Clock of life

Fulton Sheen gave a talk called “The Approach of Midnight” in the 1970s, imagining the “clock of life”:

“I want you to picture a great and gigantic clock of life. Here is dawn; here is noon; here is dusk; here is midnight. The clock of life at the very beginning of the day is beginning to extinguish life: feticide, the killing of human persons in the womb. That’s the first stroke of the clock.

Then we come to noon: lives in middle age. We’ve already had this strike: six million Jews burned by Hitler. Life at the beginning, life at noon.

Life in the evening. Now euthanasia is recommended: gerocide, the killing of the old. In fact, three American professors in large universities have recommended the killing off of Bangladesh and India, that the rest of us may survive.

Now, what’s going to happen to a world that takes life at dawn, life at noon, life at dusk? We’re eventually going to come to midnight. The United States and Russia have enough nuclear armaments to drop [the equivalent of] ten tons of TNT on every man, woman, and child in the world. That’s the midnight of necrophilism…

It’s not just life at dawn we’re protecting. It’s life at noon; it’s life at dusk; it’s life at midnight…

Go into the world and tell everyone that you meet: there is a life in the womb!”

A consistent life ethic…

A snapshot of the health of American families

Lyman Stone breaks down some of the latest data on American families:

Nearly 4 in 10 children in America are not residing with their own two, married parents (biological or adoptive). This is according to the recently released 2018 American Community Survey, the largest annual social survey carried out in America. As recently as 1960, less than 2 in 10 children lived apart from two married parents, a reality which was approximately stable as far back as 1850. But while the present situation leaves many children bereft of the care, attention, and material benefits of a married household, it’s actually not as bad as it has been in the past: since 2014, the share of children living with two married parents has risen ever-so-slightly, from 61.8% to 62.3% in 2018, and data from early 2019 in the Current Population Survey suggest that 2019 will show further improvement. The period from 2011 to 2019 is the longest period of stability or improvement in children’s living situations since the 1950s. …

Overall, the decline in the share of kids growing up in married, two-parent households seems to have stopped for now, and there’s even been a modest recovery. But much of this change is purely compositional: Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial kids are growing as a share of children thanks to immigration and intermarriage, while African and Native American kids are not. As a result, the nationwide aggregate is improving. But among specific groups, the trends are less optimistic. Particularly for Hispanic and Native American kids, family conditions have deteriorated markedly over the last two decades.

Lyman goes into greater depth in his analysis, but the takeaway from my perspective is that there’s general reason for hope even as I suspect this stability might be a result of our healthy economy as much as any particular set of life choices within American families.

Roger Scruton, RIP

He seemed bigger than the age.

Roger Scruton, rest in peace. There are so many tributes and memorials being shared to this man who embodied so much of England and possessed so many of the best instincts of the West. I had the chance to see him speak at Penn in 2017, and will remember that for a very long time. His thinking and his way of living have provided me with a great deal of surety about our culture and confidence in daily life.

Who was Roger Scruton? Why Beauty Matters helps answer this, as does Of Beauty and Consolation, as does How to Be a Conservative, as does this performance of his Lorca songs, set from the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered in the Spanish Civil War. And there’s his writing itself.

I’ll share a few excerpts of his and a few tributes that have been circulating. First, on the imperative to conserve:

“Conservatism … is the instinct we all ultimately share, at least if we’re happy in this world; it’s the instinct to hold on to what we love.”

And: “The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten…”

And: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”

What makes Scruton’s conservative instincts remarkable is they did not arise from a lived experience; that is, that he was not born into the privileged place of a life already worth conserving, but the opposite. He speaks to this in his “Of Beauty and Consolation” appearance:

“I was very fortunate in having an unhappy childhood, so that my desire from the very beginning was to escape from it. My childhood home was one of violence and quarrels and discord. Perhaps, of course, this has given me an underlying sense of something missing and that I must recreate it.”

Second, from his book The Face of God on beauty and the transcendence that lies beneath beauty:

“The sense of beauty puts a brake upon destruction, by representing its object as irreplaceable. When the world looks back at me with my eyes, as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way. Something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it … What is revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being—the truth that being is a gift, and receiving it is a task.”

