Exactly 20 years ago, in U.S. Senate testimony just weeks after the Columbine High School massacre, I offered these thoughts:
The real problem [of Columbine-like violence in our culture] is in here, in us . . . In the last four decades we’ve created a culture that markets violence in dozens of different ways, seven days a week. It’s part of our social fabric. When we build our advertising campaigns on consumer selfishness and greed, and when money becomes the universal measure of value, how can we be surprised when our sense of community erodes? When we glorify and multiply guns, why are we shocked when kids use them?
When we answer murder with more violence in the death penalty, we put the state’s seal of approval on revenge. When the most dangerous place in the country is a mother’s womb and the unborn child can have his or her head crushed in an abortion, even in the process of being born, the body language of that message is that life isn’t sacred and may not be worth much at all. In fact, certain kinds of killing no longer even count officially as “killing.” Certain kinds of killing we enshrine as rights and protect by law. When we live this kind of contradiction, why are we surprised at the results?
The Columbine murders will mark my [Denver] community
for years to come. They’re a wound felt by the entire country — but I
don’t think they’ll be the last. We live in the most violent century in
history. Nothing makes us immune from that violence except a relentless
commitment to respect the sanctity of each human life, from womb to
natural death. The civility and community we’ve built in this country
are fragile. We’re losing them. In examining how and why our culture
markets violence, I ask you not to stop with the symptoms. Look deeper.
The families in Littleton and throughout the country deserve at least
In separate incidents over the past two weeks, gunmen have
killed three persons and wounded 13 others in Gilroy, CA; killed at
least 20 and wounded 26 others in El Paso TX; and killed at least nine
and wounded 27 others in Dayton, OH. These are just the latest in a
long pattern of mass shootings; shootings that have blood-stained the
past two decades with no end in sight. Now begins the usual aftermath:
expressions of shock; hand-wringing about senseless (or racist, or
religious, or political) violence; bitter arguments about gun control;
heated editorials, earnest (but brief) self-searching of the national
soul, and eventually – we’re on to the next crisis.
I buried some of the young Columbine victims 20 years ago. I sat
with their families, watched them weep, listened to their anger, and saw
the human wreckage that gun violence leaves behind. The experience
taught me that assault rifles are not a birthright, and the Second
Amendment is not a Golden Calf. I support thorough background checks
and more restrictive access to guns for anyone seeking to purchase
them. But it also taught me that only a fool can believe that “gun
control” will solve the problem of mass violence. The people using
the guns in these loathsome incidents are moral agents with twisted
hearts. And the twisting is done by the culture of sexual anarchy,
personal excess, political hatreds, intellectual dishonesty, and
perverted freedoms that we’ve systematically created over the past
So I’ll say it again, 20 years later. Treating the symptoms in a
culture of violence doesn’t work. We need to look deeper. Until we’re
willing to do that, nothing fundamental will change.
Last July I made a retreat with the Trappists at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemaniin Kentucky, probably the tenth retreat I’ve made there since I first darkened the guesthouse door as an undergraduate in the 1980s. Around that time someone gave me an old paperback of The Seven Storey Mountain, the bestselling account of conversion by the abbey’s most famous monk, Thomas Merton. And I have been, despite occasional qualms, biased in Merton’s favor ever since.
(a pbs video…i added into this story)
After that first visit, I cut a swath through Merton’s many books, the kind of zealous reading his work provokes once the bug bites. He’s a good companion for young men with a Thoreauvian bent. Last month marked the 50thanniversary of Merton’s death, so he’s returned to my thoughts.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a monk of Gethsemani, Br. Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., who entered the monastery fresh from high school and found himself immediately under the spiritual direction of the Master of Novices, Thomas Merton. (Imagine: a young man enters a monastery instead of going to college and ends up essentially with Thomas Merton as his teacher and advisor.)
I often wondered what Merton would have been like to speak with, how he would have modulated his voice or driven home a point. I wondered how he would have lectured to the monks. Formally? Casually?
But a few years ago Br. Paul reminded me that many of Merton’s talks delivered at Gethsemani (called conferences) had been routinely recorded on an old reel tape recorder from around 1962 until the year of Merton’s final trip to Asia. And it was Br. Paul himself who often pressed the record button.
Those tapes reside at Bellarmine University in Louisville, which also houses the Thomas Merton Center. And now a firm called “Now You Know Media” has released on compact disc many of Merton’s talks on everything from the nature of monastic vows to mystical theology to contemplative prayer to modern and contemporary literature.
These talks open a clear window on Merton the teacher. And one thing we see is that, however edgy and occasionally heterodox Merton might have made himself in some of his published writings, when he spoke to the monks of high and consequential things, he hugged the shore a good deal more than might be supposed by his critics. He relished detail – names, dates, ideas fleshed out. He preferred that the monks know something and not be satisfied with a few scraps of minimal information on any one topic.
Nonetheless, anybody should be warned that these talks, even when strung together by themes – a series on the Latin Fathers or the Twelve Degrees of Humility or poetry or Faulkner, for instance – aren’t “courses” in any systematic sense. Merton was too digressive, too ready to amble up interesting by-ways on route to a larger point. But that’s what makes the talks valuable and, more often than not, pleasantly diverting. Some people are interesting simply when holding forth about anything.
One nicely surprising discovery for me was prompted by a passing remark of Br. Paul who revealed a point once made by Fr. Louis (as Merton was known within the monastery) during those heady days when the Vatican II was still meeting in Rome. St. Thomas Aquinas, Merton said, was a theologian read by almost no one anymore, so far had he fallen out of favor – which fact, Merton said, gave the monks a splendid reason for reading him.
A small set of talks on “The Ways of God,” a work attributed to Aquinas, reveals that Merton, even during the 1960s, retained a keen respect for St. Thomas and the Scholastics generally. A welcome find and not one Merton’s detractors would naturally suspect. And there are others. (He sometimes quotes Latin freely, often without translating but charitably boiling down the sense.)
There’s also, notably, a good deal of laughter. Merton could be silly. He knew how to crack a joke – often at his own expense and to warm appreciation; his was not the demeanor of a man taking himself too seriously. And he could be prophetic even about small things: he once opined off-the-cuff that the music of the Beatles would probably be considered quite good in fifty years, and as we know, fifty years later, he was right.
But whatever his topic, be it time or eternity, Merton was always out to help the monks see the small blue flame of significance burning low in any image or set of words: Mark this and mark it well – don’t neglect what’s here at the center. Any teacher can learn from his method.
It’s always agreeable to step away from any stereotype. Sure, Merton was more a free thinker and loose talker than centuries of the Cistercian and Trappist traditions encouraged or even countenanced, and that trait got him in the soup once in a while. But I find I never finish listening to any talk without imagining what the news of Thomas Merton’s death in far-off Bangkok on a cold day in December 1968 must have felt like to those still faithfully keeping the Hours back in the monastery, who had known and loved and learned from him for so long.
Remembering Solzhenitsyn’s profound speech on the centenary of his birth.Editor’s Note: This article, which originally ran in the July 22, 1983, issue of National Review, is adapted from the address Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave on the occasion of his acceptance, in London on May 10, 1983, of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. In announcing the 1983 award, the Templeton Foundation described Mr. Solzhenitsyn as “a pioneer in the renaissance of religion in atheist nations.” Mr. Solzhenitsyn ’s introductory remarks were made at the awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace, with Prince Philip presiding. The address proper was delivered later the same day at the London Guildhall. Today, December 11, 2018, is the 100th anniversary of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s birth.
I. The Response
Your Royal Highness: Permit me to express my appreciation to you for taking part in this ceremony. Your participation lends special dignity to these proceedings.
This is the first time that the Templeton Prize has been awarded to an Orthodox Christian. With gratitude that our share in the religious life of the world has now been accorded notice, I remain acutely conscious of my personal unworthiness to receive this award as I look back upon the venerable line of outstanding Orthodox churchmen and of Orthodox thinkers from Aleksey Khomyakov to Sergei Bulgakov. And I am very much aware that Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy, which, during the 65 years of Communist rule, has been subjected to persecution even fiercer and more extensive than that of early Christian times, has had—and still has today—many hands worthier than mine to accept it. Beginning with Vladimir Bogoyavlensky, metropolitan of Kiev, shot by the Communists before the walls of the Kievo-Pechersky Monastery at the dawn of the Lenin era, the list would extend to the intrepid priest Gleb Yakunin, who is enduring torments today, under Andropov: Forcibly deprived of all outward symbols of his priesthood, and even of the right to have the Gospels, Father Yakunin has for months at a time been held in a freezing stone cubicle, without bed, clothes, or food.
In this persecution-filled age, it is appropriate that my own very first memory should be of Chekists in pointed caps entering St. Panteleimon’s Church in Kislovodsk, interrupting the service, and crashing their way into the sanctuary in order to loot. And later, when I started going to school in Rostov-on-Don — passing on my way a kilometer-long compound of the Cheka-GPU and a glittering sign of the League of Militant Atheists — schoolchildren egged on by Komsomol members taunted me for accompanying my mother to the last remaining church in town and tore the cross from around my neck.
Orthodox churches were stripped of their valuables in 1922 at the instigation of Lenin and Trotsky. In subsequent years, including both the Stalin and the Khrushchev periods, tens of thousands of churches were torn down or desecrated, leaving behind a disfigured wasteland that bore no resemblance to Russia such as it had stood for centuries. Entire districts and cities of half a million inhabitants were left without a single church. Our people were condemned to live in this dark and mute wilderness for decades, groping their way to God and keeping to this course by trial and error. The grip of oppression that we have lived under, and continue to live under, has been so great that religion, instead of leading to a free blossoming of the spirit, has been manifested in asserting the faith on the brink of destruction, or else on the seductive frontiers of Marxist rhetoric, where so many souls have come to grief.
The statement of the Templeton Foundation shows an understanding of how the Orthodox spiritual tradition has maintained its vitality in our land despite the forcible promotion of atheism. If even a fraction of those words should find their way to my motherland past the jamming devices, this will bolster the spirits of our believers, assuring them that they have not been forgotten, and that their steadfastness inspires courage even here.
The centralized atheism before whose armed might the whole world trembles still hates and fears this unarmed faith as much today as it did 60 years ago. Yes! All the savage persecutions loosed upon our people by a murderous state atheism, coupled with the corroding effect of its lies, and an avalanche of stultifying propaganda — all of these together have proven weaker than the thousand-year-old faith of our nation. This faith has not been destroyed; it remains the most sublime, the most cherished gift to which our lives and consciousness can attain.
II. The Templeton Address
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: “Men have forgotten God.” The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. It was a war (the memory of which seems to be fading) when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.
The same kind of defect, the flaw of a consciousness lacking all divine dimension, was manifested after World War II when the West yielded to the satanic temptation of the “nuclear umbrella.” It was equivalent to saying: Let’s cast off worries, let’s free the younger generation from their duties and obligations, let’s make no effort to defend ourselves, to say nothing of defending others — let’s stop our ears to the groans emanating from the East, and let us live instead in the pursuit of happiness. If danger should threaten us, we shall be protected by the nuclear bomb; if not, then let the world burn in Hell for all we care. The pitifully helpless state to which the contemporary West has sunk is in large measure due to this fatal error: the belief that the defense of peace depends not on stout hearts and steadfast men, but solely on the nuclear bomb.
