News to a foreign country

Here are the thoughts I imparted to the Catholic Civil Rights League (of Canada) Friday, when they so kindly invited me to address their annual general meeting. It will perhaps be appreciated that these are my thoughts, not theirs. Indeed, their policies differ from my prescriptions in important respects, insofar as they are dealing with that “real world,” from which I keep a cautious distance. Notwithstanding, they heard me out, with a warmth I could have mistaken for approval.


“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote, “they do things differently there.” This was the opening sentence of his most popular novel, The Go-Between, published in the year of my birth. It is not quite forgotten now: the BBC did a television adaptation a few years ago. But I wonder if it can be understood.

It is about an old man who, through an old diary, begins to reconstruct what happened to him during a summer, when he was a naïve twelve year old, at the tail end of the Victorian era. He was used, to run messages between illicit lovers; then he was used, to track them down, still not understanding what was going on. The lovers get caught in flagrante, their affair ends in a suicide — the man, incidentally, not the woman, who goes on to marry the fellow she was engaged to all along. The old man returns to the scene. Is anyone still alive? He wants to know what happened, and what came of it.

The novel is complex, and cannot be summarized in a quick blurb — in other words, it is a good novel — but let me say that it stays true to its memorable opening line. The protagonist finds everything he wanted to know, yet still knows nothing.

There is a mystery, in the human heart, which like the mystery in nature, and of nature’s God, cannot be plumbed. And this is so, even when the facts are obvious, and everything is laid out clearly.

Why do people do what is wrong, and what they know is wrong? Now there is a question for you, and I bet you can’t answer it. I know I can’t, and yet I’ve seen it in myself.

What emerges from this book, according to me, is a wonderful paradox. On the surface it seems to promise an exposé of nineteenth-century class and sexual hypocrisy. That would be what the reader is expecting, and I think the reviewers mostly fell into that trap. But really it is an indictment, not of the nineteenth but of the twentieth century.

With the passage of years, and for reasons that are tellingly hinted, the capacity of society to appreciate the moral dimension of life — of its dark corners, and irretrievable mistakes — is being lost. Small horrors are replaced with larger, and larger, to which we learn to be indifferent. And what is lost is lost to a kind of glibness, and jadedness. We turn our attention away from the sometimes traumatic facts of life, more easily and spontaneously than any Victorian, trying to avert his eyes from scandal. And all this is carried in the texture of the novel.

These last few years I have been teaching “literature” to Catholic seminarians; Shakespeare, among other writers. I am trying to teach two kinds of things: what is subtle, and what is obvious. Both tend to be missed by young people today. I have some marvellous students, yet many are, in their own ways, trying to recover from the stupefying effect of a childhood in our new Internet cloud, and from the cynical waste of public education.

That novel by Hartley is not on the course, yet I mention it because like others that are, it tells a story we don’t begin to understand until we shed our shallowest, temporal illusions. We are, after all, creatures of our own generation. In reading, we become lost in worlds much different from our own; yet which nevertheless hold up a comparison. In many ways, we live in a time, and raise children in a time, unlike that of any ancestors; in a world that has broken with history in an unprecedented way. We have entered a cultural blind alley. In order to go forward, we must first go back, and try to understand what has happened.

Nineteen fifty-three was the year in which that novel was published; a past which now seems itself to be a foreign country. Viewed from the present day, so much has changed that the world of the late nineteenth century, and that of the mid-twentieth century, seem equally distant to us. So-called “progress” continues to unfold, but has been accelerating, like a very tall building coming down.

The most recent notice I have read of this old novel presents it as a homosexual coming-of-age story. It is quite possible the author, Hartley, was a homosexual; but if so, discreet about it. Were he still alive, he would laugh or cry. All his efforts to compose a symphonic picture of lives and times are reduced to this one note, obsessively repeated.


Being from an artsy family, I’ve known homosexuals all my life. Each was or is his own case. Yet thinking back, I cannot remember one who defined himself by his sexual orientation. He was first a man, or she was first a woman. Now, as many homosexuals lament, they are all of a kind, defined by what makes them horny. And this is supposedly done for their own sakes.

Justin Trudeau’s latest edict on summer jobs is like this. It is an essay in cheap reductionism. I want to emphasize this at the outset, as he advances and we resist his ideological agenda. That agenda is worse than wrong: it is glib. It reduces the whole panoply of human life to a monotone, to one very dull political pitch, endlessly repeated.

This, to my mind, is important. I would almost say it is more important than the foolish and destructive measure he is taking. It pulls us all down, into a kind of earthly hell, in which we must spend our days dealing with the latest affront to our civilization. It is, when you think it through, the exact opposite of “inclusiveness.”

