Author: Gabriel Sanchez

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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It’s Raining in Grand Rapids

The New York Review of Books has a new essay up by Sue Halpern reviewing a recent documentary on Julian Assange. Proactively titled “The Nihilism of Julian Assange,” Halpern—through frequent references to the film—isn’t a big fan of Mr. Assange. In fact, she appears to downright despise him, which only makes sense since Assange, much to the chagrin of the Left, helped cost Hillary Clinton the American Presidency through a series of calibrated leaks. When Assange was releasing documents that embarrassed conservatives and exposed American misdeeds at home and abroad, he was a hero, a man of principles that risked all for the greater good. Now Assange is an unprincipled monster, an opportunist who keeps company with toxic nationalists like Nigel Farage, neo-Nazis in Australia, and allies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. As her praise of Edward Snowden reveals, Halpern is all for leaking classified material, just as long as it helps the “right causes.”

This is not surprising. Over the years, (in)famous leakers like Assange and Snowden have been praised or demonized across the political spectrum. When their work shows how liberal democracy is being compromised, then praise be; but if their work—specifically the work of Assange—apparently undermines the democratic process, then there are not enough condemnatory phrases in the English language available. While sideline legalists have various opinions on what, if any, laws a leaker like Assange has violated, it’s doubtful that his work will stop anytime soon. What’s unclear at this point is if that work will continue to assist the political Right or provide some new cover for the Left. Maybe it will be a bit of both. Either way, democratic legitimacy will continue to be bruised as those holding the reins of power are shown to be the hypocrites, opportunists, and unscrupulous careerists many already suspect.

And why is this a bad thing? Only those still wedded to a belief that liberal democracy has been anything other than a manifest failure should want to see it stand; those with eyes to see are starting to anticipate its long overdue demise. The worry in the air is, “What comes next?” And this is something leakers like Assange cannot assist in answering. The gulf between providing shocking intelligence and proposing a way ahead is radically wide. Assange and other leakers can unsettle the foundations; it is up to those exhausted by the Enlightenment’s lies to start writing the next chapter of the West. And to do that in a manner which is detached from the tenets of liberalism will be an impossible task so long as people insist on keeping some vestiges of the liberal order. Such reformist impulses are understandable, but betrays an absence of nerve and a lack of vision.

This a point missed by secular anti-liberals who believe the imminent plane can be transformed without reference to the transcendent. Talentless to the core, they advocate for steady-to-progressive reform that will meet their personal needs rather than accord with any higher conception of right. Whether motivated by fear or some base desire, those committed to a secular worldview have nothing to propose but ideas that will fail under all circumstances. No commitment to change, no longing for what must come after liberalism, can be actualized if it is motivated by little more than what makes us anxious in this life. Indeed, that is a pathway back to liberalism, as Leo Strauss demonstrated in his review of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. Fear, specifically fear of a violent death, becomes the basis for liberalism—an order that makes no demands while providing living space for frivolity, distraction, and discussion. Death is the foreclosure of existence-as-entertainment, not the pathway to eternity.

Looking for Antiques Near Sedevacantists

I am not a professional antique hunter; in fact, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it entails other than walking into stores, looking around, and waiting for something to catch my eye. More often than not, this results in a series of failed endeavors where some anxious owner of a small town shop puts his hopes of making a sale on me and I inevitably disappoint. If more of these enterprises sold bottled water or cigarettes, I would at least provide them a courtesy purchase. Instead, I typically find myself hoping another customer enters the premises so I can bolt for the door, walk briskly down the sidewalk to the car, and never look back. Similar scenarios involving yours truly have been played out at used booksellers, record stores, and comic book shops across the land.

Today’s tale, which went down with nothing in the way of either a successful purchase or the need to make a hasty exit (the shop owner paid me no mind), took place in the two-star town of Middleville, Michigan, a 30-minute drive south of Grand Rapids surrounded by farms, bars, and gas stations. The downtown area has benefitted from a bit of investment in recent years, though it’s nothing to write home about. Approximately 500 feet from the business district, on good old Main St., sits an old Protestant church building with a weatherworn sign out front reading: “Most Holy Rosary Church – Catholic Latin Mass – Sunday 6pm.”

Knowing immediately that this was no diocesan church, I repaired to my phone and after a bit of searching confirmed my suspicions that it was a sedevacantist chapel—one that happens to be run by the CMRI (Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen). Other than the American flag flying distastefully over the structure, there was nothing especially remarkable about it. I couldn’t see in the windows; but at least lightning didn’t strike me down as I walked around the property wondering if its ever visited outside the normal operating hours. Truth be told, I had hoped the front doors would fly open, with either a cleric or—more likely—sacristan there to inquire about my business. In the few minutes I was nosing about, I had even come up with a few form answers, my hope being to engage a real-life sedevacantist in everyday chitchat. Realizing that was not coming to pass, I hitched my horses to the wagon and moved down the road.

West Michigan, as most should know, is a deeply conservative region of the Midwest. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America have their headquarters here, and for decades Grand Rapids and Holland were dominated by a Dutch Calvinist ethos. While that ethos has retracted in recent years, particularly in Grand Rapids, the area remains a conservative hub with neoconservatives, Tea Partiers, and old-guard movement conservatives uneasily occupying the political landscape together, self-assured that the political Left will never amount to anything more than a blip on the radar. Grand Rapids’s Easttown neighborhood may fly rainbow flags and boast lawns littered with anti-Trump and “Black Lives Matter” signs, but the ideologies they represent will never be politically relevant.

