• ‘She glares at us in horror’

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

    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. We’re capable of heroic virtue, but we’re also 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.

  • Charlie Camosy interviews Kristin Marguerite Collier, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, on the relationship between a mother and a child prior to the child’s birth. Kristin Collier writes:

    As many of your readers may know, the placenta is the organ through which the mother and prenatal child interface. The placenta is an organ that is attached to the inside of the uterus and connects to the prenatal child through the child’s umbilical cord.

    What is not as well known about this organ is that the placenta is the only organ in human biology that is made by two persons, together, in cooperation. The placenta is ‘built’ from tissue that is part from mom, and part from the growing baby. Because of this, the placenta is referred to as a ‘feto-maternal’ organ. It is the only organ made by two people, in cooperation with providence. It is the first time mom and her baby come together, albeit at the cellular level, to do something in cooperation.

    Whenever I think of this, I picture the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts God and Man reaching out for one another, hands about to touch and perhaps entwine. In the creation of the placenta, cells from the trophoblast, which are from the embryo, ‘reach down’ towards the mother’s uterine wall while at the same time, the spiral arteries from the mother’s uterus are ‘reaching’ up towards the embryo. This process leads to the creation of the placenta.

    The placenta is the only purposely transient organ in humans and unlike the rest of our organs, acts as many organs in one. The placenta functions to eliminate waste, like the kidneys would do, facilitates transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide, like the lungs would do, and provides nutrients, like a GI tract would do. It even has endocrine and immune function. What used to be discarded as just the ‘afterbirth’ is now regarded as a magnificently complex shared organ that supports the formation of the prenatal child.

    The placenta is such an important organ that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established, under its “Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development” arm, the “Human Placenta Project” (HPP). The website says “The placenta is arguably one of the most important organs in the body. It influences not just the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both mother and child.” The aim of the HPP is to better understand, through research, the amazing placenta with the ultimate goal of improving the health of children and mothers. The research done by the HPP continues to demonstrate that a child’s prenatal and postnatal health is inextricably linked to the health of the placenta.

    In addition to the placenta, mother and prenatal child interact at a cellular level in something known as ‘fetomaternal microchimerism’. In Greek Mythology, the chimera is a fire breathing monster comprised of three species in one – a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. In science, “microchimerism” is the presence of a small population of genetically distinct and separately derived cells within an individual. During pregnancy, small numbers of cells traffic across the placenta. Some of the prenatal child’s cells cross into the mother, and some cells from the mother cross into the prenatal child. The cells from the prenatal child are pluripotent and integrate into tissues in her mother’s body and start functioning like the cells around them. This integration is known as ‘feto-maternal microchimerism’.

    The presence of these cells is amazing for several reasons. One is that these cells have been found in various maternal organs and tissues such as the brain, the breast, the thyroid and the skin. These are all organs which in some way are important for the health of both the baby and her mother in relationship. The post-partum phase is when there is need, for example, for lactation. The fetomaternal microchimeric cells have been shown to be important in signaling lactation. These cells have been found in the skin, for example, in Cesarean section incisions where they are helping to produce collagen. Baby is helping mom heal after delivery by the presence of her cells! It would be one thing for these cells to come into the mother and be inert, but is a whole other thing entirely that these cells are active and aid mom for example in helping to produce milk for her baby and helping her heal. These cells may even affect how soon the mother can get pregnant again and therefore can affect spacing of future siblings.

    Usually, foreign or ‘other’ cells are detected by the host immune system and are destroyed. The fact that these fetal cells ‘survive’ and then are allowed to integrate into maternal tissue speaks to a ‘cooperation’ between the mother and her child at the level of the cell that parallels that seen in the development of the placenta, suggesting that the physical connection between mom and baby is even deeper and more beautiful than previously thought. Research in fetomaternal microchimerism suggests that the presence of these cells may favorably affect the future risk of malignancy. The presence of these cells in the maternal breast may help protect mom from breast cancer years after the baby’s birth.