Anything not on the progressive agenda must be shut down; and yet that agenda itself is a black hole. It offers nothing positive, nothing that can be enjoyed or exalted except — arguably — fornication and perversions. It amazes me sometimes that its own supporters don’t get bored with it; or even rebel, from the whole idea that “human rights” can be reduced to this glibness.


The Dominion of Canada into which I was born — in that same year, 1953 — was then governed by the Liberal Party, and “Uncle Louis” St-Laurent, prime minister of the day. Its electoral base was in the unambiguously Catholic province of Quebec, and its operatives were very careful to avoid offending Quebec sensibilities. Yet it had long had electoral outreach to labouring Methodists in Ontario, to immigrant and co-op farmers in the West, and other select constituencies, as well as enjoying the reflexive vote of the Catholic minority across English Canada. It tried to play both sides of every aisle. Too, it was the party of business, private investment and free trade.

It was a government whose idea of an ecumenical gesture was to build “Ad Pastores” — a little chapel for the shepherds on the slopes by Bethlehem, in the Holy Land — with a plaque on the side explaining that it was a gift, “from Canada, a Christian country.”

That was how they blew the taxpayers’ money, in those days. Twenty thousand dollars. Except, some private patrons kicked in.

For more than half a century, the Liberals had been the natural party of government, and the Conservative Party that of often rather strident Protestant opposition. The “Prairie Fire” of Diefenbaker had not yet ignited to singe the Liberals’ wings.

Were it not for my own direct memories, I might find many aspects of the Canada into which I was born impossible to believe. Its Britishness, for instance. Or the visible presence of our armed forces, retasked from the Second World War to NATO. Or what we would now call “social conservatism” — from Avalon to Vancouver Island. Most of all, and most visibly, its Christianity. This was sectarian and regional, of course, but everywhere serious.

Here in “Toronto the blue,” Sundays were quite dead, and there were elaborate by-laws to discourage the consumption of liquor. Any old-timer can tell you that. Freedom was a city called Montreal. Ottawa meant Parliament Hill, and beyond that, the almost antediluvian Ottawa Valley where, like the Maritimes, fiddles and country were normative. And so much more that is now inconceivable.

I remember the general pilgrimage to church, in small-town Ontario every Sunday morning. I was myself raised by sincere “agnostics” — yet taught right and wrong in no uncertain terms on a scheme that now seems unmistakably Christian. Still, I was conscious of not being part of those Sunday pilgrimages.

In many ways that society was narrow; in many different ways, in different places. But nothing to approach the narrowness of today, in which everything that binds families and a society together is under acid attack. We could satirize our own provincialism; we often did. “Hewers of wood and drawers of water.” But I have always preferred something to nothing.

The idea that the Dominion government would fund private summer employment schemes would itself have boggled minds; let alone that it should now be imposing religious and ideological tests to restrict eligibility. The idea that these tests would be devised to exclude opponents of abortion, or same-sex marriage, or a freshly-invented kaleidoscope of transgenders, would go beyond disbelief. These are things that were once genuinely inconceivable, for all they are commonplace today. Each came out of nowhere, to the top of the progressive agenda, until that agenda “moved on.”


I have a long history of not ticking boxes on government forms. More generally, I have tried to avoid government forms altogether, whenever that is legally and morally possible, for what seems like centuries now, though it is only decades.

There is a reason for this. I am the sort of person — the sort of old-fashioned person — who thinks that if I’m not plausibly suspected of a criminal offence, and there’s no war on, the government has no business with me.

Truth to tell, I am opposed even to the income tax, except in wartime. Many once were totally opposed, but the opposition eventually died away, as a war measure was gradually extended into peacetime and then, into perpetuity. I am, as they were, opposed, not principally to a revenue measure, but because the income tax enables the government to intrude into our intimate daily lives. We didn’t want that in a free country.

Yet I am no libertarian. I am today a Catholic, and a “traditional” one at that, but long before I was received into Holy Church, I subscribed to the idea of an objective moral and spiritual order. Though opposed to any intervention by the State in non-political matters, I have always thought the State had not only the right, but the duty, to uphold what I’ll call in shorthand, “Motherhood and apple pie.” Important things: like the recognition of marriages.

On the other hand, the State once had, and should still have, no rôle at all in directing “the evolution of society.” Its job is to reflect received attitudes and long-established public opinion; not to create such things. It is there to conduct public business: to enforce laws and defend our borders. It is not there to be the vanguard of a social revolution. That is what totalitarian governments do. Whereas, Canada was a free country.