Catholicism in the region is, at best, a mixed bag. The “spirit of Vatican II” hit the diocese of Grand Rapids like a hurricane, leveling orthodoxy, liturgy, and good taste without compunction. The surrounding dioceses didn’t fare much better. Today, only a couple of “official” safe havens remain for those with a conservative-to-traditional sensibility. And so it came as little surprise that sedevacantists have set-up shop on the distant outskirts of the distant outskirts of town, though without much self-promotion or fanfare. Apparently to be with the sedevacantists requires special election, not advertising; a certain form of degraded Calvinism, as usual, gets the last say around these parts.

Had I come across one of the sede faithful who attend Most Holy Rosary, what might have happened? What would have offended them more? That I recognize Francis as the Pope of Rome or that I am a Greco-Catholic? Maybe they would have gone on to me about the horrors of married priests, the failure of “Uniates” to become “full Catholics” by adopting the Roman Rite, or the use of the vernacular in a large swathe of Eastern Catholic worship. Perhaps they would have thought of me as an “Eastern Orthodox schismatic.” On the other hand, maybe they would have been courteous, hospitable, and inviting. Could it be that they would have looked into the eyes of this poor sinner and felt a genuinely (albeit misplaced) longing to save my soul, to bring me closer to Christ, not for their own glory but the greater glory of God? I have met a Calvinist or two with similar hopes for my soul; it’s still possible I’ll come across a sedevacantist who wants the best for me, too.

Pray for the Russian Church

Much to my surprise (and delight), the Wall Street Journal ran a story today covering the plight of the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) and their ongoing synod in Italy which, among other things, is seeking greater recognition of their rights from Pope Francis. Here are some excerpts.

A group of Russian Catholics is demanding greater recognition from Pope Francis, saying the Vatican’s appeasement of Moscow threatens its very existence.

. . .

On the agenda is a longstanding request for their own bishop and resources for training their own clergy. Church leaders say the pope has ignored their appeals as he pursues closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is dominant in the country.

. . .

The complaints of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church echo those of other groups who feel Pope Francis is willing to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of other priorities.

Catholics in Ukraine accuse the pope of playing down Russian aggression toward their country in order to placate the Russian Orthodox Church, which has criticized Ukrainian Catholics’ opposition to Russian-backed separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church as part of a nationalist campaign.

Lamentably, Francis and Vatican hyper-ecumenists are not the only Catholics willing to overlook the plight of Greco-Catholics. As I have discussed elsewhere several times, far too many traditional Latin Catholics romanticize the Russian Orthodox Church and the secular Russian state on the belief that both represent twin pillars of Christian virtue. While the Russian Orthodox Church should be commended at times for its public witness against numerous liberal pathologies, no one should ignore the hard truth that many Russians remain nominally Orthodox and the Russian nation itself is steadily depopulating. Although the RGCC is small, it will never have any chance for ground-level growth unless it is given proper recognition and support from the Roman authorities. Now more than ever the RGCC needs the prayers of all of the faithful. With more and more Russians realizing that Orthodox Church has been compromised by secular politics, there is a moment of opportunity for the RGCC to bring souls into the Catholic fold. But will the Vatican let them?

A Remark on Economics/Political Economy

The Josias recently offered up a fresh translation of Pope Pius XII’s 1941 Pentecost radio address which, inter alia, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Patrick Smith, who had a hand in its publication, offers up some thoughts on the address over at his web-log while highlighting Pius XII’s reaffirmation of the Catholic Church’s competence to teach when the social and moral order intersect. That is distinct from teaching on purely practical matters, such as how a society ought to calibrate its competition (antitrust) penalties or design social safety nets. While popes—and indeed the episcopate as a whole—can weigh-in with suggestions, the faithful are not necessarily bound to follow them.

With this noted, it is important to highlight the fact that a great deal of confusion surrounds statements such as, “The Church does/does not have the competence to speak on economics.” Why? Because “economics,” in the widespread understanding, refers to a particular academic discipline which is often regarded as part of the “social sciences.” Economics, in this sense, refers to both a theoretical and practical discipline which, like so many academic disciplines, remains fractured into a series of “schools,” many of which disagree with each other on questions ranging from methodology to normativity. Those wishing to set aside the Church’s social magisterium when it conflicts with the tenets of libertarian or neoliberal ideology are, in a certain sense, correct when they say that the Church has no competence to speak on economics when “economics” is understood as “economic science.” (More on that below.) This is an easy parry, and one that needs to be addressed.

One way to do that is for Catholics who wish to defend the Church’s authentic social magisterium to move away from using the expression “economics” as commonly understood in favor of an older—and more defensible—expression, “political economy,” which does a better job of capturing the policy aspect of economics. Economics is not, as many economists would have it, a “value neutral” science; behind every economic theory or research question lies pre-scientific value judgments over what is to be studied, why, and how. Anthropological assumptions, which have nothing to do with economics per se, animate most branches of the economics discipline, and too often those assumptions are directly at odds with what revelation and natural reason tell us about the human person. Today, however, the economics discipline has cloaked itself in the garb of the physical sciences in order to give itself a prestige which it may not deserve. As the old joke goes, economists love to say that what they do is similar to what physicists and biologists do; but physicists and biologists would never dare say that what they do is similar to what an economist does.