Third, a reflection on incarnation and death, and the otherworldliness we intuit when we encounter the body of the dead. Those are moments where we can acknowledge the sacred nature of that moment or desecrate what we encounter:

Death too presents us with the mystery of our incarnation, though it does so in another way. In death we confront the body voided of the soul, an object without a subject, limp, ungoverned and inert. The awe that we feel in the face of death is a response to the unfathomable spectacle of human flesh without the self. In fact, the dead body is not so much an object as a void in the world of objects—something that ought not to be there, since it ought not to be there as a thing. The sight is uncanny, unheimlich, and demands to be rearranged—though rearranged metaphysically, as it were, so as to heal the void. Hence in all societies the dead are treated with reverence: they become untouchable, precisely in the moment when the self retreats from them. Somehow this body still belongs to the person who has vanished: I imagine him as exerting his claim over it, but from spectral regions where he cannot be touched. In encountering death, therefore, our imagination reaches spontaneously towards the supernatural. The dead body, by becoming sacred, exposes itself also to desecration—a fact upon which the drama of Antigone turns. Just as sex and death provide us with two of our primary experiences of the sacred, therefore, they also present us with a primary threat of desecration.

Here is Chad Pecknold’s tribute: “Sir Roger Scruton has died after a long battle with cancer. A champion of conservative ideas, eloquent defender of the civilizing effect of procreative realism, who made an argument for God from a life of meditating upon beauty. Requiscat in pace.”

And here is Scruton: “The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology.”

He concluded his public life with this“Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Forgetting what work is for

Pew: “The share of adults who have lived with a romantic partner is now higher than the share who have ever been married; married adults are more satisfied with their relationships, more trusting of their partners.”

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Fascinating that we have troubling recognizing this: “being in a committed relationship” and “having a job or career you enjoy” require the same virtues. And yet we prioritize work over people in ranking what we believe we need for a fulfilling life.

Focus on fathers

Eric Sammons writes that the best way to build and sustain strong generations of Catholic young people is by building and sustaining strong mothers and especially fathers:

The biggest influence on them is the parents. As a recent study by the Pew Research Center noted,

“Among those who were raised in a single religious background…the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood. Those adults who say religion was very important to their family while growing up and whose parents frequently discussed religion are more likely than others to continue to identify with their parents’ religion as adults.”

For Catholics, if religion was “very important” in the family, then 73 percent of the time the kids remained Catholic after leaving the house. If it was “not too/not at all important,” only 38 percent remained Catholic. This shouldn’t be surprising to most people involved with youth outreach; they know it from experience. This is why many look for ways to involve parents in their youth activities. However, the model remains directed toward the kids, separate from their parents.

Research also points to the vital role specifically of the father’s faith. A 2000 report in Population Studies magazine concluded that “it is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.” More specifically, it states:

In short, if a father does not go to church—no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions—only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).

Only 2 percent of kids whose fathers don’t practice the faith will end up practicing that faith! It’s clear, then, that fathers more than anyone dramatically impact their children’s future religious practice, and if parishes want children to retain their faith in adulthood (which is the purpose of youth ministry), they should focus not on the children but on the fathers.

Even with data supporting this conclusion, it still seems counterintuitive that to reach kids we shouldn’t focus on them but on their fathers instead. Yet this is the biblical method of salvation.

In the Bible, whenever God works with a group of people, He does not direct His energies toward the entire group, but toward a mediator. Think of Abraham, Moses, or David: each of these men represented a much larger group of people. God first influenced and converted the one man, then He allowed that individual to influence the group he led and represented. This is also the fundamental way in which the Catholic Church operates: we have bishops and priests who receive specific graces and powers that are then used to help the laity draw closer to Christ.

The father is the “mediator”—the “priest”—of the family, the domestic church. Therefore it makes sense, both sociologically and theologically, to focus on fathers in order to save the children.

