Why I am a Catholic: Like Grandfather, Like Grandson

I have written a guest post on Artur Rosman’s blog, in which I brag a little about how Catholic my family is. I mention my maternal grandfather, Philip Burnham, in the post, and in looking for a reference to link on him, I stumbled on the following passage of a book on Catholic social thought in America before Vatican II:

Cort’s swipe at the heart of the [Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker’s] anti-industrial worldview precipitated a debate in the pages of The Commonweal that raged on for months. The first respondent to Cort’s article was Philip Burnham, a maverick Catholic intellectual and a regular contributor to The Commonweal. Burnham questioned Cort’s use of the term “Christian industrialism” and regarded it as an oxymoron. Mass-production industrialism fostered “two possible extremes of social and personal organization,” Burnham wrote. It could breed either “a suffocating unitary centralization” or “a freezing divisive separateness.” Targe-scale industrial production required the “central and unitary organization and control of men and resources in their economic existence. The larger the industrialism, the wider the centralization.” Centralization meant that the freedom of the laborer was diminished while the importance of the laborer grew as a result of the “extreme interdependence of economic parts and functions.” The result had been the explosion of population in the cities “in a particular kind of heaped-up, inhuman conurbation, for which even that isn’t a bad enough word,” Burnham exclaimed. The individual as a commodity had been splintered from society. “Have the Christian industrialists developed such remedies,” Burnham asked, “that they are willing to junk reformers [like Catholic Worker activists] who do away with the dominance of industrialism itself?” For the agrarian distributist, the problem of industrialism did not lie in the question of who controlled the factories or “whether the boss represents widows and orphans and worthy capitalists, or the hands that work the machinery, or the undifferentiated humanity which must live, one way or another, on the stuff produced.” The problem with industrialism was industrialism itself. (p. 219)

My  grandfather died when I was little, but I still remember talking to him. I listened to him in awe, and was amazed at his vast knowledge. Unfortunately at the time I was mostly interested in Swiss Army knives and parachutes and such things, and so that is what we talked about. I wish that I had known enough to ask him about distributism, and about the many Catholic writers whom he had known. He was good friends with Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, and knew Dorothy Day, and Josef Pieper, and had met Evelyn Waugh and a great many others.


Use Values and Corn Laws, Aristotelian Marxists and High Tories

In a reply to Owen White’s comment on my last post I claimed that English Toryism worthy of the name suffered its final defeat in 1846 with the triumph of the free trade movement and the abolition of the Corn Laws. To explain what I meant I want to consider the account of the anti-conservative nature of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto.  Marx and Engels point out that bourgeois capitalism has dissolved the feudal ties that used to tie men to their ‘natural superiors,’ and that it has stripped human relations down to ‘egotistical calculation,’ and reduced human values to ‘exchange value.’ But they think that this was in a way necessary (one might almost say good) because it has enabled the rise of a revolutionary class who know that they are being oppressed: «for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.» (p. 16) But what if the religious and political institutions that founded pre-capitalist society in Western Europe were not illusions? What would become of their argument then? If one thinks that earthly societies ought to reflect the hierarchical order of the cosmos, then one might indeed think that ‘feudal’ society may have been more defensible then Marx and Engels thought, and that the rise of bourgeois capitalism was not a necessary unveiling of exploitation at all, but just an unmitigated disaster. Continue reading