    To think that a physical presence of the baby in her mother is helping protect her from cancer at the level of the cell, speaks to a radical mutuality at the cellular level that we are just beginning to understand. Some of the effects of fetomaternal microchimerism, however, may be detrimental in some cases. This research is still underway. The big takeaway is that the science of microchimerism supports the fact that some human beings carry remnants of other humans in their bodies. Thus, we aren’t the singular-autonomous individuals we think of ourselves as being.

    And Michael Pakaluk writes along the same lines, reflecting on the theological implications of our contemporary understanding of pregnancy:

    “Mothers around the world say they feel like their children are still a part of them long after they’ve given birth,” said a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, “As it turns out, that is literally true. During pregnancy, cells from the fetus cross the placenta and enter the mother’s body, where they can become part of her tissues.”

    It works the other way, too.  Cells from the mother also cross the barrier.  But these cells are not “pluripotent”; their life spans and possible influences are short-lived.

    Evolutionary biologists are fascinated by the exchange, because they view it as a symbiosis that contributes to the “fitness” of both mother and child.  Preliminary evidence suggests that fetal cells may stimulate milk production, help wounds to heal, and strengthen the mother’s immune system. …

    But let’s think of Mary’s pregnancy in this way.  Jesus was “perfect God and perfect man,” like us in all ways except sin. Therefore, let us suppose that cells from the unborn Jesus migrated into Mary’s blood and lodged in various organs, where they took on the functions of those organs, and remained until Mary was assumed into Heaven. They were not Mary’s cells, but the cells of the Lord, alive within Mary’s body and playing the same function as Mary’s cells. …

  • G.K Chesterton writes on the question of whether Catholics can ever be properly understood to be behind the times, and specifically whether the Church should “move with the times:”

    Chesterton, in response to a newspaper suggestion that the Church ought to “move with the times”:

    The Cities of the Plain might have remarked that the heavens above them did not altogether fit in with their own high civilisation and social habits. They would be right. Oddly enough, however, when symmetry was eventually restored, it was not the heavens that had been obliged to adapt themselves….

    The Church cannot move with the times; simply because the times are not moving. The Church can only stick in the mud with the times, and rot and stink with the times. In the economic and social world, as such, there is no activity except that sort of automatic activiity that is called decay; the withering of the high flowers of freedom and their decomposition into the aboriginal soil of slavery. In that way the world stands much at the same stage as it did at the beginning of the Dark Ages. And the Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages; to save all the light and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days. So much a real Church would certainly do; but a real Church might be able to do more. It might make its Dark Ages something more than a seed-time; it might make them the very reverse of dark. It might present its more human ideal in such abrupt and attractive a contrast to the inhuman trend of the time, as to inspire men suddenly for one of the moral revolutions of history; so that men now living shall not taste of death until they have seen justice return.

    We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world. We want one that will move it away from many of the things towards which it is now moving; for instance, the Servile State. It is by that test that history will really judge of any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.

    The spirit of any age is by nature ephemeral; fleeting. To proclaim something or someone as true is to proclaim a thing that doesn’t change.

  • 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.

  • I was raised believing in Santa Claus. I think it infused a spirit of wonder into the Christmas season. But in growing up, I’ve come to think it was the wrong sort of wonder—a rootless sort of wonder that was one part magic and one part consumerism, both of which obscure Christ as the key mover of Christmastime.

    Fr. Thomas Petri recently tweeted this, which caused me to reflect on this:

    We put our shoes at Nativity, my grammar school, in the corridors for Saint Nicholas’s Feast Day. Dr. Chad Pecknold responded as a part of that thread with what I think is the right approach toward raising children to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmastime, without the lie at the heart of our contemporary experience of it:

    Children prior to the age of reason are not owed, and certainly should be protected from, some of the tougher realities of our fallen world. It’s precisely for this reason that I think those children are owed the truth about this season of Advent—which means the truth about the person of Jesus Christ and the coming into this fallen world of the very Logos that wills our very goodness in every moment. This is a truth of truly infinite wonder that presents the child with what is wonderfully true and offers them a way of living with this true wonder throughout his whole life. In this way, a child can be given the gift of a permanent sort of protection from the cynicism, bitterness, and even dismay that too many falsely associate with adulthood and the so-called realities of life. Their joy and wonder will be rooted in the truth of Christ and the wonderful saints who point to God’s gratuitous love.

