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End of Term

The universities are letting out once again, for the long summer. Another annual cycle is completed, and another batch of graduates is released. Degrees are conferred with the old puffery.

Much is said against university students today, and has been said over the last eight centuries or more. They have always been a privileged lot, and thus tend to be spoilt. They are smarter than the demographic average, and often overly aware of it. With little experience of “real life,” they are nevertheless full of opinions, and by twenty or so think they know what is wrong with the world, and how to fix it. Apart from native arrogance, many are ill-mannered.

We should remember not only events such as the riots in Oxford (in 1355), but the consequences of them. I use the old incident of Saint Scholastica Day as an emblem for so many similar events, over the centuries.

A couple of students went into a tavern, and were served what they considered to be bad ale. They threw it in the face of the proprietor, and the fight began. Before the day was out, townsfolk who’d had enough of Oxford students’ behavior, and their superior airs, had joined in the retaliation. The students, too, came out in force, and by the time the riot ended, two days later, there were ninety-three dead – mostly on the side of the townsfolk.

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The upshot was that the mayor had to crawl before the university authorities in cringing apology – and all other mayors of Oxford by tradition for the next five hundred years. The townsfolk had to raise heavy fines, to pay for each student killed or injured. Many other acts were stipulated to make clear that the students owned the town, and not vice versa. Today we call this “academic independence.”

Seldom, before or since, has it made much sense to tangle with the vanity of college students. Never, has a fit of populism ended well. The lesson of history is that privilege is privilege; no one has to like it. It can be softened only by appeals to conscience; nothing good comes of the appeal to blood.

I mentioned the eight centuries (or more) because it is a little-appreciated truth that some of the problems in this world are insoluble, even by those older and wiser. It is a deep mystery how it all got started. If humans reproduce, there will be families. If families, there will be inheritance. Some will have the advantage over time: a “class system” will certainly emerge – the more viciously from any attempt to suppress it. Hierarchy is inevitable. Privilege is inevitable. Rivalries must follow.

Yet no kind of cultural or civilizational order is possible without letting these things happen, and the Church herself, whatever she preaches, must speak to a world of creative inequalities.

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That Christ never preached “equality,” I note in passing. The poverty He exemplified had nothing to do with an economic doctrine, and He had nothing to say about the political order, besides: stay aloof from it. His message was to each embodied soul – to all sinners – and He addressed them with the authority of God. They might hear Him, or shut Him away.

It was enough that He nailed our sins with Himself to the Cross, resurrected Himself body and soul, ascended into Heaven, having plunged into Hell. But also He founded an unearthly institution, as we read in Acts – that “at the sixth hour” He let down a great sheet from Heaven to Earth, a figure of His Church, that we be received up into it.

And all the tribulation of the world will stand against it, will pull us down.

The students I have taught, and will watch graduate, and will be gathered Monday night for their graduation Mass (from Saint Philip’s Seminary here in Toronto) go out as priests into the chaos of a society and times when Christ has been rejected; when the view even within Holy Church is often downcast from salvation to very human themes of justice. I have been lucky to teach students not only more intelligent than the average, but more sincere in their comprehension of the “function” of our Church in her outreach to sinners.

Some will succeed, some may fail in maintaining the integrity of the Faith. All, to my knowledge, have a good head start, unusually so in the world as it is. Their “privilege” will be to serve Christ, their “rivalry” must be a knowing one, with the Devil, on Christ’s behalf.

I am aware that what I’ve written must seem strange to any errant reader unacquainted with the Christian teaching, including many raised in nominally Catholic households. But I am also aware that this situation isn’t exactly new. For even among those resolutely taught, there is often little understanding. We put what we learn to our own selfish use.

Through centuries in the West, as in the East, it was actually possible to use the Church as a means to very worldly personal advancement; or to free oneself from normal social bonds, and with those the requirements of common decency. One thinks of all the men who made the Church seem detestable; whose hypocrisies led their penitents astray, and pushed potential converts away.

Even at this day it may still be possible to choose priesthood as an easy job, or as an organizational ladder to be climbed. And the moment the Church begins to recover from her historical catastrophe (post-Vatican II), the sorest temptations will be with us again. For the Devil does not take religious vocations lightly.

Neither should we. The world is a mess, and has been so since Adam, and the Church has always had to deal with it. Her servants fail, as everyone fails, and yet there is at her heart that which cannot be defeated.

Every generation must try again: God bless all those of goodwill.

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: davidwarrenonline.com.