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Reflections from an Institution

It’s a commonplace today that people have lost faith in institutions. And it’s no wonder. Wherever you look – politics, culture, education, even the Church – the institutions that normally provide us with stable identity and points of reference have become sources of disorder and disorientation.

Hillary Clinton famously wrote a book: It Takes a Village. She was expressing something not so much wrong as deceptive. It does take a village – and a family, and a church, and a school, and a community – to form children into mature and responsible adults. The “village” that progressive politicians talk about, however, is not an assembly of these natural civil society institutions, but an array of government programs designed to replace and, often, hasten the demise of real human connections.

In healthy times, people identify with family, faith, nation. At least among our cultural elites, identity these days revolves around race, class, and gender.

The paradox, of course, is that those elites say that they want to eliminate differences owing to race and class, and the woozy recent notions of gender fluidity. But if they did, what would people identify with other than their own individual choices? That’s a very weak reed on which to build a truly human life, especially given the social chaos that such radical individualism inevitably produces.

Click here to read the rest of Dr. Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

“Transjacking” Sports

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo (July 24 to August 9, 2020) are about a year away, but controversy is already building. There’s always Olympic controversy, of course, most often about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

At the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, host-country athletes and “scientists” were so widely involved in cheating (especially in urinalyses) that the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended Russia be banned from participating in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. That didn’t happen, although Russia was subsequently banned at the ‘18 Winter Games in PyeongChang, although some Russian athletes did compete, as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” but without the Russian flag or national anthem. (Several of them failed drug tests at the Games.)

Overall, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a strong and oft-stated interest – one shared by the governing bodies of all participant sports – of keeping the Olympics free of PEDs. This is not just because of the competitive advantages these substances provide but also because of the danger drugs present to the long-term health of athletes.

The ideal of the amateur athlete may be gone from the Games, but a belief in the importance of healthy, natural athletes persists.

Or does it?

The IOC and many – if not most (and by next July perhaps all) – athletic federations now condone some of the most extreme drug use imaginable: mandated testosterone-suppressant drugs for men who wish to compete as women – i.e. male-to-female (MtF) “transgender” athletes.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Transgenderism and Perfect Freedom

There are many reasons to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, not least the pleasure of encountering sheer imaginative genius. But in the end, the most important reason is one he identifies in a letter to a patron, Can Grande della Scala: “the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.”

This choice becomes stark in the fate of Lucifer. You can get tangled up trying to figure out how certain sinners warrant specific punishments in Dante’s Hell. But Satan in Dante represents one large choice.

He’s not Milton’s romantic rebel in Paradise Lost or some clever tempter like C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape. He’s the being who has – radically, purely, eternally – rejected God and the whole order of the universe He created. Satan thinks he’s struck out on the path to total freedom from all that, but he literally could not be more wrong.

Dante shows this in an unforgettable image. Satan is frozen in ice at the very bottom of the universe, the lowest reaches of Hell. He flaps bat-like wings seeking to free himself. But the wind they create only freezes him further. It’s like the old “Chinese handcuffs” that we used to play with as children. You stick your fingers into the ends of a kind of tube, and the harder you try to pull them out the tighter it gets.

For rebels against God, it can’t be any other way.

Click here to read the rest of Dr. Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

The Church is Not an NGO

An Italian priest visits our parish a few times a year to say Sunday Mass. He’s remarkable: tall, ascetic, and very serious. When he elevates the host and then the chalice, they stay elevated longer than in the hands of any priest I’ve ever seen – almost to the point of seeming theatrical. But it’s not. He is simply reverent. He’s also a fine and courageous homilist, which is to say he’s one of the only priests I’ve ever heard condemn abortion from the pulpit, and one of the few who takes the time to discuss what the Church actually teaches about moral and spiritual matters.

He recently spoke about holiness. I’ve heard other priests speak about that too, but never so starkly against the trend to present faith in the context of public policy: migration, pollution, poverty. I’m sure he’s committed to an orthodox understanding of social justice, but, again, his homily was against an emphasis on social and economic issues that ignores Christ’s call to holiness.

What struck me most was his insistence that, when the call to holiness is replaced by a call for social and economic justice, the Church risks presenting itself as a non-governmental organization (NGO), at which point it makes sense that folks stop coming to Mass.

When what seems to define a “good Christian” is volunteering and check-writing, when the assertion that “I’m religious in my own way” seems plausible, why wouldn’t I sleep in on Sunday morning? Especially true, I suspect, for those who neither volunteer time nor contribute money.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Our Tower of Babel

You have to work at it not to notice similarities between the postmodern world and that very old, Old Testament story about the Tower of Babel. (Gen. 11:1-9) Like those ancient builders, we have been trying for several centuries now to raise a purely human edifice in Western nations, with no reference – no real need, we think – for God.

It can’t be done, of course, though it can seem to, temporarily. (Country music’s Gospel truth: “Ain’t it funny how fallin’ seems like flying/ For a little while.”) God is the absolute foundation and absolute truth about all things, including human nature. As the American Founders knew, if human dignity doesn’t come from the Creator, where will it come from? Ignoring that truth, like all denials of reality, cannot help but end, sooner or later, in disaster.

How do we know when the collapse has happened? In the Bible, not only does the tower crumble, but the builders fall into deep conflict. Their speech grows confused, so that they cannot understand one another any longer. Game of Thrones is only half the story – and in some ways not the worst.

The Bible is not merely saying that in some far distant time, people took a wrong turn and afterward fought over differences. They were capable of that since Cain and Abel. The Babel account probes much deeper: to the human capacity for mutually intelligible speech, the thing that distinguishes us from all other beings because it makes it possible that we can come to know truth.