I never, for instance, thought that abortion could be justified, in anything less than the most extreme and therefore extremely rare cases, for the simple and easily-understood reason that, “Thou shalt do no murder.” Though often rather dim, I was never so stupid as to believe that the child in its mother’s womb was “foetal tissue” — for after all, women don’t give birth to cats. If the State cannot intervene against the wanton killing of human beings, what is it good for?

Only to intrude in other areas, which are none of its business.

I should think 99 percent of the adult population would agree with me — were we now in 1953. It took a very Long March through the institutions, by the progressive Left, to reduce that to 50. It took a tremendous advance, through media and the schools, to every public aspect of our culture — of glibness.

For here I cannot pretend to be naïve. Times have changed, with great certainty. We confront today a State which has taken upon itself an interventionist rôle in every aspect of daily life; which claims an authority far beyond that of the Church in the most remote theocratic corner of the Dark Ages. And through modern technology, neutral in itself, the State has acquired absolute power to enforce its authority and its whims.

We have what I now call the State as Twisted Nanny, imposing her insatiable will on the motherless children of our post-modern orphanage, now that the traditional family is largely destroyed. Twisted Nanny treats her “clients” as wayward children, of no individual significance, and with “rights” only insofar as they are organized in groups for whining, and need to be bought off.


This Catholic Civil Rights League, founded as recently as 1985, exists, one might say, to organize some Catholic whining. You protest the defamation of Catholic people and causes, and represent the Catholic teaching in quarters where it is utterly despised. The League came into being after 1982, the year in which Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was legislated. The CCRL was a necessary response in a political environment where indifference to Catholics was being progressively replaced by something else — thanks partly, I think, to what was achieved by that very Charter.

I was among a fairly small minority which opposed the thing, in principle, for many reasons I will not review, except to say that I clearly foresaw the consequences of redefining “human rights” as group entitlements, in contradiction to many centuries of British Common Law, from roots planted long before the Reformation.

Henceforth, I argued, we would have the opposite of what we had before. We would have an essentially Napoleonic system, in which a citizen has such rights as the State confers, and no longer intrinsically as a human being. It was, to my mind, the equivalent in the realm of the soul to what abortion was in the realm of the body — new liberties to cancel the old. Grown men and women were now the spiritual equivalent of that “foetal tissue,” which the State and its courts could effectively “overrule,” for reasons so vague that there must finally be no definable limitations on Twisted Nanny’s arbitrary powers.

This may strike my audience as a very radical view, and be dismissed by some as fanatical. It is true, I even call myself a reactionary. But it is founded in the observation from which I began: that the past is a foreign country. And call me if you wish a ghost from that past, for this has become a foreign country to me.

Forget, for just one moment, that as a Catholic Christian I owe my highest allegiance to an agency far above any human government — to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not to some bureaucrats in Ottawa. My loyalty to the Canada into which I was born is itself inconsistent with loyalty to the Canada of today. That Twisted Nanny may compel me by her irresistible physical power. She could take away my livelihood or even my life. But she has no claims whatever on my heart.

This is not to say that I am unpatriotic. My love for the country in itself continues. Rather I am saying that my Canada is not restricted to the living and the glib; that it includes, as it were, every dead Canadian turning in his grave, and all the children of our future. Ours was from the start — from Cartier and Champlain, from Cabot and Frobisher — an explicitly Christian country. I do not accept its de-Christianization. (There are many non-Christians who don’t accept it, either.) I do not agree that what fundamentally defined us, as a nation, can be legislated away. I have not deserted my country; I merely note that my country has deserted me.


Now the strange thing is, Twisted Nanny knows this. Part of the reason faithful Catholics are defamed, is that she knows we are basically errant to her wishes. We believe in original sin; she doesn’t, and is out to fix us. She believes in what the anciently persecuted Irish and Scots Catholics called, “The Religion of the Yellow Stick.” This was the facetious expression the peasants used for the landlords, with their gold-handled canes, who would beat them for going to the Catholic Mass; or force them to attend services in the State’s new spic-and-span Protestant chapels. All the cowards were converted in that way — by the Yellow Stick — and as I have come to learn, the majority in every society are cowards.

The landlords in question were not so dumb as to think they were loved for offering their corrections. I should think they were reasonably aware of the fact that they were hated. But it wasn’t love they were after, it was control — just as it is in the post-Christian “Reformation” of today. And backed, today as then, with an overwhelming national propaganda.

I have inserted this historical aside to suggest that while our world has outwardly changed in quite spectacular ways, in the course of the last generation or two, the changes have deep historical antecedents. For while the Protestant Reformation is no longer in vogue, the tyranny of the State has outlived it. The State appropriating the functions of the Church, is not something new.

