Monday, May 29, 2006

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A bad impression

A lot of traditionalists and sometimes non-trad conservatives will complain that the American bishops only crack down on dissent that, well, isn't liberal. They conclude simply that a lot of American bishops don't like Catholic tradition.

But this doesn't explain the exact character of these "crack-downs". Take, for instance, the word "schismatic". Bracketing the question of the actual ecclesiastical state of the SSPX and people who attend their masses, isn't it odd that these are apparently the only schismatics left? I've heard the Old Catholics and Polish Catholics occasionally referred to as schismatics, but Eastern Orthodox and Protestants? They're our separated brethren, doncha know.

Likewise, here's an example, not from a bishop (or an American) but exemplifying the same phenomenon: 'Kneeling "is clearly rebellion, grave disobedience and mortal sin," Father Martin Tran, pastor at St. Mary's by the Sea, told his flock in a recent church bulletin.'

Again, words like "grave disobedience", "mortal sin", they tend to have fallen from the limelight in the last few decades...except when it's time to take care of those weirdo trads.

If someone simply decides to abandon the old, honest language of Christians then he is following the logical implications of his theological opinions; they may be wrong opinions, but this is completely different from abandoning words like "mortal sin" or "schism" or "obedience" except as a tool for dealing with those people who still believe in that stuff. I am not a mind reader and I don't know if that's what bishops and priests are really thinking when they do this sudden switch to "pre-V2-speak", but it certainly gives the impression of such an appallingly cynical way of thinking.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

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Can I speak to the manager?

I can't remember when and how my opinion of the Iraq war changed, but it wasn't helped when I dug up a statistic that should not exist. I was reminded of it by a blogger who noted the first Canadian woman to die in Afghanistan.

Occasionally I hear about people who take to reading the news regularly (a horrible habit) and become obsessed with the endless suffering that pervades the world. But the world has been this way for a long time. What overwhelms me is the sheer lunacy of the witch's brew we've stewed for ourselves, a lunacy that consists not so much of extravagant wildness, as quiet disconnection from reality. When I consider the idea of women in combat, or men marrying men, or Catholics singing Marty Haugen music, or the existence of Wal-Mart, I just shake my head in wonder.

But when the mere shock is over, the question that follows in my mind is: "who's giving the orders here?" To go through it one by one: who decided that women should don uniforms and die in battle, who decided that marriage was not what we all used to think it was, who decided that the Children of God should sing the spiritually-degrading outpourings of liberal Protestants, who decided that all general stores should be owned by the same plutocrats and pervaded with the same psychotic mentality? Whose idea was all that?

So far as I can tell, the conspiracy theorist is unique to our age. What I mean is this: paranoia is not new, conspiracy theories are not new, but conspiracy theory as a hobby is not something for which I can find a parallel. The curious fellow full of facts about the assassination of JFK or the activities of 33rd degree Masons simply does not call to mind any antique predecessor; his particular strain of thought has its origins in John Robison and Fr. Augustin Barruel, who published their pertinent works around 1800, and the attitude is reminiscent of a Baconian (or any anti-Stratfordian), but I can't see anything further back. Since the possibilities for collecting relevant information were vastly more limited in olden times, I suspect that conspiracy theory as a serious hobby has not even been possible for very long.

But I also think that the impetus has not always been present. The old conspiracy theories that I can call to mind, are all rather straightforward in character. In the old Roman empire it was apparently a standard proceeding to accuse an enemy of eating babies, practicing black magic and so forth (the Arians charged St. Athanasius with these things, for instance). In the Medieval period I gather there was much fear that prominent personages were secretly atheists or Muslims (I do not even say these suspicions were without foundation), and of course there was the witch craze later. The common thread to all these theories, is that certain well-known things are not what they seem. The reputable-seeming bishop has really just got back from a dinner of roasted children, the king or the scholar who professed his faith in a cathedral had in fact no faith at all (I must re-iterate the frequent plausibility of this particular theory), the harmless-seeming old lady has really been putting the hex on fellow-villagers, inflicting mysterious diseases upon them, etc.

