On Contemporary Critiques of Ultramontanism; With a Comparison of Recent Supreme Pontiffs to Liverpool FC Managers

Jürgen Klopp’s appoitment as Liverpool FC’s new manager may not be “the most exciting event … ever,” but it is certainly terribly exciting. I have been a Liverpool supporter ever since my youth, when, not having a TV, I started looking for soccer clips online and found Timbo’s Goals, a now long defunct LFC fan site that featured clips from the glory days of the 70s and 80s, as well as the most recent games. The clips took ages to download on our dial-up connection, but it was worth it. From Keagan and Toshak to Kenny Daglish to John Barnes and Peter Beardsley to Robbie Fowler and Steve Mcmanaman, I got to know all the greats. Gérard Houllier was Liverpool manager in those days, and the first stomach-turningly exciting moment that I had as a Liverpool supporter was watching Houlier’s team defeat Deportivo Alavés in the 2001 UEFA Cup final (on a TV at the house of philosopher Peter Colosi).

Watching Jürgen Klopp’s presentation  was a little bit like watching clips of Pope St. John Paul II emerging on the loggia of St Peter’s after his election to the papacy. The comparison might seem not only to be in bad taste, but also to be misleading. “A pope’s rôle in the Church is not much like that of a manager in a football club,” my readers are presumably thinking. A lot has been written recently in the sort of Catholic blogs that I read— especially ones that to some degree share my integralism— about what popes are not. The pope is not a Soviet style dictator, or oriental tyrant who’s slightest whim is law. He is not the incarnation of the Holy Spirit delivering new revelations and so and so forth. Such warnings against exaggerated notions of the Pope’s rôle are all very well as far as they go.  The Holy Father is the servant of the truth, not its creator. And the pope’s very importance as Vicar of Christ on earth can easily lead to exaggerated ideas about his power. As one of the best of the recent treatments of what the pope is not, Elliot Milco’s series against certain forms of excessive ultra-montanism, puts it: Continue reading

Fanaticism vs. Devotion

In a comment on my last post Michael Bolin does a good job of defending the Newman passage that I used to show that one should not be for moderation in religion, even in false religion. Nevertheless, I think Samantha Cohoe is right that the passage is not applicable to the case of St Paul before his conversion. Even after one has dismissed the bogus moderate/extreme distinction in religion one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Jeremy Holmes provided the following distinction on Facebook (quoted with permission): Continue reading

Charlie Hebdo and the Secularist Long Game

place des terreaux

Ah birbone! ah dannato! ah assassino! Villain! Wretch! Murderer!’  shouted Renzo, striding up and down the room, and grasping the hilt of his dagger every so often…. He stopped suddenly in front of the weeping girl, looked at her with sad and angry tenderness, and said: ‘I’ll make sure he never does a thing like this again.’ ‘No, Renzo, no! — not that, for the love of Heaven!’ cried Lucia. ‘God is the God of the poor and oppressed; but how can you expect him to help us if we do evil?’ (Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, ch. 3)

The cliché that evil begets evil is true not only in it’s obvious sense (that righteous anger and zeal for justice can quickly turn to  hatred, revenge, and unlawful violence), but also in the sense that such reaction itself provides occasion for the long term strategies of well meaning but thoroughly mischievous movements. Continue reading

All Times Are Bad Times II

A while back I posted some thoughts on how all times are bad times, and seem in fact the worst since the creation of the world. Today I stumbled across a text of Bl. John Henry Newman’s (from one of his Anglican works) that puts it much better than I ever could:

