The Catholic Thing
Disorder on the March Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 31 August 2013

The last week or two have shown the forces of disorder on the march, in the full momentum of their triumphs in recent years.  A quick review: 

• Former Disney Corporation commodity/child star Miley Cyrus gave a pornographic performance at the televised MTV Video Music Awards.  Her explicit sexual depictions, for an audience that she and the producers knew would include children, drew the excited buzz that her money managers probably longed for.  Despite some criticism, the fact of her “accomplishment” advances the argument in favor of “sex as entertainment” as the cultural norm, for those of all ages.

• The Internal Revenue Service announced that same-sex couples married in states permitting such arrangements could file joint tax returns wherever they move, including in states that do not acknowledge their marriage. In line with the Supreme Court’s invalidation of parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, the progressive state and its collection agency have created another “fact on the ground” with regard to the legal legitimacy of same-sex marriage and the strangeness of those who might oppose it.

• Hadley Arkes reported the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision to uphold penalties against a couple who refused, on religious grounds, to photograph acts of same-sex affection in a wedding.  The authority of the state to dismiss religious and conscience-based objections to its view of equality thereby grew.

• Huffington Post alerted us to the rapid entry into the medical market of easy, non-invasive screening tests for genetic abnormalities in pre-borns as early as ten weeks after conception, especially those with Down syndrome.  “These tests … grant women more time to make an educated decision on whether to continue the pregnancy, or to prepare medically and emotionally to raise a child different from the one they might have expected.”  A doctor described these new tests as the “entrée” that might, if necessary during a pregnancy, lead to the “main course” of more definite, invasive testing.  Interestingly, the report included interviews and photos of mothers who had either rejected more invasive screening (due to risk of miscarriage) or chosen to have a child with Down’s syndrome.  But the autonomy of a mother’s choice over the life or death of her children is thus enlarged. 

• The Middle East has descended further into chaos.  The American administration, which has resisted acting in Syria to implement its own stated policy that President Bashir al-Assad must go, accepted the truth of allegations that Syria, a Russian and Iranian client, had recently killed hundreds of non-combatants with chemical weapons.  Among the estimated 75 -100,000 deaths in the civil war there since early 2011, Christians – many of whom were already refugees from Islamist violence in Iraq following the American removal of Saddam Hussein – have faced particularly dire consequences.  At this stage, it is impossible to sort out whom America might reasonably support among Assad’s Ba’athist henchmen or the Syrian opposition groups, which include both fans of Western liberalism and Jihadi fighters. 

             Reality bites back . . .

Likewise, in Egypt, America has faced a choice between a Muslim Brotherhood government, duly elected and industriously implementing an Islamist agenda both in Egypt and across the region, and a less Islamist military’s re-taking of power.  And Christians, who in recent decades had found an uneasy modus vivendi with the military government, have been the focus of Brotherhood rage.  Again, the confusion is so complete at this point that the consequences of any action or inaction are completely unpredictable.

• At home, Catholics have been troubled by the Jody Bottum Affair, or Bottumgate, which has produced a bottomless cauldron of discontent.  Bottum, for intellectually flaccid and possibly other reasons, concluded that Catholics should accept same-sex marriage as a fact in the public square.

As several critics have pointed out, though, losing the political argument on marriage will not mollify those whose final purpose is the elimination of any reference to an order of living they themselves did not create.

That said, I’m sympathetic with Bottum in one regard.  The confusion of the moment is so comprehensive, as demonstrated in just the recent examples above from popular culture, law, science and politics, that any kind of coherent political or public square response is difficult to envision.

As a friend recently reminded me, a famous physical scientist once said that as science goes off on various excursions, “reality always bites back.”  We have reached a point, in our collective cultural and political abandonment of true order, where reality is going to bite back – maybe slowly and gently, maybe quickly and violently.

The question is how to witness for truth in the meantime. One answer is Alasdair MacIntyre’s advocacy of small communities that by and large withdraw from the national public square.

That stance is uncomfortable for Catholics – and many have rejected it – because the Church is interested in all aspects of truth, including how truth shapes political action. But until our nihilistic culture and the power politics of secular progressivism are reformed by some sort of spiritual renaissance, or collapse of their own dead weight, there will be severe limits to what can be accomplished in the public square.  And participation in that public square has to be weighed against the risk of legitimizing and perpetuating all that is wrong with it.

We will have to learn from Christians in the Middle East, from Christians in central Europe in the communist era, and most of all from first century Christians.  They all survived a great deal of reality’s biting back.  And they witnessed for Christ, first and always.

Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. 

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Lee Gilbert, August 31, 2013
"The question is how to witness for truth in the meantime. One answer is Alasdair MacIntyre’s advocacy of small communities that by and large withdraw from the national public square."

1 This has possibilities and has been done with incredible success in Europe. When the Roman Empire was disintegrating, people gathered around small Christian communities that had earlier withdrawn from the public square, namely the monasteries.

2. However that may be,the homeschoolers have withdrawn from the public square with great success in the matter of educating their children and passing to their children the culture that made Western Civilization possible in the first place.

3. Similarly withdrawing from the public square to the extent of keeping the main stream mass media out of our homes would go a long way toward preserving our sanity and probity. How much of our cultural and sexual insanity is due simply to the fact that Christians have allowed television etc to convert them and their children, to set the agenda on every level. It would create the possibility of reviving a culture of vocation, of interior silence, of family evenings together, of premarital chastity, of exemplary family life. So long as we are "in dialogue" with the so-called culture, we have only the possibility of being overwhelmed and extinguished. We are contending on the enemy's terms and on his ground and it is killing us. It could do nothing else. Paradoxically, retreat, disengagement is the fastest, surest way to victory.

written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 31, 2013
Wood writes: "...reality is going to bite back – maybe slowly and gently, maybe quickly and violently. The question is how to witness for truth in the meantime. One answer is Alasdair MacIntyre’s advocacy of small communities that by and large withdraw from the national public square."

I do not believe the only options are to engage fully or disengage. What will need to happen is that small communities of Catholics will have to come together to form bastions of mutual support to secure the integrity and perpetuation of the faith. These will be safe havens from which to venture out and engage the pagan culture in order to evangelize. I do not believe parishes are suited for this function as they are too large and impersonal. What it means to be a Catholic will necessarily be more sharply defined in the years ahead. Prepare to lose your jobs, be publicly vilified, go to jail, or worse. Will there be Catholic communities in place to provide the needed succor?
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 31, 2013
The notion, entertained by its proponents, that SSM will produce a unisex institution of marriage, with identical rights for same-sex and opposite-sex couples is false in fact.

Despite the recent efforts of the French National Assembly, a leading jurist has analysed the result as follows:

“It is necessary, since the law of 19th May 2013 (2013-404) to distinguish two marriages
1.The union, freely agreed to, of a man and a woman in order to found a family. Only this marriage between a man and a woman affects filiation (Title VII of Book I of the Civil Code)
2.The union, freely agreed to, between two persons of the same sex, which permits them, within the limits of the appreciation of the interests of the child by the administration and then the judge, to adopt (Title VIII of Book I of the Civil Code) the child of one of them, or a ward of the State or, subject to what is permitted by conventions between states, a foreign child.”

Marriage equality, even in the hands of its supporters, reveals itself to be an illusion. “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.”
written by Manfred, August 31, 2013
Thank you, Mr. Wood, for a truly powerful article. Thank you, Lee Gilbert, for fine points as well. I am of mixed mind as I fear the Obama strategy is divide and conquer.I like the approach of Robert George and the rapprochement with the Evangelicals, something that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. When I see columns such as this as well as other Catholic sites which are led by adults, it is encouraging to see that lay people finally realize that the institutional Church, which derives most of its income from its partner the Federal Gov't., will be of no assistance in this herculean struggle. My fear is that people of good will will be marginalized in terms of employment, housing, education of their children, etc. It is truly an "interesting time" to be alive.
written by Meyrat, August 31, 2013
I agree, Lee Gilbert's comment was spot on. The decadence on display needs to be moved to the fringes of the modern Christian's consciousness. It can, and it will, overwhelm the person who engages with it. In regards to offering an alternative to modern secular culture, Catholicism trumps other denominations of Christianity with a rich tradition that covers the whole spectrum of culture. It has survived all the problems that have arisen for two millennia, and has furnished us with resources to help us hold fast to our purpose. It serves all classes, all ethnicities, and all times. In this sense, it is truly a 'catholic' church.

How does such living come to pass? For the individual, I think the starting point is prayer. Constant prayer will then foster virtuous activity and thought, enabling a holy life amidst the surrounding moral decline. For the community, the starting point is the Mass and its liturgy. Similar to an individual's prayer life, the Mass can foster a more engaged and informed parish. Man does not live on bread alone, however disciplined and distant he make himself. He needs the Holy Spirit to fill him and give him strength, much like the first apostles.

written by Sue, August 31, 2013
" rapprochement with the Evangelicals" is going to be of little help because they don't understand the inherent evil of test-tube reproduction (nor do they get contraception). "Marriage Equality" is a distraction from the point of this whole movement, which is to get factory production of humans into the the grasp of the state.

