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Get Read for Some Explosions

Divine Providence is an easy idea to grasp, a hard one to understand. Anyone who believes in a Creator who not only made the world, but loves and continues to be active in it (many religions, by the way, do not) must also accept that He, somehow, draws good even out of things like COVID, bloody wars between nations, tsunamis and typhoons and earthquakes, the suffering and death of heroic martyrs, hapless politicians, clueless churchmen, Synods on Synodality, and even you and me.

We count on His love and mercy, but often experience what seems like abandonment. If there’s any justification of this mystery (mysteries by definition do not admit of complete explanation), all this suggests that we must all need constant shaking up in our confident assumptions about our place in this world – even in powerful empires like modern America, even in the very Church Herself. It’s one of the worst of bad spiritual habits to fall into the belief that we’re pretty much okay on our own and are not radically, totally, at every instant dependent on God.

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Caravaggio in Kansas City

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matthew 11:11

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri began with a bequest of $300,000 from Mary McAfee Atkins (1836 – 1911), a retired schoolteacher. Well, she had been a teacher, but she was also the widow of a real-estate magnate.

William Rockhill Nelson (1841–1915) had attended the University of Notre Dame for two years, after which the Holy Cross fathers – politely, I’m sure – asked him to skedaddle. Mr. Nelson was relieved. A non-Catholic, he described Notre Dame as “Botany Bay for bad boys” – a reference to the place in Australia where English prisoners once were exiled. Nelson went on to co-found the Kansas City Star.

Mrs. Atkins’ $300,000 was the equivalent of more than $9 million today. And Mr. Nelson also made a gift, pretty much his entire estate, dedicated to the purchase of art “for public enjoyment” in the city that had rewarded him with success. That amount was $11,000,000, which today would be $353,958,000. In the 1920s, the only other American artistic institution with financial resources like that was New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum.

So, with those several hundred million dollars to spend, the future Nelson-Atkins began to take shape, although ground-breaking did not begin until 1930.

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Psychopaths in Power

There’s so much that is false, wrong, erroneous, chaotic (and its twin brother, demonic) in the world at present that it’s difficult to see your way as it all swirls around us. But every now and then, someone hits on an illuminating insight that pierces through, like a lighthouse in a raging storm. The great psychologist and social commentator Jordan Peterson recently found exactly the right few words for our predicament: Psychopaths are in power. Others have said as much. He added, however, that the psychopaths have been utterly brilliant in using terms like freedom, tolerance, inclusion, openness, and diversity to disguise the destruction they’re causing, making it look sane, progressive, constructive, compassionate, even “Christian.”

A bit of realism based on experience treating mentally disturbed people.

It’s useful to trace out exactly what this means just now, because we’re living through something different than in the past. We’ve seen psychopaths in power, via obvious lies, in historic dictatorships: left was right, down was up, murder was justice, repression brought liberation. The twentieth century was full of them: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Fidel. More recently we’ve had Hugo Chavez, the Ortegas, Xi, Kim Jong Un, and countless others.

As is usual in such cases, it’s impossible to tell where the murderous ideology ends and the personal psychopathology begins because, in such great evils, they pretty much depend on and feed off one another.

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Something’s Wrong in Rome

In the past week or so, the pope has: praised “that great imperial Russia” for its noble culture and humanity (a remark later admitted to be “badly phrased”); lauded Genghis Khan’s blood-soaked empire for its religious tolerance and “pax mongolica” (40 million killed, give or take); encouraged Chinese Christians to be good citizens of a nation whose “culture” he greatly admires and whose government is, he says, “very respectful” towards the Church (other views abound); shied away from saying anything more about Nicaragua where the Ortegas are basically outlawing Catholicism and a bishop has been sentenced to 26 years in jail; and denounced worried Catholics, especially American Catholics, for their criticisms of – well – many things, but especially “politicizing” the upcoming Synod on Synodality, and embracing rigid and empty “ideologies” instead of following the living doctrine of the Faith.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Even for someone like the present writer, who has seen “unbelievable” things happen over decades of following faith and politics in Rome and Washington, this has been a breathtaking stretch. And one has to ask, seriously: Is there something wrong in Rome?

