The Danger in “Irony”

Heresy hunting is fun, but too easy.

If a man will state something flagrantly in defiance of Church teaching, we may load up our Catechism and pick him off. It may take two or three shots if he is sufficiently agile, but the wise opponent of Church doctrine, or if you will, any competent devil in disguise, will not expose himself in the open square. He needs the camouflage of the grass and the forest.

Now, the kind of sport I describe is not like hunting rabbits or deer, or even bears, who are usually shy of men.

Even the man-eating tigers of Bengal, I was assured by childhood reading, are aberrants of their kind.

Rattlesnakes, too, are trying to avoid you, and have rattles to help you keep your distance. And sharks are unlikely to strike unless they have mistaken your surfboard for a porpoise.

Cobras, I was told by a doctor at a snake farm, deserve especial respect, not simply because they can inject a lethal venom, but because, in human terms, they are somewhat neurotic.

They’d rather threaten you than strike, but once their reflexes are engaged, many cobras fall victim to their own anxieties. The truth, as with many people, is that the danger comes from their skittishness. They scare easily themselves, and may not be thinking tactically.

Of course, it depends what kind of cobra. The word, which means only “snake” in Portuguese, is applied to a great variety of them by the English mind, not all in the same genus.

I am thinking of your classic Indian naja-naja here, with whom it would be hard to argue. He (or worse, she, if nesting) has a hood that when spread is exceptionally impressive; and the nostrils are rather mesmerizing, too.

Hence the joy in snake-charming if, but only if, one can master that trade.

Here is a secret I was told (by a charmer, not his cobra). I find it of cosmic significance. A cobra can be taught to respond to a name. The person who knows it has some chance with him. If reliably fed his rather picky diet, some trust may develop between snake and herper. But the trust will never be absolute.

Modern, technological man, relies instead on de-fanging, or more completely, removing the venom sack. Old-fashioned snake charmers know better. For modern, technological man eventually learns that the fangs grow back quickly, and even the sack may regenerate. I cannot recommend cobras as pets.

I cannot recommend devils, either.


The history of serpents, from the Garden of Eden, is a diverting one. We might spend the morning discussing it, some other day. For now the important point is theological.

Everything is good, that God has made. Yet anything might be used for evil – and not necessarily only by us. (The devil also works through nature.) In confronting each “thing,” the trick for us is to discern what it is good for.

A calm and holy mind has the advantage over a hot and crazy one, when it comes to this kind of discernment.

Often, I wish that I could grasp this myself. Too, I wish that my allies could, in the great civil war we seem to be fighting, not so much between Church and State, as within the Church herself. We are given to quick, cobra-like responses wherever threat appears. We bite first, and think later, which seldom leads to the best results.

Yet it is reasonable to be on one’s guard, at a time when every settled question of doctrine is unsettled in the spirit of “renewal”; when a progressive faction has discovered, a little later in the day than the traditional observers, that much of Church teaching is inconvenient.

Traditionalists knew this already: that following the instructions of Jesus Christ does not always lead to advancement in this world, or to wealth or comfort. Rather it may lead to isolation and the suffering that the Prince of This World actually intends for his subjects.

The joys are inward. There is nothing quite to compare with the pleasure of a clear conscience – of a mind honestly wiped clean, or as it were, showered, by a good confession; or of a man who has, objectively to the best of his ability, done the right thing.

It is at least my observation that, in the skittish pursuit of happiness, the bad conscience begets unhappiness. How often the beneficiaries of illicit gain blow their own brains out; and this without beginning to understand what has led them to despair. The runways of the fashionable are strewn with corpses.

Were I to attempt some “apostolic exhortation,” I would try to convey this: that the old-fashioned and often inconvenient strictures of the Church are not without purpose. That it is ultimately the martyr – the witness – who can die fully at peace with himself, and strange to say, even with his persecutors. He gets there, in every sense, by obedience to God’s non-negotiable Will.

He accepts nature, and by this I mean not only the nature of rattlesnakes and cobras, but the deeper nature revealed to sight in the beauty of this world as precursor to the next.

And he does not try to appropriate to himself what is in God’s province. He accepts alike his gifts, and what has been withheld from him. To use raw example: a happy marriage. He is conscious first of his own failure not only to maintain, but to flourish in, his vows.

My fiercest criticism of an apostolic exhortation I have just read is not that it contains any heresy. I think it was carefully proofread, so that heresy hunting would not be rewarded.

Rather it is such habits as putting quotes persistently around words like “regular” and “irregular,” as if post-modern irony were applicable to them.

This has the unfortunate effect of letting our true ancestral Enemy slither through the grass and the forest.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: