Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Fools

There is a saying among the finches who visit my balconata: “The Lord Denizen of the High Doganate works in mysterious ways.” Or rather, I’m convinced that they don’t understand me. My seeds they are happy enough to take, but they will not trust me. They let a Jay, on one occasion, alight on my railing. Four of the finches prattled about it at the other end, discussing perhaps whether they should stay or leave, but they did not fly away. Yet I, who have the most charitable intentions towards them — more charitable, surely, than any Jay — have only to turn my head, behind a window screen, and they take flight in alarm. They have the strongest objection to letting me read on my own balconata, and will shun the vicinity for an hour after I have gone inside. For all the evidence I have presented, they question whether I am their benefactor.

Similarly, with the humans, and their Lord Creator. They partake freely of the feast He has laid out before them, but do not like Him watching while they eat. At the rumour that He is in motion, they flee. They may tolerate the most provocative intruders, consort with those who do not wish them well, mutter and chirple about this and that. But they do not welcome the company of their Feeder; nor even try to understand Him.

I have heard so many complaints against God, lately, from people who pretend to doubt that He exists. They blame Him for things like suffering and death; or making various pleasures conditional upon fleeting health and luck. They are irritated by anything resembling rules or commandments coming from that Source, and make a show of flouting them. They turn to Him only, if at all, when every other choice has been obviated, and then ask help they have done nothing to deserve. Whenupon often as not, they get it.

They think they know everything. Seldom does it occur, and then only to the deeply religious and odd, that God is working with more information. Yet even these “believers” seldom glimpse what the larger scheme might be.

He allows horrors: sufferings and deaths. He allows the rain to fall on the just; and the hail, and the lightning, and deluges; He allows thieves, and He allows taxes. He lets good men go to prison, and bad men roam free. On Friday, Stateside, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, He allowed five spacy judges, including two who should have recused themselves, to outvote four partly sensible ones, on a matter of crucial and enduring public importance.

*

These judicial legislators also went about it in the most foolish available way, by ponderously invoking the sorry nonsense of “substantive due process” — and now there will be hell to pay for all faithful Christians (Jews, Muslims, &c). Rather than review the merits of the case before them, on the basis of existing law, they made new law from whole cloth.

Let me dwell on this a moment, for the media have all but obliterated the circumstances of the case, in their rush to celebrate the outcome. It was not about gay marriage, per se. The question was originally whether a registrar in Ohio was obliged to record the homosexual partner of a man, deceased, as his “surviving spouse,” — given that they had been legally married out-of-state. Ohio had previously recognized all out-of-state marriages as valid, including those between cousins, or minors, which could not be legally performed in Ohio. A case could be made that the registrar was so obliged, that would not require Ohio to change its marriage laws, let alone every other State in the Union. The judicial overreach was breathtaking.

By invoking this (hallucinogenic) doctrine of “substantive due process,” where nothing of the sort was required, Justice Kennedy (a Reagan appointee) breached the dam. His majority opinion enables a flood of further petitions to follow through the same gash. As Chief Justice Roberts pointed out in his dissent, the same reasoning could be used to legalize polygamous marriage, and anything else you can imagine. As Justice Scalia observed, the doctrine itself is among “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” Anything could be meant by it — above, beyond, and then infinitely beyond what it is taken to mean at this moment.

Moreover, Justice Kennedy, with the four stooges behind him, reasons “empirically” from his own arbitrary and personal notion that “heterosexual” marriage and family life are flourishing in the United States, and so “homosexual” marriage can only contribute to this happy state of affairs. All the major evidence — all — runs contrary to that. The institution of the family is disintegrating in the same United States, as throughout the Western world. It has been pulled to pieces by the very inversion of moral values which Justice Kennedy is advancing. He is thus a lunatic. But of course, he is not alone.

Polygamy, &c, won’t happen in the near future, because America’s progressive elites don’t want it, yet. Something else will happen, immediately. The decision positively invites the gay lobbies to go after Christians, with legal bullying; it renders every claim to freedom in the practice of our faith, legally indefensible. We are all bigots now, in American law, and any who refuse to accommodate homosexual demands for public recognition are in the dock with racists.

*

I have some firsthand experience, for the benefit of U.S. Americans, especially journalists, of what is coming next.

Twelve years ago, my column started disappearing from the CanWest newspapers (starting with the National Post), as I persisted in opposing “same-sex marriage.” This was when it was coming to Canada, as the result of an Ontario Superior Court decision — after which the (nominally Tory) judge partied with the plaintiffs. The media kept mentioning that a “debate” on the issue was taking place, so I joined in, taking my knocks, which were many, personal, and often low and nasty.

Only one other journalist in Canada was, to my knowledge, not only on my side but dug in. (Others would say, “I’m against,” then change the subject.) This was Rory Leishman of the London Free Press. To Rory’s eternal credit, he got dumped as a columnist in his own home mainstream newspaper, years before I finally walked from mine.

For of course there was no debate, and no debate had ever been intended, and those opposed who did not choose silence soon found silence chosen for them.

I used many arguments, when I fought this fight on our Canadian national front line, but at the heart of them were these:

That once marriage is defined as no longer between “man and woman,” but “two persons,” all marriages become gay marriages.

That once homosexuality is defined as equivalent to race creed or colour, all faithful Christians become bigots, for the purposes of “human rights” legislation. (Along with the entire human race, born before yesterday.)

Alas, these arguments proved too simple to understand.

*

From that Christian view: What good could come of it? Why has God allowed it? Why has He let the basic building block of human society be overturned in this way, so totally and so vastly?

These are good questions, the answers to which we are unlikely to learn in the course of our earthly lives.

Given the trend of American and Western society, however, the decision could come as no surprise. Nor has it significance in itself, except as a key link in a longer chain of monstrosities. More particularly, we should never be surprised by a perverted ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. It has a long history — more than two centuries, now — of whimsically undermining every principle of Natural, Common, and written positive Constitutional Law, in service to powerful elites of the moment, and for the purpose of enhancing their powers. They have long been hirelings for the Zeitgeist.

From Marbury v. Madison, to Dred Scott v. Sandford, to the Slaughterhouse Cases, to Buck v. Bell, to USA v. Carolene Products, to Korematsu v. USA, to Katzenbach v. McClung, to Roe v. Wade, to Chevron v. NRDC, to the Obamacare ruling one day and this horror the next (I omit hundreds), the American Supreme Court has proved a law unto itself — as, too, courts modelled on it around the world: arrogant and stinking with moral corruption. This includes the one with which we were saddled in Canada, after the innovations of 1949 (if not earlier).

No men, with the powers conferred on Supreme Court justices, will fail to abuse them. And the way in which they will abuse, given the foundation of their power in abstract reasoning, will be especially damaging. Each pregnant decision, like this — but also as others of more limited pretence — has the effect of tossing another monkeywrench into the Natural Order. Eventually, it comes spitting back.

For God, the final author of that Order (which mediaeval lawyers attempted only to “discover”), is great and good. He allows us to make a mess, and even helps us to recover from the mess that we alone have made, by means that would be beyond our humbled powers.

What is happening in this instance I cannot tell, but I do have a glimpse from one angle. The false prestige of American and other modern Western institutions — consciously founded on secular ideals, which may not deny God but certainly ignore Him — grew with outward material success. “We are rich and emancipated, therefore cannot be wrong,” is subtext throughout Justice Kennedy’s meandering Opinion. This sand was spread in the very foundation of our North American “freedom,” as in the modern European “freedom” advanced by Enlightenment and Revolution. In retrospect, we have been able to claim, plausibly, that “we did it, and we were not stopped.”

Though painful to believers and unbelievers alike, the conditions have been brought about for the breakdown not only of our material order, but of the premisses that underly it. Or put another way, we are committing the final acts of self-destruction.

In parochial American terms, the heresy that Pope Leo XIII defined as “Americanism” is being shown for what it is. Individual initiative cannot much help us, let alone save us, from the cumulative effect of individual initiative. The final “separation of church and state” does not lead where we expected. And while the Church may now be under systematic attack, by the State; and while the attacks will surely crush the little faith of innumerable callow Christians, delivering the “novo” section of our Church to extinction; the Rock beneath them begins to be exposed. In the end, that State is dashing itself upon that Rock. It has already dashed its own brains out.

