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Life, by the Numbers

As a thought experiment, let’s assume something I would never accuse TCT readers of being: that you are materialist and utilitarian. You believe that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” in tangible, physical measures, is the pre-eminent moral principle. What might you have to consider today, when tens of thousands of Americans will be marching to protect life in the womb? (And people in various countries have followed the American example with their own pro-life marches?)

Well, to begin with, though all such numbers are a bit uncertain, roughly 55 million people died, globally, last year. And numerous public health organizations intensely scrutinize the slightest increase or decrease in mortality, in a laudable effort to identify what factors may be harming or helping the health of diverse peoples around the world.

That number does not include the number of babies killed by elective abortions, which at one time would have been thought a rare, emergency measure. The Guttmacher Institute, an advocate for abortion, estimates that there are roughly 56 million abortions around the world every year. So allowing for the lack of statistical accuracy, we can say in broad terms that as many innocents are slaughtered every year in the womb as there are deaths from all other causes in the entire world.

That’s the kind of mayhem you associate with murderous ideologies like Nazism and Communism, not “reproductive health.”

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

The Other End of Nowhere

Once upon a time, people spun theories of history.

In Finnegan’s Wake, which (trust me) I haven’t read from cover to cover, James Joyce plays with Giambattista Vico’s theory of cycles in history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, the age of humans. Marx and Engels gave us historical materialism: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The Enlightenment gave us various forms of Progressivism, which amount in sum to the patent idiocy that things are always getting better.

They’re not.

I may be among the few who do not believe in pendulum swings. I know, I know: it very much appears that a Carter gives us a Reagan and an Obama gives us a Trump, but it seems to me it’s more sensible to think of a child on a rocking horse who, though he changes his mind as he rocks, isn’t actually going anywhere: it’s neither progress nor regress.

“Progress,” Mr. Chesterton wrote in Heretics, “is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” We never will.

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

Rome’s Shame in China

China is a large, strange, complex, contradictory thing, even before you get to the large, strange, complex, contradictory, and murderous form of Communism that has come to dominate its various peoples. No one understands it very well. But those closest with a real say – the Hong Kong protesters who know what submission to Beijing means, and Taiwanese voters who roundly resisted mainland pressure in elections this weekend – are united in believing that China is simply not to be trusted.

It’s worth trying to think through why the Vatican seems to have a different view.

Living in Washington, I’ve met any number of sincere and dedicated public figures, as well as many scamps, scalawags, con men, and outright liars. But the few encounters I’ve had with Chinese officials set the gold standard for shameless lying – particularly about religious persecution.

Even secular journalists with little love for religion routinely report these days on China’s increasing outrages against believers. Their reports tend to focus on religious groups Western secularists favor – the 1 million Uighur Muslims in China, for example, who are now being brainwashed in “re-education” camps.

Journalists are much less interested in China’s 100 million Christians (Protestants and Catholics). Or how religious bodies are being brutally “sinicized,” even forced – incredibly – to re-write their scriptures to bring them in line with Communist ideology.

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

Alone in the Clouds: Malick’s “A Hidden Life”

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian farmer who refused to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler and was guillotined by the Nazis on August 9, 1943. He was beatified as a martyr by Benedict XVI in 2007.

His life is worthy of a major motion picture, and I was genuinely excited to see A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s new biopic about Bl. Jägerstätter. If you’ve never seen Mr. Malick’s 1978 film, Days of Heaven, you should, and you’ll be impressed by the look of it, although much of the credit for that belongs to Nestor Almendros, one of the finest cinematographers of the last century. In any case, Malick’s films have ever since been notable for their visual beauty.

But, Mr. Malick, although something of a visionary, is not a particularly accomplished entertainer, a consequence of which is that his films lack the humanity that arises from vivid characterization and language, and this is especially true of A Hidden Life, which has very long sequences in which the film’s characters say nothing or next to nothing and don’t do much either. It’s rather like a perfume commercial.

Jörg Widmer’s camera work on A Hidden Life is very good, if somewhat static. It’s like sitting in a medical office, waiting between the nurse’s visit and the doctor’s arrival, and staring at an HDTV screen as one high-definition photo after another cycles through: mountains and rivers and lakes. In A Hidden Life, it’s the scenery of Italy’s Tyrolean Alps (standing in for Austrian mountains), but scenery it is, interrupted only now and then by human faces, usually shot in tight to show human feeling: joy or sorrow, apparently the only emotions there are. Sometimes these humans talk to one another, although much of the narrative is accomplished in epistolary fashion: letters between Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner).

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

Comfort ye, My People

“Comfort ye,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah, a man who – to put it mildly – had to denounce the sinfulness, to say many uncomfortable things, to the stiff-necked Israelites, which is to say to people very like ourselves. A people, like people in every age, in need of comforting, true comforting, because of the turmoil around them and within them – often the result of their own waywardness – with no ordinary human remedy in sight.

It must have been a crucial message even back then, because Isaiah repeats it and – surprisingly – even specifies from whence it came: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Is. 40:1-2)

All that, of course, has inspired and encouraged the world for nearly 3000 years, which has included many moments even more troubled than our own deeply bewildered age.  Just a few centuries ago, it gave Georg Friedrich Handel the inspiration for his Messiah, which many of us will hear in this season. A servant stumbled in on Handel just as he finished writing the Hallelujah Chorus and found him in tears: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” If you are prone to doubt divine inspiration, consider: Handel produced that immortal 260-page score in just twenty-four days.

And Isaiah’s spirit is still alive among us.