Rather it is a theme of history, through all generations, times and places. The pagan Romans took the same attitude towards the early Christians; the Muslim conquerors of our Byzantine Christian East imposed their Shariah; and we ourselves have sometimes forced our own Catholic religion on subjects of another one, through the medium of State power. In this sense, what seems very new is rather very old.

I would not even call this a lapse of “tolerance” — an old word redefined to its opposite, like so many others in the Newspeak of today, bent to serve the purposes of “progress.” No State really cares what its people believe, so long as they keep it to themselves, and salute the State’s gods on all State occasions. The State’s gods today may be Abortion and Sodomy and Gender Metamorphosis. We might want to laugh at the idiocy of it. But they are gods, State gods, and every citizen must salute, as we see in this form-ticking exercise. Those who refuse must confront the State’s high opinion of itself.

This does not mean you can’t be a Catholic — so long as you keep it in the privacy of your own mind. It is only when you act as a Catholic, that you deliver yourself into the State’s hands.

Thus, “freedom of conscience” does not really come into this, either. The State has its religion, we have ours. So long as we remain meek and obedient, to anything we are required to sign, the Antichrist himself wouldn’t care what we think. The trouble arises only when we fail to sign, salute, or check the right boxes. That is, from the Antichrist’s point of view, a form of defiance that requires punishment — a punishment that we have brought upon ourselves, as will be condescendingly explained.

The ancient Christian position was, “bring it on.” That’s how we made converts, even among our executioners, who saw the face of the Crucified Christ in our sufferings, and became Christian martyrs in their turn. Our liturgy is filled with saints and martyrs.

But another truth is that most apostatize under pressure, and I think this has always been so. God bestows such Grace that we could all be martyrs, but in practice we don’t want to receive it. The courage that we don’t have is not something we’re inclined to pray for — and when I say “we” I do not only mean people at the present day. The history of earthly tyranny corresponds to the human search for the path of least resistance. As Alexander Solzhnitsyn used to say, if everyone in Soviet Russia would get up one morning, resolved to speak only the truth, the Communist Party would collapse by noon. Yet through seventy-five years, that never happened.

I don’t expect it to happen today, even though the tyranny we now face is minor in comparison, and still fairly early in its development. It is growing fast, however.


What struck me hardest about the job-forms outrage was not that Justin Trudeau tried it on. Our prime minister is a man whose preparation for high office was, after all, as a high school gym instructor, and a nightclub bouncer. I expect him to do stupid things. What struck me was the way he and his equally ditzy cabinet doubled down — after even progressive talking heads and pundits called them on what they could see was a frightful imposture. This indicates how far things have gone. They really think they can do things like this, and perhaps they can.

For the truth is, that we are facing not something deep, but something glib; the “banality of evil” if you like. That is the most one can say for the ideological checklist for these summer jobs.

It seems a minor issue to the public, the great majority of whom won’t be hiring anyone this summer anyway. Who will never appreciate that history can turn on buzzfly irritations — on very minor issues we wish would go away. The path of least resistance dictates that even the majority of self-styled Catholics including bishops will cover their faces, or make meaningless fly-swatting gestures, or just ignore the whole thing. Checking off a few boxes, by way of declaring oneself a Catholic apostate, is such a small price to pay in return for remunerative government support. Let us scratch each other’s backs and get on with it.

Young Justin is himself an example of the kind. For all his faults, his father was at least an educated man. He was educated by the Jesuits; he could read Latin. He was an apostate himself, accordng to me, but knew enough about the Church to offer her some respect. He had some idea of the twenty centuries of Church teaching and history, and the many centuries of Hebrew faith underlying that.

And his son calls himself a Catholic, too, of which he speaks as some kind of quaint ethnicity, perhaps still good for a couple million habitual votes.

We might wish to explain our position to him, but I don’t see how it can be done. How do you explain something complex yet intellectually coherent, to a man like that? He does not have the equipment. You can’t teach catechism to a soap bubble. The most you can do is, wait for it to pop.

We are, for the most part, silent now about a few disturbing things; our children will, as a consequence of our silence, be silent about much more. They will be less like persons of character and more like soap bubbles; except the many who already are.


It’s a pity our gliberal media do not report any substantial opposition to their Liberal Party, even from within Parliament. To them it’s just not news. They leave the impression of a national closed camp, in which everyone is onside with progress, and the Liberals are delivering it, when in fact at least half the population are not onside, and never were. As a former hack journalist myself, indeed as someone driven out of our mainstream media for persisting in my non-progressive views, I am more aware than most of “media bias.”