At Penn State, we had a daily public affairs talk show on the campus radio station. At one point we had a conversation with a life coach/family counselor who made this point: if you want a strong marriage and a strong family, a husband and wife should be primarily in relationship with one another—and not primarily with their kids.

“Kids generally take care of themselves,” was his message. “But if the man and the woman forget that their relationship is what holds the family together, then everything is likelier to fall apart,” was more or less his point.

Genuine friendships

Mary Farrow writes on Alasdair MacIntyre’s narrow Aristotelian view of friendship:

For Aristotle, the definition of perfect friendship was so narrow that precious few could achieve it.

In order to have a perfect friendship between two people, Aristotle said that both must be models of goodness and virtue, willing the good of the other and loving each other for their own sake.

He also thought these levels of virtue and goodness could only be achieved by a narrow slice of the population: namely, the Greek male elite. Women, non-Greeks, productive workers, and slaves were, in Aristotle’s mind, unable to achieve the levels of virtue and goodness necessary for such friendships.

Such people could have other kinds of friendships, Aristotle said – friendships of utility or pleasure – but they could never have perfect friendship.

It was this view of friendship with which moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre took issue in his Nov. 8 address at the di Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s 20th annual conference, which this year had the theme of friendship.

“For (perfect) friendships, so Aristotle tells us, we have to be good in ways and to a degree that…if we’re honest, many of us know that we’re not,” MacIntyre said.

“Aristotle allows that…we can, without being good, participate in friendships of mutual utility or of shared pleasure, but even this should be depressing for many of us,” he added, “for what we need on the most important occasions when we need friendship…are friendships sustained by a good deal more than the possibility of mutual utility or of shared pleasure.”

MacIntyre pointed to other still unsatisfactory definitions of friendship, such as that from Dale Carnegie, who wrote the 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

But what Carnegie suggests will not help one have real friends, MacIntyre said, but will manufacture “a certain kind of superficial sociability, a sociability which no one of integrity could confuse with friendship.” Such friendships, he added, might be compared to someone who is a Facebook friend and nothing more. …

“Yet what above all else stands in the way of openness to friendship is insincerity,” MacIntyre said. An insincere person is an actor of sorts, he noted. An insincere person is not necessarily a liar, but they have convinced others and sometimes themselves that they are something or someone that they are not.

“An insincere person invites others to respond not to their reality, but the sometimes impressive fiction that they have constructed. So the other is put at a disadvantage and when the invitation extended to the other is or includes an offer a friendship, what is offered cannot, in fact, be friendship. For one is being invited to care for a fiction, not for a real human being,” he said.

I didn’t see/hear MacIntyre’s talk at Notre Dame, but it was streamed:

Philip D. Halfacre’s Genuine Friendship is a great place to start out if you’re considering what true friendship, of the Aristotelian sort, looks like.

Cardinal Wolsey’s chapel

Ruth Gledhill reports that the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace will host the first Catholic service since the 1550s:

Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Nichols will celebrate Vespers and the Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, will preach in Henry VIII’s chapel, built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the early 16th century but taken from Wolsey by the King and rebuilt.

Henry VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England after Wolsey failed to secure his annulment from Catherine of Aragon. …

A spokesman described it as “an unprecedented coming together of the Catholic and Anglican churches on such an historically important site”.

The Vespers will be dedicated to St John the Baptist, remembering the origins of the chapel as built by Cardinal Wolsey on the site of a former chapel of the Knights of St John Hospitaller. Members of the public will be able to take part in a ballot for a stall or boxed pew at the service.

The music will be performed by Harry Christophers and his ensembles The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen and will include Thomas Tallis’ Magnificat, William Cornysh’s Salve Regina and John Taverner’s “Leroy” Kyrie.

Before the service, Cardinal and Dean will take part in a “conversation” on “Faith and the Crown” in the Great Hall at Hampton Court. They will debate the role of the Chapel Royal in maintaining elements of Catholic worship to the present day.

