A tyrant in fear of eternity

A scene from Notre Dame’s campus, coupled with a thought from Søren Kierkegaard on why we avoid eternity and fear its implications:

“Eternity is a very radical thought, and thus a matter of inwardness. Whenever the reality of the eternal is affirmed, the present becomes something entirely different from what it was apart from it. This is precisely why human beings fear it (under the guise of fearing death). You often hear about particular governments that fear the restless elements of society. I prefer to say that the entire age is a tyrant that lives in fear of the one restless element: the thought of eternity. It does not dare to think it. Why? Because it crumbles under – and avoids like anything – the weight of inwardness.”

To Vita Institute

I’m in Charlotte right now on a layover, headed to Notre Dame for the next week or so. Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics & Culture is hosting its Vita Institute, which I’ll be a participant in this year. I attended Vita Institute’s New York one day seminar earlier this year, and that made participation in the full program attractive:

The Notre Dame Vita Institute is an intensive interdisciplinary training program for leaders in the national and international pro-life movement. Through engagement with our premier faculty, interaction with other pro-life leaders, and exposure to award-winning community outreach programs, the Vita Institute aims to further enhance participants’ expertise and prepare them to be even more effective advocates on behalf of the unborn.

Held for a week every summer on Notre Dame’s beautiful campus, this program is wholly unique: it provides participants with the opportunity to study the fundamentals of life issues with world-renowned scholars across a wide range of disciplines, including social science, biology, philosophy, theology, law, communication, and counseling. Lecture topics include:

  • The Personhood Debate in Contemporary Philosophy
  • Abortion Jurisprudence
  • Basic Human Embryology
  • Dos and Don’ts of Public Policy on Human Life
  • Helping the Abortion-Minded Woman Choose Life
  • Legislative Strategies for the Current Decade and Beyond

It’s often pointed out that the “right to life” is the right that makes every subsequent right possible. As a culture, we should be doing everything we can to support mothers and fathers facing unexpected pregnancies as much as we provide meaningful care for the aging, elderly, and disabled, and everyone in between through better community life and better social and political responses to crisis.

The promotion of suicide as a good and legitimate response to old age’s feelings of loneliness or doubt about the meaning of life as one’s abilities fade is particularly tragic to me. We celebrated Dr. David Goodall’s recent suicide and mourned and lamented Anthony Bourdain’s within the span of four weeks, all the while ignoring the essential questions of meaning, purpose, and appropriate responses to psychological distress that certainly impacted both decisions.

As long as we perpetuate violence against human life in the name of “autonomy” or “self-actualization” or “health and wellbeing,” we’re falling short of our ideals as a people—and worse, we’re lying to ourselves about the nature of what we tolerate in the pursuit of those ideals.

These are some of the reasons I’m eager to spend the next week participating in this year’s Vita Institute. I might share some of that experience, and will at least share some scenes from Notre Dame and South Bend along the way.

Flag Day history

It’s Flag Day, the official commemoration of the Second Continental Congress’s 1777 resolution to adopt a U.S. flag: “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That resulted in the replacement of the “Grand Union Flag” with the “Hopkinson Flag.” Some of Flag Day’s history:

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; in August 1946, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. Flag Day is not an official federal holiday. … On June 14, 1937, Pennsylvania became the first U.S. state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday, beginning in the town of Rennerdale.

To Victor Morris of Hartford, Conn., is popularly given the credit of suggesting “Flag Day,” the occasion being in honor of the adoption of the American flag on June 14, 1777. The city of Hartford observed the day in 1861, carrying out a program of a patriotic order, praying for the success of the Federal arms and the preservation of the Union.

There were so many great flags and emblems during the Revolutionary Era. A few of my favorite: the Moultrie “Liberty” flag, the “Pine Tree” flag, the “Betsy Ross” flag, the “Join or Die” emblem sometimes used as a flag, the “Gadsden” flag, the “Bennington” flag, and for its simplicity Washington’s headquarters flag—whose distinctive stars adorn the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City, Philadelphia.