The “American dream” must perish. We have believed ourselves to be independent in just those areas where we are not and never can be. Conversely, we have denied that we are independent in just those areas where we are, indeed, capable of real moral choice. The Declaration of Independence is soon a dead letter; we are feeling our way mysteriously back towards the contrary Declaration of Dependence.

*

Here is a quote that a reader (Perfesser Smith, no less) has copied to me, from Romano Guardini, in his beuk, The End of the Modern World (1956). It may not at first seem relevant to the above, but on a few minutes thought will be found to address the point directly:

“It is cheap and false to condemn the medieval use of authority as ‘slavery’. Modern man makes this judgement not merely because he enjoys the discovery of autonomous investigation but because he resents the Middle Ages. His resentment is born of the realization that his own age has made revolution a perpetual institution. But authority is needed not only by the childish but also in the life of every man, even the most mature. Integral to the full grandeur of human dignity, authority is not merely the refuge of the weak; its destruction always breeds its burlesque — force.

“As long as medieval man was gripped by his own vision of existence, as long as he heard its music sounding in the depths of his heart, he never experienced authority as shackling. It was a bridge leading to the absolute; it was the flag of the world. Authority provided medieval man with the opportunity to construct an order whose magnificence of form, intensity of manner, and richness of life were such that he would have judged our world as paltry.”

And too, I should think, as a dictatorship of fiends.

Fraternal charity

Being no expert or authority on anything, I am loathe to pronounce ex cathedra judgements, even from the Chair of the High Doganate. Perhaps I am excessively shy: I stick only to self-evident propositions, condemn only the most obvious frauds, and shower my moronic enemies with only the most affectionate abuse. I never say anything controversial.

The meaning of raca in today’s (Vetus Ordo) Gospel, and therefore its most suitable translation into the vernacular of the moment, is subject to some dispute among scholars. There is a little university game going on, in which it is argued that the term carried the flavour of “fairy” or “faggot,” and that by condemning its use Jesus was making a statement against “homophobia,” and thus marching with the rainbow coalition. There is, as usual with such perfessers, no evidence whatever for this fanciful notion, which would make a hash of the whole passage in the Sermon on the Mount within which it appears (Matthew 5, verses 20 through 24). So forget this whole paragraph.

That raca is a husky, strong Aramaic word, embedded in melodious Greek, would be heard immediately, as rough within smooth. It would come from further back in the throat, commanding a slight pause. This in itself would put some emphasis upon it.

Aramaic, “cognate” (nearly meaningless term) with Hebrew; as also with Canaanite and Phoenician and other ancient Semitic tongues — ancestor to Arabic; spoken as lingua franca in neo-Assyria and neo-Babylon; as still today among certain persecuted Christians, more than three thousand years after it formed — was probably street language in New Testament times. It could also be elevated and rabbinical: a specialized form becoming the language of the Talmud. But it would not be so spoken in the village or the marketplace.

The lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire was Greek, however: the language of town and of the open road, with centuries of Hellenistic use behind it. I daresay Jesus was fluent both in Greek and Aramaic. And had perhaps even a smattering of Latin; as well as being comfortable with biblical Hebrew texts (apparently by the age of twelve). And that He put Greek words into Aramaic sentences (the way they drop English into Hindi at Delhi), and vice versa (in a different spirit).

It does not follow from the fact that the Evangelists feel the need to explain Aramaic words, that they spoke Greek (and wrote or dictated it, with considerable facility), but their Master only Aramaic. For Jesus was not a man of slow wit; we should not assume he was as linguistically challenged as the typical North American. I would think He spoke Greek, almost exclusively in the towns, where he would drop in the odd Aramaic term, for colour. Ancient Palestine was, as today, not a large place. You can still walk across it; I have. So I further doubt that Greek was confined to the towns.

Conversely, I rather think the sleepy, conventional view, that Jesus was unilingual in Aramaic, depends not on evidence but upon a populist, romantic fallacy. To this day, we want to cast Him as a “prole,” surrounded by sophisticates of the chattering classes.

But these are not useful categories in the context. We can see in the Gospels that Jesus is speaking to men of all classes — to the rabbis and to the Romans, not only to the crowds; and to members of quite various sects. He walks, as it were, through cultural and linguistic walls; does not offer any Marxist class theory, nor preach on the evils of “colonialism.” Like the wanton mistranslation of raca, this is all self-regarding, post-modern phantasy.

Indeed, His subject matter — human salvation — is different in kind from the subject of politics, and necessarily precludes political tact and stratagems. He did not take sides, He wiggled out of labels. He spoke to be understood, and in His time and place, I should think He would have had to speak both Greek and Aramaic. His disciples, I should think, likewise: I would make the comparison to northern New Brunswick where, in small towns and rural locations, men such as fishermen have for generations spoken both English and French, toggling back and forth without thinking, and sometimes mulching them together. But when Christ’s disciples are speaking “to the world,” they stick to Greek, and explain the Aramaic. The Greek goes into Latin, as it travels west, but the Aramaic floats over unchanged, as a cell within it.

Qui autem dixerit fratri suo, raca: reus erit concilio. Qui autem dixerit, fatue: reus erit gehennae ignis.

“Whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”

One might over-parse, but it seems to me that an important point is conveyed by the switch of language, and that it wouldn’t have been noted and preserved if the auditors did not understand the purport. It even seems to me that a distinction is made by Jesus, more meaningful than the one the scholars have tussled, earlier in the same verse, over whether the words “without a cause” were original, or a scribal interpolation to exempt “justifiable” anger from the anathema on murderous Wrath. A scribe might well be legalistic; Our Lord did not split hairs that way. He forgave imperfections; He did not slice and dice to accommodate them.

Raca meant, so far as anyone currently alive can reconstruct, “empty-headed” in the Aramaic colloquial of twenty centuries ago. The Greek moros (Latin fatue), “fool,” is then presented in parallel — not in this case by an Apostolic interpreter, but within the quotation of Christ Himself. The flip is designed to bring out a subtlety, of real spiritual import. For the Greek word goes beyond the Aramaic, carrying with it a connotation of atheism, and thus the implication, “entirely beyond the reach of God.”

The “council” might punish you for calling your brother citizen an airhead, in defiance of good form; the Speaker of the House might nail you for that frightful use of such a rude term. But we get beyond the council, and down into burning Gehenna (“Hell”), when, from the depths of our being, we call him an unsalvageable airhead.

Therefore, we should not do that. For when we do, we murder him in our soul.

Drawing a comparison

There could be an international banking collapse Monday, I gather from this morning’s perusal of “the news.” This because the Greeks have now pushed it, not only to the limit, but somewhere beyond. We offer no investment advice, up here in the High Doganate. Nor do we prognosticate from Saturday to Monday: much might happen in between. We only note what the Greeks themselves are doing: taking every last euro on which they can get their hands, in cash out of their banks.

More interesting than any banking crash to me is the nature of their behaviour. In the technical sense, it is schizophrenic. They voted for a Left government that would put an end to “austerity,” and get their creditors — simplified to “the Germans” — off their backs. This would make everyone happier, and they could go back to living as they did before: which is to say, like Germans, but on a spree. That they didn’t believe for a moment that this was possible, is evident in the run on their banks, which began even before their last election.

People are considerably more sensible when acting directly on their own behalf, than when voting. Events in Greece exaggerate this disconnect, so well that anyone can see it. The Greeks believe in magic, at the level of the State, but closer to home they do not believe it.

This problem goes beyond “democracy,” I should perhaps mention. It arises wherever the people entrust public institutions with powers that are larger than their human agents could possibly master. They might believe in unelected dictators, for a season; or in the wisdom of legislating through courts. It is a common disorder of the irreligious mind: to put “faith” in things that are unworthy; to trust men and machines, in place of God.

North Americans are just the same. Politicians like Barack Obama flourish, because they promise magic, just like Greek politicians. Suspend disbelief, at the behest of some spellbinding, charismatic politician, and one can actually imagine that the laws of supply and demand do not apply to government measures; nor that any natural law could pertain to sovereign personal responsibility. For an electoral moment, one enters into the narrative conceit that pigs can remain airborne. The government may simply pass a law to abrogate nature. If it has failed thus far to do so, the only explanation can be ill-will. “Conservatives” are mean, and  lack compassion, and are preventing “the people” from getting what they want. They must be evil men. “Boo, boo, bad man!” as my little sister used to say (at the age of four).

