|Demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street campaign hold signs as a protest march Sept. 30. CNS photo from Reuters
At the end of the year, we are naturally drawn to review the past 12 months and try to glean some meaning from the infinite number of events that occurred. It’s a natural impulse, of course, and it’s not a bad thing to take a step back and look at where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Before we do that, though, it’s also worth noting how deeply some features of our outlook on the world are so bred in the bone that we don’t even consider the possibility of thinking in any other way. So, for instance, we tend to conceive of time as a line. It has a beginning (the Big Bang) and has been hurtling along since then toward some kind of end. If you are a Christian or a Jew, that end is the Day of the Lord. This linear conception of history comes straight from the Bible and keeps working whether or not people believe in God, as a general rule. Here in the West, if you are not religious, you still tend to sneak drinks from that well, but you replace all the God stuff with chatter about “progress” while not being too clear about what it is you are progressing toward. Indeed, much “progress” is really measured among the godless by regress — from the Dark Ages of the Christian tradition and into the glorious future of post-Christian secularism.
The problem is that the future isn’t what it used to be. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, we were all headed toward an interplanetary civilization of Gee Whiz Golden Age Science Fiction in which the universe was to become the “final frontier” (a natural successor to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier”). However, in recent decades the rapidly de-Christianizing West has lost confidence in the missionary impulse that had animated it while it was still Christian. More and more, our culture sees history as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. When a civilization loses confidence that God (or his fading ghost, the Spirit of Progress) is in charge — when it becomes, in a word, pagan — it comes to regard history as, in the words of Arnold Toynbee, just “one damn thing after another.”
History becomes not a line but a circle: a round of dog-eat-dog in which the best you can shoot for is to grab at pleasure or power before you die and rot. In such a world, the future is not heaven or eternity, but that endless desert in which you and all you love will be dead while the past was a big pinball game of events that briefly and accidently resulted in you. That is the bleak view of history brilliantly summed up in that bleakest of biblical books, Ecclesiastes — the book that most closely matches our contemporary post-Christian outlook in the West:
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun? One generation departs and another generation comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun sets; then it presses on to the place where it rises. Shifting south, then north, back and forth shifts the wind, constantly shifting its course. All rivers flow to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place where they flow, the rivers continue to flow. All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words. The eye is not satisfied by seeing nor has the ear enough of hearing. What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us. There is no remembrance of past generations; nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them” (Eccl 1:2-11).
This is all history has to offer us apart from the Gospel, because the Incarnation of God and his Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension are the only real news to be had since the Fall. Viewed apart from the Incarnation, the news of the past year, like the news of all years, is simply testimony to the fact that the world does not progress. It merely wobbles because “creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:20-21).
Conversely, viewed through the fact of the Incarnation of the Son of God and his promise to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, this year (like all years) is pregnant with the promise that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. ... Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:11-14). In short, because God has become man he has hallowed history and made it his story. So, given the fact that this year, like all years since the Incarnation is the Year of the Lord’s Favor, let’s take a look back to see how, while this world just kept wobbling in futility, the Lord has continued his saving work.
Mark Shea writes from Washington state.
Adventures with Mammon and Caesar
The biggest story in terms of this world is, of course, the economy. Per the word of the New Testament, mammon continued its habit of being a treacherous and unreliable friend, due to the twin sins of avarice and pride. Our biggest financial brains in government and business continued laboring to make sure that our biggest financial brains in government and business continue to get the sweet deals provided for them by the incestuous union of our biggest financial brains in government and business. The state made sure that highly paid and powerful people on Wall Street continued to profit mightily from state largesse while politicians continued to profit mightily from the support of fantastically wealthy corporations. The way they achieve this is by making the taxpayer pay for corporate bailouts and golden parachutes of wealthy and incompetent executives who mismanaged their Too Big to Fail Corporations.
Naturally, the main culprits held up for scorn were the poor, who were blamed for taking out loans they could not afford at the urging of both Caesar and Mammon. Do the poor bear some responsibility here? Sure. Don’t buy stuff you can’t afford. Live within your means. Remember that avarice and pride are foolish sins. Do not be controlled by envy and the insistence of trying to keep up with the Joneses.
On the other hand, Jesus says, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Lk 12:48). Let us grant that the poor man who understands little about finance (which is why he is poor) bears responsibility for taking out the too-good-to-be-true loan because the bank gave him a free toaster, urged him to do it, and promised his dream of home ownership was within reach.
However, if that is so, how much more responsibility do the immensely powerful people who work for Mammon and Caesar bear for setting up this calamity? They, after all, knew the immense risk they were urging the poor to take. Now it is the poor and the middle class who are paying the piper for this gross irresponsibility, not the fabulously wealthy and powerful who did so much to cause it and who then went on to profit from the disaster. As Jesus warns in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, one of the great dangers of riches and power is that they tend to shield the human soul from the consequences of wicked actions in this world by muffling the cries of conscience. May next year bring the grace of repentance and willingness to take responsibility for sin and the common good from all.