I think this 1885 high school textbook illustration is remarkable for showing how states memorialized and passed along national history in the light of their own history in developing national identity and unity:


Illustration from an old High School textbook, titled “History of the US”. Shows the “Appeal to Heaven” pine tree flag and Gadsden flag at the top, the “Grand Union” flag and a 45-star version of the United States flag (used 1896-1908) in the center, and two versions of the New England flag … at the bottom.

And here’s a photo for Flag Day from a few weeks ago during a layover in Chicago:


Scruton and Solzhenitsyn

Gerald J. Russello reviews Roger Scruton’s “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition”:

Conservatism is not the unbounded “I” of the progressives (and some libertarians), but neither is it the undifferentiated mass of the socialist state. Rather, Scruton posits that the essence of conservatism is the I–thou, the “second person” perspective “in which the ‘we’ of social membership is balanced at every point against the ‘I’ of individual ambition.” This tension therefore allows for communication between people of differing views to whom we owe an obligation, which allows for society and political organizations. In contrast, to posit an endless array of fully autonomous individuals — as, for example, Rousseau did — is to render civil society impossible. …

Conservatism is older than the 1789 revolution, and built into the human condition. “Modern conservatism is a product of the Enlightenment. But it calls upon aspects of the human condition that can be witnessed in every civilization and at every period of history.” The most important is what can be called the physicality of conservative belief in the person. The person is not self-created and limitlessly changeable, subject only to the individual will. A conservative believes in contingency; individuals do have choice, but our identities are shaped by loyalties and communities not of our own choosing. Society must balance “the need for custom and community” with “the freedom of the individual.” Scruton sees that “extreme individualism” is a myth; it ignores “the indispensable part played by social membership in the exercise of free choice.”

This social membership is in part what we call tradition, which, echoing Oakeshott, Scruton defines as a kind of knowledge. Tradition helps us to know how to act in accord with our human needs and relational obligations. Political bonds among liberal individuals are weak, because there are no other bonds. For Scruton, this is a category mistake in understanding how political societies come into being and how they remain stable, even under great pressure. For the basic bond is pre-political. That is, legitimacy precedes consent, not the other way around. We recognize a political authority as ours, made by a particular people at a particular place for goals we share. This is why people continue to live peaceably in a society even when the vote might go against their wishes. …

So when conservatives say they defend “freedom,” it is not some abstraction: “What they mean is this kind of freedom, the freedom enshrined in our legal and political inheritance, and in the free associations through which our societies renew their legacy of trust. So understood, freedom is the outcome of multiple agreements over time, under an overarching rule of law.” How this happens, how a society maintains the balance between freedom and order, is conditioned by history, religion, custom, and tradition.

This “thicker” conception of culture requires thinking about society as more than just an Enlightenment-style consent-based system. Instead, maybe it’s useful to think of culture in evolutionary terms, in the same way we do with psychology. That is, the strongest and “thickest” and most resilient cultures avoid radical mutations as much as possible, and when revolutions must occur, they generally should be conservative revolutions that seek to preserve or enshrine existing practices and norms (as did the American Revolution), rather than assert experimental values or rights.

In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs, he reflected on his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address where he used his platform not to attack the Soviet Communists who had exiled him, but to warn Western societies of threats he saw to their own health and wellbeing. He later reflected:

Western society in principle is based on a legal level that is far lower than the true moral yardstick, and besides, this legal way of thinking has a tendency to ossify. In principle, moral imperatives are not adhered to in politics, and often not in public life either. The notion of freedom has been diverted to unbridled passion, in other words, in the direction of the forces of evil (so that nobody’s “freedom” would be limited!). A sense of responsibility before God and society has fallen away. “Human rights” have been so exalted that the rights of society are being oppressed and destroyed. And above all, the press, not elected by anyone, acts high-handedly and has amassed more power than the legislative, executive, or judicial power. And in this free press itself, it is not true freedom of opinion that dominates, but the dictates of the political fashion of the moment, which lead to a surprising uniformity of opinion. (It was on this point that I had irritated them most.) The whole social system does not contribute to advancing outstanding individuals to the highest echelons. The reigning ideology, that prosperity and the accumulation of material riches are to be valued above all else, is leading to a weakening of character in the West, and also to a massive decline in courage and the will to defend itself, as was clearly seen in the Vietnam War, not to mention a perplexity in the face of terror. But the roots of this social condition spring from the Enlightenment, from rationalist humanism, from the notion that man is the center of all that exists, and that there is no Higher Power above him. And these roots of irreligious humanism are common to the current Western world and to Communism, and that is what has led the Western intelligentsia to such strong and dogged sympathy for Communism.

At the end of my speech I had pointed to the fact that the moral poverty of the 20th century comes from too much having been invested in sociopolitical changes, with the loss of the Whole and the High. We, all of us, have no other salvation but to look once more at the scale of moral values and rise to a new height of vision. “No one on earth has any other way left but — upward,” were the concluding words of my speech.

If the only way we can imagine a worthwhile future is “upward”, rather than imagining that peace and harmony and tranquility and the context for individual flourishing doesn’t require transcending every physical and cultural reality, then we’ll naturally sacrifice all sorts of norms, values, and eventually people along the way.

What are ‘political’ questions?

Pater Edmund, a Cistercian monk and Catholic priest, recently shared this excerpt from Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” on the modern idea of politics:

…what “politics” means for us is to strive for a share of power or to influence the distribution of power, whether between states or between the groups of people contained within a state.

This corresponds in all essentials to common parlance. When we say that a question is “political,” that a minister or official is “political,” or that a decision has been made on “political” grounds, we always mean the same thing. This is that the interests involved in the distribution or preservation of power, or a shift in power, play a decisive role in resolving that question, or in influencing that decision or defining the sphere of activity of the official concerned. Whoever is active in politics strives for power…

Versus Henri Grenier’s “Thomistic Philosophy, Vol. 4 Moral Philosophy” on the classical view of politics:

Politics is wisdom in the order of the practical sciences. A science is wisdom when it considers things according to their first principles. But the ends of the practical sciences are their principles. Therefore the science which considers human acts in relation to their ultimate end is wisdom in the order of the practical sciences. But Politics deals with human acts as related to their ultimate end, i.e., to happiness.

Since it is only in civil or political society that man can attain natural happiness, happiness is the end with which Politics is properly concerned. Hence, just as Metaphysics is wisdom in the order of the speculative sciences, so Politics is wisdom in the order of the practical sciences.

So thoroughly have we absorbed the view that politics is the story of power alone that never once did my professors in political science at Penn State address the older view of politics as a means of ordering society toward their ultimate ends. Now, you can say that politics understood as “striving for power” might be a means of obtaining ultimate ends like happiness, but that doesn’t sound like a tolerant or pluralistic sort of politics so much as a tribal sort of politics.

In other words, the distinction here is between understanding politics as a means of obtaining individual or group power over rival claimants, versus understanding politics as a means of ensuring human flourishing on an individual or societal basis.

The former view also forgets that power exists outside of politics, too.

Pursuing what seems good

Ireland has voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to its constitution, which was passed in September 1983 to strengthen its existing law to “recognise the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn.” The specific language:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

In practice, this amendment was designed to ensure that the principle of equality of human life was recognized at the highest level, and wouldn’t be threatened by judicial or legislative actions. In practice, this meant abortion was permitted only in situations where a mother’s life was in jeopardy. The language above recognizing basic equality passed in 1983 with 67 percent of the vote, and the rejection of basic equality just passed with what looks like 67 percent of the vote. The Save the 8th campaigners on the referendum result:

The 8th amendment did not create a right to life for the unborn child—it merely acknowledged that such a right exists, has always existed, and will always exist.

What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions. However, a wrong does not become right simply because a majority support it.

