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Archive for May, 2009

After I wrote my recent essay, Tortured Reasoning, I sent copies via email to several friends I thought might be interested in it. A vigorous and eventually testy debate ensued. No, not about torture; these are my friends, after all. Rather, it was about the term “conservative”, both its definition and whether someone who claims to adhere to Catholic social principles has any business describing himself as a conservative. Interestingly, I did not use the term in the essay, though I did speak of torture apologists on “the Right”, and I did cite a couple of examples, who identify themselves as conservatives. And Tom Storck used the term in his comments on the post. As none of the defenses of torture have come from anyone remotely on the political Left I don’t think Tom and I misspoke using conventional nomenclature, nor were we implying that all conservatives defend the use of torture. I said some time ago all I have to say on the subject in my essay of May 5, 2006, The Imitation of Christ: Why I am not a Conservative, so I just sat back and watched the fireworks.

On the one side were a handful of friends who identify themselves as conservatives, and on the other, a couple of friends who argue that “conservative” is not a fit label for a Catholic; that Catholics can have no home on the American political spectrum. The conservatives initially argued that the defenders of torture and militarism were not really conservatives, as they broke with the true faith, er, ideology, in so many ways. When pressed on the incompatibility of that ideology with Catholic social doctrine they seemed to shift: well, conservatism is not really definable, is more a matter of temperament. The holistic Catholics, for lack of a better term, pressed their point with true Thomistic doggedness and the defenders of conservatism became defensive and prickly.

As my sympathies in this quarrel are obvious, I probably did not describe it fairly in the minds of the conservatives. Sorry, I didn’t follow the arguments closely, though I did keep an eye on them.

I revisit this debate because the most recent issue of The American Conservative arrived the other day, and it has several articles that illustrate the rampant controversy over the Right Wing crackup and the problematic nature of the term “conservative” and its various definitions. TAC, a few issues back announced that it was going to cease publishing a print edition. Happily, reader response to this bad news has enabled them to restructure to a monthly from a biweekly. Thank God, for in spite of its title TAC is my favorite political magazine. It is really a lively and diverse hodgepodge of outlooks: paleo-cons, traditionalists, localists, anarchists, libertarians, as well as a number of writers who could hardly be categorized on the Right at all. What seems to be the common thread is a rejection of neoconservatism, militarism, and the Democratic and Republican mainstream.

The current issue has a number of articles illustrating the general confusion swirling around the term “conservative”. On the one end of the spectrum, Patrick Buchanan offers a pretty conventional “cultural warrior” strategy for a Republican comeback. Similar to this, W James Antle III, associate editor of The American Spectator, also sticks to a pretty normal rightish prescription for a GOP recovery of power. Less conventionally, David Bromwich argues more for the conservatism-as-mood viewpoint, with a distinct anti-war angle. And Rod Dreher wrings his hands over the cultural vulgarity of the Right, making his case for a sort of aesthetic traditionalism.

But surely the most original piece is Bill Kauffman’s Found Cause: Don’t call me a Conservative. Mr Kauffman, as I have noted before, is one of the most original and refreshing (and witty) voices on the American scene. This article is no exception; the sort of raucous, joyous, and unpredictable prose we have come to expect from the author. Unfortunately, whoever decided which articles from the current TAC would be available online skipped this one, clearly the finest in the issue.

Bill Kauffman says:

I do not say this better America would be a conservative America because for half a century “conservative” has been a synonym of-and a slave to-militarism, profligacy, the invasion of other nations, contempt for personal liberties, and an ignorance of and hostility toward provincial America that is Philip Rothian in its scope. The conservative movement, like the empire whose adjunct and cheer-leader it is, is a daisy chain of epicene dissemblers and vampiric chickenhawks who feast on the carrion of our Republic. The c-word is quite simply beyond reclamation.

Well said, and if he had stopped there I would have no qualm with him. But he goes on:

If we have to play Name That Tendency I’d opt for Little American, front-porch republican, localist, decentralist, libertarian, or to borrow Robert Frost’s term, Insubordinate American- anything but C!

There is one term in that otherwise fine list that stands out as unsuitable for the adherent of Catholic and distributist principles, and for many of the same reasons that “conservative” does.. I speak of “libertarian”. When both Ron Paul and Howard Stern are described as “libertarian” how could that term have any coherent meaning? And I need look no further than the back cover of this issue of The American Conservative to make my point.

There we find a full page ad for something called “Freedom Fest 2009”, to be held this summer:

Dear fellow libertarians, Unwind, relax and become un-reasonable for 3 glorious days. Join me and a thousand other free minds for the time of your life: Freedom Fest 2009. Just think 7-11 in Vegas. (Huh? Do any definitions of 7-11 make sense in this context?-DN) We have big plans: over a hundred of your favorite speakers… 9 great debates…lots of food and drink…beautiful people…and entertainment galore: Vegas shows and our very own gala Saturday night banquet.

