Time Is Short, Eternity Is Long

Some thoughts on current affairs, the coming months, and the Council.

September rolls in and summer begins to pack up until next year. I’ve not written an editoral for a while and there are a number of scattered items on the proverbial table that I’ve been wanting to comment on. Here is my attempt to combine the two into a semi-coherent editorial post. If I fail, just remember: I didn’t build this.

• “Today the Church is witnessing a crisis under way within society.” So wrote Blessed John XXIII in his apostolic constitution “Humanae Salutis” (December 25, 1961), announcing the convocation of an unexpected ecumenical Council. John XXIII is sometimes presented a simple, even naive, man, or as a closet progressive, or as a pontiff who was simply winging it under the influence of the Holy Spirit (or, as some on the far reaches might insist, under the influence of the Spirit of the Age). None of those impressions or depictions are accurate.

John XXIII was a man of tremendous faith whose love for Christ and His Church are obvious in his words and actions. His affiable disposition reflected that faith, but he was not naive about the state of the world. After all, he had spent almost all of his adult life as a diplomat in predominately non-Catholic countries, often dealing with the most delicate and tense situations, such as helping save the lives of countless Jews and others during the 1930s and ’40s as an apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, not to mention being Apostolic Nuncio to France during the final months of World War II. He had witnessed the darkest moments of Europe in the mid-20th century, and he was willing to  squarely face the potential dangers of the latter half of the century:

While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel, a world which exalts itself with its conquests in the technical and scientific fields, but which brings also the consequences of a temporal order which some have wished to reorganise excluding God. This is why modern society is earmarked by a great progress to which there is not a corresponding advance in the moral field.

October 11th of this year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Much will be written and said about the Council: good, bad, insightful, confusing, brilliant, stupid, and otherwise. There will be countless pieces about the “conservatives” and the “liberals”, about how the Council ruined the Church, about why the Council unleashed a “Spirit” that subsequent pontiffs have destroyed, and so forth. My modest suggestion—hardly an original or outrageous one—is to read the documents of the Council, especially the four Dogmatic and Pastoral Constitutions. And be sure to read “Humanae Salutis”, as it sets the table for the feast that are the major documents of the Council—a feast that far too many Catholics either ignore, snitch from for their own dubious agendas, or dismiss because they wrongly attribute the often ugly post-conciliar upheaval to the teachings of the Council. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Council gave some advice that is just as applicable today as it was in 1985:

I believe . . . that the true time of Vatican II has not yet come, that its authentic reception has not yet begun: its documents were quickly buried under a pile of superficial or frankly inexact publications. The reading of the letter of the documents will enable us to discover their true spirit. If thus rediscovered in their truth, those great texts will make it possible for us to understand just what happened and to react with a new vigor. I repeat: the Catholic who clearly and, consequently, painfully perceives the damage that has been wrought in his Church by the misinterpretations of Vatican II must find the possibility of revival in Vatican II itself. The Council is his, it does not belong to those who want to continue along a road whose results have been catastrophic.” (The Ratzinger Report, p. 40).

• A bit more from Blessed John XXIII: “The forthcoming Council will meet therefore and at a moment in which the Council finds very alive the desire to fortify its faith, and to contemplate itself in its own awe-inspiring unity. In the same way, it feels more urgent the duty to give greater efficacy to its sound vitality and to promote the sanctification of its members, the diffusion of revealed truth, the consolidation of its agencies.” Note the key words: faith, unity, vitality, sanctification, revealed truth. They each are key themes of the Council.

• The perspective of fifty years removed is a valuable one. The perspective of a few years removed is a fascinating one. For example, Frank Sheed, writing in 1968, stated: “Pope John opened the window to let in fresh air. He let in a hurricane. The interested Catholic finds himself at times not only hanging on to his hat, but hanging on to his head. Provided he keeps his head, the experience can be salutary. The storm will clear, and the voice of the Church will be heard once more. But a lot is going to happen in between.” (Is It The Same Church?, 1968). A lot has happened. Much of it has been bad, sometimes almost unbearably bad. Yet, increasingly, much of it is good and in keeping with what the Council actually said. Some of the proof is found in the shrill but fading screams of the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd. Some is found in how those who have kept their head are also keeping the faith. More on that in the months to come.

