Rubaiyat has quite as little to do as he has with any Christian variety. He is no more a Bacchanal than he is a saint. Dionysus and his church was grounded on a serious joie-de-vivre like that of Walt Whitman. Dionysus made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. But Omar makes it, not a sacrament, but a medicine. He feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. “Drink,” he says, “for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.” So he stands offering us the cup in his hand. And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. “Drink” he says “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.” End of quotation.

Or take his most famous rhapsody on the joy of the Christian, once again from Orthodoxy:

Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear. End of quotation.

Do I think a Chestertonian apologetics is possible in the light of The Joy of the Gospel? Absolutely. A thousand times yes. If the recently opened cause for Chesterton’s sainthood succeeds, the Church might do worse than to declare him the patron saint of what we might call the New Apologetics, to go along with the New Evangelization. I think Chesterton showed, many decades ago, that a true and confident orthodoxy is not at all imperilled by a respectful and open-minded dialogue with different currents of thought, or with the use of new and bold forms of expression, or with a concentration upon the essentials rather than the doctrinal details of the Gospel.

I would only have this caution. We can emulate Chesterton, not by copying him or by quoting him to the point of tedium, but by seeking our own creative ways in which to proclaim and to defend the Gospel, the beauty ever ancient and ever new. The Catholic freesheet Alive!, which I think is a good newspaper in many ways, has a regular feature which goes by the name Dumbag Writes. In this feature, a master devil writes to an apprentice devil, advising him in his struggle to win human souls from God. In other words, the column is a blatant imitation of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which were a wonderfully fresh and original vehicle of apologetics at the time. Simply rehashing such ideas, in my view, can only give our readers and listeners that Christianity is no longer a living, vibrant force.

I also suspect that there is no need for such derivativeness. God called each of us by name, after all. I suspect that every one of us, as evangelists and apologists, have our own unique story to tell, our own unique insights to offer, our own unique glimpse into the deep things of God, and that with prayer and discernment and fidelity to the teaching of the Church we can bring it forth. As Pope Francis says: “I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear.” And if the trumpet gives such a resounding blast, who will fail to gird himself for battle?

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

RIP Harold Ramis

The director and co-writer of my favourite movie of all time, Groundhog Day has died at the tragically early age of sixty-nine.

He seemed like a genuinely good guy. I saw him in one interview about Groundhog Day saying that he really did believe in the moral and (I suppose I can say) spiritual message of the movie. I liked that.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Truly Horrific Story

A homeless man in a recyling bin is almost crushed to death in Dublin city centre.

You can't walk for ten minutes, or more likely five minutes, through Dublin city centre without coming across a homeless person. Sometimes, when I look out at the window of a bus to see someone sleeping in a doorway, I am struck by the realization that this is their whole reality. Not a traumatic event that happens one day and is remembered with shudders. Not an interval that has to be struggled through to get back to normal. But the reality of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and all the days after that. But, when the bus passes on, I stop thinking about it.

My Movie Reviews

Here are some movie reviews I wrote for Weekend Base, my friend Anna's website, from 2010 to 2012. They are reviews of:

The Bridges of Madison County, by request of Anna. I actually started reading the novella a few months before watching the movie, mostly because I like the title so much.

The Dukes of Hazzard. I will go to my grave insisting that this is a greatly underrated movie.

Trading Places

Dead of Night, the second-best horror film ever made after The Wicker Man

Dinner for Schmucks

Grown Ups, another unfairly-treated movie

The Expendables


Salt, a spy film starring Angelina Jolie

And Cinema Paradiso, which Anna asked me to review.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Here is a Powerful and Challenging Sermon

From the Yale University Church, preached in 2009, by a Protesant pastor.

Yes, this blog is where you'll get all the hottest and latest stuff.

Is Free Market Capitalism Contrary to Church Teaching?

Today, I found myself corresponding with a libertarian Catholic friend on the question of whether support for free market capitalism is contrary to Church teaching. I think that it is, my friend doesn't. This is actually the second such private debate I've been involved in. I had another Catholic friend with whom I corresponded with this for more than a year. It became quite tetchy and bad-tempered towards the end, although I'm pleased to say we are back in touch and we put the handbags away.

