James Carroll, in a not-always displayed acuteness that cuts against the grain of ‘liberal’ conventional wisdom, piques the imagination today with a column that touches – but doesn’t dig into – the following thought: the intensifying ‘liberal-secular’ assault on all things religious (especially the tremendously handy and assorted-interests-pleasing Catholic sex abuse crisis) is directly proportional to the secular-liberal fear that its own ‘paradise’ now so clearly reveals itself as cracked (and perhaps crackpot) that it must ‘go negative’ in order to distract everybody from its own failures.
“A focus on religious failures”, he observes, “can let the broader culture off the hook”.
Of course, things are helped along – in a neatly self-licking ice-cream cone sorta way – by the Pope recently speaking about “sin within the Church itself”. The Pope is on to something here. But it’s hardly evidence of his originality: the Church has been saying that about itself since the beginning (and it is, at this point, ten times older than the American republic and rather more experienced in matters of this world and of the Next).
The Church embodies (though not fully) God’s presence in human history, but while the pinnacle of its Ideals reach into that Beyond which infuses it with Spirit and Grace, the roots of its historical edifice – like the Vatican buildings themselves – drive into the mushy flatlands of that humanity and its history of which it is composed.
Nor does it help that while trying to move humans toward living life in God (which, like B-29s trying to fly in the jetstream, requires some advanced development of the individual pilot’s skills), the Church can’t get too far ahead of the stubbornly less-advanced elements of human-ness. For every first-rate saint who has matched the mastery of sailing his or her human vessel to the utter mystery of the Divine Wind, there have been so many thousands whose religious capability remained anchored in the darker and more primal human gropings toward the Unseen.
But when it comes to humans and their histories, God seems persistently willing to work with what’s available, and the Church can’t get too far ahead of God either.
But, Carroll notes, “we are living through the simultaneous breakdowns of the two great secular myths that have defined Western civilization for 200 years – the socialist idea of equality and the organizing ethos of nationalism”. If We imagine – and not wrongly – that the Left for so long has tried to bring about a paradise of Equality, and the Right a paradise of Order, then We might also imagine that both have gotten somewhat ahead of human history.
Well, what the hey? How can you get anything done if you don’t get ahead and lead?
But if you get too far ahead, or too excited, you might stop trying to lead and simply try to pull.
And you won’t only try to pull History along, although you’re perhaps too far ahead for any good that you might accomplish; you’ll start trying to pull human-ness along.
And that doesn’t often end well.
The Church learned that the hard way long ago.
The much much younger Enlightenment West hasn’t yet learned that. Indeed, it holds itself being far too knowledgeable and adventurous to be held back by ‘old’ knowledge (don’t trust anything over 200 years old, the Enlightenment and Romantic West might say – at least until the Boomers knocked it down to 30).
Funny, but in the vampire movies – especially the best of them – it was the older vampire that the younger vampire must learn – the hard way, if necessary – to respect. There was knowledge and power that emanated from a lonnnnng ability to survive. A two-thousand year-old vampire would be much more capable than a two-hundred year-old one, and the youngster would do well to bear that in mind.
Of course, neither the revolutions of the Left nor the nation-states of the Right are really willing to see themselves as vampires. Though in a way there is a vampiric strain in both, as there is in all things human, and in humans themselves. But it’s a useful metaphor, I think.
And it makes for a certain patience and humility that youth never really grasps until later, if not – alas – until sometimes it is too late.
And then Consequences kick in and Life takes one of its nasty, but helpfully corrective, turns.
Although, Consequences having a life of their own and not being simply the cuddly resolved-in-the-third-act plot problems of Hollywood, things can never be quite the same again. Think of how ‘un-American’ the end of “Casablanca” really was: the hero (no great shakes in the looks department) didn’t wind up getting the girl, and ‘the other guy’ (no great shakes in the personality department) turns out to be successfully dedicated to a demanding life of self-sacrifice in the awesomely threatening face of awesomely organized evil.
(And, face it, in this day of self-assured, bleating, butter-greasy Beltway slickies, who can’t cast a wistful eye at Inspector Reynaud’s refreshing candor: “Make it ten thousand - I’m only a poor, corrupt official ” … ?)
So the Church, drawing upon a wisdom drawn from the Greeks and the Romans, developed canon law. The word ‘canon’ does not derive from the artillery piece, but rather from the Greek ‘kanon’ – target or ideal. You make a law to embody the Ideal, giving people something to aim at and to grow toward, while knowing that they are certain to fall short from time to time or even a lot of the time.
This is an approach to Law different from the approach that presumes everybody will and must fulfill it all the time. The ‘kanon-ical’ approach requires both stern-ness and patience, and the humility to realize that in this world even the guards and judges have probably (perhaps most probably) committed their share of law-breaking. Thus the balky and unruly human circus column makes its pilgrim way through Time. If it is a ‘line of march’, it is so only in that marvelously and stubbornly human way once ascribed to Italian military operations generally.
Carroll warms to his thought as he goes along: “The hollowing out of US institutions, from a Congress in the grip of political paralysis to an extravagantly funded Pentagon that cannot defeat enemies whose bombs are made with fertilizer, to an economic regulatory system that has no influence, much less control, over financial predators – all of this suggests a breakdown not just of government, but of the national idea”. [italics mine]*
To which antiphon one can only respond: Bingo!
He names, accurately but without getting into the much more painful specifics as to how they came about, so fundamental a catastrophe as “the collapsed structures of meaning”, which has cut humanity (in the West, at least) “loose from all moorings”. Like my favorite image of the Ferris wheel, broken loose from its struts and careening drunkenly along the midway (one of Spielberg’s most telling images, in my book).
In this country, this is all the result of Congress ‘bipartisanly’ choosing to pander both to Big Pain and to Big Money.