But in truth the whole course of Christianity from the first, when we come to examine it, is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing, and lingers on in weakness, “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in her body.” Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of Truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony, as though it were but a question of time whether it fails finally this day or another. The Saints are ever all but failing from the earth, and Christ all but coming; and thus the Day of Judgment is literally ever at hand; and it is our duty ever to be looking out for it, not disappointed that we have so often said, “now is the moment,” and that at the last, contrary to our expectation, Truth has somewhat rallied. Such is God’s will, gathering in His elect, first one and then another, by little and little, in the intervals of sunshine between storm and storm, or snatching them from the surge of evil, even when the waters rage most furiously. Well may prophets cry out, “How long will it be, O Lord, to the end of these wonders?” how long will this mystery proceed? how long will this perishing world be sustained by the feeble lights which struggle for existence in its unhealthy atmosphere? God alone knows the day and the hour when that will at length be, which He is ever threatening; meanwhile, thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto,—not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion. “The floods are risen, the floods have lift up their voice, the floods lift up their waves. The waves of the sea are mighty, and rage horribly; but yet the Lord, who dwelleth on high, is mightier.” (Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, Lecture 14).

On Legitimate Disagreements with the Successors of the Apostles in Prudential Matters


Aelianus of Laodicea has posted a reply to my post on the anointing at Bethany that I think merits an extended response. He writes:

The Holy Father’s moderation of the papal liturgy along with his comments about the desired poverty of the Church seem to imply that he feels there is a relationship between the splendour of the liturgy and the provision the Church makes for the poor. Presumably some people feel this is an unfair suggestion and that the faithful have more than enough resources to provide for the poor and for the worthy service of the altar. Presumably they also feel that the implied relationship is a distraction from the inadequacy of the provision made for either. Furthermore, while the faithful may indeed neglect the poor materially, the essence of the problem lies in the principle upon which wealth is acquired not the mere quantity or distribution. Here perhaps the true negligence lies in the coyness of the holders of the teaching office in proposing the divinely revealed truth concerning the true function of money. In this (as in other matters) there have been shepherds, who have not, as becomes Apostolic authority, extinguished the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by their negligence.

This in turn underlines the fact that the prudential judgements of Popes about liturgical style or when and how much to teach are not guaranteed by God and that it is not the role of the faithful to imitate the apologists of the late USSR in frantically discerning why the Pope is necessarily right in every such prudential judgement. One only has to apply this prudential infallibility idea to previous centuries to see its absurdity. The faithful do not need to be guided and ruled by the Vicar of Christ, the authentic guardian of tradition (whether Benedict XVI, John XII, Celestine V, Boniface VIII or Francis) in their choice of footwear or transportation, liturgical composers, prose style or missionary strategy. When, however, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he undoubtedly possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

I have never denied that one can have legitimate disagreements with the Holy Father on prudential matters. In fact in a previous post I expressed my own disagreement with his liturgical minimalism, and unease at his apparent Gallicanism. Aelianus is surely right that our attitude toward the Holy Father should not be that of Soviet apparatchiki toward Stalin. But neither should it be the attitude of the citizens of liberal democracies toward their leaders — an attitude of habitual mistrust and scorn. It should be the attitude of a pious son toward his father, of a loyal subject toward his legitimate ruler.

It is vital not to regard our Holy Father with habitual suspicion, but rather to regard him with filial trust and docility, to try to learn all we can from his teaching, to be guided by his rule, and to voice legitimate criticism only with the utmost reverence and discretion. Continue reading

Blessed John Henry Newman on “our obligations to the Holy See.”

“What need I say more to measure our own duty to [the Holy See] and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies. Our duty is,—not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties,—but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.” (From: John Henry Newman, “The Pope and the Revolution,” Preached Oct. 7, 1866, in the Church of the Oratory, Birmingham)

Not a Shadow of Misgiving


In Heiligenkreuz we have been praying a translation of the following prayer of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s everyday after Verspers:

We believe and confess, O Lord, without any hesitation at all, that Thou hast promised a continuous duration to Thy Church while the world lasts—and we confess before Thee, that we are in no doubt or trouble whatever, we have not a shadow of misgiving as to the permanence and the spiritual well-being either of Thy Church itself or of its rulers. Nor do we know what is best for Thy Church, and for the interests of the Catholic faith, and for the Pope, or the bishops throughout the world at this time. We leave the event entirely to Thee; we do so without any anxiety, knowing that everything must turn to the prosperity of Thy ransomed possession, even though things may look threatening for a season. Only we earnestly entreat that Thou wouldest give Thy own servant and representative, the Pope [Benedict], true wisdom and courage, and fortitude, and the consolations of Thy grace in this life, and a glorious immortal crown in the life to come.

