Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I have lately noted that in both political and religious spheres civil dialogue seems to be dying out, and with it that great imperative of civilization, respect. In place of the understanding that those of different classes, regions, backgrounds, temperaments, etc., will understandably have different motivations and different emphases, latter-day ideologues simply tend to assume that everybody is merely like them, or on the path to becoming them. Those who would dare put forward a principled dissent, even if accord with the others much of the time, suddenly become at best outsiders to be pitied, and at worst malefactors to be hated. Needless to say, herein are the roots of totalitarianism and hatred, as any student of the last bloody century would realize, but when such is ever mentioned, the ideologues will fall back on an exceptionalist argument, i.e., "It's fine of we do this, but not if others do, because our cause is just." Put aside the fact for a moment that all but the most thorough cynics consider their cause just.

I'll offer first perhaps the most outrageous example of this behaviour: Fred Phelps. Fred Phelps hates homosexuals. I'm not speaking about a principled position that homosexual activity is affectively disordered and that the inclination thereto is a temptation that should be chastely borne through life, as we all have our crosses to bear; no, I'm speaking of irrational, frothing-at-the-mouth hatred. Indeed, Phelps' hatred of homosexuals is so strong that it appears he has come to despise everybody else who does not hate homosexuals as much as he does (which is probably everybody outside of his family). Phelps and his clan even go on to picket the funerals of dead war veterans, causing incredible offense to their families, friends, and fellow servicemen, under the assumption that they died to protect homosexuality. However, I doubt this is the first thing, or even the tenth or twentieth thing, on a young person's mind when they decide to enlist in the military. Regardless, in Phelps' warped mind, the United States government is tainted because it does not have to same opinion as he, and thus anyone in its service is fair game for his rude and disgusting attacks.

This may perhaps have been an extreme example, I acknowledge, but I hope it serves to illustrate the fundamentalistic and antisocial mindset into which our society is degenerating. I noted that the recent debate regarding the Arizona immigration law was dominated by nativist propaganda on the one hand and multiculturalist propaganda on the other, both seeming only to repeat slogans rather than saying anything of substance. If I were to say that massive immigration in the face of a scarcity of work available is leading to a socio-economic crisis, but that I also think the new law opens the door for potential civil-liberties violations, then I'm bigoted for the first part, and un-American for the second. Nobody wants to consider this statement, for they have already seemingly convinced themselves with but a minimum of thought that they are right, and will continue arrogantly to consider themselves so even in the face of any argument.

I'm finding this very pronounced in the realm of religion as well. Any observer of contemporary Catholicism has seen that three camps, "churchmanships," to borrow a word from Anglican parlance, have developed of late within the Church: liberals, neoconservatives, and traditionalists. All three seem to think themselves better Catholics than the others, a vanguard of the next spiritual wave to sweep this earth. Of course, this presumption is scarcely confined to Catholics; look at born-again evangelicals, Muslim Wahhabists, New-Agers, and radical atheists/secularists. I’ll leave these aside for a moment, for as egregious as all cases of religious arrogance are, they are particularly so within a church that calls itself Catholic. I read these words on a comment page of A Conservative Blog for Peace not long ago, and these perhaps provide a good summation of the issues at hand (mildly edited for content):

I think for many traditional (not just traditionalist) Catholics, that is, people in traditional cultures like Arturo's Mexican one and the Slavs (from more than one group), Italians and a few Puerto Ricans I know, the anonymity at St Gargantua's is not a problem because they have family, big time. They don't need or want the parish church invading their space (like the people I know who show up for baptisms, First Communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals, end of story).

I wouldn't like the alienation - 'nobody gives a s***' - but wouldn't mind it so much around 1962. That is, if the religion at St G's - even if the building were new Jetsony space-age modern and not bad Gothic or pastiche baroque - were being held to a minimum of orthodoxy by the text and rubrics, the Tridentine Mass holding it all together. As somebody said of US Navy equipment, designed by geniuses to be run safely by morons. (All bets were off with the Novus Ordo. They should have just translated the services, full stop.) The people go for half an hour - to follow along in their missals and receive Communion at the early Low Mass, to pray their rosaries and/or read their novenas, to leave a candle and a dollar at their lucky saint's feet, to pay their religious taxes/fire insurance by showing up (could be out breaking the commandments the night before but won't miss Mass and probably would die for the faith), to keep their parents off their backs - and then go watch the game and after that go to Nonna's for Sunday dinner. Not fake 'parish community' stuff: like the South Philly nonna Thomas Day met during 'the sign of peace' at St Rita's on Broad Street, they don't believe in that s***.