Anyway, searching my previous correspondence to find a selection of passages I'd pulled together from Papal encylicals that seem, to me, to make a near-irrefutable case I could use in my current debate, I thought I may as well post it on the blog. Let it be admitted that my libertarian friend did have an answer to this, and one that I can't dismiss lightly, and not without more research than I have time for right now.

Here goes, anyway:

"First of all I quote to you Chapter Three, Article Twenty-Five of Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church adopted at Vatican II:

“Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be respected by all as witnesses of divine and catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, should concur with their bishop’s judgment, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and adhere to it with a religious docility of spirit. This religious docility of the will and intellect must be extended, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the document is formulated” (from n.25 of the document “Lumen Gentium”)

Next I quote to you from Quadragesimo Anno, an enyclical written by Pope Pius XI in 1931, to commemorate forty years of Rerum Novarum-- the encyclical you consider yourself free to reject, but which subsequent Popes have re-affirmed:

Yet before proceeding to explain these matters, that principle which Leo XIII so clearly established must be laid down at the outset here, namely, that there resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters. Certainly the Church was not given the commission to guide men to an only fleeting and perishable happiness but to that which is eternal. Indeed the Church holds that it is unlawful for her to mix without cause in these temporal concerns; however, she can in no wise renounce the duty God entrusted to her to interpose her authority, not of course in matters of technique for which she is neither suitably equipped nor endowed by office, but in all things that are connected with the moral law. For as to these, the deposit of truth that God committed to Us and the grave duty of disseminating and interpreting the whole moral law, and of urging it in season and out of season, bring under and subject to Our supreme jurisdiction not only social order but economic activities themselves.

Finally, I quote to you Rerum Novarum itself, the passage which rejects the justice of wages simply because they are accepted by the worker, through his supposedly free "choice". This enyclical was released in 1891.

43. We now approach a subject of great importance, and one in respect of which, if extremes are to be avoided, right notions are absolutely necessary. Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances.

44. To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether. To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self preservation. "In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread." Hence, a man's labor necessarily bears two notes or characters. First of all, it is personal, inasmuch as the force which acts is bound up with the personality and is the exclusive property of him who acts, and, further, was given to him for his advantage. Secondly, man's labor is necessary; for without the result of labor a man cannot live, and self-preservation is a law of nature, which it is wrong to disobey. Now, were we to consider labor merely in so far as it is personal, doubtless it would be within the workman's right to accept any rate of wages whatsoever; for in the same way as he is free to work or not, so is he free to accept a small wage or even none at all. But our conclusion must be very different if, together with the personal element in a man's work, we consider the fact that work is also necessary for him to live: these two aspects of his work are separable in thought, but not in reality. The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.

45. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.
"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two Random Thoughts

1. I had a whim to watch some Youtube videos of stand-up comedy this evening, as I was making dinner. Being a lover of the seventies, I typed in a random year from that decade, reckoning that would get me past all the "trending" stand-up routines of the moment.

It brought me to this 1976 performance from Steve Martin. It's amusing that, about one minute and fifteen seconds into the act, he brings up the (then) novelty of hand dryers in airport bathrooms, complaining how long they take to dry your hands and how paper towels (which had apparently been removed in favour of the automatic driers) are infinitely superior.

Isn't it funny that, more than my whole lifetime later, hand dryers are still terrible? I mean, truly terrible? I've never used one that was a fifth as good as a paper towel. And few public bathrooms wouldn't give you the choice of a towel now. I take considerable satisfaction in the fact that the boffins haven't been able to make a machine that dries your hand better than paper in all these years. The breakneck pace of technological progress, my eye.

2. Tonight I also found myself asking my father what card games we had played in our house when I was a child. I was told that one of them was Twenty-Fives, which the online Encyclopedia Brittanica lists as "Ireland's national card game". I never suspected we had a national card game, but the fact delights me. And it occurred to me that someone should try to compile an absolutely exhaustive list of all the things that are unique or distinctive to Ireland-- especially little things like that, things that are usually forgotten when we come to listing the things that make our country different from the rest of the world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I Like This Quotation

"It is very much our mission to transform the prose of this life into poetry, into heroic verse."-- Jose Maria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei.