    When a child’s first association with joy and wonder shortly and distressingly turns out to be a fiction, the child may reasonably conclude that precisely that sort of joy and wonder is fiction too. And the parents and family who may have forgotten at Advent the true God and his Saint Nicholas may end up reducing or even shattering their child’s ability to trust in their goodness.

    This is why Dr. Pecknold’s teaching is profoundly good: Santa truly does mean saint and the saints are real, pointing to the greatest gift of God in Jesus Christ and the reason for our anticipation at Advent and the extravagance of Christmastime.

  • God’s advent

    God’s advent

    Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and we hear from Matthew: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

    It’s raining this morning in Washington, but a light rain that doesn’t leave you overly chilly. After Mass at Epiphany, I continued reading Romano Guardini, “The Lord,” and specifically his chapter on judgment:

    Men have always known that something was wrong with human existence; that everywhere stupidity, injustice, deception and violence were at work. Consequently there was always the feeling that someday things must be set right and fulfilled. Some expected this clarification to come from human history itself: humanity by its own powers would fight its way through to a kind of divine existence. Let us allow this hope to die a natural death; it is flagrantly contrary not only to Revelation and Christian thinking, but also to the conclusions that must be drawn from a single honest glance at reality. We maintain our conviction that clarity can come only from God, after earthly life is over. But how is such a judgment to be imagined?

    One might say: Throughout existence we find vain appearances and downright deception. A man is seldom rated by his fellow-men for what he really is. Often people of great value are poor, the honorable are unknown, and the questionable or utterly useless are wealthy and esteemed. Seldom does a person’s appearance reveal his true nature. Even towards oneself there is much deceit. The self-appraising eye looks away at sight of the truth; the will hides its true intentions from itself and pretends to much that is non-existent. Thus judgment might well consist of the falling of the masks; the transparent appearance of all things as they really are. . . . We might also say: The inner reality of an individual should harmonize with the outer. The man who is pure should also be healthy; the good beautiful, the magnanimous strong and powerful of frame. Actually, it is quite different. Such unity is so rare, that an encounter with it seems like a fairytale. And it will never be otherwise. Neither physical-education nor spiritual formation will be able to change this radically, for the root of the disturbance goes deeper than human will. The cracks that run through personality will always be there—the stronger the personality, the deeper the cracks. Judgment could mean that disposition and being become one, that every human becomes in reality what he is by intention.

    Or this thought: How rarely are life’s promises kept, tasks completed, do human relations bear their fruit, does potential greatness become actuality. Again and again things break off and remain fragmentary. Life seldom receives the full, intelligent and loving approbation it desires. Even love is insufficient and illusory. Hence judgment could mean fulfillment; that every being might say: Everything in me that could be, has been perfected, has received its “yes” and its “no.”

    These suggestions, like many others, have their grain of truth—also of Christian truth. Many passages in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, support them. Still, what Christ says is different. In order that “judgments” such as these take place, things have only to appear before God’s clarity. But what Jesus was referring to in the last days of his earthly existence was something else.

    The judgment he means will not come through the falling away of time’s constraint and the placing of all things in God’s clarifying light, but through God’s advent. Judgment is not the eternal consequences of divine government, but God’s specific historical act—the last. After it, we are told, comes eternity. There is no action in eternity, only purest being and eternal fulfillment. And the God who is to come thus is Jesus Christ, he who is addressing us. …

    When will Judgment come? No one knows, says the Lord—not even the Son. This knowledge is reserved to the Father and his counsel. It is not necessary to pull this word to pieces. It is part of paternal sovereignty “to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Judgment comes from the freedom of the Father, the Inaccessible One.

