Tota pulchra es

It took me fifty years to make it from live birth to reception in the Catholic Church. This, I admit, was slow. At the latter time, twelve years ago, I set to work on a little autobiographical essay, that quickly swelled to a few hundred pages. It was of at least partly a religious nature, under the provisional title, The Half Life: Fifty Years of Sin and Error. Wisely, I discarded this manuscript some nine years ago. Being no Augustine, I found that I could not raise the contents to the level of the morally and spiritually edifying. Moreover, those contents were “true, too true” — which is to say, often dreadfully embarrassing; and what made them worse, rendered in the correct chronological order. I would rather recount my life more selectively, and in a random order, distracting as much as possible from questions of motive. Not that I am entirely opposed to the spirit of Italo Svevo.

Nothing more can be made of this admission, than my own discovery on reflection, twelve years ago, that fifty years as a bloody fool, is a long time.


That was my aggiornamento — the pretty Italian word for “bringing up to date,” that we associate with Vatican II, and which has been imported into many other languages — mostly, I think, because it is pretty and Italian. Pope John XXIII used it in prospect, and Paul VI in retrospect, for what the Council was trying to achieve. Only as the 1960s progressed, did the word come fully to acquire its happy gas associations.

To the contrary, it began — so far as this non-expert can make out — as the more conservative alternative to such a term as the French ressourcement (“return to sources”).

Be warned, gentle reader, I am being counter-intuitive here. The idea of catching up with the times, and the idea of going back to origins, may not at first seem conservative, and liberal, respectively. Yet the latter is more radical. It involves more unknowables, and is Protestant by disposition. It is a war cry Calvinists and Lutherans could have raised in the sixteenth century: a means to turn not only the Scholastics, but the whole Middle Ages into “flyover country.” It peeled and scraped the paint off a vast mural, in comparison to the “reforms” of the Council of Trent, which could be described as merely touching it up. (All analogies are imperfect.)

To my own (imperfect) understanding, these were not exactly factions among the “reformers” embedded within the Council of 1962–65, though they sometimes looked like factions. They were instead reciprocating “category errors.” And one did not prevail over the other. Instead, they both eventually “won,” in the aftermath of the Council, becoming the two heads of “the spirit of Vatican II,” each dedicated to the destruction of whatever the other missed. Or perhaps my description is insufficiently polycephalous.


Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul’s address, closing Vatican II, and affirming the aggiornamento, declaring:

“Never before perhaps, so much as on this occasion, has the Church felt the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives; and to get to grips with it, almost to run after it, in its rapid and continuous change.”

The confident notion that the Fathers had been moved by the Holy Spirit, was conveyed in that address: itself a departure from “traditional” Catholic rhetoric, which is seldom so upbeat. We do not know whether we are saved. More broadly, we do not expect any new revelation to be vouchsafed to us, the old “Deposit of Faith” being sufficient. We follow Christ and do not “run after” anyone, or anything, unassociated with Him. We beckon the world to come our way, and yet, in the full knowledge that the world is not inclined to do that — having its own agenda, as it were, of sin and error.

Since, the winds have blown hot and cold. We are now in the thirty-fourth month of a new and “heroic” (or “appalling,” depending on one’s point of view) experiment in aggiornamento, into which the ressourcement has been infused, quite strangely. The casual way in which, for instance, our Pope redefines heresies, or words such as “mercy” with specifically Catholic applications, is unprecedented. The way in which these statements are “tweeted” compounds the effect. We are not returning to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church in the first centuries, but to something more free-form: a new “vision” of the Catholic faith in which we make up the teaching as we go along, under the inspiration of what we might think is the Holy Spirit, but is more likely the Zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”).

All of which things are above my station. I do not doubt that the Holy Spirit is operating, continuously in all dimensions known to us. I not only doubt, but deny that we are capable of discerning these actions. And my best hope for the “Year of Mercy” that begins today, is that in the course of it we may return to the prayerful study of what this word “mercy” means, has meant and will always mean, in light of authentic Church doctrine. After which we may again rigidly embrace it.


It is more fundamentally, today, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Though instituted in its present form by Pius IX, only one hundred and sixty-one years ago, when he defined the dogma, it is really much older. It enlarges upon the Magnificat; it echoes the liturgical celebrations of that Conception through the intervening centuries both East and West; and it looks forward in Revelation to our Immaculate Lady, “Clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”

It proclaims, “Thou art fair!”

This is something contemporary man has all but lost in his transactions: that ability to pause in amazement before unstained beauty. It is an “attitude” that goes beyond arguing the doctrine. It is something that we can only proclaim, because, no “analysis” can approach it. There is no agenda except the worship of this beauty, Immaculate and beyond the power of anything in this world to soil or corrupt.

May I propose that in preparation for the Mass gentle reader think on the words of the Epistle, which are from Proverbs (8:22–25). And then, from the antiphons of second vespers, this calling from the Song of Songs:

Trahe nos, Virgo immaculata, post te curremus in odorem unguentorum tuorum.

I.e., let us “run after” changeless Mary, in the height of her Wisdom. And not after the changing world, a mirage that isn’t there when we arrive.