Essays in Idleness


Mission creep

Aggiornamento was the pretty Italian word used by Pope St John XXIII, to describe the purpose of the Ecumenical Council he projected in 1959. Englishmen, of course, do not understand Italian, but the word flowers in their ears all the same. It sounds like some happy journey into spring. But while it was in vogue through the 1960s, people everywhere came to understand it meant, “bringing up to date.”

At first, the sainted pope used the word quite specifically, with reference to canon law, which had been assembled and harmonized in a uniform, official, single-volume Code of Canon Law for the first time, in 1917. A revised, second edition of that seemed to be called for.

Cardinal Burke would know more about this, but from my limited understanding, the canon law that went into effect at Pentecost, 1918, had been a major undertaking. It had involved many scholars and broad-ranging research, under the direction of the formidable Pietro Gasparri, a Vatican secretary of state with a reputation for getting things done, regardless of whether they were possible.

Yet, this was not so impressive as a previous assembly of a Corpus Juris Canonici, at Bologna in the mid-twelfth century. This had been done by a single man, the brilliant Camaldolese monk, Johannes Gratian, about whom I’ve always wanted to know more. His Decretum (as it came also to be called) is a stupendous thing — not merely explaining what Church law must be, in the canones, but expounding its principles in scinitillating maxims and dicta. Gratian had pulled together into this self-consistent corpus every significant ruling from Moses forward to the recently concluded Second Lateran Council, in light of Roman law through Justinian, and with sidelong glances at Celtic, Saxon, and Visigothic legal orders. I am told that lawyers have gone to their graves in a state of bliss, just contemplating it.

Which is not to demean the great Burchard of Worms, who had attempted something similar a century before; nor the many other fine legal minds who had flourished in the first millennium of the Church; nor the many more who flourished after. Nor is it to suggest that the Decretum Gratiani was the only, or even the final word on anything. It is merely to insinuate that Gratian “wrote the book” on Catholic law, in a way similar to that in which Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa on Catholic theology.

Many other documents had since been added to the mix — thousands — but Gratian’s Decretum (with later notes) had continued to provide a sheet anchor. And the further beauty was, that it had no formal authority in the Church, whatever. It was, in effect, unwritten law in a written form. The mark of a great and noble institution — and what is Holy Church if not that? — may be seen in such arrangements. She does not rest her Positive Law upon neat programmatic formulae — like a revolutionary constitution, arbitrarily imposed — but on a distillation of human and divine wisdom, acquired over thousands of years. She is spacious: her distinctions are subtle but exact; her truths ordered to accommodate each other, assembling themselves hierarchically in the interstices of reason and revelation, as light dappled through the leaves. They are not “invented” but “discovered” (in the modern senses of both terms). When she needs something, she invariably finds it is already there. She requires only servants with the depth of mind to retrieve it, excavating where necessary down to the Natural Law at the centre of the Earth.

The intention behind that Codex Iuris Canonici (the Code of 1917) was good, unquestionably, the project having been launched by Pope St Pius X, and brought to fruition by Benedict XV. It cut a highway through the overgrown thicket, abrogating all trees in the way, thus making the law more accessible to persons of mediocre intelligence: in effect, the modern, buzzsaw approach to gardening, followed up in the liturgy half a century later. I myself would have been totally opposed to the whole project, but people consulted me even less before I was born. The revision foreseen by Pope St John XXIII was not completed until 1983, when Pope St John-Paul II signed off on it, bringing the “reform of the reform” of canon law into force for Advent in that year. In the meantime, Vatican II itself had created much additional turbulence for the smoothing, slowing the process down.

But I return to this little-known, or little-remembered fact: that the aggiornamento began with the fairly modest ambition of revising the text of the Code of Canon Law. Within a couple of years Pope St John himself, a man of energy and enthusiasm and what I might almost call overbearing goodwill, was speaking of a much grander enterprise, and using the same word to refer poetically to an aggiornamento of the entire Church — as if to clean out the cobwebs of two thousand years from every pipe of every organ. Nothing specific was foreseen, however; it was only a poetical flourish.

The one actual change upon which Pope St John insisted, he had already proclaimed: removing the word perfidius (“faithless”) from the Good Friday liturgy, where it had been used to qualify the word “Jews.” This genuine saint, who had done so much to rescue, hide, and save so many Jewish men, women, and children from the Holocaust during the War, rightly saw that any hint of anti-Semitism must be washed out of the Church’s thoughts — acting dramatically from the Sanctuary in 1959 to have the prayer for the conversion of the Jews repeated without the offending word. (Deo gratias!)