Talk on Apologetics


As the snazzy poster above explains, I will be giving a talk on the subject of Catholic apologetics in the light of Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope's recently-issued apostolic exhortation. It's a week from today and it's organized by the Blessed John Paul II Theological Society in St. Patrick's College, Maynooth. All welcome!

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Book Well Worth Reading

My wife has been learning the Lord's Prayer in Irish. She picked it up pretty quick. I wasn't the best teacher, as I didn't get it exactly right, despite having regularly recited it in the last few years, and despite having had fourteen years of my schooling through the Irish language.

Listening to her say it, I found myself thinking about a particular book that I feel like reading, but that I can't get a hold of right now.

It's simply called The Lord's Prayer. It was written by an E.A. Somerville, who was an Anglican and a professor of English, writing in the thirties or forties.

The book is about three hundred pages long and looks at the Lord's Prayer from various angles. It begins with a discussion of the textual sources in Luke and Matthew, especially the exact meaning of "supersubstantial bread", and how this was translated by various translators. Another chapter goes into the writings of the Church Fathers on the subject. But the historical stuff isn't laboured, and it's written with a light touch.

Then there is a long chapter analysing the prayer itself, its centrality to Christian life and culture, and the ways in which it both harmonizes and contrasts with pre-Christian ethics and morality.

The later chapters are the cherry. The writer looks at the influence of the Lord's Prayer upon English poetry and fiction, from medieval times to the time of writing. He lets his pen wander through his own experiences and ruminations, most entertainingly. He describes how he heard the prayer recited and drawn upon by schoolchildren in Birmingham (he was a school inspector at one point), by his fellow soldiers in World War One, and by farmers that he drank with in a Somerset pub.

Finally, the book expands to a long and lyrical exploration of the spiritual life and the condition of man in the twentieth century, all seen through the lens of the prayer Jesus gave us.

The edition I have in mind is a rather weathered library copy, bound in blue-grey cloth, with ink stains on the cover and various scribbled notes, highlighted passages and thumb-prints inside. The print is dark and rather large.

The author's style is what makes the book. He is by turns reverent, drily humorous, poetical, scholarly, anedoctal, personal, and mystical. He is a representative of a type that I think belongs especially to the England of that time-- cultured, no-nonsense, whimsical, well-travelled, wearing his scholarship lightly.

This is the book I yearn to read right now. There is only one problem. The book does not exist.

Reader, I swear that this is exactly the book that I suddenly felt a craving to read as I listened to Michelle recite the Lord's Prayer in Irish. It came to me in a flash. I won't claim that every detail was fleshed out in my mind, but it was all latent in the picture that popped into my head-- the same way you might imagine a fictional house, and readily describe every item of furniture within that house, if a friend were to press you. Or you might imagine a particular character and be able to describe their political views, tastes in food and turns of phrase with minute precision, without even having to think about it.

This is the book I want to read. This is the exact book I want to read. Down to the ink stains on the cover.

Why doesn't it exist?

And why do we have such strange cravings?

And why is imagination so very mysterious?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Some of my Favourite Historical Quotations

By "historical quotation", I don't mean a quotation that is taken from history, since that would encompass everything. I don't even mean a quotation about history.

What I mean are those quotations that are made at the time but that capture the drama of a historical moment.

Of course, I am only hailing these as great quotations, not endorsing the sentiments. Nor do I know (or much care) whether any of them are apocryphal or not.

"We will now proceed to construct the socialist order." Vladimir Lenin, Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, 1917.

"Early this morning I signed my death warrant". Michael Collins, on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921

"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time." Lord Edward Grey, English Foreign Secretary, at the outbreak of war in 1914. Said while looking at the street lamps being lit in the street outside as dusk fell.

"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Robert Oppenheimer, on the detonation of the first nuclear explosion.

"May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." William Lenthall, speaker of the House of Commons, to King Charles I, 1662

"There's an end of an old song." the Earl of Seafield, signing the Act of Union between Scotland and England, 1707

"The Pope? How many regiments has he got?." Stalin, 1935

"We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable." Emperor Hirohito, 1945

"We are all socialists now." William Harcourt, British MP, 1888

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Some Letters in the Irish Times Just Make Your Jaw Drop

A chara, – May I respectfully suggest that if someone is upset by being called homophobic, they refrain from espousing homophobic views. Problem solved. – Is mise,

EMILY NEENAN,

George’s Quay, Dublin 2.


