Europe as the Synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelianism

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens”. Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems. The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. (Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament)


Non abbiate paura

One way in which Christ brings peace is by conquering fear:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)

Fear is contrary to peace because one cannot be tranquil as long as one expects to suffer the privation of the good. But the Pascal Mystery removes any cause for fear of any created thing; tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and death itself (cf. Romans 8:35) are no longer fearful because Christ has transformed them by His passion, death, and resurrection into the means by which we are united to His sacrifice and brought to ultimate triumph. Continue reading

Tarnishing the Splendor of Truth


The eccentric French footballer Nicolas Anelka— once of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Chelsea etc., now of West West Bromwich Albion– celebrated one of his goals against West Ham the other day by performing la quenelle, a quasi-nazi salute invented by French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Politically correct journalists are now suggesting that he should  be hounded out of the game for this.  Now, in this case the PC establishment has a point; anti-semitism is obviously evil, and making fun of the unspeakable evil of the שואה is horrible. But why is it that even when the PC machine is in the right there is something distasteful about the way it exercises its power? Anelka has claimed that la quenelle is not anti-semitic, but only “anti-système,” against the establishment and its manipulative and hypocritical system of power.

Screenshot 2018-11-07 at 19.36.58

Anelka is presumably wrong about the original meaning of la quenelle, but he has perhaps hit on the secret of its bizarre popularity. Probably most people who make la quenelle do so not so much out of animosity toward the Jewish people as out of animosity toward the power of  le système.

Aladair MacIntyre’s discussion of emotivism in After Virtue can help to understanding what is going on here. MacIntyre describes how the Enlightenment project of grounding morality–after abandoning both Aristotle and Revelation–failed. Modernity is marked by a lack of a shared basis for morality, and by intractable disagreements between rival moral traditions. The theory of emotivism–that moral judgements have no objective meaning but merely express arbitrary subjective approval or disapproval together with an appeal to share such an attitude (so that “honesty is good,” really means something like “honesty: YEAH!”)–makes little sense as a universal claim, but is actually a good description of the way moral language is in fact used in our cultural situation. Perhaps few people today would in fact claim to be emotivists, but moral terms are in fact used in a emotivist way by “the system.” MacIntyre notes the shrillness with which people argue about moral questions on which there is no agreement, and no movement toward agreement. I have long thought though that his point is shown even more clearly by the shrill, and almost panic rage with which those are attacked who dare to disagree about some moral judgement about which there is almost universal agreement. In an emotivist culture a great deal of importance comes to be put on cataclismic events toward which almost everyone — regardless of their moral theory — tends to have the same emotions. Hence the tremendous importance of the Shoah in the contemporary social imaginary. It is no accident that the “reductio ad Hitleram” argument is so over used nowadays; Hitler’s crimes are among the few things about which their is almost universal moral agreement.

So I think the strange popularity of the quenelle has to do with what its song calls “a wind of liberty” (un vent de liberté), a feeling of freedom that comes from mocking the firmest support that the manipulative, emotivist system has got.

So far I have been examining the discrediting of a just cause through association with arbitrary and manipulative power only in our contemporary emotivist culture, but James Chastek recently argued that this sort of thing happens in every culture; that this is “the world” in its NT sense:

Christians occasionally daydream about winning the culture over for Christ. But this would mean that belief in Christ would be policed and encouraged in the same way that our current cultural beliefs are: by manipulation of the levers of power to control spoils, intimidate dissent, and coin new taboo words and thoughtcrimes that can immediately condemn without argument and persuade without reason. [..] The closest idea of “culture” in [the Gospels] is “the world”, which persuades not by reason and freedom but taboo, intimidation, usurping parental education, control over the principles of discourse, etc.

As an integralist I’m of course somewhat cautious of this line of thought. Can’t one distinguish between an exercise of cultural power that is irrational, and one that is actually helps people to see the truth? Take the taboo in our culture against cannibalism say — doesn’t it seem that in fact just makes it easier for people to see the natural law that is inscribed in their hearts anyway? Chastek does in fact acknowledge this in an earlier post:

Taboos are the human law at its most powerful – they are the most perfect and powerful tool for what St. Thomas calls the power of law to lead to virtue. Mere statutory laws bridle behavior; taboos actually restructure thought and form the will.