But the people themselves do, actually, understand gravity when it applies to them, and only in the most clinical cases will they climb on the roof to see if they can fly.

*

Now, there was other news this morning, including an item that inspires not a retraction, from me, but an important qualification.

Gentle reader may have perused recent Idleposts, in which I appear to question the pope’s secular opinions on subjects such as “climate change.” I did not dwell on the admirably Benedictine (sextusdecimus) connexions he is drawing to large moral facts: for instance, that people who wish to save endangered animals might start with human beings in the womb. Or that, those who worship some “ecological” order might acknowledge that the “traditional” human family exhibits all the requirements for one.

There is more, equally astute, in the encyclical of Pope Francis, and good Catholics have pointed to several edifying passages, while trying to defend it from the opprobrium cast by other good Catholics, who think it wanders recklessly off divine message, into areas of unnecessary secular controversy. (I use the term “good Catholics” loosely.)

A popular position is that this longest encyclical I have ever read has a “dialectical” purpose: that it is trying to engage with the “progressive” types who do not themselves see obvious connexions between A and B and C — by bringing the connexions to their attention. “If you believe this, then you must also believe that,” and so forth. That is why, for instance, we see from the word-cloud generated by the document that the word “Jesus” has so little place; why instead words like “human world development economic social new change must resources” are so prominently represented, and the general term “God” is so much preferred, as a means to avoid trinitarian precision. For the pope is not only writing to the converted.

To my mind, and I think in established Catholic practice, a pope writes specifically to the converted, but too, over their shoulders to anyone else who can read. He does not write from an “evolving” position, but from a settled doctrinal position, which he must be at pains to vindicate, constantly. The worldlings may have other views, but when they’re listening to the pope they should be aware, or be made aware, that the Pope is Catholic.

I do not accept this “dialectical” suggestion, however, not only on such absolute terms, but also because I claim to know how the “progressive” mind works. It is not dialectical. It does not argue, nor respond to argument, nor to “inconvenient truths.” Rather it suppresses, and demands the suppression of, whatever it does not want to know. I was not even slightly surprised that progressive media put the whole encyclical “below the fold” in their coverage; that they hardly mentioned any of the pope’s “Christian stuff,” and then only by way of contemptuous dismissal. The important thing to them is that he’d surrendered to “the science of” global warming, in a big enough way that they can hope he’ll soon abandon the rest of his quaint beliefs.

For, to capsulize this media view: “Who is he to judge?”

Yet the Christian stuff is there, if one looks for it. (We shouldn’t have to look quite so assiduously.) And this is what makes it so comfortable to read, when compared with, say, yesterday’s majority judgment from the U.S. Supreme Court, enacting same-sex marriage, nationally. Or for that matter, the big judgment from the day before, imposing Obamacare provisions in the majority of American States that were trying to resist them.

Read Justice Scalia’s dissents from both judgments, or Justice Alito’s dissent from the latter. Note that not even these intelligent Catholics question the root presumption of positive law, to stand prior to natural law — in the course of arguing that the Court has overturned specific provisions of positive, written law, in defiance of the Court’s own constitutional responsibility. In the end they, too, are arguing on ephemeral technicalities; on words words words, and not from the nature of things.

Example: marriage is being accepted as an institution of two persons. Even opponents of the “redefinition” implicitly accept this in their slogan, “one woman, one man.” While they do not omit to mention the children, elsewhere, the very fact is that marriage involves, not only in doctrine but in the natural order of things, “three or more.” That is normative, and when what is normative is replaced by the abnormative, certain ecological results follow. The glib view that marriage is reducible to “love between two persons” has been allowed to slide by. It is dangerously wrong, it has terrible consequences that can be foreseen, and surely to his immortal credit, Pope Francis has repeatedly explained why.

We have, to the south of our border, as well as up here in the grand vacant North, a new political order that is positively lawless. This has consequences that go far beyond “gay.” And we have reasoning both for and against this cancer that is inadequate at best. We are going to Hell, in other words, not in a handcart but in an aeroplane.

In this context, and by this comparison, Laudato si’ looks pretty good.

The goose procession

The closest thing we have to a settled reactionary faction, here in Parkdale, are the Red-Necked Grebes over in the pond precincts of Humber Bay Park. These Podiceps are hard to miss, this time of year, with their fetching black caps, their distinguished grey faces, and their superbly contrasted necks which, locally, are of a rust earth orange that brightens mysteriously in their mating season.

The males make fine brassy lovers; the females are calculating. They share a romantic tendency, however, founded upon domesticities and little Hobbetine in-jokes. There is aerial dancing of the country kind. The mating calls are of a bold parodic nature, often rather as the loons they resemble, but with an unloonish sense of the absurd.

Later, in the wash, the male will take the liberty of approach. He will yank a long token of subaqueous vegetation, glistening with mud, and flaunt it before the female in his flapsome, gregarious way. It is of such material their nests are made (and remade, five or six times a year) so that his “hint” borders on the sniggering and vulgar. The female will look on in amazement, as if she had never seen anything so coarse. But she is secretly winking at comrade, and in time, having let him strut, she will make her own dive, then surface with her own filch of building weed. This is marriage among the grebes. I have yet to observe their annulment process.

Seven million cubic yards of fill went into the making of that park, and not one wasted. It has become a little paradise by the mouth of Mimico Creek, for which I must thank all the commies and eco-freaks embedded at City Hall. They have caused a sewage treatment facility to be installed therewithin, which is itself a wonder of ecological design: successive open tanks on which the sun works, without mediation. In my humble, but insistent opinion, something like this should be part of any municipal garden. Sewage treatment should be a thing of beauty. It is my kind of aerobics, and includes a good use of a disinfecting chlorine, which itself breaks down perfectly in sunlight — unless I am mistaken, for I don’t really understand it at all.

The commies have also created a butterfly habitat, a rolling meadow decorated with restored native wildflowers, grasses, sedges, and shrubs. The city had been running a little short of butterflies, and the variety of them left something to be desired. Our urban birds missed them, too (the crows especially appreciate their crunchiness). Benches, stonewalls, walkways run around and through: one could do the same in a backyard.

Indeed, the apparatchiks of our municipal Kremlin have (at flagrant taxpayer expense) stretched a few hundred miles of nature trails through the city and its magnificent ravines — which I frequent the more because they dip beneath the urban crash of traffic, and offer many stations of tranquil relief. Though let me add the “system” was conceived by the duck-hunting conservationists, in the old, pre-revolutionary days — assisted by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. For she (Hazel) provided a dramatic demonstration of why we should not put suburbs in the floodplains and channels. For the foliage recovers quickly from a flood, but car-driving man is awkward.

Mallards and short-tempered (i.e. nesting) Redwing Blackbirds have been communed with, too, in recent ambles; along with gulls, gulls, gulls. There was a Sandpiper, but he was aloof; I didn’t know what to make of him. Bit of a dandy, I thought. Quizzical.

However, the most forward of our Parkdalian avian displays was observed with coffee early this morning, from the balconata of the High Doganate. This spectacle requires the high-rise angle, and strong binoculars, to fully believe. It is our annual (sometimes semi-annual) Goose Pageant.

Canada Geese from all along Lake Ontario gather for an extended-family outing, arranging themselves in an intricate tweed of chevron patterns, by family within each tribe. There are thousands of them, and they choose a moment as this morning, when Humber Bay is glassy still. The word must get about by the goose Internet. They fly in mostly from the east, and make the circuit of the Bay, a length of several miles. This circuit is performed with graceful elegance, at an altitude of about six feet, so that their numbers seem doubled by their reflections on the water.

Since moving into the High Doganate, I have witnessed this spectacle nearly a dozen times: the circuit of the giant mirror of Humber Bay; and then the re-ascent where the waters roughen, on the outer, far western side. They rise, and then circle back, descending for another turn: always counter-clockwise, and from what I can make out, repeated by each bird until the liquid mirror is disturbed by fresh breezes.

Now, these geese are loud, obnoxious, Tory birds by disposition; not perhaps as rightwing as the grebes, but more forceful in expressing their opinions. You don’t want to argue with a Canada Goose, especially from the Left. I barely get along with them myself, and only because they know I am opposed to “democracy” and “welfare.” That, and they credit me for giving them some space. And while they may not be as vain as the swans, they do appreciate some favourable publicity, and the odd passing prayer.