Only the loss of that higher intuition that comes from God could have allowed the West to accept calmly, after World War I, the protracted agony of Russia as she was being torn apart by a band of cannibals, or to accept, after World War II, the similar dismemberment of Eastern Europe. The West did not perceive that this was in fact the beginning of a lengthy process that spells disaster for the whole world; indeed, the West has done a good deal to help the process along. Only once in this century did the West gather strength — for the battle against Hitler. But the fruits of that victory have long since been lost. Faced with cannibalism, our godless age has discovered the perfect anesthetic — trade! Such is the pathetic pinnacle of contemporary wisdom.
Today’ s world has reached a stage which, if it had been described to preceding centuries, would have called forth the cry: “This is the Apocalypse!”
Yet we have grown used to this kind of world; we even feel at home in it.
Dostoevsky warned that “great events could come upon us and catch us intellectually unprepared.” This is precisely what has happened. And he predicted that “the world will be saved only after it has been possessed by the demon of evil.” Whether it really will be saved we shall have to wait and see: this will depend on our conscience, on our spiritual lucidity, on our individual and combined efforts in the face of catastrophic circumstances. But it has already come to pass that the demon of evil, like a whirlwind, triumphantly circles all five continents of the earth.
We are witnesses to the devastation of the world, be it imposed or voluntarily undergone. The entire 20th century is being sucked into the vortex of atheism and self-destruction. This plunge into the abyss has aspects that are unquestionably global, dependent neither on political systems, nor on levels of economic and cultural development, nor yet on national peculiarities. And present-day Europe, seemingly so unlike the Russia of 1913, is today on the verge of the same collapse, for all that it has been reached by a different route. Different parts of the world have followed different paths, but today they are all approaching the threshold of a common ruin.
In its past, Russia did know a time when the social ideal was not fame, or riches, or material success, but a pious way of life. Russia was then steeped in an Orthodox Christianity which remained true to the Church of the first centuries. The Orthodoxy of that time knew how to safeguard its people under the yoke of a foreign occupation that lasted more than two centuries, while at the same time fending off iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders. During those centuries the Orthodox faith in our country became part of the very pattern of thought and the personality of our people, the forms of daily life, the work calendar, the priorities in every undertaking, the organization of the week and of the year. Faith was the shaping and unifying force of the nation.
But in the 17th century Russian Orthodoxy was gravely weakened by an internal schism. In the 18th, the country was shaken by Peter’s forcibly imposed transformations, which favored the economy, the state, and the military at the expense of the religious spirit and national life. And along with this lopsided Petrine enlightenment, Russia felt the first whiff of secularism; its subtle poisons permeated the educated classes in the course of the 19th century and opened the path to Marxism. By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened.
It was Dostoevsky, once again, who drew from the French Revolution and its seeming hatred of the Church the lesson that “revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.” That is absolutely true. But the world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot. To achieve its diabolical ends. Communism needs to control a population devoid of religious and national feeling, and this entails the destruction of faith and nationhood. Communists proclaim both of these objectives openly, and just as openly go about carrying them out. The degree to which the atheistic world longs to annihilate religion, the extent to which religion sticks in its throat, was demonstrated by the web of intrigue surrounding the recent attempts on the life of the Pope.
The 1920’s in the USSR witnessed an uninterrupted procession of victims and martyrs amongst the Orthodox clergy. Two metropolitans were shot, one of whom, Veniamin of Petrograd, had been elected by the popular vote of his diocese. Patriarch Tikhon himself passed through the hands of the Cheka-GPU and then died under suspicious circumstances. Scores of archbishops and bishops perished. Tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the Word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far North, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between.
For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies. One could argue that the pointless destruction of Russia’s rural economy in the 1930s — the so-called de-kulakization and collectivization, which brought death to 15 million peasants while making no economic sense at all — was enforced with such cruelty, first and foremost, for the purpose of destroying our national way of life and of extirpating religion from the countryside. The same policy of spiritual perversion operated throughout the brutal world of the Gulag Archipelago, where men were encouraged to survive at the cost of the lives of others. And only atheists bereft of reason could have decided upon the ultimate brutality — against the Russian land itself — that is being planned in the USSR today: The Russian north is to be flooded, the flow of the northern rivers reversed, the life of the Arctic Ocean disrupted, and the water channeled southward, toward lands already devastated by earlier, equally foolhardy “feats of Communist construction.”
For a short period of time, when he needed to gather strength for the struggle against Hitler, Stalin cynically adopted a friendly posture toward the Church. This deceptive game, continued in later years by Brezhnev with the help of showcase publications and other window dressing, has unfortunately tended to be taken at its face value in the West. Yet the tenacity with which hatred of religion is rooted in Communism may be judged by the example of their most liberal leader, Khrushchev: for though he undertook a number of significant steps to extend freedom, Khrushchev simultaneously rekindled the frenzied Leninist obsession with destroying religion.
But there is something they did not expect: that in a land where churches have been leveled, where a triumphant atheism has rampaged uncontrolled for two-thirds of a century, where the clergy is utterly humiliated and deprived of all independence, where what remains of the Church as an institution is tolerated only for the sake of propaganda directed at the West, where even today people are sent to the labor camps for their faith, and where, within the camps themselves, those who gather to pray at Easter are clapped in punishment cells–they could not suppose that beneath this Communist steamroller the Christian tradition would survive in Russia. It is true that millions of our countrymen have been corrupted and spiritually devastated by an officially imposed atheism, yet there remain many millions of believers: it is only external pressures that keep them from speaking out, but, as is always the case in times of persecution and suffering, the awareness of God in my country has attained great acuteness and profundity.
It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.