Nevertheless it is worth thinking carefully about what is meant by the world. The scripture readings for this season show us in a striking way how secretly, in what weakness and poverty, the Light of the world chooses to come into that world.  “No one works in secret, but he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (John 7:4) Thus the Lord’s doubting relations. And St. Jude at the Last Supper asks:  “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22) The answer seems to have something to do with the world’s obsession with human glory. “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) Concern for the glory that comes from other men is the obstacle to seeing the light of Christ: “Many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.” Ratzinger has a wonderful reflection on this in a retreat that he preached to the priests of the CL movement. St. John is playing on the double meaning of “doxa” (glory). Doxa meant originally “appearance,” “splendor,” but from this two opposite meanings are developed. On the one hand doxa means opinion, the semblance of truth, what merely seems but is not. On the other hand it means the the splendor and glitter that comes from the truth itself: the glory of the Lord. The great attraction of the doxa of men is, as I have argued before, that it allows us to hide from our own misery. Hence people build up a semblance of themselves, an “image” for the sake of the opinion of others. They act not according to the demands of the good, but according to the expected reaction of those with influential opinions. In order to preserve their own image they have to respect and further the common doxa. Thus as Ratzinger argues,

The rule of opinion, of untruth is set up. The whole life of a society … comes to be dominated by a dictatorship of untruth, of the way in which things are presented and reported rather than of reality itself.

Thus the humility, poverty, and powerlessness with which the true Light enters the world seems necessary in order that people might be freed of their enslavement to the doxa of this world. But there is of course a paradox involved here. As Chastek points out in yet another post, to work toward the evangelization of all is to work toward a “Christian culture.” But the more people are convinced by Christianity the more hypocrites there will be who go to church out of respect for the doxa of the Christians. And one sees people trying to attain to influence in the Church for the sake of worldly influence. History is full of that sort of thing, and any integralist theory has to come to terms with it. One hardly needs reminders of just how much the splendor of the Gospel can be tarnished through its association with the worldly. I was recently reading an account of the Vienna Geserah, a persecution of the Jews in 15th century Vienna, and it is truly heart rending to read of how certain people decide, after torturing rich Jews for their money, try to “proclaim the good news to them:”

Afterwards they took Rabi Meinsterl with his two sons. And they flogged the sons with thorns till the blood ran down, and the father they hung on chains and made a fire under him, till he told them where his money was. After this they wanted  [the father and his sons] to convert [to Christianity], but they laughed them in the face and said: “You fools, shall we exchange a living God for your foolishness?” And so they tortured them till they died a holy death.


This is an extreme and obvious case; forced baptism has always been condemned by the Church, and the perpetrators in the Geserah were obviously motivated by love of money. But the issue is far less clear with in cases of coercing the baptized to fulfill their baptismal promises. How does one draw the line between justifiable coercian and an excessive use of force that discredits the truth of the Faith?

But such cases are not entirely parallel to the case of emotivist outrage with which I began. A closer parallel would be what Charles Taylor calls “the disciplinary society.” The disciplinary society is formed by a  moral, civilizing impulse. It is formed by people impatient of the “two track” Christianity of the Middle Ages, which they saw as restricting the pursuit of perfection to the monastery and being satisfied with lax standards among the many. These people are horrified by the practice of “times of exception” like carnival and “feasts of misrule.” Taylor sees the disciplinary society as contributing to secularization in to almost opposite ways — on the one hand by its success and the Weberian disenchantment that that brings, but on the other hand by the resentment and pent-up violent passions that its iron grip causes. Hence movements libertine and Bohemian movements (most powerfully in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which had however many predecessors), rise up in protest against the moral discipline of the powerful. This is what the quenelle movement seems to be about. History however seems to show that “the system,” when it is not able to crush such protests, is  able to incorporate them within itself, modifying its codes while consolidating its power. (It will be interesting to see whether Dieudonné is crushed or incorporated…)

So what can we take from all this? One thing I think (mentioned by Chastek) is the importance of the Evangelical Council of poverty. The various movements of hermits, monks, mendicants etc. are necessary again and again to revive the humility which rejects the doxa of men. (And even Giorgio Agamben seems to recognize that this is “anti-système.“) Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation seems to be in a part an appeal for this spirit in our own time.

But the conclusion that Chastek draws in his last post is one that I continue to resist. I read him as endorsing a certain kind of secularism; an attempt to insulate Christianity from the world by privatizing it.

