Recent News

Some Lessons from the Great Pagans

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with pagans lately. Not the modern, self-indulgent, falsely idealistic, entitled, uninteresting kind all around us, conspicuously so at our universities. But the ancient – almost too interesting – stout seekers of the true and the good. Especially the Stoics, who influenced St. Paul and other early Christians, and – not incidentally – helped prepare the ground for the spread of Christianity among peoples living in great darkness, under bad rulers. Like us.

Plato and Aristotle are great lights – when there’s a chance that at least some measure of reason will guide worldly affairs. But in times like ours, the Stoics are particularly helpful because they know that serious evil exists and don’t expect, certainly not in the short run, to be able to do much about it, least of all via politics. What, then, is to be done?

Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan (1847-1913). Esquisse pour l’église Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul de Courbevoie : “Saint Paul devant l’Aréopage”. Huile sur toile. 1876. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais.

They, like the Christians who were to follow, put their greatest efforts into forming their own souls: into gratitude for what has been given to us in our very existence; and, therefore, the pious efforts to bring ourselves into harmony with the divine order of the cosmos that made us. Our successes or failures in pursuit of that goal are the real measure of good – and evil. Soul work was as central to Epictetus (a former slave) as to Marcus Aurelius (a Roman emperor).

All that has affinities, of course, with the Faith, and opens a fresh window onto spiritual and moral disciplines that people today often dismiss as merely pious old Christian platitudes. But even Reason, right reason in the right hands, can approach them.

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Scuffles in Brussels

So, I was in Rome recently chasing down information for a book and noticed that, at the time I’d be heading back home, a National Conservatism Conference was being held in Brussels. I decided to stop in to see how NatCon would fare in the “capital” of the European Union. As has been widely reported, under pressure from “antifa” forces, Brussels’ mayor foolishly forced Concert Noble, the initial venue, to cancel. And again, with the Sofitel. Ultimately, we gathered at the Claridge, where the Tunisian Muslim owner was (unsuccessfully)  pressured by the mayor, his wife threatened, and warned that his business would be destroyed (kudos to him for standing up for free speech). Then, during the first day, the Brussels police, under the mayor’s orders, arrived to shut the whole thing down.

The conference was allegedly advancing “exclusion” (i.e., controlling illegal immigration) and Euroscepticism (the horror!), harboring elements of “fascism” and “homophobia.”  Which, translated from the Globalese into the vernacular, means it was mostly advocating the kind of normalcy that existed since the beginning of time, until just a few years ago. All right-thinking persons are now supposed to classify mere sanity as “far-right,” “dangerous populism,” and a threat to “democracy,” even when democratic majorities (the populus) vote – as they are likely to do in European elections this June and America later in the year – for just such normality.

I was sick with what turned into something like the flu and left the conference at noon the first day in search of something hot to clear a stuffy head, just as the police were arriving. They told the organizers that they had fifteen minutes to clear the room. But then looked around and perhaps thought the optics were not great of rounding up a tranquil slate of academics and democratically elected officials, and an audience of political junkies, almost all in suits and dresses – and in their twenties.

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Holy Days of Obligation

We need to talk about something, and I’ve already told you what it is above.

Here are the remaining obligatory Holy Days in 2024

  • Thursday, May 9, 2024 – The Ascension of Jesus (moved to Sunday, May 12th in many places)
  • Thursday, August 15, 2024 – The Assumption of Mary, Solemnity
  • Friday, November 1, 2024 – All Saints’ Day
  • Wednesday, December 25, 2024 – The Birth of Our Lord, Christmas

Let’s add in the remaining Solemnities (attendance optional but encouraged):

  • Thursday, May 30, 2024 – Corpus Christi
  • Friday, June 7, 2024 – The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
  • Monday, June 24, 2024 – The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
  • Saturday, June 29, 2024 – Saints Peter and Paul
  • Saturday, November 2, 2024 – All Souls’ Day
  • Monday, December 9, 2024 – The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

There are some good liturgical calendar apps available for Apple, Android, and whatever, so consider downloading one.

And relax! Before Pope St. Pius X reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation to eight – via the motu proprio, Supremi disciplinae (1917) – there were thirty-six of them! I gather many of the Catholic faithful hadn’t minded the extra trips to church.

