The Catholic Thing
The Counter-Culture Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 28 June 2014

Several times, in the decade since I finally swam the Tiber, I have been upbraided by well-meaning Catholics of apparently sound mind for my attachment to Western Civilization.

This is not because they do not understand my use of the term. As I try to make clear, I mean by it, “The civilization that was created by the Roman Catholic Church.” Not that to which she “contributed,” but that which she created, working with the frightful stuff of primitive human nature, and raising it by increments from Vandal and Hun to Dante and Chartres and Palestrina.

The conceit of the modern “gliberal” (glib plus liberal), since Humanism began exiting the Church, is that our Civ was founded in ancient pagan Greece. There are fragments of that built into the whole, but only because Holy Mother Church preserved and adapted them, to her own purposes.

Likewise the old pagan Roman conception of open roads and tranquil freedom, under the law to the far horizon – Christendom was inspired by that. But it could equally have been inspired by the Chinese, or any other vast, ordered realm. It was Holy Church, and the minds she applied to worldly government, which transformed that model, introducing such principles as subsidiarity to make what was, in effect, a vast and extremely fertile theocracy.

My critics have been willing to concede all this. In denying the value of “Western Civ,” they revert to the circumstances of the first centuries, before all this was made, and thus long, long before it all began to come apart. The Fathers of the Church, they argue, as the Apostles before them, did not care for “civilization.” They certainly weren't trying to create one. Mediaeval Christendom happened as much in spite of their efforts as because of them.

Constantine, to this way of thinking, was more the father of Western Civ than Augustine. The worldly march or “progress” of the Church was, to this view, often quite unholy. We should almost be glad the whole thing has collapsed, and happy to inhabit once again a world that requires Christian martyrs, who do not give a damn for civilization, but wish to follow Christ alone.

To my mind, this is reminiscent of, if not identical with, the “solas.”

Gentle reader may recall the (paradoxically, five) “alones” from the history of the Reformation: Sola Fide, by faith alone; Sola Gratia, by grace alone; Sola Scriptura, by scripture alone; Solus Christus, through Christ alone; and Soli Deo Gloria, being glory to God alone.

Each was flung as an incendiary device against “priestcraft” and the claims of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – which, observe, had not five “alones” but the four marks of authority and legitimacy thus listed in her Creeds.

But of course, to an alert Protestant, of the kind with whom we used to enjoy bantering, that is itself an inflammatory way of expressing the matter. What do I mean, “her” Creeds?

          The Consecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet, c. 1470

One can be on one side of the Tiber, “alone,” according not only with Faith, and Grace, (Scripture, Christ, and the Glory of God), but also figuratively by the principle of location. This was a point that became increasingly clear to me, as I contemplated the matter from the river's other side; and realized that, with the excuse of five centuries of Protestant ancestors behind me, I had come to be standing on the wrong bank.

Oddly enough, the “sola” to which I was still clinging, as an Anglican at the time, was the one sola the Anglicans had always rejected: Solus Christus. Somehow, I thought, if I just follow Christ, it will be enough.

And it might well be enough, if my conception of Christ were large enough.

It is not easy to make Jesus into an idol, but with patience and diligence it can be done. Similarly, I don't think madness comes easily to the sane, but there are men who have worked on it, and got there in due course.

That Christ may be distinguished from the world, and from the worldly, I think must be necessary to any Christian understanding, however hyphenated. “This, and not That,” is a human disposition so basic, as to underlie all creeds, sacred or profane. It cannot be escaped even by the mad, nor even by animals, which at a fundamental level must know to eat This, and not That.

Even the most politically correct, who oppose “prejudice” on any basis, become so prejudiced against every identifiable prejudice that they can be dismissed as puffballs of spite. With that kind of madness we are not dealing.

Instead it is with the kind that narrows Christ, so as practically to exclude Him from space and time. The experience of twenty centuries of Christ's operation, including most signally within His own Church, is declared irrelevant. We must start over from scratch, as if none of it happened, and we are once again proceeding from Galilee.

The very role of Christ within His own Church must diminish, to this way of thinking. And this is so whether or not the Real Presence is accepted. For how can it be accepted today, if not yesterday? And if not yesterday, how will it be accepted tomorrow? The “present” in the Real Presence is reduced to a fleeting moment that occupies no time at all. Thus there can be nothing “real” in it.

No, I insist, to be Catholic we must “buy in” to the history and tradition, just as we believe that in His coming down from Heaven, Christ “bought in.”

Verily, this is crucial. To the “culture of narcissism” by which we are surrounded, in a Western world that has denied Christ, we must oppose a counter-culture. And we must oppose on every level: in our literature, our music, our art, our architecture, even our science. Whether or not it is our intention, we cannot plausibly be Catholic Christian without becoming civilized again.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Gina, June 28, 2014
Bravissimo! What a courageous and timely posting this is.
written by Stanley Anderson, June 28, 2014
David Warren wrote: "Instead it is with the kind [of prejudice] that narrows Christ, so as practically to exclude Him from space and time."

