Against empathy

[I have added a paragraph, and a sentence or two, then placed a break, in the hope of making the connexions drawn in this short Idlepiece a little more apparent.]


Among the advantages of being an English-speaking Cath-o-lick, supposing one received some sort of education, is to know all about “fake news.” It rests on a bed of “fake history,” in turn the guarantor of fake emotions. Most of it is shallow, but some shafts are deep, and so full of (anachronistic) mud it takes pumps to get to the bottom. But once you are there, at the court of Henry VIII, for the first of his several awkward divorces, you are there.

Catalina de Aragón was not the only thing on his mind (nor the aristocratic tart, Anne Boleyn). He was an extravagant king (which made him quite popular, early in his reign), and there was terrible inflation. The court and whole nation was heavily in debt. Those were the days before the skills of English pirates had been honed on the interception of Spanish cargoes, and as the marriage had attested, there was friendship with Spain. The court had to borrow from bankers on the Continent, who were not naïve; the rich of England were being taxed threadbare. The dissolution of the monasteries, the appropriation of the wealth of the Church in England, the redistribution of lands to leading families that sorely needed buying off — I will guess gentle reader has heard parts of this story already. It is called the English Reformation, though we read it today through many centuries of spin, some of it set like spun concrete.

King Henry VIII essentially disappears from the later account, built upon the clichés of modernity. The Reformation happened because of English “feelings.” They were tired of monks and monasteries, tired of the corruption, the “clericalism,” the  tyranny. The country was tired of living in the Middle Ages. It wanted something new. Presto, the people snapped their collective fingers, and along came the Elizabethan Age. They had voted, for Progress. Onward and ever upward from there, thanks to everybody’s feelings. A more caring and sharing society emerged.

What Eamon Duffy and the revisionists have provided, for our generation, is a much better appreciation of England before the fall. It was arguably the most Catholic country in late mediaeval Europe, and among the least rebellious; the heritage of its Marian devotions may be discovered in the names of the Anglican parish churches still, if one takes a walk from, say, London to Walsingham. There were rebellions against Henry in north, south, east, west, and middle. They were ruthlessly put down. The rising Protestant spin-doctors went to work quickly, to re-characterize this past, which Shakespeare evokes in four lines of a sonnet, spoken as if from the mouth of Holy Church, over a devastated monastic landscape:

That time of yeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hange
Upon those boughes which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang. …

The need for lies, to cover monstrous crimes — for lies made plausible by incessant repetition — was not an invention of the twentieth century, nor even the sixteenth. They are needed from the moment Faith turns to Politics, and Power must make its excuses to the world. In a world like ours, where “the personal is the political,” along with everything else, it is reasonable to expect lies stacked on lies, to wobbly heights. Refusing to lie is dangerous. Saint Thomas More puts his neck out and, in the words of a forgotten Russian poet, “waits patiently for the lick of the axe.”


Forward to the Enlightenment, and the full de-Christianization of Europe begins — when periodical journalism and the “realistic” novel arrive in England and elsewhere, paralleled by evolutions in portrait painting, in chamber music and a hundred other things; then Romanticism and the worship of “nature.” In my view, this was the age in which modern Empathy was invented, too; the “I feel your pain” that in so many ways has detached us from comprehension of all history before. (I blame Samuel Richardson! … but hardly him alone.)

Everywhere I turn I see Empathy triumphant; along with wicked cruelties, done without thought. It is the moral dimension of our secular religion; of the heart of man turned to his own devices — away from the Sacred Heart. We will be the judges of good and evil, no longer in any objective dogmatic sense, but according to our “feelings.”

The Catholic Church has been lonely, these last centuries: first bereft of her material standing in the Western world, then of her authority. Finally she succumbs, not to a Church Council but to “the Spirit of Vatican II” in its wake, and a last explosion of universal Empathy. The institution is large, will take many decades to melt away, yet its actual survival is already in a remnant, small but continuing to pray.

Give no empathy to this fallen world, and expect none from it. Cling, as it were, to your Bible and your guns; to the liturgy of Catholic Christian truth, and to the rational, dogmatic, catechetical teachings. Ignore your “feelings.” Do not give an inch.