We can thank the Church for its clear-as-a-bell teachings on these issues.
written by Rich in MN, August 31, 2013
Manfred's comment that "the institutional Church, which derives most of its income from its partner the Federal Gov't, will be of no assistance in this herculean struggle" brought to mind (perhaps unfairly) the religious leaders of Jesus' day. They were -- to borrow a term of Pope Benedict XVI -- the "professional Catholics" of their day. In stark contrast stood Jesus and John the Baptist who spoke truth to both religious and secular power. Jesus and John the Baptist were the ones making a real "mess" of things, as Pope Francis might say.

I am so very grateful for the Internet. Within this vast expanse of moral cesspools and dens of idiocy are lighthouses like "The Catholic Thing." I regard "The Catholic Thing" as one of what Deacon Ed might call the "bastions of mutual support" in my life. I cannot tell you how much emotional and spiritual "oxygen" I have received from articles and discussions on this site and others. I thank you all and I pray that our opponents are never able to "crash" our sites and disrupt these wonderful lines of communication.
written by Robert Royal, August 31, 2013
Thank you very much, Rich. That's why we're here everyday.
written by Quaecumque VEra, August 31, 2013
Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day's teacher, was one of the really overlooked Catholics of the 20th century. Fifty years before Alasdair MacIntyre Maurin wrote an easy essay wherein he said. " The thing to do right now is to create a new society within the shell of the old with the philosophy of the new, which is not a new philosophy but a very old philosophy, a philosophy so old it looks like new." Would that we would listen to the prophetic voices on our midst.
written by Joseph Wood, August 31, 2013
Deacon Ed, you are exactly right to avoid a false binary choice between an absolute cloister and complete immersion in politics. But I think the "tendency statement" of what is called for now is as MacIntyre describes -- which, as he noted in the last pages of "After Virtue," is not a generalized choice of pessimism. We are social and political beings, and our communities will always be political, hopefully with a virtuous politics.

Quaecumque, thanks for your note. I found the Maurin reference, which is actually from something like a poem or poetic short essay. It's worth seeing in its entirety:

The Age of Order
If we make
the right decisions
in the age of chaos
the effect of those decisions
will be a better order.
The new order
brought about
by right decisions
will be functional,
not acquisitive;
not socialist;
not collectivist;
not mechanistic.

The thing to do right now
is to create a new society
within the shell of the old
with the philosophy of the new,
which is not a new philosophy
but a very old philosophy,
a philosophy so old
that it looks like new.
written by Jack,CT, August 31, 2013
written by Jack,CT, August 31, 2013
Fantastic article and I felt
well informed,
thanks so much
written by Tom, NC, August 31, 2013
To suggest a direction that Mr Wood's citation of Maurin's poem might take, under our New Normal economic situation:
For almost the entire history of the USA, up until now, our wealth has expanded by about 2% per year. Not a big number, but year after year, with compounding, we could all be reasonably confident to live much better than our parents, who lived much better than their parents. It has recently been suggested that perhaps "American Exceptionalism" was simply the good fortune (blessing) to have lived through the greatest economic expansion in the long history of man.

But it looks as though the New Normal might be 1% growth - or less - per year. My children will live as well as my wife and I, but there's much, much less confidence that they'll live better. (Apocryphal evidence of this is all around each of us.)

When healthy expansion was a given, people could do stupid things and still prosper. But in an era of marginal growth (ie, exactly like all of history before ~1700), holding to a moral code may be the only sane approach, the only way you would urge your children to live and have some hope for the future (that it won't get worse for them). (How many of the hard luck stories in the newspaper involve a single mother or a divorcee, whose situation would be substantially improved if they lived with their spouse?)

We *have* that Way to offer, by example in stable marriages, by friendship with all, by generosity in having children - but (it can be seen) all centered on a life in Christ. This will be our differentiator from the rest of "the world". So maybe our families and our parishes will be Deacon Ed's monasteries for the new age.

And in such an environment, it's easy to foresee that our martyrdoms may be financial rather than physical - and plenty of our retirees and our children will suffer this way. Demonstrating a life of joy, centered on church life, even when "in reduced circumstances" may be a compelling witness to our world.

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