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A Dignity Still to be Determined

Reading the Declaration on Human Dignity (“Infinite Dignity”), issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) yesterday, reminds me of an old teacher-student story. A student submits an assigned essay, and the teacher returns it with the comment, “What you’ve written here is both good and new. Unfortunately, what’s good in it is not new, and what’s new is not. . .” But let’s break off the story there. And following the Christian rule of charity in all things, say of the Declaration, what’s new in it is . . . yet to be determined.

Because in roughly the first half of its sixty-six paragraphs, the document seeks to situate itself in line with recent popes and classical Catholic teaching. It cites Paul VI, JPII, Benedict, Francis (about half the citations, of course). And in a footnote even reaches back to Leo XIII, Piuses XI & XII, and the Vatican II documents Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes. At the press conference introducing the Declaration, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, head of the DDF, made a point of opening with the observation that the very title of the text came from a 1980 speech St. John Paul gave to a handicapped group in Osnabrück, Germany. Indeed, said the Cardinal, it’s not by chance that the document is even officially dated April 2, the 19thanniversary of JPII’s death.

All of this cannot help but make the alert reader think that the drafters – and those who approved the final text – wanted to frontload ample exculpatory evidence against any objections that might follow.

And inevitably, objections will. Because in several respects this apotheosis of human dignity raises more questions than it settles. (“Infinite” human dignity in JPII’s hands was one thing; now, it may mean something very different.)

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‘The Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio

There are seven men: a fleeing follower of Jesus, assumed by art experts to be St. John; the Incarnate God; His betrayer; three soldiers (one identifiable only by the gleam of his helmet); and, next to the left of that soldier, a man holding up a lantern, the light of which illuminates the scene. This last figure is significant because it’s a self-portrait of the artist.

That Caravaggio put himself in the painting surely tells us something about him, although not much. So, we’re left to speculate.

Perhaps he’s touting his role as a soldier in the battle against the Protestant Reformation. It doesn’t tell us that he saw himself precisely as the artistic leader of the Counter-Reformation (Controriforma or Contrareformatio), not least because that term is a 19th-century coinage. Therefore, two centuries in the future.

But in commissioning work from him, his patrons – clerical and otherwise (all or nearly all Catholic) – likely did speak to Caravaggio of the need to forcefully assert Catholicism against the sullen iconoclasm of Luther, Calvin, et alii, and the Northern European artists who were their followers.

And for Caravaggio, there was always the refutation of the rigidity and formalism of much Renaissance and post-Renaissance art of his Catholic predecessors. And I’m talking about the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and the rest.

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The Time of the Gentiles

In the events just commemorated over the Easter Triduum, Jesus “conquered sin and death,” told us that He has “overcome the world,” and opened the way to eternal life. Yet a serious question arises, not only for unbelievers but for Christians: Has there been some mistake? Our world and individual lives seem – to an average eye – as troubled as ever. Many have suffered and died, justly and unjustly, in the 2,000 years since the Resurrection. We’re tempted to say with Jeremiah, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.” (8:20)

But no mistake, of course. It’s just that, as with much about God, there’s a gap between our expectations and His acts.

Some early Christians expected Jesus’ early return and – like us – an end to all the human misery since the unfortunate events in the Garden of Eden. But as Pope Benedict XVI noticed in his magisterial Jesus of Nazareth, Luke’s Gospel projects a different future: “They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (21:24)

This “time of the Gentiles” is our time, during which the Gospel has to be preached to all nations. That’s the fulfillment that the end of Matthew’s Gospel famously records as coming from Jesus Himself. One reason missionaries went out to every part of the globe (until recently) and even inspired a figure like Columbus (cynics notwithstanding) was the belief that Christ could not come again until all nations had heard the Good News.

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Synodal News and a Papal Saga

long time ago, on a planet far away, serious Catholics looked forward to each new document from the Vatican or the pope. They expected enrichment of traditional morals or theology, or enlightenment about some world situation. These days there’s usually justified trepidation – not only over reckless remarks about Ukraine raising the white flag or how Israel should/should not respond to terror. There’s anticipation of division, confusion, and dismay. A number of such texts have recently appeared – or are about to – that seem likely to continue that well-established streak.

Pope Francis’ autobiography LIFE: My Story Through History was published officially on March 19 (more on that below).  Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández has announced that an encyclical will be issued in early April on “social questions,” which looks to be primarily a restatement of main themes of the Francis papacy on things like migration and climate, but also to placate the Cardinal’s critics by treating issues of concern to traditional Catholics such as abortion, surrogacy, gender ideology, etc.  At this juncture, however, we can be fairly certain that it will pitch things in ways that, inevitably, will invite further troubles.