Whereas the problem today is, we cannot even say how things seem. Once we realize that fundamental truth that the newspapers are a pack of lies, we find ourselves unsure even as to appearances, much less realities. The thing about modern conspiracy theories is that instead of suspecting malfeasance of certain public agents, they suspect public agency of certain malfeasants - that is, the question is not so much about secret evils, as secret power. And the thing that follows from this, is that conspiracy theories are thereby firmly grounded in reality.
They may be wrong about this or that point, they may generally be the product of overheated imaginations, but when we are constantly deluged with artificial phenomena that are as inexplicable as the weather, it is merely common sense to suppose unknown agencies - to feel the force of unseen hands. Why is our art so ugly? Why do we have so many ugly buildings? It may not be a Masonic plot, but it could well be a plot of architects; what it cannot be, is happenstance.

Or suppose you hear a man speaking; you recognize his opinion. It is the repackaged nonsense of a newspaper editorial you have read yourself. But in turn, you recognize the intellectual parentage of that editorial; this particular 20th century writer comes to mind, and in turn his predecessors in the 18th and 19th centuries are manifest. Because you happen to know something about the subject in question, you know more about the origin of a man's thought than he himself - only four things are necessary: an organ of public opinion, a man who accepts its authority, a certain trivial knowledge on your part, and a rudimentary ability to notice patterns and affinities of idea. There is nothing of a conspiracy in this, but this sort of thing is the very pattern of modern life: a few central figures - puppet-masters if you wish to be theatrical about it - and millions of people whom they somehow influence, without those millions ever suspecting their existence. The reason that modern conspiracy theories have a "centralizing" tendency - that is, a habit of supposing these obscure, octopus-like organizations with a tentacle in ten thousand pies - is that modern society itself exhibits this centralizing tendency. That tendency may not be evil in itself; that is not the point. The point is that we are unsure, to a degree without historical precedent, who is actually running things. It is not even easy to answer, what it means to "run things." Is it the men who make our laws? Well, just what are the laws, now that you mention it? I had a student job in the law library once, and I can tell you the United States Code is a huge nasty mess - and that's all I can tell you about it. The leaders of big business? And just what are the big businesses, never mind who is leading them where? Is it the government educators - well if it comes to that, just what are they teaching the young folk anyway? Even a lot of parents are a bit unclear on this score.

Indeed, my problem with a lot of conspiracy theories is not their radicalism, but their lack of it; for instance, it seems rather pedestrian to be terribly worked up over who shot JFK. To take for granted that the assassination of a mere president is an important historical event, is a greater manifestation of gullibility than any mere trust in the Warren Report (or whatever Report it was, concluding that Oswald acted alone). We have to know what it means to rule such a society as ours, before we can talk about its rulers.
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Squirming theology

"There are fashionable objections that would try to talk us out of this silence at the Consecration. The showing of the Gifts, it is said, is a medieval error, which disturbs the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer, the expression of a false and too grossly materialistic piety. The argument is that the elevation is out of keeping with the essential direction of the Eucharist. At this moment, so it is claimed, we should not be worshipping Christ - the whole Canon addresses the Father, to whom we pray through Christ. We do not need to go into these criticisms in detail[...]It is correct to say that the Canon has a trinitarian structure and consequently as a totality moves "thorugh Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father". But the liturgy in this respect knows nothing of rigidity and fixation." (from The Spirit of the Liturgy by Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger)

What I find more exasperating than flatly dissenting theologians, are those who
raise all such nitpicky objections. I confess that the Orthodox often drive me to distraction in this way, when they inform us of all our subtle mistakes in emphasis - but at least when the Orthodox say such things, they are avowedly not Catholic and are attacking Catholicism. When Catholic theologians make these ever-so-subtle criticisms of medieval piety and so forth, it is different - especially as their nitpickings always seem to favor impiety and skepticism, or else a Protestantized piety (which often amounts to the same thing). Never do they nitpick the old Mass for being insufficiently Catholic; never do their objections have, say, a Thomistic feel to them. After a while it starts to seem like more than a coincidence that their criticisms all cut in one direction.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

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Ah, work

One of those things of which one may say, "can't live with it, can't live without it" - alas, I am once more "experimenting" with the second half of that antithesis; in other words, my temp job is over. Search for actual job still continues.