The remarks about Russia and Mongolia, for instance, read as if some ghostwriter in the Vatican was given the task of finding something positive to say about those countries. And after a quick glance at Wikipedia, plucked those gems out of a mass of other, far less flattering, material.

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St. Augustine’s Two Trees

Today is the Feast of St. Augustine – and also my late mother’s birthday. I don’t think she ever read a word of Augustine’s, but she may have caught wind of St. Monica’s tears over her young son (as recounted in Confessions) . . . and made the connection to her own son’s adolescent waverings. In any case, when you read Augustine, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels with your own life, and in a deeply personal way. Aquinas is primarily the great master of the mind, Augustine the passionate guide to the heart.

The very first page of Confessions, of course, contains his much-quoted line: fecisti nos ad te et inquietem est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (“You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”) You can read that as simply a pious expression, and no harm. (When I teach Augustine, though, I warn students not to assume they already know what “heart” signifies here.) If you read on, you get a profound exposition – amidst a story of worldly temptations and ambitions, intellectual and spiritual confusions, as powerful then as they are now – of what those seemingly simple words mean.

Social commentators sometimes talk about how “the world has lost its story,” meaning we no longer know why we exist as persons or societies. At bottom, the story we’ve lost is the Biblical view of history. As a result, the stories we substituted for it – enlightenment, national greatness, economic progress, even science – which depended on there being a sense and direction to life, no longer have any real substance.

And it shows. Desperate attempts at establishing “identity” by latching on to race and gender “communities,” or engaging in environmental or political crusades, are in the end, modern manifestations of unquiet hearts.

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An Ancient Dialogue

Note: TCT cannot affirm the antiquity – or authenticity – or even the author — of this newly-discovered fragment, but we thought it would be of interest to our classically-minded readers.

Eudaimon: Socrates, Socrates! Wait! I need to talk with you.

Socrates: Well, well. My young friend, owl-eyed Eudaimon. How kind the gods are to let us meet again here, seemingly by chance, under these sheltering trees, as the sun goes down in the mist-filled West. What has you so agitated at this evening hour? Another romantic misadventure?

E:  No. The whole city seems aflame with a raging fever, Socrates. All summer, I’ve hoped for the public battles to cool down, as in past years. But they haven’t. The public men are indicting one another everywhere, in the law courts, like madmen. The agora is in constant uproar, even on the hottest days. In summer, the big men used to seek relief from the heat in their shady country houses. This year, wildfires are raging. The lyre-players are singing about the callousness of rich men in the North, and horrors in the city unthinkable in a small town. Even the high priests are caught up in the madness.

S: Slow down, my young Eudaimon. I know several high priests. Some have indeed drunk deep of the general madness. But quite a few understand what’s happening, and are as appalled as you are.

E: But what are they – what are we all – going to do? This simply cannot go on.

S: You’re right, and how blessed you are to have already learned that at your tender age. It’s heartbreaking when a great city like ours, with a brilliant history, seems hellbent on destroying itself.

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Lights in the East

This week tens of thousands of young people will gather in Lisbon on the Western edge of Europe for World Youth Day (WYD). Despite the controversies over whether this WYD is intended to evangelize or to be a merely neutral, synodal-like “walking together,” it’s a safe bet that the result will be, as in the past, a significant encounter with Jesus and his Church.

Also this week, about two dozen Christian faculty and students – drawn from Europe, the UK, North and South America – are meeting on the Eastern edge of Europe, in fact on the border with war-torn Ukraine, for the twenty-first annual Summer Seminar on the Free Society (FSS) in the Slovak Republic.

The scheduling conflict was not intentional, and isn‘t meant to undercut the better angels of WYD. But we’re meeting, as we have for over two decades, to dive deep into Catholic social doctrine and to consider how its principles, with their long roots in the best secular and religious thought and experience, might enable us to live a more authentically human — which is to say a fully Christian – life, in spite of looming obstacles and threats.