I remember the Queen and Pope Benedict XVI being friendly, and some speculation about what that might mean about a decade ago. Mark Woods wrote a few years ago that the Church of England is “lucky to have a believer at its head:”

At its head is the Queen, the many-times-removed successor of Henry VIII in that role. He was recently named as Britain’s worst ever monarch by a panel of historians; she, because of the near-faultless way in which she has navigated her role in a democratic society blown every which way by the winds of social change, has some claim to be regarded as the best.

We have all been lucky to have her. The Church of England, though, has been particularly fortunate. Previous monarchs have been murderers, adulterers, meddlers and fools. Their attitude to religion has sometimes been sincere enough, as long as it didn’t inconvenience them too much.

In Queen Elizabeth, however, the Church has someone at its head for whom the Christian faith is not another layer of ceremony but a living reality.

In recent years she has worn her faith more openly, as we have seen in the Christmas broadcasts in which she speaks directly to the nation. Last year she said: “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life.” In 2012 she said: “This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son ‘to serve, not to be served’. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.”

The previous year she said: “God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general…but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.” Forgiveness, she said, “lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”

Today, Queen Elizabeth passes Victoria’s record as our longest-serving monarch. We should be glad of her example of loyal service, and glad that she is not ashamed of the gospel. What sort of spirituality her successors will bring to their role is open to question…

The Catholic Anglicanism that the Queen demonstrates seems unlikely to survive her reign. I imagine that it goes against every instinct of hers to even imagine it, but if there is going to be English monarch in the modern era who could initiate a return to Rome, it seems like it would have to be her.

Abductive logic and avoiding tyrants

Joseph Ford Cotto reviews Ben Novak’s “Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant.” I helped Ben deliver the manuscript to Lexington Books, and am glad to see Ben’s scholarship on abductive logic continuing to earn coverage. It’s a form of logic that may give rise to new heroes and villains alike, and it’s important to understand. Cotto writes:

While the facts about why Hitler did what he did are often discussed, the question of how he was able to attain stratospheric political, economic, military, and, in the broadest sense, societal power typically goes unanswered. Ben Novak, who retired from practicing law to begin a new career in historical scholarship, seeks to provide an explanation.

In Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant, he writes that the aforementioned despot had a most unique ability “to ‘scent out’ the fundamentals of political power and to imagine and inquire in an extraordinary way, quite unlike what ‘normal’ people do.” Novak argues that this sixth sense of sorts allowed Hitler to utilize a seldom-mentioned concept called ‘abductive logic.’

First identified by Charles Sanders Pierce, a nineteenth century Johns Hopkins University professor who Webster’s Biographical Dictionary deemed “the most original thinker and greatest logician of his time,” it is — per Stanford University’s philosophy encyclopedia — “the stage of inquiry in which we try to generate theories which may then later be assessed.” Pierce described abductive logic as “the process of forming explanatory hypotheses. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea”. He also said that it pertains to “all the operations by which theories and conceptions are engendered”.

Novak believes that Hitler used abductive logic to, above all else, capture the hearts and minds of millions who, when confronted by other power-seekers, would not have been nearly as receptive. Laying out in painstaking detail how Hilter put abduction to work for the Nazi Party, Novak delves deep into the dictator’s life story, long before his infamous altercation in a Munich beer hall, let alone ascension to Germany’s chancellorship. …

Novak, in tracing Hitler’s childhood and rise to power as an adult, more than ably disseminates a story of how the lowest depths of humanity were reached. From Hitler — an unremarkable, unsuccessful farm boy gone to the big city — channeling his deep personal rage into political power to the ease with which throngs of voters rallied to his cause to how he attained stomach-wrenching domestic order primed to liquidate not only those within but abroad, nary a stone is left unturned.

Especially astounding is that, for all of the power he attained, Hitler never delivered typical campaign promises, like pragmatic solutions to pressing popular concerns. Instead, he cast such a spell over those around him that Nazi supporters were willing to pay admission so they could be present at their party’s gatherings.