Of immediate interest, there were two recent announcements as the Synod on Synodality lumbers to its conclusion in October. Or at least that was the original plan. Because now we learn that ten “theological issues” have been removed from deliberation in the October session because there isn’t sufficient time to study them adequately.

What, then, has the worldwide global synod on Synodality been doing for the past five-and-a-half years? Synodality suddenly popped up in the final report of the 2018 Synod on Youth, though it hadn’t been discussed during that meeting.

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History, Sacred and Not

Today is “Dante Day,” according to someone, somewhere. (It’s also – who knows how? – National Napping Day, National Immune System Day, and a dozen other such profane observances now jostling the liturgical calendar.) It’s good to honor the greatest Catholic poet, of course, arguably the greatest poet period. We’ve done our part at TCT: You can click here for our online courses on Dante’s Divine Comedy. But today is also the Fourth Monday of Lent, the minor feasts of St. Aengus and St. Constantine  (co-incidentally, the first night of Ramadan), which are of far different and infinitely greater import.

As “everything solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, human beings instinctively reach for something stable amid the flux – especially in times like these, when time itself seems to have sped up, and on a bad road. Remembering and seeking to live in continuity with the past is not “backwardism” or “rigidity.” It’s the sane human recognition that we come from somewhere. And are going somewhere.

Unlike most religious and philosophical systems, Christianity, like Judaism before it, recognizes that God works in history, which is to say, time and space – that time and space are, therefore, fundamentally sacred, not secular. A stumbling block to many because it means that a tiny Middle Eastern tribe – contrary to reasonable expectations – was the temporal vehicle for God’s revelations to the world. An absurdity to ancient pagans. And to pagans now.

Despite the historical record – that the Church, God’s faithful people, converted the mighty Roman Empire and spread around the entire globe – the reality of sacred history looks nonsensical to many who regard themselves as rational and enlightened. But how else do we explain the spread of the Faith by humble figures – fishermen, tax collectors, tent-makers – which Aquinas suggested may be the greatest of miracles?

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Weltanschauungen: Reflections on ‘Freud’s Last Session’

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. – Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

Freud’s Last Session, a recent film directed by Matthew Brown, is based upon the play by Mark St. Germain who wrote the film’s screenplay with Mr. Brown. Both film and play had their genesis in a book by Armand Nicholi: The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Dr. Nicholi, a psychiatrist, had for years taught a popular course at Harvard on just that subject, engaging students in the conflict between the secular and the religious, contrasting two powerful human emotions, despair and hope.

As the movie begins, we see images of antisemitism, and of Jews and other religious figures, including Jesus – from the Shroud of Turin. We enter the den in Freud’s London house, which is filled with artifacts, including effigies of ancient deities, almost a museum, one might say, of totems and taboos.

Freud (played by Anthony Hopkins) has invited Lewis (Matthew Goode) to his London home to discuss religious belief, something Freud rejects as childish fantasy. Of course, the encounter devolves into a therapy session with the twist that each man takes a crack at finding chinks in the other’s psycho-philosophical armor.

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Candid Catholicism

Many people in many nations these days say they “don’t recognize” their country anymore.  Between radical changes in sexual morals and social behavior, the inability to state the obvious like “what is a woman,” claims of racism and “hate” over everyday social frictions, massive unregulated immigration, and wholesale dismissals of the past as irretrievably evil, it’s no wonder. But it is a wonder that similar complaints – not exactly the same, but closely related – also arise often enough now about disorienting changes in the Church.

Part of the problem is that media – even Catholic media – have to fill limitless digital spaces, often by emphasizing controversies that they hope will attract clicks. Another part, however, is the radical rupture, sometimes even within the Church, with age-old human truths and goods, driven by technological developments, but also by abandonment of traditional anchors in tested truths of faith and reason, in the name of human liberation.

To understand all this is not easy; to know what to do harder still. But now comes a very useful tool from TCT contributor, Francis X. Maier. True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church, which will be officially published tomorrow, is both a passionate statement of faith and love of the Church and a careful inquiry into what a cross-section of American bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people are thinking and doing at a very difficult moment for the Church and the world. (Several anonymously, to get maximum candor.)

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