    One thing we are told: it will come suddenly. Like the thief in the night, the master from his journey, the bridegroom from the wedding. This “suddenly” is the same kind of adverb as the “soon” of the Apocalypse and Paul’s letters. It does not mean a brief span of time rather than a long one—not ten years instead of a thousand. This is how it was interpreted in the beginning, so that people thought Christ’s return would take place in the next few years. In reality, any time is “soon” because all time is short, i.e., transitory. A thousand years before God are as a day, and all time as nothing, for he is eternity, but time passes. Whenever the end comes, it will be “soon.” And people will say: “Now? Why now? We have scarcely begun to live! We haven’t done any of the things that must be done, if everything is not to be lost! We have neglected the essential.” Always it will be: “We have neglected the essential!” This is how Christ’s “suddenly” is meant. …

    God’s gaze is constantly upon earth, and his coming is a constant threat.

  • Terence Sweeney writes on Alan Jacobs’s “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis”:

    History can be told as the story of what happened, but it can also be narrated as the story of what could have been but was not. We look to history, in part, to see not only what is now but what may be. This is in part the motivating force behind various genealogies whether they be Michel Foucault’s or Alasdair MacIntyre’s. If the past is not what we have been told, perhaps the future may be different from what we have been told it will be. …

    Auden was skeptical of a “program of Christian social renewal” in part because of his concern that it was “a massive misunderstanding of the claims of Christianity” to treat it as “a means to an end, that end being social cohesion” (81). This is the threat of conservatism for Christianity: it makes Christianity a force for social good—the city of God makes a better terrestrial city. But as Auden knew: “This is to re-enact the Constantinian error, which was to ‘profess and practice a religion of success’” (81). The crass version of this is the prosperity gospel in which Christianity will help us win so much we get bored of winning. In the richer traditions of Christianity, the question remains: what is the victory we seek?

    For Auden, this victory could not be a social, cultural, or political. He challenges us to ask if we “believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints?” (55). These values probably do not benefit society, but the contemplative and the saint seek a kingdom that is not of this world. Yet, for Auden in For the Time Being, they must remain at work here for we have “the time being to redeem / From insignificance.” Our victories this side of Eden are ironic ones redeemed only by the hope of Someone Else’s victory. We can only pursue this true victory by working for small victories “In the Kingdom of Anxiety” for it is only here that we can “Love Him in the World of the Flesh.” If you hope in the most ironic victory—that of the Cross—you may come to “the great city that has expected your return for years.” All we can do until then is win some and, more often, lose some, work against technocracy and nationalism, and actively wait as a service to God and to all. Ultimately, it is not social reform that matters; what matters is becoming saints. …

    Perhaps it is Auden’s sense of irony and hope that leads Jacobs to close with the message of yet another writer: the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. Jacobs sees Ellul as having been “more realistic” in choosing “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” (206). For a Christian, this is the truest realism, for our only hope is for the continuing miraculous deliverance of the Cross, Resurrection, and Return. Still, this reader was left grasping at the end. Is our only hope, as the diminished thing, a miracle? Jacobs leaves us with the advice that we must learn from these writers and that we must be aware of the signs of the times. But what can either teach us? As the diminished thing, how are we to arrest this diminishment and maybe even grow? These writers did not arrest the time. If, as I posited in the beginning of this essay, a genealogical approach gives us a sense of what was not, but also what could be, then Jacobs seems to provide us with little in the direction forward. The past that failed seems now merely a prologue towards continued diminishing.

    Perhaps then, this diminishment provides us the spiritual lessons we need. Genealogical accounts are meant to remind us of contingency and so possibility for what may be. But what Auden teaches is that social reform is not our ultimate goal even if our social reform is a new Christendom. And now that comprehensive Christian social reform is wellnigh impossible, we must learn to dwell as diminished. Jacob’s lesson is that our calling is to be diminished in the year of the Lord 2019. What Eliot, Weil, Maritain, Lewis, and Auden provide ultimately is not the wisdom of a new Christendom, but the wisdom of a diminished Christianity. The possibility they open up is the possibility of a wiser Christianity, which has been shorn of its political power but also liberated for its work in the time being as we await another but very different coming of Christ.