Why do they gather for this extraordinary pageant, and perform their procession with such solemn, liturgical pomp? I’m sure some Darwinoid will come up with a fatuous evolutionary explanation, but the truth is as I will now impart. It is the grand reunion of Goose Nation, an ordered fly-past of all the tribes, led by their lords in strict precedence. (Followed no doubt by a vast formal feast or picnic at some other location.) It is done in the most exacting idleness, for the pleasure of doing it, well.

“A place for everyone, and everyone in his place.” This is the high principle of avian Torydom, and the geese understand that it is joyful.

Shock effects

Many people there are, whose modus vivendi with the world seems founded upon one and only one principle: never shock anyone. I refer to the class that can also be described, from a slightly different angle, as “total bores.” One loves them, of course — tepidly, as suits their condition. With imagination, one may “feel their pain.” For it is easy to under-estimate the amount of nervous energy that is required for this task — especially today, when people are so easy to shock with mere words.

With one known person, the taedium vitae may not be impossibly hard to achieve, but imagine a conversation with three or four unknown persons. Or the entire audience, that a politician must address, without offending anyone. The intellectual dilution is staggering. With luck, however, he may find an audience of his fellows, who arrive pre-diluted.

On the other hand, people are harder and harder to shock by acting in a depraved manner, which was one of the traditional ways of shocking people. Hence a new sub-class is emerging, of people who are openly depraved, but also, total bores.

I observe that the truth is often shocking, or perhaps always shocking if one is living a lie. Like humour, it has long been considered in poor taste. Today, the telling of either — the truth, or a good joke — may involve legal or quasi-legal penalties. Loss of livelihood, perhaps; but if the joke’s good enough, gaol time.

The Devil hisself is, incidentally, a total bore, as people used to know, in the Middle Ages. Often they would go out of their way to mock him on this account. They were not so compassionate in those days.

Today, in sympathy with the Devil, let me give him an excuse: he has no choice. He cannot possibly achieve anything with men if he offends them. He is not without discipline; it takes an extraordinary amount of work to get the Devil to hiss at you.

But it can be done, with sufficient application. The truth pains him, and if you step it up, you can get him shrieking.

Unfortunately, this has the effect of summoning all his friends.

Opposite Christmas

Today is the Summer Christmas, or rather, was treated as such in the High Middle Ages, from what I understand. The account of Saint John Baptist in Luke’s Gospel places his conception about six months before the Annunciation to Mary. In symmetry, three Masses were offered, as for Christmas Day. It was this rich mediaeval heritage that came with the settlers to New France.

When I was young and stupid (before I was old and stupid), I was under the impression that Sainte-Jean-Baptiste was the Patron of Canada. My reasoning accorded with the scale at which his Feast was apparently celebrated in Quebec; it also made poetic sense to me in light of his legend. Catholic Christianity came only recently to these parts (less than half a millennium ago), but arrived fully formed from the Old Country (France in our case). I associated this patron with the advanced age of his mother, Elizabeth, and strangely also with the “forerunning” coureurs de bois. I pictured John Baptist as a kind of Elijah, from darkly prognostic passages in Isaiah.

Only when I eventually looked it up, did I realize that, no, Saint Joseph is our principal Patron; and about five hundred more were established, long ago, in various Canadian locations. Sainte-Jean is however patron to the Canadiens or Habitants of Quebec, eventually recognized as such by Pius X, although the devotion arose from the people. It was, like every other holiday in Quebec, originally religious, perhaps entirely so for the first two centuries.

Some hint of a nationalist association was clinched in the approach of the Lower Canada Rebellion (towards 1837). The lamentable Sainte-Jean-Baptiste Society took hold of it to this end, inspired by the model of American Saint Patrick’s Day parading; and since, it has followed the trajectory of society in French Canada, down the dark hole, so that now it is called officially, La fête nationale, and is associated with unpleasant public behaviour.

Moan, moan: a month ago the Archdiocese of Quebec closed the huge Saint John Baptist Church, built to rival Saint Patrick’s in New York. This first and oldest of Canadian dioceses is in course of reducing the city’s two hundred churches to perhaps thirty, to keep up with the flight of Catholics. They can no longer afford to maintain these high-cost, publicly-neglected properties, and this latest closing signals that their policy of supporting at least the most visible monuments to their country’s Catholic past, has itself been abandoned.

Alas, the only alternative would have been to revive Catholicism in Quebec, a task beyond the hierarchical imagination.

The church in question (seating 2,400) still had a congregation of a few dozen, now transferred to a cosier place. The last Mass, for Pentecost, was celebrated in a peculiar way. The priest gave two devoted old ladies permission to join him by the altar in the Sanctuary; he returned to find the whole congregation in tears pressed therein.

Christ is not dead; the Church is not dead; though we might say that Quebec is dead.

A bitter person might observe that what remains of Quebec’s identity is worthless. Her Catholic religion has been systematically replaced with the moral and aesthetic filth of “agnosticism,” which characteristically expresses itself in hooligan mobs and jingo. The worst fascist undercurrents in the old Quebec — anti-English, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant; the old peasant bigotries — are all that survives from the heritage; with the French language now imposed, by jackboot. Surely such a view would be overstated.

My own instinct would have been to keep the church open; to continue singing until the last priest or deacon, the last parishioner has died; until the roof fell in. Then let it stand as an eloquent ruin, for any passing Christian.

But of course this is not “practical”; the modern state’s hygiene police (buildings division) would move in at some point. In that case, let them; let them take possession by force, as the Da’ish took possession of the ruins at Palmyra, without the slightest resistance from any of the many generations of its ancient ghosts.

The Archdiocese of Quebec instructs its few remaining laity not to be bitter, as it re-finances itself from the real estate holdings. (Churches in the province are being closed currently at the rate of about six a month.) Nor is this necessary: the facts speak for themselves.

Saint John Baptist pray for us; gather our heritage from the summer dust.

Breathe life again, O Holy Spirit: sprinkle with hyssop and restore, that the bones that are crushed shall rejoice.

Aside on the discharges

Like a dog with his teeth on your ankle, or a shark with his mouth on your arm, I’ve been going on about environmental questions these last few days. I wonder what got me going?

The Humber River (whose mouth is visible from the High Doganate) has this morning strewn mud into Humber Bay. A long, long (perhaps four miles long) tongue of brown extends into Lake Ontario. Or rather, it consists of light sand beiges, forming gorgeous contrasts with the surrounding waters, sunlit in their greenish aquatic blues.

Perhaps last night’s glorious thunderstorm churned the river waters, perhaps it was some other cause. My point is only that the effect, in irregular ribbons of colour (including streaks of turquoise, set off against a sublime patch of “cobalt violet,” edging into mauve), is so endearing. Light shifts and deflections, through low cotton clouds, change the emphasis, moment to moment, for the instruction of anyone who may happen to be watching — which may be no one, or just me.

Urban pollution may also produce such beautiful arrays — as Whistler so adeptly caught in his harbour scenes. We ought to pause, and appreciate what we have, for it takes the manufacturers upstream in Hamilton (and cities like) a lot of work and money to favour us in this way.

And some of the most spectacular sights emerge directly from the smokestacks. I think back on Corner Brook, for instance, where the purest shining white issued forth, right upon noon, in a magnificently dense billowing cloud, reflecting silver, from the beloved paper mill — filling the small basin of the town with the deliciously humorous scent of sulphur, asafoetida, hing. It left me giddy in admiration.

How sad, to be deprived of such spectacles; yet all the beauties of this world are transient, and all infused with that earthly sense of loss that turns our hearts and minds to Heaven.

Air conditioning

[I have added somewhat to this, since it was posted, for the usual motive: to clarify some minor obscurities that were leading certain readers to grief.]

*

It would be hard to convey my views on air conditioning in a brief essay, but I’ll try. The Holy Father conveyed his in less than a paragraph of Laudato si’. On “harmful habits of consumption” he writes: “A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.”

He has been mocked for this, I think about equally by Left and Right. I happen to agree with Pope Francis on this point — though not on specifically Catholic grounds, and with one important reservation.