• Over the next few months, Catholic World Report will be publishing a number of pieces about the Council, its documents, its impact, and what has transpired over the past five decades. Authors contributing include Tracey Rowland, James and Helen Hitchcock, Michael Miller, Omar Gutierrez, Fr. James Schall, and others. Stay tuned!

• Okay, just one more great quote about Vatican II, which I re-read last night in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s 1967 book, Trojan Horse in the City of God, the very first book I ever read about the Council (having, as a Protestant, already read several of the conciliar documents):

When one reads the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ [Lumen Gentium] of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council. But when one turns to so many contemporary writings—some of them by very famous theologians, some by minor ones, some by laymen who offer us their dilittante theological concoctions—one can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease. On the one side, we find the true spirit of Christ, the authentic voice of the Church; we find texts that in both form and content breathe a glorious supernatural atmosphere. On the other side, we find a depressing secularization, a complete loss of the sensus supranaturalis, a morass of confusion. (p. 3)

• Speaking of that depressing secularization, see this recent article about a, um, fledgling “church” headed by a former—laicized?—priest:

Our first reading Saturday comes from the Book of Kings, with an angel nudging an exhausted and distraught Elijah, telling him to get up and leave.

The Rev. Tom Sanford and his congregation have done just that. Sanford left the Catholic priesthood more than a quarter-century ago. But now he’s back behind the altar. He’s pastor of a new spiritual community, born out of his frustration with what he believes is the philosophical backsliding of the Catholic church.

Sanford started Blessed John XXIII Ecumenical Church around Easter, and he’s starting small. When he walks down the aisle to “We Gather Together,” three worshippers stand and sing along.

Yet Sanford and his flock say there’s a larger point beyond their small numbers: They have left the Catholic church to become better Catholics.

Right. Just like leaving your wife makes you a better husband, or leaving your children makes you a better father. Here are the key sentences in the overly sympathetic piece: “Sanford says he couldn’t stay. He believes church traditionalists are trying to undermine 50 years of church reforms set in motion by the worldwide councils known as Vatican I and Vatican II.” I’ll bet Sanford has never really read the documents of the Council. And don’t get me started on that fatuous misuse of the reading from 1 Kings 19, especially since the essential point of that passage is the prophet’s obedience to God’s call in the face of difficulty and danger. A better passage of Scripture would have been Matthew 13:21.

It’s worth noting that while Sanford’s group started strong with thirteen attendees, it is now down to three—and his own wife doesn’t attend (she goes to the local Catholic parish). It is a most fitting image of a progressive, secularized approach to the Catholic Church: renounce the Church’s authority, make clueless claims based on one’s subjective whims, and then wonder why the only people who listen are clueless newspaper reporters.

• Speaking of clueless and newspapers, I see that Maureen Dowd has been on another rampage, this time targeting Paul Ryan. As usual, her philosophical nuance, analytical brilliance, and grammatical elasticity abound and astound:

Paul Ryan, who teamed up with Akin in the House to sponsor harsh anti-abortion bills, may look young and hip and new generation, with his iPod full of heavy metal jams and his cute kids. But he’s just a fresh face on a Taliban creed — the evermore antediluvian, anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-gay conservative core. Amiable in khakis and polo shirts, Ryan is the perfect modern leader to rally medieval Republicans who believe that Adam and Eve cavorted with dinosaurs. (“Just Think No”)

It was truly thrilling to watch the blindingly white older male delegates greet their young, blue-eyed future: Paul Ryan, the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman who turns out to be more talented than anyone had anticipated — a prodigy of prestidigitation.

