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On Not Losing Heart

The editor of a Catholic publication anno Domini 2022 often receives insightful messages from readers, friends, even enemies – some inspiriting, some quite dispiriting. There’s much more good going on in the Church and the world than any one person knows. And there’s also much – we tend to hear a lot more about it – so appalling that it leaves you all but speechless.

Lately, there’s been (for this writer) a noticeable and growing trend: generalized fatigue. More and more people write that they simply “have had enough.” Typically, something like, “I can’t take the controversies (in the Vatican, the American Church, American politics, American society) anymore. I just want to live a peaceful life, practicing the faith and caring for the family, free from all that.”

If you don’t recognize this tendency – sometimes a temptation – in yourself, blessèd are you.

St. Paul countered Christian fatigue with appropriate wisdom: “let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” (Gal. 6:9) That sounds great, big harvests and all that. Someday. Maybe not too far off.

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The Saint, the Book, and the Lily

Much of the world’s great art is part of the patrimony of our Church. Every Leonardo; every Michelangelo; every Caravaggio belongs to all of us.

Without Catholic artists, there would be art, but there would likely be no art periods. No Romanesque; no Gothic; no Renaissance; no Mannerism; no Baroque. I could list other periods up to the 20th century, though Catholic art diminishes. It does not disappear.

Not every Catholic artist created Catholic art – and few restricted themselves exclusively to Catholic themes. Da Vinci painted the astonishingly beautiful Virgin of the Rocks, and he painted the enigmatic Mona Lisa: the first is religious, the second is not. Michelangelo: Sistine Chapel ceiling, sì! His sculpture of Bacchus, no! Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus, definitely! The Musicians, definitely not.

Many of the Catholic painters, sculptors, and architects who worked between 1000 and 1900 made a part of their living fulfilling commissions from Church leaders and institutions and from wealthy, often princely patrons. Leonardo da Vinci lived well but eccentrically and peripatetically. He died at 67, still touching up the Mona Lisa. One has the sense that Michelangelo had trouble enjoying his success: he never retired and died at 88, working on another Pietà. Caravaggio is the exception. He died at 38, probably from wounds suffered in a vendetta attack.

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A (Possibly) Immodest Proposal

Anyone paying attention to American society today can’t help but notice that the public space afforded to religion has shrunk – and is continuing to shrink, day by day. The Supreme Court may issue decisions protecting the rights of churches and church schools to hire and fire whomever they want. And it may even, as in the most recent session, level the playing field a bit so that religious schools can receive the same state support as other non-public schools. But these are victories at the margins.

The main culture-forming institutions – colleges and universities, media, Hollywood, the arts, even corporations – sharply limit open expressions of religion, which is to say primarily traditional Christianity, anywhere they can. We can still worship privately, but we can do less publicly than ever before in our history.

And, sadly, many of our religious institutions have just passively gone along with it all.

So I want to make a possibly immodest proposal, partly inspired by the good summer weather: Let’s take it outside.

Today is the feast of St. James the Apostle, little-known even to most Catholics these days, but once – and in many places, still – a central figure in religious pilgrimages. Santiago de Compostela, the famous endpoint of the Camino, literally means Saint James of Compostela.

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To Live Is to Choose

was reading the description in a very fine novel of a death and burial when the thought crossed my mind: Is it possible to be unafraid of dying yet fear being dead?

I’ll make this personal. I’d not hesitate to give my life for family, friends, or faith, but the thought of being in a box six-feet underground is frightening: so cold and dark.

I suppose all that means is I don’t really know what to expect when I die, beyond ultimate joy if I die well. Dying well is good. But one thinks of the haunting statement of Isaiah, repeated by St. Paul (Is 64:3/1Cor 2:9-10):

Eye has not seen, ear has not heard,
Nor has it entered the human heart
what God has prepared for those who love him.

MuseumPlus 5.1.681 Access 2010

One must assume the same is true about Hell for those who hate God. If only they knew the truth!

I suppose if you’re a Satanist, you may actually want to go to Hell, although that seems to me a clear case of cutting off your joy to spite your misery. Something like that.

Which brings me to Pascal’s Wager.

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The Growing Litany of Abortion Lies

Abortion “rights” were always a tissue of lies. A lie about the U.S. Constitution, to be sure, but before that the lie that “a woman has a right to control her own body.” Which no one denies, up to a point. That point is clearly defined by the sound principle that your right to swing your arms stops at the tip of my nose. There’s another living, human body (half the time a very young woman’s body) also involved in abortion – which admittedly complicates matters. But that body had to be lied into invisibility with talk of “clumps of cells” and “products of conception” before the other lies could become even remotely plausible.

Yet after fifty years of such lies, vigorously promoted by our dominant cultural and political institutions as simple, progressive truth (even though progressives say “truth” is, in other contexts, a kind of violence and hate), we never heard the fanciful claims that have begun to appear since the Dobbs decision – with more on the way.