I have used the analogy below to illustrate the situation you describe above:

Imagine a museum with observers contemplating a work on one of the walls. The work is in the shape of a large square with no external frame – it simply “juts out,” perhaps an inch, appearing as a metal plate flush against the wall. But if it is attached to the wall, it is done so finely and closely that not even a thin piece of paper can slide in behind it along the wall’s surface. The work is entitled “cube.”

One observer looks at it and says that the title is wrong – that the work is only an abstract image in the shape of a flat square. Another observer disagrees, saying that it is a painting that does represent a cube, but that the actual cube is locked up and stored in a different building somewhere outside, inaccessible for now. The first observer responds that even the idea of “outside” is just imagination run wild and that the museum room they are in at the moment is all that exists. Both ideas of “the cube” and “the outside” are meaningless he insists.

A third observer disagrees with both the first and second observers. In opposition to the first observer’s view, he maintains that the cube and the outside certainly do exist. But he also disagrees with the second observer’s comment on two accounts. He claims first that it is not the cube that is locked away in another building outside; rather, it is they as observers who are locked up inside the museum. He claims further that the work itself is the actual cube as its title indicates but that only one side is visible inside the museum room. The rest of the cube projects out on the other side of the wall where they cannot get to at the moment, he tells the first two observers.

The first observer corresponds, perhaps obviously, to an atheist/materialist/reductionist worldview, and the second to a typical Protestant view you describe as a "narrow" Christ who is "practically excluded from space and time," while the third represents the Catholic view (which can be extended not only to illustrate Christ's dual nature, but also the concept of "Sacraments.") But wait! There's more...

As a further and very fanciful enhancement to this analogy, imagine that the observers in the museum are not humans walking around in the museum, but are instead “conscious works of art” positioned on the other three walls in the room, able, in their hypothetical consciousness, to “look around” at the other works, including the one entitled “cube”.

The first observer, has declared that the only “proper” way to observe the so-called “cube” is to be positioned on the opposite wall as far away as possible in order to look “straight at it” boldly with “no illusions of distortion” that might result from being too close. From this “straight on” vantage point, only the single square face is visible with none of the inch-thick projecting sides showing (i.e., they can only be seen ‘from the side’). And in fact, the first observer’s declaration has convinced virtually all of the other works of art in the museum (including many that hold the second observer’s opinion) to crowd themselves onto that one far wall in order to have the “proper” view of the cube painting. “One does not want to be distracted,” the first observer advocates, “by any imaginary side-effects.”

Ok, one last fanciful enhancement to this museum analogy is to suppose that there is a rumor among the conscious works of art on the walls that they are not just “flat images.” It is said that they are actually the squished and distorted remnants of solid objects. One might think of them as “road kill fowl,” crushed almost beyond recognition by countless automobiles, chickens that unwisely chose to cross a forbidden road before they had learned to fly. These remnants were then collected by the Artist and displayed (in modern aesthetic terminology) as “found art” in the museum.

The truly fanciful enhancement to the analogy here is that it is also rumored that somehow the works of art on the walls are to be restored to fully solid patrons who can walk around not only in the museum itself, but even (though currently incomprehensibly) outside the museum. It is fantastically and virtually unbelievably claimed by some that the work entitled "cube" has actually done these very things and that even during the span of its exhibit at the museum, it presented "differently oriented" views of itself to other works where it was not initially recognized -- eg, in one instance, on a wall decorated in the background with garden designs and a cave painting, it presented itself, at first in one of those unrecognizable states, to a work named "Mary M" who had been desperately searching for it after it had disappeared from the exhibit for three days.

In another case, it presented itself, again unrecognized initially in its slightly different orientation, to a couple of works over on one of the walls in the Emmaus hallway.

Ok, ok, enough of this. You get the idea, I'm sure...
written by Chris in Maryland, June 28, 2014
Memory and Identity.

That is the name of Pope John Paul II's last book. Worth reading.

The River Lethe, of ancient Greek mythology, is one of the five rivers of Hades. It flows around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld, where all those who drank its waters suffer complete forgetfulness.

In the classical Greek, the literal meaning of lethe is "oblivion", "forgetfulness", or "concealment". Hence the Greek word for "truth", aletheia which literally means "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment".

Per the words of the Risen Christ who taught the apostles how to worship in our liturgy of His Holy Mass, his Eucharist is to be done "in memory of me." Our Holy Mass is the Risen Christ's most important gift - an eternal act of "Unforgetting."

Memory makes identity. Memory of the liturgy identifies us with The Holy Church, The Church that transcends time by preserving its memory across the ages, from the first generation born in the Upper Room 2000 years ago, passed down from hand-to-hand (tradition) from one generation to the next, unto this generation, defying 2000 years of seduction, tempting the ranks of the baptized to drink from the River of Forgetfulness, so that we lose our identity.