So there you go. The persecution of Jews through the centuries must have been justified, because why would their persecutors have accused them of child murder and treason and all those lovely things unless it was true? School bullying is no longer a problem because the victims wouldn't just get bullied for nothing, would they? We no longer have to feel bad about the victims of Stalin's purges because, well, they would have been just fine if they weren't actually Trotskyists and saboteurs. No smoke without fire, after all.

How doesn't everybody else see this? It's so insanely simple when you get it! It cuts through so many ethical, jurisprudential and philosophical Gordian knots with one swift flash of steel!

The writer may object that she is condemning expressed views, which are publicly aired, as homophobic, as opposed to deeds or actions which have to be discovered through investigation. And this is true, and my satire does indeed rather overstate the case for that reason.

But how does it make her comment any more superfluous and cheap? The point of the whole correspondence is whether an expression of opposition to same-sex marriage makes you homophobic or not. To say, "We wouldn't say you were homophobic unless it was true" is adding nothing at all to the debate. It's what a frustrated father says to a smart-alecky seven-year-old daughter when he's tired of arguing with her.

Another letter on the same page is touching in its naivety:


Sir, – Breda O’Brien (Opinion, February 8th) seems to think that a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum on marriage equality will be an endorsement of those who seek to stifle the expression of dissenting views on the issue. I can assure her that it will be nothing of the sort. The only outcome of a Yes vote will be that same-sex couples will finally be afforded the same rights that other couples currently enjoy in society. Nothing more, nothing less. – Yours, etc,

ADAM LONG,

Ballina-Killaloe,

Co Tipperary.


How can he say this, when the very correspondence in which he is entering brims over with letter-writers eager to pathologize their opponents, and a recent article in the same paper (I think it was the same paper) called for a government body that would be a watch-dog against "homophobia"? It's like you can hear the knives being sharpened already.

Monday, February 10, 2014

To Blog or not to Blog

Yes, it's been a long time since I updated this blog. The truth is, I spent a long time mulling over whether I should keep going with it. It's been going for a good few years now and its readership has remained at the same level for a lot of that time. Very few other blogs or websites link to it (though I don't actively canvas these). I do have a lot of fun-- an enormous amount of fun-- writing it, but that's not all a good thing as I am tempted to put too much energy into it, to the detriment of other important things. The GK Chesterton Society has been on ice for far too long now, and the success of the Belloc Society has shown me what is possible in that regard (and I do think such Societies are important).

I also had a personal tragedy in my own life recently, which has obviously taken my attention off other things.

I told my wife Michelle that I was thinking of giving up the blog, and she counselled me very strongly to keep it up. So that's what I'll do. (My wife has an uncanny knack of giving the best advice.)

I also learned this week (and not for the first time) that the blog is read more widely than I suspected. Readership statistics and volume of comments don't paint a full picture, as I realize from time to time but always seem to forget. I appreciate everyone who reads, and I pray for them.

So, this is just to let the world know that this blog is not a dead blog. There's life in the old blog yet, to misquote an Irish song. But it will probably take me a little while to get back into the swing of things.

(Incidentally, I have been rediscovering Chesterton. I've noticed a regular pattern whereby, every once in a while, I begin to find his idiosyncrasies and hobby-horses and mannerisms irritating, and stop reading him. Then I pick up a Chesterton book and all the love and affection and gratitude I feel for him comes flooding back. I was reading the Autobiography recently-- a book he finished weeks before he died-- which I'm beginning to think is even better than Orthodoxy, which I've long considered not only my favourite Chesterton book, but my favourite book of all time. The Autobiography is more intimate and mellow-- all the enfant terrible provocativeness of Orthodoxy has been left behind. In fact, I find later Chesterton much mellower and generous and deeper than early Chesterton, despite the common claim that he was a shadow of his former self after his breakdown during World War One.

Why are an old man's reminiscences considered to be so proverbially dull? To me, nothing is more exciting than to hear an old man reminisce. I love to listen to my own father's memories. I guess it has to do with our lack of appreciation for old age. Rather than valuing old age, we try to deny it. Why should sixty be "the new forty"? What's so wrong with being sixty? Or seventy? Or eighty?)