But I would call very few of my former colleagues Leftists or fanatics of any kind, or even uncritical supporters of the mainstream progressive agenda. In private, many will utter things that would explode the heads of the politically correct — if they were listening. But first they look around to see who is listening. That caution, about being overheard, is a sign of our times.

They aren’t, for the most part, radicals themselves, but they follow the playbook. Instead, I would call them “bought,” but have to qualify this by noting that the purchase comes in many currencies: good job, good pay, career advancement, personal prestige, sexual favours; a chance to rise in the pecking order, or at least, don’t lose your place. Essentially, it is the path of least resistance. A happy life is believed to require little or no serious thinking; indeed, thinking can often be a source of pain. In the modern newsroom, one goes with the flow. Stay away from topics that interrupt that flow; ride the raft to safety.

If off-agenda items should force themselves on public attention, they know how to paddle round. Attribute any discordant voice to “rightwing influences from the USA,” and it can be dealt with smoothly. If you happen to be working for one of the more consciously Leftish outlets, such as the CBC or the Toronto Scar, mention neo-Nazis and the KKK. Everyone will know what you mean, and shelter from the smears that are flying. There are days when I find this sort of complacency almost annoying.

But in the end, without newsworthy confrontation, no one will ever hear contrary views. Mere protests are meaningless, and will be deflected. It is when Catholics and other Christians actually refuse to do as they are told, that the coverage begins — overwhelmingly negative. Of course, confrontation requires some God-given nerve, and will benefit from some tactical preparation. But don’t mince words.

Never expect the agents of publicity to be on your side; think one step ahead of them, instead. They won’t be on your side today or tomorrow, or until the day that you win everything, and even then, they won’t be on your side. For they will be on the side of power and comfort, as they always were. If the whole country turned Mediaeval Catholic, tomorrow morning, they would kneel and take up their Rosaries; and have as much faith as they had the day before.

I am saying that we must accommodate reality; which requires real toughness of spirit. And we have not been doing a good job of that. If there is one thing I might hope, arising from the present controversy, it is that more faithful Catholics will realize that Twisted Nanny is not their friend.

Though I think we are right to state our grievances plainly, I do not think it will do much good. Nor, as I’ve hinted, do I seriously believe the majority of nominal Catholics in this country will rise to the banner. Polls indicate they much prefer Mammon.

This is from many causes, originating ultimately in failures within the Church herself — which was already retreating before Vatican II. The majority of Catholics now go with the flow. How, anyway, can they defend Catholic principles they were never taught? They more or less accept Twisted Nanny’s moral instruction, even when it directly violates that of their Church.

Pray for their souls, but don’t worry about them, on the practical level: for they will disappear. They have no foundations, no real opinions, and they don’t breed. The generation that follows “nominal Catholics” are not even nominal. The generation after that does not even get born. Over time, only the faithful remain.

Focus on what is within our power, which starts not with “outreach” and “dialogue” but with rebuilding our Church. For she is very weak, and we must make her strong.

Still, I cannot reasonably criticize those who today, like the CCRL, did not make the bargain, but inherit its effects; just as I can hardly blame Protestants for their inheritance of five hundred years. We must deal with the fallout from all historical mistakes. Yet we must try to understand what they were.

The Catholics of a previous generation, who welcomed financial dependence on the State, and eagerly accepted funding for Catholic schools and all of our declining charitable institutions, did not appreciate the full significance of their Faustian bargain. The paperwork of the secular bureaucracies now reaches through every rectory. The State’s priorities displace our own. From being our civil servants, we have become theirs. We serve the State’s very secular agenda, hop and bow to fulfil the conditions, haplessly beg for another State dime.

This is not something that I am predicting, rather something that already is. If the power of the State were reduced to a tenth, and the power of the Church increased ten times, we would still be their insignificant other.


“News from a foreign country came, as if my treasures and my joys lay there.”

I am quoting from the seventeenth-century mystic Thomas Traherne, who understood what L. P. Hartley understood, but at a level more profound. The past is a foreign country to be sure, one to which we can now return only in our imagination. The past is irrecoverably the past.

But: “There’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago, most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know.”

It does not follow from what I have said that we must go underground, as Catholics often did in previous centuries. I think that we are already there. And so I think it is time we started playing our glow-worm part. If we want to avoid State interference and dictation, we must eventually stop even asking for the State’s help, and pay our own way, every penny. And by pay, I do not only mean with what money Twisted Nanny happens to leave in our own pockets.

For the Cross will remind us what the fees are.