Monday, April 13, 2020

Unpleasant Necessities

     As some Gentle Readers will already know, I had a Catholic grammar-school education. By and large it was a good one, though the authoritarianism of the Dominican nuns who taught us did help to turn me away from the Church for several decades. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal, including a few things those Dominican nuns would have preferred that I not know.

     “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” ― Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

     If an institution has a net positive value, thwarting the progression above becomes the foremost duty of those who maintain it. It’s guaranteed not to be easy. Indeed, if the alarm isn’t sounded in time it can prove impossible. But the effort remains paramount, at least if one is determined to retain the positive value of the institution in question.

     The Catholic Church was the most important institution of Middle Ages Europe. No other organization can claim as much credit for preserving knowledge and civilization through the years that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. This is essentially undisputed, even among historians indifferent to Christianity as a creed.

     However, Hoffer’s Progression was at work. The Church was steadily degenerating from the greatest of all causes – conserving and promulgating the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth – into a business. The simonistic practices of clerical tax-gathering and “benefices” were at the heart of it. With the rampant corruption of the Renaissance Papacy, the disease reached its final stage.

     In my grammar school, the Reformation was characterized as “the Protestant Revolt:” a rebellion against the authority of the pope and the Church hierarchy. And to be maximally candid, it was that in part. But in greater part it was a rejection of the Church’s assertions of temporal authority for the purpose of enriching and exalting its clerics, from local priests all the way up to the pope himself.

     Martin Luther attacked the longstanding doctrine that salvation requires both faith and good works from him who would be saved. Yet that doctrine is not inherently pernicious. It had been perverted into a demand that lay Christians subordinate their worldly means to the demands of the Church. Luther had thrown the baby out with the bathwater – yet without his willingness to rebel against the Church hierarchy, the rampant simony and associated corruptions of the era might have doomed the Church entirely.

     The Schism had both good and bad consequences. Christianity no longer speaks with a single voice. Indeed, there’s considerable animosity among the various denominations, pointedly ridiculed in an old joke:

     I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!" He said "Why shouldn't I?"
     I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?"
     I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious."
     I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian."
     I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant."
     I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" He said, "Baptist!"
     I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist church of God or Baptist church of the Lord?" He said, "Baptist church of God!"
     I said, "Me too! Are you original Baptist church of God, or are you reformed Baptist church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist church of God!"
     I said, "Me too! Are you reformed Baptist church of God, reformation of 1879, or reformed Baptist church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist church of God, reformation of 1915!"
     I said, "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

     The Ecumenical Council of 1962-1965, sometimes called Vatican II, was in part an attempt to begin the regathering of all Christians under a single roof. It failed largely because the Catholic Church maintains the doctrinal primacy of the Pope, which Protestant Christians are unwilling to accept. Even so, efforts at a reborn Christian ecumenism continue and are generally regarded as making steady if slow progress.

     But we must keep this in mind: Without the Schism of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries, which shattered the Christian world and gave rise to Continent-wide religious warfare that ultimately required the Treaties of Westphalia to squelch, the Church would not have embraced the reforms that followed. It would have become nothing more than a racket. Today it would be a mere unpleasant footnote to medieval history.

     Not all necessities are unpleasant…but some are inexorably so. Consider the Presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. It can be argued, though not conclusively, that Obama’s term of ordure office was the necessary precondition for the electorate to choose a complete and highly competent outsider for his successor. We had to experience the bottom of the barrel of politics before our eyes would open to the remedy.

     As Steven Brust noted in The Phoenix Guards, unpleasant notions can be important, even indispensable indicators of the proper course. That’s not to say that the most unpleasant course available is always the best one. Still, there are times when we must not shy from difficulty or discomfort, as anyone who’s ever had to spank a much-loved child will tell you.

     Today the Catholic Church is once again in the middle of an unpleasant phase. It involves a Pope who appears utterly unfit for the Throne of Saint Peter, who has chosen to neglect his duties as the Vicar of Christ on Earth in favor of unsubstantiated pronouncements on politics, economics, Islam, and other subjects well beyond his competence. As painful as this period has been for millions of Catholics, it might yet conduce to the greater good as we relearn what our Faith is really about. It also reminds us about the proper sphere to which Christian clerics of all denominations should confine themselves, both for the good of their parishioners and for their own immortal souls. God frowns upon shepherds who lead their flocks astray.



Loved that bridge joke. :)

Referring to Barackus leading to Trump... almost like an alcoholic / drug addict that has to truly hit "rock bottom" before they're ready to acknowledge they have a problem.

Unfortunately, we have scads upon scads of individuals who refuse to see that. E.g., on LinkedIn there are individuals whose comments come across. Snarky, arrogant, filled with disdain and contempt for the "low educated deplorables" (despite my having two masters degrees, as one counter example).

Part of the problem is that they - channeling Sowell - get so much emotional satisfaction from being "smarter than the average bear" they're not willing to even consider they may not be. And, realistically, it circles back to your essay a while back discussing HUMILITY.

Unknown said...

He who is unaware of his ignorance will only be misled by his knowledge.

Don K said...

Your comments in the first paragraph certainly echoed my experience with Catholic Church. I too attended a Catholic school for eight years and was ministered to by the sisters of St. Joseph. I can tell you that they cured me from Catholicism. As I have aged, I have considered returning to the church if for no other reason than social intercourse. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church. But the church has elected a communist as it's leader. Each time the commie makes a pronouncement which has absolutely nothing to do with the ministering of one's soul he repulses me. There is absolutely no way I could return to the Catholic Church. Francis, I know you have done so. More power to you if you can see past the Church's Commie leader. I do enjoy your blog and your rants. Your blog is one of my go to blogs each morning. Thank you.

Paul Bonneau said...

Whether Trump is a remedy, rather than just a postponement for the reset that must come, is still an open question.

I was raised a Catholic, and left the church (in my mind at least), around 15 years old. Never went back, never felt the need either. That's true in spades with this pope. Some other faith, even some early European mysticism, holds a minor attraction; but probably not.

There is an old sci-fi book, "Pavane" by Keith Roberts, which is an "alternate history" where there never was a Reformation. One of my favorites; take a look.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I read Pavane and The Passing of the Dragons thirty years ago, Paul. Can't find my copies today, but that's par for the course.

Rick T said...

The rot goes deeper than just the Vatican... For a little while my wife attended a local Catholic parish with Franciscan fathers as the resident priests.

One of the brothers was teaching a class on the early church and he started talking about dates CE... A Catholic monk in a Catholic class wouldn't or couldn't use Anno Domini to refer to a date but Common Era..

Historian said...

Pournelle's Iron Law would appear to be in full effect in the Catholic Church, as in virtually every other organization. One wonders how to create a multigenerational organization that is immune to its effects?

L E Modesitt's Ecolitan novels look at this issue, at least peripherally, as does Steve Perry's Matadora series.....

With regard to all who seek the Light,

SWVAguy said...

What HS did you attend Francis? A couple friends went to Chaminade. Another went to Malloy. As an aside, Bill O'Reilly also went to Chaminade.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I went to a "public" high school, SWVA. I would have liked to stay in Catholic education -- I was actually pondering studying for the priesthood -- but it wasn't to be.