In his speech Wednesday night, the altar boy altered reality, conjuring up a world so compassionate, so full of love-thy-neighbor kindness and small-town goodness, that you had to pinch yourself to remember it was a shimmering mirage, a beckoning pool of big, juicy lies. (The fitness freak may have also fibbed about running a sub-three-hour marathon in 1991; Runner’s World reports that his time was 4 hours and 1 minute.)

As the writer Dermot McEvoy notes, Ryan has “the so sincere, so phony air of a gloomy Irish undertaker standing outside the funeral parlor where you’ve come to plant your mother, shaking his head consolingly and giving you that firm two-handed Irish handshake.” Except with Ryan, it’s the safety net in the coffin. (“Cruel Conservatives Throw a Masquerade Ball”)

No need to spend much time on this as everything I’ve written about Dowd in the past is still good to go. Still, it’s fun to occasionally see what the inmates are up to at the Grey Lady.

• Sure, Dowd is an opinion spewe—er, columnist, and she has every right to express her opinions, even if she leaves a trail of hot, toxic spittle in cyberspace. But she’s not wandering far from the editorial position of the New York Times: “A long history of social extremism makes Paul Ryan an emblem of the Republican tack to the far right.” As I pointed out in this long post, Ryan’s economic policies would have placed him squarely in the moderate Democrat camp in the early 1960s. The same holds true for his “extreme” positions on abortion. After all, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Edward Kennedy were all anti-abortion Democrats; the latter finally gave in completely to the culture of death in the 1970s. Anyhow, the Times is quite worked up over Ryan, whose position on abortion and “same sex marriage” is in keeping with about half of Americans, if not more:

The full outpouring of hard-right enthusiasm is based, to a large degree, on Mr. Ryan’s sweeping opposition to abortion rights. He has long wanted to ban access to abortion even in the case of rape, the ideology espoused in this year’s Republican platform. … He also co-sponsored a bill last year to allow employers to decline coverage of birth control if it violated their moral or religious convictions, and his budget would end all government financing for Planned Parenthood while slashing spending on prenatal care and infant nutrition. Mr. Ryan’s record on gay rights is no less egregious. He supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and voted against the repeal of the military’s discriminatory don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy.

Egregious, you say? And yet JFK continues to be The Great Hero, even though the only glaring difference between he and Ryan is that the latter is not known to be a drug-addicted philanderer. In related news, Arthur Brisbane, the departing public editor of The Times, recently wrote a farewell piece, “Success and Risk as The Times Transforms”, in which he uttered this Understatement of the Year:

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

Uh, yes, a “kind of political and cultural progressivism”. But not a “kind political and cultural progressivism”. And when it comes to Dowd, it doesn’t bleed—it splatters.

• I didn’t watch much of the Republican Convention, but did catch part of Ryan’s speech. I’m not good with numbers, but I was troubled by these comments, which seemed to play fast and loose with some chronological data:

We’re a full generation apart, Governor Romney and I.  And, in some ways, we’re a little different.  There are the songs on his iPod, which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators. He actually urged me to play some of these songs at campaign rallies.  I said, I hope it’s not a deal-breaker Mitt, but my playlist starts with AC/DC, and ends with Zeppelin.

Ryan and I are of the same generation, as he is 42 and I am 43. Yes, AC/DC was popular when I was in junior high and high school, but the band formed in 1973, when Ryan was three years old, and its members are closer to Romney in age than to Ryan: Romney was born in 1947, and Malcolm and Angus Young were born, respectively, in 1953 and 1955. Led Zeppelin was formed in 1968, two years before Ryan was born, and disbanded in 1980, when he was ten. Guitarist Jimmy Page, born in 1944, is three years older than Romney, and singer Robert Plant, born in 1948, is just a year younger than Romney. Again, I’m not great with numbers, but these sort of egregious errors are disconcerting (yes, I’m being mildly sarcastic). By the why, I’m fully aware of intended humor of Ryan’s remark (I laughed), but are AC/DC and Led Zeppelin the best bands to cite when presenting yourself as a pro-family, pro-virtue, pro-faith, pro-marriage, and pro-woman candidate? Hmmm.