“Hitler was no ordinary demagogue who merely flattered the crowds, played on their emotions, and told them what they wanted to hear,” Novak specifies at the end of his book. “Rather, he acted on a plan he created in advance completely in his mind, and then, in a very short period of time, methodically put each element of what he had only imagined into place. Perhaps, what is most astonishing is that he did it, as he himself admits, ‘against all factors of human reason,’ by doing the opposite of what both his opponents and contemporary observers expected him to do, and by being prepared to take advantage of the opportunities he imagined would result.”

That Hitler followed this course of action yet found success for years on end reveals a terrifying truth regarding human nature. Hitler and Abductive Logic is not bedtime reading or any sort of literature for those who, even while learning about catastrophe, expect silver linings to grace the clouds. Nonetheless, it is an immensely powerful work which not only researchers of World War II should read, but anyone who is prepared for an education in how raw power is coveted, worked toward, obtained, and sustained for purposes so horrific that they roam beyond what words can describe.

When people write off villains like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. as simply “madmen,” they are ignoring the fact that the clinically insane end up on the street—not in the halls of power. What Ben tries to point out is that tyrants often rise for specific reasons, and through the force of a specific logic, and if we don’t understand that logic and how to counter it, we’re more likely to see more tyrants.

‘She glares at us in horror’

Michael Frost writes on Léon Cogniet’s 1824 Scène du massacre des Innocents:

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If it’s not the greatest of Christmas paintings, it must be one of the most haunting and affecting. A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.

Most painters of this scene turn it into a huge biblical spectacle, making it a revolting tableaux of death and mayhem. But Cogniet focuses our attention on one petrified woman, a mother who knows she is about to lose her child. She envelopes her doomed child, her bare feet revealing how vulnerable they are. There’s no way to run. She is cornered.

Wisely, Cogniet doesn’t show us the carnage. It is hinted at in the rushing figures in the background. Another mother is seen carrying her own children down the stairs to the left, running for their lives. But Cogniet shows a level of artistic restraint not seen in many depictions of this story. He forces everything to the background in order to draw our attention to the woman’s terrified face.

That face!

Staring at… us!

It’s as if we are one of Herod’s agents of death, and we have found her. She glares at us in horror. …

This Christmas, by all means remember the angels and the shepherds and the magi and the little boy-child Jesus in his manger. But also remember this mother and her child on the streets of Bethlehem. And remember that the coming of the Christ was to set in train a revolution of love and justice that would eventually sweep away all tyrants and free all victims and end all wars.

Any one of us could be one of those agents of Herod. That’s what I think about when I look into her face. I could be her child’s killer. If we’re capable of heroic virtue, we’re as capable of terrible evil. This is Jordan Peterson’s point when he cautions against being too self-assured that you would be on the side of the Allies and not the Axis powers.

Christ’s appearance in the world was consequential from the earliest moments. And we see in Herod (and in ourselves) how the human heart reacts to the prospect of the King of Peace, and a new order that transcends our vanities. We have the capacity to act violently, brutally.

Great ‘O’ Antiphons

Chad Pecknold writes on Advent’s “Great ‘O’ Antiphons”:

These Great Antiphons help us to prepare a place for Jesus Christ, so that He might lay upon the straw of all our desires

The neighborhoods which dot the Potomac River are brightly lit now. Christmas lights seem to appear steadily throughout the weeks of Advent. How they appear is mostly hidden from view. Some homes are almost impossibly illuminated, replete with inflatable snowmen, minions, or, more tastefully, nutcrackers. Many surely light up their homes as a kind of manufactured anticipation, a secular advent for restless desire. Yet for others, the external lights are but signs of an interior hope.

For many centuries, the Church has spent this last week of Advent illuminating the heart by those interior lights called the Great “O” Antiphons. They begin tonight, and you can participate in them. If you do, they will enlighten the rooflines of your soul as they have done since the fifth century (according to Boethius) and certainly since the eighth century.

The Great “O” Antiphons — named for that perfect letter with which each antiphon begins — are recited or chanted before and after the Magnifcat at Vespers from December 17-23. Seven antiphons for the seven last days of Advent are filled with ancient longing for Christ.

Wikipedia: “Each antiphon is a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture. They are:”

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

18 December: O Adonai (O Lord)
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

23 December: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.