If the “outsider” came from Mars, where the climate is somewhat cooler, he would immediately understand our use of air conditioners. He would not be inclined to attribute this to the usual market hype. Though I allow, if he came from Mercury or Venus, he might find our air conditioning a perverse extravagance.

The pope sleeps in a typically modern building, completed in 1996. According to my best information, it is air conditioned against the muggy Roman summers. They are nothing compared to India, however, where the pre-monsoon heat this year has reached nearly 120F for sustained periods, killing off thousands of the old, weak, and poor without air conditioning. This was reported as an effect of global warming, by our credulous media. I frankly doubt this. At first hand, I know it gets very hot there. So that, more hot than usual is very, very hot.

Up here in the High Doganate, we are equipped with two electric fans (a ceiling fan in one room, a floor fan for the other) — but also with large windows facing west, in a masonry structure that absorbs and retains heat in all seasons, and offers no cross-ventilation. It is wonderful in the winter. However, indoor summer temperatures often rise above 100F, and may not sink below 90F, even at night, for the length of any heat wave.

The temptation to buy, and even to install an air conditioner, has been overcome, but sometimes it has been a close-run thing. In the end, appearance trumped substance, and my revulsion for the sight and sound of air conditioners carried me through the broil of temptation. (One may go walking by the Lakeshore, where there is some tree cover, and with any luck, a breeze. Too, when no one’s looking, one may dress like Vlad the Poutine.)

In the days before I was born, according to usually reliable sources, the electro-mechanical air conditioner was rare. Willis Carrier may have invented the thing in 1902, but it took some decades to catch on. It wasn’t all market hype, but I’m sure some market hype came into it.

Five thousand years before that, people were hanging wet reeds and cloth strips in open windows and doors, to get the same effect from natural evaporation, but this does not work well in dead air. The clever Romans piped aqueduct-cooled water through the houses of the rich, but the urban poor were crammed into apartment buildings much like our own, with flats on both sides of corridors, and thus, poor ventilation. They had fountains, though — they still have many fountains — and convection chimneys. Their ceilings were anyway higher than ours; and there were many other intelligent features of design, still in use until the Age of Air Conditioning.

*

One laughs, parenthetically, at the various “green” innovations now advertised (by the capitalists) as state-of-the-art, which are actually retrogressions — things we used to make, ourselves, before the habit of never buying what you can make was inverted. And the capitalists are as happy to hype “climate change” to the over-monied suckers, as any global warm-alarmist; they make mass-market products to cash in either way.

One gets bored demonizing them. I’d rather demonize the suckers, for variety.

Or sometimes play, with malignant irony, to the gallery of socialist environmentalcases, by praising policies that will at least make everyone but their nomenklatura poor, hungry, and desperate again — every bit as consumerist as before, but now with nothing to consume.

But as a Catholic, and a man of the thirteenth century, I have a strong preference for voluntary arrangements. This is because the involuntary ones confer no benefits on anyone’s soul, except by unforeseeable chance. Observe that in His own daily relations with our human race, God shows a marked preference for voluntary arrangements, to the point of letting us learn from our stupidities, individually; and even though some of these, as it were, spill across the lanes of our common highway to salvation.

*

The truth is that our noisome machines (including elevators) make it possible to cram middle-class and even up-market people into ever tighter residential and office spaces, stacking them up to the giddy heights required by property values artificially inflated — in the course of which the human need for some privacy and a bit of space, makes the humans less and less convivial; more and more like cornered beasties.

As my papa, an industrial designer, taught me, “technological solutions” are for dunderheads. They are not likely to be “elegant solutions.” The cognitively unimpaired resort instead to design. Technology serves design, and not vice versa. That is to say, gizmo minimalism, not gizmo maximalism. For the less we depend upon technology to save us — the fewer gizmos that must work to keep us moving — the longer and pleasanter our days.

Moreover, design is not just for designers.

*

Late in 1977, I returned to tropical Bangkok, for the third time in my then shorter life. I had a job that paid extremely well. Driven by a Christianity that had not dogged me before, I resolved to live in poverty, and save my money for the future, or perhaps even for good deeds. Also, to avoid the farang (“foreign”) encampments, and live like an unwealthy urban Thai.

This resolution lasted until the hot season par excellence, in March, when I remembered that I was still a farang, of the Nordic racial persuasion, who could not function in the sweltering tropical heat. And so I moved into delightfully air-conditioned digs, which I could easily afford, and gradually came to take comfort for granted, working as I did in an air-conditioned office, and travelling about the city, often as not, in air-conditioned cars.

One concession led to another, and within months I was doing my part in stoking the GDP of an East Asian tiger economy, whose social and industrial progress was quickly obliterating everything that had once made Siam so beautiful, so mai pen rai (untranslatable Thai expression usually rendered, “it doesn’t matter”).

For I had also lived in Bangkok as a child in the mid-‘sixties, when air conditioners were an extravagant novelty; when traditional houses could still be seen everywhere, on teak stilts above the monsoon floods, with glassless open shutters. The climate had not changed much over the intervening years, but the buildings had changed, thanks to capitalist prosperity and rapid “modernization.” (A dictator had tried to arrest this progress, but been blown out of its way.)

The Bangkok someone else may want to visit today, was already under construction (skyscraper city), the klongs (“canals”) were being infilled for highways, cars were infilling those, trees were disappearing, and even the old plaster-wall shophouses with their high ceilings and fans, were being replaced with new concrete bunkers wherein, without air conditioning, you die — at least metaphorically.

From other travels, I’ve noticed that these phenomena were not restricted to Bangkok; that urban hell is expanding everywhere; that it cannot function without air conditioners. (And elevators, et cetera.)

It follows, to the shallow post-modern mind, that we are stuck with air conditioning, for we have built around it. Those who oppose it are therefore mocked, for refusing to accommodate this “reality.”

But no, we are only stuck with it while the electrical grid holds up. When it doesn’t, as has happened even in north-eastern North America, we discover that our entire civilization has been reconstructed on an ever-lengthening series of design errors.

*

Electro-mechanical refrigerators were a clever invention, too. Moderate Luddites who might draw the line at air conditioners, will allow that refrigerators (or, “reverberators” as I call them) are an indisputably Good Thing. After all, they keep our fresh food from spoiling.

For four years in England I lived without one, in a pre-Victorian workman’s cottage of inner London where, crank that I am, I did without electricity and indoor plumbing. I could do a post-modern William Cobbett, and explain how easy it was to re-adapt to the old simplicities, but not today.

I will only mention that my splendid, hearth-warmed and summer-cooled stone domicile at 60, Wilcox Road, Vauxhall — the happiest, most attractive quarters I ever occupied — has since been crushed under a tower block for perpetually discontented Labour Party voters. (Verily, it is the same almost every place I once lived: torn down and replaced with something hideous and evil and beyond fixing.)

*

Too, the question of climate control arises for the preservation of archives and treasures. I think of the ancient Janggyeong Panjeon, within the Haeinsa temple complex in the Gaya mountains of southern Korea. Woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana — ten-thousands of them — were housed in this ingeniously-designed facility from the fourteenth century. They remained in a perfect state of preservation until 1970, when they were removed to a high-tech bespoke, “state of the art,” climate-controlled facility. Within a few years the woodblocks were visibly deteriorating from mildew. The Koreans being smarter than most, they were therefore moved back.

The monasteries of old Europe performed like feats in the preservation of libraries over many centuries. As some of these still exist, despite more recent centuries of purposeful, anti-clerical, revolutionary destruction, we might wish to revisit them, and recover methods of controlling temperature and humidity that will work when all electro-mechanical power sources go down; which cost more skill to build, but little to maintain, and are immeasurably superior both morally and aesthetically.

*

In domestic and institutional arrangements, alike, we have more work to do, today, minding our machines, as well as paying for them, than we once had without them. (There are time studies to prove this.) And if we say there’s no way back, there must have been no way forward.

We “opted” for crazy; we could just as well opt for sane: keep what is genuinely useful, and discreetly trash everything else. Or if you will, refuse to buy this crap, and exit the rat race thereby, and live for considerably cheaper.

This would require only a re-orientation of our precious lives, towards tranquillity and holiness and immortality — a simple matter of religious conversion which, thanks to Jesus Christ, may be accomplished in a trice.

Gentle reader, I implore you to retrogress!

Dominus illuminatio mea

“The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life: whom shall I fear?”