The West has yet to experience a Communist invasion; religion here remains free. But the West’s own historical evolution has been such that today it too is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness. It too has witnessed racking schisms, bloody religious wars, and rancor, to say nothing of the tide of secularism that, from the late Middle Ages onward, has progressively inundated the West. This gradual sapping of strength from within is a threat to faith that is perhaps even more dangerous than any attempt to assault religion violently from without.
Imperceptibly, through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West has ceased to be seen as anything more lofty than the “pursuit of happiness, “a goal that has even been solemnly guaranteed by constitutions. The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short-lived value. It has become embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system. Yet it is not considered shameful to make daily concessions to an integral evil. Judging by the continuing landslide of concessions made before the eyes of our very own generation, the West is ineluctably slipping toward the abyss. Western societies are losing more and more of their religious essence as they thoughtlessly yield up their younger generation to atheism. If a blasphemous film about Jesus is shown throughout the United States, reputedly one of the most religious countries in the world, or a major newspaper publishes a shameless caricature of the Virgin Mary, what further evidence of godlessness does one need? When external rights are completely unrestricted, why should one make an inner effort to restrain oneself from ignoble acts?
Or why should one refrain from burning hatred, whatever its basis ― race, class, or ideology? Such hatred is in fact corroding many hearts today. Atheist teachers in the West are bringing up a younger generation in a spirit of hatred of their own society. Amid all the vituperation we forget that the defects of capitalism represent the basic flaws of human nature, allowed unlimited freedom together with the various human rights; we forget that under Communism (and Communism is breathing down the neck of all moderate forms of socialism, which are unstable) the identical flaws run riot in any person with the least degree of authority; while everyone else under that system does indeed attain “equality”― the equality of destitute slaves.
This eager fanning of the flames of hatred is becoming the mark of today’s free world. Indeed, the broader the personal freedoms are, the higher the level of prosperity or even of abundance – the more vehement, paradoxically, does this blind hatred become. The contemporary developed West thus demonstrates by its own example that human salvation can be found neither in the profusion of material goods nor in merely making money.
This deliberately nurtured hatred then spreads to all that is alive, to life itself, to the world with its colors, sounds, and shapes, to the human body. The embittered art of the 20th century is perishing as a result of this ugly hate, for art is fruitless without love. In the East art has collapsed because it has been knocked down and trampled upon, but in the West the fall has been voluntary, a decline into a contrived and pretentious quest where the artist, instead of attempting to reveal the divine plan, tries to put himself in the place of God.
Here again we witness the single outcome of a worldwide process, with East and West yielding the same results, and once again for the same reason: Men have forgotten God.
Confronted by the onslaught of worldwide atheism, believers are disunited and frequently bewildered. And yet the Christian (or post-Christian) world would do well to note the example of the Far East. I have recently had an opportunity to observe in Free China and in Japan how, despite their apparently less clearly defined religious concepts, and despite the same unassailable “freedom of choice” that exists in the West, both the younger generation and society as a whole have preserved their moral sensibility to a greater degree than the West has, and have been less affected by the destructive spirit of secularism.
What can one say about the lack of unity among the various religions, if Christianity has itself become so fragmented? In recent years the major Christian churches have taken steps toward reconciliation. But these measures are far too slow; the world is perishing a hundred times more quickly. No one expects the churches to merge or to revise all their doctrines, but only to present a common front against atheism. Yet even for such a purpose the steps taken are much too slow.
There does exist an organized movement for the unification of the churches, but it presents an odd picture. The World Council of Churches seems to care more for the success of revolutionary movements in the Third World, all the while remaining blind and deaf to the persecution of religion where this is carried through most consistently — in the USSR. No one can fail to see the facts; must one conclude, then, that it is deemed expedient not to see, not to get involved? But if that is the case, what remains of Christianity?
It is with profound regret that I must note here something which I cannot pass over in silence. My predecessor in the receipt of this prize last year — in the very month that the award was made — lent public support to Communist lies by his deplorable statement that he had not noticed the persecution of religion in the USSR. Before the multitude of those who have perished and who are oppressed today, may God be his judge.
It seems more and more apparent that even with the most sophisticated of political maneuvers, the noose around the neck of mankind draws tighter and more hopeless with every passing decade, and there seems to be no way out for anyone — neither nuclear, nor political, nor economic, nor ecological. That is indeed the way things appear to be.
With such global events looming over us like mountains, nay, like entire mountain ranges, it may seem incongruous and inappropriate to recall that the primary key to our being or non-being resides in each individual human heart, in the heart’s preference for specific good or evil. Yet this remains true even today, and it is, in fact, the most reliable key we have. The social theories that promised so much have demonstrated their bankruptcy, leaving us at a dead end. The free people of the West could reasonably have been expected to realize that they are beset by numerous freely nurtured falsehoods, and not to allow lies to be foisted upon them so easily. All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today’s world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain. The resources we have set aside for ourselves are too impoverished for the task. We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of us individually, and within every society. This is especially true of a free and highly developed society, for here in particular we have surely brought everything upon ourselves, of our own free will. We ourselves, in our daily unthinking selfishness, are pulling tight that noose.
Let us ask ourselves: Are not the ideals of our century false? And is not our glib and fashionable terminology just as unsound, a terminology that offers superficial remedies for every difficulty? Each of them, in whatever sphere, must be subjected to a clear-eyed scrutiny while there is still time. The solution to the crisis will not be found along the well-trodden paths of conventional thinking.
Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transitional stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble and fall, nor must we linger fruitlessly on one rung of the ladder. Material laws alone do not explain our life or give it direction. The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. And in the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit surely moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.
To the ill-considered hopes of the last two centuries, which have reduced us to insignificance and brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death, we can propose only a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned. Only in this way can our eyes be opened to the errors of this unfortunate 20th century and our bands be directed to setting them right. There is nothing else to cling to in the landslide: the combined vision of all the thinkers of the Enlightenment amounts to nothing.