Martin Mosebach

Martin Mosebach with a confrère of mine

Martin Mosebach with a confrère of mine

Martin Mosebach is well known in the German speaking world for his brilliant, cutting edge novels for which he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 2007. But he has also written a collection of polemical essays on the Roman Liturgy from a traditionalist point of view–so far the only one of his works translated into English. This makes him a bit of a puzzle to German churchmen.  He does not fit the cliché description of a “traditionalist,” “Latin Mass” Catholic.  He seems like a throw back to certain writers of the first half of the 20th century who were both top notch writers and traditionalist Christians. The English speaking world had plenty of these both Catholic (Evelyn Waugh) and Anglican (T.S. Eliot). The likes of Eliot and Waugh provided devastating descriptions of a modern society (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) which they considered to have gone astray, and the also proposed the a cure in the form of a return to traditional Christianity. Mosebach might be read this way as well, but there seems to me to be a difference. Comparing the two Mosebach novels that I have read, Der Mond und das Mädchen (2007) and Was davor geschah (2010), to Waugh’s satirical novels there seems to me to be something subtly different going on. To be sure Mosebach is concerned with showing the emptiness of a culture drained of Christian faith and morality just as much as Waugh is, but the difference is that Waugh thinks there is still something to be done about it. Mosebach, it seems to me, doesn’t; he doesn’t think that the culture as a whole has any chance of returning to Christianity.

The result is that Mosebach gives a much more detached narration of his stories than Waugh. The narrator of Was davor geschah tells us that one of the characters is not motivated by “predilection for the aesthetics delights of decline and ruin” (Vorliebe für die ästhetischen Wonnen des Niedergangs). But Mosebach does seem to show a keen enjoyment of such delights. Mosebach’s novels are very similar to Waugh’s A Handful of Dust in describing the ruin that people run into by flippant disregard for the moral order, but while Waugh’s book is written with bitter wit, Mosebach’s is written with a kind of aestheticising elegant distance–like a 19th century novelist describing a landscape. Mosebach himself makes something like this point in an interview. There he states that he cultivates an abstract relation to his material, trying to treat his characters like musical themes which he then develops into a kind of symphonic composition.

It is interesting to compare Mosebach’s detached view of the contemporary culture that he despises and considers himself to have transcended with morally serious contemporary writers who see themselves as part of the culture, and struggling with its moral contradictions. In an earlier post I compared two such writers, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace with respect to the problem of necessity. I argued that Franzen sees part of the problem with contemporary life in an excess of freedom of choice without the kind of moral necessity that gives life direction and urgency. Wallace, I suggested, shows how the version of necessity that Franzen sees as the saving possibility is insufficient to the extent that it cannot finally ground the good which necessitates. Mosebach too is concerned with the problem of a false necessity that people embrace for the sake of giving their lives direction. In Was davor geschah everyone’s life is destroyed by some of the characters trying to escape the emptiness of their lives by giving themselves over to passion. Mosebach describes this without bitterness or sarcasm, but there is one wonderful passage where he hints that it is all an illusion. It is a chapter called “time holds breath;” a breathtakingly beautiful description of a moonlight sledding party. This is the last paragraph:

We had passed through a no man’s land in the sleds, but no man’s land has no man’s time. We had moved in a great white bag, as though we were still in the world of the unborn. The wintery forrest in the darkness of the night had made everything appear as though it were not yet inevitable, as though there were many combinations possible,  each one about to dissolve again. In the light [of the house] we were back on the tracks on which we had long since been moving. Must I even mention that  despite all the good drink that night Phoebe no longer looked at me?

(Ein Niemandsland hatten wir mit den Rodelschlitten durchfahren, aber im Niemandsland herrscht auch eine Niemandszeit. In einem großen weißen Sack hatten wir uns bewegt, als seien wir noch im Reich der Ungeborenen. Der nächtliche Winterwald hatte alles erscheinen lassen, als sei es noch nicht zwangsläufig, als seien viele Kombinationen möglich, und jede davon bestimmt, alsbald wieder zu verfallen. Im Licht gerieten wir wieder in die Gleise, in denen wir uns längst bewegten. Muß ich hinzufügen, daß Phoebe in dieser hochalkoholisierten Nacht keinen Blick mehr für mich übrig hatte?)

An Education in Desire

Titian Introduction   - 38

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (detail)

The words “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” have been much in my mind of late, and I thought of them again as a read a brilliant thesis on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Elizabeth Quackenbush, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College this year. I suppose I must have been about 14 when I first read Brideshead, and I was completely dazzled. As Thomas Howard once wrote, Continue reading