The FSS was the brainchild of Michael Novak, the great Slovak-American social thinker (and one of the founders of The Catholic Thing). When we started, the goal was to help peoples like the Slovaks and others who had been subjugated, and had their Christian values distorted, by communism. We now have around 500 alumni of the program spread all over Europe, the Americas, and as far away as the Philippines who are working in government (even the EU!), education, media, business, and other sectors – patiently planting seeds of a different and better future.

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Testimony: a Review of ‘Oppenheimer’

In 2025, the world will note the passing of 80 years since the detonation of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

That decision remains one of the most controversial in world history. President Harry Truman understood the consequences it would have on the people in Hiroshima, but he also knew Japan’s militaristic leaders would fight to the bitter end. In July, the War Department had advised that Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, could result in perhaps 5- to 10-million dead just among the Japanese people. Massive American casualties were also certain.

The President gave Tokyo “fair warning,” as he put it, from the Potsdam Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945), in a “Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese government, [and] warning of ‘prompt and utter destruction’” if it refused, which it did.

As he did in his magnificent 2017 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan begins his new film, Oppenheimer, with numbered captions that introduce the viewer to the fluid nature of the film’s narrative, which flashes forward and back, to several key events in physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life: his education (Harvard, Cambridge, Göttingen); his work as head of the Manhattan Project (that designed and built America’s first nuclear weapons); his testimony in a post-war star-chamber proceeding to determine his post-war security status; and testimony before a Senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss, President Eisenhower’s choice for Secretary of Commerce. Oppenheimer and Strauss were early good friends and later bitter enemies.

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Is Catholicism ‘Inadequate’?

There’s an old philosophical distinction about conditions that are necessary, but not sufficient to make something true. You might assert, for example, that the Church is a “field hospital,” and therefore it’s necessary for Her to have the intention of caring for the wounded and dying. But without necessary medical knowledge as well – and in this scenario full and accurate understanding of what the battle is all about, and how and why casualties are occurring – you won’t have an adequate course of treatment.

This distinction came to mind reading a recent interview with Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal and head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith ) Víctor Manuel Fernández, who was asked directly what he thought about St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor, “The Splendor of Truth.” As anyone who follows Catholic matters will know, that encyclical sought with great sophistication and force to show how the truths delivered to us via both reason and revelation undergird human freedom and moral acts. No solid truth, no true human dignity.

Archbishop Fernández’s response bears careful attention on several fronts since he will now run the Vatican’s doctrinal office:

Veritatis splendor is a great document, powerfully solid. Obviously, it denotes a particular concern – to set certain limits. For this reason it is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology. In fact, over the last decades, tell me how many theologians can we name with the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or Von Balthasar? Not even that which they call “liberation theology” has theologians at the level of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Something has gone wrong. [Emphasis added.]

Except for the initial perfunctory bow to a great recent pope and saint, the rest of his comment is so wrong . . .

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Summer Life Lines

With so much chaos in the world – war in the East, division in the West, millions streaming North and South – and the Church, at levels both high and low, experiencing “confusion worse confounded” (“Paradise Lost”), it feels shameful to retreat from battle, even a little, to take in summer.

But we should, because, in truth Jesus has already arranged it that “the strife is o’er,” (ultimately). And grace and redemption fill Creation, which despite our worst efforts, “remains unspent/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” (Hopkins) St. John Henry Newman notes that, especially during barren winter, we have to remember the goodness and beauty that will blossom again beyond all reasonable expectation.

So even as I keep one eye on our troubles, I also try in this season to look less at what’s transient and more at permanent things – and a wider world.

Literally. Especially on summer nights during the Perseid Meteor Shower, which begins tonight and peaks in coming weeks until August 24. No need for special equipment: go outdoors, find the constellation Perseus, and be patient. It will entrance you. (These are also the “dog days,” so you can see Sirius, the “dog star,” the brightest in the sky.)

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