But life has its pleasantries. Consider these things from What's Wrong With The World by G.K. Chesterton:

"Eighteenth century tyranny meant that you could say "The K__of Br__rd is a profligate." Twentieth century liberty really means that you are allowed to say "The King of Brentford is a model family man.""

"Some impatient trader, some superficial missionary, walks across an island and sees the squaw digging in the fields while the man is playing a flute; and immediately says that the man is a mere lord of creation and the woman a mere serf[...]It may often be in Hawaii simply as it is in Hoxton. That is, the woman does not work because the man tells her to work and she obeys. On the contrary, the woman works because she has told the man to work and he hasn't obeyed."

"We told our wives that Parliament had sat late on most essential business; but it never crossed our minds that our wives would believe it."

"Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments; and all nations have been ashamed of them."

I may remark in passing that when people say that government rests on force they give an admirable instance of the foggy and muddled cynicism of modernity. Government does not rest on force. Government is force; it rests on consent or a conception of justice."

He had style, that one did.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

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The Unstable System?

Hilaire Belloc's book "The Servile State" turns upon the idea that capitalism is an unstable system, and that capitalist states will resolve (in all probability) into what he calls the Servile State - that is, a state in which the masses are enslaved. Now he was particular in saying that "slavery" cannot be stretched to mean anything but this: the bondage of one person to labour for another. And it is clear, then, that his prediction has not been borne out by events. I phrase it thus advisedly, for I cannot say that events will not bear them out - yet the continued survival of capitalism, suggests we should at least ask ourselves: "is capitalism in fact stable? Was Belloc simply wrong to think otherwise? What made him think that it was unsustainable?"

Well, as far as enslavement is concerned, in comparison to our current system, who would benefit from the transition, and how? Of course it is the wealthy who should benefit, but what would be the character of such benefits? I believe they would consist of the following:

1. Saving money. If corporations could in fact own people instead of employing them, it would not be necessary to spend as much money on them.

2. Improving productivity. Employees may quit, and they cannot be threatened with anything more severe than dismissal. If they could neither quit, nor obtain legal recourse - as a rule - for punishment inflicted by their superiors (two necessary features of slavery), then they would work harder.

But the problem here is that we cannot simply have such a simple transition from a current, capitalist model to something like the old Roman. The reason for this is that the capitalist is selling something. That is, a corporation makes a product, which people buy. They need a spending populace. First this means that the populace must be encouraged to live beyond its means, but secondly this means that they must have some means to live beyond. In the old days, a slave would usually have performed work that directly benefited his master (cultivating his fields and pastures, in the main); today, a worker performs work that benefits his master indirectly, by facilitating (in whatever way) the sale of some product or products. To reduce him to bare subsistence (if he is not there already), is ultimately counter-productive, for if everyone is like this, then what does one sell to whom? You may say that companies would not be so far-sighted, and would wreck the economic structure that sustains them just to save a buck...perhaps, but in that case, would they be so far-sighted as to think of enslaving the bulk of the populace? Grant them imagination enough for one, and it is hard not to grant them enough for the other.

Furthermore, when we realize that a widespread habit of extravagant purchase, is the very pillar of modern capitalism, then we realize that they benefit not only from a degree of mere material prosperity on our part, but also from a certain frame of mind. More specifically, they want us to be more or less content. Not content with our possessions, or ourselves, but rather with the structure of society. Perhaps "distracted" is a better word than content, but in any case enslaving the populace, could well lead to a loss of enthusiasm in that quarter, for all the stuff that they ought to be buying. The threat is not so much active resistance from the populace, as that slavery can have a sobering effect on its subjects (which would be disaster). Can people be reduced to a state of slavery, without affecting their concern for useless frivolities? And it is more important that we keep on buying such things, than that we perform the greatest possible amount of work for the least possible amount of money.