We are so proud of all of those who stood with us in this campaign—our supporters, our donors, our families, and our loved ones. This campaign took a huge personal toll on all of us who were involved, and we have been so grateful for their support.

The unborn child no longer has a right to life recognised by the Irish state. Shortly, legislation will be introduced that will allow babies to be killed in our country. We will oppose that legislation. If and when abortion clinics are opened in Ireland, because of the inability of the Government to keep their promise about a GP led service, we will oppose that as well. Every time an unborn child has his or her life ended in Ireland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known.

Abortion was wrong yesterday. It remains wrong today. The constitution has changed, but the facts have not.

We naturally pursue what we believe is the good, so Ireland’s swing on this particular issue in the space of a quarter century, as it related to what its people define as “the good”, is incredible. It suggests, to me, a continuing triumph of a particular sort of libertarianism, and probably continuing problems in Western nations as people try to sort out whether justice is ultimately a contingent and relative thing, or whether any universal or natural justice exists that reason and law should endorse.

‘Responsibility to Care’

The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network hosted an event tonight at the Catholic Information Center in Washington. “Responsibility to Care: What Euthanasia Victims Can Teach Us” brought together Bobby Schindler, Wesley J. Smith, and Fr. Thomas Petri for a lively and life-affirming conversation for the fifty or so guests. I snapped this photo toward the end as Rosemary Eldridge closed out the conversation just before the reception. I’ll share audio/video later this week if it becomes available.


Responsibility to Care: What Euthanasia Victims Can Teach Us

Join Bobby Schindler, M.S., brother of Terri Schiavo and president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, for an evening of prayer, remembrance, and hope in the face of America’s increasing embrace of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., Vice President and Academic Dean of the Dominican House of Studies will celebrate Mass at 5:30pm.

Following Mass at 6:00pm, Fr. Petri will participate in a lively and life-affirming panel conversation with Bobby Schindler and Wesley J. Smith, JD, National Review Online contributor and author of “Culture of Death: The Age of ‘Do Harm’ Medicine”.

Bobby Schindler will share first-hand experiences and lessons from his fight for his sister Terri, as well as the fights for Charlie Gard, Alfie Evans, Jahi McMath, Vincent Lambert, and others. Fr. Petri and Wesley Smith will share insights on Catholic responses to euthanasia and assisted suicide, as well as latest developments and trends likely to impact all families in the future. Reception to follow event.


Not choice, but violence

Who are the victims of suicide? There are the persons themselves, who die by their own hand or by instructions to other hands in the case of so-called assisted suicide. They are certainly victims. But what about every person touched by the person who is lost? All these are victims, too. Jason Cipriani shares:

I delivered the speech with confidence, but I did get choked up as the words my mother told me that day came out of my own lips “your dad killed himself this morning.” And again as I talked about turning to my grandma on that day, seeing her completely broken down (something that never happened), hearing her say “I’m really sorry boys. I know exactly what you feel, my mom took her own life as well.” …

A few days later I received my critique sheet which included helpful tips and pointers on improving my public speaking skill set, along with a grade. I don’t remember my grade, I don’t remember one critique listed on that piece of paper. The only thing I remember seeing was “I am a victim of suicide, too. I’m sorry for your loss.”

A victim of suicide? Huh. I’m not the victim, my dad was… wait. I am a victim. I have to deal with the emotional scars created by my dad’s decision for the rest of my life.

Those words and the change in perspective they brought regarding my father’s suicide have changed my entire outlook on life. As silly as that sounds. …

I guess, really, it gave me a title. It gave my emotions, my pain, my hurt, my anger, my sadness, my years of depression growing up.. it gave it all a title. You know how people that are chronically sick without a diagnosis feel relief when a doctor is finally able to identify the diseases attacking their body? I can only guess I felt the same way.

After Michael Novak died, Elizabeth Bruenig shared something he said to her a few weeks prior: “A kind word not spoken takes something out of the fabric of what should’ve been.” A life not lived, but willfully concluded, takes something out of the fabric of what should’ve been for every person who knew them, and many who would have. It is a scandal that journalists and media who are too ready to share the desires of euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates do not hold their feet to the fire on the true nature of what they’re promoting. Not choice, but violence.