Our five continents are caught in a whirlwind. But it is during trials such as these that the highest gifts of the human spirit are manifested. If we perish and lose this world, the fault will be ours alone.
A subject many Catholics are naive about. Kilpatrick’s article about Fr. James Schall’s collection of essays is very relevant to Catholic men of faith today. Knowledge of the truth, is true power, Ignorance is not bless….
One of the interesting aspects of Fr. James Schall’s refreshing collection of essays, On Islam, is that it provides a chronological record. The first essay appeared in 2003, the last in 2018. This allows the reader to see how our understanding of Islam has changed over those years.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed much at all. In 2003, we understood next to nothing about Islam, and in 2018 it’s still next to nothing.
One of Fr. Schall’s main themes is that we must try to understand Islam as Muslims understand it, and not as we would like it to be. Instead of adjusting our theories to fit the accumulating facts, we keep trying to force the facts to fit our theory. This, says Schall, is the main reason we have failed to stem the tide of terrorism. We still assume that Islam is a religion like our own and that terrorism is a misunderstanding of genuine Islam.
On the contrary, writes Schall, terrorists are arguably more faithful to the essence of Islam than peaceful Muslims. As he puts it:
The terrorists themselves do claim with considerable historical and doctrinal evidence, on Qur`anic grounds, that they are in fact the true interpreters of Islam.
I don’t mean to oversimplify Fr. Schall’s argument. His essays are chock full of solid philosophical, theological, and historical evidence for his conclusions. But one of his conclusions is that:
advocates of the Islamic State are Muslims who faithfully follow what this religion allows and encourages them to do… To look on them as heretics or aberrations results in policies that only make the Islamic State’s success more likely.
Our insistence on seeing Islam through Western eyes, says Schall, means that we will be blind to the larger picture. Thus, “each bombing, shooting, knifing, or truck-crashing incident” is treated “as an individual problem of some usually ‘fanatical’ or otherwise confused youth acting on his own.” The authorities can’t bring themselves to admit that each incident is part of a pattern—that these actions are motivated by a world view that is shaped by the Koran and the example of Muhammad.
Likewise, the West’s leaders will fail to understand Muslim migration:
The trouble is that such large numbers of young and mostly male Muslims in every Western country are not there simply because they are poor or have been expelled…They are there to expand Islam.
“The purpose of Muslim expansion,” he continues, “is not to assimilate into a new nation and culture but rather to change it so that it conforms to Muslim ways.”
And what is the overall purpose of the expansion? Schall answers with refreshing candor: “Briefly, the assigned mission of Islam is to conquer the world for Allah.” But this simple truth about Islam flies in the face of politically correct and religiously correct notions that all religions are peaceful and opposed to violence. To conquer the world for Allah? Religious people, we assume, just don’t think like that. Thus, we convince ourselves that terrorist acts committed in the name of Allah, have “nothing to do with Islam.” “Dealing with Islam,” writes Schall, “is a function of understanding Islam,” and until we admit some very basic facts about Islam we will be unable to meet the challenge of Islam. The result? “I think it very possible, if not likely,” he writes, “that Islam will successfully establish itself in many areas of Europe and America.”
As might be expected, Fr. Schall also addresses the Church’s role vis-à-vis Islam. In an essay on dialoguing with Islam, he suggests that Church leaders, like secular leaders, fail to see Islam for what it is. Instead, they prefer to look at it through Catholic eyes and have therefore convinced themselves that the two faiths have very much in common. But, says Schall, “What Islam and the Bible have in common is very little when it comes to doctrine … only with the greatest stretch of the imagination can we say that Muslims believe in the same God as Christians and Jews.” As a result, the dialogue is without resolution because there is precious little common ground. For example, when Muslim and Catholic dialoguers use the word “peace,” they mean entirely different things. According to Islamic tenets, true “peace” will only come when all the world is Muslim.
Quite obviously, Schall’s position on Islam is at odds with the policies pursued by many in the Church leadership. He asserts that Islam is not a religion of peace, but of conquest. He maintains that terrorists are not misunderstanders of Islam, but are faithful to the plain meaning of the Koran. Moreover, he suggests that many Muslim immigrants to the West are not coming simply to find jobs or escape violence, but to convert the world to Islam.
What, then, does he suggest as an alternative policy? His general prescription is to replace the utopian view of Islam with a more realistic one. A viable Islam policy must be based not on what we wish Islam was, but on what it actually is. Otherwise, things will continue as they have, and we must face the real prospect of a world converted to Islam.
Among other things, getting real means that Christians must insist that the Koran is not of divine origin. Moreover, they should do what they can to cast doubt about the Koran in the minds of Muslims. Why? Because the Koran is the key motivating force for jihad. The terrorism and the warfare will continue because that is what the Koran commands. The remedy, then, is not to assert that terrorists have misunderstood the Koran, but to assert that the book they follow is not from God:
The first step needed, then, is the affirmation, from the Christian side, that these views are as such false. They cannot be divine revelations.
As long as Muslims continue to believe that the Koran is the direct word of God, then the bloodshed will continue. It should therefore be the aim of Christians to disabuse them of this notion by means either subtle or direct. “What has never really been faced, even by the Church,” says the author, “is the truth content, or lack of it, in the Muslim world view…”
In the context of most current thinking about Islam, what Fr. Schall proposes here is quite radical. On the other hand, it also seems quite realistic. As Pope Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232). Unfortunately, the ideas that many Catholic leaders, including Francis, hold regarding Islam seem to be based more on fantasy than reality.