Today I looked it up and found it to be the final part of the seventh of the “Twelve Meditations and Intercessions for Good Friday.” Here it is in context: Continue reading

Relativism, Dogmatism and Alasdair MacIntyre

In the above lecture (pointed out by John of St Thomas) Alasdair MacIntyre quotes Peguy as follows: “A great philosophy is not one that passes final judgments… It is one that causes uneasiness.” Googling the line reveals that MacIntyre has left something rather telling out: after “judgements” Peguy adds “and establishes ultimate truth.” MacIntyre has been accused of opposite faults– on the one hand of nostalgic anti-modernism, on the other of relativistic postmodernism. The latter accusation seems to come from MacIntyre’s sensitivity to the way in which one’s situation in particular historical and cultural surroundings affect what one thinks to be true. As he writes in the Preface to the 3rd ed. of After Virtue:

What historical enquiry discloses is the situatedness of all enquiry, the extent to which what are taken to be the standards of truth and of rational justification in the contexts of practice vary from one time and place to another. If one adds to that disclosure, as I have done, a denial that there are available to any rational agent whatsoever standards of truth and of rational justification such that appeal to them could be sufficient to resolve fundamental moral, scientific, or metaphysical disputes in a conclusive way, then it may seem that an accusation of relativism has been invited. (The word ‘accusation’ is perhaps out of place, since I have been congratulated on my alleged relativism by those who have tried to claim me as a postmodernist…)

In the above lecture MacIntyre talks much of the need to be unsettled in one’s own habit of thoughts, and praises the American tradition represented by Whitman  of valuing “other voices.” But the tradition of Whitman (he claims) is now all but dead. Nowadays Americans don’t want to listen to other voices they just want everyone else to join in there own affirmation of what seems patently obvious to them. It would be easy to see MacIntyre here as making a skeptical anti-dogmatic point– one against “ultimate truths,” but really precisely the opposite is the case. MacIntyre is in fact a dogmatist, and he praises philosophy that “causes uneasiness” on dogmatist grounds. Sean Kelsey, in his response to MacIntyre included in the above video shows why this is so by reference to two passages from Bl. John Henry Newman’s novel Loss and GainIn the first Newman’s protagonist, an Anglican, adopts the principle of dogmatism:

By means of conversations such as those which we have related (to which many others might be added, which we spare the reader’s patience), and from the diversities of view which [Charles] met with in the University, he had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them. He had been accustomed, as we have seen, to fix his mind on persons,  not on opinions, and to determine to like what was good in every one; but he had now come to perceive that, to say the least, it was not respectable in any great question to hold false opinions. It did not matter that such false opinions were sincerely held—he could not feel that respect for a person who held what Sheffield called a sham, with which he regarded him who held a reality. White and Bateman were cases in point; they were very good fellows, but he could not endure their unreal way of talking, though they did not feel it to be unreal themselves. […] Thus the principle of dogmatism gradually became an essential element in Charles’s religious views.

In the second the protagonist has determined to become a Catholic, and is explaining why:

[The majority of Church-of-England people] tell us to seek, they give us rules for seeking, they make us exert our private judgment; but directly we come to any conclusion but theirs, they turn round and talk to us of our ‘providential position’. But there’s another thing. Tell me, supposing we ought all to seek the truth, do you think that members of the English Church do seek it in that way which Scripture enjoins upon all seekers? Think how very seriously Scripture speaks of the arduousness of finding, the labour of seeking, the duty of thirsting after the truth. I don’t believe the bulk of the English clergy, the bulk of Oxford residents, Heads of houses, Fellows of Colleges (with all their good points, which I am not the man to deny), have ever sought the truth. They have taken what they found, and have used no private judgment at all. Or if they have judged, it has been in the vaguest, most cursory way possible; or they have  looked into Scripture only to find proofs for what they were bound to subscribe, as undergraduates getting up the Articles. Then they sit over their wine, and talk about this or that friend who has ‘seceded’ and condemn him, and […] assign motives for his conduct. Yet after all, which is the more likely to be right,—he who has given years, perhaps, to the search of truth, who has habitually prayed for guidance, and has taken all the means in his power to secure it, or they, ‘the gentlemen of England who sit at home at ease’? No, no, they may talk of seeking the truth, of private judgment, as a duty, but they have never sought, they have never judged; they are where they are, not because it is true, but because they find themselves there, because it is their ‘providential position,’ and a pleasant one into the bargain.