The medieval synthesis had all kind of weaknesses and internal contradictions, but it had a what Luigi Giusani calls “a unitary mentality.” It had “a conception of God as pertinent to all aspects of life, underlying every human experience excluding none.”

In this sense, then, the Middle Ages are not to be considered a more interesting epoch than others just because at that time everyone was more devout or capable of behaving in a less morally reproachable way. No, it was more interesting, because it was characterized by a unitary mentality.

The secularization that followed the period of the Reformation “disarticulated” this unitary mentality. And as Giussani shows at great length this disarticulation is itself a great barrier to faith. The attempt to insulate God from public life makes God irrelevant. And, as he writes in another place “Herein lies the cause of the terrible impasse confronting the religious awareness of human beings in our day.” Thus this mode of attempting to escape from the doxa of this world is just another way of surrendering to it. And the emotivist wasteland in which we live is the result.

bonum est diffusivum sui

Goodness always tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good. In this sense, several sayings of Saint Paul will not surprise us: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14); “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 9)

In the same way, to love the good that is participated by the blessed, to love it so as to have or possess it, does not establish the right relation between a person and blessedness, because even evil people want this good. But to love that good according to itself, that it may remain and be spread out and that nothing be done against this good, this gives to a person the right relation to that society of the blessed. (St. Thomas Aquinas, De Virtutibus, 2.2 c)

The Good of Rule

A passage of the new encyclical struck me in connection with my post on Dorothy Day’s anarchism. The Holy Father talks about the good of political rule and recalls that Scripture sees examples in Samuel and King David:

Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good. Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope. The Letter to the Hebrews offers an example in this regard when it names, among the men and women of faith, Samuel and David, whose faith enabled them to “administer justice” (Heb 11:33). This expression refers to their justice in governance, to that wisdom which brings peace to the people (cf. 1 Sam 12:3-5; 2 Sam 8:15). The hands of faith are raised up to heaven, even as they go about building in charity a city based on relationships in which the love of God is laid as a foundation. (Lumen Fidei 51)

Reminds Me of Another Jesuit of the Same Name…


And he that will be first among you shall be your servant. Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a redemption for many. S. Francis Xavier furnished a rare example of this humility of Christ, and recalled it to this age when it had, as it were, gone out of fashion. For when he was appointed by the Pope Apostolic Legate of India, he would have no servant, although the Viceroy of the King of Portugal offered him several, and urged him to accept them; but he ministered to all, both in bodily and spiritual services. He used himself to hear the confessions of the sick, and comfort the sorrowful; he used to administer medicines to the sick, and cleanse their bodies and wash their bandages, and catechise the ignorant and children; and besides he used to attend to and feed the horses of his companions. and when some one said that these things were unworthy of an Apostolic Legate, he answered that there was nothing more worthy than Christian charity and humility which became all things to all men that it may gain all: which Christ through His whole life continually enjoined by word and deed. So that by this conduct he did not lose, but increased his authority. Moreover Christ himself while on earth had not even one servant, but made himself the servant of all.  S Chrysostom (Hom. 40, the Epis. to the Cors.) says, “Listen to Paul; these hands, he says, have ministered to my necessities and to them that were with me. That teacher of the world, and man worthy of heaven, scrupled not to serve innumerable mortals; while you think it a disgrace unless you have your herds of servants in your train: not seeing that this is a great disgrace to you. God gave us hands and feet that we might do without servants. What is the use of crowds of servants?” (Cornelius a Lapide on Matthew 20)

Modesty and the Washing of the Feet

Having read a fraction of the things written about Pope Francis’s decision to disregard the Roman rubrics for the Mandatum by washing the feet of women as well as men (see: Vatican Press OfficeRorate CaeliCaelum et TerraPius Pietrzyk, O.P.; Stratford Caldecott), I was struck by the fact that hardly anyone one mentioned what seems to me the obvious reason for the rubric.

In the Middle Ages it was customary in many places for the king to wash the feet of poor men on Holy Thursday, but when a Queen was regnant she would wash the feet of poor women. It seems to have never occurred to any one that a king might wash women’s feet or a queen men’s. The reason seems to be that there was a culture of what I suppose one would call “modesty.” That is, the recognition that the relation between men and women has been rendered fragile through disordered, post-lapsarian concupiscence. “Modesty” in dress and manners is a way of protecting that fragile relation.