In an essay entitled “On the Fragility of Islam,” Fr. Schall points out that the Koran is Islam’s weakest link. It’s authenticity as a direct revelation from God rests solely on the testimony of Muhammad. There is no other corroborating evidence. To the normal observer, says Schall, the Koran borrows heavily from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: “Yet, if this historical origin is shown, then the Qur`an is merely the product of a confused effort to rewrite the Scriptures already in existence.”
Fr. Schall hopes that the eventual publication of a critical edition of the Koran by German scholars will make many of these problems evident. Possibly so, but there is already sufficient evidence in any standard edition of the Koran to cast doubt on the authenticity of the revelation. The Koran is almost completely lacking in chronology, continuity, and structure. At the same time it is full of mind-numbing repetition and formulaic prose. It strains credulity to believe that it was written—as Muslim scholars claim—by the Author of Creation.
Fr. Schall’s hope is that when all the many contradictions and incoherencies of the Koran become clear, “Islam may be as fragile as communism”:
Can we expect, as it were, a John Paul II effect, which saw a seemingly unbreakable communism suddenly collapse because its ideas were finally recognized as incoherent and evil?
Schall realizes that Islam is far older than communism and more resilient, and he admits that its fall is unlikely to come as quickly. Nevertheless, there is hope. Until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there was a good deal of evidence that Islam was losing its hold on the Muslim world. Turkey had become a secular state, and many in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and other Muslim nations found Western values more attractive than Islamic ones. Sadly, this laxity of faith was the catalyst that spurred the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaida, and other groups dedicated to returning Islam to its original zeal.
But memories of better, less-Islamic times remain. Recent events give hope that what has happened once can happen again. In the last several months there have been numerous large demonstrations throughout Iran calling for an end to the theocratic regime. And last week in Paris, 100,000 people participated in a “Free Iran” rally. One minor news story is also telling. A recent study of thirty three deradicalization programs in the UK showed that all but two were either ineffective or counter-productive. The two effective initiatives were “one defying political correctness and tackling difficult issues head-on and the other directly addressing extremism in religious [Islamic] texts.”
The effective initiatives sound rather like the approach Fr. Schall advocates: tell the truth about Islam, and challenge Muslims to look more closely at the problems of the Koran. The ineffective initiatives resemble the ones the Church leadership has been pursuing; No one can accuse them of tackling difficult issues head-on. Indeed the only issues they tackle with gusto are Islam-approved ones such as the anti-Islamophobia initiative. If Western leaders and Church leaders keep insisting that Islam is fine just the way it is, there will be very little incentive for Muslims to reform their faith or—if it is irreformable—to leave it.
If and when Church leaders come to the conclusion that their current approach to Islam is both ineffective and counter-productive, they will find in Fr. Schall’s gem of a book a clear guide to a more promising direction.
On a recent book review TV interview program called Q/A, Ross Douthat, author of To Change the Church, was asked about his own beliefs. He responded quite frankly that he was a Catholic. When asked why, Douthat replied that, as far as he could see, a divine intervention did take place in this world around the time and appearance of Christ. He added that the essence of this intervention has been best preserved down the subsequent ages by the Catholic Church. This sensible view is one that many Catholics would also accept as valid. Indeed, probably the best way to see the divine intervention spelled out step by step is in Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. After reviewing most of the scholarly literature on this topic, Benedict concluded that the evidence seems to show that Christ was “who He said He was.”
But few are much concerned with an intellectual understanding of the facts of the matter. Something else is going on today. Not many really seem to worry about the truth of these issues, though that is where the real drama lies. Freely to assent to truth is the heart of what it means to be civilized. In a way, however, our culture is beyond truth. We make up our own universe; the Supreme Court tells us this is our “right.” Such a development, wherein we impose our ideas on reality rather than let reality instruct us about what it is, usually means to opt for one or other current fantasy or ideology that is custom-designed to explain away things that we choose not to accept, no matter what the evidence.
Many millions of words have now been written about the meaning of the Irish abortion vote, one foreshadowed by a similar change in Quebec decades ago. In both cases, areas that had been proudly Catholic for centuries, suddenly decided to ditch its tradition in order to join the secular world, with its principles and practices. A radical change in these cultures had already taken place, as Plato would say, in the souls of the citizens of these areas. From this viewpoint, the change was not so surprising. Human order is built on fidelity to tradition and principle. It is not immune to change as if it were a material object. Indeed, reasonable change is part of its stability.
Likewise, many Catholic churches, orphanages, hospitals, and schools in Europe and America have closed. Muslims are willing to move into these edifices if allowed to do so. Many famous churches have long been national monuments or museums under government support. I read somewhere that, regarding the visiting of churches in Dublin, that the only people there were American tourists, often looking for their ancestors. While there are signs of life in various areas of the Church, a survey of the whole, to be frank, is rather bleak. Whether Scripture or tradition gives us many grounds for expecting anything too different is doubtful. Christ himself asked the disciples whether, on his return, they thought there would be faith on earth (Luke 18, 7-8). This passage is always a testimonial to the powers that are in constant opposition to what Christ put into the world.
In the past several years, I have perceived a noticeable loss of intellectual acumen that the Church had gained with John Paul II and Benedict. Many are upset by this lack of depth, especially more recent converts who came into the Church with the help of the vigorous thinking we still see from these two popes. But the main reason for the decline of Church membership is the desire to be like the rest of modern society. Many want Catholic teaching to be viewed and interpreted through a modern lens.
We no longer speak of “heretics” today. Instead, everybody is nice, with a “right” to his own opinion. Nothing is held as definite, precisely so that nothing binds. This freedom of opinion leads to everyone having mostly the same opinions, increasingly enforced by authority. Things that once seemed unchangeable are now changed or expected to change in the near future. The clergy and the bishops are not much help, as they seem—to many at least—to betray the same symptoms.