    What is a Christian’s telos or purpose? By God’s grace, becoming a saint. Christianity’s telos is not social cohesion per se, but of achieving a greater soul and greater soulfulness.

    This is why the “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” is Christian realism at its best, because it recognizes that its hope in “miraculous deliverance” corresponds with our little-thought-upon “miraculous appearance” at conception and emergence into this life. Just as our coming into life was an unanticipated gift, our leaving it too can be looked upon as a “going home” to the God who brought us into being.

  • Christ the King

    A homily reflection from Saint Josemaria Escriva on the feast of Christ the King:

    Christ’s lordship over the universe is commemorated in various ways in feasts of the liturgical year, including the Epiphany, Easter, and the Ascension. With the Solemnity of Christ the King, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the context of the growing secularization of the world, the Church wishes to highlight even more clearly Christ’s sovereignty over all creation, including human history.

    Jesus’ reign, as the liturgy of the Mass underlines, is a regnum veritatis et vitae; regnum sanctitatis et gratiae; regnum iustitiae, amoris et pacis. Truth, life, holiness, grace, justice, love and peace: these are the values that the human heart most longs for, and we Christians can contribute to bringing them about. We can do so especially through works of mercy done for the most needy, as the gospel for this feast in Year A tells us. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome.

    Nevertheless, Jesus himself warned us, my kingdom is not of this world. His sovereignty will be seen in its fullness at his second coming in glory, when there will be new heavens and a new earth, and all creatures, free from the slavery of sin, will serve and never cease to praise him. Now is the time of expectation, of working for his kingdom, confident that the final victory will be his.

    Jesus is the center of history: not only the history of mankind as a whole, but also of each individual person. Even when it seems that everything is lost, it is always possible to appeal to our Lord like the good thief, as the gospel for Year C tells us. What peace comes from the fact that, in spite of our past, with sincere repentance we can always enter the Kingdom of God. “Today we can think about our own story, the path of our life. Each one of us has our history; we each have our mistakes, our sins, our happy moments and our sad ones. On a day such as this we do well to think about our own history, and to look at Jesus, and to say often, but from the heart, in silence, each one of us: ‘Remember me, Lord, now that you are in your kingdom. Jesus, remember me, because I want to be good, I want to be good, but I don’t have the strength, I just can’t. I’m a sinner, a sinner. But remember me, Jesus. You can remember me because you’re in the center, you’re right there, in your kingdom’.”

    When instituting the Feast of Christ the King, Pius XI wrote: “While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim His kingly dignity and power, (and) all the more universally affirm His rights.”

    “Jesus is the center of history: not only the history of mankind as a whole, but also of each individual person.”

  • Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes on American history and Catholic history:

    The historian Christopher Lasch (among many others) liked to note that Americans tend to be bad at history. We resent it. We want the past to be over and gone. And there’s a very good reason for that instinct. One of our key myths as a nation is that if we work hard enough we can achieve, and deserve to achieve, anything we want. That includes reimagining who we are. It’s why transgenderism — as deeply troubling as it is — gets traction in our media and elite opinion. Absent a biblical framework, it’s just one more route to the “pursuit of happiness.”

    This is why the past, as it really happened, can seem so unwelcome. Put simply, it limits our self-invention. As a record of our origins, choices, and actions, the past reminds us that we’re not fully sovereign actors. We have roots and obligations that shape us, and they’re inescapable. We each have parts in a story that preceded us, formed us, and will continue after us.

    For the selfish, that knowledge is a kind of oppression. For the sensible, it’s a source of hope. History teaches us the cost of mistakes. Bad things can happen. But history also teaches us that most of our difficulties aren’t really new, and that good can heal and overcome them.

    As a result, knowing our history is important. A nation ignorant of its history is like a person with amnesia. Without a memory, the individual becomes, in a sense, a non-person. Without a grounding in the past, the present and future have no direction. And as with an individual or nation, so too, and even more so, with the Church. Since the Church is called to preach Jesus Christ across generations and cultures, her people need to know how and why we got where we are now, the better to support her mission into the future.