• For the record, my iTunes playlist of 52,235 songs begins with A. J. Croce (son of Jim Croce) and ends with Zoe Rahman, a very talented jazz pianist. If rock music is the preferred guideline, my playlist begins with Abandon Kansas and ends with Yogi, occasional guitarist for Chris Cornell. For prog fans, it begins with Asia and ends with Yes. For classical lovers, it begins with Alan Hovhaness and ends with Yo-Yo Ma.

• Back to Catholic World Report: this month marks the debut of a regular column by noted journalist, commentator, and author Michael Coren. I am very pleased that Michael has agreed to write for CWR and look forward to his contributions.

• A regular reader (you know who you are, Charlie) sent me this New Humanist article about British atheist and author A.J. Grayling:

“I believe that a mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax. Students should go to university for nothing because it’s an investment that society’s making in itself.” The words belong to Professor Anthony Grayling, Master of New College of the Humanities (NCH). This unashamedly elite private university – student fees £18,000 a year – is housed in an 18th-century mansion in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, where its first students will be unpacking their suitcases and sticking up their Radiohead posters right about now.

So why has someone as committed to public education as he claims to be launched a private university charging more than double the fees of London’s other universities? And how on earth has Grayling, a self-described “man of the left”, a prominent humanist and a distinguished educator, managed to alienate so many of his former allies and colleagues?

First, the noted tension between celebrity atheists is apparently becoming something a crisis, as this September 2nd piece in The Guardian explains:

It took 700 years from Constantine renaming Byzantium in his own honour to papal legates circulating letters of anathema that split the Roman and Orthodox churches. Atheism, in its public, online life, has started exchanging internet anathemas – perhaps we should call them inathemas – in little more than a decade.

Surprising! Well, no, not really. Back to Grayling: he is fairly insufferable, although he was kind enough to have his publisher send me one of his books a few years ago. That’s because we had a little exchange over a question of history: was Christianity responsible for the near ruin of enlightened civilization or was it actually the catalyst for modern scientific and technological advances? You can read all about it in detail on Ignatius Insight. As for Grayling’s educational enterprise, I do hope he hires some decent history professors. And, honestly, kudos to the atheist philosopher for starting up a university. Universities were a great idea when they were originally founded by Catholics some 800 years ago and remain so today.

• As you may have heard, the annual meeting of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis (a seminar/gathering of former students of Benedict XVI) focused on ecumenism, especially on relations with Lutherans and Anglicans. A few years ago I put together a short reading list of Ratzinger works on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. I would now add the collection, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics (Ignatius Press, 2008), which features some essential essays and interviews.

• Back in 2006 or so, an acquaintance who had once been a promising Evanglical Scripture scholar before becoming an atheist philosopher, told me he wished Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini had been chosen as pope instead of Joseph Ratzinger. Needless to say, we disagreed on that point, especially since I thought the Holy Spirit had made a solid pick. He lauded Martini’s positions on the usual talking points, some of which are getting attention after the Cardinal’s death this past Friday. The Guardian, among others, ran with it:

The former archbishop of Milan and papal candidate Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said the Catholic church was “200 years out of date” in his final interview before his death.

Martini, once favoured by Vatican progressives to succeed Pope John Paul II and a prominent voice in the church until his death on Friday at the age of 85, gave a scathing account of a pompous and bureaucratic organisation failing to move with the times.

“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous,” Martini said in the interview published in Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

“The church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation,” he said in the interview, published on Saturday.

The Belfast Telegraph, not to be outdone, got a bit carried away with its headline: “Vatican is rocked by Cardinal Martini’s damning words from beyond the grave.” Rocked. Yeah. Yawn. Let’s see: the Church has been around for 2,000 years and survived everything imaginable, and now is “rocked” by the statements of a trendy Italian Cardinal. Thankfully for all concerned, the Catholic faith does not rest upon such dubious pronouncements, even when they splash all over the front page of secular newspapers. (No, really, that’s a fact. Stop shaking your head.)