I have lifted this quote from the Introit to today’s Mass (Vetus Ordo), for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost. I have tampered slightly with the standard English translation, by removing the elegant variation in the reiteration of, “Whom shall I fear?” This was to bring out the insolence I detect in the original Psalm 26 (or 27, Masoretic), from the opening of which that Introit was taken. It is an insolence directed towards King David’s enemies, who are also God’s enemies. Though a host of them may encamp against him, he will stand his ground. He exalts the Holy, but too, in his manner of address here and elsewhere, he is “a pushy Jew.”

Or to put this in a more contemporary light, the Psalmist is obsequiously humble in the presence of Our Lord; but he is not even slightly humble in the face of the Dictatorship of Relativism.

The first words of the Psalm and Introit are famously the motto of Oxford University, from the days when it was a Christian institution. The Lord teaches, to this Christian view; the Lord illuminates; but what He teaches is not “facts and arguments,” the way they are taught in a “normal” school. He teaches, for instance, courage in the defence of Christian causes that may not be popular. (Oxford once had a long tradition of that.) He teaches sanctity in the face of temptation, including the temptation to cut and run, or remain very silent when the world, and sometimes even spokesmen for the Church, are teaching dreadful lies.

In like case I recited, to myself at my father’s death, and in some other cases over the years, chiefly to myself, the old KJV text of Psalm 46 (or 45, Septuagint and Vulgate). As for instance in a hospital once, nearly forty years ago, at the approach of my Christian conversion. It begins:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.”

Likewise, in the miraculous draught of fishes, recounted in today’s Gospel, the eccentric Rabbi of Nazareth (as He was then known) tells our first Pope (as he was not yet known) to go out and try again. And by no brilliant doing of his own, after a long night of pointless labour, Simon Peter’s nets are suddenly groaning, and there are two boats loaded with fish, almost to sinking. And this fisherman of Galilee goes to Jesus, and tells Him on his knees to give up on him, because he is such a sinful man. And Jesus tells him that he will be a fisher of men. (Not a prediction but an order.)

For Jesus, too, was a pushy Jew.

“Enough of your kvetching.”

We are surrounded by our enemies in a former Christendom gone over to the Devil’s side; in an America, too, that ain’t Kansas any more. Labour all the night, and we draught nothing. We know that we are very sinful ourselves, and at best unlucky anglers. We know that, by our own efforts, this is not going to change. Truly, there is nothing we can do about our situation: except try again, with renewed dedication to, and faith in that Jesus.

It is also “Father’s Day,” I notice from a greeting; a day for living fathers to remember that they are fathers, and to recall their own fathers in their turn. Saint Peter, son to the Son of Man, pray for us.

Sunlight on the vines

I should add, however, that the gentle reader not inclined to read the thing (Laudato si’) is in error. Moreover, he should have read it first, before considering my own prattle on the topic, or that of anyone else. But I haven’t the power to enforce good habits. My own attempt to “read it with an open mind” led where you saw (here I am replying to several outraged readers). I am, as you say, not good at deference, and very quick to respond to what I take for an overlay of dated Argentine populism on the doctrines of Holy Church. But as I did actually mention, the latter is not missing, and to be fair there are several places where Church teaching is interpreted and applied with true grace against post-modernist idiocies such as “gender theory,” and the very scientism that produced the “global warming” nonsense that is elsewhere bought into. The document has surely been checked for accuracy on many fine theological points.

The Holy Father explicitly called for debate, on means to the end of a cleaner and more habitable planet; on a more humane social order living in harmony with it. … Ready, aye, ready; and far more to say.

Left Catholics whose approach is, “shut up and listen,” would have a better argument had they shown any disposition to shut up and listen to the encyclicals of Benedict XVI, or Saint John Paul II, or the Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, none of which are contradicted in Laudato si’. Deference to popes cannot be restricted to selective quotes from the one currently in office. (And by the way, where does gentle reader stand on the Borgias?)

The progressive media cherry-pick the more inflammatory progressive lines, and do not even condescend to report Pope Francis’s doctrinal defences, when they are equally eloquent, or more so. “Shut up and listen” should apply to those passages, too.

*

Woke early this morning from a most extraordinary dream. It was still morning dusk, no beam of sun had yet struck the western windows; yet it seemed I had been bathed in sunlight. The dream was memory, of a house in Edith Street, Georgetown, Ontario, where some part of my childhood was lived. Sour green labrusca grapes (“fox grapes”) grew at the rear of the backyard, the vines weaving through a lattice fence; there was a giant sprig of elm to one side (four thick trunks), and caterpillar-dropping maple to the other. There was nothing more except a glaze of happy memories associated with that scene, and an uncanny sense of their significance.

One rises with the will, “I must go there again,” only to realize — with the sadness of this fallen world — that one can’t go there again. By now it is a different place; fifty years have changed everything. The people associated with that moment — my parents, my aunt visiting from Cape Breton, my little dancing sister, other Edith Street children, all somehow came into it — have grown up or passed on. The scene I had “witnessed” embraced them, in this dream of sunlight on the vines.

Miracles, it is known, are not reproducible.

Here I want to emphasize again the transience of all the beauty of this world. We long for Paradise; glimpses we have had, but we cannot return to them. They were seen in this world, but only in the moment God showed them to us. Our longing for Paradise cannot rest here.

Five thousand max

As so often on the Internet, G.K. Chesterton has come up with the best comment on Papa Francis’s environmentalist encyclical:

“The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To Saint Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

But of course we should not slap her about. That is not how it’s done in a good family.

*

Among the three co-presenters of yesterday’s rather solemn encyclical on the environment, was Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Remember that name. I attribute to him and to his like the encouragement the pope received, to break with received Catholic teaching, by blaming human-created environmental problems on market economics and finance, and the private ownership of resources. Whereas, true son of the Church, the pope himself might be inclined to blame sin.

Kishore Jayabalan, once the leading Vatican policy analyst on “sustainable development,” now head of the Instituto Acton at Rome (and former denizen of the Greater Parkdale Area), makes this signal point after the usual respectful preamble in which the pope is praised for bringing the issues to our attention. He, along with innumerable other critics with groundings in economics and trade, recalls what free markets have achieved. Without them, the world’s poor would have starved to extinction, as they have tended to do wherever markets, except the black ones, have been suppressed by central planning authorities.

Which might perhaps have pleased Herr Schellnhuber, the German atheist, who is a major figure in the United Nations’ IPCC, and founder of the hairy-scary Potsdam Institute. He is notoriously of the view that the Earth’s carrying capacity is less than one billion human souls (we have now more than seven), and the author of various dark-humoured remarks about how climate change will at least reduce us to the more sustainable number. Among his proposals, echoed in Laudato Si’, is that carbon emissions be reduced to zero. Herr Schellnhuber gives the USA until the year 2020; he gives China until 2035. Best not to make him master of all he surveys.

As many faithful Catholics, I am now asking: What is my Church doing in bed with such creatures?

I am myself appalled by the current arrangement in which the biomass of humanity is exceeded in weight six times over by our gas-guzzling cars. I’d rather kill the cars off first, given the position of Planetary Captain; but that would reduce the carbon emissions by less than half. We’d still have to move things about, such as food, and while I’m a great fan of sail boats and bullock carts, I foresee a continuing role for powered freighters. I would flag the bullocks, too, as emitters of CO2; plus CH4 (methane), which is more efficient at trapping radiation.

Windmills and solar panels are nice, in principle (in practice they are vile and intrusive), but as several realists have pointed out, the amount of energy currently generated by each rounds out to zero percent of the world’s supply. They also require significant carbon emissions to manufacture. But then, I should like to preserve some carbon dioxide, on which the life of the Amazon rainforest depends.

As more generally with life, my attitude is “let’s chance it.” Often it ends badly. But then I remember a remark I once made on television, that got me rubbed off the air. It was in response to one of those leftwing sob-sisters — a voluble pro-choicer — hypocritically lamenting the loss of young lives in Iraq, and blaming everything on “Bush.”

“It is blood for oil!” she shrieked. This struck me as odd, coming from an advocate of blood for lifestyle.

My reply concluded, “If we didn’t have all these abortions, we could afford to lose more in wars.”

From the look on the producer’s face after, it appeared I had set a new benchmark for political incorrectitude. (He expressed relief that the programme was pre-recorded.) Yet I would defend the remark to this day.