The Big Pain is the organized advocacy against ‘oppression’, impossibly broadly defined if you are going to engorge and deploy the powers of a theoretically limited Constitutional government to assuage its every manifestation.
The Big Money is – as always – the big money. But now with a twist, and a monstrous one. Whereas in the pre-1970 era of US history, the money itself was made by huge corporately organized productive enterprises, since 1980 or so the money is simply ‘there’, and the ‘big money men’ (not intended in a genderist way) are financial managers, who produce nothing but paper and reeking ‘instruments’ … and large bonuses, which they share with the pols who in grateful exchange have deployed their public authority to cage the dogs of regulation.
In fact, you might say that at this point the only thing the country produces is money (printing the stuff at will) and ‘instruments’.
Oh, and military stuff – which it both sells to other countries and uses against them (increasingly), in the service of ‘humanitarian imperialism’ or ‘resource imperialism’ or – the wave of the future – both, with the former fronting for the latter.
After all you can’t eat all those paper ‘instruments’ – or even all those benjamins, and you can’t run your car on them. For the necessities of life, you need other folks’ stuff. That’s what the ‘national interest’ is becoming, and that’s what the military will have to go out and grab – for as long as the game lasts. Which probably won’t be another two thousand years. Or maybe even another two hundred. Or even a tenth of that.
But this started out about the Church, so let’s not digress.
The Church, Carroll’s own paper now uneasily reports, is getting ready to stand up against the decades-long sustained effort to paint it as an ongoing Nixonian cover-up of what is essentially an ongoing sex-abuse enterprise.
I can’t help but think of Audi, in the 1980s, after several years of an American soap-opera stampede claiming that its Teutonic-engineered, high-performance automobiles lumpishly accelerated when the brake pedal was depressed (so the embarrassed drivers claimed in their civil court filings). After a spell of the then-unfamiliar horror-stories from this and that telegenically posed driver, Audi decided that the customer cannot always be presumed to be right, especially when there’s a bundle to be made by said customer(s) through a successfully staged lawsuit.
(Whereas the type of European who would buy an Audi might not perhaps wish to embarrass him/herself by such a gambit, a new generation of Americans – Audi discovered - felt that Pain and its pecuniary assuagement was a perfectly respectable business undertaking.)
So now the Church is going to break the ‘script’; rather than stand conveniently still as all manner of opprobrium is heaped upon it, or mumble or fumble in an effort to assuage its tormentors and hope that they will be appeased, the Church has decided to stand up – both to face its tormentors and itself.
Good. Should have been done long ago on both counts.
As to whether the larger strategic purposes of this long torment have been achieved – that the Church’s moral stature among its adherents and in the public eye has been sufficiently weakened so that it can no longer offer credible resistance to this, that, and the other programme of the Left’s and the Right’s pandered constituencies – remains to be seen, but I’m thinking not.
And at this point, as might be inferred from Carroll’s piece, this country and its people – and The People – are in dire need of the Beyond: for meaning and for mooring, as individuals, as communities, and as the Citizens of a Constitutional Republic that has lost both its bearings and its very grounding.
The Church isn’t perfect, but then has never claimed that it/she was. Which is a bit more than the US government can say at this point (whether in its Leftish reforms or its Rightist wars or its bipartisan ‘humanitarian imperialism’ deployed both domestically and abroad). The Church has never claimed to make History, nor to be its Shaper.
But in a way far deeper and wider and higher than any contemporary faddist can assert, the Church does indeed ‘get it’, and has, and will continue to.
The best this country can hope is to continue to share Time and History with her.
But if that is to be, then it will take more virtue than a flat and shallow ‘optimism’.
The courage of patience and humility would be a good place to start.
Especially if We can impose it upon Ourselves before Time and History do it for Us.
*And you are welcome to give some thought to what is/was America's “National Idea”.
It seems to me that the Framers wanted to provide a reliable limited government that would create the stable ‘space’ wherein human energy, ingenuity and enterprise could flourish and the world would be able to see what a free people could accomplish when unhampered by despotism.
Beyond that they could not go without the government starting to take on the tasks and require the powers of God. Which would inevitably result in a ‘benevolent despotism’, which benevolence they mistrusted over the long run; it would morph into a mere ‘despotism’.
And that is precisely what has happened over time. Especially when, beyond the classic concerns for decent economic rights in the Depression that resulted in the New Deal of the 1930s, the hugely more intangible and questionable programmes of the late 1960s and early 1970s demanded a far more fundamental re-casting of the National Idea.
And then, of course, the revolutionizing advocates of that re-jiggering realized that their visions were sooo tenuous (if desirable, in a best-case outcome scenario at least) and questionable that any process of genuine public deliberation would quite possibly result in that re-jiggering being largely watered down. Thus their revolutionary play-book required that in the service of their visions the entire process of public-deliberation be side-stepped. Which was effected with the whole-hearted assistance of vote-desperate Dems, who enshrined their highly questionable ideas with the full authority of the Federal government.
Thus the paralysis of government which Carroll now sees. The Beltway is now so deeply indentured to the ‘revolutions of the identities’ for votes (and to the corporations for PAC cash) that hardly any pol is sufficiently ‘free’ to take any genuinely corrective and reformative action at this point.
Which is why I see the Beltway now as being in much the same mess as the Soviet ‘elites’ of the mid-1970s: they know they’ve made a hash of it and that things can’t go on like this, but they hope to just have their fun and then retire and get out of town; the new term for that – popular in elite circles – is IBGYBG: I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.
In other words: let’s make our money now, and by the time anybody figures out what we did, IBGYBG.
But of course, one of the consequences of that approach was that by 1990, 15 or so years later, the whole government and its ‘National Idea’ collapsed.
I worry that this, now, is what is in store for Us.