In the light of these comments, and in spite of scandals and confusion in Rome, we still need to ask: “Why should we continue to be Catholic?” Much of the controversy that swirls around the Holy Father has, at its origin, the feeling that certain basic—once thought non-negotiable—principles and practices have been revoked or at least implicitly allowed to pass away. Under the aegis of finely-tuned “mercy” and “discernment,” a method has been developed that was hoped would justify this accommodation of the Church to that modernity and those of its principles that everyone seems eager to embrace.
Recent remarks and decisions, often coming from Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the current Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, however, have been more careful. We have seen a firm statement that women cannot be priests. The German formula for interfaith communion at a wedding is set aside. A renewed interest in the centrality of doctrine appears in CDF documents. These are welcome signs. However, the dubia are still not answered. Good Catholics are still seen as rigid. The papacy often appears to act in the public eye like a political party of the left. Christianity is seen mainly as a force to lead sundry crusades over ecology, poverty, and immigration, yet such initiatives are difficult to square with good economics, science, and politics.
Not a few have also pointed out that an indirect papal input in the various pro-abortion and gay marriage votes in Ireland and Portugal occurred with Catholics being advised to deal with more “important” things. Their enemies, to give them credit, do not think these issues are among the lesser important things. Many wonder whether the Church does not now see itself as simply a socio-political movement instrumental primarily in curing our temporal ills. The irony is that the methods recommended in these areas have almost invariably, when tried, made things worse. We do find considerable talk of sanctity and holiness, but again, this is often of an activist kind. The contemplative life, the life that is needed to keep our souls in touch with the transcendent, seems to be minimized.
Let us ask again: “Why be, or continue to be, Catholic today?” The only sensible reason is that what the Church teaches is true to its immediate origin in divinity itself. Has the Church on any major issue contradicted its own mandate? This is a delicate point, as only the Church believes that it is the sole depository of this mandate.
In thinking about these things, I again take my cue from the “heretics” who refuse to leave the Church but stay in it to transform it, as they say, into their image of modernity. In the end, they can find no place else to go. They are already wrapped within modernity’s orbit. The effort from within to transform Christianity into modernity, to align its basic premises with those of the modern world, may seem like a plausible, shrewd tactic, and many have already made this transition.
Catholics who remain in the Church and see the Church no longer consistent with its founding purpose often find themselves perplexed. Practically no one is excommunicated for holding any position associated with modernity. They see people, in apparent good standing, in the Church, who accept and practice most of the aberrations of modern social living. Indeed, it seems like we have two Churches holding contradictory views within the same Church. The usual division between liberal and conservative is practically useless as a way to understand the difference. The issue is a matter of truth, not interpretation.
To many, both inside and outside the Church, there seems to be much ecclesiastical confusion. Upsetting new interpretations constantly appear. Previously, many considered the Church wrong, but no one thought it did not hold or articulate what it affirmed on basic points of practice and doctrine. The primary argument that the Church teaches the same things over time does not seem valid for many any longer. The same things are no longer being taught and affirmed in all dioceses, schools, seminaries, and institutions. Various attempts have been made to explain how the Church can be both loyal to its tradition and, without contradiction, accept the basic premises of modernity.
For instance, Jesus was said to look at current events and see what needed to be changed, and so he changed things according to what was needed at the time. “Loyalty” to tradition thus means doing the same for our time. First we do what needs to be done; then we develop a theory to justify it. The word “discernment” has come to mean the ability to read almost directly into temporary things or situations the action of the Holy Spirit. On the basis of what we think we discern, we can act with confidence that we are not following our own wills but that of the Holy Spirit.
Or we can say that we do not know exactly what Jesus said or did, and that he really did not lay down basic principles that needed to be maintained over time to protect the authenticity of his teaching and revelation. He was merciful and compassionate, and the best we can do is to read the “signs of the times” and accommodate ourselves to where the Spirit, in mercy and compassion, is leading us. This approach would allow us to put aside our “absolutes” and embrace the pastoral changes that the culture has already put into place.
However plausible these positions may seem, if indeed they do seem plausible, they clearly avoid facing the central issue of whether a definite revelation in Christ was to be maintained for the good of man down the ages in spite of persecution, disagreement, and other cultural conditions in other eras.
Can we continue to be Catholic today? Only if one thing remains true and upheld. Only if the same teachings and practices that were handed down and guaranteed down the ages remain the foundation of the Church. This revelation in all its ramifications is what best explains human meaning and destiny. If the substance of this revelation is not upheld, the question is no longer a merely human problem of whether or not to be loyal to a tradition. It is the breakdown of revelation itself since it is no longer credible on its own terms. The guarantee of Christ is to be with us till the end, with the central teachings and practices of his life at the center. If this content and sequence is not maintained in a living way, i.e., in a thoroughly nuanced but plain way, we have no reason still to be Catholic.
What is unusual about our time is not its opposition to or rejection of the truth of this revelation. Adversaries have been found in every era. What is new is the worry that radical changes have been made in an official way that would cause us to doubt the integrity of the original revelation. At least some of us can still affirm with Douthat that a divine intervention did take place in Christ and that it is best preserved in the Catholic Church. The same intervention also gives us the criterion for judging when the latter is not credible—namely when the Church, as guardian of revelation, clearly changes its own truths instead of uphold them before the nations down the ages. This is why contemporary writers like Douthat carefully watch for changes that take place in Rome.
This moment, when the principle of life has been removed from Irish law, is ominous. The Irish have a history of disproportionately affecting events in what used to be known as Western Civilization.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who fought to keep Ireland a pro-life country, and whose fight will continue. As one of their leaders stated after the devastation: “Every time an unborn child has his or her life ended inIreland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known.”
Ireland’s formal admission to the bien pensant ranks of pro-abortion countries is unsurprising. In 2015, Ireland introduced same-sex marriage, also by referendum. Both changes had enjoyed growing support long before their formal adoption.
Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy was in no position to sway either debate. In 2010, Benedict XVI censured their collective malfeasance in the child-abuse scandal. He told the bishops, “you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously,” noting that their “grave errors of judgment” and “failures of leadership” had “undermined your credibility and effectiveness.” The Irish faith has brilliant and energetic lay defenders and many wonderful priests and religious, but little ecclesial voice.
“Pangur Bán” writes that the principle of life has been removed from Irish law: an ominous sign of the times. The Emerald Isle is no longer pro-life.
Pope Francis made headlines recently for reportedly telling a gay man that ‘God made him that way.’ Was the Pope making a theological statement that God loves us no matter what…. or was he saying there’s nothing wrong with being gay? Christopher Hale and Dr. Robert Royal are here to discuss.
May I respectfully recommend a study of the history of liberal Protestantism in the USA? You will soon see that today’s liberal Catholics are traveling down the same road that liberal Protestants traveled down earlier – that is, a road to destruction.
It’s hard to blame the old Protestants for what they did, for they didn’t know where this road led. They were pioneers, they were cutting a path in the religious wilderness. They feared that traditional Christianity was becoming unbelievable; that if they didn’t modernize their religion by dropping certain old-fashioned doctrines, modern men and women would no longer be able to accept Christianity.
As it turned out, to modernize Christianity, at least if you carry this modernization process beyond a certain limited point, is to destroy it. Look at the liberal Protestant denominations today. All of them are shrinking rapidly in numbers. All of them have lost much of their once-great social influence.
But liberal Catholics don’t have this excuse. They can’t very well say, “We didn’t know where our liberalism was taking the Church.” For they have the precedent of liberal Protestantism in front of them. Their ignorance is vincible – and culpable.
Liberal Christians, beginning with the Boston Unitarians of the late 1700s and early 1800s, always “improve” Christianity according to the same pattern. The pattern is this: You attempt to blend what seems to you to be the essentials of Christianity with the best in whatever happens to be the fashionable anti-Christianity of the day. This synthesis, partly Christian and partly anti-Christian, will, of course, be incoherent; but at the moment you’re creating it, it looks pretty good.
In the generation after the American Revolution, the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was Deism. And so the Boston Unitarians said in effect, “While Deism is very wrong in its rejection of Christianity, the Deists, it must be admitted, make a few good points. So let’s toss out the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ and Original Sin. We’ll then have a purified Christianity.”
In the post-Civil War era, the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was a triple-headed threat: (1) agnosticism; (2) evolutionary theory; plus (3) a skeptical higher criticism of the Bible. Liberal Protestants responded by becoming near-agnostics while arguing that Christianity is far more about morality than knowledge: doctrine is of little real importance.
They became evolutionists, holding not just that biological species have evolved (under God’s guidance) but that religion itself has evolved, Christianity being but its latest result, and we should expect more evolution in the future. As for the Bible . . . oh, well. It abounds in errors, but it’s still a very good book.
In the 1960s and 1970s the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was the sexual revolution – a total rejection of traditional Christian sexual morality and, by implication, a rejection of virtually all the rest of Christian teaching; for if Christianity had been wrong for all these centuries about sex, wasn’t it likely that it was wrong about almost everything else?
As usual, liberal Protestants responded by blending Christianity (what was left of it) with this form of anti-Christianity, announcing that Christianity, correctly understood, was perfectly compatible with fornication, homosexuality, and abortion.
Liberal Protestant thinkers remind me of certain U.S. Supreme Court justices. The latter “find” things in the Constitution that aren’t there (e.g., rights to abortion and same-sex marriage). The former “find” things in the Bible that aren’t there. They claim that the Bible, rightly understood, mandates the watering down of Biblical religion and morality.
It’s as if the most important teaching of the Bible is, “Don’t take the Bible too seriously.” In reality, of course, they find these new “truths” not in the Bible but in the anti-Christianity that happens to be flourishing at the moment, much as some German Protestants in the 1930s “found” – mirabile dictu – that the Bible justified Nazism.
Anybody familiar with the history of modernizing Protestantism cannot help but see this same thing going on today among many Catholics. Catholics, it is true, are moving in this direction only gradually, and this for a few reasons.
For one, they got into the game much later than Protestants did. Second, the RC Church still has bishops in places of authority, even though many bishops are reluctant, or unable, to wield their authority. Third, the Nicene or Apostles Creed is still recited at Mass, which serves as an obstacle to kicking orthodoxy completely out the door.
Orthodox Catholic morality, however, especially sexual morality, is not included in the Creeds. And so it’s easier to get rid of. You get rid of it in three steps.
Step one: silence. You don’t talk about it, or you very rarely talk about it. Most Catholic leaders today are shy about teaching Catholic sexual doctrine. In some cases, this is because they don’t really believe in it, but in most cases it is probably because they don’t want to offend folks in the pews. When it comes to the sexual behavior of gays and lesbians, our leaders know that public opinion increasingly views it as shockingly un-American or un-Christian to disapprove of homosexual sodomy.
Step two: you modify that old saying about “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Instead, you love the sinner so much that don’t bother mentioning the sin, for that would hurt the feelings of the well-loved sinner, and that would be a sin against Christian charity, wouldn’t it? The most conspicuous example of this today is the small book by Fr. James Martin, S.J., Building a Bridge. Fr. Martin tells us he is fully orthodox. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but I know, having studied the history of liberal Protestantism, where Fr. Martin, whatever his intentions may be, is leading us.
Step three: you declare that the Church will eventually, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, come around to your opinion. You argue that your apparent heresy is really nothing but premature orthodoxy.
That’s the sure-fire, historically proven way to destroy the Catholic religion in America.