Strength as Weakness; or the Double Edge of Political Form

The US Supreme Court recently oral arguments for why it should judge “gay marriage” to be required by the United States Constitution. One of the main objections brought against the argument was that this question should not be settled by “nine people outside the ballot box,” but rather “the people acting through the democratic process.” I have little sympathy for this line of argument in the abstract. I approve of the idea of nine learned judges wielding great power in the state by deciding which laws are in conformity with the basic principles of the nation. Continue reading

David Graeber on Usury and the Psychology of the Conquistadors

The ostensible reason for the Spanish conquests in the New World was the bringing of Christ to the natives. But the extraordinary rapacity and cruelty shown by many of the Spanish soldiers often made a mockery of this purpose. Bartolomé de las Casas describes in gruesome and almost incredible detail how countless Indians, including women and children, were murdered. There was something diabolic about the measureless frenzy of their cruelty as de las Casas says, they behaved, “more inhumanely then rapacious Tygres Wolves and Lyons.” Continue reading

per manus sancti angeli tui

I think it probable that created intelligences are at work in all natural operations. They are also, of course, involved in supernatural operations. In the Roman Canon the priest prays that the gifts might be carried “by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high.” Nikolaus Gihr comments as follows:

It must not appear strange that we should implore the ministry and assistance of an angel to present our oblation, for the purpose of making it more acceptable to God and salutary to us. It is a tradition originating in ancient Christian times and frequently expressed by the Church, that the angels who participated in the work of redemption from beginning to end, are also present at and take part in the celebration of the holy Sacrificial Mysteries. As St. Chrysostom says (Of the Priesthood VI, 4): “The priest is himself at that solemn moment surrounded by angels, and the choir of the heavenly Powers unite with him; they occupy the entire space around the altar, to honor Him who lies there as a Sacrifice.” Then the Saint describes a vision, in which was seen a multitude of angels, who, robed in dazzling white garments and with head deeply bowed, surrounded the altar, as warriors standing in the presence of their king. The blessed vocation of the heavenly spirits consists in glorifying God by praise and in assisting man to attain salvation. Now, where could this twofold object be better fulfilled than is actually done during the holy Sacrifice? Hence hosts of angels collect about the altar to procure for God honor on high and for man peace on earth. Between the angels and the Holy Eucharist there exist, undoubtedly, intimate relations, which, indeed, to our weak vision here below remain always shrouded in a mysterious obscurity. Christian tradition speaks not only of the presence of many angels at the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, but it often, moreover, mentions in a determinate manner and yet, at the same time, in an indeterminate manner, a certain angel specially commissioned to carry our prayers and sacrifices before the throne of God. Tertullian says (On Prayer, Chap. 16) that it is highly irreverent to sit in church “before the face of the Living God, while the angel of prayer is still standing there” (sub conspectu Dei vivi angelo adhuc orationis adstante). St. Ambrose writes (In Luc. 1. i, n. 28), that we cannot doubt that “an angel assists” (assistere angelum), when Christ is sacrificed on the altar. Thus the text of the Canon also mentions but one angel. Does it not appear from this that the Church herself would thereby indicate that God intrusts an angel with the special mission of bringing the oblation of the priest and people into His presence? More minute and accurate information relative to this Angel of the Sacrifice of the Mass (Angelus assistens divinis mysteriis S. Thomas III, q. 83, a. 4 ad 9) is not granted to us. Many saints and servants of God had a particular devotion to the angel here mentioned, without being able or willing to decide as to his name.  [Nikolaus Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, pp. 662-663].

Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

I recently listened to an audiobook of the German translation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission— which, as most readers will know, is about Muslim party taking power in France. I am working on a review, and have been checking my favorite passages in the French original. I hope to complete the full review soon, but in the mean time here is a  rough translation of some passages in which Houellebecq discusses distributism. The main objective of the new government is to strengthen the family, and for this purpose they turn to distributism:

Apart from this superficial agitation, France was in the midst of rapid development and profound change. It soon became clear that Mohammed Ben Abbes [the new Muslim president of France] had other ideas apart from Islam; in a press conference he declared to general astonishment that he was influenced by distributism. Actually he had already mentioned this multiple times during his campaign, but since journalists are very naturally inclined to ignore information that they cannot understand, these statements were not passed on to the public. This time he was the sitting president of the republic so that it was necessary for them to bring their research up to date. And so the public learned over the next few weeks that distributism was an economic philosophy that had been developed in England at the start of the 20th century by thinkers such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.  […] An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, no association (whether social, economic or political) should have charge of a function that could be assigned to a smaller association. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, provided a definition of this principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