For all we know our works will end in disaster: yet I would rather our little ones had the chance at life, if only to the age of nineteen, than that they be coolly exterminated in their own mothers’ wombs.

God comes into this, of course. He usually does, up here in the High Doganate. Yet we’ve been set loose on this planet, to arrange things as well as we can, and I am not indifferent to questions of public policy. Even on this, I am influenced by the received teaching of the Catholic Church, which I only wish had been better reflected in Laudato si’. It is there, but as I have noted previously, it gets mentioned only in passing. I’d have preferred it were made front and centre, and that the pope had devoted his formidable communication skills to explaining why Catholic social and economic thinking might be more relevant to the solution of “environmental problems,” than the murderous ramblings of the IPCC.

*

Against the policy wonks of this world, whose instinct is the bigger the better, we should make a particular point of subsidiarity. This is the organizing principle that matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest, most immediate competent authority, rising only by necessity to any higher level, and then only as high as it needs to go.

The family is that lowest level, and the Church is now almost alone in respecting it. The members are biologically related, as father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, and so forth. Orphans may sometimes be taken in, and step-fathers or step-mothers may occur — the world’s heritage of fairy tales attests to the nightmare, of step-mothers especially — but biological integrity is normative. Recent attempts by legislators to “redefine the family” are an unambiguously evil invasion of an order that nature has ordained. Pope Benedict was right to make this an issue of “human ecology,” and to see that it gave the lie to every grand leftist “ecological” scheme. How do you restore the natural order, on the “mega” scale, when you are systematically undermining it at the cellular level?

In the normal order of things — all cultures, all times, until recently — the family decides what is good for the family. It is amazing that this has become controversial, yet contraceptive practices that detach sex from reproduction have made it so, and all the predicted consequences have followed. It is a miracle that the Church is, even on paper, still holding the front line.

But what is the next level of authority above the family? As I am constantly reminded, both locally and universally, there is then a great leap. Through the last century and more, central authorities have been obsessively merging local authorities, for the sake of some plausible (but false) “efficiencies,” or economies of scale. For even on such shallow material terms, the tax load increases as the governments grow larger, the ambitions of politicians increase, and the ability of the citizen to observe relations between cause and effect progressively disappears.

*

This is a squib, and I must keep the long story short. The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.

Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.

This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.

In the Greater Parkdale Area, my “municipal” government also serves more than two million souls. The wards into which it is divided are mere constituencies. They have fluctuating boundaries, and the councillors each represent around one hundred thousand souls. A very small number of people who have learnt the ropes thus control it: permanent department heads perhaps more than politicians. They make a show of consulting us, in public meetings which a few dozen people may attend (if the issue is big enough). These busy-bodies or “activists” may have an influence wildly disproportionate to their numbers. But the “input” of the common taxpayer is nil, rising to derisory on the eve of an election. In my neighbourhood, for instance, I listen to jackhammers all summer, and horribly amplified ice cream truck jingles (identical to the music loops played in Hell). There is absolutely nothing I can do about either, that would not involve terrorism. Whereas, if my neighbours were consulted, some permanent carbon savings could be achieved.

According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.

Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.

What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.

*

As I say, this is a vast topic, on which I’m merely touching. It will be seen that I have largely bought into “small is beautiful,” and the Distributist tradition in Catholic political thought. I do not deny that central authority has its place, of necessity, in the larger order; but I do think a pyramid should be wider at the bottom. In particular: taxes should pass up the levels, rather than down (as traditional tithing in Holy Church).

Now, Pope Francis has the beginnings of a point about large “private corporations” (note the oxymoron), which in their wealth may grow (though only temporarily) to a size rivalling the smaller national governments. And I would add, they become nearly as centralized and monopolistic (through “regulatory capture”), and faceless and bureaucratic as the agencies of State. Whenupon, unlike the self-perpetuating agencies of the State, they begin to disintegrate from their own lack of enterprise.

It is not enough, as the libertarians suppose, to leave them to their fate, in the knowledge that if they are inefficient they’ll be gone tomorrow. For new large corporations rise to take their place, and at every moment the great majority of people are reduced to wage-slaves of one large corporation or another. Indeed, part of the power of large corporations comes from their scale as employers. A democratic government which tries to stand up to them will quickly relent, and switch to subsidies instead, when they threaten to create mass unemployment.

The question must be asked: What makes vast, morally obtuse, centralized corporations possible? And the answer should be easy to see. It is vast, morally obtuse, centralized governments, which command regulatory regimes that are consistent over huge areas. That has actually become our model for global “free trade”: making regulations and taxation consistent not only across nations, but across continents. This creates an order which large corporations, and only large corporations, are well-equipped to exploit.

Imagine instead they were to face different regulatory regimes, parish by parish. They could still operate, but would have to adapt each franchise to local conditions, as defined by the sovereign local authority. This immediately flips the onus, and gives the local merchant or producer the advantage over his multinational competitor, in being on the spot. It reduces that competitor’s economy of scale, while also imposing upon him a new model of corporate governance, as network, that must of necessity become decentralized and responsive (just as creatures in nature) to every single environmental niche.

The re-focusing on what is local, and what is doable locally, would have tremendous ramifications on “the environment” at large — overwhelmingly positive, given some time. Yet it would also have the happy effect of disempowering the ecological whack cases.

*

My modest proposal is, to my mind, Catholic and Christian. The genius of our religion from its beginning was in opposition to “one size fits all.” Christ’s teaching is universal and unamendable, but the interpretation of it in human life is exquisitely nuanced. It is not imposed from the top, as a Shariah. The hierarchy it sustains is spiritual not pragmatic, and it concedes political action to the civil sphere.

The Church has nevertheless acquired practical experience, not only through many countries but over twenty centuries of time. She has “seen it all,” and makes her non-binding suggestions on that basis. Where she has failed, she has been taught and taught again the value of human freedom — of the need for actual persons and not impersonal agencies and corporations to take responsibility. She has all along been suspicious of “collective action,” in which moral responsibility is diffused.

It is in this light that I think the Catholic notion of “subsidiarity” should be credibly advanced — not as a tip of the mitre, or passing rhetorical gesture from above. It should be at the heart of every Catholic proposal to make improvements in the way we do things in this world. That is our radical idea — the very opposite direction from this encyclical’s neo-Marxist excursions.

Henotheism

Today’s heresy, formed from the Greek henas theos, for “one god,” was coined by the German idealist, Friedrich von Schelling (1775–1854), a formidable purveyor of heresies himself. He wasn’t condemning it, for he imagined it a thing of the past. Henotheism is his word to describe the development of monotheism, in the ancient world. An alternative term might be “monarchical polytheism” — that is, one great and commanding god, with lots of lesser gods in his train. Our classical forebears came to this gradually, with Jupiter emerging as the god-of-gods, and a theological development from Plato to Plotinus. Ancient Indian religion seems to have started from this point, in the Rigveda. It is alleged by some scholars that ancient Hebrew religion was also henotheist, until flattened by a monotheist sledgehammer.

But I am now thinking of Pharaoh Akhenaten of Amarna, the father of Tutankhamen in the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. His queen (if we omit the rest of his harem) was the beautiful Nefertiti. Together they attempted to found a new religion, by elevating the Sun-god, Aken, above all others in the Egyptian pantheon. Upon ascending the throne, “King Tut” then went about putting the pieces of the old religion back together, and by the nineteenth dynasty, the reputation of Akhenaten could be surmised from references to him in the chronicles as “that criminal,” “the monster,” and so forth.

While I cannot embrace the religion of the ancient Egyptians, I must say I admire their conservatism.

Akhenaten sprang to mind while reading through, this morning, the official English text of Laudato si’. Let me say in passing that I am in approximately complete harmony and agreement with the first 11 paragraphs, and the last 14, and was alarmed only by points scattered through the 221 between them. Or put this another way, I liked the Christian bits. Some of this “spiritual protein” may also be found between the slices, as it were, including fine points echoing Pope Benedict XVI on the human ecology of the family, the preservation of our unborn, basic rights to life. But it was the weight of the invocation of Saint Francis’ old-Umbrian “Canticle of the Sun” (aka “Canticle of the Creatures”) that brought Pharaoh to mind.