Not utopian parishes of nice upper-middle-class suburbanites like on EWTN, orthodoxy meets neoconservatism meets Protestant bonhomie. Or traddie shrines full of enthusiasts, the church as Jansenist perfectionist cult or simply dominated by the barking mad. ('Purity cult' is a fave putdown of Episco-liberals for Episco-conservatives as you know; while wrong much of the time they have a point here.) 'The Catholic Church: here comes everybody.’

Perhaps I could rightly pass for a traditionalist, but I don’t think I am your conventional traditionalist, for, indeed, this is the tradition I hope to be preserved: here comes everybody, within the context of the orthodox doctrine and practice of the universal church. How contrary this is to the pseudo-gnostic sects of spiritual or intellectual élitehood, the “purity cults” we see developing all over the world nowadays, and also, how contrary to the wisdom of the Apostles’ insistence that Greeks (and later Romans, Franks, etc.) need not adopt the culture of the Jews to become Christians! Social coercion to fit people into a specific mould of man is not just discourteous; it’s absolutely alien to our tradition, leading to a sense of smugness, superiority, and bigotry. Are not the greatest saints consistently aware of the fact that they are sinners? We will not see perfection this side of the New Jerusalem, and such thinking of oneself as perfect, so perfect indeed that it’s not enough that someone professes the faith, but rather that they become more like you, is akin to what the philosopher Eric Voegelin (very relevant in this regard) termed “immanentizing the eschaton.” And if they do not see the light upon being exposed to Joan Chittister, EWTN, or the Tridentine Mass, then they’re “cultural Catholics” or poor lost souls to be pitied.

All of this can easily be resolved by following one of Christ’s cardinal commandments, which is lamentably the most difficult to follow: Love thy neighbour. All in all, we’re out for the same things in this world. Of course we will do this imperfectly, for such is human nature, but the incredible cohesion and sense of social responsibility that will return to us will in the end make life better for everyone. This extends into the political realm as well. People who do not support the wars are not generally traitors. People who do not support government social spending are not generally nasty. People who do support these things are not generally imperialists or socialists, respectively. The fault in our civic discourse nowadays is that opposing viewpoints are very scarcely well-understood or respected, often leading to the supposition that those holding them are somehow stupid, evil, or mentally ill. In the political realm, however, it seems usually not pity that people feel, but contempt. With the state apparatus more powerful than at any time before, and with state control a means by which the powerful might socially engineer populations into their vision of utopia, the continuation of the lack of respect in today’s society calls forth a vision of a rather grim future, of shouting apparatchiks consistently at war with other shouting apparatchiks, with the bonds of social cohesion, the sense of duty and loyalty to society, and the individual’s connection to a larger society progressively eroding, leaving atomized and alienated individuals prey to mass movements promoting a false sense of collective identity.

I will continue my thoughts in this regard anon.


  1. Thank you for this article. It is nearly impossible to agree with someone 100% of the time, but that doesn't automatically mean you have to be bitter foes. Some seem to fail to grasp this point, particularly on the internet.

  2. Thank you, Matterhorn. It once was that disagreement would call forth a constructive debate rather than merely a petty argument or a spite-laden tirade. In other words, it was easier to make friends than to make enemies. But in a progressively broken society, everyone has become either an inviolate authority unto oneself, sometimes on the most untrustworthy information or specious reasoning, or a well-informed but poorly considered chirping sectary. Interestingly, all of these seem more interested in destroying present socio-cultural structures than in constructing anything, but that is grist for my next essay.

    The relative anonymity of the Internet as well leads to very poor social graces on the part of many too, I agree, with no threat of being thrown out of the café or having to face the ire of the man you just insulted. Perhaps oddly for a blogger, I would ideally support the heavy restriction of the use of information technology, particularly when I see what it is doing to the young's literacy and manners.