Compare: the omission of one word, with schemes to revise and rewrite everything in sight. And note: the popular idea that Vatican II was required to achieve that tiny but crucial alteration. Like most subsequent ideas about Vatican II, it is false, ignorant, and on closer inspection, mendacious.

Now, there’s a point to all this, and perhaps I will get to it tomorrow.


Speaking truth to power becomes quite impossible if the speaker has failed first to speak truth unto himself. The attempt might help to teach him that speaking truth is painful, in this vale of tears, and the more excruciating after one’s cheering section has dropped away. You will know that you have successfully spoken truth to power only later in the evening, when the Gestapo arrives; good luck speaking truth to them.

It is supposed to be an old Quaker saying, which would give it some original dignity, for the Religious Society of Friends did knowingly court persecution, while eschewing defences, in the seventeenth century. They were certainly high on Parrhesia, the biblical term that is constantly on a certain pontiff’s lips. (See Father Hunwicke, the classical scholar.) I, who totally reject the Quakers’ Arian, pacifist, teetotal, and radically egalitarian tenets (for starters), nevertheless still take their founder George Fox (1624–91) for one of my heroes. I was deeply impressed by his Journal, once upon a time, sensing in it the burning sincerity of a good if somewhat humourless man. (Look: the Everyman edition is still on my shelves, after forty years!) His instinct to simplicity in private life and works is commendable, and though sometimes heretical, his readings of Scripture contain flashes of prophetic insight.

As ever, the sect which followed him dispersed in many schismatic channels, so that we now have multiple branches of Friends who aren’t much friends of each other, as all drift farther from their Christian roots. I have met a couple of impressively conscientious Quakers, though, from congregations that must have been doing something right.

Fox was not author to the phrase, “speaking truth to power,” nor any of his high-sounding contemporaries, so far as I know. Instead, it seems to have come out of the civil rights movement in the USA, exploding after the American Friends Service Committee used it for the title of one of their pinkish tracts against the Cold War, in 1955. Smugness is implicit in the phrase, and by no accident it has since been popularized chiefly by persons with more actual power — in terms of available, aggressive supporters — than the adversaries they taunt with it. Fox would never have done this: he was in my view too decent a man. Yet it is one of the oversights in Fox, that in volubly proposing a public holiness, he was increasing the scope for public hypocrisy; the humourless being slow to catch a paradox in motion.

Stand your ground on moral issues, bravely; and speak the truth to anyone who will listen; but not too boldly. Christ was not a moral exhibitionist, and neither have the true Saints called moralizing attention to themselves. They fear God but are also vividly aware of the Devil and his snares. They realize that in the very moment they appear to triumph, Hell may be gaping before them. God may temper the wind to the shorn lamb, but conversely, He may let it howl on the woolly. Grandstanding would not be advised.

The Prophets, Old Testament and New, did not speak truth to power. They spoke truth rather to all Israel, and upon a divine command. Their boldness was not their own. The truth spoken by the prophet was moreover transparently not his own. Often it was mysterious in worldly terms: it contained things that could not be understood within the conventions of the day, or for long after. It had the ring of transcendent truth, as opposed to the whine of situational plausibility. The prophet spoke for God to the people, not for the people to their king. This could not court popularity; and as Christ reminds, the prophets were despised.

It is from such reflections I have come to believe that those who say they speak truth to power, or even think it, are lying to themselves. The demagogic pose negates the message.

But how can we escape posture, and begin at least to speak truth to ourselves?

As Lent progresses, one is reminded, by the progress of one’s own little failures, one’s own nasty little private infamies, that the process begins and ends in speaking truth to God’s little priest in the Confessional.

Cutting down

According to the latest research, he writes facetiously, coffee may be good for your heart. It just might prevent cholesterol build-up in the arteries and … blah blah blah. I refer to some Korean study in the news this morning, but the findings (not of causation but of statistical correlation) are hardly new. There was for instance a big Dutch study five years ago, which redeemed tea as well as coffee, and I vaguely remember others. “More research is needed,” say all the people who make money from such pointless research. We are trained to nod sleepily in agreement. These hugely expensive, perpetually inconclusive, and very soft epidemiological studies are what most people have in mind when the magic word, “science,” is invoked: for we are living in an age of magic.