Nathaniel Branden said it best, “I feel an electricity I haven’t felt in years.”

Why Las Vegas?

Conservatives (CPAC) meet in Washington DC but we hate Washington and all it stands for. Doug Casey calls it the Death Star. We prefer Las Vegas, the world’s most libertarian city.

Just allow that to settle in for a moment before I proceed. If Mr Dreher is seeking evidence of cultural barbarism on the Right he need look no further than the back cover of the journal in which his essay is printed.

I recognize only a few of the names that are mentioned in the ad, beginning with Nathaniel Branden, whom I did not realize was still kicking around. Mr Branden was the disciple and adulterous lover of Ayn Rand when that wicked woman was still alive (her name is invoked elsewhere in the Freedom Fest ad). He went on to a career in psychology, where he put the capital Self in self-help. Other names familiar to me include Charles Murray, Steve Forbes, Al Regnery, Bob Tyrrell, and unfortunately the Catholic writer Tom Woods. Ron Paul will also be making an appearance, to his discredit.

If I knew nothing else about libertarianism than this ad, it would be enough to keep me as far away as I could from that political sect. Any group which can cite Las Vegas, the very incarnation of what is most tawdry in the postmodern West, as a model city deserves to be laughed off the stage of public opinion. They ought to rename themselves “libertineists”, and are about as far from a sane vision of the common good as can be imagined.

Catholics can expect no earthly home, let alone a place at the political table. Our City on the Hill is not DC or Las Vegas or the USA, but the New Jerusalem. Our Kingdom is not that of the Democrats or the Republicans or the Libertarians, but of God. In saying this I am not counseling removal from this world or from political action, but if we lose our perspective, if we forget our true home, we will wander lost in the dark, making alliances with those who are ultimately our enemies.

—Daniel Nichols

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Last summer I taught my fifth iconography class at the Romanian Catholic cathedral in Canton. Every year yields a harvest of fine first icons, varying widely according to the natural ability and experience of the student. But while each of them has been worthy of the Church’s blessing and of private veneration, every year I have been blessed with one or two students whose first icon looks like the work of an experienced iconographer.

Last summer I had several obviously gifted students, none less than Paul, a fortiesh Orthodox layman, and a convert from evangelicalism. As the class was the first week of August it fell during the beginning of the two week fast preceding the Feast of the Dormition, which Roman Catholics celebrate as the Assumption. We were both observing the fast, so we took lunch together, seeking vegan meals. And so we got to know one another, and on the Sunday following the week of the class Paul invited me to his friends’ farm for a potluck meal. I had met the family – also evangelical converts to Orthodoxy- some time before, and while I did not really know them I instinctively liked them and considered them kindred: six children, a small farm, and the dad, Mel,  is even a letter carrier, like me. Still, I hardly knew any of them, and knew Mel’s brother, who was visiting, not at all. As my family and I were the only Catholics at an otherwise Orthodox gathering, I was a little apprehensive. But the children immediately hit it off and headed outdoors, the women gathered in the kitchen to talk of babies and herbs and to prepare the meal, and the men in classic form retired to the living room and passed out the beer.

Mel’s brother began what I assumed would be small talk: “So, as a Byzantine Catholic where do you come down on the Palamist controversy?” I was a little stunned. I had not studied St Gregory Palamas in any depth, nor did I have any but the sketchiest knowledge about his teaching on prayer or his theory of the divine essences by which God worked in the world. And I didn’t know much about the details of the resistance that his ideas had met in the West, though from what I had read his basic thought was not incompatible with the teaching of St Thomas.

But what the heck kind of way was that to initiate a conversation?

So I stammered that Byzantine Catholics commemorate St Gregory in our calendar, and that we are free to be as Eastern as we wish, so long as we refrain from calling the West heretical. Paul, clearly embarrassed by this turn of events, steered the conversation to topics less likely to strain things, to iconography and Tolkien and Wendell Berry.

Then it was time for dinner: a fasting feast of homemade pesto pasta, salad, and fruit. After dinner and cleanup the women drifted out to look at the gardens and the men settled back into the living room.

Mel’s brother again began the conversation: “So, as a Byzantine Catholic do feel like” and here I cannot remember if he said “a fish out of water” or “like you are in no man’s land?” Caught offguard again, I fumbled through another answer, saying that I felt just fine, thank you. I then spoke of what I perceived as the affinities between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, emphasizing the saints. I mentioned the often-noted kindred spirits of St Francis of Assisi and St Seraphim of Serov, the 18th century Russian starets. I figured no one could argue with manifest holiness, but I underestimated this guy. He started in on how St Francis exhibited every sign of spiritual delusion, and I for once was rendered speechless. St Francis, it seems, could not have been a genuine saint because he often made dramatic gestures and experienced ecstasies and visions, all of which contradicted the goal of the true hesachyst, which is stilling the passions. Just as gnostics and manichees misunderstand St Paul’s condemnation of “the flesh” as a rejection of the body and of the physical world, my new friend mistook the holy fathers’ struggle against the passions as a damning of the emotions. I can only assume that as a convert of only a few years he was unfamiliar with the visions and ecstasies of the Eastern saints and the affective nature of their devotional lives. They were and are not Dr Spock at prayer. And the antics of the holy fools of Orthodoxy make St Francis look restrained.

