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

Evelyn Waugh on Progress

Waugh typscript radio talk 1932

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin has the typescript of a radio talk by Evelyn Waugh “To an Unknown Old Man.” The following is a wonderfully dismissive passage on progress. (If only the notion were as passé as Waugh suggests).

I should like to ask you what it must have felt like to live in an age of Progress. But that is now a word that must be dismissed from our conversation before anything of real interest can be said. I daresay this comes less easily to you than to me because belief in Progress – that is to in a proves of inarrestible, beneficial change, was an essential part, as I understand it, of your education. You were told that man was a perfectible being already well set on the last phase of his ascent from ape to angel, that he would yearly become healthier, wealthier and wiser until, somewhere about the period in which we are now living, he would have attained a condition of unimpaired knowledge and dignity and habitual, ecstatic self esteem.

By the time I went to school in the last years of the war, people were less confident and the idea was on its way to the United States of America, from which last refuge of threadbare heresies it has been finally dislodged by recent economic realities. […] nowadays most of us have realized that man’s capacity for suffering keeps pretty regular pace with the discoveries that ameliorate it and that for every new thing found there is one good use and uncounted misuses. […] I do not think that the elaboration of mechanical devices is of any more significance than a change in the fashion of hats, save in so far as both reflect a change of outlook in the users.


Bonum Prolis I: De Koninck and Guy Crouchback



During a recent discussion involving James Chastek and Arturo Vasquez, I uploaded  some texts of De Koninck’s on birth control. The most interesting paper is “The Question of Infertility”, which argues that infertility is sometimes intended by nature as part of the “bonum prolis”, the good of offspring. I don’t want address the main argument here (I share James Chastek’s assessment), but the exposition of the meaning of “bonum prolis” at the beginning reminded of what I’ve always thought was wrong with Mr. Goodall’s argument in a famous passage of Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms.

“Bonum prolis” includes three things, De Koninck points out: 1) the simple existence of the child, 2) the feeding and clothing of the child, and 3) the education and upbringing of the child. The first two are ordered to the third:

Marriage was instituted chiefly for the good of the offspring, not only as to its begetting—since this can be effected even without marriage—but also as to its advancement to a perfect state, because everything intends naturally to bring its effect to perfection. (S. Th., Suppl., q.59, a. 2, c)

S. Thomas uses this understanding of “bonum prolis” to prove that fornication is contrary to the natural law:

Since fornication is an indeterminate union of the sexes, as something incompatible with matrimony, it is opposed to the good of the child’s upbringing [bonum prolis educandae], and consequently it is a mortal sin. (IIa IIae, q. 154, a. 2, c)

And this is precisely what Mr. Goodall fails to see. Waugh readers will recall that Guy Crouchback, protagonist of the Sword of Honour trilogy, is a Catholic whose Protestant wife has left him and obtained a divorce. Mr. Goodall, an eccentric old Catholic, and he have the following conversation:

[Goodall] spoke of the extinction (in the male line) some fifty years back, of a historic Catholic family.
“..They were a connection of yours through the Wrottmans of Garesby. […] They had two daughters and then the wretched girl eloped with a neighbour. It made a terrible ado at the time. It was before before divorce was common. Anyway they were divorced. […] Then ten years later your kinsman met this woman alone, abroad. A kind of rapprochement occurred but she went back to her so-called husband and in due time bore a son. It was in fact your kinsman’s. It was by law the so-called husband’s who recognized it as his. That boy is alive to-day and in the eyes of God the rightful heir to all his father’s quarterings.”
Guy was less interested in the quarterings than in the morality.
“You to say that theologically the original husband committed no sin in resuming sexual relations with his former wife?”
“Certainly nor. The wretched girl of course was guilty in every other way and is no doubt paying for it now. But the husband was entirely blameless.” (pp. 159-160)

Guy proceeds to act on this dubious morality, and later in the novel makes a pass at his former wife, Virginia. That is certainly contrary to the bonum prolis, and thus (in way) Virginia is right in her extraordinary outburst of indignation when she realizes what is going on, though she doesn’t give the proper ratio:

Tears of rage and humiliation were flowing unresisted. “I though you’d taken a fancy for me again […] I thought you’d chosen me specially, and by God you had. Because I was the only woman in the whole world your priests would let you go to bed with. That was my attraction. You wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless lunatic pig.” (p. 178)