Actual science would show the mechanism by which a specific constituent in coffee, such as caffeine, operates within the human metabolism to produce specific reactions in a long, very specific chain, leading to a specific result. (I have over-simplified, because at each of these stages there are innumerable complicating factors.) The rest is, to be perfectly colloquial, bullshit, as a “spokesperson” for the British Heart Foundation made abundantly clear, when commenting on the Dutch study. She said having one cigarette with your coffee would cancel all the benefits. There was nothing about this in the study, it was a candid expression of her superstitious beliefs.

For decades, as most readers should now know, public health authorities condemned delicious, fatty foods on that plausible argument (all magic must be made “plausible” to convince) about clogging the arteries. Now they have quietly taken it back, without owning to the misery spread by their lies through several generations. They mounted collateral attacks on beer, wine, and liquors, which likewise proved false; and their continuing campaigns against tobacco depend on the same methodology.

What they have done is far more evil than this, however: for they have been exploiting the human propensity to guilt, which serves an irreplaceable purpose in the moral order. Compunction about sin and wrongdoing is distracted to meaningless dietary issues. The success of the nannying public health authorities has helped the principalities and powers to accomplish a complete moral inversion — in which abstinence and fasting to a spiritual end is now dismissed as silly, yet dieting for health is done with insufferably morbid gravity. We have, as a consequence, a society of obsessive dieters, deluded fitness fanatics, and low-calorie muffin eaters, who are utterly shameless in committing crimes contra naturam: that Culture of Death which Saint John-Paul identified with such harrowing accuracy.

It should also be noted, for the benefit of credulous materialists, that the time and money invested in gathering and analyzing inconsequential health statistics subtracts from serious medical research into suspected causes of disease — including the hard and focused epidemiology that can usefully assist. Resources for such work are always finite, yet almost everything I see flagged in the media is an example of resources bled away.

A deeper note needs to be sounded, however, against the consistent tendency of all this “pop,” or more precisely, “crap science.” The target will ever be some innocent human pleasure; genuinely sinful ones with direct and potentially grave health consequences (sexual promiscuity, for instance, or sodomy), are shied away from, for fear of the politically correct. Class is evident in each choice of target: typically some consolation, some little delight that makes life more endurable for the poor. (Smoking is a primary example.)

Soft science is then combined with moral posturing to provide cover for the politicians, and senior bureaucrats. They publicize supposed health risks to justify raising taxes on what are now identified in the public imagination as “corrupting luxuries” — using the argument of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the most corrupt individual in the history of philosophy, before Heidegger. An impression is given of taxing the rich, while in fact sucking the poor dry: a basic principle of progressive democracy.

The moral reality is exposed in state lotteries, which do real, direct, and vicious harm to the poor, but on which the state increasingly depends for revenue.

I have no idea whether coffee is good for you, by the way, or in what amounts. I do know for a certainty, however, that going to Hell would be bad for you, which is why we must urgently cut down on our consumption of pseudo-scientific, liberal and progressive blather.

The double dative chronicles

Sometimes I have opinions on things. An example would be the “Isleworth Mona Lisa,” in the news lately. It is not, definitely not — even by a wild stretch of the imagination, while rubbing at bedbugs in both eyes — not, by Leonardo. How do I know this? By looking at a picture of it on the Internet.

This was before learning a few other things, about this painting that washed up from some old manor house in Somerset, England, just before the First World War. The crackerjack who spotted it saw that it resembled the Mona Lisa. Once cleaned, it still bore a family resemblance to Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, the Florentine merchant who commissioned Leonardo’s extremely famous portrait now in the Louvre. She looks perhaps a decade younger, according to some viewers, but is posed in the same way, and is wearing some attempt at the same winning smile.

Everyone agrees the background of this Isleworth painting was dabbed in by some clumsy oaf. Only the face and hands are optimistically attributed to Leonardo, with the plausible suggestion that it was his first draught. The plausibility comes from the master’s work habits, or rather, a satirical misunderstanding of them. He painted few formal works, and when he did was slow to start, and even slower to finish. (He held exalted views on the possibilities of his art.) When he repainted a picture, as for instance the Paris and London versions of the Madonna of the Rocks, both are breathtaking; but in different ways, and there are many significant variations. He was not some duffer just trying to get it right.