I am not sure that Belloc sufficiently appreciated the difference between the old rich and the new rich, created by the mercantile character of our modern ruling class. He was aware of it no doubt, but I believe that in this way (that is, the necessity of producing consumers) the natural character of a mercantile plutocracy differs from that of, say, an agrarian plutocracy. It may be that the hypocrisies of modern capitalism, the lip-service it pays to freedom (and the real freedoms that we possess) are not a transitory feature, but is simply the flattering, "customer-is-always-right" ethos of the merchant, writ large.

In other respects - his rejection of collectivism or communism, and his advocacy of Property, or distributivism, or whatever you wish to call it - I concur with his thinking, but it may be that in the very thesis of the book he erred.

Of course, it may be that a mercantile plutocracy is not itself stable, but I cannot see why its instability would resolve into the Servile State by any natural and obvious way - for what, exactly, will the merchant become? What will his slaves do for him? It seems to me that if capitalism is unstable, the capitalist will not benefit from its collapse. Yet the various reasons put forth for its instability, do not seem to have ruined it yet. Perhaps it is really unsustainable because of what Chesterton described, as the transition from "the Good" to "the goods". That is, when commerce becomes not a part of society, but its very rule - when things are made to be sold, not to be used - the result is absurdity and chaos, which only multiplies with time. There, perhaps, he eclipsed the insight of his friend - he was a truly deep thinker, and those who find him a mere peddler of paradox are but placing their own superficiality on display.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

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Incidentally: while I have almost no opinion about the SSPX (maybe I'm not cut out for blogging, since I don't feel compelled to have opinions about things that I don't know much about), but it's interesting to see bloggers who unhesitatingly refer to them as "schismatics", suddenly saying "well, it's complicated" when a Chinese bishop is illicitly consecrated. So you mean, an illicit consecration doesn't automatically throw everyone who attends a Mass said by the consecrating or consecrated bishop or anyone subject to these bishops into a state of schism? I admit that the cases are different - but I have to wonder just how much of the attitude towards Abp. Lefebvre's society is due to an "ick" factor: traditionalists are weird creepy crabby people; if they're obedient then we'll just have to put up with them, but one false move puts them beyond the pale.

No, I don't really have a coherent argument here; like I said, I know very little about this. I just find it hard to believe that these people are using the same thought processes to evaluate "illicit Chinese consecrations" and "illicit SSPX consecrations"; it looks remarkably like what they call a double standard.
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Busy, busy, busy

The temp job has gone on longer than I expected, which is good, but doesn't leave me with so much free time/energy.

Anyhow, one of the standard things you hear about the Tridentine Rite nowadays, is that it has all these "accretions" that the Novus Ordo simply removed. Which is funny, because when I actually go to the local (somewhat-local) TLM, it's not quite obvious to me just what these are. Looking through the Missal doesn't help me a lot, I'm afraid. Is it the repetitions of "dominus vociscum," "et cum spiritu tuo"? Well you know, even if you have some odd objection to that, it hardly seems worth going to so much effort just to get rid of it.

But I should really say, that I was confused at first. Then I learned what an "accretion" is. Some combox poster was running down the Tridentine Mass and referred to the Last Gospel as an "accretion" - at this point, it all fell into place. Reading the great hymn to the Word at the end of every Mass is what they mean by "an accretion". Likewise everything else in the old Mass, however beautiful and appropriate it may seem to us plebes, is known to expert liturgists as "an accretion" if it resembles something else in the old Mass. If you have a Psalm or part of a Psalm in one part of the Mass, and a Psalm or part of a Psalm later in the Mass, then that's an accretion. If you end a prayer with, "per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen" and then end another prayer in the same manner, that's an accretion. If the priest makes the sign of the cross here and also there, that's an accretion.

I think I get it now. Well, good thing they changed all that. A shame the way some people don't want to get with the program.