But as I said, I was speechless. But I didn’t have to defend poor St Francis. Paul did a good job of holding up the ecumenical end of things while I listened. Finally someone asked me what I thought. I said that I was dumbfounded by his attack on St Francis and asked if he had read any of the source material on the saint, the Little Flowers, or the works of Thomas of Celano or of St Bonaventure (he hadn’t). And I mentioned St Paul, who had been taken up in ecstasy into the heavens and experienced things beyond human utterance. Then I excused myself, as my very pregnant bride no doubt needed help by now keeping up with Michael Seraphim, who was two and quite a handful.

Michelle got a welcome break, and I followed little Michael around outside, intervening only to keep him from breaking his neck. Mel made his way outside too, leaving his brother and Paul intellectually duking it out. We talked, uncontroversially: postal shop talk, weather, gardening.

As the afternoon wore on Paul and his family left, and I said that we should be going too. Brenda, Mel’s wife, spoke up: “Do you have to go? We like you”. This was so sweet and guileless that we stuck around until dusk. As we left Mel’s brother shook my hand. “I hope I didn’t offend you”, he said. I told him that I didn’t believe he hoped any such thing, and that I would be happy to discuss the things that divide the Churches, that he might be surprised that on most controversies we would be in agreement, but that it would be wise to have such a conversation only after some trust and friendship had been established. I don’t know if I said it or just thought it, but it occurred to me that I would not insult a Muslim or a Mormon by attacking those they held to be prophets on a first meeting, but would try to find common ground (admittedly more difficult with a Mormon), let alone someone who in the great scheme of things shared so much on questions of faith.

As offended as I was by his approach to a new acquaintance, it did not occur to me until some months afterward that his question- the fish out of water or no man’s land one- hits pretty close to the mark. The Byzantine Catholic, as one who prays and worships in the way of the Orthodox, but who lives in communion with the bishop of Rome, really does feel adrift. Because of the spiritual life we live we feel great affinity with the Orthodox, who often view us with suspicion, if not hostility. Even the friendly ones no doubt wonder why we don’t just embrace Orthodoxy and get it over with. And Latin rite Catholics, if not downright suspicious, often misunderstand us. One priest friend insists on calling us “Roman Catholics of the Byzantine Rite”, which misses the point entirely and runs counter to the Church’s own description, in the Code of Canon Law, of “autonomous ritual Churches”.  But then popular Roman Catholic ecclesiology, with its absolute papal monarchy, veers pretty far from the Church’s official teaching.

I know that a year or so ago on this site, when we were discussing Orthodoxy and Catholicism and the conditions for reunion, my opinions led several posters to suggest that I was on my way out, that I was heading for the Orthodox Church. But that hasn’t happened, nor is it likely to. I may have found my spiritual home in an essentially Orthodox praxis, in the Divine Liturgy, in the Jesus Prayer, in iconography. And I may concur with Orthodox criticism of the West on a wide variety of subjects, from the decadence of its religious art to its arbitrary changes of ancient custom, to its tendency to over-define doctrines, and a host of other things. But I will remain Catholic. Why? In a word, ecclesiology.

While it is more accurate to speak in the plural of Orthodox ecclesiologies, as there are a variety of opinions on the various points of contention, it is very common to encounter the idea that Peter’s primacy was passed to all the apostles, not just to the bishop of Rome, and even that when Christ spoke of building His Church on “this rock” He was referring only to the newly renamed Peter’s (“Rock’s”) confession of faith. But while I might argue with the way it has been exercised historically, the continued primacy of Peter in the bishop of Rome seems pretty clearly an essential element in the structure of the visible Church.

And if one doubts this, one only has to compare the clarity and simplicity of Rome when it comes to any question of authority with the jurisdictional confusion of the Orthodox Churches, especially in this country. The multiplicity of Orthodox jurisdictions and their various ongoing squabbles in the US run counter to any Orthodox ecclesiology with which I am familiar and does much to temper any attraction to Orthodoxy I may experience.

And so I remain, a fish out in no man’s land, under a cloud of suspicion, content to be misunderstood.

Disclaimer: I apologize if anything I have written offends either my Roman Catholic or Orthodox readers. This is not a theological tract, merely an experiential reflection, and should not be taken as reflecting the opinions of any but myself.

—Daniel Nichols

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