Conserving sound

Conserve the Sound, “online museum”, is clever:

Conserve the sound is an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

Accompanying the archive people are interviewed and give an insight in to the world of disappearing sounds.

A few of my favorites? Rotary telephone. Cassette. VCR. Those are things I remember, along with the typewriter. Pretty much everything else on there is foreign to me.

I haven’t checked, but I imagine Internet Archive probably has stuff like this too, but maybe not presented in the same “museum” way.

John Henry Newman’s room

K.V. Turley writes on the experience of visiting John Henry Newman’s room:

To stand in the room of a saint is quite something. Such was my privilege the other day when the door to the room of John Henry Newman was unlocked and I was bid enter.

There, before me, was the desk at which Blessed John Henry had written letters, sermons and books, all of which are still pored over by scholars today, and no doubt shall be in the years and decades to come. There were his books and his papers; upon the walls his pictures, mostly religious, and, pasted on a wooden cupboard, there was still the trace of a Victorian newspaper. Newman was wont to decorate his cabinet doors with cuttings from newspapers and journals.

There was something else though.

The room is partitioned. Behind the thin wall that separates the two parts of the room there stands an altar. Upon it, there is the Crucifix and candles yet that Newman used when he offered Mass there. On the wall above the altar there also hangs a portrait of St. Francis de Sales, the French spiritual father of this most English of Englishmen. To the left, there is a built-in cupboard holding vestments. They all still hang there: green, red, white, rose, black. It is as if they are about to be lifted out and worn once more. It is as if, at any moment, a footstep will be heard, and before our eyes will come the man who lived and worked in this room: Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, Prince of the Church, but above all, a priest of God offering the Holy Sacrifice each day to the Glory of God and for forgiveness of sins. More than 100 years later, the room retains something of the air of the sanctity of its former occupant. No one else has lived or worked here since Newman, and no one else ever shall. It stands still as if John Henry Newman has just stepped out for a moment, and is due back very soon. Perhaps, in a way, that is how a Christian death should feel – a passing, not an ending, before a never-ending reunion.

There is another ‘death’ in this room though. It is the room itself. The Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory call this room of Newman’s “ the Dying Room.”

My guide pointed to the ceiling. In the corner of the room where two external walls join, there were large ominous cracks on display. Recent structural survey reports indicate that these cracks, far from being superficial, are the outward manifestation of serious interior decay. In the vernacular: Newman’s room is crumbling to dust.

Many will have seen Newman’s room, and the equally impressive library, at the Birmingham Oratory. Some may recall how Pope Benedict XVI, on his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, visited this room and its adjacent library. There are many pictures online recording this occasion when one saintly scholar visited the room of another. One can only imagine what might have passed through the mind of Pope Benedict when he beheld the room of Blessed John Henry still as intact, at least superficially, as in the late 1800s. One can almost visualize Pope and Blessed sitting at the table in the center of the room lost in the enjoyment of discoursing upon weighty theological matters.

But the room is ‘dying.’

The Birmingham Oratory is seeking patrons able to help conserve that simple and remarkable space. K.V. Turley adds:

When men, whether in the world of science or theology, history or philosophy seemed intent on rejecting God, here was a man who dared to engage his reason so as to understand better his faith. In doing so, Newman created something in the world of ideas that has not only grown in significance since but also seen off many of his then contemporaries and their modish theories. …

A strange prayer perhaps, but a prayer nonetheless: let his rooms be preserved and, thereby, with them, his memory as a man as rational as he was holy.

When I was in London for the Olympics in 2012 we attended mass at Brompton Oratory, which has a small space of honor and devotion to John Henry Newman. Having first encountered his writing when I was still at Penn State, and then seeing his place of honor in this English church, was a special thing; one of those moments where so much experience that has been “in your head” suddenly came rushing into this particular place and in this particular moment. An experience of concrete reality.