It has often been noted that one of the reasons why people were so scandalized by the woman (or women) who anointed Our Lord’s feet (an action with interesting parallels to the washing of the feet at the Last Supper) is precisely a feeling that it violates modesty. In His whole Umgang with women– not only Mary of Bethany, but also the Samaritan woman at the well et al.– Our Lord gives a kind of preview of a redeemed creation in which the relation of men and women is no-longer strained by disorder. He shows an astonishing freedom.

Now, I think the reason why the whole discussion of Pope Francis’s Madatum has tended to ignore the question of modesty is because of the cultural gulf which separates us from past generations. So-called “sexual liberation” has had the effect of making things which once seemed immodest seem totally modest. One could say that there has been a kind of de-sensitization. This means that certain things that would have given scandal in another age simply don’t in ours. Modesty and immodesty are not wholly “objective” predicates. I suppose, for instance, that while it would have been immodest for a woman to wear trousers in the 19th century, it simply isn’t now. People are so used to women wearing trousers, that it doesn’t give any special occasion to disordered concupiscence. Whether on deplores or applauds this, it seems to be a fact.

The Anointing at Bethany and the Washing of the Feet at the Last Supper

In his sermon for the Chrism Mass in Vienna, embedded above, Cardinal Schönborn refers to the wooden sculptures by Giovani Giuliani in the Hall of the Mandatum in Heiligenkreuz (at the 7.03 mark):

In Stift Heiligenkreuz, in the cloister, there are two groups of figures that clearly refer to each other: the anointing in Bethany and the washing of the feet at the Last Supper. Obviously the sculptor saw a relation between the two.

He then explains the connection through a reflection on the first days of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

Giovani Giuliani (1664-1744), Mary Magdalene drying Christ's feet, Heiligenkreuz, 1705

Giovani Giuliani (1664-1744), Mary Magdalene drying Christ’s feet, Heiligenkreuz, 1705

Giovani Giuliani, Christ washing the feet of the Apostle Peter, Heiligenkreuz, 1705

Giovani Giuliani, Christ washing the feet of the Apostle Peter, Heiligenkreuz, 1705

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

The Poor You Have Always With You: On the Anointing in Bethany and Certain Self-Styled Traditionalists

Giuliani Maria Magdalena Heiligenkreuz

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came to him a woman with an alabaster vessel full of precious ointment and anointed his head with it as he reclined at dinner. When his disciples saw this they were displeased and said: Why this waste? It could have been sold for a great price and the money given to the poor. Jesus was aware of them and said: Why are you hard on this woman? She has done a good thing to me. For always you have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. When she anointed my body with this ointment, it was for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached through all the world, she will be spoken of, and what she did, in memory of her. (Matthew 26:6-13)

But six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. So they prepared a supper for him there, and Martha served them, and Lazarus was one of those who dined with him. And Mary brought a measure of ointment of nard, pure and precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was full of the fragrance of ointment. One of his disciples, Judas the Iscariot, who was about to betray him said: Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? But he said this not because he cared anything about the poor but because he was a thief and, being keeper of the purse, used to make off with what had been put into it. But Jesus said: Let her be, so that this can serve for the day of my burial; for the poor you have always with you, but you do not always have me. (John 12:1-8)

The beautiful scene of the anointing in Bethany occurs several times in the liturgy of these days. Hearing it this year I could not help of thinking the way it has been misused by certain soit-disant “traditionalist” bloggers to criticize the Holy Father. The reaction among certain liturgical “traditionalists” to the election of Pope Francis was truly appalling. As Fr John Saward would say: “if anything proves that liturgical renewal is necessary but insufficient for the restoration of all things in Christ, it is these arrogant, intemperate, unjust, and profoundly un-Catholic cyber-tirades.”

Concern for the splendor of the sacred liturgy is laudable, but if certain “traditionalists” would spend more time reading the authentic witness of Apostolic tradition found in the Church Fathers, they would see how odd it is to use the anointing in Bethany as to attack the Holy Father’s concern for una Chiesa povera e per i poveri. A glance at the Catena aurea for Matthew and John shows that the Fathers read this passage as signifying (at one level) the love that we should show Christ in the poor.  Continue reading