Kelsey argues that this is the reason why MacIntyre wants a philosophy that causes uneasiness–in order that one might be really impelled to seek the truth. But one can of course object that MacIntyre holds that it is impossible to take a position “outside” all traditions of thought and judge them against each other. So how can one say that this teaching whether some teaching which seems true viewed from one tradition, but not from another is “really” true or not. Again Newman can help here. In a letter quoted in his Apologia Newman is answering the charge that his changing his religious opinions after having been so emphatically convinced of his old opinions will lead to scepticism in his followers:

I wish to remark on W.’s chief distress, that my changing my opinion seemed to unsettle one’s confidence in truth and falsehood as external things, and led one to be suspicious of the new opinion as one became distrustful of the old. […] The case with me, then, was this, and not surely an unnatural one:—as a matter of feeling and of duty I threw myself into the system which I found myself in. I saw that the English Church had a theological idea or theory as such, and I took it up. […]  So far from my change of opinion having any fair tendency to unsettle persons as to truth and falsehood viewed as objective realities, it should be considered whether such change is not necessary, if truth be a real objective thing, and be made to confront a person who has been brought up in a system short of truth. Surely the continuance of a person who wishes to go right in a wrong system, and not his giving it up, would be that which militated against the objectiveness of Truth, leading, as it would, to the suspicion, that one thing and another were equally pleasing to our Maker, where men were sincere.

Having established that changing one’s settled position does not militate against the idea of objective truth, Newman goes on to argue that it does not follow that the way to seek that truth is to abstract oneself from all traditions and regard things from the point of view of Cartesian doubt. On the contrary:

For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came? Yet in proportion to their previous zeal, would be their appearance of inconsistency. Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating. And though I have no right at all to assume that this mercy is granted to me, yet the fact, that a person in my situation may have it granted to him, seems to me to remove the perplexity which my change of opinion may occasion.

What Newman is saying here is that it is really those who are most sincerely devoted to the truth which they find in their own system who are likely to be unsettled by the challenges to that system from some other system. It is those who are most dogmatists who are most likely to see what is false in their own system and adopt another. Thus MacIntyre, as a good disciple of Newman, doesn’t think of the inevitable embeddedness of human thought in tradition as an obstacle to the attainment of “ultimate truth,” but rather as a condition of such attainment.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a theologian to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Bl. John Henry Newman to W.G. Ward, November 8th, 1860:

 I will say as to the very matter which occasions your letter: […]

‘(9) that, as the rich man or the man in authority has his serious difficulties in going to heaven, so also has the learned.

‘(10) that the more a man is educated, whether in theology or secular science, the holier he needs to be if he would be saved.

‘(11) that devotion and self-rule are worth all the intellectual cultivation in the world.

‘(12) that in the case of most men literature and science and the habits they create, so far from ensuring these highest of gifts, indispose the mind towards their acquisition.

The whole letter is quite interesting. Part of it was recently posted by Thomas Cordatus.

Empire I: the Philosophical Poet

Virgil is a very philosophical poet. In his famous essay on the Aenead[1] Jacob Klein quotes the following note from an early life of Virgil:

Although [Virgil] seems to have put the opinions of diverse philosophers into his writings with most serious intent, he himself was a devotee of the Academy; for he preferred Plato’s views to all the others.

I am going try to show something of Virgil’s political philosophy, and how it responds to Plato, but before doing that I ought to do a post on Virgil as a poet. Let me begin with the famous lines that are supposed to sum up the whole spirit of Virgil: Continue reading