    To know your history is to have a greater degree of self-knowledge than would have been possible on your own. Our world would be inconceivable without history—first oral, later written, and perhaps immersive next, in terms of  audio/video.

    While human beings in our present anatomical state have existed for 100,000+ years, our known history reaches back only a small fraction of that time. If it’s true that the past is a foreign country, it’s also true that we forgot to record a map for much of its territory. All the more reason to study what we have in order to understand what sort of future is possible.

  • Chad Pecknold writes on Pilate’s perennial question, one that echoes in the human heart in every generation: “What is truth?”:

    The mid-20th century French Jesuit Henri Bouillard once insisted that theology must constantly move with “the evolution of all concepts.” He famously said, “a theology that is not up-to-date (actuelle) is a false theology.” Bouillard was not denying that Catholics believe in unchangeable truths, but the phrase was a striking one. If taken literally, it might mean that the Dogmas of the Trinity, or the Incarnation, are false insofar as they depend on very “out-dated” Hellenistic accounts of being, substance and natures.

    Bouillard’s claim elicited a rebuttal from the French Dominican Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange opened his bombshell 1947 essay on the new modern theologies which were emerging before and after the war with a broadside against just the kind of temporal standard that Bouillard had advocated.

    Fr. Garrigou asked how can one assent to an understanding of the Eucharist as a transubstantiation without an unchangeably true concept of substance? And most fundamentally, he asked, if every unchangeable truth of the faith must be measured by a changeable standard in order for it to be true, then doesn’t that entail a new definition of truth as change?

    Garrigou was worried that a new definition of truth was arising from a variety of directions, each of which sought to unseat the traditional “correspondential” and moderately realist view of truth as the mind conforming itself to reality. Instead of adequation of mind to reality, however, a new view of truth was emerging, one which was evolutionary, always conforming thought to the lived experience of actual life.

    What may look like disputes over theological “preferences” in historical situations, Garrigou began to argue, are actually disputes over truth and how we know it. Is something true because it conforms with some unchangeable law, some extramental and trans-historical reality, or is something true because it fits with some contemporary need of culture or human experience which is always evolving? What Bouillard represented — fairly or not — was a deeper metaphysical challenge posed by a new paradigm-shifting definition of truth. Fr. Garrigou concluded that those constantly advocating for an “updating” of unchangeable truths were in fact going the way of materialism and skepticism.

    The Thomist philosopher would to the pre-Socratic material philosopher Heraclitus to illustrate part of the problem with the new evolutionary view of truth. For Heraclitus, everything is constantly becoming. You never step in the same river twice, and so nothing really is — being is constantly becoming. Everything is relative in a radical way, and if you are a materialist who just looks at phenomena, and knows only through the senses, then it’s easy to see how a thinker might observe how sensible things are always changing, and arrive at this view of reality which demands constant updating.

    Yet this is nonsense, and Aristotle demonstrates why it’s nonsense. Kant can’t be Kant and not-Kant at once. It is impossible for something to be and not be at the same time in the same way. The law of non-contradiction ensures that the truth can be known, not just in a manner of speaking, but actually. While we are like night owls blinking at the intelligible light of the world, we can discern being from non-being, and thus distinguish what is true from what is false.

    For Garrigou, Heraclitus, the skeptics, relativists of all stripes, Kantian and Hegelian logic alike, all make our knowledge of reality an indefinite process in which we never know the highest causes, never arrive at knowledge of reality as such. He is not rigid, he is a realist. And he believes that new approaches to truth are not only a threat to the faith, but they are a threat to reason as well.

    Pecknold’s piece was sparked by an exchange at the USCCB’s Baltimore meeting earlier this week, and is difficult reading for those (like me) unfamiliar with much of the history and figures he’s referencing. But I think this is an entree to an important intellectual thread worth following for a lifetime, which is the nature and telos of truth.