Friday, May 19, 2017

Losing The Thread

     Few institutions, and even fewer nations, can survive the loss of their conceptual core.

     I received a Catholic grammar-school education. While I would never dream of denigrating that education, nor of disparaging the nuns I had as teachers, it is nevertheless the case that the experience is largely the reason I fell away from the Church. The barely concealed authoritarianism my teachers implied to the Church, and to Catholicism itself, repelled me sufficiently that I spent more than thirty years away from them. To be blunt, I wanted no part of a religion that preaches that “Everything not compulsory is forbidden.”

     Many Catholics of my generation have harsh things to say about the Church. Their criticisms often focus on the Second Ecumenical Council, better known as Vatican II. That great conclave was devoted to two principal objectives:

  1. Reducing the authoritarianism of the Church, both in substance and in form;
  2. Renewing the Church’s commitment to the reuniting of all Christians under a single banner.

     Though Vatican II did have some consequences that may be deemed unfortunate, it succeeded to a greater extent than not. The return of the vernacular to Catholic liturgical practice, and the reduction of animosities between the Church and the larger Protestant sects were particularly valuable. Though a large and venerable institution will always have difficulty admitting its errors and changing its ways, the Church has had a goodly measure of success at gentling its manner and reifying G. K. Chesterton’s well known observation:

     The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.

     To many Catholics of my generation (and previous ones), the contemporary Church is well nigh unrecognizable. Instead of scolds in cassocks who wave the Baltimore Catechism while threatening eternal damnation, we have priests who listen, counsel, guide, and above all welcome back the straying sheep.

     Catholic allegiance is no longer an “open-air cloister.” It’s a thing of great joy and power. Indeed, the Church has returned to its roots in the Redeemer, especially in these words He spoke to the “rich young man:”

     Now a man came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself.” [Matthew 19:16-19]

     But that’s not my main point for today.

     Authority is a heady thing. It intoxicates many who are granted it, to the point that they forget their bounds and lose their way. This story provides a chilling example:

     “It has been frighteningly apparent that we in this city have given our freedoms up in ways that we never really saw coming,” [Columbiana, OH resident Tony] Dolan wrote in the Columbiana for/against Chickens Facebook page.
     Dolan also posted copies of ordinances council was expected to discuss during last week’s meeting. One of those ordinances was to amend section 1260.16 of the planning and zoning code to include language pertaining to the planting and growing of fruits, vegetables and grapevines.
     The other related to the keeping of chickens in town.
     The garden legislation would amend the zoning code to allow gardens on residential property, but Dolan and others at the meeting believed it was just another effort on the city’s part to restrict their rights.
     The proposed amendment originally stated that residential gardens would need to be confined to rear yards, but that wording was later removed by a motion of council during the meeting.
     Municipal Attorney Daniel Blasdell said the garden issue came about as a result of the chicken issue.
     He explained that people were asking why chickens couldn’t be allowed in the community while gardens were.
     The city had no laws pertaining to residential gardens, which means they were technically not allowed.
     According to the city’s laws, if something is not permitted it is prohibited.
     “Right now, if there is not something expressly in this code that says that you can have one, you technically can’t,” Blakeman confirmed.
     He went on to say that the city’s effort to make a law allowing gardens is something that should be seen as a good move by residents.
     “The intention of it is to not to take away, it is to give,” he said.

     Please read it all. Note especially the parts emphasized above. Note the attitude embedded in the statements by Columbiana Mayor Bryan Blakeman. He sees the Columbiana city government’s authority as unbounded, such that Columbiana’s residents have only such latitude of action as the city code expressly provides.

     That’s not quite “Everything not compulsory is forbidden,” but it comes close enough to be lethally chilling. And an elected official of an American city has proclaimed it.

ANGELO: ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny
The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life,
May in the sworn twelve, have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice
That justice seizes. What know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stop and take it,
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me, When I, that censure him, do so offend, Let mine own judgment pattern out my death, And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.

(“William Shakespeare,” Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene I)

ISABELLA: Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder; nothing but thunder—
Merciful heaven!
Thou rather, with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splitt’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle—but man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

(Ibid, Act II, Scene II)

     Earth's population had been stabilized, about the middle of the twenty-first century, at eighteen billion. The Fertility Board, a subsection of the United Nations, made and enforced the birth control laws. For more than half a thousand years those laws had remained the same: two children to a couple, subject to the judgment of the Fertility Board. The Board decided who might be a parent how many times. The Board might award extra children to one couple, deny any children at all to another, all on the basis of desirable or undesirable genes.
     "Incredible," said the kzin.
     "Why? Things were getting pretty tanj crowded, with eighteen billion people trapped in a primitive technology."
     "If the Patriarchy tried to force such a law on kzinti, we would exterminate the Patriarchy for its insolence."

     (Larry Niven, Ringworld)

     The attitude of Angelo, a deputy of Vienna who has argued to a court that Claudio, a Viennese gentleman, must die for the “crime” of fornication, is quite comparable to that of Columbiana Mayor Bryan Blakeman. The attitude upon which this nation was founded is more like that of Speaker to Animals, the kzin in the passage from Ringworld above.

     With which of those attitudes are contemporary Americans more aligned? Have we lost the thread of the Founding so completely that municipal mayors can get away with Blakeman’s incredible arrogance – his bald assertion that the city government can “give” residents the right to garden in their own yards – and inversely, can forbid it merely by choosing not to “give” it?

     It seems incredible yet indisputable. If the Catholic Church, a two thousand year old institution whose Founder was the Son of God, can lose the thread so completely, surely so can American governments, and Americans themselves. Whether we can and will pick it up and defend it as it deserves once again remains to be seen.


sykes.1 said...

The Fertility Board's rule of two children per couple would lead to population collapse.

Linda Fox said...

What's interesting is that the official seems not to understand the difference. He could just as easily modify the town's charter - through a vote of the people - which would change that draconian provision.

Instead, he wanted the people to come groveling to council, with their timid pleas for mercy, each time they wanted to do something.