It was anyway not the background, which I hardly noticed, but the foreground that convinced me, very quickly, that the “Isleworth” could not be from Leonardo’s brush. This is because it is glib. While it will pass as a likeness of the same sitter — not so much younger, I think, as bereft of intensity — it lacks entirely the spirit with which Leonardo infused not only the Mona Lisa, but all of his paintings. It was not in him to paint so glibly. He was not a clown. But if he had actually painted this damp squib, it would not have survived him. Elementary self-interest, if not aesthetic revulsion, would have caused him to toss it in the fireplace right away.

Now, the clincher for those who are motivated by “reason,” very narrowly defined, is the canvas it was painted on. Leonardo painted on wood. The real Mona Lisa is on poplar (which has slightly warped); others of his paintings are on walnut; infamously, The Last Supper went on rotting plaster. Leonardo had used linen: but only as a sketching medium with tempera, and then only when he was art-student young. He would not have begun a formally commissioned painting on such a support, which came into common use for serious painting only a century later, and on sail canvas, at Venice.

That would be the final killer for any attempt to attribute the painting to Leonardo “scientifically,” but the mysterious Swiss foundation that claims to have proved “scientifically” that the Isleworth portrait was by him, shuffles around this insuperable fact. They claim to have employed “research physicists” who established “with 99 percent certainty” that “the two versions” were by the same hand. I am therefore 99 percent certain these employees knew nothing about art. I leave their knowledge of chemistry to the chemists.

No serious Leonardo connoisseur or scholarly expert has ever bought into the authenticity of the Isleworth painting, and none ever will. There are many other bad copies of the Mona Lisa on which they have also never wasted their time. Among those living, Martin Kemp, Luke Syson, and Frank Zöllner are now on record contradicting the Swiss foundation, and sneering at the thing. The scienticists in Geneva, who did not consult them, now dismiss them for not having examined the painting themselves. Why would they?

I mention this matter only because it illustrates one of my bugbears: the use of “science” to perpetrate frauds on the ignorant public. I have no idea what the relationship is between the Swiss foundation, and the current owners of the painting, now kept in a Swiss bank vault. But I note this is a secret, of the sort that should inspire the Ciceronian question, Cui bono?

Natural science is of some use in certain specialized circumstances, and I have no desire whatever to suppress it. It can sometimes answer questions that are extremely specific, and shallow. It absolutely cannot answer intelligent questions. Those who claim it can should be ignored; or punished, should that prove impossible.

Feast of Dafydd

For the twelfth consecutive year, I have failed to find Saint David of Wales in my Roman Catholic breviary. In my previous, Anglican experiences of March 1st, it was no trouble at all. The erstwhile Bishop of Menevia (died no later than 601 AD) was ever at the top of the Kalendar for March, and thus the Welsh saint’s Legend ever before me when, on this date, I wanted a name-day to elude the rigours of Lent. Happily it is Sunday today, anyway.

As I have already confided to gentle reader, in some previous Idlepost, I was not named after David of Wales (or, Dafydd, if one wants to get Welsh about it). Born rather on the day Catherine of Siena died (though 673 years later), I was not named for her, either; nor for the Psalmist as might be supposed; but instead for King David of Scotland, then dead for a nice round eight hundred years. Not a Saint, but hey, my family weren’t Catholic.

The Patron of Wales was (Catholic), however, and as we learn from the chronicler Giraldus, one of the best, performing for that principality — once rather larger than it is now — much the same services as did Saint Patrick for Ireland. In 1398, Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury ordered the Feast of David kept throughout his province of the Church, which I suppose will have to do; daresay I’d have heard “Dewi Sant” acknowledged, had I awakened this morning in Cardiff.

Or, “Dewi Ddyrwr,” as he is also known, from the tradition that he was “a drinker of water,” which I have always found an insipid beverage. By this account he was also a vegetarian. That he completed this trifecta by being rather short, is indicated by one of his miracles. Addressing a synod at what came to be known as Llanddewibrefi (never try to pronounce Welsh names, you might hurt yourself), he found himself neither seen nor heard. A dove then alighted on his shoulder, and the ground heaved, lifting him into view.

The banner of Saint David is a yellow cross, on a field of black; or, vice versa. This has the advantage over the more common Red Dragon of Cadwaladr (passant, on a field of green and white) that it is not a Tudor standard. When Wales becomes independent again, as it surely will the way things are going, I do hope the Cross will be retrieved.