Speaking of economics, Europe is also in dire straits for similar sins of irresponsibility. The experiment of trying to create a United States of Europe known as the European Union is unraveling as the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) go into the economic tank while the powerhouse economies of Europe such as Germany try to figure out a way to say to their poorer cousins, “Your end of the Titanic is sinking.” Similarly, China’s economy is in bad shape and, in a globalized world, that means everybody is worried and nobody is quite sure what to do.
Of course, the Church has some ideas and Benedict XVI (in Caritas in Veritate) has made some suggestions that, if followed, could help a great deal. But as is usually the case with the Church’s social teaching, our manufacturers and shapers of culture on both left and right are only interested in what the Church has to say insofar as it can be ransacked for bits and pieces to accessorize ideologies fundamentally hostile to the Faith.
So libertarians have tended to latch on to the Church’s teaching about subsidiarity (which says that the people closest to the problem are generally the ones to deal with it), while lefties have occasionally gotten excited when the Church talks about solidarity (that fact that we are all in this together and that each is responsible for the common good of all). In particular, those in love with state power like the bit of Church teaching that the state does in fact have a role to play in human affairs and that it was instituted by God to protect the common good since even capitalists are afflicted with original sin. However, things have not yet reached such a desperate pass in the economy that our leaders are willing to actually consider anything like a social, economic, or political program that really takes seriously the whole Catholic vision of the human person or the family as more important than either Mammon or Caesar. Consequently, unrest grows.
The Rise of the Occupy Wall Street Movement
Speaking of unrest, September and the months following saw the rise of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which began in Zuccotti Park in New York and quickly spread around the world. Largely peaceful (though troubled at the fringes with some of the violence and seediness to be expected when a lot of unemployed, homeless, and disaffected people congregate in large numbers for months on end in public places) the Occupy Movement has been the face of discontent with the incestuous marriage of Caesar and Mammon this year, much as the tea parties were the face of discontent in previous years.
Indeed, one of the many ironies of recent history is how much these two movements have in common in their loathing of Big Caesar and Big Mammon — and how much more they loathe each other.
Scientists are still studying this mutual loathing in the hope of finding a cure so that healthy Americans can get back to calling to account the enormously rich and powerful whose income has skyrocketed while middle class incomes have stagnated and over the past 30 years.
What both movements do is illustrate G.K. Chesterton’s observation that the revolutionary generally has a pretty good idea of what is wrong but not what is right.
Consequently, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, like the Tea Parties, has been a good place to hear critiques of the incestuous relationship of Mammon and Caesar, and often a terrible place to hear solutions since OWS, like the Tea Parties, tends to get its thinking, not from Catholic Social teaching, but from human authorities. For the tea parties, the seminal figure has been the enemy of God Ayn Rand, while for OWS it has been the enemy of God Karl Marx. On the bright side, there is openness to Catholic teaching in both camps, too.
Speaking of despotism, one of the semi-heartening things to watch this year has been the uprising throughout the Arab world of various peoples who are simply sick to death of living under the various backward oligarchic tyrannies with which the Islamosphere has always abounded. For decades, the tyrants in such nations as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen have been able to pacify their people with a combination of graft, truncheons, and the occasional shout that Israeli or American devils were tunneling under their houses, thereby distracting them from their hatred of their oppressor. But that camel don’t hunt anymore and peoples all over the Middle East are finally waking up to the fact that their masters have been playing them.
Not that the rebels against oppression are inclined to love us much. They don’t see us as supporters in the struggle for freedom. They see us as pals of the people who are beating them in Tahrir Square and profiteers off their suffering. It’s the tear gas canisters and weapons marked “Made in USA” that tend to persuade them of that.
Moreover, the reform and revolt movements are often again bent on demonstrating Chesterton’s point with clarity by aching to replace the current repressive regime with something even more repressive. In Egypt (as in “liberated” Iraq) the first result of getting rid of the repression by a secularized authority has been to labor to replace it with Radical Islamic repression that can’t wait to beat up and kill Christians. One thing Americans have a hard time grasping is that sometimes people revolt because they seek the freedom to be more brutal and despotic than the previous regime allowed.
Threats to Liberty, Both Religious and Civil
Another aspect of the growing concentration of power in the hands of Caesar and Mammon has been the increased hostility of our millionaire elites in the legislative and executive branches to both the average citizen and, in particular, the average citizen who regards God as a higher authority than Caesar.