(Au-delà de cette agitation superficielle, la France était en train d’évoluer rapidement, et d’évoluer en profondeur. Il apparut bientôt que Mohammed Ben Abbes, même indépendamment de l’islam, avait des idées ; lors d’une séance de questions à la presse, il se déclara influencé par le distributivisme, ce qui plongea ses auditeurs dans un ébahissement général. Il l’avait à vrai dire déjà déclaré, à plusieurs reprises, au cours de la campagne présidentielle ; mais les journalistes ayant une tendance bien naturelle à ignorer les informations qu’ils ne comprennent pas, la déclaration n’avait été ni relevée, ni reprise. Cette fois, il s’agissait d’un président de la république en exercice, il devenait donc indispensable qu’ils mettent à jour leur documentation. Le grand public apprit ainsi au cours des semaines suivantes que le distributivisme était une philosophie économique apparue en Angleterre au début du xxe siècle sous l’impulsion des penseurs Gilbert Keith Chesterton et Hilaire Belloc. Elle se voulait une « troisième voie », s’écartant aussi bien du capitalisme que du communisme – assimilé à un capitalisme d’État. Son idée de base était la suppression de la séparation entre le capital et le travail. La forme normale de l’économie y était l’entreprise familiale ; lorsqu’il devenait nécessaire, pour certaines productions, de se réunir dans des entités plus vastes, tout devait être fait pour que les travailleurs soient actionnaires de leur entreprise, et coresponsables de sa gestion. […] Un des éléments essentiels de la philosophie politique introduite par Chesterton et Belloc était le principe de subsidiarité. D’après ce principe, aucune entité (sociale, économique ou politique) ne devait prendre en charge une fonction pouvant être confiée à une entité plus petite. Le pape Pie XI, dans son ency- clique Quadragesimo Anno, fournissait une définition de ce principe: «Tout comme il est mauvais de reti- rer à l’individu et de confier à la communauté ce que l’entreprise privée et l’industrie peuvent accomplir, c’est également une grande injustice, un mal sérieux et une perturbation de l’ordre convenable pour une organisation supérieure plus large de s’arroger les fonctions qui peuvent être effectuées efficacement par des entités inférieures plus petites.»  [Soumission, pp. 201-202, 210])

Welter and waste and darkness over the deep


Sermon preached in the Carmel Mayerling, Easter Sunday, 2015.

The heathen tribes that lived here in central Europe before the coming of Christianity thought that human life was ultimately doomed. In the end cold and darkness would win. For a time light a space of light and order could be defended against the forces of chaos, the monsters of the dark, but in the end evil would win out. The sun that warms this earth would be eaten by a great wolf. “Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent.” At last, the land would sink into the chaotic floods of the sea. Perhaps though the land would rise again, and the whole story will repeat itself. (A story reminiscent of some current theories). The nomadic tribes of the ancient Levant, among whom the patriarchs lived, are supposed to have had similar ideas.[1] For them too the world was a chaotic wasteland, a desert in which demons of the dark wandered about ready to kill. Human life had to be defended against the powers of darkness. It is thought that at the first full moon of spring there was a feast of new year in which human life was to be begun a new. The tents were surrounded with a circle of lamb blood to protect them, from the terrors of the night.

There is an important element of truth in all these pessimistic views of the world. The world was created out of nothing, and there is a certain tendency in created things to pass away again into the nothingness from which they came. God created the world good, but his creation was not complete at once: “the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep.” In the six days of creation He orders the world making of it a garden, a house, and a temple— a place of order and beauty, a fit habitation for human life, and a mirror of His glory. But then our first parents sinned, and the world threatened to fall back into chaos. But God does not abandon mankind to the fate they deserve—goodness and light and order will win in the end, not evil and darkness and chaos. Through His covenants He begins to restore the creation that man has marred. In passover of Egypt He adopts elements of the ancient nomadic New Year feast, but gives them a greater meaning. The angel of death, the terror of the night, becomes a means of deliverance for the people, bringing death to their enemies. For the people of Israel the lambs are killed in their stead, buying back for them the lives they deserve to lose. And then, in the crossing of the Red Sea, the chaotic floods of water become a means for destroying evil and saving good.

As Ratzinger notes[1], the passover continued to be celebrated in the home, even after the establishment of the temple. The lambs were slaughtered in the temple, but then taken home, and the houses were marked with their blood. The restoration of creation each year began with the little world of the home, marked off from the darkness, and the chaos. The restoration next moved to the level of the whole city of Jerusalem: no-one was allowed to leave the city during the passover night, so that the city became a house sealed off from the dark.

Our Lord to celebrated the passover in a house within the holy city, but then He got up and “went with his disciples out be­yond the brook Cedron,” that is, beyond the borders of the city into the outer darkness and chaos. He is later brought back into the city, but then taken out again, and He dies outside the city. And by that death He conquers death and chaos. He rises to new life, as the beginning of the definitive new creation—full of light and beauty.

When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen one she thinks He is the gardener. Superficially this is an error, but in a deeper sense she is quite right; He is indeed the gardener of creation who is remaking the whole world, healing all chaos, disorder, and death. But His restoration begins small with the seed of His body that will slowly grow into a tree that can shelter all of creation. The Church is the garden in which His new creation begins. It is shielded on all sides from the powers of evil by the blood of the lamb, but open for Him.

And a Carmelite convent is a little Church— a space closed off from the chaos of the world, a garden in which you can meet the Risen Lord and be remade by Him. Each of you must seal your own heart off from evil, and allow the heavenly gardener to root out all the weeds of you soul, so that in you that new creation can begin, which will be completed when the He comes again in glory, and celebrates His final triumph over all evil: “And He shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be among them and shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall not be any more, nor shall sorrow nor lamentation nor pain be any more, be­cause the first things have gone. And He who sat upon the throne said: Behold, I make all new.”


[1] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Passover of Jesus and the Church: A Meditation for Holy Thursday,” in: Behold The Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

Propitiation for our sins

In a characteristically provocative essay on why our Lord died, Stanley Hauerwas pours scorn on liberal reductions of the Gospel to the teaching that we should love each other. If, he asks, Jesus came only to teach us to be nice and love each other, why did anyone bother to put Him to death? Of course Hauerwas does not deny that Jesus did in fact teach us to love each other, but, he argues, this teaching is secondary. Following John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas claims that Jesus was put to death because he embodied a new form of politics: “Jesus was put to death because he embodied a politics that threatened all worldly regimes based on the fear of death.” This new politics is realized in the Church founded by in Jesus’s death and resurrection: Continue reading