For Akhenaten also wrote a canticle of the sun (or, “Great Hymn to the Aten”), which he had all his courtiers singing, transcribing and posting up and down the Nile. More than the canticle of our beloved Saint of Assisi, it might serve as a boilerplate for post-modern environmentalism. As Flinders Petrie, the excavator of Amarna, opined, “If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw.” Pharaoh’s account of sustainable solar energy is especially au courant; though in hindsight he overlooked the threat of global warming.

Comparisons of the two canticles, twenty-six centuries apart, have sometimes been made, and see also the second Benedic, anima (Psalm 103 Catholic, 104 Protestant), somewhere in the middle. I rather prefer the later essays, which praise nature in her aspect as testimonial to God, than the first which praises her as God. Call it a theological quibble, but there I stand.

To my (cranky) mind, we are in some peril of losing the distinction. Nature is excellent but not perfect, as I am reminded by my back-ache, and a rude parody of Saint Francis I once wrote, when I was young and even badder than I am now. It mentioned things like watching “Brother Eagle tearing Sister Bunny-wabbit’s guts out.” The way we spiritualize and sentimentalize nature, is different in kind from the unambiguously Christ-centred Franciscan poetry, and contributes to misreading it. Rather it is symptomatic of our overly urban, automotive culture, for which nature has become a “nice idea.”

Oddly this was brought home to me, years ago, in a conversation between a slick city girl and a farmer. She said, “It must be wonderful to live the way you do, surrounded by all this life.” He said, “The farmer’s life has more to do with death, actually.”

A balanced view of nature — such as our more rural ancestors enjoyed — will encompass both the beauty of nature, and its redness in tooth and claw; will appreciate a beauty that is transient, that dies. It will also remain conscious of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, plagues, and their various downstream effects; and a history of “climate change” that long preceded human habitation. It will not exaggerate the influence of man, which does not amount to one Krakatoa. Or if it does amount to more, for all we know, the massive burn-off of the Earth’s fossil fuels is all that stands between us and the next Ice Age.

Which is not, most assuredly not, my denial of the beauty in nature, which has answered to the spirit of man, and raised our consciousness to the divine, throughout our multi-millennial sojourn. Nor do I exclude the beauty in a holy death. We arrive on this planet pre-programmed for the apprehension of this Beauty, to a degree incomparable with any other animal. It is a portal to another world; we were meant to cultivate beauty in our garden.

But the Garden of Eden we cannot restore. It is not in our power to do so, nor to achieve the perfection of our end in this world. I say this often, for it is not enough heard.

The disparagement of nature is, however, a sin to which we are not presently tempted. It is the opposite, atheist or agnostic reverence for a Nature that is purely abstract, against which we must guard. This is not helped by the ideological advance of an increasingly thuggish environmentalism.

Nature is designed to take care of herself. We needn’t worry about offending her. She does not “bite back” as the environmentalists aver: that is what we used to know as the “pathetic fallacy.” She rains alike on the righteous and unrighteous, nor picks favourites when she is being a shrew. She goes on doing what she has always done, whether or not we love her, and whether or not we take stock of her characteristic warnings. The “problem” cannot be in nature, nor even in our technology, per se — there’s a good use for most of it. Rather it is in our sinful selves: in this case what living like pigs does, to us.

Stop doing that, and the world will become more beautiful again, all on its own. Insofar as Pope Francis makes and reiterates this point, he escapes reasonable criticism. (And attracts unreasonable criticism, instead.)

I may have more to mumble tomorrow, specifically about subsidiarity, mentioned in passing in the encyclical, but as other good things, only in passing. For I believe the encyclical exhibits the political propensity to go the wrong way: to demand “mega” solutions which can only fail; which are in their own nature counter-productive; which tend to prevent or discourage more promising “micro” approaches to the elimination of the waste, pollution, noise, and overall ugliness we trail behind us, everywhere we go these days.

Laudato si’

I’m in many minds how to approach the pope’s imminent environmental encyclical, already spilling through the world in a pirated, draught version (which I have glanced over, and flinched at). Even once formally published, we may wonder which version to read, given composition in a multilingual Babel. For example, will the Italian and English say different things? This is what often happens. Crack Latinists might continue waiting for the Latin text, but its authority is diminished when it is itself a translation.

The media, and each political faction, will run with whatever comes most usefully to hand, in the mud-fight between Left and Right. It will provide an irreligious glee mostly to the former, but with a net effect on the Catholic faithful that is demoralizing, further diffusing their focus upon the Sacraments and the religious life.

Perhaps the Church should forego encyclicals and all other formal papal pronouncements, until we once again have a pope and advisers who are comfortable in the Church’s first language. We have, after all, enough to be getting on with, from twenty centuries of previous documentation; and even on relatively novel topics such as “the environment,” there is plenty of material already, that could be more carefully absorbed. And man should meanwhile husband the resources of the planet more wisely. On this, I should think, all parties are agreed.

On the “science” behind this — in fact, scientism — I have no reason to trust the advisers appointed, and many reasons to doubt them. They are for the most part not Christian themselves, let alone Catholic, and they represent very worldly vested interests. Huge amounts of money are at stake, in maintaining the “climate change” scare, and the ideological position behind them is unmistakable. These are men in pursuit of power, who wish to create vast new regulatory agencies to trump the existing worldly powers. They propose to compound large evils with an even greater evil. I only hope norms of Catholic teaching aren’t disturbed, while dancing with devils like these.

“Scientific consensus” is a bawd. There was a scientific consensus against Galileo Galilei — even greater across Protestant northern Europe than among his ex-friends in the University of Bologna. The Church is still paying today, for bowing to the scientific consensus of 1616. More broadly, the history of scientific consensus is more or less identical with the history of scientific error. Indeed, scientific truths are discerned, typically if not always, by one man outside the scientific consensus. (Sometimes they are two or three.) The dissenting voice is usually punished.

That the sun has been rising in the east, and setting in the west, is not, incidentally, scientific consensus. It is direct observation, quite another thing. Which globe revolves around which is a matter of little importance: the moon landing could have been achieved with Ptolemaic calculations. They would merely have been more cumbersome — but today we have computers.

We lack an appreciation for beauty, in God’s handiwork, and for our own. To my mind (which conducts the government of this website), this is the key “environmental problem.” We live like pigs. Catholic efforts should be directed to curing us of swinish behaviour. The Good and the True are likewise of crucial importance, but without this discernment of the Beautiful, they twist and float out of our reach.

Nor will any categorical imperative help us here, encased, for instance, in the instruction to “think globally, act locally.” We have not the ability to think things through on the planetary scale: only God can do that (or whatever angels are in His confidence). We must therefore “think locally,” too, and sound thinking comes from obedience to the conscience implanted in our hearts, by God directly. Conversely, to “act globally” is wickedly absurd.

The notion of an “integral ecology of people and planet” strikes me as a serious heresy. It is the Gaia hypothesis, which is Gnostic, not Christian. The “integral” relation is interpersonal: it is between man and Christ. The “integral” relation with one’s neighbour follows from that. The planet is not a person. It is instead our temporary abode. The word “ecology” is subject to further abuse, especially when as now it becomes one of those “ideologies” our current pope has told us to neglect. Moreover, “environment” itself has been puffed beyond reason, and to raise it to the scale of the planetary makes it an object of false worship.

Yet it remains within our power to stop living like pigs.

Here I should like to condemn one big and shameful lie, constantly repeated. It is that the little people of this Earth are somehow “victims” of grand capitalist conspiracies. Look around you, gentle reader. The people in question are very eager co-conspirators.

In practical terms, the products of our “capitalist” and “socialist” endeavours are generally ugly — or when beautiful, so by accident, or only in decay. But we can bring the capitalists to their knees if we refuse to buy what they are selling. Unfortunately, it is not so easy with the socialists who arrogate positive law, forcing us to buy and use their own viciously ugly products. More socialism is the opposite to the right answer — for it creates environmentally ruinous shortages and surpluses, in the bleak night of our lost human freedom. And it does this not sometimes, but invariably.

What a pope can do, if he feels compelled to speak on pop science and passing topics in the news, is remind us how to live and love, in beauty rather than in ugliness. Turn our attention to this, and away from the false promises of worldly fix-up schemes, and something might well be accomplished, in our environments, through our souls. The Catholic teaching on subsidiarity turns our attention from what is laughably beyond our sphere of influence, to what is frequently within it.