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

A “Carol” for the Ages

It’s fair to say that no Christmas story except THE Christmas story (the one St. Luke relates) has had more enduring popularity than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the brief survey below of dramatic adaptations, I’m going to focus solely on films (excluding all TV and animated versions – and ones with puppets), despite the fact that fine actors such as George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, and Patrick Stewart have participated in some of them.

The very first dramatic presentation of A Christmas Carol was by Dickens himself, who read the book to enthusiastic audiences in Birmingham, England in 1853, a decade after the book’s publication. Since then there have been more than sixty theatrical productions (in an uncountable number of performances, including revivals), several dozen cinematic versions, and nearly three-dozen TV or direct-to-video versions. I’m not going to attempt to tally up all the radio performances and recorded books. There have been four operas. And you probably couldn’t count the number of TV series that have had episodes with a haunted-villain-changes-his-life storyline.

Mr. Dickens was not a Catholic (in fact, he called our faith “a curse upon the world”), and he was not a particularly enthusiastic Anglican either. But he did have a sense of how faith can transform lives, and it’s reasonable to say that, in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has a born-again experience (well, better to call it metanoia) thanks to the visits of the three ghosts.


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

Don’t Watch “The First Temptation of Christ”

The Wise Men, if we should call them so, are confused. Is that a star or a comet?

“Last time we chased a comet. . .we ended up in Greece.”

“Are you complaining?”

Well, Greece is beautiful this time of year, and pace Mr. Eliot, it can be a pretty cold coming elsewhere in December, “Just the worst time of the year,” in fact.

I’m reflecting here on the opening of The First Temptation of Christ, a sticky Brazilian confection on Netflix, a comedy (if you’re, say, 13-years-old) about Jesus bringing home his homosexual “friend” to meet the family.

Worldwide protests are mounting. But I hate to condemn anything out of hand, so let me do so in hand.

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

The Vatican’s China Syndrome

How long can the Vatican remain silent about the Chinese repression in Hong Kong and about reports of persecution and re-education camps for religious believers in the rest of China? Clearly, the figures in the Roman Curia (primarily Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin) who crafted the still unpublished accord with the Communist government have put themselves in a moral bind. If they speak out, they may jeopardize the agreement (which would not exactly be a tragedy, since it has only led to even more violent, more open acts against Christians in China). If they don’t speak out, they run the still greater risk of being accomplices, conspicuous accomplices, in the repression and potential liquidation of a heroic Catholic people of confessors and martyrs.

It didn’t have to be this way. Just as the Vatican PR machine is able to gin up campaigns to promote Pope Francis’ preoccupations about the environment, immigrants, the death penalty – and now nuclear weapons – it could also have made crimes against Christians, particularly Catholics, far more visible, and an urgent priority for anyone, anywhere in the world who pays attention to the moral leadership of the Church. And not only in China, because persecution of Christians exists in various hotspots around the globe and there are increasingly anti-Christian attacks even in Western nations like France and the United Kingdom, to say nothing of our own country.

Many Catholics were rightly upset when Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Council of the Social Sciences, returning from a trip to China, said, “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” That was so absurd – considering the religious repression, the environmental damage, the forced abortions, the Orwellian surveillance of their own people – that it doesn’t bear a moment’s thought.

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

Joe and Jorge’s Excellent Adventure: “The Two Popes”

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) was not, despite the title, a religious film, but a gritty, semi-documentary drama about kids in Rio’s slums. Mr. Meirelles’ new film, The Two Popes, is also not religious.

The film claims to be “inspired by true events,” which at its heart is a lie, and it clearly doesn’t understand what’s going on in this mysterious thing called the Roman Catholic Church. Or if it does know, dislikes it intensely.

Written by Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of two very fine (and very different) films, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, The Two Popes imagines a 2012 meeting between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). The cardinal has been summoned by the pope ostensibly to discuss the former’s resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. As it happens, before receiving the pope’s summons, the cardinal had already bought a plane ticket to Rome in order to urge Benedict to accept that resignation. Kismet?

Pope Benedict is well aware that Bergoglio finished second in the 2005 conclave voting that had elevated him to the papacy, and therein lies the gambit: the pope really wants to discover what sort of man his likely successor is and what effect a Papa Bergoglio might have on the legacy of Benedict’s papacy.

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

Intimations of Immortality in the Americas

Intimations of eternity are rare in this life. I had one, about this time of the year, when I was in high school. I’m enough of a modern man to know how unreal the claim seems. But it’s true. I was walking with a few friends under autumn leaves. We’d just been reading Virgil together in Latin, during last period. From somewhere, there welled up in me an overwhelming sense of both geologic ages and the immense extent of human life. And something beyond even those. Years later, I came upon an Italian poem – L’infinito – that captures the experience.

I had a similar experience this past Saturday morning. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco celebrated an Extraordinary Form Latin “Mass of the Americas” at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, accompanied by the music of Frank La Rocca, whom the archbishop had commissioned for that purpose.

But listening to the recording and even watching the video can’t even begin to convey what the Mass was like in the Basilica. To underscore just one element, Archbishop Cordileone celebrated the Mass on the main altar under the Baldacchino, way at the back of the church (instead of the new altar closer to the congregation). That had a marvelous effect. At least for me.

When he and the concelebrants processed to the far altar, near the imposing mosaic of Jesus as Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”), it was as if they were going deep into the divine mysteries. And later, when the priests came forward to distribute Communion, it was as if they were bringing the Body and Blood to the congregation from the depths of God Himself.

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