Not previously, on this little anti-blog, have I devoted so much attention to an item of “breaking news,” nor for such a duration. My “obsession” with the Synod on the Family in Rome has been consciously pursued. Something of very great importance and consequence is taking place; and it is not only an internal Catholic affair. As many Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants are aware, as well as “conservative” Jews and others, including even some atheists who care about morals and cultural values, the Roman Church has provided both front and back lines of defence. I know people, for instance, who do not agree with the Church’s “absolute” positions on divorce, contraception, abortion, and more; who nevertheless think that without the Roman tenacity, their own more “moderate” positions would be blown away. Despite the failures of her own very human staff — which are not confined to horrific sex scandals — she is often, indeed normally, the last institution standing against that “dictatorship of relativism” of which Pope Benedict spoke; the “culture of death” against which Saint John Paul preached so eloquently.
“If the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” We rely on the Catholic Church to hold her line; a line which if abandoned would portend the final disintegration of our constantly retreating “Western Civ.”
On Sunday, Pope Paul VI will be beatified. I am well aware of disappointment in him by many traditional Catholics — the belief that he let things happen that should have been stopped dead in the wake of Vatican II — especially the vicious things that were done to deface the Mass, by a circus of “liturgists” on his watch. He was surrounded and on many occasions overwhelmed by the worldly agents of the “principalities and powers” of whom the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians. He was by nature a shy and aloof intellectual — had not the sort of personality that would fit a man for heroism. Yet he was also unquestionably a man of deep faith. On one miraculous occasion, in which (to my judgement) his hand was guided by Christ, he performed an act of extraordinary heroism. This was his writing of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
I shall never forget a train ride I took at the age of fifteen, from Buffalo to Cleveland. From a newsstand, in the old Buffalo railway station, I had picked up a copy of the National Catholic Reporter, which contained the full text of the encyclical, in English translation. Note: I was then a fire-breathing adolescent atheist, and persecutor of nice Christian children in high school cafeterias. My intention was to provide myself with more ammunition against Christians generally, and Catholics in particular.
On the train journey I was reading the encyclical with attention, to this end. I recall having read it through twice. The first reading left me in shock: the document appeared to be very intelligently argued. At the second reading, still closer, I began to see that, given the premisses openly and honestly acknowledged, the argument which followed was irrefutable. In order to mock it, I would have to misrepresent it. On thinking it through I realized that I could dismiss the premisses; but that if I did, I would have to argue that Man was a creature of no moral significance; that human life did not matter. I was a reasonably intelligent child, I could see the consequences of that position: in Hitler, Stalin, and so forth.
Nineteen sixty-eight was for other reasons a memorable year. In so many ways it became clear that Western man was attempting suicide. The convulsions on American campuses, and in her streets, can be seen in retrospect for what they were. Parallel events were happening in Paris and throughout Europe. My native “conservatism” was such, even then, that I was appalled: especially by the wincing cowardice of “authority figures,” abandoning their stations. Suddenly I saw, clearly, that Pope Paul was making a stand.
My atheism was hard-boiled, if internally scrambled. It survived this encounter for a few more years. But I was no longer able to pretend that the Catholic and Christian position on human life was ridiculous. Moreover, I could see that the line had to be drawn at the moment and in the act of conception — at contraception, not abortion. Returning to Georgetown District High School (for my last year before I dropped out), I then added to my already growing reputation for eccentricity. In the student debating clubs to which I belonged, I was now arguing — as a florid atheist — that Pope Paul was dead right in Humanae Vitae; that if we did not draw the line at contraception, we would be on the “slippery slope” to real, murderous barbarism. (In a Protestant town that despised Atheists and Catholics about equally, this was quite the pose.)
Everything that has happened in Western society in the forty-six years since, has borne this out. Moreover, every Christian denomination that has abandoned that front line — on sexual morality — is now in advanced stages of collapse, from one thing that led to another. This is demonstrable fact, not rhetorical posture; just as the emptying of Catholic churches by the innovations of the 1960s is demonstrable fact.
My latest column at Catholic Thing (see here) attempts to get at a point on which “post-modern” man is obtuse: the nature of law, and of the sophistry which tries to undermine it. That: “What was true yesterday remains true today; what is true today will remain true tomorrow.”
It is too early, by far, to see what will actually emerge from the Synod on the Family, and more broadly from the papacy of Francis. But I should add to what I have already written on this subject, that a week that began in one of the dark moments for the Catholic Church — in the release of a synod Relatio profoundly evil and destructive — has ended fairly well. The response to it from the bishops assembled in the working groups of the synod has been stellar. They have made clear to the world, or at least, that part of the world paying attention, that it was a false and lying document, intentionally misrepresenting what they had been discussing inside.
The Australian, Cardinal Pell — whose “dayjob” is currently cleaning up corruption and incompetence in the Curia — made the initial stand, leading the overwhelming majority of bishops to demand the publication of internal proceedings which the pope’s own agents were trying to suppress. I was immensely cheered, once again, by the courage and clarity of such men as Cardinals Mueller and Burke. Cardinal Napier of South Africa showed in both his clarity and his instinctive statesmanship a wonderful example of what a Prince of the Church should be. And in the “hard lines” drawn by bishops from across Africa and Asia, we could see the future of our Church: that she can indeed recover from the filth and squalour into which she has been led by compromised and compromising Western bishops. In his bigoted remarks against the Africans, Cardinal Kasper also revealed the true nature of the liberal “reformers” — calling for “mercy” in their sophistical ways. “By their fruits ye shall know them”: it was a moment when the mask came off, and anyone with eyes could see what was lurking behind it.
Make no mistake, this is war. And it is a war now raging in the highest councils of the Church herself, where an attempt is being made to overthrow Humanae Vitae. The souls of many millions are at stake, and the trumpet must give no uncertain sound. We have real scoundrels embedded in our hierarchy; but as we have been poignantly reminded, Christ will not abandon His Church. Perhaps we have seen one of the great historical moments of intervention: of what is called, “Grace.”