The Obama administration has, for instance, taken a number of steps that can only be regarded as hostile to religious liberty. It has attempted to compel Catholic health care providers to provide artificial contraceptives. It has worked to force the Church to comply with same-sex adoption (and thereby forced the Church out of playing a role in a number of vital corporal works of mercy around the nation). In a move both sinister and absurd, the administration recently attempted to argue before the Supreme Court that it should have a voice in determining who churches may and may not ordain according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. In other words, it attempted to insert itself into the question of whether women may be ordained.
Happily, the Supreme Court still retains a measure of sanity and even its most left-wing justices were gobsmacked by the administration’s incredible hubris. But it’s the thought that counts. If the administration had had its way, it might actually have tried to start telling churches (including, presumably, the Catholic Church) that failure to ordain women was a violation of EEOC guidelines and punishable under civil rights laws.
This massive overreach has been coupled with other examples of state hubris which, taken together, are causing growing concern among Americans who care deeply for our tradition of ordered liberty and civil rights. For the State’s growing contempt for religious liberty is being mirrored by other examples of ominous behavior, typically done in the name of “national security” (as such dangerous moves often are). Among the most notable is the administration’s claim to the right to kill — without arrest, evidence, trial, judge, jury, or verdict — any American citizen the president deems, on his absolute will alone, to be a terrorist. This raw unilateral power was exercised this year when Obama unilaterally ordered the execution of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Most Americans have little trouble with this since they do not tend to remember that the law functions by precedent. (It was, after all, only one baby who was the subject of Roe v. Wade, but that one baby’s death became a precedent for allowing the deaths of 53 million more).
In the same way, the summary execution of one American citizen on the omnipotent unilateral fiat of an unaccountable president leaves the door wide open for other such executions, based on the omnipotent word and will of the president alone.
And if this were not enough, in late November, the Senate passed a defense appropriations bill which would grant the executive the power to use the military to arrest and detain — forever and without charge — any American citizen he pleases on the charge of terrorism or “support” for terrorism. Given that federal criteria for what constitutes evidence of suspected “support” for terrorism include such bizarre things as missing fingers, owning guns or weatherproof ammo, or having more than seven days worth of food stocked up (not to mention being a known member of a pro-life organization), this bill should be of great concern to all Americans and is bound to meet a Supreme Court challenge should it be signed into law.
Of greater concern should be President Obama’s rationale for promising to veto it: namely, that it does not give him enough power to shred the Fourth Amendment, the Constitution and even the Magna Carta.
Not just Catholics, but all Americans are in grave danger of having their most basic freedoms stripped away before an omnipotent and unaccountable state. This issue will only continue to grow should Obama go back on his promise to veto. And it could be of acute concern in coming years should this administration’s (or some future administration’s) hostility to the Church grow.
The Adventures of Pope Benedict and the New Translation of the Mass
Last but not least has been the steady advance of the Gospel, which is what history is all about. There are 69 new Catholics every second, 2,169 new Catholics every hour, and 52,055 new Catholics every 24 hours. That’s a lot of immortal souls to take care of, and Pope Benedict XVI has the daunting task of being the universal shepherd, not only of these new little ones in Christ, but the rest of us as well.
To that end, Pope Benedict has used his formidable gifts as a communicator to continue an unprecedented project: the publication of part two of “Jesus of Nazareth,” his fascinating commentary and meditation on the New Testament.
It is unique in that it is not intended as “papal teaching” but as a faithful work of meditation on Scripture by a private theologian.
Pope Benedict invites commentary and critique (as is fitting for a private theologian) and shows us what healthy scripture study and meditation looks like. In so doing, he gives us something completely unique in the history of the papacy: scriptural commentary done by a pope who is not writing as pope but as a scholar and, above all, as a private believer.
In addition to this Pope Benedict has also, of course, exercised his office as teacher in his travels this year, notably to Croatia, Germany and Benin, as well as to Spain. In Spain, particularly, his impact was felt in yet another of his predecessor’s most brilliant and life-giving inventions: World Youth Day. Once again, young people from across the globe came and showed — by their energy, passion and love for the Faith and for the Holy Father — that the reports of the death of the Faith in the rising generation have been greatly exaggerated.
Finally, Pope Benedict’s greatest and most lasting legacy to the Church (and probably the enduring fact of his papacy in the English-speaking world) is the new translation of the Mass which made its debut at the beginning of Advent. A much more courtly translation than the previous translation — as well as much closer to the Latin of the Paul VI rite, this translation was greeted with both excited anticipation (by supporters) and with a mysterious dread by those who opposed it.
But though opponents predicted it would be difficult for ordinary people to understand or follow, the fears have proven largely unfounded and the translation is already settling in without too much difficulty and with general good will from most English-speakers.
As 2012 approaches, the world may sometimes appear to be without a prayer, but the Church is emphatically equipped to continue its work and supplication remembering the words of Jesus: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).