Plenty could be said, and Marcel LeJeune of Aggie Catholics does a nice job of responding in detail. Anyhow, when I first read the story, my thought was, “Why 200 years? Why not 328? Or 1,599?” Besides, if the Cardinal’s concern was with “gay marriage” and other modern issues (see a full list here), how does that coincide with the year 1812? Sure, sure, it was a rhetorical point on his part. Hopefully, by God’s grace, Cardinal Martini and St. Peter will be able to have a fruitful dialogue about all of these issues. May God grant him eternal and blessed repose.

• Do you have style? Do I? I don’t know the answer to either question. But when it comes to stylish writing, a book worth acquiring is the recently republished classic, Style: The Art of Writing Well, by F. L. Lucas, ably reviewed by Matthew Walther for the New English Review.

• When it comes to bad, even immoral, literature, Fifty Shades of Grey is the current leader of the shady pack. Teresa Tomeo took it on in her CWR essay, “Grey Is the Devil’s Favorite Color”. The Evangelical publication, World, is equally appalled:

Though soft-core, the subject matter is hard, indicating that basic intercourse (dismissed by connoisseurs as “vanilla sex”) isn’t pushing buttons anymore. It also indicates something that shouldn’t be a surprise: Women express their sexual nature differently than men. A man’s inclination toward the visual is well-known, but women live inside their own heads. A man objectifies both himself and the object of his lust, but a woman recreates herself at the center of an erotic universe.

That’s why fanfiction is almost entirely a female preserve: There women can deck their fantasies in words, cheered on by other women. There the hunky, domineering man with the mocking eyebrow (who plays piano like a virtuoso) is ultimately undone by the virginal girl with unruly hair. And there we betray our brokenness. We want to rule, but play at being ruled. We put our heroines (and ourselves?) in slavish postures that are supposed to be somehow liberating. We live in the freest society in history but daydream about being tied up and physically hurt. We resort to role-playing where we should be most honestly ourselves.

Women, even Christian women, report that these books have sparked up their marriages. Sparks are notoriously short-lived, and what they leave is ash.

Great line, that final one.

• On more quote about Paul Ryan, if only because the adulation and hatred surrounding him is both intriguing and unsettling:

On domestic policy, the impact of Rand’s ideas on Ryan’s outlook is marked, though uneven and sometimes overstated. Religion, in particular, has driven a wedge between Ryan, who would enact Catholic dogma into law, and Rand, an atheist, who championed the separation of church and state. … Domestically, this outlook entails a truly free market with absolute legal protection of private property, and without regulations, bailouts, corporate handouts or entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. (Ryan breaks with Rand by attempting to save, rather than end, these programs.) In Rand’s political philosophy, however, there is no gulf between economic rights and personal and intellectual ones: for instance, she wrote passionately of the crucial importance (contra Ryan) of the right to abortion, and regarded freedom of speech as sacrosanct.

Of course, you’d expect such a defense of Ryan from a staunchly Catholic writer, wouldn’t you? Except that was written by Elan Journo, a fellow and director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute. I’m guessing he knows more about Rand than most of Ryan’s harshest critics. Just a guess.

• Music lovers, rejoice! Van Morrison has a new album coming out soon, and the first single, “Open the Door (To Your Heart)”, is an enjoyable cut, a jaunty jazzy tune with a really nice, slurring trumpet solo. The great Dwight Yoakam (I don’t say that about many country artists) has a new release due in a couple of weeks, “3 Pears”, which includes some songs produced by Beck. Muse’s new album, “The 2nd Law”, releases in October; it’s title is an apparent reference to the second law of thermo­dynamics.

• The photo at the top was taken during a just-completed camping trip near Sweet Home, Oregon. This is a tremendously resplendent state; each year I see vistas and scenery and glories I’d not encountered before. Now, if only we can survive the culture of death that dominates the Northwest.

• Finally, one of my favorite quotes from Vatican II:

The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature”.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.