"When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Would The Lord counsel that it behooves us for our sake and our children to preserve the cult and culture handed down to us through the ages.

Fr. Gelineau, SJ, a member of the Bugnini Committee that fabricated the modern Mass we are living with, declared triumphantly that when the new Mass was approved, he and his committee had succeeded in "destroying" the Roman Catholic Rite. They did indeed.

The "contemporary" Church has suppressed the Roman Canon, the most ancient Eucharistic Prayer still extant in all Christian Rites of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer of the Church of Peter and Paul in Rome. It has replaced that ancient prayer with 3 new Eucharistic prayers. And it has worked so that we forget our own authentic Eucharistic prayer, inspired of Peter and Paul by the Risen Christ.

What is the culture of the Church we are in now? It seems oddly "American," it denies it has or needs a culture. It seems to believe it has no need of tradition. We indeed have a New Mass, as it is so-named. Do we have the same Mass of Peter, Paul, Clement, Justin Martyr, Augustine, and on and on, until a sudden stop by a committee in the 1960s?

What, we may ask ourselves in the Church in the US and Europe, is the secret problem with The Roman Canon - or shall I call it "Eucharistic Prayer No. 1?"

What is it that Fr. Gelineau and Bishop Bugnini and their committee wanted us to forget?

Now that we are forgetting our central prayer, what, may I ask, is our new identity?
written by Ernest Miller, June 28, 2014
Well done, Mr.Anderson. I work of art, itself.
written by Paul, June 28, 2014
I believe the Apostles were using Christ's message to change people. I can't see into the man's heart but I doubt Constantine had similar motives. It appears to me he was trying to change the world. IMO that is the difference between Christ and anti-Christ.
written by schm0e, June 28, 2014
Gawd I dug this. Great riffs here, from the "large enough conception of Jesus" to the "puffballs of spite." Great joy in reading explosive little truths.

I do admit that it took several paragraphs for me to realize that you hadn't actually swum across the Tiber...

Notwithstanding that, I am convinced that the rightful claim to civilization predates all of what are commonly thought to be "civilizations", and goes back to the Garden of Eden.

It was there that The Almighty commanded Adam to bring order to the realm and Adam obeyed.

Anything of later civilizations that Christendom laid hold of for her own purposes was what she had laid down already through her first ancestors. She took what she had created and restored it to working order for another go round.
written by Kay, June 28, 2014
"..we must oppose on every level: in our literature, our music, our art, our architecture, even our science. Whether or not it is our intention, we cannot plausibly be Catholic Christian without becoming civilized again."

Perhaps this is why my young sensibilities found just about everything distasteful when I was growing up, including the movies, literature, art and architecture. Rather then elevating us to Christ, it did the opposite. AND this didn't start in the 60's. The movies and literature of the 20's are degrading. In general, the arts since the reformation have suffered tremendously and likewise, humanity.
written by Carlos, June 28, 2014
Often we forget that "be my follower" and "be perfect" are not solely commandments we must obey. That is the same voice that commanded "let there be light" and caused light to be. There is a causative dimension in addition to the imperative. Christ is causing us to be His followers, He is causing us to be perfected. Pope Francis' motto, "Miserando atque eligendo" acquires a whole new meaning when considering Who is the active agent in Matthew's phrase. We are not able to build one lasting thing without Christ. "for without Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5) - to rebuild the world we must first rebuild the Church. To rebuild the Church we must first rediscover man. That rediscovery takes place in our hearts. The conquering of the world begins right there. Christ will not rule the world without ruling in our hearts first. That is why He called Himself the Son of Man.
written by Myshkin, June 28, 2014
Another great post from David Warren! When will you collect these into a book?


Suggest you do two things to inform your naive skepticism:

1) Read the recent book by Dr. Peter Leithart, PH.D. (President of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama), "Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom". Dr. Leithart is a Protestant. This might inform you of the complexity of understanding the motives of a man such as Constantine. It isn't as simple as a empty-headed TV drama you may be familiar with.

2) Do a bit of research into the liberal Protestant theories that the Apostles invented Christianity whole-cloth, I.e., that a historical Jesus had nothing to do with Christianity. This might help shake you from the skepticism that at some point in time between the Apostles and Constantine the Church became corrupt and only contemporary Protestantism has retrieved the faith of the Apostles. Your skepticism of the Patristic Church and its faith is no more founded than, say the Protestant Biblical scholars in the Radical Dutch School at the University of Amsterdam, who even doubted the historical Jesus.

It's good to have some amount of skepticism at the beginning of a learning trajectory, but to stop there is sheer stupidity. I can only say, tolle, lege ...
written by Paul, June 29, 2014
Thank you for your response Myshkin. I guess we differ on Constantine. Not sure why you addressed point #2 to me, I think Protestants are as far off course as RC.
written by Wally Noone, July 08, 2014
I agree that Chritendom is meant to be a theocracy, though far from benign. The point is moot since it is long gone and likely never to return and surely never like it was.

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