Month: July 2017

A Remark on Malick’s To the Wonder

There is a moment when Jane, having been rejected by her lover Neil in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, declares with equal parts scorn and sorrow, “What we had you turned it into nothing.” For while Jane, an apparent Christian, makes clear that she wants her love with Neil to be elevated to something higher, the latter settles for carnality before turning his affection back towards Marina, a Frenchwoman we see Neil spending time with abroad at the beginning of the movie. Although the fruits and end of Neil and Marina’s relationship remains somewhat ambiguous by the film’s end, Jane’s devastation over having given her body to a man who has no interest in her soul is made painfully apparent.

Were Jane to recount her story to many “good” (conservative) Christians, she would likely be met with chastisement. How could she be so foolish to give of herself physically outside of the bonds of matrimony? Should she not have known that Neil, who professes nary a Christian sentiment in and can be seen reading Heidegger’s Being and Time at one point, would eventually part once he has tasted of the forbidden fruit? Without trivializing Jane’s error, let me suggest that Christians, including Catholics, who take these and similar postures often do so in splendid isolation of the manner in which misplaced hope can drive persons to make decisions which look not only deeply foolish in hindsight, but are objectively deeply sinful. The sense which some hold is that a sin on the frontend will lead to a positive payoff on the backend. Maybe this is why I am no longer surprised when I meet conservative-to-traditional Catholic and Orthodox couples who slept with each other before marriage; there remains an underdeveloped but no less present belief that the ends justifies the means.

Of course, you cannot say such things in the polite company of “official” channels of advice to couples regarding dating, engagement, and matrimony. The entire industry that has popped up around these topics, including bedroom matters post-marriage, depends upon a highly naïve understanding of how human beings think and behave, not just in these times, but in centuries past. Although the costs of out-of-wedlock sexual intercourse were much higher before the advent of modern contraception and more relaxed social standards regarding sexuality in general, it is difficult to maintain that these costs alone ever nullified desire. And while there have always been licentious individuals of both sexes roaming about, there is a lacuna in our understanding of relationships and sexuality if we are to simply hold that people engage in impermissible sexual behavior merely because they are endowed with red hot sin-loving souls. There is a deeper distortion at work, one that cannot be cured with Jane Austen novels and flowery rhetoric about the power of chastity.

Malick, I suspect, understands this to a better extent more than professional moralists. Without having recourse to the blunt instruments of shame and indignation, he portrays, to the best of his cinematic powers, the radiance and beauty of love, even when it is removed from its proper context. He aims not to punish the participants from the outside, but rather allow their own torments to enlighten them. Jane is never singled-out for chastisement by a cleric, a friend, or future lover; it is the realization that what she had invested could never be returned which shatters her. As for Neil, although he remains imperviousness to the damaging consequences of his actions, ultimately they lead to a life of emptiness, hollowed out of the promise of fulfillment which is offered up during the early portions of To the Wonder.

While he barely shares any screen time with Neil and has but a passing connection to Neil’s romantic life, the character of Fr. Quintana is presented as a sharp contrast to Neil. Originally devoid of purpose and apparently on the brink of losing his faith, Quintana does not pull back into himself but rather opens himself up to the world around him, to the suffering souls also in search of love, and eventually, through his unselfish work, is given the grace to love again, not merely himself, but God and the world around him. Quintana’s love is elevated not through a sacramental union with another, but being placed in the service of a higher end. It is not his self-satisfaction which he seeks, but rather to serve as an instrument of mercy for those around him. Instead of collapsing into his own isolation and loneliness as does Neil, he allows himself to be renewed by a elevated love.

Haines on the Ladaria CDF Appointment

Wading into the politics of the Church of Rome doesn’t interest me these days even if my “Uniate” self must recognize that decisions emanating from the Vatican will invariably have ripple effects felt by Greco-Catholics as well. The appointment of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer to head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) leaves me underwhelmed, not because he’s likely to take any revolutionary action, but because he will do nothing to ameliorate the ongoing doctrinal confusion in the Church. And for that reason (among others), I find Andrew Haines’s enthusiasm for the appointment over at Ethika Politika misplaced. While I understand why Haines might be happy that his former professor is moving up in the world, statements such as the following are both perplexing and troubling.

No matter the reaction we see, it’s important to remember that all members of the Roman Curia serve at the pope’s pleasure. He is not bound in justice to renew any of their terms. Any ire or upset directed at the Holy Father is unfounded in this regard.

Of course Pope Francis is not “bound in justice” to do much of anything vis-à-vis the Roman Curia, but just because he can institute a removal-and-replacement for this-or-that position doesn’t mean he should. Francis, for example, could place a hardcore Latin chauvinist at the head of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, one who has zero respect for the rites, theology, and spirituality of the Eastern churches, but should he (or any pope for that matter)? Would Haines wag his finger at Eastern Catholics who openly criticize such an appointment or would he tell them to be silent, fall in line, and accept such a disastrous appointment with a smile? If so, that smacks of some of the worst neo-ultramontanism available today.

My suspicion is that Haines would not go that far if the appointment concerned anything other than the head of the CDF. Haines, an open supporter of Amoris Laetitia (“watershed in the life of the Church”) and Francis’s “broad and substantial capacity for spiritual discernment,” knows that Ladaria will stay the course of this pontificate: more discernment, less doctrine. Clearly this worries conservative and traditional Catholics who have seen a substantial expansion in subjective approaches to Church teaching in recent years, up to and including local bishops’ conferences opening the door for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion while others struggle to maintain the Church’s longstanding discipline. Perhaps, given Haines’s dismissive tone, he has no concern that the catholicity of the Church is under fire.

As for the rest of Haines’s remarks on the appointment, they’re a mixed bag. Haines praises Ladaria’s theological works on the Holy Trinity without seeming to recognize that the Fourth Century has passed; Trinitarianism is not under fire. (Of course, a lack of sound catechesis on Trinitarian doctrine, not to mention Christology, is certainly one of innumerable ongoing problems in the Church today.) At this juncture in history, it is the Church’s moral teachings that are assaulted at every turn by both the secular world and within the Church herself. Discernment, thus far at least, has opened the door for doctrinal relativism. Is this a development Haines supports?

At the end of the day, it would behoove Haines and other supporters of Ladaria’s appointment to make perfectly clear why they are rejoicing over it. Certainly it is not because they believe Ladaria will correct confusion in the Church or try, as best they can, to move matters back to the status quo ante Vatican II. So where goes the Church now? What does the “Church of discernment” look like in concrete terms and how does Ladaria assist in this transition which many of the faithful worldwide find not only unsettling, but deeply damaging as well?

Tomorrow Liberty?

With the Fourth of July right around the corner, here’s something from the archives.

Opus Publicum

Tomorrow Christendom, the late Abbot Dom Gerard Calvet’s call for the reestablishment of Christian society, is a book seldom read by Catholics on this side of the pond. In fact, the English translation is now out of print. Even if it were widely available still, would we, good Catholics of America, have the cultural tools to comprehend its message? A resplendent glimpse of that message can be found in Calvet’s 1985 Pentecost sermon, what I and others have dubbed “The Illiberal Catholic Manifesto.” In it you will find a call to reclaim society not for free-market ideology or hawkish nationalism, but for our Lord Jesus Christ, King of all creation, rightful ruler of every man and nation. How foreign—how moth-eaten—that call must seem to us as we prepare to binge on beer and hotdogs before blowing off the tips of our fingers with illicitly acquired fireworks, all…

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