Some of those claims might even be regarded as rather comic, if the stakes were less serious. For instance, Dobbs has even spurred some people into a kind of lying poetry. Take this blunt couplet, which was chanted by 2,000 people who marched in front of NYC’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral the weekend after Dobbs:

F*** the Church, f*** the State,
You can’t make us procreate.

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What England Lost: Benson’s ‘The King’s Achievement’

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) is most famous these days for his 1908 book, Lord of the World, hailed by many of different dispositions as one of literature’s first dystopian novels.

But between 1904 and 1907, Benson published his Reformation Trilogy: The King’s Achievement and By What Authority? (both 1905); and The Queen’s Tragedy (1907). Together they’re a perfect antidote to the revisionism of numerous recent works of history and fiction that portray the “greatness” of England’s King Henry VIII.

Benson wrote By What Authority? first, but by order of subject, it’s second in the trilogy, given that it’s about Elizabeth I (The King’s Achievement deals with her father). The Queen’s Tragedy tells Mary Tudor’s story.

Msgr. Benson’s own life story is almost the stuff of fiction. As a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the younger Benson was a kind of prince within the Church of England.

Benson’s father ordained him to Anglican holy orders in 1895, but in 1903 Robert entered the Catholic Church and a year later was ordained to her priesthood. His decision to cross the Tiber caused a sensation in England as great or even greater than John Henry Newman’s had.

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A New Birth of Freedom

It may appear mythical to younger readers (and some not so young), but there was a time, and not so long ago, when the Fourth of July was not a day of contention about seemingly irreconcilable notions of freedom. Virtually all Americans, of whatever political stripe, could come to this day with differences, sometimes deep ones, and yet celebrate the principled tolerance, the live-and-let-live mutual respect, that had made this country both prosperous and relatively peaceful – two things that anyone who looks around today with a clear eye will quickly see are not to be taken for granted.

Our current divisions, however, are not without precedents. And those very precedents should make us all the more vigorous in seeking better days, what we might even call a “new birth of freedom.” Christians in particular shouldn’t deceive themselves. We live in a fallen world. And it sometimes requires the greatest of sacrifices to retain even ordinary human goods.

Speaking at Gettysburg, where in the three days before July 4, 1863, 50,000 soldiers on the two sides were wounded, went missing, or died in the struggle to preserve the union and bring an end to slavery, Abraham Lincoln concluded, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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Juan Diego, Great and Small

The story of Juan Diego is more than a powerful story. It’s more, even, than a powerful story in Catholic history. It’s nothing less than one of the most extraordinary stories in human history.

First, the setting could hardly be more improbable. In the early 1500s, what is now central Mexico was a civilization in grave crisis. Society, as the Aztecs had known it, was becoming unrecognizable. The pagan gods on whom they depended had failed. Diseases brought unknowingly by the Spanish conquistadores were ravaging large parts of the indigenous population. The practice of human sacrifice – which many generations of indigenous peoples believed was the only means of averting catastrophe – had been recently banned.

For the men and women of that time and place, it must have seemed as if chaos had been unleashed everywhere on the only world they knew. One can hardly imagine a less inviting place for planting the idea of a benevolent deity.

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Let Not the Hysterics Distract You

After thirty years living in Washington D.C., nothing – nearly nothing – politicians do surprises me. But when the king – sorry, president – of France and the British Prime Minister “express concern” (egged on by their clueless U.S. counterparts) over a Supreme Court decision about a Mississippi law that is less restrictive of abortion (15 weeks) than laws in their own countries, the usual political antics and lies aren’t all that amusing anymore.

The same can be said of the guerrilla theater in America’s most liberal cities (where abortion on demand still reigns), and in the media (where professional reporting has given way to Left advocacy on all things, all of the time), and the whole morass of lying and intimidation that flouts the rule of law and the institutions that enable an ordered liberty.

The hysteria of the pro-abortion supporters has, to use  their own vocabulary, been “socially constructed.” Almost all the hysterics would be less publicly distraught if their fathers, mothers, siblings, or friends died horribly in a fire.

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Building a Culture of Hope and Beauty

People often ask: What can we do, given all the problems that exist in the Church and the world? Most of what we’re thinking of when we pose that question has to do with specific things like liturgy and bad shepherds – or abortion, family breakdown, crime, and the widespread distrust of leaders and institutions. We have to keep at these specific problems, and many others, without letup and without allowing them, heavy as they are taken singly or together, to lead to despair.

But we’re the Catholic Church. Not only can we walk and chew gum at the same time, but we also have a tradition-rich enough to provide answers and concrete help in any and all human circumstances. We can’t save the world, of course. Only God can do that. But we can do what we can in the here and now, which means not solely focusing on problems and what’s negative around us. And not even only continuing longstanding good works, but actively imagining and pursuing new possibilities.

Deo volente – and the airlines co-operating – I’ll be in Houston at one such hopeful initiative today and for the next few days at a Summer Literary Series organized by our columnist James Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren, who together head a new Master’s in Fine Arts program at the University of St. Thomas. (You can read about the Series and the MFA program by clicking here.) Houston’s Cardinal DiNardo will celebrate Mass this morning at the university on behalf of the program.

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