Click here to read the rest of Dr. Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Beyond the Fog of Politics

It’s not easy to interpret the recent European Union elections. Mainstream liberal and conservative parties lost considerable ground while “populists” and, in some countries, Greens showed strong gains. But the raw numbers call for careful parsing.

Pope Francis was clearly upset by the results. On Sunday, he released a message intended for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees (September 29), sharply criticizing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, claiming that it reflects fear and racism, as well as failures in Christian charity and humanitarian engagement. [Author’s correction: An earlier version of this column said that the release was four months in advance, which is true, but it appears such messages are often released earlier. The deliberate timing to the EU elections, then underway, however, remains clear.]

Welcoming the stranger and the refugee is, of course, a serious Christian obligation. And the pope is right to make sure that vulnerable people do not disappear from the world’s attention. But whether that general principle can be simply translated into national immigration policies – where other urgent questions also come into play – and whether the election results really stem from some lack of charity, is a far more debatable proposition.

The results actually reflect not only immigration questions, but other factors people in many nations are vaguely feeling: particularly alienation from “democratic” institutions, both national and international, which seem more to reflect the values and concerns of elites and less those of ordinary people.

Click here to read the rest of Dr. Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

The Last Full Measure

Memorial Day, the unofficial first day of summer, is when we pause to remember those who, in Mr. Lincoln’s words, gave the last full measure of devotion to defend America in combat.

And let’s be clear: Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address, from which that great phrase comes, on the back of an envelope on the train from Washington, D.C. to that small town in Pennsylvania. As Abraham Lincoln Online notes, “Lincoln carefully prepared his major speeches in advance; his steady, even script in every manuscript is consistent with a firm writing surface . . .” He was too thoughtful a man and too careful a writer to work in any other way.

I suspect the legend of the president dashing off the speech as he made his way to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg derives from the speech’s brevity: just 275 words – 279 if “cannot” is written, as Mr. Lincoln did in its three uses, as two words.

When I was a kid in elementary school, we memorized the speech. We studied it. It taught us a great deal about rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing in such a way that your words have power and clarity. Indeed, power comes from clarity.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

The Midwife: a Review of “Mary Magdalene”

Like Judas leaving the Last Supper but in reverse, Mary Magdalene, the newish film by Garth Davis, skulked into American theaters in April.

This is Mr. Davis’ second feature after 2016’s Lion, the story of a lost boy in India who eventually finds his way home. It was a very fine film. Mary Magdalene is not. It gets lost. And stays lost.

I say newish because Mr. Davis actually shot the film in 2016, and it had its English premiere in March of 2018. So why did it take more than a year for it to open in the United States? Begin with the fact that it was a Harvey Weinstein project, and enough said about that. Then there’s its treatment of the Gospel story, which, by definition, must be its basis. The movie’s take on Jesus and Magdalene is not exactly traditional.

To wit: Mr. Davis has made a neo-feminist film about the way the men in Jesus’ entourage rejected his closest follower, Mary of Magdala (played by Rooney Mara), who was (allegedly) the only one among the followers of Jesus who really understood him.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s review at The Catholic Thing . . .

The New Pro-Life Moment

Something out of the ordinary happened this past week. On Saturday, over 10,000 people walked the streets of Rome in defense of children in the womb. Italian lay people have organized a march for nine years now, and it grows – despite no support from the Italian bishops – including the pope.

On Friday, Francis did encourage members of the Catholic Medical Association to “defend life,” though so vaguely that you couldn’t tell whether he was talking about abortion, euthanasia, immigration, climate, poverty – or all of them (more of this below).

 

But as usual no Italian bishops participated in the Marcia per la Vita– they’ve been saying that they don’t want it to be seen as only “Catholic,” though why is not clear. And that they prefer to work through elected officials rather than public protest (though they seem to support other public demonstrations, e.g., on immigration and poverty, and don’t have any natural partners in government now that the Christian Democrats have splintered). Italian television, accordingly, didn’t even mention the march occurred.

The lone Italian prelate in the past, Archbishop Viganò, was missing, for good reasons.

Click here to read the rest of Dr. Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

“Tolkien”: a Review

J.R.R. Tolkien was a writer who, it sometimes seems, launched a thousand books and now a thousand movies. (I exaggerate.) And at the start, I have to say that I am not a fan.

Of course, I love the life of Tolkien – the idea of him: the young scholar who became a soldier and then an Oxford don, and later creator of what, beyond his scholarly work as linguist and philologist, may surely be called an unequaled legacy of fantasy literature. Unequaled except, perhaps, by his friend and Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis.

Lewis’s books are – to me – more accessible, and that includes his scholarly work. His The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition is a favorite of mine. And my sons, when they were young, truly loved The Chronicles of Narnia.

I’ve tried to read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and failed. My problem with Tolkien is similar to my struggles with Tolstoy: prolixity. And I’ve never found the Tolkien equivalent of Anna Karenina, a better, shorter book than the tedious War and Peace.

The work of the aforementioned writers has been given excellent screen treatment, although Peter Jackson’s versions of the LOTR trilogy (and the Hobbit film trilogy) have far surpassed the those of Lewis’s Chronicles series in terms of critical acclaim and financial success. Again, I find the Narnia movies (directed by Andrew Adamson and Michael Apted) more entertaining.

Now comes the biopic, Tolkien, by the Finnish director Dome Karukoski – designed to do what, by his own plain words, Tolkien said he never wanted to have done: generally, films made from his fantasy novels and, specifically, any attempts to explain where he “got” Middle-earth.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s review at The Catholic Thing . . .